This story was originally written for the January 2007 Teitho Contest under a different pen name.
Anor was slowly falling, creating a watery tableau of sultry, molten tones that bled into the horizon and spilled in lazy, shimmering refractions across the vast and empty expanses of the Southern Sea. Legolas stood beneath that dizzying canopy of color, tasted the salt-spray on his tongue, and wondered where exactly the sky ended and the sea began. He was standing in breakers, cool waters churning in liquid rainbows as they lapped disinterestedly against his thighs. He came here every year on this day, though it had taken him some time before he'd finally decided to venture out into the waves, but each year hence he strayed a bit farther, allowing the sea claim first his ankles, then his shins, and now finally his knees as he let the steady rhythm of the tide seep into his veins and wash over the jagged edges of his heart. Maybe someday it would finally pour through all the gaping holes that life had left behind, would gently and gradually erode the worst of the pain away.
Not this day, though, but someday. Maybe.
"I thought I'd find you here."
Legolas started, spun around so fast that his hands caught in the waves and flung shimmering prisms in all directions. The other laughed at the sight of the Lord of Ithilien, the esteemed Prince of Lasgalen gaping and sputtering in his surprise, his hard-won serenity shattered by the unexpected intrusion. And after all that, a strangled "you!" was the best that he could manage.
Aragorn simply laughed again, for it was a rare moment indeed when he managed to catch his Elven friend so completely unaware. Then he dropped into a languid heap upon the sand and drew his knees up near his chin, his arms draped casually around them. Even with his very noticeable age, he made the movements seem thoughtlessly easy.
"I hope you weren't planning on staying like that for very much longer," he tossed off, his voice light and lilting as it slipped into Sindarin with the fluid grace of long practice. "It gets cold fast once Anor disappears and you'll catch your death if you stand around in wet clothes."
"I fear that too much time among men has dulled your wits, my friend," Legolas replied, the words coming automatically because it was just too easy to fall back into the old, familiar patterns. "Elves do not take ill from the weather." But then the rest of his mind caught up to the moment, and he was wading back through the waves, towards the shoreline. "What are you doing here?"
Aragorn glanced up at Legolas as his friend came to stand beside him, grey eyes alit from within at some hidden joke, lips twitching slightly at some secret irony until they tipped into a subtle grin. But then he turned away. "You picked a good spot," he said at length, nodding out towards the water, his gaze finding and settling on some far-off point. Or perhaps on one deep within.
Finally Legolas gave up staring, shelved his unanswered questions and plopped inelegantly down beside his friend. "Gimli picked it," he confessed readily enough. "He liked the view from the cliffs above."
Aragorn said nothing in return, and a gentle silence stretched out like toffee between them, thick and sticky-sweet. Legolas basked in it, tasted the familiar comfort there, breathed in deep and filled his lungs with it. He needed this, needed as much of it as he could steal before all the prickling questions cluttering his soul finally burrowed their own way out.
"Have you seen him?" he asked at long last, careful to keep his eyes fixed on the horizon and the lengthening shadows that arced across the water.
"Not yet," Aragorn answered, soft and casual, as though it mattered little. Though in that moment, perhaps, it didn't.
Aragorn nodded, that easy, trailing bob of the head. The one that meant acknowledgment, the one that made sure you knew he was still grounded to the here and now even as his thoughts were skipping way ahead on the page. Short answers usually followed, monosyllabic, representing the least possible amount of effort diverted from his mind down to his tongue.
And so one did.
And Legolas let the matter drop. Took that for assurance instead of prevarication, and let the weight of it settle on his shoulders instead of rolling off to land as a wedge between them. He stayed with Aragorn, side by side upon the sand, and remembered all the other times they'd done this. Beaches had come later; before that it had been campfires surrounded by cold and craggy mountain vistas, or sheltered deep in the forested vales of one of the many northern rivers. They'd been apart more often than together and silent more often than anything else, and Legolas had decided long ago that it was just another in the long list of reasons his friend was so much more elf than man, for men weren't known for their great capacity for stillness. Aragorn, however, had mastered it.
Legolas had missed this, he realized, with a sharp pang somewhere deep in his heart, down in that place where Aragorn had once resided. And Aragorn knew it, too — damn him. It was why he sat, a specter on the sand, close enough that Legolas could almost imagine he felt the heat of him, could almost imagine he didn't feel the burn of the temptation to lean into that familiar warmth, even as the need of it began to course through his very veins, scalding him from the inside out. He didn't though, because for one beautiful moment, as heartbreakingly eternal as the summers of Valinor, Aragorn's mere presence turned out to be enough. Legolas basked in it, staying strong and separate as Varda's stars, while at their feet their shadows mingled until at last they too slowly faded into twilight.
