--
Dark Vales of Friendship
by Aranel Laerien
--

It was a dark and stormy night – it should have been, for many had died. Many lives, needlessly lost, just for the sake of his frail, worthless one. If he were heir to the throne, did that make him any better than other men? If he were king, did he prove deserving of all the sacrifice? Indeed, if he were respected as king, his will should be command, and these men would now be laughing merrily with their wives and children.

Arathorn led the weary dúnedain into the cave, noting how the younger ones slumped in exhaustion. He smiled a little as Halbarad tried to put on a brave front even as his deep wound was treated. The boy had barely seen sixteen summers but he had shown great aptitude with the sword and been most fervent to join them.

And men were scarce now, Arathorn sighed. The orcs seem infinite, unstoppable and everywhere all at once. He thought of ancient tales glorifying men who fought against insurmountable odds. It almost never worked that way on the battlefield. Orcs were never as easy to kill as those tales made them out to be – each of the rangers may hold out against five orcs or so, but all it took was one more orc joining the fray, one stray arrow, one careless moment…

Those tales always watered down the harsh reality and conveniently told of glory and honour. But there was little to enjoy for those who died, or for those who were mocked by the very people they protected, or for those who were survived, or for those who lost their only kin to the cold orc scimitars.

And what could his company of a mere 30 men do against these dark foes?

Aragorn looked up from the tattered book. The diary ended there.

Aragorn had always known how his father had died but it was only on the night before they reached the Pelennor Fields, that Halbarad told him everything.

Halbarad was young then. It was his first patrol with the dúnedain and in one of the earlier skirmishes he had suffered a nasty gash up his calf. Gradually, he was able to walk normally though he could not hold out for long. A week later, they had broken camp and were preparing to head to Imladris. Lord Arathorn wished to consult Lord Elrond concerning the close proximity of the orcs and all of them, especially Halbarad, had agreed it would be most desirable to have a proper rest before they continued their journeys.

Halbarad had been jesting with Lord Elrohir when it happened.

"Ambush!"

"Regroup!"

He saw Lord Elladan and Lord Elrohir immediately nock and release their arrows, fury burning in their identical eyes. Lord Arathorn had unsheathed his blade and was already in the thick of battle. Halbarad held his sword grimly, panting nervously as he met the blade of the first orc. He was gripping his sword tightly now. In times like this, every lesson was forgotten.

"Retreat! Retreat!"

Halbarad felt his wound rip open as he spun to meet another foe. From the corner of his eye, he saw how Lord Elrohir and some other Rangers had cleared a path so they could run. Lord Elladan was slightly ahead, efficiently despatching those orcs between him and Lord Arathorn. Halbarad tried hard to reach the others but yet another orc came in his way. His arm throbbed too and he was sure that something had been injured when he had deflected that blade.

He almost felt like giving up. His entire body ached and stiffened, and he was half-panting, half-gasping for air. There seemed little point to fight any further for they stood little chance against such a large mob. Lord Arathorn often spoke of warrior's fatigue, and Halbarad was convinced this was what he meant. He felt the strong scimitar cut into his parrying blade, felt the blade being pushed towards him, his muscles weakened, his fingers hypnotically loosened…

"Halbarad!"

He jerked just in time to avoid the cut. Then Lord Arathorn was beside him, covering their retreat.

"Run! Fast!"

Halbarad obeyed mechanically, running to join the others far ahead, even as Lord Arathorn turned to parry when an orc came too close. Lord Elladan came towards them, and Halbarad ran on. Suddenly, he heard a loud twang.

"He turned back for me," Halbarad had told Aragorn with tears in his eyes, "he turned back for me. He never should have."

The very next day on the Pelennor Fields, Halbarad repaid his debt.

Elladan had once said that his father died with a peaceful smile on his face, as though he had been relieved of all the burdens he had had to bear. Aragorn had nodded in complete understanding.

Then, Elladan added, "Arathorn used to say that being a friend is the ultimate test of sacrifice. Anyone could be a king, he would say, but very few could be friends."

--

Aragorn had never particularly liked politics – history lessons had been interesting, but politics and diplomacy was another thing altogether. Especially now, thirty years into a peaceful reign, the pressure to keep the lands together grew even greater.

The Society of Scientific Advancement had been inciting minor uprisings – easily curbed but nevertheless disturbing – claiming that policies for the conservation of the natural land inhibited the technological development of Gondor, and were set in place because Aragorn favoured his elven friends. This, Aragorn found rather absurd and dismissed as jealousy, but the Society had a devout following, and he could not risk angering either them or the Association for the Conservation of Natural Wildlife.

