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Fo.A. 50

 

 

Mornascar heard it first.

 

Cyron's mare was not only equipped with a Mearh's enhanced senses but also with a lot more attention by nature than Aviriel who might have inherited her ancestor's bright fur and his strong legs but little of Arod's sense of responsibility. Legolas was being too busy explaining to her, by circling it several times, that the low-hanging limbs of a weeping willow were not ghost fingers trying to assassinate her when the far taller, black horse by their side suddenly raised its head, its ears cocked.

 

Unexpectedly, Mornascar sidestepped then ran off, suddenly ignoring Cyron's seat and voice aids completely.

 

 "Let her run!" Legolas shouted after them when he see Cyron's back tense and his hand wander in agitation, towards the loosely knotted reins that his son hadn't needed in a while. Comparatively young as Mornascar still was, Mearas usually knew what they were doing.

And now that Legolas managed to get Aviriel to stop her dramatic neighing and move on in her fastest speed, with a slightly harsher order than he'd used it during their little power tussle before, his own ears picked up some faint noise of warning in the distance as well.

Yes … The closer he came to the river – way too far behind their companions for Legolas' taste, which once more had him question his own continuous decision against owning a Mearh of his own which King Éomer kept on offering him every year –, the more certain he was. From the river bend, there was the strong, deep voice of another member of the Mearas sounding. This one was filled with clear distress though.

And it was a voice he was pretty sure he knew.

 

 They found them behind a half-collapsed fence, belonging to a cattle field that was not in use at this time of the year and had been in an accordingly ramshackle shape to start with. For some reason, the stallion laying in the red-sprinkled snow on his side must have tried to jump the far too high obstacle and had promptly paid the price when the barbed wire adorning the top post had snapped.

 

 Legolas made a note to himself to inform the farmer that there were far safer ways to secure a premise than such outdated, cruel devices as he leaned back to get Aviriel to stop and jumped to the ground before she'd even slowed down to a walk.

 

 Cyron was already kneeling next to the White Lady of Rohan who was sitting sunk back against what was left of that fence, only semi-conscious and pale, a few strands of greying blonde hair crusted an ugly rust red.

 

 His son's eyes were wide with shock, but the quiver in his strong jawline was mostly compassion, not blind worry, so Legolas wasted no time, checking on the Lady himself, cowering next to Windfola's thrashing shape instead. A single look at the mess of blood-matted fur and raw flesh, marred by several loops of thorn-studded metal that dug deeper into it with every weakening move of the horse's trapped hind leg, let him know, there wasn't a lot he could try to do here without making it worse.

"We can't help them. You need to ride back, ion."

He gently closed his hands around Windfola's head, a few words of a song of healing on his lips that his wife had taught him – one of the few tunes that his profession did not bar him from using as it was only affecting the mind. The damage could not be undone, but at least he could try to make sure, no more of it would come.

 

 "Just a minute."

When he looked up, with a frown because Cyron was rarely questioning orders of this uncompromising tone, his son was busy breaking off a long piece of wood from the remaining fence and quickly got out of his tunic to cut it in stripes with a dagger from his belt. It took Cyron only until the next verse of Legolas' song – one about the spring in Aman where legend had it, the first of the Mearas had once been born – to put Éowyn's left leg which was twisted in a painfully unnaturally angle, into a stable splint. Considering that as the hunter Cyron had aspired to be from early childhood on, he couldn't achieve any more magical healing abilities than Legolas himself, he had learned a lot from his mother.

When he straightened up after a soothing caress over Éowyn's wrinkled forehead, Legolas also couldn't help but notice how much the last years of continuous training had turned a scrawny fifty-year old's body into the mildly defined shape of a gifted, devoted archer who would hopefully never see battle, though.

 In any case, there was no reason to worry about his son going on one of his first quests, short as it might be, alone. Especially not in lands that had long not seen a glimpse of darkness.

 

"Get your mother and Tauriel. And we need proper cutting tools."

 

 "A meat ax?" Cyron tried to mask his grief about the gruesome scene with a weak grin. Like Legolas, he knew of course, that there was hardly hope they could get both creatures away from this meadow alive.

Still, it wasn't exactly an empathic comment when they couldn't be sure how much or not Éowyn was catching of her surroundings right now.

 

 "Wherever you get your sense of humor, spend less time with them."

Rolling his eyes, Legolas nodded at Cyron's horse but then a movement from the woman lying between them caught his eye.

 

 Éowyn was still visibly out of it, but as if the last irritated exchange had got through to her, she startled up, scared by the shrill noises from her beloved mount that was only slowly responding to Legolas' amateurish attempts of getting through to it, its injured leg still twitching with cramps.

 

 "Calm down, milady. We're here." Cyron leaned over Éowyn again, grabbing her arm to get her to pause which gave Legolas the chance to try it with another song, one that his wife had used more than once on him when his soul had been petrified by humiliating memories or the sheer, thick wall of black that had been his sickness for so long.

"What happened?"

 

 "A boar …" Éowyn's voice was still rough from her unconsciousness; she tried to blink free her sight, without much success. "Windfola bolted. I don't know why …"

Her wide-eyed gaze fell onto her mount once more; a wince followed when she saw its sweat-covered body, the horrible state of his leg. She tried to sit up instinctively but fell back with a hoarse scream.

 

 "Don't move", Legolas reprimanded her sharply.

"I've got him. Cyron, go. Now!"

It wasn't easy, leaving someone behind when you badly wanted to help; that was a lesson Legolas had had to learn very hard in his first time in Mirkwood's armies as well.

 

 But right now, the most use that his son could be of was as a messenger, and fortunately, this time, he listened, easily swinging himself onto Mornascar's back and galloping off.

 

 "Will he be alright? We're far from your settlement." Éowyn was clearly still trying to get her thoughts in order, and yet she was already worrying about the people around her again. It was only one of the things Legolas had come to appreciate her for deeply in their time.

 

 "If I couldn't send my son on rides alone, I'd be doing a poor job, keeping your land safe, milady. Don't," he repeated, with more vigor this time, when Éowyn tried again to push herself upwards, to join him by her horse's side.

The last hummed tones on his lips had only just managed to soothe the animal enough for it to lie mostly still; he wasn't sure that small progress wouldn't be ruined if it saw its owner torture herself needlessly.

"I'll take care of Windfola best as I can. Take it easy, please. You are hurt. Are you feeling sick?"

 

 The Lady's usually well-tanned cheeks had taken a concerningly greenish shade, and she swallowed suspiciously thickly a few times but shook her head. "It will pass. Never mind, I'll be alright. Just stay with him, please …"

Her eyes were slowly filling with tears as she reached out to stroke Windfola's hectically heaving belly. "He's not gonna make it, is he?"

 

 "I'm trying very hard not to do my wife's job, milady, as I usually fail at that. Ilya has worked miracles before. He just has to stop moving a while."

Legolas caressed down Windfola's narrow forehead and pressed a kiss to his nose, petting his neck praisingly when his patient finally stopped struggling entirely. "He understands that. He's a good boy."

 

 "I wish he would have been that calm earlier," Éowyn answered with a hint of bitterness. "I don't know what it was. We've seen hundreds of boars in our lives. I'm guessing it was hungry; it tried to attack us. But we could just have outrun it. They usually give up quickly when something's faster than them. There was no need to jump that fence. I knew this could only go wrong but I couldn't stop Windfola."

 

 "Mearas have their own head sometimes." Legolas got his water bag from his belt and unscrewed it to feed the horse a few drops, slowly, bit by bit, just to counteract the worst of dehydration. Under different circumstances, he would have tried to distract him with a little bit of grass and a sugar cube or two – Arod had always responded very well to food bribery, a thought surprisingly hurtful after so many decades –, but the last thing they needed right now was a colic.

 

 "Do you know he was supposed to be Éomer's?" Éowyn asked after just watching them for a few minutes, with her hand tightly clutching her fractured knee and small moans of agony punctuating her words repeatedly. "My uncle said he was too nervous to carry a warrior, so they gave him to me. When I took him to the Pelennor Fields, I think I wanted both of us to prove ourselves. And then he ran."

 

 "So did Brego and Arod before we entered the caves of Dunharrow." Again, the melancholy image of the small, swift steed that had brought Gimli and him through the war in one piece lingered on Legolas' mind, and suddenly he had to fight a tear or two himself. A small, trembling hand on his shoulder helped to get himself back under control, a gesture he happily returned with a nod of silent understanding, before signaling Éowyn to lay down again.

"Not many creatures can handle the smell of death. But they returned to us before we even left for Mordor, just like Windfola has come back to you."

 

 "I know. I was never angry with him." Feeling a little stronger now, Éowyn reached out to her mount next, softly caressing Windfola's stress-darkened fur with gentle pressure of her fingertips. "Who would not have run in the sight of the Witch-king? It just felt like my family was right. Like they have all been right the whole time. Like I didn't belong there, neither of us did. That even when we tried our best, it would never be enough."

 

 "You killed the mightiest of the Nine, milady. I'd say you were exactly where you were supposed to be that day. And has Windfola not swiftly brought you to your home country two decades later when they needed you badly in Helm's Deep? Fate and the will of the Valar are both fickle partners that cannot always be understood."

 

 Legolas stopped in surprise when Aviriel suddenly lay down next to Windfola, resting her head on her mate's back in comfort. Apparently, even a sapling with no Mearh blood but far too much nonsense in their head instead knew when a situation was dire.

Then the mare suddenly lay her ears back though and flehmed before lowering her head, nosing Windfola's good leg.

 

 "They know," he added, not only for Éowyn who looked very thoughtful now but for himself too, as a reminder that 3,000 years of a lifespan and more didn't make you immune to stupid prejudice. "Many things, they know better than us."

He scooped up some of the clear fluid that was not sweat off the spot Aviriel was showing him and smelled it briefly before wiping his hand on the grass with a grimace. "It's from the boar. It almost got him. It has rabies. And you're not wearing armor. If it had bitten you, you could have died."

 

 This time, there was no stopping her. In spite of her injury, Éowyn somehow managed to push herself upright and crawl over to them, her face a grimace of pain. Lifting Windfola's head to rest it on her good leg, she bent down to lean her forehead against his and blow into his nostrils. "Thank you, my friend. I should long know better than to doubt you. You be good for me and hang on now, alright? Help will come soon."

From her new position, she seemed to notice something that Legolas only saw when she pointed out the characteristic white blossoms on a very small patch of grass a few feet away, proving once more how much she had learned about the healing powers of everything that was growing in her time. "Can you get this, please?"

With new-found energy, she untied the knot of the green scarf she was wearing around her neck and handed it to him. "Make the Athelas wet and soak the fabric. Wrap it loosely around the injury, no pressure. It will slow the infection."

 

 The makeshift bandage at least seemed to numb a little bit of the pain, too. When Legolas put his hand back on the horse's sturdy body, its breathing had considerably slowed down.

"I guess, sometimes all it takes is a little change of perspective for us to get back on the right path."

 

 Éowyn regarded him with a lopsided grin. "Well, I sure hope you don't ever need to end up in our dungeon again for that."

 

 He'd run into that with both eyes open, so Legolas took the little dig with an exasperated sigh. "Now I know where my son gets his wit from."

 

 "No, I'm pretty sure you have your wife and yourself to thank for that."

For another little while, they didn't speak, but this time, there was a little bit of hope in their waiting. "If the Princess manages to sing the tendons back together, he might have a chance," Éowyn finally judged, with the sober compassion that made her such a great breeder. "As long as he can be mostly pain-free, he'll hang in, and then, I will not let him go either. He's always been stubborn as a mule. But I don't think, the two of us will ever go on a ride again."

 

 "Probably not," Legolas agreed softly. For much labor, there was just too much destroyed in that leg.

"But there are many other things for a horse to enjoy in life. For decades, he has taken you through many fears. Retiring a little early will not be a shame. Besides ..." He searched his memory for a moment, in confusion, because if it served him right, this was unusual. The King of Rohan and his family usually never left out a chance to add to the pride of the country.

"He's never sired a foal, did he? Maybe it's time he has his own little herd."

 

 Éowyn scrunched her nose a little in doubt that was not even hers. "Éomer always discouraged it. He said, he didn't believe, Windfola's moody temper should be passed on."

 

 "Well, how many times does he have to save your life to prove your brother wrong?"

 

 The Lady promptly blushed and then smiled, lowering her head briefly towards him. "These parts will miss your wisdom sorely when your people will be gone one day, milord."

 

 "We have a long way ahead of us before that day, milady."

Men, at least, did; for Legolas, it often felt like he could wake up anytime now with the urge to build a boat immediately, to carry his family and him away from too much grief, from too many beings he had already had to say goodbye to, more of them every year. But today, he thought, at least one of these creatures might be with him for a while longer.

He caressed Windfola's head once more, a twinge of relief stirring in his soul when he heard the sound of quick hoof beats in the distance. "All of us."

 

 Windfola snorted in approval and nosed Éowyn's dress, looking for a treat.

Chapter Text

Fo.A. 21

 

 

 

 

 

When Eldarion first asked his lover to marry him, he didn't know what he'd expected but it certainly wasn't hysterical laughter.

 

"Are we going to have a deer and a rabbit as witnesses?" Unfazed by his pout, she never stopped her latest attempt of carving a proper bow. "And the Substitute Chieftain will hold the ceremony? Please let me know before you bother her with such a thing. I don't want to miss the moment she punches you in the groin."

 

  "Well, I wasn't thinking now."

More offended than he probably should be after springing this on her out of the blue, Eldarion picked back up a grooming brush and went back to preparing his gelding for the morning ride. He could swear, the dapple grey was snorting at him in amusement.

 

  "Right now, we're here, though," Arasheniel replied, never taking her chocolate brown gaze off her knife. "And we will not be back to Gondor for a while."

 

  Eldarion did his best to not hurl that brush back into the tack box with too much force in frustration before reaching for a hoof pick. He'd loved this girl since they'd been kids, but sometimes, he still had trouble reading her.

"You're not telling me anything new. I guess I just would like to know we will go home together when the time comes."

 

  Arasheniel's hand promptly slipped, the knife going in too deep, which made another piece of work that had started out promisingly nothing more but firewood fuel. Eldarion doubted it was only that slip furrowing her thick brows though as she got up and passed him by with merely an absent pinch of his thigh while he was trying to keep his horse from pulling its leg off his knee.

"We are traveling light, Your Highness. No carrying undue burdens. Needless promises are counted among those. The future will bring what it brings." She was gone before he could answer.

 

  With a twinge of shame, he found, he was actually relieved. This was not how this conversation had been supposed to go.

Maybe he'd assumed too much. Ever since the last crisis with Mordor, Arasheniel and he had become closer, sure. But thinking about it, Arasheniel had been avoiding things becoming too serious between them from the start. Maybe this whole thing was just another of their games, of their challenges, a bit of fun and rare leisure time during the hard years that would be their training in the wilderness.

The thought was more devastating than he'd expected it to.

 

  Then again, he couldn't even resent her for wanting someone better to bind herself to. She deserved better.

She deserved someone untouched, someone untainted.

 

  Some dreams were better buried fast before they could build too high and crush you.

 

  But that night she came to his tent after he'd fallen asleep over a mug of wine too much; when she dropped her nightgown to the ground, there was nothing underneath, and Eldarion forgot how to breathe.

They had fooled around a couple of times before, sure, and Eldarion had had his adventures with a couple of men in the armies. But this night, his lover showed him for the first time what worshipping someone meant.

She used her hands and her mouth on him until he had to bite his pillow to not wake half of the camp, until the patch of stars he could see through a small gap in the tent flap started to wheel around him. He wondered if this was what dying felt like.

Then his face was between her slender thighs and she was pulling his hair so tightly it hurt, yet he never wanted her to stop. He was drinking from her as if her juices was all the sustenance he needed to get him through these first trials of their apprenticeship, until she bucked against him once, and then again.

 

  Afterward, she told him, she loved him.

 

  He believed her.

 

  "This is all we need for the moment," she said before she left in the wake of dawn, and maybe that was enough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

    The second time he asked her, it had just been a lot of excess energy and deep gratefulness, she told him, because she'd just saved his behind – and badly bruised one of his ribs in the process, he suspected – from a stray arrow. A parting gift by a group of orcs on the run; creatures just as strayed and lost in these slowly recovering ruin of a land as most of their group was.

Arasheniel took a second to kiss him and then yelled at him for not looking out enough before going back to shoot her brand-new bow, never giving him a chance to tell her how serious he was.

 

  She was getting pretty great with her weapon, he had half a mind to notice.

 

  Who was he, thinking she needed him in any way?

 

 

 

 

 

 

    The third time, he could have bet, the timing was perfect. They'd celebrated their recent progress within their tribe half of the night, and in his tent, they'd celebrated a bit more. By the time the sun started to rise, they were both covered in hickeys and bite marks and body fluids he was not sure were hers or his.

That was when she announced they would have to go home for a while next year because their families would soon start to miss them and they had duties in Minas Tirith as well.

 

  Eldarion could think of one very particular duty he'd like to take care of immediately.

 

  But when he said it, she got up and left, shielded from looks by hardly anything more than the blanket around her fragile shape and the tight look on her face.

 

  This time, he was seriously hurt.

 

  "It's not you," she said when she brought him a slice of bread and some ham in the morning because he'd been in no mood to join breakfast by the fire.

 

  "Is it not?" he asked, still sad more than anything, because he wanted to understand her. "If I did anything wrong …"

 

  "El ..."

 

  "Look, I know I wasn't always there for you properly. And I haven't committed to us in the beginning when I should have …"

 

  Even when he was angry with her, the touch of her fingertips on his lips, slightly calloused from sewing needle and bowstring, sent shivers down his spine.

"You don't get it. It's me who's not ready to commit. I'm not ready to give up all this up." She gestured vaguely to the frail privacy of this dirtied and patched up tent, the safety of a badly accessible clearing within half burnt-down woods, the tired whispers of a folk only just regathering after almost being wiped out by so many wars. "Not for a life in a golden cage. Not at this time."

 

  He found himself wishing, she'd not given him a reason after all. Sometimes, those could hurt even more. "I thought you knew me better than expecting me to lock you up. I thought we had love."

 

  Her lips on his, her warm, long sigh against his skin, was the promise she couldn’t give him yet. "We have so much love. But that's not all I want us to have. My parents based their marriage only on love, and you know how that ended."

 

  Her folded hands soothingly rubbed up and down his neck because the next shivers were not some of yearning and affection. Feather-light kisses on his closed eyelids chased the image of a shattered body in the dark, a bloodied face with the same sharp cheekbones as hers, from his mind. This was also them, her being his anchor within the nightmares, her endless nobility that he still did not think himself entirely worthy of.

 

  She'd had so many reasons for rejecting him back then, her father's horrible ending just being the last straw. Yet she was sitting here in front of him, asking him for nothing but patience.

 

  He thought he could give her that, but he also needed to know, the wait would not be in vain. "What more do you need?"

 

  "When I find out, I'll let you know."

 

Their leader was calling, so she left while the taste of her morning tea was still sweet and thick in his mouth.

 

  He let her go.

 

 

 

 

 

    For a while, Eldarion let it rest. He knew his doe well enough to realize she would run if he pressed on.

So they did what they'd come here to do. They were learning and fighting and building and growing. Tending to the land and to their hearts and to the tribe that was slowly but certainly becoming their second family. When they were lusting for each other, they did what they could do without risking a scandal in one of their tents. Then, for a little while, the shadows of the past and the fear for their future were far away.

Summer was coming to an end when they were sent on their first quest alone; nothing big, really, mostly a patrol in a deserted woodlot that had allegedly been home to some more hostile orcs not too long ago.

Since they could neither see nor sense danger, they ended up sparring to make themselves at least somewhat useful, and then they ended up making out a little, but when they got too tempted to indulge in things that had no place when on duty, they went back to training.

While hanging upside down to work a bit on muscles that had not got much to do lately, Eldarion tested his lover in these lands' herbology which was one of her lesser strong suits and held her hand as she was balancing on a branch actually too thin to support her weight, which secretly only made him even more convinced that her father passed on to her far more drops of far-removed elvish blood than she'd ever realize.

"You know, people will talk when we go home like this," he said at some point, this time, not to convince her but because it was the truth. "In his last letter, ada said, he would approve if we would at least announce our courtship."

 

  "So that I have hundreds of people instead of just you, asking me when we'll tie the knot? No, thanks." Arasheniel let go of him to jump onto another branch where she had apparently spotted an especially tasty looking fruit. "If you're afraid of a little gossip, you shouldn't have chosen the handmaiden's daughter in the first place."

 

  Eldarion quickly turned his head away because the sight of her teeth digging into the bright red flesh and the small rivulets of juice dripping down her chin already tried to distract him from his current unit again. "What else would I do when you are the one I love?"

 

  That seemed to please her; she was beaming at him from below. But the stubbornness he loved her for wouldn't leave her thrust-forward jaw.

"What's the hurry, El, seriously? Did you know, Legolas' parents courted for thousands of years before getting married?"

 

  "Well, sadly, I chose mortality so I don't have that time."

 

  His grumpiness elicited one of these giggles from her that he wanted to hear every day for the rest of his life. "Eldarion Elessarion, I will marry you when the stars say it's right and not a moment sooner."

After this quite final verdict, she stuffed the rest of the fruit into her mouth and jumped down to the ground elegantly, only to collapse out of the blue, grabbing her throat with both hands.

 

  In a flash, he was cowering next to her, ready to wrap his arms around her upper body with the necessary force to help her expel whatever she'd somehow got in the wrong tube, but then froze.

 

  A bright green bug fell from Arasheniel's lips and crawled away slowly, visibly damaged from almost being eaten. An insect with six legs and a long, spiked snout that the last, milky drips of venom were still dripping from. They'd been warned from these things the day they had arrived here.

Lethal, within a minimum of time.

There was an antidote, he knew, but these animals were so rare that their tribe didn't even have it in their stashes. It took hours to make, and they were far from the current location of their camp.

 

  "Aras, no." His voice was reduced to a toneless whisper, as if it had been him, gasping in vain through a throat swelling shut in seconds. "You need to breathe, please …"

But she couldn't, he knew when he held her close to him helplessly, tears welling in his eyes as the first cramps took her.

He wanted to tell her it would be alright, that he would make her better, but he'd never been a good liar.

So many words he'd used in the last few months, trying to tell her he wanted to be hers forever, and now, in the last minute they would share in these parts, he couldn't think of a single one to let her know how much she meant to him.

She was clutching his hand desperately while he tried to breathe air into her that could not reach her lungs, tried to empty her mouth with bare fingertips but could only feel the sickly, hot barrier at the back of her tongue.

 

  Seconds passed that felt like years, and she was greying alarmingly quickly. Her gentle doe eyes were so very wide as she tried to hold on to his gaze, knowing perfectly well herself that it was probably the last time she was seeing him in this kind of life ... She was afraid. Never had Eldarion seen her afraid and that was so much worse than anything else.

She was also angry; he could see her pupils flash even as her body betrayed her, muscles twitching with the growing pressure, legs kicking uselessly, her hand almost fracturing his bones now. She was angry with herself for not taking care, with this damn bug, with the whole world. This was the stupidest thing that could have happened. This is not an arrow she took for anyone or a sword in her chest instead of in one of their mates'. Not even an ordinary dagger thrown in the wrong moment ...

 

  Eldarion had his own dagger – his father's parting gift – in his hand before he even realized where his panicked thoughts took his mind. This wouldn't do, this was crazy … Even if he really had the guts to try something he'd only heard about in horror legends in the Houses of Healing ... He had no tools on him, half their equipment was back in the camp because they were both stupid. They were still too fucking young and careless and ...

He reached for her belt with the arm that he didn't need to hold her down and pulled out her pipe before he even knew what he was planning. He could have taken his own, too, but maybe, if it was hers, the danger of infections would be lower ... If he could manage to do anything but kill her instantly at all, that was. Probably he couldn't.

Well, Legolas' wife didn't call him a butcher for nothing.

 

  Arasheniel's too-pale lips were moving when he broke off the stem, but all that was coming from her mouth was this awful wheezing sound that carried no air. There would have been no time to discuss anyway.

"I'm sorry." That was all the warning he could give her before he grabbed the dagger firmly and made the cut, willing his hands still somehow, to not go to deep and damage the wrong pipe or her vocal cords accidentally. He had to blink away blood from his eyes, and the pain had her black out instantly.

 

  But when he slipped the end of the pipe into the hole he made, she drew a gurgling breath. And then another.

 

  "Good girl. Don't you dare stop that." His lips were numb, his hands ice cold with shock when he bent down to kiss her forehead and then her lips, tasting blood.

He bandaged her throat around the new intruder best as he could before being forced to leave her, to collect what he'd need to make that poison leave her body.

 

  When he returned, their leader had found them. Her instincts had always been a match to an elf's.

 

  She regarded him with a dry smile and a nod that looked impressed. "Is this part of Gondorian courting rituals?"

 

  She tried to make him laugh, so he gave her a grin, weak as it was, before looking for firewood while his leader started to mix the collected ingredients in a clean bowl. "I hope not. But if I have to do this every day to get her to marry me, I guess I'll endure."

 

When he looked down on his lover, noticing in relief that her skin sported a healthier color now and that she was breathing more regularly, Arasheniel had her eyes open.

She was smiling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

    Two evenings later, she was well enough to breathe without aids, and the terrible wound was healing well. She was still weak though, so Eldarion didn't expect her to wake when he was done changing the bandage and lay down, curling up by her side to watch her rest.

 

  Therefore, he startled when she suddenly spoke, her voice still a little choked from her struggle and the perverted procedure. "Can we tell mother it was an arrow? The scar?"

 

  "I'm afraid we'd be busted quite quickly. Too many healers in our family. But if you don't tell ada that I stuck a pipe down your throat, I'll tell them, you got bitten while diving to clean a river. These bugs, they're in the water, too. Deal?"

 

  "Deal. Is there still soup?"

 

  His face lit up at last. The moment she got hungry again, the worst was over indeed. "I'll be right back."

 

  "El?" She waited until he was almost gone and stared at the blanket wrapped around her in concentration when he looked back at her. "When I am your Princess Consort, will I still be a Ranger?"

 

  "I sure hope so because I for my part will always be one. And I'm not going anywhere without you."

Only belatedly, he realized what she'd just said. "Are the stars right tonight, milady?"

 

  "Like I could see that in here, you fool." She'd regathered enough strength to throw a pillow at him. "But you were right. Life's far too short to wait. Just don't make me wear a corset."

 

  "You would look horrible in one anyway." He quickly left for the campfire before she could think of throwing her tea mug at his head next.

It didn't feel like his feet were touching the ground. 

Chapter Text

T.A. 8

 

 

"Who did this to you?"

For a moment, Legolas thought Thranduil looked almost seriously concerned instead of just inconvenienced about his son interrupting, with something so banal, his work on whatever trade agreement he had been thinking about for the last few weeks nonstop already.

 

He paused.

  Usually, he wouldn't even have entered such a discussion, but these days, stirs of actual emotion were rare on his father's pallid, hollowed face, and judging by how the last few days had gone, it was unlikely, he was going to see him for another of these rare dinners together for a while. Might as well make sure, Thranduil wasn't any closer to drowning himself in one of his wine barrels when Legolas wasn't looking than on any other night since the war.

If he had to embarrass himself a little for that, that was an acceptable price.

He tried to feign a shrug, but that hurt, and he was glad the healer had insisted, he gave his double-fractured collarbone some more rest in the shape of a sling.

 

  He couldn't help but muse if Thranduil had even noticed that anything was off if he hadn't worn it. That Legolas couldn't dodge a punch from one of his training partners in time, had happened before. He didn't like them to go easy on him. But his father didn't tend to look him in the eyes an awful lot these days, even if one of them was almost swollen shut. Unfortunately, in today's session, it hadn't ended with that unpleasant crunching sound from a fist having a too-close encounter with his face.

 

  "No one did anything. I asked them to spar, that's all." He tried to imitate his father's dismissive tone that worked so well on blathering advisors and fraudulent salesmen from cities of Dwarves and Men, but for that unquestioning aura of authority, he was lacking not only – yet, hopefully – Thranduil's impressive height but also a lot of ice in those same ocean blue eyes.

 

  Then again, a demonstratively dropped fork and an irritated hiss was at least some reaction from the other side of the table. "Legolas, how often do I need to tell you, I don't want you in close combat lessons yet? You're not old enough. This is exactly what happens when you overestimate yourself."

 

  Legolas shrugged again, this time careful to use the left shoulder only. "Everything's mended. The healer said, my nose will be swollen for another day or two. I'll put on powder for the audience tomorrow, don't worry. I didn't plan to harm your impeccable public image."

 

  Sometimes he wondered if Thranduil would know cynicism that didn't come from his own lips if it bit him in the behind. In fact, that ever-absent expression already returned to his face, eyes darting away to some scroll ready for editing next to his salad plate.

"That's not the point. I don't want you to get hurt needlessly. You'll have more than enough time for warrior training once your body is fully grown. Keep to archery for the moment; you're much better at that anyway. And stop evading questions, ion. I'm not one of your incompetent teachers. Who was it?"

 

  "Why is that important?" Legolas started to cut into the piece of rabbit meat on his plate with more force than necessary as if it had personally offended him. It was hard on his shoulder but that hurt a lot less than most of what came out of his father's mouth these days.

"You want to throw them in the dungeon? Banish them? Instant beheading?"

 

 

  "Don't be ridiculous. We're not Noldor. Kinslaying is not our style."

The plate already forgotten, Thranduil had his parchment in his hand and went over the same detail with a harsh wrinkle between his dark brows several times, judging from the movement of his eyes.

"It's mostly a matter of discipline and respect towards the King's house. They're ignoring my order and undermine our reputation in battle if they allow you to provoke them for things that you are not even remotely ready for. Offense against the crown is a serious crime, ion."

 

  "Good thing it's not me, wearing it then." Legolas was getting tired of the discussion already. Well, that was another plan to try and see if his father was actually aware he had one family member still alive spectacularly failing.

 

  "You are my son." Just for a moment, those empty, redlined gaze found his across the table, but whatever Thranduil saw in Legolas' tight lips, in his defensively straight back, quickly had him look away again.

 

  "I guess they didn't think you'd be sober enough for an evening to remember that," Legolas said flatly, but at that point, the images in his head of a conversation he would never have the heart to have, in his head began to blur, because truth was, he wouldn't ever come up with the guts to say this out loud to his father's face, not even in his most creative daydreams.

With a startle, he was back in the doorway, about to enter the dining room, with Thranduil looking at him expectantly, slightly confused but not overly worried, still waiting for an answer that under different circumstances, if they were different people, might have been something like what Legolas had been coming up with on the way here.

But he had tried that, more than once, after his mother had died, and none of these debates ever ended with anything more than another night of tears. There was no reason to expect anything different this time, just because he'd not taken care in the duel earlier for a moment and run into a blunt sword blade instead of throwing his opponent to the ground as planned.

Maybe, everything would have been a lot easier if that weapon had been sharp. The images of his mother began to blur and fade before his mind's eye, but somehow, he doubted she would even have needed to ask what trouble he'd got himself into this time before darting off to cut the people responsible down a few inches.

 

  "Legolas?" His father started to sound impatient. Dinner was narrowly timed, and he had another meeting waiting before spending another night in his wine cellar, probably. "What is it? Did you get in another fight? Elflings can be cruel; it's in their nature. I told your teacher, she needs to keep a better eye on things …"

 

  Legolas decided against reminding his father, he was far from being an elfling any longer and that it had been almost a year since he was having private tuition because the teachers had grown tired of getting yelled at by the King regularly for his son starting arguments with other pupils.

"It's nothing, ada. I fell from my horse earlier. We tried a jump that was too high for us."

 

  "Hm." Thranduil seemed to search his memory for a moment but couldn't really be bothered to finish checking and maybe realizing, there had been no riding lessons on Legolas' schedule for the day, and went back to reading his notes instead.

"Go see the healer again in the morning, please. There's a hunt next week I want you to join. It's been a while since we were out together last. People have been missing your face."

 

  If that was so, Legolas wondered numbly if he should just pack his thing and go out to one of the settlements in the woods to live, like his father had done it when Oropher and he had moved here. The one person in this palace who had every chance to see his face every day, usually didn't care enough to even look, anyway.

But like so many things, those were words that would not have reached his father's ears even if he tried, much less his soul, so he just nodded briefly and sat down to shovel down another meal tasting like ash as quickly as possible so he could excuse himself.

Spending his evenings in his chambers wasn't much more entertaining, but at least there, loneliness was something he expected.

Chapter Text

F.A. 473

 

 

When Beleg heard the pitiful wail in the distance, he thought, at first, what he was about to find was a wounded animal. He wasn't far off.

 

He'd first met the boy a few months prior and remembered him easily and fondly, not just because he was of mannish kind, not even because the King had taken him in as his, unlikely as that might have seemed when Beleg had brought him to the court back then, malnourished and freezing.

 

  What he remembered Túrin for was a sadness in his sunken grey eyes that no ten year old, man or elf, should know. For his silence that could have filled more than one book. And the stubborn unruliness of his dark hair.

When he saw the boy again this day, these messy curls that had grown quite a bit, were matted and stuck to the child's tanned skin in cold sweat, and those lost, ever-restless eyes stared at him in fear and shock. The ground was covered in leaves colored red with autumn and blood. An alarmingly lot of the latter.

"Master Beleg." He must have been crying and screaming for hours; his voice was almost hoarse. If Beleg had not chosen to come back on some unnamed instinct instead of accompanying the rest of his unit to their winter quarters …

 

  "I'm here. Stop moving. You're making it worse."

He chose not to think about might-have-beens further but jumped easily down into the shallow pit that some ruthless hunter must have dug on this clearing just yesterday, filled with freshly slaughtered rabbits to attract bigger animals. Animals more interesting to Men who hunted for sport or out of ignorance, not to survive.

 

  The trap had also drawn in a boy whose heart was too big for the cruel times he'd been born in.

 

  The screams became louder when Beleg grabbed the trap around Túrin's short, thin leg with both hands and tested its strength. It was no match for his but before he could take it off, he needed to make sure, it would not kill its victim. He put his hand, red-smeared already, heavily on Túrin's shaking shoulder, rummaging for bandages in his healer's pouch with the other. "Do you trust me?"

 

  "I don't know," the boy said between quiet sobs. "Should I?"

That, too, Beleg remembered. Túrin had no reason to trust this world easily, and he was being more honest than it would earn him love at the court he was living at.

 

  Of course, he wanted to say. I am your friend. I will never harm you, he should be saying.

But would that be the truth? Túrin's fate was uncertain and dark as his own, and Beleg had not done enough yet to earn his friendship.

Beleg who had a vague gift of foresight but usually tended not to listen to it because he was counted among the very mighty but not among the wisest of his kind, suddenly felt without a doubt in his very soul that one day – a day far, millennia, Ages from now –, he would be asked this question again. Maybe on a day when the world would end and only people like them who had been cursed by destiny from the start, would be able to make a difference. Maybe then they would ask each other the same, and it might depend on the answer if they would let all the people despairing and bleeding around them down.

 

  Man and elf alike, and other races, and creatures and plants, even the stars themselves. Heroes and legends both of Aman and Middle-earth, fallen and reborn kings, Princes of great skill and gardeners of great hearts, creatures of the smallest size and the biggest courage and heroic warriors brought to their knees in seconds, in spite of defeating what they had thought in their respective life to be the biggest evil of the world. All of them, all of that in the balance for the last time.

 

  Then it might just be up to this boy tortured by something as simple as a bear trap, and to a weary hunter like him, to make the last and most crucial strike one day.

And if they'd lie to each other then, they would lose before they could even make a start, because lying was what the enemy did.

Therefore, Beleg said: "That is an answer only you can give yourself."

And just like that, the vision faded from his mind, never to return until the darkness that was trying to swallow the world whole would start to rearise, to whatever end.

 

  "Can you make it stop hurting?" Now that he was no longer alone, Túrin tried hard to stop his tears even while the rusty, sharp spikes were scratching his bones, and Beleg wondered how often they were telling him in Menegroth that tears made you weak.

 

  This time, it was easier to speak the truth. One thing Túrin knew far too much about already, was pain.

"No. I will make it hurt so much more." Beleg strengthened his grip around the boy's shoulder when Túrin tried to flinch. "But I will make sure you will heal."

 

  "You promise?" Túrin had not much strength left to fight back anyway. But his eyes were still awake enough in spite of the blood loss. Honest, careful curiosity was in them.

 

  "I promise."

As far as Túrin's heart was concerned, it turned out to be a promise Beleg couldn't keep.

 

 

 

 

 

F.A. 486

 

 

When Túrin screamed at his men to stand back and rushed forward to free his old friend from Doriath from his captivity, he wondered, for a moment, why Beleg had not escaped himself. He should have right after failing to convince the Gaurwaith, apparently, that he was a friendly, and before things had even had a chance to get as bad as they'd become.

Then Beleg's roughed up and dehydrated shape fell against him, for his arms were still bound with another piece of rope, and Túrin threw Andróg another scathing look, realizing the unhealthy angle that the elf's arm stood out from his shoulder at. The others and him, they would have to talk a lot about all that had gone wrong here in the last few days – and Túrin had the haunting suspicion that was a lot more than he could make out at first sight –, but first, he had to take care of his old fighting companion.

With all the strength and a last growth spurt that the time alone in the wilderness had gifted him with, he carried their visitor into his private cave and drew the curtain close before putting Beleg's half-unconscious shape down on the sad excuse of a mattress of his as carefully as he could.

 

Those narrow hands that had held his in comfort so often, had bandaged his wounds and taught him so much of what he'd needed to survive, were deprived of blood and swollen, chafed almost raw from rope, and Túrin knew there was no way he could do his without causing even more agony.

 

The least he could do was hurry up.

 

When his knife flashed in the light of the torches on the wall, his friend flinched in his embrace though, and those deep blue eyes Túrin had fallen in love with before he'd even known, love was something that could not only give pain, were suddenly looking wide-awake.

 

"I'm here. Don't move."

He rested his free hand on his friend's blood-matted bright hair, then on his forehead which was not heated, fortunately. The wounds that he could see would heal quickly.

