Title: The Gift of Youth

Author: Yuggster

Rating: K+

Genre: Angst/General

Summary: Aragorn and Legolas argue the eve of the battle at Helm's Deep, and Aragorn wonders at the changes in his friend. Movieverse. A bit AU (nothing major...also combines some bookverse details). Set during The Two Towers.

Disclaimer: Lord of the Rings and all places/names associated with it are the property of Tolkien enterprises.

Author's Note: This story wasthe first-place winner ofCelebdil-Galad and Tinluare's fourth fanfiction contest (by default). You can check out all the details about it on their site (link on their profile, they're under my favorite authors). The lyrics that inspired this story ("Never Far Behind" by Aly and AJ) can be found on the copy of this story posted on their site, but I didn't include them here (just to be safe...don't want to mess with copyright issues or anything).

Anyway, it's not another What Hope I Can Offer, but I hope you enjoy it.

"Then I shall die as one of them!" Aragorn glared at his friend, a tiny part of him cringing to see the shock and hurt in Legolas' eyes. He turned heel and stalked off before he could say anything else, too infuriated to understand what had happened.

He found himself outside, near the walls, watching the men hastily prepare to defend Helm's Deep.

"What has gotten into you, Legolas?" he muttered. "You have never spoken like that before."

He was thankful that at least Legolas had reverted to Elvish to hide his words from the men. Yet that was not enough...yes, it was a desperate last-stand attempt, but it was their only option. It was not as if they could simply fly...what else could he do?

Aragorn shook his head, leaning against the wall of the keep with a sigh. He had never, in all their years of friendship, known Legolas to speak like that. For the elf to despair...it was a shocking thing. Usually he would have been so annoyingly optimistic by now, teasing Aragorn—or possibly Gimli—that he would slay at least half of their foes by the time the clumsy mortals managed to unsheath their weapons.

He grinned for a moment. Legolas had proved it, once, when he and Aragorn were facing four orcs, stragglers from a party they had already slain. Legolas had killed two orcs before Aragorn had struck the first blow...but even those small numbers did nothing to temper the elf's mischievous spirit.

Aragorn frowned. That spirit had been subdued, ever since they began the Quest. Legolas had been so serious, hardly laughing or joking even with the hobbits.

He had once thought it due to Moria and Gandalf's fall...but now he wondered otherwise.

The Legolas he had traveled Middle-Earth with was lighthearted, youthful...young. Among his people he was considered very young, and such a task as the Quest would have been a great responsibility for him.

Aragorn's eyes widened. A conversation, half-heard while in the halls of Lord Elrond's home, suddenly flashed back into his mind. The debate about the members of the Fellowship had run throughout all gathered in Rivendell until the day of their departure, and likely after. There were few questions about the ringbearer, or even his companion, Sam. Many also agreed that Gandalf and Aragorn himself were excellent additions, and surmised that a man of Boromir's stature would be a benefit. Dwarf though he was, Gimli was also regarded as a member of the Fellowship, even earning some measure of respect among the more prejudiced elves.

But three members of the Fellowship had been argued against in countless meetings. It had all been in vain, for Elrond would not be otherwise persuaded. Many elves questioned the lord's reasoning in allowing Merry and Pippin to join the Quest...and they asked the same about Legolas.

The ranger frowned, standing away from the wall to pace. Had Legolas heard the conversation? It had been two elves of Rivendell, both eager to dissect Elrond's reasoning for the nine members of the Fellowship. The conversation stood out in Aragorn's mind because it had been extremely insulting toward Legolas...one elf had gone so far as to claim the prince was still an elfling at heart, and would likely spend the entire Quest pulling childish practical jokes and making fun of the dwarf's beard.

Aragorn winced. The other elf had then said some very insulting things about Thranduil, Legolas' father, and made a comment that Legolas' youthful spirit would end up a burden upon Aragorn and Gandalf.

He sighed, stopping again to sit on the stairs that lead to the keep.

Could that explain Legolas' despair? And his behavior...upon reflection Legolas had not been acting himself since the Quest began, except for a few more unguarded moments in Lothlorien. He was always one of the last to smile, and had hardly laughed.

It struck Aragorn as odd that he had not noticed this before. Legolas nearly always laughed, when the occasion called for it. And there had been many such occasions during the Quest...yes, the elf had been far too serious since they left Rivendell.

