A/N: With a mixture of sadness and relief, I present to you the final installment. :o)
A last and heartfelt thank-you to my beta Imbecamiel (Vulcan-like in her stability and logic), who has endured many an artistic mood-swing, and patiently edited this regardless. I can't believe how much you put up with from me, muinthel-nin, but I appreciate it. ;-)
Time. So much time had passed since he'd seen his family, or Legolas. That was what Thorongil's mind returned to again and again during every quiet moment of late. He couldn't stop thinking about Rivendell, about Mirkwood, about the adventures—or more often misadventures—he used to have with the twins and Legolas.
He'd never felt quite separated from them. All of them sent him letters frequently, and he was almost always in the middle of responding to one of them. In some ways, the more conscious effort of stopping and purposefully taking the time to "talk" to them seemed to bring him closer to them. But even talking to them intimately through letters sometimes made the ache of physical distance all the more acute.
He missed them. The familiarity of home, and family and dear friends, in whose presence there was no need to hide his true identity. He'd never stopped being himself, really, but there was always a slight lingering guilt, a sense of feeling deceptive and secretive about his past. It set him apart, made him feel always a little like an outsider, even when he was accepted as he was in Rohan. But he knew the partial secrecy was necessary, for now.
But that was one of the reasons he missed home so badly. They knew him there. Not as the possible future King of Gondor, or Strider, Ranger of the North, or Thorongil, Captain of Rohan. They knew him as Estel of Rivendell. Ion. Tithen-muindor. Mellon. And they accepted him just as he was. He yearned to be at that place in his life once more.
Wishful thinking, all of it. He'd truly established himself in Rohan by this time, and although thoughts of moving on were still persistent, there was something about being half-killed that soothed wanderlust, just a little. Once he'd made a full recovery—and Neylor let him leave his room—his mind might turn back to thoughts of moving on. For now, he was as content as he could be, barring a return to Rivendell. He needed to accomplish more, and see more of the world, before it was time for him to go back.
And right now what he needed to be doing was writing a letter back to Elrond—which brought him to a dilemma. How much he was going to say of this latest catastrophe he'd been entangled in? He had to take into account that his father was not only frighteningly perceptive, but also happened to be Lord of Rivendell and a member of the White Council. One never could tell exactly how much he knew of the happenings in Middle Earth at large, or quite how he came to be aware of some of it, though there was no doubt his knowledge was considerable.
Thorongil ran a few sentences over in his mind, trying to think of a way to say he was alright, without implying that there was every reason for him not to be. There was a small chance Elrond might not know, and it wouldn't do to give too much away and worry him unduly if that was the case. But of course Elrond might very likely find out about the goings-on in Rohan sometime in the future, in which case it wouldn't do either to be obviously concealing the fact in his letter. It was a situation he didn't see a winning solution to, but he had to say something. Maybe gloss over his health, and the recent news, and forge right on to the weather? He would have to be subtle.
I am sorry I could not write you sooner. There has been much to keep me occupied of late...
Rivendell, some time later
A light breeze lifted the drapes at the open window, bringing in the light scent of greenness and spring. Elrond scoffed at the letter laying open on his desk. Who on Arda had ever taught his son subtlety? He'd thought he had, but apparently no one had.
There has been much to keep me occupied of late...
Even if rumors hadn't been spreading about all the strange things happening in Rohan, he would have gotten a hint there that something was out of the usual. Estel didn't usually make such inane comments, or if he did, he went on to elaborate. Unlike in this letter. It was a trait in all his sons: understatement like this invariably meant they'd either been involved in disaster of some kind, or were about to be.
…but everything is well in Rohan now.
Ah, so at least it was trouble in the past-tense. In his mind's eye he could see the expression on Estel's face as he penned that. Sheepish. Cringing. Hoping his father wouldn't notice the way he was avoiding saying anything openly, and that he wouldn't read anything between the lines, or into the lines.
But that wasn't the worst. Later on, Eru help him, Estel gave himself away and scared his father half to death all with one ostensibly innocuous phrase. Apparently, it was supposed to be reassuring. First, he made vague statements about "being wounded", though he didn't mention how or how badly, and then oh-so-innocently added:
I am doing well now.
