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Fifteen Years by red_lasbelin

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The courtyard was deserted, the stone slabs that covered the ground eerily echoing the sound of his arrival as he entered. He dismounted, horse nickering softly, and he turned and soothed her as he looked around. Imladris had seen better days, he noted.

When no one came to greet him, he made his way to the stables. There he found several horses lodged, but no stable boy in sight. He shrugged his shoulders and set to the task of settling his horse in for the night. When she had been watered, fed and brushed down, he gave her a final pat and spoke gently to her. "I'll see if I can find you some of those carrots you like so much. Give me some time. Got work to do, people to find."

She looked at him with calm brown eyes saying more than words could, and he laughed. "I promise."

Once done, he headed past the vegetable gardens into the kitchens. He noticed with a glance that they had been tended; it was clear they were still being used. This heartened him, and once he entered the kitchen, the cook and his helper recognized him, asking him for gossip and the length of his stay. He was vague but charming as his plans were unsure even to him, but they told him when to arrive for dinner – a universal sign of acceptance. He grinned and left them, making a mental note to ask the girl for carrots later.

He couldn't get over how damn quiet everything was, but he did start to run into more people – a healer in the healing wing, an elf in the library. He even found the stable boy in an otherwise deserted Hall of Fire, trying to heat corn kernels over the flames. He called across the hall and the stable boy jumped, startled. Laughing, Gildor made sure his horse would be taken care of. The stable boy seemed partially intimidated by him, something he didn't take the trouble to correct just yet - it meant Acacia would be well cared for.

When he went to the guest wing, he found the rooms in many cases all but closed down. His own, where he had spent many a night, had been stripped of almost all the furniture. What little remained was covered in sheets. A touch to them proved that he was perhaps the most recent person to come here in quite a while, judging by the amount of dust that had gathered on the expanse of cloth and into the folds.

Finally, having seen the state of things, he made his way to the east wing, where many of the staff and servants had resided. He found what he was looking for easily enough - sixth room on the left, Erestor's quarters. If his sources were correct, Erestor was still here, and they needed to talk. He heard noises from within the rooms, smiled and rapped his knuckles against the thick oak. Not waiting for an answer, he pushed the door open.

Gildor had seen many things and was surprised by very few of them, but this was one of these instances. He wasn't sure who was more startled - Erestor, the woman crouched down by the sleeping child, or himself.

"Sorry, wrong room?"

~*~*~*~


Erestor looked shaken by Gildor's sudden arrival, but he recovered enough to introduce him to the woman, whose name was Brenna. Then he made brief excuses before disappearing into the connecting bedroom. Had Gildor not known him better, he would have used the word 'fled'. The door shut behind him, and they exchanged quiet pleasantries for a few moments. This gave Gildor an opportunity to get a good look at her.

Dark brown hair framed an open, expressive face, marked by faint wrinkles on her forehead and deep-set laugh lines. She smiled easily and frequently and her eyes were warm. When he asked after the child, her maternal expression made clear answer to one of Gildor's more obvious questions. A brief look around the room and at the signs of a co-inhabitant merely led to more.

Before he could ask, Erestor emerged, more composed and with a very familiar stubborn tilt to his jaw. He grasped Gildor's arm and made to leave. "Come, we need to talk. Brenna, if I'm not back in time for dinner, you two eat without me, all right?"

She acknowledged him, and Gildor saw a look shared between them that spoke of at least more than a passing acquaintance. It kept getting stranger and stranger. He followed Erestor out, knowing better than to start asking questions until they were in a place where they could talk.

Setting seemed to matter to Erestor. He led Gildor to a small alcove off the main wing that was set in such a way that the curved stone made a shield from most eyes. Gildor recognized it, he had spent time with Erestor here before – he could have sworn on the wall across from it there had been a tapestry, but that was now noticeably absent. He turned to face Erestor with a quip on the tip of his tongue about how secrecy and privacy were no longer needed with no one around in Imladris, when Erestor stopped him in his tracks.

"What are you doing here?" he asked flatly, his eyes lacking the usual warmth and welcome Gildor had come to expect from him.

