An Age-Old Question
Summary: Birthdays are highly overrated. Or, at least this year, Elessar is not looking forward to his. :: Aragorn and Legolas friendship. Aragorn/Arwen. H/C. Fluff. Post-RotK. Semi follow-up to Surprise. :: (Birthday fic for Ainu Laire)
A/N: This was supposed to be a birthday fic for Ainu Laire…now (after doing much battle with writer's block) it is still a b-day fic for her, but it's shamefully late. Sorry, mellon-nin—and happy late (late, late, LATE) b-day! As much as I wish I could have had this finished on time for Laire, my beta pointed out how neat it is to have, quite coincidentally, finished writing this just in time to post it for Aragorn's birthday. So happy birthday to the both of ya. :-)
And thankyouthankyouthank you Imbecamiel the Super-Editor… You took a chunk out of an already busy day of editing to painstakingly help me polish this up, and I appreciate it a lot. ;-)
A baby's wail pierced the silence.
The familiar sound drew Aragorn out of a shallow sleep. Taking care not to disturb his wife, he sat up, easing his legs out from under the covers and over the side of the bed. He stayed in that position for a moment, hands gripping the edge of the bed, shoulders stooped, eyes open only through strength of will. Consciousness hadn't fully reached him yet, but the mournful cry didn't relent.
Arwen moved on the bed next to him, and he glanced over at her.
"Estel," she murmured, eyes struggling to focus, and dark hair falling in disheveled wisps around her face where it had come loose from its braid.
"Go back to sleep. I will take care of him."
"Let Mira see to Eldarion tonight, meleth. We are both exhausted…"
"Well, one of us apparently is."
Her only reaction to his amusement was a drawn brow and a soft, uncomprehending "huh".
"Arwen, you know Mira was feeling poorly yesterday and had to leave for the evening. I told you that I would take care of him."
"Estel," she groaned, sounding more than usually young and petulant in her not-quite-awake exasperation. "You should have had one of the other nurses to stay."
From the adjoining room, Eldarion was, if anything, sounding louder and more insistent.
"I could not return to sleep now, even if there were someone else. I heard you up not an hour ago to feed him…" He reached over to squeeze her shoulder lightly. "Now sleep."
She sighed, mumbling something about waking her up later if necessary, shifted, and pressed the side of her face further into the pillow.
Rubbing a hand across his face, he stumbled his way toward the small room, attached to theirs, where Eldarion slept. The way was familiar enough now that he could almost find the way with his eyes closed—which pretty nearly described what he was doing now.
Arwen was right, he could have, and should have, had one of the servants stay to take care Eldarion. He needed rest. His body craved it after the erratic pattern of sleep, punctuated more often by sleeplessness, that he'd been putting himself through lately.
But some things were worth losing sleep over.
Aragorn lifted his son out of his cradle, wrapping him securely in a blanket and supporting his small, vulnerable neck with the crook of his arm. The noise didn't cease instantaneously, but the volume began to diminish at the touch. Eventually, Eldarion's cries dwindled down to feeble half-hearted whimpers, his head cradled trustingly against his father's chest, as if taking comfort in the sound of his heart-beat. And then there was blessed silence again.
"There, little one, you have my full and undivided attention. Are you happy now?"
Whether he was being manipulated or not, it felt good to be wanted—needed—so much by this little being. At first, Aragorn had thought he couldn't possibly stand a chance when it came to comforting a screaming Eldarion, not at times like this when occasionally even Arwen's gentle voice failed to soothe him. And then one time a particularly disconsolate Eldarion was handed to him to by a frazzled nurse, who'd pleaded with him to "try anything". So he began to quietly hum the first song that came to mind. Last resort though he apparently was, it had worked.
Although his attention appeared to be working now, as well, Eldarion didn't seem ready to go to sleep yet. Still-wide blue eyes stared up at him, and Aragorn knew from experience they weren't going to close easily. The room was too small for the serious pacing he knew was going to be necessary, so instead he slipped out into the hall.
He hummed elven lullabies he'd hummed to Eldarion many times before; he paced; he rocked him. However, every time he thought Eldarion was asleep, and moved back to his room, beginning to set him back down, he'd start to fuss again. Once he almost made it out of the room, but before he could Eldarion's protesting whimpering brought him back.