Too many "now"s—they pointed glaringly to the fact that there had to have been a before where everything wasn't so "well." And here he thought he was going to have to analyze this letter to death in order to find out whether Estel had managed to be come embroiled in whatever it was that was going on.
I am doing well now. Elrond read it again and scowled. He read further on, but that was all on that topic. What kind of information was that to reassure a parent separated from a wounded son by hundreds of miles? He didn't even mention what kind of wound he was recovering from.
The rest of the letter was even more dissatisfactory, without so much as an allusion to anything of a serious nature. There was mention of the young prince, Théoden, and of the Queen's pregnancy, and even a few painstakingly accurate accounts of the minor details of his life in Rohan, while omitting the major ones. Classic evasive tactics. Estel should have known better than to try them on him. Elrond was sorely tempted to storm off to Rohan that very hour, if only to strangle Estel—after, of course, he made sure he was alright and embraced him.
Eru, he missed him.
Estel was grown man, but he would always be Elrond's youngest, and he couldn't help but perpetually think of his son's mortality and vulnerability to sicknesses as a human, among other things.
Contradictory emotions of frustration and fondness left him with an odd half-glare half-smile on his face as he finished reading the letter a second time through. Estel had wormed his way into his adoptive family's hearts as a child, and as an adult he continued to stay there. Even if he could be the most inconsiderate, stubborn, uncooperative, and obstinately uncommunicative man alive. Bewilderingly hazard-prone, with a penchant for coming home mud-caked and usually in need of medical attention—quirks and all, he was their Estel no matter how long he was gone.
Regardless, Elrond wished he wouldn't stay gone for so long. Never had years dragged along at such a slow rate. Every drop of human blood he possessed kept on insisting annually, or often more frequently, that a long time had passed. Admittedly, a great deal of his desire for Estel to return was selfish. However, apart from his more self-centered motives, Elrond was constantly thinking of what the years were doing to his youngest. If the months were dragging on him, making him feel old in an almost human sense, then how might Estel be changing in all this time?
Oh, ion-nin, I hope you do not think there is a need to prove yourself before you return to your home. Rivendell will always have a place for you just as you are. He wished he could send the thought telepathically—sincerity and all—straight into Estel's head, and make him believe it. He thought briefly of Arwen, and all the tangled emotions there, and would have added: The years have changed many things, but nothing you do could make me stop loving you. He hoped Estel knew that without him saying it, but sometimes that otherwise intelligent mind of his could convince him of the most idiotic ideas.
Elrond was so deep in his thoughts about Estel that, when he heard his name spoken like that, he all but expected to turn around and find his human son standing there.
"Ada, are you alright?" Elrohir asked, eying him with concern.
Elrond frowned, reaching up to rub absently at his right temple. "Oh…Yes, yes, I'm fine. Why?"
"You weren't responding, and you look a little…distant." Elladan rested a hand on the back of his chair, looking over his shoulder. "Is there bad news?"
"I was just reading a letter from your brother."
Elladan assumed a look of mild alarm. "You didn't contradict me—is it good or bad news?"
"To tell you the truth, I don't quite know. It's one of the vaguest letters I've received from him since the last time he was stabbed."
Elrohir winced. "I wish you wouldn't put it that way."
"At least he's improving a little," Elladan observed. "He did come right out and tell us about that broken wrist last year."
Elrond wasn't encouraged. "And you really believe that was the extent of his injuries?"
"True," Elladan conceded.
"Are there any other indications as to what the problem might be this time?" Elrohir asked nervously.
"No, all he does is briefly mention 'an injury'—and then of course skips right on ahead to the part where he's—"
"—Fine," the twins echoed each other, sighing.
"Actually he just says he is 'well now', whatever that is supposed to mean. If any of this sudden need of his for secrecy is connected to all those conspiracy rumors coming from Rohan, than I worry greatly about what sort of trouble he's gotten himself into."
"Knowing Estel, he's right in the middle of whatever it is, getting himself beaten up, shot at, stabbed, and who-knows-what-else," Elladan muttered, a gleam of brotherly protectiveness in his eyes.
"Why, why, couldn't he have been clearer?" Elrond bemoaned. "Does he have any idea how much I worry about him? What goes through his head?"
