Hidden Blade: Chr. 22 - It's up! It's here! It took me long enough...

A week later, Aramir's life was back to normal, or as normal as one's life could be after the death of a loved one. The young Itir and his sister had spent the week in a deep silence, speaking only when necessary, and more often than not their eyes were wet from countless tears. Since neither of them had use for the house, it had been sold, and after a long battle in which Aramir insisted his sister take the money, she had agreed, grumbling all the while.

The funeral had been small and simple, including Ryal's closest friends, Sicil and Aramir, and the entire Itir, a gesture that had very nearly sent Aramir into a fresh wave of tears. They had buried Ryal upon the rise of a snow-covered hill that overlooked the city, and for a long time after the funeral was over, those who looked to the hill could see two solitary figures standing upon the rise, unmoving.

When everything had been put in order, Sicil had left Gondor, and Aramir had returned to his duties as an Itir. His change in heart was evident to everyone--it was obvious just to look at him. The playful sparkle was gone from his dark eyes, and when he smiled, it was forced and made him look even more unhappy than he was. No longer did he dash down the halls with Kellian, laughing as he once had. When he had time to himself, he spent it that way--alone in his room. Sometimes Kellian visited him, and Aramir knew that the Elf was always there to listen to him, yet Aramir only wanted to be left alone.

A week after Ryal's death, early in the morning, Aramir was standing on the highest level of the city, staring down over Minas Tirith and the surrounding area. The wind was cold, but the sky was devoid of clouds and the warm sun beat down upon him, making the winter's bite less serious than it usually was. The chilling wind seemed to get its pleasure from tormenting Aramir, and it blew at him from seemingly all directions, whipping his hair into his eyes, up in the air, everywhere but where it should have been. Fortunately, his eyes were dry, else they would have been frozen with icy tears. He leaned against the high wall and sighed, alone and dejected, as was usual this past week.

He heard the sound of footsteps behind him and resisted the urge to run. Whomever it was, he was sure he didn't want to talk to them.

Moments later Lee appeared at his side and peered down upon the city, taking a deep breath of the winter air. "Good morning, Aramir," he said softly.

"Good morning," Aramir answered. At least, he thought he did, but couldn't have been sure. It isn't good, but I'm surely in mourning, he thought.

"I was going to take a walk down to the river," Lee continued, turning to face Aramir. "Would you like to come?"

Aramir wanted nothing more than to say 'no' and return to his room to be alone, but he didn't have the heart to refuse

Lee's request. "Alright," he muttered. "Sure, I'll come."

They made their way through the quiet city, Aramir trailing along beside the Itir's Captain. Lee kept up a steady pace, never slowing, and his purposeful stride kept up until they were far from the city and walking along the river. Minas Tirith was behind them, as was Osgiliath, and the only figures that saw them pass were the trees than lined the banks of the river. The edges of the Anduin were frozen over, but mostly the middle remained untouched, still flowing dutifully along, keeping up its course.

Aramir noticed none of this. He kept his head buried in his breast, more to keep out the cold than anything, and his eyes were open only far enough to see Lee walking along slightly ahead of him. He was thinking, yet again, of Ryal, and moreover, of the fact that he could have prevented her death. No matter what she had said to him, he didn't believe it. He could have stopped it.

In addition to being a gifted fighter, Lee was apparently also a mind reader. "You blame yourself," he said softly, slowing his stride so he walked right next to Aramir.

Aramir gave a small start, then shrugged. "She told me not to," he said, by way of an answer.

"And you didn't listen, did you? Why?"

Aramir stopped suddenly and frowned at Lee. "Listen, she's dead, and it was my fault, alright? Why do you all keep trying to convince me that it wasn't?"

"Because we believe that it was not, Aramir. Truly, why do you blame yourself?"

"Why do you care?" Aramir snapped.

"Why are you answering my questions with questions?" Lee raised an eyebrow.

