Beta: Chris.

A/N: Chris, I want to say thank you! THANK YOU so much. I would never have finished this story without your support and continuing ideas and great comments. THANK YOU:o)

Furthermore, I want to thank the wonderful reviewers. Your support was overwhelming. Thanks!

Elvish translations:

Mellon nin: my friend


--oOo--

"Where do we go, from here?

The battle's done and we kind of won so we sound our victory cheer.

Tell me, were do we go, from here?"

(Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Once more with feeling)

--oOo--


Chapter 49: Where do we go from here?

The days passed slowly. Every day Aragorn drank the Tulcoindo, and every day he lost more weight. More often than not he threw up the food he ate, and it was not long after the feast that he decided to tell his father and Gandalf. Or rather, Legolas decided that it was time for the truth, and convinced Aragorn to tell him, and then Lord Elrond.

Gandalf and Elrond had tried to change the composition of the Tulcoindo, but nothing helped. They even tried to give it to Aragorn in smaller dosages, but as soon as he had taken that, another attack of the original poison shook his body, and they had to accept that they could not stop now.

Aragorn struggled every day with the effects of the Tulcoindo, and maybe even more with his desire to not show his discomfort too much. But when Winter Solstice stood before, Aragorn had practically given up eating at all. Now and then Legolas would manage to get him to eat some broth, but strong teas and wine were the only things that Aragorn ate these days to sustain himself.

While Aragorn grew accustomed to the constant sickness and the lack of food, his brothers and Legolas could not. They had given up on trying to force him to eat, but every time they supported Aragorn after he had taken the Tulcoindo or during a spell of dizziness, which came often these days, their eyes would meet, and they would vow silently that it had to end. The only thing was, they did not know how.

None of them knew how long Aragorn would have to take the Tulcoindo, for the winter seemed harsher than usual and no one knew when spring would come wand with it the lilies of the valley. The only thing they knew with certainty was that it could not go on like this for very much longer.

The rangers, hurting to see Aragorn that way, had taken to go hunting more and more often, staying away from the Last Homely House for days. Never did Aragorn say a thing, but his brothers and Legolas knew that it hurt him as much as his kinsmen.

The night of the Winter Solstice, the whole valley was blinking and sparkling in golden light. Hundreds and hundreds of candles had been lit, and tiny boats on the rivers, decorated with candles, spread the festive atmosphere through the valley as well. But most wondrous was the House of Elrond looking, for not only lights adorned it, but every railing was decorated with evergreen, the windows showed intricate patterns made of colours, and everything had been polished and cleaned.

Silver plates and goblets stood on the numerous tables, bowls filled with hot water and dried rosebuds stood on side tables, and fine silk and linen was draped over practically everything. The candles had been trimmed to the same height and arranged in a way that they illuminated every single room. The air was filled with the richest smells, and when the first guests arrived, music was played and sweet songs sung.

Two storeys above the festivities, Legolas paced in Aragorn's room, his arms crossed in front of his chest. "I understand your motives, Estel, but still…"

Aragorn sighed, and tightened the thick shirt around his shoulders. "I just don't feel like celebrating tonight, Legolas."

"Do you think I do?" Stopping in his pacing, Legolas looked down on Aragorn, who sat in front of the fire, clothed in his finest. Taking a seat opposite his friend, Legolas looked into his eyes.

"I know that you don't feel like celebrating, but this feast is important. You know what it means for your family."

Aragorn nodded. He knew very well that this feast meant a lot for his father and brothers, seeing that it was the last feast they had celebrated with their mother before she had sailed. And on the other hand, none of them had really thought that Aragorn would live to see it. Letting his head hang, Aragorn nodded once more. "I know, Legolas, I know. Still…" His voice got a bit lower, and Legolas leaned closer to understand him better.

"What shall I do there, Legolas? Stare at my empty plate and sip at a half full cup of wine for the whole evening, while I try not to throw up in front of everybody, shivering because I feel cold and tired? What would Dan and Ro and Ada say then? No, I think I should stay here, then they can celebrate without keeping an eye on me all the time."

"Estel…" Reaching out, Legolas took one of Aragorn's cold hands in his own. "They want you to be there, you know that."

