Well, the last chapter is here, and it's the longest yet. I hope you'll forgive me for rambling on a bit, and also for the occasional paraphrasing of the original, as part of this scene is actually described in the book. I hope you enjoy it.

* * *

A pleasant afternoon for a gentle stroll was Gandalf's evasive reply to Aragorn's rather insistent demands to know where they were going. He has become very . . . commanding . . . since ascending to the throne, the wizard mused irritably as he observed his companion's tight expression. Well, I suppose that is not such a bad trait in a ruler, he allowed, if only he did not practise it on me.

But Aragorn knew Gandalf well and had ceased to ask several hours ago, having learned first hand that when the wizard did not wish to answer a question he could ignore it indefinitely. They had been walking in silence for some time now, old friends used to travelling in each other's company, yet this was not quite the same silence as of old. There was a tension between them that made the quiet oppressive rather than companionable, and Gandalf found himself giving into nostalgia - not an emotion he usually indulged in. As he looked at the grown man beside him he remembered with fondness the youth he'd met so long ago, little more than a boy really, a young ranger on his first outing into the wilds alone. For years he had watched Estel from afar as he rode out with his foster brothers, but the wizard had never intruded on their company, understanding that for the elves, though they held great love and respect for him, his presence would be a bitter reminder of the future they strove so hard to deny. And so, when Aragorn departed Rivendell and his family amid the turmoil of many revelations, Gandalf engineered a chance meeting with the man, unwilling to allow Isildur's Heir to go unguarded through this first real test of his strength.

They became good friends, this unlikely pair, though unlikely were all Gandalf's affairs and acquaintances, and whole seasons they spent together on their travels, roaming far across Middle Earth. Even back then Aragorn had been a troubled man, burdened by the weight of discovering his true identity - the past failures of his line and the uncertainty of his future - not to mention the awakening emotions Arwen had roused in him, yet he had always been merry and open, and full of mischief unrivalled since the sons of Elrond in the years before Celebrian's departure for the West. But as the years passed, and the young man grew older, he changed. He travelled more often alone into dark places and great dangers, shunning the company of the rangers and his family for years at a time and only meeting with Arwen again in Lothlorien had lightened his grim countenance and the worried hearts of his friends.

But Arwen's love, so long desired, had brought its own griefs to the solitary ranger. Against his father's express command he had accepted Arwen's pledge at Cerin Amroth and the resulting fallout had damaged the relationship between father and son, driving Aragorn further from the support of his family and deeper into despairing solitude. Gandalf had long been aware of the growing distance between Elrond and his fosterling but it was neither his place nor inclination to interfere in the matter. Aragorn had never spoken of it to him and the wizard knew him well enough to allow him the privacy he so obviously desired. Others had not possessed such patience, two rascal elven twins in particular, and they had received short shrift for their trouble. The way Glorfindel told it, they had never looked so discomforted when Aragorn told them in no uncertain terms that he did not appreciate their meddling.

Well, Elrond and Aragorn might have resolved their differences but Gandalf could feel an argument of his own with the Elf-lord coming on. He will have my hide for this, he thought, looking sideways at his companion, studying him closely without appearing to. Aragorn's posture was stiff and forced. His efforts to hide his discomfort might have succeeded in less observant company, but the old wizard had known this man a long time, and through many trials. The slight tightening around the eyes and casual bracing of his side as he climbed fairly shouted his pain to those who knew what to look for.

Halting for a moment, hands resting lightly on his knees, Gandalf allowed the King of Gondor a moment to recover without forcing him to ask. Regretting his decision to make this journey now, his gaze travelled up the slopes of the mountain, attempting to gauge the difficulty of their path. Feeling a movement behind he turned to find Aragorn perched awkwardly on a rock, staring out over the city far below. On the verge of suggesting they turn back Gandalf heard him sigh, and the curious mixture of love and despair in his eyes gave the wizard pause. No, this is right, he corrected himself. He needs to know that this is where he belongs. Surely Elrond will understand.

Gandalf sighed. Elrond. There was another who worried him. It was his encounter with the Elf-lord that morning that had caused them to be here, and he could not remember ever having seen him so unsettled. Not that his agitation had been apparent on his face - for he always retained his outward calm - but Gandalf had known the Lord of Imladris for centuries, long enough that from him Elrond could never completely hide his feelings. And it was a testament to just how distressed he had been that the wizard had managed to draw from him the details of his talk with Aragorn.

