She patiently waited for the fax to come out, then held it up for closer inspection. Her eyes scanned through the article, gathering only what Anne had already told her a few days ago, and finally settled on the picture. She could not help a grin from blooming on her face. Michael's pale face, frozen in an expression of despise and dismay, was looking back at her. It was hard to believe that this was the man whom Irulan had seen months ago. Michael had always been an attractive man who emanated strength and class. Not anymore. He seemed to be thinner. His once so well kept hair was longer and hung in limp strands. There were lines around his eyes and his mouth, visible even in this poor photo.
Next to him stood Elizabeth and, if such a thing was possible, she was even harder to recognize. Her pale and smooth skin had turned into a dirty tan. Her long, lustrous wavy black hair was short and plastered against her face with sunken cheeks and baggy eyes. For someone who has been living that kind of life for several months now, she looked as dazed and shocked as if it was her first day.
Children were surrounding them and their dark, blue-black skin pronounced only the paleness of the duo. The grin on those young faces, too, was a true contrast to their silent agony. The article was about their incredible sacrifice and their decision to travel the world for the next ten years. They would live without any property or money – for the sole purpose of helping those in need. And God knows the couple tried to look as decisive as possible. But Irulan knew them too well to fall for such a thing. She had no doubt that Michael and Elizabeth were wishing to be dead this minute. They would never be a member of the Circle again. In fact, they would be lucky if they were allowed to work in anything remotely related to the Circle, elves or their archives. Elves had a very keen sense of justice – they were extremely tolerant, gentle and giving. But when stirred, their punishment was far sharper than that of mortals.
She sighed and her expression grew graver as a glaze wandered into her eyes. "Kenya" it said. Kenya meant Africa. And Africa meant Egypt. And Egypt meant…
Irulan swallowed and tried to resist. But neither her strength, nor her will-power would ever suffice to resist the overwhelming dread that still crept up to her with such recollections. That damnable, keen and agonizing dread. The kind that always stuffed a lump into her throat and itched her eyes and hurt her heart. She took a deep breath, trying to turn her mind away from it. But her mind never listened. And it would not listen today, either. Fabulous hazel eyes. The touch of a friend. A hearty laughter. An amused grin…
Baeron's memory was as gentle and graceful as ever. It came like a force of nature, and once again touched a part of her that simply refused to heal. As with all elves, his death had been mourned for a long time by the Circle. And again as with all elves, all his fortune was automatically transferred to the Council. It took the members only a matter of days to reach a unified decision – the decision being that his wealth as well as his belongings should be Irulan's.
It was an act of sheer politeness and respect. After all, he had had a great bond with her, and had even died for her. He would have wanted her to have what once was his. But Irulan, shocked by such a suggestion, had refused, of course. She didn't want Baeron's money. The sum alone was mind-blowing to her. Nevertheless… she had failed to decline his belongings. So she had turned away the wealth, but kept the right to his possessions. Not because she was interested in their value or intended to sell them. No, not at all. It was simply because, even though a part of her wanted to forget the matter completely and turn her back to it, another part wanted to visit all his estates in different locations in the world, and walk through his collection. To remember and honor him by touching each article, inspecting each object and trying to imagine what they had meant to him.
It would take a while for Irulan to finally take that step. But one day she would indeed travel the world in Baeron's tracks. And see what he had always urged her to see: the mountains of Tibet. The plains of Kenya. The tundras of China and the frozen lakes of Finland…
Not today, though. Today she was stuck in an office in New York.
Breaking out of her daze, she placed the recent paper on top of the stack, took the mug of coffee into her other hand, then strode towards her table. Upon arriving there another wave of frustration hit her. "Who put these damn flowers here again?!" she yelled into the office. No answer came. "Damn it all!" she hissed and banging the stack of papers on her table proceeded to drag the baskets of flowers away to throw them out. She grabbed the handles of two large baskets and began to stride towards the hall. As always, everyone eyed her warily, spoke in whispers, exchanged giggles. Irulan headed none. She rudely stacked the baskets into their usual corner from where the cleaners would pick them up and throw them out. Just a few weeks ago she would have felt terribly guilty for throwing out such items of beauty. But after seeing them in such quantities and with stubborn resistance, it had become rather easy.