A defeated "I know" was the only answer Legolas got, so he squeezed Aragorn's hand a bit before he continued, "Just for an hour or two. Come now, Estel, after that I promise you not to argue when you want to leave."

"Promise?" Aragorn asked, looking up at Legolas, and in that moment Legolas knew that he had won. Although, he was not really sure if he wanted to win, given the fact that Aragorn looked as if he wanted to topple over any second.

"I promise, mellon nin." Getting to his feet, Legolas pulled Aragorn up with him. "Now, let me see what I can do to make your hair at least look like hair instead of…hairy-furry-something."

When his words elicited a small smile from Aragorn, Legolas pushed him down on the low stool in front of the mirror , before he looked around searchingly. "Estel, where is your brush?"

Snorting, Aragorn shook his head. "My what?"

Sighing, Legolas looked at the ceiling, muttering, "This is going to be a loooong night for both of us, Estel."

--oOo--

Midnight came and went, and still Aragorn was attending the festivities. After the first shock of the noise and the smell of food had passed, he actually felt himself enjoy the music and the songs, the stories and the laughter. Friendly faces everywhere and everyone patted his shoulders, asking how he was, and after telling for the fiftieth time that he was relatively well, Aragorn began to believe it himself. In a daring moment he even tried one of the small pastries the cooks had made, and although his stomach complained, he kept the food down. After a few sips of the strong elvish wine, Aragorn switched to tea, which kept him warm and awake.

Smiling, he sat listening to the twins telling one of their stories to the crowd, and he laughed at the right times and even louder when the twins seemed to 'forget' to tell the one or other detail. Well, he even convinced Legolas to sing a song from his homeland, clapping with the rest of the crowd when a rather red cheeked Legolas bowed and left the centre of attention.

Still, although Aragorn felt better than he had in a long time, something nudged at the back of his mind, and when an ancient lay was started for the fifth time, he took his tea and stole himself out onto a dark balcony, overlooking the valley.

It was a cloudless night and the stars shown twinkled from above. The music and the song could still be heard out here, but it was more like the rushing of a river, and it calmed Aragorn. Leaning his arms on the balustrade, he let his gaze travel over the familiar houses and trees, the rivers and streams, and he knew that once the snow melted and spring entered the lands, flowers would grew at the banks and in the meadows, attracting butterflies and birds. A fine mist would lie over the fields in the morning, but once the sun broke through, the beauty of the valley would be unravelled for all with eyes to see.

A heartfelt sigh escaped him, and Aragorn jumped in surprise when someone suddenly spoke from behind him, "Beautiful, isn't it?"

Whirling around, Aragorn watched as Gandalf stepped out onto the balcony, closing the glass door behind him, shutting out the music.

"Aye, it is," Aragorn finally said, turning around again and looking out over the valley. Gandalf stepped up to him, pulling out his pipe.

"Are you not cold, Aragorn?"

"Not at the moment," Aragorn answered, smiling when he smelled the rich weed Gandalf was smoking. He had not used his pipe for weeks, and he longed to smoke again. As if he was able to read his thoughts, Gandalf patted his long grey robe. "I have a spare one, you know."

Smiling ruefully, Aragorn placed a hand on his stomach and shook his head. "I don't think that would be such a good idea, Gandalf."

"Oh, I see." Puffing, Gandalf let his eyes roam over the dark valley for a few moments, before he blew out a huge cloud of smoke. "Imladris is beautiful at night. So silent and peaceful. I know only one other place where it is like this."

Intrigued, Aragorn could not help but ask, "And where is that?"

"The Shire of course, Aragorn. I am sure your travels have brought you there?"

"Aye, I have been to The Shire. But, I have actually never entered its borders." For a moment, a small frown appeared on Aragorn's brow, but it vanished quickly and he added with a shrug, "It is almost as if something hinders me from entering, pulls me back every time I want to pass through the Hedge. Halbarad says I'm either crazy or scared of Hobbits."

Gandalf said nothing for a time, puffing his pipe in silence, before he answered, "Maybe it is not yet your time to learn of the secrets that are hidden there., but I am sure one day your path will lead you there."

Smiling, Aragorn shook his head. "Who can say where my way will lead me. West or East, or maybe even to the far South. A ranger goes where he is needed."

"True." Blowing out a cloud of smoke, Gandalf lifted a bushy eyebrow at Aragorn. "And where does the heir of Isildur go?"

