Title: What Hope I Can Offer

Disclaimer: Lord of the Rings and all its characters and place names belong to J.R.R. Tolkien. So, unless I'm unconsciously a reincarnation of him, I own none of it.

Summary: On the journey to Helm's Deep, Legolas help Aragorn deal with his guilt over the events since Boromir's death and his fears for the future (movieverse).

Rating: K

Genre: Angst, Drama, and a little Humor...not entirely sure what genre this fits in.

AN: I've followed the tradition that Legolas was born toward the end of the Watchful Peace, making him about 560 in this story. Also, that Aragorn (known as Estel throughout his childhood) was raised as one of Elrond's sons, and therefore Elladan and Elrohir would have been brothers to him. Finally, according to the map in the back of the book, it is about a seventy-five mile journey from Edoras to Helm's Deep as the crow flies, and so this story takes place during that journey.

This story was written for Celebdil-Galad and Tinlaure's 2nd story challenge. It won first place...but was also the only entry. Oh well.

What Hope I Can Offer

One night in camp on the road to Helm's Deep—

"What do you fear, my Lady?"

"A cage. To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them."

Eowyn's words echoed in Aragorn's mind as he paced at the edge of the camp. Huddled together in a mass were the people of Edoras, fleeing to Helm's Deep in fear of the impending attack.

You fear a cage? Aye, so do I.

Truth was, every step of this journey seemed to take him farther and farther from Strider the Ranger and closer to Aragorn the King. It was not something he wanted. He did not like to be chained to the fate of Middle-Earth, to have so much depend on his taking up the throne of Gondor.

He stopped, looking out into the darkness of Rohan. It would be so easy to slip away now. The guards were preoccupied and would think little of his escape. They would likely not notice if he left his horse behind, and it would be morning before anyone would discover that the ranger was missing.

Aragorn toed the line of firelight, stepping just into the shadow beyond. Could he? Could he truly turn his back on the kingship again, fleeing back into the wild and away from his ill-fated destiny? It would break Arwen's heart, as Elrond had decreed she would marry no less than the King of Gondor, but how could he take up the throne when he could not control his own life?

One of the children cried out, his mother quickly comforting him. Aragorn stopped to survey the sleeping people he was here to protect. No, he could not leave these people. Not now, not when they were facing the armies of Isengard. He turned back to face the darkness, wondering if he would ever have a chance to escape like this once they reached Helm's Deep.

A slight, almost inaudible sound caught his ear. "What is it, Legolas?" he asked softly.

The elf snickered faintly. "I did not know you heard me coming," Legolas admitted, coming to stand next to Aragorn as he stared out into the gloom that surrounded them.

Both were silent, Aragorn trying desperately to ignore the elf standing beside him. "What do you see, Aragorn?" Legolas finally asked.

The ranger mulled over the question for a moment. "Darkness. They do not flee to safety but into danger. Saruman will be expecting this."

"Aye," Legolas agreed. "But all is not dark…look." Aragorn followed the Elf's gesture to where Earendil still burned brightly. "Perhaps there is still hope, Estel."

Aragorn's mouth twisted into a wry expression at the elf's use of his old name. "I am Estel no longer," he muttered. "I am forced to become Aragorn now."

Legolas glanced sideways at his friend. "Aye, you are. Aragorn, son of Arathorn, heir to the throne of Gondor."

Recognizing Legolas' words from the council, Aragorn shot a glare at the elf. "Gondor has no king," he answered bitterly, echoing Boromir, "Gondor needs no king."

"What know you of Gondor's needs?" Legolas rebuked him gently. "Did not Boromir speak of how Minas Tirith is failing, how his father no longer has the power the House of Stewards once had?"

"Is it now my fault that the Stewards cannot stand?" Aragorn turned, grabbing Legolas' tunic with both hands and nearly lifting the slender archer off his feet. "Am I to be blamed for all the weakness in Men?"

Legolas pushed Aragorn's hands away, straightening his tunic. "Something bothers you," he stated. "What is it?"

Aragorn turned and stalked away, muttering to himself about ornery elves and their self-assuredness. Legolas quickly caught up to him and put a hand on his shoulder, only to have the Man jerk away. "Leave me a moment's peace!" he growled, nearly waking some of the men who slept near.

