A/N: Thanks to my betas on this one: Fëadan, Lyllyn, Isabeau of Greenlea, and SailingToByzantium. They have pointed out numerous conceptual and psychological holes, and I have attempted to plug them as best I know how. Any remaining flaws are hardly their fault.

Special thanks to STB for pointing out the classical metaphor of the hunt and its uses, and for months of line-by-line dissection.

My source of information on the harvesting and spinning of flax.

1–

Old Friends

"As a light in the darkness is the love of a man and woman for each other, and in that light lies the hope of our people.

So do I bind myself to thee, for as long as my life shall endure. Let the seas rise, let the earth change, let the stars extinguish themselves, I shall not forsake thee."
–Marriage oath, husband to wife, the Angle, Eriador

"Do not bring it home, where your families can see it, where your wife (or your lover's wife) might see it."–The Rule of the Road

Eledhril opened his eyes slowly. Golden sunlight filtered through the curtains that draped the window, muting it to a soft glow that matched the inward glow of weary contentment that suffused his body. Though it lay heavy in his limbs as lethargy, his senses seemed the sharper for it, and he fancied he could feel time slip by moment by moment. Or perhaps that was simply his heart beating? Eledhril blinked his eyes shut once more, then opened them again, feeling his lashes scrape against cloth, feeling the pressure of the mattress all along his side, the texture of coarse woven sheets, and the vague pins and needles numbness in his left arm. There was warmth against him, and the feeling of someone's breath against his chest that tickled slightly; where skin touched skin, he felt the pull of sweat that had dried between them–a sticky feeling that told him they had been here too long. Constant as the light might be, a Ranger's time sense told him that outside, the day was dying–a lovely, warm summer's day that promised a glorious night.

A good day, he thought, and felt his pulse flutter as anxiety began to creep within his breast when from outside, the sounds of children's games drifted:

"Gone between, got between, he's come between the marriage rings. Lies between, lay between, he's put down 'neath the earth so green!"

Eledhril winced then, as a flurry of giggles arose, and the 'lie between' darted off to avoid his fate. Every child in the Angle knew that ditty and the game that went with it, but it was no laughing matter for him today. Even children know the price, he thought. If one were caught and the wronged party desired it, or the offender preferred it to scorn. A Ranger especially might prefer it, for a man whom his fellows could not trust was one for whom death came inevitably, and what point was there in dragging it out? If we are caught...

With an effort, Eledhril shifted his head to bury his face in his lover's hair, arms tightening as he pressed the other to him. What would she say? His wife's image flashed through his mind–Thorondis could look the very hawk when angry, her face a study in severity. Even as a lass she had had those eyes–he had always loved them, loved the spark in them, and thus even the quickness of her temper was a sort of guilty delight when he dared look into her eyes in such moments. Had he married her because of that, anticipating the day when he would need her wrath to hold him in line? Perhaps. But she could not be angry over what she did not know, what she could not know of–not until vows were broken, and where then was restraint?

He wondered if he could face her keen–eyed scrutiny tonight. Would it show? Were there marks? His thighs felt a bit tender along the insides–would she see? Or would she smell it on me? Taste it? Would she hear it in my voice? Would his children, who sang so gleefully heedless without, notice? He did not know. If he would bestir himself to rise and see to the essentials, he might never need to have such questions answered. Yet he could not move. Not yet. There was yet some brief space of time left, and he grasped for it, greedy for a little longer even as he reproached himself for reckless indulgence. But he had not honestly expected to succeed in this, though he had been convinced that he had had to try. At least, he thought he had not expected success–maybe he ought to have known better?

Do not fool yourself, Eledhril, you knew from the moment you saw that look that resolve could not withstand such a testing. 'Tis of no use to ask now, as they say traitors do, 'how did it come to this?' You know why you are here. Why you are both here. Do not pretend otherwise. So spoke conscience at last unfettered, merciless as the scourge. With a soft sigh that ruffled the other's hair, Eledhril shut his eyes again, and let himself drift despite the danger. For despite the risk of being caught, despite the consequences they could not hope to avoid if any suspected them, despite agonizing guilt, he could not leave. And so despite himself, as he held the other close, he found himself asking, How did it come to this?

How, indeed. It had begun last week after supper...

2–

Indiscretions

What does the stag know of the arrow? Has the hart the heart to love
The brightness of befeathered steel that graces airs above?
Shall the wounded one admire the swiftness of its latest flight?
Or shall I, my love, deer-like know naught but my own plight,
Crying out: Misericorde!

–"For Love and the Hunt", fragment, Silvaríel of Arnor

It began well enough with a meal among friends close as family, for Aragorn had returned from the long tour of inspection after an even longer absence in the service of foreign lands. And he had brought Halbarad with him, which had been glad news for Eledhril and his family. It was rare enough that such old friends happened home to the Angle at the same time, and so Eledhril had claimed Halbarad for an evening when he had met Chieftain and lieutenant by chance by the gates. "For the children miss you, and Thorondis will be well pleased to see you again." The 'And I as well' had been understood, and Aragorn had teasingly noted that Halbarad had never yet learned to say 'no' where his adopted nephews were concerned. It had needed a moment ere Eledhril had recognized that glib substitution for what it was, for among the three of them, Aragorn was wont to jest that Halbarad had never learned to say 'no' where Eledhril was concerned. They had laughed anyway, all of them, for it was still quite true, but he had felt the stirrings of unease nonetheless. Aragorn had bidden his farewell then, but as he had turned away, so also had Halbarad looked elsewhere, which had sent a thrill of anxiety through Eledhril.

That had been the start of worry, which had only continued when, the next day, Halbarad made good his promise to join Eledhril and Thorondis and their family for supper. The children, Elenmir and Orandil, had been happily oblivious to trouble, too delighted to have their uncle home again to notice the strain in his eyes or the tired set of his shoulders. But Eledhril knew him better, and when, after supper was finished, Halbarad had murmured something about the need for air, Eledhril had sensed his best opportunity.

"Thorondis," he murmured, and his wife glanced up questioningly at him. "Mayhap tonight you could keep the little ones in and occupied."

"Will you speak with Halbarad, then?" she asked, and when he nodded, she sighed and bowed her head. "I had thought something was amiss with him all through supper, but I was not certain," she murmured, and looked up at him after a moment, eyes dark with worry. "Be certain he knows he is always welcome here."

"He knows, love," Eledhril replied, but smiled and leaned down slightly to kiss her brow and then her lips. "But I shall tell him again."

"Know you what ails him?"

Eledhril frowned, seeing in his mind's eye the way Halbarad had so carefully not looked after Aragorn yesterday. In his heart, he suspected–nay, knew–what the matter was, for he had seen that 'look' before. But it was naught that he could speak of with his wife. For such is the sanctuary of home, that I have no place to tell of this one tale, he thought, even as he replied, "Something he met upon the road, I doubt not." And with that he excused himself and followed Halbarad out.

He found his friend leaning against the wall just outside the door, smoking. Or rather, worrying the pipestem about in his mouth while he stared sightlessly at the trees beyond the town wall. Eledhril nonchalantly crossed before him to take up a position beside him, furthest from the door, and he reached into his pocket to produce a pipe and matches. "Tell me you bought Longbottom leaf, Hal," he said without preamble, and Halbarad raised a brow. But he did hand him a drawstring bag with a familiar scent, and Eledhril carefully packed the pipe, handed back the bag, and then struck a match. Halbarad watched skeptically as he drew in a mouthful of the sweetish smoke, then tipped his head back and exhaled in a long, satisfied sigh.

