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The next chapter in the story of Thranduil and Elara. I definitely recommend you read "In The Dark," "Anniversary," "MidSummer," "Sanctuary," and "The World Is Changing" first, in the order stated, to understand both the original characters and the situation.



"Good evening, Elara."

Elara lowered the material in her hands into her lap. "Good evening, Sire. I wasn't expecting you."

She could hear steps approaching, and the sound of furniture moving. No doubt Elessar was pulling his chair closer to hers. "I'm not surprised," Aragorn replied easily, already sitting down, from the sound of his voice. "Legolas' message said that you had refused to let him summon me before now, but that he was ready to suffer your displeasure after your latest incident. I'm glad he sent for me, however; because from the looks of things, you need..."

"It's good to have you here," she smiled, "if for no other reason than to have news of the outside world. But you needn't worry on my behalf - I'll be fine. You'd think Legolas would be used to the trials and tribulations enjoyed by mortals by now." She sighed to herself. Of course Legolas would have summoned Aragorn after her collapse in a hallway a week earlier, a collapse for which Gelinnas, his healer, could find no outward cause. It also should have been obvious that when Gelinnas wouldn't allow her out of bed for more than trips to the privy or the baths, she was being nursed and coddled until her official healer arrived.

Aragorn was silent for a moment. "I doubt he expected to see this particular malady from you, since it normally applies more to his own kind than ours. Besides, Elves are tender-hearted souls who tend to worry a great deal and summon healers at need," the King quipped, "especially when their charges fall senseless in the middle of a busy walkway."

Though he might be High King in Minas Anor, Elara never perceived Aragorn as anything than a healer when he came to Ithilien. He never treated her with anything but respect and courtesy, and never allowed her to treat him as anything more than just another member of Legolas' Elven household. His visits were infrequent as a rule, but once the formalities of letting him assess her condition as a healer were concluded, he would become the good friend.

"I suppose I shouldn't be surprised he'd send for you," Elara sighed gently and placed the slender metal needle into the fabric in such a way that it would be easy to find again and then topped it with her rawhide thimble. "I just think he worries too much about me when he has a realm to run."

Legolas, for all his light-heartedness and soft-spoken ways, was very much Thranduil's son. He had his father's slyly twisted sense of humor, Thranduil's dedication and loyalty to his lands and the Elves who called him "Lord," and, sadly, his father's ability to sink into almost inconsolable moods, especially when the sea-longing would take hold. The similarities between father and son had made the necessary move from Eryn Lasgalen a little easier, and wrenching at the same time. She had been grateful when Legolas had gladly taken her, grieving and blind, into his hall; and she knew he'd worked patiently to try to make her once more find reason to smile in a land far away from where she'd left her heart.

No doubt he was beginning to worry now, for his efforts had little effect in the five years she'd been in residence. Elara tended to remain silent and withdrawn more often than not, and she knew she was difficult to lure out to join the community at the evening meals without a direct invitation and determined escort. And while she had joined the circle of seamstresses and broideresses and worked diligently for the good of the realm, she rarely spoke to anyone beyond the necessary.

"Be reasonable. He takes his promise to his father to safeguard your welfare very seriously, as do I; and your collapse tells him he needs to give you more attention, not less." Aragorn's hand reached out for hers, as she expected - his fingers lingering on her pulse. "Tell me, now: how is your appetite?"

"I eat enough," she answered quickly. She had long since lost any interest in eating any more than absolutely necessary, and she knew she had probably lost weight since the last time Aragorn saw her.

"To barely keep you alive, you mean," was the wry response. "With all due respect, a stiff wind would blow you half-way to Rohan. I spoke to the cook in the kitchens, incidentally, so I know how much you are and aren't eating. Are you in pain?"

"No, Sire," she replied easily. "I tire walking back and forth from my apartment to the solar where the seamstresses meet of a day now, and lately I sometimes find it hard to catch my breath, but there is no pain."

