Author's Note: It's always easier to ease back into LotR writing with a one-shot, so here you go.
Many months ago Elliska said something along the lines of, "Wouldn't it be great if Bilbo somehow met Thranduil and Legolas after the War?" So of course I had to make it happen, even though I've had to play merry hell with canon to do it.
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
Summary: Bilbo meets Thranduil and Legolas again after the War. Sort-of-sequel to A World without the Ring.
"I must say," the Wizard said, clenching his unlit pipe between his teeth, "I am astonished at your optimism, Master Baggins."
Bilbo Baggins looked up from his book.
He was old now – very old – and he felt every last one of his years. In a few months he would surpass the Old Took, if he lived that long. He hoped he did. He hoped he lived a little longer, long enough to see the white shores of the Elven-home, as Master Elrond and Lord Glorfindel had both promised he would.
Gandalf's expression suggested the opposite. He looked as though he was at the bedside of a sick friend who had only hours left and was wondering how to break the news.
"Is something wrong?" Bilbo asked.
"Oh. I see Elrond neglected to tell you."
"Tell me what?"
"An old friend of yours is expected today." Gandalf took his pipe out of his mouth and gestured with it. "I advised Elrond against it. After all, Aman waits for all the kindred of the Eldar, and he has, with considerable ingenuity, managed to live long enough to see it. But he insisted that the remaining Elf-lords of Middle-earth must sit in council at least once before they leave it."
"The remaining…" Bilbo trailed off, his mouth falling open as the implications dawned on him. "Gandalf? Is the Elven-king coming here?"
"He will be in Imladris by dusk."
Bilbo could not speak for several seconds. He had thought there was nothing in Middle-earth, possibly in all of Arda, that could frighten him, after he had faced a dragon and fought in a battle and borne and given up the greatest weapon of the Enemy. He found now that he was mistaken.
"The Elven-king is coming here?" Bilbo asked again, hoping it would turn out to be some dreadful mistake.
"You look alarmed."
"Alarmed? Alarmed, yes, of course I'm alarmed. He has just found out that I took the Ring – Sauron's Ring – into his stronghold and used it steal the keys to his cellars and free his prisoners."
"And because of Sauron's Ring, Thranduil's beloved son went on a dangerous quest, to the borders of Mordor itself. Do not forget that."
"Yes, thank you, Gandalf. That makes me feel so much better. He is going to feed me to a giant spider."
"There are very few giant spiders in the Woodland Realm now."
"But there are some."
Bilbo got to his feet, reaching for the cane he now used to walk.
"Do not be absurd," said Gandalf. "You cannot hope to outrun the Elven-king."
"I certainly can't hope to meet him and come out alive. Tell me, Gandalf, what can I do?"
Gandalf smiled. "In all of Middle-earth, there is one Elf who might be able to save you. If you can find him before Thranduil finds you…"
Bilbo stared. "Is Legolas here?"
"I heard he was coming as well. He has been in Eriador these past weeks. I do not know if he will arrive before or after Thranduil, but you can at least hope that he arrives before you have been fed to a spider."
In the end, Bilbo found that he had a kind of reckless courage. He had fought a dragon, and he had carried the One Ring for far too many years than a simple Hobbit could bear. If Thranduil intended to kill him… at least that would be the end of it.
He found himself seeking Thranduil out as he sat in one of the gardens.
The Elven-king nodded to him as he approached, but made no other remark. After a brief pause, it occurred to Bilbo that Thranduil might not have recognized him. Legolas had made visits to Imladris over the years, but Bilbo hadn't seen the Elven-King since the Battle of the Five Armies. The Ring had changed him since then.
"I'm Bilbo," he said, feeling much as he had done when he had slipped into Erebor to look for the Arkenstone.
"I know who you are, Master Baggins."
"Oh." Bilbo sat on one of the carved benches, leaning on his walking stick. "I… I thought you might not. I have… I am not the same Hobbit I was when you named me Elf-friend."
"No, you are not." Thranduil gave him a look that was one part curiosity and three parts consideration. "I knew Isildur, Master Baggins. I know what a fëa feels like when it has been tainted by the Enemy."
"You… you think I'm like Isildur?"
"I do not. You gave up the Ring. It is true that you could never have known or used its full power… All the same, that is impressive, Master Baggins."
"Thank you," Bilbo said.
He ought to be relieved that Thranduil didn't seem to be feeding him to any spiders, but he simply felt awkward and wrong-footed. It was as though the world had changed, and the Elven-king had changed with it. And Bilbo wasn't certain he wanted the Elven-king to change. The Elf he had risked his life to defend at the Battle of the Five Armies had been fierce and proud and dangerous.