Anor was enjoying her journey home, her track high and mighty and resplendent — and utterly merciless. Legolas lay flat on his back on the beach, one lazy arm draped across his brow, shielding his eyes from the ruthless light. Yet he could do nothing about the stifling heat. His hair, half fallen out of its braids, was strewn about his head, salt-crusted and mired in sand, bleaching out in odd colors from the endless march of oppressive days. His clothes, damp from the water but drying fast, clung to his body in uncomfortable places. He felt sweat trickling down into the small of his back, just enough of a presence to be irritating. Soon he'd be forced to shift, to find a more comfortable position, but then if he was to move he might as well venture forth into the waves again and into another temporary respite from the discomfort of the land. Legolas wasn't quite ready for that, for the harsh light glinting off the water, gleaming silver in the crest of every wave as though Ossë's latest trick was to hurl a million daggers at the impertinent shoreline. That's what it felt like anyway, when the brightness stabbed painfully at his eyes with every glance.
"And to think—"
—That Legolas hadn't heard a thing! He shot up, jerking to his feet like a puppet on his strings—
"—that Cook never mentioned we'd be having roast elf for dinner."
"Aragorn!" Legolas's voice was hoarse, from lack of water as much as lack of use. He saw his friend standing a few paces off — just out of striking distance, really — in diffidence to Legolas's reflexes and the dangers of trying to catch an old soldier unawares. Well, Legolas had been suitably surprised, and anger at having been caught out once again simmered below his next words. "What in Eru's name do you want?"
Aragorn tisked, quite un-kingly, because invoking the name of the One so casually was considered deepest blasphemy in the circles in which Legolas traveled. Though Legolas hardly cared, as his entire bearing practically dared Aragorn to comment on it. It would give him the impetus to unleash the words that had been slowly yet steadily building for some time now; words that, if repeated, would pitch the entire court into an uproar that would stand for weeks. Legolas was half tempted to say them anyway, prompting or no, and not just because he knew how good it would feel to finally give voice to them, but more because he honestly felt that a decent uproar would do the denizens of those circles a world of good.
He didn't though, because through the haze of sullen rage and the fire of tantalizing possibilities he finally noticed how Aragorn was barefooted, and dressed for once without any of the trappings of his station. In fact it was only the cut and quality of the cloth that gave the man away. It was surreal, Aragorn standing almost unrecognizable as the King of Men, because Legolas had grown bitterly accustomed to seeing all of the King and next to nothing of the Man. Even the last time on this beach Aragorn had come with robe and mantle, sash and buckle, and a presence that could swallow up a room, that swallowed whole anyone used to dancing in the negative space and sometimes never bothered to spit them out again.
Aragorn caught Legolas staring and laughed, and not the dignified, side-mouthed chuckle he bestowed on aides and advisers and ambassadors, the one he used as a placeholder for his true thoughts. No, this one was sharp and sudden and shoulder-shaking and infectious — and then suddenly Legolas was running, dashing on a mad tear down to the water's edge and then prancing through the waves until he was far enough out that he could dive under them. And all the while that laughter nipped at his heels until he resurfaced, and sent both arms flying upwards behind a wall of water, one that caught Aragorn full in the face, just as his friend caught up to him, and left the man shocked to silence — breathless — and dripping. Legolas fell back, laughing from the belly until his ribs hurt, and found himself bobbing chest deep above the waves, floating like a cork along with the gentle undulations of the incoming tide.
Aragorn didn't retaliate, just brought his bare toes up to poke above the waves as he sat suspended, and tread water with his hands. He stayed silent, the childish pout at having been so unkindly drenched (even though the fool had followed Legolas into the sea of his own volition) betrayed only by the vicious quirking of his lips — and by the light of victory shining in his eyes.
Legolas was blindsided then by a flash of memory: an image of Aragorn floating idly in the lulls of the Bruinen as Legolas admonished him to get his backside back to shore, because the sun was setting and Lord Elrond would flay him alive if Estel missed his dinner or caught a chill. Legolas blinked, sent the image scattering away, turned and caught sight of Aragorn's soft smile — and gasped, for there the man trapped the ghosts of yet another far-off time and place, of a grin as bright and beautiful and untroubled as the boy Aragorn had once been. The memory fell sudden and sharp, a knife between Legolas's ribs.
