Author's Note: *I wrote this to commemorate the Lure's #50,000 hit. Amazingly, I had seven visitors log on at the same time! They're from all over the world and I think that's fantastic. So this story is dedicated with much thanks to Ishtariel, Nilanna, Leail, EmeraldSpike, the anonymous computer nerd, Olga, and Rawly. Thanks so much, guys. You're the best!
Lothlorien was supposed to have been the light to lift their spirits. After Gandalf fell, Aragorn, who had tried so hard for so long to have nothing further to do with determining the fates of others, found himself a leader once again. Forced to decide, Lothlorien had been his choice. It was where he thought Gandalf would have taken them.
It seemed an important destination. The shadows of Moria had insinuated their way into the heart of the Fellowship. In the light of the Golden Wood, Aragorn had hoped the Fellowship might be cleansed of that evil taint. In Lothlorien, they could find succor. There, they might heal.
It was a healing badly needed. For some, it was imperative. Something snapped deep inside of Aragorn when he realized that Legolas, the reflection of the stars themselves, had dimmed ever so fractionally as if a shadow had passed before the face of the sun.
It frightened Aragorn. He would not allow it. Not Legolas. Aragorn considered the Elf to be the magical soul of the Fellowship. The Man knew his reasons were dangerously personal but he did not care. Whatever was required to heal the Elf, Aragorn would do it. He was determined not to lose the Elf to heartache.
So he had brought them to Lothlorien. Now, in the Lady's care, the members of the Fellowship lay in exhausted slumber. Beside them, protective though he need not be in this place, Aragorn looked up at the magnificence of trees. He listened to his fellows' breathing. The sound was a soft counterplay to the lyrical Elven voices that had not stopped singing since the Fellowship's arrival.
"They sing of our grief," Legolas had replied earlier to Sam's inquiry. "To the Elves, our pain is a torch too recently lit. They sing to soften its glare."
Legolas had explained this with gentle patience, as serene and ethereal as always. But reflecting upon the Elf's words, disquiet stirred Aragorn's mind. If the Fellowship's grief was so distressing to the Elves of Lothlorien, would it not be doubly so for an Elf who had actually experienced it?
It was as if his suspicions were needling. Beside him, the Elf in question rose gracefully to his feet.
"Legolas," Aragorn said, rising to an elbow, "can you not find rest?"
The Elf looked down at him, his momentary surprise swiftly covered by a calm affection. "Do not concern yourself, Aragorn. The wonder of this place calls to me. I would like to discover more of it while the time is afforded me."
Aragorn started to remove the blanket under which he lay. "You are an Elf. I know you feel Gandalf's passing more keenly than the rest of us. Let me join you. Let me help to lift your spirits."
Legolas tilted his head, studying the Man as if a note in his voice had caught attention. Then the Elf smiled and his curiosity vanished. "Nay, Aragorn. Though your offer is well-meant, it is unnecessary. Let me take this walk unattended. You need not heal what has not been wounded."
On swift feet he was gone, the verdant grass scarcely marking his passing.
Aragorn lay back, an odd sort of disappointment heavy in his chest. Legolas did not confide in him. It hurt, more than Aragorn cared to admit to himself. Why should he care so fervently that the Elf trust him? Did he seek Legolas' approval as the new leader of their group?
Nay, not approval. Something else, indefinable.
Aragorn ground his eyes with the heels of his hands. He would not find sleep this way. With an exasperated sigh, he rolled out of his blankets and stood, looking after the path Legolas had used. Gandalf's loss had taken its toll on them all. If the Elf was too proud to admit it, the Man was not.
He walked carefully, feeling as though every step taken was a trespass on Legolas' privacy. The further he walked with no sign of the Elf, the greater Aragorn's doubts. If Legolas did not want to be found, why pursue him?
Two voices rose lightly above the Elven singing.
Aragorn paused, trying to locate the direction from whence they came. He moved silently between the trees until he neared enough to discern words and speakers.
"I sense the hurt you carry. It runs deep, fair cousin."
Aragorn recognized the voice as Haldir's, the watch captain who had met them upon entering Lothlorien. The Elf continued speaking in a hushed voice. "You grieve. You should know you cannot hide it from me."
"I did not come here seeking company," Legolas answered quietly.
