All right, last one here! Makes a lot of references to stories I've thought out but never written. Posting in the morning because I'm out of town again until tomorrow night.

Twelve Treasured Friends

A banquet was being held in the great hall, but within a small private chamber only the king and his closest friends were gathered.

Twelve sat at the table, and as Aragorn surveyed those surrounding them he could not help but wonder. They were so precious to him...he knew many men who did not have one trustworthy friend, yet he had eleven.

His gaze swept the room, pausing on each face in consideration.

To his left sat Arwen. Arwen, his beautiful and beloved wife. She had given up her immortality, her chance to sail with her people into a land free of heartache for him. There were days when he was still amazed that she loved him.

And for all that she seemed delicate, she was strong. Though she would never admit it, she was a match for any swordsman of Gondor. Yet her strength was not only physical. She had been his support through the first few difficult months of the kingship. Many days he had been at the end of his patience, but for Arwen.

She was more than merely his wife, the queen of Gondor. She was his everything.

On Arwen's left sat her brothers, Elladan Elrohir. Aragorn had grown up calling Elladan and Elrohir his brothers, as he had been foster-son of their father. He had feared their displeasure when he fell in love with Arwen, but had been surprised to find their support instead.

There were times when the twins were still too over-protective. Even now that Aragorn was king and had for many years been old enough to take care of himself, his brothers still tried to protect him. That had been a comfort for many years.

Though that was not all they had done. They had traveled with the rangers for many years, and when the time came for Aragorn to lead the rangers Elladan and Elrohir had supported him and deferred to him even if they knew of a better way. Their example had led to a rapid acceptance among the older rangers, and it was that confidence that had made him the man he was today.

He smiled when he saw the figure beside the twins. Legolas had been his closest friend for many years, and still was to this day. Born the youngest prince of Mirkwood, Legolas had been willing to be scorned by his own people to befriend a clumsy young human.

Many years they had traveled together. He had often confided his fears in Legolas during those years, but one of the things he treasured was that Legolas had confided in him. The elf was centuries his elder, yet he had trusted a human enough to share his own fears and insecurities.

And, of course, they had had their share of adventures. Many of those adventures ended with one or the other of them wounded, but he would not have traded a single adventure for anything in this world. He had been thrilled when Legolas had been chosen to be among the Fellowship, and though he had his own regrets in their friendship they were still close.

Then there was Gimli. While Aragorn had not grown particularly close to the dwarf despite their experiences on the Quest, he still considered the short hairy being one of his closest friends.

Though perhaps that was because the dwarf had grown so close to Legolas. Truth be told, Aragorn was occasionally jealous of the camaraderie elf and dwarf shared. Because Legolas had been his friend for so many years, it could be difficult to see him so close to Gimli. But Aragorn had forced that jealousy away. Their lives had changed...he would not begrudge his oldest friend this friendship.

In fact, Aragorn was thankful to Gimli. Legolas had been stricken by the sea-longing, and while Aragorn knew the elf would stay as long as Aragorn was alive he was convinced Gimli's friendship played some part in keeping his friend from despair. He knew Legolas still would have stayed had he not befriended Gimli, but it was his closeness with the dwarf that kept the sea-longing at bay. And for that, Aragorn was very thankful indeed.

Samwise was beside Gimli. Dear, faithful Samwise. He had not been the same since Frodo sailed West with the other Ringbearers, though he now had a wife and children to care for. But Sam had taken his master's advice to heart, and had begun to live. He would always miss Frodo, but his grief would not tear him apart.

Pippin was next. Pippin had begun the Quest so young, but had returned home with a maturity few hobbits ever saw. Aragorn had nearly not recognized the serious-faced figure in the livery of the tower guard. Young Pippin had seen much...the fall of Isengard, the Eye, the madness of Denethor, and had helped save Faramir's life. He was still barely more than a child to his own people, but he was already held a hero in Gondor.