In reply, Legolas grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the camp into the gloom that surrounded it and pushed him down to sit on a rock. "You will tell me what is going through that mind of yours, Human, or I will drag it out of you," he threatened, holding Aragorn in place.

The ranger fought the elf's grip, cursing viciously and calling Legolas' immediate ancestry into question. Legolas merely raised an eyebrow, finally letting go when Aragorn showed some sign of calming down.

"Strider, please," Legolas sat on the rock beside him, resting a hand lightly on his shoulder. "You have always helped me with my burdens…allow me to help you with yours."

Aragorn turned away, focusing on the distant mountains. His emotions were boiling just beneath the surface, ready to break out at any moment. Legolas remained quiet, only the gentle pressure on Aragorn's shoulder assuring him the elf was still there. "I," Aragorn began, taking a deep breath and closing his eyes before tears could form, "I do not wish to be king."

He heard the elf sigh, and Legolas scooted around until he was once again beside Aragorn, this time with his arm around him. "That is not all, is it?"

The ranger dropped his head into his hands. "Everything I do goes amiss," he finally admitted. "I could not save Boromir, I could not rescue the Hobbits, I could not sway Theoden from this plan of retreat…how can I be king if I cannot even control the circumstances around me?"

With his admission, the despair he'd been suppressing began to break through as his tears fell. "I cannot become king, Legolas. I cannot bear to fail the people of Gondor."

Legolas remained quiet as Aragorn wept out his frustration, his hand moving in soothing circles on the hman's back. Only when the man's sobs ceased did the elf speak up. "Do you remember when we met, Estel?" he asked.

"I told you, I am Estel no longer," Aragorn replied bitterly.

"Part of you will always be Estel," Legolas countered, his voice still soft. "Just as part of you has always been Aragorn, no matter how you tried to hide or reject it. Tell me, Aragorn, do you remember when we met?"

Aragorn sucked in a deep breath and blew it out, calming his emotions. "It was that archery tournament in Mirkwood, wasn't it? My brothers were competing, and they brought me along to see the best archers of Imladris defeat Mirkwood's champions."

"Aye, and what happened?"

The ranger looked up, meeting the elf's gaze with some confusion. "They lost," he replied simply, "to you. You won the tournament and our eternal admiration."

Legolas chuckled at that last bit. "But what if I told you I berated myself for weeks afterward because I did not manage to score perfectly on the tournament? I may have bested the other archers, but I forced myself to practice endlessly because two of my shots were not perfect bulls-eyes."

Aragorn's jaw dropped. "Why would you do that?"

"It was not perfect," Legolas twisted around to sit cross-legged, facing Aragorn with a serious expression. "I believed I had let my family down because of those two shots, because they saw I was not the perfect marksman they thought me to be."

The ranger shook his head. "And here I thought I knew everything about the stubbornness of elves."

The elf smiled at this comment. "It would be wise if you could apply this lesson to your own life, Aragorn."

Aragorn frowned, dropping his gaze to his hands. "I do not see how the two could relate."

"Don't you?"

"No. Yours was an issue of pride."

"And your is not?"

"Legolas, the lives of the Fellowship have depended on my decisions and I have failed at every choosing."

"And yet we are still alive."

"Boromir died!"

"Yes he did, but it was not your fault," Legolas shook his head. "It was his own weakness that was his undoing. Had he not tried to take the Ring…" the elf's voice trailed off as Aragorn stared at him. "Is something wrong?"

"How could you know?" Aragorn asked softly. "I told no one."

"I had guessed it," Legolas shrugged. "The Ring tempted all in the Fellowship, and he was already worn by worry and grief. I thought if his despair got the better of him he might try to take it, and when he and Frodo both went missing I assumed the worst."

"He died because I failed to see his weakness."

"Nay, he died because he tried to save two hobbits from a band of Uruk-Hai. Aragorn, he failed but he redeemed himself from his failure."

Aragorn gave the elf a hard look. "How can you be sure?"

"Whom did he run to protect? Did he seek the Ring when the Uruk-Hai attacked? No, he fought to the death to defend two hobbits that, for all appearances, had little or no purpose in the Fellowship. He protected them simply because they were his friends and they needed him. Aye, Aragorn, Boromir overcame the call of the Ring in the end. His momentary weakness was no more your fault than mine."

