Um... so... I live in Japan now. ^=^

...Sooo that was a heck of a long time to wait... but at least it was months and not years? Lately it was either sheer disaster or amazing goodness coming my way, but both required time and attention to things other than writing. I'll explain:

December was a shamble of a month with no breaks: both of my grandmothers died a month apart from each other, and shortly after I got a full time Japanese interpreter position with a factory-THEN I found out I actually GOT a JET interview and did that in February- (think the Yale of English teaching programs for Japan)- and NOW I ACTUALLY GOT INTO JET AND AM CURRENTLY LIVING IN NAGASAKI.

Wow. It's over. The hard part's over. I... I DID A JET INTERVIEW, I DIDN'T PASS OUT OR VOMIT DURING IT, AND I WAS A JAPANESE INTERPRETER AND NOW I'M A JET. AFTER EIGHT YEARS. AT LAST.

Holy crap, I should update less often! (Kidding. ^^)

Anyway. Here you are! We have a couple more chapters to go at least. Enjoy and tell me what you think! It's been SO nice and encouraging to have all of you guys' support and good wishes, as well as to hear your reactions to the writing. Much love to you all! Hope this new year is treating you well, and many thanks for your interminable patience!

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

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Chapter Seventeen: The Road Goes Ever On

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o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

Birds were singing on the window ledges, and somewhere a voice conversed in softened reverence for those who still slept. The scent of smoke drifted in the air mixing with the smell of stone, signalling that the fire had been recently been woken from its bed of embers, and it in turn pulled Aragorn from the depths of sleep.

Aragorn's mind rushed through events in reverse, following thoughts backward toward their source, and he jerked:

Swirls of brilliant, streaming light surrounding them, screamed words that hurt his eardrums, a golden mask made of sunlight that faded into a beaten grey face with blood streaming from its mouth, eyelashes fallen in irrevocable closure, bloody golden hair strewn in messy clumps across his arm and the smell of death filling his lungs like sand...

The Dunadan's eyes cracked open enough to where he could see Legolas' stilled face, and for one brief moment his heart seized, fearing that perhaps he had dreamed it all in a fevered state from his wounds. A pang of grief shot from his gut straight down through his fingers and toes as he took in the elf's shut eyes.

No!

But then the rise and fall of his friend's chest beneath the bearskin calmed his nerves, and he closed his own eyes in relief, exhaling, feeling mild breath not his own warming his hair and the sleep-paused hand still wrapped around his own, no longer deathly cold. Aragorn found himself engulfed in gratitude to have those small, seemingly insignificant signs that he thought he would choke.

It was no dream.

The ranger took in every line of Legolas' stark face as he slept, trying to ignore the eyes as merely due to exhaustion from the healing the night before, and again he found himself nearly weeping. He put the hand bearing Barahir on the elf's chest as he breathed.

They had come so close...

He would never forget the numb disbelief and the feel of shattering loss as Legolas' body had failed under his hands, the overwhelming moment he had stopped breathing in his grasp... and all he had been allowed was to watch.

Tears formed afresh, and his grip tightened over Legolas' arrow-calloused fingers. Trauma was not quick to take its leave, it would seem, and he willed his arms not to shake awareness back into the blond archer where he lay to rid himself of the fear at the expression he now bore, eyes closed and unnatural. It was too much like the moment of his death, too eerily similar.

Reminiscent of former nightmares he had as a boy, Aragorn nearly did wake the elf merely for his own satisfaction, to be certain that he was alive. His heart was still not swayed that all his life had changed for the second time in the span of two mere days. He had tried his damnedest not to dwell on Legolas' death whilst they fought for survival, and now time was needed to reset himself into any form of normalcy.

Too close. I don't know how I would have managed...

The world had first changed when he knew he would never see his best friend again. Then it had burst into chaos anew when he had returned in the form of nothing less than a flaming angel of light, and even now he was not certain if it was truly him. Any chance that this miracle could be overturned weakened him, and his former resolve started to chip away ever so slightly in the wake of his emotions.

Aragorn desperately wanted him to speak, to tell him it was real, to reassure him that their journey together was not yet over, that he was not alone...

You... will never... be... alone...

