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One Title: Your Story

A Fairy Tale, Middle-Earth style

Games People Play

Friends in Small Places

To save a friend from drowning by Sarah Angel


Games People Play

Rating: PG

No summary given

Timeframe: Pre 'Fellowship of the Ring'

 





"You brought a book?" Elrohir squawked (if, Legolas thought wryly, an elf could be said to 'squawk').

"I happen to like reading."

Elladan slung his arm around Legolas' shoulder, his index finger tapping the cover of 'The Lay of Beren and Tinuviel', "Poetry is for rainy days or tedious evenings by the fire, not warm summer afternoons with a tempting lake in full view."

Legolas put on his most severe 'Prince of Mirkwood' expression. "'Tempting', in this case, means 'absolutely frigid'. I happen to be at a perfectly comfortable temperature already and furthermore: just because neither of you can understand poetry, doesn't mean the rest of us must feign disgust with it to make you feel better!"

Behind the three elves, Estel choked on a laugh.

Elrohir tossed his younger brother a wry scowl and sighed in resignation. "Oh, very well. If you're going to be snobbish – and after all the trouble we took to bring you up here – then that's fine by me! We shall dive the clear blue depths, and you shall sit and swelter on the shore."

"I am not hot!" Legolas reiterated firmly.

The twins distained to wade in slowly, preferring to run out upon a great boulder that hung out over the lake's edge and jump in over their heads at once. Their graceful dives were marred by the immediate splash battle that ensued.

The day was truly hot, and the sultry air lay thick and unmoving over the slowly baking hillsides. Even back in Rivendell, in the house of Elrond himself, there were no breezes to stir the trees and the elves had mostly contented themselves with quiet activities indoors. Not so Lord Elrond's sons. They had dragged a protesting Legolas along through the heat up out of the valley to this hidden retreat of theirs. The wide lake was blue as the cloudless sky above, with the Misty Mountains reflected in crystal clarity on its surface. Admittedly beautiful, it sent a slight shiver up Legolas' spine.

He looked away, finding himself watching his human friend instead. Estel was quietly removing his boots, setting them neatly together with his vest and tunic in a pile. In terms of time, as elves perceived it, Legolas only just met the man. Shared experiences had done what time could not have managed so quickly: built a bridge of understanding between their souls. Still, when it came to knowing Estel, knowing Aragorn, he realized there were a great many things he did not yet understand. Had they ever talked about Estel's childhood? About the future king's current standing with the Dunedain? He had often wondered, but never asked the man, why he never slept with his bedroom door closed.

And why, when Estel had come down with chills the previous winter, had he lied about being unwell until the illness entered his lungs and nearly killed him? It was an action quite beyond Legolas' comprehension.

The realization that Estel was gazing at him expectantly shook him from his musings. "I'm sorry," he apologized, guessing the man was waiting for a response from him, "I didn't hear you. What did you say?"

"I didn't, yet," the young man shook his head. "I was about to tell you, though, that if you don't mean to swim, your best chance of cooling down would probably be to sit under those trees." He pointed to a shady place under a stand of oaks a little ways away from the lake.

Mechanically, Legolas repeated, "I told you, I'm not hot."

Estel's head tilted a little as he regarded the elf, and Legolas was acutely aware of all the places up his back where his silken under tunic was clinging stickily to his sweaty skin.

The human grinned a little, though it was almost wistful. "You're a bad liar." With a last shrug of 'suit yourself', he walked down to the edge of the boulder, seemed to grimace for a moment, then executed a near-perfect imitation of his brothers' earlier dives.

"I am not hot!" Legolas said aloud again to no one in particular, feeling disgusted with himself all over again. As if to prove his words true, he took his book and strode determinedly to the boulder, sitting down cross-legged on it in full sun and bending his golden head over the pages. On the one hand it was pleasant to be this near the three brothers in the water, listening to their joking and splashing, but the occasional spray of cool water on his cheek served to remind him just how scorching the sun was on his shoulders. The hours dragged on and the words danced on the page… it was making him light-headed…

A little dizzily, he set the book aside, trying to focus on the far off slopes of Caradhras. Even now there was snow on its high peak, visible through the liquid distortions of heat blur in the air.