"Did not Thorondis break you of that habit?" Halbarad asked.

"Thorondis is a wonderful woman, but I still keep a vice or two," Eledhril replied. He paused a moment to savor the smoke again, and then, when he had blown it out, he said mildly, "If I wash my mouth out, I can blame the scent on you." Halbarad chuckled at that and shook his head, but he said nothing more, and for a time, the two of them were silent. Finally though, after having cast about for some delicate way of broaching the matter, Eledhril gave up and said bluntly, "Too elvish to lay a hand on you even once, was he?" At his side, Halbarad stiffened and shot him an offended glare on Aragorn's behalf, but Eledhril did not retract the question, nor apologize for the manner of its asking. He simply raised a brow at Halbarad, awaiting an answer. And after a moment, his friend looked away. Puffing once more on the pipe, Halbarad let the smoke escape slowly, tapping the stem against his teeth. Finally:

"'Tis not a matter of Elf or Man; 'tis simply Aragorn," he replied, and Eledhril nodded slowly.

"And he was hers ere ever Lothlórien," Eledhril said quietly, for all the Angle knew by now the tale of Aragorn's betrothal.

"I know."

"Does he know of–?"

"Aye." Laconic as Halbarad could be even in good spirits, Eledhril nonetheless winced at the short answers. And how did that come about, I wonder, that Aragorn now knows your heart? But that was a question that could wait for a time. Glancing sideways at the other, he asked, after a pregnant pause:

"Have you done aught about it?"

"Just one night in Rohan."

"Just one?" There was a moment's silence, and then:

"I am not the impetuous young man I once was," Halbarad replied without ire or force, sounding instead merely weary and resigned.

"No, I suppose not," Eledhril replied softly.

There followed another silence, and Eledhril thought of that long ago day tracking deer through the woods north of the Angle: fast friends from boyhood, both of them all of seventeen and giddy with the excitement of being trusted to go so far from home alone. Crouching in the bushes, thinking the doe would surely circle round, as she had before, they had waited, hearts beating in eager counterpoint and with the scent of the earth all about them. And she had come, at that–a good, clean shot, it should have been impossible to miss... except that the doe had been a canny old thing. She must have caught scent of them, though to this day, Eledhril could have sworn they had been downwind. But she had sprung away just as Halbarad had fired. His shot had missed, striking the tree before which she had stood, sparking curses.

Being his friend, Eledhril had, of course, been unable to resist comment on such inaccuracy, which had inspired Halbarad to question his parentage, which had led from there to a demand for satisfaction and a wrestling match that surely had frightened away all game for miles around. All in play, and they had ended tangled up in a lock of limbs so tight that they could neither of them gain leverage enough to move; and as neither had been willing to let go, they had simply stared at each other, bright–eyed and flushed, watching for they knew not what sign.

He was not certain how long they had lain there, but after a minute, surely they had known it to be a futile match, to be ended simply and only by releasing each other. Except that neither of us did, and Valar help me but I was frightened! Frightened by the heat between them, and by the awareness of his body's reaction to it, as Halbarad had tensed, leaning into him as if unsure what else to do, given that there had been no question of rolling away. Not with such heat, not with this undecided something between them, not when breath refused to be caught and the color in their cheeks could not be excused so easily as that of exertion. It had been an agony of uncertainty of what to do next, but Halbarad had in the end solved it, leaning over Eledhril to kiss him suddenly, fiercely... Impetuously, Eledhril thought, and smiled slightly.

Thus had arisen that first fumbling, fearful attempt to tell through touch what touch had never before told–of desire more than friendship that knew too much of crudity and not yet enough of subtlety. One never knew where to put one's hands in those early days without doing violence to that delicate first yearning for something finer beyond what scornful gossip made of such silent loves. Always silent, Eledhril thought, and felt the ache still. Such loves might lie in plain sight of Rangers, but never a spoken word of it to any who was not one of them. Not that they had been Rangers then in any case, but no one in their position could fail to know that silence and the utmost discretion must be the rule if one were to remain safely out of the mouths of rumormongers. Adultery it was not, but perversion it certainly was, and tolerated only behind the shield of a star–brooch.

Three years we kept our trysts and our peace ere we swore our oaths and found a greyer world within the Rangers, Eledhril thought. On the Road, one upheld one's oath, kept one's honor and the honor of one's fellows, and otherwise, looked the other way. So long as no one broke the never to be challenged rule to take nothing home (and how manifold the meaning of that word!) that belonged to the shadows that lay along the Road, that might break the trust that had to exist among Rangers and among all the denizens of the Angle, then there was virtue in a refusal to take notice of 'forgivable falls.' Most would not fall with one of their fellows, preferring paid and female company along the trade routes between Dale and Bree, or Dale and Gondor and Bree, but even those who did turn to a friend were brothers in the fight, and every sword was needed.

"Aye, every sword," men said round their campfires and elbowed the young men who wore no rings. "In bed and battle, lads!" Such was service among a people where women married late and men married young and Rangers hoped to live to see their children born. Service indeed, and twofold at that, for did not every man need the anchor of one unstained by the dust of the Road, if he would face well its testing? Did he not need children, if he would help provide for the future? Thus one could hardly love the fair sex in the Angle without marrying, unless misfortune struck.

And I always knew that I could love women, Eledhril thought, resigned. And because he could, and because Thorondis had ever been a bold and bewitching creature, Eledhril had married eventually. It had been difficult, surrendering Halbarad for Thorondis, but he had done it, out of a desire to do right by Halbarad, by his fellows, and especially by Thorondis. But I should have seen it, then, Eledhril thought, feeling angry with himself for that oversight. I should have seen to whom he turned when he turned away from me as he turned from Aragorn yesterday. One always misses what is too close, and the irony cuts! He had thought for a time that Halbarad had taken his betrothal and marriage well enough, turning his attentions elsewhere swiftly and fairly often. And he had had Aragorn in whom to confide, and that had seemed to Eledhril good.

Until I realized that he loved most the one he touched least! Mayhap it was that love and liking lay too often too close, became bedfellows themselves for Rangers, though most times nothing came of the conjunction but closer brotherhood. Or mayhap it was Halbarad's particular curse to fall in love with his closest friends. In either case, such friendship as Halbarad had with Aragorn had never been simple. Eledhril, of all those in the Angle, ought to have known that, to have seen in Halbarad's gestures, have heard in his words, an attraction not unlike what had animated their friendship, and to have recognized that for what it was. But he had not, 'til it had been far too late.

Perhaps he had been blinded by all the others, for Aragorn's was a provocative presence; men responded to him with a fervor that no other seemed able to rouse. He was their Chieftain, and he was young, and Imladris had left its mark on him–a glamour, perhaps, an elvish sort of charm that could not but be felt. Aragorn has something fatal about him, Eledhril decided. Fey, and fatal, and one can but stand at a distance from it, safe and separate, or embrace it. I suppose that I ought not to be surprised that Halbarad would choose the latter.