"Why aren't you angry?" Bilbo asked.
"Oh, I am angry," Thranduil assured him. "But not with you."
"Not with…" Bilbo shook his head. He must be mad. That was the only explanation for what he was doing. "Why aren't you angry with me? You should be furious with me! I took Sauron's ring from that wretched creature Gollum and brought it into your stronghold!"
"Yes, and I will not pretend I am pleased about that. But… I cannot blame you. You could not have known what it was. It was some time before even Mithrandir could be certain, and… your folk do not remember the past as the Firstborn do. The name of Sauron was forgotten among your kind when Mithrandir summoned you from your fireside to journey with his Dwarven friends."
"Oh." Bilbo cleared his throat. "That's good, then."
Thranduil tilted his head in acknowledgement.
"I'm glad," Bilbo went on in a rush, before he could lose his courage. "I'm glad Legolas went on the quest."
Thranduil's eyebrows went up. "You are glad my son risked his life and the Woodland Realm went into the greatest battle of this Age without her prince at the head of her archers? If you are trying to provoke me, you might find yourself more successful than you would wish."
"No," Bilbo said quickly. "No, no, I'm not – I didn't mean – oh, I'm not happy Legolas risked his life or that he had to be away, but… I was worried about Frodo. He's a good Hobbit, the best Hobbit I know, but he is only a Hobbit and the road is treacherous. I'm grateful to them all – Legolas, and Gandalf and Aragorn, and Gimli, and, yes, even Boromir. They got him to Amon Hen safely. Nobody could have protected him in Mordor, but they did as much as anyone could. If one Elf in all of Middle-earth could be with Frodo, I'm glad it was Legolas."
Thranduil let out a soft sigh. "I suppose I cannot fault you for that."
"You must miss him," Bilbo said, studying the Elven-king shrewdly. "Gandalf told me he's gone to Ithilien."
"From what Legolas tells me, the forests of Ithilien have been horribly ravaged by the spawn of the Enemy. If anyone can restore life and joy to those woods, he can. All the same…" Thranduil trailed off and shook himself. "Legolas will be here soon, and he will not soon let me forget it if he hears I have been maundering."
"It's nearly lunchtime," Bilbo hinted.
Thranduil laughed. "I should have expected you to remember that. Come."
"So I hear you encountered the dragon and lived to tell of it."
"Be quiet," Bilbo hissed, looking around to make sure Thranduil was not near. "He let me go alive this morning. There's no saying he'll do it again."
Gandalf smiled. "If he intended to kill you, he would have done it this morning. Believe me, Thranduil is not reticent about expressing his displeasure."
"I know that," Bilbo muttered. "I was quaking in my shoes when I spoke to him, let me tell you." Bilbo sighed. "I thought he would be furious, but… he was really quite understanding about everything."
"Naturally. You've spent too many evenings sitting with Dwarves and absorbing their somewhat biased views of the Elven-king."
"I've spent more evenings sitting in Elrond's hall."
"Rivendell is not the place to understand the Elves of the Woodland Realm, as you well know, Bilbo."
"Speaking of the Woodland Realm, has Legolas arrived yet?"
"I fail to see the connection, but yes, he has. Glorfindel insisted on taking him out for a ride in the forest, as though he had not been doing enough riding on the way here, and Thranduil went with them. I expect they will return soon."
Almost on cue, there was a sudden gust of air as the door opened.
Bilbo looked up in time to see Legolas go to greet the Elves he had not yet seen, while Thranduil and Glorfindel, who had probably had more than enough polite pleasantries at the Council, stayed by the door. Thranduil, Bilbo noticed, seemed to be in a far worse temper than he had that morning. His lips were pressed together as though he was trying very hard not to say something regrettable, while his eyes followed his son.
Legolas had changed since they had last met. There was nothing Bilbo could put his finger on. He still had his golden hair in the same warrior braids, the same laughing blue eyes, the same cheerful smile.
But he also seemed more distant, as though a part of him was elsewhere.
Bilbo watched him surreptitiously as he walked around the room, exchanging a few words with Erestor, plucking Lindir's new harp and commenting on the round richness of the notes, being pulled aside by Elladan and Elrohir to snicker over something in a letter. It was all normal, and natural… and yet something was wrong.
When at last Legolas dropped into a chair beside Gandalf, prompting Thranduil and Glorfindel to join them as well, Bilbo said, "You look like you've had a busy day."
Legolas laughed. "On the contrary, Master Baggins, I have done little but ride in the forest."
"And that little has been enough," grumbled Thranduil. "He is right, Legolas. You look exhausted."