Arwen would have understood, but she had left for Lothlórien with Elladan and Elrohir. A short family trip, she had said, but far too long for Aragorn. He wondered why the twins could not simply have come down to Minas Tirith instead.

And it did not help that while he had to concern himself with state affairs, Legolas had seemed more a hindrance than help. Not only did the elf seemed unable to fit into the busier life of Minas Tirith – he might well have been pampered by Emyn Arnen's relaxed pace – he seemed almost to glorify in how he could not adapt. Some of the co-workers had complained of how the elf cringed whenever their tools jarred against each other, or when they shouted commands near him. Others told of how Legolas often gave irrelevant suggestions, such as hearing the trees' whispers when pruning…

It had seemed such a brilliant idea. Seeing how they had not met for many years, they had decided to create a new garden in Minas Tirith. Legolas, with his knowledge of the trees, would naturally be able to contribute much. Perhaps, too much. And so, the trouble started.

If this were to continue, Aragorn thought with a sigh, he would have to increase the frequency of his trips to the garden.

Being a friend meant many sacrifices.

He wished Arwen were here.

--

Legolas was pleasantly surprised when Aragorn came over. He had been seeding a new row of flowers when the human strolled under the arches with a watering can.

"Legolas," Aragorn greeted him with a warm smile. "How has the work been going?"

Legolas shrugged casually. "The seeding's well according to schedule and we have arranged the rocks and landscape ornaments. We'll have to prune a little faster though."

"That's good news," Aragorn surmised, "but you do understand the schedule was meant more as a guideline and not a strict deadline."

Legolas only smiled. "Aragorn, if it is a guideline you wish me to follow, I would."

Aragorn looked away from Legolas' gaze and tried to gesture nonchalantly. "It's really not necessary."

Legolas frowned and asked softly. "Man trasta le, gwador nîn?"

"It is nothing," Aragorn said, and hesitated, "and perhaps it would be prudent to avoid the elven tongues when other men are around."

"Why?" Legolas asked the inevitable question.

Aragorn looked away and took a few steps down the rows of flowers. "The men are not accustomed to having an elf in their midst. I have no wish to alienate any of the peoples in the land."

Legolas nodded quietly, wondering if Aragorn saw the irony in his statement. He could have guessed it would come down to it, though in truth, he had never felt more hemmed in than in Minas Tirith.

Emyn Arnen had been friendly, especially when Faramir openly showed his admiration for the Wood-elves who had come to stay in the land, but here, he had received hostile looks the very first day he stepped in and though he knew he was merely being paranoid, the men around him seemed particularly intent on fuelling it.

"Legolas?" Aragorn asked as the elf grew silent.

Legolas blinked. "Perhaps I am weary," he gave by way of excuse.

Aragorn nodded and watered the plants.

"How are things in the kingdom?" Legolas asked.

Aragorn looked up as though wishing to say something more, then muttered, "As always."

Legolas shrugged and continued seeding. After all, Aragorn would speak only when he was willing to.

--

"I could do anything for you, my brother, even enter another cave," Legolas had said a few days ago, when they were resting in the fields.

"Would you really?" Aragorn had asked, an incredulous grin on his face.

"What?"

"Would you enter a cave if I asked you to?"

Legolas had frowned but replied confidently, "Yes, I would."

Aragorn nodded, as though relieved.

"But would you ask me to do it?" Legolas then asked.

Aragorn was silent.

--

As soon as dawn broke, Aragorn went down to check on the gardens. It was not that he could not trust Legolas, but there were things that the elf – prince as he was – did not seem to understand.

"You're early," the Wood-elf raised an eyebrow.

Aragorn frowned. "Why may I not be?" he asked.

Legolas shrugged. "You, my friend, have this penchant for not rising till well into daybreak."

Aragorn relaxed a little. "Things have," he paused, "changed somewhat."

"Indeed they have," Legolas said, "for the men are now far less disposed to the elves."

Aragorn suppressed a sarcastic comment. "It has been rumoured that the elves are impeding the progress of the kingdom," he finally said.

"And who would be behind this rumour?"

Aragorn sighed. "It is hard to say."

"Would Basleth be involved in this?"

Aragorn spun around. "It cannot be!" he shot back immediately, frustrated that the idea had not occurred to him first.

