Equinoxium: Chapter 36
Legalese: See Chapter 1 for disclaimers and ratings. Credit must also be given to Oliver Wendall Holmes for the quote that Legolas puts to good use towards the end of the chapter.
"Give it up! You've lost this!" Buffy ground out as she held her sword before her, her eyes locked with Vashnak's. It had been days since he had tried to spirit her away from Minas Tirith's protective walls, yet in those few days she had been transformed by the stone that she wore around her neck. Before she had been a victim, but now she was emboldened by the full strength and fury of a slayer - and she hadn't forgotten her promise to show Vashnak what a slayer was truly capable of. She was rejuvenated, and for the first time she faced him as she was always meant to.
"Perhaps," Vashnak conceded as his eyes intently searched her own, perhaps seeking a sign of the weakness that had plagued her for so long, "but your army cannot kill us all. Some will survive and they will return." His gaze narrowed upon her. "Tell me," he continued as something unreadable flashed in those dark depths, "do you still think that your blood has not restored all that Melkor robbed from us that day so long ago? Has the gift of immortality been returned to us? If it has, we now have all time in the world to finish what we have begun this night."
Feeling Legolas shift upon the ground behind her, Buffy curtly shook her head. "The blood of a slayer was never meant for this, and you're not going to use me again. I won't be your blood-fest to build back your ranks."
Something tightened in Vashnak's beautiful features - something alien and all at once recognizable. "We no longer need it," he returned, his voice dropping in timbre as his arrow never wavered from her heart and the elf that she protected. "All this battle has accomplished is to thin out the weak from our ranks. The strong will survive if for no other reason than to see the men and elves and dwarves destroyed."
"But why?" Buffy demanded as her heart began to hammer. She had hated this elf for so long when she had lived in his world which was steeped in evil, but here on the blood-stained fields before Minas Tirith where a war was being waged around her... suddenly she was reminded her own words spoken long ago, in a cave that was filled with fear and pain that was only lessened by the growing friendship of the elf she now protected: Some people choose to see the world in black and white. I can't afford to.
"Because you were right at least in this," Vashnak stated, his eyes flashing. "There was one thing that your blood could not heal. Now stand aside," he ordered, his jaw tightening as he broke their gaze and turned towards the elf who had wisely stayed silent during this verbal battle. "I will have my reward in this-"
"Only if you shoot through me," Buffy dared as something within her began to tremble. Inexplicably she felt her dream rush upon her, her mother and Arwen's words taunting her: he won't choose you. In the end, he won't choose you. Is this what they meant? Was this finally the moment of which they had both warned? The silence between them thickened, and Buffy found herself captivated by the indecision that haunted his shadowed gaze. When she had been his prisoner she had seen the world in the stark contrast of black and white, but now she was reminded of the shades of gray that forever marked her life. There was something there - something in his gaze that reminded her less of a cold-hearted demon and more of someone tortured by their deeds and their past, and for one bright shining moment Buffy felt the black lessen into a shade of gray that she hadn't before noticed.
Sometimes I think that life is all about messing up, often in the worst of ways, and then trying to find a way back from the dark places you've traveled.
"Vashnak," she murmured, the name sounding foreign as for the first time ever, there was no malice in her voice. "Vashnak, you don't have to do this," she whispered as she felt Legolas stir against her legs. "You don't have to-" she continued, her quiet plea muffled beneath the dark-elf's sudden snarl of rage. Startled, Buffy drew back against Legolas' downed form and then flung herself upon the fair-haired elf to shield him from Vashnak's arrow, only to realize too late that her actions were not needed as the dark-elf pivoted with the speed of the firstborn and released his arrow to their right.
A lone cry of agony followed that arrow's swift departure.
Eyes growing wide in confusion, Buffy felt the world slow as she and Legolas both turned towards that cry, their eyes moving past men and elves and dwarves until they rested upon a man who cupped his hands around the bloody arrow that quivered from his breast. "No," she whispered as the sibilant whispers of her dark dreams finally came clear, their warnings now unmistakable and far too late to prevent that which had happened. Again she saw the White Tree, first shining and majestic beneath the golden sun as she knew it to be in life, and then withered and dead as in her dream.