"What do you mean?" Gildor replied defensively, off balanced. "You know why I'm here, I said I would come back."

"You would return when the time had come to sail, yes, I remember our parting quite clearly." Erestor paced, his compact body tight with tension. He stopped long enough to look up at Gildor, his face pale. "You told me it would be another two decades. By your own reckoning, for I've kept it all these years. No, damn it. It's not time."

"Things have changed." Gildor kept his voice calm and even. One of them had to be. "This is short notice, that's true, but we all knew this time was coming. Sooner or later." He knew he was on thin ice, so he trod carefully. "Is there a reason that this is such bad timing?"

Erestor was quiet for a moment, an internal struggle seemingly going on. Gildor thought for a heartbeat that he would confide in him as his mouth relaxed and his eyes became a touch hesitant, softer. But the moment passed. A small shake of dark hair and a determined squaring of the shoulders tossed that theory out the window. "No. No reason."

There was a moment of silence between them, Gildor processing the rejection of his offer, and before he could come up with something to say, Erestor spoke for him. "I'm glad to see you."

"For a moment there, I couldn't tell," Gildor said wryly. He relaxed a measure - this he was more familiar with. "Been a few years for us, hasn't it?"

"Yes, it has. Shame on you for not visiting more," he was told smartly, a smile appearing on Erestor's lips. The warm look he knew was returning.

"Well, see what happens when I don't?" He had meant it teasingly, a joke to ease the strain, but Erestor glanced at him, smile gone. He tucked untidy hair back and sighed. "You just – wouldn't understand." He pushed off of the wall he had been leaning against. "I'll see you at dinner? I have things to see to."

With that, he turned on his heel and left. Gildor watched him down the hallway, until he disappeared round one corner. His day had thrown out all of his previous expectations, and he was worried.

~*~*~*~


As it turned out, Erestor was not at dinner. In another time his absence might not have been noticeable, but with such a markedly small number of people, it showed. The dining hall looked largely unchanged, some of the décor missing, but the tables with thick tops crafted out of fallen tree trunks remained. Gone were the head tables, the order of staff, families and more, now the remaining elves gathered at the tables nearest the entrance, and the seating from what Gildor could tell was largely informal.

He was greeted by the kitchen girl, and he took one of the bowls of stew from her with thanks before looking around to find a seat. He saw a maid he recognized and her mate in the midst of a domestic argument at one of the tables. The rest were people he knew, but not well enough to recall their names.

He was about to take a chance and just pick an empty seat when he saw Brenna sitting with her child. It did not take long to figure that perhaps she would be interesting company for their meal. With that in mind, he slid onto the bench next to her. "May I join you?"

She looked up from feeding her child mashed vegetables and bits of bread soaked in the juices of the stew. "Why yes, of course. Gildor, was it?"

"That's me." He picked up his spoon and started eating. "I didn't catch the young one's name, earlier, didn't have a chance?"

"Aedan, his name is Aedan." Brenna smiled and it reached her eyes – Gildor liked that about her. "Did your talk go all right?"

Gildor sensed curiosity from her, but it didn't seem malicious or harmful (he had seen enough of that kind before), instead merely concerned.

"It went all right. We haven't seen each other for some time. Life's changed a bit since then. You know how it is," Gildor said easily. Mortals saw more quickly than elves did, momentous change happening over a short period of time instead of slowly, like waves beating away at the sea rocks.

Brenna agreed, and he smiled. "Anyhow, it was good to see him. I've missed him. It's been…fifteen years now, I think."

"But that's so long!" Brenna was shocked.

"It's not as uncommon for us." He tried to find an example. "It is similar to taking a year long journey. I was traveling, I travel often, it happens."

"Oh, all right," She nodded, and he wasn't sure if she really understood, but he let it go.

"How do you know him?" Brenna asked after a few minutes of eating. She then blushed and covered with fussing over Aedan. "My apologies, I didn't mean to be rude, he's mentioned you before."

"Oh, we are friends. We worked together a very long time ago." Since long before you were born, he added silently. Erestor and he had been part of the King's intelligence network, it was there they had met and formed the friendship they had to this day. "And I hope you've heard only good things about me?" He gave her a winning smile.