Turning sharply, Aragorn frowned. "What do you mean. Mithrandir?"

Suddenly, all the playfulness was gone from the wizard's face and his eyes sharpened, but his voice stayed gentle. "You have chosen a dangerous path of no return in the last weeks. Are you sure you can take up your life where you left it once this is all over?"

Stunned, Aragorn said nothing, until he finally averted his gaze and looked out over the valley and into the darkness beyond. And it seemed that Gandalf had not anticipated an answer, for he put out his pipe, squeezed Aragorn's shoulder, and then went back to the celebration. It was many hours later until Legolas found Aragorn on the balcony, cold and dead tired, but with a strange spark in his eyes that Legolas could not explain. Bringing Aragorn to his room, and then helping him to bed, Legolas exchanged barely a word with his friend. The only thing that made Legolas seek his own chambers and not go to speak with Lord Elrond, was the peaceful look on Aragorn's face when he fell asleep.

The next morning…noon, Legolas climbed down the stairs, scratching his chin. Yawning wildly, he opened the door to the kitchen, only to stop mid step at the sight that presented itself. Blinking, Legolas rubbed his eyes with both hands, then looked once more.

There, in front of the stove stood Aragorn, kneading dough. Flour was staining his apron and hands, and some of it was littering the ground. Milk and eggs stood on the side of the kitchen board, and the smell of fresh baked bread hung in the air.

Clearing his throat, Legolas entered. "Estel?"

Looking at Legolas over his shoulder, Aragorn grinned and nodded at the small kitchen table, where the staff used to eat. "Sit down, Legolas, I'm almost finished here."

Lifting an eyebrow in confusion, Legolas sat down at the table and poured himself a cup of tea. Aragorn kneaded a few moments longer before he formed a few rolls from the dough, placed them into the stone hearth and closed the iron door with a piece of cloth. Cleaning his hands on his apron, he took up a cloth-closed basket, a bowl of butter and sat down across from Legolas.

Lifting the cloth, he showed some fresh cinnamon rolls to Legolas. "Here, take one. They only taste good when they are warm."

Taking one of the rolls, Legolas gazed questioningly at Aragorn, but when he said nothing, he took a tentative bite from the roll. "Hm, they are good," Legolas said, taking a bigger bite and reaching for the butter. "Why did you make them, do you not feel ill smelling them?"

Shrugging, Aragorn poured himself a cup of tea. "Yes, the smell makes me feel nauseous, but I always liked baking, since I was a small child, actually. So I thought, why not make some rolls for all of you?"

Swallowing, Legolas leaned forwards. "Estel, are you well?" His eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"Legolas…." Aragorn shoved his friend playfully. "I'm fine."

"Are you sure?" Legolas eyed him closely for a moment, and Aragorn could not help but drop some of his happy attitude and sigh deeply.

"Yes, Legolas, I'm sure. I…thought about all thathappened in the last few weeks, and I came to the conclusion that…that although it is not yet over, it could be worse. And…and I must look to the future now and…" Aragorn lowered his gaze. "And I owe you an apology, Legolas."

The cinnamon roll forgotten, Legolas did not know what to say. "Estel, we talked about this and…you already apologized."

"But not the way I should have done." Looking up, Aragorn's eyes sparkled with unshed tears. "I blamed you for saving my life, Legolas. For doing the right thing. I mean, you stayed with me all the time, although you had no obligation to do so. You did what I begged you to do, although you knew it was wrong. And then, then I blamed you for the things I did. For my fears and my insecurity. For…for being so incredibly stupid and weak and…" Tears rolled down his cheeks, and Legolas could not take it any longer. Getting up from his chair, he went and wrapped his arms around his friend.

"Shh, Estel. Speak no more."

"But…"

"No." Legolas shook his head. "We already talked about this and I have forgiven you." Wiping a hand across his face, Aragorn asked, "Really?"

"Yes," Legolas said, before he released his friend, kneeling beside the chair. "And do you forgive me for not stopping you from doing that?"

"Legolas…" Stunned, Aragorn shook his head. "That was my decision and you could have done nothing to stop me."

"I could have tried harder…" Legolas said, but Aragorn shook his head strongly.

