He remembered being young.
He had gone to Legolas-because it had always been Legolas he had gone too, always Legolas who would listen-and asked him why he could not do the things that his brothers could do.
Legolas had looked down at him, all brilliant light and gentle smiles, and had replied gently, "because, Estel, you have a destiny. And your brothers have another. That is the way of the world."
Aragorn had blinked up at him, unhappy and indignant. "But I don't want to have a destiny, I want to be an elf!"
Legolas had laughed at that, throwing back his head, and little Estel had giggled too, because when his elven friend laughed, the sound was so infectious that you couldn't help but join in.
He had been twelve when he went on his first hunt.
His brothers had patted his back after he made his first kill-a young buck, he can still the frightened white's of the creature's eyes, sometime-but it had been Legolas who had bent down to his level and looked into his eyes, hands cupping his face. "Estel," he had said, deadly serious, "do you understand why this had to happen?"
He hadn't really, but he said, "to eat?"
The elf had nodded. "All life is a gift," he said, running a hand across the blood-stained pelt, "and we feed off each other in order to survive in this world." his hand squeezed Estel's shoulder. "Do you understand?"
Aragorn had nodded. "I think so."
The elf had smirked at him. "Good. Now let's see if we can beat your brother's home."
When he had become Aragorn, it was Legolas who found him, wandering the woods.
"Estel," the elf had called out.
Aragorn had spun away from the elf's voice, flipped his hood up over his head. "I don't think you should call me that anymore." His voice wavered-and he hated himself for it. He was a man. He should not cry.
The prince had laughed, softly, gently. "Oh, you foolish human." He did not approach, but maintained just enough distance to be within Aragorn's earshot, standing with his arms crossed, leaning casually against the trunk of an ancient tree. "Do you really think your true identity means so much to me?"
When Aragorn did not say anything, the elf detached himself from the tree and approached him. Still, he did not reach out. His hands remained loosely at his sides. Aragorn watched him, unsure of what to say or what to do, his own hands trembling fists, his entire body tense.
Legolas titled his head to one side, lips twisting ever so slightly into a smile. "You have always been Aragorn," he said, "the only thing that's changed is now you know. Now you have to come to terms with this name, but this does not change who you are." Slowly, the elf reached out and squeezed his friends shoulder. "I can still call you Estel, if you like."
And he always did, even decades later.
To Legolas, he was always "Estel"
Legolas had not been there when he had killed his first man.
It had been a bloody fight when he was with the Rangers, and the knife was in his hand, and suddenly he was ducking, and his arm was moving, the blade cutting into flesh-
And his opponent was falling, and blood was soaking his boots, and men were shouting, and he couldn't breathe-
"Strider?" he wasn't sure who it was, but a hand came down on his shoulder, soothing and rough, strangely comforting. "You alright?"
"Fine," he found himself saying, but his throat was too tight, and the word came out choked and weak.
He remained awake that night, thinking of the blood that had stained his boots and his knife and his hands, of the life he had taken, of the cold rain and his tears and the fire that pounded through his veins with each breath.
He was a killer.
But then he thought of the deer that first hunt, how the buck had screamed when the arrow struck it, how his brothers had congratulated him, how Legolas had knelt down next to him, whispered that killing was the way of the world.
Legolas had probably killed thousands of times-his brother's too-and Aragorn drew on that, drew on the fact that his best friend had taken a life.
Because if someone had killed, if someone that bright and happy had killed, then he couldn't be a monster.
That did not stop him from crying a little in his sleep that night, when the eyes of the dead man came back to haunt him.
The first time they are captured together, really captured and tortured, Aragorn thought that they couldn't have gone through anything worse.
But after a good day of beating and hair pulling and burning, and they dump him back into his cell, and Legolas was waiting for him...
The elf had his back against a wall, and was watching him through half-lidded eyes that were rimmed with dried blood. His hair was matted and caked with dirt, his clothes torn, blood-stained rags on his limp frame. He reached out, gently, to stroke his friend's hair as Aragorn began to sob-small, choked cries that slipped unwillingly from his lips-and had crooned meaningless elvish words until Aragorn had pulled himself together enough to sit up, wipe his eyes, and face another endless night.
Sometimes they would go years without seeing each other.
Aragorn would hear snatches of information about his friend occasionally, but for the most part he lived in the wilds, following the Rangers, watching the hobbits, slipping from disguise to disguise, collecting new names. Elves left Middle Earth, battles were fought and lost, and life kept moving at a fast, relentless pace.
