Disclaimer: I don't own anything. Everything is just a figment of my sick imagination.

Author's note: I feel so incredibly guilty. I can't believe I haven't updated for over a year. For anyone still reading this story, here is the next update. There will be lots of angst and misunderstandings from this point on. Hope you'll like it )

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Chapter Three:

On the throne, the King of Rohan sat, tall and proud, as he deliberated the fate of his Kingdom. A messenger had arrived this evening, bearing ill news. Since the fall of the Fort of Isen, Wildmen and Uruks had been moving through the Gap of Rohan, burning and destroying the countryside at will. Displaced villagers had sought refuge in the hills; but they feared that if Saruman's malice continued to go unchallenged, even the precarious terrain of the mountains would not keep them safe for much longer. They needed the aid of those well versed in war.

To the King's right was Mithrandir who had taken over the duties of Royal Advisor in place of the treacherous Wormtongue. Aragorn, Gimli and Èomer sat at one of the Golden Hall's sculpted wooden tables, smoking their pipes pensively as they listened to the messenger's account. Legolas stood quietly behind his beloved, the smell of pipe-weed offending his delicate senses, barring him from joining the seated warriors. He hated it, watching on the sidelines as the friendship between his lover and Èomer slowly blossomed. He knew the Ranger did not share the Rohirrim's romantic inclinations; but he could not help feeling insecure, knowing he would soon have to leave Aragorn alone with the other Man.

Truth be told, the Prince was tempted to leave the council meeting. He no longer wished to see Èomer leaning closer to his beloved by the second when there was nothing he could do to stop it. Besides, he was too preoccupied with finding a feasible excuse for his impending fight with Aragorn to pay attention to the matters of state. His presence here was superfluous; his time would be better spent preparing for his imminent 'departure'.

Though distracted, the Elf noticed the silence that had descended the Golden Hall as the messenger finished his tale. Half-heartedly, he watched Mithrandir leaned close to his old friend and advised, "Ride out and meet them head on. You must fight."

Thèoden's next words, however, caught the Golden Prince's full attention. "I know what it is you want of me. I cannot bring further death to my people. I will not risk open war."

Legolas recognized the look of suspicion in the Rohirrim's eyes; Thèoden did not trust the White Wizard. It was understandable, considering the betrayal he had suffered at his former advisor's hands. It would be a long time before the King would fully trust another's counsel again. While the Golden Elf sympathized with Thèoden completely, he was beginning to wonder if this meeting would provide the perfect stage for his fight with Aragorn.

"Open war is upon you, whether you risk it or not." The Prince frowned at his beloved's critical remark; he feared that the proud Thèoden would take it as an insult to his authority.

Rising from his throne, the Rohirrim took a menacing step towards the Ranger and replied, "The last I checked, Thèoden, not Aragorn is King of Rohan."

When the Elf saw his beloved cringe at the barb, considerations for diplomacy vanished from his mind as protective instincts took over. If there was one thing he could not abide by, it was others belittling his precious Estel. The Ranger already had an exaggeratedly low opinion of himself; he did not need another 'reason' to doubt his own worth. "And may I ask what the King has done lately, other than sitting helpless on the throne, bewitched, a puppet of the one whose wish is to destroy his people?"

All eyes turned to stare at the Golden Prince. None could believe the reserved beauty was capable of such venom. Aragorn knew his beloved was indignant on his behalf; but the Elf was beauty and wisdom personified, the Star of Earendil reborn. Legolas had to know that their only hope of prevailing against the forces of darkness was to stand together. They needed Thèoden's trust. Kneeling at the King's feet in a gesture of humility, the Dunédain quickly apologized, "Please forgive Legolas. He…"

As his wrath subsided, Legolas realized, that unwittingly, he had set his plan into motion. Perhaps, if he pushed the King far enough, the Rohirrim would banish him from the court. This way, he could leave his beloved's side without risking the inevitable heartbreak that would follow an argument over personal matters.

Keeping his expression neutral, Legolas moved to guide the Ranger to his feet; it was time to fuel the flames of discord. "No, Aragorn, do not apologize. I only pointed out the truth; there is nothing to forgive."

Blazing azure eyes held Thèoden captive as the Golden Elf continued, "We came here to give Rohan a worthy leader again. We freed the King from Saruman's grasps; yet, he will do nothing to protect his lands. Who will fight for the people, if not their King?"

"Legolas, that is enough!" warned Aragorn in a quiet authoritative tone. He did not wish to speak so harshly to his beloved; but he had to stop Legolas before they lost all hope of salvaging the alliance with Thèoden.

"I will not apologize for defending you," replied the Prince as he turned to lock gazes with his human lover once more. Through their shared bond, he silently added, "I love you too much for that."

The Golden Elf's declaration warmed Aragorn's heart to the core. He did not deserve the Prince's love; yet love him Legolas did. If he were a simple Man, he would fall to his knees and thank the Valar for this wondrous gift. But Aragorn was not a simple Man; he was the heir to the throne of Gondor. All his life, he had been groomed to take up the mantle of his forefathers, to unite the World of Men against the Dark Lord. He knew that love had no place on the battlefields. Considering the Elf's powers and perchance to overreact, Legolas' unyielding devotion was a liability in their upcoming battle.