The twins nodded, although they did understand what had probably been going through Estel's head. The same thing that went through their heads every time they got into trouble and wanted to send a report that would keep Elrond from worrying. Estel never was as good as them at that kind of subtlety, though. He should have known better than to try this.
"Can I see the letter?" Elrohir asked.
Elrond handed it to him. "Of course." His mouth curved into a wry smile. "Perhaps one of you will have more insight as to how your brother's mind works."
Elladan peered over Elrohir's shoulder and they read it together. No enlightenment dawned on either face, but there was frustration in abundance.
"What goes through his head?" Elladan burst out once he was through. "Did he even think for a moment that we might want to know exactly how injured he is?" He threw a hand up in exasperation. "He was 'injured', was he? For all we know—and from all we know of Estel—that could mean anything from a sliver to poisoning."
Elrohir winced again at the phrasing, and tried to be optimistic. "Perhaps we should stop assuming the worst?" It only took a moment's contemplation before he amended, with a soft sigh, "Never mind…"
"Ada." Elladan voice was even to the point of sounding detached—a bad sign—and he had a rebellious flash in his eyes that clearly meant he'd already made up his mind on something.
Elrond was tempted to say no straight off, without even having heard whatever his son was about to say. He could make a fair guess. However, thousands of years' worth of parenting had taught him a few things. Like not to flat-out refuse an unvoiced request from his full-grown and entirely-too-stubborn eldest son, simply because he sensed it was going to be a disastrous idea. "What?"
"I want to go see Estel."
Elrond nearly let his head slump forward for an abrupt meeting with the surface of his desk. One solid thump—and there was nice, quiet, undisturbed unconsciousness. He restrained himself. More of the invaluable parenting wisdom of the ages, his thorough lessons hard-learned, came helpfully to mind. He kept his mouth shut. Then he waited for Elrohir to chime in, as he knew he would. And sure enough, he did, following his twin in bold rebellion with a defiant lift of his chin.
"I want to go as well."
The door was looking extremely inviting now, but the coward's way out was not an option. "We've talked about this before." As if they didn't know that perfectly well… "I don't think it is a wise idea."
"Elladan, Estel is striving to find his place among men, and, as much as I worry about him, the fact that he is still alive and has achieved such a position of power and respect in Rohan is proof that he's doing well enough."
"Elladan, you will listen to me," Elrond enforced sternly. Elladan shut his mouth, but his posture remained determined. "We don't know where things stand for him just now, especially," he indicated the letter, which had once more been deposited on the desk, "after this latest detailed report. Whatever was going on seems to be settled now. In past letters, Estel has expressed some recent desire to move elsewhere. If he were to do so, you might arrive in Rohan only to discover him gone."
"But Ada, if he had, we could just follow him there. It might take some time, but Elladan and I haven't been on a long journey for some time. We wouldn't mind. It would be worth it."
"Elrohir," Elrond spoke his name more as a sigh. "You know Estel as well as I do. He has a tendency to move on without telling anyone where he's going. I think half the time he doesn't know where he's going."
Oh dear Eru. Now Elladan was giving him that look. They both were. That sad, pleading look that both of them had used on him when they were elflings, and had taught Estel to use to his own advantage as a child. Or perhaps all three of them came by it naturally. In any case, it was something he found himself giving in to far more often than he intended to. But he would be firm.
"Elladan, I do not think it would be wise," he reiterated. "How can you even know your brother wants you springing unexpected visits on him?" That was a ridiculous excuse if ever he'd heard one. The day Estel didn't want his brothers coming to visit him… Well, it would never come.
"I miss him so much. Never has time seemed to pass so slowly. His being gone for so long, without knowing when he'll return…or even if he'll return…" Elladan shook his head, as if in denial of the possibility he'd just mentioned. "It feels too much like he's dead. He's mortal, Ada. Dúnadain or not, he will die one day, and no matter when that day is it will be too soon."
"Elladan…" Elrond had thought about this too many times himself. Hated thinking about. He hated hearing it even more.