"If you ate more, this would not be an issue; and I told you, Elara, my name is Aragorn. Save the formal title for when you come to visit Minas Tirith."

"It isn't right that a wood-gatherer's daughter should be on such an informal basis with the High King of..."

Aragorn snorted and shushed her protest brusquely. "You are no mere wood-gatherer's daughter, and haven't been since the day the Elves found you in that burned-out village, and you know it. Besides, if I ever treated you as if you were a common wood-gatherer's wife or daughter, I'd not only lose my refuge from the Gondorian court here but have the army of Eryn Lasgalen pounding at the gates of my City demanding satisfaction. My mother didn't raise me to be a fool."

Aragorn scooted his chair closer yet, and Elara flinched in surprise when his long fingers began seeking the place in her neck where her pulse could be sensed and then resting there for a long moment. "Have I ever told you what happened when I finally met with King Thranduil in Eryn Lasgalen after the war, not too long after you arrived here in Ithilien? He threatened to put my 'obscenely round' ears - as he called them - in a glass jar on his desk for endangering his son years ago on the Quest! I'm certain you remember what a loud voice he has when he gets angry..."

Elara snorted. That sounded very much like the Thranduil she knew and loved.

"I learned that day never to cross him or endanger anyone he cares about - and you..."

Elara shook her head. "Let's not discuss that, please" She leaned her head back and let that action hide her swallowing back tears that came all too easily nowadays.

Aragorn's gentle touch on her upper arm told her that he understood. "And yet, that's what this is all about, isn't it? When all is said and done, Elara, there's very little I can do to help the underlying causes of your affliction. I'm sorry."

"I know," she whispered, her eyes closed in an effort to rein in her emotions yet again. "It's not your fault."

It hurt to think of Thranduil more than once in a day. Five years she had been in Ithilien now, five long, lonesome, agonizing years had passed since leaving Eryn Lasgalen. But once safely removed to Ithilien, she discovered her situation had not improved at all, but gotten genuinely worse. She still listened futilely for Thranduil's deep voice to echo through the hall and waited for a soft brush against the back of her mind that told her he cared - a mental caress that, by mutual agreement, he no longer made so as not to injure her further. The lack of his physical presence, which would have otherwise balanced those insubstantial things she'd lost, proved corrosive, however; and gradually a hole opened in her heart that, unless something changed drastically, would eventually claim her life.

"Legolas fears you are finally fading, and I am going to have to tell him that he's correct."

"I know," Elara said again in a soft voice. She had already accepted this; it was taking those around her a little longer to understand, that was all. "Perhaps it's for the best, though." She brushed at the gentle hand, knocking it from its probing and testing. "Enough. There is little left in this world for me now."

"Don't be ridiculous. You're very young yet..."

She laughed, her voice brittle in her own ears. "To you, perhaps. But then, you're Dúnedain, with the blood of the Firstborn in you and more than thrice my age already. But the number of years I carry makes no difference. I know the seasons of my life are nearly spent now, and I think I'm glad of it."

"What do you expect me to tell Thranduil?"

She was quiet for a moment. "Tell him nothing. He needs no further worries to clutter his day."

Aragorn sighed, and she knew he would write anyway, despite her wishes. "There is a tea I want you to use..."

"Aragorn." Elara's voice was soft and serene and absolute. "No."

"Listen to me! It isn't a cure or even an attempt at one - you and I both know there is no cure for you that can come from a healer's pouch - but this draught will ease you when your heart labors too hard." Aragorn had her hand again, holding it tightly and putting all his considerable powers of persuasion to work. "Indulge your sovereign, please? Take the tea when you falter, and let it soothe you."

It was Elara's turn to sigh. "You're only prolonging the inevitable, you know."

"On the contrary, I'm soothing those hurts that I know can be addressed with medicine. Why suffer needlessly when ease is so readily available? If you are determined to fade, nothing will stop you. All this will do is to make things less painful in the meanwhile."

She sighed again. She should know better than to argue with him - with any King, for that matter. "You're impossible."