"Do you trust me?"

 

"I don't know," Beleg said flatly, and Túrin felt his heart shatter in regret and shame. "Can I?"

 

"I can't undo how they wronged you." Túrin let go of him as if he'd burned himself when he realized how much Beleg was trembling under his touch, suddenly dreading what would be revealed when he would help his friend out of these stained and torn clothes.

"But I'm not them. I don't know if that is enough. That's an answer only you can give yourself."

 

Beleg tiredly turned his head to look at his damaged arm but shuddered and winced before he could finish the movement. His neck, too, bore the traces of fighting his bonds. "Just cut them. I will be alright."

 

"Not for a while." Túrin grabbed that dislocated shoulder tightly because he would have to be quick once his knife had done its work. His strength was no match for an elf's. He'd have to use the moment of surprise, of numbness. "It will hurt so much more when you are free. But if you let me, I will try to heal you."

 

In the heavy silence, Beleg's too shallow breathing remained the only noise between the rocky walls.

 

Túrin's words got stuck in his throat as they so often did. What right had he to ask this? He had not been there when Beleg had needed him most. And neither had Beleg when Túrin's life in Doriath had ended. Maybe they had tried for too long to be things for each other they were not.

Maybe it was time to be what Túrin felt they were meant to be ever since he'd come of age instead. Ever since those certain nights in Beleg's hut, to flee from the stiff loneliness of the palace for a while. Nights that had turned into frail, doubtful beacons of hope, with every too-long glance from the other side of the room when they'd changed clothes, with every too-long moment of touch on a wall he couldn't climb himself or a ledge too far to jump on his own.

"I can't give all of my life to you, but I can give you my heart. You already had it on you every day we were apart. Is it safe with you, Beleg?"

 

"When you didn't choose to run, you were always safe with me," Beleg said, his eyes shining conspicuously but the agony forgotten for a moment.

 

Túrin wished he could say the same but he was kneeling before the living proof of the contrary.

"No more running." He cut and dropped his weapon, thrusting that shoulder back into its socket before he could think about it for too long.

When Beleg passed out on him, weakened in his unusual unwavering resilience by days without food and water, he took care of the elf's wounds, even the shameful, ugly ones. Especially those.

 

"I love you", Beleg whispered when he woke up, body and soul slowly recovering from his torment in Túrin's cautious embrace. "Eru knows I shouldn't but whether or no, I am stuck with you."

 

"I will not let you down again", said Túrin and then kissed him.

It turned out to be another promise he couldn't keep. 

Chapter Text

F.A. 509

 

 

"Is the hour not a little late for deliveries?"

 

Erestor had not expected the other visitor arriving at the golden gate of his mentor's home almost at the same time as him to address him and startled once he realized he had heard that always slightly hoarse voice before. It was a sound that forced you to listen instinctively not to miss anything, and that remained clear in the memory.

"Just an update on a map collection that the Lord requested me to copy, Your Highness."

He hurried to bow when the King's nephew jumped from his horse and wrapped the mare's reins around a fencepost sloppily, not bothering with praise or treat though the ride must have been a hard one and the animal's chest was covered in foam.

An urgent matter then that brought Prince Maeglin here, and surely a far more important one than Erestor's selfish yearning for friendship and improvement. For a moment he considered, just walking by. But he had been invited, and the one thing Glorfindel very much disliked was a lack of responsibility. He should say hello, at least.

 

  It was too late to get away anyway, because those piercing dark eyes were already on him and held. Eyes that were allegedly just as keen and wise as the King's late sister's while people said, Maeglin's often gruff demeanor reminded of his father more.

Erestor was not the right person to judge that; he had not even been born yet when the tragedy of Aredhel and Eöl had happened, and people didn't talk about them much these days. But it was true, this was an unpleasantly knowing gaze, especially when you had things to hide.

 

  Erestor promptly found himself blushing and hoped, the weak light from the torches on the wall would not reveal it. His back stiffened when the Prince scanned his nervously shifting stance, took in Erestor's not yet fully grown and far too thin appearance, the parts of his borrowed armor that his long cloak couldn't hide, and finally the huge, oblong scroll bag leaning against the wall right next to him, too big for a couple of replacement pages.

He should probably have tried to come up with a better excuse, but his tongue felt tied suddenly, and there was a shiver down his back he couldn't place. Glorfindel was right, apparently, telling him again and again that he needed to work on his emotional serenity or at least on his stealth.

"What brings you here, Your Highness?" He wasn't sure it was befitting, bothering a member of the King's House with questions, even if you'd been a frequent worker in said house's library for a decade now, but everything was better than being dissected like this any longer.

 

  "The Lord and I have important details regarding the city's defenses to talk about that cannot wait. I will take these to him for you."

Before Erestor could even think of saying no, Maeglin reached past him for said bag. He put it down again, with a small smile that did not look surprised in the least, when the faint metal clank of Erestor's sword inside the worn-down leather sounded through the beginning silence of the night. "These are some remarkably heavy scrolls you have there, young Erestor."

 

  Erestor who had not even been aware that the Prince knew his name blushed to the tip of his ears this time and quickly slung his bag over one shoulder to get it out of reach. So much for inconspicuousness. He could only hope, Maeglin would not care about that little scene enough to talk to anyone about it; now at the latest, he did have to explain himself though.

"Lord Glorfindel is kind enough to give me close combat training occasionally."

 

  Again, this critical look up and down his ever-more restless shape, and a frown of disapproval between thick brows that reminded Erestor of his father a little too much.

 

  No, his body wasn't exactly predestined for battle. But when he needed to be in one someday, no one would care if his armor fit right or for how long he could keep that sword up as long as it saved a few lives.

 

  "A rare gift," Maeglin judged before Erestor had a chance to further defend his presence by this mansion at sundown. "It's late for an elf your age, one in the middle of their scholar training no less, to discover their lust for killing."

 

  "I don't want to kill anyone. I want to help." Feeling more defensive by the minute, Erestor wished more and more that Glorfindel would finally show up in the gardens and save him from this conversation. The training was obviously off for tonight – a thought that did leave a little sting because his mentor had not even bothered to tell him, something more important had come up –, so he should just get back, though the company in his home wouldn't a lot more sympathetic.

"And I am no beginner. We meet whenever the Lord finds an hour of leisure. I will join the army as soon as my training in the library is finished. A day I would welcome rather sooner than later but my father will not approve."

 

  For the first time, that mask of condescension on the Prince' face cracked. He threw his head back with a quiet laugh. "If I had kept to what my father asked of me, I would still be withering in a lightless forest. Don't get discouraged so easily by a grumpy stranger, King's scribe. One is never too young for a little rebellion."

Maeglin pulled the hood of his cloak back down over his forehead which made it even harder to try and figure out what was written on his face. "I will remind the Lord that you were here. I'm sure he didn't mean to steal your time for nothing. There are a lot of important things in motion right now that demand the house leaders' attention."

 

  "Thank you for your kindness." Erestor said good-bye with gritted teeth, trying in vain to fight that poisonous dart that the Prince' words had driven another inch deeper into his heart.

Who was he to assume Glorfindel cared about him more than any of his other duties? Maybe Erestor's father had been right the whole time, forbidding him to come here. His progress on the sword was meager, and the pain in his heart grew whenever his foolish sight beheld the person he could never be with in the way he wished to since he was old enough to do so.

 

  When their eyes met next, Maeglin seemed to see another thing in Erestor's badly-shielded mind that had him pause, with his hand already on the handle of the gate – he obviously was not ready to wait for someone to ask him in.

"Thinking about it, I could use someone with your tenacious spirit in my house's defense. I could ask the King to finish your training early. He tends to listen to me a lot."

 

  Erestor was tempted, he found, slightly startled. With the Prince speaking for him, Erestor's father could not have said no to him moving out and finding his own way any longer …

But that feeling of being analyzed more than questioned, of feeling gauged more than being met with any real kind of interest, persisted. And after so many years of silent yearning, there was no way, he could just ignore the image of his golden-haired mentor in his soul who would quickly become a stranger to him if Erestor turned from his house.

No, his place was here, among Glorfindel's troops, one day, no matter how long that would take.

"I thank you for your generous offer, but for now, I am right where I want to be."

 

  "Ah, young love. Of course. How foolish of me." Maeglin's grin grew. "The Lord is said to draw in a lot of admirers. I just did not know they were even among his pupils."

 

  "I wouldn't know about that, Your Highness. I'm his charge, that's all."

Erestor didn't think he was being believed, in spite or maybe just because of his sudden irritation and his tightly clenched fist. He was almost tempted to let the Prince know about the she-elf Glorfindel had kept as his housekeeper for years before she'd suddenly vanished, someone who had definitely spent more time in the Lord's private quarters than her own ...

The urge vanished as quickly as it had come. That was not his story to tell, no matter how much of an open secret it was at this point.

"And his friend. He has earned my loyalty."

 

  "Life doesn't give you many second chances, scribe. Don't throw them away so carelessly."

With that, Maeglin entered the gardens of gold and silver that Erestor had spent so many happy evenings in already and that seemed to become emptier and more silent by the year. He, too, did not seem to be here for the first time tonight; through the fence's high bars, Erestor could see him greet a few on the house's guards on patrol. With one of them, he even shook hands.

Erestor whose eyes were well trained on spotting the color of parchment even in the fading light didn't miss the small note that the Prince left in the latter she-elf's palm before it quickly vanished in a belt bag.

 

He turned away as this was definitely none of his business. A letter of a secret admirer, maybe, who could express himself better with ink and quill than with his voice.

That was a weakness he could very well comprehend.

 

  No one is going to give you what you deserve, he thought to hear a voice hiss in his head that he was not sure was his own. You have to take it. Maybe one day you will learn that.

 

  Erestor walked on.

 

 

 

 

 

F.A. 510

 

 

"What do you think you're doing?"

Erestor's father grabbed him painfully tight by the arm and pulled him back, before he had made more than one step into the chaos of smoke and flame and blood that his city was turning into more by the minute.

 

  "Let me go!" Erestor snapped, grabbing the handle of his sword tighter, out of his mind with anger and worry and fear, but not for himself. He'd let himself stop long enough. Now it had happened, now war had found them, and he would no longer be kept away from doing what was right.

 

  "Look at them!" His father was almost yelling at this point, an ugly combination of tears and blood that was not his own staining his pallid face.

 

  Erestor didn't want to but he found, he couldn't tear his eyes away from his mother when she put his younger brother's body down on a table with trembling arms and started to free him of the dented, burnt ruins of his armor to try and tend to far too many injuries, balancing her weight somehow on that leg that wasn't broken in two places.

"We were out there for ten minutes. How long do you think you'll be breathing? We wait here until the first wave has passed to the city core, and then we find the next available captain to tell us where we can make any difference at this point. You stay here with your brother until we are back, you hear me? I will not lose you out there."

 

  Only even more upset, Erestor tore away from his father and made another attempt of leaving but then froze, with wide eyes when he saw the creature leading the mass of armies and demons right down the shattered street of his neighborhood.

 

It was no orc and no Balrog. It was an elf and one whose face he knew.

When Maeglin felt Erestor's terrified, unbelieving gaze in his back, he turned to him, only for a last cruel, toothy grin, then he lazily winked at one of the fire-haloed bastards by his side who promptly turned and ran towards them, bright orange whip singing.

 

  "No!"

Erestor made it as far as back to the living room and half-way to the table, past his horrified parents, to try and get his brother's helpless shape, to get his whole family out of here before they could succumb to his own stupidity, to his blindness, to his decision not to speak up when he should have a year ago.

After a single crack of the whip, the ramshackle wood and withered rock of his home collapsed down on him.

 

  I told you, scribe, the voice whispered in his dazed mind while he tried to breathe through the cough of dust and the ribs puncturing his lung, to make out through the darkness trying to choke him the deformed and blood-covered silhouettes of his family. Life does not give second chances.

 

  Until Erestor woke up in the refuge that would be his new home for a while, and they told him it had been Glorfindel who had pulled him from the ruins of his house before he could share his family's fate, he was almost tempted to believe it.

Chapter Text

 

 

T.A. 3021/Fo.A. 1

 

 

 

"I'm late, ada, forgive me."

A mug of morning tea in his hand, Aragorn joined Elrond on his private terrace where breakfast should have started an hour ago. A few years back, he might have been more embarrassed about the little slight but even someone whose wedding had taken place thousands of years ago hopefully knew quite well that you always had to make the best of a few days off. Especially someone with as many duties as the two of them had.

"Arwen and I took the liberty of sleeping in," he added when a critical glance wandered over his half-open, wrinkled tunic, the mess that was his hair. "We don't get a lot of chances for that in the Citadel."

 

  His stepfather did, understandably, not care much about the reasons why Aragorn's wife and he had got little sleep tonight and spared him a comment. He just put a plate with leftover pieces of fruit between them on the railing, for a quick necessary snack before another day of catching up with old friends in the village would wait.

"As you are alone, I assume, my daughter is at least taking the time to change clothes and find a hairbrush then." The fine wrinkles around Elrond's eyes grew deeper with mirth while Aragorn had the decency to blush. This was a holiday, the last chance to visit most of Arwen's and his family before they would leave Middle-earth in autumn, and this was their home; there was no need for an overabundance of etiquette here. Not even in the Lord's palace that was growing increasingly silent and deserted these days anyway.

 

  "Not exactly." Aragorn nodded towards Elrond's garden where there was a very well-known silhouette in white joining a small group of elves sitting around the koi pond.

 

All of them were doing their best to keep the toddlers in their middle from paying the large, white, and orange fish a too-close visit.

 

"Just making sure, everyone's safe. I'm a little disappointed, ada. I could have bet, if someone kidnaps my firstborn right from under my nose, you'd be involved. Family tradition and all."

 

  The little twitch around Elrond's left eye at the rude innuendo was enough payback for his foster father's teasing remarks, as far as Aragorn was concerned.

"Your traveling companions have the situation well under control. As long as your son doesn't try to live up to his father's deeds and falls asleep in a hot spring, you have nothing to worry about."

 

  "You are never letting that go, will you?" A shiver that was very old crept down Aragorn's arms.

He took a second to make extra sure, his best elf friend down there had his arm firmly around Eldarion's little body, seeing as how curiously the boy tried to creep closer to the clear surface, reaching out for the quickly approaching animals who looked like they could swallow him whole.

He had been older back then, and Eldarion would have little chances to escape his family's watchful eyes between the secure walls of the King's house in Minas Tirith, but if his son had about half the adventurous explorer spirit of even one of his parents, they would indeed need to keep a good eye on him once he could walk. One family member almost drowning before they'd even been three years old was enough for a millennium.

"Mother often told me, she was surprised when it was you, bringing me home that night. Lord Glorfindel, Erestor, Elladan, and Elrohir had combed the whole valley three times already."

 

  "I knew where to look." First, it didn't sound like Elrond wanted to say anything else about it. There was a tight expression about his thin lips that Aragorn couldn't quite place, regarding a story that had happened so long ago and actually ended harmlessly enough.

"Your mother wasn't faring well when you came here. Though the prophecy had warned her about your father's possible death, it hit her very hard. We hardly could get her to leave bed for a while. She loved you dearly but she had hardly the strength to take care of you in the first few months. You reminded her of him too much. You were very little," he added with a lenient nod, seeing Aragorn's confused frown.

"Mannish minds are fragile at that age. You wouldn't know. And after that incident in the hot spring, it quickly became better. But what you were seeking that day in the baths wasn't the water or the fish, Estel. It was warmth. Without the comfort of closeness, a soul can freeze to death in the middle of August."

 

  "People were talking about you." A slightly fresher but still very vague memory flashed in Aragorn's mind, of a certain Chief Advisor clearing his throat in annoyance, of chuckles from a group of soldiers when Aragorn had entered the Hall of Fire in the middle of a strategic meeting, just to show his foster father an eagle he'd carved from a piece of wood with his teacher. Elrond had rewarded him with a big hug and not let go of him for the rest of that conversation with his warriors.

"When I grew older, they told me, most elves don't require or seek a lot of physical contact except with closest family members."

 

  "You were my family. You still are," Elrond said shortly, and that much was still true in spite of all grief and all regret parting them due to Arwen's decision of choosing Aragorn's folk over her own.

"And you might remember I'm only Half-elven myself. Things in my family were never quite traditional as long as I can remember. My brother and I learned very early that a touch of love is sometimes the only thing to mend the pieces of a broken soul." Now it was impossible to ignore, this old grief weighing down on his foster father's slender shoulders, the slight tremble in his hands before he quickly folded them on the sun-heated marble of the railing.

A glance of thankfulness met Aragorn's when he reached for those slightly too-cold hands and squeezed them gently.

It wasn't always that his foster father was in the mood to talk about things so long in the past, but Aragorn felt, this was a story he wanted to share. Being around his daughter's offspring at least for a little while before they would go their separate ways, parted until the world might end one day, had clearly brought up a lot of memories of when Elrond himself had barely been able to talk and walk. And not all of them were evil.

 

  "Tell me."

 

 

 

 

 

F.A. 538

 

 

 

 

 

 

"You are not leaving. Not without one of us."

 

  Elrond had not exactly expected to make it out of the door without triggering any kind of alarm but that he didn't even get past their kidnapper's living room before Maglor blocked his way with an exasperated sigh would have been frustrating and irritating every other day.

Right now, it was nothing but a life-threatening obstacle.

"Get out of my way!" he snapped, out of his mind with worry and self-blame, blind with rage. Rage about this whole helpless situation, on the brothers who had taken them without ever asking them, on his parents who had left them alone without looking back, on his own missing height and lack of strength to just push the Fëanorian aside. Rage on the whole damn world, and on Elros, maybe, the most. "I need to …"

That was where he needed to stop because Elros had made him swear not to tell, but Elros was no longer here, Elros was somewhere lying out there in the garden, in the cold, maybe dying, just because Elrond had not stopped him …

 

  He didn't need to say much, apparently. Maglor's haggard face turned another shade paler when he looked past Elrond, searching for his brother's almost identical shape in the dusty, empty hallway and unable to find it, obviously. "What happened? Where is he, Elrond?"

 

  Maybe Elrond would have answered now because the other seemed seriously concerned for a change, and also Elrond had not forgotten that it had been the younger of the brothers who had wrapped his twin brother and him in blankets and given them food and told them, he'd take care of them, in a night when it had seemed like the world would end. They were still prisoners here, of course, not even allowed to pass the main gate without company, but at least they were well-taken-care-of prisoners.

Unfortunately, that was the moment when Maglor's brother decided to see what all that screaming was about, and Elrond started to fight Maglor's iron-hard grip on his arm again, trying to duck away between his legs to finally get outside before it would be too late.

"As if you care!"

 

  "You would not be here if I didn't." Maglor's melodic voice trembled with something almost like regret, but he still didn't let go, and to Elrond's horror, Maedhros' far taller and broader shape stormed past them, remaining hand on the handle of his sword, to see for himself what it was outside that had got Elrond so upset.

 

  "No, don't ..." Both his fear shook him, and pain, from trying to break free from Maglor's hold once more which only ended with his arm being twisted against the joint accidentally. "Please, Lord Maglor, he meant no harm, I promise. He just … he wanted to get away. To get help for us."

 

  "There is no help from the darkness out there, little one," Maglor said tiredly but at least finally straightened up and led Elrond to the door, without letting go of him though. "And neither of you would survive being out there alone for even an hour. How did he even make it this far?"

 

  "He …" Elrond stopped because suddenly this whole thing sounded like the stupidest thing in the whole world. "He wanted me to come, but I was too afraid of the jump …"

 

  "He did wh… Please tell me, this is a bad prank." Finally understanding the gravitas of the situation, Maglor swept Elrond into his arms without much ado and hurried outside a lot faster, towards the spot between a few withered trees right under the twins' chambers on the first floor. "And did it not occur to you to stop him?"

 

  "I wanted to." Shivering in his thin nightgown, Elrond hid his face reluctantly against Maglor's neck and found, surprised, that the icy needles pricks from the beginning snowstorm were a lot easier to bear like that.

He also didn't need to fear anyone seeing his tears when the memory of the last time Elros and him had seen their parents, stabbed into his heart like one of those blades the brothers had used to kill so many of their people. "Elros thought, the Valar could make him a bird, like nana …"

 

  But whoever of those beings far across the sea was responsible for orphaned Half-elven seemed not to be paying attention today.

 

  Lord Maedhros was coming to meet them before they could reach that small dent in the fresh snow cover where a pool of blood had formed, carrying Elros' half-unconscious body on his arms, scarred face unmoving as ever. Only the harsh grimace around those split lips had grown even darker.

 

  Elrond had no time to fear it because he saw immediately that Elros' left leg stood away from his hip in an unnatural angle, and where his breeches and his boot had torn, a terrible, fractured piece of white stuck out from his shin, leaking blood on the rotten wooden planks of their prison when Maedhros put Elros down on the ground. He did it surprisingly carefully, and yet, a faint moan came from Elros' pale lips that tried to break Elrond's heart.

"Kano. A healer." It was one of the first times that Elrond actually heard Maglor's brother talk, and it sounded nothing like the demanding aggression that Maedhros had once met his mother with at all. There was tiredness, almost something like sadness in his tone.

 

  "None left," Maglor reminded him with gritted teeth, still holding Elrond too tightly for him to jump to the ground and try to help his brother, though he had no idea how, anyway. "We have to ride to the next settlement."

 

  "In this storm? Forget it. When the sun comes up. Get me a piece of wood and rope. And alcohol."

 

  "Come, Elrond, you need to help me. You want to help your brother, right?" Maglor still sounded shaken, and he was still nice enough not to mention the tears of worry running down Elrond's cheeks.

 

  Also, he was right, so Elrond supposed he could trust him for the moment. Not that he had a choice.

Didn't mean he had to trust the red-haired monster that had slain half his village, though.

"What is he doing? Will he hurt him?" Before they went around the corner, he could see Maedhros kneel down next to Elros' almost unmoving shape. And he didn't like how the older elf put his hands on his brother's ruined leg. At all.

 

  "I don't think you want to know," Maglor answered even quieter. "He does what he needs to do. And he's the only one who can right now. Our brothers had broken bones more often than we could count when we grew up. Maedhros was far more often with them – with us – then than our parents. Some things, you learn, with time, I guess."

 

  "Did your parents leave you too?" Elrond knew he shouldn’t ask. It was none of his business, and he certainly wasn't curious. But in the books that Elrond and he sometimes stole from the small library that their kidnappers kept, it said that you should know your enemy. Maybe that was a good day to start.

 

  Besides, Maglor suddenly looked truly, deeply saddened.

"In a way, yes, though they had as little choice as your mother and father did. Look in that chest over there, Elrond. A vial with clear fluid and as many white sheets as you can carry."

Maglor put him down to bend down over the stack of firewood himself, without even checking he wouldn’t run off again, and in some twisted, wrong way, it made Elrond proud.

 

  And where should he have gone?

 

  They were only halfway back when a sickening crack tore the silence of the almost-deserted stronghold and an ear-piercing wail that nearly made Elrond drop everything he was carrying.

"Elros!" The panic rising again, he ran off, ignoring Maglor's shout, but froze as soon as his brother and his companion's brother came within sight again, the helplessness rearising when he saw Elros thrashing uselessly in Maedhros' so much longer arms, writhing in pain on the floor and trying to get away from the elf who tried to help him – at least that, Elrond could believe for the moment, seeing as that ugly fracture wasn't deforming his brother's body that badly anymore.

 

  The wound was still bleeding though, and though he knew certainly even less about healing than Maglor, Elrond was very aware that they had to do something against that quickly, and if Elros didn't hold still, they couldn't.

 

  He tried it himself, first, just putting everything down he held and falling to his knees next to his brother, trying to wrap his arms around him, but he wasn't strong enough.

 

And Elros was delirious in the unbearable pain, his skin heated. He didn't even seem to hear his words.

 

  Maglor pushed him away without even asking, ignoring his protest, and pulled Elros close to his body in a terribly practiced-looking grip, immobilizing his arms with his own, and his good leg with his own crossed over it, ignoring the scratches and bruises that Elros' struggling left on his arms and neck in the process. Then he started to sing.

 

  More fear took Elrond then because last time he had heard Maglor sing, people had been bleeding from their ears and dying around him, brought to their knees by merely this sound.

 

  But to his utter surprise, after a few words only, Elros stopped his mad fight against their kidnapper, blinking up at Maglor, dazed and still trembling, big tears running down his cheeks.

When Maedhros approached him again, a long piece of wood in his hands, he flinched and screamed out, trying to rob away once more, but then just whimpered when Maglor grabbed both of his hands with his larger one, rubbing them soothingly. A bit from the coldness of the snow and his wet clothes seemed to leave his too pale skin. Still sniffling and panting, he looked down on that surprisingly gentle hand and turned his head to hide his face in Maglor's tunic, not unlike Elrond had earlier, with a shiver but unmoving this time as Maedhros reached for his wounded leg again.

 

  Maglor never stopped caressing Elros' small back and singing into his ear while Maedhros put his leg into a splint and then left to get them both something to sleep, he murmured, without anyone having to ask him to do so.

 

  Only now Elrond dared to scoot closer to the two of them again. He was too tired to fight when Maglor put his arm around him, and too busy, wiping away Elros' tears and calling him stupid and telling him, he would be alright, very soon.

Maybe he didn’t even want to fight that still cautious touch on his tear-crusted cheek and his hair and the warmth that slowly crept back into his own body now that he knew, his brother would heal.

He didn't know why the brothers were doing this – surely, they didn't need them in one piece for whatever they had planned for them –, but since he couldn't change anything about their situation, maybe it was moot to try and find out.

"How long will you keep us, Master Maglor?" he asked, because this was as good a time as any, and with his face hidden in that soft, worn-out tunic again, at least he didn't need to see the lie in the Fëanorian's eyes if there was one.

 

  "Until you are ready to fly on your own, little bird," Maglor said.

It sounded an awful lot like the truth.

Chapter Text

T.A. 3020

 

 

As soon as their last guests had left, Tauriel went to see her leader. This time, she wouldn't let him send her away.

 

The night seemed to have been short not only for Elessar and his wife. She found Legolas on the bed he had built in this talan for his wife and him, big enough not only for the two of them but for half a Fëanorian litter of children if need be. A piece of furniture that had to feel all the more cold and empty due to the knowledge of the newest developments right now. He had his eyes closed which could both have been alarming and completely normal in his current condition, so she tried to be quiet, and to wipe out at least some of the traces that the hectic last few weeks had left in here.

 

There were a lot of bottles around of which Tauriel hoped were Thranduil's from last night but somehow doubted it. She emptied them out of the window and put a dozen books in the almost floor-to-ceiling shelf that would not be of any use in these chambers anytime soon.

It was only when she carried a couple of chairs back to the dinner table that were littering the hallways, with stacked clothes and spare arrows on them, that she was addressed. The aggressive hiss almost let her cargo slip from her hands.

 

"Will you please stop moving things around?"

 

It was that wording, finally, that let her see through the system, chaotic as it was, that Legolas had apparently already built himself in here in the short time since the Emyn Arnen Siege. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize …"

She stopped her stuttering, becoming angry herself when Legolas got up and pushed past her with tight lips, an unused arrow shaft in his hand to make his way to the kitchen without those little signposts she'd just accidentally robbed him off.

 

Which would not have happened if her leader just for once in his damn life would be talking about weaknesses instead of venting on people when they couldn't see through them.

 

"You know you could just have told me what's wrong with you. Preferably before everything we have here almost went to the void."

 

"Just trying to uphold tradition between us. As far as I remember, you did not tell me about the dwarf before you almost died on me either. Or how bad the trouble between ada and you really was, before you ran on me."

That made it official: She would never wake him up from a nap again. Sleep-deprived Legolas was exhausting. A sleep-deprived blind Legolas was almost a big a bastard as his father.

 

"What is this, a contest about who made the worst mistakes in the last century or so?" Tauriel leaned against the doorframe with her arms crossed to watch, uncomfortably, as Legolas was searching his way around the room. If he'd just let her know what he needed, she could have helped, but she had a feeling if she offered that now, she'd end up with a bruised rib or two.

"Because if it is, I'm pretty sure your father already won."

 

With a sharp noise of splintering glass, Legolas put the bottle down that he'd only just managed to grab, and Tauriel was thankful for her foresight of getting rid of the contents. "This again, really? You betrayed him. Even if I had the patience or the time, I would be in no position to stop you two from pissing each other off every chance you get. So I'm only going to say this one more time before I'll have to ask you to leave my settlement: Stop disrespecting my father in my own house."

 

"There was a time when I didn't need to. You did a great job with that yourself."

Unable to watch someone looking so helpless any longer who had once taught her how to handle her first bow right, how to ride without a saddle and roam the peril-filled woods of their old home at night without a sound, Tauriel hurried over to the counter and poured Legolas a glass from a bottle she'd overlooked.

A deep wrinkle of anger between those dark brows, an irritated tremble in her friend's strong jawline that she had learned to be cautious of early in their relationship, had her pause before she could thrust the drink into his hand. She decided to rather empty it herself though she hadn't been part of this dysfunctional family long enough, actually, to enjoy clouding her mind before breakfast already.

 

"We both made many mistakes. But ada was the only one who was there for me every time the darkness came. He took the lead when I really needed it, instead of treating me like I couldn't be left alone in my own bedroom for two hours without breaking my neck."

 

Tauriel showed a slow shrug before remembering he couldn't see that, and let herself sink on the dust-covered kitchen table, more and more at a loss for words. "It wasn't like you gave anyone else a chance to try and support you, you know."

 

"Ada doesn't try. He just does. Maybe that's the kind of person I need in my life." As if to underline his words, Legolas reached for said bottle Tauriel had left right next to his arm to empty it, not bothering with a glass.

 

It was an image that hurt, but she was beginning to think, she was indeed the wrong person to do anything about it. Maybe they'd grown apart too much for that in her time in Imladris. If not, this catastrophe in Emyn Arnen would never have happened.

"Yes, because shutting out the rest of the world since we came here worked out so well."

 

"I never wanted you to be in danger." That sounded sincere, and he didn't tell her for the first time.

 

Which didn't make it better. "I don't fear death and hurt, Legolas. When did you start forgetting that?"

 

"Maybe the same year you did." And just like that, he said it, the reproach he'd always claimed he didn't feel. Surprisingly, it was a relief. They'd made fools out of each other long enough.

 

Still, realizing how little understanding one of her best friends really had for her turning away from blood and grief made that sudden rift between them even deeper, just when they were all supposed to mend instead.

"I know you would have needed me in the final battles, but becoming a healer was the only thing I had left at that point. I didn't run from the war. I ran from your father. And from you. "

 

"I didn't send you away." Legolas sounded genuinely surprised and offended.

 

"Not everything is about you, Your Highness. I could no longer look you in the eye after feeling like I had failed not only someone from another folk whom I could have felt love for in another life and Age but our whole realm."

There was coldness inside her for a moment, and then pain, like breathing dragon fire, or choking on your own tears, holding the dying body of someone you cared for in your arms. Finding unexpected happiness in her new home and equipped with a heart big enough to let more than one flame of affection live in it, sometimes, Tauriel forgot it had not even been a century.

 

"Well, you're rid of that particular problem now, are you not?" Maybe Legolas felt the never-forgotten agony in her though they had never had much of a bond. At least he tried to sound more amicable now.

It didn't make his words hurt any less. Or watching his hands clench around the sharp-carved edges of that counter until his knuckles cracked audibly.

 

He didn't look like he could accept as much as a hand on his shoulder right now so Tauriel stayed where she was, no matter how heavy it was on her heart, witnessing him despair about his condition like this. "It will pass, Legolas. You said so yourself."

 

"In times of war, nothing is certain."

 

Tauriel wondered if she should remind him that the war had been over for more than a year but decided, she'd assumed enough for one day. For Legolas and his father, and his wife, in some way, the fighting had never ended.

"I can think of some things that are." Most of these issues she had no place meddling with, but at least between the two of them, things should no longer be awkward. Approaching him again, without hesitation this time, she loosened his painfully hard grip from the massive oak wood and took his hands firmly in hers, not letting go when he tried to back away.

 

"I can't …"

 

"What are you afraid of?" She only stepped closer to him, gently burying her hand in the mess that was his gold blond hair to pull his head against her shoulder, so he didn't have to fear anyone watching, not even her. "We're alone and safe. You can be weak with me. You used to know that. You used to know I'm your hand, arm, shoulder, and blade when you need it."

 

It didn't feel like he believed her, not an inch of the tension slipped from his shoulders. "Not in this, Tauriel. You don't understand."

 

"Make me."

 

Maybe that possibility really hadn't occurred to him so far. When he lifted his head, she thought to see a glimmer of faint hope in his clouded eyes for the first time, hope that he wouldn't have to get through these trying next weeks – months, maybe – alone. "Open your thoughts for me."

 

Tauriel hesitated. Actually, neither of them was particularly gifted in mind speak, and they'd long stopped being so close to such things working on instinct as it had happened, rarely, in their youth. Not to mention that Legolas had shut off his soul even to his wife ever since the war. But most of the worst of crisis situations that had shaken him since then had now come to an end. Maybe if they both dropped their shields for once .... She was afraid of it because they said, there was nothing worse for an elf to physically endure than what had befallen Legolas, but she did it anyway. Especially because of that.

A choked gasp came from her lips when the embodiment of pure blackness engulfed her. She tried to get away, instinctively, and stumbled and fell immediately because she'd forgotten, she'd put that damn chair right there behind her earlier. The sudden complete lack of input made her sick to the bone. She tried to reach out when she'd got back to her feet, but her breath was racing in her chest, and her ears failed to make out where the other person even in such a small room was. She thought she was trying to say something, but the sound of her own voice was foreign and far too loud in her ears. Another swaying step towards nothing drew a quiet scream from her because there was suddenly only the waist-high wall below the opened kitchen window in front of her, and with her balance completely off, she was absolutely certain for a moment that she would fall right through, crash from the highest tree of that whole damn settlement …

 

Of course, she didn't fall because a hand that had lost nothing of its strength around her arm pulled her right back.

 

With a relieved sigh from her lips and the little shock subsiding, color and light bled back into the world.

"How did you …?"

 

"Using every sense that's still there," Legolas answered flatly, not letting go of her when he felt her tremble slightly still. "The good thing about all this is that the others get so much stronger when one of them leaves you."

Only after Tauriel had sat down with a rueful sound, he walked back to the counter, and this time, she could see the very deliberate, precisely measured way he took his steps. How his fingertips were tracing the shelf and then a bowl with tea herbs that was not only marked with Tengwar letters but with words carved into the wood. A controlling grip swiveling water from the barrel in the corner in a mug before it heated on the fire, to make sure there wasn't so much in it, it would burn him. An hourglass filled with noisy, fine gravel to know how long the tea needed to brew.

It all looked like an awfully well-trained routine.

 

"How often?"

 

"It started at the turn of the millennium of Men." Now that she finally started to get a real idea how things were, he was talking, still not happily but at least willingly. "Stupid accident during an attack of a couple of Haradrim. Every two or three years, it comes back, usually only for a few hours."

 

"You need a lot more healing this time than just your sight. Give yourself time." With a brief caress over his wrist, she took the mug from him and let the soothing effect of the herbs chase the last of fear away.

 

"I don't have time," Legolas flared up, the rage back already. "Now less than ever. I almost ran this settlement to the ground with my stubbornness and my thirst for revenge. If it is not to fail for good, I need to get things back on track around here. How am I supposed to do this when I cannot even find a direction?"

 

Putting the tea aside, Tauriel wrapped her arms around him "How about you start by finally accepting you're not alone?"

 

"I've rarely felt more alone in my life." It was him she could feel shake now, and this was one terror she couldn't take from him. Until they would hear from East Lórien, they could only wait.

 

Tauriel tried her best to sound more confident than she was, after everything she'd seen from their enemies in the last few days. "She'll be alright. They'll both be. The three of you, one day. But Legolas … Maybe it's time for you and me both to stop running. You have the chance not to repeat your father's mistakes. I cannot heal your soul, that's her job. If you finally pull your head from your behind and let her, that is."

 

At least that pout looked a little bit like the elfling Tauriel had once used to fight over the last berry on a bush in his father's gardens with before it turned into a plenty self-ironic grimace. "I've been unbearable in this last year, wasn't I?"

 

"If I answer that, I'll earn myself another banishment by your family." Tauriel emptied the last of her tea, with a little grimace, and made a note to build Legolas an easily accessible rack for spice tonight. This really needed some honey in it.

"Come on, the others are waiting. We've got a couple of messages from people in Gondor who are still interested in our partnership and help. I'll read them to you while we eat. And our healers have returned from Emyn Arnen. You need to tell them where to go next. There's still a lot to do in this country."

 

"You really think I'm still the right person to do that?" At least that didn't sound so hopeless anymore, just mildly surprised, and skeptical.

 

Tauriel fished a leather tie from her belt without much ado and stepped behind him to make something at least halfway presentable of his hair. "No, but we are. Together. I can't be your sword any longer, but I can be your eyes when your father or your wife are not there. Will you let me do that for you?"

 

Legolas reached out his hand to her instead of an answer and let her lead him downstairs.

Chapter Text

Fo.A. 2

 

 

Elrond thought it was a fishbone caught in the wrong pipe first.

 

That had happened before, in fact; he loved his foster father dearly and had come to be just as fond of Maitimo’s husband in those rare meetings they’d managed to have since Elrond had finally made his journey west. But neither of those two could cook for their life. And they allowed too few guests up here in their little hilltop lair to change anything about that, apparently.

 

Luckily, things were starting to calm down in Tol Eressëa, so Elrond wasn’t exclusively busy catching up with other new and old family members or spending all day in bed with his wife, to make up for even more that he’d been missing in the last few centuries. Therefore, he was determined to increase the frequency of his rides up here to this small but very cozy little hut by the coast that not many people even knew about and give his foster father a hand with things.

 

With everything that Maitimo especially had been through and had done in his life, Elrond could very well understand, he needed his time in reclusiveness, to get used bit by bit to more company than his beloved’s again. Also, to finally start to accept in his heart that there wasn’t hate and mistrust for his family waiting wherever he went these days.