Without warning, a cool, wet hand suddenly closed around his wrist, there came a gleeful shout in his ear, and he was jerked to the side and over the edge of the boulder. There was a breathless moment, and then a splash that echoed through his eardrums and the water closed over his head. He was sinking, and sinking… there was nothing beneath his feet, he had no air in his lungs. Given a second of preparation, he might have floated back by instinct, but when he opened his mouth in shock at the cold, water gushed in and choked him. Dimly he saw his hair waving about him like pale weeds, and he could feel his arms flailing with increasing sluggishness at this icy shroud that had wrapped itself firmly around his body. The water slowly expanded between him and the surface, but he had no thoughts outside of panic and a creeping sense of darkness.

There was a rushing sound in his waterlogged ears, and a rough pain across his chest as something suddenly wrapped beneath his arms and ended his descent with a jerk. He was hurrying upward now, feeling the occasional brush of paddling legs as someone pulled him towards the sunlight glittered surface.

They broke into the air, and Legolas immediately began to cough in a way that felt as if his chest were being torn open. The pressure across his torso – an arm, it must be – pulled him to the shallows and helped him stagger up to collapse on the grassy shore. He was still coughing, expelling the water from his lungs and feeling the lead settle into his limbs as the adrenaline left him. Distantly he could hear an echoing jumble of words.

"– he doing?! Trying to kill himself?" an exasperated voice, but worried.

A breathless, panting voice, very close in his ear, "I told you to leave him alone, Elrohir!"

"Now wait, Estel, it's not El's fault," a third voice, "we play around with Legolas all the time."

"It's true; he must have been pulled down. What was he wearing in his boots? Iron weights?"

"He wasn't too heavy." The panting voice was firm, and Legolas could feel calloused fingers pulling his wet hair away from his face.

"Then what on Middle Earth–?"

"He sank like a stone, Estel–"

"He can't swim!"

Now the lead was in Legolas' stomach too. He wished he could pass out, but his body was finally beginning to slow back to its normal rhythm. One could not be Prince of Mirkwood and run away, no matter how humiliating the mess. Taking a deep breath, he pushed himself up to a sitting position, feeling Estel's arm around his shoulders helping to balance him as he reached a shaky hand up to wipe the water from his eyes.

"Elrohir," he rasped (and yes, he decided, it was definitely a rasp), "you are in serious trouble now." He coughed, fighting for levity and an appropriately mock-ferocious expression. "In the deep of night when you hear a rattling at your bedroom window and feel the soft tickle of roaches crawling on your toes and in your hair, you will know I have just left."

It worked. The twins lost their anxious expressions and began to laugh.

"I'm so sorry, Legolas," Elrohir chuckled, patting the wood elf apologetically. "I promise I wasn't trying to drown you; I'd never have done it if I'd known. And I thought you were playing with us and staying under on purpose."

"It's a good thing Estel went after you at once or you would have swallowed half the lake," Elladan grinned.

Legolas made himself laugh along, doing a creditable job, he thought. Estel was being strangely silent, though he smiled a little at the twins' jokes.

Elrohir sank onto the grass, propping himself up casually on his elbows. "How did you manage to go a thousand years without swimming lessons? I mean, I know Silvan elves are generally backwards, but–" Elladan kicked him jokingly, and he kicked his twin lightly back. "–you're usually better than most when it comes to refined arts."

"Swimming is a refined art?"

"You know what I mean. You can fire a bow straight, you can sing, you read poetry (though the refinement of that particular pastime is still under debate) – why not swimming?"

Legolas shrugged, swallowing a little. "We don't have any lakes in Mirkwood, and I've never had any cause to leap into Esgaroth. Of the two rivers we have, one will send you to sleep the instant you touch it."