"Damn you." The words came with surprising vehemence, for all he couldn't bring himself to say them to Aragorn's face. "Damn Gimli, too." The pronouncements fell like gavels, driven hard into the space between them like nails into a coffin. "Damn them all." Then he laughed again, a shocking, bitter sound. It bubbled out from his soul like infection from a wound, flushing out some of the poison in his spirit as though to prevent it from dying of sepsis and so further tainting Mandos' Halls. He didn't feel any better for it, but at least it served as a release valve for the pressure of everything he'd so very nearly said. The words were no longer trying to claw their way out of his heart; Legolas felt their weight now as a sleeping animal atop his chest, rather than a snarling one intent on tearing him to shreds from the inside out.
He still didn't turn to Aragorn, even when he felt at last that it might be safe to do so, because once he and Aragorn had done so much living in the other's pockets that they'd practically shared each other's skin, and to see any acknowledgment of that time pooling in Aragorn's eyes — or spilling over — would have been too much to bear. Instead he kept his gaze fixed outwards, onto the shimmering silver-green of the Southern Sea as the current slowly dragged him further down the shore. He didn't know for how long Aragorn allowed himself to stay, but then that had been the point. If there was one thing Legolas never wanted to see again for however long he decided to live, it was the sight of Aragorn walking away, the sight of Aragorn leaving him behind.
Anor sat primly upon her zenith, turning all that she surveyed below her into something bright and cheery and not altogether unpleasant. The gulls were crying from somewhere overhead, in the middle distance, calling to each other as they circled and then dove down to scoop tiny bait-fish from the water. It brought a discordant smile to Legolas's face, for even though he recognized the sad necessity of how the minnow must die so that the gull might live, the sight of sea-birds frolicking here was one that he'd missed these past years, ever since his little project atop the cliff had disturbed their nesting site.
It seemed now they'd finally decided to trust the rocks enough to return again, and so Legolas had wandered down to the shoreline that morning, carrying a sack full of stale bread as a peace offering. He sat down and threw a broken piece out into the water, watched it float atop the waves until a brave gull swooped down and snatched it. Another piece had followed, and then another and another, until all the gulls accepted the strange bits of flotsam as food, which happened about the same time they decided Legolas wasn't a threat to them. After that they started circling closer, and Legolas tossed some of the pieces into the sand as well as the sea. Gradually he drew them closer still, to where they were picking bread up from the cast of his shadow. Then, finally, they were taking it out of his outstretched fingers until they'd eaten every last scrap of it.
Legolas had laughed when some of the more persistent birds had loitered, even long after the sack was empty. They circled lazily above his head, asking each other in muted screeches if there was more food to be had. Some poked around in the sand in hopes that they might stumble upon some hidden, uneaten morsel, and looked up with dubious accusation whenever they grew weary of their failures. The more pragmatic had gone back to sporting in the waves in search of more traditional sustenance, and Legolas unconsciously felt his own spirits lift even as he watched them.
"I'm glad they're back," he said aloud, loud enough to carry. He was still sitting in the sand, legs bent beneath him and hands resting on his knees, but he wasn't so absorbed with the sight of dancing birds that he didn't mark his friend's arrival. He hadn't heard, hadn't seen, hadn't even smelled Aragorn's presence, but he knew that the man was there just the same, standing a little farther up the beach, idly watching the gulls.
"I didn't think they'd be gone for long," came Aragorn's reply. It sounded closer than Legolas had originally guessed, but then it didn't really surprise him that his sense of his friend was off. Like any other reflex, no matter how instinctual, staying too long out of practice would dull its edges to uselessness. It was a process frightfully similar to the decay he'd witness in Aragorn's own body, the man's grace — his brilliance — slowly and unerringly blunted down by time.
He saw Aragorn, standing a ways away, his profile calling the march of years into sharp relief. He looked younger then, with the noonday sun casting gilded halos about his hair, but Legolas knew it for illusion. Just as he knew then that friendship was a reflex too, the same as any other, and that it had been he, not Aragorn, who had let theirs atrophy.
"Why do you keep coming back?" he asked at length, bitterness on his tongue and petulance in his words. He felt he hardly deserved the courtesy of Aragorn's company.
