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She dreamt that she spun under starlight, and woke to the sunrise, red and orange across the dead branches of the trees above her. For a moment, she lay where she was, amid the brown leaves, watching the familiar play of light across unfamiliar forest. Miles behind her, Mirkwood was drowning in darkness – but then again, so was the rest of Middle-earth.

Tauriel had thought her bow would be as useful in the wide world as it was under the shadowed eaves of the forest. Thus far, she had found little to keep her arrows flying.

Every land she passed through was under siege, whether visible or not. Mirkwood, at least, had physical danger to fight: spiders to fall under her knives, orcs to sight over arrows. (Even there, the creeping darkness grew closer day by day – not as steadily as it had under the shadow of Dol Guldur, but whispers of lost patrols and strange tracks in the dirt kept the guards on edge even now.)

We were meant to defend the whole world, not only this forest,she had argued in the echoing throne room, because the forest was too close, because there was something aching empty inside her with every breath she took and no one else could see, no one else felt as useless as she did, and she thought that maybe if she just did something, anything, the emptiness inside would go away.

Besides, the world had always needed protecting. (And that had always only been an excuse.)

Thranduil had narrowed his eyes and said, go, then, and see how long you can go on being a shield for every defenseless creature you find.

She had left with her bow and a knife and her pride, and almost managed to convince herself that she did not regret any of her choices.

This has always been our fight.

Hiding was something she was good at. Living her whole life in the forest gave her light feet and an ability to fade into silence. She was good at remaining unnoticed, and so she managed to traverse a good distance without encountering another soul.

For a while, the solitude suited her. The constant company of others had long chafed at her, and the new lands she woke to every morning were enough to satisfy some of the wandering loneliness inside, at least for a time.

It was not until the Misty Mountains that she encountered any sort of enemy, and a good part of her thought nothing but finally when the Orc patrol leader lifted its head and sniffed, nostrils flaring – then looked directly at the bush Tauriel was crouched behind, a snarl twisting its features.

She rose, an arrow already nocked to her bow, and two Orcs went down with grey fletching through their throats before the others had time to draw their weapons. The song of battle was already pounding through her veins, and she hadn't felt much of anything for so long, it nearly made her drunk. Still, she only misjudged once, a step back a second too late that gave her a short gash across her left thigh.

It might have been a long time before there were no more than a huddled mass of bodies between her and the Orc general. Time was hard to judge, in the midst of battle.

"Your kind cannot win, elf," the Orc spat, stepping forward. "Our time has come––"

"Spare me the speech." Tauriel drew her last arrow from her quiver, and the Orc had time to jerk backwards in surprise before it fell backwards, slain.

Snow on the mountains was different from any she had seen in the forest, or even on the plains east of Mirkwood. It stung her cheeks and made her eyes water. Under the trees, snow had been soft and windblown, heaps of white where the branches did not catch them, forming the silhouette of a tree's shadow on the frozen earth. Icicles had dripped from the bare branches, and she had snapped them off to play at swords with her sister.

She walked up the mountain, and then down, her boots breaking the thin crust of ice that formed over the packed snow. Her fingers went numb, and then her feet, and then her whole body.

The bitter thought crossed her mind more than once, on the long trek – at least this way, she was as cold outside as she was on the inside.

She pursued an Orc patrol down the slopes of the mountains, chasing them over the course of a week, picking them off one by one. The last Orc led her on a long chase, evading her with remarkable cunning, fleeing farther and farther west.

When she found herself in a narrow, winding cleft through the rock, she realized where it had been leading her all this time.

"Poor choice," she muttered under her breath, and sped up.

It nearly managed to reach the mouth of the valley when she sent an arrow winging after it, deliberately letting it clatter off the rock face beside it so it turned, panting and growling. She slung her bow across her back and reached for her knife, keeping her eyes trained on the Orc and not on the flash of sunlight on metal beyond it.

"Kill me then, elf," it snarled. Its eyes were rimmed red, something about their wet wideness reminding her of a dog. When she took a step closer, it hefted its heavy iron spear.

"There is no need for me to go to all that trouble." Tauriel flipped her knife from hand to hand, lifting one eyebrow. "After all, you were the one who so bravely led me here––"

The Orc opened its mouth, then stiffened. Tauriel watched with faint interest as bright steel grew from its midsection, smeared black with blood.

