Dawn was breaking when the last orc fell and Estel was shaken from his battle trance by an elven victory cry. Breathing heavily, his first instinct was to take a quick inventory of his body. He felt no pain and no trace of sanguine fluid covered his clothes. He was alive and he was whole! He had survived his first real encounter with the evil spawn of Mordor.

Blinking and wiping the sweat from his brow with a shaky hand, Estel surveyed the scene around him. Many were the bodies of the malevolent creatures that littered the ground, but much to his extreme relief, he saw no crimson mixed with the black blood that soaked the dry earth. A quick count reassured him that each elf in the patrol was accounted for and relatively uninjured as they gathered for direction from their captains, the twin sons of Elrond.

Estel took a moment to study the brothers. As was his wont, Elladan quickly took control of the situation, directing those under his command to gather the vile bodies of the orcs for burning and to cleanse the earth as best they could of their foul stench. Elrohir, sensing Estel's gaze, gave him a reassuring smile before he turned his attention back to the task at hand.

Estel stood some distance away, watching the scene that was unfolding before him, unsure of what action he should take. At seventeen, this was his first time on patrol with the Elven warriors of Imladris and, truth be told, he had not yet come to feel that he truly belonged here. It had taken much discussing, debating, cajoling, and even some outright begging on Estel's part, as well as considerable intervention from Elrohir, to convince Lord Elrond that he was ready to face the realities outside the protected borders of his foster father's realm.

At this moment, however, Estel did not feel so ready to face the realities outside the elven refuge. Suddenly feeling very weary, his legs gave out from under him and he sank to his knees, still shaken from his first real taste of battle. As he worked to steady his breathing, he glanced up and was dismayed to see Elladan approaching with a frown on his face.

Without prelude, Elladan began to criticize. "I had my eye on you, Estel. I saw you feint to the left when you should have moved to the right. You left yourself open for an instant, and an orc was ready to turn your mistake to its advantage. You were fortunate that Elrohir was close enough to cover you. You had but a moment of distraction but in battle a moment is all it takes for the tide to turn against you. You were careless, Estel, and it could have cost you your life." Without further discussion, Elladan turned and walked away, returning to aid in the cleanup.

Estel bowed his head and closed his eyes, trying to recall the details of the battle and scrutinize his actions as best he could. Everything had happened so quickly, but he had felt that he had availed himself quite handily. He knew that he had felled several of the evil creatures with his own blade. Had he had a moment of distraction? Estel frowned as he realized that perhaps he had. He was, after all, only human.

Absorbed in his thoughts, Estel had not realized that another had joined him. " Do not look so concerned, Estel!" Elrohir was standing above him, with a smile on his face and warmth in his eyes. "You did very well for your first battle. You fought bravely and with skill. Father will be most pleased. I am proud of you, little brother!"

Though the words were spoken truly and with love, Estel could not help but flinch and turn his head away at the term of endearment. Elrohir frowned at this reaction and his eyes were drawn in the direction of Estel's gaze. There Elrohir saw the other half of his very being, the one as familiar as he was to himself, his twin Elladan.

Estel turned back to his beloved mentor with a sad smile. "But I am not really your brother, am I Elrohir? For how can I be your brother, and yet not your brother's brother?"

Elrohir gracefully sat himself beside the youth and studied him with concern. "What could Elladan have said to you that would cause you to question my words as well?"

Estel returned his gaze with a defiance that Elrohir had never seen. "No matter the words he speaks, the meaning remains the same. He can find no good in me!"

Having grown quite adept at using humor to smooth relations between his beloved brother and the one he loved as a brother, Elrohir responded with a mischievous grin. "Surely you are exaggerating when you say that Elladan can find no good in you. Why, just last week he informed me that no one was as good as you at finishing off the fresh apple pastries before he even had time to set his eyes upon them."

Estel snorted and rolled his eyes at the jest, but he was not willing to be so easily diverted from his quest for answers this time. Quickly he regained his serious demeanor and again broached the subject of Elladan's behaviour toward him. "Surely you realize that he has never, not once, called me his brother. Yet for as long as I can remember you have claimed me as one. How can two so similar in stature be so very different in nature?"

"We are not so different as we may seem to you, Estel. Always have we both sought the same ends: to protect and to aid you."

Estel felt his ire rise. "How can you make such a claim? Ever has he condemned me with harsh criticism while you have encouraged me with gentle guidance. As you have sought to fortify me, he seems determined to tear me down. Never can I please him no matter how hard I try. Believe me for many years I have tried, like some abused puppy always returning with its tail between its legs in the vain hope of receiving some small measure of praise from its master! But it is never enough. I am never stealthy enough, never clever enough, never swift enough, never strong enough, I am never good enough!"