"Perhaps you may wish to speak with Laslirion. After his promotion, Basleth has been increasingly hostile–"

"Enough!" Aragorn silenced him and stormed out. "I do not need a prince to teach me to run my kingdom."

It was entirely possible, Aragorn knew as he strode through the corridors. Laslirion had proven most capable as a gardener – possibly even more so, seeing he was one of the Silvan kind – and Aragorn had shown his appreciation by promoting him first and thereby sidelining Basleth, whom many saw as another potential candidate.

That move had been viewed by some to prove his bias towards the elven kind, but Aragorn had been firm – he had promoted Laslirion based on the elf's merit, after all, and anyone could see that.

He slammed his room door shut. His only consolation was that whatever happened, Arwen would be safe.

--

They were younger then, young enough to have time to spare for a long afternoon in the woods. Legolas was sitting on the grass, feet dangling in the river. Aragorn leaned on a nearby tree and fidgeted absently.

"Would you ever leave my side?" the human had asked as they reflected on how long they had known each other and how often they had managed to let their paths converge.

Legolas answered without a pause. "Why would I?"

Aragorn tried to think up of a possible scenario. "If we should argue?"

"And why should we argue?" Legolas replied teasingly.

Aragorn was adamant on getting his answer. "Nevermind that. Will you?"

Legolas sighed. "No, I will not."

"Even if the sea-longing should haunt you?"

Legolas shook his head confidently. "No, even till then, I will not leave you."

Legolas watched as the human fell silent. "Man trasta le?" he asked. What troubles you?

Aragorn began hesitantly. "Aníron beth lín, gwador nín," he paused, "Aníron le godartho na nin." I desire your word, my brother; I desire that you endure by my side.

"Godarthathon na le anuir," Legolas promised. I will remain with you forever.

--

Legolas had been too troubled to rest for the night and had decided to work on the garden, the moonlight and his natural luminance adding an ethereal glow in the dark. It was better here at night – he did not have to contend with the men over how much unnecessary noise they made. They just did not seem to understand how those harsh, jarring sounds were not helping his headaches.

He hummed a little tune as he went from shrub to shrub, stopping occasionally to whisper to the leaves. Sometimes, he wondered if the plants could sense his unease – his tension and concern at the somewhat strained relations between himself and Aragorn – they certainly seemed rather, for want of a better word, timid.

Legolas shook his head at the incredulity of it all and gently ran a hand down the thin trunk of a young bush.

"Galo thalion," he said softly, "Be dauntless, for the times are evil."

Then he paused, wondering why he had said that. There had been peace in the land all these decades, surely nothing could happen now? Aragorn, as lord of the City had ensured lasting harmony among the various factions in his kingdom. Naturally, there were attempts to assassinate those in government but every plot had always been uncovered well before fruition.

Perhaps, he was too weary. If not for Aragorn, his… friend, he would have no desire to remain in Ennor and endure the gull's call, endure the fading lands, the distant songs of his people, the voices speaking to him…

"Legolas?" A familiar voice called.

Legolas blinked in his exhaustion. "My lord?" he asked.

Aragorn flinched visibly at the address.

"My friend, there is no need to be formal now," Aragorn gestured broadly to the quiet surroundings.

Legolas did not meet his gaze. "How shall I know when my liege would have me distant myself from him?"

"I only need you to stand with me, to aid me, to share company," Aragorn's tone was uncertain, "Would you?"

"You know I would," Legolas did not hesitate, then he dropped almost pleadingly, "I only need your trust."

Aragorn did not speak.

"Can I call you a friend?" Legolas continued softly. "A friend trusts at all times."

If Aragorn was taken aback, he did not show it. "Can I confide in you?" he asked.

"Why can you not?" Legolas whispered sadly.

--

Faramir watched as Legolas rode into the Emyn Arnen. Instantly, he knew that whatever the elf tried to show, the trip had not gone as smooth.

"Suliad, Faramir," Legolas nodded in greeting.

Faramir smiled and helped him unload his belongings, "Suliad. How have the gardens been?"

"What else could you expect from a gaggle of clumsy men?" Legolas gave a mischievous grin even as Faramir threw back his head in laughter.

"Should the Society of Scientific Advancement hear this, they would soon begin to massacre the elves," Faramir retorted.

Legolas turned pensive. "I cannot understand why they see progress only in the man-made. Can nothing of the trees, the flowers, the seas progress too? Can man progress if not for nature?" He shook his head. "Yet, they think so highly of the work of their hands."

