Legolas awoke slowly to the bright sound of birdsong, punctuated by someone carefully turning the pages of a book very near his left ear. As sleep slowly gave way to awareness, he gradually became aware of a masculine, muscular and very naked chest rising and falling beneath his other ear. A heavy arm lay over him, and someone's fingers were gently, steadily playing with his hair. Blue eyes snapped open into shocked awareness.

Lurching away from those fingers to rise up on one elbow, Legolas stared into the face of the Lord of Imladris, who looked calmly back at him. So close were they to each other that Legolas could see the fine lines at the corners of the Elf-lord's eyes, and the dark gray ring running around each of his irises.

"Quel amrun," Elrond's voice vibrated against Legolas's chest as he tilted the book away from his bed-mate's face. "I trust you slept well?"

Shoving aside the blankets, Legolas rolled violently away from Elrond and found himself falling. Landing on hands and knees, he scrambled on the wood floor to gain his bare feet, only to have the annoying folds of the borrowed robes tangle around his legs and nearly trip him.

Still, somehow, he found himself on the far side of the bedchamber, fetched up against the tapestried wall. Adrenalin coursed through his veins and he gasped to breathe. Balling his fingers into fists, he fought to think beyond the base instinct telling him to grab the nearest weapon, which happened to be Elrond's broadsword, fastened on the wall to the left of Legolas's head.

"How did I get in your bed?" Legolas demanded, raking his fingers through his hair in a worthless effort to get the long strands to stay out of his eyes.

"You were very tired."

"I have been tired before, but never before have I awakened to find myself in someone's bed!"

"I should hope that I am the first," Elrond commented dryly, setting aside his book.

"Are we bonded?" Legolas cast his thoughts back to the night before. "Beyond our conversation, there is only blackness in my mind where memories should be. You must tell me--"

"Tell you what? That I lied when I said I would not take you last night, and then drugged you with the tea and claimed you while you slept?" Elrond raised his voice in outrage. "Do you feel bonded to me?"

"How should I know what being bonded feels like?" Legolas all but shouted. "How can I tell of a feeling that I have never felt!"

"Legolas," Elrond intoned with heavy deliberation and reached for a patience he was far from feeling. It did not manage to override the irritation in his voice. Setting his long legs on the floor, he left the bed and crossed to his guest, who all but climbed up the wall backward at the sight of a tall and very naked Lord of Imladris bearing down on him. At that moment, all reason fled, leaving Legolas's instincts in control of the moment.

Elrond saw the panic in the younger Elf's eyes, saw him reach for the broadsword that had last seen battle at Mount Orodruin. Legolas wrapped his fingers around the hilt of the sword and raked a fury-filled gaze over the broad-shouldered, well-built Elf.

Stepping so close Elrond's toes challenged the younger Elf's for room, the Elf-lord's long fingers closed around Legolas's wrist. Pressure was brought to bear on sensitive tendons, but Legolas still gripped the sword. His gaze shifted to focus beyond the Elf-lord, and Elrond read his thoughts instantly. [He's about to release the sword, drop beneath my arm, and lunge behind to attack with whatever is at hand.]

"Let go, Legolas," Elrond murmured in what he hoped was a soothing manner. "You don't mean to attack me. I know you are not truly awake yet. By Elbereth, I swear once more that no harm will come to you."

"Am I bonded to you?" Legolas demanded once more, his every muscle tensed.

"We are not bonded," Elrond assured, careful not to further crowd Legolas. "I prefer my lovers awake and willing rather than unconscious and oblivious. And I suggest very strongly that you let go my sword. Now."

Legolas's wrist was shrieking with pain, his fingers and upper arm were going numb. Some part of his mind registered that Elrond was applying only enough pressure to make his defiant guest think rationally about the situation and hopefully release his weapon without further violence. Another part of Legolas's mind wanted to sob with a mixture of relief and frustration - relief that there was no bond, and frustration that there was no way out of the ongoing nightmare trap King Thranduil had set for him.

Elrond increased the pressure on the wrist a fraction more, and Legolas hissed, then looked up to meet the eyes of his captor. They were calm, deliberate and determined. Another slight twist and the wrist would snap under the pressure of Elrond's long fingers, thus forcing Legolas to surrender the weapon. They both knew it, and those eyes informed Legolas clearly that Elrond was willing to do so. Yield, the gaze demanded, giving him one more chance to choose for himself.

"I am a healer as well as a warrior. I will set it for you later," Elrond murmured.

Reason reawoke in Legolas's mind with a muted whisper that ending the pain might be a wise idea, as this battle as well as the war was already lost. He settled for releasing the sword hilt and glowered up at the Elf-lord, who was certainly as trapped as he was.

"Thank you," Elrond said mildly.

Taking the sword, he moved across the chamber and laid the weapon safely out of reach on the bed. Shrugging into an outer robe, Elrond continued as if nothing had happened.

"I didn't want to wake you this morning, for you were sleeping very soundly and needed the rest. Now that you are awake, you will join me for breakfast and learn the details of my plan to handle your father." Turning, he arched an eyebrow at Legolas, as if to invite his comment or refusal, but the Elf was contented to remain silent where he stood and nurse his throbbing wrist. Moving into the outer chamber, Elrond ordered, "Join me now."

The Elf-lord's tone brooked no refusal, and Legolas followed reluctantly, yielding to the Lord of Imladris's authority but wanting nothing more than to bolt out of Imladris as well as out of the chamber, to find a place - anyplace - where insane fathers and powerful Elf-lords could not threaten or command him.

[I slept with him and did not wake when he carried me to his bed and climbed in beside me,] Legolas thought, disgusted with the betrayal of his body. [Yet he will not bond with me. What does this mean, and does he expect me to sleep again with him tonight? This is far too much to think about, things are happening far too fast. Only last night I was all but demanding that he bond with me for the sake of peace and Mirkwood. How could I have been so ignorant?]

What Legolas did not appreciate in particular was how blissful and contented he had felt while hovering, for a few precious minutes between sleep and full waking, in Elrond's arms. His trecherous body now knew and remembered the sweetness of being held against the hard body of the older male. The comfort of simple touch and caring had long been absent from his life, and he hadn't realized how much he missed it. Part of Legolas ached for such contact now, so much so that he hated it.

His traitorous scalp tingled, as if his skin wanted more of Elrond's long fingers threading through his hair. He raked his fingers through the hair roughly, as though to scrub away the memory of that touch. Beyond that, Legolas growled inwardly at the part of him that was avidly watching Elrond stride in front of him. He knew far too much about the powerful body beneath those robes now. All too clearly in his mind's eye, Legolas saw Elrond once more naked. He luxuriated in the memory and felt himself stir. Once again, he saw and growled at the long legs and powerful thighs striding toward him, at the sight of Elrond's manhood swinging so heavily between those thighs, large even in its flaccidity. Closing his eyes against the memory, Legolas nearly bumped into Elrond when he stopped beside the table.

"Easy," Elrond said, catching Legolas's elbow, only to release him a moment before the Elf leaped back, startled. With a slight smile, Elrond reached for a pitcher and offered quietly, "Tea?"

Silently, carefully, and willing his fingers not to drop the accursed mug, Legolas took the mug and gulped almost desperately at its contents. Finding his chair and sinking down with a despair that was bone deep, he plunked the mug onto the table and stared into its depths as if it held all of the mysteries of Middle-earth.

"Will you eat something?" Elrond asked.

"I don't think I can right now."

"As you wish, my prince." Settling into his own chair, Elrond waited to see if there would be any reaction to the endearment. It seemed not; Legolas had totally withdrawn.

[Again, or still?] Elrond wondered. [Our sleeping together has proven my point all too well. Even Legolas must now admit that he is not ready to bond with me.] Stifling a sigh of frustration that he had won the battle but obviously lost the war, Elrond deliberately shifted tactics.

"You tell me that you were adept at guarding Mirkwood's border," he began conversationally, pouring his own tea and spreading jam across a slices of bread. "My twin sons, Elladan and Elrohir, are only about fifty years older than you. They run together, alone and with the Rangers, to guard Imladris's borders, destroying any and all orc enclaves they may find."

"Fortunate elves," Legolas muttered to his tea mug.

Elrond raised an eyebrow at the sullen tone, then continued. "Earlier this morning, Erestor informed me they have arrived home."

"Erestor came in here while I was abed with you?" Legolas demanded, blue eyes widening in dismay.