With each word, Estel's voice rose, reaching a tone of bitterness and resentment that Elrohir had seldom heard from his soft-spoken foster brother. But the next words that escaped Estel's lips were barely a whisper and so full of sorrow that Elrohir felt his gentle heart constrict. "Why does he hate me so?"

"He does not hate you. He loves you." Elrohir responded with conviction.

Estel turned incredulous eyes toward the one he had always adored as a mentor and an older brother. "Then Elladan has a very strange way of showing affection, at least as it concerns me!"

Elrohir considered his words carefully. Was this a topic he was willing or, if truth be told, able to discuss with the youth? Truly Estel was precocious and gifted, and in him Elrohir saw a degree of nobility and a strength of spirit that he had not seen for many generations of his ancestors. Elrond had named him "hope" for good reason. But Estel was still so very young and the subject was so very personal and painful for Elrohir.

Whatever the emotional cost to himself, Elrohir decided that Estel deserved some answers. Not knowing quite where to begin, however, he opted for a rather vague question. "Know you of the choice of the peredhil, the choice laid upon my father and his brother?"

Estel nodded his head in affirmation, for well he was familiar with the fates of Elrond and Elros, twin sons of Earendil, though his expression belied his confusion at this seemingly sudden change of topics.

"As well you may know that Elladan, Ar…and I," Elrohir caught himself just in time from revealing the name he had sworn to his father never to utter in the presence of the boy. Though he did not understand his father's reasons for keeping all mention of his beloved sister from Estel, there were times when no one, not even his twin, dare question the wisdom of Lord Elrond Earendilion. "We have been granted the same choice, the same doom."

At this Estel's eyes widened in an expression of astonishment. "Surely there is no doom! Surely your choice has already been made?"

Estel paused and glanced down at his hands, feeling suddenly uncertain. While he was well aware of the choice that lay before the twin sons of Elrond, to accept the gift of death as men or to be bound forever to Arda as elves, this was not a subject that either had discussed with him. He had always assumed he knew the answer. "Surely you both plan to sail with your father and be reunited in the undying lands with your mother?" His tone was soft and full of melancholy.

Elrohir smiled, trying to ease the lines of concern he saw forming on Estel's youthful features. "Do not worry so Estel! If we sail, it will be well after we have seen you to your destiny." Estel opened his mouth to speak but Elrohir continued before he had a chance to comment. "Where ever that destiny may lead us."

Estel's frown deepened. He was quite certain that Elrohir's words held more meaning than he was yet able to understand. Even after a childhood spent in Imladris and despite his fluency in several elven languages, he often had the sense that he was missing part of a deeper meaning when he conversed with elves. Long ago, he had realized that what an elf was saying was usually much more than the words he spoke. Seeking an answer from an elf was a very dangerous game, for as often as not an elvish "answer" simply left one with more questions.

His musings were interrupted by an arm placed around his shoulders in a gesture of brotherly affection. "Ah, but we were discussing my obstinate twin's discourteous conduct toward you, were we not? However did we get so off topic?" There was a glint in Elrohir's eyes that Estel had learned to interpret as teasing.

"Do not taunt me so Elrohir! Can you not see that I am truly distraught? For once, give me a true and clear answer, if the answer is truly within you to give!"

Like the sudden deluge of a thunderstorm that engulfs the light of summer, Elrohir's face darkened and in an instant all hint of mirth was gone. Estel shivered as the familiar and beloved brother before him was instantly transformed into some unfathomable ancient being. The cumulative experiences of three millennia of love and joy, loss and pain were reflected in Elrohir's eyes and Estel was compelled to avert his gaze by the intensity of the emotions he saw there.

"I do not taunt you Estel. Some matters are not meant to be discussed, particularly with a mortal youth numbering but a handful of years. But I will give you the answers you seek, at least in some measure."

"You ask why Elladan hates you, but I tell you quite truthfully that he loves you and gives to you all that he is presently able to give. You do not understand, for you can not, what it means for an immortal to love a mortal."

Estel kept his head bowed and his eyes fixed firmly on the ground. Suddenly, he felt very young. He found the pain that laced Elrohir's voice almost too much to bear and he could not help but wonder if he was ready to hear what Elrohir was willing to tell him.

Taking a deep breath and closing his eyes to the painful memories he was pulling forward, Elrohir continued. "Most elves wisely close their hearts to mortals and remain distant from the affairs of men, but the peredhil do not have that luxury. Through his kinship to the great houses of both the Eldar and the Edain, ever has my father felt it his duty and his privilege to offer refuge not only to elves but also to men in need."

"Elladan and I were raised with compassion for all the children of Iluvatar and we recognize our role as the sons of a peredhil. We understand that while we are granted the grace of the Eldar until our choice is made, we yet remain bound by blood to the lives of our mortal kin and our destinies are intertwined."