"You know, some day we will be reminding you of this—of how you were a nightmare as a baby, keeping your parents awake all night." Eldarion only made soft garbled noises of contentment at him, and Aragorn smiled despite himself. "Yes, well, you will be embarrassed by it then, let me assure you."
Right now, however, Eldarion was far from embarrassed, and quite content at having gotten his way. Aragorn continued to hold him, and pace, even after the child's eyes began to droop shut.
Aragorn decided to resign himself for the time being. He wasn't going back to bed any time soon—and that left plenty of time for thought.
He didn't have many times like this during the day. Actually, he couldn't remember the last time he'd had so much as an hour's time to do nothing but think about anything other than the business of running a kingdom. Well, he had that time now, and was discovering that he really didn't want it now that he had it. He didn't want to stop and consider how he was feeling, because lately he was feeling…old.
Were it not for the slumbering bundle in his arms, he might have sighed aloud. This was precisely the reason he never paid attention to those looming thoughts in the back of his mind. Usually they were best kept in the back of his mind. But now it was too late, he'd already thought the word: old.
The change from summer to winter, and then from winter to spring, could be harsh on old wounds. Some years the effects of the seasonal changes made the aches worse than others, and this year had certainly been one of the bad ones. It was late February, but still it seemed the slightest change in the weather pattern and every once-broken bone his body began to twinge. And right now, considering Gondor had been experiencing a dismal week-long pattern of damp cloudiness, he was feeling stiff and sore.
It seemed like more than a simple bout of old wounds reacting to weather. Even his fingers seemed to throb with a constant, dull pain, and by the end of the day he was usually left with a headache from trying to ignore it all.
He cringed inwardly when he heard older men around him complain—right along with the running commentary in his own head—about how this time of year always brought out all those joint problems. But he didn't have "joint problems"…did he? Certainly, he wasn't young anymore, but "old" still had be an overstatement. He was Númenorian, after all.
Odd, then, how he was having a hard time reassuring himself.
Arwen would hardly have any experience on the subject of aging, her own situation, and elven-mortality, far from what could be termed normal. In turn, he wasn't "normal" by other human standards either.
But it wasn't as if he would become old overnight. It was a gradual process. Aye, and I'm gradually beginning to feel old…
Aragorn let his eyes linger on Eldarion's small face, with its tranquil expression. "And how can I possibly feel old, when you haven't even seen your first birthday?" he whispered, lightly brushing the child's impossibly soft skin with a forefinger. Aragorn gave a quiet, self-deprecating laugh. "I suppose I should wait until you're at least five before I even begin to consider getting old."
If she weren't such a loving mother, on mornings like this Arwen might have been tempted to wake Eldarion up, and make him stay up every minute of the day like the rest of them had to. But, of course, she was a loving mother, and had long ago been accredited a mature adult. Besides, the silence was too wonderful to risk at any cost.
Across the breakfast table from her, Aragorn sat looking as if…well, as if he'd been up all night. Actually, several nights in row, which wasn't far from the truth, either. Last night may have been the first one he spent with Eldarion in some time, but lately there seemed an increasing number of "emergencies" – real or diplomatic – that kept him up far too late.
Between bites, she glanced in his direction as subtly as she could. It didn't take much to do so without his noticing. Right now he hardly looked as if a stampede of Mumakil would disturb him from his thoughts, whatever they were. Aragorn frequently achieved such a state of focus when considering a problem closely, but lately it was marked by a weariness that was almost apathetic. Apathy was not something she was used to seeing in him. That, more than anything, told her that his current exhaustion was something more than mere sleep-deprivation.
She wished he would tell her what was bothering him—it wasn't like him to be so withdrawn. Some lack of voluntary and clear communication was, of course, always to be adhered to in order to preserve male tradition. However, he simply wasn't responding to any coaxing on her part, and when he looked so tired she simply didn't have the heart to pester him too far on the subject.