 

In here, the past was a lot more present than in all the places of Aman Elrond had had a chance to see since his arrival. He wanted to help bury it, and his own melancholy and yearning for a world that would no longer have the elves with it, while he was on it. If that included teaching two elves who had a couple of Ages on him to get by on more than meat and fish grilled over the fireplace, at least they would have a little fun between hugs and tears.

And maybe at their next dinner, he wouldn’t have to choke down such a sad excuse of a too-dark crusted filet, the bitter taste of which only very faintly reminded that it had started its life as a bass originally. Not to mention the sloppy preparation.

 

No, Elrond wasn’t awfully surprised that Maitimo’s husband on the other side of the table poked around on his plate quite dully, grimacing from time to time and even trying to cough up some leftover bone at some point.

 

Only when that quiet coughing fit wouldn’t stop, Elrond realized, Findekáno’s too-tense position, the conspicuous distance he kept to his chair's high backrest and how he shifted his weight constantly as if there was something giving him pain, did not result from an upset stomach or maybe from a little arguing about kitchen duties earlier.

 

In a habit hard to lose, he put his cutlery down – not without relief – and took a closer look over the edge of his wine glass at the other elf’s face.

 

Elrond cursed silently when he realized, in the weak light of a few torches, he'd not spotted the greyish tone of Findekáno’s dark skin immediately. Not to mention that Nolofinwë's son usually put more than just moderate efforts in his appearance, even if it was just for occasional visits to his parents’ house, and for his husband. Elrond should already have paused at the sight of his hair hanging loosely down his shoulders, not a single gold-studded braid in it.

 

At this point, he knew the two of them better than to pry openly, but that he didn’t have a lot to do these days didn’t mean, he could just forget about a calling he’d devoted himself to all his life.

“Do you need help getting that bone out, Findekáno? You’ll end up with a sore throat if you keep that cough up.”

 

“No bone. Probably just a bit of pepper where it doesn’t belong,” Findekáno got out between two coughs, with not very convincing grin.

When Maitimo leaned closer to him, frowning, making a move to pet his husband’s back, Findekáno quickly got up and waved his empty glass. “Stop fussing, I’ll live. I’ll just get some water.”

Rolling his eyes at his husband, slightly unnerved but very lovingly, he turned away and then startled, his free hand instinctively moving to the side of his chest, at the same moment when Maitimo gasped in shock and Elrond jumped up, the rest of that meal forgotten for good.

 

"Finno, what did you do?" The irritation in Maitimo's bright voice was clearly mostly directed at himself for not noticing earlier how off things were. The freckles on his sharp cheekbones stood out from his suddenly very pale skin when he hurried over to his husband, just in time to catch him when another coughing, far louder and deeper, now that Findekáno did no longer try to suppress it, almost brought him to his knees.

 

The tremors shaking Findekáno's lithe shape visibly made that pain in his side worse of which Elrond now had a very clear idea where it came from. It also had that deep-red stain forming on the back of his bright blue tunic quickly grow bigger.

 

"Finno, talk to me!" The panic was growing in Maitimo by the second. His hands were shaking so badly suddenly that he could hardly help Elrond lead Findekáno to the sofa in the corner, and cut that tunic off his husband's body.

 

Findekáno was still too busy coughing for an answer, a wet cough that started to leave drops of blood on the grey leather of the couch. A development no longer surprising once they'd turned the patient on his side and spotted the bandage soaked through with red that someone must have put on him at some point today. Judging by the amateurish fit on the lower half of his ribcage, hardly even covering all of the nasty cut there, the margins of the wound alarmingly swollen and red already, it had probably been himself.

 

"Who was that?" The rage of an exploding sun darkened Maitimo's grey eyes. His hand clenched almost painfully around Findekáno's arm as he tried to hold his husband still while Elrond ripped the useless bandage off of him and felt down both his wound and his heaving chest, wrecked by far too irregular breaths.

"Did you run into Tyelko again? Or did something happen at the harbors? Tell me, Finno, please …"

Elrond had been right with his earlier musings about these two not being quite ready to properly rejoin society yet, he found. If people had seen Maitimo like this, ready to pull out a forbidden weapon from somewhere and hunt down whoever had dared to lay hand on his husband before he even knew where to look, there would have been a lot of nightmares in these lands tonight.

 

"The question is what, not who," he remarked, with as much calmness as he could muster up himself in the light of such a serious injury, one of a kind he had not treated in a very long time. A sharp nod down towards that ugly wound, far too ragged for a blade and carrying an unmistakable scent of stale salt water, along with a leftover piece of alga or two caught in the raw flesh, now had Maitimo understand, too, that there was no one to blame for this little catastrophe. Only his husband's damn stubbornness.

"Needle-fish?" he asked tensely, seeking Findekáno's tear-stained gaze and finding with growing concern that it was becoming clouded by the growing lack of air.

 

How Findekáno cast his eyes down, hiding his face against his husband's stomach, was enough of an answer. No new reason for trouble between the houses, no. Just an aggressive animal in the wrong place at the wrong time when Findekáno had swum out to hunt their dinner. When it came to weaknesses, sadly, Findekáno turned into a pufferfish, just like his husband. Usually, not out of pride or shame for his errors like Maitimo tended to, though.

"Didn't want you to worry …" he somehow got out, the movement of his lips leaving red stains on his husband's tunic, more of them when his lungs sent up another protest, the right one trying in vain to expand the way it should, with air filling a cavity where it didn't belong.

 

"Well, that worked splendidly, didn't it? You need to hold him still, ada."

Under different circumstances, Elrond would have called another member of two of his healer circle here, but the wheezing sound that Findekáno's breathing had become and how one side of his chest lagged behind, not moving as quickly as the other, let him know, he didn't have that time. He would have to try and remember that right song and trust in his abilities to get its effect where it needed to be.

 

He expected Maitimo to lean down heavier over Findekáno's writhing shape and paused in surprise when his foster father lay down by his husband's side instead, one of his far longer legs wrapped tightly around his lover's thighs, a gentle right hand pressed against his back – far from the wound – to hold Findekáno close to his chest. The other started to caress a soothing rhythm through Findekáno's sweat-matted hair.

He was singing his own song for him, Elrond noticed, almost inaudible, and there was no healing of the body in it, because that was a gift that far too many elves of Maitimo's generation had given away in their violent endeavors. But the words in a language Elrond had not spoken much after leaving his foster fathers seemed to reach Findekáno's mind, leading him away from the burning and the tightness in his chest until he buried his face with a quiet sob against Maitimo's neck, no longer fighting his grip even involuntarily.

 

Only now, Elrond dared to put his own hands to that fragile-looking back, left and right from that wound, and call the white, the good magic he had been exploring all his life, to his muscles, his fingertips, his voice. It was a song of penetration and pressure and cleaning, and if even one of those notes went half an inch to the wrong side of his patient's chest, he might as well have stabbed him himself with that fish knife over there and let Mandos have another try at piecing Findekáno together.

If it had been hopeless, maybe, he would have. But he knew damn well how badly his foster father had missed his husband when they'd both been in the Halls and how much he needed him right now. There was never a telling how long a soul would rest in those Halls, and Elrond feared what it would do to Maitimo's still so unstable mind if his husband and he had to start all over before they'd even finished piecing their life back together.

So he went to work, with his eyes closed, and cleaned that wound before it could do even more damage, and then he sang some more, until the small chest under his hands finally started to move up and down the way it should be and he could sing that narrow but so highly dangerous hole in his patient's body close for good.

 

By that time, Findekáno had mercifully fallen asleep or blacked out, and that could only do him well right now, so Elrond got up with his own knees plenty shaking now, to find new bandages and a blanket for the next few hours of healing that he would no longer be needed for.

 

A large, remade hand on his wrist had him stop. Maitimo looked up at him from reddened eyes, looking for words in his head that would net yet come. This was not the time yet to talk about things between them, about Elrond's youth and the many fights the two of them had had about his future profession. They had much time left to recall, to rebuild, to regret and to regrow.

For now, a simple "Thank you" was all Elrond needed to hear.

 

He just nodded briefly. "Get him to my circle tomorrow to make sure, it will be alright."

Already on his way to the bathroom, he took a look back over his shoulder, one eyebrow raised. "And just for the record, next time, I'm making dinner."

 

Maitimo had no objections.

Chapter Text

T.A. 3019

 

 

This was not orc-doing.

Galadriel sounded surprised, a notion rare for his wife. The irony wasn't lost to Celeborn that whenever that did happen, it mostly had to do with a certain far-removed relative of his.

 

No. The fire was too limited in region and time for that.

He took a moment they did actually not have to stop by one of the hundreds of burned-down trunks they were passing on their way to some secret camp that their Woodland kin had supposedly built around here somewhere. Slipping two fingertips between the charred and split bark, he felt for what was left intact inside of the perished oak tree, counting rings and assessing the texture. "Old and sick, breathing out its life long before it burned."

A test with a few of the other plant corpses brought similar results.

 

There had been some collateral damage, yes. But the fire destroying these parts of the woods here a few days ago, an event that his wife and he had only been able to watch, helplessly, from afar, had not killed most of the saplings and young bushes around here. Those were forming a dried but still living trail of hope between death and ruin, breathing arduously the smoke still thick in the air, roots reaching deeper between the red and black blood soiling the earthy ground to survive.

And then the animals. There was almost no voice beneath those young survivors; even the ground felt hollow to walk on. Yet there were no cadavers around, not even bones that orcs would have left of their meals. Someone had sent most things good and healthy away from here before death had come.

No force of nature that was not under the control of spell and song would have acted so deliberately.

 

There were not a lot of elves still living in Mirkwood who carried such powers within them.

 

The King started the fire himself.

Celeborn caught up with Galadriel with a clueless headshake, only more worried now what they would find once they could locate the elvish survivors of this Battle under the trees. Once more he wished, communication between their realms hadn't been so sparse due to their stupid, childish animosities in the last few centuries. Even now when the world had threatened to break around them for more than a year, they couldn't tell if they had been too late or not, beating back the attacks on Lórien far enough to cross the river and help out their kin.

 

Celeborn thought – hoped – that they would have heard if Sauron's armies had triumphed in this part of these lands. Especially now that the Free Folks had overthrown their enemies in Mordor at last.

 

Whatever dark creature had survived there and was not ready for peace would surely already be on their way here, towards a last fort of the enemy still standing – well, not for much longer, if Galadriel and he had anything to do with it.

 

But they couldn’t tell for sure.

 

If the losses that the Wood-elves had without a doubt suffered, just like Galadriel and he had, had got to the King so badly that he'd forsaken every hope and reason … The orcs would not have left much of Thranduil's people if their leader had failed them, doing their enemy's job for him.

 

He must have lost his mind for good now. Why would he destroy his own home?

They had chosen not to talk safe for in their heads, keep their presence in this still dangerous area as quiet as their armor-heavy steps, but Celeborn could feel his wife's lenient smile in the gold and silver flow that was their wedding bond. He thought, if he'd been a couple of Ages younger, he might have blushed.

 

It was her family, having the reputation of traitors, outcasts, of being mad with greed for land and possession that wasn't theirs, and hate for all not born of Noldorin descent. But on some days, Galadriel still managed to throw Celeborn's own prejudices in his face without having to do as much as raise a brow at him.

Not destruction. Sacrifice. Cleansing. The orcs have burned with the trees. And when they regrow, they'll be free of their filth.

 

The firm braid she'd tied her almost floor-length hair into brushed against the back of his hand when he caressed her neck for a sweet moment of gratefulness and closeness. The last of anxiety and regret for not having been able to come here earlier slipped from his soul with the comfort of the last stars above in her sparkling eyes. The day would be breaking soon. They needed to hurry if they meant to catch up with their own troops at the dark fortress again in time.

But first, they needed to be certain.

You think he is alive then.

 

He's survived the Last Alliance, almost being eaten by a spider, living with the Necromancer next door for a millennium, and his son courting one of my kin. He will not succumb to the Dark Lord's forces now that the war is over. If there is anything to find in the house of Oropherion, it's style.

But there was something restless in the way, Galadriel's slender silhouette made its way between the undergrowth becoming thicker now as they entered the part of the woods unharmed from flame. A few thorns and branches reddened her skin where it was not covered by silver and leather before immediately fading again, but she hardly seemed to notice.

 

Then Celeborn spotted it too, almost unnoticeable movement in the green above, the faint creak of one or two bowstrings tensing before the warrior moving even more skillfully in the treetops than their own marchwardens seemed to recognize them.

They were not approached, for the Wood-elves knew well about their King's aversion to visitors of this kind. But the astonished, confused whispers arising in the air led them to their destination at last as the border guards ran ahead to pass the news of their arrival on.

There it was, indeed, just a few tents cleverly hidden by feet-high piles of wood and rock, clad in the silver of the night and wrapped in an eerie silence that Celeborn hoped came from most of the warriors having gone back to the Elvenking's Halls to regather and heal, not because most of them were no longer dwelling in these realms.

 

The only sound they could make out were quiet moans of distress from the biggest tent in the middle of the camp, and a harsh voice, shattering the last of concerns and doubts, drawing a quiet sigh of relief and a snort from Celeborn's lips.

Of course, he would already be busy again, barking orders at his people. It meant whatever had happened in this disastrous last battle, he was doing fine enough for a much-needed discussion of the situation even with someone he'd not wanted to meet for a whole Age.

 

That old enmity was nowhere to be solved yet, though, so Celeborn signaled his wife to wait in the shadows of a broad birch for the moment and stepped forward alone, revealing his face from under his hood and his solemn nod to the two guards waiting in front of his tent. He knew them from his occasional diplomatic visits to these lands – one of them had, in fact, already protected the King from Galadriel's insane cousins when their common former home had fallen – and didn't expect a lot of resistance when he asked to see the King.

 

All the more surprised he was when the very same dark-haired Sinda raised his hand in rejection, though looking decidedly uncomfortable to do so in the presence of someone high above his rank. "I will have to ask you to wait, milord, I'm afraid. He's not … decent."

 

"I have seen the King in states a lot worse than him wearing only his nightgown," Celeborn answered dryly.

He pushed past the soldier before the discussion could go on further but froze then.

 

Oh.

Thranduil was indeed not wearing an overabundance of clothes. Instead, half of his chest was covered in bandages that were slightly soaked through with yellow and red already. The healer sitting by his side with an expression of concern and pure exhaustion was busy, treating his left arm with ointment, touch, and song. It was covered in blisters, flesh raw and open, from below the shoulder almost to his wrist.

They must have given Thranduil a lot of pain-relieving herbs because his eyes were glassy, and he only seemed to notice his visitor when Celeborn gasped in shock. Even then, the glance from ocean blue eyes that hit him was mostly one of bone-deep tiredness and mild irritation, not the anger he was usually being met with when entering the King's lair.

Only a brief raise of a thick brow acknowledged him before Thranduil turned back to the advisor sitting on the other side of his bed to continue what was a slightly drug-slurred and unstructured but in the light of his wounds still surprisingly coherent rant about gaps in the defense around his palace that needed to be closed immediately. About forest roads that needed double patrols, now that countless creatures looking for revenge for their Dark Lord's defeat would leave Dol Guldur, lusting for blood.

They'd had their disagreements in the past, but Celeborn couldn't help but feel a lot of respect for his favorite enemy at that moment. Even on his deathbed, Thranduil would probably still be worrying about his people's safety before his own, and that was one of the few things that had always connected them.

 

"What did you do this time?" He pulled up a chair for himself, not waiting for an invitation, and watched with a shudder how the dark-skinned healer put her hands on the next of those gaping, festering holes that the heat had left on the King's body. He didn’t know if he should be impressed or disconcerted that Thranduil hardly even startled; then again, he wouldn't have traded an Age of numbness in the soul just for a little resilience to pain himself.

 

"What needed to be done." Which both confirmed Galadriel's assessment and said nothing at all, as Thranduil so often did, but maybe something in Celeborn's honestly compassionate frown was convincing enough because he rolled his eyes and added: "I needed to carry one of my men out. We were caught inside the fire ring for a few minutes. I'm still breathing, as you can see. Nothing to write a sad poem about."

 

"I can call one of my healers here," Celeborn offered, without much hope to achieve anything. Thranduil had already said no to that after that incident with the spider back then, and at that time, he'd admittedly been in a state a lot worse than from a few scars that would fade with time.

 

Except for an expression as if the King had bitten in a sour fruit, he wasn't even acknowledged.

Thranduil just turned back to his advisor to ask him in an increasingly annoyed tone why there were still half a dozen warriors in this camp that were needed far more out there in the woods before spiders, orcs and demons would eat what was left of their kin.

"Are you done gloating? Anything useful you came to contribute?" he asked pointedly between two insults. "Unlike some other folks in these realms, I still have a war to fight."

 

"The war is over, Oropherion." Knowing there would be no other way to get the King's attention at least for a minute, Celeborn reached out for Thranduil's good arm and held his wrist tight when the expected resistance came, making use of the weakness in this slightly compromised body. "All that is left to do now is clean up. Let me help you with that."

 

"Don't you think you're a little late for that? Again?"

Celeborn backed away voluntarily, because the last time he had seen this burning ice in the King's eyes, this paleness of pure, unbridled rage on his face, that had been after they'd buried the Thranduil's wife. After someone with a too big mouth among Celeborn's people had let the word go around that Galadriel had foreseen a possible doom over Mirkwood like this.

 

That had been a chain of very unfortunate events at that time that Celeborn had apologized for a lot more times than he cared to count. He had neither time nor patience to do the same once more, no matter what it was Thranduil thought Galadriel and him were responsible for this time.

"We had our own borders to protect in the war. But Lórien is safe now. So we want to make sure, your people will be as well. Have we not stood together on different sides of this river for long enough?"

 

"You should maybe have made the journey here when my son was a guest at your home, so I would not have to learn of rumors that he made it out of Moria unscathed," Thranduil said coldly.

 

Celeborn pinched the bridge of his nose with a growl. Elrond had warned him that this discussion would arise, and in a way, he could understand the King wasn't happy about his son joining a Fellowship that could very well have been a suicide mission. But lamenting about spilled wine was a specialty of the King, not his.

"We sent a pigeon. It did not reach you, it seems. Which is not the first time, as you might remember."

 

"Dispatch a messenger next time," Thranduil retorted, his hands clenching up before he recalled that wasn't a good idea right now and laid back again with a pitiful groan.

"For whatever else you feel the need to talk about, too, for that matter. I have no more time for your excuses. I have a realm to protect from dangers that were never a concern to any, safe for those threatened by them. And if we manage to survive that new wave of attack, I will have to explain to my people why I sent my son away to be killed at the enemy's gates instead of keeping him safe."

 

Oh, by all the … When it finally dawned on Celeborn why Thranduil was being an especially big pain in the behind that night and how little of the outside world had really reached Mirkwood's population during their constant struggle against the Dark Lord's minions, it was already too late to try and get a word in between.

 

Thranduil harshly nodded to the tent entrance while agitatedly ripping another mug with tea from the healer's hands. Celeborn knew, if he tried to correct now the horrible, painful assumption filling this tent, this whole clearing, and the King's bloodshot eyes, he'd probably be the first elf to have "killed by teacup" carved on his gravestone.

"Get out! You're the very last of my headaches I want to deal with right now ... Let me rephrase that: the second-last."

Another look at that door had Thranduil almost drop his cup and add another few burns to that injured arm.

 

The just as shocked murmurs from the healer and the advisor made it clear who had just entered, also without an invitation, before Celeborn even felt the reassuring, feather-light touch of warmth in his soul that let him know, he was done talking.

 

"Your son is alive, Oropherion," Galadriel said gently. "Just like you, we have yet to receive details from Gondor about Sauron's demise, so I can only ask you to believe what my mirror and my feelings are telling me."

 

Ignoring the flinch in his relative's suspiciously shaking body, Celeborn leaned forward to put a firm hand on Thranduil's good shoulder when he saw an unexpected glistening in the King's eyes, the sudden silence in the room almost more deafening than the one in the woods.

But at least it was a good one this time.

 

"I have failed, bringing you a message like this when last it would have counted," Galadriel continued, still surprisingly softly compared to how often this elf had managed to make her lose her temper even from the distance in the last Age. "All the more reason do I have to be thankful for the power granted to me, that tells me, it is not only premonition this time. Your son has fought the last great battle of the Free Folks at Mordor and proudly stood his ground. Allow now my soldiers and me to repay this courage and resilience by freeing your realm from the last of Sauron's devilry."

 

"Is this why you have come?" It would not have been Thranduil if he had been able to accept this peace offering immediately, and yet Celeborn was almost glad for that stubborn defiance back in his posture, in his quickly working jaw. It was better than the threat of tears before. Celeborn was not the right person for this elf to cry in front of, and he had a vague idea, the only one suited for this job would only be reunited with the King if he would ever decide to sail west.

"To prove once more the superiority of your kin to mine? To do what we failed at for thousands of years?"

 

"No." Under Celeborn's astonished gaze, Galadriel came closer and knelt down next to the bed to be on eye-level with the King, a cautious smile on her lips. "My husband and I came to finish your excellent work, Your Majesty. Your people suffered enough from Dol Guldur and withstood its shadow bravely throughout this war. It is our turn now. Will you let me make these amends?"

 

Visibly overwhelmed even more now, Thranduil closed his eyes for a long moment. For another one, it almost felt like he was holding on to Celeborn's arm before he pushed him away, carefully enough. When he looked up again, the last of tears were gone, replaced by new-strengthened resolve instead of the panicked wall of defense from earlier.

"Neither of you knows what you're getting yourself into. For the sake of my people, I will accept your help, but you cannot go there alone. I need an hour to regather what troops I have left in this part of the woods, then we can leave."

 

While Galadriel could hardly hide her smile growing at that rather ambitious endeavor, Celeborn had half a thought to look for a piece of rope or cuffs to make sure, Thranduil wouldn't get any more stupid ideas.

"In your condition, you are not going anywhere, Oropherion. I'm sick of my people having to deliver news of death to members of your family."

He withstood the renewed fire of wrath filling his relative's eyes only for a moment before he lowered his head in apology, fighting, in vain, the acid shower of painful images flooding his memory. Images of Oropher's wife falling to the blade of a Fëanorian supporter at what had basically been the doorstep of Celeborn's palace. His own hands and armor soiled with blood as Thranduil and he tried to hold up the last defenses of their city side by side. The broken mess of a King that Celeborn had had to leave behind after being thrown out of these woods once they'd buried Legolas' mother. Ever since they'd first met, it seemed, they'd only ever done so over death and despair. It was a series, Celeborn no longer cared to continue.

"Will you for once in your life just trust me?"

 

Silence was as good an answer as any to such a bold request.

But at least, Galadriel and he weren't being followed by some stumbling, half-collapsing shape when they left the camp a few minutes later, a few of the King's soldiers in tow whose support they would probably indeed very thankful for once they would approach what was left of Dol Guldur.

 

Now that the battle for Middle-earth was over, the only fight left to win was for peace between the last elves in these realms not yet ready to leave.

Chapter Text

Fo.A. 3

 

 

"I'm used to more lavish welcoming ceremonies."

 

"Ada, by the …" Tarisilya startled so much that her mare grumpily nipped her arm because she'd come a little too close to Manyala's sensitive belly with her grooming brush.

"Sorry, sweetie." She breathed a kiss of apology to the animal's velvety nose and hurried to the fence of the settlement's paddock to properly greet her father-in-law.

It was shameful proof of her limited attentiveness at the moment that she hadn't noticed the quick hoof beats of a certain tall, spotted mount approaching from the riverside earlier. When one was so lost in their mind from trying to sense even the smallest cold breeze of fear or the threatening pressure of emptiness in their mental bond to their husband, the world right around them tended to lose color and sound.

Besides, her settlement was not yet prepared for a guest, especially not one of such high honor.

"I didn't expect you before tomorrow night." Remembering very well that Thranduil was just as little enthusiastic with too much touch, safe from closest family members, as she was, she restricted herself to a brief bow and a warm smile when the King put his hand on her shoulder across the top bar for an appreciative moment.

 

"There was little reason to stop along the way. Hotspots of crisis in my realm are rare these days, thankfully. So we could make haste." Thranduil rewarded his own mare with an amicable pat of her neck for her endurance and brought her inside the generously enclosed meadow for a little grass and water.

"And your message sounded urgent."

 

"It wasn't meant to."

Tarisilya raised an eyebrow in surprise. As glad as she was for Thranduil's support in the current situation, she honestly hadn't meant to sound that alarming. Apparently, her letter had been clear enough anyway. After the issues and fights the two of them had had in the past, sometimes, she still had to recall to mind how empathic and insightful her father-in-law could be when he wasn't busy drowning his sorrows and frustration in a wine bottle.

"You must be hungry if you rode through the night. Let's go to the fire. I'm afraid, most people are either out working already or not yet up, so we'll have to postpone a celebration."

 

"You didn't call me here for an early Midsummer, Ilya. Speak, please."

With an impatient sounding sigh, Thranduil unclasped his robe, revealing a resilient travel garb of leather that didn't make Tarisilya feel that inadequate with her messy bun and her well-worn stable dress anymore, and freed the mare of his only, small small travel bag around her neck, so that she could wander off toward the water through. The King had obviously not prepared for a longer stay, Tarisilya noticed with a twinge of regret.

Which was very understandable. No matter what he said, so shortly after the war, there was still a lot to do in his Kingdom, even after the destruction of Dol Guldur and many of his people leaving for the west already.

 

She shouldn't be stealing more of his precious time than he could spare. And yet, with how things had developed after she'd sent that pigeon, she was glad that this time, she had mustered up the courage to ask for help quickly enough. And that Legolas and she had found back to their mutually respectful and considerate relationship from their early years by now, to a point where there was no more need to have such a conversation that was meant to be for his sake in secret.

"It would be fair if we waited for your son to return."

 

"He's out at this time?" Thranduil's skeptical eyes turned to the purple clouds and the last of fading stars above for a moment.

Of course, he would know his only child well enough – contrary to certain vicious rumors – to remember that Legolas was very much enjoying not having to rise before the sun did, now that the duties of defense and battle were over. And Legolas' letters home about the settlement's progress were frequent enough to also be able to tell, there weren't many projects in the wilderness of Ithilien that demanded his presence in person at this point.

 

Right now, keeping things in order in the camp itself was more important for him and Tarisilya, and she couldn't deny, that made things a lot easier. Not only because she'd had to do without her husband for far too many stretches in her life, not even only because their son, like all elven children, needed both parents by his side in his first few years as much as possible, seeing as they had already risked his wellbeing by spending far too much time apart during her pregnancy.

 

Having Legolas around a lot also freed her of the constant anxiety of him possibly getting himself in trouble in the middle of an area still filled with last stray enemies, because his health suddenly failed him.

 

"A ride in the woods with Cyron and Thondrar." She went back to brush her mare's black fur with mechanical, absent movements. There had not been a lot of sleep in the last few weeks, and the constant, panicked lookout in a mind that was not her own for signs of trouble was sapping her strength reserves.

"Eru knows how long it took me to convince him to take one of the others with them. It's not like I don't get it, you know? Cyron is getting big enough to be curious about riding and the wood life himself. Of course, he wanted to be alone with him. But Cyron is far too small to even sit for long on his own yet, not to mention ride. Thinking they'd be out there alone if something happens, and I wouldn't even know where to look …"

 

"Ilya." Only when her father-in-law grabbed her hand and held it tight, she realized she'd been cleaning Manyala's left foreleg for the third time in a row. "What is it?"

 

"He stopped going on hunts, ada." Dropping the brush, she pressed her face against her mare's neck with a shaky sigh, trying to keep herself together. Thranduil was the last person she wanted to be weak in front of, still.

 

"Ilya …"

 

"No, you don't understand. He keeps on saying, it's no longer fun or that he has more important jobs to do now, but that's not it. It's his eyes. He's started missing his shots again."

She gratefully reached back when that narrow, strong hand was back on her shoulder, not surprised to feel that Thranduil's skin had turned colder under the thin leather of his glove. They'd both thought they had more time before this would happen again.

 

"I can call one of our healers here," the King said after a few seconds of heavy silence. "Some are still left in the woods who know his case from the start. I've made sure he went to see them whenever he was in the palace ever since that accident happened back then. They never had much success, I'm afraid. But if you need support …"

 

"No … Yes … I don't know." Tarisilya shrugged her unoccupied shoulder and wiped her eyes quickly on her mount's fur, thankfully caressing Manyala's fine head when her loyal companion nosed her side. It felt like it had only just been yesterday since she'd finally got her beloved horse back from Rohan, and they had not been out there for a long ride in years. It would have been very tempting, going on another journey.

Too tempting, bordering on selfishness. The settlement needed Legolas and her as often as they could be around, and Tarisilya was forced to help out in the Houses of Healing often enough as it was.

They did still have their own life too, though. And depending on when Thranduil would finally overcome his pride and admit, he'd long stopped really being at home in a place far from everyone he loved, she might not have many chances to see his Kingdom before it would no longer be what it was.

"Maybe we'll come to visit you soon. Cyron hasn't seen Eryn Lasgalen yet, at least not in a way he can remember. I think we still have time before the next bout will come. And it is unlikely that even our common gift can make any kind of difference. Whenever I try to feel what's wrong with Legolas' eyes, I'm running into a wall in his head. Until such time when they will fail him again, I need to learn as much as possible about things I have not been taught in my healer training, simply because we never had a case like his in Lórien or the other realms of Men and Elves I have visited."

 

"I am not a healer, Ilya." The gentle pressure of Thranduil's touch growing, he turned her around, the slightly awkward but very understanding brush of knuckles against her cheeks drying her tears.

 

His hand was shaking slightly, so she reached for it with both of hers, humming the warmth back into it with a few well-trained notes. She needed to remember more often that the best cure for the soul was often comforting others. And in this certain regard, as much distance as there had been between father and son in the last few millennia, Thranduil was decades, miles ahead of her.

"No, but the only one he trusts with his condition. He's still trying to go easy on me with it, no matter what I do. This needs to stop, ada. I don't want to go behind his back ever again. That's why you're here. Show me what I need to know. Show me what he needs when the darkness comes back."

It became almost frighteningly silent in their little remote corner at the camp's edge. It took Tarisilya several seconds to realize, she'd all but frozen, paralyzed by the intense look from the same ocean blue pair of eyes that her husband had mesmerized her with all these centuries ago, the burning ice in her father-in-law's pupils intimidating as ever, though. And for a – fortunately respectfully shallow – glimpse, they'd stared right into their soul.

 

With a choked gasp, she broke away from Thranduil's hold, and he bowed his head to her in apology, but that disapproving, worried frown above his thick brows remained. "It's been years, Ilya. Have you two still not established a proper marriage bond?"

 

She wasn't sure what exactly that had to do with anything but felt the need to draw up her defenses anyway, turning away with tight lips to approach a firmly locked box by the fence, to get an apple or two for Manyala's breakfast.

"When do you think we had time for something like that? We have a settlement to lead, and in every minute that does not require our attention, we're there for Cyron."

 

"A bond shouldn't be something you have to work on in the first place. It's usually there right after the first unification." Thranduil sounded about as enthusiastic about the unwanted image of an official ending to a wedding ceremony in his head as Tarisilya, who was glad he couldn't see her intense blush from over there. "My wife and I, we were out of duty for weeks after our vows. When souls connect like that, you have to learn anew where your own body and mind begins and where your lover's ends."

 

"Well, not everyone has thousands of years to get to know your partner before saying, I do," Tarisilya answered with more bite than she'd planned to use, in the light of a rather unfair reproach for someone who'd been one of the persons personally responsible for Legolas and her never having been able to enjoy a proper courting period. "It's been thanks to your and Lady Galadriel's quarrel that I had to wait a millennium for your son to acknowledge his feelings for me. So might want to look in the mirror if you need someone to blame for us not being able to completely fall into each other yet."

 

When she returned, a couple of neatly cut apple slices in hand, there was something sparkling in Thranduil's eyes that she couldn’t quite place, which was just as unusual as the King not trying to argue with her about this, and she wondered if there was a joke somewhere in this whole story that she'd missed.

For some reason, he decided not to press it, and it was probably better that way. She had a feeling, she didn't want to know.

"If it's time you need, time you shall have. Find me a pigeon that knows its way to Eryn Lasgalen. It would seem, I will need more than two robes and a couple of rings and necklaces for this stay."

 

It was an offer, Tarisilya had not expected. For the first time in weeks, she felt like she could breathe a little easier again. Feeding Manyala slowly, piece by piece, she tried to get her exhausted thoughts in order, make a real sense of Thranduil's unexpected inquisition earlier, in vain.

"Can you stay away for so long?"

 

"I'm the King. Who's supposed to stop me?" Her father-in-law chuckled, but it didn't sound too happy.

"It's about high time I get to know my grandchild better anyway. Make use of that chance, Ilya. I can tell you what you need on your talan to make life there easier for someone who loses their most important sense. I can teach you how to write books and draw images that you don't need your eyes to understand for. But if you really want to support your husband in this, you need to be closer to him than I ever managed to get. He and I, we are trying, as you know, but I do not think we have enough time left in these realms to mend all that is broken. It would ease my mind to know that even if I should not be around one day, he will not be alone in the dark."

 

"Never, ada." This was a promise she could give him with all of her heart.

 

For someone who was not used to either deal out or receive a lot of touches, Thranduil gave amazingly comfortable hugs, it turned out.

 

When they both weren't close to tears anymore and finally got around to finish taking care of their horses, Arod's cheerful neighing in the distance announced their family's return.

Chapter Text

Fo.A. 1091

 

 

"Tell me again why Ulmo can’t just vomit up all cursed objects he wants to get rid of? Or why Ossë can't do this job?"

Haldir made it exactly through ten minutes before the first complaint. There had to be a record in there somewhere.

 

Tegiend knew his husband's moods before the third cup of morning tea well enough to ignore the bantering in the background, thankfully. He leaned back over the ship's rail, his eyes firmly trained on the faint glistening of bright red and grass green encased in countless silver loops somewhere deep below the restless surface. As much skepticism and taunt his niece often had to deal with for never unbraiding her jewelry from her hair before going under, personally, he'd come to appreciate the little quirk with time. At the first and the last phase of these adventures, it gave him at least an idea of where the girl was.

 

Círdan didn't look like he was awfully interested in another debate about this trip either. Never taking his bare feet off the rudder, he blinked up at Haldir through one half-opened lid and went back to enjoying the sun on his skin then, and the mug in his hand that presumably contained more than just half an inch of grog.

"Bold of you to assume Ulmo remembers where all that junk is. It's been a couple of Ages since these Númenórean ships sank, you know. And when have you last seen Ossë working? Besides, this is an easy payday for the fleet."

 

And that was the main reason why they sailed out here again and again, in spite of them all starting to feel a little old to protect the reckless foal amidst their group on its risky endeavors.

 

Sure, Élnen's family would happily have thrown all the coin at them that their people needed in their simply lived solitude far from the coast. But Élnen had made very clear when they'd built their first boat already, that wasn't an option. She'd turned away from her life as a Princess long before it could even have begun.

 

A notion that Tegiend and his husband very much shared. Otherwise, they wouldn't be here at this ungodly hour.

 

Not to mention that if Círdan's occasional cryptic innuendos were anything to go by, they'd all come together for a reason all this time ago.

"Plus, the kid gets training, that's always a good thing."

 

"Training what? How to break her neck in a dozen different ways?"

Haldir wasn't finished yet, reminding them all he would rather have accepted the invitation from Finarfin's palace for Midsummer's lying around somewhere in their cabin. A rare chance they'd actually planned to use to see their families and old friends again for a change. Which, in theory, they could still make if Élnen's hunt was successful and breeze and wave would be their friend.

 

Círdan who very deliberately chose to avoid such events if he could get away with it, cracked a smile, knowing exactly which way the wind was blowing.

"If need be, that, too. A brief excursion to the Halls of Mandos has taught other unruly whelps discipline before."

 

"Says the only one on this boat who doesn’t have to deal with the wrath of the whole family Oropherion should that happen."

Haldir turned to Tegiend with his hands in his hips, bright eyes blazing with growing irritation. "How can you be so calm about this? Seriously, she's going too far this time. There's not remotely enough time to reach the ground with one air tank, and we have no idea what's down there."

 

Tegiend implied a shrug, turning back to the water, and cursed when he realized, he'd lost track of that small, bright glimmer of a clue in the depths for good now. Now he could only rely on what his mind and what his rationality told him to not get anxious himself.

"The kid's got her first millennium on her. At that age, her mother had already thrust Lord Elrond’s chief advisor into depression, saved the life of two Kings, and pissed off both the leaders of Lórien and Mirkwood. I think she’ll be all right, holding her breath for a few minutes if the tank doesn't suffice."

 

"Can you sit down? You're blocking the sun." Círdan finally deigned to sit up in his wooden lounger and wiped the last of tea from his beard into his tunic.

"Calm down. It’s not the first time for her down there."

 

"Sadly, yes. And why? Who put this idea in her head in the first place?" Haldir regarded their captain with a scathing glance, strong jaw grinding, but fortunately refrained from starting that argument all over.

 

As if anyone could have stopped a daughter of that house of stubborn mules from chasing her ambitions.

 

"What’s down there for an elf, safe for hungry beasts, razor-sharp wreck parts and bones of men who died from their own delusions? A couple of rusty candle holders that Sauron probably had up his behind while worshipping his old lover in his temple hardly justify risking your life ..."

 

"Language. We're not in a marchwardens' training camp." Tegiend heard it himself, how absent that teasing interruption came from his lips.

His eyes were fixed harder than ever on the green, blue and white smacking against the white walls of the Hên Ithil. The scent of tang in his lungs was becoming more overwhelming by the minute, for no particular reason. Salt stung in his eyes; swallowing hurt. Something was off. Not wrong, not yet at least, but …

 

"You didn’t mind last night," Haldir noted dryly.

 

Círdan groaned. "I did not need to know that."

 

Haldir wasn't ready yet to let this go, and Tegiend felt a headache coming, both from shutting out what was going on in his husband's and their captain's minds and from trying all the harder to locate another, quieter but usually just as reliable voice in his head.

 

"I’m not the one avoiding questions here once again."