"No. I said this before and I say it again. Had you stopped me, I would have tried another time. And maybe it would have ended with me then, and then, then I would never have been saved."

Biting his lip, Legolas tilted his head to the side. "And what now, Estel? Where do we go from here?"

Breathing in deeply, Aragorn smiled gently. "We will go wherever our feet carry us, one step at a time."

--oOo--

In the weeks following the celebrations, the air slowly became warmer, the snow melted, and after another week of fierce hail and storm, the winter finally left the valley. But although the worst seemed to be over, they all knew that the ground was still frozen, and the time for the birth of new flowers had not yet come, and would not for at least three more weeks. Three weeks, that Aragorn maybe did not have.

The Tulcoindo he drank constantly hindered him from eating, and the lack of food had thinned his body so much that his clothing had to be changed to fit again. But what was maybe even worse was the fact that the Tulcoindo was affecting his empty stomach. Every time Aragorn had to take the brew, he endured hours of severe stomach pain and cramps, and Elrond was worried that the strong Tulcoindo would injured the sensitive sides of his stomach and cause internal bleedings.

Only yesterday, Legolas had managed to make Aragorn eat some broth, but as usual the food had not stayed down. To all their horror, Aragorn had spit out a bit of blood as well. Elrond could wait no longer; something had to be done. Now.

"Elrond, are you certain that you want to do that?" Gandalf asked, crossing his arms before his chest.

It was dim in the healing room, and Gandalf could not completely make out Elrond's face, but he could still see the determination in his eyes. Elrond set down the pestle and reached for a cup of water while he answered, "I cannot wait any longer, Mithrandir. The Tulcoindo will kill him."

"But if we stop giving it to him he will die from the poison. You know that."

His hands stilling, Elrond turned and looked the wizard into the eyes, "Spring is on its way, the sun gets stronger every day. Soon the ground will melt and the flowers will begin to grow. And then we will find lilies of the valley and be able to make the real antidote. Maybe three weeks, two if we are lucky." Elrond's eyes narrowed and his voice turned almost pleading, "But if Estel continues to drink the Tulcoindo, it will eat through the walls of his stomach and he will bleed to death before we can do anything. Two weeks, Mithrandir. Two attacks of the original poison."

For a moment, Gandalf said nothing, but then he stroked his long beard and sighed deeply, " We do not know what these next attacks could be, Elrond. They could be worse than anything we have seen so far. Are you willing to risk that?"

Shaking his head, Elrond answered, "It is not my decision to make, old friend. It never was." After a pause, he added, "I've talked with Estel and he is willing to try."

"So it is decided then and so it will be." Gandalf said softly, then turned and left the room without another word.

--oOo--

"How do you feel Estel?" Legolas asked, sitting on the window sill in Aragorn's room, studying his friend who lay on the bed, dosing.

"Tired, Legolas." Came the mumbled reply, and Aragorn rolled over onto his side, blinking his eyes open to look at his friend. "I'm so tired." His eyes held Legolas's for a moment, before they drooped shut again.

Two days ago, Aragorn had taken the last dosage of the Tulcoindo, and as they had all feared, the poison had attacked soon. It had been only during the last night that horrible nightmares had plagued Aragorn, making him see and hear things in his head that made him cry out, and not even Elrond had been able to wake him. In the end, Gandalf had placed his hands on Aragorn's brow, and long minutes later Aragorn had fallen into a deep, dreamless sleep.

"Then sleep, Estel. The attack is over and no nightmares should haunt you now." Legolas said, tilting his head to side to catch a bit more warmth from the sun that shown through the window.

"Could you…could you stay with me?" Aragorn asked softly from the bed, almost asleep.

Abandoning his seat on the window sill, Legolas crossed over to the bed and sat down next to Aragorn. Stroking a strand of dark hair out of the ranger's face, Legolas nodded, "Aye, I will stay. Now sleep." A small thankful smile crossed Aragorn's thin face, and a few moments later he was fast asleep.

The second attack came silent and without warning, and when it was over, the household of the Last Homely House could take it no more. Together will dozens of volunteers they searched the valley for the one single thing that would end the pain of the one they all loved and cared for.

But alas, they found nothing that day. And neither the next day or the day after that. But they did not stop their relentless search, and three weeks after Aragorn had drunken the last dosage of the Tulcoindo, a servant of Elrond found a single, tiny batch of lilies of the valley, growing under a rose bush in the garden.