Aragorn was silent for a time, long enough that Legolas knew a moment of undiluted panic at the thought that maybe his friend had gone. Frantic, he looked up only to find that Aragorn had actually moved closer. He was staring enigmatically down at Legolas, the lines of his face smoothed over in puzzlement as he studied him, as if it was the elf's presence that was the mystery here and not the man's. Then finally he answered.
"For the same reasons that you do, I should think." His expression was shuttered, giving nothing away.
Legolas knew anger then, knew that it felt like ash with the heat of it all burned away, leaving in him only its charred remains. He didn't have the energy for anger anymore. There was so much that Aragorn had hidden from him over the years, so many little slivers of his soul that he'd closeted away, and Legolas remembered wanting to hate the man for it — because he'd given Aragorn everything. Every last piece of himself he'd offered up for Aragorn's safekeeping: his hopes, his fears, his dreams; his past, his present, and then finally his future. And the man had taken them all — had taken and taken and taken without ever giving anything back until finally—
"Please!" The cry tore from his lips unhindered, unlooked for, startling them both. Legolas's eyes flew wide and wild at the sound, for his voice had cracked wide open, and everything he needed threatened to come spilling out of him.
"Legolas—" Aragorn began, but stopped himself, bit down on his lower lip and let the words crash into his teeth. He winced at the force of them, at whatever he'd prevented himself from saying, and oh! Legolas knew hatred then. Knew it as it slithered up from his gut and clenched both fists around his heart: one for Aragorn, for always holding himself back, and the other for himself, for always needing—
"Aragorn..." A broken plea, and it hurt — ai, Valar! — how badly it hurt!
And Aragorn knew it. Legolas saw it in his face, in the pained, tragic expression he wore so well, the one that belonged to a king presented with a dilemma he could not solve, or a healer confronted with wounds beyond his skill.
"Please—" Barely a whisper, a pained rasp throttled by the tears that Legolas had forgotten how to shed. He was on his knees, now, though how he'd come to be there he knew not. He was conscious only of the fact that he was reaching, spirit stretched out, spread out, flayed open and naked and yearning—
And Legolas heard a thousand million things echoing in all the words that went unsaid, and none of them anything that he wanted to hear. Between the admonishment, the pity, the despair — between the hope, the encouragement, the love — Legolas buckled under, his head bowing low to the sand. Perhaps he was as the gulls then, looking for something he'd never find, because there wasn't anything there, hadn't been for a long, long time.
"Don't," he warned, ground out through gritted teeth against anything that Aragorn might have said or done, and he didn't think — didn't, didn't!— about how that was only to preserve the delusion that Aragorn might have said or done something more, something he needed, something—
But no. Legolas knew better. He shoved himself up to his feet and spun away so quickly that he nearly lost his footing. He stumbled, pin-wheeled his arms as for one glorious second he'd lost his balance altogether, but then recovered enough of himself to stalk back down the length of the beach because he'd recovered enough of his dignity to decide that, just for once, he would be the one to leave. And he didn't look back, but imagined Aragorn staring after him, and that the salt that stung his eyes as he walked away came only from the sea.
Anor had barely begun her long and weary trudge up into the sky, her light frail and skittish for having only so recently awoken. It cast long shadows through the streets of the city that gathered in corners and spilled out from doorsteps and alleyways. Footsteps echoed hollow on the cobbled stones, muffled by the hush of a morning fog that crept in from the sea.
A gloomy, foreboding place the city became whenever the day was new.
Legolas picked his way south down broad, tree-lined streets until the structured pavement gave way to loose stones and stray swirls of sand, but for once he avoided the winding path that led down to the beaches far below. He chose instead the rough-hewn stair that climbed to the top of the cliffs. Legolas had not made this climb for some years now, though there had been a time, not too terribly long ago, when he'd been a frequent visitor.
A dwarf had cut this path into the rock face. With shorter legs and more hesitant feet than any elf, he had wanted to make sure he could appreciate the view without breaking his neck on the approach to it. Legolas had indulged him, had kept him company while he worked until he'd actually learned a thing or two about the intricacies of stone-craft, if only through repetition and osmosis.
When Legolas reached the top he picked his way gingerly around the scrub-growth, disturbing as little of it as possible. The seagulls hid their nests all along here, and they'd already had enough Elven interference to last a hundred lifetimes. And it was a small matter, really, to take some extra care, and soon enough Legolas had come to the edge of the cliff, or as close to it as the integrity of the stone beneath his feet would safely allow. It was a natural thing then to reach out, to lay a hand on the sculpted foot of the bronze statue that stood here, chest-level, vaulted on a dais of stone.
