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The doors blow open into an intimate dining room, smaller and sweeter than the rest of the sprawling Citadel—this space is warm, rich, lit with lanterns at the ceiling and candles all along the table, the sun setting outside the open balcony. The archways over it are more in the style of Imladris than Gondor, but the white walls of the city stretch on below, unmistakable in their unique presence. The deep green eaves that twist along the tall columns aren’t as vibrant and floral as they would be in elven hands, but there’s a fierce splendor to them that only mortal Men could summon. Aragorn sees his people in every detail—in the hushed rustle of many haphazard feet below and in the cloying scent of bread and cheese. Númenor’s past dances around the rims of white plates in fanciful pictographs. Gold ink traces over forks and knives and goblets alike, gems embedded in awkward places and jewels sprinkled in the candle wax. It’s a gaudy display of wealth and nobility, so unlike the quiet dinners Lord Elrond entertains. But this is far from the home Aragorn grew up in. This is the greatest city in Middle Earth, overlooking the roiling hills below and the dark mountains in the distance.

A figure stands before him. It isn’t quite a Man, not an elf, certainly no dwarf nor hobbit. Violent yellow-orange hair spills out of a black helm like lava boiling into ash, the robes below more metal than fabric: armour carved for both battle and beauty. It’s an imposing creature, tall and broad, with eyes that pierce right through Aragorn’s stately tunic. For a moment, his heart stops beating, held captive by those blazing eyes. Then the being smiles and rasps, “Welcome, King.”

He bows from the waist, low enough for his smoldering waves to tumble down his shoulders. His tone is perhaps reverent, perhaps mocking. When he straightens again, the sun flares maroon behind him, and for a moment, he’s a lone tower amidst the might of Mordor. Then the light settles back into sepia, and they’re only one on one, presented as equals. But Aragorn knows who he’s facing.

Sauron gestures to the table, and Aragorn follows it, startling to see who else is with them. Or who’s just appeared, summoned by a powerful master. Legolas smiles demurely through lowered lashes. He’s seated in the center of the table, not at the head where Aragorn would place him. His sunshine-yellow hair is paler before Sauron’s, his colours tamed and muted, no duller but all the more enthralling in their delicacy. His robes are white, embroidered with intricate lace, pure and regal, as he often appears in Aragorn’s dreams. The circlet around his head is a shimmering silver, boasting a single stone at its heart, humble next to the heavy crown around Aragorn’s own well-brushed hair. It’s then that Aragorn feels the true weight of the rings around his hands, the cloak flowing from his shoulders, the sword at his side. He’s adorned like a figure from a painting, when he should be a simple Ranger.

Sauron strolls towards the table, and Aragorn’s feet move automatically, mirroring the movement. There’s a chair pulled out for him, directly across from Legolas, sparing them the enormous length of the table. He prefers it this way. Sauron doesn’t aim for the end seats either but sits at Legolas’ side, perilously close. Legolas bows his head when Aragorn sits, showing respect for a king, though he’s a prince. Aragorn’s rarely ever seen him presented as one. Even here, though he’s dressed gorgeously, he seems to shrink between them. Aragorn watches him—dazed, confused, concerned—while Sauron collects a bottle of wine.

He thumbs away the cork and pours a small sliver into Legolas’ glass, none into his own, a hearty helping into Aragorn’s. “Allow me to serve you,” Sauron hisses, so strangely polite. “As you can see, I have made a night worthy of Isildur’s heir.” The bottle, emptied, returns to the table’s polished surface. “I offer you the finest wine. Unimaginable wealth.” He gestures to a nearby salad bowl, brimming with glittering diamonds. “Glory, power,” these he drawls casually, as though they’re so obvious they hardly warrant mentioning. Then his arm reaches out and drapes across Legolas’ trim shoulders, and Sauron even has the audacity to weave his long fingers through Legolas’ silken hair. “And a longer life, so that you would not have to part so soon from your pretty plaything.”

For a moment, Aragorn stares at the beautiful elf across from him, so beautiful that it almost hurts to breathe—Aragorn has had this dream so many times: simply Legolas taking his breath away. Sometimes Legolas playfully withdraws, calling him after, and other times Legolas surges forward, wild and unbridled. This time he drops his gaze, sinking back into Sauron’s touch. Here, he isn’t the strong warrior Aragorn fights beside. He’s become a pretty plaything, as Sauron puts it: merely there to tempt and torment. Aragorn burns over it.