"This is the White Tree, the symbol of Gondor... Many years after the line of Kings ended, the tree withered and died."
"No," Buffy whispered again, her eyes turning past the man's pained features to the two startled hobbits that had remained at his side throughout the night's many long battles. The small creatures were stunned, their wide, disbelieving eyes locked on their friend... their king.
"I fear Gondor would flounder and fall without him. Aragorn is the reason that Gondor exists and this country will not survive again without her king."
"Oh please no," Buffy whispered as the man slowly looked up, his circlet hidden beneath his dark, tousled hair. His eyes, so dark and powerful, were now filled with pain and already they were losing their light as he looked past her and locked upon the anguished eyes of the elf that remained riveted beside her.
"Aragorn," Legolas whispered, the deep, soul-rending pain in that simple word causing Buffy's heart to break. Slowly, awkwardly he stumbled from her side, his gait at first uneven and then quickly gaining grace and speed as he fled to the side of his most precious mortal friend.
"While not the Prince of Elves, the King of Men is surely a worthy substitute."
Spell broken by Vashnak's caustic words, Buffy turned back to the dark-elf with fire burning in her eyes. Something within her had been warning her for days of the danger to Aragorn, and with it, to the people that he governed - and she had been blind to it all. Without their king, Gondor would fall. Without their king, the free peoples of Middle-earth would fall. And it was this creature, created from her own blood, that had loosed the arrow that had spelled their doom.
Silent and deadly in her fury, Buffy lifted her sword and quickly launched herself at the smirking dark-elf. Like a shutter lowering over a sun-dappled glass, the shade of gray she had glimpsed was forever lost beneath a smothering blanket of the darkest black. This was no battle, no duel, and no dance, for Buffy didn't even allow Vashnak the chance to throw aside his bow in favor of the sword that was plunged into the earth at his feet. Instead she threw herself forward and impaled the dark creature upon the edge of her gore-encrusted blade, her features cut from stone as she buried it into the soft cavity of his chest until the hilt was flush against his tunic. As though the mortal wound had pushed the air from his lungs, she felt his breath wash over her face as his fingers dug into her shoulders, his mouth flung open in an 'o' of surprise.
"Buffy?" he whispered, the word a soft plea as his legs buckled, the force of his death grip upon her carrying them both to their knees. But then the burning anger within her was gone as that indefinable thing surged forward to fill his eyes with such pain and longing that Buffy felt her cold fury melt back until she was an empty shell.
It was done and in this, at least, all was as it was meant to be.
"What will... what will happen to me?" Vashnak gasped as blood pooled in his mouth and bubbled past his thin lips. Transfixed, Buffy found herself unable to turn away. "Have you... have you restored all that was taken? Will I go to the elves' Mandos' Hall? Or will I... will I sink down into that dark place that Melkor has prepared for all of his creatures?"
"I don't know," Buffy murmured, her voice flat as she tore Vashnak's claw-like grip from her shoulders. "I don't know," she repeated as she turned away, stilling only as his hand grabbed her wrist in a bruising grip, demanding her attention.
"But you... you can heal me," Vashnak ground out as he looked down upon the gaping wound that poured his red blood onto the muddied earth beneath him. "You can heal me, as you healed your elven prince. You can make me whole."
"Not anymore," Buffy muttered before wrenching her wrist free and turning from the dying elf. "Not anymore," she repeated, her voice hard as she walked away. Yet she found no solace in the sight that lay before her as her keen gaze landed upon where Legolas crouched over Aragorn's still form from within a protective circle of men and elves. Her steps faltering, Buffy wavered before the frantic shouts of the men and the panicked cries of the small hobbits that hovered over the dying king. "So much death," she whispered as she turned away, not wanting to intrude upon their final moments with their friend. "So much pointless death," she whispered as she began heading towards the war that would not stop with the death of either leader.