And so I knew as soon as I did see it that Halbarad could have no hope, there. That had been clear from the beginning–Aragorn might be discreet, but if he kept the secrets of others, he kept also his own, leaving others with naught to guard, save his life. Elvish disinterest, some had said, meaning his wife–whenever he chose one–would have naught to worry about, before or after. Halbarad was not ignorant of that–indeed, Eledhril had warned him frankly that it was a doomed desire, destined to bring naught but pain. "Some are truly made for but one in their lives, and for them the fidelity of the Angle fits, where we others fret 'til bound and struggle ever after to remain bound. 'Tis futile, Hal; admire from afar, but do not do this to yourself," he had pleaded.

But for all that Halbarad had agreed that it was futile, agreement had not turned ardor to mere admiration. Nor had distance cooled desire, and although Eledhril knew that there were a few others with whom he was close enough for comfort yet distant enough for decency's sake, those few with whom he shared a bed (or what passed for it) on rare occasions had not dislodged Aragorn from his place in Halbarad's affections. But now it came to the pinch: pledges promised, Arwen would receive one untouched into her bed, and Halbarad again would be left at loose ends. Had already been left at loose ends. There were days when Eledhril hated being right, and today was one of them. In a moment's wrath, he did not know whether he was more angry with Aragorn, that he should be so unable to make a Ranger's bargain, or with himself for having put his dearest friend and erstwhile lover in a position to have his heart broken a second time.

Do we not all fall sometimes? Even knowingly? Would it be so ill to fall just once, Aragorn? Eledhril wondered angrily. But that was hardly fair, nor just, to hold another's integrity against him, which left him to look to his own life and choices, and he cursed inwardly. If I had not married, perhaps we could have continued, Halbarad and I; he might never have turned then to Aragorn, even knowing it was a fool's hope at best. Or if he had, he would still have had someone to return to. But he had married–had had to marry–and he could not say in honesty that he loved Thorondis less than Halbarad; certainly, he could not regret their children. But neither, it seemed, could he say that he loved Halbarad less than Thorondis. It had hurt to spend that last night with him in Bree and know that when they parted, it would be the end, for to marry was to end all such old ties. What happened afterwards in distant lands, whether one leaned towards men or women or (painfully) both, would be then the exception, and not simply the undisciplined way of things among those unbound.

We did as was expected of us, he reminded himself, striving for reason. He was not so great a fool as to say that that was worth nothing, especially when expectation was bound up with survival and the need to trust that marriages, though violated in fact sometimes were never violated in spirit–were never challenged by a Ranger's youthful attachment to one of his fellows. He had promised himself to Thorondis: For as long as my life shall endure. Let the seas rise, let the earth change, let the stars extinguish themselves, I shall not forsake thee. So he had spoken, and forgone all others. Halbarad had not argued–how could he have, for was that not the way of things?–and had thrown himself instead into learning to love Thorondis, into making peace in his heart with his unwitting rival. Painful as it had been to do so at first, he had done it, and was family now: beloved "Uncle Halb'rad" to Eledhril's sons, dearest brother to Thorondis and Eledhril both... and thoroughly miserable. And that, Eledhril could not bear.

"I am sorry, Halbarad," he said softly.

"'Tis not your fau–"

"It was the first time," Eledhril said simply. There was nothing to be said to that, and so they stood in silence, wreathing themselves in smoke rings. And Eledhril thought, and thought, seeing Thorondis in his mind's eye, and yet remembering Halbarad; remembering long limbs and laughter some nights in Bree or elsewhere, or being braced and held while companions on the road had practiced their torturous craft to save his life. Sometimes it had been he who had done the bracing and afterwards the soothing. Such was life in the Wild, and no one had cared to recall at such times what else stood between them. He remembered pain and pleasure, comfort and caress, with more than memory's phantom images–his body remembered, and after a moment, Eledhril laid a hand gently on his friend's thigh. Halbarad, credit to him, did not so much as twitch, though he did bow his head.

"Eledhril," he murmured, shaking his head, "even could we, we are at hom–"

"I know," Eledhril replied, cutting him off as abruptly as he did his own inner protests. And he stroked gently with his fingers before removing his hand with slow deliberation as he said softly, "But despite that, you have a place here, should you need it." And if they were Thorondis's words, Halbarad could read quite well Eledhril's meaning. It was in his voice, and in his eyes when the other looked up, startled. A moment, he stared, and then Halbarad shook his head as if in denial of what he had seen.

"Do not tempt me!" Eledhril raised a brow. Glancing around once, straining his senses to the limits, and finding no others to see or hear, he caught Halbarad's face in his hands–careful of the pipebowl–and leaned forward into a kiss, counting heartbeats. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. More than enough time for shock to abate, for righteous indignation or even plain fear to arise and break the lock, yet Halbarad did not move. Certain, then, Eledhril drew back, for it would be foolish to risk more. Such perversions in the Angle would cause trouble enough, but to break a marriage would ruin more than trust. Releasing Halbarad, he turned away, once again seeking furtive shadows and finding none. Drawing a deep breath, he leaned once more against the wall and tilted his head back as he toyed with the pipestem between his teeth, waiting for his own heartbeat to steady. And when it had, and he was certain of his voice, Eledhril said:

"When I hear it in your voice that you would not be tempted, then I shall not." This, as he caught and held Halbarad's eyes with his once more. The other had that look that Rangers wore so often and well–the one that said, Seek nothing here, that covered over so much, yet could not tonight hide the want in his eyes that warred with honor, to say nothing of prudence. Not that Eledhril was unconflicted, but the offer was made, and he could not retract it. Nor did he wish to, for much as he loved his wife, he could not have sent Halbarad home tonight without having made it and meant it.

But it does grow late, he thought. The evening must end soon, and mayhap it is best that he go now. Thorondis had seen men come home damaged before, and would understand if he told her Halbarad had no further mind for company that evening; for judging from the other's air of palpable discomfort, it would be hard to pretend that all was well. And he should not have to dissemble thus–not at home, which, despite its drawbacks, was sanctuary in other ways. And so Eledhril straightened and took one last puff on the pipe before regretfully emptying it. "Go home, Halbarad," he said gently, laying a hand on his shoulder–in friendship and naught else–as he made for the door. Still, Halbarad said nothing, his presence oddly muted... withdrawn. Eledhril felt his heart clench a little, but there was nothing more to be said for the moment.

And so, stepping past him, he opened the door, and passed within, turning to close it all in a motion. But a hand on the door stopped him, and he raised a brow in surprise as Halbarad also emptied his pipe and stuffed it back into his belt pouch. "Do not forget to wash your mouth out before kissing her," Halbarad said simply. And that was all, as he slipped past Eledhril and left him standing there. In the next room, he heard him greet Thorondis, heard his wife respond, querying; there came a reply, and then there were footsteps as the two of them moved off, likely to see the children ere Halbarad left. Which gave Eledhril the opportunity, amid his wonderings, to investigate the cups left on the table and discover that Thorondis had not finished her ale. Chewing on rosemary might have masked the taste of smoke better, but it would have been obvious, as well.

When his wife and erstwhile lover returned, Halbarad embraced Thorondis, kissing her brow in a brotherly manner as he bid her thanks and good night. Turning to Eledhril, he clasped arms with him, then embraced him quickly, breaking away after a moment only–naught out of place, as Halbarad bid them both good night and left. Thorondis sighed, and Eledhril smiled as she came and slipped an arm about his waist, then looked up worriedly. "Are you certain 'tis naught that can be shared?"