"Well, why are you?!" Aramir shouted. He glared at Lee and clenched his fists at his sides, trying to keep his anger at bay. For a moment the two men stared at each other, Aramir glaring and Lee simply staring, and then Aramir turned and stalked away through the snow. The captain didn't follow him.

Aramir had gone only a hundred yards when guilt and grief combined hit him like a deathblow. He came to an abrupt halt next to a tall tree and leaned against it wearily, tears forming in his eyes. He wished he had not just yelled at Lee. He needed someone to talk to, right now.

And then Lee was at his side again, brown eyes filled with kindness. He didn't say anything, only stood there, a comforting presence.

Aramir glanced timidly up at the half-elf. "Lee, I..." he murmured. "I'm so sorry. I..." Shaking with sorrow, the young man leaned forward and found himself in Lee's comforting embrace. He gave a small start, and then his tears began to fall harder than before. Here Lee was, the Captain of the Itir, the most respected swordsman in all of Gondor, comforting Aramir like the young man was a child.
To Aramir, Lee had never felt so much like a father as he did in that moment.

Aramir didn't know how long he stood there, sobbing into Lee's shoulder and feeling rather foolish, but when he at last pulled away, he found himself feeling better than he had all week.

"Thank you," he whispered, wiping the tears from his eyes. "I'm so sorry."

Lee only shook his head. He opened his mouth to speak, and suddenly there was a soft thump as a pile of snow from a tree further along came falling to the ground. The branch of the tree, relieved of its burden, bobbed up and down, dancing as though freed from bondage.

The Captain of the Itir eyed the tree thoughtfully, then turned to Aramir. "I suppose that was your fault as well," he admonished.

Aramir frowned. "No it wasn't. What makes you say that?"
He knew what was making Lee say that, but he asked anyway.

The half-Elf shrugged. "Well, everything else is your fault, right?

"Not everything else. And that certainly wasn't. It was just nature. The tree was too weak to hold onto its burden, so it had to let go. It was bound to happen eventually; nothing can hold on..." he trailed off, realizing he had been trapped.

"Forever?" Lee finished, and Aramir nodded.

A fleeting smile crossed the young Itir's features. "I understand," Aramir said, embarrassed. "But I still feel awful."

"And you should. Aramir, if you were not upset about your mother's passing, I would be much more concerned than I am. You loved her; that is obvious. And you should be mourning. But you shouldn't blame yourself for things that are far beyond your control. I know Ryal doesn't." Lee smiled encouragingly.

Aramir let out a heavy sigh. "I suppose you're right. I just...I feel like there is something I could have done for her, before she died."

"There was something, and you did it. You were there for her during her last moments in this world. She was able to tell you how much she loved you. That was all she wanted."

For several long minutes, silence prevailed under the tree. Aramir's eyes were dry of their tears, and his mind was reeling, running Lee's words through it over and over. The Captain was right, and Aramir knew it, but it didn't stop him from missing Ryal. He supposed he would never stop missing her, but she was happy now, he reminded himself. Ryal was with her husband again. Aramir should be glad for her. And he was, he realized. Glad, but still missing his mother.

"Thank you," he whispered to Lee, smiling shakily. "I don't know why you bother with me sometimes."

Lee placed his hands on Aramir's shoulders and smiled kindly. "I'll tell you why," he said. "Because you are special. You are an extraordinary young man, Aramir. You are an amazing fighter and a wonderful person, even if you do spend all of your time with that Elf." He winked, and then his face became solemn again. "And you are the closest thing to a son I have ever had."

Aramir blushed furiously and tried to turn away, but Lee was still holding his shoulders. "I'm not," he began, trying to push away the compliments, "not-"

"But you are, Aramir. And that's one more thing I like about you: you don't take praise well." Lee grinned. "You know me. I wouldn't say it if it weren't true."

"I know. Thank you, Lee. You don't know how much that meant to me. All of it." Aramir embraced Lee again, then backed away, embarrassed. "Thank you."

The Captain smiled and draped an arm over Aramir's shoulders. "Come on," he said, turning back toward Minas Tirith. "I think a certain Elf has been missing you."

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