Tensing at the strong hand that gripped her narrow shoulder, Buffy turned to find Elladan's distraught figure before her. "Buffy, Estel... Estel has been shot," the elf murmured as he slipped his hand down until it was wrapped around her small fingers, encasing her dirty, blood-stained digits in his warm grip. "The arrow is too close to his heart and he is dying," he quickly explained as he pulled her through the circle of men and elves until she found herself standing uncertainly within the eye of the storm.
"I know, Elladan," Buffy murmured, her heavy gaze dragging down until her saddened eyes were locked upon Aragorn's limp form. The proud man lay crumpled upon the muddy field, grasses tangled and matted beneath his dark head and his skin as white as the cold stars that twinkled so far above. His battle-stained clothes were sodden with the blood that drained from the arrow lodged in his chest, Elrohir's elegant hands wrapped firmly around the smooth wooden shaft as though hoping to stem the crimson wash. "I know," she repeated as her eyes inevitably lifted to the fair-haired elf that remained poised beside his fallen friend, his eyes locked on Aragorn's closed lids. Legolas' glow was dim - more dim than she had ever seen it, and Buffy clearly saw the grief that caused the elf to remain lost within his own inner turmoil.
"Then you know you must help him," Elladan persisted as he tugged Buffy forward until her toe grazed against Aragorn's boot.
"I - what?" Buffy demanded, snapping from her morbid inspection as she turned to the dark-haired elf in shock. "You've got to be kidding me! You saw what my blood did to that man earlier! It killed him!" she exclaimed as she pulled her hand from his as though burned, all the while wondering why his request shocked her so. She should have known this was coming - she should have seen it. And yet she hadn't, for Elladan was asking of her the one thing that Legolas had promised that she would never again have to do. Yes, her blood had healed before, but it had also killed. The blood of a slayer wasn't intended for this.
"I understand now the power I have-"
"How could I not? My blood is my own - it's what keeps my heart beating, my lungs pumping, and my thoughts spinning. I need my blood to live, but it has a power all its own. It gives me the power to build darkness. It gives me the power to kill."
"Then you haven't learned anything at all."
"He will be dead even if you do nothing," Elrohir countered from his position beside his foster-brother, breaking Buffy from her tailspin thoughts.
"So don't let his death rest upon me!" Buffy retorted as she turned her glare from one twin to the other. They didn't understand. They didn't understand that each time someone took some of her blood, it was as though they took another part of her away forever. Her time trapped within Vashnak's stronghold had nearly defeated her, and each time another drop was taken it was as though another small part of her soul withered and died. And yet these twin elves couldn't understand this, so instead she found her gaze returning to the fair-haired elf that was so silent in his wasting grief. Legolas was her friend. He had promised-
"But Estel is not as normal men," Elladan argued, once more drawing her waning attention. "He is Dnedain; the blood of the firstborn runs through his veins."
When Buffy maintained her silence, Elrohir quickly took up his brother's plea. "At least give him a chance... he is our brother," he whispered as the full of his elven stare fell upon her, smothering her beneath ages of pain and loss.
Feeling the tears burn her eyes, Buffy forced her gaze away as she looked back upon Aragorn's ashen face. "I'm sorry," she whispered, hating the heaviness that dwelt within her. "I-"
Startled, she turned to find Legolas slowly lifting his bowed head until his piercing blue eyes were locked upon her. She took a hesitant step forward, her heart hammering within her. There was something in his gaze that hadn't been there before - something desperate and wild. "Legolas, I'm so sorry-"
"Buffy, please help him."
Everything fell silent as Buffy stared at Legolas in wide-eyed horror. She knew that she should have expected this request from the twins who hadn't understood what they were asking, but Legolas knew. He understood her pain. He understood what each drop of blood cost her and yet it was his voice that had issued that one heartfelt plea. Pain ripped through her and she felt her knees begin to tremble as the one person who had vowed to stand beside her cast her away. "Legolas, don't ask this of me," she warned, her voice shaking as the tears streamed unbidden down her dirty cheeks. "Please, anything but this. You said... you said that-"
"I know what I said," Legolas whispered, and it was then that Buffy truly understood what betrayal meant. Legolas had been faced with the greatest of choices: one friend over another, and in the end it was no decision at all. What was the soul of a friend of only a few months in comparison to the life of his dearest mortal companion - a friendship that had been forged decades ago and which was so great that he had denied himself the bliss of Valinor in order to remain at that man's side? "I know what I said and I am sorry," he resolutely continued, "but I cannot lose him."