One of the bodies beside them stirred, and he saw that his older brothers still lay at his side, a mere arm's length away. Fear gave way to make room for the warmest of smiles, his eyes crinkling in fond, sleepy observance. His heartbeat slowed to a comfortable pace.

Valar help me, I had never wished so much for the chance to see this again...

A glance revealed his elder brothers: Elladan collapsed over Elrohir in a sheltering nest of arms, finally having succumbed to sleep at some point during the night. The older twin still held a naked blade to his left, and both of them had turned unconsciously inward toward each other, curled like elflings on the sleep furs, breathing in sync as their spirits resonated with their usual familiarity.

Elrohir's hand had tucked itself into the dark river of his brother's hair, and Elladan's own fingers had found their rest in the crook of his brother's elbow, creating a circle of touch as they slept.

Aragorn could not help but smile softly; they would no doubt be inseparable for a long time, and he would relish it.

And they will likely be back at their old tricks soon... It would be wonderful to see them behave as they were.

Having them back was a weight off of his heart that he barely had the capacity to understand, but it was undeniably beautiful to behold. They were alive and well, and he was grateful for it with strength that shook him.

Birds called again, and his mind went to the other figures in the room. His silent catharsis now abating, the ranger realized that the hushed voice speaking nearby was none other than his adoptive father, who had not seen that he had woken.

His heart swelled.

His father.

If ever his joy was to be more complete, Aragorn could not have imagined it.

It was early dawn, and for a brief moment it felt like one of his treasured days in Rivendell, awaking from a feast the night before to Elrond's deep, soothing Elvish on one subject or another with Glorfindel or Erestor while his children slept by the fireplace, the last of the embers offering a sweet smell of incense on the morning breeze. Feeling heat reflecting into him, he knew without looking that a blanket had indeed been drawn around him in the same fashion as whenever the elf lord had woken to find him still asleep in the great hall.

Aragorn knew it was he who must have done so now, and he felt a rush of warmth in his breast that came from neither flame nor body.

"...and what... Estel? I do not believe... yet spoken of him, my old friend."

He caught his name in passing from Gandalf's soft rumble, and chose not to stir as they continued to talk quietly together at the fireside. Estel rested against his friend's chest and listened as the elf lord conversed with Mithrandir, both of them sitting on stools a few spaces away from the huddle of sleeping warriors.

Arwen was asleep on the cot they tended, covered with her father's velvet robe, and Elrond sat at her side much as he had at the bedsides of many, many patients he had treated in his time. The hand bearing Vilya stroked her hair as if she were a mere babe, (which to him she still was,) and he could see tear tracks shining on Elrond's tired face.

Suddenly Aragorn knew exactly what this conversation was about, and a pang of aching regret seared his insides. Without his robes of status, his hair loosened and predawn tingeing his face with a cold light, his profile looked so much older and so very saddened that he wanted to go to him, but he was interrupted by the Istar. Mithrandir said something unintelligible, waiting for the Noldor to ready his answer in due time.

Elrond responded.

In his ignorance of who listened to his words, Elrond gave Aragorn a glimpse into himself that he had never thought to receive:

"My heart is heavy, Gandalf my friend." he admitted. "I thought had come to terms with Estel's passing long ago, and it took much from me to do so, but... would that I had not taken up the mantle of eternity gifted me by my fathers, had I but known that... that my children might refuse it." His eyes closed as if to wash the broken world from them. "I do not think that I could abide long enough to see the journey of Valinor to its end, should such a thing come to pass... No matter what happens, we will eventually lose him. And now I will lose my Star as well."

A worn, thick-skinned hand lay upon Elrond's shoulder, warming the spirit of the weary lord as he turned his head toward the sleeping bundle that held his entire existence beneath it. He could not stop his eyes from resting on her.

"I have borne this grief before, Mithrandir," Elrond lamented. "I know the bitterness of mortality as surely as if I had chosen Elros' path myself. But I had hope," he sighed in deterrence of a quiet sob, "that I would never see it come to pass for my children."

"Children have a way of repaying kindness with cruelty, even when it is not their intent," Gandalf mused. "But their joy is more than equal payment. When they are no longer ours to move and mold, it is we who are moved and shaped with their absence."