"He entered the outer chamber only and called the information within. What I propose is this," Elrond continued. "If Elladan and Elrohir deem your skills to be worthy, and if you wish to do so, you may travel with them to help guard Imladris as you guarded Mirkwood. As for your father, I shall send word that you have arrived and tell him that I am well-pleased with you. He will further be informed that while we are officially betrothed, we wish to take a few months to come to know each other and will marry in the fall. That will win six months of freedom for you."

"I appreciate your efforts, but it won't matter," Legolas said softly. "Thranduil will still claim me, for I have failed to bond with you."

Elrond ignored him. "Wine, supplies and warriors will be sent with this message to help Mirkwood and to buy the king's cooperation. I know this is not a permanent solution, Legolas, but before the six months are exhausted, some miracle may occur to give us more time, or perhaps we will find a way to make the bonding palatable to you."

Reluctant eyes met Elrond's gaze. "By palatable, you still mean that I should love you."

"I have not changed my mind over-night." Elrond pushed the jam-jar toward Legolas.

Sighing, Legolas poked the outside of the jar with his finger and pushing it back across the table. "I say again that Thranduil will be satisfied with nothing except that I bond with you. Nothing else will assure him that the alliance cannot be broken."

"Obsessive, isn't he?"

"You have no idea."

"I accept that we must bond, Legolas. I just don't think it need be tomorrow or in six months. We have time to plot additional strategies and use them against your father. Again, I say that a miracle may occur, or we may find the means to create one. In the meantime, my sons will test you. You must test them as well and see if you wish to run with them."

Rising from his chair and resigned to the fact that once more Legolas was going to eat nothing from his table, Elrond gave a slight bow. Legolas rose as well, and watched him with worried eyes.

"For now, we will have no more discussion on the matter," Elrond announced. "I have finished tormenting you now, and am going to dress. After that, I shall go downstairs to check on Assassin and the others, and to talk with Glorfindel regarding when we might begin moving everyone out of the Hall of Fire so that the servants will stop casting evil glances our way."

Gesturing, Elrond continued, "While the outlying chamber is not entirely ready for your occupancy, it does contain everything you brought to Imladris, including your bow and quiver. I believe you'll find your knives within as well. Also within is the clothing Erestor promised and delivered earlier this morning. At your leisure, Legolas, you are free to join Glorfindel and me."

So saying, Elrond disappeared into his private bedchamber, leaving Legolas alone to fend for himself. Had he looked back, Elrond would have seen his guest standing stalk still and staring in shock after him.

Legolas's stomach rumbled, his appetite returning as he dared to relax a bit now that the threatening host had departed. Snagging a few pieces of buttered toast, he dared to carry his mug of tea into the adjoining chamber, to explore within and discover that all Elrond had said was true. Legolas was pleased to discover that, in addition to his own now-clean clothing, Erestor had provided numerous sets of new things.

Grateful, he stripped off the annoying borrowed robes, letting them fall where they would on the floor in his eagerness to be free of them as he reached for far more comfortable and useful garments. An undertunic and leggings were dived into. Soft leather boots were pulled on. The long blond hair was combed back, braided and tied off. Smaller braids were secured at his temples to prevent the unruly strands from snagging in the bow, and quickly finished by fingers that had done them for years. Reaching for his quiver, Legolas allowed himself the brief luxury of caressing the worn leather with something approaching affection.

He knew every inch of the leather jesses and buckles as well as he knew his carefully honed warrior's skills and ability to defend that which he loved. Thranduil may have tossed him out of Mirkwood, but Legolas knew within his heart that, with Elrond's welcome and understanding, he could come to care every bit as deeply for Imladris and its people as he had for those of Mirkwood. With caring came other feelings - a fierce determination to protect and the knowledge that he could help both Mirkwood and Imladris if Elrond would only allow it. His heart sang at the prospect of showing Elrond's sons what he could do in their father's service - and being free to do it outside of Imladris, not to mention away from Elrond.

Legolas checked the state of his knives and the condition of his arrows before slipping into the harness and securing it. Pulling free his hair, he adjusted the soft leather jerkin he wore over his tunic, making sure that everything fit comfortably and wouldn't restrict his reach in any way. Arrows and knives were accessible, all was in order.

With every routine movement, the Elf felt more himself. Belting the tunic, he reached for his last piece of buttered bread and then his bow. Munching on the former, he slung the latter over his shoulder and headed for the door. Depending on how things went with the horses and the twins, perhaps he might even find the appetite to partake again of mid-day meal? Legolas hoped so, for after having Elrond order his presence that morning, the younger Elf had no doubt that the Lord of Imladris would find effective ways of force-feeding him, if necessary. It was far better if Legolas forced himself to yield without making Elrond discover creative new ways of making his unruly consort-to-be obey. [He's probably getting a good idea as to why Thranduil felt it necessary to prepare a dungeon hold for me.]

Making small, final adjustments to the leathers running across his shoulder to hold the quiver in place, Legolas exited the chamber and gained the exterior balcony only to discover Elrond about to descend the stairs that leading from their private chambers down into the library.

"I didn't expect to see you so soon," the Elf-lord admitted, looking pleased when Legolas fell into step beside him.

Legolas offered a slight, almost shy smile. "I have had a bit to eat, and I feel more myself in these clothes. Please allow me to apologize for nearly attacking you earlier this morning, and to thank you. Your generosity in feeling and in substance is more than I deserve, Lor... Ah, Elrond. I wish there was something you would allow me to do for you in return." It was the most he'd ever said to the Elf-lord, and it came out in a rush.

Turning as he gained the library floor, Elrond clasped Legolas's shoulder while he still stood on the last step, met his gaze on the level. "You truly wish to do something for me?"

"I do."

"Then you must find ways to be happy here in Imladris."

Legolas's brow furrowed. "You would ask nothing for yourself?"

"I enjoy pleasing my people," the Elf-lord confessed. "I enjoy seeing them smile and knowing that they are happy here."

"How astonishing," Legolas gave voice to his first thought. "Thranduil would never worry after such a thing. That his people survive, yes. That they are happy, I think not."

"Not all Elf-lords are created alike, Lasgalen." Elrond dared smooth down the braid at Legolas's temple before turning to lead the way out of the double doors leading from the library.

"Do you require anything else this morning, my lord?" Erestor's voice spoke from the shadows.

"No. Thank you, Erestor."

The austere Elf offered a bow to Legolas. "Are the new things to your liking, Lord Lasgalen?"

"Very much so. Thank you." Ignoring the predatory look in Erestor's gaze, Legolas lengthened his stride to catch up with Elrond. Once they had gained the inner hall, he spoke low, so as not to be overheard by any other eavesdroppers.

"I've never heard such forthright honesty such as yours from anyone before," Legolas confessed as Elrond shortened his stride temporarily to accommodate his companion. "Anyone except Mithrandir, that is. But then, he's an outspoken wizard of uncertain origins and not an Elf-lord."

"Mithrandir is indeed a breed unto himself, and a refreshing one at that. One always knows where one stands in conversation with him." Together, the two pushed through the tall doors leading into the Hall of Fire. "I find his tactlessness an inspiration, don't you?"


"Whose tactlessness?" Glorfindel descended upon them. "Are you talking about me again?"

"Absolutely," Elrond echoed Legolas's reply. "And so, tell us Glorfindel, tactlessly and truthfully, how are the horses this morning?"


Elrond was seated at his desk and working steadily on a draft of the communication to be sent to King Thranduil when, not long after dark, his son Elladan staggered into the library, only to collapse into a chair before the desk.

Arching an eyebrow, Elrond addressed his most urgent concern first. "Are you bleeding anywhere?"

"No - no," the Elf gasped. "Lasgalen was careful about that, but little else. Just let me catch my breath, Adar."

Setting aside his notes, Elrond leaned back and waited patiently for the report to come. In the meantime, his healer's gaze assessed the rumpled, tumbled state of the one before him. [I see smudges there, there, and there that might be bruises. And there is dirt and mud on his leggings, which tell me he got the short end of some battle or other.]

"Where is your brother?" Elrond suddenly demanded.

"Outside." Elladan panted. "With Lasgalen. Don't worry, Elrohir isn't bleeding, either. But that fact owes more to Lasgalen's skills than to any my brother might possess. Father, where did you find him?"

"Elrohir? He was born a few minutes after you, as I recall."

"Gaah!" Elladan protested. "Seriously, Lasgalen can't be from Lothlorian, Haldir can't have trained him. He has none of Haldir's flaws, and he showed us a few tricks I've never seen before and hope I never see again."

Hiding a smile, Elrond set aside parchment and quill. "My son, Lasgalen hails from Mirkwood."