A part of him is angry because he knows it’s true; he won’t be around long enough to ravish Legolas in all the ways he wants. Sauron’s fingers stroke Legolas’ cheek and curl beneath his chin, straying down his throat—Aragorn tenses, waiting for him to squeeze. But Sauron strays lower still, until he’s tracing the dipping neckline of Legolas’ robes.

Then he’s parting them, drawing the fabric back to reveal more creamy skin. Sauron leans in to whisper words meant for Aragorn across Legolas’ pointed ear. “When you have had your fill of all this, we may retire, and then I will offer you still more: a dessert so rich it will delight you even more than dinner’s entertainment.”

Aragorn bristles. It pains him to see another’s lips so close to Legolas’ skin. Stiff but valiantly controlled, he speaks for the first time. “This is a strange way to seduce me, Sauron. I already have him—you offer me nothing.”

Sauron smiles. He murmurs, “Mairon,” like a correction that Aragorn doesn’t take. Sauron idly plays with Legolas’ hair as he answers, “You have a companion who may leave at any moment, and you know you will go yourself far too soon, leaving this poor thing heartbroken, either to wither or find another that could satisfy him in ways you never could.”

Something flashes in Legolas’ eye—that delightful, unconquerable spirit that first drew Aragorn to him. Then it’s gone again, and Legolas is once more a handsome prop. It’s almost as though Sauron wanted him to see it, to remember what he craves, only to lock it away, again unattainable. Legolas’ lashes flutter down, and he seems to grow paler, flirting with fading. Aragorn’s insides churn.

Aragorn’s never sought immortality, other than for this one thing. He’s never cared for wealth or power and couldn’t care less what songs are made of him, what title he deserves—only that he does what’s right and does all he can for the good of all his people. He thought himself unwavering, wholly uninterested in darkness.

Perhaps Sauron’s found a singular weakness. But he ruins whatever advantage he has when he changes Legolas’ clothes with a flick of his fingers—from princely attire to a bawdy display. Golden chains circle Legolas’ slender throat and drizzle down his chest, draping across his breast, exposing and enhancing so very many features. His muscles glisten with oil and gold dust. Aragorn has no doubt that if he looked below the table, he’d find Legolas’ skirts gone, or else made sheer. Sauron murmurs, “But you could have all of him, and any other toys you like, for as long as you could want, if only you took your proper place upon the throne.”

Finally, Sauron’s hand leaves Legolas, drifting instead over Aragorn’s plate. It’s covered in a silver lid high enough to hide a whole cake. Sauron deftly removes it, revealing Aragorn’s meal.

The ring. It sits there alone, tiny but all-consuming, sleek and simple and almost as beautiful as Legolas. Aragorn feels its promise fill him and realizes that he isn’t just in a garbled imagining of his own mind. He’s caught in Sauron’s all-too-real grip, fanning fiercer and stronger with every step they take closer to his realm. His reach is both cruel and clever, digging into Aragorn’s very soul and masquerading as his own dreams. A part of Aragorn can admire a worthy opponent.

The rest of him calmly abhors it. He takes in a deep breath and closes his eyes.

He centers himself and recalls not only the skill of the Elven warriors who taught him, but the wisdom Lord Elrond imparted on him. He’s the master of his own mind. His dreams are his alone. When he opens his eyes again, Sauron is gone, the ring is gone, but so is Legolas. The table is empty. The candles are out, and Mordor and Gondor are both absent from the scenery—the view is a black sky. It’s hollow.

He closes again, and opens to the crumpled grass beneath him. The groove between the trees where they’ve settled down to sleep is dark, but his eyes eventually adjust to the stars. Legolas is asleep beside him, wistfully peaceful, at home in the fallen leaves and gnarled roots. They’re both dirty, tired. Gimli is puttering about on watch, noisy in his grumbling.

Aragorn can’t sleep again. He spends a few seconds lying there, soaking in the cool night air and the ache in his back and left leg—little prickles of reality. He enjoys the fleeting view before him, knowing they both might die tomorrow, but more likely Legolas will go on, seeing so much more of the world and time before eventually sailing west, into the light where he belongs.

And perhaps Aragorn belongs south, amongst his struggling and short-lived people. At least they may still have some days together, some nights. Gimli’s loud grunting is grounding, strangely comforting.

Aragorn shifts closer to kiss Legolas’ forehead, and then he climbs up to take over the watch; he has enough to mull over until morning.