Elrond found himself smiling lightly through glistening eyes at the white wizard. "Such wisdom from one who has fathered none," he teased softly.

Gandalf chuckled. "I would say that I have played father to a great many, young one, though naught be the ties of blood. Your human son included."

"And for that, I am ever grateful." Elrond's practiced hand stroked the tossed waves of brown hair that lay on the pillow beside him. "As I am for my borrowed time as his parent."

"For one such as Aragorn, I might be grateful as well. There is nothing they will not do for love of him, that much is certain," the white wizard's lips quirked in a smile as one of the twins' hands twitched in search of the human's arm across the space between beds, making certain he was near even in sleep. Aragorn lay still as they regarded him, afraid to silence them.

"There is such joy in his wake, how could one not provide for him whatever he wished?" The elf lord tried to smile, and could not. He sighed deeper, and his shoulders drooped.

"I am so tired, my friend. I do not regret my choice, Mithrandir, but Estel makes me feel so very, very old."

Gandalf squeezed the elf's shoulder, nodding his understanding and bidding him continue, his eyes steady. He knew very well what he was going through, but it helped to voice such things.

"We have had words on the subject of he and Arwen, and I... cannot... seem to..."

For a while the ancient elf went mute, searching and unable to speak his mind.

His eyes spilled over at last as he met Mithrandir's gaze, and Aragorn found himself startled at his father's lack of words. Never was Elrond at such a loss, never. The half-elf breathed painfully; he was finally speaking it aloud as he had not been capable of doing in each discourse between his son and himself.

His throat caught on every syllable, and the truth came from his mouth:

"...I will miss him so very much."

Aragorn's heart bled. The sorrow in his voice was more than the ranger could bear.

The more his father had said, the more quietly distressed he'd become, and his stomach started to rebel. He had not intended to pry like this, but he was unsure if he should break the two from their discourse. This was not his arena to act upon, and his hand on Legolas' chest had begun to tremble with the strain: wanting to move but unable to, his eyes moving rapidly back and forth as if searching the blankets for peace, willing himself to stop breathing.

Oh Ada, please do not cry...

The conversing party went silent.

"...Estel?"

He had not realized that he had spoken aloud.

The ranger looked up to see both Gandalf and Elrond twisted in their seats to look in the direction of the speaker, Elrond's eyes were flooded to dripping, filled with pain, and his neck muscles snapped into straight lines in a drastic attempt to control his emotions. From his expression, Gandalf had seemed to know about their eavesdropper from the very beginning, but Elrond...

Indeed, he had not.

The look on his face was Aragorn's undoing, and the human let out a low cry as he rose from his bed to stumble to his father's side.

Gandalf quickly made himself scarce.

"I think I will go and meet with Lord Haldir," the wizard murmured sagely, taking his leave without the slightest bit of regard for the bold-faced lie as he pointedly vacated his stool for the younger man.

Neither of them so much as looked in his direction as he left.

Aragorn fell to his knees in his haste to embrace his foster father, ignoring the seat in favor of the shelter of the half-elf's welcoming arms. Elrond merely sat in silence and wrapped both arms around his human son, pressing his face into the boy-turned-man's ragged hair, refusing to speak. Estel found himself openly weeping, and he gripped the elf lord's body to his own in shaking relief that perhaps this bitter feud between them was at its end.

"I have never regretted my time with you, Estel," Elrond murmured, his speech muffled by the young one's dark hair as he cupped the back of his head closer to him. "I am just sorry that my tongue was so incapable of betraying my heart until now. I so wanted to tell you why... why I could not bear to-"

"It is well, Ada," Aragorn cut him off insistantly, burying his face deep into the elf lord's soft tunic, unwilling to hear his beloved father's voice break any further than it already had. "I have always understood, I know your love for us... I feared perhaps I had damaged us with this- this trial of our family, beyond repair..."

"No."

Elrond instantly drew him away so he could look into his face, tipping his chin up with his thumb.

He shook his head, his face so intense and so determined that Aragorn understand that the words died on the ranger's lips.