She laughed, embarrassment forgotten. "Oh, good things, mostly." She grinned mischievously. "There have been a few instances of 'Gildor says this…', 'Gildor says that…'"

He wondered where that came from. Did Erestor really do that? "Well, if there had been more instances, it wouldn't have been all good as I've a reputation as a bit of a troublemaker." He shrugged it off easily enough, that tidbit of information to be turned over again in his head later. "Anyway, how about you? How long have you been in Imladris?"

She opened her mouth to reply when her son reached out and tried to grab the bowl of stew, upending it on the table, the floor and himself. Brenna cursed softly underneath her breath and grabbed Aedan. "Here, hold him while I get a cloth, please?"

Gildor found himself with a squirming child as Brenna hurried away. Luckily, the stew was not as hot as Gildor's, and Aedan was unperturbed at the warm mess, trying to get down off of Gildor's lap and explore the rest of the room. He held onto him, talking firmly but quietly – not unlike how he would to his horse. Aedan settled, and he was struck by a thought.

He picked the child off his lap and set him on the table, pushing his own bowl of stew away in the process, and looked at him. He seemed to be a mortal child of two years, perhaps three, with hazel eyes and alert to his surroundings - sweet child, but bloody determined. He had a suspicion, quiet but persistent, born from the way the child's unusual energy that Gildor sensed from him, and the way he acted.

He pushed back short, black curls. Aedan started briefly, but didn't seem to mind, distracted momentarily by the agate-stone pendant Gildor wore. The evidence was right there before him, more clear than any words - mortal rounded ears with a slight point.

~*~*~*~


Brenna came back and he helped her clean up the mess. After a few minutes of distracted conversation, Gildor made his excuses with a smile to Brenna and a pat on the head for Aedan. He knew he had an opportunity to ask her questions and discover more, but one revelation was enough for the night. He liked Brenna and didn't want to upset her with a push for information. He decided instead it would be best to sleep on it.

One of the remaining maids offered him another room on the lower wing that was already prepared for use, but Gildor turned her down kindly, preferring instead to sleep in his own room. A little dust and cloth covered furniture wouldn't bother him; he had spent many a night on the cold ground with roots and rocks sticking into his back. She looked interested and he would have told her a story – many people came to him for stories – but she heard her name called and hurried away.

When he opened the door to his rooms, he found them set out much as he had remembered. The remaining furniture had been stripped of their protective cloths, the bed was freshly made, mattress fluffed, and his worn traveling bag was resting on the oak chest at the foot of the bed. The room was lit by candles, casting a warm, soft glow and creating shadows. Erestor stood by the window looking out, the long line of his back straight, a silent silhouette.

Gildor watched him for a moment, noticing the way the light flickered and caught in dark hair, before he walked over to the bag, opened and searched through it, finally uncovering a small velvet bag with a drawstring. He picked it up and felt the soft material before he called out. Erestor turned at the sound of his name and caught the bag as it was tossed to him.

"For you," Gildor said briefly.

The gift giving was not new, he had given Erestor many trinkets picked up from his travels, keeping them until he had an opportunity to go to Imladris and see him. Erestor had said it was a reminder of his traveling days and enjoyed them. Gildor noticed and remembered, and it became a little tradition between them.

He pulled his shirt off and left it by his bag, then went to the wash table with its mid-sized bowl and pitcher of water. He splashed water on his face, the coolness of it soothing. He heard the sound of the leather tie sliding over the velvet and held his breath. Reaching for the towel, he turned around, patting his face and neck dry.

Erestor stood, bag clutched in one hand, the gift cupped in his other palm. Brown eyes, usually intent, focused, at times dancing with a wicked humour, were unusually still now, quiet in a way that Gildor had rarely seen.

"How?"

"I thought I'd say goodbye to Harad, old memories from the Lindon days, you know. Won it in a game of chance. Good story." Gildor shrugged.

"Saw one of these once." Erestor said slowly. "From the southern sea, yes?"

"Black pearls, they call them."

