"Legolas!" Elrohir said cheerfully as he greeted the younger elf and led him into Rivendell. "How fares Mirkwood?"
The prince lifted his shoulders in a half shrug. "As well as it ever does, lately."
"So not very well," Elrohir guessed.
Legolas laughed. "How did you know? I have a message for your father, incidentally."
"Nay." Legolas halted at the foot of the staircase as Elladan came towards them. "Mae govannen, Elladan."
"Legolas!" Elladan said, sounding very much like his twin. "It is good to see you. Estel will be very excited."
Legolas paused in his search for the folded missive in his pack. "Estel is home?" Normally the man missed nothing of the comings and goings in Imladris. That he was not here now struck the prince as odd.
Elrohir nodded. "You’re just in time. His leave from the rangers ends in a few days."
"Where is he now?" Legolas found his father’s message and absently handed it to one of the twins.
"Around," Elladan said dismissively. "You know Estel; if he doesn’t want to be found, good luck finding him."
Legolas looked between them, frowning. "Why wouldn’t he want to be found?"
The twins traded guilty looks. "Ah, well, we might have been a little – "
"Over exuberant – "
"Excited – "
"Mischievous – "
"Just having a little fun – "
The prince shook his head. The twins and Estel within five miles of each other inevitably led to pranks. He suspected his friend was plotting retaliation.
"But enough about our – erm – family troubles," Elrohir said, accompanied by snorts from his brother. "Come, Father will be glad to see you. It’s been a while."
"So it has," Legolas agreed, "but I would like to freshen up, if you don’t mind and – " He was about to say, help Estel plot revenge, but Elladan cut him off.
"Really, ‘Ro, where are your manners? Go on, Legolas; make yourself at home. We weren’t expecting you, so your room may be a bit dusty, but – "
"I’ll manage," Legolas said dryly, refraining from pointing out that neither twin seemed to be in possession of manners. "Go give that to Lord Elrond before we all forget about it."
"Would that really be so terrible?"
Legolas considered. "Probably not."
After changing our of his dusty travel clothes and stowing his things in the room next to Aragorn’s, Legolas went in search of his human friend. A combing of all the most likely spots – kitchen, garden, stables, Hall of Fire – yielded no results. Confused, the prince checked the library and healing wing, on the off chance of a disaster. Nothing.
Strange. Legolas considered checking again, but feared that he and the man would continue missing each other. He decided to head back to his room and rest until supper. Surely Aragorn would be at that.
He took the longest way he knew back to his room, just in case. And it paid off when he rounded a corner near the council rooms to find a dark haired man slumped against the wall partway down the corridor, head resting on his drawn-up knees. Legolas froze – Aragorn had obviously not heard his approach – and considered his friend’s odd choice of resting spot. No-one came near these hallways when council was not in session. Aragorn hadn’t wanted to be found. Why? This was hardly the image of a plotter of tricks.
Something was definitely wrong.
"Hey," Legolas said softly.
"Go away," Aragorn said without moving. "I’m trying to sleep."
"In the hallway? Mae govannen to you too, by the way."
"Aye, you – " Legolas was cut off by the man’s enthusiastic greeting. "That’s it," he said sharply even as he returned his friend’s embrace. "What is wrong?"
Aragorn pulled back with that innocent look he should have known better than to try. "Wrong? Nothing is wrong."
Legolas raised an eyebrow. "You are trying to sleep in the hallway . . . in the middle of the day . . . paying no attention to your surroundings . . . "
"I felt like it?" Aragorn offered weakly.
Legolas snorted. "Aye, and I feel like taking a tour of some nice caves." He softened his tone, conscious of the violated look in the man’s eyes. "You don’t want to talk about it."
"Talk about what?" the ranger said obstinately.
Legolas shook his head. How stupid do you think I am? He took a good look at Aragorn: eyes bloodshot with faint shadows underneath, hair unkempt from his attempt to sleep, face wan and gaunt. "How long have you been home?" He had had the impression that it had been a while.
"My leave is for two weeks."
So at least a week and a half, Legolas calculated. More than enough time to catch up on sleep. He glared at the man for a moment more, then sighed and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "I will drag it out of you somehow."
"There’s nothing to drag," Aragorn insisted as they started down the hall. He raked a hand through his hair fruitlessly and ducked out from under Legolas’ arm. "Stop mothering me."
"Someone has to do it," Legolas retorted, "if you are going to start acting as though you’re invincible."
"Nothing is wrong," Aragorn said hotly.
