Author's Note: Happy holidays to all! I love each and every one of you. :)
Super Brief Recap: The army is returning for real this time.
CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT – Is This a Kissing Book?
Meghan had the good sense not to simply drop the crock of butter in her hands. Instead, she threw it in the general direction of the countertop and then bolted out of the kitchens. She could just hear the crock shattering but what was butter when there were returning heroes at the gates?
She took the steps two at a time. It sounded like every horn in the city was blaring, from the great warhorns to the smallest child's toy. The immensity of the noise level grew as she emerged into the open air. The courtyard was filled with children, laughing and screaming and whooping at each other. Meghan hurried through the crowd of them. She realized that she didn't know where to go. The gates? Those were all the way on the bottommost level, and she was at the top.
"Melethriel!" There was Gandalf, his robes swishing imperiously about him. "Come this way. You will be amongst Faramir's party."
"I don't want to go to a party, Gandalf!" Meghan shouted over the noise.
"It is not a party," Gandalf replied, the eye-roll evident in his voice. "It is a place of honour in the delegation that will receive the King."
"WHAT KING?" If this is another false alarm and it's not Legolas and the rest, I am going to scream.
"Do you care to discuss Gondor's line of succession here in the courtyard, or would it please you to follow me so that we might make our way to the gates?"
A part of Meghan wanted to give Gandalf a piece of her mind regarding his unnecessary sass, but a much much bigger part needed to find Legolas as quickly as possible. So she huffed disdainfully and marched after him.
She followed him to the same great throne room that the Last Council had met in. There Meghan saw Éowyn and Faramir standing close together, talking in low, happy voices. Several other official-looking people were milling about, but Meghan didn't know who they were. She was so impatient to go that she felt like stamping her foot and screaming.
"Samwise did not wish to come," Gandalf said. "He will stay near Frodo until he wakes."
"Then we shall go," Faramir announced, and headed for the door. The group fell in behind him, and Meghan found herself next to Éowyn. They hadn't really seen much of each other the past few weeks, except for a few brief conversations before they went to sleep. Meghan had it on good authority (the healers gossiped most shockingly) that Éowyn and Faramir spent most of their time together, and she was quite content to let that progress without her interference.
Still, she was grateful that Éowyn chose to walk with her, even though neither said anything. Just having a friend nearby while her heart was leaping and bounding and sinking helped Meghan keep breathing as the procession wended through the city streets and finally down to the main gates at ground-level.
At first Meghan thought that only their party would go out, but she soon realized that anyone who could walk was pouring out behind them. The entire city was emptying to welcome their heroes home.
It wasn't long before she could make out the army returning across the field. At the front was a tall, dark-haired man in black and silver attire. Wait, is that… Aragorn? He looked so different, even at that distance.
And there, beside him, was golden Legolas, still beautiful and perfect and very uninjured. She wanted to fly to him, to scream at him, to kiss him. He had already found her with his eyes, and there was something in them that sent a delicious shiver up her spine.
But there was a solemnity in the moment that she knew she couldn't break. Even now the two parties had gotten close enough that they stopped, facing each other. She realized that if she didn't distract herself with something, she would probably end up tearing Legolas off his horse and dissolving into tears. The twenty or so feet between them was simultaneously too far and too near. To be so close but unable to interact was torment.
She dragged her eyes away, forcing her attention to the scene at hand. Aragorn had dismounted, and Faramir stepped a little farther forward and knelt.
"The last Steward of Gondor begs leave to surrender his office," Faramir said.
Aragorn drew him to his feet. "That office is not ended, and it shall be yours and your heirs' as long as my line shall last."
Faramir turned to address the people of the city behind him. "Men of Gondor, hear now the Steward of this realm! Behold, one has come to claim the kingship again at last. Here is Aragorn, son of Arathorn. Shall he be king and enter into the city and dwell there?"
The crowd erupted in a roar of approval, and just like that the invisible barrier was lifted. The two sides melted into each other, husbands and wives and siblings and mothers and children finding each other to meet for the first time in a world free from the oppression of Sauron. It was chaos, and it was glorious.
Legolas had dismounted and was pushing through the masses toward her. Meghan felt her stomach drop away, then rush into her throat. Why am I so nervous? she wondered, wishing that she had changed out of her grubby cleaning clothes. Don't be ridiculous! You're supposed to be angry with him for leaving you!
Now he was in front of her, and he grasped her shoulders, pulling her to him. Suddenly Meghan found herself being kissed so thoroughly that her rational thoughts skittered round and around in her head until she brushed them away and let the warm, melty thoughts take their place.
And then she sneezed.
It was the explosive sort of sneeze, too – the kind that comes out almost like a scream and makes your ribcage burn.
"I'm so sorry," she gasped, clamping both hands over her mouth just in case she sneezed again.
Legolas looked shaken. "Are you feeling quite well?"
"I think I might be allergic to you," Meghan replied.
"Impossible," was all he said before leaning in for another kiss.
It took her a long moment to come back to her senses, but presently she pushed him away. "Hang on a second, I am not just going to melt into your arms like a Disney princess," she said. "You drugged me and then ran off to a battle and left me back here to worry myself sick. I think you should apologize."
He looked sheepish and puzzled at the same time. "That was my apology."
"Oh." Meghan thought about it and crossed her arms over her chest. "I don't forgive you."