The first day of March was only a few days away, and there would be kingdom-wide celebrations in plenty. But though she wanted to do something more personal to celebrate, she wasn't entirely sure what to do, given his current despondency. She did, however, know of one thing she could do that would never be out of place. Even if all else failed, she had hope that her plans for Legolas to visit them would at least serve as a distraction. At most, perhaps, as one of his oldest and dearest friends, Legolas would be able to figure her husband out where she hadn't. She knew there was special bond between the two of them—she counted on it. She also knew that, though he usually willingly shared his thoughts and concerns with her, he could sometimes choose the oddest and most exasperating times to decide he didn't want to worry her over something. If that was the case, he might prove more amenable to Legolas' prying than her own.
But she certainly wasn't giving up yet.
Aragorn looked up in response, obviously making an effort to be in the here-and-now.
"Have you resolved that problem you mentioned yesterday?"
She could see by his expression that he had to wrack his brain for a moment to remember. Apparently, that was one topic he wasn't currently preoccupied with. "You were telling me of a debate over possession of land?"
Aragorn nodded. "Yes, yes…" He took another bite of his food, and seemed to have forgotten her original question.
"It has been resolved, then?" she pressed.
"Resolved? No. Hardly."
Arwen waited expectantly. They often discussed such problems over breakfast, Aragorn glad for her input, and using her as a sounding board for his own ideas. She suppressed a sigh, more from worry over the reason for his distraction than from exasperation.
"You are most forthcoming this morning, dear husband," she commented lightly.
Aragorn focused on her, again with the same expression of conscious effort to be aware of what she was saying.
"The only reason I bring it up…" She paused when his eyebrows lowered in a frown. "We were talking about the land-ownership disagreement?"
"I was listening."
She couldn't decide whether his minor irritation sprang from having been caught in an absent-minded moment, or if he really had been listening all along. She decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, and began explaining an idea that had been formulating in her mind since he'd told her of the problem.
To Aragorn's credit, he did seem to be listening, and responded, but he kept his answers to the minimum, and his heart was clearly not in it. Not that the topic was particularly exciting… Still, his apathy added another worrying layer to the mystery that had lately become her husband.
Reaching across the table, Arwen touched his forearm lightly, drawing his attention back to her from wherever it was continually wandering. "Aragorn?"
"Aragorn, please, tell me what is preoccupying you so much?"
He raised his head—which had been bowed, supposedly in examination of his plate—to glance at her. "I'm simply…tired this morning, my dear. You know I spent much of the night up with Eldarion. I haven't had much rest. That is all."
She shook her head. It sounded oddly as if he were trying to convince himself that that really was all that it was. "I know you better than that, and you know that I know you better than that."
He blinked, slowly, and raised an eyebrow. "Melleth, I really am tired, and when you start talking like that…"
Her nostrils flared in an exasperated exhale. Nonetheless, she knew her face wasn't maintaining a firm expression, not when he was in this rather pathetic state. The dark lines under his eyes, and the pale cast of his skin, were real enough—even if he wasn't quite as tired beyond comprehension as he was attempting to look.
Aragorn's instincts apparently prompted him to seize the opportunity of momentary weakness on her part. He began to rise, lifting her hand briefly to his lips in a very courtly farewell. There was even a sparkle of life, and of the old—or rather young—Estel in his grey eyes for a moment. And then he turned on his heel and strode from the room.
Arwen leaned back in her seat, wrapping her arms around herself in an unconscious attitude of self-comfort—and hoped that Legolas would arrive soon.
Aragorn closed his eyes briefly and refused to respond or turn to face the man, all the while willing him to take the hint. He already knew who it was—knew the voice, and knew what it was always there to announce. He wouldn't go so far as to say he dreaded the herald's approach. As a matter of fact he liked the man. He saw him on a daily basis, and the man was polite, respectful, but also sympathetic to the fact that the great King Elessar was yet only human and had his limits.
He was also usually quite aware of the time, and both prompt and firm in keeping to the allotted time set for the king to grant audiences. Aragorn had always appreciated the fearless, almost protective, way the man could put his foot down when someone was "insisting" on seeing King Elessar at unreasonable times. Such as the present. It was nearly time for the evening meal, and Aragorn knew that the herald was aware of how much his patience had been tested already today. Powerful, important, and generally intelligent and even amiable men could be incredibly unreasonable at times. He had a private theory that the throne room and private council chambers contained a power to incite an odd sort of madness in men. He desperately wanted to get away to saner quarters.