But when he was just waking up after making camp, his bones aching from a long night sleeping on the ground, and saw a familiar flash of green, heard the hum of a bow-
An arrow slammed into the tree trunk right behind his head, and Aragorn burst out laughing. "Legolas!"
The prince dropped from the trees, grinning. "Did I wake you?"
And when Aragorn pulled his friend into an embrace, their years apart faded away, vanished in the back of his mind because Legolas was here.
And he always would be.
It had been Legolas who he had gone to after Gandalf died.
He found the elf away from the other, his face turned up towards the moonlight, eyes closed, listening to the soft melody that the other elves sang for their friend. He was not crying, but there was such grief in his serene expression that Aragorn swallowed back his own tears when he approached and whispered, "Las?"
Legolas did not look at him. "Estel."
There was so much emotion in his childhood name-fear and sadness and love and a hint of something, anger?
Aragorn did not know what to say. Gandalf had been dear to all of them, he knew, but Legolas had known the wizard for many years, before Aragorn was even born, and the loss cut deep. So he sat down beside his friend, and waited.
Legolas did not speak for a long time. He remained as still as stone, his slightly ragged breaths the only indication of his pain. Eventually, he whispered, "what are we going to do, Estel?"
Aragorn smiled, then. "What do you think, mellon nin? We are certainly not going to give up."
The elf turned to look at him, eyes reproachful. "I am not a child, Aragorn." the use of his true name stung with anger. "I do not-"
"Hush." Aragorn admonished, raising a hand. "No one knows better than I, Las. Trust me. But you know," he said, and slung an arm around his friend's shoulders, squeezing gently. "sometimes you need to remember the meaning of my name."
The elf smiled, just the smallest twist of his lips and threw his head back, breathing deeply. "Estel."
"Estel," Aragorn agreed, and rubbed the elf's shoulder, a comforting gesture. "Exactly."
After the battle at Helm's Deep, Aragorn found Legolas out in the night, staring out into the broken wasteland of their battle, his hood pulled up, casting his visage in shadow, his bow slung across his back, arms crossed. He was so still, but Aragorn could tell from the rigid tension of the elf's shoulders that he was aware he was being watched. He did not turn, though, not even when Aragorn drew level with him, and said, softly in Elvish, "You are not inside?"
The elf made a disgusted sound, a low growl in the back of his throat. "Those men are celebrating with their ale and their food and their shouting and singing...they are too wild. I needed...something. Something that was not that, I needed-"
His voice faltered, and Aragorn could see him fighting back the tears, saw how his hands clenched into fists, the rigid tightness of his muscles. "So many dead, Estel," he whispered. "And they were children. All of them. Young, innocent, children."
Aragorn's own throat burned at that, and he nodded. Because to the elf, and even to him, those men had been young. "I know," he whispered.
Legolas shook his head, slowly. The rim of his hood slipped back, revealing his features washed by moonlight, the tapered tips of his ears. When Aragorn had been young he had longed for an elf's delicate features, and his brother's had laughed at him. He did not want them now, but he never failed to find the elf's fine features any less beautiful. Now, though, Legolas looked almost like a stranger, with his face hardened by anger and grief, his cat eyes narrowed to slits. "What has happened to the world?" the words were a whisper, meant more for the elf's sake than his, but Aragorn responded anyway.
They endured the breaking of the world together.
Fighting side by side, through battles and turmoil and armies of the dead and danger and blood, Legolas had been with him through it all.
So at his coronation, when he drew level with his friend, clasped his shoulder, he really didn't know what to say. Years of friendship, months of hardship and torture, a childhood full of memories-archery and hunting lessons, swims in the river and months spent under the stars-a lifetime with his best friend.
Legolas looked at him, smiled, proud and regal, the same laugh lingering on his face that he had given when Estel had asked him if it were possible to become an elf.
So Aragorn squeezed his friend's shoulder and whispered, "hannon le."
And those two words said it all.
Legolas was there when his children were born.
He sat outside Arwen's chambers with Aragorn while the man paced, laughing at his friend's anxiety. "She'll be fine," he soothed when Aragorn threw his hands up in frustration for the hundredth time. "you will have strong, healthy children, and I will teach them the same elvish curse words I taught you."
Aragorn snarled out a wordless response, and Legolas laughed, the high, sweet sound drowning out Arwen's cries of pain for a moment.
Aragorn did laugh, though, when Eldarion's first sentence was, "you smell like an orc."
