Standard disclaimer: these characters are not mine, I'm not making any profit, etc etc. Just harmless fun, and hopefully enjoyable for all.

-mercat

The wind rustled softly through the trees, ruffling Frodo's hair as he stood silent on the stone balcony, gazing over the low railing into the valley below. The soft noon light dappled the fallen leaves and played over the gurgling streams that wound their unhurried way through Rivendell, untroubled by the cares that seemed to weigh so heavily on the hobbit's shoulders. A wholesome air pervaded the valley, a refreshing, almost tangible sweetness, yet Frodo felt a dark sense of unease creeping over the very core of his being, and closed his fingers tightly about the Ring where it hung on a thin chain close to his breast.

The Ring! Even now the Council conferred behind closed doors, unusual enough in Rivendell; for though the Fellowship had been selected, those wiser than he had yet to decide their route and what manner of baggage they would carry. Frodo had examined the Elvish maps at length, fixing the most important landmarks in his mind, but in truth he cared not what way they took. For while the others might divert their course at need, tarrying in friendly halls or lending aid to beleaguered cities, for him all roads led to the same destination. He could see it even now, looming hideous and mocking in his mind's eye: a cracked and broken land, swarming with foul creatures, stained by blood and misery. The image blotted out the leaves and flowers around him; the smell of decay was thick in his nostrils, and almost he felt that he could step off of the veranda and into one of the oozing pits that hovered just beyond his outstretched hand -

"What do you here, Master Baggins?" A light hand tapped his shoulder and Frodo, wrenched back into himself, whirled with a cry of surprise, for he had not heard the tall Elf's approach. Forcing his breathing to slow, he replied with a slight sigh, "I wished to step out for a short time, that is all. I felt the need of fresh air to revive me: the Council-room is so close and confined, and our speech so heavy!"

Sunlight rippled through Legolas' blond hair as he cocked his head. "So you said nearly an hour ago, and all were understanding; but the day draws on, and we have need of your presence if we are to finish ere nightfall."

Frodo lowered his head, fixing his gaze on a slight crack in the smooth grey stone, and did not reply. The Elf regarded him for a long moment, and then said quietly, "You are troubled, that is plain to see. You do not wish to share your concerns, and I am not one to offer ready advice; but perhaps I may help to ease your heart a little. Will you follow me?"

Without waiting for an answer, he turned and vaulted lightly over the railing, landing silently on the mossy sward below. Frodo shook his head slightly, a smile quirking his lips in spite of himself, and clambering over the railing, followed more sedately down a slender rope ladder that hung half-concealed along the rock face. He hurried after the Elf, who had already moved off into the glade. "Where are we going?"

Legolas did not turn. "That is for you to decide. You had the right idea before, but the wrong location; you need time and space to think, but an open balcony, even in Imladris, is not a place for meditation. For important matters, you must choose a suitable tree."

"A tree?" Frodo grimaced slightly. He was not overly fond of heights, and had never made a study of trees, but he supposed that from a Sindarin Elf he should have expected little else. And after all, climbing might prove a welcome distraction, certainly preferable to returning to the ominous words and grim looks of the Council. "How will I know which tree is right?"

"That is simple enough: when you find one that speaks to you in some way - because of its shape, or color, or because you can hear the secrets that the leaves whisper - then you will know. On the road it might be more difficult. But there are trees enough in Rivendell, and most of them tended by Elves, to satisfy even the most fastidious of guests, I deem. Only tell me when one strikes your fancy."

Frodo shrugged but followed unprotesting after his guide, who slipped through the glade with the grace of one long accustomed to hunting in the forest. Trees he saw on either side - tall and stooped, slender and gnarled - but all blurred together in an unremarkable mass. He imagined that Sam might have appreciated them more - indeed, the other hobbit would then have had the opportunity to satisfy simultaneously his love of gardening and his thirst to question an Elf - but to Frodo they all looked much the same, indistinguishable from trees he had seen in the Shire and along the road. What was it Lindir had said? Sheep looked all the same, except to shepherds and to other sheep?