 

Círdan put his empty mug down a little too loudly and finally joined Tegiend by the railing without needing a prompt to do so, probably having seen his tense shoulders or his ceaselessly roaming eyes. After all this time of taking care of their charge together, they rarely needed many words.

"I don’t know, Galadhel. I don't know what we're looking for, alright? I don't know why we spend our years out here instead of drowning our boredom in philosophy and art on the mainland like the others. And even if I did, they’d find a way to keep me from talking. There’s something about this girl, and she is exactly where she needs to be right now, that’s all I can tell you."

 

"Well, if you know where exactly that happens to be, enlighten us. Because she’s sure as heck not in position."

Haldir's voice went from his hangover nagging to highly focused alert within split seconds as he'd spotted something on the other side of the boat Tegiend and Círdan had not noticed yet, the former marchwarden Captain still equipped with the sharpest sight between them. With a hefty Silvan curse, he leaned down the railing and pulled something large and round made of metal and glass aboard.

 

For the first time this morning, Círdan's face darkened as well. "I told her a hundred times not to take that damn thing off in the open water."

 

Tegiend had no interest in much-needed education right now. He needed to know, they hadn't just found this because the rest of his niece had vanished between the jaws of some whale or shark.

Él? Your helmet came up.

 

To his relief, the answer in his head via their family bond was strong and clear as ever, though not much to his liking.

I'm good. Just couldn't think clearly with that stupid thing on my head.

 

Obviously not.

Tegiend let out a growl when he spotted the heavy, dark silver links of a certain mithril chain in the water next, swimming loose.

Is that the reason why your lifeline is unclasped, too?

 

Her slightly embarrassed but not exactly rueful chuckle was as near inside his head as if she was standing next to him.

I just need a little detour. I won't be long.

 

You what …?

Now, Tegiend started to get honestly nervous about his niece's often thoughtless antics himself.

"You have neither time nor air for detours! I swear to Eru, if you don’t come up here this very second, I will lock you in under deck until the world breaks."

He'd switched to talking loudly as well as in his mind without even really realizing, so the others would know what was going on, and Haldir's worried hiss in his back matched his own very well.

 

You wouldn’t have the heart to.

 

"No, but I could tell your mother that you risked your life for a damn trinket when we get back."

 

You’re playing unfairly.

He could swear she was pouting in their bond.

 

"If you want fair, you’re in the wrong business, kid. Get your thin behind back up here, this very second."

 

I almost have it. One minute.

 

"You don't have … Valar-damnit, Élnen!"

Seriously at the edge now when the answer in their connection was only silence, Tegiend was already busy shedding his boots and breeches while Haldir hurried to get a rope harness for him.

 

From the corner of his eyes, he could see Círdan storm to the rudder to use his own, comparatively weak bond to his charge and steer the ship to wherever their little bird had flown off to this time. It was sad how much of a routine this emergency protocol had become at this point.

 

Only this time, it was so much worse than ever. This time, it was almost ten minutes after Tegiend had jumped into the ice-cold waves himself before he could finally sense the movement and shadow in the water he'd been waiting for. That was a lot longer than even the best diver in their group could be down there without suffering damage.

When Tegiend re-entered the ship with his niece's unmoving body in his arms, she was not breathing. Blood was trickling from her ears and nose.

 

Círdan certainly had another rant on his lips about how often he had lectured his pupil not to dive up too fast, no matter the circumstance, but when he saw the growing panic, the silent plea on Tegiend's face, he quickly shut his mouth and fell to his knees next to him, bending over the thin, drenched body between them.

A hectic, controlling touch of a greyish forehead, a nervously searching one on a bony wrist later, his often so apathetic grey eyes were alit and wide with regret and fear but not yet grief and hopelessness. "Still with us, and her mind is intact. Get her heart going, Tegiend. Let's hope, Mandos is in a good mood."

Calloused fingers were prying those bloodless lips apart even while he was talking, a well-trained flick of the wrist helped the girl's unresponsive throat unclog a first torrent of seawater, before Círdan bent lower to breathe the air into Élnen's lungs that they needed so badly.

 

Tegiend could feel his husband's trembling hand on his shoulder as he let his body do what they'd trained for often, but his own mind seemed miles away from here, too frozen in shock even for panic. This was exactly what they'd all wanted to avoid. This was the line he'd promised his sister never to cross … He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to hide the burning in them that rolled down his numb cheeks, and unable to look at that far too-young, deathly-pale face any longer that he might not see for quite a while after this day …

When Círdan gently grabbed his wrists, signaling him to stop his amateurish attempts and back away, he was absolutely certain for a moment, they'd sailed right into a catastrophe with their latest assignment.

 

"Yuck. Is this what you are all making such a big deal about? I don’t think I’m missing out much on that whole kissing thing." The words in the beloved voice were punctuated by coughs and quite slurred, indicating the healers would have at least one ruptured eardrum to deal with when they got back, but it was still the most beautiful sound Tegiend had heard in a while.

 

"You have your parent's lousy sense of humor." He fell back on the deck with a sigh somewhere between a sob and a laugh and rubbed his eyes, shaking his head. And that was definitely the last time they'd accepted a quest like this out in the middle of the damn open. None of their customers could pay that much.

"Did you get it at least?"

 

"That?" Still quite uncoordinated, Élnen rummaged in a bag of her diving suit and threw a locket in the shape of a flaming eye at him.

 

Tegiend saw Círdan shiver and handed it to him wordlessly, rubbing his hand on his own soaked tunic because it felt suddenly too hot and too cold at the same time. The sooner they got to the coast, the better, definitely. This was probably one of their findings that would end up under the watchful eye of the Valar instead of a museum cabinet on Tol Eressëa.

 

"That stupid old thing, I had that five minutes in." Élnen could already grin again, though she needed Haldir's help to even sit up straight.

 

"Then why did you …?"

Tegiend paused when his niece pulled a broken but almost intact eggshell the size of an eagle egg from her treasure bag. Oh, for Eru's sake.

 

"Seahorse." Élnen grinned at Círdan triumphantly. "You owe me a bottle of wine."

 

"Are you telling me there are seahorses down there this size?" Haldir had turned a little green around the gills. The insignificant little detail that their young adventurer had fooled them all once more with that mission that she'd obviously only wanted to go on for this damn thing, was though not forgotten at least half-forgiven already. They'd all expected nothing different, in secret.

"You are impossible."

 

"Don’t tell me you don’t enjoy it." Like most members of her family, Élnen had been equipped with the famous gold blond hair and ocean blue eyes of her great grandfather, but it was not for the first time that Tegiend realized, that innocent, appeasing glance from under her lashes, she definitely had from her mother.

An expression that quickly turned to cheekiness again when she looked back at Círdan, holding up her treasure. "I want one."

 

"Not with my ship, you will." Círdan let her know with an amicable, light slap to the back of her head what he thought of her newest craziness and sauntered back to the rudder. Time to leave.

 

"Try to stop me from finding them." Élnen's eyes flashed in a challenge that was not going anywhere anytime soon as Tegiend knew far too well.

 

"He won’t but I will, at least for the next year or so," he said harshly. "You, young lady, are going to lay down now. If you’re lucky, your body will be repaired enough by the time we reach the coast, for your mother not to lock us both up for the next century."

 

Surprisingly, his niece obeyed without resistance for once which gave him the weak hope that the almost fatal incident had maybe, underneath her thick, reckless shell, put at least a hint of a new sense of responsibility in her untamed heart after all. Maybe at least enough for half a year of staying within reach of their fleet and tending to one or the other royal duty so that people of their Kingdom wouldn't forget them for good.

Judging by the dreamy look in her eyes that Élnen cuddled her new prized possession with, once Tegiend had got her to curl up on her side on a mattress by the rear, he rather gave it three months.

 

The thought wasn't half as scary as it should be, he found, with a quiet, self-ironic sigh. For that, he loved it far too much out here himself. And as often as Élnen was testing his nerves, he would always be thankful in the end that she'd put up his husband and him to this life of as much freedom as you could get around these parts.

 

In this one regard, Élnen was so much more than her mother than she might ever know.

Chapter Text

Fo.A. 121

 

 

"Why do you still have this?"

And here it had been so beautifully quiet in the tower all morning.

 

This was, of course, his joint pains that were particularly persistent this week, thanks to the snow lying thick on the tops of the Pelóri and the ground resting in deep sleep. Knowing that these sharp little stings at every step and every smallest flick of the wrist were only in his head didn't make the moods of weather easier to bear. With everything that had happened in the last few days, he'd apparently forgotten to hide the unnerved grimace on his face properly, no longer used to people around who could actually see them.

This was probably also the full-fledged panic attack he'd had in the kitchen earlier when Círdan had cornered him between the wall and pantry door by accident for a moment. He should have known that old sea-rat wouldn't keep that little incident to himself.

"Not all scars heal." Trying hard not to sound as irritated as this watch was making him already, Gelmir lowered his book and shot the person sitting on the bed with a whole armada of pillows in her back a fleeting glance. "I got tired of waiting for that at some point. In the Halls of Mandos, I've been as much alone as here."

 

"Will you tell me more? I can't make any promises, but if you want me to try and help …" But that came cautiously. The young she-elf was visibly not comfortable with his presence, and he could hardly resent her for it.

 

In her place, he wouldn't exactly have chosen a grumpy bastard like him as the only company in a situation like this either. He had no damn idea what had possessed Círdan to think, he was suited for this job or why in the world he had said yes. That Noldorin Princess and he hardly knew each other, and everything they could possibly have thought of to talk about would only cause either of them pain.

"No one can help this. And this is not a bedtime story."

 

"Good thing I'm not sleepy then." A wry smile curled around those full lips but was quickly replaced by a scowl when his curious companion tried to lean over to the bedside table for a glass of water and the huge bump of her belly wouldn't let her.

 

Only even more reluctant, Gelmir handed her the thing but retreated back to his chair immediately, trying his best to keep the necessary distance to someone who might need a lot of things right now but surely no nightmares. "This is hardly a good time."

 

"Why? Because you think the baby would come if you scare me too much and you'd have to help me have it in case my family wasn't back in time? I would present you with a medal." She put her hand on that huge swelling with an apologetic sigh towards the tiny being in there that had, admittedly, indeed been overdue for a few days already.

"I'm not that easily scared. I would appreciate it if people around here stopped treating us children of the Third Age as if we were stupid and naïve. Just because we only fought the disembodied version of Sauron does not mean we don't know what he's capable of."

 

Only that name, spoken with so much ease and so much disgust at the same time as people who'd inhabited Aman longer or nor never left it in the first place rarely did these days … That was all it took to bring back all the darkness in his head, his soul, and most of all, in front of his eyes. He had to blink a few times, clench his fists to provoke that shadow of an unforgotten pain once more, this time on purpose, to ground himself.

The she-elf's worried frown had him shake his head jerkily. It wasn't alright, but it was not her fault. And since he had a feeling, she would not stop pressing the subject, maybe it was better to get this over with fast.

"Don't say I didn't warn you."

 

 

 

 

 

F.A. 472

 

 

Sometimes he thought they'd just forgotten about him.

 

Sauron, he assumed, definitely had. Morgoth's lapdog had lost interest in him the moment he'd realized there was no useful information about Gelmir's home that he could beat or rape out of him.

 

Even as a Prince, he'd never been awfully important in his realm or his family. His brother and father were the ones people had gone to with questions and issues. It was really no wonder people had apparently never quite bothered to check if he really was dead. He was of no further use, he had never made any kind of impact or legacy, and the only sensible decision he'd probably ever made in his life was sending his wife and son away before they had to witness what would hopefully soon be his demise in this horrible place.

A victim of his dreams, his father had used to call him, not without fondness.

It had been long since Gelmir had had any dreams.

Most of these days he spent unconscious, not asleep. What little moldy soup or dirty water they occasionally poured down his throat barely kept him alive, and his will to live had been low long before they'd brought him down here, after countless weeks of passing him around with various orc units. When he'd no longer been good sport to anyone, they'd disposed of him.

His mind was not numb enough yet to not hate himself for wishing, he could have stayed in Sauron's bed instead. Either by his soul no longer being able to deal with the shame and humiliation, or by his body breaking under the Lieutenant's perverted and sadistic preferences for good, Gelmir was almost certain, he'd have long found the relief of death there at this point.

This, here, the enemies could keep up forever without breaking a sweat if they meant to though, and sadly, a decade or so wasn't enough yet to shatter a mind into enough pieces for the sweet release of insanity.

Occasionally, he wondered if anyone outside this fortress had even the slightest idea, he was still alive, if you wanted to call it that.

There was no telling if he knew any of the new prisoners that they marched by him almost every week on their way to their cell if they recognized him maybe; he couldn't even have if his eyes had not long become food for the crows. His tomb of dried lava left out in the open only those parts of his body that were still of use to some guard or bored Balrog from time to time; that didn't include the upper half of his head. But he always heard those poor elvish or mannish souls that were laying eyes on him gasp in horror before they were next to share an unspeakable fate between these moldy, blood-soaked walls of ash and rock. With this very special monument right behind the prison gate, Sauron had wanted to make very sure his slaves knew what was awaiting them, and it worked.

Not that it counted, but no, Gelmir didn't think any of these people knew who he was, even if they'd used to be among his friends once. He was starved to the bone, his skin hadn't seen the sun since the day they'd taken him; his jaw had been dislocated for so long, he didn't think any healer could ever make him speak again even if they ever found him. And there was not much left of his nose after so many punches and kicks to his face either. Those traces especially had never quite set as from time to time, he was still being visited by some needy dark creature for whatever fun they could still get out of his ruined holes.

The other bones in his body had mended all wrong after just a few days of being immobilized by unbearable heat that had burned off the top layers of his skin before growing hard under the hand of a fallen fire maia. If he'd still been able to move muscles that had long forgotten how to do so and probably ceased to exist at this point, it would surely have hurt, just thinking about using even one of his limbs, or trying to breathe harder than the shallow gasps he could draw through his disfigured nose and the metal prying his lips open.

Then again, pain had become a very far-away concept with time. It was more of a constant than a sensation at this point, and he often wondered, even if for some reason the doomed of his kin would be allowed back into their old home and he'd have a chance at another life someday if his body could ever forget how it was to exist without agony.

Those hopeless images of waking up, someday, in a better place, where the only thing his dulled mind could still hold on to. The only thing that prohibited his soul or at least his rational mind from leaving this destroyed shell, maybe, thereby only prolonging his suffering.

A victim of his own dreams, indeed.

It was the sound of drums that woke him this day, the enthusiastic battle cries of orcs out there in the hallways and the monotonous marching of an army ready to leave its master's fortress, bigger than Gelmir could remember Morgoth ever dispatching one.

He wondered if this was the end, at last.

 

"I bring good news, son of Nargothrond."

 

The warm velvet of Sauron's voice pierced his lethargy like an arrow of ice and sent a jolt to the handful of muscles he could still control, leaving each of his nerve-endings singing with new tension and heat. He had not heard anyone approach. Then again, it had been months since someone had addressed him even for some leisure time relief last.

 

"I've thought of a new use for you."

Sauron's snicker, about as pleasant as nails scratching over glass, right next to his ear. The coldness of his skin on his cheek, on his lips. Finally, long, pointed nails scratching over the forehead of the statue that they'd turned his body into.

 

Gelmir burned.

By no law of nature should this be possible, he thought in white rage and desperation. That he was alive and awake enough to feel the same rock that had robbed him of the last of his freedom turned back into glowing orange and light he could no longer see, melting off of him, taking with it what was left of his skin and whole stripes of flesh, too.

It turned out, his vocal cords actually still did remember how to scream.

When he collapsed, there was not much left of his consciousness, but he could still feel that claw-like hand grabbing his jaw, forcing him to raise his head even as he was twitching uselessly and groaning on the ground. The slimy penetration of the maia's mind diving into his, a touch so much more intimate and offending than anything he'd done to Gelmir with his monstrous gwib or his tools, lit a fire inside his mind as if he'd got his sight back for a few precious seconds. In this image forced on him, he could see tens of thousands of armored orcs and Balrogs, drooling and leering in their certainty of success, marching towards the lands of the elves once more.

 

"Rejoice, lover of the stars. I'm going to give you what you wanted so badly all your life," Sauron cooed, sharpened teeth biting down on Gelmir's bloodless lip until he whined unintelligibly. "I'll make you famous with your people at last."

 

 

 

 

 

Fo.A. 121

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Well, he didn't lie. Everyone remembers my death."

Absently, without much hope for relief, Gelmir massaged his faintly throbbing wrist and took another few steps through the room to remind his knees that it had been a couple of Ages since his captivity. That they could move again without the pressure of massive stone encasing him throwing back every attempt of the like at his muscles and nerves with cramps unbearable.

It was easier, focusing on moving, too, than looking at his young charge, after recalling in more detail than he'd even been aware he still had in his head what she'd asked him about. He doubted there would be any more questions. People rarely bothered to look beyond the tragedy.

"No one knows about my life."

 

When he finally got himself to steal a glance at the bed, he saw that the she-elf had become very pale indeed but she hadn't stopped him a single time. They'd raised some tough little cookies in Lórien, he had to give Galadriel that.

"So? Any secret techniques or songs for ridding someone of the memory of 15 years of living petrified that no other healer has thought of so far?"

 

"You don't need a healer."

 

"For once, we can agree on something." He turned to leave for a short walk in the garden, which was as good a place to waste his time as any.

 

"You need a listener, Gelmir."

 

He let out a harsh laugh. "I never told stories anyone wanted to hear."

 

"The whole family tree on my mother's side would disagree with that." In the light of the tale, she'd just heard it was amazing how quickly the other Noldo had found her smile back.

 

With an admittedly slightly dramatic sigh, he leaned back against the bookshelf, doing his best to avoid looking at the couple of works in there that carried his own name indeed. "Are you always that stubborn?"

 

"Says the elf in the room whose spirit refused to leave even though his body was already buried." If it hadn't been for the exhausted yawn on her lips, that might have sounded almost amused.

 

Gelmir didn't have it in him to be angered by that. Maybe he'd cried more than enough tears over his past. "Enough stories for one day. If I really manage to get you into labor before your family is back, I will wish myself back to Angband. Call me if you need anything. I'll get us a little fruit for dinner."

 

"Just … don't leave, alright?" Her eyes were big and pleading and looking far too familiar for his taste. "Not now and not when the baby is there. You've closed yourself in for far too long."

 

Gelmir had never been an elf of big promises but it seemed, his careful smile was enough of an answer for her.

Chapter Text

T.A. 3002

 

 

Théodred found her, unsurprisingly.

 

Éomer was probably busy trying out his new, far too-big armor in another combat lesson or helping out in the forge or something, all of these things they let him do to his heart's desire that Éowyn always had to fight for. Her uncle, she had not seen in days.

Sometimes she thought, plenty unkindly, neither of them would notice for weeks if she just didn't show up for dinner.

 

But her cousin somehow always could tell when things were off. There were reasons that despite him being so much older than her, she found herself seeking his presence far more often than she was in the mood to see other girls in, for playing ball or feeding and cleaning after the animals. Théodred never asked when she did not want to talk. He didn't judge that she'd stolen her first sword from some armory only a few weeks after her mother had followed her father into the void of death. And most importantly, he had a lot of exciting stories to tell.

He also never would have laughed at her. Not even when she was crying like a toddler, hiding in a shadowy alcove under some barn roof where no one else would have found her for hours.

 

"Did you see him? Is he alright?" she asked with a sniffle as Théodred knelt down in front of her, wordlessly handing her a clean cloth to wipe her face.

 

She tried to grab it, out of instinct alone, but her fingers failed to clench even the tiniest bit without the horrible sting in her palms becoming worse immediately, and she quietly screamed out.

 

"Back on his meadow, grazing in peace. He's definitely doing better than you, little bee."

Théodred paled a little, the countless freckles on his tanned skin standing out sharply in the morning sun, at the sight of the huge blisters disfiguring her hands and fingers, some of them open and seeping. "How often did I tell you that you need to let go when you feel, you can't hold a horse?"

 

"I should be able to hold him though! He shouldn't be running off in the first place! I don't know what I'm doing wrong." Her helpless rant ended in another pained scream when her cousin pressed that cloth carefully against her wounds, tying it close before reaching for another one from his belt. When he couldn't find one, he just tore a piece of his bright tunic off. She writhed and sobbed again, but he didn't let go of her wrist until at least the worst of the damage was covered.

 

"You need a healer, little bee."

But Théodred made no move to make her get up; for that, he could guess too well why she was suffering here alone instead of running back inside the palace immediately. Sitting down next to her under the broad roof so that the grooms and maids passing by wouldn't spot either of them anytime soon, he wrapped his arm around her so much thinner shoulders and pressed a brief kiss to her hair. "You've only had Windfola for a few weeks. You can't expect miracles in such a short time. It's not easy for him that they just took him away from your brother because he wasn't good enough, you know. Give yourself time, give him time."

 

"The soldiers say, we don't have time. They say the orcs will be coming soon." She was still shaking, tears ceaselessly running down her cheeks, but her discomfort was nothing compared to what was raging inside her soul at her next, hatefully hissed words.

"Father said it, too, and then they took him. I want to be ready when they come here."

 

"Then stop trying to do everything on your own. Why do you think we ride out in groups of more than a hundred? You're too small to handle an anxious hothead like Windfola. That's not a weakness. Only becoming impatient and asking more of the two of you than you can do at this point would be. I'm sure, your brother would be more than happy to help you tame that wild boy."

 

"I don't want him to help." Éowyn clenched her wrists again and winced, hiding her face against Théodred's shoulder with a frustrated sob. "Uncle and he always say I'm too young and too weak for everything that's fun. It's unfair. If they see that they were right, they won't let me leave the sewing chamber at all anymore."

 

"War is not about fun, Éowyn." The suddenly very dark, rough tone in her cousin's voice had her shiver. "And it's a war that is coming to these lands. Your brother and you know, you learned the hard way. That's why you fought for Windfola instead of choosing a lazy pony. That's why I showed you how to hold your sword without chopping your own head off when you asked me to. I thought you understood."

 

"I do. Really," she hurried to promise, blushing up to the roots of her hair. "That's exactly why I need to become a great warrior as quickly as possible, just like you. Then we can fight the orcs together, right? And people will no longer laugh at me."

 

"Not with your hands all ruined, you will," Théodred said dryly, then grimaced in sympathy when he saw she was still trying to suppress the never-ending heat throbbing on her skin, her sight blurred from tears.

"Fine. If you don't tell father I gave you this, I'll tell you a little story." He got out an unmarked, dark flask from a pocket of his tunic and unscrewed it for her, then held it to her lips. "Don’t spit, this was expensive."

 

She was about to spit first because the liquid seemed to set her throat on fire next, and it tasted awfully bitter with just a hint of herbs. But once she'd somehow choked down those two small sips, her limbs began to feel strangely heavy, and her mind did no longer care about the pain so much.

"The next one only when you're of age," Théodred said rigorously before staring away again, towards the meadows where his own auburn mount was eating greedily. "I'm too tall for Brego, did you ever realize?"

 

She had, but that horse was just as strong as swift, and Éomer who worshipped Théodred almost as much as she did, had said, that was why it didn't matter.

 

"Father said, we would be too slow if we ever met orcs, and that I'd ruin his back. But I'd fallen in love with that hoggish idiot over there. So I fought for him, and he thanked me by unseating me every day new. I broke my collarbone two times, I came home with bruises every day, and one time, he threw me right into a patch of stinging nettles. I looked like an orc all week. How's that for being a laughing stock? Real friends help you up and ask you if you are alright before they laugh at you, by the way. The others are not worth your time."

 

Éowyn knew it was rude but she couldn’t help but chuckle at that image. "When did he start accepting you?"

 

"When I was no longer trying so hard proving anything to anyone." Théodred softly squeezed her shoulder when she blushed again and lowered her head.

"I started to listen to him instead of trying to convince him. I didn't go there to work with him, I just sat by his side all morning and after the moon had come up. I groomed him until my hand fell off until I knew all his ticklish spots and he would stop biting, and I worked him only from the ground on a rope until he had enough muscle for a saddle my size. And now? Now I can't leave the damn paddocks for a few hours at a stretch without that big baby screaming for me to come back." Théodred rolled his eyes a little, but his smile was very loving.

"This is not about you, little bee. It's about him until you two become one, and once you're out there with a shield and a sword, it's about those you two protect, not those who will know your name. Think you can remember that for me?"

 

"I'll never forget it," she said, solemnly, and she never did.

 

"Good. Come now, we need some ointment for those blisters."

 

This time, she somehow got to her feet, bracing herself against the wall only with her elbows, but when Théodred linked arms with her and wanted to head for the palace, she tugged him the other way. "In a minute. I just want to see if Windfola is really alright."

 

Théodred spared her another comment that her horse had made it through that little argument earlier a lot more unscathed than she had. Though she was actually far too tall for that already, he just took her on his shoulders and carried her to the Mearas paddock so they would be faster.

 

As the sun dried the last of tears, Éowyn didn't feel that angry and hollow inside for the first time in months.

Chapter Text

Fo.A. 121

 

 

"You realize you no longer have to live like an eremite, right?"

Círdan took a slightly disconcerted look around in the badly lit, small cave system that the former King of Eryn Lasgalen politely called his home these days.

 

"That's rich, coming from someone who couldn't move into the tower of Tol Eressëa quickly enough after finally finding his way here."

There was alarmingly little bite to the answer from somewhere in the back of these … accommodations, and all the more exhaustion instead. While they'd warned him, of course, and Círdan had never got to know Thranduil as someone extremely social and amicable in the first place, he hadn't expected it to be that bad.

 

Well, he'd warned Elrond and Galadriel. If it turned out, this visit was just as useless as he'd thought? It wasn't like he didn't have a lot more to – finally – explore in this place and countless people to see who would be a lot happier to meet him.

"I like my solitude at the end of the day. Unlike you, I don't have to pass three big cats, ride for several hours and climb two steep faces if I do feel like having company though."

 

"There's a hidden path leading up here. Not my job to show it to people. The fewer know about it, the more nuisances are being kept away." Thranduil finally came back out from behind that heavy leather curtain, a half-full bottle and two glasses in his hands, a fruit bat comfortably perched on his shoulder. The flickering light of a single torch made it hard to tell, but Círdan was almost certain to notice a faint limp in his left leg.

 

He decided not to press any subject for the moment because that was the safest way to be asked to leave. But he couldn't help but wonder how even the hot-headed former ruler of Eryn Lasgalen had managed to get himself hurt in a place the most danger of which came from gossip at Arafinwë's court or his old friend Ossë occasionally farting up a too-high wave.

He never said no to a good glass of wine, but for a little sit-in between old friends, there was some important part missing in this sad excuse of a shelter. "You don’t happen to own any chairs, do you?"

 

"Chairs are for people who like to have visitors," Thranduil answered briefly, sitting down in a shallow ledge in the massive rock wall himself, right opposite of Círdan, and uncorked the wine with a hand that could hardly hide the tremble in it.

 

"I am a visitor." Círdan had no choice but to just sit down on the floor with awkwardly crossed legs, before he took the offered glass, trying his best not to startle at the touch of far too-cold skin against his.

 

"You almost get the idea." He was being regarded with a small wink that took the hostility out of the answer. "Don't let that go to waste. It's the last of Dorwinion I could bring back then. To good life in our new exile."

 

"To new chances." Círdan raised his own glass with an inaudible sigh about the open cynicism towards a fate that so many Silvan and Sindar elves in these realms were still fighting to accept.

That was not a discussion he'd come to have. He allowed himself a few moments of enjoyment and memory instead, with closed eyes. That was easier than to keep on staring on that dull, stringy hair that had lost some of its gold blonde color, and those sunken, empty eyes any longer. Admittedly, he'd missed the sweet richness of this very special drink. The whole cartload of this stuff that the King had brought back then when he'd come to Mithlond, to wreck Círdan's nerves ever until he'd taken him as his apprentice for an even more maddening time, hadn't even lasted that decade.

Soon enough, memory was all they would have of their life in Middle-earth, and for some of them, that might not be enough. "Your son is worried about you, you know. So are your grandchildren."

 

"Do I look like I need anyone to babysit me, Shipwright?"

Thranduil grabbed some berries from the bag of supplies that Círdan had been nice enough to bring with him from the city and fed them to the animal resting on his shoulder that was immediately wide awake and accepted the gift happily. Half a dozen of other bats flapped down from the ceiling and landed on his arms and shoulders, obviously looking for treats as well.

"You know what, don't answer that. As you can see, I've got enough company. And my family sees me more often than when we still had land to rule."

 

"If you don't happen to forget your weekly visits, maybe," Círdan replied mercilessly. "They had to do without you for a century already. What are you hiding from, Oropherion? That hut in the village down there is only just waiting for you. You can even bring your cats and your bats."

 

"They don't like most people any more than I do." Thranduil absently caressed one of the bat's fur. "And I'm not hiding. I'm waiting."

 

That again. As someone who had basically made waiting his main profession for Ages, Círdan supposed, it was a little easier for him to see this rationally, so he tried to be kind.

"We shouldn't wait for those who are not yet ready to rejoin us, Oropherion. It's not fair to put pressure on them. Let them find their way back in their own time."

 

"I am. Why do you think I'm still around instead of just burying myself in here right next to that dwarf my son brought here last year?" Thranduil emptied his wine in one go – at least that gulp still had its old energy.

When he tried to get up, presumably to get more, he sank back with a quiet hiss and stretched out his leg with a grimace, absently rubbing his shin through the shabby leather of his breeches.

 

"One of your cats bit you?" This time, he just had to ask. Since he obviously would not achieve anything here, maybe he could, at least, send Legolas' wife up here to patch up her father-in-law once more before Thranduil could possibly succumb to some damn blood poisoning or something.

 

There was a new shadow on that pallid face that Círdan couldn't quite place. "They only eat things without a spine, don't worry. The season is changing, that's all."

 

"Battle scars?" That made even less sense than being nibbled on by his own beasts but if there was anyone dramatic enough in these lands to suffer from his brain reminding him even of Ages-old injuries, it was probably a son of the house Oropherion.

 

"Falling rocks."

 

"Surely you jest." Yes, definitely masochistic tendencies. Those seemed to be in the family. "Tell me again why you live here?"

 

"One would suppose, you of all people should know that you never leave a lighthouse unmanned." For a while, Thranduil said nothing after that.

Only when he realized Círdan made no move to leave before he hadn't got any kind of satisfying answer to take back to the King's relatives, he took an exasperated sigh and limped back to his pantry for another bottle. Then he sat down by the cave exit, with his back to his visitor. With his hand deeply buried in the thick, black fur of one of his companions, he stared away to where the sun was starting to go down and let his thoughts and words stray.

 

 

 

 

 

S.A. 751

 

 

His father had not been happy about this trip. They were still in the middle of building their settlement for everyone who had not been ready to go to a realm they'd never been interested in but did also have no real home left after those insane Fëanorians had come. There would have been far too much to do in the camp for exploring hikes.

But it had been months, and Thranduil was certain, if he waited any longer for finding that tribe of locals that they'd run to in their first week here, he would surely fade from yearning. This time, there would be no misunderstandings, hopefully. He'd tried his best to make sure of that, in what little time they'd spent in these woods so far, whenever he'd seen one of those people wandering and inhabiting them. At least he wouldn't end up at the wrong end of a bow anymore so quickly.

Hopefully.

 

Maybe the she-elf would shoot him just on principle if he should actually manage to track her down. She hadn't exactly left the impression that she wanted to see him again.

Then again, it wasn't like they could have talked about it.

 

Since trying to forget that encounter and focusing on his duties hadn't helped to forget those beautiful blue eyes, that bright, soft hair, that flawless rosy skin that Thranduil kept on seeing in his mind, he might as well try and make sure, there was really no future for this little dream before he could fully turn to his own.

Not to mention that there were rumors, these mountains held the most beautiful surprises to harvest. If they wanted to make a living here, they needed things to trade with. So technically, Thranduil was still doing his job, even if it was for slightly selfish purposes …

A loud rumble outside the cave he'd spent the last few hours in had him startle and blink in confusion when he suddenly realized how long he'd been in here already, working on a particularly promising looking wall with the pick he'd wisely brought. It was so dark outside already that the torch he'd jammed between his backpack and said wall hardly offered enough light to really see what was doing.

Well, it seemed, he would have a few more hours to amateurishly try and get anything useful from this place. That thunderstorm suddenly raging in the sky was not something he cared to be caught in.

He shook out his tired arm and then gave the massive rock in front of him another frustrated blow. His eyes lit up in delight when instead of the dull shades of grey, he could suddenly see a beautiful, grass green glistening in that hole he'd managed to cut. Finally …

 

Before he could raise his pick again, eager to free at least a little piece of that gem from its prison, another, far louder noise right above his head had him startle. That sounded like a bolt had right hit the roof of this little hideout … The threatening crack in the low-hanging ceiling warned him that it was that, exactly, what had happened.

With a quiet curse, he grabbed his backpack and hurried towards the exit, but it was too late. Another lightning strike, so loud, he thought he would go deaf, thick dust collecting in the air that clogged up his throat and made it hard to find his way … Somehow, he almost made it out of the unexpected trap anyway, but when he could almost feel the rain-damp air on his face, a hit to the back of his head from a first piece of rock breaking off forced him to his knees. His ears were ringing, blood dripping on the collar of his cloak and tunic. The world was spinning around him in a haze, but somehow, he made it to remember he needed to get out of here, and fast …

Pushing himself up on his elbows with effort, he tried to get back on his feet, but a far louder, menacing crack right above him had him turn around with sudden dread, growing panic.

Then his leg exploded with a whole ocean of pain and he knew nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

The sound of singing from afar woke him, though his mind stubbornly refused to accept that he was not still asleep, seeing as exactly that soft, deep voice had haunted his wildest dreams for so long. Trying in vain to remember where he was and why he couldn't move without screaming out in agony, he raised his head, tried to make out anything in the night, but with the moon and the stars hiding, he wouldn't have been able to tell the shapes of the tall firs around from a person's.

 

What he could see though was the massive silhouette of a huge animal just a few feet away from him. So that was where that stench of sickness and hunger and wet fur was coming from. The hungry growl from the bear's throat was almost as loud as the storm earlier, and there was madness in it. A creature on the brink of death on a desperate hunt for easy food.

 

And seeing as there was a boulder in the size of a wine barrel burying his leg from his knee down, Thranduil better hoped that the she-elf who was singing a song of warning and distraction out there in the woods knew what she was doing before he would become the main course.

His own songs failed him with a voice rough from suppressing moans, and his hand trembled so badly, he could hardly unfasten his dagger from his belt, looking ridiculously small and weak in the light of a threat ten times his size.

 

But it was apparently enough for the animal to feel provoked and took another step towards him, long claws scraping across the muddy ground. The whistle of an arrow only an inch away from its head made it stop, its black eyes staring in uncertainty on the weapon stuck in the ground right next to Thranduil now; obviously, it had seen one of this before, maybe even had suffered its wounds from one. The bear dared to take another, slow step but when the next arrow grazed its fur this time without even drawing a single hair, it let out an angry roar and turned on its heel, running off as quickly as its weakened condition allowed it.

 

"What did you think to do with this? Cut your throat before he would have? Eru in the sky, were you outlanders born with not a single thought in your pretty heads?" By the time the archer knelt down next to him, she was very busy ranting in her own tongue.

 

Given that she'd just saved his life, Thranduil decided, he could forgive her insolence.

Thinking about it, he was also pretty sure, he would forgive this she-elf everything and anything if only she would just not leave him again without a trace. He tried to say something reassuring, maybe about how beautiful her hair was in the moonlight or that she really needed to show him how to point an arrow like that, but all that came from his lips was a pitiful moan.

 

A surprisingly gentle hand came to rest on his forehead, and for a second, the pain was silent. "Quiet. I know." When she spoke again, she did so, surprisingly, in accent-colored but flawless Sindarin. "My people can help. Our healers are good. I just need to get you out of there. This will really hurt, stranger. Think you can keep those screams down before any more predators show up?"

 

"You really think I'm pretty?" he asked instead of an answer, in the language of her people, and she would probably kill him now for one of those two things, but the look on her face had definitely been worth it.

 

"Maybe when you don't have a cave collapse on your head in your stupidity," she answered at last. That cute, natural red on her cheeks had turned a little deeper, he was almost sure. His heart stopped a beat or two when she bent down to press her lips to his forehead. Even if it was only to lure his mind into a numbness that it would desperately need in a second, it was the best thing he'd ever felt. "Tell me what you were doing here, in this weather?"

 

"Looking for a gift." The first slow movement of the rock made it hard, keeping that smile on his lips. Keeping his eyes fixed on her slender shape, her broad archer shoulders, on that simply braided, thick hair, helped, turning his thoughts away from the terrible, overwhelming pain of crushed bones and mangled flesh. "In our culture, we bring jewels when we are looking to court someone. I hoped you would like a necklace better than the weapons we aimed at each other last time."

 

The blush definitely had reached the roots of her hair at this point. "I didn't think you remembered."

Just when he was about to give her an offended answer, she gave the boulder a last, necessary push.

 

The darkness came faster, fortunately, than the next scream on his lips.

 

 

 

 

 

By the time his consciousness returned next, they were on their way to her home, wherever that was at the moment. The agony from his leg that was covered in makeshift bandages and splints had not got any better, but it was a lot easier to bear, he found, with his face buried against the velvety skin of a fine neck.

 

She was carrying him with ease and ran swiftly, and Thranduil thought, he might love her a little already.

Her skin was the sweet, heavy scent of roses.

 

"Thank you," he murmured, too worn out from a beginning fever and injury to even lift his head – not that he wanted to. Especially not since he was pretty sure, there were shivers on that spot where his lips had touched her skin.

 

"You really learned my language, stranger?" She sounded kinder, now that they were out of the danger zone, and a good deal astonished.

 

"I wanted to be prepared for when we meet next." He managed to smile, too, somehow, but the still very alive memory of how stupidly he had failed back in that cave quickly brought the gloom back. "I'm afraid your gift will have to wait though."

 

"That is alright, outlander." Her laughter was the sound of crystal bells, and his heart ached. "The gem that can convince me to give my life to any elf hasn't been dug up yet."