Eyes slipping shut as she felt something within her shatter into so many pieces - something newly mended and so very fragile - Buffy felt the last piece of the puzzle finally slip into place. Her mother and Arwen hadn't been warning her about Vashnak, after all.
"When the time comes, he will not choose you."
When the time comes, Legolas would not choose her - and he hadn't. They had been right, of course - for wasn't that the purpose of prophetic dreams? They warned her of what was to come, but the catch was that it was done in such a manner that she was hopeless to understand the warning until it was too late. The time had come and Legolas hadn't chosen her. The friendship and hope which had carried her into this battle had been nothing more than an illusion, and without it she understood the rest of the elusive message.
"You were meant to stand alone, and in the end, you will be alone."
"Arwen forfeited her immortality for a mortal life with this man," one of the twins persisted, which Buffy didn't know or care about, lost as she was in the darkness of the world she now lived. "Do not let her live it alone."
"We are all alone," Buffy returned, her voice flat as she finally opened her eyes to a world that now seemed dull and muffled. Woodenly she stepped forward, her hand wrapping around the hilt of her dagger as she quickly raised the blade and used it to slice open her wrist in the manner in which it had been opened hundreds of times in months past. Looking away as Elladan stepped forward, she refused to watch as the elder twin collected a small sampling of her blood in a flask that he carried, nothing more than a few drops, but more than enough to kill that much more of her withered spirit.
The elf mixed his poison with water to dilute the potency before he knelt beside his foster-brother, forcing the dying man to drink the tainted water. For a moment, she felt Legolas' eyes upon her, but then even that final gaze was turned away as the blood took effect and Aragorn began to scream.
As the King of Gondor began to convulse upon the ground, the men and elves came alive around him. The twins lifted their brother's body between them with the aid of a few soldiers and bore the thrashing man to Minas Tirith. Legolas, his heart pounding in his chest as the agonized screams of his friend echoed above the sounds of battle, quickly fell into step with the others. He remembered Aragorn's pain well, and yet his steps faltered as an image of Buffy's bitter, tear-stained face flashed before him. Aragorn needed him, and yet the betrayal and emptiness in Buffy's eyes made him realize that he may have lost two dear friends this night, and not just one.
Turning, he went to call for her - to bid her to follow them to the safety of the inner circle of Minas Tirith - but he found that she was gone, the ranks of those still battling having closed around her petite frame. His hurting heart clenching within his chest, Legolas turned, his eyes desperately seeking the small slayer as his soul became rent between the friend that was being borne ever more distant and the one that he had betrayed to save him.
"Thoron," Legolas gasped as he turned to his advisor with frantic eyes, taking quick note of the older elf's bloody tunic and the strength that still shone in his ancient eyes. "You must find Buffy! Aragorn needs me and I must go with them, but you have to find her and protect her - protect her with your life!" he urged as he began backing towards the men that carried Aragorn further away.
"But King Thranduil bade me-"
"I am your king now," Legolas cut in, his eyes flashing, "and I order you to stay by her side and ensure that no harm comes to her." Pausing uncertainly, he looked again to the war that continued to be fought. "I promised that she wouldn't be alone," he murmured as he finally understood what Buffy had realized only moments before. He was the mysterious 'he' that her dreams had spoken of. He had betrayed her, he hadn't chosen her, and as a result, she was destined to be alone - to her very end. "Please, find her," he whispered before turning and hurrying after his friend.
Alone, Thoron watched his lord's agitated gait before turning back to the thriving, moving mass with a despondent sigh. Finding one small girl amongst so much turmoil would be like finding a needle in a haystack. "Thranduil, the things I do for you and your son," he muttered before turning and fording into battle.