"If he has not spoken of it, then I shall not," Eledhril replied truthfully.

"I hope that he will turn to you, then, and be not a stranger to us," she replied, leaning her head against his shoulder, and Eledhril felt the bite of guilt for that.

Nevertheless, he could say only and fervently, "So also do I. So also do I."

However, there proved to be little time over the next few days for either Halbarad or Eledhril to speak further of Eledhril's offer. The folk of the Angle had not survived by suffering idle layabouts; there were chores to be done, and Rangers had a hand in them, certainly. It being August, it was time to make linen. The women who had been retting flax in the Bruinen announced the next day that the reeds were ready, which meant that any free hands were immediately put to work helping to gather and hang the reeds to dry. A rather unpleasant task, given the scent, which, as usual, left Eledhril pondering the irony that he had rot to be grateful to for the shirt on his back. But leave the flax too long in the water and though the rot would pull the strands from their inflexible stem, it would leave them soft and worthless as well, and so all those herded to the river bank worked quickly. The breaking and hetcheling in the days that followed also took time to do properly, and only a fool would have attempted to speak secrets surrounded by so many listening ears.

In addition to the flax, there was fatherly duty to attend to: he learned 'The Fall of Gil-galad' once more from Orandil (and tried not to laugh at what a child's mind made of phrases he could not understand) and patiently invested hours into teaching Elenmir the foundations of archery, since he was now old enough to learn them. Eledhril would have taught him in any case, for lads and lasses both learned the bow, but boys who had Rangers for brothers 'got notions,' as the women were wont to say, and Elenmir was determined to join his two older brothers and follow his father. Eledhril would have been happier to hear otherwise, but since Elenmir had his heart set on a star of his own, it behooved a concerned father to teach him well and in earnest. And finally, when the children were safely abed, still, there was husbandly duty–by far the most pleasant of responsibilities in the fulfilling of it, but lately also the most doubtful, as he tried to ignore his own children playing 'lie between' with their friends.

For although Eledhril applied himself diligently to matters of family and the common concerns of the Angle, behind his daily thoughts that conversation with Halbarad lurked ever ready to hand and he wondered: would Halbarad turn to him? Should he hope that he would? It was not that he wished to wrong Thorondis–never that! But between her and Halbarad, he felt that he could not but wrong one or the other in this affair. For he had watched Halbarad for many years now, anticipating the inevitable disappointment that would follow upon Aragorn's betrothal. Now that it had come to pass, he found himself thinking that common wisdom was mistaken in this instance, that anticipation had been the lesser of evils and that Halbarad took this unwonted hard. In the Angle, one learned to be watchful of the Ranger who grew suddenly too quiet, and thus worry gnawed at him over the chill that seemed to work its way deeper in Halbarad with each day.

And so in every passing greeting, in every casual encounter, should their eyes chance to meet, always, always there rose that question between them, and so far, Halbarad had evaded an answer. Not without a telling flinch of late–Eledhril knew him too well to mistake it, and he hoped only that if Aragorn noticed it (and how could he fail to?) that he would not recognize its source.

At least I have some cause to hope that he shall not, Eledhril thought. For Aragorn had never before questioned Halbarad's affairs, trusting that his friend and lieutenant would not venture into proscribed territory. That trust had endured for long now–nigh on three decades–and not without reason, for Halbarad had never given another reason to doubt him. If friendship meant that Aragorn, too, behind the masks they all wore, kept worried watch on Halbarad, it might also mean that he would see Eledhril's worry as no more than the mirror of his own. As much as possible, Eledhril encouraged that perception, saving self–recrimination for the nights. Will he turn towards me? Or towards anyone? he wondered, and tried not to feel guilt that he could think thus with his wife in his arms. That he could stoop to make her own words, spoken out of honest (and innocent) concern for a dear friend, excuse his adulterous proposition shamed him, though despite shame and despite the risk should it become known, he held to it.

Which was not to say that he pursued Halbarad, either. Not only would that be unwise, it was unnecessary, for such an offer as he had made could not but color every meeting, and they could not avoid each other. To be even a friend to Halbarad, he had to visit, to talk with him, and his family was Halbarad's as well; the reminder of matters still undecided was constant, and so day by day, inevitably, they wore on each other, like old cloth. To watch Thorondis chat gaily with Halbarad in an effort to lighten his spirits was painful. To jest with him or talk with him himself was to recall all that had informed their fast friendship over the years. And to watch Halbarad help Elenmir learn to shoot was to remind him of the other's physical presence in ways he would not have cared to explain to his son. Happily, Elenmir was oblivious to the occasional odd look exchanged over his head between father and uncle, and both Eledhril and Halbarad were quite content that he should remain thus. Bad enough should he learn of his father's real indiscretions; it would be foolish to invite trouble over a carefully unanswered question.

And so they passed their days, Halbarad and Eledhril, and perhaps they grew accustomed, even, to the rub of well concealed distance between them. Hence, when Eledhril said one afternoon, "Stay awhile," after Elenmir had scampered happily off with his friends after two hours with Eledhril and Halbarad on the practice range, Halbarad took it in stride, if with a snort and an amused shake of his head.

Pulling one of Eledhril's shafts from the target, he said, "I fear you begin to learn your son's habits: your aim has grown worse since we began. What point in staying for further humiliation?"

"Give me a worthy target and you shall find no cause for scorn," Eledhril replied, as he collected the last of their arrows. Disregarding their varying lengths, he dropped them all into his own quiver. Then, clapping Halbarad on the shoulder, he began to make his way back home, drawing his friend easily along as he continued to speak. "My poor aim notwithstanding, I suppose I ought to be grateful. I need not repeat myself so long as you are here, for I may rely upon you to do so instead. And wonder of wonders, though the words be no different, Elenmir listens to you."

"He follows his brothers in that," Halbarad replied wryly.

"Rascals all of them, with no respect for their father, clearly," Eledhril replied with a grin. Halbarad chuckled softly, but said nothing more for the time being as they walked. It was a fine day–warm, with a light breeze that blew in off the Bruinen, and bright beetles hummed as they darted past now and again. Most would eschew the darkness of home to find work outside, and Eledhril opened his door to a silent house.

"Is Thorondis still tying flax?" Halbarad asked, glancing about, as he began to unfasten the straps of his quiver.

"Nay, did you not hear? Narwen's waters broke this morning, and the women have gathered. Pity her husband who must depend upon the tender mercies of his friends, barred as he is from his wife and home!" Eledhril replied.

"Ah. No, I had not heard."

"Oh? I should have thought your sister or mother would have spoken of it ere they left to join Narwen," Eledhril replied, as he hung Elenmir's quiver on the coatpegs. He leaned both their bows in the corner behind the door, then held out a hand for Halbarad's as well.

Handing it to him, the other replied, "The news must have come while I was away."

At that, Eledhril, who had just begun to unbuckle his quiver, gave his friend a sharp, searching look, then asked, "Another walk in the woods?" For sometimes, when he was troubled, Halbarad would leave early and alone in the morning and make a long, meandering journey through the woodlands that he knew so well. However, he had said nothing of it when he had joined Elenmir and Eledhril earlier, and sudden suspicion prickled to life. "Was there aught in particular that sent you wandering?"

"Nothing pressing."