Immediately, Elrond went to work, and the next day, Aragorn finally downed the real antidote. Then, they waited.

--oOo--

"Here you go, my son," Elrond said, before he handed the bowl of ramp to Aragorn, who placed it in front of him and loaded some of it onto his plate. The rich smell of meat and vegetables reached his nose, and he breathed in deeply. "Oh, how I missed that." Before the others had even finished filling their plates, he dug in.

Smiles were exchanged at the table, and no one begrudged Aragorn his healthy appetite. A week ago, he had taken the antidote, and so far, there had been no new attack of the poison. Which did not mean that Aragorn had healed from his ordeal.

His knee still hurt from time to time, as did his shoulder, and the burn mark on the back of his hand needed constant treatment. But his ribs had healed as had the scratches and bruises, and with the return of his appetite, his good mood had returned as well.

"Aragorn, what do you say to a little trip into the valley this afternoon?" Halbarad asked from where he sat across the table.

"Sure." He looked at his brothers and Legolas. "What about you?"

Dan and Ro agreed on the spot, but Legolas shook his head. "There was a missive from my father this morning and I want to write him a letter ere it gets dark, so that I can send a bird today."

Shrugging, Aragorn turned back to his food, and no one but Elrond saw the dangerous glimmer in Legolas's eyes.

It was already late that evening when they decided to go to bed. Reaching for his door, Aragorn whished Legolas a good night, but the elf shook his head, grinning. "Not yet. Just wait."

Narrowing his eyes, Aragorn entered his room and lit the candle on the nightstand. "Why?"

His grin widening, Legolas sat down on the bed. "Just wait, Estel."

It took a few seconds, but then Aragorn breathed in deeply. "Oh no, Legolas. Tell me you did not…"

"Legooolas!" A loud shout interrupted Aragorn, and his face blanched just a bit.

"Legolas, tell me you did not do what I think that you did."

"I did," Legolas quipped, quite satisfied with himself. He rose slowly from the bed and straightened his clothing, before he looked at the door.

It did not take long for an angry Halbarad to appear in the doorway. At his sight, Aragorn could not help but grin stupidly. Halbarad was covered from head to toe in flour, and here and there Aragorn thought he saw pieces of plum pudding.

"You, elf!" Halbarad ground out, pointing a finger at Legolas.

"Yes, Master human?" Legolas said, wrinkling his nose in fake disgust. His eyes were glittering merrily, though.

"You did this!" Halbarad spluttered, shaking his finger so viciously that some of the plum pudding landed on the floor.

"Of course, I did," Legolas said this so calmly that Aragorn broke out in a fit of giggles, causing Halbarad to turn on him as well.

"Stop laughing, Aragorn, this is not funny!"

"What is not funny?" Elladan asked, standing in the doorway beside his twin. The commotion had attracted them, and they were grinning from ear to ear.

Growling, Halbarad wiped a white strand of hair out of his eyes, before he looked back at Legolas. "I beat you in the snowball fight fairly. This means revenge."

Lifting an eyebrow, Legolas smirked. "I would rather say we are even. Are you sure you want to engage in battle with me?"

From behind Legolas's back, Aragorn shook his head frantically at Halbarad. Everyone who engaged voluntarily into a prank war with the Prince must be out of his mind. Halbarad, seeing Aragorn's gestures, thought a moment longer, before he huffed, "We are quit."

Then, he turned around and after another dark look at Legolas, he made his way to his room. Once he was gone, Aragorn shook his head at his friend. "Do you never grow up, Legolas? Spring grass and flour and plums?"

Grinning like a cat that got into the cream, Legolas winked at him. "Good night, Aragorn. Sleep well."

That night, Aragorn checked his bed twice before he finally settled down to sleep. Better safe than sorry, and with Legolas, you could never know.

--oOo--

Another week passed, then two, then three, and when there were no new attacks and Aragorn put on more weight, he was finally declared on the way to full recovery. When spring slowly turned into an early summer in the valley, Aragorn was as good as healed.