"Good morning, Gimli," Legolas murmured, his eyes taking in the view, remembering exactly why his friend had chosen this particular spot. Yet the sea below was a frothing mass of pitch and slate, and the grey sky above it just as turbulent. Unless he missed his guess, the chilly air would give way to storms before the day was out. Legolas sighed, an empty, deflated sound. "Pitiful morning that it is."
"Oh, I think we've seen worse."
Aragorn. Legolas very nearly smiled. He'd missed noticing his friend again, but then that had become something of a new routine between them. A new standard, because their old one was simply unattainable. Legolas accepted that, now. Surprisingly, the pain of it was almost bearable. At first, he thought that to be an even greater betrayal of their friendship, but just as the waves had gradually eroded the rock to shape these cliffs, so too had time slowly worn away the sting of that revelation. Now, it was simply truth.
Now Legolas did smile, albeit faintly. Aragorn had asked him a question, after all, and the man had been a king too long to tolerate being so openly ignored.
"We have," Legolas agreed, that smile broadening just a little under the lash of memory. "Many times."
"Tied up in orc dens, cornered in troll country, that time we decided to sneak out of your Father's palace and spend the day hunting instead of preparing for the Yule Feast…"
A bark of breathy laughter, humor and pain balanced on an even keel. It felt surprisingly good to laugh with Aragorn again. "You mean the time you stumbled upon the spider's nest and I had to drag you back to the healers before the poison overwhelmed your ever-ready supply of athelas?"
"Ha! More like you stumbled upon the nest and I got bitten trying to haul you out of it."
Legolas heard the amused indignation in Aragorn's voice and tried to envision the sight of the face that went with it. Brows arched, eyes wide and dancing, an incredulous tip to the corners of his mouth. Legolas knew that look, knew it like the back of his hand or the pull of his bow, but it was academic now. He'd lost it somehow, in his mind's eye; he couldn't picture it anymore. He'd lost sight of Aragorn a long time ago, he realized. Strange, how he'd refused to believe that for so long.
It would have been so easy, simply to turn and face his friend and burn the sight of him behind his eyelids so he could never forget again. Yet hadn't he already done that, half a dozen times before? For once he just accepted the fact that it wouldn't work, and spared himself the pain of trying.
"Either way, we missed the feast." And that was true. They hadn't made it back to Thranduil's halls until well after the celebrations had ended — until well after the first search parties had been dispatched to find them. "Your father was ready to have kittens."
Legolas frowned slightly, his thoughts hung up on that peculiar saying; just another of the many Mannish turns of phrase Aragorn had acquired through the years. Legolas remembered a time when Aragorn had known only Elven proverbs. So many things had changed after his friend had fulfilled his destiny. So many, and Legolas hadn't kept up with them.
He banished those thoughts with a quick shake of the head. Then he slid a glance in Aragorn's direction, not quite far enough to catch his eye. It was an underhanded, subversive glance, the herald of his words.
"So was yours."
A startled laugh, short and sweet, and Legolas remembered how there had been one thing that had never changed, because he'd always been able to make Aragorn laugh. Always. Even when his brothers or Arwen or his children could not.
"Do you remember the blizzards in the Misty Mountains? That time we'd gotten caught out in one?"
"That depends. Do you mean the time we had to stumble blindly through the snow without our horses until we reached Beorn's country? Or the time we decided that braving the goblin lair was the smarter choice than continuing the search for suitable shelter?"
Another laugh, this time a rueful chuckle. Legolas couldn't tell which incident had sparked it; either could have done so. They were good memories, now, looking back. Good because they'd been together, had stood back-to-back against the world and come out on the other side the better for it. Good because they'd survived long enough to be able to look back at all.
"I meant the time we were huddled into the lee side of a crag somewhere on the knees of Fanuidhol, when it snowed for a day, a night, and then another day. When the storm subsided we'd stumbled out into twilight and had been hard-pressed to tell whether it was dusk or dawn."
"I remember," Legolas admitted, almost instantly. He wore a fond smile now that was very much at odds with the pain that lanced through his heart at the memory. "You were delirious." And Aragorn had been, from cold; from hunger. Legolas had held him, had shoved his back against the cold, hard stone and gathered Aragorn up against him, wrapped him up with arms and legs fëa and prayed — actually prayed, for the first time in countless centuries — that it would be enough to keep him warm.