The darkness was absolute and the barest light became fractured by the oppressive weight that she carried. Seven years she had been a tool that was used against the evil that hid in the dark shadows of her world. Seven years she had fought, sacrificed, and died - not for a world that didn't know or love her, but for the friends that had given her reason to get up each day and to survive each battle into which she entered. But that was a different world - a different past. She was no longer that person; no longer that tool. She was something new and horrible; something that took life and twisted it into something different. Her blood made monsters, killed men, and saved elves. Her blood had damned her soul... and yet it was her 'friends' that had destroyed her.
Legolas and the others had showed her that she could live again with this new weight and that they would help her to shoulder this burden. They had offered her hope and love and friendship when she had none, and she had greedily taken it all and allowed their gifts to buoy her flagging spirit. While the stone that she wore around her neck had restored the power to her limbs, it was the actions of Legolas and the others that had restored the part of her soul that she had thought lost forever... and that which made this blow all the more difficult to now bear. Impossible to bear.
With tears streaming down her cheeks, Buffy struck at anything that moved, her sword hacking off limbs and driving through metal to pierce the flesh beneath. She wanted to make them hurt as much as she was hurting, yet with each killing blow Buffy knew that their pain could never match her own. She had already run the full gamut of physical pains in her short life, but nothing - nothing that she had ever experienced, including throwing herself into a swirling vortex of energy - nothing could compare to this. It felt as though she had just been pulled from heaven to find that she had already sent Angel to Hell, Faith into a coma, and her friends had abandoned her. It was the pain of her mom's unexpected death combined with the agony of losing all of her friends for forever. It was all of this and so much more because this time there was no one to lessen the pain - no one to fill the empty void their loss had created.
Nothing and no one.
She was alone, and just as she had always known, alone she was nothing.
Alone she was no one.
With no one to give her reason to go on, with nothing to give her something to live for to fight another day, she grew sloppy and all too soon Buffy realized that the death wish of all slayers, the one that Spike had spoken of long ago, had finally found her. She was powerful, she was deadly, but she was also hollow from all that had been torn from her. It took only one moment of inattention for the end to come.
Gasping as a fiery pain tore through her back and into her midsection, Buffy paused mid-strike as she looked down to find a bloody sword tip protruding from her abdomen. Confused, she felt her weapon slip from her nerveless fingers as she reached down and wonderingly touched the sharp tip of this foreign blade. The world was silent and still, another moment frozen in time as she struggled to understand what had happened - what this meant. The initial pain was gone and instead she was left in a breathless moment that stretched for an eternity. The anger had vanished, as had the despair, and all that remained was a soul-wrenching longing that tore her worse than the metal that protruded from her stomach in a gory spray of blood.
"Legolas?" she murmured, the name a choked whisper that all at once echoed with the emptiness that she in part had created as well as the surety that she didn't want this to be her end. She didn't want this to be her final moment on this world when she had last looked upon the fair-haired elf with so much betrayal burning within her. Legolas knew what his request would cost her, and yet ask it he had - but instead of understanding the depth of his need and selflessly giving what he desired, she had instead turned from him and willingly stepped into this cold void to face her end alone. "Leg-" she began again, the name lost beneath a pained cry as the blade was pulled from her back in the same manner that it was driven forth.
Gasping raggedly, Buffy tumbled first to her knees, and then to the ground as the pain surged forward, stealing her breath and causing spots to dance in her fuzzy vision. She felt light-headed and so weak, as if it was even too much work to close her wide, disbelieving eyes. Stunned, she was forced to watch as her nameless attacker's blackened feet shuffled past her to engage another enemy as her blood begin to pool beneath her leather-clad form.
"Never give up when you still have something left to give, for it is never truly over until the moment that you stop trying."
"Have nothing... no reason," she murmured, her breath causing a single, un-trampled blade of grass to quiver before her parted lips as her eyes fluttered shut. Yet something compelled her to open them again, and when she did she found her sister's pale face pressed against the ground before her, Dawn's large hazel eyes staring into her own.
"Make choices that we can both live with."