But still the herald was insistent.
"Sire, I know you were about to leave…"
Correction: I am about to leave… But no, he couldn't say that. Kings were, of course, ever polite, even when the impulse to strangle seemed stronger than the impulse to preserve etiquette. He turned to face the other man, but still said nothing, vaguely hopeful that the man might yet give up without causing further frustration for either of them, although he knew well that he wouldn't be keeping him unless it were important.
"You are, I know."
"Pardon my bluntness, but I am extremely tired…and, yes, I was just preparing to retire for the evening." Aragorn said it calmly enough, but didn't bother to try to hide the edge of frustration from his tone.
"I apologize, my Lord, however…" There was an almost humorous gleam in the man's eyes. "There is one more person to see you, and even though the hour is growing late he assured me that you would certainly to wish to know of his arrival as soon as possible."
"Really?" Aragorn returned wryly.
The man inclined his head. "He seemed quite sure."
"Your visitor apologizes, but he arrived as soon as he could." The gleam became more pronounced. "With all respect, Sire, I do strongly suggest you grant one last audience."
"Very well..." Aragorn smiled despite the crick in his neck, and the stiffness of his back, and the general achiness that was claiming him. One more minute of this, and then it just might be acceptable for him to die undisturbed. "Who is this visitor that I must see?"
"That, I'm afraid, I cannot tell you, my King."
"Of…course you can't."
"I am sorry, my Lord, this visitor never gave me a name, and told me only to tell you say that he was sure you would wish to see him."
Aragorn wasn't sure what to think. If this was someone he knew, and was "sure to wish to see", then why had he received no news of their coming? He was beginning to fear it was one of the more self-confident lords, arriving with supposedly urgent problems, quite certain that the king wanted to hear all about it right away. Which he decidedly did not. But why wouldn't he give a name? It made no sense.
"Sire?" the councilor prompted him patiently. "What shall I tell him?"
"Tell him I will see him." He had a feeling he was going to regret this. Diplomacy was hard enough when you were rested…
The man bowed and left, and Aragorn turned, but remained standing, hoping it would encourage his visitor to be brief. A familiar voice startled him.
"Hail, and well met, King Elessar."
Legolas was walking towards him with long, graceful strides. He bowed in a swift movement, both courtlier than necessary for such a close friend, and shockingly careless to anyone not familiar with the history of this prince and the king he saluted, then straightened to stand, smiling at his friend. "Or am I still allowed to call you Estel, even in these halls, mellon-nin?"
Aragorn gazed at him in disbelief for only a moment, then he rushed forward to greet him. "Legolas…" They clasped forearms and pulled each other into a warm embrace. "Well met indeed, mellon-nin. I'm…" He took a step back, still viewing his friend with stunned delight. "I am so glad you've come."
"And I am glad you granted me an audience," Legolas retorted lightly, obviously satisfied and pleased at having surprised him.
Aragorn scowled at him without any anger behind it. "You should have sent word that you were coming. And why in Eru's name did the herald refuse to tell me who you were? It isn't as if he hasn't had opportunity enough to learn your name on previous visits. The elven Prince of Ithilien is rather memorable, after all."
"As for the herald, I insisted that he not spoil my surprise by alerting you beforehand. And I did send word."
"What? I never received…"
"Never mind, Estel—I am here, am I not? And you will not turn me away?"
Aragorn laughed. "You will never allow me to forget this, will you?"
"Elves never forget, mellon-nin. It is therefore our duty to continually remind our mortal friends of matters that might otherwise slip their shorter memories."
It wasn't Rivendell, and neither his Adar nor his elven brothers were present. This wasn't the Hall of Fire, and no elven ballads were being told. He wasn't only Estel anymore. Estel was still among his many names, but it was no longer the one that defined him.
But, at the same time… There sat Legolas, who never ceased to turn his thoughts toward all those things, and make him feel like that younger version of himself. Legolas being here was like having a part of all of those things he missed come to visit him. It was like being home again. It made him feel more at ease and relaxed than he'd felt in weeks.