Though Aragorn did not believe himself worthy of carrying the title of the Hope of Men, he would not consider his heart's desires before the needs of Middle Earth. He would not be weak like Isildur. Even if he risked hurting his beloved, he could not allow the Prince continue making enemies in his defense. "Legolas, now is not the time to let feelings guide us. Do not force me to choose between my allegiance to Thèoden King and our friendship."

Legolas' eyes widened in shock as his lover's words precipitated in his mind. Aragorn spoke of their love as if it were nothing more than a bartering tool, leverage to secure his co-operation. He knew the Breaking of the Fellowship was a heavy blow to the Ranger; Aragorn feared their love would not survive the trials ahead. But how could the Man treat their bond as a relationship of convenience after what they had endured to finally be together?

The Elf was not naïve. He understood that Men did not love as his people did. Mortal love was complicated and fickle; and though his powers had made his chosen lover immortal, Aragorn would always remain a Human at heart. He knew he was not guaranteed a place in the Man's future despite the bonding ceremony; knew he could still lose his true mate and die of a broken heart. But it was only two months ago that Aragorn's love for him broke Saurous' curse. Not even in his most pessimistic moment had he thought the Ranger would withdraw his affections so readily, threaten to abandon him so soon.

Legolas felt the rush of tears threatening to flow as his heart shattered. A chill permeated every fiber of his being; grief was overtaking him. But as Aragorn had said, "now was not the time to let feelings guide him"; he had to fight this pain. He could not fade before the threat of Isengard and Mordor was neutralized. There could be no peace for him until Aragorn was safely on the throne of Gondor.

The Prince had ample experience combating grief. Thrice before, he had managed to stop his bleeding heart from sapping his strength. He could only hope that this time would be no different. His powers were already diminished from the passing of his Light to Aragorn; he would need all of his strength if he were to protect his beloved from the cunning Fallen Istar who covert the principal forge of the One Ring for his own.

Through veiled eyes that betrayed none of the agony consuming him, Legolas held his beloved's steely gaze and whispered, "My feelings guided me here, Estel mela nîn (my love); but now I see that my place is with my own kind." Reverently, he removed the chain that had held Aragorn's ring close to his heart for the past weeks. "I believe this belongs to you."

Aragorn stood paralyzed as his beloved took his hand and placed the token of his love upon his callous palm. He could feel the Elf's warm presence withdrawing from his mind; Legolas was leaving him. He knew hiscallous wordshad hurt his beloved more than the golden beauty was willing to admit. He could understand if this offense had finally made the Prince realize his unworthiness, prompted the shining Elf to abandon himto find someone better to love. But he also knew Legolas would not call him "Estel mela nîn" lightly; he was certain that, at this moment, he still held the Prince's heart. Why would his beloved leave him now, when love binds them still? It simply did not make sense!

'This could not be real,' the Ranger's heart screamed in denial, as he stood transfixed, watching his beloved turn away from him. 'This had to be just a bad dream.'

Aragorn watched with growing horror as his beloved curtly addressed the King, "I believe I have overstayed my welcome. Farewell, Thèoden King, may the Grace of the Valar be with you and your people." With a slight bow of his golden head, Legolas walked away, leaving behind a forlorn Man bereft of his Shadow.

-

As he watched the doors of the Golden Hall slammed shut behind Legolas' retreating form, Gandalf wondered if the millennia of living as 'Shadow' had driven the Golden Elf slightly mad. He was certain the Prince knew the importance of this council meeting; yet the Elf had blithely used it as a stage for his charade to remedy the situation with Aragorn. While that could be attributed to Legolas' strange brand of logic, the Wizard was sure that, in his right mind, the Star of Earendil reborn would not have marched off without resolving the turmoil his scheme had created.

Gandalf cast a glance at Aragorn who continued to stare entranced at the closed door. It was clear the Man needed time to cope with the Prince's 'departure'. The responsibility of clearing up this mess had fallen entirely onto him. With a sigh, the Wizard rose from his seat to stand beside Thèoden. He could only hope their long-standing friendship would help in his task of easing the King's indignation. They would need Rohan's allegiance before the end. "My Lord…"

Thèoden held up his hand for silence; he had no interest in hearing the White Wizard's pleas. Legolas' words had insulted his formidable pride; part of him would have taken great pleasure in punishing the insolent Elf. Yet, in his heart, he could not help but be touched by the Prince's steadfast devotion to the Ranger.

Recent experiences had left Thèoden disillusioned. He doubted if true loyalty exists, wondered if all bonds would eventually unravel to a tangled web of deceit and self-serving interests. But seeing the Golden Elf defend Aragorn with such brutal honesty had given him renewed faith in the loyalty among friends. Perhaps, in time, he could find someone worthy of trust again.

At the moment, however, the grief from Wormtongue's treachery was still too new. Thèoden could not bring himself to follow his ally's counsel; he would do what he felt was best for his people. "Edoras is not safe. We cannot defend the city if Saruman's hordes attack. We will go to Helm's Deep; there we will decide how best to answer the threat of Isengard."

While the King's decision was far from what he had hoped for, the wise Istar knew objections would fall to deaf ears. Thèoden had a strong will; the Rohirrim was more likely take offense at his counsel than heed it. As things were, Gandalf was grateful that the Prince's harsh criticism had not made them unwelcome in the King's Hall. He had no choice but to accept Thèoden's choice without further comment. With a long-suffering sigh, the White Wizard took his leave. Dragging the still-dazed Hope of Men behind him, he set off to make plans of his own to ensure the survival of Rohan.