What Matters Most
by Sheila Paulson
See part one for notes and disclaimer.
Legolas's cuts were already healing over by the time the healers finished with him. They showed no very great alarm over such minor wounds as he had received; even the lump on his head was nearly gone. Aragorn made certain they examined him thoroughly, for blows to the head could cause problems even when all seemed well. The healers smiled and assured him they knew what to watch for, and suggested Legolas's friends watch him through the evening, but that he would no doubt mend thoroughly, for that was the manner of elves.
"In truth I am well," Legolas reassured Aragorn and Gimli. "You need not fuss over me as if I were a youngling."
"Maybe we *like* fussing," Gimli proclaimed. "After all, if you don't have the sense to know when someone is sneaking up on you, then you need a minder."
"A minder?" Legolas threw back his head and pretended great affront. "In a peaceful city, should I expect a madman? I know not where his aversion for elves arose, although he did tell me he had once met an elf in the wild who was haughty of manner. Some elves are such, but this man took it to heart."
"We have learned his identity," Aragorn said. "Word reached me while your cuts were bathed. He was Delvorin, and I am told he was the bastard son of Lord Eltin, who was slain in battle defending Cair Andros when Delvorin was a lad. His father acknowledged him not, but he knew who had sired him, and resentment had grown in him. Those who knew him said he was never content with his lot. In addition to his unreasoning hatred of elves, he hated nobles and military officers. He did value the Lord Denethor, and tried to mold himself to share the same suspicions as the late Steward. Folk avoided him, for he was gruff and unfriendly. A sad life."
"Sad life?" exploded Gimli. "When he would have slain the elf? I feel no pity for him."
"Why, I do," Legolas said. "To be that unhappy.... I do not say I forgive him, for he would have slain me slowly and without mercy, but I pity him." He smiled gently. "He would have greatly begrudged the pity."
"Well, then, pity him," Gimli urged. "He's dead, anyway. He won't trouble us any longer. Are you well, laddie?"
"Well indeed. Anxious to speak with Jim Ellison, for his gifts enabled me to be rescued."
"Gondor is grateful to him," Aragorn said. "The dinner this evening will be held in his honor – and in Pippin's."
"Is Pippin well?" Legolas asked. "He has never slain any but orcs before. To kill a man might take him differently."
"I have considered that," Aragorn replied. "And so I have spoken to both Gandalf and Faramir, and they will see he is well. Merry, of course, will stand at his side and will understand if he is distressed, but I think he will be well. He could never have allowed a friend to be harmed if he could prevent it."
"No, he would go to great lengths for a friend," Legolas remembered. "He jumped on the back of the cave troll for Frodo's sake and into the fire for Faramir."
"I remember the troll," Gimli agreed darkly, then he smiled. "A fine lad is our Pippin." He narrowed his eyes. "What is it that Jim Ellison was able to do for you, laddie, for I am not understanding?"
"Nor I," Aragorn agreed. He knew from long experience that Legolas was sharp of eye and ear, but that he could use it to speak to the mind of another was new to him."
"It was reciprocal," Legolas said. "Elves may at times speak together over great distances, but only at need. I knew Jim Ellison's hearing was far in advance of other men's, and from our brief conversation, I realized his other senses were more akin to that of elves than of men. I merely repeated his name softly until I gained his attention. When he responded, I focused upon him so we were able to hear each other, and to shut out the other noises that surrounded us. The longer we communicated, the more we were able to understand. I believe a channel opened in his mind that had been unused from lack of knowledge of its potential. I could not read his thoughts, nor he mine, but I allowed him to see through my eyes, so he would understand the threat I faced."
"See through your eyes?" The concept intrigued Aragorn. "Could any do this?"
"No, Aragorn. Another elf could, should I wish it, but among men, none but he, and perhaps others like him, for he has great gifts. In another way, he might communicate with Blair Sandburg, for what I have observed leads me to believe it is his function to serve as a protector to Jim Ellison, to guide his abilities. For a human among other humans who lack such gifts, this might well be necessary, for there might be none like him from whom he could learn."
"Could he learn from elves?" Aragorn asked.
"If he wished it, I think he could. I would offer myself to teach him while he remains in the White City. I would know ways to aid Blair Sandburg in training him, for I think in many areas Jim possesses less than full control."