Total silence met that announcement for a long moment before storm-flashed, obstinate blue eyes met his. "You cannot be serious, Adar. Tell me Lasgalen is from Gondolin. Lie if you must."

Elrond merely shook his head.

Sitting bolt upright, Elladan gestured outside, back the way he had come. "Thranduil's minions trained THAT?"

"You have a problem with this?" Elrond asked. "Is Lasgalen so unworthy, then, to travel with the two of you?"

"Unworthy? You mean to tell me that you didn't know what he was capable of?"

Elrond silently shook his head. "That is why I asked you to test him."

"Good." Elladan slouched back down in the chair. "I feared Elrohir and I had offended you in some way, that you should set such a whirlwind upon us, unwarned." Narrowing his gaze, he spread his legs before him and steepled his fingers in a gesture very much like his father's. "You asked my dear brother and I to test him, did you not? Well, then, let me tell you what happened. First of all, the reason Elrohir isn't in here is because he's still out there licking his wounds."

Elrond couldn't help it; he laughed at the thought of his proud son being bested by someone fifty years younger. "It would seem that everyone did my bidding today, for I also asked Lasgalen to test the two of you."

"Test us? Oh yes, he tested us. We came at him hard and fast and together - attacked him on two sides at once, thinking he was easy prey and we'd finish early on. Your fighter from Mirkwood dropped and rolled to evade us, drew his knives, spun and slashed and routed us. Both of us. Without panic or fear, with nerves of mithral and a wicked technique that's beauty itself to behold--as long as he's not coming at you. Wherever we were, there he was not. As soon as Elrohir swallows his pride, I'm sure he'll be asking to see some of those moves in a much slower, less threatening manner."

Elrond smiled. "So, what you are saying is that this child of Mirkwood can fight."

"As much as it pains me to do so - yes."

"And you'll take him with you when next you go out, should he find you worthy of his companionship?"

"Find us worthy?" Elladan protested. "I hope that we didn't give a showing as bad as all that. From from what I can see, Lasgalen's not conceited about his abilities. In fact, your Mirkwood warrior is nearly as silent as my brother. But he did help Elrohir up from the dirt. Lasgalen even asked after his welfare."

"Did he help you down into the mud as well, as the stainwork on your leggings suggests?" Elrond asked.

"Once or twice," Elrohir admitted sheepishly. "Any road, Lasgalen helped up Elrohir and challenged us next to an archery competition. We're fairly square on that. He doesn't like swordwork much and prefers the shorter, faster blades, though he is competent with a heavier weapon, which means Elrohir and I are the better side of even on that one. It's just with the knives that he buries the two of us."

Elrond nodded, satisfied with the assessment. "Lasgalen is smaller and faster."

"Much faster when he wants to be," came the wry admission.

"Given MIrkwood's numerous enemies, I would imagine Lasgalen has had more experience in knifework. Learn from him, if you can."

"We can and will. He's already agreed to go with us when we leave. Is that what you wanted?"

Elrond rubbed the bridge of his nose. "It's not so much what I want as what he needs, my son. Lasgalen is a free soul. To cage him within these walls would be to kill him."

"Cage him?" Elladan frowned. "I don't understand. Isn't he a free agent, to come and go as he pleases?"

Elrond drew a deep breath. "I suppose you should know the truth of it, if you're going to travel with him and protect one another."

Beckoning his son closer, Elrond waited until Elladan had come to sit on the corner of his desk, had leaned over so that whatever confidence was to come could not be caught by other, ever-listening Elven ears.

"What I have to tell you now is in confidence, at least until Lasgalen wishes it otherwise. Yes, he is of Mirkwood. He is also Thranduil's son, come from there to join with me in a marriage alliance."

Elladan's eyes grew wide. Elrond hadn't seen him look so surprised since the moment his mother, Celebrian, had introduced him to the wrinkled, screaming babe that was his new sister, Arwen.

"His real name is Legolas," Elrond continued, "and yes, he is indeed the younger prince of Mirkwood."

"Thranduil's son just wiped the forest floor with my brother?"

"It would seem so."

Elladan considered this news silently for a few moments, then asked, almost desperately, "Are you certain he's Thranduil's son, Adar? Really certain?"

Elrond laughed in answer to his son's dismay.

"You know," Elladan said slowly, "I've as much love for the king as you do. It's a good thing this prince of Mirkwood fights as he does because it would stick in my craw if I had to protect him. I'll run with him in the wilds, but I refuse to mind him as I would some bumbler."

Elrond laughed. "Walk softly, my son. I have known my prince only for a few short days, and yet I think I can safely venture that it was probably a pleasure for him to wipe the dirt with you and your brother--especially as I'm sure you made it obvious you thought he was easy prey. Legolas is no delicate flower to bloom only in court. In fact, he seems as unlike his sire as are straw and gold."

"Thank the Valar for that. If he were like Thranduil, Elrohir and I would have to strongly consider widening our patrols. But why don't you want to keep him here?" Elladan asked. "Surely, if he's the one you're to bond with, Legolas is supposed to be with you and not with us?"

"He had a difficult month preceding his arrival in Imladris," Elrond said carefully, not wanting to reveal how reluctant his prince was to stay anywhere near him. "Legolas needs to travel freely, to recover himself. He's used to guarding the borders of Mirkwood and Mithrandir was sending him into Dol Guldur, so he is not untried."

"Dol Guldur?" he breathed. If anything, Elladan's eyes widened more.

"Don't get any ideas of haring off in that direction," Elrond warned. "The Dark One's keep is specifically off limits to all three of you, as is Mirkwood. I'll threaten you all you with certain death, should you go anywhere near that Valar-forsaken place. All I want is for you and Elrohir to run Legolas out into the surrounding woods for a few days. Let him focus his frustrations and settle his energy by killing orcs, but don't let anything happen to him or cross any borders with him. He has run with the Rangers along his own borders, so that they know who he is. You must not let them see him, and you must not take him beyond our immediate area this first trip. Do I make myself clear?"

"As always, Father. But why would he rather run with us than be with you, even in these early days when your knowing each other is so new?" Elladan pursued.

"We are taking our time coming to know each other, and he is taking his time coming to know Imladris. The people do not yet know that he is Thranduil's son, come to bond with me. They know him only as Lasgalen and think him an advance scout from Mirkwood. That is as we wish it today."

"As you will, Father," Elladan said with some bewilderment. "You know we will honor your requests, however strange we may find them."

"It is very important that you bring him safely back to me," Elrond insisted. "Don't let his superior knifework cause any rivalry between the three of you. You've other skills in common, so let Legolas lead in that, and let him teach you. I daresay that you and Elrohir will find ways of teaching him as well."

"Are we intruding?" a soft voice spoke from the doorway.

Elrond and his son looked up as Elrohir stomped into the library, flung down his bow, and inspected a tear in his tunic. Behind him followed a more sedate Legolas, who carried his bow on his back and looked as relaxed and unsullied as he had when he'd joined Elrond upon the stair earlier in the day.

"No, Lasgalen, you are not. Elrohir, are you all right?"

"Mmphm." Not bothering to look up, the twin in question continued plucking at his tunic.

"I think I only scratched him," Legolas said apologetically, "but he will not let me see. Will you look at it, Elrond?"

"No, don't!" Elrohir growled, slapping a hand over the hurt. His blue eyes flashed at Legolas, who somehow managed to look both apologetic and unrepentant.

"I'll convince him to let me see it later," Elrond smoothed over the moment and rose from his desk. Elladan slipped off of the corner and and stood beside his father. "Lasgalen, your lungs must be well-healed if you can hold your own against my sons this afternoon. You seem well able to take care of yourself, and to guard my sons' backs as well. Do you then wish to travel for a few days with them, outside of Imladris?"

Legolas's sudden smile revealed neat white teeth and a dimple on the right Elrond had never seen before. "I would welcome the opportunity, my lord."

"So be it. I take it that the two of you are agreeable to this adventure as well?" He turned his attention on his sons.

"Yes," Elrohir offered immediately.

A glance at the older twin told Elrond that Elladan wasn't yet through staring at the newcomer from Mirkwood. Stifling a smile to note that his son was having the exact same reaction to Legolas that his father had days before, Elrond gripped his son's shoulder.

"Elladan, what of you? Are you agreeable?"

The Elf started at the sound of his name, his attention snapping back to the discussion at hand. "Ah, yes, Father. I think we can manage to keep him out of trouble."