Already alerted to the fact that something was amiss by the fact that the king had not been seen since the return of the army to Minas Tirith, and Faramir's tight-lipped silence, Elrond's story had alarmed him enough to seek out Aragorn for himself. Among the wise of Middle Earth he might be, but even wizards were fallible, and it was with sincere regret that Gandalf realised that the conflict he'd observed in the new king had brought him to such a low; regret that he had not revealed his secret before. But he'd wished to save this moment until the last of Sauron's minions had been driven from Gondor, unwilling to proclaim the final proof of the return of a dynasty while its figurehead, and only true heir, could still be slain in the war to free his lands.

'Why have we come here, Gandalf?' Aragorn asked suddenly, watching him with a curious frown.

The wizard started, realising that their brief rest had already stretched into several long minutes. He smiled, hitching up his robes as he pressed his staff firmly into the ground, preparing to move on. 'Oh, we are not there yet,' he replied, inclining his head once more towards the summit of Mount Mindolluin. 'And if you wish to return in time for the feast we had better get going.'

Aragorn grimaced at the unwelcome reminder of one of his least favourite kingly duties and pushed himself to his feet. 'It was not I who stopped to admire the view,' he pointed out mildly as he began to climb. 'And you have not yet answered my question. Why here?'

Gandalf grunted and didn't reply, turning his attention once more to the trail. After a pause he felt Aragorn swallow his irritation and do likewise. At least he has not abandoned patience entirely, the wizard thought. For that is an indispensable virtue in a king.

As the path levelled out, winding between the great rocks to the ancient hallow of the kings, Aragorn stumbled over a jagged stone and pulled up sharply. Gandalf turned on the track, watching with narrowed eyes as his friend straightened slowly, one hand pressed tight against his side. It was hard to pick out any fresh blood on a tunic already rusty with drying stains, but the red tint to his finger's told their own tale.

Striding swiftly back down the path to offer his assistance, cursing his own foolishness and dreading Elrond's lecture, Gandalf was brought up short by the trapped and angry look on the king's face that told him clearly to stay back.

'Peace, Aragorn,' he said gently. 'Your enemies are all defeated; you have only friends here. Though Master Elrond does not take kindly to those who undo his good work, and unless he has learned greater tolerance both you and I will be feeling the rough side of his tongue if I return you in this state.' He stopped, as Aragorn's frown transformed into a far more familiar look. Gandalf smiled. 'I will not fuss, my friend,' he assured him. 'I only wish to help you, as I have done before. Will you let me?'

'I may not like to be fussed over, but that does not mean I would refuse your help did I need it,' the king snapped tiredly, conveniently forgetting his actions towards his brothers in the days just gone.

'That you do not need it is no reason I should not give it,' the wizard corrected mildly, a note of amusement in his voice. 'There is no one to see us here, King Elessar. Your reputation will remain in tact.'

A spasm of anger crossed Aragorn's face for an instant, then the tension seemed to drain out of him and he eased himself down to sit on a rock. 'In which case, Mithrandir, I will gladly accept your aid, though my need is slight. Between my father and my brothers, I have been well cared for.'

Gandalf grunted, joints creaking as he lowered himself to his knees to better tend to his patient. 'That is not quite the way I heard it,' he commented at last, and felt the muscles under his fingers tense. 'Oh yes, my boy, I have spoken with Master Elrond, and he told me of your uncomfortable night.' Looking up into a troubled pair of grey eyes, he shook his head slowly and asked, 'What happened, Aragorn? It is not like you to be so careless.'

Aragorn laughed softly, running a hand through his unruly, tangled hair. 'Careless? If you wish to provoke me you'll have to do better than an accusation I have long since tired of hearing. I would guess you have been speaking with my brothers, for that is just such a word as Elladan would use.'

'Aye, your brothers and Legolas also. And they are only worried about you so you need not be angry with them,' he added hastily as he saw Aragorn's face darken with displeasure. 'So tell me, is it the right word? Were you careless?'

'How would they know?' the king replied with a fond smile. 'They are elves. They are never careless, though they seem convinced we mortals are forever plagued by this fault.'

Gandalf laughed. 'Yet some of their own traits have worn off on you, I see, for you are still avoiding my question. What happened?'