"Really?" Aragorn sounded surprised. "I don't remember."
Liar, Legolas thought, but without any heat. Aragorn must remember, or at least he had to have some sense of how he'd been held so fiercely, of how one Elven hand had slipped warm beneath the layers of cloak and tunic to rub slow circles above his heart, willing it to beat just a little bit stronger, just a little bit longer.
"I made you speak to me," Legolas reminded him, playing along, reliving that endless moment in time. The pulse beneath his hand had grown steadily weaker and Legolas had needed something, anything, to keep the cold from claiming his mortal friend.
Aragorn snorted, disgruntled and sardonic. "I must have cursed the storm in six languages."
Legolas nearly laughed at the picture that image painted before his memories sobered him. "No. Just one." Because on the brink of death Aragorn would forget all but the Sindarin of his youth. And he never cursed the storm, because he never cursed at all in any Elven tongue. Instead Aragorn had recited a poem, yet another callback to his childhood. He'd repeated the same verses over and over and over again until the words had run together, a steady, soothing stream of noise that Legolas heard not over the rage of the storm, but under it, as it isolated them in their pathetic shelter until it felt as though they were the only two beings left in all the world. He had taken surprising comfort in that thought.
Legolas remembered when the storm had broken, and he'd hauled Aragorn over his shoulder and so stumbled out into the waning afternoon. By some miracle he'd made it to the tree line, and managed to coax a fire from the wet timber. He'd melted snow in their water skins, heated them on stones baked by the flames, and forced Aragorn to drink the warm water. Hour passed hour he warmed his friend from the inside out, and when Aragorn had finally blinked back to awareness it was to a stunning canopy of Varda's stars in twilight.
Aragorn had to remember that. He had to, because couldn't not. Not when in Moria, as the long marches had given way to spells of restless inactivity in that fathomless dark where time was kept in heartbeats and exhaustion, Aragorn had come to him, had braced his own back against the rocks and pulled Legolas close. Not when hour had followed hour in an endless, starless night, when Aragorn had put his hand flat against Legolas's chest, a comforting weight, grounding him to warmth and breath and touch and soothing the lonely echo of his heart pounding its staccato rhythm. Not when Aragorn had kept the dark from closing in around them with the familiar cadence of a verse he'd thought long forgotten.
"You were a good friend, Legolas." The words were solemn, weighty, and a new pain flared in Legolas's heart even as a smile slowly stained his face, a portrait of blissful agony. There were some hurts he'd gotten used to, but only some. Others were as sharp as ever.
"Why can't you see that?"
And trust Aragorn to notice. He always noticed, even long after Legolas had stopped paying attention.
"I—" but couldn't finish the thought. Hadn't really started it, either. There were so many things that he could say, but he couldn't think of any of them. He could barely think at all. It had been that way for some time, he realized, and he wondered when that started. When had be been reduced to this walking wellspring of ache and memory?
When had he become a ghost?
"A better question would be, just what are you going to do about it?" Aragorn's voice, pointed and strong. Legolas wondered if his friend had read his mind. They used to be able to do that, or at least something frighteningly close to it, once upon a time.
More likely, Legolas had simply spoken those last thoughts aloud.
"I don't know." And his own voice was everything Aragorn's wasn't.
And maybe they really hadn't lost that skill, because Aragorn's reply was so predictable that Legolas nearly laughed.
Anor was still hidden in the east. Only her long, pale fingers were visible as they stretched out to grapple with the twilit sky. Varda's stars were winking out one by one as they followed Isil into bed, and the inky purple of their mingling lights slowly rolled over to the dull, listless gray of early morning. Legolas stood upon the cliffs again, making peace with the turbulent beauty of Gimli's favorite vista: the steadfastness of the stone and the warmth of the sand and the fury of the sea and the infinity of the sky. It was little wonder why Gimli loved it so.
"You were such a dwarf." That fond admonishment hadn't been uttered in years upon years, same as Legolas hadn't heard its twin. "And I've always been such an elf," he finished, because Gimli wasn't there to say it for himself. Legolas laughed at how ridiculous he sounded covering both parts, but then that didn't really matter. He was more than ready to welcome the memories of when he and the dwarf had gone point and counter-point to each other's insults. Then Legolas turned from the view to brace himself at the foot of the statue — literally. He rested each hand on a sculpted boot.