Elrond nodded. "You three will leave tomorrow morning to see if you can travel together without injuring one another. There are a few ground rules I wish to make known to ensure everyone's safety. Shall we discuss them over supper?"

Two 'Yes, Father's' were his, along with a 'Yes, Elrond,' which somehow warmed his heart. [Gone is his formality,] Elrond noted, [at least for the moment. The freedom of familiar weapons in his hands on the training grounds seems to have done a bit toward settling his anxieties, and he also seems more relaxed in my presence with the twins nearby.]

Under Elrond's observant gaze, Legolas willingly went in to supper for the first time in the Great Hall. The smell of food, the sound of music and Elven laughter embraced them.

Legolas moved closer to Elrond and glanced up at him as they crossed the threshold. "You've moved the horses and reclaimed the hall, then?"

"Indeed, yes." A hand at Legolas's elbow guided him forward to the table long assigned Elrond and his guests. "A much-recovered Assassin is enjoying his new, larger stall this evening. I'm afraid, however, that the Seal of the House of Elrond no longer guards his door." Elrond directed him to sit between him and his sons. "Take the seat on my right, Lasgalen, if you please."

"It's about time you got here," Glorfindel grumbled, passing the wine down the table to the newcomers.

"Have you kept back any for us, or have you drank it all?" Elladan demanded, peering with one eye into the black depths of the stone carafe with great suspicion.

"Easy enough to find out." Snatching the carafe from his brother, Elrohir upended it into a nearby mug. A few drizzles of liquid came out, but nothing more.

Legolas laughed outright at the scowl Elrohir bestowed on Glorfindel, who had the grace to look sheepish as he called for more wine. Elrond absorbed the sound of that laughter, hearing it run free and uninhibited for the first time.

"There's always water," Legolas said mildly, which remark led to much protestation and debate under Elrond's watchful eye.

Sitting back, the younger Elf dove into the plate of food set before him. Outside of a few anxious glances cast at the other, resident Elves who had already begun feasting, he seemed determined to ignore those in the hall who watched with benign curiosity. The conversation flowed well that night once the wine was delivered, and Elrond let his children and his prince lead in planning their trip. More than once, Legolas caught and held Elrond's gaze, with his blue eyes revealing gratitude and anticipation of the coming foray.

They talked long into the night, with Glorfindel deserting them early on for more music and much dancing in the Hall of Fire as a small celebration of the horses' departure was taking place. The candles had burned low and moonlight spilled into the hall when the twins finally bid their father good-night and left Elrond with Legolas, who seemed somehow reluctant to leave their father's side until Elrond himself had retired.

"Have you found something that makes you happy?" Elrond asked after the twins had drained the last of their wine and took their leave of the now-deserted Great Hall.

"I believe so, thanks to your kindness and generosity."

Burning logs collapsed to decaying embers in the fireplace across the room, drawing Legolas's attention as sparks flew up the chimney. His hair glowed in the moonlight, and Elrond impulsively reached out to run a hand down its length. He did it only once, and, much to Elrond's surprise, Legolas allowed the contact. Abandoning his interest in the fire, he looked mildly back at his host but did not tense at the touch.

"I know something else that should ensure your happiness," said the Elf-lord, daring to smooth down that golden cascade of hair once more. "Your bedchamber was finished today, and so its secluded privacy awaits whenever you wish."

"Then you do not wish my presence in your bed this night?" Almost, the Elf's tone was teasing, but Elrond could hear the sudden tension behind the question.

Seeking and finding the end of a fine braid, Elrond shook his head. "Not unless and until it is where you wish to be, my prince. Ah, there is one more thing I almost forgot."

Catching Legolas's wounded hand, Elrond ignored the stiffening of muscles and the catch in the Elf's breathing. Carefully untying the bandage, Elrond inspected the branded seal in the skin beneath. "As I thought, the wound has suffered no further with your using the hand in conflict today. Be gentle with it as far as you can, and take the oils and extra bandages in case you need them. I will trust to Elbereth that you will not."

"I will be fine. You needn't worry."

Smoothing over the brand that was very near to healed now, Elrond tried to push aside the distress he felt that, starting tomorrow, Legolas would be out of reach of his care.

"I worry for all of those I care for," he said softly, ever mindful of the servants standing by just outside the doors as the lord they served was still in the Great Hall. "I will leave you with the blessing Gil-Galad bestowed upon me each time we parted for battle, Lasgalen. 'May the light of Elbereth guard you, and may her love guide you until she brings you back to me.'"

A final caress, and Elrond left Legolas alone in the Great Hall before journeying to the stables to check on Assassin, who really needed no checking as he was far out of danger now. When finally Elrond retreated to his private chambers, he moved silently, impulsively to open the door connecting his rooms with Legolas's.

Moonlight fell across the bed sheltering the younger Elf, and Elrond was relieved to see the glittering golden hair spilled across the pillows. Just before dawn, Elladan and Elrohir would steal him away without a farewell, as was their wont. Good-byes were not to be had, not since their mother had permanently said good-bye. Foolishly and in superstition perhaps, father and sons had promised to never say good-bye, as if in its avoidance any lasting farewell or death 'somewhere out there' could be averted.

Legolas had been drawn into the circle of their family now, so that there would be no good-byes for him either. The last Elrond would look upon his prince was in this moment, while he lay sleeping. If only for this night, all was right in Elrond's world; Legolas was happy and safe and sleeping peacefully only a few steps away.

Settling carefully on the bed, Elrond chanced waking Legolas to once more give in to the impulse to stroke the golden strands spread out before him. The Elf sighed softly in his sleep, and Elrond dared to stroke his fingers lightly across Legolas's temple, to smooth the fine hair away from his forehead.

After many minutes and with an effort, Elrond rose from the bed and turned to make his way back into his own chamber, which seemed somehow empty and lonely this night. The Mirkwood prince had made himself a home already in Elrond's heart, a fact the Elf-lord acknowledged with a heavy sigh. Settling into his chair before the fire, Elrond let his mind drift long into the night and contemplated how the slender, golden warrior had so thoroughly invaded his life and had come to matter so much to him in so short a time.


Balancing his bow across his lap, Legolas shifted slightly to find a more comfortable position on the tree branch he had claimed for guard duty this night, while Elladan and Elrohir slept peacefully on the ground beneath him. He had been amazed when the twins agreed that he should take watch by himself through the night.

"You trust a warrior of Mirkwood to guard your sleep?" Legolas had asked.

"Father trusts you," Elrohir pointed out succinctly before stalking off to set the snare that would trap their rabbity supper.

Elladan grinned at him. "Not to mention you've the skills to kill both of us while we're awake, so what is the difference? Which reminds me... Are you up to more sparring after we eat?"

"Of course."

Legolas had obliged them fully by being both predator and prey in the combat games they'd engaged in over the last two days. Invigorated rather than wearied by their strenuous efforts to best each other, Legolas felt confident all three of them could find additional skills with which to torment one another for the next two days.

A companionable full moon rose slowly through the fir trees lining the banks of the stream meandering nearby, and the Elf dared relax his vigil just a little to watch the deer that had come to drink. He had seen more wildlife over the past 48 hours with Elrond's sons than he had for the past six months during his patrols of Mirkwood's forests.

[There are no giant spiders here to eat the fawns,] Legolas realized, [and there are far less wolves or Orcs than I imagined to threaten the bear and elk and great cats. No Shadows reach from Dol Guldur to chase out the smaller prey, and so it lives in relative safety--for now, at least. I must remember to compliment Elrond on the peace he has forged with such care.] Legolas smiled to add yet another item to the already-long, mental list he was compiling for the Elf-lord. [How is it that I constantly find myself thinking of him?] came the perplexing thought.

Perhaps it was because when he closed his eyes and focused, he could still hear Elrond's voice during their last conversation in the Great Hall, and feel the Elf-lord's fingers in his hair. Legolas had gone to sleep after leaving Elrond, only to be awakened a few hours later by someone caressing his hair yet again. Lying on his stomach, his first fear was that Erestor had dared invade his bedchamber, but further reflection made Legolas realize that he recognized the large hand, and its touch, as Elrond's.

[What is he doing?] Legolas wondered, ordering his body to relax and settling deeper into the pillows. [More to the point, why is he doing it when he just did it in the Great Hall? What is his seeming unending fascination with my hair?] Legolas supposed he could have rolled over and asked, but that would mean Elrond would have stopped touching him. That, Legolas was surprised to discover, he had not wanted.

