Hey hey! I'm back. Sorry about the day-late post. I was busy. Gee, where does that sound familiar from . . . ? Lol. No one is free from the busy-bug. We all catch it eventually. Luckily, mine was short and I can now post this without being too late.

Do you want to know why? I'll tell you anyway. Two words: community service. I spent the night at a friend's house, removing myself from any possibility of posting, and we did community service. Scrubbing one day and score-keeping in the sun the next. I have an incredible sunburn. Hehe. I even got my phone back, so now I don't have to go on a field trip to find a phone to sign on with. *jumps up and down while clapping*

Okay. I'm done. This chapter seems somewhat incomplete to me, but I don't want you all to wait longer so I won't bother changing it more than I have. Now, review responses.

Nell-Marie: Thank you, thank you. I'm glad my action sequences meet with approval. They never have exactly been my forte. And this, here, is the last chapter of this story. *chuckles evilly* And it . . . Is an ending to remember. *g*

Bill the Pony: I know you haven't forgotten. Funny how suggesting I think you have gets me reviews, though. . . . *g* It would be a shame if you didn't follow the next story. You would miss Legolas and more, uh, great adventures. Lol. Oh, uh, don't cry too long. *smiles slightly looking vaguely panicked* I'll bring out a longer story that has more and longer chapters.

Grumpy: Yes, isn't it. One syllable can do so much. And they do say the more the merries, right? Mm, well, perhaps not. I don't think Aragorn was all that thrilled with the added enemies. *g* Wonder how that worked out for him? Hmm. . . . *wicked smile*

Endril McMerlyn: Oh, I'm so glad you decided to join in! I love hearing from newbies. *g* More Aragorn angst coming up in the next story. That, I can guarnatee. *thinks about the chapters that have been laborously written over the last three months* Yes, I think I like Aragorn angst, there's so much material to play with. It's not going anywhere anytime soon.

Bailey: Thanks! *beams happily*

Has anyone seen Once Upon a Time in Mexico? I saw it last night. It's . . . Interesting. Johnny Depp and Antonio Banderas . . . Let's just say that if what it's really like in Mexico were anything like what happened in that movie, I would never get anywhere near Mexico, even with a really, really long pole which I would use to just simply reach on and touch the very very edge of the border. No offense to anyone from Mexico, honestly. That's just what I have decided after seeing that . . . Interesting . . . Movie. I think I like it. Or, rather, I like it, but I'm not sure why or how I like it. Hmm, but that's neither here nor there so. . . .

Now, as this is the last chapter, I have a favor to ask, other than that you review. *g* I am a terrible judge of completeness. I have no idea if there are any issues that I left unresolved that I did not mean to leave unresolved. Thus, I would ask you to include any questions you still have when you are finished reading. Pretend there will be nothing after this and ask whatever is on your mind.

Also, in relation to the next story: I plan on posting it in about a month. If you all ask really nicely, I might agree to post it in two weeks. But you must ask. Now, read and review. Please?

End at the Beginning

It was the silence, ironically enough, abrupt and nearly complete, that finally broke through the blankness of unconsciousness and pulled her back into the land of the living, though that was the last place she wanted to be as soon as she woke up.

Slowly, and with not just a little bit of difficulty, Kalya opened her eyes and looked around. That she was not dead failed to be terribly surprising and could even be viewed as a bit disappointing. That she was not bound was curious and reason enough for further inspection. That she was apparently alone, though, that was worthy of notice.

She managed to push herself into a sitting position with more difficulty than she cared to admit and got a better look around. She remembered Aragorn showing up just before she lost consciousness, and dreaded what this could mean. But as she listened more closely, she again heard voices, distant, but definitely there. Easing herself to her feet, she began gingerly making her way closer, ignoring the pain, in order to learn the fate of one called Strider.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Twins pairs of eyes went wide.

The three brothers had been separated during the fight and neither Elladan nor Elrohir had seen Aragorn since the fight began. A crush of orcs had swept him away and further towards where the Slyntari were fighting, which was not a good thing. He had already been exhausted from the previous battle, and the twins had thought to protect him, but instead they had forgotten about him.

"You don't know where he is?" Elnour demanded when he saw their faces pale, shocked.

"We've got to find him!" Elrohir exclaimed, panicked, as he turned wide eyes on his brother. Elladan looked just frightened as his twin, their faces mirror images of horror.