"For years beyond your reckoning have we spent much of our time amongst the Dunedain. We have laughed with them, grieved with them, fought alongside them as brothers in arms and loved them. Countless times have we shared in the intense joy of a birth, only to share in the deep sorrow of yet another death at the end of an all too brief human lifespan. We have watched generation after generation of your ancestors transformed from innocent babes, to strong, brave warriors and dear friends, to doddering old men, to rotting carcasses beneath decaying tombstones!"

"Through it all ever do Elladan and I continue on, outwardly unchanged. But appearances can be deceiving, for we are changed. We hold in our heads and our hearts the memories of every mortal we have loved and lost. Each death is another scar upon us, and while the scars may not be visible to mortal eyes, each one weakens and wearies us."

Here Elrohir paused and drew a shaky breath, for well he was aware that he was entering dangerous territory. Elrond had insisted that for Estel's own protection he remain ignorant of his ancestry but Elrohir felt the youth deserved at least some form of explanation for Elladan's behaviour. "Your father was our dear friend, and too soon, even by the standards of men, did he meet his end."

At the mention of his real father, Estel finally found the courage to look again at Elrohir. He was much aggrieved to see his own tears mirrored on his beloved mentor's face. Never in all his years at Imladris had he seen an elf cry.

Many were the times when Elrohir had comforted him through the perceived hurts and injustices of childhood, and Estel felt a strong desire to simply cease this painful conversation and wrap Elrohir in a comforting embrace. However, his need to finally gain the answers he had long sought was even stronger.

"Never have I heard you mention my true father before. No one will speak of him. Whenever I try to inquire about him the subject is quickly changed. Even my mother will merely insist that he 'was a good man' and say nothing more. I began to suspect that he was some sort of rogue, a knave who was too dishonourable to even merit mention."

"Do not think such a thing! Your father was no rogue! He was an honourable man and most beloved to us. He was a brave warrior and a strong fighter and many times did he ride with Elladan and I against the encroaching evil. We were present the day he died and Elladan witnessed his death. He was taken instantly by an orc arrow through his eye."

"Elladan was deeply affected by your father's death. He holds himself responsible, which I tell you is misguided. There was naught that anyone could have done to prevent the tragedy, but that does not hinder my obstinate brother from claiming responsibility for that which was not in his power to control."

"When we bore your father's body back to his devastated young widow and son who was no more than a babe, Elladan swore an oath. He did not tell me in so many words, but I know my brother well enough to know that he swore to do everything within his power, and some things which are not, to protect you from harm."

"At the same time, though, I could feel his attempt to harden his heart. Your father's death was almost too much for him to bear. I believe he felt that he could no longer endure the pain of loving and losing another mortal friend to death. So, while he swore to protect you, he also, in effect, swore never to love you."

"Well have you seen the result. He is so critical of you because in reality he is critical of himself. Ever is he atoning for his perceived failure to protect your father. He tries to protect you by pushing you ever harder, forcing you to become ever better. At the same time, he acts so coldly toward you in an attempt to keep his heart closed to you. However, I can tell you with certainty that he has failed on that count. He loves you Estel, though he attempts to deny it, even to himself."

A smile brightened Elrohir's face again. "No one can resist your charms for long, little brother."

Immeasurably relieved to see the characteristic smile return to his usually cheerful brother's face, Estel could not help but jest as well. "Tell that to Erestor when he is attempting to teach me my history lessons."

Quickly, however, Estel's somber mood returned and silence reigned as he studied the familiar face of his foster brother. "You have given me much to think about, Elrohir. For as long as I can recall I have thought Elladan cold and uncaring toward me. If Elladan's motivations are as you say, it would seem that I have been greatly mistaken. Can appearances truly be so deceiving?"

Elrohir was still smiling, but in his eyes Estel saw a weight and a depth that he could not comprehend. "What you think is true may be little more than an illusion, while the fantastical may be closer to the truth than you could ever conceive. Never judge people or things by appearance alone, Estel."

Once again, Estel had the familiar feeling that he was only understanding a small piece of a much larger picture. To what was Elrohir referring? Elladan? His father? Himself? Suddenly, in a flash of foresight, Estel had the sense of himself as a part of a greater design and a grander purpose. But the vision was fleeting and as he reached out in his mind in an attempt to grasp the tenuous images and put the pieces of the puzzle together, they were gone.

Not wanting to let go of this rare opportunity for clear answers to questions that had long plagued him, Estel decided to press his luck. "Please, Elrohir, tell me more of my father. Who was he? What was his name? What did he look like?"

Though Elrohir's smile brightened, he shook his head as he gracefully stood. "I am afraid that is a topic for another day. If I were to continue this conversation now, I am quite sure father would have my tongue!" With a wink, Elrohir turned and walked away, back toward Elladan.

As he watched Elrohir's retreating form, Estel could not help but laugh out loud as he realized that, although he had begun this conversation in an earnest search for understanding, he was once again left with many more questions than answers.