But Elladan didn't stop, not to spare any of them the pain of hearing the truth spoken out loud. "It can be all too easy to take immortality for granted. But we don't have thousands of years to spend with Estel. We don't have a single day of Estel's life to waste. Ten years—twenty, thirty—it doesn't mean much at all to us. Someday, when our hearts begin to feel the passing of years, then we will go to the West. Someday Estel will be old, and he won't go to the West. And I cannot stand to ignore those facts as if they don't exist, and let so many years pass without seeing him."
Elrohir stood in tight-lipped and somber agreement.
Elrond, who had closed his eyes during the bombardment of words, opened them now, and smiled sadly. "He is not going to become ancient on us overnight, you know. But…you are right. The same has thoughts have been on my mind as well."
"Then you understand why we have to go see him," Elrohir said softly. "He would wish to see you as well."
Elrond smiled less sadly. "I think the three of us at once might be a bit too much for your poor brother." But the thought of seeing Estel again himself sent a wistful thrill through him. "And I still do not think you should go yet, either."
Now Elladan looked like he was contemplating trying out his head's compatibility with the desk. "I thought—"
"You assumed," Elrond corrected. "And you are assuming again. I did not say you should not go at all. However, my heart tells me that now is not the right time. You brother will need the encouragement of your presence in the years to come. He carries a heavy burden, and it is invisible to those around him since the weight he carries must yet be kept a secret. But we will need to make our decision wisely, and not interrupt his life in the wrong way."
"When, Ada? I know Estel misses us as much as we miss him," Elrohir stated with quiet conviction. "And he is not home."
"We shall see, ion-nín, we shall see."
"Ah, mellon-nin, you've been gone too long." And I'm beginning to count the years like a human.
It was late, and Legolas' room was mostly swallowed by shadows. The halls of the Palace of Mirkwood were at peace, and silent in sleep. Only the nocturnal noises of the forest kept him company. Legolas sat in the window-seat in his room, long legs stretched out before him, alternately gazing at the night sky, and the letter in his lap, illuminated by the silver glow of moon and stars.
There were some nights it just wasn't worth the effort to try to force yourself to sleep. Tonight was one of them. Legolas knew even before he'd tried—knew as soon as he'd begun reading Estel's letter—that tonight would be a night for reflecting, and remembering. And wishful thinking.
"You've been gone far, far too long," he whispered again, wishing there was some way his words could reach his friend. "What's keeping you away? Why don't you return, even for just a short time?" Oh, he knew this time was important for Estel, that there was much he needed to do and experience, that he was learning valuable things that would stand him in good stead when the time to claim his future came, things he couldn't have learned or experienced among the elves, or even the Rangers. But it was hard, sometimes to make his heart understand what his head agreed with.
Surely Estel knew they were all missing him terribly by know. If he knew the twins, they were begging annually—or probably more like daily—for their father's approval of a journey to Rohan. He knew he'd been debating the same decision himself. But every time he got close to giving in, Elrond's face would appear in his mind like an apparition, reminding him sternly of all the reasons why it would be a bad idea to go wreaking havoc with Estel's carefully-established life like that.
Wreak havoc… Certainly not. Neither the twins nor he would ever dream of interfering in Estel's life like that. They'd just…liven it up a bit. From the tone his letters were taking lately, the human obviously was in need of a little disruption of the more familiar kind, the kind of "safe," happy, relatively low-level chaos that could only be associated with family and close friends. And probably in need of some medical attention too, from the sound of it.
Legolas bit his lip at the thought, and finished re-reading the letter for the third time. Estel made it pretty clear that he'd been injured. He mentioned—in a by-the-way-I-nearly-died-but-don't-be-concerned kind of way—that he'd been stabbed. He had, of course, immediately afterwards reassured Legolas that he was fine now. But Legolas had a very bad feeling about most of the letter. For one thing, he had the sinking feeling that Estel had been far more seriously injured than he he'd said. Nothing new there—only this time I can't be there, when he falls over unconscious, to say "I told you so." Or to make sure he's taken care of afterwards. The very fact that he'd been so quick to reassure Legolas probably meant he wasn't fine. "Fine" had always had a loose interpretation among the three sons of Elrond. Not that he ever used the word out of context.
Legolas had to wonder how much Estel had told Elrond. Maybe he'd discreetly understated the extent of his stab wound, and told Elrond he'd been nicked by a dagger the other day? More likely, he'd just conveniently forgotten to mention anything at all. Aye, that sounded like the Estel he knew.