Legolas frowned. "Mellon-nin, you insult either my intelligence or my perception."
"You insult my honesty," Aragorn said, his voice rising.
"Perhaps your honesty needs it."
The man opened his mouth to respond, then closed it tightly and started to walk away. Legolas caught his arm, the words I’m sorry on his lips, but the glare Aragorn laid on him was so cold that he took a step back. "Estel – "
"Don’t," Aragorn said bitterly. "Just don’t." He stormed down the hall in the direction of his chambers and did not look back, though he surely felt Legolas’ worried gaze following him.
"Congratulations, Estel," the elf said shakily to the empty corridor. "You just proved my point."
"Come in," the Lord of Imladris called when Legolas knocked on the door of his study an hour before dinner. He looked up as the prince shut the door behind him. "Ah, Legolas. The twins told me you had arrived. I trust you had an uneventful journey?"
"Aye, my lord." Legolas hesitated; standing before Elrond’s desk made him feel like a naughty elfling.
Elrond watched him with barely concealed amusement. "You want to speak with me?" he said pleasantly.
"Aye, my lord." Brilliant, Legolas thought sourly. "I – erm – I have a personal question."
The older elf’s eyebrows went up. "Yes?"
"What’s wrong with Estel?" Legolas blurted.
"Wrong with Estel?" Elrond repeated, puzzled. "What do you mean?"
It was Legolas’ turn to be confused. "What do I – there is something the matter; I do not know what but I can tell – do you mean to tell me that you have not noticed?" It seemed unfathomable that Aragorn’s father and brothers would not have seen quite clearly that something was amiss.
Elrond shook his head. "He was a bit careworn when he arrived, but it seemed to have passed," he said, concerned. "Are you sure – "
"Of course!" Legolas said incredulously. "He has not been sleeping; he is not aware of his surroundings; he lost his temper with me after a three-minute conversation. I know Estel, my lord. I know when something is not right."
The elf lord tapped his quill pen against his desk, thinking. "He has not been displaying these symptoms to us."
"I am not delusional, my lord," Legolas said hotly.
Elrond raised his hands in protest. "I did not say you are; I am merely laying out the situation. For some reason, Estel does not wish us to know – "
"Because he is Estel!" Legolas interrupted. "Forgive my impertinence, my lord, but the question is, what is wrong?" And why did you not notice, he added to himself.
"Indeed," Elrond agreed gravely. "Do you think he would tell you – "
"After what just transpired between us, I highly doubt it. The twins?"
"They are not . . . getting along very well," Elrond said delicately. "I believe Estel is still angry about a prank they played on him a few days ago."
Couldn’t he see that Estel would never storm so long, not with only two weeks at home, two weeks out of years spent away? Legolas pressed his lips together and remained silent.
Elrond considered a moment longer, then nodded shortly. "Thank you for informing me of the situation, Legolas."
The prince recognized his dismissal and sketched a small bow. "Hannon le, hir nin."
Somehow he managed to maintain polite composure on his way out the door. Inside, he was fuming.
For a few panicked moments, Legolas feared that Aragorn would skip supper. As it happened, he caught sight of the man as he paused outside the door to the dining hall. Even from across the room, already seated, Legolas could see the change come over his friend. Aragorn straightened, his shoulders squared, the haggardness melting away from his features; and only then did he enter the room and slip into a seat, pointedly rather far from the prince.
Legolas was startled back to his end of the table when Elrohir poked him hard in the arm. "Legolas!"
"Rolls." Elrohir plopped the basket in front of him and followed his gaze to Aragorn, now engaged in conversation with the elf next to him. "Did you find him?"
"Aye." Legolas selected a roll without really caring and passed the basket on. "Do you know what is wrong with him?"
"Wrong?" Elrohir questioned.
The prince rolled his eyes at the ceiling, utterly exasperated, and refused to answer any queries for the rest of the meal. Instead he furtively watched Aragorn, quickly averting his eyes whenever the man glanced his way.
He heard his friend laugh, but he also heard the flat, dead edge to it. He saw him smile, but recognized that it did not reach his eyes. He watched the man clean his plate, but wondered that Aragorn did not go for seconds.
Legolas saw the deception, and still he did not understand how anyone could miss the truth.
In the middle of the night, the prince, still lying awake and brooding, was alerted by the faintest of sounds from the room next door – Aragorn’s room. In a moment he could hear more clearly the muffled cries; he would know his friend’s distress anywhere. Legolas rose and slipped out of his chamber, cracked open the door to the man’s room. Yes: Aragorn was tossing on the bed, caught in the throes of a nightmare, and crying out: "No, I’m sorry, it wasn’t my fault . . . I don’t understand . . . " His voice choked off.