The ranger lowered his head again, another shuddering sigh tearing through his body. "But if I had been there…"

"You were," Legolas lifted Aragorn's chin, forcing the man to meet his gaze. "We fought the Uruk-Hai in those same woods. You were there, Aragorn, and because of you he did not die alone and dishonored. Boromir's death was not in vain," Legolas couldn't keep a faint smile from coming to his lips as he remembered the words the man had spoken to Frodo as they waited in Lorien. "You already carry a heavy load, Aragorn. Do not carry the weight of the dead."

Aragorn closed his eyes, tears leaking from behind his eyelids again. Legolas pulled him into an embrace, pressing the ranger's head against his shoulder. "No, we were not in time to save the hobbits," Legolas continued as Aragorn quietly cried against him. "But remember what Gandalf told us. They must wake the Ents and bring them to war. That is their purpose in this quest—a purpose that would likely have gone unfulfilled had we rescued them while they were in the hands of the Uruk-Hai. And I do not believe there is a man alive right now who can change Theoden's mind once it is made up," Legolas commented with a bitter laugh. "He strikes me as something of a stubborn man, and we cannot blame him for seeking to maintain some control after having spent so long under Wormtongue's spell."

The elf's voice dropped even lower, almost to a whisper. "You will be King of Gondor someday, Aragorn, but you do not have to put away the ranger just yet."

Sniffing away the few tears that remained, Aragorn slowly pulled out of the elf's embrace. "When did you become so wise, my friend?" he asked quietly.

Legolas laughed. "Many generations before you were born, Human," he teased.

Aragorn grumbled something and shoved Legolas' shoulder good-naturedly. "Do not forget, you are not even five centuries older than I, princeling. A mere infant among your people."

The elf stood, crossing his arms and glaring down at the human. "Infant, am I? Well, as long as we're talking about infants, I seem to remember hearing a story about an infant named Estel who had the bad habit of running unclothed through Lord Elrond's home after taking his bath."

"Elf!" Aragorn jumped up and tackled Legolas. "That only happened once. I swear, I will kill my brothers for telling you the next time we meet."

"Ah, but it was the Lord Elrond who passed that bit of knowledge to me," Legolas snickered, trying to worm his way out of the human's grip. "I, of course, was more astonished that you had actually bathed at some point in your life."

Aragorn grunted as the archer nearly bucked him off, then suddenly released his friend's wrists and moved away, sitting against the nearby rock. "Why can't you just leave me alone?" he asked.

Confusion and concern flickered across Legolas' face. "I am sorry, I was merely trying to help. If you would prefer me to leave…?"

"No, no," Aragorn leaned his head back to look up at the stars. "Every time I want to just walk away you pull me back and make me realize how much I need to stay. Why do you do that?"

Legolas shrugged, lacing his fingers together and placing them behind his head. "You are my friend. I would not have you lose hope, Estel. You once told me that there is always hope, no matter how dark the day may seem. All I do is remind you."

Aragorn idly picked up a handful of grass and tossed it onto to the elf's belly. "It seems you do more than that. What part of dragging my problems out of my head is reminding me to hope?"

Laughing, Legolas sat up, scattering the grass the ranger had "decorated" him with. "How can I help you see hope when I do not know what despair you face?"

The ranger made a face. "So now you truly know my despair?" he asked, his tone somewhat mocking. "You fully understand what I go through, my pain and fear?"

Legolas stood, holding out a hand to help his friend to his feet. "I know I cannot understand everything, Aragorn, but what hope I can offer is yours."

"What hope is there for the King of Gondor, then, Legolas?" Aragorn asked quietly.

For a moment, the elf didn't reply, merely studying Aragorn intently. "I do not know," he admitted softly, then his voice grew stronger as he continued. "I do not know what lies ahead for the King of Gondor, but know this, Aragorn; I will stand by you until the end."

Slowly a smile spread across Aragorn's face. "Aye, my friend," he said, clasping Legolas' shoulder. "Until the end."