Silence stretched between them, the value of the pearl, the message beneath it unsaid. Finally Erestor said, "Gildor, this is not a friendly sort of gift…"

"I had a nice run of luck, that's all. It made me think of you." Gildor replied evenly. This entire visit had not gone the way he had seen it, it made sense that the gift would not as well. But he had always landed on his feet and this time would be no different, he resolved.

Erestor lapsed into silence again and settled on the edge of Gildor's bed, apparently deep in thought. Gildor waited for him to say something, anything, but words didn't seem forthcoming. He sighed, finished washing up and then joined Erestor on the bed.

"You can talk to me. Whatever is going on, you've always been able to talk to me. What makes this time different?"

"I haven't seen you for what – fifteen years? A lot has happened since. Imladris is different, I'm different."

"I noticed this, yes," Gildor said dryly. "How are you different?"

Erestor took a breath and straightened his shoulders. "I'm a father now."

It was said bluntly with no fuss, straight forward and matter-of-factly. The evidence had all been there, but coming from Erestor's mouth, Gildor couldn't help feeling a frisson of surprise. Still, he was reasonable and calm when he replied, "Yes, I know."

Erestor jerked his head up, looking at Gildor quizzically. "How did you…?" Then as soon as the words left his mouth, he laughed at himself quietly. "Well, it was a little obvious, wasn't it?"

"A little, you aren't in the habit of living with mortal women…that I know of, anyway." The laughter broke most of the tension, and Gildor felt himself relaxing. "This sort of thing happens, I know. It has in my company and there are plenty enough stories. I just did not expect it to happen to you?"

"I must confess I hadn't either," Erestor admitted, shaking his head and sharing a quick look with him. "I didn't see it coming at all."

Gildor lay down, shoving the pillows behind his head properly. It had been a long day. He patted the space beside him and Erestor joined him. They were quiet for a few minutes, with nothing but the sound of their breathing as they stared up at the ceiling. Gildor was on the edge of drifting off when Erestor spoke again.

"I was in Northwode. Elladan and Elrohir had gone along with their grandfather, and so many left with them. Our trading contracts there needed to be re-adjusted. We got a whole shipment of those tomatoes Elrond loved after the exodus, I can't remember the specific name - I think I've mentally blocked it out. We were eating them for weeks. I never want to see that vegetable again."

Gildor resisted the urge to laugh. "No tomatoes, no. And I haven't seen Northwode in ages. Brenna is from there?"

Erestor nodded, his black hair making a soft sound against the cotton pillowcase, "Yes, she is. I met her in the town square briefly and then again at the tavern I was in during my stay."

"You slept with a barmaid?" Gildor inquired, barely able to keep the surprise out of his voice.

"Don't laugh. I will hurt you."

"No laughing, I promise. Just, of all the people to wind up doing that…it's really rather more the twins' style. Or mine. Maybe even Glorfindel."

"Don't be silly, he wouldn't, Gildor. And I wasn't expecting it either. But I was lonely." Erestor sat up, frustrated. "That happens sometimes, you know. Quaint thought and all. You wander the world, but I'm always here these days and you see the state Imladris is in. And she was different. She is part of this world, the new one. Time's moving on nowhere near like it used to. Much faster, like mortals now. This is their Age."

Erestor took a breath then continued more softly. "I was lonely, a touch drunk, and when I woke up the next morning I was happier than I had been in a long while. It wasn't meant to be more than one night. We were both fine with what it was."

Gildor watched Erestor, eyes tracing the line of his back and shoulders. Up was now down, nothing was quite as he imagined it. He sighed and sat up, his back against the headboard. "But Aedan came along."

"I received a letter from her some months after. She was sure he was mine." Erestor said simply. "I brought her here. She didn't have much family, the thought of paying her didn't feel right, and…I wanted to see my child."

"He's gorgeous, truly. He'll probably take after you in all the wrong ways," Gildor offered with a small smile. There was a question that insisted on being let out but he refused, asking a more neutral one instead. "How long has she been here?"

"Four, almost five years, I suppose?" Erestor lifted one shoulder minutely. "Time passes so quickly with a young one, it's incredible. He grows faster than an elven child, but a bit behind her kind physically, I believe. He's going to have a very long life by their reckoning."