"Find who?" a voice asked, causing the entire contingent to whirl around in shock, then sigh in relief when they saw who it was. The tired and dirty frame of Aragorn could clearly be seen making his way toward them, steps slow and unsteady with his right arm tightly gripping his left just above the elbow.

"Strider!" Elladan cried in relief.

The ranger gave them a tolerant, amused look, though his weariness could not be hidden. "No need to find him," he told them. "He's right here."

Elrohir snickered, relief heightening his humor.

"Oh hush, brother," Elladan demanded crossly, shoving his younger twin away from him.

Regaining his balance, he turned to the young human." Are you alright, Estel?" he asked, suddenly serious as he regarded the young human closely.

"Oh, sure," the ranger replied easily. "Only one scratch this time." He turned to the others cheerfully--or as cheerfully as he could manage while tired. "Oh, hey, Glorfindel."

Elladan startled them all by bursting out in hysterical laughter. Confused, but mildly amused faces watched as he sank to the ground in his hilarity. Aragorn had a small smile on his face as he watched his brother. Glorfindel looked questioningly at Elrohir, who only shrugged.

After a few minutes of the whole group watching the rolling elf, Aragorn again spoke. "You know, hyena, I didn't think it was that funny."

Elrohir laughed softly at the nickname as the elder twin finally seemed to regain some control and wiped at his eyes. "Oh, Estel. You've done it again."

Aragorn smiled, pleased to see his brothers in such high spirits. Then he released his arm long enough to rub his forehead, accidentally smearing it with blood. "So. Can we go home now?" he asked hopefully.

Laughter answered him.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Kalya chuckled quietly from her hiding place among the trees, partially because she did not want to draw their attention and partially because laughing really hurt.

Content in finding the ranger safe, the former Slyntari quietly started drifting away, not wanting to be seen by the others just yet. It was not that she felt this was the last she would see the ranger, nor that she had any intention of just leaving him be. Simply, she was too sore and tired to deal with the confrontation making her presence known would generate because of her . . . former allegiances.

She had seen enough to know that Elladan and Elrohir were protective of their human brother, and that they were likely to know exactly what she was. They were unlikely to accept her, or her change of heart, as easily as the ranger. No, best just to disappear and heal for now.

There would be enough trouble to find at a later date. Sauron was planning something, and Shirk would go hunting again.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Anxious to leave the location of so much death and the stench of orcs, preparations to leave were accomplished quickly. Aragorn's arm was cleaned and bandaged, the twins assuring themselves that the wound was not poisoned, and the three brothers were given the horses that had been brought for them.

A group of elves worked quickly to bury the humans while others worked to gather the dead orcs into a pile to be burned and others cut down trees to accommodate that feat. Three would stay behind once all had departed to see that the foul creatures burned properly and that the fire did not spread. A messenger had been sent to inform Lord Elrond that his sons were well.

Aragorn was about to climb on his horse when he suddenly remembered Kalya. He froze, half-on the horse, then dropped and darted back towards the clearing, berating himself every terrible step of the way for forgetting about her and leaving her dead--

He stopped. Silver eyes stared dumbfounded at a spot on the clearing floor. Distantly, he heard Elladan and Elrohir calling after him, voices worried, but he paid them no heed. The blood was there, but the body that should have been there, as well . . . was gone.

The ranger looked around, wondering if maybe the Slyntari had taken her with them. But no, they had left their other dead. Was she alive, then? Had his carelessness allowed her to be taken captive? Was she even now being tortured because he had forced her to save his life?

Aragorn felt sick.

His search became desperate, hoping for any clue that would point to what had happened and say the terrible thoughts racing through his mind were wrong, more and more sure with each passing second that he would not find one.

A bird whistle--or what sounded like a bird whistle--caught his attention and he looked up. Standing upon a precipice some distance up the shallower side of the valley, stood Kalya; alive. Aragorn breathed a sigh of relief, then started to gesture for her to come down. Instead, she held out a hand, bidding him stop, and he frowned.

He watched as she brought her right fist to her left chest, over her heart, and inclined her head, then swept her hand--open and palm up--back across her body; a gesture of thanks, he felt, though it was traditionally a farewell gesture, from warrior to warrior. Then she raised a hand in farewell.