 

Thranduil decided that was a challenge worth accepting.

 

 

 

 

 

Fo.A. 121

 

 

"You think you'll find it here?" Círdan asked after a few moments of thoughtful silence. It was rare that the former King spoke of the one he'd lost, and Círdan suddenly found himself wishing he'd met Merilas on another occasion than over war and death.

He might have asked her if she knew how much this disaster of an elf really needed her.

 

"No. But I want her to know, I'll never stop trying." The second bottle that day was emptied, and Thranduil finally staggered to his feet, making his way back to the closed-off part of his rocky residence without as much as a tired wave, hopefully for a good night of sleep for once instead of lying awake and lamenting the past.

 

Círdan let him go, for now.

But when he climbed his way back down over that mad, life-threateningly steep wall protecting the King's new lair from prying eyes, he wondered if it maybe was time to collect a few favors from the Valar.

Chapter Text

T.A. 3003

 

 

"You're the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."

 

"And you're dehydrated to the bone. Stop talking."

Legolas briefly rested two knuckles on his companion's sweat-covered forehead and cursed silently. The Ranger's body temperature was rising far too quickly, and Legolas had run out of means to do anything about it. Without provisions, the man wouldn't make it through another day of their ordeal, if the spider poison in his cells didn't kill him before that. Where there were hallucinations, cramps, and organ failure wasn't far.

By the stars, why did mannish bodies have to be so fragile?

 

His harsh tone had apparently reached even Estel's heavily clouded mind. For a moment, he stopped his unintelligible mumbling and lay still, only a faint grimace of pain distorting his dry lips as shivers wrecked his body. It was getting worse.

 

Legolas unclasped his cloak and wrapped it around the man's curled-up silhouette before rising from the muddy ground to peek through the cracks and holes of this almost hollowed tree that he'd managed to drag his hunting companion into at the last moment before one of them or both could have ended up as dinner for a whole flock of spiders.

 

Unfortunately, those still hadn't given up on their prey, as the scurrying movements of thick, hairy legs, dark as a starless night, outside their hiding place let him know. Those bastards were patient and smart; they knew exactly that they outnumbered them and that Legolas had run out of weapons.

 

His bow had fallen victim to the supernaturally strong jaw of the herd's leader when Legolas had had to give up his cover to pull Estel out of the line of fire, after his friend had got himself a new piercing right through his lower abdomen, in the shape of a spider stinger the girth of an arm. And while Estel's bow was still somewhat intact, they wouldn't make it far on the two arrows they had left.

It was amazing how much could go wrong in one single attack maneuver.

"How come you and I always end up in situations like this?"

 

He hadn't even been really aware that he was talking loud but apparently, not all of Estel's senses were completely dulled by poison and sickness.

"No idea," he slurred. "But when we get home, would you consider marrying me?"

 

In spite of the dangerous situation, Legolas had to bite back a grin. "Estel ... I'm not Arwen. And even if I was: You two got betrothed more than 20 years ago."

 

"Oh." Estel frowned in confusion, then the dreamy smile returned. "I'm a very lucky man then."

 

Right now, Legolas would argue against that, but he was too glad that Elrond's foster son didn't seem to be in too much pain for the moment to remind him of his lousy condition.

And well, when it came to Arwen, he wasn't wrong. As many doubts as Legolas had had in the beginning: The two of them were indeed made for each other. And the fact that his best friend among elves happened to be Estel's mate was a damn good motivation to get the two of them out of here alive somehow. If Legolas only managed to bring back the man's body damaged beyond repair or dead, Arwen would cut his heart out with a spoon before Lord Elrond had a chance to.

But they were running out of time, he realized, his heart sinking, when he took a brief look under the makeshift bandage he had wrapped around Estel's waist.

 

The margins of the wounds were discolored almost black, angry red and dark blue stripes covering the man's skin all the way up to his fuzz-covered chest. If those poisonings reached his heart, there was little that even a healer could still have done.

 

And Legolas was about the furthest from such a profession, in fact having learned most of the basic skills in treatment and herbology from his mannish friend right here in the last few years.

"I really hope you are as stubborn as they say, Ranger." He rubbed his eyes tiredly, deliberately ignoring the sensation of a well-known burning in them that came neither from sweat nor from the tears of growing despair sitting far too close to the surface in the last hour or so. That was the last thing he could pay attention to right now. If he couldn't think of any solution soon, it wouldn’t make much of a difference if his eyes might fail him again in the process. Then this deep friendship with this courageous, intelligent, incredibly empathic man whom he was proud to call his companion, would be parted by their different fates at the end of their lives before it had really begun, ever until the world broke.

Legolas was not ready to say goodbye to another person in his life so soon.

"Estel." Ignoring the sour, unpleasant scent of too many days of no care and no provisions coming from both at them at this point, he bent down lower to take Estel's reddened face between his hands, humming a few words of one of the few songs of healing of the mind that he knew and could do, to try and clear those feverish thoughts of his patient at least long enough to make sure, the man would understand him.

"I need to leave you alone. They'll never find us here in time. I'll try to outrun the spiders. Our marchwarden's nearest base isn't far, I can make that."

 

Estel's eyes went wide. He arched up but fell back on the bed of moss that Legolas had built for him with a pained scream. "No, no, you can't …"

 

"We have no choice." Legolas gently freed himself from a suddenly surprisingly strong grip around his wrist. "Stay low. They can't get to you."

He shook off the effects of his own lack of sustenance and water and took a deep breath to focus before slowly edging closer to the hole they'd used to crawl in here, only to be stopped once more, this time by a far too-softly strung bowstring grazing his wrist.

"We talked about this." He tried in vain to give the weapon back to his friend who would need it much more if the spiders should find a way to rip the ramshackle bark of this oak after all.

 

If Estel even remembered how to nock at that time. Not that a last shot or two would help then. But at least it was a chance.

 

"I can't fight them armed so low. I need to be faster than them."

 

"Not outside." Estel shook his head with as much determination as he could breathe through the fire burning in his veins. His words failed him, lost in another feeble groan, so he just nodded upwards towards the treetop.

 

Legolas still had no clue what his friend meant at first, seeing as their hideout stood lonely in an otherwise barren field and he, therefore, had no escape route in the air. That would have cut this whole crisis a lot shorter indeed.

 

But then Estel managed to get a small flask from his belt, in spite of his badly trembling hand. They'd both got one of these from Legolas' father before leaving the palace, only Legolas had emptied his morning booze on the way to this nest already. He should be thankful, his mannish friend was a lot less into liquid breakfast.

 

Where had he been with his thoughts the whole time? "Great. You couldn't have come up with that idea two days ago?"

 

Estel, albeit already on his way back into delirious- and unconsciousness, was still lucid enough to grunt an insult in his own language at him.

At least some things never changed, not even closed in surrounded by spiders and on the brink of death.

 

Legolas grabbed two rocks for the much-needed spark, their last arrows, and that simply-built but quite effective bow and started to climb.

One burning arrow in the sky and a few anxious minutes of waiting later, the sound of thunderous hoof beats brought the relief that his father's soldiers had already been nearby and now finally knew where exactly to look for them.

With a hiss of relief, Legolas slipped back down the last few feet in the narrow tunnel of wood and crouched down next to Estel again, checking with nervous fingertips the man's breathing and pulse, finding both still to be sufficiently working. Once more, they were luckier than they probably deserved it, given how many mistakes they still made when they were out here fighting together.

"You think we can make it not to almost get each other killed for a change when you visit next, Ranger?"

 

"Where would be the fun in that?" Estel chuckled.

 

Legolas was too tired to even pretend to be shocked.

Chapter Text

T.A. 3019

 

 

While the night had been somewhat bearable, mostly thanks to a lot of pain-relieving tea and the almost complete absence of dreams and panic attacks, waking up was the real nightmare.

The evening before, the healing touch of someone Éowyn had expected last to see here, in these halls for the injured, had thankfully had chased away the worst of memories from fighting the Witch-king. Yet when Aragorn had left her at last, to care for others who needed him just as badly, Éowyn's thoughts had been heavy with grief and regret, not only over the losses she had suffered in this battle but also from the humiliating reminder that this was the closest she would ever get to the man her treacherous heart was still aching for a little.

 

That there would surely always be that insightful empathy, bordering a little too close to pity for her taste, in Aragorn's narrow grey eyes when he beheld her, but never the affection and attraction she'd been hoping for a while. While she was eternally grateful that he had freed her of the worst of pain and also assured her, she would not lose use of that shattered arm if she gave it time to heal, she wondered if she would ever be able to look him at him longer again.

Especially now that he had seen with his own two eyes how fragile and vulnerable she really was.

 

Falling asleep had been a relief with all those gloomy contemplations on her mind.

But now the first of morning sun was falling through the cracks in the ramshackle ceiling high above her head, tickling her too-dry skin; her body, used to early rising for a morning ride to meet the sun, betrayed her. Too dazed and sleepy to remember she needed to lie still, she turned to her side instinctively and screamed out before she'd even opened her eyes. The barely mended fractures from her left shoulder almost down to her wrist felt like there were red-hot pokers buried inside her flesh.

 

A beloved, well-known hand that still bore traces of dried blood and mud from yesterday's disaster came to rest on her good shoulder and carefully pushed her back down while she was still trying to fight the tears running down her cheek and catch her breath.

"Easy, sis. I told them to not tie you down. Don't make me regret it."

 

"Have you been here all night?" Éowyn gritted her teeth, suppressing groans from her lips because that pain on her left side never quite ended. The tea had lost its effect, and once her mind would be orientated enough to really understand that, the next few hours would make her wish, she'd rather have died. She'd broken bones in the occasional battle training she'd persuaded some soldier to give her as a child or while diving from her horse headfirst in her youth often enough to know that.

But if she asked her brother to get her a new cup of herbs now, she was pretty sure, she would not see him again for a long time – if ever, a treacherous, sober voice whispered in the back of her head. While neither Éomer nor Aragorn had told her a lot about how things were going, she was not naïve enough to think this war was over yet.

 

And after their uncle's demise, a thought that still wrecked her darkened soul with the force of the mace that had ruined her arm, her brother was the only man both Gondor's representatives and their own people could turn to in this time of ongoing fear and suffering. He would not have much time for Éowyn in the future, no matter how this whole conflict would end.

All the more thankful she was that he had apparently worried enough about her to forego even a few badly-needed minutes of sleep. It looked uncomfortable, the way he stretched his limbs with a grimace and cracked his neck before he could get up and sit down by her bedside. His sand blond hair was matted with blood that was hopefully not his own, and the tell-tale sour odor of days at a stretch without proper care or even a change of clothing was heavy on both of them. The idiot had not even taken his armor off yet.

"Last time I left you alone that didn't end so well." It was meant to be a joke, but that smile tugging on the left side of his mouth was missing a lot of its usual mirth.

 

"Really? You only stayed so you could finally say, I told you so?" No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t put anger in her voice. Instead, it started to tremble suspiciously, and she had to turn her gaze away from the broken expression in her brother's dark eyes.

 

He didn't deserve her irritation, and he didn't deserve how much she had made him worry in those past few days. Especially not since he had been right from the start, not being happy about her ambitions in battle.

 

"I'm sorry. I just … I couldn't stay back. I just couldn't."

 

"Éowyn." She couldn't remember when her brother had last spoken her name with so much gentleness, so much amused adoration. The last years had been filled with too much argument and dread of the future for that. "Look at me, little bee."

 

Her eyes filled with tears again immediately, and this time, it was useless to try and hide them. "Théodred always called me that." Her lips were numb, her eyes red and swollen again, or still, from her wounds on the out- and inside.

 

But the way Éomer was smiling at her even through the suspicious glistening in his own eyes, honestly and openly this time, healed at least a few of these miles-deep holes in her soul. "I know. So did uncle when he thought, you wouldn't hear. Like me, they both knew you would never rest, never stop until you would get what you wanted, and that you would fight for your people to your own last breath if need be. It was just one of the things they both loved you so much for, sis. That's how we have to keep them alive. By remembering them and doing what they believed in."

 

"You're not angry with me?" she asked cautiously, gladly holding on to his soothing, grounding touch when he grabbed her good hand, wiping off her tears with the other.

 

"Are you joking? I'm so angry, I wish I could lock you in your room for the rest of your life. But we both know damn well I love you far too much for that," Éomer quickly added when she winced and lowered her eyes.

"Just promise me you'll give yourself time to heal before you throw on some armor next."

 

That was a promise she could easily give him.

"I'm glad you're alright." She pressed a brief kiss to his hand, carefully avoiding the small cuts and bruises from the battle she could see there. "And I will be, too. It's time for you now to get some medicine and a healer."

 

"Can't." Éomer grimaced a little, it looked decidedly uncomfortable. "The Captains of the West are coming together soon. We need to decide how to go on." It was very clear he wasn't quite seeing himself in the role of the leader here yet that had been forced on him yesterday. But these were choices beyond both of them at this point.

 

Éowyn could only support her brother with words now, at least until she could even breathe again without pain. And perhaps, if she managed to, put a grin on his face from time to time. "Then take a bath before you join them at least. You don't exactly smell like a King right now."

 

"Look who's talking." Éomer flicked a few greasy, tangled curls from her forehead and kissed it briefly and said goodbye then with another deep sigh. Not without assuring her though that he would be back to see her in any case, no matter what they would decide in this meeting today. That was all she needed to know for now.

"And Éowyn?" She'd just decided to give sleep another chance and closed her eyes when his voice had her look up with a frown once more. It wasn't often that she heard embarrassment from her proud brother. "I am very proud of you."

 

He hurried away before she could answer anything, but that one honest, solemn sentence that she'd been waiting for so long, made the long time of waiting about to start at least a little easier to deal with.

Chapter Text

T.A. 2981

 

 

"What were you thinking?"

When the last of grey-skinned, screeching enemies had fallen victim to an arrow of his, at last, Aragorn wasted no time sprinting towards the pile of huge rocks where he'd last seen one of his foster brothers.

 

For the other, he looked out in vain for the moment and very much hoped that wouldn't be another problem on his hands in a minute. Elladan had ridden off once he'd been sure Elrohir and Aragorn could handle the rest of this highly violent orc tribe, to chase down a few escapees and keep them, with the usual tranquilizing shots, from attacking yet another village of Men anytime soon before reinforcements from Imladris could handle them for good.

 

And things had gone entirely smoothly for a while; nothing more than a few light scratches and a pulled muscle or two. But then an orc had jumped from the top of that damn broken monument unexpectedly, almost decapitating Aragorn in the process, and Elrohir had apparently promptly forgotten that Aragorn had been well capable of taking care of his own behind for the last two decades or so, thank you very much.

That had been a pretty brutal impact against the stony surface when his brother had hurried to his side and another of the dark creatures had used the moment of Elrohir's cover dropping to ram him with his whole massive, plump body, slowed down only marginally by the dagger Aragorn had thrown at his chest. So Aragorn had not exactly been surprised that Elrohir hadn't rejoined him in taking care of the last of these bastards.

Since the orc had stopped moving immediately once the elvish blade that had cut through his armor like butter, there had been no reason to worry about anything but Elrohir's thick head hurting for a few hours when he woke up.

 

How wrong he was about that, Aragorn only realized when he hoisted the enemy's lifeless body from his brother's with some effort and a single look at Elrohir's ashen face and his fluttering eyelids let him know something wasn't right at all.

Then he saw the quickly growing pool of blood staining the dried-out grass below them.

"What …?" Dread and guilt about his own ignorance pooling in his stomach, he dropped next to his brother's lithe shape, agitated hands searching for some kind of wound that Elrohir's dark leather tunics were still hiding from him.

 

"Whoa, save that for my sister." Judging by Elrohir's slurred but mostly amused voice when he came around, he hadn't even realized it himself that the enemy had done some possibly fatal damage before his death. "Did you get them all?"

Ignoring Aragorn's attempt to hold him still by his shoulder, Elrohir braced himself up on his elbows and tried to sit up but fell back with a hiss and reached down to his loins, eyes widening in shock when his hand came back up covered in blood.

Well, there it was.

 

"Lie still," Aragorn gritted through his teeth, already busy with bandages and the bag of herbs on his belt. But now that he actually knew what he was looking for, his heart was sinking faster with every passing second.

 

Some dagger tip, probably, or a sharp edge of the orc's armor. Whatever it was that had grazed Elrohir's body there right next to his left hip bone had ripped open the possibly worst patch of flesh. No matter how thick the bundle of linen Aragorn used to press down on the bleeding, it was soaked through red almost immediately.

Now, finally, it reached Elrohir's clouded mind, too, that he was in a lot of trouble. He turned another shade paler, thin lips tight as he took the next makeshift bandage from Aragorn's hand and shoved it down on the wound himself, using the superior strength of his people, which elicited a sickening crack of bones and a suppressed groan from his lips and still didn't seem to help a lot.

"You need to find Elladan. This is a case for a song, not for herbs."

 

"If you think I'm leaving you here, you have forgotten more about me in the last few years than is befit for your race."

Aragorn rummaged in his bag once more but couldn't come up with anything helpful. His most effective tools were back in his chambers in Elrond's palace. Eru, he'd never let his brothers go on a hunt with him without any armor on.

 

"Estel, we don't have time …"

 

"Exactly. We don't." He rested his hand on Elrohir's forehead, then on his cheek, trying his best to swallow the panic that started to choke him. "You're shivering. Keep your eyes on me, 'Ro. Don't even think about it. You'd be dead before we returned."

 

"I'm afraid that's yesterday's news, little brother." The sudden exhausted melancholy in Elrohir's smile hit Aragorn like a punch to the gut and increased his hopelessness. He'd seen this look on too many friends in his time in the armies of Men, and not a lot of them had left that respective battlefield alive. That damn bandage was already useless again, rivulets of thick red pouring through Elrohir's long fingers almost unhindered.

When Aragorn reached for the same spot once more, Elrohir stopped him with his other, still surprisingly strong hand around his wrist. "Useless, Estel. You'd need to sew or sing it shut, and you can't do either. So stop and listen to me. I need you to tell ada … What are you doing?"

 

"Something more productive than listen to your will."

Involuntarily, when Aragorn had almost been close to giving up himself, Elrohir had given him an idea for a last desperate measure. It was insane and would probably fail, too, but if he didn't try, he'd have to watch one of his foster brothers die in just a few minutes anyway. He wasn't exactly gentle when he grabbed Elrohir's chin and pushed his head to the side to open the two clasps of the long, narrow jewel his brother was wearing from the pointed tip of his ear down almost to his lobe. A gift of the twins' mother if Aragorn remembered right, and it didn't feel proper to defile it like that, but he was pretty sure Celebrían would have agreed with him that Elrohir's life was a lot more important than a little silver and a couple of crystals.

He took the sharp-edged gem between his lips to clean it at least superficially and fumbled with the lock of a fragile necklace next that Arwen had given him for his last birthday. "You were saying?"

He still wasn't overly interested in whatever last words for his family Elrohir was trying to give him, at least not until he could be sure he would actually have to hear them. But as long as his brother was talking, he was alive, and as long as he was distracted, he wouldn't think too hard about why Aragorn was hooking the end of that chain to the broader end of the earring.

 

"I'm saying you need to learn how to give up a battle when it's over." The elf's warm, deep voice was starting to sound concerningly slow and quiet, his gaze slowly turning unfocused.

A moment later, life returned to those heavy eyes, pupils going wide in new shock, and a shrill scream tore from Elrohir's lips. Good. Not exactly merciful but hopefully the energy that his body would need if Aragorn wanted to keep it alive until help would come.

 

An uncoordinated hand tried to push him away instinctively, but he'd expected that and leaned down on his brother's chest with one knee, blocking both Elrohir's arms and his eyes from having to witness how Aragorn punctured the improvised, far too-thick needle through already butchered flesh a second time, this time on the other side of that gaping cut.

 

The scream was even louder this time, followed by a dry retch and a confused, pleading whimper.

 

But Aragorn didn't stop, no matter how badly it tore his heart in two, having to give someone he loved so much such terrible pain. His hands worked as automatically as a song of healing left his lips, not half as powerful as anything an elvish healer could have done, but it would bring at least some urgently needed heaviness and calmness into his brother's soul while Aragorn pulled this makeshift thread of silver through tho holes he'd punched and tugged close whatever was left of Elrohir's skin in this critical spot.

 

The hand clenched tightly in his cloak fell to the ground, and there was no more screaming, but his brother was still breathing, and that was all that counted for now. Six more holes and a firm knot later, there was at least hardly any more blood for the moment.

 

Aragorn fell to the ground with a sound somewhere between a sigh and a sob on his lips and raised his hands to his face to wipe it, only to realize that his gloves and fingertips were bathed in red. Suddenly, he felt a little like throwing up himself.

 

Fortunately, he had no time to think about for long what by the stars he'd just done there, because in the distance, he could hear the thunderous beat of barefoot hoofs on the ground, letting him know, Elladan had probably heard his brother's wailing either from the distance or in their mental twin bond and given up on the last of enemies he might still have caught. Right now, there were far more important things to do.

 

Aragorn had no illusions that once this war would get really bad as Mithrandir had foreseen it, there were many people in his life, elf and man and other friends alike, whom he'd have to say goodbye to, but this was not such a day.

The shadow had not triumphed yet.

Chapter Text

T.A. 3019

 

 

When Aragorn used the chance of the next necessary change of bandage being done for him by Ioreth, to leave his currently most important patient in this camp for a moment, in favor of another brief visit to the hobbits' tent, he was promptly faced with a surprise.

 

Sam was sitting on his cot wide-awake, with a bowl of porridge in his hand. After all, the prior morning had been quite a hard one for the little heroes, and for Sam, the night had been even longer. But by now, Aragorn really should know the halflings' famous resilience and ability to recover rapidly well enough.

 

"I see you're well taken care of," he remarked with an amicable grin, sitting down by the bed right next to Sam's first because Sam wouldn't have given him a second of peace anyway if he hadn't made sure first thing, Frodo was as alright as could be at this point.

 

On Sam's closest friend, the ceremony yesterday had taken a bigger toll; he hardly stirred in his sleep when Aragorn unwrapped the slightly red- and yellow soaked linen from his left hand and applied a new layer of salve to the ugly but well-healing wound that Gollum's teeth had left where once most of Frodo's index finger had been. But it was a good rest, a deep one without bad dreams. Occasionally, there was even a faint smile on the hobbit's full lips, and his cheeks had a bit of the rosy shade so typical for many of this folk back.

 

Aragorn's satisfied nod had Sam sink further against the pillow in his back with a breath of relief. He went right back to devouring the content of his bowl, without much enthusiasm though. "It's porridge. One would think, even someone as untalented in cooking as a healer could mess that up. Once they let me out of here, I'll have to show these people in the camp kitchen how to swing a spoon."

 

"I'm sure they'll be very grateful."

Aragorn sat down next to Sam with a chuckle and motioned him to scoot forward a little and bunch up the simple, bright tunic the healers had given him for his stay here. "A few deep breaths please." With his fingertips gently resting between the hobbits' shoulder blades, he focused his senses completely on any possible irregularity in his breathing, completely blocking out the hustle in the camp from soldiers and other healers outside, as his stepfather had taught Aragorn early on.

The result of the little test left him with a frown.

 

Being exposed to the poisoned air of Mordor for so long had not even left the usually quite sturdy lungs of a halfling unaffected. That exhausted rustling deep in Sam's chest still hadn't completely gone away.

Not to mention that his little friend was still almost embarrassingly bony for one of his people.

 

"I know it's not of your taste, Sam, but do try to eat a little more. You have lots to catch up with. I'll make sure they'll send you an extra plate with fruit." He squeezed his patient's shoulder softly and hurried to the fire in the corner to put up another pot of the herbal paste for compresses that would hopefully help the two friends' bodies forget the horrible place they'd been to for far too long.

Busying himself with his stash of plants and stoking the fire was easier than dealing with Sam's quizzical stare, too, which was following him ever since he'd entered.

 

Unfortunately, even an etiquette of politeness and discretion towards a future King could only keep someone like Sam quiet for so long. "Strider? How are they doing?"

 

"The she-elf from Lórien is mostly stable, not least thanks to your intervention," he answered flatly, without turning around. Staring dully down into the bubbling green water, his physical and mental exhaustion once more caught up with him. Of course, he couldn't escape his biggest worry after Sauron's demise even in the few minutes that he didn't spend in the tent where he was needed most right now. For that, Sam had seen too much last night.

"If Legolas keeps an eye on her, I think she will be alright. Life in Middle-earth will not be easy for her as is the case for most elves who have heard the call of the sea. But I am hoping, her betrothed's love will keep that wound closed ever until they will join their families in Aman one day. Alright, that should be enough."

Without giving Sam another chance to speak, he turned away from the fire, towards the exit and the place that was calling him back more insistently by the second. "When Ioreth comes to see you in an hour, tell her to soak new clothes with the stock for Frodo and you. Do not take it off your chest before nightfall."

 

"Lady Arwen is going to make it, Strider," Sam said quietly before he could flee from someone who had become one of his closest friends like from an enemy. "I just know that."

 

"I'm afraid, not even the Valar would know that right now, Sam." Aragorn tiredly wiped his forehead, then his eyes, making a note in his head that he urgently had to brew himself a cup of hillside herb tea before he could put his hands on Arwen's critically injured body again. He had no idea if there was anything he could do against that terrible wound she'd suffered, only because she had wanted to be by his side in this last battle, but it definitely wouldn't heal if he collapsed on top of it, passing out.

 

"The Valar are not here, are they?" Sam objected with a kind of cynicism Aragorn had not heard from the hobbit before they'd parted in the middle of the war. That hurt more than every wound either of them had suffered afterward. "None of them did anything to help the Free Folks get through the war."

 

"I'm pretty sure the Eagles who pulled you out of a volcano not too long ago would disagree." His humor had seen better days, but Aragorn had no time to philosophize about this subject with someone who had no way of knowing that all these little details and good chances and helpful people that the Fellowship had encountered on their dangerous path, had not come to them only by chance. Especially since even he sometimes still had days when he doubted that.

 

"You know what I mean." Even without turning around, he could see the pout on Sam's lips, hear the impatient way he dropped his spoon in his now thankfully-empty bowl. "If Frodo and I had listened to all of those voices that told us to stop because we could never win anyway, would any of us still be here?"

 

"Certainly not." When Aragorn could finally bring himself to turn his head and throw the hobbit another smile, it came from the heart. "Alright then, Master Gamgee. I'll take your word for it. Who knows, maybe the Valar have gifted you with a little foresight? You were right a lot of times since we know each other."

 

"Foresight? Stars above, I would rather kiss a troll." Sam shook himself with a little grimace and curled on his side for another nap.

"But if I'm right, you owe me a bag of pipeweed, Strider."

 

"Gondor's finest, Mister Gamgee."

With a lot more optimism than he'd felt a few minutes ago, Aragorn went back to his betrothed's bed.

Chapter Text

S.A. 3429

 

 

It was easier to keep track of a whole group of whelps than of a single ten-year-old elfling, Thranduil decided. This was definitely not what he had been like as a child.

Merilas and he had stopped by this sick-looking birch right outside the palace gates for what he could swear wasn't more than ten seconds. They'd probably both been thinking the same, seeing the rounded leaves far too dry for this season and the bark moldy: that the latest group of scouts of the enemy must have got far closer to the borders of their home than hoped. Only a quick look with a knife inside a couple of branches and the trunk brought the shaky relief of something as harmless as a bug infection.

Which meant that they'd have to cut the morning walk that they'd planned to go on with their Firstborn even shorter than usual, or at least reroute it to the outskirts of their Halls instead of the surrounding woods, to make sure this wasn't a sickness already spreading to other plants. It wouldn't be the first plague for animal and flower that Sauron's henchmen brought to their home.

 

But when they looked down to collect their own little leaf, Legolas was no longer behind his mother. He was not hiding somewhere between or under the sweeping layers of Thranduil's velvet robe either which he loved to do so ever so often, to give his parents a little startle.

 

This time, it wasn't just a moment of confusion. This time, Thranduil could see the bottomless fear taking hold of his heart immediately mirrored in his wife's wide, deep-blue eyes. The natural red of her cheeks stood out harshly on too pale skin suddenly as a wave of glittering ice cut through the harmonic stream of violet that was their wedding bond in their souls.

Fear.

 

It had been decades since these woods had been safe for even them to roam on their own, not to mention a completely helpless being who had learned little of the world's darkness and cruelty so far. Who would probably run straight into the arms of the nearest orc waiting, with a smile on their lips.

 

They both started running at the same time, past the just as shocked-looking guards patrolling close to the gate who had apparently not noticed anything either, heading straight into the undergrowth. Following the far fainter throb of a bright shining grass-green that was their respective connection to their son in their heads soon turned out to be wholly unnecessary though.

 

A scared and pained, high-pitched crying stabbed into Thranduil's heart like a blade of steel, his stomach dropping even further. It had been one damn minute, just a blink of not looking the right way … If one of those wretched creatures of the Dark Lord invading their realm occasionally had made it that far past their patrols unseen, it would just have been their luck, if their only child had really managed to run into one of those sick bastards …

He stopped short in a combination of relief and worry when Merilas pushed the branches of a thick bilberry bush aside, uncaring about the thorns tugging on her skin. Between them, they could see the familiar silver and white of their son's tunic and breeches and a shimmer of still quite short, gold blond hair.

No orc, no. But not a harmless encounter either, and it wasn't over yet.

 

"Thranduil, don't." Merilas saw him reach for the dagger on his belt before he even felt his hand move himself and stopped him in irritation. "Don't move. Keep an eye on it."

Even in her own anger about the scene and her sorrow for their son's pain, she had realized far faster than him that this was just an unfortunate accident, and that the worst thing they could teach their kid this morning was to react to it with mindless violence.

Almost 4000 years and Merilas could still make him feel like an elfling.

Dropping to her knees next to her son slowly, never leaving the animal lurking just a few feet away out of sight, Merilas pulled Legolas in her arms, careful not to touch the ugly bite wound that a strong predator's jaw had left on his right lower arm. She lovingly caressed his hair when he snuggled up against her, hiding the big tears rolling down his cheeks against her tunic, and sung a few quiet words in an old Silvan dialect into his ear that would numb the panic and the worst of pain at least for a few minutes.

Reaching up without even looking at Thranduil, to grab the makeshift bandage that he'd cut from his sleeve with shaking hands, she stiffened when the lynx female staring at her aggressively let out a growl and a warning shout and quickly lowered her arm again.

"I am not going to hurt you, Princess. Stand down. Look at us. We are equal, you and us." Unwavering, not the smallest nuance of fright in her deep, always slightly hoarse voice, Merilas bent lower to the ground, with their son still in a firm, protective grip against her chest, never letting go of the animal's gaze.

 

The answer was another growl, but it sounded a little quieter now. At least a bit of Thranduil's anxiety faded when the brown and black-spotted animal relaxed its posture, straightening up from that possible deadly jump with bared claws it had meant to make at his son's unprotected shape. But it still stared at the elves very warily and stepped forward another inch, its sinewy body bending to shield the two newborn, still blind kittens by her side.

 

"I know." Merilas smiled, the color returning to her face, and finally, Thranduil could relax as well. There was hardly a creature of light in these woods that his wife could not understand or communicate with; he needed to remember that more often.

"We mean them no harm, I promise you. We're sorry for disturbing you. I know you just wanted to protect them. Will you let me do the same?" This time, when she reached back to Thranduil, far slower, the big cat didn't threaten her although still beholding each of her moves closely.

With the dangerous bleeding stopped by soft linen and another tender kiss to Legolas' head, their own little kitten calmed down for good, so Merilas carefully lowered Legolas to the ground and whispered to him that it was alright now, that he could look.

 

Still sniffling a little, tiny fists clenched around his mother's wide sleeve, Legolas turned to the animals again and repeated his mother's gesture of deeply bowing his head, something she did not show him for the first time. "I'm sorry too," he croaked, in his mother's ancient, lyrical tongue.

"Can we go now?"

 

He had asked his mother, of course, still intimidated by the dangerous scene, but it was the lynx who answered in a far more favorable shout this time. Then she sat down and started to lick her kittens down, not sparing the elves another glance.

 

Thranduil was still very glad when he could lift his son in his arms without further disturbances and they could hurry back towards the palace. Only when Legolas shivered against him, he realized how cold his hands had become.

"You can't do that, little leaf, you hear me? You can't run on us like this."

 

"I'm sorry," Legolas repeated, already tearing up again, not least thanks to the ongoing pain torturing his little body. "I just wanted to pet them."

 

"Not every animal is for petting, little leaf." Thranduil pressed a kiss to his temple. "It's alright. You made amends with her. She knows you're a friend now. We can come back tomorrow and you can watch them, what do you think?"

 

Legolas nodded fiercely against his neck. "Can I give them names?"

 

"I'm sure they'll appreciate it."

Merilas caressed his back with a quiet laugh and then squeezed Thranduil's free hand. It was almost a relief to feel that her palm was covered in a faint sheen of cold sweat as well. That even his fearless, often almost-perfect seeming wife still had her own little moments of weakness. There was one thing that could unsettle her, and it was the same that haunted Thranduil's dreams. The dread of possibly not being there in the wrong moment.

"But you have to promise us never to run away again."

 

Legolas was fast and earnest to promise that.

And at least until the second of great wars against the Dark Lord in his time would wreck Thranduil's life 3000 years later, he would keep his word.

Chapter Text

Fo.A. 5

 

 

"You look stunning today, mîl."

Aragorn thanked his wife with a long kiss for all her extra efforts regarding her appearance today, in spite of those being one of the things she loved least about her royal duties. In their everyday life, fortunately, there was no need to constantly doll up; not least thanks to her Firstborn ancestry, Arwen had that natural, clear, pure beauty about her that mesmerized people whenever she left her chambers, even if it was just one of her simple, heavy government gowns she was wearing or practical riding clothes.

Neither of those were an option for an occasion like today's though, so Arwen had left his bed before the sun had even gone up for her own chambers and the over-enthusiastic maid waiting there, with an expression as if she was supposed to ride to the ruins of Mordor and clean up there alone, instead of just entertaining the people for a little while in the honor of hers and Aragorn's wedding anniversary.

 

Aragorn had somehow managed not to laugh until she'd kicked the door shut behind her. While he could very well sympathize with Arwen's dislike for such dull preparations, it had definitely been worth it, as far as he was concerned.

 

His Queen looked stunning in royal blue, always had, and her personal tailor had once more outdone himself with combining the more traditional, robust Gondorian style with Arwen's roots deeply embedded in Imladris' culture where no resistance against temperatures was necessary and floating, light fabric therefore often replaced sober, heavy colors. After the birth of their offspring, his beloved's tall, lithe silhouette sported a couple of rounder curves than before, and the tailor knew very well how to accentuate those with a tight-laced corset like this. A pearl-studded shawl around Arwen's arms and shoulders hid most of what the dress' top was baring from curious eyes, except for maybe the man sitting by her side during the number of musical performances and theatrical acts in the Citadel's courtyard planned.

 

Aragorn was pretty sure that was an offer he'd indulge in liberally.

 

Which Arwen knew very well, of course, judging by the playful smile around her full lips and the hint of a raised brow, the wink that promised him, he would personally get to take that thing around her chest off tonight, and not with his hands.

But the real eye-catcher were the dozens of braids that Ranír had laid Arwen's jet black hair into, tied off with silver ribbons that faintly reminded of a long-lost relative.

Now if Aragorn could only get her to trade that irritated frown for something more cheerful and optimistic for the crowd that had already gathered at their front door, they were ready to leave.

 

Well, almost. "Have you seen …?"

 

"Is Eldarion ready to lea…?" Arwen stopped in confusion when they started talking at the same time.

"I thought he was in your chambers."

 

"He was, until breakfast. He said he wanted Ranír to sing for him while she did your hair."

A hint of instinctive unease settling in his stomach, Aragorn looked towards the simple wooden door connecting Arwen's chambers to his, which was almost always open anyway, except for such times like today, when the Queen was grooming herself, when she was not decent.

That made it official, he would write a decree as early as tonight, getting rid of that stupid tradition.

"He never came into your bedroom?"

 

"I didn't even hear him, no. Then again, that's hard when your maid keeps on showering you with court gossip. I'll ask the servants. He probably just thought of something better to do. You know how he gets." But Arwen's smile was fuzzy around the edges, her deep blue eyes restless when she darted towards the exit a little too fast. Though it had been years since they had stopped the last of their enemies in their home, a certain paranoia about their little family being safe, neither Arwen nor Aragorn had ever been able to lose.

 

Eldarion had as much nonsense in his head as any five-year-old, but he was also remarkably responsible for his age. And he knew exactly, he wasn't supposed to just roam the Citadel without at least letting his parents know where he was off to.

 

The probably unfounded worry only nagged on Aragorn's soul more harder when he'd looked through every room of both their chambers, including the bath, several times, shouting his son's name with growing tightness in his voice, and there was still no sign of him.

When Arwen came back from her inquiry more than one shade paler, shaking her head, that pressure in his stomach turned to a hard knot.

 

If Eldarion had sneaked out without anyone seeing him, maybe to visit the horse paddock or the soldiers all these levels below the Citadel … The guards had instructions to watch every member of the royal family closely, of course, and not let curious Princelings, in particular, run off without at least one companion, but unfortunately, Eldarion already had both of his parents' talent to all but disappear from sight if he wanted to. Especially with the hustle going on in the courtyard right now he might have easily made it past even the most watchful eyes.

And while it had been long since Arwen and Aragorn had had to fear aggression towards the crown in Minas Tirith, it was still a very big city out there.

 

They had no choice but to dispatch a whole group of soldiers immediately and find a good reason to cancel that celebration without people having to worry that there was yet another shadow to Gondor returning when they should long have lived in peace and unity. And then hope that their son had just fallen asleep in his pony's box.

 

Aragorn was halfway out of the room already when a noise tickled his subconsciousness that he would usually not even have perceived. He probably had his tense nerves to thank for noticing that there was a quiet thud coming from some corner, not from some servants hanging up a few last decorations in the garden. From a heavy wooden trunk, to be exact, where Arwen kept some of her lesser-needed clothes.