"Ah," Eledhril replied sagely. Then, "I never liked to dream of Thorondis–or of you, for that matter. There was never time to enjoy such fantasies, it seemed, and they made the day feel drear when neither you nor she were present. I should not enjoy dreaming of one I could never touch."

Halbarad was silent a moment, ere he asked, with an edge to his voice, "Still hunting the wounded stag, my friend?"

"Were I hunting in earnest, you would know it," Eledhril replied firmly. That drew a slight grimace, but Halbarad did not dispute the claim. Eyeing his friend shrewdly as he shrugged out of the harness, Eledhril tossed his quiver onto the table beside Halbarad's. "Perhaps I ought to, though."

"It is nothing–"

"Nothing?" Eledhril demanded skeptically, and then gave a dismissive snort. "If we will speak of this now, then let us at least be honest. This 'nothing' eats at you, Halbarad, and it has since you let yourself fall to Aragorn's charms. There is no hiding it from those who know you well–who know you, in full, on the Road–and least of all from Aragorn himself. Yet though it gnaws you, you do nothing but dicker in words, which is unlike you. Why?"

"Perhaps because I have no desire to be 'mercied' like Silvaríel's stag, Eledhril!" Halbarad snapped back with sudden anger.

"'Mercied'?"

"Aye, for what else should I call five minutes in an alleyway or backed in a corner?" he demanded. "Think you that that is what I want from Aragorn? Or from you? Five minutes with no feeling only to kill the body's desire and cover over pain with the illusion of comfort? On the Road men sometimes fall, but others have not their love reduced to so little as that." And when Eledhril could only stare at him, unable to respond immediately, Halbarad grunted softly, shook his head, and turned sharply away, pacing the length of the room to stand stiff and unhappy just beyond the hearth.

For a time, neither moved nor spoke, and the sound of a few children running past the house, laughing as they went, was an unwelcome counterpoint to the stale resentment of the past week that hung heavy in the air. At length, though, Eledhril sighed. Crossing the room to stand behind his friend, he laid hands on his shoulders and squeezed firmly. "I never meant to make of your feeling for Aragorn something so mean as that," he said.

"Indeed?" Halbarad demanded, skeptical and clearly unappeased.

"My friend, it is your misfortune to love one more constant than either of us has ever been. But if you would not be 'mercied,' I would not see you mercy yourself and let disappointment smother all affection either. Friends you have more willing than he; surely it is not so hopeless as you believe."

"Is it not? 'As a light in the darkness is the love of a man and woman for each other, and in that light lies the hope of our people,'" Halbarad said, repeating the ancient formula that began a marriage as he turned to face Eledhril. "I see in that hope nothing of my love for you or for Aragorn, which is not simply that of friends. Where is hope, when the nature of my desire consigns me ever and only to corners and alleys–to the backrooms and all the Modigs of the world?"

"You have had me—" Eledhril began, alarmed by the turn this seemed to be taking.

"Have I?" Halbarad interrupted, and soft though his voice was, it silenced Eledhril in an instant. "Why will you persist in this sham, Eledhril? Is it that you have not heard me, or is it that you will not?"

"Hear what, Halbarad?" Eledhril asked then, desperately seeking a way to turn the conversation.

Halbarad sighed softly, frustrated. Folding his arms once more across his chest, he shook his head, lowering his eyes. "'Will not' it is, then."

"Halbarad—"

"Will you continue this? Eledhril, you know as well as I that I have never 'had' you," the other snapped at last, glancing back up sharply. "Neither you, nor Modig, nor any other man has ever been 'my' lad, nor have I been any other's. That is what it means to feel nothing for women, my friend. It means that I must be grateful men at home think me impotent, else I would have to take a wife. And on the Road, if it is not to be lads like Modig, there is only such charity as 'mercy' can give from time to time, and that given with much forcing of nature. Wherefore should I hope for aught, then?"

There could, of course, be no answer to that question, for there was no reason to hope; in truth, there was no hope at all. Thirty years that painful fact had governed friendship and love between the two of them, and yet never had they spoken it. They had spoken round it, had always known it, but never had either one given it voice. They had not dared; Eledhril especially had not dared, for Halbarad's sake. And yet you knew this would come one day, or why else have you feared it so? Valar, why could he not love women? he wondered, desperately casting about for something to say that would not ring hollow.

At length, he said simply, "If that is what you think, then I must have been mistaken to think that for six years, you had any claim on me." A pause. "I must still be mistaken, that I feel that claim still."

"Aye, you are mistaken," Halbarad responded then with a vehemence that did nothing to hide the pain.

"Then let it be a mistake," Eledhril urged then, catching on and recasting the word. And if Halbarad claimed he had never been good with words himself, he had never been imperceptive where they were concerned.

"You know that that is impossible! In the eyes of all others, even a corner in an alley would be no mere fall between us–it would be betrayal, it would be adultery, and it would destroy us both."

"But at least it would not be mercy," Eledhril replied softly.

"I am not death-wished in this matter!"

"And yet you quote Silvaríel?" Eledhril countered, raising a brow as he changed tacks. "Aragorn will never requite you, not even for so paltry a thing as pity, and you say you would not be mercied even so. Very well. But what then will you have? Nothing?" When Halbarad did not reply to that, Eledhril shook his head slowly. "Flesh is more weak than heart, and even heart is not certain of itself, save only in this: you are not an Elf, whom even the elements do not disturb, that is clear."

"Nay, but you are Thorondis's husband–"

"Aye, and I love her," Eledhril retorted, fiercely. "Never doubt it! But I have also loved you, and I cannot see you continue like this. If there were another, I would send you to him, but there is no one else. And is that not the very point that wounds, Aragorn aside? Halbarad, will you not turn from it, even if only for an hour?"

"Eledhril, stop this torment, I beg!" Halbarad protested wearily at last, flinching slightly as, without asking permission, Eledhril cupped his friend's cheek in his hand. But despite that, he did not retreat, which was why Eledhril, rather than let fall his hand, ran curved fingers slowly along Halbarad's bearded jawline. "Valar help me," the other muttered. In an unexpected reversal, Halbarad sighed then and raised his hands to take Eledhril's face gently between them. Bowing his head 'til their brows touched, he stood there, eyes closed for a long, breathless moment, ere he murmured, "Hear me for once, love, and only hear me. It was ever a relief to lie down with you, and be not a slave to need without want. And I loved to look up helpless at you–the only times I ever spent fearless on my back. No orcs, no pain, no doubts."

"Halbarad, I–"

"–gave me up long ago, for the one whose ring you wear. You gained a brother from a lover, and I let you kill me twice over to become that. I can endure no third time. Not after Aragorn. So stop. Stop this! Do not ask me back, not for my sake, for it cannot last, and can end only badly. For 'tis not one night I want, Eledhril–it never was."

Eledhril drew back then. There was finality in that voice, and there was surely no doubting the sincerity of that plea, despite the sense of quiet agony that tainted it. Yet when Halbarad met his searching regard, still, all the lovely shades of longing flickered there in those eyes, colored by guilt and loneliness, and Eledhril hesitated, torn. Shall I believe my ears or my eyes in this? And what of my heart, that fears still for him? There was one sure way to decide among his various conflicted parts, and so, steeling himself, he asked bluntly, "You would truly have this end now?"

"Yes, I would!"