Faramir smiled sympathetically. These were times when he wondered if he would fit better in an elven society. "Still, I do not think that is the main issue," Faramir said, "rumours are spreading that Basleth incited this in revenge for being passed over for promotion. There may be some truth in that."

Legolas nodded but remained silent.

"What happened?" Faramir finally asked.

"Nothing much," Legolas tried to shrug casually. "There seems to be some… friction between Aragorn and I."

Faramir nodded. He could have guessed as much.

--

Legolas was fighting an orc, Aragorn behind him dealing with another one. Occasionally, the man would shout out his tally, though Legolas was convinced he had surreptitiously added two more in. The clearing was growing littered with orc bodies but more still kept coming.

Legolas was beginning to rue letting Aragorn join their elven patrol. They had ventured reasonably far South and such innumerable foes was only to be expected. And now, instead of concentrating on the orcs, he had to watch out for the human, ensure he did not cut through a tree in his haste, stop him from rushing head-on at an overwhelming number of orcs… And also keep tabs on his kill tally.

Legolas retrieved his spare blade, and now fought with both knives. He was sure his tally exceeded Aragorn's, but in any case, there was no harm humouring the man. The other elves were holding out well. As far as he could see, none of them had been injured.

Then suddenly, a torrent of orcs swarmed the clearing. Legolas quickly despatched those two he was facing and moved instinctively closer to Aragorn.

"Still doing well?" he asked hurriedly.

Aragorn nodded. "26!" he panted.

Legolas rolled his eyes and focussed on the new wave. He parried the first blade and with his other knife, stabbed the orc through. Without waiting, he had sliced through an unprotected neck, backing slightly as the dark fluid gushed out. He let both arms move independently, taking out orcs on both sides.

He was getting the rhythm now. Deflect, thrust, slash, parry… He managed to take out two orcs in a single stroke. An arrow landed near him. Black fletchings. Orc archers.

The elves were already aiming for the archers. Some of them had gone to the fringes and were shooting, a few other elves covering them while they aimed. Legolas nodded and moved back towards Aragorn.

Then a stray arrow came towards the man.

Legolas was too far away. He could only watch Aragorn's eyes widen, moving his sword too late to deflect the arrow. The man tried to side-step but the arrow embedded deep into his calf. He gave an involuntary shout.

"Aragorn!" Legolas was by his side, eyes darting, alert for orcs coming to finish him off.

Aragorn was gritting his teeth and wincing intensely. Still, his mood was not dampened. "You were supposed to save me, were you not?" he chided.

--

Legolas sighed and closed his book. He knew he would be unable to read with the turmoil rising within him. And that strange unease which threatened to explode. He crawled under his covers and tried to rest.

--

The sun was shining. It was a perfect day. The gardens in Minas Tirith had been completed and were in full bloom. Aragorn and Arwen were strolling under the green eaves, pleased with the hard work Legolas had put in.

The man sat on a bench. "Whatever the Society may think, the beauty of trees and flowers is truly incomparable," he sighed.

Arwen moved gracefully beside him and smiled.

There was something moving. Legolas tried to shout from the bushes but they could not hear him.

Seconds passed.

Arwen frowned and spoke. Aragorn seemed distracted.

The air was far too tense now.

Aragorn testily unsheathed his knife – just in time to meet the blade of a masked man, entirely dressed in brown and green. They fought on, blades moving in a flurry, Aragorn with great experience behind him but now hampered down by age, and the other, young and learning fast.

"Who are you?" Aragorn shouted even as more men came in.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Arwen fighting with her knife. She was good but they would need reinforcements soon. Where were the guards? They were wearing out and still the masked men kept coming.

Legolas was frozen. He could not move at all. His hands managed to close down at his side, only to find an empty sheath. His brain worked furiously and he dashed into the fray anyway. But his hands seemed powerless. He tried to knock an attacker out of Aragorn's way, but the man remained standing, oblivious to the hit.

Legolas gasped. What was happening! He could almost read Aragorn's thoughts; concern for Arwen, coordinating his rapid moves, calling for some help, calling for… Legolas.

Legolas was panting now and his fingers grew cold. He could see Aragorn sweating profusely under the strain of the assault. He looked down and saw own palm sweating badly. He turned and saw the weapons those men used, made from some strange metal – a strong combination that rang with a thin tone.