With three long steps, he was there and tore the lid open, a strangled noise somewhere between relief and fear coming from his lips when he found indeed his son's fragile shape huddled between dozens of layers of velvet and linen.

 

Eldarion only seemed half-conscious; they were lucky that he'd still managed to make himself noticeable at all, after apparently climbing in here to hide from them as he so often liked to do to tease them, and that lid falling shut for some reason then. The heat had left the child's round cheeks red and sweaty, but the rest of his skin was far too pale, and he was wheezing alarmingly when Aragorn lifted him in his arms under Arwen's wide-eyed gaze, carrying him to the sofa with shaking knees.

There were a few scratches and bruises on Eldarion's hands, apparently from trying to free himself, and two nails had broken off, but those traces were wholly neglectable damages compared to what not getting enough air for Eru knew how long might have done to this vulnerable, skinny body …

 

"Arwen! Water, quickly."

Aragorn put his hands carefully around his son's face, two fingertips caressing the too-hot forehead, a few choked syllables of soothing and clearing in Sindarin on his lips. He couldn't sense any signs of unnatural hollowness and clouding in Eldarion's unblemished soul, but his abilities in this regard had always been far inferior to those of his Firstborn ancestors.

"Come on, little star, wake up. Look at me, please …"

 

"Ada?" Finally, those grey, swollen eyes started to focus again, and once blinked free of sleep, they filled with tears immediately. Eldarion wrapped his arms around Aragorn's neck, sobbing between small coughs, and for once, that was a really beautiful noise.

"I couldn't get out," the boy whispered, visibly shaken, when Arwen knelt down next to the sofa as well and handed him a big glass. "I wanted to show you how good I can hide. But it's so hot and tight in there. And then it wouldn't open ..."

 

"It's alright, little star." Arwen pressed a kiss to Eldarion's cheek. It was very easing to see that their son was already doing well enough again to grimace at the scent of the heavy perfume that Ranír had spread on Arwen's neck. "Just remember that next time, alright? When you're alone, no going in places when you can't be sure you can't get out by yourself. And you did hide very well," she added with a nervous chuckle. "You certainly get that from your father."

 

Eldarion beamed. "Someday I'll be even better than him!"

 

"I have no doubt." Aragorn straightened out Eldarion's messy dark blonde hair a little but gave it up soon. That was another case for Ranír's magic.

"Come on now. The singers and actors will be waiting for us soon, and you still need to get changed."

 

"Do I have to?" Eldarion sounded about as enthusiastic about that prospect as his mother had not too long ago. There was the same pout on his lips, too.

 

Somehow, Aragorn managed to stay serious anyway. "The tailor would be very disappointed if you don't appreciate his hard work. But if you hurry now and be good for Ranír, I'll tell the cooks to save a few of those scones from the banquet for tomorrow. Deal?"

 

Given how quickly Eldarion was suddenly on his feet and running off to Arwen's bedroom, they had a deal, apparently.

Chapter Text

T.A. 3019

 

 

"Is it done? Is that damn thing finally gone?"

 

"Can't you tell by the two inches of grime on your lungs?" Coughing quite pitifully indeed, Rúmil dropped on his knees next to Haldir and tore off two pieces of his tunic, wrapping one of them around Haldir's head to cover his mouth and nose without much ado.

 

Since Haldir still tried to piece back together the last few minutes in his mind and every movement felt like there was a ton of weights attached to his limbs, he was grateful for the little assistance. He made a first weak attempt of straightening up on his elbows but a sizzling, angry pain from his shoulder blade all the way down to his ribcage reminded him, that was a very bad idea right now. That damn orc had crashed straight into his back, full armor and all before his brother had managed to decapitate the bastard. It should really come as no surprise that his brain had blacked out at that sheer overload of his pain receptors. It annoyed Haldir anyway, especially that ridiculous timing, at the very end of the damn battle here in this strange realm.

He really had wanted to see that damn fortress collapse in on itself.

 

"We need to retreat and regroup," Rúmil murmured with growing worry aimed at the shrill voices of a lot of stray orcs and other dark creatures from the direction where there was now nothing left but black and grey rubble and a lot of fire and smoke.

 

Countless greyish, deformed shapes and lost souls were already fleeing in droves both from the destruction of their home and the last arrows of the Lórien marchwarden left stationed at the ruin. It wasn't hard to guess where they would try to vent their thirst for revenge.

 

"They will head straight for Thranduil's Halls and towards our borders. They're leaderless and chaotic but they still got blades on them. We need to be ready. Can you get up? You need to make the call."

 

"Sure. Always."

Haldir appreciated it his little brother sparing him the question if he was alright. After such a battle, none of them was; they all had their scratches wherever there was no armor covering their skin and more than one dent in the layers of golden scales protecting the rest of their bodies. Rúmil's ash-blonde hair was matted red at the back of his head and he was going easy on his left arm, Haldir was pretty sure. And he for his part should better not meet any of the healers who had put the jigsaw of his body back together after Helm's Deep before those new bruises down his spine had faded. He would have deserved that sermon.

At least, this time, his armor had not split, and contrary to his slight anxiety upfront, there had not been a moment of freezing when they'd faced the rows of their leering, blood-thirsty enemies at the gates of Dol Guldur. Helm's Deep had been a stupid beginner's mistake. His pride alone had forbidden him not proving to everyone else and himself, mostly, that he could do better.

And except for that messed-up little duel, in the end, he had. Mission accomplished.

Almost. Rúmil was right, they couldn't sit around here for long.

This time, he somehow made it to get to his feet, with gritted teeth, ignoring his brother's sharp-eyed gaze.

Haldir had already had to bear the constant overprotectiveness of his two siblings nonstop in the last few days, that was more than enough. Rúmil knew very well how serious Haldir was about dispatching him to the army stables for the rest of their time in Middle-earth if he had to hear another damn question about his health from his lips.

Enough dallying. The day was far from over.

Haldir gave himself a little push from the tree he'd somehow ended up leaning against – only with his arm because he was pretty sure, his back would not forgive him such ideas right now – and took two steps towards the small clearing where the rest of their unit was gathering.

Then the ground came to meet him.

 

"Eru-damnit …" Rúmil's soft, bright voice suddenly sounded as if it was coming through cotton blocking his ears. While Haldir was still busy trying to figure out how he had landed face-first in the mud for the second time within ten minutes, his brother was already busy, tearing his half-shredded cloak off his shoulders and unfastening the straps of his armor.

That shocked hiss on his lips probably didn't mean a good thing.

 

"Think I might have popped a stitch," Haldir muttered, more unsettled than he'd liked to admit by his own slurred speech and the growing thickness in his head. The widespread scar tissue on his back was singing all the hymns of Lórien at once. Breathing hurt.

 

"That's one way to say, you blatantly lied to me about being released from the healers' talan and that you're bleeding through all your bandages," Rúmil growled, then straightened up to probably wave someone near who was hopefully not a healer.

 

Haldir was definitely not looking forward to that speech. "I didn't lie. I just didn't ask them before leaving …"

 

"I swear if you don’t shut up this very second …"

 

Haldir faintly raised his hand, that was all his quickly waning strength allowed. "We won, right?"

 

Rúmil let out a deep, resigned sigh and squeezed his shoulder instead of an answer. The three of them had always been as different as you could ever be being born in the same family, but when it came to their work, their mother had taught them the same values. In the end, the result was all that counted, and they'd all given over their lives to their duty the moment they'd picked up their first sword.

 

If that meant that maybe some of them would not make it in one piece across the sea, now that there was finally no more reason to stay, but would reunite with the others after a good, long nap instead, possibly even with a body free of traces and of pain … That was a small price to pay.

"Tell the Lady, Captain Haldir is taking his leave." The dizziness becoming overwhelming, he closed his eyes but startled up again when a rude slap against one of his open wounds tore him back into consciousness.

 

"You can tell her yourself, you idiot. And I will make very sure she'll lock you up in your own damn talan until we board our boat. Without news from the front and scones for breakfast this time."

 

"I love you too." Haldir would have chuckled but that hurt too much. Rúmil sounded optimistic, so maybe they could indeed patch him up a second time within a few weeks. Or not. He found, he was surprisingly alright with either outcome.

In Aman, there would be many long-lost relatives and friends impatiently waiting, not to mention someone he'd meant to court for a couple of hundred years already, and if Mandos was gracious, the prospect of not forcing his damaged body to get to work in the morning over and over. In these parts, on the other hand, he would get to see a new Age blooming, and to memorize what was left of the elves' beauty, strength and wisdom here before turning his back to the only home he'd ever known. For once, he was wholly happy with letting fate decide what was in store for him.

After a millennium of enmity and more, it had taken, apparently, only an emergency trip to his neighbors' doorstep to make peace with this world he was about to say goodbye to.

Chapter Text

T.A. 3019

 

 

It took Celeborn almost a week before he managed to catch Thranduil's son alone.

 

In a way, that was a relief, seeing how naturally their royal guest had started to acclimate to a place he'd never been in before. Making friends, indulging in the occasional training unit with the marchwardens to stay sharp, and continuously checking back, in kindness and patience, with his friends from this almost certainly suicidal Fellowship. It was an indicator that Legolas might not have inherited his father's complete and utter inability to handle grief. The heavier Mithrandir's death was weighing on his shoulders after the initial shock, the higher the fierce Wood-elf was keeping his head up, refusing to succumb to this sadness when there might be the whole world depending on the ill-fated quest that Elrond had sent these people on.

The wonder about this development was joined by the hope that the Free Folks of Middle-earth could profit greatly from the dwarf in the group accompanying Legolas on his regular trips into the woods with increasing regularity, much to everyone's surprise. The day when all hope would fail and Sauron would plunge these realms into a new darkness, all of the races would have to stand together and bury old enmities.

 

That included childish hostilities between representatives of two different elvish settlements that should long have stopped mattering in the face of possibly complete destruction. Galadriel and Celeborn did really have no moral high ground to scorn a little bickering between Thranduil's people and the Dwarves. It wasn't like the two of them had tried awfully hard to make amends outside their borders in the last few centuries.

With that regret in mind, Celeborn didn't let himself be scared off this time by a polite but empty smile and the distanced posture that Legolas was keeping on meeting his wife and him with so far. Instead, he climbed the tree at the edge of the city where he'd finally managed to find their young guest after more than an hour, not even waiting for an invitation before joining the Prince where he was perching on one of the highest, thinnest branches.

He should probably have looked for him up here in the first place. If there was anything this crisis was showing Celeborn, it was how blind an eye he'd turned to everything not concerning the security of Lórien for far too long. That needed to stop, now at the latest when they were having the most important guests regarding the light on this world within their midst.

Not to mention there might be an angry monthly letter from across the river or two less if Celeborn managed to give Legolas a supportive voice and shoulder to lean against in his melancholy.

"Allow me to disturb your solitude, son of Thranduil?"

 

"Since you already took the effort of coming up here, it would be impolite not to."

There was an amused sparkle of sarcasm in those big ocean blue eyes that reminded Celeborn a lot of a certain King dwelling not far from here. Only Thranduil had been missing this bone-deep serenity for an Age or so that was surrounding his son's lithe form, allowing Legolas to blend in with the silver twilight of the night and the softly shimmering trunk in his back almost effortlessly. Much as if he was just another playful breeze blowing through the golden leaves, to depart forever after just a moment of breathing new life into them.

 

A chilling emptiness in Celeborn's soul let him know, that was probably exactly what was about to happen. It was the same mournful foresight he had to deal with regularly when talking to the man that his granddaughter was set to marry one day … If they'd all live to see that day, that was. No, after the Fellowship of the Ring would have left these woods, Celeborn wouldn't be seeing any of its members again, most of them not until the world might break one day, in fact. If Thranduil's only child was among those souls doomed to fade in these realms or if their paths would cross one way or the other in the west when all this would be over … That was just one of the questions that Galadriel's mirror would not answer at this time, at least not to him, and maybe he didn't even want to know.

Which left him only with making the best of the short time they would maybe only share in this life.

"We missed you at dinner. Aragorn has been asking for you."

 

That ironic smile only grew. Legolas knew exactly this was not why he was here. "I will be seeing the others for breakfast. I need to be resting on my own every once in a while, as long as I have the chance to. That wasn't exactly easy in the last few weeks."

His gaze drifted into the distance, towards the edges of his homeland that you could at least imagine seeing from up here, even if it was only in the blurry shapes of night blue and dark green at this hour. A hint of pain and longing sat between those fine dark brows for a moment.

 

"We sent a message to your father," Celeborn remarked. That was the first thing Legolas had asked him after Galadriel and he had welcomed the Fellowship, and it had been a request wholly unnecessary. Thranduil and he might not be best friends in spite of their far-removed family relations, but how it was to fear for your only child, that, Celeborn could very well relate to.

Legolas and he both knew very well though that in times of war, it was not always a given that messages were actually received. And with the constant attacks on his borders, Celeborn couldn't spare even a single soldier to cross the river and deliver the news themselves. Especially since there was no telling if the King would even see such a rider … or believe their word.

"I'm sure he must be very worried about you."

 

"No need to pretend to care about his well-being, milord." Legolas showed a dismissive, tired gesture without even looking at him. Yes, the mask of diplomacy had definitely been left in the undergrowth below tonight. "The two of us have rarely met when you visited Mirkwood in the past, but I didn't sleep under a rock for the last three thousand years."

 

"Your father's issue is with my wife, mostly, not with me. I'm just the elf with the bad luck of being married to her, as far as he is concerned." Celeborn suppressed an unnerved snort; that was not where this conversation was supposed to go.

He whistled a squirrel lurking in a knothole below them close and let it climb his hand up to his shoulder to absently caress its auburn fur while trying to voice his thoughts towards less loaded subjects.

 

Legolas suddenly seemed to become interested in their talk after all though. "It's mostly his father speaking when he badmouths your Lady and your people, milord. I know that is not an excuse, and I'm tired of making any for him anyway. Believe me, you're preaching to the choir when it comes to crushing his prejudices."

With his lips tight, Legolas let his eyes wander towards the city center. It wasn't hard to guess which talan exactly he'd rather loved to be on right now if the open revelation of this politically dicey relationship hadn't meant even more trouble at this point that neither party had time for in the middle of a war.

"In fact, it is likely that he's busy cursing the line of Finwë and its descendants even louder every night right now. After all, I just joined a mission to destroy one of the cursed trinkets that one of these people used to be involved with, against his explicit wish."

 

"Celebrimbor had nothing to do with the forging of the One Ring," Celeborn threw in harsher than planned. This was one of the griefs his wife had still not overcome, even after all this time, and he'd dried enough of her tears to fight any undue defiling of her relative's name millennia even after his gruesome death.

 

"Our history books are as accurate as yours, milord." Legolas apologized for the transgression with a sincere-looking, deep nod.

"They do say though that the Dark Lord and he learned a lot from each other before Sauron revealed himself. I do not seek to put blame or hold Ages-old grudges. Unlike my father, I'm more interested in understanding than in opinions. But ever since I have to watch the One putting such a grave weight to an innocent hobbit's shoulder, I find myself struggling with that."

 

Celeborn winced a little when the animal on his shoulder nicked the back of his hand, offended because he’d suddenly stilled his affections. A surprised, appreciative smile curled on his lips when Legolas got a walnut from somewhere on his belt and threw it at him to feed it to the squirrel. They were not so different in a lot of things, he was well-advised to remember that. And to remember that Thranduil's son had not even been planned when the worst of wars – so far – had wrecked these realms.

"Sauron wasn't always wearing his cruelty and disregard for all life like armor and a sword, Legolas. He used to be very … convincing." Seductive might have covered better, but Celeborn changed his choice of wording at the last moment, as Galadriel would certainly not appreciate him revealing some of the darkest secrets of her long-lost, far-removed cousin to the heir of their rivaling realm of all people.

"Even now, in this bodiless shape and tied to a tiny band of gold, there's still a spark of this particular power left. Have you not felt it yourself, being around the One for all these weeks? Not even once?"

 

Legolas' quizzical shrug was answer enough. "I did spend a lot of time apart from the others though, on night watches and scout runs."

 

"And a Firstborn's mind is stronger shielded against mental attacks than a Man's or Hobbit's, yes," Celeborn nodded. "Do not think yourself safe though. If I was to guess, I would say the reason you have not heard its call yet is that you're not the most interesting bait for it right now. Much like your dwarvish friend, by the way. Too little to lose," he added with a cynical grin himself for a change.

He nodded briefly when Legolas shuddered and turned his eyes back towards his home as if trying to make sure from afar, there wasn't any more trouble there than when he had left it.

"I do know that your father's armies have been fighting the onslaughts of Dol Guldur bravely for centuries, of course. We have our own battles to fight. But so far, both your father and we are lucky enough to be able to do so. The Dwarves, I fear, might be less prepared when the armies come marching on their lands one day. But as of yet, realms like ours are not of particular interest for Sauron. He has still too much resistance to fear here. It's Men he seeks to destroy first. And the Ring knows its Master's plans well. I just want you to be careful, Legolas."

 

"I am not my father, milord." Oh, but that stubborn temper showing in that strong, thrust-forward jaw spoke a different language in moments like this. "I don't share his weakness for things that glitter and shine. And not even he would touch that thing with a ten-foot pole. He's seen firsthand the bloodshed and death that cursed jewelry like this can bring."

 

"So have I, by his side. And if your father or I had been given the chance, say in the shape of one of the Three Rings, to protect our city from my wife's cousins, do you not think we would have?" Celeborn asked tightly, suppressing the icy memory of rust-red staining the marble of his city and the screams of agony in his ear.

"Or what if they'd told him, he could have saved the two-third of your people that the last big war wiped out, and his father's life? Would he have denied this chance to make everything right?"

 

Legolas did not have an answer to that for a while. His hand was absently rubbing his neck where Celeborn knew only too well another certain piece of jewelry to be.

 

He wondered if he should tell his young listener that these two rings that Galadriel had given Legolas' partner for their not-so-secret betrothal some time ago had originally come from Celebrimbor's forge as well but decided against it. For the moment, he'd give Legolas enough to think about.

He made a move to slip down to the branch below and leave the Prince alone when exactly the question that he'd feared had him halt and close his eyes.

 

"How do you say no then when it calls for you?"

 

"For all our sake, I hope you will not have to find that out. Try to rest a little." Celeborn reached out to gently squeeze Legolas' shoulder for a moment. "The one thing I can tell you is that a healthy and balanced mind will have a far easier time, not listening to voices trying to invade it."

 

"Tell me again why Lord Elrond decided that I was a good choice for this quest then," Legolas answered with a plenty self-ironic grin.

 

"One way or another, I guess we will find out." After a last solemn nod, Celeborn left him alone.

Chapter Text

T.A. 3019

 

“Do you think we can lose him?”

 

“Huh?” Aragorn looked up from his pipe with a confused frown when his companion on the other side of the fire suddenly spoke up, after having stayed so silent for almost an hour that Aragorn had wondered if he’d fallen asleep.

 

While he’d never seen Legolas rest on a night watch before, the last few months had left neither of them cold. And after what Aragorn had accidentally witnessed of his friend at the very beginning of their past stay in Lórien, he was just too painfully aware once again how little he knew of the Prince's private life. Of someone, he’d been calling a very good friend for decades. All he could tell was that Legolas' soul was growing increasingly weary and that he needed a brief break.

The night was quiet as it was cloudy, and all their fellow Companions were fast asleep. Even if there should be a direct threat nearby that they were not aware of yet, reacting to it was a matter of seconds. At least until the morning came, there was no need for both of them to torture themselves through another night. Aragorn wouldn’t have begrudged Legolas for trying to escape his melancholy for an hour, and the regret about that crucial decision regarding his more-or-less-secret relationship he'd made in the Galadhrim’s realm.

But his elvish friend’s large eyes were wide open, almost black seeming under a sky that did rarely seem to remember the stars by now, the flickering of the flames creating a restless light in his pupils. And they were fixed on some bush nearby where another pair of eyes was looking back in hatred and madness.

 

So much for being aware of every detail of their surroundings. Aragorn let his hand wander to the hilt of his sword in a casual but still very clear warning.

 

That was all it took for their watcher to retreat back into the shadows.

 

But Aragorn's own troubled mind that had threatened to give in to the veil of constant exhaustion for a moment, all the strength and serenity gathered in Lórien basically forgotten already, had gone back to diamond-sharp clearness.

He didn’t think Gollum would be one of their bigger problems on this journey. That creature was far too little trained in attack and defense for that. But there was no excuse for being careless when you guarded the most valuable trinket on this damn world which said pursuer just happened to be obsessed with.

“Unlikely," he answered Legolas' question with gritted teeth. "He’s had as much time to memorize my strategies of moving and hiding as I have learned his.”

 

“I’m sorry.” Legolas turned his gaze back to the fire and crossed his arms over his drawn-up knees. There was something vulnerable in his hunched position, in the way he was hiding his hands under his brand-new cloak from Lórien as if his elvish body suddenly had stopped being immune to temperatures. There was so much more on his mind than another night of tense silence and running from the enemy, and Aragorn wasn’t sure, he was the person Legolas wanted to help him with it.

“I don’t think I ever told you that. You haunted that creature for almost ten years. It must feel to you like my people stole that time from you when Gollum escaped from my father’s Halls.”

 

Not from the Halls, actually, from the gardens, because for some very particular reason, the Wood-elves had decided, Gollum deserved to go for a walk.

 

But Aragorn decided against bringing that little detail up once more. Legolas was beating himself up enough over something he hadn’t even been present to witness, once more out in the woods of his home to slay orcs and spiders that came closer and closer to the palace.

“Your people were trying to be kind. That’s not a weakness.” It would have been a lie, saying Aragorn wasn’t still angry about the neglect that the King’s guards had shown after he’d literally crawled through the mud for 9 years or so to catch that damn creature.

But he was remembering Mithrandir’s words about the part Gollum had to play in this war well enough for another searing hot blade of pain to stab through his heart at the sheer sound of his late friend’s solemn voice in the back of his head. He had very rarely known Mithrandir to be wrong.

 

And without them having to talk about it, he knew Legolas was feeling the same, or Gollum would long have succumbed to an arrow shot from the elf’s also brand-new shining bow.

 

“And who knows? It might have been good for something.”

 

“I’m not sure all of us will have the luxury of waiting to find that out.”

This time, it was the six small, simple cots by the side of the fire Legolas was staring at, full lips a tight line of worry. Especially the one in the middle had his attention, that the other Companions had instinctively built their beds around, to protect both their treasure and the so defenseless person wearing it. “I don’t want to be gone again in the wrong moment.”

 

“None of us can’t be everywhere at once, Legolas. Have you never learned that?” Unsure, where this was coming from suddenly, Aragorn spoke cautiously, with the experience of how fast his elvish friend tended to draw up the walls of his fortress around his soul when he was supposed to talk about his private life.

“Your father didn’t blame you for Gollum’s escape, did he? It’s him who keeps on sending you out to lead your defenses. If he needs someone to put the blame on, I'm sure there are enough mirrors in his chambers.”

 

Legolas let out a dry snort and rolled his eyes at him. At least there was that light smile on his lips again now that Aragorn had been missing a lot in those last few years of being on his lonely hunt almost uninterruptedly. “If it was for my father, I would spend the rest of my life locked up in my rooms in the palace. It’s only because he knows I would wither like a flower in the first November cold if I couldn’t use my talent and my weapons to protect my people, that he lets me spend so much time in the army. And he also knew, as long as I was busy enough in our home, I wouldn’t try to get involved with the battle and suffering in the outside world.”

There it was again, that haunted shivering from the inside, and that pain-filled gaze drifting off into nothing once more. “He must be out of his mind with fear right now. I don’t know what will happen when he loses someone else.”

 

“Then we’ll just have to make sure we all get home in one piece, won’t we? Giving yourself up before we are even remotely close to Mordor is not going to help anyone.” It felt bulky, brittle, still trying to spread such optimism after the mightiest one among them had fallen.

 

Somewhere back in those thick bushes, Aragorn was pretty sure he could hear Gollum’s scratchy, sly voice chuckle.

 

“I’m not afraid to die, Aragorn.” There was no lie in these words, only warm leniency, and yet they sent harsh shivers down Aragorn’s spine. “I’m afraid of becoming like him. Or like my father, for that matter. Failing to keep what’s most important to me, and failing to protect those who need me. Slowly petrifying to dust by pursuing a dream of a life far out of reach while life is falling apart around me.”

 

“Your father, as I recall, always kept a very safe distance to cursed objects. And you, I haven’t even seen look at our cargo twice. The one thing you two do share is that you kept most of your people alive ever since the last big war.” Aragorn gave up his cowering position by the fire for a moment to grab Legolas’ shoulder, to try and pull him out of that stupor. The one thing this Fellowship really couldn’t deal with right now was the sight of their long-distance fighter suddenly darkening.

“And as for people slipping away from our grasp … Unlike most of our group, you will at least have the prospect of seeing them again soon if we do fail.”

 

There was an expression on Legolas’ face that he could identify as bone-deep resignation and cynicism only after a moment because he was rather used to that look with Thranduil. “And then? After we reunite in a land far away from here, cowardly hiding from all the suffering we left behind? You think none of us would resist idleness? I know most of my people who are leaving do hope so. But you who grew up in Elrond's house, do you really think that Aman will be a land of peace and happiness if Middle-earth falls?”

 

“Not for any of you who left it by hard choice or force it won’t, no,” Aragorn nodded after a few seconds of heavy silence. “All the more will they need a voice like yours then. Of someone who never surrendered or ran even in the light of the most dreadsome threats. As far as I am concerned, you are not chasing dreams, Legolas. You are fighting for them every day new. And you will never stop. It's not in your blood.”

 

He wasn’t sure he’d really got through to his Companion with his encouragements, but after a while of just staring into the fire again, Legolas withdrew to the treetop above them to find a few minutes of overdue sleep indeed.

 

Aragorn gladly let him go and lit his pipe again. Only one thing was for certain right now: Before the next catastrophe hit, they would all need to preserve as much of their physical and mental strength as possible.

Chapter Text

T.A. 2748

 

 

'Ro? Can you hear me?

Elladan knew better than to make himself noticeable right after waking up, shifting all his focus towards the steady but quietly flowing pulse of his mental bond to his brother instead. But breathing through the pain raging in his arms and shoulders from his predicament proved to be more challenging by the second.

His flight and defense instincts were vibrating in every cell of his body; but wherever he'd been taken after running into a damn spider stinger headfirst, he was alone there with only one enemy. And right now, they were standing far away from him in what felt to his skin like a moldy underground cell. Sadly, they were also standing between him and what seemed to be the only window outside, high up below the ceiling, judging by a faint draft and the noise of the woods he could hear out there. Still, the risk was smaller, making secret plans in his still slightly dazed mind than trying to free himself, while pretending to be continuously affected by the sleeping venom of an oversized eight-legged monster in his veins.

With his hands in heavy shackles behind his back, wrists separated wide and connected by unforgiving steel, the same chain connected to a hook hanging low from the ceiling, getting away would admittedly have been quite difficult anyway.

So trying to reach out to the other half of his soul it was, and hoping that Elrohir hadn't got too much distance between them, hunting a few more of these monsters on his own.

 

Judging by the hint of guilt and more than a hint of worry in his brother's voice, it was a decision he'd already come to regret.

What happened? You went silent on me an hour ago. I found that clearing empty when I came back. Where are you?

 

Dol Guldur, I think.

Elrohir's shock at that revelation echoed through his own soul like a screech of an animal in a deathtrap, the sober realization finally settling in that he'd managed to get himself into the one place on this world his father had warned Elrohir and him a thousand times not to approach when they were on a visit to Mirkwood. There was no use, trying to close his eyes to it. Everything in here screamed evil; the smell of dried blood on the walls, the dull hammering of fights and weapons forged by orcs and other creatures in some other part of that fortress … And a bone-deep coldness of hatred and cruelty coming from the person in the room with him who still had not moved or said a single word.

He was in a whole lot of trouble.

How fast can you be here?

 

Two hours.

There was a desperation in those brief syllables. Elrohir knew just as much as he did how long two hours could be when you were at the hands of the enemy. They'd seen – and tried to heal, together with their father, in vain – first-hand the traces that creatures of darkness could leave on an elf in such a short time already.

 

Hurry.

With that, Elladan retreated from the white and blue-tainted silver that was the stream of their joined thoughts, ignoring the angry rant in the back of his head that followed. If he pretended hard enough, that protest was not much louder than the sizzle of some fire in his back where his enemy was working on something he was pretty sure he did not want to know about.

He'd closed himself off just in time, it turned out. Before he could think about moving, at last, trying to find out how much those cuffs could take before they would break, his enemy was suddenly standing behind him, without Elladan having heard as much as one step. The burning impact of leather wrapping itself around his body in several loops punched the air of his lungs, thorns tearing his skin open in several places. Blood started to stain what was left of his torn traveling tunics immediately.

The echo in his ears lets him know he had screamed.

 

"Good." The voice behind him did not leave any echo. Its metallic timbre crawled into his brain rather than into his hearing, and the breath ghosting across his forcefully hunched back was foul. "I figured you were done calling for help."

 

Damn. So that conversation had not gone as unnoticed as hoped.

Unwilling to be intimidated by something he could not even see, Elladan straightened up with clenched teeth, taking at least some of that brutal strain from his shoulders, and forced himself to turn his head, against the sensation of having too-tightly strung bowstrings instead of muscles in his neck.

He wasn't sure what he saw in the bad light of the cell at first.

 

The image shifted as if his senses were still dampened, but blinking only made it worse, the picture flickering with the movement of his lids until he was feeling dizzy. One moment, it was two double-rows of razor-sharp teeth, he was seeing, then eyes dark as a starless night under a hood drawn low over a colorless face. The man had come to a complete standstill again as if Elladan was facing a painting rather than a figure. The only thing moving about him was the tongue of the long whip he was holding in a metal-gloved hand, still swinging from that one shattering blow. If there was any emblem on the stranger's pitch-black, spiked armor, Elladan couldn't make it out, but it wasn't hard to guess whom such a creature of dark magic could only serve.

"Will a lot of your people come for you, yes?" The creature's free hand closed around his jaw, again, without Elladan's eyes having made out as much as them raising their arm. Claws like daggers dug into his cheeks, scratching more lines into his skin. "I sure hope so. The servants of darkness in this place, they are always hungry. But I bet your pretty twin will be first to show up here, will he not? I can't wait."

It was that scornful innuendo that had Elladan shiver in his bonds, not that huge, ice-cold hand wandering down his chest and ripping off whatever clothes he was still wearing there with ease. But for someone feeding on suffering, that rarely made much of a difference.

"Such a pretty shape ..."

 

Those shark teeth came unsettlingly close to his ear, a sadistic coo turning his blood to ice-water and instinctively had him try to move away, pulling harder on the shackles around his wrists. Which only ended in another scream from his lips because upon one lazy snap of the creature, the chain between his wrists shortened, yanking his arms further up behind his back against every natural angle.

 

"Far too blank and unmarred …" The claws danced across his chest, dipping into the cuts the whip had left, pulling them further apart until a pained moan escaped Elladan, then they painted across his sternum with his blood something that looked suspiciously like an eye. "We'll remedy that, don't worry. But I think we should wait for your brother before the real entertainment begins. Who knew I would be lucky enough to welcome the children of Elrond here in our humble home one day?"

A tongue, as searing hot as the stranger's skin was cold dipped into his ear, a relentless hand in his messy braids keeping his head in place. "I've been told, the forces of the Black Hand already had a lot of fun with your mother at the time. She would be so proud about you two continuing her legacy …"

Laughter like a cheap-made ring rolling over a window.

 

It was as if the stranger could look right into him and see how the hollow pit of fire that had replaced his heart more than two centuries ago and blazed up only when the worst memories of his life were provoked behind his tightly closed lids, to scorch new blisters into his soul.

Elladan should probably be grateful, the creature had withdrawn for the moment which reduced the feral urge of freeing himself and only damaging himself further in the process. But a glance over his shoulder with his jaw thrust forward in aggression and challenge only had his heart sink further.

 

He knew that thing his enemy was holding into the fire with his bare hand there as if the flames could not touch him or his gloves at all. This kind of longish metallic cylinders, Elrohir and he always used to carry larger documents from their father in. Like the maps, they had been supposed to deliver this time. Only the precious parchment in this certain container had probably already fallen to dust at this point.

With a thought bordering on hysteria that his mind was dancing far too close to right now, Elladan wondered if he should have ignored his father's order and given in to his curiosity on their journey, about what Elrond had wanted to let the King of the Woodland Realm know so badly that he'd sent his sons to bring it to him personally. He'd never find out now, that much was for sure.

He was also pretty sure, Elrond would never send Elrohir and him out on any quest ever again once he learned that his children were more often than not using such trips to hunt as many orcs and other creatures of death as possible.

Only this time, it was them who had become the prey.

 

"You know … Millennia, no, Ages ago, when my master was still residing in these parts as the rightful ruler, I was charged with breaking a lot of unruly animals like you. When you two showed up to annoy my pets earlier, you reminded me, I had twins in my grasp once before." The stranger's voice sounded dreamy while he turned that cylinder in his hand to heat it evenly from all sides.

"Mannish ones but as far as people like me are concerned, that doesn't make much of a difference. Elvish bodies last longer, and Men taste sweeter, sure. Yet they both make the same good sport once they start begging for their lives. Elves are more beautiful when they beg for death though."

Those empty, unreal-looking eyes were glowing in a hungry light in the shadow of the flames, and Elladan saw a greedy drool fall from those terrible teeth.

 

For the first time on this starless night, he started to feel really afraid.

 

"Those mannish brothers? They were almost as perfect as your twin and you. Same stubborn face. Same voice. And all that pesky hair everywhere that you always need to burn off before you can cook the beasts. It's a hassle, really. Scars were not the same though. They'd been in the army for a while, of one of those foolish mannish realms whose Lords thought they could defy the one and only power in this universe. They wore their hair differently, too. Tried to hide from us how special they were. But when I melted their armor off of their bodies, I saw they had the same tiny prick. Not even worth an appetizer. Very disappointing, frankly. So I thought of something more entertaining to do with them until I would roast them."

 

"Is there anyone in this room supposed to be listening to you?" Elladan was a little proud that he managed to keep the choked nuance of growing disgust from his voice. He told himself that he was only trying to buy much-needed time and to turn his mind away by force from the growing wish to try and get out of here which would only leave him even more helpless to whatever his torturer was planning to get up to.

But the truth was, he wasn't sure how much longer he could swallow down the bile sitting low in his throat much longer. It was one thing, knowing in theory how many creatures of darkness enjoyed feeding off their victims in a very literate sense and then hearing in detail how one of them wanted you for dinner.

"If you're finished trying to impress me? You should know that I sat through three centuries of history lessons by someone who already helped beat your Master's unworthy ass to pieces in the War of the Last Alliance. Might want to save your tale for those pitiful souls crawling around in the ruins of this fortress, too afraid to face the elves of these woods."

 

"Oh, but you should be listening very carefully, son of Elrond." This sleazy sound hit him far more painfully than a spider sting, seeping into Elladan's brain and trying to block out every rational thought, melt down every shield against an intrusion of this kind that he'd ever been taught to build.

"Would you not like to know how your pathetic life in these realms will end? And I hope, your precious brother is listening just as closely via that amateurish connection you elves keep to each other when you claim to love someone. You see, those brothers they brought to me that night? They claimed to love each other more than anything, too. Begged me to spare the other if they would take their place. So I thought, such admirable loyalty must be tested."

That gloved hand, still entirely untouched by spark and flame, waved the cylinder of silver once more where the engraved symbol of Imladris had long melted into an unrecognizable crust. A faint orange glow had started to surround the tool that fixated Elladan's wide-eyed gaze, as much as he tried to turn his head away.

 

His hands were clenching dangerously in their bonds, ripples of growing unrest torturing his injured muscles from his elbows all the way down to his shoulder blades. Only the knowledge that this was exactly what his enemy wanted, that he would do his dirty job for him, kept him still. Barely.

 

"Had them impaled on something pretty much the size of this." His enemy's pale, chapped lips stretched further around his predator's teeth, sharp edges scratching over them until blood trickled over his skin that looked almost black in the missing light. Maybe it was. The creature licked it off with an absent hum. With their free hand, it reached between his legs, shamelessly rubbing themselves to the memory of people's suffering that was suddenly so much closer, so much more real than reading any gently-told stories of Elves and Men tortured in the Dark Lord's strongholds in books.

"Had them kneel for me and bound their hands with the same rope between their stumpy legs, just so they could both reach that pole. And then I lit a fire under it. You should have heard how they squealed, my brave young friend. Took them only half an hour until they both tried to shove that thing deeper into the other. Can't remember who was faster but the loser sure was beautiful when he yelled at his brother in all languages of Men." The creature looked at the searing hot tool in his hand once more, licking his lips and blood-stained teeth, visibly enjoying Elladan's shaking in his chains, before he dropped the cylinder back into the flames.

"Not yet. I do wonder who of you two will be faster, though."

Maybe the enemy sensed how much that tale had unhinged Elladan's mind, how little resistance there was left in him for the moment, in the light of the raw terror about what kind of monster he was really trapped in here with. Again these unreal, flowing movements, like dark clouds merging instead of arms and fingers stretching. Then the section between those long legs, where there had been something like slimy, baggy leather before, suddenly bared a crooked thing of flesh with barbs spreading along its whole swollen length and a base the size of a mannish fist.

Elladan knew that the enemy was waiting for him to start fighting again. Something almost like disappointment darted across his haggard features when he went completely still instead as his creature also could so perfectly.

 

The naked clarity of what was about to happen to him had cleared his mind like the first summer storm, flashes of new energy sizzling through his bound shape and his soul that he focused towards his limbs. Towards the last shield of enforced calmness that kept his mind from fleeing into madness and his body from rearing up and robbing himself of the last chance to escape.

 

The irritation only lasted a second before the hooded creature smiled at him again, then inched closer almost like a normal man for once, with his feet still not touching the ground though. "Think I'm going give you a taste of what it will feel like … So you can make up your mind if you rather want to bleed out from the inside, knowing that it's your beloved brother who killed you, or suck me off while we listen to his tears and curses."