"Then be hush and end it." And as if to smother any further words, he kissed him, suddenly and without mercy. Halbarad jerked back as if stung, but though he topped Eledhril in inches, Eledhril had grown to be the heavier of them since their boyhood days. He caught the other's biceps tightly in a bid to prevent him from withdrawing; Halbarad clutched at him in turn, shoving at him, and Eledhril reflexively pushed back, using his legs, not simply his arms. Halbarad made a noise of alarm, then gasped into Eledhril's mouth as, overbalanced, his back hit the door behind him with force enough to push it open and send them hurtling into the next room.

They ended heavily against the wall of Eledhril's bower, and not quietly either. Valar be praised there are none to hear it! Eledhril found time to think, as the door swung shut behind them. Even so, fear threaded his pulse, and desire as well, and a half dozen other feelings caught up and tangled in his breast, for there was now but one thought in his mind–that just as on that long ago day in the woods, something irrevocable was about to be decided. The ravaging kiss he forced on Halbarad demanded decision, now, and Eledhril found that he knew not whether he wanted his friend to respond or refuse.

Halbarad's fingers dug into his shoulders, resisting, and it seemed he would have none of it. But just ere Eledhril would have released him, Halbarad faltered. Of a sudden, his guard dropped, and Eledhril felt him surrender, felt him at last lean willingly into the kiss, felt him arch up against him as knees began to weaken. Just for a moment, perhaps, but Eledhril took ruthless advantage of it to deepen that kiss as his right hand thrust unerringly past Halbarad's waistband. That was it. Halbarad moaned softly, and Eledhril gasped, letting go briefly to flail for support as he was borne backwards by the other's sudden thrust away from the wall. Taking advantage of his unsteadiness, Halbarad shoved him down onto the bed with force enough to stun him momentarily, and in more than one way, for Halbarad was not usually so rough. But this is hardly usual, he thought, as his friend began to yank impatiently at laces and ties even as Eledhril picked more carefully at knots.

When they had wrestled each other out of their clothing, Eledhril found himself on his back, staring up at Halbarad. Dark hair hung down tousled in the other's face, and Eledhril reached up to push it behind his ears, then let his fingers slide down his face, throat, down his chest to tease at a nipple coyly ere he asked, "What do you want?"

The answer came back low and breathless, but uncompromising: "Everything." The kiss that followed was fierce, as Halbarad ran his hands down Eledhril's body in a familiar caress that left Eledhril aching. After a moment, Halbarad pulled back from the kiss, but only to follow the path he had already traced, tongue remarking all the scars that had not been there when last they had loved each other. No grief in those wet caresses, either–Halbarad was not Thorondis, to pity him those marks; pain had its purposes, and in bed it was a chance to draw pleasure from past pain that made the latter worthwhile. Halbarad had not forgotten that game, apparently, but nevertheless, he did not linger on it as he might have once. Eledhril tensed, squirming slightly as he bit his lip while Halbarad nipped kisses along his inner thighs, sometimes with more tooth than tenderness. But after a time, Halbarad tired of that, and turned his attention and tongue to other tasks that soon had Eledhril panting in earnest, arching up beneath him.

Aie, Halbarad! Eledhril whimpered softly, thinking hazily that in matters other than speech, his friend had a facile tongue indeed that had grown the more skilled with time. Flesh strained against feeling, and with a soft curse, Eledhril reached down to tangle his fingers restrainingly in the other's hair. "Hal," he managed, "enough!" The other stopped, though he drew off slowly, getting a strangled groan from Eledhril. The look he gave Eledhril was enough to melt the winter flow on the Hoarwell, as Halbarad slid carefully back up his lover's body to kiss him again–a long, luxurious exploration of his mouth with lips that tasted of Eledhril's own flesh ere Eledhril decided it really was enough. Grabbing at his lover's shoulders, Eledhril pulled him fast against him, then shifted his own weight, tumbling Halbarad onto his back. Kneeling then between Halbarad's legs, wobbling a bit for balance, Eledhril swallowed hard. Beneath the veil of dark lashes, Halbarad's eyes were black, pupils hugely dilated and rimmed with grey; his lips were swollen and that wicked tongue flicked out to lick at them briefly and oh so enticingly. "I have noth–" Eledhril started to say.

"We've done without before," Halbarad cut him off. Which was true enough, and Eledhril nodded once as Halbarad shut his eyes and braced himself. But if either had thought that a bit of discomfort might at least draw out their pleasure, then they had not reckoned on what desire long denied could work in them. Halbarad writhed beneath him, but not in pain, at least not after the first few thrusts. Clutching blindly at Eledhril, he drew his lover down... down... The abyss loomed suddenly large on the horizon, and Eledhril let himself fall at last...

It was not long afterwards that Eledhril, wonderfully, achingly weary, withdrew and managed to crawl up to lie at his lover's side, both of them panting raggedly, spent and exhausted. Halbarad turned toward him, curling up against him with his face buried against Eledhril's chest, seeming in that moment terribly vulnerable. Eledhril grunted in surprise that died swiftly; and just as swiftly, he enfolded him in his arms, burying his nose in Halbarad's hair, holding tight and fast against the world.

3–

Found Wanting

But the world would not remain outside the door, and as memory faded, Eledhril sighed, then pressed a kiss to the top of Halbarad's head, feeling his lover stir against him, hearing the sudden, sharp intake of breath, the little moan as the other shook off sleep. Eledhril dragged numbed fingers through coarse hair. "Hush," he murmured.

"'Ledhril," the other croaked, words sleep-slurred and muffled somewhat against Eledhril's chest. "Hour 's it?"

"Late afternoon. We fell asleep." At that, Halbarad cringed, and Eledhril bit his lip as he stroked the other's back soothingly.

His efforts were in vain, however, as Halbarad drew away, breaking free of his embrace to sit up. Grimacing slightly as blood began to flow back into his arm, Eledhril followed suit. A profound silence settled as they faced each other over naught but soiled sheets, and Eledhril found himself searching Halbarad's face, seeking he knew not what precisely but certain that he did not see it, whatever it might be. Halbarad, after a moment, lowered his eyes, and to Eledhril's surprise, he reached out and ran fingers gently up Eledhril's thigh. But his expression was dark, and Eledhril sucked in a breath as questing fingertips probed a sore spot. Halbarad cursed softly under his breath, after which there seemed little more to say.

Wordlessly, then, they rose, falling thoughtlessly into old habits. As Eledhril went first for the wash basin, Halbarad began collecting scattered clothing, piling Eledhril's to one side and his own to the other, careful to avoid the mess in the middle of the bed. Eledhril heard the chamber pot scrape against the floor, and sighed softly as he considered what excuses he might make for washing their sheets. At length, he surrendered his place to Halbarad, and climbed back into his clothes. Mayhap if he claimed he had wanted to be rid of the scent of retting, as those clothes remained still in the basket, though he had not as yet complained...

When at last, both had dressed, they stood and faced each other as they had many a time before and tugged at each other's collars or belts, adjusted the hang of tunics, and neatened errant strands of hair. And when they had done, still it seemed they mirrored each other, neither able to muster aught of expression, though they needed none to know what turmoil lurked behind their masks. Finally, though, Halbarad broke the leaden silence. "Best you see to the sheets while there is still daylight," he said.

"Aye. Thankfully, Thorondis should not return for a time still, or mayhap not at all tonight."