"You were not to blame, my son. I simply could not hold my peace, when every moment you were present I could see the signs upon you as plainly as the leaves of dying trees."

Aragorn's eyes were questioning. Elrond's smile was the saddest thing he had ever seen as he fingered the strands of wayward hair against his son's cheek.

"Your eyes grew deeper. Your skin bore the signs of age more and more with your return. Scars appeared in rising numbers, wave upon wave with each journey into the wild. And finally your hair has begun to silver, if only just. It is not noticeable to the eyes of Men, my son," Elrond added, quieting Aragorn's open-mouthed attempt at denial, humour touching the sea green eyes. "But I could see it, unbidden and unending. Your every move bespoke the sealing of your doom, and such knowledge is never easy for any father to endure."

His entire body went stone-still in an effort to stave off the tremors, and Elrond's deep eyes searched his son's face with a hunger for pardon that rarely ever emerged, the tears stemming somewhat in the face of his devotion to this moment with his child.

"I am truly sorry that my weakness has parted us so, and I would ask your forgiveness, if it be yours to give," he entreated.

There was a silence.

Aragorn knew he was staring blatantly at the honest fragility with which his father now greeted him, but he could not help himself. This was nothing he had ever dreamed to hear, let alone be expected to answer. And it was then that Elrond struck the final blow to what remained of the ranger's cracking shell: the shield of calm saving him from breaking in two, although it sounded as if it cost him much to utter:

"And... if Arwen was to marry..."

The Lord of Rivendell met Estel's shining eyes without flinching, the tears rolling anew in contrast with his steady gaze.

"I could not choose a better man to keep her in my stead."

Speechless was a thoroughly understated term for the Dunadan's stricken silence and the wide, childishly startled eyes with which he now beheld his dear, dear father. He thought he would burst. Although it felt like an eternity, a single moment was all it took for the Heir of Kings to crumble like the walls of an aged keep.

"Ada," he choked, and threw himself headlong into his father's tight, possessive embrace.

Elrond's eyes squeezed shut as he held his youngest, feeling something deep in his breast healing over at long last.

It was over an hour before either of them had the will to move away, and the light filtered in from behind lightly hanging clouds to touch their wearied faces with cool, caressing rays of white sun.

~0~

The nightmare came mockingly just as the first sliver of sunlight hit Legolas' skin.

The prince had been tucked securely beneath the bearskin blanket in blissful stupor, the dim glow about him in the shadows having eased Aragorn's mind about his health. He had just turned away to look at his father, kneeling at his feet with all the unquestioning love of a child in his eyes, about to speak...

...when the fit began.

There was a soft sound from deep in Legolas' chest, and then an explosion of limbs came from beneath the heavy bearskin. Elrond, Elladan and Aragorn each started in surprise when the prince of Mirkwood let out a strangled scream and threw himself upright, arms outstretched, eyes wild and panicked. Elladan was already crouched over Elrohir in a guarded battle stance, blade in hand when Legolas' outburst of Sindarin continued:

"No- Naneth! Do not leave me!" he screamed.

Aragorn was stricken; after his aloof, indifferent air as the golden creature who had healed his brother, this new persona was a different being entirely. His face was full of terror, the length of his chest and ribs shuddered with gasping breath and his skin had paled to wax. The blue gaze touched Aragorn's face and beyond it without recognition.

He crawled across the floor as if searching blindly for a lost treasure, muttering in a stream of Sindarin that Aragorn could barely make out, panic filling his every move:

"Naneth- no, no, no, do not- do not send me back, do not make me go- Darkness- the darkness-"

Elladan was already up and braced against the archer's back, hugging him loosely in an attempt to ground him back into himself, as Aragorn placed himself on his knees within the shuddering prince's line of sight, taking his hands.

"It is well, Legolas, we are here," the twin murmured, quietly enough to be gentle but forceful enough to be heard. "The Dark has gone, you no longer need fear it. You drove it away, Legolas, you drove it from him. Breathe, my friend."

Elrond knew exactly what the younger elf was experiencing and knelt at Legolas' side, opening his Sight upon him. The world had been blazing with such light of the Valar to the young elf for so long that the dark of the mortal world had not waned to a bearable level. Pitch black shadows that he had cast out scant hours ago would have been far worse to Legolas' mind, but the shadow of death still hanging over the veil of Middle Earth was too much for a delicate spirit, one that had dwelt for so long in the Light's close embrace.