The fire was warm on his face, and his friend's presence was comforting at his side, bringing an even more welcome warmth his to his heart. He hadn't realized how much he'd been missing Legolas until this sudden arrival. It almost set his mind at ease, making his previous worries somehow trivial, or at least of little immediate consequence, and certainly not what he wanted to spend whatever time they had together thinking about.
Besides, at the moment he felt too tired, too contented, and too drowsy. If his head hadn't ached so badly he might have fallen asleep the moment they sat down after dinner. He might also have had an easier time of figuring out why Arwen insisted on leaving to check on Eldarion, instead of staying to talk with Legolas as she normally would.
He noticed now that Legolas was observing him, without talking, and it made him slightly nervous the way he was going about it: head cocked a little to one side, eyes narrowed in thought, and a smirk hovering around his mouth. All were only barely perceptible, but Aragorn knew his friend well. He knew Legolas knew him equally well, and he didn't feel in a mood or condition to bear close scrutiny from him, or anyone who might recognize the strain he was under and consider prying.
Aragorn cleared his throat, and gazed purposefully away at the fire. "I am always glad to see you, mellon-nin, but I confess I cannot think of the reason for your current visit. Has something happened in Ithillien? Or Eryn Lasgalen?"
"Must something have happened?" Legolas replied enigmatically.
"No…" Aragorn waited for answer, which wasn't forthcoming. "So, I owe the pleasure of your company to nothing in particular, then?"
"I didn't say that."
"Are you trying to be obstinate? Oh…no. That's right, you've always been this stubborn. How many guesses do I have—or are you going to let me try to figure this out all night?"
Legolas laughed. "You really don't know, do you, Estel?"
"Stop answering my questions with rhetorical ones…" Aragorn growled. "I obviously don't know, or I wouldn't be asking."
"Well, you have been known to pretend obliviousness, but I think this time it is genuine."
"Thank you… I think."
Legolas' smile widened. He appeared to still be enjoying having surprised Aragorn, and now further enjoying the prospect of letting him in on a secret he hadn't discovered.
"My dear friend," Aragorn began somberly, "it would look very awkward politically, and be difficult to explain, were the Prince of Ithillien to be murdered on a visit to Gondor—while in private conference with the king."
"It would indeed."
"Stop looking so pleased with yourself and tell me why you're here, Legolas."
"To celebrate, of course."
"I wasn't aware there was anything…" Aragorn stopped, realizing what he was talking about. He was aware the first day of March was approaching, he simply hadn't been allowing it to occupy the forefront of his mind.
"Yes, Estel, it is still a day to celebrate, even if you think you're far too old for that sort of thing. I disagree with any arguments you may have to the contrary."
"I didn't say anything."
"Your expression said plenty."
"I didn't look anything, either," Aragorn argued, feeling moderately irritable now.
"Ah, so now on top of pretending you never age, you are also pretending that I cannot read you as well as ever?" Legolas' face didn't look as teasing as his words sounded.
"At this moment I am acutely aware of my age, and of your ability to see right through me," Aragorn said quietly.
"Then stop pretending everything is well, and tell me what is troubling you." Legolas was also quiet, but far more passionate. "And don't you dare tell me 'nothing', because I know that is not the case."
"You have been talking to Arwen," Aragorn accused under his breath.
"And what if I have? If she did tell me there was something wrong with you, she was right. Don't change subjects—tell me." Legolas was trying to catch his eye, but Aragorn refused to cooperate. "Please?"
A momentary pause for thought was all Aragorn needed to realize that fighting simply wasn't worth the effort. Legolas would get an answer, and he'd be certain to sense a lie. "It's nothing of consequence really, Legolas. Lately I've just felt… old, and tired." Anyone else Aragorn would have expected to brush the idea off, or possibly laugh at him. But he felt safe having said it now, to Legolas. If anyone would reply honestly, he knew it was Legolas. Having opened his heart to his friend, he found it easy to meet his eyes again, unguardedly, as they always had.
Legolas considered, and when he spoke it was even more softly than before. "Yes, mellon-nin. You have aged. I can see it in your eyes. However, there is a difference between the aging I see there—a maturity in experience and in knowledge—and the aging I think you speak of."