And Merry, of course. Merry was Pippin's closest friends, but his path had been different. Pippin often claimed that it had been Merry's impassioned plea that had stirred the Ents—though it had taken the destruction of the forest to make them move, Merry had awoken their hearts. He had awoken another heart as well, for Éowyn had carried him with her into battle. Merry and Éowyn were kindred spirits, both fierce in battle but peaceful in heart.

Éomer caught Aragorn's eye, smiling a little in his direction as he conversed with Merry. Éomer was king of Rohan, and Aragorn's greatest ally. Though Éomer was much younger, Aragorn had found a steadfast friend in the horse-lord. They had ridden out together to clear the land of the Dark Lord's remaining filth, and Éomer was a man he was proud to have by his side.

King of Rohan, Éomer had taken up his responsibilities easier than expected. Many had assumed that the rash young nephew of Théoden would prove a disastrous king, but the loss of his uncle and his sister's injury had tempered the young man.

Éowyn was beside her brother, a smile in her face and a light in her eyes that had not been there when Aragorn first met her. Their friendship had been awkward for a time, as Éowyn had once been in love with him. She had been trapped by her uncle's enchantment, forced to watch him decay and age beyond his time, and hounded at nearly every step by Gríma.

Faramir had once confessed to Aragorn that Éowyn still had nightmares of Gríma, fears of her uncle giving her to him in marriage. The hobbits' news that Gríma had perished eased her mind somewhat, but resolution had been difficult for her. In the midst of her desperation she had seen Aragorn, and taken her admiration and turned it into something more. She had seen him as her only hope to escape her prison, a man strong-minded enough that she would not always be thinking for him, gentle enough that she need not fear for her safety, and powerful enough to take her and set her above the troubles that overwhelmed her.

But she, too, had changed. Her heart had softened, and she had married Faramir. All traces of her infatuation with Aragorn had all but disappeared, leaving behind the basis for a strong friendship.

Beside Éowyn, on Aragorn's right, was Faramir. His confidence had grown in recent months, and he no longer expected harsh criticism whenever he faced Aragorn. He was at peace with the deaths of his brother and father, and had confessed to Aragorn that he no longer wished to join them before his time. There had been days, during Éowyn's return to Rohan before their marriage, that he had contemplated ending his own life. His father's shadow had remained over him for some time, but Aragorn was slowly pushing that away.

There were many that claimed Faramir had done nothing to win the war. While Faramir had not ridden out to the Black Gate for the final battle, it was his presence that had made Aragorn's coronation seamless.

Because Faramir so openly accepted the king, the people followed his leave. Boromir had once explained that their father feared Faramir, for the people of Gondor followed Denethor out of allegiance but followed Faramir out of love. Had he so desired, he could have turned against his father and had all of Minas Tirith behind him in a moment. But he was a man of peace, now content that there were no more battles to be fought. Save Arwen, Faramir had been the most help to Aragorn during his first months of kingship. With Faramir by his side, Aragorn had quickly adapted to the life of the Gondorians, and there were few who still saw him as the wild ranger on the throne.

Finally, his thoughts turned inward. So many years had many memories of victories and defeats. It was hard to believe that the king of Gondor had once been that child who only wanted to be an elf. Or the rash young man whose mistake had nearly cost his best friend his life, or whose foolish pride had led them into any number of unnecessary battles.

He had served as a ranger, protecting the Shire and its little inhabitants from the dangers beyond their borders. He had served in Gondor and Rohan, learning about the lands of his kingship and the dark strategies of the Enemy. He had hunted Gollum into the wild, and guided four hobbits to the safety of Rivendell. So much had happened to bring Estel to Aragorn.

There were twelve of them. Twelve friends that had not sought this glory, but had saved their world.

Raising his glass, Aragorn stood to his feet and caught his friends' attention. "To friendship," he intoned, but the words did not seem enough. "To the love that binds us together though our differences drive us apart. To those mighty in humility, and the peace that brings and end to war. To friendship that has made us a force strong enough to defeat the Enemy and bring peace to our lands. Friendship that has saved lives, ended dangers, and endured every difficulty.

"To you, my friends."

Happy Holidays!

Merry Christmas to all, wherever your roads may take you!