Legolas stared into nothing for a long time, focusing on calming himself into something more nourishing than the shuddering half-gasps that failed to abate his fear. The shapes were fleeting and pricked his skin with gooseflesh to the point of stinging. It was the same as that first horrible moment he had gazed upon the battlefield, the stench of death and the press of engulfing evil dragging him down into itself, dissolving all he was and had been until the light took over...

And then the Light had held no comfort. It had been as invasive and overwhelming as the Dark itself, intimate to the point of embarrassment and utter shame, searing into every crevice of his spirit until he felt he could hold it no longer, full to bursting with burning, consuming power that left no room for himself- it would crush him; he would surely break!

He forced the memory away as he might an intruder bent on his blood.

"No! Get out of me! Why?! Why-?! Do not take me!"

Legolas yelped in a cry that broke his voice like thin pottery, cramming his face into both hands as if that would kill his pain, snatching himself away from Aragorn and Elladan's touch as if it caused him to hurt, bowed over his own knees and vibrating with terror. Elladan held his own hands just above the Silvan elf's skin, staring at his father with a helplessness that drove the lord to action.

"Legolas, look at me," Elrond ordered, taking both of his shoulders and forcing him to still.

"Look at me."

The militaristic tone pulled Legolas into a semblance of schooled focus, both hands still drawn up around his face as the Lord of Imladris shook him once to emphasize his words. Long centuries of drilling and warring in his father's armies had not faded in the least. A hard edge took Legolas' face, straightening his back and stiffening his limbs as his hands hovered about the sides of his face, no longer wild and frantic but shifting into weapons at the ready for his lord's command.

He focused on Lord Elrond. Crystal eyes met cerulean.

"It was but a dream," Elrond stated, unblinking and frighteningly intense, a rock in the tossing waves. "You are here now, at Helm's Deep. The battle is over, the humans have survived and won. We are safe."

The blond archer stayed frozen, eyes blank, as if all his effort were required simply to comprehend the Noldor elf's words.

Breathe. In. Out. Breathe.

"Naneth... She was there," Legolas muttered, confused and still shaken from the hovering shadows. "T'was no dream. She was..."

Now it was Aragorn's turn to freeze, and he saw Elrond's hands go still out of the corner of his eye. Legolas had indeed died and returned: he had seen his mother somewhere in the vast, and they had been parted once again. Something he remembered about the circumstances of her death and the bitter torment that both king and prince had experienced gave him pause.

Legolas had confided in him once, in the depths of a night watch on the edge of the palace walls, that he sometimes wished for her return so badly that he would give anything to be with her again.

Anything.

And his eyes then had frightened him. Aragorn had even taken to visiting the prince's private chambers every night for a week to ensure that Legolas was not wasting away, attempting to achieve his wish. Grief was indeed a fatal enemy to the elves, and Legolas impromptu confession in the caves crept closer and closer to the forefront of his mind.

Such grief was not to be trifled with.

Aragorn opened his mouth to pull Legolas back into reality, but he was stopped short. Raised, angry voices cut anything the ranger might have said, and surprisingly enough, Legolas head turned in the direction of the shouting, his eyes lighting with awareness, his closed posture unwinding slightly.

There was no mistaking that voice:

"Let me in or I'll hack that door down, you son of an orc!"

"Master Gimli, I beg of you please, just wait for me to-"

"I was the last to know of this, Master Gamling, and I refuse to leave until I've seen him for myself! Out of the way!"

Aragorn's lips quirked into a half-smile despite himself.

No one leaves a dwarf out of the loop for long, it seemed.

He had only enough time to drape Legolas' bare shoulders with a light shawl before the doors were slammed open hard enough to bang against solid granite walls, and an explosion of unkempt red hair and beard slathered in chainmaille and stained with black blood came stomping at full speed into the healing chamber.

Beady, furious eyes scanned the room, and his entire body froze when they rested on a blond headed elf sitting on the floor, pale but alive, regarding him with mild shock.