"Legolas, do not try to make feel better by saying there is difference, that I am 'mature' and not 'old'—"
The elf interrupted impatiently, and indignantly. "Do you think I would lie to you, or try to make you feel better by somehow softening the blow? Aragorn, you are not old." He smirked a little. "I will tell you when you are—and I would know."
"Ah yes, you, the immortal elf, would certainly be an expert in old age."
Legolas shot him a wry glare. "I may not have lived it, human, but I have had opportunity enough to witness it in others. And as you are well aware, elves have excellent memories. I can well remember you as both a young man barely out of childhood, and a warrior just reaching the peak of your strength. So I have excellent grounds for comparison when I tell you that you are most certainly not an old man near the end of his ability to rule and defend your country."
Aragorn felt far from convinced. It wasn't just his mind that needed convincing, after all. Physically, he felt old. He was almost afraid to tell Legolas that, as if the new information would change Legolas' opinion too, swaying him to agree with Aragorn when Aragorn didn't want to convince himself. But, he needed to say everything. He wanted to come to peace with this one way or the other. He was opening his mouth to explain, when Legolas spoke first.
"You look terrible, mellon-nin."
Aragorn smiled at the insult. They'd both exchanged it many times. It had likely been apt on all those occasions, and it certainly felt fitting now.
Legolas continued ruefully, "Actually, you look somewhat beyond terrible."
"There is no call to be quite that honest…" Aragorn murmured smilingly. "But you are right. I feel 'somewhat beyond terrible'."
"And so, of course, you naturally attribute it to age?"
"I've never felt like this before, Legolas. I've been sick before, and I know how old wounds can ache—I even know what poison feels like." He shook his head. "I've experienced pain and tiredness of in so many ways, but this is somehow different than ever before…" Aragorn expected Legolas to interrupt, but the elf only listened, an attentive and gentle expression on his face. He was obviously waiting for him to go on, and even though Aragorn hadn't fully sorted through any of these thoughts, much less considered how he'd express them to someone else, he found himself responding.
"I am married to the only woman I've ever loved—and she loves me, mellon-nin." He couldn't help the edge of wonder that crept into his voice. "Our life together feels like it's only really begun. She's given me a beautiful son. I have a son, Legolas." He shook his head, smiling softly. "An heir." The smile fell away a bit. "But he is only a baby. Someday he will be my heir, but Arwen and I have always imagined ourselves as having more children, and until Eldarion is old enough to rule Gondor I need to be strong… I need to be capable. I want to be there from my family, and need to be, but I have an even larger responsibility and duty to my country. They need a king, a young king with energy to continue to bring Gondor to full restoration after the toll long darkness and war have wrought on her." He sighed heavily. "There is so much still to be done."
"And you will do it. You were meant to."
Aragorn looked somewhat sharply at his friend. "I've just told you all my reasons for doubt on that score, how can you sound so certain?"
"Because, I know it is true."
"You sound like Elrond—or Mithrandir."
"Hannon le, Aragorn."
There was that purposefully teasing expression Legolas was so adept at. Sometimes it only made Aragorn feel their friendship that much more strongly…other times it made him want to challenge him to a sparring match. Elves had far too many years in which to practice looking wise and all-knowing.
Legolas disregarded his friend's annoyance. "I wish they were here. They would both tell you the same. Aragorn, do you or do you not want to hear what I know?"
"I would like to know what you think."
Legolas looked at him evenly, inflexibly.
Aragorn conceded, exasperated and grudgingly amused. "Yes, of course I would like to hear what you know."
"You were meant to rule Gondor now, and for many years to come. I am no healer, Aragorn, but it doesn't take a healer to see why you're exhausted. Anyone with a newborn child and a country to rule could very well become so."
Legolas ignored him. "And of course you're older. Your options are to either grow older, or die. Since you have not done the latter, you must continue to do the former. But it is not as if you have one foot in the grave. Your old wounds ache, and the weather isn't helping, and on top of all that I've already mentioned I can state with some confidence say you are sick."
"I am aware of how it feels to be ill."