She could hear Aragorn breathe out a heavy sigh of relief. "As if you are any less impossible yourself. You and Thranduil must have made quite the pair, I'm sorry I missed it. Here." He took one hand, turned it over and put a small, linen pouch in it. "Keep this with you. I'll give instructions to Gelinnas for making more. Steep the contents of this pouch for three minutes in a mug of boiling water, then add cold water until you can finish the whole thing quickly. Expect to sleep for a few hours, and awaken without pain."

Elara nodded. Legolas' healer would make certain she was kept well-stocked with this newest medicine, whether she wanted it or not. "So. Are you finished with the poking and prodding now?"

She felt Aragorn back off a bit, then heard him chuckle again. "And they say healers make the worst patients. Yes, I'm finished."

"Good." Elara smiled again and leaned forward in his direction to feel for and then grasp his hand in her empty one. "Now you can tell me all your news. Tell me about little Eldarion. He must be getting so big now! And what news of the hobbits? Are Arwen and the baby with you this time?"

These were things that she knew Aragorn would speak about freely and gladly, and were the best way to move past this necessary fussing to get to the kind of chatter that would take her mind off of the dull ache in her chest that simply didn't want to go away anymore. With any luck at all, she wouldn't need his herbs too often before the end. But in the meanwhile, she would enjoy her visit with her friend.

oOoOo

The sweetness of Spring progressed smoothly into the warm stillness of Summer, past a quiet MidSummer celebration spent sitting contentedly alone in a private garden rather than at the edge of a crowd of dancing Elves that reminded her a little too much of dancing in another wood far to the north, and then moved into the growing chill of Autumn.

The late Autumn morning had dawned with the oppressive warmth of a left-over Summer day, and Elara decided to spend the day outside. Now that she could no longer walk the corridors to join the sewing circle, her work had been brought to her room and then reclaimed in the evening; and after several very chilly days, it would be pleasant to spend her time sewing with the warmth of the sun on her face. She donned a knitted shawl that would keep her warm should the breeze rise, gathered her day's work and shuffled through the door and out onto the flagstones of the private garden she shared with Legolas himself.

There was a grand old oak tree on the very edge of the garden that abutted Elara's apartment, and Elara slowly made her way around the boundary of the garden to it, following and leaning hard on the low rail Legolas had installed to help guide her steps. She carefully laid the pile of sewing materials on the ground at her feet, then unfolded the thin blanket she had retrieved from the chest at the foot of her bed and shook it out, letting it fall to the ground as it would. Then she sank to her knees onto it, felt around until she had her sewing work gathered into her lap, and then let her back rest against the sturdy trunk with a tired sigh. This walk was almost beyond her now too; another small joy to let go of as she stepped back from life. She would enjoy her time in the garden today all the more for it being her last time, she decided.

Only here, leaning against this particular tree, could she sense that subtle pulsing that had been so easily felt in the Greenwood. Legolas, as his father had done before him on a MidSummer's day years earlier, had tried to introduce her to the trees of Ithilien; but only this one oak continued to speak to her when she was alone. Since then, the friendly oak had become her refuge within a refuge. She came here now on warmer days to sew, to dream, to remember, to grieve and weep, and to rest a mind weary of the trivial banter that only loosely concerned her.

The oak comforted her as best it could, its voice almost too soft to be heard clearly, but its intentions and sympathy made a seat at its base a favorite place for a displaced and heart-sick mortal. She'd already decided that when the time came, this would be where she would ask Legolas to let her body rest until the breaking of the world, the one place most like where she'd left her heart. Knowing she would return here eventually helped make the thought of not returning here again on her own power a bit less painful.