"In that case…" He put his arms around her waist, drawing her flush to his body. "Will," he dropped a kiss on her forehead, "you..." Another on the tip of her nose. "Forgive," on her cheek, just at the corner of her mouth, "me?" and one last kiss on the other cheek.
Meghan wasn't sure if she was still breathing. He is the cheesiest thing since Velveeta and it is all working on me! Oh my god he knows it, too… he's practically laughing at me! And she had no other choice but to kiss the smirk right off his face.
"Have you two children had quite enough?" came Gimli's gruff voice.
Meghan was so startled that she instinctively jerked away. Gimli burst into hearty laughter.
"Pardon me," he chortled, stroking his beard. "It has taken the pair of you so long to get this far, I should not have interrupted."
Legolas muttered something under his breath that Meghan didn't understand, but she took it for some colourful Elvish because it just made Gimli laugh harder.
"Away with you, Dwarf," Legolas said, his good humor laced with real irritation. Gimli shook his head and, still chuckling, strode away. Legolas sighed. "He would not like to hear it, but Gimli reminds me of my brother from time to time."
Meghan laughed, then stared. "You have a brother?"
"And a sister—"
She turned to see Pippin pushing through the crowd toward her, beaming. He had a thin gash along his jaw, but otherwise seemed unhurt. He still wore his sable livery and mail.
"Pippin!" Meghan exclaimed, throwing her arms out to hug the Hobbit.
"I'm sorry about leaving you behind," Pippin said. "Merry and I were quite shocked to hear what Legolas had done."
She could hear Legolas huff a little bit behind her, and she laughed. "I was pretty shocked myself. I still haven't forgiven him."
"Oh?" Pippin said with a tilt of his head and a half smile. "So it's not all domestic bliss between you two, then?"
Legolas lightly laid his hands on her shoulders and dropped a kiss on her temple. "Perhaps if we got away from this crowd," he said in a low voice that only she could hear, his breath warm on her neck.
"Where are Frodo and Sam?" Pippin said, either totally unaware or deliberately ignoring the sudden flush in Meghan's cheeks.
She cleared her throat to get her thoughts back on track. "They're in the Houses of Healing. Frodo still hasn't woken, but Gandalf said he's nearly recovered."
"That's good," Pippin said. He quirked an eyebrow, giving them both a knowing grin. "I think I'll go find Captain Faramir. Or I should say the Steward now!"
"See you later," Meghan said. Pippin sketched a bow and began to push his way back through the crowd.
The Hobbit had hardly taken a few steps away before Legolas wrapped his arms around Meghan's waist from behind and kissed the nape of her neck just behind her ear. "Am I forgiven yet?" he murmured.
She twisted around so that she faced him. "Do you solemnly swear to never drug me with sleeping potion ever again?"
"I swear it," he nodded.
"And you're genuinely sorry for drugging me in the first place?"
"Well, in that case, I suppose—"
"Meghan!" That sharp voice could only belong to one person.
Legolas sighed, resting his forehead against Meghan's with another whispered profanity in Elvish as Ioreth bustled up.
"There you are, child," the healer said with her usual business-like air. "I see you have reunited with your young man. Well, there will be leisure for that later. Meanwhile we have much work to do."
"But Ioreth—" Meghan started.
Ioreth waved her hand impatiently. "No time for excuses. For every healthy man you see, there are two wounded in the rearguard. We have until nightfall at the latest before they begin to arrive."
Meghan was having a hard time letting go of Legolas. "Could I have five more minutes?" she faltered. "I've only just gotten him back."
"Do you suppose that you are the only woman that has only just seen her beloved again? You have already had five more minutes than some. It is time for good work."
"Go," Legolas said. "I will come find you after."
"You look in need of a good wash," Ioreth interjected with a sniff. "Come along, Meghan."
One more kiss, and Meghan dragged herself away. By then some of the crowd was beginning to trickle back into the city. Most of those returning were workers like Meghan, women hastening to ready the city for the influx of survivors and wounded.
Despite a renewed workaday spirit, the overwhelming sense of festivity carried Meghan up the city streets and back into the Houses of Healing. As she set to making up fresh beds for the wounded, she heard some of the women singing while they worked.
She spent the rest of the morning flying from one job to the next. Each time she thought it was her last task, Ioreth seemed to find something new. "Roll these bandages," she would say, and then "Sweep up that mess in the kitchens, it seems that someone has broken a butter crock."
"If I had gone with the army, I wouldn't have to work under this dictatorship," Meghan muttered to herself after yet another assignment.
"If you had gone with the army, you would be dead," Ioreth called after her calmly.
Finally, as the sun started to melt into the horizon and Meghan started to melt into despair, Ioreth released her. "Go now, child. That is quite enough work for one day. I shall expect to see you at the usual time tomorrow morning."
"Morning?" Meghan quailed.
Ioreth gave her an appraising look. "You are a worker in the Houses of Healing now. If ever we are needed, it is in this hour."
"Of course," Meghan replied, resigning herself to the reality that she had accidentally become an indentured servant to a maniacal overlord.
"You'd best hurry to the common hall," Ioreth said. "I heard rumors of a young Elf prince asking after you there."
Meghan could literally feel the knots loosening in her shoulders as her troubles melted away. She crushed Ioreth in a sudden embrace, and then ran.
Just to clarify this is not the ending! There's probably two more chapters in this fic - and keep your eyes peeled for breaking news about the life and times of Meghan Whimblesby after the end of this. ;)