It explained why Erestor had been so upset with the news of the last ships, Gildor thought to himself. "But you're happy." he said, half asking. "Even with the – unexpected developments."

"I have a family. I didn't expect to have that, never met the right person. Yes, this makes me happy. Even," Erestor paused, then plunged on. "if I have to lose them someday. Even then."

Gildor absorbed this. The loss Erestor was facing in the future was huge. And the matter of sailing was still unresolved. Erestor needed practical advice, he knew, but the forbidden question came and he was unable to stop himself. "Do you love her?"

Erestor gave him a side glance, brandy eyes shifting in his direction, assessing him and seemingly seeing straight through him. "Not at first. It was obligation. But there's love there now, yes. Had some time to grow."

Gildor felt like the proverbial floor dropped out underneath his feet. He thought he did a good job of hiding it, but not enough. Erestor turned and reached over, hand touching his forearm. "Not as you might think. She's not my soul's mate. I don't – think it will ever be such. I've told her, and she understood. I think I am also…too unfamiliar for her to love as much as she would one of her own kind."

"Does it upset you?" Gildor asked, realizing with horror his voice was coming out much more thickly than intended.

"Not as much as it would if things were different," Erestor said frankly. "Not as much as if I had never been given this." He held up the pearl, light catching the smooth, dark surface, causing it to glow. He added more gently, "I know what this means, Gildor. Or at least – I think I do."

"Felt this way for a long time, but we've always been going in such different directions. I thought when I came here that we'd finally be on the same path, but we're not. Even now." Gildor laughed, but there was no joy in it, merely acknowledgement of what was. He straightened, not giving Erestor a chance to reply. "You need to go, it's late." He softened it with a small smile and an, "I'll see you tomorrow."

Erestor nodded, though obviously disgruntled by the quick dismissal. "Yes, of course. Aedan has probably been put to bed now." He stood, one smooth movement, and gathered the leather bag off the chest. He slipped the pearl back into it, retying it deftly. He headed for the door, but before he stepped out, he turned back.

Gildor looked up, having made himself not watch him leave. Erestor opened his mouth, but no words came forth. He finally said, "Goodnight, Gildor. Tomorrow."

~*~*~*~


The next morning, Gildor lay in bed listening to the birdsong. He tried to keep himself from replaying their conversation, but it crept into his mind in spite of this. Frustrated with himself, he pushed the covers back and got up to start his day.

First stop was the kitchen, collecting carrots for his horse and grabbing a bite to eat. He was aided by the kitchen girl, and over oatmeal mash he picked up bits of gossip, the pieces of what had taken place in Imladris since his last visit slowly falling into place. Much had happened, and much had changed, but in some ways Imladris had always stayed the same and Gildor was heartened by that fact.

After that, he went to the stables, pleased to find the boy there, working hard, tending the horses and mucking out the stalls. It brightened his mood considerably, and after feeding his horse her treats some of the heaviness that had settled in his heart lifted.

Thusly, when he met Brenna in the halls after hearing the lunch bells sound, he was able to greet her with an easy smile. They exchanged small talk, him asking after Aedan, and her asking after his rest. It was easy enough to slide into a familiar rapport, so easy in fact that Gildor was invited to a family lunch. He refused at first but Brenna insisted, using the undeniable fact that Aedan liked him and reminding him how welcome he was.

Finally, Gildor accepted and found himself commandeered into carrying foodstuff for what he learned was an impromptu picnic on one of the balconies overlooking Imladris's main waterfall. They worked together in setting up the table with a cloth, arranging the chairs – there were enough for three, and Gildor volunteered to sit on the bench – and placing the food out on plates. Shortly thereafter Erestor showed up with Aedan in hand, walking slowly to keep pace with his son.

He looked surprised when he saw Gildor, but Aedan broke whatever tension there was by coming over to Gildor and making the 'up' gesture with his hands, known by men and elves alike. Gildor picked him up, and Aedan made a grab for his pendant. Hazel eyes looked up at him and Gildor felt his heart melt a little inside. He felt both Brenna and Erestor's eyes on him, and he offered Aedan, who protested a moment, to his mother, and they settled down to eat.