As she relaxed and let the sounds of the garden soothe her to the extent that they could, she could hear the distant sound of excitement that normally accompanied the arrival of a visitor to the hall. Elara had heard nothing from either Gelinnas or Legolas of anyone being expected, so she sighed and let go of the thought. Whoever it was would be of no concern of hers, and it was easy enough nowadays to stay in her apartment and avoid any and all guests entirely. Strangely enough, the tree against which she leaned seemed to stir slightly as well, although not enough to keep her from slipping into a light doze. It was so easy to fall sleep while sewing nowadays, and so much more peaceful to stay that way. Perhaps one day she'd fall asleep and never wake up again - but in the meanwhile, she'd enjoy the dreams.

The dream that took her this warm day was her favorite. Her nose filled with the scent of warm forest and sweet, fresh-cut grass, and she seemed to move from the darkness of sleep to hear the steady thrumming of a heartbeat in her ear. Then it was as if she was back in the depths of the Elvenking's hall, in a chair in front of a crackling fire on a cold, stormy winter night, snuggled comfortably into Thranduil's warm arms. She had relived that precious moment of time wherein she and her Elven lord had laid their hearts open to the other many, many times since that night, each time coming away from the memory both comforted and grieving.

It was odd, however, for her to have such dreams on warm autumn afternoons.

Still, she wasn't above making the most of it, for the dreams about that defining moment in her life rarely lasted much longer than the actual moment in time had lasted in reality, and she hadn't dreamed this dream for well over a year. She drew in a deep breath of that much-loved scent that even after five years still meant security and caring and then let it go in a sigh of contentment. "Thranduil," she murmured very softly, speaking to her dream. "You haven't visited me like this for a long time."

The arms that held her stiffened for a moment and then pulled her just a little closer. "Oh, Elara nîn!" replied a deep voice that she only barely remembered while awake and yet thrilled to hear in her dreams, "I came as soon as I could." The regret and sadness in that rich voice shimmered like a jewel spinning in the air.

Elara shook her head against the soft suede of his tunic - wait, didn't he normally wear a velvet robe and silken sleeping shirt in the dream, just as he had that night? "Don't worry," she mumbled, deciding not to worry about dream trivialities. She took in another deep breath of the beloved scent and settled a bit more comfortably against the solid chest. "Now let's just get on with the dream, shall we? You know this is the only thing that comforts me anymore."

"My poor gift! I have been such an inadequate steward for you," the deep voice grieved over her, still refusing to follow known and expected paths of conversation. "I promised to share the seasons of your life; and instead, I squandered our precious time together. Look at you - you're barely more than a shadow!"

"You didn't say anything like that back then," Elara grumbled and shifted slightly against the restraining arms in frustration, swatting lightly at the oddly-garbed chest. "Stop it. This is supposed to be my favorite memory."

"I am no memory, no dream, Elara. I'm real. Awaken now," the deep voice called to her.

"I don't want to," she complained, snuggling tighter to her dream-Thranduil's chest as if it would protect her. "When I am awake, I'm always alone. I don't want to be alone anymore."

"No longer, my gift. Awaken. I'm here. You're not alone." The arms that held her shook her gently.

Elara frowned, rousing slightly. This wasn't the way her comfortable last day beneath her oak was supposed to go. Already she felt bereft, denied the one dream she craved above all others. "Hmmm?"

Elara nîn. Awaken, please. The deep mental voice resonated clearly in the corners of her mind that had for too long been silent.

That definitely didn't belong to any familiar dream, and she once more tried to stir - only to find herself restrained in fact. It took waking up a little further to realize that she really was being held by someone, and held tightly. "What?" she whimpered, pulling her arms to her body defensively and then pushing against the one who held her. "Who... Let me go..."

"Hush, you are safe." Lips trailed across her forehead as they had once so long ago. "It is I, Elara. I'm here."

"Thran... Thranduil?" She breathed in again, and the scent of warm forest and fresh-cut grass still hung close in the air, although now accompanied by what she suspected was the scent of sweaty horse and plenty of dust. It seemed impossible, but the intrusion of scents that normally didn't belong to her dream began to convince her that she truly wasn't dreaming. "You're really here? This isn't..." Then she was in motion, turning swiftly in his embrace and throwing her arms around his neck and holding on tightly, not caring in the least that she wasn't supposed to do this. "Thranduil!"

