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Both the Sweet and the Bitter

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Elves do not need words.

Arwen knows the second she lays eyes upon her Woodland cousin. Though her heart is full of Aragorn and of her choice, still it dawns upon her that Legolas is also married. He moves with the joy and calm of an Elf who has found his heart. She sees that self-same look in her own mirror, the self-same tranquillity.

She knows the marriage must be recent. She has never heard of the son of Thranduil cleaving to any, and Elves do not hold their marriages a secret.

She catches his gaze and holds it, and in his eyes is the knowledge of mortality, of its bitterness and its beauty. She knows that, too, from her own reflection.

Later, she turns to Aragorn and murmurs, “Legolas is wedded. When?”

Aragorn catches her hand and kisses it. “Before the march upon the Morannon, though for my part I would have had them wed long before. To be an awkward witness to an awkward dance has been my lot. I have missed your wisdom, my love.”

She lets this news fill her mind, mulling it over. Then she curls around him and kisses his shoulder. He has scars, so very many scars. He is not the youth she once met in her father’s gardens, nor is he the proud young man under the trees of Lothlórien in the moonlight. He is a King now, and he wears his tale upon his skin, his crown in the grey amongst his hair and the worn lines of his eyes and brow.

One day, she will wear her own tale on hers. She has chosen.

So has Legolas.

“He has wedded a mortal, then,” she says eventually. She understands without the words whom it is, this unknown unnamed mortal. For who else has wandered so far and so fast by Aragorn’s side? Who else stands as a shadow by Legolas’ elbow, solid and unmoving, as though all the hordes of Morgoth could not budge him?

She knew the instant she saw the truth of it in Legolas’ face and fëa. Just as her father will know, as will the Lady Galadriel her grandmother, as will the proud unthawed Elvenking of the Greenwood when he finally greets his son home. They will see it just as easily as she. Elves do not need words.

“I fear for them, for what they shall face,” she says into the warm skin of Aragorn’s shoulder. “I have none of the foresight of my father, but I think I speak true when I say that theirs will be a hard road.”

“No longer or harder than the one we have already trod,” Aragorn says, and she can feel the worry rising from him as well. “They too have their love to guide them.”

But he does not say what they both are thinking: that Arwen had a choice, and so she shall not live the long twilit life of the Eldar. She shall be at Aragorn’s side and as he changes, so shall she. She has chosen to love and build, to alter and not to fade in ageless splendour; Arwen shall grow, she shall become old and strong, soft and worn and full of memory at Aragorn’s side.

Legolas cannot. Legolas shall not. Legolas is not one of the Half-Elven, and thus he shall remain as he is, while his love changes with every season, every rainfall, every scarlet leaf.

Arwen cradles her firstborn, and together an Elf and a Dwarf coo over the downy little head.

Gimli has grown older already. The place in his hair where he was marked at Helm’s Deep has grown back in white, and the smile-lines at his eyes and mouth are a little deeper. His eyes are calm and deep and powerful.

Arwen knows she is even more changed. For two thousand years she remained as she was, eternal and fixed. Now her crystallised edges begin to blur and to run: honey warmed over a flame. Her body has grown to accommodate Eldarion, as has her heart. Her hair no longer hangs smooth at her back, but is wrapped in coils around her head, the better to stay out of her way. Wisps escape it. No more the great and flowing dresses of her father’s house – now she wears trousers as often as not, or workaday clothes just as regularly as her formal and queenly garb. Her hands are rough and her face is careworn from worrying and working for her people.

The city lifts itself out of the mire of decades of fear. Everywhere, there is change: everywhere spring wrenches itself out of a terrible, freezing winter.

“Look at his dear little face focusing on me,” says Gimli in his usual accented rumble. He beams as the baby twitches in Arwen’s arms, blinking with huge eyes up at the strange pair. “Such a pretty bairn, such a clever little treasure aren’t you?

“Perhaps he wonders who this great shaggy thing is, making a spectacle of himself,” Legolas laughs.

“Don’t you listen to him, akhûnîth,” Gimli says, and Eldarion’s small starfish hands jerk a little as Gimli strokes his soft head. “He is a very silly Elf. You need a sensible Dwarf or two t’ steer you right.”

“I wonder where we can find one of those,” Legolas says mockingly, and Gimli makes a dismissive sound.

Arwen uses the moment to look at Legolas more closely. He seems unchanged on the surface. Arwen is more and more Edain with every year that passes and her senses do not discern any great difference in him.

But his eyes are not calm, not at all. They are stormy like the sea, and his gaze is riveted to Gimli even as he teases him, as though he is clinging to the shore.

Arwen is old.

It has very little to recommend it, in her opinion.