Belatedly he realized that Legolas had halted and was staring dreamily at a tall beech several feet away. Frodo could see nothing exceptional about the tree; it had the same smooth grey bark and dark leaves as the other five or six beeches they had already encountered, and yet the Elf was plainly drawn to it in some inexplicable fashion. ***Maybe I should leave him here to commune with it and return to the house.***

Even as he turned, uncertain, the hobbit's eye fell on a stately willow that trailed its slender branches into a nearby murmuring stream. He had seen other willows far more impressive, but something about the tree's stance, its gentle union with the flowing water, resonated within him, and he took an involuntary step forward.

Alerted by Frodo's indrawn breath, Legolas shook off his own semi- trance and hastened to the hobbit's side. "That one?" The Elf looked thoughtfully at the tree, then peered down at Frodo, his bright eyes almost uncomfortably sharp. "A good match," he decided at last. "Now we shall see how a hobbit climbs!"

"Not very well, I'm afraid," Frodo answered ruefully. "We are little accustomed to heights, and prefer the simplicity of our holes! Still, I have climbed many staircases even in my short time in Rivendell, and a willow is not too tall a tree, I suppose."

With a boost from Legolas, he clambered up onto the lowest bough, bracing himself against the smooth trunk. Even a mere five or six feet above the ground, he felt a slight tinge of vertigo, compounded as Legolas leaped lightly and swung himself up onto a branch several feet above the hobbit's head. Spurred on by the Elf's laughing eyes, Frodo slowly climbed up two more branches, until he found an area where the angle of limb and trunk formed a reasonably comfortable perch.

"I don't think I can climb any higher," he admitted.

"Nor should you," Legolas smiled. "For I would not wish to answer to Mithrandir and Elrond, should you fall from a great height and break your neck! As for me, I will rest up there," and he pointed to where the tree's great branches began to curve downwards towards the water. "Call me if you have need of anything or when you are ready to depart." With a cheery wave, he swung gracefully up onto the branch above and soon disappeared into the foliage, though the leaves did not so much as rustle at his passing.

Left alone, Frodo settled back into his makeshift seat and looked out across the valley. The trees and grass looked subtly different from his view from the balcony; everything seemed touched by a softer light, muted yet clear. The babble of the brook was louder in his ears, yet not unduly so; the sweet air brought to his nostrils the scent of roses and fresh loam, strong but not overpowering. His own heartbeat sounded loudest of all, a resonant counterpoint to the treble chirping of nearby birds. Gradually he became aware of a tingling in the fingers of his left hand, where they rested against a knot in the bark, and of a thrumming in his back, pressed against the trunk of the tree. Frodo turned his head, resting his cheek against the trunk: there it was again, a feeling of vitality and life, as though something within the tree pulsed also within his veins. This, no doubt, was what Legolas had meant when he had derided the stone balcony as a place for introspection. Stone quarries might speak to dwarves, and perhaps even to men, locked tight within their granite- walled cities; but hobbits and elves needed living sanctuaries. ***Yet another thing that Mordor would take from us.***

Frodo reached out slowly in his mind, seeking to recapture and study the horrible mirage that had crept unbidden into his mind scarcely an hour before, but the fell image, shattered by Legolas' arrival and the quiet peace of the woods, refused to coalesce. Even the Ring, whose cold fire he had fancied he could feel burning through his soul ever since Weathertop, hung less heavy around his neck; it seemed now a mere bauble, no more weighty than the thick gold from which it had been forged. With a sigh of contentment, Frodo relaxed fully into the willow's embrace, letting his eyes drink in the beauty of the valley without thought of his departure and the long road ahead.