Swallowing heavily, Buffy felt her phantom sister's words cut far deeper than those of her watcher. His advice had been meant as encouragement for his slayer in troubled times, but her sister's words had been intended as a vicious slap to push her beyond her limits when she thought she couldn't possibly be pushed any further. It was the kind of brutality that was borne of the love of a sibling, and Buffy had already spent too many years making choices that had disappointed Dawn. She wouldn't continue that legacy now - not when there truly was something still left to fight for... if only she lived long enough to tell him that she had been wrong.
Slowly nodding her head from where her cheek was pressed against the cold ground, Buffy met her sister's eyes. "I will," she promised as she pushed herself up from the ground and away from the figment, wincing as the stab wound pulsed with every beat of her heart. Buffy felt the stone burn even brighter against her skin, replenishing the strength that was fleeing from her heavy limbs and rejuvenating her, and with her renewed power came the passion that had abandoned her.
Eyes flashing with the fiery heat that burned from the stone around her neck, Buffy reached down and reclaimed her sword, her expression determined. "This is a decision that we would both be able to live with," she ground out as she launched herself at an orc that was bearing down on an injured Gondorian. With an inarticulate cry of rage, Buffy struck at the hapless creature, hacking it limb from limb before turning away with nary a glance at the wounded man, her injured body humming as it tried to repair injuries as quickly as she received them.
For time uncounted she fought battle after battle, waging war upon everything that came near as she struggled against the predictions of her dreams. But her doom came as her wounds began to outnumber the strength of Willow's stone, and as a dark-elf got past her weakened defenses to lay her bare from shoulder to hip, his sharp blade slicing through leather, skin, muscle and tissue - and the leather cord that tied her to the magic that had carried her through the past few dark days.
Like a puppet whose strings had been cut, Buffy dropped, and she dropped hard, her body rebounding off the many bodies that were scattered below her before she finally found her resting spot draped over the carcasses of an orc and the man that had killed it before finding his own demise, her face pressed beside his. In that instant Buffy felt her previous weakness rush back upon her threefold, coupled with a fiery wave of agony that threatened to bury her as each breath became labored and as blood poured from her grisly wound to soak both her and the bodies upon which she lay.
"The time is coming, and when it arrives you will have no place amongst them. You were meant to stand alone, and in the end, you will be alone, for he will not be there for you."
With these words haunting her increasingly scattered thoughts, Buffy's eyes fluttered closed and the world went dark.
For how long she drifted, she couldn't be sure, but when she next awoke it was to a silence that was interrupted only by the screams and cries of the wounded and a darkness that made her question if her eyes were truly open. The pain was growing less now, and her body cold, and somewhere she felt fear at this thought. The First Slayer told her that death was her gift, and she had tasted this gift twice over, but somehow she thought that she didn't want to know that path again. She tried to move - tried to shift her body in order to prove to her failing mind that it still existed - but even that proved too much as there was weight above her that pinned her upon her bed of death and gore. And then... then there was darkness once more as she became lost to the waking world.
Dark paths she tread, shadows and sibilant whispers of things that she couldn't understand haunting her every step. There was the chill breath of Death following her, with nothing but darkness before and behind her. It was an empty void of pain and loss - a hollow place where not even the spirit of the First Slayer could stave off that which hunted her. But then that darkness began to lighten, the black turning to gray and slowly Buffy realized that she no longer walked the dark paths but instead lay unmoving upon a stiff body, her eyes open and locked upon the unseeing eyes of the face that was pressed against her own, the man's skin cold and unyielding against her flushed cheek.
Her thoughts were moving sluggishly, but Buffy thought that this hell was perhaps worse than the darkness in which she had been hiding. This hell brought pain and suffering and no relief to the agony that ripped her body and soul. But then she was reminded of what had torn her from that dark abyss as she again felt the weight that had been holding her down shift above her. This movement of weight caused the pain to flare anew, and Buffy cried out as hot needles jabbed viciously into her skin. Whimpering, she felt the weight shift again and then it disappeared altogether as she felt small, soft hands grip her shoulders before gently tipping her to the side, her world turning topsy-turvy as a small voice yelped excitedly. Battling a sudden bout of nausea, Buffy slipped her eyes shut and waited for the movement to stop as the voice's exuberant cries abruptly fell silent beneath a gasp of dismay.