The trip was repeated several times and finally when all the roses, daisies, orchids, irises and violets had been removed from her desk and there was enough space to work for her, Irulan sank into the chair, covering her face with her palms and resting her elbows on her table. She took a slow, deep breath and massaged her face. It took her a few minutes to reach a calm state of mind but eventually she succeeded and began to read through her other fax messages. Somewhere along that procedure, her eyes collided with Lisa who was on her way to her with another large bundle of exotic flowers. "Stop right there!" she yelled with anger.
The woman froze in her tracks, her eyes widening with alarm. "Irulan...these are for you," she stammered.
"You don't say!" was the growl of a reply. "I don't want them! I keep telling you and you keep bringing them in!"
"But...I HAVE to!"
"Lisa," Irulan seethed, her tone betraying both impatience and threat, "we spoke about this too many times. And finally I thought I had succeeded in convincing you. Today you act as if we haven't spoken a single word!"
The other woman held up her hand. "NO! NO FLOWERS! I don't care what you do with them! DON'T BRING THEM IN! Is that so damn hard to understand?!"
Lisa took a deep breath and glanced behind her, as if the flower shop manager was waiting there. Irulan watched her in annoyance and was about to jump to her feet and shove her out of the large office room that was filled with dozens of other people, most of whom were eyeing them, trying hard not to be noticed, when another voice spoke up. "Congratulations."
Both Irulan and Lisa blinked and turned to see another woman standing at Irulan's desk. "For what, Vanessa?" Irulan said with a tired sigh. Great! Another duel with this woman was just what she needed.
"I don't know what to congratulate you for..." the woman drawled loftily and locked eyes with her. Her green eyes were a stark contrast to her dark skin, her high cheekbones and her dark, curly hair. "You must have done SOMETHING to be promoted like that."
Irulan, very confused at this point, glanced at Lisa who shifted the large bouquet to her other arm and stared back at her. "What on earth are you talking about?" she groaned finally, opening and closing her drawers, pretending to look for something, for the sake of being active.
"Your change of status, darling," sighed Vanessa.
"What change? What status?" Suddenly her expression changed. An eerie and rather anxious calmness sank on her features. Both Lisa and Vanessa waited awkwardly as Irulan blanched, swallowed hard and looked up at the other woman. "What happened?" she managed to choke out finally.
"Oh stop it!" spat Vanessa to that and leaned towards her, looking quite threatening. "Stop pretending innocence! I don't know what you did, but you did it well, sister. Since it gained you the position of office manager!"
"What the hell are you suggesting?!" Irulan growled and slowly rose to her feet.
"Oh you know, all right," was the seething reply.
"Listen Vanessa," she hissed and took a step towards the other woman who was surprised by her dangerous state and tipped a little back to clear the distance between them. "You better speak. And I mean THIS DAMN MINUTE!"
"She is the boss now," cut in Lisa with a tinge of amusement, her eyes locked to Vanessa's, "you better speak."
"Get lost!" hissed the black woman.
"Not as long as the boss doesn't want me to," was the pleased reply.
Vanessa opened her mouth for a rather displeasing comment, but Irulan was faster: "NOW, Vanessa!"
The woman, cornered now but not willing to show it, blinked and took a hasty breath, crossing her arms on her chest in a defensive manner. "I told you. You are manager now," was her late and spiteful exclamation.
Irulan just stared at her agape. A long moment passed between the trio. "How can that be?" she whispered finally.
"My question exactly," mumbled Vanessa, inspecting the ceiling.
Irulan glanced at the office. Everyone had stopped what they were doing, their eyes fixed on the three women. "Not again!" she growled and throwing the papers in her hands on the table grabbed her trenchcoat and her cell phone, walking out of the office with long strides. Once in the elevator, she punched the numbers with great fury and waited. At least the bastard had acquired a cell phone! It rang once, twice, then clicked open. She was walking through the lobby at that time and waited for him to speak up. "Yes, my love?"
"Legolas! I am so sick and tired of this shit!" she growled, now breathing harshly out of sheer fury. True, it sounded like a terrible thing to say to an elf. And especially an elf of his status! But Irulan had lost her kindness months ago. "Enough!"
"What happened?" was his lofty and cool question.
"You know what happened!" she yelled and when an elder woman passing her by flinched at her tone, she decided to lower her voice and began to walk down the crowded Madison Avenue of New York.
"Calm down, Irulan," he said gently, "Tell me what the matter is."
"Legolas," she exhaled in frustration and stopped abruptly, leaning on the nearest building wall and closing her eyes, "enough. You have to stop. Leave me alone!"