Elladan snorted. "Excuses, excuses. What about the other river? It runs directly beneath the palace – surely warm days occur in Mirkwood too. Don't tell us Legolas Greenleaf, slayer of orcs, wargs, spiders, and other fiends of darkness is afraid of water!"

"Very well, I won't."

"You mean you are?"

Elrohir hooted. "Ideal fodder for blackmail! Imagine what Glorfindel will say when we tell him…"

"Elrohir, I'm not afraid of water."

"You are such a bad liar." Was everyone determined to tell him that today?!

"Really, Legolas, this is quite extraordinary! The weak spot in your image!" Elladan grinned evilly.

"Do you know how many times Glorfindel has regaled us with your daring exploits whenever we weren't inclined to try new things during our warrior training?" Elrohir sighed.

"'Prince Legolas roped his first spider at age sixty', and 'Prince Legolas used to vault between eight hundred-foot tall trees', and 'You know what else Prince Legolas–?'"

Legolas opened his mouth for another feeble protest, but was prevented.

"Alright, that's enough," Estel said suddenly, rising to his feet and pulling Legolas up with him.

Elladan scowled melodramatically. "Oh, but come, Estel! This is too good an opportunity to pass up–"

The human smiled pleasantly. "You had better pass it up all the same. If not, I fear I shall let slip (ahem) to Glorfindel about that time you both oiled the back of his horse – even a sparrow could not have mounted it without falling off. Imagine what awful revenge might then fall upon you…"

Now Elrohir scowled, getting huffily to his feet. "Little brothers always fight unfairly."

Estel bowed with a wide grin. "I use what methods I can. Believe me, when there are as few as you leave open to me, it's a wonder I win as often as I do."

The twins laughed at that, ruffling his hair and then moving to slip on their clothes and boots. "Do you want to borrow my over tunic at least, Legolas?" Elrohir asked, proffering the item.

The wood elf picked gingerly at his sopping clothes. "Hm. Not exactly the 'heir of Thranduil' look, is it?"

"I don't know, it might be; how often does your father look like a drowned rabbit?" Elrohir snorted.

"No, that's alright. It's warm still; I'll be fine."

"We're going back now anyway," Elladan reassured him.

"You three go ahead," Legolas said. "I think I'll let myself dry a bit and try to finish that book of mine. Without interruptions, if possible."

With much good-natured banter and laughter, the three brothers got dressed and the twins started off a footrace to see who could reach the halfway-home mark (a small stream) first. Legolas went back to his seat on the boulder and pretended to read until the noise of their departure faded. Yes, a little peace and quiet... so I can wallow in self-pity and a little disgrace. Then he laid the book aside, and as he closed it he realized he'd been holding it upside-down. Ah, well.

"Thank you, Estel," he said aloud.

"What?" the human's voice came immediately. "You didn't think I'd gone home as ordered?"

Legolas merely snorted.

"Well, then…" Estel came over and sat beside him, his long legs dangling over the boulder's edge towards the water. "Why the thanks?"

The elf cast his companion a piercing glance, wondering if perhaps the human hadn't actually noticed his acute discomfort and had only defended him as a matter of course… "Answer me this first: how did you know that I couldn't swim?"

"Need I say it again? You're a bad liar. You were just as hot as we were, and no wonder. I had never seen you swim, and if you were so desirous of avoiding the water, it seemed a logical assumption."

"But I'm Legolas Greenleaf, Prince of Mirkwood!" Legolas protested.

"Yes indeed. We've met before, you know. And…?"

"And…!" Too many words came to finish the sentence and they choked him into silence.

Estel nodded. "And you are very good at playing the game. Much better at it than I am. I suppose practice makes perfect. Or not."

"What are you talking about?"

"The game. The 'I am sufficient' game. The rules are fairly basic: there is an ideal set up for you to meet. Failure to truly meet the ideal dooms you to the alternative."

"...Which is?"

"Pretending that you've met it."

"Ah."