Bracing herself, Buffy licked dry, cracked lips and opened her eyes to reveal a world that was murky and gray, a young, familiar face hovering above her. It was a hobbit, she realized, her eyes slowly moving over small features that were sooty and dirty, with a cut above his eyes that was covered with caked blood. "Pippin?" she murmured, the word a breathless question that was so soft she feared she hadn't spoken at all, but the hobbit's face fractured into a small, encouraging smile that somehow made his tearful gaze all the more sad.
"Lady Buffy, I... we... we have been looking everywhere for you," the hobbit murmured as he forced a bright smile, the expression twisting his features into something garish and pinched. "The battle is over and we have won," he continued as one tear broke free to splash upon her cold cheek. "The orcs and dark-elves have scattered and run back to their holes."
Trying her best to return the hobbit's smile, Buffy's eyes slipped shut once more. She was so tired and somehow this darkness was better than seeing a world that grew more gray with each passing moment. She wanted nothing more than to slip away, but there was something she still had to do, and somehow she knew that her lassitude scared the small being. She felt his hands tighten on her arms as he cried out once more - this time a name that she knew well.
Encouraged, Buffy forced her eyes open just as Pippin's face disappeared to be replaced by the one she had most longed to see again - the one for which she had been waiting. Comforted by his presence, Buffy felt his arms encircle her, lifting her from her hard bed and pulling her close so that she was cradled in his arms. Even now he smelled of rain and wind and tree, and she felt a slow smile lift her bloodied lips. The pain was less now, and she was thankful for the small respite as she looked into his frantic blue eyes.
"Is he... is he okay?" Buffy whispered, overriding Legolas' anguished words as her scattered thoughts jumped to the man who was king. There was some question that she had meant to ask. Some knowledge that she needed before... before the darkness came again. She needed to know- "Is he dead?"
Graceful lips stretching into a tremulous smile that soothed her aching heart, Legolas cupped her cheek in his hand. "The king is well," he assured. "You healed him."
With these softly uttered words, Buffy felt the last of the tension ease from her hurting body. Was this what she had needed, then? "Good," she murmured as her eyes slipped shut, once more encasing her in darkness.
"Buffy? Buffy!" Legolas whispered, the fervent plea in his words calling her back. "Buffy, I'm so sorry I-"
Minutely shaking her head, Buffy struggled against the darkness as she forced her heavy eyes to open. Breathing raggedly, she wished to lift her hand and brush away the tears that streaked down his dirty face, but her hand was too heavy and all she could do was allow him to see the peace that shone within her darkening eyes. "Shh... s'okay," she whispered, forcing the words past lips that were growing more resistant to her efforts. It wasn't right to see tears upon his face, nor to see such despair in his blue eyes. "I helped today," she murmured with a careless grin, hoping that in these small words he would understand everything that she didn't have the strength to say. And as the full of his stare fell upon her, she felt all of her barriers fall away as he peeled back the layers to see the understanding that she had reached, and the forgiveness that he sought. "I'm glad," she murmured, one final time before darkness claimed her.
The day was bright and beautiful, the land covered in a blanket of green as the trees reached their leafy boughs to the cloudless blue sky. The sun shone down bright and hot, drying the rain from the night before and causing the flowers to shoot from the earth with bright blossoms of color. The smells of spring and rain and fragrant flowers and trees wafted on the warm breeze, and the buzzing insects and the rustling of the trees created a comforting cadence that soothed Legolas' mind as he stood upon the high talan that marked the edge of the colony in Ithilien.
His long golden hair was braided away from his face in neat, even knots that drew the strands above his pointed ears, and his soft, clean clothing was almost luminescent in the sunny light. Gone now were all marks of battle and war, of hurt and loss, and he held himself as befitting a noble lord who ruled over his people, a slender circlet of the purest mithril perched upon his brow. He was everything that a prince and lord should be, and even his features, ageless and beautiful in the golden light, hid well the turmoil that roiled in his sharp blue gaze as he watched the small group that was slowly departing his beloved woods.