Haldir laughed gently. "You should not have to, my Northern Prince. Others will seek you often enough. You are uncommonly fair."
A peculiar, soft sound then, like the first bite into an overripe fruit. Uncomprehending, Aragorn dared to peek his head around the tree behind which he stood. Heat suffused his face at what he saw. Haldir held Legolas, slanting his lips tenderly over the younger Elf's. Legolas' hands hung uncurled by his sides but as the kiss continued, they lifted to settle hesitantly upon the other Elf's shoulders.
"Let me heal you," Haldir murmured. He stroked the other's long pale hair. "Let me raise your spirits."
The mimickry of his own rejected offer brought a frown to Aragorn's face. It deepened when he heard Legolas' reluctant response. "If you can..."
He watched, silent, as the Elves came together with a fluidity that was breathtaking. He had never seen anything so beautiful. The two Elves curled around each other like strands of living silver. Aragorn watched them unashamedly, a fire burning low in his body. He had not truly seen the beauty of Legolas until this moment and now, watching the fair Elf being stroked and caressed until brought to the brink of trembling release, Aragorn feared he may be lost to the grip of obsession.
Shaken, Aragorn slid down the side of the tree, out of sight of the two Elves as they lay in peaceful recovery.
"My lovely Legolas..."
"I am grateful."
Aragorn wanted to clench his eyes shut as their murmured voices drifted over him. Legolas' pain was *his* responsiblity. Instead, he forced his eyes to remain open, staring up at leaf and limb as he listened to them breathing.
"Help me..." Legolas whispered brokenly. So much grief was in the spoken words that Aragorn wanted to tear his ears from his head.
*You need not heal what has not been wounded.*
It was the greatest falsehood he had ever heard.
The Great River moved slowly beneath them like a golden-scaled snake. It's curves took them far from Lothlorien until they no longer looked back for its light. Aragorn paddled purposefully. He wanted to be away from the Elven shores and what he had discovered there. It was as if another hue had been added to the rainbow of his world. Nothing was as it had been, or ever would be, again.
"You are thoughtful," Frodo commented quietly. Since their rest in Lothlorien, the Hobbit had changed. The innocence in the large blue eyes was gone, replaced by a resignation that bothered Aragorn. "Tell me what is on your mind."
Aragorn paddled smoothly, forcing himself to concentrate on the crisp bite of his paddle into the water, and not on the sun-lit vision that was Legolas in the nearer boat. "'Tis nothing, brave Hobbit. I share the same concerns that we all carry. That *you* carry, most of all."
Frodo twisted upon his seat, looking back at Aragorn with a conspicuous lack of emotion upon his wide face. "My burden is as much as yours as it is mine. You have pledged your life to the ring's safekeeping. I wish that it were not so. That none of you were forced to be here, fighting its temptation."
Aragorn's stroke faltered. "Temptation," he repeated carefully.
Frodo clutched at his shirt under which the links of his necklace disappeared. "The ring calls to each of us, tempting us with our hearts' desires." He frowned slightly, the blue eyes losing focus. "Do you not hear it, Strider?"
He did. Since Lothlorien, it was all Aragorn heard when he shut his eyes. The promise of his heart's desire. The promise of pale hair spread beneath him, eyes of blue gazing up at him with a love he could not place there on his own. Yes, he heard all too well.
"I will not let anyone succumb to its call," he assured the Hobbit, laying a hand briefly upon the slight shoulder. "Do not worry on that account. That burden is mine alone to carry."
Frodo's expression reflected little belief in Aragorn's words. The unexpected lack of faith settled heavily in the Man's soul.
"Look ahead!" Gimli called back.
The great stone statues of the Argonath towered above them. A lump formed in Aragorn's throat as he looked up at the Men to whom he should be modelled. Admiring their massive, carved strength, he felt anything but heroic, anything but powerful.
A splash of water to Aragorn's left gave away Legolas as he drew his boat alongside. Wary, Aragorn met the Elf's knowing eyes. "The blood of great Men flows in your veins," Legolas told him. "Though you may not believe it, I for one am grateful for your presence. You will guide us wisely as befits your heritage."
"How can you be so certain?" Aragorn replied, meeting the Elf's gaze though it took every shred of his will. "If we fail, the land falls to Sauron. It is a responsibility that may be beyond us. Beyond me."