But, for all his occasional discrepancies where his health was concerned, and for all his peculiar human traits…He was their Estel, not Rohan's "Thorongil."
Eru, he missed him.
He knew that if these years had felt like a long time to him, they'd been even longer to Estel. It filled him with apprehension to think that his friend might have changed, grown up beyond their friendship. From the sound of it, Estel had secured himself a place in Meduseld that transcended the mere relationship of a soldier to his liege-lord and his family.
Although he didn't say anything about anyone accepting him or loving him like family, it was quite obvious that Estel himself loved and accepted quiet a few people there. And since when had his friend called someone else friend and not been accepted as such in return? In his experience, Estel picked up friends at a bewildering rate, oftentimes quite inadvertently. Actually, an alarming amount of people tended to take one look at Estel, and then promptly try to "adopt" him. Never mind his age, something about Estel compelled people to care about what happened to him.
But who knew, perhaps Estel had picked up some knowledge of the world and become a little more experienced when it came to people. The thought of Estel becoming at least a little more skeptical when it came to people probably should have been a consolation, but it wasn't. Legolas felt a deep sadness to think of his friend possibly becoming cynical about trust, where he used to be so open.
But that was just speculation. For all he knew, Estel was the same impossibly young-looking, impossibly young-acting, and at times impossibly naive man he'd known for years. He hoped so. And if Estel had become cynical and hardened too far from his time spent out in the wide world… Well then, he needed his mellon now more than ever.
Legolas smiled as his friend's face came to mind, grinning incorrigibly as only he could. He felt suddenly foolish even considering that Estel's feelings about their friendship might have changed, that he might now feel they had drifted apart during the time they had been separated—so short for an elf, but so much longer for a human, even one of the Dúnedain. Of course he they hadn't. He himself was the traitor if he thought otherwise. Estel wrote him letters as if they'd just seen each other the other day, as if nothing had changed between them. Because nothing had changed between them. Friendship like they had didn't waver or become less because they were separated by a measly several hundred miles.
He rested his head against the wall behind him, inhaling deeply. It had simply been too long. If doubts about their friendship were beginning to invade his mind, then it was definitely time he went and saw Estel for himself. He understood why the human felt the need to go and immerse himself in human society and stay there for a while, but that didn't mean he couldn't follow. In the first years after Estel had left, he kept on telling himself he had to wait. Well, now he'd waited.
Mellon-nín an-uireb. Gwador-nín an-uireb. Rinno mar, Estel, ana nosse-lyaa . And língaro-cirith. Rinno ammen. Rinno…ben im thel-hilya.
He couldn't, of course, leave that very night, as much as he was tempted to. Or even the next day, or week. But he wouldn't wait much longer. First, he'd need to warm his father, gradually, to the idea. Then, a trip to Rivendell was in order. He had a conspiracy to plan with two deviously-minded elflings—and the Lord of Rivendell to convince.
"Ah, Estel, the things I do for friendship…"
And as he looked out at the stars—Eärendil shining first and foremost among them all—he wondered if his friend might not be looking at the very same sky, and missing him just as much.
The Real End
Evlish translation: My friend for eternity. My brother for eternity. Return home, Estel, to your family. Long years pass. Return to us. Return…or I will follow.
Well, it's been quite the trip! Thank you, all, for the encouragement along the way. I hope the ending has proved satisfactory to y'all. :o)
As regards a sequel... I have few thoughts for a direct sequel to this story, and quite a few more for a Thorongil-in-Gondor story (taking place a number of years in the future, but also somewhat of a sequel to TWoP). I have already begun the Gondor one, but given my current state of being stuck in a depressed writer's block induced slump, I really don't know when, or if, that could happen. Whether or not I succeed in getting myself un-stuck, I'd like to thank Ainu Laire for the friendly pushing she's doing towards that end (she's already helped me a ton with the plot and logistics of it, as well as with becoming re-inspired). :o)
Again, you guys have all been wonderful--thank you! I'd really appreciate it if you'd let me know what you think, now that it's all here. (Again, Nef displays her subtlety in requesting feedback... -bg-)