Elladan and Elrohir led the small party of elven warriors, their voices lifted in joyful song to the beautiful spring day, and as the group passed outside the outer limits of the elvish colony, Legolas silently bid each warrior safe journey and luck in the coming hunt. It should have been no surprise that out of all, it was the elves that felt the most responsibility for the new evil that walked in their world. The eldar and the mornedhel shared a past that was twisted in darkness, and their creation gave one more reason for many an elf to remain on these shores, forgoing the bliss of Valinor until the dark race was wiped from this land. Yet inevitably, as always, he found his gaze lingering on the one who traveled with them, her eyes bright and her hair lying unbound and golden down her back as she confidently moved her large mare down the gentle path.
"She will be back," Aragorn murmured from beside him as the king clasped his shoulder in a strong, reassuring grip.
Smiling sadly, Legolas nodded his agreement. "Some trees grow tall and straight in the forest close to one another, but others must stand by themselves or they will not grow at all," he noted as he watched her tip back her golden head, her laughter mingling with the elves with whom she traveled.
"Besides, the twins will see that she comes to no harm," Aragorn offered in an obvious attempt to lighten his friend's heart.
"As will Thoron," Legolas added as he nodded to where the older elf rode beside the small slayer. "I've ordered him to ensure that she never leaves his sight," he explained as Aragorn chuckled quietly beside him.
"I cannot imagine that he was too delighted with this assignment," the king returned. "Elladan and Elrohir have regaled me with tales of their feuds."
"Actually, it was his idea to go," Legolas admitted with a small shrug. "Thoron almost failed me when I had last given him this task, and he has vowed that he will not do so again."
Eyes widening slightly at this subtle reminder of that ill night so many months before, Aragorn nodded in agreement. "Further proof that some good did come of all this," he murmured, his own thoughts turning to the small slayer that traveled comfortably amongst the elven warriors. The wounds that she had sustained that night had been grievous, and were it not for her slayer stamina and healing abilities, there was no doubt in his mind that she would not have survived the coming days. As it was, many months passed as winter slowly turned to spring before all of her wounds had healed and her strength was finally returned. Yet by that time, after all that had happened in Minas Tirith, it had become painfully obvious that she didn't belong with the men of this world, and so instead Buffy had finally found her place amongst the elves - the one race that shared her passion and drive for ridding the world of that which her blood had created. She wouldn't rest until the entirety of the foul race was destroyed.
"Yes, some good," Legolas agreed as a small, enigmatic smile lifted his narrow lips and as Buffy turned back, her eyes catching and holding his until her large mare carried her from sight.
From another place in the peaceful woods, one other person watched this goodbye with a smile. While he was quite sure that this wasn't what Buffy had in mind, even he had to admit that she had finally found the place where she belonged and the peace that she so aptly deserved. "Be happy, Kid," he murmured as he tipped his green bowler hat in the direction where the small, fiery slayer had disappeared. "You've earned it."
Author's Note Cont: A round of applause that knows no end must first go to Nightwing for joining me on this adventure and for correcting hasty mistakes and smacking me when I got too lazy. She always pushed me for more and I'm sure much of this story would have been sub-par if it were not for her. After all, this story has truly been a work of love, ever evolving and changing as personal events have shaped the course of my own life. Thank you to everyone who has been there from the very beginning, and to those of you who have joined us along the way. This story would have fallen to the side long ago if it had not been for your encouragements, comments, and pushes when the way become lost. This is also the point where I, as usual, beg, plead, and ask very nicely for everyone to take a moment and send a review, even if you always send one or never have before, and let me know what you thought of the story as a whole. Did you like it? Love it? Despise it? Why? I always take each and every one of your comments to heart, and they have always helped to shape what comes next - not to mention that it's the final huge reward for a writer, and one that I'd appreciate after all of the time and work this project took! So please review away!