"I am doing so!" he growled then. "Against all my suffering, I am fulfilling your wish!"
"No you are not! This is the third job, damn it! I am tired of quitting and starting all over again."
"Then don't," was the calm reply.
"Don't interfere and I won't!" she hissed and opened her eyes again, resuming her walk - this time slower. "I don't want your help. I don't want anything from you!" Her own words rang harsh in her ears and she tried to soften her tone. "I don't want flowers. Or bulky paychecks, Legolas. I don't want to be the manager or executive or whatever. Stop doing this!"
"Irulan," he began gently and she knew exactly what would follow. Legolas did not disappoint her. "I am only investing and enlarging my business. If you are referring to that magazine headquarters on Madison Avenue, I bought it as a business investment."
"Oh really?" was her dry intervention. "And I suppose my name on the employee list was a true surprise for you!"
He ignored her statement completely and continued in the same, smooth manner. "It is only just that I promote honest and hard working employees. I always did so and I always will."
"Legolas...hardworking?! I mean...I have been there barely a MONTH!"
"Yes. I apologize for the delay."
Irulan moaned and rolled her eyes. She halted again, massaging her face as the crowd walked by her. "Fine," she said finally, her anger adding to her stubbornness. "Have your magazine. I quit!"
He did not answer for a moment or two. "Irulan...come now," he began cautiously, "I promise not to send flowers."
She shook her head and exhaled in frustration. Why on earth could she not hate this man? God knows he deserved it! "As soon as you stop with the flowers you start with the damn chocolate, Legolas!" No point in pretending that she had actually managed to resist it. Legolas had discovered too early that even though Irulan was immune to flowers and showers of gifts, she could never resist chocolate. "I gained like 10 pounds because of that!"
"More like four," he said then and she froze at the voice that held none of the digital buzz. Irulan did not turn around and a moment later he walked into her perimeter, completing his usual intimidating encircling act and standing before her. He looked amazing. Stunning. Fabulous. He wore a simple black sweater and dark jeans with a black suede jacket on top. His silver hair was tied into a loose ponytail and seemed to have grown longer. Though nothing else about him had changed. His face held no lines. His eyes no tiredness. His skin no sign of any aging whatsoever. He locked eyes with her, a beguiling smile on his perfect lips as he clasped his hands behind his back, pushing up his chin.
Irulan bit her lower lip - to prevent herself from smiling or saying some very harsh words, she did not know. She gave a frustrated groan and clicked her cell phone shut, gliding it along with her hands into the pockets of her cream colored trenchcoat. "And you look even more fabulous with it," he added gently as they continued to stare at each other.
"Spare me, Greenleaf," she sighed finally and began to walk again - this time idler. He kept perfect pace with her, of course, and did not speak for a while. The dense crowd spilled around them like a dark tide as a rumble shook the darkened heavens. "I'll never understand why you choose to stay in this overpopulated city!" he groaned finally, brushing by yet another group and gliding to walk next to her once more.
"Because you don't like it here," she said with a lofty tone, her head high, her looks focused ahead.
Legolas smiled deftly. "Actually, I HAVE come to like it," he stated a moment later. She gave him a sidelong glance and he shrugged gracefully, frowning and looking up to the sky. "As a matter of fact I am in town to take a look at some apartments that are on sale in this building in Soho. I think it was the district of..."
Her eyes widened with disbelief when she heard the word 'Soho'. "Legolas!"
"Yes?" he said in his fabulous soft tone.
"Don't you dare do that!"
"Do what, Irulan?"
To his amazement she stopped and stomped her foot. He said nothing and stared back blankly while she gave him a furious glare. The fire of love kindled in him once again. Another rumble shook the heavens as a small, chilly gust played with the dark locks that had freed themselves from the rest of the hair that was -unfortunately- pinned up loosely. Irulan looked absolutely breath-taking. Every day she seemed to look more so. The air of defeat and weakness had left her completely - replaced by something that could only be described as Aragorn-like stubbornness and persistence. Every single day he wanted her more. Every single day she refused him.
He sighed, placing his hands in the pockets of his jacket. His fingers glided over the cold metal of the cell phone. Mentally he smiled then - even elves could change! For some people they did so, willingly. "I have missed you terribly," he whispered and only realized his words once they were spoken.
Irulan, taken aback by that sudden confession, hastily cast her gaze down and pulled her wild locks behind her ear. A moment passed between them as another distant rumble was heard and the world grew a shade darker. The throng moved by them perfectly unaffected. "Stop following me around," she groaned finally and it did not come out as edgy as she had hoped it would.