Understanding crossed the Elf's face. Of them all, Legolas alone knew what Aragorn felt. "You will not fail us, Aragorn. And we will not fall despite your fears. The Fellowship will succeed and all will be set right in the land."
But in the Elf's words hung a hesitance and Aragorn heard it. Legolas was afraid. The loss of Gandalf had scarred him in a way none but Aragorn, familiar with the ways of Elves, could comprehend. An Elf could perish of heartache. The Man wondered how much it would take. How much further Legolas needed to be pushed...
For Legolas' sake, he nodded, feigning a bravery he did not feel. He allowed the Elf's words to settle in his mind, trying to draw courage from them. *We will not fall. The Fellowship will succeed...*
But the words would later haunt them. Little could Aragorn foresee that in a few short hours the Fellowship would be broken and Boromir would lay dying upon the ground. He would look up to find Legolas' eyes upon Boromir and Aragorn would lose his breath. For any starlight that had remained in the Elf would be gone, banished by a consuming sorrow that Aragorn would have no words to ease.
"You cannot protect us all," Legolas had said. "In the end, we are each responsible for the fate that befalls us."
They had meant to be words of comfort, spoken as they watched the boat carrying Boromir slide over the lip of the Rouros falls. Legolas knew how heavily weighed the burden of the Fellowship upon Aragorn's shoulders. The Elf had looked into his eyes and said, "One day, each of us will pass, Aragorn. It will not be through any fault of yours. Your fate is not bound to anyone's but your own."
But Legolas was wrong. In that crystalline moment, staring into the Elven blue eyes dulled by grief and hardship, Aragorn realized that what had seemed true and important in his life before then no longer was, and that what he did possess, he must protect from harm with his dying breath.
Perceptive beyond measure, the Elf had read Aragorn's face in an instant. "You invite more than you know if you take this course," he had warned soberly. "We follow a path that may just as easily lead to heartbreak as fulfillment."
That Legolas had understood his need to protect and not rejected it outright was proof enough that Aragorn's decision was true. "Then let it be," he had replied. "I have walked long enough in shadow that I can see in the dark, Legolas. I will face what I must when the time comes."
That time was now.
Standing upon the Deeping Wall as arrows fell from the sky as thickly as did the rain, Aragorn felt that inadequacy again. Doom reverberated in the relentless orc drumming. Several thousand lives were at stake. It could have been a million.
Blinking through rain that sheeted against his face as though deliberately steered there by foul magic, Aragorn sought out the source of his heart's unease. As ever, Legolas was in the eye of the battle. Aragorn picked out his fair face regardless of the soaking rain that muddied and dulled them all. Always, Legolas was the light in the darkness. As much as Aragorn's heart clenched in a misery of anxious worry for the Elf, the sight of Legolas never failed to send the Man's spirits soaring.
But such relief did not last long amid the foulness of this place. Like insects swarming over fresh kill, the twisted creatures of Sauron's making threatened to overwhelm. Aragorn saw it with growing dread. He saw, most of all, that Legolas might eventually succumb.
He spared little thought for himself as he vaulted from his position on the wall. The dark legions had breached the fortifications and now spilt within. Rohirrim threw aside bow and arrow to lash out with bloodied swords. They were fellow Men, pledged to aid him, but Aragorn cared for none of them.
He became frantic with the need to join Legolas' side. He hacked a bloody path through the teeming bodies, catching painfully short glimpses of sodden pale hair. A sudden, keening cry full of anguish and anger raised the hairs on the back of his neck.
He pushed forward, knowing it was Legolas' voice he had heard. And when he saw his beloved Elf, everything he had known of beauty seemed but a memory. Blackened with foul blood, Legolas was no longer the light. His pale, shining blades were but shadows of themselves.
Aragorn watched with growing pain as the Elf sliced and stabbed at flailing bodies. With every foe brought down, Legolas let out a strangled, animal-like sob.
"Legolas!" Aragorn shouted, needing to reaffirm that this was his friend, his heart's secret affection, who had become the reluctant messenger of Death.
Blue eyes found him through the rain. The despair and horror that filmed the Elf's gaze made the earth drop from beneath Aragorn's feet. Had he not been engaged in defense of his life, the Man would have bent to the ground and retched.