Two more days of freedom stretched out before him, and Legolas was determined not to waste a moment of them. He refused to sleep, not wanting to waste any part of the gift of freedom Elrond had given him for fear Thranduil would snatch it away in only a few weeks' time.

[I can sleep when we return to Imladris,] he reminded himself. Out here, he could walk among the trees, notch arrows and let them fly for the protection of those left behind in Elrond's gentle community, and follow the twins who moved swiftly, silently and watchfully to cover vast distances while patroling their home. [Would that Thranduil could be satisfied with Elrond's efforts, so that Imladris could be my home as well,] Legolas thought wistfully.

The three Elves had discovered much to teach one another, and Legolas welcomed the lessons. It was a novel thing for him to run with strangers rather than the Mirkwood guard whom he'd known all of his life, or the Rangers whom he'd known all of their lives, to learn Elrond's guardians' ways and test his mettle against them.

Leaving Imladris before the sun had crept over the canyon walls, Legolas and the twins had journeyed upward through winter-weak light to challenge the snow still blanketing the forest. Leaving the well-traveled paths early, they rode companionably along until Elladan had inadvertantly called Legolas by his given name rather than Lasgalen to reveal his true identity.

"Legolas?" Elrohir had pounced, almost hissing. "So you're not an advance scout after all, but the Prince of Mirkwood come to... to...." Legolas caught the shiver Elrohir gave, as if to think the thought was repugnant enough; to voice it might make him throw up his toenails.

[I've felt the same way, my friend,] Legolas thought wryly. Aloud, he settled for murmuring, "I'm supposed to bond with your father, yes. We are, however, still in negotiations where that is concerned."

"What does that mean?" Elrohir demanded. "Aren't you and Thranduil happy with the ongoing dowry Mirkwood's getting for your deflowering?"

"Elrohir--" Elladan beagn.

"No," Legolas interrupted. "It's all right, I understand how the two of you must feel."

Elladan guilded his mount closer to Elrohir to lay a soothing hand on his arm. "Such matters are between Legolas and Father. We have no part in them."

Elrohir shook off the hand and glowered. "Be that as it may, I seek an explanation as to why you are out here in the cold with us, rather than warming the Lord of Imladris's bed as dictated by the treaty we've glimpsed?"

"I knew nothing of the agreement forged between Lord Elrond and Thranduil until your father showed its beginnings to me two nights ago." [Has it really been that long? It seems but a handful of hours,] thought Legolas. "The king forced me into this agreement, and while such forcing does not--"

"Forced, how?"

Legolas hesitated for a moment, not wanting to reveal what his father had done. [They will certainly hear it from Elrond eventually, if not from me,] he realized. [I'd rather they heard it from me.]

"Thranduil held me prisoner for six weeks in a black cell beneath his keep." Legolas was careful to keep his voice even, and to follow the line of discussion dictated by Elrohir. "Forgive my weakness, lords, but the light and the warmth offered by a winter bond with the Lord of Imladris appealed to me more than did remaining in the cell and letting the rats feed while I was still alive enough to feel their bite."

Elladan looked horrified while Elrohir scowled. "And so you come to Imladris unwilling."

"Not unwilling." Legolas kept his eyes on the unsullied snow before him as he rode. "I fully intend to honor the commitment and the alliance. It is your father who has insisted upon altering the details of the agreement."

"Altering, how?"

"I don't feel that I'm at liberty to--"

"He asks that Legolas love him as our mother did not," Elladan inserted softly. "At the very least, he wishes that Legolas should have some affection for him, if not desire to be with him."

"He expects this..." Elrohir said slowly, "from one who is not only a stranger, but a prince of Mirkwood? We both know that, thanks to Thranduil's prejudices, Father's reputation in Mirkwood is... unspeakable."

"Your father has already shown me how invalid such prejudices are," Legolas assured. "He has shown me far more kindness and regard than any from Mirkwood should expect. I would have been contented to bond with Lord Elrond and remain within Imladris's steep walls, had he bid me do so."

"And so he refused you. Why?"

"It is as your brother has said; I am to have some affection for him before he will initiate our bonding. Perhaps he feels that affection will begin with a tour of Imladris's borders. You are lucky in your parentage," he added wisfully. "Even as your father supports your desire to defend your land and its people, Thranduil denied me this very thing. He thinks my skills worthless."

"Worthless?" Elrohir exploded.

Legolas nodded. "He finds in me an unruly prince, unable to tolerate being at court and of no use in his diplomacies. Hence, I was bartered as consort."

"To Lord Elrond, the monster of Imladris." Elrohir fell back in line with Legolas's own mount, the better to stare in disbelief at Legolas. "I begin to see why our father has offered you the freedom to run with us. Have you found the resentments held by Thranduil to be founded?"

"I have not. Your father seems a just and wise ruler. His horses like him."

Elladan snorted at that recommendation of character. "Don't Thranduil's horses like him?"

Legolas shrugged. "The king of Mirkwood does not care for horses on the whole."

The twins exchanged a look as if to say, Well, there you are, there's no hope for Thranduil.

"So your father wishes a son who is a happy lover rather than a warrior?" Elrohir pursued.

"Thranduil couldn't care less about my happiness," Legolas revealed mildly. "He wishes his younger, loathesome son to be of use by finalizing the brokered alliance between Mirkwood and Imladris so that it can never be broken."

"You're nothing but a pawn," Elrohir concluded, "sent miserable and desperate but not in love with Father. Thranduil's even managed to make Father a pawn in this mess."

Legolas nodded. "But that does not mean we are not without some little affection for each other, even in these early days. I will support Elrond any way I can, up to and including finding a way for both of us to squirm out of the trap Thranduil has so effectively laid for both of us."

"You don't call Thranduil Adar, do you?" Elrohir observed.

"The king of Mirkwood betrayed me," Legolas said simply. "I have no father."

"That is... quite a statement," Elladan murmured. Both twins fell silent with that, no doubt contemplating what it would take for them to utter the same pronouncement.

"And so..." Elladan ventured cautiously long seconds later, "you like Lord Elrond and he likes you. That is progess, I suppose."

"Whatever comes, Prince of Mirkwood, it is my hope that you find the peace in Imladris that you cannot in your homeland," Elrohir added.

All things considered, Legolas thought as he sat in the tree and waited for dawn, it was the best he could do, considering his situation. The twins seemed satisfied with the discussion had that first day; after that, they'd treated him as a fellow warrior and stopped questioning him regarding the alliance and their father.

[Things could be much worse,] he thought. [Could still be in that cell.]

Entering Imladris's cavernous library and climbing the Council dias, Glorfindel threw himself so hard into the chair next to Elrond that it rocked sideways on two legs.

"Careful," Elrond murmured. "If you land in the ferns, no one will take your opinions at Council seriously until next season."

"As if I care," the Elf-lord grumbled, jerking at his robes to arrange them properly, and glowering at Elrond. "I'd rather be at the stable."

"So you've said many times."

"I'm glad you have these council gatherings only twice monthly, Elrond. Any more frequently, and I'd be sorely tempted to run away with the twins just to avoid these afternoons. I must admit to a certain curiosity as to why you're sitting up here on your throne all by yourself, staring off into the distance and looking terribly pensive. You're not worrying over about Lego... erm, Lasgalen, are you?"

"I am not worried about him so much as wondering where he is and what he is doing," said Elrond. "He has been gone for three days and is due back in a matter of hours, yet I miss him."

The simple admission earned the Elf-lord a pointed look from Glorfindel, but there was no further opportunity for him to poke at the Lord of Imladris as members of the inner council began filing into the library and onto the dias. Elrond withdrew immediately into his Lord of Imladris mode, while Glorfindel removed to his own chair and schooled his features and his spirit for the long, boring afternoon to come. Sometimes, he felt that it would be glorious if he and Elrond could have run their beloved sanctuary all by themselves.

Glorfindel stifled a yawn as Elrond meandered through the agenda. Winter stores were discussed, how much grain and dried fruits and fodder for the livestock remained after Mirkwood's demands had depleted their supplies. Glorfindel himself updated everyone on the outcome of injuries to Elrond's horses; how many lives had to be ended due to the fire and how many had been spared after their desperate efforts.

"Most will never be whole again," Glorfindel reluctantly shared.

"Does that include the foundation sire, Assassin?"

"He is lucky to be among the living," revealed Elrond. "Without Lasgalen's efforts, Assassin would have joined the others in being sent on."

The elves all murmured various versions of thanks, some grumbling as the Elf in question was, after all, from Mirkwood.

"Do we know yet who set the fire?" someone prodded.

Not yet," Elrond admitted.