"Mm." They stared at each other a moment longer, guilt thick as glass between them, and then Halbarad turned to leave. But just as he reached the door, Eledhril called quietly to him.

"Halbarad."

"Yes?" The other paused, not quite glancing back over his shoulder.

A dozen things chased themselves through Eledhril's mind, but in the end, he said only, "This was not mercy."

Halbarad hesitated. His lips parted slightly, and for a moment, he seemed on the verge of speaking. But in the end, he said naught, only nodded, once and sharply, and then left quickly, shutting the door behind him.

Afterwards, Eledhril stood there leaning against the bed, waiting until all was quiet without and listening to the mocking voice of conscience that whispered: In the bed you made, in the bed you made... you know what you must do. Aye, he knew, and cursing long and bitterly, Eledhril began stripping the bedsheets.

Smoke curled upwards from the pipebowl, and Halbarad watched it rise. Breathing deeply, he then sent a stream of it chasing through recoiling tendrils, letting his thoughts drift whither they would. He had gone on another walk that evening. Had anyone seen him, they would have thought he had gone hunting roe deer. But his quarry, while not so swift as the deer, had still required a cautious approach. Unbeknownst to Eledhril, he had trailed after him to the river, there to keep watch while Eledhril had scrubbed not only his sheets, but the children's and seen to the laundry in general. None had disturbed him or even ventured near, which was a relief. Most were hovering even now about either Narwen or her husband, waiting for news, and so Eledhril had completed his errand and returned largely unheeded by any but the gate watch. If only Thorondis found nothing to rouse her suspicions, he and Eledhril might never be questioned.

I should be glad of that, Halbarad thought, staring at the smoke, seeing in its writhing the unconscious imitation of the dance of lovers. Eledhril was a canny soul; he might well manage to cover up–literally–all evidence, and both of them were painfully good actors at need before all others. He ought to be glad, he ought to be grateful that he might well escape the fate meted out to adulterers. He ought, he reflected with bitter irony, to be many things–a husband, a father, an honest man (or no more dishonest than any other Ranger), faithful before the law and the eyes of all men–but 'ought' had never ruled his life so thoroughly as the simple fact of his desires. Certainly, 'ought' had not ruled him today.

Eledhril thought to turn me from Aragorn, and mayhap he has succeeded, he brooded. Ill deeds taint their object, and so perhaps a kiss from Aragorn would taste as ashes in my mouth. Then again, it might not, and Halbarad leaned his head in his hands, cursing his own stupidity and weakness in this affair. For tainted or no, Eledhril's mouth tastes as sweet to me as ever, and I would not now surrender him! Indeed, there was a part of him that would guard against Thorondis's discovery of those bruises not out of fear so much as out of sheer jealousy. They were his marks, his 'ring', the seal that he had laid claim to Eledhril, and he did not wish now to relinquish that claim.

Curse it all, better if it had been five minutes in a corner and a kiss farewell, Halbarad thought, angrily. Better, for if that had been all that Eledhril had been able to give, then it would truly have meant nothing, and that might well have killed desire. For though he might accept such from others in a moment of weakness, pride and memory could not have borne it from Eledhril. But whatever else he might be, Eledhril was more honest than not. "It would not be mercy,"he had promised. And it was not, love, Halbarad thought, and sighed. And still there is Aragorn...

A soft rap on the door just then startled him, for he had expected no one save perhaps his sister and mother, if Narwen's babe were delivered that night. But Dírlas and Marweth would have no need to beg entry to their own home. Uneasily he stared, half hoping that the other would leave, but his unseen guest knocked again, and more insistently. It might be one of the watch, come to tell of some troubling sighting, he reminded himself. Whatever he felt, for the moment he had still duty, and so, setting the pipe down in its holder on the table, he rose to go and answer the summons. However, it was not a guard who stood there in the doorway. A cold, hard knot of dread settled in his stomach, but in the end, it was resignation, not surprise that filled the hollow of his chest.

For Aragorn it was who stood upon the threshold, manifestly unhappy, and there was naught of friendship in the other's eyes or bearing. Tonight, he was the Chieftain of the Dúnedain, Lord of the Angle, Captain of the Rangers, Isildur's Heir, and the authority of the fistful of other titles with which he was invested hung like a mantle about him. There could be but one purpose for his coming. It seems I have not escaped in the end at all, Halbarad thought numbly, and wondered whether Eledhril had survived the revelation. Or was that foolish? Eledhril, after all, was Thorondis's husband, and she would surely wish to keep what was hers. He, on the other hand...

Barely had he made way than Aragorn brushed past him, with a terse "Bar the door" for greeting. At least that gave him an excuse to turn away, a chance to collect himself and Halbarad took it. Settling the beam in its brackets, he stood there, gripping it tightly as in his mind's eye, the line of faces stretched out–all the young men he had taken to task in Aragorn's stead over the years for lesser crimes than this. Tradition had it that a lad should always look his captain in the eye if he would not be a coward or a child, and he had always demanded such of any man facing judgment. Unwilling to add hypocrisy to the list of his failings, Halbarad therefore gathered the shreds of his dignity and turned to face Aragorn.

Aragorn, however, stood staring into the fire laid in the hearth, arms folded across his chest, seeming quite unconcerned with any effort on Halbarad's part at propriety. That cut, and Halbarad winced inwardly as, without so much as glancing at him, Aragorn ordered sharply, "Approach."

When he had done so, Aragorn at last turned and looked him coolly up and down, yet still without meeting Halbarad's eyes. The knot in his stomach became nausea, and Halbarad swallowed hard against it. Have I fallen so far in his esteem? To which conscience sneered: Need you ask? Of course he had; he could scarcely fall further, short of murder or betrayal. Of course Aragorn would be disgusted by him, would not wish to dignify him with even the respect one owed from one man to another, captain to erring commander–after all, even the newest starred Ranger knew not to lay a hand on one married, and especially never to accept a touch from such a one if there were aught to suggest affection in it.

Aragorn clasped his hands behind his back then, as he stepped in uncomfortably close, making Halbarad's skin crawl. "I will not repeat all that I have heard tonight of you and Eledhril, nor do I wish to hear your excuse for betraying a woman who has been as your sister for nearly as many years as we have known each other," he said, in a clipped tone of voice, and Halbarad cringed inwardly. "I do wish an answer, however, lieutenant. I wish to know how it is that I chose so unwisely when I trusted you to keep discipline here and elsewhere in my stead, for clearly you will not even master yourself. Can you explain that singular failure of judgment to me?"

"No, sir."

"Could I have been deceived as to your honesty?"

"No, sir."

"You have not done this before?"

"No, sir." Aragorn grunted at that, as if surprised, and Halbarad fought to prevent a wince from breaking through the blank-faced mask he wore.

"I hope, then, that you did not presume to think that friendship would make me overlook this?"

"No, sir."

"Then did you forget the penalties for bringing the Road back to the Angle to break a marriage?"

"No, sir."

"What should I do with you, then, if you know them so well?"

A Ranger could be cast out of that company and confined to the Angle, there to endure the shame and scorn of all, denied the dignity of a trade and forced to do work as if a lifelong apprentice. Modig's thin, hopeless face flashed before his eyes, and Halbarad tasted bile on his tongue. No... Which left only the other choice, for discipline was harsh in the North, which had neither the patience for nor the luxury of extravagant variation.