Aragorn stirred restlessly, peering down to watch the wizard at work as he rebandaged the wound with practised skill. He was silent so long that Gandalf feared he would refuse to answer, and felt something in himself mourn for the apparent loss of trust between them. Yet after a while Aragorn shook himself from his reverie, and the unhappy bent of his thoughts was clear as he spoke. 'War happened. Always war. Men marched and fought and died for me.'

'Not just for you, but for Gondor also,' Gandalf replied quickly, looking up and holding his gaze. 'You cannot claim all the credit, nor take all the blame.'

'They were still my men,' Aragorn countered, uncomfortable under the wizard's penetrating gaze. 'They still died because I sent them into battle. A whole army, Gandalf! Thousands of men who go to war at my orders, who are sworn to protect me. Who am I to command their life and death?'

'You are their king, a king who has finally returned to them after centuries of waiting. Why should they not fight - and yes, die - for their rightful king? A man who fought for years in secret to keep them safe. If not for you, and others like you, this land of Gondor would have fallen under the shadow and yoke of Mordor. They know this.'

Aragorn shook his head, his face weary with pain, wincing as the wizard tied off the linen and lowered his shirt. 'Perhaps, but kingship brings such responsibility, such dizzying power. Whole armies . . .such a power is easily abused.'

'But not by you, Aragorn.' Gandalf rose to his feet, placing his hands on his friend's shoulders. 'I know you too well. Such abuse as that is not in you or you would have succumbed to the power of the ring long before this day. Were you that man, Gondor would be a dead land, and all her people forgotten. You will neither abuse nor neglect your trust. You will be a good king.'

But Aragorn did not reply, and the wizard sighed. He had not believed the man's doubts would run this deep. 'Do you think I have not noticed your suffering,' he asked gently. 'This has not been easy for you, and nor should it have been. The man who did not doubt as you do would not be fit to sit on your throne, but neither is he who cannot get past those doubts. Have a care Aragorn, that you do not let your doubts become those of your people also, or you may find that you can still lose all that you fought so hard to win. And I would not like to see that happen,' he continued, a smile breaking the gravity of his face as he gave a comforting squeeze to the shoulder under his hand. 'For I am glad you have finally returned home.'

Aragorn turned away, breaking the wizard's hold, and stared out at his city once more. 'So you say,' he murmured, gazing sadly at the White Tower. 'So everyone tells me, and so I hope in my heart. But soon you will leave, my father and the elves will leave, and I will be without your counsel that I sorely need. And the Tree in the Court of the Fountain stands withered still and there is no more life in it. If I am the rightful king, the true king, when will I see a sign? For if I do not, I will always doubt.'

'Then look outwards not inwards,' Gandalf commanded, leaning on his staff. 'Turn your eyes from your city where all is green and full of life. Look where it is barren and cold and behold the other seed that has come to fruition in the long years of your trials.' And he stood aside so Aragorn could see past him into the hallow where he had not yet looked, and there he saw the youthful growth of the silver sapling, a small cluster of flowers sparkling in the sun's light reflected by the snow. 'There is your sign. You need doubt no longer that the true king of Gondor has returned.'

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Aragorn didn't move at once. His face was frozen in an expression of wonder, happiness and utter desolation. As he stared at the youthful sapling he read his own future, one that was both feared and longed for, but as he felt the last barriers inside himself crumble at this final proof of his destiny he also perceived his last escape route slam shut behind him with such force that he imagined the ground trembled beneath his feet.

This was the moment. All others had simply been building up to this. Forcing back the thoughts he knew were unworthy of him Aragorn allowed the sight of the silver tree to unlock that place within him that even Arwen had been unable to reach, the part of him that was born to be king. For so many years visions of this moment had invaded his dreams, tantalising him with its promise, and it was only now, in the fulfilment of that vision, that he realised how deeply the lack of it had tormented him in the months since he had ascended the throne. This was the final seal on his victory, and the absence of it had felt like a rejection of his kingship. Yet all that time and longer the tree had been here, waiting for him, and he wondered how long Gandalf had known for it was several years at least since the first shoots had broken through the cold earth.

'Go on,' Gandalf prompted, when still he didn't move. 'Take it. It is for you and your descendents that it grows, and it too longs to be returned to its rightful place.'