And, it was finally time for the rangers to leave. Swords were sharpened, arrows fletched and clothing mended. The whole house buzzed from the preparations, and the night before the rangers left, Elrond held a feast in their honour. And although there was much laughter and joy, a sense of sadness lingered in all their hearts, for Aragorn had decided to join the rangers, and return with them. His father and brothers had long discussions with him, as had Legolas, but Aragorn had been adamant that it was time to return, and in the end, his family had accepted his decision. Though, not without setting conditions. The twins and Legolas would accompany him, and he had to promise that he would return in autumn.

Late at night, the lights were already extinguished, Aragorn heard a soft knock at his door. Upon his soft call, the door opened, and Elrond entered. He took a look around the room, taking in the packages and weapons, the blankets and the clothing that had been laid out for the early start next morning. Suppressing the sigh that wanted to escape him, Elrond gazed at his son.

Aragorn stood at the window, and judging by the fact that he had not yet changed into his sleeping clothes, he had not yet slept. For an outsider he seemed healthy, but as a father Elrond saw the changes the ordeal of the last months had brought in his son. He was still thin, there were more scars, visible and invisible, and Aragorn had become more serious. More mature, even.

Stepping up to his son, Elrond tilted his head to the side. "It is late, Estel, and tomorrow will be a long day. I did not want to wake you, but it seems I did not."

"No, you did not, Ada." Aragorn shook his head and gave his father a rueful grin. "I could not sleep. Did not even try to."

Although Elrond knew that he would not change his son's mind, his father's heart forced him to say it nevertheless, "Maybe it is too early yet to leave."

"No, Ada." Aragorn shook his head. "I must go; it is time."

Sighing, Elrond gave his son a smile. "I know. That is why I came to talk to you tonight."

When Aragorn said nothing, Elrond continued, "Over the last few weeks, much has happened. Dark things that will probably haunt me forever. And good things that I hope I will always remember."

"Ada…" Aragorn began, but his father lifted a hand to stop him.

"No, Estel, let me finish." He smiled to soften his words, before he continued, "When I found you that morning, so close to Mando's Halls, I thought it was all over before it had begun. But then we saved you, Estel, and then…then we exchanged words."

Only too vividly Elrond remembered the words his son had spoken after he had woken, when he had asked whether Elrond was only concerned about his destiny.

Clearing his throat, Elrond continued, "Your wellbeing was always the most important thing to me, Estel. The fact that your future, your destiny is also important to me does not change that. I love you, my son, whatever way you chose to tread."

It was silent for a moment before Aragorn spoke softly, "Ada, I should not have said what I did. I'm so sorry."

"I forgave you the moment you said it, Estel," Elrond said, embracing his son, who returned the hug fiercely, "Let us look to the future and not dwell in the past."

Nodding, Aragorn let go of his father. "I promise I will be careful and I will visit in the summer."

"Make sure that you do, Estel," Elrond said, but his voice turned serious once more. "I have something for you." Elrond reached into his pocket and placed a small, cold object into Aragorn's hand. Frowning, Aragorn looked at the object, and he recognized it immediately.

"Barahir…where did you find it? I thought…"

"One of the elves that cleaned your room found it under the bed and gave it to me. I thought you might want to have it back."

Staring at the ring, Aragorn turned it over in his hand. Numerous thoughts chased through his head. When he had made the decision to pass from this world, he had also made the decision to forsake his destiny and place the fate of Middle-earth into the hands of others. But now, seeing the ring and feeling it in his hand, the ring of his forefathers, he sighed deeply…before he put the ring in his left forefinger.

"Thank you."

Smiling, Elrond placed a hand on Aragorn's shoulder. "Remember one thing, Aragorn. Whatever happens in your life and wherever your way may lead you, I will always be here for you, as will your brothers. We love you. This is your home to which you can always return."

Smiling gratefully, Aragorn nodded his head. "Thank you, Ada." And after a moment he added, "I'm sure you will think differently once Halbarad and I return in autumn and he will have his revenge on Legolas."

Grimacing, Elrond shook his head. "Let's take one step at a time, my son."

Laughing, Aragorn nodded. That they would do. One step at a time.

The End.


Yes, this is the last chaper. I post it with a crying and a laughing face. 16 months ago I started this story and it had a will of its own. -g- The story was planned for only 20 chapters and look where we are now. 49! Unbelievable. Thanks for the support and the great comments.Let me know what you think of the end of the story! Until next time, mellyn.