Lunch went well. Aedan was easily distracted and the adults spent most of the time keeping an eye on him. While Gildor was not looking at Aedan, he watched Erestor with Brenna. Over fresh fruit, cheese and crusty bread, he saw how affectionate the two of them were with each other. There were touches when talking, small, thoughtful gestures. Erestor was relaxed with her, something that had been missing the first time he had met them. It made Gildor wistful and his heart ache.

Their socializing wound down to his relief when Aedan's eyelids began to droop while he was sitting on his father's lap, tucked in with Erestor's arm around him. Brenna started to clear off the plates and Gildor moved to help her, working as quietly as they could. He offered to take them to the kitchens but she demurred, gathering them efficiently with a professional skill. She left and Erestor stood, holding Aedan against him. He asked Gildor to join him as he took his son back to their rooms, and Gildor said yes, even though he knew that it was pushing past the point where being around Erestor was good for his state of mind.

The walk was a long one, filled with mostly comfortable silence, broken only by the few times they ran into people, who quickly left after they saw the sleeping child. When they made it to the rooms, Gildor shut the door behind him and Erestor took Aedan into his bed-chambers. Gildor followed reluctantly and was not surprised to find one bed and evidence of shared living quarters. It wasn't platonic, but he had assumed that when he heard the way Erestor talked about her.

Erestor laid his son atop the bed, speaking quietly to him, a soft kiss pressed on a warm forehead. He motioned for Gildor to leave and followed him, leaving the door open a small crack. Then he cleared off papers and a few items of clothing from two chairs in the main room. He gestured for Gildor to sit, with a small rueful smile. "I'll never get used to how much messier it can be living with two more people."

"It's been a while since I've seen your rooms in such a state," Gildor replied with a quick grin in return. He didn't sit down.

"It just happened. The rooms are almost too small. I wound up needing to turn the only room I had for storage into a room for Aedan. He's in our room just for his nap. It's worked out though. This is my home and we're comfortable here. It would feel beyond strange to take one of the bigger suites. That's Elrond's wing."

"Imagine trying to move into his quarters."

Erestor made a face tinged with horror. "No, no. I could never do that. Though I know moving is an
eventuality. Aedan will need more room, anyhow."

Gildor nodded in answer, and they lapsed into silence again. After a few moments of this, Erestor ventured carefully, "We need to talk, you know."

"I know we do." Gildor crossed his arms over his chest subconsciously. "But not now. Not here."

"Not here?" Erestor echoed, sounding puzzled.

"Not here," he said firmly. "This is your home with them, it just – doesn't feel right."

Erestor's eyes widened, and he looked around the room as if seeing it in an entirely different way. Gildor hoped saw how changed it was to someone who had not seen it in fifteen years. Finally -"Oh."

"Yes. Oh." It was blunt, and he didn't mean it to hurt but he saw Erestor flinch.

"Are you angry with me?" Erestor looked up at him, eyes filled with worry and upset.

Gildor uncrossed his arms and sighed, rubbing one of his temples. "No, I'm not. You're happy, and I've always wanted that for you." I just wanted to be the cause of it, he added silently. "It's just – not a good time right now. Not a good place. Give me a little time to absorb all of this, please? Let me think."

Erestor rose to his feet and moved in front of him. He looked up at Gildor, hand touching his cheek gently, and they shared a moment that lasted for what felt like minutes. Gildor didn't want it to end, but it needed to. He captured Erestor's wrist and brought it down from his face slowly, and Erestor let him, lips pursing minutely.

"Give me time," he repeated, and at Erestor's quick nod, excused himself.

~*~*~*~


A little time turned into a few days. Gildor didn't avoid Erestor. There were too few people at mealtimes for such a thing to be possible, and if he were honest with himself, he liked seeing him each day as it was. Aedan was the darling of the house, partly Gildor suspected because it had been so long since Imladris had seen little children, and also because he was genuinely a sweet child. Brenna had been welcomed with open arms as well, but that was not a surprise to him. Imladris had always been the realm most accepting of different people and even the remnants now would honour the foundation on which Elrond had built the Last Homely House.