He heard a rough, deep voice behind him and half-turned to see Gimli coaxing a young boy in the proper way to hold an axe. Only with Gimli did Legolas seem less guarded...more inclined to act his age, so to speak. Though Legolas was the oldest of the three of them, by comparison he was the youngest. Aragorn reflected with a slight grin that Elladan had compared him to Merry during their stay in Rivendell before the Quest began...which had resulted in Legolas "accidentally" dropping several things on Elladan while they were eating.

Gimli glanced over, noticing Aragorn watching him. He gave a few more encouraging words to the boy and tramped over, sitting by Aragorn with a sigh.

"Have ye seen the elf?"

Aragorn snorted in laughter. Legolas had apparently disappeared. Again. Another disconcerting habit he had. Aragorn's laughter died suddenly. If Legolas had disappeared at a time like this, he must be very upset. "Not since we argued," he admitted.

"Ah," Gimli nodded. "Tell me...the lad's been acting strangely since you returned. Is something the matter between you two?"

The ranger nearly flinched. His return...Legolas' greeting came to mind, and he almost smiled. Only to remember that he had later scolded Legolas for a jest he made while the defenses were being assembled. "I think so," he said quietly. "Where did I go wrong, Gimli?"

The dwarf grunted. "Perhaps ye should tell me what right would be first, Lad."

"Legolas...he is changed. He used to be so merry, and now...he despairs."

"Is he usually cheerful in face of certain death?"

Aragorn smiled wryly. "Always."

His answer seemed to alarm the dwarf—at least, he assumed that was why the short creature started fidgeting.

"He's so young," Aragorn sighed. "Barely more than a child among his own people. Yet since we left Rivendell he has been...different."

"Like those boys," Gimli nodded toward three boys clustered together by the wall. Each was undoubtedly terrified, but tried to appear brave, particularly since they were standing near one of the more experienced soldiers.

"Yes..." Aragorn sat up straighter. He hadn't seen it before. Legolas had heard the slights directed his way...and to prove he would not be a burden had been determined to act in a completely different manner. He had been entirely too grown up...no sign of the eternally young elf within him.

He had become exactly what those elves in Rivendell had wanted him to be. Stoic, silent, and serious. Which was as different from the Legolas that Aragorn remembered as it could be.

"You know how to fix it, then?" Gimli asked.

"I believe I do," Aragorn nodded. It was time for a talk with his best friend.

"Good. Life is too boring when that lad is out of sorts," the dwarf replied with a sigh.

Aragorn snorted, almost smiling. Gimli stood up and wandered away, seeking more axe-bearers to instruct, no doubt.

He could have kicked himself for not noticing it before. Perhaps if he had, the Quest would have been easier on his friend. He could only hope it would not be too late to apologize.

The ranger's face fell. He did not know if he had the time to speak with Legolas before the battle. He wanted to be sure he could explain everything to the elf...a hasty apology would not do.

He idly watched the men and boys preparing for battle as he thought. A youth caught his eye, a young man who was holding a sword but did not seem to know what to do with it.

"Give me your sword," he called. He would have to find Legolas later...first he had to do something about the despair in this boy's eyes.

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The battle was fierce. Yet they had been victorious, over seemingly-insurmountable odds. Aragorn smiled at Gandalf, motioning the wizard toward where King Theoden was enjoying a rather emotional reunion with his niece and nephew.

Aragorn glanced over at Gimli, his smile broadening when Legolas sauntered over to join the dwarf. He had heard of their little counting game during the battle, and could only imagine that they were going over the final tally.

He slowly made his way over to them, smiling and greeting the soldiers and peasants who thanked him. He had not had a chance to speak with Legolas before the battle...perhaps there would be time before they began the next phase. Gandalf had spoken of Saruman, but Aragorn wanted to clear up the difficulties between him and Legolas before they went off to Isengard.

"Gimli, Legolas," Aragorn called, jogging the final few feet to his friends.

"Ah, now here's one who can settle the score!" Gimli crowed.

Legolas just snorted, suddenly impassive. Aragorn paused for a moment. So, it was not merely his imagination. The air between them definitely needed to be cleared.

"Can I speak with you, Legolas?" he asked.

The elf looked down at Gimli, and Aragorn noticed a slight tightening of his features. "Of course," Legolas turned, nearly stalking off toward a less populated area of the gates.