Gimli was silent for all of five seconds, but his hands tightened on his axe with each passing moment.

Finally he burst forward with the weapon raised to full salute, dangerously close to an attack stance:

"You- bloody- bastard!"

It was a cry of fury similar to a time the dwarf had once awoken to find his beard braided with pink blossoms by the one of the hobbits.

Legolas had the grace to look a little unnerved at the dwarf's rush, his eyes flickering as if perhaps he should be seeking an escape route, and Elladan now had both hands on the archer's shoulders. Elrond simply looked at the shorter being from his seat nearby, as if he knew just what was going to happen, one corner of his mouth tugging into a smile as he removed himself from the scene.

Aragorn was knocked out of the way and suddenly found himself on his backside, holding the axe while a pile of heavy muscle and armour dove for the archer's frozen figure so hard that he ended up on his back, blinking like an owl with a dwarf cursing profusely on top of him and throttling him into a bear hug, wheezing as he tried to force air into lungs weighted down with companion:

"You- bloody- fool hardy- hasty- reckless- idiotic- dratted- skinny- stupid- useless- horrid- elf!"

Legolas eyes were wide, and he felt warm spots streaking across his skin where tears were falling from his comrade's face. He had certainly missed Gimli himself all this time, but this open display of affection was more than he had ever expected from the shorter being.

He put a hand tentatively on the dwarf's back, feeling the sobs with a rush of compassion and trying in vain to push them both back upright.

"G-Gimli-" the archer sputtered.

"You bloody idiot!" he said gruffly, his face pressed into the archer's chest, armour scraping across his skin a little too roughly. "If you ever go and do anything like that again, I'll come after you and beat some sense into you until you get your sorry elven hide back to Middle Earth where it belongs! You- you-"

Legolas was overwhelmed, staring as if thunderstruck.

"Gimli," he murmured, horrified that he had put his fellow warrior through such an ordeal as to bring him to... this.

Aragorn stepped in at last and helped the two slowly tilt back up to cross-legged seats, righting them with care while Gimli stuck a gloved hand over his face, trying to compose himself. "Water," Aragorn ordered sternly, pressing a cup to both dwarf and elf's hands, slipping easily into the guise of healer that few could protest against.

Gimli was apparently one of the few. He looked as if he'd rather murder the ranger on sight than take anything from him, but he snatched the cup away disgustedly at a raised eyebrow from the human.

Elrond quietly made his way to the door and slipped outside, still smiling as he caught his son's eyes. They would work this out between them.

The two drank in silence, Legolas looking more than a little stricken, keeping his head down into his cup and Gimli refusing to look him in the eyes as he sniffed, scrubbing rigorously at his own face. After he had finished the cup, Gimli elbowed Aragorn so hard that he "oof"ed.

"And when exactly were any of you going to tell me?" the dwarf inquired, a slow burn infiltrating his soft words.

"Once I had woken, I was going to tell you shortly before you came in," Aragorn said smoothly, not a hint of falsehood marring the innocent expression he adopted, hoping for some semblance of self-preservation. "Is Gandalf near?"

Gimli raised his eyes to Legolas' face, and the hurt there made him flinch. "Throne room," he grunted.

Aragorn left the pair to talk amongst themselves (whenever they found the courage to do so,) rising just long enough to check on Elrohir's state as he slept and squeezing Elladan's shoulder, the dark-haired elf returning to his hawklike post at his sibling's side. Gimli and Legolas were both doing their best not to look at one another. Their friendship stood true, but both had suffered damages during the battle for Helm's Deep, and it would take time to navigate spirits still tender from such abuse. They would need some time, Aragorn knew, and whether they came to tears or blows, this conversation was not meant for him.

He trod to the open portal and slipped away to brief King Theoden, shutting the door behind him.

He'd had enough of accidental eavesdropping for one day.

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There is much to be wrapped up here, probably another three chapters at least, but being a teacher is busy business. Especially at five schools. I WILL do my best to be as faithful to you all as you have been to me these many years. Get ready for more twins in the next chappie, and eventually, yes, the all supreme "elven hotness" himself... Thranduil.

See you all very soon! (dies laughing)