"Elara!" he sighed and breathed out a sigh of relief as he clasped her tightly to him in return, his face buried in her neck.

She wasn't listening to anything except the rich timbre of the deep voice she had thought never to hear again except in dreams, and she sobbed at the thought that this might be nothing more than the consequence of too much sun. Suddenly it was overwhelming, and the dull ache in her chest blossomed into white-hot agony. Elara let out a strangled cry and fell back, hands clutching at her chest, struggling to breathe.

Thranduil heaved beneath her, catching her up in his arms with a cry of his own that turned into an agonized bellow for his son as he ran with Elara toward the hall. She heard Legolas try to soothe his father as he rushed past him into the still and somewhat cooler air of an apartment that hadn't quite warmed yet in the unseasonable weather. "I had Gelinnas prepare for this possibility the moment I heard you had arrived. There is a draught ready for her that should give her ease. This has happened before. Sit down, Father - no, it's better if you hold her sitting upright for now. It helps her to breathe. I'll fetch the draught for you."

For once, Elara was grateful for the dreadful-tasting concoction that Aragorn prescribed for her. Thranduil settled her once more into his lap, held the mug to her lips until she'd swallowed the entire contents, and then cradled her head against his shoulder with a long-fingered hand, alternately murmuring reassurances to her and berating himself for something she didn't quite understand. She knew that the draught made her sleepy rather quickly, but fought it. "S..s..sorry," she managed finally. "N..no way t..to greet..."

"Don't try to talk," the King hushed at her. "Rest. We'll talk later, when you feel better."

With no energy to do otherwise, Elara relaxed into an embrace she'd believed she'd never know again - her grip on the soft suede of his tunic her one concession to her fear that this truly was nothing more than a dream. What was he doing here? Why had he come? Did it matter? He was here, and he was holding her as he had that night. As the expected slumber began to numb her mind, she stirred. "D...don't leave..." she whispered.

"I will be here when you awaken, I promise," he reassured her. "Sleep now."

oOoOo

It was like reliving the dream, coming up through the black and dreamless slumber to the warmth and security of arms about her and the steady pulsing of an immortal heart in her ear. This time, however, there was the rumble of voices speaking congenially about trees and the health of the land; one deep and rich and resonating against her ear, the other a softer baritone a short distance away. Both voices were familiar to her, but she loved the former so much, it hurt. She stirred, reaching up and wrapping her fingers tightly around the collar of a soft suede tunic to convince herself once more that he was really there and not a construct of her imagination.

"I think she's waking at last," Legolas said, his voice lowered, "and I imagine you will want some time alone with her. At dusk I will have a light supper sent up for her, and a helping from the bounty of our hall prepared for you as well."

"Many thanks. I will also want a bath eventually, before Elara tells me I stink of horse and dusty road or you have me heaved out of your hall as a health hazard," Thranduil replied, and Elara felt his hand leave its resting place at her waist to cover her hand where it clung to him and hold it in place gently. "Where are the baths from here?"

"I will have water put to heat. You need only speak to one of the servants, and they will direct you to your room and see to your needs. Do you have more than just the two bundles here that I need take to your chamber?"

"Nay. I have no intentions of attending court or playing King while I'm here, so I brought only as much as I could comfortably carry. My sole concern was to get here before..." His hand tightened around Elara's.

Legolas' voice held an ocean of sympathy. "I understand completely, Father. I shall see you later, perhaps?"

"Tomorrow, more likely. It has been a long journey, and I am more fatigued than I expected. I have not been that long on horseback in more than an Age." Thranduil sounded more than a little chagrined. "I am frankly amazed my legs still work and support me when I stand."

Legolas gave a low chuckle. "I shall bid you good day and night, then. May you both find peace in your reunion, for I fear you look almost in as much need of her company as I know she is of yours, Father."

"You have no idea." Thranduil's voice thickened from what must have been strong emotions. "Thank you, my son - for everything."