**************************************************************************** **

As the sun slowly sank over the horizon, filling the valley with an ethereal golden glow, Legolas unfolded from his perch atop the willow and stretched with feline grace. He could not discern Frodo's form among the darkened boughs below, but surely the hobbit had exhausted his thoughts ... unless he, like Legolas, had fallen asleep, lulled by the whispers of stream and leaf. ***Or unless he chatters to himself as Meriadoc and Peregrin do aloud!***

The Elf descended quietly into the growing darkness until he stood before the hobbit, who was leaning back, eyes closed. Loathe to disturb the other's rest, Legolas inched forward, studying Frodo intently. He had been patrolling Mirkwood's farthest borders during the famous incident with Bilbo and the dwarves decades before, and had never had occasion to see a hobbit before arriving in Rivendell. Elvish legend had little to say about their small cousins, and Legolas found himself intrigued by their quaint speech and customs, as well as by their deceptive resilience. An Elf or a man might have perished quickly from a Morgul-blow, yet Frodo, the picture of health only weeks later, was frolicking in the treetops. And yet the hobbit was not wholly unchanged; his mien grew ever more solemn, and Legolas fancied he could detect a strange ... transparency, almost ... about the injured hand. ***Ridiculous.*** He peered closer at Frodo's face, wondering if the slight shimmer he imagined about his hand might manifest itself elsewhere.

Of a sudden, the hobbit's eyes snapped open, and the Elf jumped back with a cry of surprise. Grasping blindly for the branch above to save himself from a most un-elfin fall, Legolas quickly composed himself. Frodo was staring at him in bemusement, and he covered his embarrassment by politely motioning the hobbit to precede him down the tree. "It has grown late, and we should return to the house. I hope your thoughts were productive?"

Frodo smiled slightly, recognizing both the Elf's discomfiture and his genuine concern. "They were, thank you. You were right: trees are far superior than balconies when it comes to serious thought! Though I doubt not that even the cliffs in Rivendell could speak, had they a mind to."

Legolas shrugged, disinterested. "I know not. You might petition Gimli or Gloin on this matter; doubtless they could fill your ears with countless tales of conversation with their storehouses of gold. The smallest sliver of rock, if it leads to treasure, has a siren call for a dwarf!"

"Indeed." Sensing a deeper current beneath the Elf's seemingly jesting words, Frodo wisely refrained from comment and followed Legolas up the winding path to Elrond's house. Lamps had been kindled against the darkness, and at the top of the steps three small figures waited, arms crossed and feet tapping impatiently.

"Where have you been!" Pippin burst out indignantly as Frodo and Legolas drew near. "'I'll just nip out for some fresh air, won't be a minute,' you said - nearly three hours ago! And you," he turned to the Elf, "you said you'd bring him back straight away! 'Trust an Elf in Imladris; I will find the Ringbearer, though he hide from mortal sight.' We've been waiting on you both all this time: we can't finish without you, and we can't get any supper until we've concluded all our business!"

Frodo traded a guilty look with Legolas before turning back to his accusers. "Well, it's a relief to know that you weren't worried for my safety," he answered drily. "But come, Pip; I needed space to breathe, and now I've thought things through I can set out with a lighter heart. Surely that's worth something!"

"Indeed it is, Mr. Frodo," put in Sam, glaring at Pippin and Merry, whose expressions clearly indicated otherwise. "And I've sat out here all this time waiting for you: I was that worried! But now you're back, and we can go on in; never mind what they say."

"Yes, yes, let's go in already," said Merry, smiling in spite of himself. "For even if cousin Frodo has forgotten the way to the Council Room, I'm sure he has clear enough memories of the route to the banquet hall! Or maybe not," he added in an aside to Pippin, "since the last few times he's drunk a bit more than was good for him, I should say, and lost himself in every scroll-room in the place!"

"Studying maps and charts, for your benefit I might add, hardly amounts to being lost," Frodo protested. "Better to spend a little time now and avoid disaster on the road!"

"Yes, but after dinner? It's an insult to the feast! And speaking of feasts, just wait until you see what they've cooked up for our send-off ...."

Jousting and jostling, the hobbits pushed through the doorway and disappeared around the corner, drawn unerringly to the laughter and revelry within. Laying his bow and quiver by the side of the door, Legolas followed like a shadow, eyes bright with wonder and amusement. A strange race, hobbits; but he was glad of the opportunity to study them further during the journey. ***I may never understand them, but at least it will be an interesting pursuit!***

*****

Thanks for reading! Feel free to review - really review, not just "it sucked" or "it was cool" or "man, Legolas is awesome." (Though of course he is) How was the language? The tone? The characterization? Bring on the feedback! :)