"He seemed like he controlled himself well enough," Gimli muttered. "So elves do not read the thoughts of others?"
Legolas looked down at him, amusement in his eyes. "Why, Gimli, one need not be an elf to read many of your thoughts, for they shine upon your face."
"Hmmmph," Gimli muttered, and squirmed a bit.
Aragorn laughed and clapped both his friends on the shoulder. "Fear not, Gimli, for they are good thoughts. Well it is for you that your friends are trustworthy and value you as they do."
Gimli looked up at him, then at Legolas, and a reluctant smile lifted the edges of his mustache. "Hmmmph," he said again, then more briskly, "And when is this feast to take place? For I am greatly hungry."
"Are you hungry, mellon nin?" Aragorn asked Legolas.
"You fear my injuries preclude it, but it is not so. I will gladly dine. Eager am I to speak with Jim Ellison."
"Tread cautiously," Aragorn warned. "For it is my belief his abilities embarrass him, and that he considers them threatening to him."
"In a world where he alone possesses them, there could be danger: of exploitation, of failing to be understood, even of being shunned by those who deem themselves 'normal'," Legolas replied. "In most ways, he is confident and secure. I would see him so in this as well."
"Then let us go to join the others." Aragorn ushered the pair from the Houses of Healing. Glad he was for the days they would remain in Minas Tirith, for he had grown well content to have them at his side. His duty must need fill the days when they had departed, and the hobbits with them. "Wait. Let us see if the healers will allow Frodo to join us."
Blair looked around the great hall and grinned. All who had been present for last night's dinner were there for this, with the addition of Frodo and Sam. It amused Blair to watch Sam stare about him, wide-eyed with amazement at the sight of the vast hall with its mighty statues, and the throne where Aragorn would sit when he had been crowned, rising high above the Steward's seat that was Faramir's place. There must be great halls like this in Europe, but Blair was sure there were none in the Shire, just like there were none as elaborate in Cascade.
Frodo sat at Aragorn's side, and Blair noticed he had a decent appetite, and that he seemed intrigued by the majesty of the hall. Merry and Pippin, who were delighted to have Frodo with them, smiled and ate so heartily they had no trouble keeping up with the far taller men.
Jim sat next to Legolas, who had engaged him in conversation the minute he sat down. They would have a lot to talk about, and the fact that Jim had responded to it without a sign of tension or the grinding of his teeth proved he was easy with the elf, displaying no trace of defensiveness for having exposed his Sentinel abilities. He had looked around doubtfully when he and Blair entered the hall, but apart from the normal greetings of people who considered them friends and welcome guests, there was no fuss over his abilities. Blair was glad. Jim had never been comfortable with being a Sentinel. He had trained himself to use what he had, and even endured the tests Blair devised to enable him to explore and expand his range, although he had never enjoyed them. But to sit amid a company who knew what he was, valued him for it, and simply accepted it as part of him with no need to fuss must be a revelation. If only it could be that way at home.
Legolas seemed okay in spite of his captivity and the threat against his life. It was the others who appeared inclined to watch him carefully to make certain he was all right. Gimli and Aragorn often glanced at him as they ate. Faramir, too, would watch, but not quite as frequently, and of course he had his fiancée to converse with, and also with her brother, the King of Rohan. Blair remembered how nervous Faramir had been when he had gone to speak with Éomer to ask for his sister's hand. Éomer had approved, and now Blair saw him watching Éowyn and Faramir, and smiling to himself as he noticed how easy they were together. They looked like a couple, all right. Blair had friends who were happily married, and he'd seen just such contentment with each other in them. Joel Taggert and his wife were like that. Even though the thrill of a new relationship shone out on the pair's faces, the underlying unity might as well have been written on a banner and hung above their heads.
Pippin looked at Faramir a lot, and he seemed delighted for his friend. Those two were an unlikely pair, but then a lot of people still thought it was weird that he and Jim were friends. Pippin might still remember how it had felt to kill that guy who had snatched Legolas. Blair had no idea what orcs looked like except from a hasty description from Gimli – they sounded like evil mutants from a horror film to Blair. Killing a man would be different.