He took one shaky step forward, then another, and as he walked his steps grew firmer and full of purpose. Folding to his knees on the frozen ground he reached out a hand to touch the smooth bark of the trunk, and ran his fingers along the blossoming branch to cradle the delicate flowers in his palm.

'How is it that it is here?' he murmured. 'The White Tree withered and died many generations ago, yet this is no more than a few years old.'

'Who can say?' the wizard answered him. 'But here it is, and this is the hour when it has been found. Take it, King Elessar, and cherish it, and if ever this tree should bear a ripened fruit, take it and plant it here, for this is an ancient and noble line and it should not be allowed to fade from this world.'

'Your wisdom shall guide me in this, as in so much else,' Aragorn replied, taking hold of the slender yet sturdy trunk. To his surprise shallow roots released their grip in the earth at only the slightest pressure, and the tree came away undamaged in his grasp. Taking off his cloak, oblivious to the mountain chill, he wrapped the soft elven cloth around the sapling, lest rough handling damage any of the precious boughs. Then he rose to his feet and turned back to Gandalf and smiled, the genuine, infectious expression of happiness the wizard had so missed. 'Shall we go?' he inquired with a tip of his head towards the city. 'For I fear we have already kept them waiting long enough.'

'That we have,' Gandalf replied with a smile of his own. 'That we have.'

* * *

It was dark by the time they returned to the citadel and the courtyard was empty except for the guards, for everyone else was at the feast. Gandalf walked a few steps in front, Aragorn behind him cradling the precious sapling in his arms, wrapped in the folds of his cloak. They crossed to where the withered tree still stood, a haunting skeleton in the silver moonlight, and the king knelt on the flagstones, reverently placing his burden under the barren eaves of its forebear.

'You're late.'

Aragorn jumped, startled by the unexpected voice. He swivelled round in a crouch and saw Legolas sitting in the shadows of a recessed doorway, watching him. Straightening up, embarrassed to have been caught by surprise, he looked questioningly at the knife the elf was sharpening with long, deliberate strokes with his whetstone.

'Expecting trouble?' he asked.

Legolas gave him an odd look. 'Only for you,' he replied laconically, rising smoothly to his feet. 'I have distracted your brothers for the moment but I fear they are not happy with you. The feast began at sundown and you were not to be found. Arwen was, well, let us say she was not pleased at having to preside in your stead, and you know that when Arwen is not happy, her brothers can get quite difficult.' He smiled, jumping lightly down the steps and walking towards the nervous king. 'However, I believe they will be occupied elsewhere for sometime. Gimli was very cooperative, after a bit of persuasion.'

Aragorn's eyes narrowed with suspicion. 'What did you do?'

'Oh, nothing serious,' the elf replied airily, peering past him to where Nimloth's sapling nestled in the folds of his cloak. 'What have you there? Flowers would have been better but I suppose you can hardly expect such courtesies from a ranger. The bush will do well enough, Estel. I'm sure Arwen will forgive you everything.'

Aragorn scowled and behind him he heard Gandalf choke back a laugh.

'That is no bush, young prince,' the wizard told him, though he knew Legolas was merely baiting his friend. No elf could look upon the seed of Telperion and not recognise what they saw. 'This is a scion of the Eldest of Trees, awakened now in the hour of the king's return. A worthy excuse for tardiness, wouldn't you say?'

'Oh, I would,' Legolas replied. 'But I am not the one you have to convince.'

Aragorn laughed, as behind him two figures stepped silently through the archway. 'I think this once they will understand.'

'Indeed, Estel?'

'What will we understand?'

'The fact that you have, yet again, contrived to make us sit through another feast while you entertained yourself elsewhere?'

Aragorn swallowed as he turned to his brothers, side-by-side and darkly dangerous in the shadows of the arches. 'Elladan. Elrohir. We were just speaking of you.'

'So we heard,' Elladan replied, advancing on him with controlled steps. 'You were, perhaps, going to offer your apologies for not attending? And you, Thranduilion,' he added, giving Legolas a hard look. 'Do not think that we will forget this episode.'

The Silvan elf's eyes widened innocently, and without a trace of the fear most would feel on receiving such a glare from Elrond's eldest son. 'I am not responsible for Gimli,' he pointed out reasonably. 'A drunken dwarf is his own master.'