Before there was an official talk, however, he had to deliver his message from Cirdan. He sought out Erestor in the best place he knew – his office. Erestor was busy, of course and he was forced to wait in one of the comfortable chairs across from the desk. He was in the process of flipping through a few stacks of unfiled papers when Erestor finished his business, setting his quill down and offering Gildor his full attention.

"Stop that." Erestor's voice was amused.

"It isn't as if there are any deep secrets left here, are there?" Gildor raised an eyebrow, but all he got was a smile in return.

"You never know." Erestor paused and considered. "Well, you probably would, as you are the keeper of secrets and gatherer of information."

"Used to be. I retired from my life of intelligence service, remember?"

"No one ever retires from it." Erestor shared a look with him. "We both know that."

"That's true enough." Gildor leaned back in his chair and fixed Erestor with his gaze. "The last of Cirdan's ships are sailing. That's why I came. Everyone here will have to decide if they are leaving."

"How much time?"

"Three months, Cirdan told me the ships will be ready by then. Is that enough time?"

Erestor considered the situation, lost in thought. "Yes, that should be time enough to gather the important things and make the journey, make whatever goodbyes are necessary. Need to stop shipments, all the trading, sell the animals…"

"Basically dismantle Imladris the rest of the way," Gildor supplied.

Erestor gave him a sharp look, but conceded. "Yes. How long are you staying for?"

"Two more days - I have places left in Arda to see before the ships sail. Long enough for you to make the announcement. A list of names to give Cirdan would be ideal."

"That will be arranged, of course. So soon?"

Gildor gave a small smile. "I think it is best for everyone involved."

Erestor took this in without a word. There was a notable air of sadness around him, but then he straightened, brisk and professional. "I suspect many will go, and then there's a matter of arranging homes for those who might chose not to do so."

"You and your family will have to relocate."

"I knew this day would come," Erestor replied. "I just did not expect it to arrive so quickly. I'll find a place for us, but this is my home and always has been."

"It always will be. Leaving it won't change that. In a bigger sense, Middle-earth is our home, and we will never lose that," Gildor said, sharing a bittersweet smile with him. In this, they understood each other perfectly.

~*~*~*~


That night, when he found Erestor in his rooms once more, it was not a surprise. A bottle of wine sat upon the table with two filled glasses, and he took one before turning to face Erestor. They looked at each other and both started talking at once.

"There's something I -"

"I've been thinking that -"

They stopped and laughed quietly. Gildor gave him his glass and Erestor sat on the wood chest, drawing one leg up to his chest, languid like a cat with the restrained energy. "May I go first, please? There's something I need to say."

Gildor nodded, gesturing for him to continue. He watched Erestor, who he could see was gathering his thoughts at first before he fixed Gildor with an intense look. When he spoke, however, his voice was soft.

"You are my friend. You have been for more years than I can count, we worked together, saw the world together and experienced wonderful things before I settled here in Imladris. Our roads split, you said before, and it's true. But – even in all our time apart, you have stayed in my heart. I don't want to lose your friendship. It has been my rock for a lifetime."

Gildor was very quiet, listening with his heart and his head. He set his glass down and moved to sit by Erestor on the chest, needing to be close. Erestor paused, sat properly and reached for Gildor's hand, intertwining their fingers together loosely. He took a breath before continuing.

"I care for you - deeply. It crossed beyond friendship some time ago. When you gave me the pearl…Gods, Gildor, I've been hoping for any sign from you for years, and in that, finally, I have it. It is as you meant it to be, yes?"

"It was more than a trinket, yes. It was a love gift. It is a love gift." Gildor looked down at their intertwined fingers, fairer skin against darker, more weathered skin and felt his heart lurch.

"I cannot return it in kind. Not as it deserves. Not now. I have Aedan. And I do not love Brenna as our kind do, but we mean something to each other and I must see it through." Erestor was determined, Gildor knew that tone very well, but the underlying pain was not as familiar.

"Hush. I know that. I knew that when I walked in, somehow I must have known. But Erestor, please – you cannot forsake the undying lands."