For a moment they stood in companionable silence, the man finally finding some rest from the griefs that plagued him, the elf content to offer his quiet support to his friend. Then, suddenly, the elf pressed one finger to his lip in a gesture of silence and pulled Aragorn down until they were crouched behind the rock they had been standing beside.

"Aragorn? Elf? Where are ye?"

The ranger and Legolas fought to hide nearly identical snorts of laughter as Gimli's somewhat-hushed whisper interrupted the stillness of the night.

"Blasted elf. Should know better than to sneak off like this."

And as Aragorn hid from the dwarf, he realized Legolas' words were true. There would always be hope as long as he had friends like these. He glanced at Legolas, whose eyes glinted mischievously as Gimli approached their hiding place. What hope indeed.

Perhaps there was even enough hope for the future King of Gondor.

Epilogue: Helm's Deep, the night before the battle

Legolas stood in a darkened corner just outside the main hall, his heart torn in anger, frustration, and sorrow. Fear filled the air like a vapor, nearly suffocating him as he stood unnoticed amid the torrent of men and boys preparing themselves for their deaths.

From his hiding place he watched Aragorn, who sat nearby at the top of the steps leading into the main hall. Merely days before the Man had been close to the same despair Legolas was feeling. What had changed? What made him suddenly so sure that they could stand against the tides of darkness?

"Give me your sword."

Legolas started. He'd been deep in contemplation and had not noticed Aragorn's focus on the young boy standing nearby. The boy whose eyes were filled with the same fear all of the men were trying to deny—even Aragorn.

"What is your name?" Aragorn asked as the boy handed him the blade.

"Haleth, son of Háma, my lord."

The elf shook his head. Háma had fallen in the battle with the Wargs and now his son—likely his only son—was forced to stand in the defense of Helm's Deep against impossible odds.

"The men are saying we will not live out the night. They say that it is hopeless."

Legolas couldn't help but agree with that statement. Surely Aragorn could see it, surely he knew they would not survive.

The ranger held the boy's sword out, eyeing the blade, then swung it a few times in a double arc. "This is a good sword," he said, handing the blade back to the boy and ignoring his comment, "Haleth, son of Háma."

What good is a good sword? Legolas wanted to grab Aragorn by the shoulders and shake him until he told the boy the truth: they would not survive this night. Helm's Deep would fall, and with it the rightful King of Gondor.

Aragorn leaned closer to Haleth and placed a hand on his shoulder. "There is always hope," he said, giving the boy's shoulder a firm squeeze.

Legolas stared as his friend turned to walk back into the hall. The words stuck in his mind. It was the same phrase he had repeated to Aragorn just days before, the one that Aragorn had said himself as a ranger when things looked hopeless. Legolas' gaze darted back to the boy, wondering at how the boy's demeanor changed with the tiniest glimmer of hope.

Following his friend down to the armory, Legolas stopped to watch as Aragorn slipped into a chainmail shirt and began preparing for battle. Legolas looked for an opportunity to speak with his friend and hesitantly stepped forward, picking up the ranger's sword and handing it to him.

Aragorn paused, turning to look at the elf. Legolas swallowed, fearing the sudden tension that had come between them. "We have trusted you this far and you have not led us astray," he finally said, his eyes begging for the ranger's understanding. "Forgive me, I was wrong to despair."

The ranger's eyes widened slightly and the ghost of a smile flickered across his face. "There is nothing to forgive, Legolas," he replied in Sindarin, clasping the elf's shoulder. Legolas returned the grip with a slight grin, the tension bleeding away at his friend's words.

"We had time I'd get this adjusted."

Both elf and man turned to see their dwarven companion, Gimli, fiddling with a shirt of chainmail. He let go of the bunched-up chains and the bottom of the shirt fell all the way to the floor. "It's a little tight across the chest," he explained.

Legolas felt a genuine smile spread across his face. He opened his mouth to comment on Gimli's rather humorous appearance, but his words went unsaid when the call of a horn reached his ears.

He whirled about to face the stairs, the unexpected musical tone of the horn's cry sending a sudden surge of astonishment through his mind. "That is no orc horn," he muttered and sprinted out of the armory, Aragorn close on his heels.

Perhaps there was still hope, even for an elf who'd begun to despair.