Gimli is old also, and he moves even more slowly than she. He is heavy with jewels, his hair and beard glittering like the starry night under the eaves of his caves. The vessel of his body has nearly been filled to brimming with his life. But his heart does not weigh him down as hers does: his steps, ponderous and creaking as they are, do not echo with the weight of grief.

She stands with dry eyes as they pay their respects. Gimli presses his head against that of the stone carving of her husband, murmuring something in the low and percussive Dwarven tongue. Then he straightens with difficulty, his back protesting, before he takes his jewelled knife and puts it to the long white fall of his beard. Like snow, hair dusts the coffin.

As Legolas watches Gimli, Arwen watches Legolas. The Elf seems unable to tear his gaze from where his husband pays his respects. He seems to nearly quiver with suppressed motion where he stands, and the only thing anchoring him to this place is the solid shape of the grand old Dwarf. Legolas’ frame sways like reeds caught in a current, and Arwen suddenly spies, with a flash of her old knowledge, that he cannot refuse the call of the sea much longer. One by one, the ties binding him to Middle-Earth are being cut by time and death.

Now Gimli will be the last one left.

Light as down, Legolas steps forward to kiss the brow of Aragorn’s effigy, and then he takes the knife from Gimli’s gnarled hand and cuts a swathe of his own shining-bright hair. Silver and gold mingle at Aragorn’s feet, like the tresses of Galadriel.

The Dwarf-Lord then lays a hand on the shoulder of his husband, and the trapped energy of Legolas unwinds all at once. Tears are standing in both their eyes as they look up to her, and then they bow; the Elf bending like a submerged ribbon, the Dwarf hunching like a mountain crag.

“Lady,” Gimli rumbles, but Legolas only stares at her with something like envy in his eyes.

“Thank you for being here,” she says. “I know he took joy in your friendship, to the very last.”

“I feel it right to tell you that we shall not be here much longer,” says Legolas, and his chin lifts. How ageless he seems, how fixed and unmoved! “I sail to Aman.”

Another pang shoots through her, and she nods once. “I expected you would go soon, if not before…”

“No, he’s not waiting for me to pass,” Gimli said, unexpectedly gentle. “I’m going with him. I may not be able to spin my axe as fast as I did, but surely I can haul a rope or two.”

Arwen’s breath catches, and she turns wide eyes onto Legolas. He simply looks back, for Elves do not need words.

She needs words. She has lived the life of a woman of Gondor, of a mother and a healer and builder and Queen. She has shrunk, and she has grown and lived more fully than she could ever have imagined. She needs words, for she is no longer an Elf.

“How is this permitted?” she asks, and Gimli shrugs.

“Damned if I know. Legolas had a notion, though. And you know what he’s like when he gets an idea in that addled head of his.”

Legolas’ mouth turns up ever so slightly. “Gimli is an Elf-friend, blessed by the Lady of Lórien herself. He shall be permitted.”

Arwen frowns. “But-”

“I know,” Gimli says, and he pats her hand – as wrinkled as his, age-spotted and knobbled around the knuckles. “But he’s waited so long, and for my sake. We’ve got to try, eh?”

And Arwen does not need the insight of the Elves to see that this is the crux of the matter, this is the core of who they are. They will try, and perhaps they will fail. But they will try.

She is so changed. Her skin is soft and marked by her life, by her children, the lines on her face carved deeper with every smile and every sigh and every sorrow, like a well-walked path. She can feel the mortal life she has lived in the ache of her bones and the lead of her heart.

Now she sees that Legolas is changed also. She had thought him frozen, captured by the net of time, and perhaps he is. But if Arwen's life has grown outward, Legolas' has grown inward. The longing in his eyes has swelled until it is just as heavy as the yoke of her years, and he has walked every step of a mortal life alongside his Dwarf. Elf-light his footsteps are, but he tethers himself to the earth for Gimli’s sake.

And now, for Legolas’ sake, Gimli shall attempt to fly.

Arwen bids them farewell for what she knows shall be the last time, and then casts the veil over her face. Oh, how she pities Legolas now! For she has chosen the Gift of Men, and she will die. She will follow Aragorn into his unknown night. She will not be left to linger, forever aware of what she has lost, sinking into her memories until she drowns in them.

Gimli will follow Legolas, but Legolas cannot follow Gimli. Legolas can change - and how he has changed, all unseen and unnoticed! - but he cannot change that much.

(Perhaps he will try.)

Later, in the silence of her rooms, Arwen unbinds the tight coils of her steel-grey hair and lets them fall to her feet. Then, with both the sorrow of the Eldar and the determination of mortals, she cuts free a lock and holds it tightly in her hand.