Estel found a flat pebble nestled in a crack in the great rock and rolled it thoughtfully between his fingers. "The tragedy is that the game is impossible to win. I know it, and if you didn't know it, I would imagine you know it now. Eventually the tournament is bound to end, our masks will come off, and we fools will fool no more. I find myself wondering, what do we look like? When we aren't moving across the board like pieces in a game of Kings, what... are we?"

Legolas exhaled slowly, leaning on trust for the courage to finally speak aloud what he knew. He was far from the perfect Prince of Mirkwoood. "Only an elf."

Estel said nothing. He shifted the pebble restlessly from hand to hand.

"So," Legolas probed gently, "I lie (poorly, apparently); I pretend I can swim because I never had the courage to admit my ignorance and ask for lessons. You lie (not much better, I might add) and tell us you are not ill because you cannot admit… what?" Realization came swiftly, just from the way the human's brow was creased. "You're mortal."

Estel smiled a mirthless smile and slung the pebble out towards the lake. It skipped five times before sinking. "We're a fine pair."

"So it would seem. Which is rather comforting, don't you think?"

"Yes, in fact. Or it will be if we can unmask without bruising ourselves. I didn't imagine I'd ever have this conversation with anyone – certainly not within elvendom."

"To think that men and elves alike can fall into such similar farces."

"I must say I'd rather be human than Prince of Mirkwood."

"Thank you very much. You had best enjoy it while you can, Aragorn son of Arathorn, captain and lord of men."

Estel laughed suddenly, his blue eyes glinting in the sun. The giant stone was pleasantly warm beneath them and the air seemed less smothering. "Just for that, I'm going to give you what you deserve!"

Legolas looked at him askance. "And that is…?"

"Swimming lessons."

––––––––– | –––––––––

It took careful scheming to lure the twins back to the lake again. Though they could tease relentlessly, Elladan and Elrohir had absolutely no intention of exposing Legolas to further danger. On the one hand Legolas was warmed by this consideration on their part, and on the other hand he was frustrated at his inability to reset the stage without giving away the climax.

The idea had actually been Estel's. "I've been the object of their banter before. Believe me, this is the best way to drown the joke. Eh… no unpleasant inference intended, of course."

When the twins were at last convinced that Legolas had no intention of being drowned and that he greatly desired to sketch the view from north edge of the lake ("Estel, I don't think I could sketch a mountain to save my life." "Legolas, you sketch other elves all the time!" "Are mountains elves?" "Well, I don't have any better ideas."), they set out through the heat for the second time.

"I propose a race," Estel announced brightly, once their clothing had been safely stowed and Legolas had begun to drift off with his paper and sketching charcoal. He stayed close enough to hear, though.

His brothers groaned. "We've run out of races, Estel," Elladan protested. "We've already done laps across the lake…"

"Swimming around the edge of the lake…" Elrohir put in.

"Backstroke…"

"Swimming twice around the lake…"

"Diving start…"

"Swimming three times around the lake…"

"Blindfolded…"

"Have we done four times around the lake yet?"

"And then there was the race-cum-battle that ended with Elrohir's hair full of frogspawn."

"Fine, bring that up. Besides, little brother, you know you always lose."

Estel ignored them and rummaged in his pack, producing a flat scrap of metal. Attached to it was a length of pale ribbon. "'Race' is a loose term. We're going to dive for this."

Legolas was relieved to see the twins looking interested. He caught the brief glance the human cast his direction and nodded just a bit, slipping back behind a screen of small trees to shed his own outer tunic and boots.

"Aim for somewhere closer to the edge of the lake, Estel," Elladan advised.

"Are we afraid of competition?" the human joked.

"Well, you're lungs can't hold air as well as ours, and the middle—"

"Yes, Mother."

He caught the whistling sound as Estel swung the strange device around like a bola and then the sound stopped as the human let go. Legolas came round the trees just in time to see the metal piece, its strange tail fluttering like a comet, plunge with a splash into the water towards the center of the lake.

With a gleeful shout, the twins and Estel dove from the edge and after a few running steps to reach the place where they'd been standing, Legolas jumped in after him.