"You should ask me to take a walk with you, Captain." A long walk, away from the sight of all others save the necessary witnesses, whence only Aragorn and those witnesses would return.

"And do you believe that you could stand against me?" For it was tradition to give the condemned one chance to defend himself–it was a doomed enterprise from the start, but there was a certain comfort to be taken in the idea of dying on one's feet as opposed to one's knees.

"No, sir."

"But you wish to?"

That was not a question he had expected, and Halbarad blinked, momentarily at a loss, though the answer was hardly one in need of careful consideration. But Aragorn's expression betrayed nothing of his expectations, and so Halbarad said only, "No."

That caught Aragorn's attention, and Halbarad found himself lanced by the other's regard. "No?" Halbarad opened his mouth to speak, but for some reason, it seemed the words would not come, and so he simply shook his head.

Aragorn stared at him, eyes narrowing slightly, as if in surprise. At last, however, Aragorn grunted softly and looked away, and as he did so, his whole demeanor changed. There was frustration rather than outrage in the tight set of his jaw as he let a breath hiss out through his teeth, and something akin to disappointment seemed to drape him, much to Halbarad's confusion.

"I would have preferred to hear, 'yes,'" he said gruffly.

"Then, if you wish it, 'yes.'"

At that, Aragorn shook his head in irritation. "Stand easy." And when Halbarad hesitated, the other snapped, "I said, stand easy!" Which made it rather difficult to do so, but Halbarad attempted it. Aragorn rubbed a finger just over his brow, as if in some perplexity, or perhaps even a certain discomfort, then sighed softly as he folded his arms across his chest once more. After a time, he began again: "When I spoke with Eledhril–"

"Will he be confined here?" Halbarad broke in, needing to know.

"No." So he would take that walk as well... "He will stand watch tonight, and for the next two following it. On the third day, he will leave with a company bound for Bree."

"What?" Aragorn merely raised a brow at his uncomprehending expression. "But Thorondis–" Halbarad protested, and then paused suddenly. Thorondis was not a woman to suffer another to wrong her, and certainly she would not trust Eledhril beyond the walls of the Angle if she knew... If she knew... which can mean only... Understanding dawned suddenly, and Aragorn smiled humorlessly to see it.

"Aye, it was Eledhril who betrayed you both in a fit of conscience. Or perhaps it was concern that he would not be able to hide the... 'evidence'... you left with him. Whatever his reasons, the affair is now in my hands." Halbarad stared at him for a long moment, and without quite knowing how, found himself suddenly leaning against the table. She does not know. It was Eledhril... The floorboards creaked.Shaking his head sharply to clear his mind, Halbarad glanced up to see Aragorn once more standing close before him, expression unreadable.

"You will not tell her?" A shake of the head, as Halbarad struggled with his own incredulity. "Why? 'Tis no question of discernment, but a simple confession. We deserve–"

"Oh aye," Aragorn agreed, cutting him off. "You deserve every moment of agony that comes of this. You have earned no less. It would be mercy to ask you to take that walk with me tonight. It would be only just to denounce you in the square before all, and allow the town its scorn. You deserve both, and not in that order." There was no uncertainty in that pronouncement, and Halbarad felt sick all over again in the face of such complete condemnation from Aragorn.

"Then why will you not do as the law commands?" he asked.

"Why, indeed," Aragorn sighed, and suddenly there was that discomfort again as he looked away, seeming to consider his words. After a moment, he said quietly, "Eledhril was quite eloquent in his defense of you." A pause, then: "Often mistaken, and more passionate than reasonable, but eloquent. And in one thing he was undoubtedly correct: were it not for me, this would not have happened. Ah!" A raised hand forestalled Halbarad ere he could do more than open his mouth to reply. "He is correct, if perhaps not in the way that he meant it.

"For although I would have preferred that you or he had spoken sooner of this to me, I also saw you go step by step down that path, from the Angle to Aescing, and from Aescing to Eledhril's arms. As your friend, I had wanted to trust you, and I did; but as your captain, I had no right to trust you, for I cannot risk losing any who can serve so well. Yet the captain who judges and the friend who would remain silent are not separate in me–thus I ought to slay you without heat, as justice requires, but friendship demands a quarrel, and admittedly is wroth that you will not give me one." He paused a moment while Halbarad digested that, then concluded, "And so Eledhril is right in the main, if wrong in the matter when he claims that I am not without blame in this affair. Had I been more your captain than your friend, this would not have happened, for you would have had the breadth of Eriador between the two of you. Rest assured, it shall be so in the future."

"Distance shall change nothing of my affections," Halbarad replied softly.

"I know," Aragorn said, and looked him squarely in the eyes then, 'til Halbarad could not bear it and bowed his head. There followed an uncomfortable silence, 'til at last, Aragorn asked quietly, "I trust that I shall not need to speak of this matter, or any like it, again?"

"No, sir."

"You understand that if Thorondis or any other should, despite my efforts, discover what you and Eledhril have done, then the sentence falls?"

"I do."

"And do you wish it to fall?" Aragorn asked, pinning Halbarad with his stare.

Do I wish it? Did he wish to take that walk in the woods and leave Aragorn to deliver his star to his mother and sister afterwards, to say nothing of telling Eledhril? His own words came back to him then: I am not death-wished in this matter! "No. No, I do not."

"Good," Aragorn replied, softly, seeming relieved, and laid a hand on Halbarad's shoulder, as if by way of comfort or encouragement. "Then I shall expect to see you early tomorrow."

"Aye." And on impulse, just as Aragorn made as if to leave, Halbarad reached up quickly and covered that hand with one of his own. Close as they were, Halbarad could very easily have laid his head on Aragorn's shoulder, and nerves tingled as he closed his eyes against sudden and nearly suffocating, grieving desire. I suppose now I know whether Eledhril succeeded or not! There was nothing to say–or else there was too much, and as ever, the words caught in his throat ere ever they reached his mouth.

After a time, he felt Aragorn's hand on his shoulder tighten, kneading gently, ere the other murmured, "I am sorry, Halbarad." Halbarad nodded then, loosening his grip, and after a brief hesitation, he felt Aragorn's fingers slip through his. He counted footsteps to the door, listened as wood scraped... "Good night," Aragorn said quietly, then the door shut behind him and he was gone. Folding his arms across his chest convulsively, Halbarad breathed in deeply, trying to settle himself. But he could not, and after awhile, he abandoned the effort.

With a sigh, he took up the pipe again, but rather than bringing it to his lips, he simply turned it about in his hands restlessly, thinking. Of Thorondis. Of Eledhril. Of Aragorn and (reluctantly) of Arwen. Of silver stars and the men who wore them. Of the children he would never have. Of Modig. I am sorry, Halbarad, Aragorn had said. It would have been disingenuous to ask for what: 'What do you want?' Eledhril had asked him, awaiting an answer already known to Aragorn: Everything. And I said I would not have another's mercy, nor charity, he reminded himself. It would be a long road ere he earned that apology, and though he had to believe that he was equal to the task of walking it, tonight he did not have it in him to face it. Mayhap he would not have it tomorrow or the next day, or next year, but there was little point in looking so far ahead. Look to tomorrow, he told himself, as he emptied his pipe into the hearth, then set it back in its holder. Look to tomorrow, for that shall be task enough for you.

With that in mind, a very weary Halbarad went to bed.