"But it was deliberately set?"

"We suspect as much," said Glorfindel. "Lanterns have never been allowed in the stable, Elves have no need for them, and--"

"Then you suspect a Mortal deliberately set the fire?" Istian pounced.

"I never said that."

"You didn't need to, Lord Glorfindel," Istian all but purred. Elrond had long had to deal with this advisor's prejudice against mortals. If Istian had his way, no mortal would ever set foot inside Imladris's borders. "Surely, with the limited number of Men entering our borders, it should be easy to ascertain who the culprit is?"

"Avenues of culpability are being explored," said Elrond. "Let us move on to the next topic for discussion."

Glorfindel knew that Elrond had his own suspicions of how the fire had started - suspicions that could not be voiced in open Council. He himself was exploring, in private and in secret, the very avenues Elrond had mentioned, poking his nose where it shouldn't be and listening at various metaphorical keyholes.

Glorfindel had not failed to notice that Elrond's eyes had grown cold as a winter storm during the discussion of the horrible fate that had befallen some of his horses. Privately, Glorfindel believed that only a Mortal could have deliberately subjected such beauty and nobility to cruel injury and death. [It is my hope,] thought Glorfindel, [that a hellish outer ring is reserved for such murderers wherever mortals go after death.]

If the arsonist was found, he or she would find themselves wishing that anyone in Middle-earth would mete out punishment rather than Glorfindel and the Lord of Imladris.

"Lord Elrond, we would beg to inquire after your alliance with the Prince of Mirkwood," always diplomatic Galutirith introduced the next topic. "We have sent all of the goods that you ordered be sent to King Thranduil, and yet only a scout from his fair kingdom has arrived to acknowledge the pending alliance."

"I'm sure that Prince Legolas will arrive in due course," Elrond soothed. "No doubt he is traveling at this very moment."

[Traveling, indeed,] thought Glorfindel.

"It is a misbegotten betrothal if you ask me," Túrgwaith grumped. His black hair gleamed in the sunlight, a stark contrast to his hard blue eyes. "Already and again this century, Thranduil is taking much and giving nothing back. He usually begins as he intends to continue, and I see nothing of value for Imladris in this depressing alliance. Why you would agree to such a thing, and for eternity, is beyond a great many of us, Lord Elrond."

"You would do well to remember that the Dark Lord's power is strengthening once again, Túrgwaith." Elrond cautioned. "It is imperative that the three kingdoms unite soon, that we face him and his minions as one. A lasting alliance will lay the foundation for us to do this very thing."

"Be that as it may," Galutirith took up the gauntlet, "you are much beloved by those within Imladris and no few without as well. We would never require you to sacrifice all hope of marital happiness by bonding with such an unsuitable candidate."

"How do you know he's unsuitable?" Glorfindel inserted.

"A lasting alliance with a misbegotten son of Mirkwood could bring no one happiness," Túrgwaith spoke as plainly as he ever had. "Nothing we do will ever force Thranduil to support Lothlorian and Imladris. Mark my words, Elrond: your alliance via this prince will matter little should war come again to our borders. Even as happened during the last age at Mount Oraduin, Mirkwood's army will fail. Imladris will be required to defend Thranduil's lands as well as our own, while Celeborn guards Lothlorian as best he can. Thranduil has proven incompetent on the battlefield and unreliable in times of peace. I doubt this young son of Mirkwood can force him to act other than as he has in the past - especially as he is undoubtedly cut from the same cloth as his father - and so what will this new marriage accomplish, except to make you personlly wretched, Elrond Half-Elven?"

Glorfindel noted the informal state of address - insolent and this side of an insult to the Elf-lord who had created Imladris and ruled for centuries with all of the power and commitment within him. Elrond had risen from his chair and took a step forward to meet Túrgwaith's challenge when a new voice rang out from the direction of the library proper.

"The coming alliance between Legolas, Prince of Mirkwood, and the Lord of Imladris will neither be misbegotten or unreliable."

Every head turned to see the golden-haired Elf pacing deliberately up the steps and onto the dias. Storm-filed blue eyes locked into Elrond's own amazed gray as Legolas set aside his bow, shrugged out of his quiver and set it aside. Still covered with the dust of his journey, Legolas came to stand close beside Elrond and lean into him, as one horse will lean into another to offer affection and support.

"Legolas is not like his father," the prince in question stated. "His sense of honor is very much intact, and he has already aligned himself with Lord Elrond, else he would never have agreed to the marriage bond in the first place. If the Dark Lord should attack, Lord Elrond's consort will stand with him in battle and obey his orders in all defense of Imladris."

"Who in the name of Elbereth are you to speak for a prince of Mirkwood?" Túrgwaith demanded.

"Lasgalen is an authorized representative of that realm," Elrond replied, while Glorfindel sat up straighter and took an avid interest in the proceedings. "I trust that Lasgalen speaks the truth, and ask you to listen well to his words."

"What would you tell us of Mirkwood, young scout, that we do not already know?" Istion asked in more gentle tones, but demanding nonetheless. "Surely Thranduil will expect our army to stand with him?"

"A portion of Imladris's army, no doubt," Legolas agreed, "but are there not many years between that probability and necessity? As the years pass, I'm sure that Lord Elrond will give King Thranduil every opportunity to balance the alliance between our kingdoms. The king and his people will no doubt be of domestic service to Imladris long before Imladris must be of military service to Mirkwood."

"So you're saying that if Mirkwood is not willing to uphold its end of the agreement, we may take steps to curb its unwillingness," Elrond inserted.

"Yes, but at the same time I do not think those steps will be necessary. Our Sylvan citizens have little in common with Thranduil."

"Be that as it may," Túrgwaith growled, "what have the simple Elves of Mirkwood to do with upholding any agreement between two ancient and revered houses?"

"We value Imladris's kindness, its support and its influence within our borders. With your Lord Elrond's compassion and consistency, tight bonds of friendship will have been forged between our two people long before military action is required. If this happens, Imladris's warriors might be eager to fight for Mirkwood's preservation, despite whatever shortcomings its king may have."

Túrgwaith considered for a long moment. Exchanging a glance with the other members of the council, he nodded. "We shall see, Lasgalen, beginning with your Prince of Mirkwood. If he doesn't turn out to be a total dolt, Imladris will want to see more of him and others of his ilk from Mirkwood."

"Of course, my lord." Legolas bowed politely, though Glorfindel noted his jaw was locked. Idly, he wondered how much of a strain it was for this young warrior-elf to school his tongue to diplomacy. Aloud Legolas offered, "I am certain Lord Elrond's consort will do all within his power to please you."

Glorfindel didn't think he was the only one hearing the touch of sarcasm tingeing that low, melodic voice. Glancing at Elrond, he saw that the Elf-lord had bowed his head to hide a smile. [He prefers spirited horses,] Glorfindel reflected. [No surprise that he also prefers a spirited mate. They will do well together.]

"It is true that at present Mirkwood has little to offer you in the form of goods," Legolas continued. "It is also true that the people of Mirkwood are somewhat dependent upon the surplus of foodstuffs and other things you send them. I suspect that my homeland will always need you more than you need it if such measurements are made in goods alone. But I beg you to consider that Dol Guldur lies within our borders, with much of our energies taken up with containing that threat. Such efforts have always prevented many of the Dark Lord's shadows from ever reaching Imladris and Lothlorien. Other evils approach our borders as well - orcs and mammoth spiders, wolves and black beasts under the Dark One's command. His strength grows year by year, and Mirkwood experiences it before it spreads to the rest of Middle-earth.

"We do what we can to limit its spread, but we also know our limitations. Those limitations are another reason Thranduil seeks a permanent alliance with you. Your strength is known to us and yes, we seek your protection and assistance in dark times, but we also have much to offer in the way of ongoing defense and intelligence. It is difficult for Mirkwood's king to admit any shortcomings, but I am here to assure you that Legolas does not share this fault with his father. The prince has served many years in the field with both Rangers and Elves, so that he knows Mirkwood's weaknesses firsthand. I am sure such knowledge will prove invaluable. Additionally, I know that Legolas has the interests of all the Eldar at heart, no matter what his father, the king, may intend."

"I also have it on good authority that Legolas is the spy whom Mithrandir sent thrice into Dol Guldur," said Elrond. "His personal intelligence has already proven invaluable."

A disbelieving murmur went up at that news. "Thranduil risked his youngest inside the bastioned walls of Dol Guldur?"