Before he could even think to do anything, she was gone, as mysteriously and completely as she had arrived. He smiled, then turned to head back to the horses, ready to go.

He started to go around a tree in his path and hastily stepped back. Elrohir, just before him, also made a hasty retreat, slipping and landing on his backside. The musical laughter of Elladan suddenly rung out, earning a glare from his twin.

"Shut it, hyena," the younger twin said, and Aragorn started laughing, as well. Quickly, Elrohir climbed to his feet, his glare now including the human. When neither showed any signs of ceasing, he threw his hands into the air and stalked away, irritably mumbling something about annoying brothers who need to learn a lesson and possible revenge.

Elladan and Aragorn simply followed, knowing Elrohir was merely giving both of them a hard time, their laughter echoing off the trees and soothing Aragorn's soul after so much heartache and death.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

The group of elves and one human rode for Rivendell at a leisurely pace. After the frantic race to reach the pass, Glorfindel felt it would be best to give the horses a chance to rest, especially since they did not need to hurry in order to ease the Lord of Rivendell's nerves. Soon they would be stopping for the night before continuing on the next day.

As it was, Glorfindel rode in front with the sons of Elrond behind him and chatting amiably, though most of the talking was done by Elladan and Elrohir as Aragorn was just about ready to drop off. Sheer stubborn pride was all that was keeping him awake. The rest of the company clustered behind them, alternately talking amongst themselves or listening quietly to the chatter of the three brothers.

Occasionally, one or the other of them would burst out laughing at some part of the story the three were taking turns telling. Aragorn had gone first, since his was the longest, telling of his trip through the tunnels and subsequent capture, leaving out a fair amount of details: such as the true matter of his tortured dreams and the background of Kalya; he thought he knew why she had disappeared before she could be found by the elves.

Elladan had gone next--since he was oldest, Elrohir insisted--and related how he had come upon the ranger. "My emotions were so mixed up when I finally found you, Estel, I'm surprised I remembered how to shoot an arrow," he said.

Elrohir laughed quietly, his amusement having more to do with understanding than any true humor. "What with worry and pride and anger at those heathens. . . ." He trailed off, mind traveling back. Then he shook his head, and turned to glare at the subdued ranger. "Just mind you never do that again," he demanded, looking so much like his father that Elrohir burst out laughing in earnest and Aragorn was hard pressed not to follow.

His lips twitched, but he managed to remain mostly serious. "I can honestly say, Elladan, that it is not an experience I am in a hurry to repeat. In fact, never sounds quite good to me."

Elrohir started laughing harder at that, and Elladan finally cracked, the sounds of his mirth mingling seamlessly with his brother's. Aragorn merely grinned, the events still to fresh in his mind to allow true levity, though spending this time with the twins certainly helped dispel the shadows in his heart.

Finally, Elladan began to calm down again, and as he did a somewhat mischievous expression crossed his face. Aragorn saw it and quieted in anticipation. "So, brother," the elder elf began with a smile, causing said brother to look at him warily, recognizing the other's tone. "Just how did you manage to find that orc horde?"

If one was watching closely--and his brothers were--they would have seen Elrohir's eyes widen slightly. He glanced aside almost nervously before turning a bright and overly-confidant smile on his brothers--which did not fool them one bit. "By superior skill, of course," he said.

Elladan raised an eyebrow. "I really don't think it's that hard to find orcs, brother."

"Well we didn't have much success before, brother. I think you scared them away."

A studiously thoughtful expression on his face, Aragorn interrupted, surreptitiously watching Elrohir out of the corner of his eye as he looked straight ahead. "I don't know. It looked to me like you were rather scared when you dropped down on us," the ranger mused.

"Near frantic, in fact," Elladan agreed, also looking thoughtful.

"I had to make my flight seem authentic," the younger twin defended, sounded miffed, "so the orcs would follow and not suspect a trap."

Elladan exchanged a glance of suppressed mirth with Aragorn. Elladan spoke. "I think you're attributing far too advanced cognitive skills than those cretins could ever hope to possess."

"You're an elf. They were orcs," Aragorn pointed out. "Orc see elf. Orc give chase. No thinking to it."

Elladan barked out quick laughter. "Exactly. You give them far too much credit, brother. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Start at the beginning."