Erestor took his hand out of Gildor's, looking quite distressed. "I made a choice for my son. I thought you understood that. Please – you must understand that."

"I do," Gildor said hastily. "But there is another option."

"What?"

"I was going to tell you. Before Harad, I spent time in Gondor and Ithilien. The Prince is staying in Middle-earth until Aragorn dies. After that, I've heard he intends to sail. With Cirdan gone, that involves building a ship himself. I've been thinking about it and… perhaps it would be possible to arrange to be on it? Talk to Legolas. He'd not refuse an elf in need."

Erestor looked at him, eyes widening in surprise. Slowly, as if holding something fragile, he replied. "That…might be possible. Yes. Aragorn still has many years left, does he not?"

"He was looking exceptionally hale when last I saw him. Grey-haired but strong, and the reign suits him well. Arwen – less so."

"Foolish child," Erestor said sadly. "She's an alien there; she will never be anything more than a strange queen, inspiring either fascination or fear. Not love. My heart aches thinking of it." He took a healthy sip of wine. "Fifty years perhaps? It would give me enough time to see Aedan settled, happy and wed. Maybe see one of my grandchildren. I don't suppose I should send Aragorn a note and tell him be sure to live at least that long?"

Gildor laughed. "No, just wish for his continued health and well being. But it is possible. After Legolas's ship sails, the curtain will fall for the last time. Please – come with him."

"I need to think. I need to talk to Brenna about this, it affects our future if I know that at a certain time, I will be leaving."

"I understand," Gildor said briefly. It was the way it must be. He squeezed Erestor's hand gently, the contact between them making him feel warm inside.

Erestor reached over and tucked thick, unruly hair behind Gildor's ear, smiling at him. "You've given me hope."

~*~*~*~


Gildor was in the courtyard adjusting his saddle straps when he saw Erestor appear at the entrance. He led Aedan out and Brenna followed him. Taking a breath, Gildor smiled and welcomed them. Brenna hugged him and he responded in kind. He saw what Erestor liked in her; she was lovely, warm and thoughtful. She had provided him with food for his knapsack and he knew he would eat well. He crouched down at Aedan's level, and hazel eyes met blue.

"May the sun always shine on your face, little one, and the road always be kind to you." He saw an understanding of sorts in the child's eyes and he hugged him tightly. Brenna moved to gather Aedan up in her arms to leave, but before she did, Gildor took his necklace off, the agate pendant on the leather cord, and pressed it into her hands 'for when he no longer will try to put it in his mouth'. Laughter and another quick hug followed and then she was gone, leaving Erestor and Gildor in an otherwise quiet courtyard.

"Thank you." Erestor rubbed his horse's neck while looking at him. He was deeply moved, Gildor could see. They stood next to each other, Acacia neighing softly, and the air was thick between them.

"You have a beautiful family," Gildor offered sincerely.

"I do, yes." They were quiet for a moment, then Erestor reached in his pocket. He pressed something into Gildor's hand, not breaking eye contact. "You need to keep this."

He felt velvet against his skin, and as his fingers closed around it, he knew without looking what it was. His pearl. "Why?"

"When Legolas sails, I will go with him. I need you to keep it safe…" Erestor touched his cheek, serious but warm. "…for my inevitable return."

Just for a moment Gildor leaned his face into the touch of Erestor's strong palm, before asking intently, "Do you promise?"

Erestor nodded, solemnly. It was enough for Gildor. He leaned in, pressing his mouth to Erestor's full lips, and felt Erestor's arms going around his neck as they sank into the kiss. It was gentle and chaste, delicate with unfulfilled promises. Gildor slid his fingers through thick dark hair and felt a strong sense of home and belonging, right there with him.

It ended as it had to, and they both looked mildly taken aback at the subtle power of it. Gildor mounted his horse and Erestor stood back, out of his way, arms crossed over his chest as if bracing himself for Gildor's departure.

"I will see you again," he said.

"Yes, you will," Gildor smiled. "Once you have me, I'm impossible to get rid of."
Chapter end notes:
Beta: the immeasurable Keiliss