Aragorn was having trouble now. Where were the guards! Legolas looked all around but there was no one else in sight, only a litter of bodies and the sea of men coming at those two small figures. He saw Arwen go down, her blood staining the stone pavement, Aragorn shouted and ran towards her. The man was already bleeding at the side. A blade came towards him…

Legolas shut his eyes.

When he reopened them, he was in Emyn Arnen.

He blinked to clear his vision. He was having a bad headache and his sheets were soaked in sweat.

He walked, albeit unsteadily towards the balcony overlooking the gardens.

And stopped.

Kneeling on the floor, Faramir was whispering almost fearfully.

Legolas frowned.

"Ai, Valar," the man was saying, "Am-silo galad lín i aran! Please, please, O Valar. If you will hear me, shine your light on the king."

"Faramir?" Legolas asked softly.

The steward hastily gathered himself.

"Faramir, what is it?" Legolas held the man's shaky frame.

Faramir looked straight into his eyes. "I had a frightful vision," he whispered.

--

Legolas rode on with haste, Faramir, having left a note for Éowyn, was beside him. A little farther were some of the White Company.

"You too saw it happening after Arwen's return?" Legolas ascertained.

Faramir nodded. "And she returns in four days."

--

Aragorn leaned back in his chair, ignoring the papers strewn haphazardly across his desk. He looked at the desk calendar Legolas had crafted for him. Three more days to Arwen's return. Though he had been greatly anticipating that day, somehow, he was rather perturbed in a way he could not pinpoint.

He wondered how Legolas had been doing. Over the past days he had come up with dozens of other ways he should have handled their conversations. He should never had allowed his other concerns to affect him thus – he could even have shared them with Legolas the way he always did.

He shook his head. It was rather too late now. Perhaps he should try making amends when the gardens were to be officially opened. Certainly the elf would not refuse the invitation?

Aragorn sighed and picked up the latest reports.

--

"What is it?" Faramir asked as some of the men begin to slow.

"My lord, the men and horses are growing tired," Beregond answered, "we cannot ride long at this speed."

Faramir turned to look at Legolas. The elf looked away, but not before Faramir caught the disappointment in his eyes.

It always amazed Faramir how Legolas and the king could engage in the worst arguments, but when either was in danger, the other would not hesitate to his aid. And if he were any judge, Faramir would say that to Legolas, Lord Aragorn was royalty, and even after the War of the Ring, even after the birth of Eldarion, the stabilisation of the kingdom and everything else, his life still meant significantly more than that of the Prince of Eryn Lasgalen.

"We rest here for the night," Faramir finally decided.

--

There was a bustle of activity but Aragorn ignored the commotion; his headache was bad enough as it was.

No wonder Legolas had complained at all the din, he reflected. If he, a human, could barely tolerate it, how much less could the elf with his sensitive hearing!

He pounded his head lightly with a fist and turned away from the desk. The Society had been increasing its activity, and from the rumours he heard, most in the city had a poor opinion of the elves. He wondered at how quickly the issue had turned from the lack of progress to the increased presence of elves. But if Legolas' suspicions proved true, Basleth, as one of the key board members, was well in a position to take advantage of this for his personal revenge.

Aragorn sighed. Where was Arwen when he needed her?

--

A myriad of questions swarmed through Legolas' mind even as he felt his horse's hooves pound steadily onward. What if Arwen had returned early? What if they arrived too late anyway? What if they could not prevent the attack?

He shook his head vigorously but it did little to remove those nagging doubts. He should not have said those spiteful words at their last meeting. What if he were not given the chance to set things right?

"Noro lim," Legolas whispered grimly to his mare.

--

It was decidedly bright when Aragorn finally opened his eyes. Someone had drawn the curtains. He stretched grouchily and yawned. He could definitely do with some extra rest. Having read those reports on attacked elves had only given him a fitful sleep.

Suddenly, he felt a presence in the room.

And a playful voice. "Caught off-guard?" Arwen teased him.

Aragorn let out the breath he had been holding. His senses had indeed been numbed by the many years of peace.

"Arwen," he turned to face her, "I did not expect you this much earlier."

Arwen smiled and sat demurely. "May I not return earlier for my lord?" she asked.

Aragorn laughed and drew her close. "As soon as I've finished with the reports, I must show you the new gardens – without the entourage."

--

A figure walked briskly down an alley and casually bumped into a man leaning against the wall. In that instant, a small slip of paper changed hands.

The man walked purposefully down the other way soon after.