"Aulë wouldn't tell me what became of you, after. Apparently that is only for Ilúvatar to know." Legolas gazed upon the towering likeness of his friend, a likeness that he'd crafted with his own two hands, slowly and with great care. He had learned enough over the course of their friendship to be able to cut the dais himself, and that first long year after Gimli's passing Legolas had returned, day after day, to draw a suitable base up from the mountain, but he did not trust himself to carve the monument and even if he did, stone was not always the immutable constant of mortal ken. After all, time had eroded these very cliffs. No, the monument had to be made of sterner stuff, and that required smith-craft. Legolas knew just whom to ask.
He sought out Mahtan, the Aulendur, and would have offered himself in bondage in return for knowledge of the forge. Mahtan, who knew more of pain and loss than even Legolas could ever learn, had taken him on willingly, and when at last a suitable alloy had been found — in the look of bronze, but strong as Elven steel — he'd taken only a summation of all the dwarf-lore Legolas could remember as his payment.
Yet for all Mahtan's skill at forging metals, it was from his daughter that Legolas had learned to sculpt them. Nerdanel had refused at first: long had her hands stayed silent in her unending grief, but when Legolas made the point that he wasn't looking for a commission but rather for instruction she'd been willing enough to provide it. Once, she'd been accounted the best artistic sculptor in all of Valinor, and while it was true that three long ages had slowed her touch somewhat, she had forgotten nothing of her art. With time and care they polished it, united as they were in mourning, and if he somehow coaxed her hands to life — well. So too did she coax his heart, at least for a time.
Legolas thought of Nerdanel now as he surveyed the monument she painstakingly helped him to create. He thought of inviting her to join him, even though he knew that she'd never accept any offer that he could make. She truly was a ghost, doomed to haunt a house of dust and memory unto the ending of the world. Legolas thought of how very nearly he had allowed her fate to become his own, and that thought gave him the strength he needed.
The strength to finally say goodbye.
It was a smile for Gimli though, watery and pained. Elves were never good at goodbye; they were too used to eternity, and held fast to it even as it slipped away, slipped listlessly through their fingers like grains of sand.
"I hope you're behaving yourself," he warned the statue, a glimmer of his old humor returning before his expression fell towards the thoughtful. "Wherever you are."
And with that, Legolas turned away. He made his way carefully along the long and narrow path down towards the beach. The waves crashed merrily on an outgoing tide, and the winds were blowing briskly out to sea. Legolas stood on the edge of the surf and smiled, because he couldn't help but wonder if it meant that Manwë had given him his blessings.
Legolas had learned all about ships and sailing, back in the time before. Indeed, it hadn't taken much to rescue his ship from its moorings in Alqualondë and get her sea-worthy again. When at last he stood at her helm again, with the anchor stowed away and her sails braced to the wind, he turned to the eastward just as Anor broke above the waves. The promise of the new day caressed everything he owned with gilded hands, and Legolas remembered finally how it felt to be at peace.
"Where will you go?"
Legolas smiled, the gesture relaxed for the first time in forever. He pictured Aragorn standing at the prow, hands resting at the rail, watching dolphins sport in their bow-crest. Or perhaps he was reclining against the mast, feet crossed at the ankles and arms folded, looking up at the rigging and gauging the angle of the wind. It didn't matter, because long ago Legolas had named this ship Estel, and thus he figured that Aragorn had just as much of right to be here, if not more so.
"I don't know," Legolas admitted, still grinning. It felt good to say it aloud, felt better for the fact that it was true.
"I hear dragons haunt the farther reaches of the Southern Seas," Aragorn offered, and maybe he was by the stern, splicing lines and monitoring their draft. Or perhaps he was perched high on the main yard with a spyglass, the master of all he surveyed.
"Heard from whom?" he challenged, and met the echo of Aragorn's laughter, sounding from below decks as surveyed the charts, or from right behind him at the helm, as he busied himself with sextant and compass.
And Legolas remembered what it was like to be lost, in a blizzard with Aragorn's life slowly ebbing away, and in Moria, slowly suffocating in the stifling dark. And then he remembered what it was like to be found, how the feeling was reflected the rapture on Aragorn's face, when his friend had looked up into twilit sky—
"I miss you," he said at last. Like starlight— "Like breathing."
This time there was no reply.
This time, Legolas didn't really mind.
Anor: the sun
Isil: the moon