The Hornburg was still the possession of Men. The wretched forces of Sauron had been swallowed up by the darkness of a mysterious forest. It was over.
Aragorn ached from a score of cuts. He winced at the pull of over-taxed muscles. Yet all of these were minor pains compared to the gaping wounds to his heart.
After much questioning, he was directed into the gorge. To the Deeping Stream he made his way. Beneath the ghostly light of the moon, stood Legolas, knee-deep in the water and scrubbing at his body as though he sought to scour his very bones. Legolas was unclothed, but Aragorn was too distracted by the Elf's desperation to admire the view presented to him. Odd whimpers escaped the Elf's lips. The sound sickened Aragorn.
The former Ranger strode swiftly through the water, uncaring of Legolas' sudden jump of startlement. Facing him now, Aragorn could see that more than battle stained his friend. Grief had laid claim to the once-peaceful features.
"Aragorn," Legolas whispered, clasping hands to his shivering arms. "Leave me. I am unclean."
"Never speak those words to me again," Aragorn growled. Though he had never before been rough with Legolas, his anger over all that had occured this night left his touch ungentle as he grabbed the Elf's arms.
Flush against his chest, Aragorn could see that Legolas' milky skin was red and raw from his scrubbing. The eyes that tried to avoid his looked like purple bruises within Legolas' face. A fierce scream of denial rose up in Aragorn's soul. It lodged itself in his throat.
Instead of giving voice to his anguish, Aragorn kissed Legolas. His lips covered the startled flesh and sought to infuse strength where strength had fled. Legolas groaned against him, pushing at his shoulders as if ashamed to be touched. But Aragorn did not think him dirty.
"I have watched you fade like the stars at dawn," Aragorn breathed harshly, kissing his way down the arch of pale throat. "With every step the Fellowship has taken, you have borne more than your share of it's grief and misery." He closed his teeth about a rosy nipple, refusing to let go as slender fingers clenched in his hair. "I will not allow it to continue. You will not fade from me, Legolas. *You will not*."
Down the stiff, trembling body he went, dragging lips and tongue over the beloved flesh laid bare before him. Legolas no longer fought him. The Elf held Aragorn's head helplessly as the Man knelt in the water and took Legolas into his mouth.
Legolas cried out, a different sound from what he had voiced earlier. It was a cry of surrender, of need. Aragorn swallowed him deep, tasting an ancient, oceanic saltiness that hinted of seas yet crossed. He licked and sucked the stiff flesh between his lips. His fingers caressed and stroked the sensitive skin between ivory thighs.
"What are you doing?" Legolas panted. "Aragorn, why do you do this?"
Aragorn could not voice his intentions. He knew only that he wanted to save Legolas and did not know how to except in this way. The Elf had been subject to enough ugliness, enough atrocity. Perhaps in this way, Aragorn could show him beauty again.
Hungrily, he took the Elf deep into his mouth. Legolas quivered against him, the strong pale legs shaking in the water as he neared his peak. Without a lessening of his assault, Aragorn reached up and pinched a furled nipple. Legolas gasped and shuddered. The essence of the stars flowed into Aragorn's mouth.
Aragorn drank of it as he would the last flask of water in a dying land. When he had licked Legolas clean, he stood. Pale, slender arms crushed them together. Legolas tried to kiss him everywhere at once, as if afraid Aragorn would leave him. As if afraid this to be a dream that would soon dissolve.
"Why do you do this?" Legolas gasped against him, his fair face creased with confusion. He touched the sharp angle of the Man's jaw. "I do not understand."
Aragorn caught the beautiful face between his hands and stared hard at the Elf. "What use is there in winning the battle if we destroy everything we wish to come back to?"
He saw the moment awareness reached the blue eyes. Despite the darkness of the night, despite the shadows that yet lingered upon Legolas' brow, starlight glimmered faintly, stronger than it had in months.
"You love me," Legolas whispered. Awe made the light flare a little brighter.
"I do," Aragorn told him. He bent his head and kissed the Elf tenderly this time.
He loved Legolas. If Aragorn died in this conflict, he owed himself the luxury of the truth. It meant admitting what he had shared with Arwen no longer constituted love. It meant that no matter what, though it cost him future kingdom and future happiness, he would see that nothing dark would ever touch Legolas again.
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