--

Legolas had efficiently disguised himself, quickly melting into the city's bustle. Faramir and the other men were scattered about, making their way towards the palace as discreetly as they could. Legolas could see the palace just ahead now, the new gardens already beginning to blossom.

And his eye caught a blur of movement among the trees.

--

Something was amiss, Aragorn thought even as Arwen spoke on beside him. There was just something that unsettled him, something that did not fit with the beautiful greenery. He thought he heard some apprehension in Arwen's voice.

He tightened his grip on his knife. And instinctively spun and unsheathed it – just in time to catch the surprise in his assailant's eyes as he parried. Beside him, Arwen was wielding her blade efficiently against more of the masked foes.

"Who are you?" he shouted as the man before him struck with increasingly greater force.

He only heard a sneer. Then he found an opening and quickly stabbed the man. There were more coming. Just how many of them were there! It had been a bad idea to dismiss the guards and servants. Was there anyone within earshot? But Aragorn knew it was never wise to dwell on such thoughts when surrounded by enemies each one of whom would gladly take his life.

He swung his blade and managed to cut an opponent, quickly turning and continuing the stroke to meet another man. If only all six of them were not coming at him at the same time!

He heard Arwen gasp and spun around – relatively minor injury, he quickly assessed and picked up his pace again. They were wearing out soon, he knew. When was the last time they had sparred? Neither Arwen nor he carried their choice weapons on a daily basis, and there were times when they even went without any. He felt his arm jolt as he clashed against a strong blade.

More men. They had come prepared, Aragorn noticed. Their strange attire of muted browns, greens and greys made them hard to spot among the denser areas in the gardens. And their weapons were unusually shaped, and were indeed very strong though light enough not to cause fatigue.

There was no time to muse. Aragorn tried to move towards Arwen. She was barely holding out against the sheer odds now. He side-stepped a thrust and brought down another man.

Then he felt something impact his side and groaned as the pain radiated out. His arm felt weak. Was the weapon poisoned? He switched his blade to the other hand and parried just as a sword came overhead. He was losing blood fast. He gripped his sword as tightly as he could and even as he hit the ground, he brought down another foe.

But as they surrounded him, he knew his time was running out. His strength was leaving him and if nothing, he would black out soon. Was this how everything was to end? And Arwen! He heard a loud gasp and he knew she had taken another injury. Hopefully nothing serious.

He blinked, madly trying to clear his blurred vision. Then there was more movement, someone shouting his name, more people flooding into the gardens, more weapons, more noise, and he thought, it was over.

--

18 men died that day.

Arwen's wounds had quickly healed, and Aragorn was able to attend to his usual duties not many days later. Basleth had been tried and found guilty of treason. He admitted that he had been resentful against the king and the elves when he was passed over for promotion, and had sought revenge after being mocked by many close to him.

A significant number within the Society of Scientific Advancement had withdrawn their support as news of the assassination attempt spread. The Gondorian army had been recently equipped with new weapons made from a strange metal. The Association for the Conservation of Natural Wildlife published an article on the new gardens within the palace and how the Wood-elves had contributed to its beauty. Legolas received a surprising parcel of thank-you notes and apologetic letters. There was even a small bouquet of flowers from a child.

But there was nothing from Aragorn.

--

It was a rather cheerful day, but Aragorn was too troubled to notice. Arwen had been concerned but he had waved her off and headed for the gardens. There, purged of that day's death and vengeance, at least the air was sweet and reassuring.

But on this day, someone had occupied his usual spot. Aragorn tensed as the elf stood to acknowledge him.

"My friend, you have returned," Aragorn smiled a little.

Legolas nodded cordially. "It has been a while."

Aragorn looked down, unsure of what to say next. Legolas was biting his lower lip, extending a hand slightly as though wishing to say something.

Aragorn watched and waited. Then Legolas drew his hand back again.

Aragorn gazed at the overhanging flowers then fidgeted with his tunic.

"How's your –" they both began at the same time.

Aragorn tilted his head and gestured for Legolas to continue but the elf had looked away into the bushes.

Aragorn looked awkwardly around.

"The flowers are in full bloom today," he said.

Legolas nodded. "Yes, they are beautiful."

Silence.

Aragorn took a tentative step towards the bushes. He saw the elf tighten almost imperceptibly as he neared. Legolas brushed a stray strand of hair from his face and leaned towards a flower nonchalantly.

Finally, Aragorn could hold it no longer. "Why did you leave?" he choked into a sob.

Then they embraced tightly and wept in joy.

"I'll tell you why I came back."