"Well met, stranger," Tauriel greeted, sheathing her knife. The orc corpse fell aside with a thud, revealing the elf standing behind it, sword out. Her armor flashed golden in the sun, the only thing that had given away her position near the opening of the valley.

"Well met," the elf echoed. She kicked the orc corpse aside with a soft curse. "These things have been getting closer and closer to the valley for my lord's liking. Were you pursuing it far?"

"Only for a week or so. The rest died along the way. May I inquire as to where I am, precisely?" As though the music of water and dusty sunlight could belong anywhere but here – even she, in Mirkwood, had heard of this place.

The guard regarded her curiously, then removed her helm and bowed. "This is Imladris – Rivendell, in the common tongue."

They led her through a quiet courtyard where sunlight played across a whispering fountain, and her boots echoed oddly on the pavestones. Up a set of shallow stairs, to where a lady dressed all in blue stood, her hands behind her back and a net of jewels cast over her dark hair.

"Welcome," she said. "I apologize for the poor reception, but my father is away at the moment. Will you come inside?"

"My thanks, lady." Tauriel hesitated, then clenched a fist across her chest in a salute, bowing low. There was something about this elf that seemed to demand such respect. When she straightened, she caught the brief gleam in the elf's eyes. "My name is Tauriel."

"I know." Once again, that glint – was it amusement? If it was, it was carefully concealed behind the cool, collected mask. "I am Arwen, though some know my by other names. You are welcome in Rivendell, Tauriel of Mirkwood."

"How did you know my name?" she asked later that evening, over dinner in a feasting hall that practically echoed with silence. She had not seen more than a dozen elves since arriving, and at the moment, she and Arwen were the only ones in a hall meant to hold hundreds.

The corners of Arwen's lips twitched. "How do you think?"

"I have heard tell of the power of your kin in the Golden Wood," Tauriel began hesitantly, and Arwen laughed brightly. It took a second for Tauriel to place why it felt strange, and then she realized: it was the first genuine emotion she had seen Arwen express, since she arrived.

"Nay, I have not my grandmother's gifts."

"Nor has the news of my brave deeds yet reached quite so far," Tauriel guessed, half-joking. Arwen smiled briefly, like a flicker of candle-flame.

"You strike closer to the truth that you would expect. The queen of Mirkwood, on one of her visits to Rivendell, had much to say about the captain of the guard. By the skill with a bow––" Here her eyes flicked towards the quiver Tauriel had left leaning against the door, as a reminder to sort out her arrows when she had a spare moment. "––and the flame-red hair, I did not think there could be many other warriors who matched such a description."

"You flatter me, my lady."

"You know my name, Tauriel." Arwen reached across the table, closing her hand around Tauriel's, who felt a thrill of something unfamiliar rush across her skin at the contact. "Do me the honor of using it?"

Tauriel inclined her head, fighting down the sudden race of her heart. "Yes, my l––Arwen."

"Good." Arwen sat back, tapping a finger on the side of her glass. "When you are done, perhaps we could see to finding you someplace to sleep."

She had only meant to stop for a day or so, but somehow that day stretched on to a week, and then a full cycle of the pale moon overhead. Something about Rivendell made it hard to turn back to the lonely journeying on the road, and besides – where could she go from here, besides to the Sea?

Though Arwen often disappeared during the day, they sat on the balcony every evening to watch the night fall, pinpricks of light appearing above and the soft noise of crickets mingling with the falling water. They spoke together of the things they had seen, Arwen of her childhood days traveling the land with her parents and the peace she found in Lothlórien, Tauriel of growing up in the shadow of trees and learning to fight with hand and knife and bow.

(She learned of Aragorn, the human who had caught the eye of the Evenstar, and supposed she might have been jealous once, if she still felt anything at all. Now, though, all she knew was that here and now, Arwen was with her, and no one else.)

"Why did you leave Mirkwood?" Arwen asked her one night, her hand curled around Tauriel's wrist (and Arwen always seemed to be brushing against her, as if she craved some warmth Tauriel wasn't sure she could give). Tauriel smiled, feeling the stretch of the careless mask she wore.