"And to be sleep-deprived—for more than one night in a row, I suppose."
"Well…" Aragorn tired to think back, but the nights of sleeplessness seemed to blur together. "Yes, I suppose I have been recently."
"And I also suppose you're kept quite occupied for most of the day as well?"
Legolas nodded, a very sage and Mithrandir-like expression of consideration on his face. "I wouldn't be surprised if you regularly forgot to eat, either."
A retort to the contrary was on the tip of his tongue, but then Aragorn realized that he had indeed forgotten the noon meal that day. He had told the servants not to bring him anything, as he would be going to his own quarters to eat with Arwen, but one thing after came up, until he'd forgotten it entirely. In the evenings, although he always welcomed dinner as marking the end of difficult days, he often felt too tired to eat much. He merely sighed in response.
"Perhaps the change has been subtle, and Arwen hasn't noticed it quite as much as I do now—though she has noticed, I assure you—but you are changed, and not in the way you seem to believe. You look far too gaunt, and pale, and tired. More than old, you look worn out. I'd be surprised if you didn't feel old, considering how you look, and how you've obviously been driving yourself to do more than even a young human would be capable of."
"Indeed? More than even a young human would be capable of?"
"I think many wouldn't have lasted as long as you have, reckless adan," Legolas reprimanded fondly. "It is a good thing you have a wife, and friends, or you would work yourself to death long before you ever have a chance of dying of old age."
"I want to believe you, Legolas."
"Good. Then believe me."
Before Aragorn could reply, an interruption came in the form of a servant girl at the door. "Excuse me, my Lords, but the Lady Arwen asked me to bring this for you."
Legolas motioned for her to set the tray down on a nearby table. "Thank you."
She curtsied and left.
Aragorn raised an eyebrow at the smile on Legolas' face as he presented one of the steaming mugs to him.
"If you're trying to trick me into drinking a sleeping draft, this is rather…obvious, isn't it?"
"No sleeping draft, Aragorn, I promise you. It is a gift from Elladan and Elrohir."
Aragorn's eyebrow raised further, but accepted to mug and inhaled some of the steam curiously. "It smells familiar."
"It should. Elrond made it for you often."
Aragorn recognized it now, and smiled broadly. "I remember. Every time I'd show any signs of becoming ill he'd make it for me. When I was younger, especially, I remember the twins urging me to drink it several times a day. They were always worrying like that, being over-cautious when they weren't certain about what was normal for human children…" He took a drink of the tea, savoring the well-known taste. Elrond had always made it with plenty of honey, and it was sweet and hot, with only a slight bitter after-taste from a few of the herbs. "I have missed this. These herbs never would grow well here, no matter how many times I've tried."
"I have a second present for you, mellon-nin. I hereby offer my full, and capable, services, to aid you in caring for young Prince Eldarion. I will stay up with him all night and watch him all day if need be, only drawing the line where it comes to cleaning up certain…messes."
Aragorn laughed. "True friendship indeed. Thank you."
They sat in silence. Not of the hesitant kind, full of unspoken words just on the verge of being said, but still in need of sorting out by their speakers. It was the best kind of silence. The kind mutually settled into, without any need of words, by two friends reacquainted after a long separation who'd found that they knew each other as well as if they'd never been parted. When it was broken, the return to conversation was just as natural.
"How long can you stay?" Aragorn asked, taking another sip from the mug.
"Until I outstay my welcome, or until you begin to look like your old self. I've seen to it that matters in Ithilien are being well taken care of for the time being."
Aragorn shook his head with a laugh. "On either count you'll be here for some time. Possibly forever."
"I am not so sure…" Legolas studied his friend's features. "Smiling, you already look like the Estel I used to know. Do you feel more like him, mellon-nin?"
Aragorn groaned—though still smiling—and shook his head. "Of course I don't. You've just informed me that instead of being old, I am simply ill, overworked, sleep-deprived, and half-starved… I feel awful." His face paled still further. "Oh Eru, and I spent last night holding Eldarion. I've probably given him whatever I've got…"
"Stop complaining, Estel, and stop worrying. Eldarion will be fine, and neither Gondor nor her king are about to fall to pieces. Now drink your tea."