"I can't," he whispered, taking a small step towards her.
She acknowledged his move by giving him a pointed look, then embracing herself as a cooler breeze flew up to them. 'Some spring weather!' she thought as she glanced up to the sky. "Also, stop messing with my friends, Legolas," she growled suddenly, locking eyes with him again. His features instantly hardened and gained a blank edge, and Irulan knew that she had surprised him. "What happened to Harold?"
He glanced away. "What happened to him?" was his late statement.
Irulan pursed her lips in anger. "He was rather interested in me two weeks ago at that party," she seethed as his head flew up to meet her gaze.
"Yes. When you wore THAT dress," he pushed in with a dark tone.
Irulan just stared at him in confusion. "What dress?"
"The black one," growled the elf and took a step towards her, his eyes fierce. "The one that leaves your back bare."
She blinked, then looked away momentarily with a frown. "Did I?" was her confused and almost inaudible question. He regarded her in silence, his gaze a piercing blue, as she tried to recall the particular day. "Oh yes...true," she said finally. "I remember because he complimented me on it." The look in his eyes could have frozen dancing flames. "But..." she added, her own tone growing edgy as well, "...he miraculously stopped calling merely days later." A short moment passed as the elf swiftly suppressed his anger and jealousy and his face melted into an innocent expression. "Would you like to explain to me how that happened?"
As always, Legolas strictly avoided lying. And she had grown to guess the truth just by the way he walked around it. "Perhaps he changed his mind?"
"Oh yes, I think he did," she said dryly, pushing up her chin. "As a matter of fact I think he was PERSUADED to do so. Just like Martin. And Lars. And -let's not forget- Tom, who must find it very hard to call from his little town in Idaho, to where he was suddenly transferred."
Legolas inhaled with disinterest, glancing around the street as a white light illuminated the city momentarily. "Well...what can I say?" A very feral but overly attractive smile adorned his lips when his blue eyes found her again and glided briefly over her to rest on her face. "Their loss."
She groaned in frustration once more and began to walk again. Legolas walked right beside her, silent and cautious. "Would you have some coffee with me?" he asked tentatively, glancing at her.
"Since when do you drink coffee?"
"I have grown to like that, too," he said quietly. He had grown to like many things that Irulan was fond of.
"No, thank you." He tried hard not to feel the slash of disappointment at that. He tried his hardest. And felt it anyway. They walked on for another while in silence as he debated on insisting, but felt at a loss of heart to do so. "Legolas!" she said suddenly and froze in her steps. He halted as well and turned to her with raised eyebrows. "How on earth did you know what I wore that night?"
Legolas, looking rather caught off-guard for an elf, grimaced and inspected his boots leisurely to gain a few moments. "What night?"
"Well I must have some coffee," he groaned with disinterest and looked up. "Ah, there is a cafe!" He smiled and turned to see Irulan glaring at him, her immaculate features twisted into a furious pout - which invoked the desire to grab her and kiss her, so he smiled broader. "Can we continue this conversation indoors?"
"No," she cut off and advanced on him. Though he did not move in the slightest, every fiber in his body sang with excitement at that -supposedly- threatening action. "First off, we are not having a conversation. Secondly, you will tell me now! What on earth are you doing?! Having me followed?"
He shrugged deftly and walked by her, halting when he reached her side. "I'll tell you when we have a conversation," he said with a low voice to her ear, then smiled and continued towards the cafe as a slight drizzle began to descend on New York. Irulan, momentarily baffled by the effect that simple behavior and the brush of his warm breath against her cheek had on her, remained frozen and closed her eyes. 'Damn all sentiments!' she cursed silently. 'I want to be a piece of rock!' She turned to see him striding away as another lightning washed the world in white.
"Greenleaf! You impossible, stubborn, frustrating, immature...-"
She did not get to finish, for he had arrived at the cafe and completely ignoring her, opened the door and let himself in, disappearing from view. Irulan stomped again, then took a deep breath, walking towards the door in blooming fury. "You will NOT refuse me," she growled under her breath, not even conscious that she was saying it out loud, "I am the daughter of kings!" She tore the door of the cafe open and was greeted by warmth, the smell of coffee and a soft music. Another deep breath and the door shut behind her, leaving the world outside.
"He looks very strong, my Lady."