"What was Mithrandir thinking? Only a seasoned warrior could come out of there alive," said Galutirith. "Three hundred summers could not have passed since the young prince's birth."

"Then I would say, no matter his lack of years, this Legolas is a seasoned warrior," said Glorfindel, catching Legolas's eye and offering a grin. "He's probably had to be, if only to stay alive in Mirkwood's forests, never mind within Dol Guldur. Mithrandir chose his spy wisely, I'd say. I trust that our Lord Elrond has chosen his pending partner with equal care."

"I know that Mithrandir, the Rangers, and the guards of Mirkwood tendered have tendered no complaints against his abilities," Legolas said smoothly.

"And our own assessment of his gifts will have to wait until he arrives." Glorfindel nodded. "You speak well of your prince, Lasgalen; he and King Thranduil would be gratified to hear such words."

"So the Rangers like him." Túrgwaith nodded. "That is well, but I hear he's a strange Elf. Always out of bounds, running along the borders. That's not normal for a prince raised at court."

"The prince in question was not raised at court," Legolas said.

Túrgwaith scowled at him. "Explain."

"Legolas's interests lay elsewhere. He has spent very little time at court, away from the conspiracies and machinations inherent within Thranduil's keep. You may therefore consider him both proof and safeguard against Thranduil's future maneuvering."

"We shall see, Lasgalen of Mirkwood. We shall see." Istion nodded and so the discussion ended.

The meeting dispersed soon thereafter, with Elrond's advisors quickly vacating the library and leaving Glorfindel behind with his lord and Legolas.

"I'm impressed, Lasgalen." Getting up to stretch his legs, Glorfindel offered a mock bow. "For a mere scout, you can be quite the diplomat... Temperate, observant, serene at least on the outside, which is more than I can say for a few of your counselors, Elrond."

"Mmmphm," Elrond agreed.

Reclaiming his chair as the discussion had concluded, Elrond was now leaning comfortably back and resting his chin in the palm of his hand. Glorfindel didn't make the mistake of believing the Elf-lord was focused on him; no, Elrond had eyes only for Legolas, who was still standing close at his side and looking every inch the young guardian and protector.

"You can stand down, Legolas," Glorfindel sought to reassure him. "Túrgwaith won't be back today."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Relax your stance," Glorfindel urged, nudging the younger Elf's foot with his boot. "Your weapons are well within reach, and you're standing battle-ready with your weight shifted forward, as if at any moment you might have to grab a knife in defense of Elrond's life."

Blinking, Legolas rocked back and stared at Glorfindel. "I... wasn't aware I was doing that. I hope it wasn't too obvious to the others?"

"No doubt they did," Glorfindel responded.

"No doubt," agreed Elrond. "They're all seasoned warriors, but don't fret; it can't have hurt your argument any to appear as if you were willing to die for me... or at least in conviction of your words."

"I sought only to contradict and perhaps reassure them that my intentions, at least, are somewhat more virtuous than my father's."

"You certainly accomplished that," said Glorfindel. "Had you not, we'd still be arguing Prince Legolas's worth and Túrgwaith's misgivings."

"I did well then?"

"Very well, indeed." Rising to his feet, Elrond impulsively reached out to gather Legolas into a one-armed hug. The moment he did it, the Elf-lord thought he shouldn't, as Glorfindel's scrutiny would undoubtedly make Legolas shy away. Much to Elrond's surprise, Legolas leaned into the embrace.

"My experience in such councils is limited," the younger Elf confessed.

[So many of Legolas's mannerisms and reactions are equine,] Glorfindel realized, watching the exchange. [Is he even aware that he's doing it? And is Elrond aware that he's responding to Legolas with all the mindful affection I've seen him bestow on his beloved young colts?]

"Be assured," said Elrond, "you did very well considering it was your first council meeting and probably not your last."

"Not... my... last." The blue eyes widened at that, and Glorfindel thought Legolas considered bolting from Elrond's embrace, if not from the dias. Still, the young Elf had spirit. Subsiding back against Elrond, he sighed and looked resigned. "I will seek your advice in the future, certainly, on how to address each member in order to avoid their scorn."

"Today, they related to you as a lowly emissar. Their attitudes will become more respectful once your identity is revealed," Elrond pointed out.

Legolas nodded. "Everything will change then. Some for the better, some for the worst, I imagine."

"Fame has its price, after all." Glorfindel grinned. "I should know, after all."

"Don't start that old tale again," Elrond protested. "Weren't you saying earlier how much you wanted to return to the stables?"

"I was, indeed. And I'm not so legendary that I can't recognize a desire to get rid of me when I hear one." He offered a brief bow to Elrond first, then Legolas. "Welcome home, Lasgalen. I trust your journey was safe and swift."

"It was. I'm eager to see some of the horses again, so perhaps I'll see you later in the stables. "

"Assassin will await your visit," Glorfindel said affably before taking his leave of the dias and the library.




"You must be tired after your journey," Elrond said for the benefit of anyone lurking in the shadows of the library. "Join me upstairs for a rest and something cool to drink."

"As you wish, Lord Elrond."

Gathering Legolas's bow while the Elf took up his quiver and accompanying knives, Elrond led the way down the dias steps. Laying a hand on his companion's shoulder, Elrond guided him across the library and toward the narrow staircase reaching upward to their private chambers.

"I am grateful for your efforts on my behalf," Elrond said once they were out of general earshot.

"Your efforts on my own behalf are of much more consequence than any words I might offer your advisors," Legolas protested quietly, wary lest Erestor or other servants were still listening. "My somewhat childish request for anonymity is the reason why you must keep secrets from there, why you must work to appease my father who knows I have already arrived. Your horses are healed now. My anonymity can only be a selfish desire from this point on."

"It is of no consequence, truly."

"I think it is of greater consequence than you are willing to admit." Willingly following Elrond into his chamber, Legolas set aside his weapons and took the mug of cool tea Elrond offered. An eyebrow arched in question, as if to ask, 'This isn't drugged, is it?'

Elrond answered Legolas's visual query by pouring a mug of his own from the slender vessel and drinking first. [And so we begin speaking on two levels at once, the verbal and the silent,] he thought. [Such is something I can remember doing with no one else. Ever. Two days' freedom seems to have worked a bit of magic; perhaps Legolas is more comfortable alone with me now. Let us see how far this new-found ease with each other extends, shall we?]

"You must appease Thranduil - who knows that I am here - at the cost of mystifying your advisors - who think that I am not." He followed the Elf-lord into his private sleep-chamber.

"And so it appears that Thranduil is receiving much for delivering nothing."


"My advisors agree with you, Legolas." Removing his gold circlet, Elrond placed it safely aside and shrugged out of his formal robes. Much to his amazement, Legolas did not blush or remove to the outer chamber where he might stare at the winter garden rather than at his host. Leaning against the doorframe, Legolas stared out into the winter garden, but remained where he was as Elrond pulled on a pair of leggings and reached for a well-worn, comfortable tunic.

"Then you appear weak before them," said Legolas.

"For a short time, yes." Elrond pulled on his boots.

"You can't enjoy that, and it's my fault the situation exists. I don't want that."

"Legolas..." Coming to stand close to his companion, Elrond reached out to finger a frayed braid. "The matter is resolved for now. Don't let it trouble you further."

Worried blue eyes gazed up at him. Elrond wasn't sure Legolas even noticed his caress. "But--

"But, what?" said Elrond. "I have been Lord of Imladris for a great many years. I would be its king except for the blood of Men which flows in my veins and which sets prejudice against me within my own borders. Do you think Túrgwaith's insinuations this afternoon were the first of my life, much less of my rule?"

Legolas shook his head. "I don't want to be the cause of such insinuations."

"You will be - now and in the future. That is the world of political intrigue within all of Middle-earth," Elrond said firmly. "To wish it were not so is to wish for Elbereth herself to descend from the heavens and kindle compassion and acceptance in every beating heart. We will deal with such prejudices all of our lives - I for my half-elven heritage and you for being Thranduil's son."

"How can you bear their accusations of weakness?"

"The same way you bore my sons' near contempt of your abilities before you answered their physical challenge." Laying a hand on Legolas's shoulder, Elrond found and caressed his collarbone. "We bear the words because they are only words. We know the truth, you and I, and are secure in that truth. It is true that I do not enjoy appearing weak before Túrgwaith and the others, but I would enjoy your unhappiness even less. Truly Legolas, in the final analysis my advisors know not to question or doubt me too far where Mirkwood is concerned. My experience with your father and his kingdom is far more extensive than is theirs. They cannot see all threads, and they cannot tend Imladris as I can tend it. I created this kingdom. I am its proven ruler while they are merely critical."