The twins smiled smugly as the elf spun around, and Aragorn was amused to see a look of trepidation cross his face as Gimli stalked towards him. The dwarf was soaked, water dripping from his braids and clinging to his beard, and his boots squelched as he walked. His face was an angry red and his eyes held a wild, crazed look, but without a glimmer of the intoxication of which he had been accused. Whatever mischief Legolas had cooked up this evening, it seemed that for once it might catch up with him.

'That,' growled Gimli, as he crossed the courtyard, 'is that last time I let you talk me into anything!'

Casting a desperate glance in the direction of the gates, Legolas backed up a step only to find that the twins had moved to block his escape. Realising he was going nowhere, he turned his attention to the irate and dangerous dwarf.

'Come now, Gimli,' he soothed. 'I merely suggested that you . . .'

'You set these two rogues onto me is what you did!' the dwarf interrupted, jabbing his finger into his friend's stomach. 'Such a pair of uncivilised, ill-mannered, disrespectful . . .'

'What have my sons done now, Master Dwarf?' another voice asked wearily, and they all turned to see Elrond enter the courtyard, Arwen and Faramir at his back. 'I assure you I shall punish them appropriately for it.'

'Ada!' exclaimed two voices simultaneously. 'We thought you were at the feast!'

'As I believed you to be,' their father returned acidly. 'Though it seems the real gathering is out here.' He paused, watching as Arwen made her way to her husband's side and was welcomed into his arms. Keen eyes scanned the weary form of his foster son, then sought out the wizard at his shoulder. 'Mithrandir,' he greeted Istari coolly, 'I would have expected you to know better.'

'Oh nonsense, Elrond,' Gandalf retorted, ignoring the poisonous glares directed at him from more than one quarter. 'The boy's fine. We just went for a short stroll.'

'Short?' Elrond's eyebrow climbed into his hairline. 'You have been gone all day and half the night and you tell me it was short?'

'Well, perhaps I misjudged the timing slightly,' the wizard conceded, unruffled. 'But I hope you will agree that the result was worth the effort. Now,' he continued hastily before Elrond could object, 'I think everyone who should be is here. Aragorn, it is time to uproot the old, and set the new in its place.'

And Aragorn nodded, pulling away from Arwen and kneeling beside the withered tree once more. With kingly reverence he took down the dead trunk and laid it on the earth, and released the silver sapling from the folds of his cloak. A collective gasp of awe filled the small courtyard as the moon's light picked out the new blossom on the crown, then silence descended as Aragorn gently placed the roots in the hole left by its predecessor and stepped back. The White Tree, descendent of the Eldest, stood tall and proud without support, and he bowed his head in acknowledgement of its beauty, and silent welcome to his home.

How long he stood thus he could not have said, lost in the moment than was bittersweet in so many ways. He had stepped up to claim his place in the new order, for his sovereignty had begun, and the sovereignty of Men over Middle Earth, but here he stood among his elven kindred whose time had been proclaimed at an end. Yet there was no sadness in the silence that enveloped him, only great love and hope, and he opened his heart to embrace it as he opened his arms to encircle his wife. When at last he raised his head and looked around, he saw shining in the eyes of his friends their loyalty and adoration for the king whose true crowning they had just witnessed. And he knew he had finally found his peace.

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Well, it's finally finished! I think I'm going to have a break for a while now.

I want to thank everyone who reviewed this story, for all your comments and encouragements, and I hope this ending didn't disappoint anyone. It took me ages to write and I'm still not sure if I really got it.

To those who reviewed the last chapter:

Estelcontar: You guessed right! You have been a wonderful support to me while writing this story and your reviews are always interesting to read. It's a tricky subject to write about, and it's always good to know other people share similar opinions.

Celebroch: Thanks for reviewing, and I'm glad you liked it.

Sue: You have reviewed every chapter of this story and I am amazingly grateful to you for that. I really hope this story lived up to your expectations, and I'm pleased that amongst all the angst I still made you chuckle. Thank you.

Xsilicax: Another person who has reviewed from the beginning! I'm sorry I couldn't give you more Aragorn and Arwen in this chapter, but I just couldn't fit it in. Maybe next time. Thanks so much for letting me know what you think.

Taraisilwen: That was a lovely review. You sound so enthusiastic. And it's a wonderful compliment that my story makes you feel like you are actually there. What more can an author want to hear? Thank you.

And lastly, thanks to everyone who reviewed 'The Gift of Men.' I really appreciate it.

Until next time, NM.