For an instant Legolas hesitated – they had, after all, not spoken to each other since the angry exchange near the council rooms – but only for an instant. He shut the door behind him and perched on the edge of the bed, shook the man hard. "Estel."
Aragorn moaned and tried to pull away, but Legolas kept a firm grip on his shoulder. "Estel. Strider!"
Silver eyes shot open, meeting his own; and Legolas tried to smile. Aragorn had better reflexes than that; he knew it well. "And how did you keep your family from hearing that?" he remonstrated softly.
"Skill." Aragorn’s eyes blazed, but he did not deny it, sitting up wearily and rubbing a hand across his face. "Also known as, usually no-one sleeps close enough to hear."
"This has been going on for a while," Legolas pressed. Aragorn looked away. The elf sighed and settled across from him, ready for the long haul. "What were you thinking? Why did you not tell your father? You cannot go out with the rangers like this."
"I know," Aragorn murmured.
"So what were you planning to do about it?" Legolas bit his lip: the defeated slump of his friend’s shoulders tore at his heart. "Look at me, Estel," he said more gently, tipping the man’s chin up, forcing him to meet his eyes. "How much sleep have you been getting?"
Aragorn tried to look away again, but Legolas held his gaze. "Not enough," he said grudgingly.
Clearly. "Does sleeping in the hallway at odd times help?"
"I had hoped so." The man laughed a little; it sounded so ridiculous. "No, not really."
"I did not think so." Legolas smiled expectantly.
Aragorn fidgeted, plucking at his blanket. "I . . . I was hoping that they would stop."
"Perhaps you should not be called Estel," Legolas mused. "It gives you ideas." He shook his head at the man’s slightly fuzzy expression. "Mellon-nin, what happened?"
"Nothing," Aragorn said unconvincingly, then relented under the elf’s scrutiny. "Well . . . " He shifted uncomfortably and looked down. "There . . . there was this boy. In the dream. And in . . "
Legolas nodded to show he understood. Aragorn went on, his voice growing soft, "Eighteen, I think – he hadn’t been with us for more than a few months – poisoned by an orc arrow. Had he been elven he would have lived, I know it – but an eighteen-year-old mortal body wasn’t enough . . .
"I was in the healing tents when they brought him in. We had just tried to save a village – there were so many who needed care – and this boy, he looked up at me – every night he looks up at me – and he begs me to make it stop – to make the pain go away. But I could not." Aragorn glanced up, desperately seeking the prince’s eyes. "Really I couldn’t; we were short on herbs and they had to go to those with a chance – "
"I’m sure you did all you could," Legolas soothed.
"He was so young!" Aragorn cried, dropping his face into his hands. "And there were children in that village we could not save – infants!" His voice wavered and broke. "What was the point?"
Legolas frowned, confused, and laid a hand on the man’s shoulder. "The point of what?"
"The point?" Aragorn said wildly, jerking his head up. "The point of – of them being born at all – of any of us – us mortals – of any of us being born, when we are only going to die in the end. It’s everywhere out there, death. In here" – he waved a hand at the walls to indicate Rivendell – "in here it’s nonexistent, but out there – it’s daily life. You can see it in the eyes of the people."
Legolas waited to be sure he had finished, then said slowly, "When I was young – back when my home was still Greenwood the Great – we had one funeral a century, if that. Now – " He shrugged. "We lose one or more elves a season. I know it is nothing to what the rangers face, but . . . "
"Aye," Aragorn said bitterly, "but most of you still have eternity."
"Oh, Estel . . . " Instinctively Legolas reached for him, catching the man’s hands in both his own.
"I don’t know, Legolas, I don’t know!" Aragorn sagged forward onto the elf’s shoulder, his voice muffled: "I’ve been trying to figure it all out – but I cannot."
"You don’t have to," Legolas said firmly. He freed a hand to rub Aragorn’s back gently. "You are asking for the meaning of life, Estel, and no-one knows that. Not even elves. Not even Mithrandir, I wager. The thing is, though . . . " He trailed off thoughtfully.
Aragorn shivered and drew back slightly. "The thing is what?"
"Elves, aye, we have forever, and most of us do very little with all that time. Mortals get things done. A great conflict is coming, Estel, and ‘tis men, not elves, who will figure prominently in the fight. ‘Tis men who write the history books." Legolas squeezed his friend’s hand and watched while the man considered this.