When his duties prevented it, Aragorn would flee Gondor to Legolas, find the elf waiting for him, with two horses saddled and ready to ride, and they would gallop away from the city into the woods, just the two of them. Laughing like boys.
And even when Aragorn was older, and his bones ached and he did not want to run, Legolas would come to him, throw snow in his hair, tease him about being tired and coax him outside for a stroll in the woods.
And they would always return covered with melting ice and snow, and Farmier and Arwen would only shake their heads and laugh.
Some things never really changed.
He should have noticed the sea-longing.
Perhaps it was because he did not want to admit that Legolas could ever think of leaving him that he ignored it for so long.
But when he found Legolas weeping in his office, his head in his hands, voice dripping with anguish, he wondered how he could have ever put his best friend through something so painful.
Gimli had tried to help, but Legolas was inconsolable. He stared out the window with hollow eyes, lips parted, head cocked as if listening to a long-forgotten, enchanting song.
Aragorn had told him that he could leave, gave him permission to go, but the elf had refused.
They had endured hell together-torture and battle and fire-but this newest challenge seared into Aragorn's heart like the lash of a whip. Because Legolas was suffering from something he could not control, and was subjecting himself to it for Aragorn's sake.
The elf had laughed when he told him this. "Oh, my dear Estel," he had said, and brushed a hand across Aragorn's cheek. "I will sail, someday. But not while you still live in Middle Earth. I do not want to go the Undying Land...not that way."
So Aragorn had let him stay, even though his best friend was a shell of his former self, half his soul already across the sea, circling with the gulls.
He remembered being young.
Remembered years upon years of memories-laughing through the woods, the sting of arrows in his flesh, the sweet trill of Legolas's laugh, the comforting scent of leather and sweat and steel, the feel of a horse in between his legs, body rippling with power as they galloped, he remembered blood soaking his boots, tears staining his cheeks, warm arms coming around him-he remembered what it felt like to live.
Breathing was difficult now, and his chest burned with the effort. Arwen smoothed the hair back from his forehead-her hand cool and familiar, comforting. "He is here," she murmured in his ear, voice soft and laced through with tears. "I will...leave you alone, if you wish."
His eyes flickered, opening briefly. He wanted to see her smile. "Hannon le," he breathed, the words aching like fire against his parched lips. He squeezed her fingers, and watched her lips twitch up, for him.
He felt Legolas before he saw him. The elf moved like a cat-soundless-but Aragorn could hear the soft rasp of his friend's breaths, the familiar soothing balm of his presence, and reached out a hand.
Legolas's fingers pressed against his, and Aragorn forced his eyes open.
The elf was sitting at his shoulder, exactly the same as he had been when they had first met-long golden hair, and unlined face, mournful eyes, his lips pressed into a tight line.
"Las," Aragorn breathed. "You came."
"Foolish human," the elf whispered, and squeezed his fingers. "of course I came."
Aragorn allowed his eyes to slip closed. too tired to keep them open, and whispered, "It's been a long time, hasn't it?"
He could feel the elf laughing-vibrating with silent, bittersweet mirth. His voice was choked, "yes. Over eighty years, I think."
"hmm," Aragorn murmured, and turned his head in his friend's direction. He remembered all the times he had heard that laugh-in forest's and dungeons and on battlefields. Legolas's laugh had it's own music, he had told Arwen once. He was glad he could hear it now. "Hannon le," he whispered.
Legolas's hand brushed his cheek, in a gesture he had often done when Aragorn had been Estel, and drifting off to sleep. "No, Estel. Hannon le," the words were so soft he barely heard them. "Hannon le, mellon nin."
Aragorn squeezed his friend's finger, whispering words with the gesture he could not bear to say out loud.
Legolas returned the pressure, gently. Aragorn heard him sob.
They remained like that until the fire died down into embers and ashes, and Aragorn let himself sleep, with Arwen stroking his hair and Legolas crooning an Elvish lullaby in his ear.
Their friendship was burning embers and fading ashes.
It had been slow and enduring, wild and dangerous, thoughtful and thoughtless, pure and sweet and childlike. Legolas was a part of him, a friend, a brother he could never lose.
And now that their ashes were fading, now that they were both leaving Middle Earth, he thought of that first memory, of Legolas with his head thrown back, laughing and laughing and laughing...
Legolas had told him once that they would not meet again, not until all the ages of the world had passed, and he did not have the faintest idea of when that would be.
But this was Legolas. And their friendship had endured for over eighty years, through fire and death and pain, and loss.
Someone wanted to separate them?
Let them try.