There was a soft click from the direction of the door that told her that Legolas had left the room. Thranduil ran a very gentle finger down her cheek. "Welcome back to the waking world. How do you feel?"

"As if I had labored all day in the sun," Elara admitted with a rueful smile. "But better." She breathed in his scent. "I'm still not entirely sure I'm not dreaming you here, however. How... Why?"

His long fingers teased back the tendrils of hair that framed her face. "Aragorn wrote to warn me you were becoming quite fragile, and that he could do little for you. Legolas' message, which arrived the same day, by the way, was far more blunt. He told me you were fading quickly now in a despair that had only grown worse in your time here, and that if I ever wanted to see you alive again, I had best make my way to Ithilien soon."

Elara wondered that he seemed unable to keep from touching her, running his fingers over her face over and over again as if memorizing it by touch as well as by sight. "You were supposed come here to heal, my gift, not fade away and die," he chided her sadly. "Had I known this was the state you would be in after such a short time here, I would never have allowed you to leave Eryn Lasgalen in the first place."

"We agreed..." she began, her voice thick with emotions that she dared not voice.

"Yes, we did," Thranduil admitted. "However, the fact remains that I sent you here to protect you from that which was making you fade, not to make you fade faster."

"I would have faded in your hall too, Thranduil," Elara reminded him gently, "and that was the point. You made me promise..."

"Don't speak to me of the promises I made us both make," he growled and suddenly pulled her very close into his arms. "They were cruel and extreme, and bitter medicine, even for me. To think I have almost killed you..." His voice filled with horror.

"This is not your doing, but mine," she shook her head against his shoulder. "I had no idea that leaving you would be so much worse than staying and having you out of reach." She moved her arms to hold him back a little and rested her cheek against the dusty suede, choosing to let go of the grief of separation in favor of fully enjoying the fleeting moment of togetherness. Surely it wouldn't last long. "To think I get one more of our never-to-happen-again moments is a miracle and comfort to me. It will make my last days..."

His hold on her tightened almost to the point of being painful. "Speak not of that. You will not fade. I won't allow it."

Elara shook her head. "I don't know that I can stop it now," she told him gently. "My life has little meaning anymore. I have no reason to continue and haven't for several years now. Best that I let go; perhaps I will find more happiness past the circles of the world. It is a comfort that I at least get the opportunity to farewell the one I love best."

"This is wrong," Thranduil's voice broke as he loosened his hold on her. "I should never have set us so far apart, my gift. Obliging us both to ignore what was in our hearts was to demand a step too far. It did not have to be that way, I know this now. It does not have to be that way any longer. Please..."

"Thranduil." Elara reached up a hand and her fingertips ghosted over the soft, warm skin of his cheek. "My doom was sealed the moment I admitted to myself and you that I had fallen in love with you. Although I knew better, I would always want that which I would be denied." Her arm grew too heavy to hold up, and it fell back into her lap. "I still know better, and even now find myself unable to stop wanting what rightfully belongs to Lalaith."

"Can you not at least try to stay, for me?" he asked in a small voice, telling Elara how upset he really was. "Can we not work together to find a middle ground where I can give you as much as I can and accept your giving me as much as can be allowed, so that you can find some joy in life again and remain in this world for your full allotment of days?"

"I will always want more than you will be willing to give me," she sighed, wishing she could make him understand the depth of her pain. "I will always want you. That will never change."

"You can have me, in all ways save the one that belongs to Lalaith alone," Thranduil insisted, his distress mounting. "I will no longer compel you to hold your peace about your emotions, nor will I remain silent any longer about mine for you. I will not oblige you to keep your distance or to withhold your touch from me in our private moments together, nor will I withhold mine from you. Please, Elara, do not walk this dark path where I cannot follow. Not yet!"

Elara lay in his arms, stunned. "You're serious," she said after a long moment.