"It grew confining. Surely you understand."

To her surprise, Arwen squeezed her hand, holding just a heartbeat longer than could be considered proper. "I think I do."

There was something about the Evenstar that echoed back something of the cold inside Tauriel – as though both of them had passed over the mountains, and kept some of the ice within them. She did not know the source of Arwen's sorrow, but could guess. There were whispers (always had been), and the banner that lay half-finished across the bed Arwen hardly ever slept in anymore.

The tree of Elendil, woven in silver, glinting with jewels. Whenever Tauriel saw it – and Arwen certainly took no pains to hide it – she could not see a crown or a king in it. The starlight there only brought to mind the swift fingers and storm-grey eyes of the lady of Rivendell.

It might have been her imagination – might have been wishful thinking, but sometimes she turned and caught Arwen watching her, lips half-parted, a thoughtful look in her eyes.

(She dreamed of pale skin under her scarred hands, of dark hair falling forward, and arched backs. Those were dreams that were hard to banish come morning light.)

Rivendell was almost impossibly peaceful, when Tauriel knew exactly how war-torn the lands without were. Even here, news of the Enemy trickled through the mountains. Birds twittered cautiously news of fire and ruin, smoke over wastelands and the dead, the bodies, the battle.

"I should not have lingered here so long," she told Arwen one evening. The two of them were sitting on the garden wall, tendrils of green vine brushing Arwen's bare feet. The sun was setting, and the air smelled of flowers and rain, cool and dark. (Their hands were so close, she could have reached out – if she did not know better.)

Arwen hummed thoughtfully. "When was the last time you looked up to the sky and did not think of battle?"

Tauriel felt the corners of her lips tighten, and was glad that Arwen's eyes were fixed on the fountain, not on her. "The Enemy marches on the land of your kin, and you would sit by idly and pine for someone who may never return."

"Then go out yourself, as you did before."

Once, she would have turned without a word and left, retreating again through the gates of Rivendell and seeking battle elsewhere. Once, but now...

"You know I cannot."

Arwen turned, the fabric of her dress whispering against her skin. "And why would that be?"

Tauriel closed the gap between them, pressing a kiss to her lips and lingering for barely a heartbeat before pulling away. Arwen's tongue darted out over her lips, surprise in her eyes.

"You know why," Tauriel whispered.

They spilled across Arwen's bed in a tangle of limbs and half-heard noises and shared breath. Tauriel learned the way Arwen arched at the slightest pressure just there, and moaned when Arwen rolled over and returned the favor.

This could not last.

This could not be forever, and she knew it.

It did not stop her from tangling her hands in dark hair and biting her lip to keep from crying out as she climaxed. It did not stop Arwen from kissing her sloppily, cheeks flushed and eyes too-bright, as if she was burning up with fever.

It did not stop Tauriel from wanting it to be forever.

"Why did you truly leave your home?" Arwen asked, unbound hair falling across her shoulders. In the morning glow, it seemed easy for Tauriel to close her eyes and let something close to the truth spill out.

"I had nothing to protect. Nothing to fight."

"And you need that?"

Tauriel opened her mouth, a lie ready – a warrior is meant for fighting – but Arwen's knee was pressed carelessly against her leg, bare skin warming on contact, and she was tired of playing the part of the fearless warrior. "I need battle like I need to breathe," she whispered, and felt Arwen shift against her. "Because there are so few things that make me feel alive, and dancing on the edge of death is one of those things."

"Fighting is only worth anything so long as you have something to fight for."

Words she had heard before, but never in sunlight-soaked quiet, never lying in the arms of someone she thought she might love. She felt an ache in her heart, like river ice finally cracking.

She rolled onto her side and met Arwen's gaze. "Or something to protect."

The corners of Arwen's mouth twitched, though her eyes were perfectly solemn. "Something?"

"My lady," Tauriel began, and could see the protest forming on Arwen's lips. "Nay – let me finish." She sat up, the blanket slipping from her shoulders. "My lady Evenstar – if it be your desire, will you let me fight to protect you?"

Arwen answered with a kiss, long and lingering. And if Tauriel had had any doubt in her mind after that, when she pulled away, she added, "I would be honored, Tauriel."