"My king," Legolas said mildly, laying a hand on his father's knee, "there is no need for you to worry. I am perfectly well, I assure you."
"He is well, Thranduil," Glorfindel put in. "Or at least as well as can be expected under the circumstances."
Legolas looked like he was about to protest that, so Bilbo spoke quickly, before an argument could begin.
"I wanted to speak to you, Legolas."
Thranduil shot him a sharp glance, but Legolas only turned enquiring blue eyes on him and waited.
"I want to… thank you," Bilbo went on, "for what you did for Frodo, for keeping him company until Amon Hen and for going to the Black Gate to draw Sauron's attention."
"I was not the only one who did those things, Master Baggins."
"No, and I'm grateful to Aragorn and Gandalf as well, and to Gimli, and to Sam and Merry and Pippin… You all helped him."
"Who could have done less? Your kinsman has great courage and strength of spirit. None of us – not I, not Aragorn, and not Mithrandir – could have borne the Ring that long without attempting to use it for…"
"For good," Gandalf said, finishing Legolas' sentence. "We would all have used it for good, in the beginning, but the Ring would have had its way in the end."
"I'm glad it's gone," Bilbo said fervently. "I feel free. I feel weaker, yes, and my years are catching up with me. Even in the Blessed Realm, if I live long enough to go there, I won't see more than a few more summers. But I'm glad. Every time I think of Gollum and what I might have been, I'm glad."
"Were you never tempted to take the Ring?" Glorfindel asked curiously, directing the question at both Gandalf and Legolas. "I know I would have been."
Gandalf answered first. "I was tempted from the first moment when Frodo offered it to me. Every moment we walked, I knew he would give it to me if I asked – and there were times when I wanted to ask. When we stood on Caradhras, when we had to enter Moria, when the Balrog found us…" He glanced at Legolas. "Legolas was tempted by none of those things, I know. But I was."
Legolas shrugged. "I have only ever defended myself with my bow and my blades, and it was natural that in moments of peril my instincts should have gone to those instead of to the weapon Frodo carried. And I was fortunate. By the time the moment came when I might have been tempted, we had parted ways with Frodo and Sam."
"What would have tempted you to take the Ring?" Bilbo asked. "If even the Balrog didn't?"
"Knowing that the armies of Dol Guldur were marching on my home," Legolas said, "and that when I was too far to do anything but wish my kinsmen well. If the Ring had been within my reach then, I do not know what I might have done."
"I do," Glorfindel said, smiling at the younger Elf. "You would have been tempted – Elbereth help us, but any of us would have been tempted. But you would have resisted, Legolas." His smile turned mischievous. "After all, you have every bit of your father's stubbornness."
To Bilbo's surprise, Thranduil only laughed, expression brightening for the first time that evening. "Call it what you will, Noldo, you cannot deny the quality has been useful."
"I would never deny it," Glorfindel said, growing serious. "We might have had our differences, Thranduil, particularly after Gil-galad fell, but I have always admired your strength of will. If that is what it takes to raise a child untainted by darkness in the very shadow of Dol Guldur, I am grateful that you have it."
"Yes," Bilbo said, "well… I'm grateful as well, just… just so you know that. And I'm sorry I put you in danger," he added to Legolas.
Legolas shook his head. "You did not put me in danger, Master Baggins. I chose to go with Frodo. Nobody compelled me."
"Exactly what I have been trying to say," Gandalf muttered, earning himself a dark look from Thranduil.
"I promised Elrond I would not shed blood in his halls, but do not think I have forgotten your part in this, Mithrandir. I will have a great deal to say to you when we meet outside Imladris."
"That will be many years in the future," Gandalf said. "By then, I trust, time will have cooled your rancour."
"No amount of time will make me forget to be angry with those who wantonly put my son in danger. Especially now that I have seen for myself –"
Thranduil cut himself off abruptly.
"My king." Legolas patted Thranduil's knee. "I am well."
"I suppose you are, as Glorfindel says, as well as can be expected," Thranduil admitted. "But I am sorry you will not see Middle-earth restored to its former glory."
"I don't think any of us will," Bilbo said. "You and Legolas might see a little more of it, but… It's the Age of Men, isn't it? The Elves will pass into the West, and the Hobbits… The Hobbits were never of much account anyway, and they'll soon be forgotten."
"They might be forgotten in Middle-earth," Glorfindel said. "But in Aman the Elves will always remember that it was a Halfling who succeeded where no Elf or Man, or even Wizard, could have done, and broke Sauron's power at last."
Bilbo sighed, leaning into the comfort of his chair.
"If Hobbits have done only one thing of note, I'm glad it's that."
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