He did. With much prodding from Elladan and token prodding from Aragorn, the two remaining sons of Elrond--along with the rest of the company--learned of Elrohir's trip down the mountain and meeting with the orcs. The laughter the story produced took a long time to die down and carried the group to their planned campsite for the night.

As they swung down from atop their mounts, Elladan said, "I can't believe you stumbled into that orc horde unawares!" Laughter still bubbled beneath the surface of his voice.

Aragorn chimed in with, "That rock must have liked elves better than you thought; it decided to keep some of your senses." The two burst out laughing again, doing their best to keep it quiet.

Elrohir glared at the two of them. "Oh, go on and laugh," he insisted testily. "I'm sure you've never done the same." The younger twin turned and stalked away.

Aragorn watched with an amused, if tired, smile as Elladan chased after his twin, trying to lift the other's spirits while still greatly amused as he pulled his bed roll off the back of his steed. More than ready to go to sleep, he moved around in front of the horse, rubbing the creature's nose affectionately when he bumped his shoulder. "Sleep well," he whispered in elvish before walking away and settling down on the ground.

He was just about to drop off when he heard the twins settle down beside him. Their voices wishing him a good night pulled him back from the precipice of darkness and he murmured a good night, though he doubted it could be understood.

Before he could consider it, though, he was fast asleep. His sleep was deep, too exhausted to dream, and nothing troubled his rest.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

The company made good time the next day and arrived in Rivendell to be greeted enthusiastically by all who were out and about. Lord Elrond met them at the steps as Aragorn came walking up with Elladan and Elrohir. Glorfindel kept his distance but followed behind them.

The troupe halted before the old elf, who looked them all over critically, his gaze scanning each in turn with practiced ease. "Well," he announced. "You all seem to be in one piece. Indeed, you all have even managed to walk under your own power. What devilry conspired this?"

The brothers glanced at each other. Elladan spoke up. "Elrohir's superior skill, Father," he answered seriously.

Aragorn snickered before Elrohir slapped him on the arm. The ranger hissed and glared at the other, his hand clutching the wounded limb. The younger twin offered a sheepish shrug.

"What is it?" Elrond demanded, worry replacing his relief.

"'Tis only a scratch, Father," he objected.

"I think I shall be the judge of that," he demanded, gesturing that the human roll up his sleeve so he could see. Carefully, he removed the bandage and examined the wound. It seemed to be healing well and lacked the red, tender heat of infection. He nodded, and the sleeve was quickly rolled back down. The lord stepped back. "Welcome home."

Happily, the group entered the house. Their laughter and banter echoed through the halls and Elrond was relieved by the change. Too long had the halls been empty of such joy, too long had Estel been gone. And, Elrond knew, it was a situation much given to repeating itself. Near was the darkness that would snatch the boy from his care, and it grew nearer to the appointed time every year.

Epilogue

With a smile, Aragorn bid his brothers good night before entering his room and closing the door securely behind him. It was good to be home again and he had immensely enjoyed himself this day. Now that the threat had been revealed and, they hoped, dispelled, he had a little time to himself. He planned to spend that time in Rivendell with his family so they could catch up.

He tossed his pack, which had been recovered from the Slyntari camp, on the bed and proceeded to get ready for bed, stripping in order to take a quick bath. The warm water felt good, and he completely relaxed for the first time in weeks.

So much had happened. Sometimes he wondered if the Valar packed so much into his life in so short a time in an effort to give him as much experience as the elves in a fraction of the time, since he would never live even half as long as they did. If that was the case, he wished they would decide he needed less experience or have mercy on him and give him more time. All the trials were hard to keep up with.

Besides, he mused with a smile, he had a feeling he would manage to age the elves as was not supposed to be possible if things kept up as they had been. For a species that had seen many millennia, he thought that perhaps Lord Elrond had not known what he was getting himself into when he accepted the baby Aragorn into his home. He wondered if he regretted it now, after what he had put him through.

The smile faded from Aragorn's lips. With a quick shake of his head, he stood and toweled off quickly, then dressed in the old leggings he used to sleep in while in Rivendell.

The ranger knew he needed to stop, that his family loved him, but sometimes it was just so hard to accept--and his latest experiences did not make it any easier--that the elves, perfect as they were, could love someone so accident prone and troublesome as him. It did not make sense. Then again, Aragorn had learned long ago that the ways of the heart did not always follow reason.