There was no panic now as the water lapped over his head and the pale blue-green depths spread out before him. He remembered with unconcealed pleasure Estel's astonishment at his fast progress.

"Legolas, for an elf who's spent the past several thousand years avoiding deep water, you take to it better than most fish!"

"I never realized it was this simple…"

"You never asked, remember?"

Ahead of him he could see the other three swimmers and knew he was gaining on them. His legs paddle rhythmically behind him and he let himself enjoy the cool feeling of water rushing past his skin. Of all the places in which he and Estel had secretly practiced during the past week, he could understand why this was the brothers' favorite.

"What about diving?"

"What about it?"

"Can you teach me?"

The human smiled, an expression dazzling with surprised pleasure at being asked. At being trusted enough. "Of course I can."

Pushing himself harder, the wood elf angled his body so that he could pass the other three. The only one close enough to see him was Estel, but of course the human would have been expecting him. Down below the filtered sunlight showed a massive garden of waving green weeds, and up ahead, almost lost amid the tangle, was the pale gleam of the ribbon.

With his mouth closed he couldn't really smile, but he felt satisfaction fill him. Shooting through the weeds like an otter, his hand closed around the ribbon and he launched himself towards the twinkling surface.

As his head broke through to the sunlight, he rubbed the water from his eyes and delighted in the warmth on his face. Almost before he had caught his breath, he felt a clap on the back and turned to see the twins treading water behind him, their eyes wide.

"Legolas!" Elrohir gasped, wiping at his own eyes in disbelief.

"You didn't drown!"

"Clever of you to notice!" Legolas grinned wickedly. "Next you'll be stating the obvious by telling me I beat you both."

"I can't believe you! One day you fall in and are instantly transported to within three inches of death, and a week later you're swimming as if Ulmo himself showed you how to tame the water!" Elladan was downright sputtering.

"Not Ulmo, but close," the prince laughed. "Actually, the credit goes to Estel." He turned to smile at his friend – and suddenly realized the human had not surfaced with his brothers. "Estel?" Legolas called in alarm. And a horrible premonition, like a remnant of his own accident in the lake, came washing over him. Estel! The ribbon slipped from his hand.

Barely hearing the twins' confused questions, Legolas dove instantly straight back down. His eyes worked frantically to pierce the dimness – if he could find a single ribbon in a tangle of weeds, surely he could… a tangle of weeds…

Almost disguised by his dark head of hair, which was waving exactly like the dark plants around him, Estel was thrashing against the net of vine-like weeds that had ensnared him. Every move was tangling him further, but for a moment Legolas' panic froze him. There were no air bubbles coming from Estel's lips anymore.

Kicking again, careful to avoid the weeds himself, Legolas came within his friend's view and locked eyes with him for just a moment. Don't kick. I'll get you free. Trust me; you are a good teacher.

Fighting his own panic, the human stilled himself and Legolas felt quickly along his leg, finding the twists of vine holding him down. Tugging on them with all his strength, he begged the plant to come free of the earth, but it clung to its muddy soil malevolently and his hands were instantly rubbed raw for his efforts. His own air was running short; the weeds were too thick…

He felt a touch on his wrist – Estel, limply shaking his head no, pointing Legolas towards the surface. The elf jerked away, shaking his head even more violently. Of course I'm not leaving. Stop wasting time, Estel.

The human's eyes were beginning to close. Legolas looked round furiously; this was no mere prize for which he was fighting. Prize… The pale ribbon was waving again from amid the weeds where Legolas had dropped it and he snatched it up, accidentally slicing his finger on the sharp edge of the metal piece at the end and feeling fiercely pleased with the injury. Pulling the weeds around Estel's ankle as hard as he could to get some slack, he slid the metal edge under the dark, ropey strands and jerked back against them hard enough that they were sliced straight through. Red blood misted the water as the metal simultaneously cut his hands, but then the last stalk parted and Legolas again shot towards the surface in victory, passing the twins up as they began their dives down to see what was keeping him.

He had reached the shore and laid Estel out on the ground, remembering to turn him on his side when he began coughing up water, before he realized that his whole body ached, his lungs were throbbing, and his hands felt like they were on fire.