Running a finger down Legolas's jaw, Elrond continued. "You, my friend, are a prince of Mirkwood, a survivor of Dol Guldur, and an experienced fighter. Today, you bested my council with your sincerity and commitment to me. Never make the mistake of underrating your standing beside me."

"A scout stood beside you today." Legolas shivered slightly when Elrond found the soft skin beneath his earlobe and began stroking in an effort to soothe his vexation. "How much better would it have been had I been able to say - had I the courage to say - 'I am no mere scout. I am Legolas, Prince of Mirkwood, and I am here to... to....'" Legolas gestured in irritation. "I don't know what I was there to do."

"You were there to stand with me and commit to Imladris. You spoke plainly and told them where your loyalties lie. The words had no less of an impact because you spoke them as a citizen of Mirkwood rather than as a prince come to bond with me."

Sliding his fingers beneath the golden curtain of hair, Elrond rested the palm of his hand at the base of Legolas's neck. "Never doubt that my council will remember, or that you will be held to your words. I was surprised at your entrance - not to mention your defense. And now, if you are not too tired from your journey, perhaps you would like to accompany me to the stable and see if Assassin will carry you again?"

"Carry... me? But he is your stallion."

"He is mine." Elrond nodded. "But I need to ascertain the strength of his healing, which I'd prefer to do by watching rather than being carried by him. And so, if he will allow it, will you consent to ride him for me?"

"I... I...YES!" Seeming to lose all words, Legolas offered Elrond a delighted grin with two dimples, which made the Elf-lord laugh out loud.

"If you were a cat, I believe you'd be wriggling with pleasure," Elrond observed.

"I *am* wriggling with pleasure."

"I see. Well then, let's be off." Pushing past Legolas, Elrond exited the chamber, obviously expecting Legolas to follow in his wake.

Reaching for his ever-present weaponry, Legolas took the time to wriggle back into his quiver and slung the bow over his shoulder before running from Elrond's chambers to catch up with him on the way to the stables.

Not waiting for Legolas, Elrond latched the gate behind himself and headed for the new-built stables. Hearing the sound of someone trotting up behind him, the Elf-lord turned in time to see Legolas leap lighitly over the fence. Within a few seconds, the younger Elf was striding at his side and not winded in the slightest with his efforts.

[Well-healed, indeed,] the ever-present healer within Elrond observed. [Would that Assassin could be as recovered.] Aloud he said, "I have a question, if I may? Two, actually."

"I will answer if I can," Legolas said.

"First of all, why do you bring your weapons to my stable?"

Blue eyes made more blue by winter sun peeking from the clouds glanced up at him. "I bring merely bow and knife to your stable. I am the weapon, my lord."

"You're being evasive, assassin-mine."

"Assassin?" Legolas looked startled. "No. That name must be reserved for the beautiful creature within your stable. I merely protect those I care for. The tools of protection that I carry are as much a part of me as teeth and hooves are part of your stallion. I never leave them behind."

Elrond shook his head. "I hardly think such tools are necessary within Imladris. Then again, perhaps I would do well to remember why we must test the strength of my foundation sire this day."

"I know that you wish it otherwise, my lord."

"Yes." The two fell silent for a long moment while traveling a snowy path plowed earlier by other Elven feet before Elrond pursued, "How is it you came to be here this afternoon?"

"I wasn't expecting your return until tomorrow."

"The Rangers found your sons a day early," said Legolas, "As I am known to them, I thought it best to return home."

"The twins headed north then, toward Lothlorian?"

"So they said."

Elrond nodded. "They will probably retrieve Mithrandir and my daughter and return home."

"Elrond..." Hesitating as stable was reached, Legolas snagged the Elf-lord's sleeve. "In the two days I was out with your sons, I learned how safe your lands are. How secure and how much a haven to animal and Eldar. Such sanctuary lulls those living within its bounds, but you and the White Council will soon have need of further intelligence from Dol Guldur."

Turning on the path, Elrond gave Legolas his full attention. "Legolas--"

"Hear me out, please, m'lord." Desperate blue eyes locked into his. "No one left within Mirkwood has the knowledge or experience to travel inside the Dark Lord's borders and return unscathed. I know our warriors. Some were my teachers, others my friends. I would not have them die because I was not there to do what I know I can do. What I have done before. I ask you now, Elrond... please... When the time comes, I know the wizard's habits and his needs. Let me go with him when he goes, so that I might serve you as well as those I've left behind in Mirkwood."

"Your father--"

"Thranduil need never know. A slinking trip within, a slinking trip back out, that's all it would take. It would risk no one."

"Only you." Elrond smoothed down the golden mane that was covered with snowflakes. "I cannot allow this, Legolas. I am sorry, but even if Mithrandir asks it, you cannot go back into Dol Guldur."

The words came as softly as eiderdown, seductive as only the Elf-lord's could be when he wished to compel another to his bidding. "I missed you while you were gone, Legolas, and find that you are a part of me now, as dear to me as others whom I love."

"I missed you as well." The words were all but lost on the wind, but Elrond still caught the sound. Legolas's blue eyes softened beneath Elrond's admission, and it seemed he would succumb to the power and protection inherent in the Elf-lord standing before him. In the next moment, however, the softness was replaced with a look of hard resolve. Shivering slightly, and stepping away from the Elf-lord's touch, Legolas all but growled, "If you were me, Elrond, what would you do?"

"If I were you, I would... go to Dol Guldur with or without permission." The words seemed torn from Elrond, his voice rasping as harshly as Legolas's own had after the smoke had damaged his lungs.

Catching Legolas's left hand, the Elf-lord turned it so that the white brand of the House of Elrond caught the fading light. "So beautiful," he murmured, "and so free."

Snowflakes melted against the heat of Legolas's palm while the Elf-lord traced the hard, tight features of the seal.

"Would that this could hold you here, with or against your will," he murmured. "All of my wishing will not make it so. I could make it so... but must not." Laying his own palm against Legolas's and entwining his fingers, Elrond took a shuddering breath.

"You must not... what?" Legolas said warily. His long-knives were at his back, but he would not use them against Elrond, nor against any other Elf, but there were other means of escape at his disposal. Never again would Legolas allow himself to be trapped or held prisoner by anyone. Tensing slightly in case he'd misread or been deceived by Elrond's previous intentions, and missing the happiness he'd felt only moments before when Elrond had offered to let him ride Assassin, Legolas prepared to flee the Elf-lord's presence.

"What do you mean, you *must* not?" Legolas repeated.

Elrond's smile was harsh. "I have the power and the means to hold you here and safe, Legolas. I have only to command it, and you will never again set foot outside the walls of the Last Homely House, much less journey beyond Imladris's borders."


Moving behind the Elf, Elrond slid his arm across Legolas's hips. Ignoring the rattle of arrows and the unyielding hard leather of the quiver, he pulled the lithe body against his broad chest. Lowering his head, he whispered into Legolas's ear. "You would obey me, not because of any iron chains wrapped around your legs, but because of more powerful chains wrapped around your will."

Elrond did not move, did not gesture in the slightest, but Legolas felt an explosive power hovering just behind his words. The air shimmered between them as if some unseen force were billowing outward to enclose and isolate the two of them. It waited on the edge of breath for Elrond to command it, to imprison Legolas more completely than any dungeon cell beneath Mirkwood could ever do. The arm around his waist tightened, and Legolas's vision darkened slightly.

"I rule Imladris, and I can rule you," came the whisper, more felt in his mind than heard by his ears.

Tearing at the arm holding him, Legolas growled to find it immovable. The last rays of the fading light of day chose that moment to peer so brightly out from two clouds at the edge of the cliffs guarding Imladris that Legolas's eyes watered. Blinking hard, he cleared his vision only to find that Elrond was standing calmly before him rather than holding him from behind. Furthermore, his hand was still in the Elf-lord's own, and Elrond was idly tracing circles within Legolas's scarred palm.

Snatching his hand from Elrond's, Legolas stared up at him in near-fear. Haunted gray eyes held his, and Elrond offered a sad smile.

"Beauty such as yours can never be caged or it will die," said Elrond. "You may well still die outside of the cage, Legolas. If so, at least you will have lived on your own terms, unfettered and free." Straightening to his full height, Elrond concluded, "You will take Glorfindel with you when you to into Dol Guldur. I suggest that you teach him all you know then, so that in the future he can go in your stead. And now, I believe Assassin awaits your pleasure. Or your torment."

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