With that thought, he crossed to his bed and sat on the edge. The young man thought he might as well go ahead and unpack; he planned to be here a while so there was no need to stay packed. He sifted through it, pulling out his clothes to be washed, and found something hard wrapped among them.

Curious, he pulled it out and discovered it to be the small keepsake Legolas had left for him. He had forgotten that he had kept it in his pack. Now, though, he was surprised to find it whole. Truly it should have broken while in the pack, for he knew the Slyntari had not taken care with any of his possessions, just as they had not taken care with either him or Kalya.

Delicately, he traced his fingers over the intricate carvings before turning it over to read the inscription. It was the same as when he had left: Always remember friendship shines even in the deepest dark. Tears shimmered in his eyes as he read it.

He thought he would never understand what made Legolas consider him such a good friend, but just this minute, he was glad the blonde-haired elf did.

He smiled slightly, then turned and placed the fragil-looking object on the small table beside his bed and scooted back, dropping the pack to the floor as he did so. The single lit candle in his room burned brightly on the same table and he leaned forward to blow it out, plunging the room into darkness before shifting to get under the covers.

The young man's head lay against the pillow and he closed his eyes, drifting easily into sleep.

~*~

Nothing he saw was familiar, or rather, nothing was familiar in the sense that he had expected to see it where he was, which was slightly confusing because he did not even know where here was.

He turned again and started when a figure materialized before him. It was black and seemed to float without legs. The air seemed to go cold and fear shot its way through him, chilling his blood and speeding his pulse making his heart beat rapidly in his chest. The very world around him darkened with the other's presence and seemed to shrink away from him. He swallowed hard, attempting to get his emotions back under control. "Who are you?" he asked, and was pleased his voice did not shake too much.

No answer came except a kind of screaming wailing rush that made his blood run cold and shoot fire through his veins. He stepped back involuntarily as the shadow moved closer black tendrils of its evil seeming to stretch out and try to grab him. Something caught at his boot and he stumbled. As he tried to catch his balance, his gaze caught what he had stumbled over and his eyes widened.

"Legolas!" he called out in his sleep, too softly to be heard, trashing violently as the dream wore on.

It could not be . . . but it was. His friend's body lay sprawled on the ground, unmoving, his eyes staring sightlessly far too wide to be sleeping, horror shining brightly in their sightless depths, chilling his blood even further. Blood pooled around him, soaking the ground that did not seem to be there and yet was. Too much blood. Some of it leaked from the side of the being's mouth, from the corners of his eyes, his nose. A large spot colored his tunic, darkening most of the dark green fabric with its horrid stain. "Legolas!" he called again, his voice shaking as most of his strength disappeared. "No, Legolas, no!" His voice was no more than a whisper as he sank to his knees, his hands moving out to touch the figure lying beside him, only to pull back before they actually touched. "No. Legolas."

Aragorn jerked awake with a start, his breath gasped in sharply as his consciousness finally broke away from the dream. His lean frame shook terribly from reaction as the ranger swung his legs over the side of the bed and fairly ran to the wash basin. He quickly splashed water over his face and struggled to bring his breathing back under control.

He looked up and caught sight of his reflection in the mirror: wide eyes staring back at him, terror in their depths. To his own eyes he looked young and terribly vulnerable. He closed his eyes and backed up until he came in contact with the wall, his hand at his mouth to hold in the screams he was sure hid just beneath the surface.

Slowly, he sank to the floor, the tremors still shaking his body. He was glad the dream had progressed no further, that he had been able to wake up. It would have been too much to face again what he had faced the first time in those tunnels with Kalya, when he could not make himself wake up. It was too terrible to think about. He had thought the nightmare was over. Now, though, he wondered if it would ever be over.

The man blinked several times, looking around. It was too dark, far too dark in here. Shakily, he turned and crawled across the floor until he reach a table with a candle on it. With hands that trembled uncontrollably, he managed to light the stick. With that light, he managed to walk around the room. Mechanically, he walked around the entire expanse and lit every candle. When that was done, he moved over and sat in the middle of the bed, legs drawn up close and his arms wrapped around them. Wide eyes stared out ahead of them.

He should sleep, he knew, but he could not. The shadow had reawaken and he dared not submit himself to its grasp. He could not go to his father, nor his brothers, and he could not sleep. Silently, and with dreary determination, he kept his vigil, never allowing sleep to close his eyes.