Dimly, like sight underwater, he saw Elladan and Elrohir splash up onto the shore, and even with the day as warm as it was, their faces were deathly white.

"Are you alright?!" One of them demanded, and for once Legolas was having a hard time telling which one. "Legolas, is he breathing?"

"He is, give him a moment."

For a few agonizing seconds they waited, but eventually the other twin ignored the admonition. "Estel, I told you – do you never listen, you stubborn man? – you knew of the weeds, and still you were ensnared and nearly killed. Do you think I lecture you for my own pleasure? I cannot – will not be the one to tell Ada that you have died in your infancy after all!"

Now that was definitely Elladan.

"I'm not an infant," Estel choked indignantly, still gasping. His whole body was shaking. It brought back recent bad memories.

"You might as well be," Elladan stormed, taking refuge from stark fear in impatient anger. "That is why I said to throw it towards the edge. You are a good swimmer, but though you will hate me for saying it: you are not an elf! You cannot hold air as long, you cannot move as carefully – if Legolas had not guessed at once what became of you, then – Ai, you idiotic human!"

"Elladan," Legolas cut him off firmly, as Elrohir put a restraining hand on his distraught brother's arm, "stop. Calm down; you don't need to belabor your point. He's alive and he'll be fine, alright?"

Legolas helped his friend to sit up and patted his back reassuringly as the human got his breathing under control and stopped looking so blue about the lips. Elrohir was patting Elladan's back in a similar motion, and all in all they looked a very damp and sober tableau indeed.

"I'm sorry, Elladan," Estel whispered. "I did not mean for that to happen. My own stupidity... I– can you forgive me?"

"No," Elladan shook his head at once, then went on quickly, "I am sorry. It's not as if I tried to call off the race when I saw where it was headed. And it was wrong of me to yell at you."

"A mutual forgiveness, then?"

"Yes."

"And a great many thanks to Legolas," Elrohir added. "You certainly do repay your life-debts in short order!"

"I aim to please. This should keep that inflated reputation of mine intact; plenty of stories for elven warriors to use in wearying their students. 'And then Prince Legolas swam to the depths and hacked the rabid Weed Fiend to bite-sized bits and saved his intrepid best friend from a fate worse than death!'"

They laughed a little, awkward after so close a brush with disaster.

"'Fate worse than death'?" Estel puzzled aloud.

"Games," Legolas explained cryptically.

They left their 'prize' behind in the lake. Legolas almost forgot to collect his paper and charcoal when they turned homeward again; the humorous vengeance that he and Estel had prepared seemed such a long time ago.

"You were right," Estel said softly as the four of them walked back towards Rivendell. He and Legolas had fallen a little ways behind. "You guessed before I even really knew. It was my mortality. The one thing I could never escape, and I hated it. Not the dying, but the differences in living. I didn't realize until I tried to explain it to you, help you see the denial in yourself, that I... eh, I can't explain it."

"There is a saying among Silvan elves – originally coined by Oropher, my grandfather," Legolas mused, guessing what the human was trying to say. "'In learning you will teach and in teaching you will learn.' Do you think he was right?"

Estel smiled appreciatively. "If we have done nothing else this week, Legolas, we have proven him absolutely correct."

"We also both managed to nearly drown."

"That too."

"It was foolish of you to dive in amongst the weeds when you knew how hazardous they were."

"Yes, and it was foolish of you to go your whole life without learning to swim."

"It was."

"So not only did we nearly die, we nearly died of ignominious stupidity."

"Exactly."

"This is ridiculous."

"I agree. So I will make you a promise and I ask the same from you in return."

"What promise?"

"No more masks; they keep others out as much as they keep our fears in. No more secrets, as we are clearly more capable of looking after each other than we are at guarding ourselves. And no more games, for they are all well and good until somebody gets strangled by lake weeds."

"Is that another of your grandfather's sayings?"

"Estel–"

"Don't worry, dear friend. You have my word."

 

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