"I am." A warm splash of wetness landed on her forehead that told her that her Elvenking - the proud, capricious, headstrong and arrogant ruler who had determinedly led his Elven Realm to survive Sauron's wrath with no help from anyone else - was weeping. "I give you my oath, Elara; we can share our love even though we will never share a passion that would betray Lalaith. Do not so easily let go of this life, I beg you."

"Thranduil." His grief was tearing at her, and her own tears spilled freely onto her cheeks. "I will walk that dark path one day, whether that day be tomorrow or many years from now. I am mortal; I will leave you someday. You knew this from the start."

"I know," he gulped and cradled her cheek with a huge hand that was actually shaking as his thumb brushed at her tears. "But many years from now, if you can but turn back to me, I will have a great share of memories of our time together to hold close and give me as much comfort as is possible to give to one who will miss you until the breaking of the world. But if you leave me now, not only will I miss you forever, but I will know that you left me far too soon, and that I am the cause of your death. I don't know..." His voice broke, and Elara heard him swallow several times before he could continue. "I don't know that I would long survive you in that case."

"That isn't fair," she complained, her voice wavering. "You have a realm that needs you strong and well, and alive. You should spend your time and energy on Eryn Lasgalen, not worry about a world-weary mortal woman who can't even see her hand before her own face. Don't make this harder for me than..."

"Elara, hear me. My son will leave this world when Elessar dies. My wife left me two thousand years ago. My father, my brothers, they all left before that. Many whom I called friend either died in the War or left for the Havens with Galadriel. All whom I have loved best, except you and Legolas, are beyond my reach; and I am oath-bound to remain behind, no matter what else happens. The Valar gave you to me to give me the strength to hold on as the age of the Elves waned; and to teach me how to survive the last of the blows I must bear alone when Legolas takes the ship West. I know I have done a poor job of caring for you of late, but I beg one more opportunity to make things right." Another warm splash from above hit her nose.

"I don't have the energy to keep the two of us alive," she whispered, overwhelmed. "I can't even summon the strength to sit up and be angry with you for trying to shift responsibility for your life to me in this way."

"I don't expect you to keep us both alive. I have more than enough strength for the both of us, if only you will try to accept what I'm offering," Thranduil whispered back, his lips against her hair. "Please, my gift. Be angry with me if you must, but be angry here, in this world. Let me help you, let me help you get well again. Turn away from the path you are treading and come back to the light - and me. And once you are well, I will take you home with me where you belong, where your absence has been felt by others and not just me."

Home to Eryn Lasgalen, where the trees spoke to her willingly and protected her; where she had first found her place among the Elves. The very idea pulled at her heart. "I would like to go home someday, Thranduil," she said very softly.

"Then we must make you well enough to endure the journey," the deep voice stated with emotion-thickened conviction, obviously working hard to find stability again. "I sent word to Gondor about my intentions just before leaving for Ithilien. Aragorn should send word very soon with his ideas for aiding in your recovery, or I'll know the reason why."

Elara turned her face into his chest and sighed, feeling the weight of her grief fall away just a little. "After all this time..." she mused aloud, clutching at the suede as tightly as she could. "I have missed you so." Her voice broke again.

"And I have missed you, my gift - desperately." His arms folded around her again, and he bent his lips to her ear. "I love you, Elara nîn - and I always will, unto the breaking of the world and beyond. Never again will you go a day without hearing that, I swear it to you."

She opened her mouth to respond, and then paused - the words caught in her throat. "I promised I would never say it again..."

"I release you from that cruel oath, and everything else that we agreed that night," Thranduil growled into her ear. "We shall make new oaths, you and I, better ones. But Valar forgive me, right now I need to hear you..."

She needed no further enticement, and the words sprang from her lips. "I love you too, Thranduil - and I always will."

With that, the hole in her heart - the one that had bled loneliness and sorrow and stolen her will to live since the day she'd ridden away from Thranduil's hall - closed a bit. There was no promise that she could regain all that she had lost, but in that moment, in her Elvenking's arms, she knew she could but try. They both deserved another chance.

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July 2011

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