The hand was back in his hair, tearing his head back, sharpened canines digging new cuts into the side of his neck and drinking from his blood greedily. Even that was a very faraway, vague sensation in the expectation of the far-worse violation about to follow.

"That, of course, would leave you with the unfortunate experience of being alive when I roast you two on a spit." The claws on his chin yanked his head around harder, that awful stench suddenly far too close to Elladan's mouth and nose until he gagged and he could taste the copper of his own blood in his mouth.

"Well, since I am told, elvish twins are so very close they share everything, maybe you'll even like it, seeing how you two cook … Wonder if you're going to smell the same …"

 

The moment the creature's clammy hand slipped down his chest and tried to rip open the laces of his breeches, the thing distracted in their perverted lust for the first time, Elladan yanked his arms forward with all of his strength, against his joints, ripping the bones right from the socket. The agony had shadows dance in front of his eyes, most tempting to chase and give in to the comfort of nothingness. But knowing he would never wake up in these realms again or only to endure even worse torture somehow gave him the strength to give his torn muscles another impossible order, to lift his useless arms up another few inches and free that damn chain from the hook.

Suddenly, he was free.

Not losing an inch of a second, he made use of the creature's surprised hiss to throw himself back against it with his whole weight. That might have turned out to be the worst decision on this day just yet …

 

But to Elladan's relief, as much dark magic as this thing might be made of, whatever body it had was, apparently, still very much real. It went down like a tree.

 

Before the thing could fight back, Elladan rolled over, wrapped his thighs around its neck, and squeezed.

"You talk too much."

The pain raging through his still bound arms that he had landed on almost had him black out once more, and he knew he was out of time when the creature reached out its clawed hands for him, ready to dig those nails right into his heart. He could be careful about consequences again when next he was on a simple hunt at the borders of his home with his brother.

Pushing the last of his strength into the muscles of his legs, he snapped the enemy's neck.

 

A piercing scream almost ruptured his eardrums, and that thick, stinking smoke was around him once more that tried to creep into each of his orifices and turn his brain into stew. It, fortunately, vaporized into nothing before it could.

 

Then the world went dark.

 

 

 

 

 

Judging by how his shoulders felt when he woke up, he should probably be thankful he hadn’t been around when his brother had found him and thrust his arms back where they belonged.

 

When he opened his eyes, Elrohir was standing by that very same fire where his enemy had threatened him earlier, with hard-clenched fists. They were dripping with blood that was not his own.

 

Well, that creature at least would never threaten anyone again. Its head was speared on a pole right next to the flames. The marred face was distorted in pain, parchment-like skin in a lot more wrinkles than Elladan could remember, covered in countless spots of age and disease.

 

Elladan thought he should be more relieved than he felt. Whatever dark spirit reigned in this castle had not died with this thing.

But they could philosophize about this later. No matter how his brother had managed to get in here unseen and break that small window of the cell open without anyone hearing, sooner or later someone would come look for Elladan's tormentor. They should be moving already.

"'Ro?"

 

"Did he touch you?" his brother asked flatly, without turning around.

 

"Once. Can't you see?" Elladan nodded at the beheaded corpse with a weak grin, but somehow, joking felt stale tonight.

"Needed him to be close enough before I could act." He tried to sit up and suppress a whimper when his body let him know very clearly what it thought about that.

 

Elladan didn't come to help him, and that was even more unusual than this dangerous idleness in an enemy's base. His shoulders were drawn tight, his voice trembling with anger, and Elladan needed a moment to realize it was directed at him.

"You thought I wouldn't know if you stopped talking to me? That you could hide it as if I wouldn't see everything anyway when I walked in your nightmares next? Or were you hoping you could just leave me when it would happen as nana did? That you wouldn't have to make excuses for escaping to the Halls if you just slipped away and cut me out?"

 

"No." This time, he somehow made it to get to his feet and approach his brother on shaking knees. "I would never leave you, 'Ro. No matter what."

 

"Then why?" When his twin finally turned around, there were tears glistening in his eyes, and that hurt much more than swollen joints and a couple of torn muscles.

 

"It wasn't about you. It was about him." Elladan nodded down at the diseased creature again. "I wouldn't give him the triumph of abusing us both at the same time. They can never have so much power, 'Ro. We've let them in into our family far enough."

 

Silence. Elrohir's jaw was grinding swiftly. A slow blink took care of that moment of weakness not allowed in a place like this. "You know that means we can't tell ada about this. Or the King, for that matter; he would tell ada immediately. Not a word to anyone."

 

"It's not the first secret we keep." Elladan blinked down at the monster he'd killed once more. The next one on a list that his father would never know about. The next of the debts his brother and he kept on piling, that they had to fight again and again with spells that sometimes felt far too big for them when someone needed their healer abilities. Spells, their father could know about even less.

Sometimes need-to-know was so much more merciful.

 

"I suppose." Still not entirely happy about how this whole thing had gone, Elrohir finally moved, with tight lips.

It was another minute of torture when he pulled Elladan up and through that window, but somehow, he managed to stay lucid and silent through it.

Elrohir only spoke again once he'd lifted him onto his horse waiting at the bottom of the hill, with his hand clenched painfully around Elladan's wrist.

"You ever do that again, I'll rip your arms out myself."

 

"But who'll shoot the orcs you don't catch then?"

This time, the familiar bantering between them came easier, and Elladan even managed to dodge the well-deserved slap to the back of his head in time.

He'd seldom been so glad to leave a place behind.

Chapter Text

Fo.A. 122

 

If the sight of a horse in the stable that was definitely not his and of the burst-open lock on his front door hadn't given it away, Círdan could have guessed at the latest by the trail of narrow, naked footprints leading up the ramshackle wooden stairs, all the way up to the lantern room, that he was having an unexpected guest.

Whoever it was, they were obviously not able to pose any harm, and if the noble blood of their well-groomed mount was anything to go by, they were a reasonable and empathic person probably just horribly lost. So he did his best to keep at least half a smile on when he pushed the heavy door to this certain room open where he was spending most of his time these days.

He needed a moment to find her, because it had been long since this place had fulfilled its actual purpose, and he hadn't got around to refill the lantern fireplace or repair all of the broken lens glass yet. Therefore, the room was almost pitch-black.

 

But yes, sure enough, there she was. An almost alarmingly thin silhouette crouched in the corner between the lens railing and a drawer, hugging her knees, visibly shaking, startling with every loud rumble of thunder outside, each of the bright flashes sizzling across the sky. When she looked up at him shyly, he could see that she was wearing a white, almost soaked-through dress with lots of sequins and pearls all over, and a rather askew-sitting tiara in her gold blond hair.

 

Great. Just what he had needed tonight, another run-in with a member of that family that had already pulled his nerves every now and then back on Middle-earth.

"I believe the crowning celebration is the other side of the coast. Though I'm not sure drowned rats are on the guest list."

 

"Been there." The voice was surprisingly full and deep for the fragile stature, with not a hint of offense about the not exactly polite dig. "Biggest mistake of my life."

 

"Biggest mistake of your life so far, kid."

Círdan proceeded to his workbench and ignited the small fireplace there, both to light the two torches on the wall and to come up with a cup of tea which was the most of hospitality that unwanted guests could expect from him.

 

The girl watched him quietly, still crouching in on herself at every too-loud noise outside, ocean blue eyes darting back and forth between him and the heavy shower smacking against the windows, so thickly you could hardly see anything out there.

"Are you not afraid?"

 

"Of what?" Of course, the first time on the top of one of the highest buildings in all of Aman could be intimidating, but sealing this room off to all of Ulmo's moods had been basically the first thing he'd done after arriving here. Might as well give the girl a thought or two to ponder for her way home.

 

The young she-elf raised her fine, dark brows and tilted her head a little, visibly not knowing what to answer.

 

Círdan nodded briefly and turned back to mixing up the right herbs for an obviously lightly troubled mind to relax. "Exactly. There are enough things out there to be afraid, even now that there's peace in these realms. Don't create your own ghosts on top of that."

 

"I'd be happy if people left me alone with theirs," was the comment on that, unnervingly cynical for someone who'd barely had a century on them if Círdan remembered right.

 

"Well, tough luck, kid. Comes with living in a society."

The continuous dripping noise from the other side of the room started to drive him crazy. He got a blanket out from that drawer, quickly blew and patted away a couple of spiders that had got comfortable in it, and handed it to his visitor. "Will you get up? Drenching my floor won't help it, whatever it is."

 

"Sorry." She obeyed surprisingly quickly, the trembling almost gone, replaced by growing curiosity towards the spectacle outside. Maybe hardier than she looked.

Wrapping the blanket around herself, she withdrew to his favorite place in here, a broad, padded windowsill, and watched the restless sky with her head leaned back against the small niche.

"It's beautiful, actually. Is this why you live here?" she asked when she saw him nod from his spot by the fire, their eyes meeting in the reflection for a moment.

 

Was it? Like so many things in his life, taking this residence that no one else seemed to want, had come by instinct.

"It's as good a place as any. And I like the sea. It's always been my home. Easier to talk to Ulmo from here, too. He and I go way back."

 

"You're Círdan." Again that thoughtful tilt of her head, accompanied by her eyes lighting up as if she'd just made the finding of the century.

 

"What gave me away?" Torn between his impatience to finally be alone again and amusement, he rubbed through his beard that could definitely use an intimate encounter with a pair of scissors sometime soon, he found.

 

By now the room was bright enough to see the girl blush. "I know, you helped my parents a lot after you came here, but as you might remember, I never met you. Whenever we went to Mithlond back on Middle-earth, you weren't around." There was a certain kind of shadow in those large eyes that he saw in the mirror regularly, one that was not exactly regret but helpless bitterness.

 

In this regard, they understood each other without words. "I traveled a lot in the years since you were born. Said good-bye." Círdan thrust a cup into the she-elf's hand and retreated to the other side of that windowsill with his own, mimicking her posture.

 

"Ada said he wanted you to come with us when we sailed. You never answered his letters."

 

Círdan laughed quietly. Yes, that sounded a lot like Thranduil's son.

 

He could appreciate what this group revolving around the now no-longer-Prince had done for mannish realms in their last century or so there. But just like his father, Legolas tended to take himself a little too seriously, in his case in the shape of taking on loads no one had asked him to feel responsible for.

 

"You guys seemed to be doing just fine on your own. My last ship I was always destined to sail by myself."

 

"You don’t have anyone?" It didn't sound like a question.

 

"Depends on the definition, kid." Círdan did his best to suppress the image of lust-addled dark eyes on his mind, of a bare, muscular body moving against his in the cover of the night before his partner slipped away, back to his own life. That wasn’t anyone's business but theirs, and he wasn't keen on discussing such details with someone so young.

"For the kind of affection and attention I like in my life from time to time, I need no bonds."

 

There was no judgment at all in that deep frown, just the expected amount of surprise. He started to like the girl. "I didn't know that was something that even worked for elfkind."

 

Círdan gave a one-sided shrug. It was definitely too late an hour for politics. "The Valar like to pretend it doesn't. Those of us who want to live like this know better."

 

That gave her something to ponder about why she sipped on her tea and the storm outside slowly started to calm down, hopefully enough for his guest to get back where she belonged soon. It was very clear by now that wherever she'd come from, people there couldn't be happy about her disappearance.

"I don't think I want that. This … affection thing. Any of it."

 

"Then … don't?" The closer they got to the reason why that Sindar Princess had found her way here, the less Círdan understood it. Or maybe he was just getting too old for that kind of petty drama.

 

"Nana wants me to find a husband," she gritted darkly.

 

Now, this was going in a direction that he certainly wasn't comfortable with. "Well, for some reason you're still sitting here, talking to me about that. Do I look like a husband to you?"

 

"Do I look like a wife?" She gestured down her ruined dress with a lopsided grin.

 

Círdan had seen enough Ages in this world and the other to know a rhetoric question that wasn't one when he heard it. It still wasn't any of his business, but this at least was one easy answer to give. "You look like someone who could desperately use something useful to do."

 

"Like what?"

 

And he was back to rolling his eyes. The Valar had a strange kind of humor sometimes, sending someone to his home of all places for advice.

"Kid, if you want someone to read your mind and find out what you like in life, but you don't want a wedding bond, you'll have to go see your uncle. I think he's a pretty gifted psychic."

 

"That's not what I meant." At least that pout definitely looked her age. "Just looks like an awful lack of option to me. Do you have any purpose left, now that everyone sailed who wanted to?"

 

"There's still a whole lot of water here. You know, just in case you missed the collection of boats in my yard." Not that he had anywhere to go with them, but that wasn't the point.

 

"What are you hiding from then?"

 

"Who says I'm hiding?" He was genuinely at a loss.

 

His visitor took a demonstrative look around.

 

Oh. Yes. That. Círdan went back to his cup, buying a few seconds of time before giving an answer he wasn't even obliged to reveal to someone he hardly knew and who kept on making him talk anyway. "I'm around often enough in the village of arrivals. People just don't tend to see me. My evenings are mine though. Your grandfather and I have a lot in common when it comes to that."

 

"He talks about you often."

The she-elf put her empty cup down and carefully tilted it to its side so that the arachnoids from earlier could get a few leftover drops in retaliation for being banished.

 

"Does he." Círdan wasn't sure how much he should like being talked about in the house of Oropherion, but as long as the head of said house didn't see any incentive to leave the Halls, he could probably live with that.

 

The girl grinned, obviously having a pretty good idea where that grimace of him came from. "He trusts you. He doesn't trust a lot of people. And I never knew him to be wrong."

 

"Is there any point to this conversation, kid?" Círdan was afraid he already knew though.

 

"I think I would like to stay if you would have me."

 

"I'm not good company." Following one of his first, most deeply-rooted instincts, Círdan slipped down from the windowsill, determined to get out of this room before that absurd idea could possibly spawn, but a small hand around his wrist held him tight.

 

"I don't look for company. I look to be on my own. Before I can do that, I need to learn. I think you have a lot to teach. I love water just like you do."

 

"Who says I'm willing to teach you?" Círdan would have more than one word with Ulmo about sending a damn storm that the wrong people fled into his house from on the worst of evenings.

 

"You taught grandfather." The girl's smirk only grew.

 

"Because he wouldn't leave if I didn't."

 

He was being met with a sardonically raised brow at that.

Definitely Thranduil's grandkid.

 

"Fine. The windows of the room on the first floor are intact. Gonna have to furnish it yourself though."

Círdan sighed soundlessly to himself when the girl let out an unbelieving, cheerful little yelp and wrapped her arms around his neck. What in the world was he getting himself into?

"Alright, alright, that's enough. No kind of affection needed in here. Get some sleep now. My day starts early. And let your parents know. I'm not looking for an arrow in my ass just because they think I kidnapped you."

 

"My mother is far more terrifying when she's angry than ada, don't worry. I'll send a pigeon in the morning. Right now, the poor thing would probably drown."

Still smiling all over her face, the she-elf stormed outside, towards her new temporary home before she'd done as much as officially introduced herself to him.

 

Damn.

Chapter Text

Fo.A. 81

 

 

“It’s him. You two take the long way. Build a stretcher.”

Gently but firmly, Tarisilya pushed Elboron away from the waterfall whose wide-eyed stare and clenched fists revealed how close he was to just jumping down the strong current into the pond below.

 

But that had already not ended well for another member of his family today. And much like it was the case for his father, it had been a few decades, put nicely, since the Steward’s son had been young and agile enough for such a stunt.

 

Tarisilya was being met with a very familiar stubbornness in those same pale eyes for a moment before the man reluctantly gave in, running off toward the cave exit with surprising speed, driven by the worry for his father.

 

“Be careful. This is quite the mean fall for you, too.” Legolas caressed her arm for a moment, lips tight with the effort it took him from trying to stop her. Neither of them had exactly good memories of waterfalls. But like her, he knew of course that every second counted in moments like this.

So when she nodded reassuringly, he just took her hectically-shed cloak and boots from her and breathed a quick kiss to her temple before hurrying away himself.

 

Without sparing the moldy, bug-infested accommodations that had provided protection both to good and evil in the war and afterward another glance, Tarisilya took a few steps backward and started to run. With a strong, wide leap she passed by the ugly rock outcrop that her patient this afternoon had probably fallen victim to and dove headfirst into the shallow water, barely catching herself in time to avoid a dangerous impact with the razor-sharp rocks on the ground.

Spluttering, blinking water from her eyes, she swam to the bank of pebbles where the unconscious man lay, where he seemed to have managed to drag himself with his last strength before passing out which had – hopefully – saved his life.

“And here they say, Men become more mature and less reckless with Age,” she muttered under her breath as she knelt down beside the curled-up shape, her hands just a little too cold, and not from the icy water temperature, when she reached out for Faramir’s neck and chest. With a sigh of relief, she counted his heartbeat and breaths, found both to go in a not entirely stable but regular rhythm, and carefully turned the man on his back, with her hand firmly around his neck to support it, in case the Steward had made it to break a bone or two in there with this insane endeavor.

 

Even if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t be walking anytime soon, she realized with a single look down his drenched tunics and breeches, wincing at the askew angle of his left lower leg and ankle. It was the same ruined knee that she’d helped function better so many decades ago, but she had an idea, this time, her healing attempts wouldn’t do half as much. Mannish bodies mended very slowly once they’d left the prime of their life behind.

 

There weren’t any other fractures she could feel by a brief pat-down, and no swellings on the man’s bony torso that would indicate an inner bleeding, so maybe he’d been lucky this time.

 

Elboron definitely needed to look out for his father better though. Now at the latest, it had become clear that there were too few moments of lucidness in Faramir’s days left, and that his faulty assessment and perception of his surroundings extended to his own body as well.

 

It hurt, watching this rapid decay, but it was a pain Tarisilya was getting familiar with at this point, and one she could deal with later when everyone was home safely.

She’d only just finished putting those fractures in makeshift splits using wood from a deserted beaver’s lodge when a trembling hand touched her thick braid suddenly.

 

“You’ve done something with your hair.” Faramir’s lids still fluttered restlessly, he was visibly struggling to stay awake. At least he didn’t seem to notice the pain he must be in immediately, or the chilling January coldness shaking his wet body. One of the more merciful symptoms of his disease.

 

She wasn’t sure who it was that he was seeing right now and regarded him with a gentle smile, softly squeezing his hand before urging him to lower it back on his chest. “You like it?”

 

“I don’t know.” More than 80 years, and this man still occasionally struggled with the concept of charm. It was nice that some things never changed. “I liked you blonde.”

Éowyn then, that was easy at least. The last thing she needed right now was an upset, agitated patient possibly struggling and hurting himself further.

 

“It’s just because it’s wet, don’t worry. That was quite the adventure you went on there. How do you feel? Is your head dizzy?”

 

“A little?” The familiar struggle of losing himself in his meddled thoughts put a few more wrinkles onto Faramir's haggard face as he tried to remember what she was talking about. His eyes went wide when he beheld the waterfall a few feet away, and a wide grin split his lips.

“Did you see that? It’s been years since I jumped it last. We weren’t supposed to, you know? Forbidden, and too dangerous. But …” He stopped, frowning once more.

“Éowyn … I saw Éowyn in the water! She needs help …” Sudden energy returning to his frail shape, Faramir tried to sit up but cried out immediately and fell back, clutching his right hip. So much for the hope of no other damages.

 

“Sh. It’s alright, I promise.” Tarisilya took him by the shoulders and got him to lay still. “It was probably just a koi. You know how big they get. Éowyn isn’t here right now.”

 

“She’s not? But we were supposed to meet here. We wanted to have lunch here, just the two of us.” The brief panic turned to disappointment, and more confusion, one that would only lead to more distress and another afternoon of crying and raging if it was allowed to clear up.

 

“Maybe you messed up the date? You always have so much work to do, Steward. It happens that you forget things.” Tarisilya soothingly stroked the man’s stubbly cheek.

With relief, she heard the excited voices of her husband and Faramir’s son approaching. They still had a long way to go home from this little misadventure, but she thought, together, they could make that without further problems.

“Éowyn is in Rohan right now, you see? Visiting the horses and the palace. She’ll be back soon.”

 

“That’s good.” The exhaustion and threatening hypothermia took its toll. Faramir’s eyes were losing focus again already. “I’ll take her here when she comes back. After the war and the Stewardaides, I didn’t want to, you know? It felt like they’d defiled this place. But she insisted I wouldn’t let them take it away from me. We always come here for her birthday. Going to make her something special for her next one. Maybe a new dagger or a scabbard. She always wears those down so quickly, did you know? The woman never learned how to sheath a sword right …”

 

“I’m sure she’ll be very happy about such a gift.” Now that she knew that her patient was as stable as could be, Tarisilya pressed her lips to his forehead, a few hummed tones of a healing lullaby on her lips, so that he could rest until they would have him warm and sheltered.

He would end up with a very bad cold anyway, of course, but Tarisilya saw no reason to tell him, it was very unlikely, he would ever see this place again. That she wasn’t even certain he’d ever leave his room again once they had him back there. That kind of care was something the healers of Emyn Arnen would have to take care of. She could only do what the last two years had already consisted of: buying them as much time as possible.

“It will be alright. Stay!” she shouted at Elboron when she saw him stumble towards the shore, ready to get right in and become the next one to earn himself some serious illness.

“The stretcher, Legolas. I don’t want him back in the water.”

 

Her husband was with her in less than a minute, wading through the almost chin-high water with the aid carried high above his head and now soaked through to the bone as well, but she doubted, that was the reason why his hands were shaking suspiciously when they strapped her patient onto that wooden bench carefully.

“I heard you talk when we came closer,” he murmured when she reached out to touch his cheek for a second, reminding him that hiding something from her was a flaw he’d actually long got rid of. “I don’t know how you can do this, elwen.”

I don’t know if I can do this.

There were things she didn’t even need to read in his mind to hear him say it.

 

Unlike his Steward, the King of the Reunited Kingdom was blessed with a lot more of the noble blood of his ancestors and would have many more years in good health before him. But eventually, the time would come when they might be called for an emergency like this in Minas Tirith instead of Emyn Arnen. And then it would be even harder, for both of them, to witness time catching up with the mortals they had come to love so deeply in their lives in these realms.

 

“Not every mannish body outlives its healthy mind. Often enough, it’s the other way round.” Tarisilya quickly brushed a wet strand of gold blond hair from her husband’s forehead and kissed it tenderly.

“But even if … It’s not about us, elwen. It’s about them. About making them feel happy and peaceful. Suffering and fear, they had enough in their time. What we take with us is not these last months when some of them are slowly succumbing to their everlasting dream. Such sicknesses can’t wipe out all that we shared with them before. All we need to make sure is making the best of every day they’re still with us with their waking soul.”

 

He said nothing to that but the tears glistening in his eyes for a moment had dried.

“It would have been Lady Éowyn’s birthday today,” he finally murmured when they were ready to leave, the grief still near enough to choke his voice.

 

“Yes.” Tarisilya put her hand gently around Faramir’s forehead once more, wiping away the mess of grey curls there and making sure it was a good thing he saw there behind his closed lids. “They don’t forget everything. The love inside, it’s not going anywhere.”

 

Her husband’s very thoughtful but at least no longer crestfallen nod let her know, the second emergency healing that day had been successful.

Chapter Text

T.A. 2017

 

 

“We should take a break."

 

Glorfindel winced when his sparring partner lowered his shield at that, and a scathing glance from almost black eyes hit him over the silver and black gem-studded edge. After a few years of resumed training, Erestor was getting quite decent with a blade, and his aim was impeccable, but his sharpest weapon had always been his mouth.

"I hope you're trying to tell me that you're getting tired, old man. Because I'm pretty sure we've had this discussion about going easy on me. Thrice."

 

"You are very pale today."

 

"I'm always pale. It's in my family. You should know. My father sought you out often enough, telling you to stop feeding my foolish battle ambitions."

Glorfindel could have argued with that, as he also remembered Erestor's mother pretty well whose skin had had a far darker tone, and Erestor himself had used to look a lot less sickish in his youth.

But Erestor punctuated each of his sentences with a well-aimed beat at the muddy ground, jaw grinding in growing aggression, and Glorfindel decided not to bring that up. The slashes into nothing had grown harder when Erestor had mentioned the people in their common old home that he'd lost, but after all these millennia, the grief could no longer reach his eyes. It was the energy of determination filling them at this point, no longer draining depression.

Probably it was better to channel that energy somewhere useful. They could only get together for their occasional, casual nights together in Erestor's library so often.

 

"That was never my decision to make."

Glorfindel let out a silent sigh and raised his own shield to his side once more, leaving his cover open enough for Erestor to make the first move.

 

While his best friend's defenses were almost impenetrable, there was still a lot he had to learn in ways of physical attack. If he was being serious about wanting to accompany Glorfindel and his small but expertly exercised group of soldiers on orc hunts every now and then, Glorfindel needed him to be in perfect shape.

 

And not only because Elrond would have had Glorfindel's head if he managed to get the Lord's chief advisor killed. Time for elves in these realms was running out fast, but if foresight was true, there was another big catastrophe waiting before either of them could even think of finally sailing to their real home. Erestor was needed here, and in good health and with a sharp wit.

 

But Glorfindel had been around this stubborn hothead long enough to know, Erestor could only work at his best when his soul wasn't too troubled. If this whole thing was good for his ego, Glorfindel shouldn't be in the way.

Besides, it wouldn't be him whose sore muscles would leave him walking like an old man in a few hours. "Bring it then."

 

That was something he never needed to tell his friend twice. Erestor leaped towards him with new-kindled enthusiasm, slightly clumsily attempting a blow from the side that Glorfindel easily blocked with his own blade. There was something dark staining the edges of the dark blue tunic that Erestor wore under his armor that distracted Glorfindel for a moment, but he didn't have time to think about it, because his friend had suddenly got a dagger from out under his sleeve somewhere, and the razor-sharp tip was only an inch away from Glorfindel's throat.

"Be ready for everything, right?" Erestor grinned widely.

 

"Especially for your partner not playing fair," Glorfindel confirmed.

He'd already swirled his sword around before the alert realization about his carelessness hit Erestor's eyes, and thrust the blunt handle with almost all his strength against Erestor's sturdy chest plate.

 

His training partner went down like a tree, without a sound, and stopped moving.

 

With a confused, shocked cry, Glorfindel dropped his weapon and went to his knees next to his friend, checking his pulse and his breathing, only to find both increasingly unsteady.

So his eyes hadn't deceived him. His hands shaking with hurry, he freed Erestor of his armor even while yelling at one of the few soldiers watching their duel from the yard fence to get a healer here immediately.

Completely dumbfounded, an icy fist clenching around his heart, he stared down at the ruined mess that was Erestor's tunic.

 

Spreading from a spot on Erestor's side where his armor must have slipped at some point earlier, blood was staining the thick fabric in rivulets, almost drenching the whole piece of clothing. And Glorfindel had had no idea he'd even hit his partner.

Thinking about it, he was pretty sure, Erestor hadn't known either.

 

Well, that might at least explain why Elrond had been so very much against the idea of Erestor training to rejoin the army.

Glorfindel only waited until the healer had wrapped a makeshift bandage around the ugly cut that fortunately involved the artery only on the surface, and confirmed that the injury would be completely healed in a few weeks.

Then he grabbed his things and stomped towards the palace.

 

 

 

 

 

"Are you telling me you knew about this illness?"

Glorfindel did his best to keep his calm, but Elrond's desk that he was leaning on was rattling suspiciously under the weight of his gloved fists.

 

"It's not an illness. Elves do not get ill." Wholly unimpressed, Elrond passed him by to walk to his fireplace and pour out two cups of tea for them. Only that those fine lines of worry around his thin lips wouldn't disappear today revealed that the incident didn't leave him as cold as he pretended.

 

"I accidentally almost just murdered your librarian, because you did not bother to tell me about this. You are in no good position to talk semantics to me."

 

"Wrong." Elrond thrust the steaming drink so obtrusively in his face that he had no choice but to take it. “This is all about words. About language. It's about high time you learn how to speak his, Glorfindel. He adores you. A not exactly small part of him loves you. He idolizes you in a way bordering on unhealthy. If you two don't finally start being honest with each other, that can only end badly. This was not my story to tell, but I shouldn't even have had to."

 

Glorfindel had to admit, Elrond had a point. Far too often, even he let himself be pushed away by Erestor's very rudimentary social skills. They always used to make up with a few hours of physical pleasure and even a hint of tenderness from time to time after they'd been in a fight; but even two Ages later, Glorfindel had a hard time, only just peeking through a window into Erestor's soul.

Grumbling, he started to pace the room, always keeping an ear to the hallways, in case the healer would come here with bad news after all. "Elaborate then. What is wrong with him?"

 

"His self-chosen exile of the mind." His own cup in hand, Elrond stopped in front of a painting that Glorfindel himself had done for him shortly after his arrival. On it, the white walls of Gondolin were gleaming in the evening light as if on fire, and around Ecthelion's fountain, the Lords of the city were singing together after a long day's work.

 

Naïve they'd been at this time, so certain that even if the city would be found one day, they had more than enough strength to defend it. And yet, in some way, life had been easier in the First Age. At least you had known who your enemy was back then.

Mostly, that was.

"He was never much of a people person, not even when he came to see me for training hours as a boy." Glorfindel was still waiting for a point to this, but for once, he was trying to listen to Elrond's advice and dive into his friend's complicated emotional world.

 

"And the only person he trusted himself with happened to run into a Balrog then," Elrond nodded with a slightly askew grin.

"I don't know what he's been running from all his life. He doesn't talk to me about it and it's not my place to pry. If there's anyone who can solve his riddles, it's you. I can only tell you that the armor that he's crafted around his feelings is so thick at this point, he doesn't even let himself in. Elvish bodies don't get sick, no, but people like us should know best that their minds can suffer just as badly. By now, Erestor has forced himself to be so numb to his fears and his grief that this disconnection is spreading from his head to the rest of his body. This is nothing a healer can treat. You two are far closer than you'll admit even to yourself. Make use of that. What he needs is someone to break those walls down."

 

"What he needs is a dose of reality." Escaping from Elrond's too-sharp, knowing glance, Glorfindel picked up his sword and shield again and headed for the door. What was going on in his bedroom was no one's business, and anything beyond that, he would gladly leave to Elrond again from now on. He couldn't force anyone to talk. His job was mainly trying to make sure, people didn't get themselves killed.

"When you visit him, let him know, I can no longer accept his ambitions in the army. I cannot train anyone who does not know when to stop."

 

"Does he not deserve it that you tell him yourself?" Admittedly, this disappointed and very disapproving tone, Glorfindel deserved.

 

"In a few days, when we both have cooled down. If I start a fight with him now, that will end either with one of us leaving the valley for good or on his sofa. As you pointed out so helpfully, neither will get us anywhere here."

 

Elrond grimaced a little at a detail he'd probably not really wanted to be in the know about but nodded reluctantly. "Just don't be surprised then if he throws a knife at you when you go see him."

 

"Would not be the first time." With this last charming tidbit of information, Glorfindel left the office, closing the door a little too loudly behind him, and headed straight for the stables.

It was only when he'd arrived at a cave with blinding light stalactites that Erestor and he had discovered together in their first time in these lands, that he could admit to himself, he had no idea where he was going and why.

For once it was him who was running and he didn't know what from.

Chapter Text

Fo.A. 1

 

 

“Good. You're finally awake."

Oh. that was. Interesting.

 

That extremely familiar voice sounded like it was coming from somewhere right below the throbbing bag of lava that his head had become. Since no one but his sister, when they’d been elflings, had ever slept in Tegiend’s bed before, that was basically impossible though. No matter how close he'd come to a certain silver-blonde ex-captain of his in the last few months, there was no way, the two of them had been drunk enough last night to suddenly forget about every decency and tradition …

Realizing that Tegiend couldn’t actually remember where in the world he’d even been last night, finally helped clear his head up. With a startle, he opened his eyes and tried to move instinctively, to sit up and get some distance to this increasingly awkward situation. But the heavyweight of a massively trained warrior’s torso splayed across his and the just as iron grip of a long leg pressing his down made that impossible.

The reason for that, Tegiend knew when just the smallest twitch of muscle brought on a new world of pain, this time from his ankle, almost all the way up to his knee.

Oh. Right.

For some reason, he’d got it in his head when going on a ride with his best friend right outside Tirion that it was an absolutely brilliant idea to try and ride the leader of the herd of wild Mearas they’d run into, deep in the woods. Tegiend couldn’t remember a lot after getting on the stallion’s back, but judging by the thick bandages around his leg and that awful dizziness and nausea, trying to impress his maybe-not-quite-but-hopefully-soon-partner hadn’t ended so well.

Yes, he probably deserved that clearly annoyed tone in Haldir’s bright voice.

Ouch. Mercy?”

 

“Already had enough of that with you for the next ten years. They wanted to tie you down until the bones will settle right. I convinced Lord Elrond, I could do that a little gentler, though you really didn’t deserve that. So don’t move.”

Haldir finally let go of him and sat up, not without another reprimanding slap to his shoulder which was one of the few body parts apparently not covered in bruises after kissing that tree trunk. Tegiend’s bad conscience had him notice right away that his friend was wearing the same tunic as yesterday, littered in moss stains and a little bit of dried blood. It was very obvious, Haldir hadn’t had a second of rest since Tegiend’s stunt yesterday afternoon.

 

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled clumsily, grimacing when he tasted the stale note of healing herbs on his tongue. Though he hated little more than feeling helpless, he accepted Haldir’s help with sitting up at least a few inches to lean against the pillows in his back. His ex-captain also got a cup of water for him, already waiting on the nightstand of this room Tegiend didn’t know, probably located in one of the many healer circle centers of the city. Not exactly a place he’d meant to end up in before he’d even been in his new home for a decade.

“I wasn’t trying to be reckless. I really thought he would carry me.”

 

“Just because Matis has accepted your insufferable behind on his back, doesn’t mean you can just climb any horse of noble blood you see.” Still grumbling to himself but at least not that angrily anymore, just with a hint of his usual morning mood, Haldir got up and strolled to a water bowl on a small fireplace.

“I already tried to tell you that yesterday. Even elves with noble heritage need to tame animals of this kind first. If you just listened for once …”

 

But Tegiend, admittedly, had a hard time listening right now. The small disappointment of being robbed of the surprisingly comfortable warmth of another body snuggled against his and a well-known scent of resin and night dew in his nose had been seamlessly replaced by a definitely not harmless interest in the image unfolding in front of his eyes when Haldir dropped most of his clothes to wash up.

Which was something he had approximately seen a thousand times before when they’d still been on patrols for days, weeks, months together; but for some reason, it had never occurred to him, it seemed, to look. Those must have been some damn numbing herbs that Elrond had poured down his throat …

“Huh?”

Only when he let his eyes wander back up over that broad back, ignoring, with some effort, the broad scars there and admiring the shape of still very well-trained archer arms instead before looking back into a pair of definitely amused-looking blue eyes, he realized, Haldir had must have asked him something.

“Uh.” Admittedly, he’d been more eloquent before.

 

“I was wondering if you were hungry. But the way you’re eating me up right now, I suppose, I’d need to serve that food on my naked chest to get you interested,” Haldir noted dryly.

 

Tegiend could have pretended to be offended but decided, with how long they’d been busy now chasing each other and both avoiding making a definite move for far too long, because neither of them had ever known much about love except the pain and loss it could bring, that would have been pretty stupid. At least he was decent enough to blush but he didn’t look away.

“What can I say? It’s a very attractive view. And I’m sick, remember? You need to pamper me until they let me out of here.”

 

“Forget it. You’d throw a plate at me two hours in. A full plate.”

Haldir laughed quietly, not looking the least shocked or reluctant himself, to Tegiend’s relief, and turned around again, wringing out the sponge he was holding to his shoulder. He was definitely doing that a little too slowly, uncaring for the large drops that started to trickle down his spine.

 

It was a trace that Tegiend very badly wanted to wipe away suddenly, and not with his fingertips.

He really needed to ask Elrond to give him fewer drugs.

“Did you send a message to ada?” he asked, just to say something that didn’t have to do with his blood running far too hot for a clear winter morning.

 

Haldir’s shoulders tightened with a sudden agitation he couldn’t quite place. “Lord Elrond went to see him once he was finished with that jigsaw that you made of your shinbone. I’m guessing we’ll have a few more hours before he’ll show up here to tell me that I’m no longer invited to dinners since I can’t even keep his son safe on a one-hour ride.”

 

Tegiend sighed and raised his hand to rub his eyes but quickly lowered it again because his ribcage reminded him, those fancy drugs were starting to wear off more by the minute. No more trying to get acquainted with Aman’s flora and fauna as long as he didn’t know what to expect, alright.

“Self-blame doesn’t become you, my captain. It’s not your job to keep me safe anymore. I can very much take care of my own. If I make a mistake, it’s only me who has to answer for that. I had a lot of time to swallow that particular medicine since you came back into my life.”

 

Haldir went silent at that though, and at first, Tegiend thought, it was just the usual uncommunicativeness before his first cup of tea. Only when the other suddenly was very much in a hurry to redress and headed for the door, murmuring something about calling for a healer to check on Tegiend, he realized, he’d messed up.

 

Again. By the Valar, why didn’t they teach you about this stuff as an elfling?

“Stay.”

 

“Is that a question or an order?” Visibly hurt, Haldir stopped in the doorway, leaning against the frame without turning his head.

“Better think because you answer. Because one thing, you need to realize, Vandrinion: If you ask me to be by your side, we’re done half-assing that. You’re going to have to live with me trying to save you from yourself every chance I get then. Because you see, I’m awfully egoistic. I like to keep what’s mine. And as the eldest of three, I’ve learned not to be awfully keen on sharing either. So, you’re going to have to say goodbye to those demons in your heart, too, if you want me to move in.”

 

“How can you move into a place you’ve owned for almost a millennium already?”

Tegiend wasn’t always good with words but the only answer he could find inside him to that grave little speech had apparently been exactly the right one.

 

When his friend finally looked at him again, there was something Tegiend had never seen – or never allowed himself to see – on his face that made his rough features all but glow, a combination of so much yearning and tender admiration and pure, raw want that it made Tegiend blush right back up to the tip of his ears again.

“You realize that means I’m going to ask your father for your hand in marriage, right?”