"What about dwarves and hobbits?" Aragorn asked finally.
"By all accounts, hobbits keep to themselves and spend excessive amounts of time eating." Legolas laughed. "And dwarves – well! They do their thing underground, I suppose, but someone has to do it in civilized terrain."
A hint of the smile played on the man’s lips. "Says the elf who lives in a cave."
Legolas rolled his eyes at the ceiling. "Were we talking about my home? Nay, I do not believe that we were."
Aragorn burst out laughing and suddenly engulfed his friend in a warm embrace. "Hannon le, Legolas," he whispered.
"Any time, mellon-nin." Legolas smiled softly into the man’s hair. "Now," he said briskly, drawing away, "I think someone needs his rest."
"Oh, hush," Aragorn grumbled, and yawned.
"Mm-hmm," Legolas said, satisfied. "I shall stay in here tonight, and if things have not changed tomorrow we will have to see your father."
"Legolas – "
"And I will brook no argument, human!" The prince smiled brilliantly. "Humor me. And I mean now." He slid off the bed and dragged the man’s desk chair over. "You have far too much to catch up on."
Aragorn yawned again and lay down, too sleepy now to protest. "At least find a more comfortable chair," he said, eyeing the elf balefully.
"I sleep in trees," Legolas retorted. "I think I can manage a chair. Now sleep." He brushed a hand over the man’s face.
Obediently Aragorn closed his eyes. "Legolas?"
"I’m sorry about the way I acted earlier. I – I know you were only trying to help – "
"I was too harsh with you," Legolas interrupted. "We’re even."
Aragorn nodded, and moments passed in silence as his breathing evened out. "Legolas?" he murmured again on the edge of unconsciousness.
"You’re supposed to be asleep," Legolas reproved.
"I’m glad you came," Aragorn whispered.
Legolas smiled and gently touched the man’s hair. "So am I," he affirmed softly. "Now hush . . . "
"What did your brothers want?" Legolas asked in an undertone as he helped Aragorn ready his horse to leave.
"To know what was wrong with me." The man glared. "It seems somebody let it slip at dinner a few nights ago."
"I was trying to figure it out myself!" Legolas protested. He patted the horse’s nose and added, "They would have noticed sooner or later."
"But it could have been later," Aragorn said grumpily. "As in, a month after I leave. I thought I did a good job of acting, myself."
"You are a ranger, not a bard. There is a reason for that."
The man laughed, tightening the girth of the saddle on his mount. "Come; I was not that bad."
"I do not know, Estel. You did not draw me into the story." Legolas smirked and took the horse’s reins to lead him into the courtyard. "You are sure you’re all right, now?"
Aragorn caught the elf’s hand on the reins and squeezed briefly. "Aye," he said simply. Thanks to you. "I may be leading a mission near Mirkwood in a few months," he said aloud. "Care to join us?"
"I should love to," Legolas said. "You have to actually do it now."
"I will," Aragorn promised.
"And for Valar’s sake, Estel, if something is wrong, tell someone."
The man held his eyes with unexpected honesty. "Who?"
"Halbarad." Legolas said the first name that came to mind.
Aragorn looked at him for a moment more, then shook his head and looked away. "Perhaps I shall see how soon that mission can leave," he said softly, checking the safety of his pack one last time before swinging into the saddle.
Legolas nodded slowly, his throat tight, and gripped his friend’s arm. "You do that, understand? Look after yourself, Estel."
"I always do." Aragorn smiled impishly. "Don’t you run into any orcs on the way home."
"Don’t worry. I only see orcs when I am with you," Legolas quipped, releasing his arm. He tipped his head towards the main courtyard and the gate. "Your family is waiting to say farewell."
Aragorn groaned. "They’ll ask me again what is wrong."
"So tell them the truth – "
" – tell them that I took care of it," Legolas finished.
"Then they will interrogate you," the man said dubiously. "Legolas – "
"I won’t," the prince promised.
Aragorn watched him closely for a moment. "Promise."
"I swear I will not tell. Unless you want me to?" At the vehement no he received Legolas said, "All right, then."
The ranger smiled slowly. "Mellon-nin – hannon le."
Legolas nodded. "Now go," he commanded. "And come by Mirkwood soon."
"I will," Aragorn said. "Namarie." He rode away to face his family – and when he looked back, it was to find that his friend’s gaze had been following him all the way.