"Legolas," Aragorn was a bit pressed to keep up without jogging. "Please, my friend, listen to me," he placed a hand on the elf's shoulder, relaxing when Legolas did not brush him away.

"I am sorry," the elf sighed.

Aragorn blinked in shock. "For what?"

"I should not have turned the battle into a game...I let the dwarf goad me."

"Legolas," Aragorn shook his head. "I am not here to scold you."

The elf slowly turned around, a curious expression in his eyes. "What do you mean?"

"You've been acting strangely," Aragorn explained with a shrug. "Ever since the Quest began."

"I have not," Legolas protested.

"You do not laugh, Legolas. You aren't yourself."

The elf looked down. "I don't know what you mean."

Aragorn sighed. "Legolas, I know what they said of you in Rivendell...did you ever think for a moment that I would agree with them? They were wrong."

"They were right," Legolas retorted quietly. "I am far too young for such a task as this. It should have been left to one of the older lords, someone who had journeyed farther than the lands around Mirkwood and Rivendell."

"Legolas, only three of us even knew these lands," Aragorn said with a hint of frustration. "It would not have mattered if you had traveled you entire life between Gondor and the Shire or never left Mirkwood at all."

Legolas shook his head. Aragorn could not believe the air of despondency that seemed to surround the elf...he had noticed it at times, but thought it was due to the Ring. Could it have been that Legolas had been burdened with these thoughts since the Quest began?

"And what of Merry? Pippin? For that matter, Frodo and Sam? Legolas, Lord Elrond and I knew your worth...as did Gandalf. Truly, they could have chosen a great lord like Glorfindel, or one of my foster-brothers, but they did not."

"It was to save face," Legolas argued. "After the nine of us volunteered...it would not have been good for Lord Elrond to alter the members of the Fellowship."

"It was discussed," Aragorn argued. "And never in all the serious discussions were you considered unsuitable."

"A more experienced elf would have served you better," Legolas said softly.

"Legolas, we have been friends for a long time, have we not?" Aragorn asked. The elf nodded, a curious expression on his face. "Can you not trust to our friendship, that it was that deciding factor and not an opinion of your character that made you a member of this Fellowship? Truly, it was as much a matter of an elf that all of us could bear as anything else...can you honestly imagine Gimli subjecting himself to riding behind Lord Glorfindel?"

He was finally rewarded with a small smile from his friend. Aragorn reflected that Legolas had smiled too seldomly since they began the Quest. "I am sorry, Legolas. I fear I have placed a great burden on you."

The elf stared at the ranger with a puzzled expression. "What do you mean?"

"I should have noticed you were unhappy," Aragorn sighed. "Why did you not tell me? I would have eased your mind long ago."

Legolas glanced down at the ground. "I thought it would be best if I did not act so young. There were so many who objected..."

"Do not be afraid to be young, Legolas," Aragorn said gently. "You will regret when it passes," he added in a wry tone. "When your bones ache with the changes in the wind."

The elf laughed brightly, the musical sound Aragorn had missed since the Quest began. "You are not old yet, Estel," Legolas chuckled.

"I am older than Theoden," Aragorn retorted.

"But you look so young," Legolas said, gasping in mock amazement. "Then again..."

"Impudent Elfling," Aragorn playfully scoffed. "One more word about my age and I'll send you back to Rivendell tied up in a sack."

"Now, Strider," Legolas chided, easily dancing away from Aragorn. "Where would you find a sack?"

Aragorn laughed, lunging for Legolas only to have the elf twist away.

By the Valar, it was good to have the old Legolas back.

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A few yards away, the white-haired wizard joined the dwarf in watching the two friends scuffle. It seemed odd to see so lighthearted a sight after a battle, yet it was comforting to know that the friendship between the elf and ranger was being restored.

"I see things are back to normal," Gandalf said with a chuckle as he heard the elf laugh. He, too, had noticed that Legolas had been a bit...abnormal...since the Quest began. It had been more of a gradual change, but the difference in the elf who kneeled to him when he was revealed as the white wizard and the elf who used to greet him with a cheerful embrace had been astounding.

"Aye," Gimli snorted in agreement. "That is good...things were just beginning to get dull again."

The End

Reviews? Flames? Tar and Feathers?

If you're read Fear No Darkness, I should have the next chapter up tonight.