"Stop your fretting! This fortress can never be taken," she growled, annoyed by her servant. Another gust sailed by them and threw her hair to the right. She did not feel its icy touch as her eyes narrowed to get a better look at the figure clad in black who stood at the head of his troops. Unconsciously her frown deepened and the slightest worry danced into her soul once more.
"But this foe is different!" he urged, "He is very persistent! He will break us by his patience alone!"
She gave him a poisonous glare and he shut up. "NO ONE has taken this fortress. NO ONE will," she seethed, trying to sound as sure as she wished to be. With an effort to look as determined as can be (though it was somewhat hard to do so with this cursed cumbersome heavy armor) she strode along the fortress wall, her soldiers jumping to attention while she passed by. She reached the tower and walked down the spiral staircase, mumbling curses. "Damned elf! He doesn't accept the simple fact that he can NOT win!" she hissed to herself. And before she could fulfill her share of bitter comments, she was in the open again. The gates creaked open and Irulan strode out, the bluish light reflecting on her white armor and the wind still playing with her dark, long hair.
Legolas began to walk towards her as well and she not only felt envy of his seemingly much more comfortable black soft tunic outfit, but also annoyed by his confident stride. They met in the middle and furious brown met cool blue.
A moment passed between them and now that she stood so close to him and outside of her fortress, she felt a strange lack of confidence swirling into her mind. "Leave!" she said and in the eerie, dull silence her voice sounded strange. Almost metallic, like her outfit. "You cannot take this castle."
He did not answer right away, but gave her a long, intimidating look. Then his eyes glided over her shoulder and up the bricks of the impressive building behind her. "I like this fortress," he said slowly and smiled before he met her eyes again. "It shall me mine."
She pushed up her chin, the flame in her eyes flickering lively. "Over and over again you have tried. And each time, you were defeated."
"It does not matter," was the calm reply, "for the final victory will be mine."
Her eyes wandered over the mass of troops behind him and collided with those of a young girl standing a few steps back. The girl, looking rather unusual with her short, cropped hair and the attire of a young boy, grinned with amusement when Irulan's gaze locked with her own and stepped next to the elf.
"Traitor!" hissed Irulan.
The other shrugged in the most careless fashion. "There were days when you called me far better things, my Queen," was her calm reply.
Irulan clenched her jaws. "That must have been before you deserted me," she seethed.
"Ah...but I have not!" Hope said, grinning even broader. "As you can see, I have returned to you."
Irulan gave her an extremely dry look. "You are not needed any longer," was her late, frosty reply.
"I am always needed," the girl mused, a slender smile on her lips as she cocked her head and gave Irulan an unnerving, deep gaze. "And I always answer calls of need," was the addition before she turned to Legolas, who stood aside watching the confrontation with a tinge of amusement on his features. The man bowed his head slightly, his gesture speaking of gratitude and Hope's smile grew into a grin.
More than annoyed by their silent, friendly exchange, Irulan ground her teeth so hard, it literally hurt. Even Legolas was less irritating compared to this creature! So she chose to lock eyes with her enemy once more. "How much more blood will you shed over this?"
"I will shed every single soldier's blood to the last drop," was his slow reply.
Irulan pursed her lips and they both remained silent for a moment. "It will be in vain," was her flat and final statement.
He sighed and clasped his hands behind his back, looking away. "I am patient, Irulan," he said, his eyes locked to the distant horizon. "I have the sources to remain for an incredibly long time." She clenched her jaw with the effort to remain blank to that. His crystal eyes found hers once more before he continued. "Eventually you will weaken. You will grow tired. And careless. Your caution will slip and haze will set on your watch. One day your strength will fail you and your defense will soften." Irulan focused entirely on not swallowing in fear while he gave her a moment of consideration. "Then I will be here to see it. That day, my flag will rustle on your tower."
Irulan had been holding her breath out of sheer fury and felt a certain euphoria setting in because of that. She took a deep breath and bit her cheeks. He seemed very unaffected by her threatening stance and shifted slightly on his feet, crossing his arms leisurely. "Of course, you can spare us both the torture and let me in now."
"Never!" she hissed.
"That is an awfully long time," he said a moment later, slight mocking in his tone as his eyes weighed heavy on her.
"Exactly!" she spat in return. "We shall battle till the end, Greenleaf!" she said, stepping away to return to her fortress.
He bowed slightly, never taking his eyes off her. "As my Lady commands," was the amused and final statement that rang in the silent field.