 

“Oh, please do. Bring flowers and sweets, and a bard. But wait until I’m awake enough to enjoy the look on his face.”

With a lot of effort, Tegiend made it to suppress the memory of how a certain other elf of their old home had come to the borders of Lórien one evening to ask Vandrin for the blessing regarding his other child. A bold move, but done in not-too-small a part to keep Tegiend’s sister with him on Middle-earth. That time of grief was starting to heal in his heart, and the anger, he’d almost managed to forget at this point. Things would be alright one day, one way or another, that he knew on this morning full of pain and misunderstandings and a new start maybe better than ever.

Only the one sadness remained that if Haldir was really that much in a hurry to legalize their relationship – and given the ongoing, undeniable desire to finally get a lot closer to someone he’d loved for such a long time already, Tegiend was very thankful for that kind of impatience, secretly –, this would once more be a celebration for one of Vandrin’s children with two of the most important guests not attending.

“I wish she could be here to see this,” he sighed when Haldir sat back down by his bedside with a questioning frown, grabbing his hand after a short moment of hesitation, and that helped chase away that faint cold breeze of regret in his soul quickly. “And nana. It feels like whenever there are happy days in my life or in Ilya’s, there’s always someone missing.”

 

Haldir gently reached for his lowered chin next to lift his head, the usual sardonic half-grin replaced by a compassionate smile that had Tegiend’s heart stop for a beat. He was pretty sure, not many people even knew that kind of expression on the ex-captain’s face existed. “If you give me your promise, Vandrinion, you shall have mine. When everyone that we love and miss will finally join us here, we’ll have a late celebration for both our and Ilya’s wedding that the elves in these realms will still speak of in a century. We’ve waited a millennium or so to bind ourselves to each other. I don’t think it can hurt, doing that more than once.”

 

Instead of an answer, Tegiend buried his free hand in Haldir’s tunic and pulled him in for a hasty, but very loving kiss.

Chapter Text

T.A. 3019

 

 

Take a walk inside my dreams, the wounded soldier had said right before passing out.

An uncompromising order more than a plea, and at the same time, the necessary invitation for Elrond's mind to mingle with the other elf's; an open license in fact rather than just allowing a short look.

That was something Elrond usually very deliberately avoided as intimate insights like this should actually be reserved for partner bonds or at least family ties.

 

But the only family member, this particular soldier had left in these realms was on their way to Mithlond right now, protecting Elrond's youngest child on their last journey with their life. Elrond had no right to do any less. Not to mention that with all the distance of disappointment and anger between father and son, it would have been unlikely anyway that Glorfindel would have run into anything but a wall, trying to see the riddle that was his son's soul.

 

Yet there was something Thondrar badly wanted Elrond to see about his last ride outside of Imladris that had ended so disastrously for some reason. Something that he couldn't tell him in words because he could hardly stay awake long enough to vomit both bile and something black, indefinable, every now and then before the hallucinations of his high fever took him again. Whatever this was about, it was crucial enough that he'd refused to let his Lord get up to anything other than the most necessary care for the deep cuts littering his arms and legs so far to keep him from bleeding out.

 

Elrond knew the stubbornness running in this family well enough to not even try to argue. If Thondrar's memories could help him find out what the other elf had come in contact with that left his veins standing out from his skin alarmingly purple, that dehydrated him at a worrying speed and dampened his senses as quickly as Elrond had not seen any orc poison work before, that would be a useful side-effect.

Reluctantly, he let his assistants tie Glorfindel's second-in-command down after he had almost got knocked out accidentally by a heavy fist when bending over Thondrar's sweat-covered face.

Then he lowered his hand on his patient's forehead with tight lips and drawn-in shoulders, forcing his agitated mind somehow to focus on nothing but those veiled, bright blue eyes. Time was running short already; he wouldn't have more than one try before he would have to start guessing about antidotes.

Still, he almost startled back when the elf's youthful, deeply tanned features lost color and became haggard within seconds as Elrond's perspective changed with a blur of color and sound.

 

Only one remaining, almost black eye was staring back at him now and split lips distorted into a cruel grin. He could smell the creature's foul breath when that scar-covered face inched closer and instinctively tried to move away. But the backrest of his chair had turned into the rough, massive bark of a thick oak tree, and his hands were tied to a limb high above his head.

Well, that did explain at least why Glorfindel's substitute had shown up at the city gates in this condition and why no one had heard from him for far too long before that.

Shivers crept down Elrond's back when the creature's tongue lapped over his –, no not his – neck and the fresh cut there started to color the leather of his tunic red immediately.

He must have made a sound while his mind was desperately clinging to the sober clarity that this was only a dream, unpleasantly detailed as it was, and not even his own; the orc let out a chuckle and bit down on that cut on the side of his neck, widening it with his sharp fangs.

"You're still not dead?"

 

"Looks like you're doing a lousy job." The melodic voice that wasn't his was slightly weakened from the increasing blood loss but had enough dry cynicism left. "Your master must be so disappointed."

 

The orc very, sadly, wasn't a lover of wit.

 

The punch to the gut didn't come unexpected, but what did was how long Elrond could sense this foreign body hanging from the ropes around its wrists afterward, a faint throb in his liver region only an echo of the liquid fire that must have burned there after the brutal hit.

"Check for inner bleedings," he heard his other – his real voice – in the wake world say. He also thought to hear the faint murmur of the healers in the background …

But none of that could drown out that stench surrounding him, coming from that enemy and from a second one watching everything from a few feet away, shamelessly leering at the torture of a Firstborn. Or the metallic scent of his own blood seeping through his clothes bit by bit. That awful growing weakness from dozens of smaller and bigger cuts that were not nearly enough to end an elf's life but compromised the ability to fight back still.

The helplessness and growing touch of fear he was feeling, those were only his own.

 

The person whose mind he was visiting was in this place for a reason, and they had a plan. They had known what they were in for. Maybe that made it easier, maybe not.

 

It certainly didn't make it easier to watch it.

Sure, Elrond had been forced to bear scenes like this in his head before, as early as in his childhood, at the beginning of his healer career, when he'd sometimes tried to soothe his foster father's nightmares of Angband, mostly without a lot of success. But this, in a way, was worse. This time, he couldn't just leave, not before he knew what he was looking for.

 

"So creative," his non-self sneered at the orc when he could speak again. "They just don’t make you guys like they used to. In my time, an orc getting their hand on one of my people knew better than to waste food or a thrall like this. Then again, with Morgoth's lapdog in charge now, I'm not expecting much of the scum he breeds."

 

"Be careful what you wish for, pretty face." It was a short-lived relief when the orc stepped away.

Elrond's knowledge of the black speech was too rudimentary to understand what the enemy shouted at his sword-mate, but it wasn't hard to guess when the other came back with a dozen of triangle-shaped, jagged leaves in his gloved hands shortly afterwards.

 

Oh, great.

"Soak the bandages with blister cream before you renew them. And put up a bowl of anti-inflammatory tea." He could only hope the slurred words from his lips actually made half as much sense out loud as in his head because it became harder and harder, changing back and forth between the two places his mind was caught in and keeping apart the reality he was very much needed in from the gruesome scene unfolding in his head.

 

"Orcs can be very creative," the first enemy laughed as his friend started to wrap the plants around Thondrar's arm and legs, stuffing them into all the tears of his tunic and breeches and rubbing them deeply into the wounds below until even the echo of memory on Elrond's numb skin felt like he was a Secondborn who'd been in the sun for far too long.

"We wouldn't want our guest to be bored." Visibly satisfied with themselves, the two orcs stepped back to watch their victim struggle against their ropes with barely suppressed moans. "That's right, sing for us, little bird. We want your mates to find you quickly, don't we? That's the only reason you're still breathing, elf scum. We're going to draw all your pretty little friends out of your hiding place and kill them right before your eyes. Then we'll take you back to your home to watch the others entertain us and roast over our fire. How's that for creativity, soldier?"

 

There was a sound from – not – his throat that Elrond couldn't quite place because hysterical laughter was definitely the last thing he'd expected anyone to react with to a threat like that.

"You really think it takes more than a single elf to tear your pitiful little camp apart?"

 

"You …"

The orc's lips – smeared with blood that judging by the color definitely wasn't his own – were back on that ugly wound on the side of the elf's neck. The enemy moaned in sadistic pleasure at the lightest startle and tremble of his victim.

The creature's hand ripped the elf's breeches open, buttons flying everywhere. "You should start watching your mouth. That we can't touch you before we emptied your village doesn't mean there's nothing we can do with a pretty thing like you. How about we start with tearing you apart first?"

The enemy ripped some of those leaves from his friend's hand with his own unprotected one, uncaring about the red blotches and stripes immediately appearing on his palm, and then reached down again.

 

Fighting a sudden bout of nausea, Elrond closed his eyes, instinctively trying to pull away from what he was seeing, but with the phantom pain burning in his midsection, inside of him, there was no hiding. By all the …

 

Glorfindel's kid had always had the betimes suicidal tendencies of his father and showed the same resilience to both mental and physical hurt, but there were tortures that could bring even the most seasoned elves to their knees. And to think, Thondrar had somehow got himself into this situation without need – there certainly had been no reason to walk into a camp of two enemies basically unarmed and without fighting back, it seemed, unless there was some deeper meaning to this whole thing that Elrond still couldn't figure out.

 

And as long as he didn't, there was no stopping. He could only make sure his patient would be well-taken care of by the others until he could finally leave him alone in this labyrinth of abysses that was his mind again.

"Boil another kettle and let it cool off. Cleaning herbs, anti-inflammatory, and athelas. We need to flush out whatever is left inside."

It took him a long moment until he could make that connection to his patient's subconsciousness again, partly because at this point, it did take him a lot of convincing himself to do so but partly also because that new torture had very obviously even unhinged a well-balanced and sturdy soul like Thondrar's for a moment, and nothing but blackness and screams was answering Elrond's senses when he reached out to the other.

Over his own heavy, choked breathing, there were only scratches of conversation from the enemies that his ears could pick up on in the distance.

 

Apparently, the orcs had got bored with their own game for the moment and had retreated a little. They were having a very vivid conversation about if they'd rather want to spit all the elvish soldiers over a fire they were expecting to show up in their camp soon or tie them up and watch them roast in a coal pit.

 

Having served in more than battle against dark creatures, at least that kind of talk was nothing new for Elrond's ears. His mind started to drift into the protection of ignorance quickly …

But then a jolt of new energy went both through his head and through the one he was residing in right now.

 

"Don't be greedy. We have to keep at least half of them alive for the trolls. You know how they get when their food isn't still wriggling and screaming."

 

"Give me a break. It's us who sat our asses off for months in these god-forsaken mountains, not them. This is our payday."

 

"Shut your trap. You do as I say or I'll feed you to the trolls instead. You know the deal. We keep those elvish bastards within the region of their hideout so they can't give Mordor any trouble, and the trolls get half the prey when we march on the valley together. Or do you want to explain to the eye who messed this up?"

 

Elrond tasted blood. First, he thought he'd bit his tongue in his sudden shock about the answer he'd been supposed to find … But no, this was not his blood, and it wasn't his teeth that had nicked the inside of his lower lip but the blade of a tiny knife. He watched, in morbid fascination and increasingly impressed by the second, how his patient, in his memory, threw the weapon upwards with a brief movement of his head and caught it easily in his left hand.

Two seconds later, those ropes were history.

 

The orcs only just had time to turn around, dumbfounded, when a feral, growling, half-naked something suddenly jumped at them. A fountain of black blood splattered from the enemy leader's neck, artery ripped open by the sheer force of strong teeth, and the other orc didn't fare any better while he was still busy staring at the absurd scene with his mouth hanging open.

 

Elrond must be wearing a similarly dumbstruck expression on his face because his assistants were staring at him in clear disconcertment when he finally opened his eyes again.

"Did you find out anything, milord?" Tauriel asked cautiously, nodding down with visibly worry on their patient who still looked far too pale and feverish, in spite of his wounds having been cleaned up and the first cups of healing herbs where they belonged.

 

What they could do from the outside, the others had taken care of. Now it was up to Elrond to come up with whatever plant mixtures he could remember from all his millennia as a healer and hope that one of them could eliminate what it did to you, drinking half a liter of orc-blood. This wasn't exactly something you could find in the books. He was pretty sure, no one had ever had the wish to conduct that particular little experiment before.

Dealing with the traces of this disgusting episode on his patient's mind would have to wait. And knowing this one certain soldier in his army, Elrond very much doubted there was anyone even on this side of the sea that Thondrar would let get close enough to him to give such a healing a try. In an Age when war was threatening to approach them from every angle, no one would have the time, either.

"Plenty," he answered briefly before getting up on unstable knees because most of what had just happened in this room was only between his patient and him. "Keep him stable. I need to brew a series of possible remedies and instruct the army. Mordor is closing in on us, and they are better equipped than we feared."

 

"You will hold the fort, milord. You always did."

But Tauriel's jaw was tight, and her hand came to rest on her still completely flat belly for a moment. If it came to an attack that would, after all these millennia, bring the valley into serious trouble, she would be out there just as little as Elrond himself could, for more than one reason.

 

And he couldn't even tell her that it became easier, after a while, always waiting for the catastrophes to be brought to your doorstep first.

 

As long as they had courageous souls like Glorfindel's son in the ranks of their warriors though who shunned no damage of the body or the mind just to keep their borders safe, they could keep on clinging to the hope for a while longer that even after the lossiest battle, the good and the light in these realms would prevail.

Chapter Text

T.A. 1075

 

 

"Have you come to surrender?"

The far too-shrill voice echoed from the mold-covered ruins of his old home like the chuckle of a maniac and left his ears ringing. Smoke thick like from young trees burning tried to clog up his lungs, clouded the air of what had once been a splendid throne room of crystal glass and velvet-wrapped brocade and now hung in shreds from half-collapsed walls, too rotten even for a campfire. A sweet stench of decaying flesh called the bitterness of bile to his tongue. Though the night was kind even for late autumn, the temperature dropped quickly onto a level even unpleasant for resilient elvish skin.

So, Thranduil had indeed found what he'd been looking for. And his enemy didn't even make the smallest move to hide or to defend themselves with the usual army of stray orcs or mutated beasts outside the castle, doing their very best to intimidate him in person instead for once.

 

And yet none of that tickled Thranduil's senses for more than an alarmed stir before that resigned kind of calmness settled into his bones again that had caused him to leave the palace alone and unnoticed in the first place. This terror in the realm he so desperately tried to keep together since his father's demise had gone long enough. His people relied on him to protect them and he kept on failing them. If he didn't have skill and strength to chase away the enemy occupying his father's old residence, he was not worthy of leading a whole Kingdom anyway.

It would stop tonight, one way or another.

"I have come to end your reign in these parts, Necromancer," he said calmly, not stopping for a heartbeat as he approached what was left of his father's throne and the fragile-looking figure hunched over there, wrapped in shrouds of black and veiled by shadows that the little moonlight falling in through the holes in the roof couldn't reach.

 

"Really." Something changed about that voice that sent a harsh prickle down his neck and made him tighten his grip on the handle of his sword by his side. The ear-piercing screech seemed to fade away within those two syllables, mockery turning to a far more honest-sounding rage.

"Are you not a thousand years or so too late for that?"

With every step Thranduil came closer to his enemy, the inhumane force seemed to slip away from that voice, allowing for a deeper, slightly rough tone instead. A hint of treacherous softness left room for speculations about the enemy that Thranduil was about to face preferring a female appearance, at least today, whatever race and incarnation it might originally have sprung from.

 

And though Thranduil's increasingly uneasy mind tried to warn him that this was absolutely impossible and that he was about to make a great mistake, he couldn't help but notice that it was a very familiar-sounding timbre.

He held his sword as a last wall of cover between him and the other and paused, bracing himself as well as he could for seeing the face of the creature haunting these woods. The one the pure sight of which had driven dozens of his people too insane for their minds to heal in these parts so that Thranduil had had no choice but to let them go.

This would not happen to him. He had seen worse things on the fields of the last war than some demon who was probably just a castaway failed experiment of Morgoth's lapdog anyway.

"Get in the light where I can see you, unholy one."

 

"As you wish."

When the voice spoke up again, Thranduil almost dropped his sword to the ground, and not because it had spoken deafening or in a painful frequency this time.

What he was hearing was his dead wife's voice.

 

The clouds dissolved as if blown away by a gust of foul breath as the figure stood and walked down the stairs of their throne, without hurry, as if they were sensing that Thranduil couldn't have moved a single muscle body if he tried. He could only stare at a face grey and hollow with death that still undeniably wore his wife's lovely features though, framed by almost-whitened, thinning hair. The veins on her neck and on her hands still stood out darkly from the poison that had killed her. But those once-beautiful deep blue eyes that seemed to burn holes into his soul, crashing each of his defenses in seconds, those were – albeit sunken and surrounded by fine lines he couldn't remember – very much still alive.

And they were glowing with the wrath of a whole millennium.

"What is it, oh great King? Can you not handle the face of death? Of your own failure?"

 

"You're not here. You are not real." Oh, but these words tasted bulky his tongue, like a toddler denying the simple truth of sundown after bedtime, and bitter because he wanted them to be wrong, in a foolish, inept corner of his heart.

He wanted her to be here, even if it was only his wine-numbed and overworked mind or his enemy playing tricks on him. He wanted her to be real, even if it was a ridiculous lie. He needed her to be real, to come back to him and end the misery that his life without her was.

 

"Are you sure?" Her eyes sparkled with the same lenient merriment she'd always sported when letting him know how much of an immature and ignorant boy he'd still been when they'd first met. Only Merilas had never sneered at any of his weaknesses with the kind of arrogant sadism that the creature before him lazily kicked his sword from his hand with while he was still frozen in shock.

"Have you not left your wife alone in her deathbed because you were too weak to hold her during her last breath? How would you know where her lost soul went when you abandoned her? The way to the Halls of Mandos is a long and dangerous one when in the last minutes of your life, you feel only grief and disappointment towards the people who claimed to love you. Tell me, what reason would she have had to go west and wait for your coming one day when you cared so little about her?"

 

"I did not … I never … You …"

But that was, mercifully, where his helpless stuttering was cut off by the invisible touch of an iron, freezing hand around his throat that forced him to his knees, finger-shaped clouds slithering over his throat in a perverted touch of gentleness that tried to creep under his clothes, into his body by each of his orifices, into his very soul.

And he had not an ounce of willpower left to fight it.

Because real or not, what the ghost said to him was true.

 

"You are a disgrace to your ancestors and to your own family," the voice hissed into his ear. "Look at you, Elvenking, crouching in front of your enemy like a lowly servant. You were no good to your wife and you are no good to your people. Have you come here to die, son of Oropher? Running blindly into your enemy's blade like your father did?"

 

The grip around his neck became painful. He tasted blood. A dangerous crack somewhere down his spine warned him that he needed to think of something very soon if that wasn't indeed to be the shortest attack maneuver of all time.

 

"If I'm not real, Elvenking, you have nothing to fear, do you? Surrender yourself to the sweet release of death and hope that your wife will be waiting for you when you join those other cowards of your race across the sea. Maybe she will want to hear your pathetic little excuses for all your imperfections before she'll cut your throat again herself for leaving her as you did. Or maybe …"

That face that was so very much hers, in every detail down to the small dimples her cruel grin painted onto her cheeks, and the challenge of her slightly raised fine brows. "Maybe you know deep in your heart that I am very much real. That I am the demon you created yourself to haunt your people to the death. But that would be too horrible a truth for you to bear, Oropherion, would it not? Because even if you could wrap your little mind around magic that is so much bigger than you, you would not have it in you to kill me. Not a second time."

 

Something was moving in the corner, just barely passing by his sight as his eyes were rolling in the back of his head with the growing lack of air. A white shape, as huge as a horse with antlers twice that long. One of the few Kings of the forest still living in these forsaken, doomed areas, who must have slipped through the many cracks in the fortress' walls for some reason, maybe looking for food in a sparse season.

Their eyes met, and in the reflection in those huge, frightened, black pupils, Thranduil could see the face of the demon reaching out for him, almost close enough to touch for real, a grimace full of razor-sharp teeth and a thousand of blind insect eyes, a terrible, lightless, cold blue flame surrounding his shape.

 

"You are not her, unholy one," he croaked through the blood dripping down his throat and drew in a much-needed breath as the creature retreated a few inches, startled because he'd managed to break through that invisible hold so suddenly.

"The Queen of these woods fought the creatures of your kind that she knew brought her death to her last day. And she'd never try to get me to join her in a faraway place before I have done the same. You have no place in these woods, Necromancer. Go to the void where Eru's waste like you belongs."

 

The creature screamed out loud enough to make his ears bleed as its mask melted into nothing and charged him in a flash, but at that point, Thranduil had already picked up his sword again and drove it through his enemy's chest in a single, swift move of his wrist.

 

Instead of the body he expected to fall down on him, a mist of stinking smoke exploded around him, prickling on his skin like a thousand bugs before fading into nothing. The creature's scream still rang from the surroundings when he staggered to his feet. It sounded suspiciously like a laugh.

Well, that would have been too easy.

 

Still caught in the unbelieving paralysis of what had just happened, Thranduil startled when something soft and wet touched his hand and then buried his hand in the soft fur of the deer that had saved his life with a shaky laugh. Right. For a moment, he'd be tempted to roam this castle, draw his enemy out for a second round … But next time he might not be that lucky.

And if he wasn't forced to, he wouldn't challenge his luck again of losing such a fight. The reminder that he had no right to take such an easy way out had just come to him in a far more painful way than a ruptured eardrum or a few days of coughing.

He pressed his lips to the deer's forehead in a gesture of deep gratefulness and climbed its back them so that they could leave the dreadful place behind.

 

The animal turned its head to nose the wedding band on Thranduil's right index finger and let out a pained roar of regret and yearning before it trotted off.

 

"I know, mellon. I miss her, too."

Thranduil closed his eyes as they passed the debris of a home that was no longer his and would never be again and allowed himself a long, respectful moment of memory, a tear or two drying on his cheek in the sharp wind that cleared the last of his thoughts.

He was relieved to find, the precious image of his wife's beautiful smile in his head had not been tainted by whatever exactly it had been that he had just faced. In his head, she seemed to laugh at him for trying, even in the worst of places by now, to make up for something he had had no way of preventing.

 

You know where I'll be, aras nín. One day, when you are ready, you will find me there. But if you leave our woods and our people behind while they still need you, you will be coming to look for me in vain. I will not have you back in my next life if I do not get all of your heart, too.

 

"I miss you, Las," Thranduil repeated too quietly even for his own temporarily impaired hearing to catch.

When the deer dropped him off at the clearing where he'd left his horse, he could smell roses.

Chapter Text

Fo.A. 120

 

 

"A few more hours. We'll dock before nightfall."

From his little nest at the top of the ship's mast, Thondrar nodded at Legolas and then stared back into the distance, both hands resting heavily on the railing, a suspicious glistening on his deeply tanned cheeks that he wasn't even trying to hide.

 

He wasn't the only one. They were all still somewhat shaken by the brief but incredibly intense moment they'd just spent in a whirl of pure, glistening light of the kind that could never leave you blind, by a sensation of tumbling into an abyss without a safety net without ever touching the ground. By the feeling of absolute, palpable blackness in their minds that had seized all the passengers for a moment, so shortly that no one had even gone weak in their knees, by the buzz and faint tingling of the oldest, strongest magic on their skin that had protected their ship and all life on it from the journey through an equally dark emptiness, only broken by the occasional flash of a star or two. Now they were on the open sea once more, almost as if they'd never sailed into this shimmering portal of gleaming orange and purple in the first place ...

And yet everything had changed.

They'd left the world behind that each and every one of them had been born in and would never return to. It was a melancholy only slightly soothed by the same impatience that Legolas could see in Thondrar's bright blue eyes, of finally seeing everyone – or see them again – who had made this journey long before they had or who had never had to go on it in the first place.

 

Still … Right now, Legolas felt similarly exhausted as he had back then when they'd been searching for Merry and Pippin as if he had been running for days at a time, and in a certain sense, that was indeed the case.

 

So he was secretly not all that unhappy when Thondrar, after taking one more look from above at his posture, slumped over the rudder, proclaimed in his usual charming way that he looked terrible and should go lie down for an hour or two.

 

"No buts." That was, of course, the moment when Gimli of all people came limping towards them from the side, who had lately almost become a little too close friends with his second-in-command for Legolas' taste. He knocked his cane against Legolas' ankle admonishingly. "Going straight ahead, that might be something your people can actually do without you for once. Barely."

 

"No obstacles on the way," Thondrar spoke up again affirmatively. "And if there should be any trouble, we'll get you. Will you just get out of here? You haven't been sleeping since they called you to Minas Tirith. You think we don't know that? And neither has your wife. So get Ilya and try to find some rest. Or are you planning to spectacularly fall at your father's feet first thing?"

 

"If you two actually let me talk for a second, you'd know you can save your breath." Legolas rubbed his indeed quite swollen eyes and abandoned his post to Gimli gladly, after resting his hand had on the dwarf's bony shoulder in gratefulness for a moment.

"Wake us up when a dock is in sight."

 

When he shuffled back to the passenger deck, it turned out he didn't even have to persuade Tarisilya; she was actually waiting for him already at the entrance leading below deck. Their children had apparently also been of the opinion that the two of them had kept up the unwavering façade long enough.

His wife silently grabbed his hand and pulled him downstairs without stopping, to the only single cabin of their boat, a tiny room that the two of them had planned for themselves as the only privilege back then when they'd built this thing. In all these weeks, they had hardly entered it for anything other than washing up and changing clothes though. Tarisilya's movements looked like Legolas' felt, as if they were both sleepwalking, when she covered the last few inches to the simple, not excessively broad bed, slipped off her shoes, and fell down onto the mattress like a rock.

 

Once Legolas had followed suit and tried, with his arm wrapped around her waist, to find a somewhat comfortable position on the unfamiliarly hard surface which a number of tense muscles didn't exactly make easier, he realized that maybe he'd bitten off more than he could chew. His body was pathetically tired, bordering on unconsciousness, but his mind was wide awake.

The desperate energy that he'd used so far to turn his gaze away from what was one of the worst losses in his life, just to be able to keep on functioning, vibrated through his sore soul. It was getting in the way of his aimless thoughts whenever they tried to come too close to the abyss of his grief, but it didn't manage to give enough life back to his empty head to focus on a different subject in particular, like the many reunions waiting for him or the question of how to deal with his subjects from now on, which would without a doubt have put out all lights inside of him quickly enough.

And in all this, he hadn't even yet consciously allowed in the fear of the dreams inevitably waiting for him soon, about everything that he'd just lost and left behind there a few weeks ago.

In a moment of morbid bitterness, Legolas suddenly wondered if he would ever be actually able to sleep again. Or if he even wanted to.

 

He only realized that Tarisilya was not lost in a valley of dreams herself either when suddenly a very well-known hand reached for his neck, full lips finding his, the tip of a playful tongue grazing his lower lip, in time with a long leg being wrapped around his hips in a clear invitation.

 

You're supposed to nap, he murmured to her in their wedding bond, but he didn’t even have the strength for a real protest that he wasn't serious about anyway.

If he was being honest, he'd been yearning for his wife's comforting touch ever Eldarion had shown up at Cair Andros so suddenly, white as a sheet. If he could actually get a bit of that intimacy now already, before they would at some point be able to enjoy a bit of togetherness in their first new accommodations, whatever place it was that they'd wind up in next … Well, then he wouldn't complain.

 

As if I could when you're thinking so loudly, Tarisilya answered somewhere between a sigh and amusement.

Her tongue slipped deeper into his mouth, irritating the slightly sensitive skin of the too-dry roof of his mouth. Withdrawing reluctantly, his wife reached back without even looking and got the glass of water from the nightstand that someone had prepared there in considerate foresight, thrusting it into his hand without even asking.

While he at least started to get his fluid balance in order, ruefully, Tarisilya freed herself from the heavy layers of fabric of her traveling gown and patiently waited for him to do the same, calmly staying on her back next to him, her slightly messy hair a dark halo around her cheeks that had flushed slightly in beginning arousal, her eyes glistening not only but also with honest want.

"Come," she murmured once his clothes had joined hers on the floor, a hoarse, encouraging, and very demanding Come, and Legolas immediately felt his blood go south.

It had been long since they'd taken enough time and especially the privacy for lovemaking of this kind as he realized with a little bit of a bad conscience when he lay down on top of her and she wrapped her arms and legs around him, sighing against his neck as they were just enjoying the feeling of holding each other like that for long minutes of lying still.

The duties in their settlement had mostly allowed only for a few stolen moments like this in between. Besides, in the first few decades, one of their children had regularly needed them in the middle of the night. Tarisilya and he had not got around a lot to give themselves only to each other without any pressure of time, not unless Legolas had visited his wife for a short trip in one of her winters in Rohan or they'd spent the night in Minas Tirith after some reception.

While today, of course, they wouldn't have half an eternity for this either, at least they didn't have to fear for once that someone would knock at their door because of some emergency. They should make the best of that; the next weeks, too, would without a doubt once more be filled with much stress.

In the light of such prospects, there was nothing in this world that could fill Legolas with so much inner peace, that could give him so much cautious optimism that he would make it through this latest heavy blow as well, as being in his wife's arms before the next storm. "I love you so much, Ilya." He didn't even try to swallow the lump in his throat that she had to know about anyway. "I would never have made it through this last century without you. All my life, I will never forget how much you sacrificed and delayed, only to walk my last road on Middle-earth with me."

 

"It was my road as well, elwen," Tarisilya reminded him, without any bite, her fingertips a tidying caress in his hair, her beautiful green brown eyes never leaving his, never blinking even for a split second, not allowing even a shadow of doubt about her own words.

"An in spite of all the pain that we are carrying here I wouldn't want to miss a single second of this gift of having accompanied this other world into its Age of peace. And most of all, I wouldn't want to miss a single second with you. We have achieved everything that we have wished for so long, and Middle-earth helped give us that. And now it will only get better, once we'll make it to lock our grief deeply in our hearts. Every breath, every word, every single decision that we made, even when it was the wrong one, has come to this. There is nothing in this world that I would trade my life by your side for. It's all good the way it is, Legolas. I hope that's one of the first things that you will learn to accept in our new home. We are just right the way we are."

But even while she said it, the veil of the one deep regret that neither of them would ever be able to lose completely darkened her sight, and she gratefully nestled up against him when he pressed a feather-light kiss to her closed lids, assuring her that she didn't have to look as long as she was trying to put herself together.

 

It was more than perfect, yes. And yet it wasn't. Because one thing they had lost, too, on this path they'd chosen together that had always been destined for them if you wanted to believe people like Lady Galadriel. And this one mistake was something they'd never been able to make right, and they probably would never be able to now.

 

Can we not?

Only Tarisilya's shy words in his mind made him realize the two of them had slipped deeper into the mental connection of their bond than planned, a loss of control only happening in such extremely emotional moments.

 

The sudden agitation, the old sadness and guilt, and – entirely unexpected – a hint of hope that he could feel inside his wife, like a tiny ray of a rare jewel glistening in greasy mud, had Legolas brace himself up on his elbows with a frown, his fingertips on Tarisilya's forehead and temple in a questioning caress.

Do you want …?

He didn't even manage to continue that thought in his head.

It had been decades since last the two of them had even seriously given a thought to this subject. The days of the children usually lasted only a few decades for their people, though for many elves, the desire for physical closeness never went away. And after Élnen's birth, Tarisilya had made it very clear to him that she didn't believe, her body was even capable of becoming pregnant ever again. Not to mention that especially after that disaster back then he really couldn't have begrudged her for not wanting that, either.

 

"I think I want to try," she whispered after a few hesitating breaths, then swallowed deeply to put more emphasis on her proposal as if she had to give herself the courage first, to make this big step again. "I can't promise you anything, and we are being a little late. But if there's even a small chance that our first baby has forgiven us, Legolas, then this is the only place where they can come back to us. I think we owe it to them to at least keep this path open if they're still in the Halls."

She raised her head to kiss his tears away before they had even really spilled from his eyes, seeking his now clear gaze once more expectantly. "But that's your decision, too, and you need to be able to stand behind it as well. If you do not feel ready for this anymore …"

 

Legolas cut her off with a long, deep kiss, making any more questions unnecessary.

 

Noticeably relieved, Tarisilya held him closer to her again, arching her hips up against him unambiguously, in a sensual, slow rhythm that turned his arousal from a tired idea into a real urge within seconds. Without breaking their kiss, she sneaked her hands between their bodies and caught his sensitive nipples between her nails which drew a groan from him immediately.

By the way, you do realize that you ran out of excuses now, right?

 

Legolas threw his head back, panting when his wife used more pressure, a sweet pain that only made him rut harder against her growing wetness, as she was making it very clear without any explanation what she was talking about.

Indeed, Legolas had occasionally considered decorating one or the other place of his body with jewelry as it was the tradition in Eryn Lasgalen since the first of Silvan populations had inhabited it. But the subtle fear that such bands under his clothes might distract him in a possible fight even for a split second – and in the wrong one, no less – had always been in the way of such mild interest. Now that they were approaching a place further and further by the second where except for training purposes, there would never be a reason for physical disputes ever again, it might indeed happen in the near future that he would let himself be tempted to bark on such a little adventure.

 

Tarisilya, of course, didn't miss how his cheeks had flushed at that thought. Giving his lower lip a provocative bite, she signaled him with soft pressure against his sternum to straighten up a little so that she could treat his slightly reddened nipples with teasing kitten licks and enthusiastic nibbling next until more and more heat was glistening on his skin from her efforts and the tired muscles of his arms that he was leaning on started to tremble alarmingly.

Just imagine … How it would feel if there would be a little bit of metal in your skin now that I could be playing with … And whenever we were apart, you would be thinking of me when your tunic was rubbing against it …

 

At that, Legolas had to slow his wife down a little to not have his lust spike up too quickly, by slipping down onto the mattress beside her with a loud moan, with his hand still on her neck to take her with him while covering her mouth with wild kisses. His other hand caressed from her narrow back deeper, softly parting her firm cheeks to nurture that heat between her legs.

 

That hadn't been such a smart idea, it turned out because now she was crouching above him with her hips low, a challenging sparkle in her eyes as she let his throbbing hardness slip through her wetness without hurry, reminding him how much she always enjoyed to be in control a little in their nights together.

And who knows what else we might be thinking of to adorn your body a little, elwen? I've heard there are many other places you can easily attach rings to …

She rubbed her enticingly swollen lips firmly against the moist tip of his cock to leave no doubt what she meant and laughed quietly when Legolas tried to back away in vain, just as shocked as intrigued by this further innuendo, but mostly because the image that she was provoking in his head made him come almost on the spot.

Don't worry. Not everything at once. But who knows … Someday.

With that, she reached down until their hands met at the reddened triangle of her lust, almost at the same moment when he let two of his fingers slip inside her. Tarisilya whimpered softly and leaned her head far back, with her lower lip caught between her teeth. With all the naturalness and the confidence she had acquired in their time as a married couple together, she let her own fingertips wander over her most sensitive spot whereupon the rhythmical clench of the muscles inside of her drove Legolas even more insane until her wetness was covering his loins, his twitching arousal, and at some point, his aching length basically just slipped into her without them having to do much.

 

Without thinking about it, they were back in the arms of the other, embraced so closely that they could feel every gasp, every tremble in the other's body, every moan against their chest as if it was their own.

 

Tarisilya's kiss was as sweet as the lovely sounds of her lust in his ear sounded whenever he held her especially close with his arm locked around her waist and moved his hips against her in a quick rhythm so that she couldn't escape the direct stimulation of her most sensitive spot. Sometimes he liked it, keeping her trapped in these gentle restrains because she often did enjoy it herself, being carried from one height to another like this.

But today, they both felt instinctively, without even having to talk about it even in their heads, that this certain moment in their intensive game, they wanted to enjoy together. That they wanted to be one in body and soul when they would open their souls to each other in this unbelievably close way that was necessary to allow for a possible impregnation.

With Cyron, that had more or less been a matter of chance back then; they had both been too caught in their exhaustion and grief and the desperate search for any kind of comfort at the time to even think about what had happened then unconsciously anyway. But Élnen had been created exactly in this carefully planned, purposeful way, and if they really wanted to go through with this thing once more, against all odds, it should also happen exactly the way it was supposed to.

 

Shifting her weight backward a little, Tarisilya easily pulled Legolas up with a strong grip around his shoulders and crossed her legs behind his body, both to be even closer to him and to be able to look deeply into his eyes, a cheeky smile on her lips that were slightly swollen from their intensive kissing.

Don't they always say some couples are losing interest in this at some point? Somehow, I don't think we're one of those …

Her hand slipped down his chest, very lightly, her fingertips tracing the root of his erection where he was buried even deeper inside of her now until he was shaking in her arms, then she reached around him until she could treat his tense cheeks with tight, massaging movements.

I don't think I'll ever get old enough to stop wanting you, elwen.

 

Very good. Because I will never grow tired of giving myself to you.

Catching her lower lip softly between his teeth, he kept her still while following her example and reaching between them, catching Tarisilya's most sensitive point with the same careful pressure between two fingertips. This time, he didn't let go of her when she moaned out and started to writhe against him. With his head resting on her shoulder, he allowed the harsh clench of her muscles around his rock-hard length to tear him along until they both let out a hardly suppressed scream, almost at the same time.

Their height was washing over them in shallow waves, in the same harmonic, endlessly deep current that Tarisilya's deeply red and his own richly green color of the mind produced in their souls whenever they met. Their tides were merging until each of their emotions echoed in their partner until they could feel every sensation in their own head just as well as in the other until the overflowing energy of all-powerful love gave Tarisilya's body the necessary strength to open itself up to his in a just as intimate way. Allowing in what, if the Valar were gracious, would in a few days indeed be turned into another new life joining their happy little family.

It was an act that did not only leave his wife even more tired than she'd been earlier anyway, so Legolas more fell back down onto the mattress then leaning back, with Tarisilya tightly in his arms, trembling all over, feeling nothing but the closeness and the warmth of the she-elf who had been his fate in every possible way for a millennium now.

This time, it didn't even take half a minute before they were both fast asleep.