Blair shivered. If he went to the academy, he might have to kill a man one day, in the course of the job. Sometimes, when he thought about that, he wasn't sure he could go through with it and become a cop, but a lot of the guys at Major Crime had never killed anybody. Most of them had fired their guns, but some police officers out there never had. Blair was pretty sure he wouldn't be that lucky, not when Jim called him a trouble magnet.
Pippin had killed the man because he was going to kill Legolas if not stopped, and Pippin was the only one in range to do the deed. It had been what Jim would call a righteous kill. He had to know that.
"You worry about Peregrin Took?" Gandalf said softly for Blair's ears alone. The wizard sat beside him at the table, but he had been conversing with Éomer on his other side until now, talking about the ordering of Rohan and plans for the future of that Kingdom.
Blair blinked at him in surprise. "Yeah. And wondering how I'll feel if I ever have to kill anyone."
"If you are placed in a position where it is necessary to save your life or that of others, you will do it. You will never stop regretting the necessity, for if you do, then your duty as a protector of your city would be better held by another. Even if the one you must kill is evil and would have harmed innocents, you will regret the taking of a life. This I know from what I have seen of you."
"So what do I do?" Blair asked. He'd come to view the wizard as the wisest person he'd ever met. Naomi would have pounced on him as a potential guru in a heartbeat. Blair shuddered to think of Gandalf's reaction to his mother.
Gandalf smiled. "Why, you will do as you have done, the best you can with the knowledge you possess, and know you have not shirked your duty. All any man can do is the best he can with the time allotted to him. In your support of your friend, you have proven your worth. You strive to know yourself more fully and to use the gift you have been given, your own earth magic."
"We don't call it magic back home," Blair said with a grin. "People there don't believe in magic."
"Ah." Gandalf smiled enigmatically. "Magic needs not belief to exist. There are always some who believe, even amid a nation of skeptics, and that is enough to empower it. It may even go by different names."
"'For truth is great and shall prevail, when none care whether it prevail or not,'" Blair quoted. He had found that in a poem he had studied in high school, and it had struck a responsive chord with him. He hardly went around quoting poetry. Horrible to imagine the reactions of Rafe and Brown, or even of Simon Banks, if he should suddenly start reciting Shakespeare in the bullpen. But Gandalf was different.
"Precisely," Gandalf said. "Is that a saying in your world?"
"It's from a poem," Blair replied. "I liked it so I remembered it."
"So there is poetry in your land, Blair?" Faramir called from the other side of the table. "Are there songs?"
"Oh yeah, lots of songs," Blair said hastily before Jim could tease him about poetry. "We heard some of yours last night. Maybe we should teach you some of ours."
"Watch what you teach them, Chief," Jim called, interrupting his heart-to-heart talk with Legolas.
"I thought I'd find some music they'd like," Blair replied. "I'll leave Santana to you."
"Easy on the heavy metal or rap," Jim kidded.
"I was thinking some folk songs might be best," Blair decided. "After dinner, if anybody can bear to listen to my voice, I'll give it a shot."
"Excellent," Aragorn approved. "I will await it."
"Pippin has a fine voice," Faramir said. "I've heard him sing."
Blair looked over at Pippin. "What do you say, Pippin? I'll teach you a few songs."
"I'll teach you some from the Shire," Pippin agreed, and grinned.
"That was well done of you," Gandalf said to Blair when the individual conversations resumed. "Blair Sandburg, I know not how long you will remain in Middle-earth. You are easier with your friend now, and peace grows between you. But I think you both still have unanswered questions. If you need not depart in haste, it would be a kindness to allow Legolas to work with your friend, to offer him training such as elf children receive."
"That would be great!" He looked over at Jim. He and Legolas did seem to get along well. "I hope I can learn some of it, too, so I could help Jim when we go home."
"I am certain Legolas would welcome you."
Legolas glanced at Blair and inclined his head in agreement.
"There is also the question of your own magic," Gandalf said.
It still felt weird to think of being a Shaman as 'doing magic'. It wasn't as if he could wave a magic wand and transform things. But it was partly from his direction that he and Jim were here in Gondor. Magic? It wasn't that he wanted to pull rabbits out of hats. He just wanted to make sure Jim was as protected as he could be and his gifts as well developed as possible.
"What do you mean?" he said.
"I am a wizard, as you know. You have not yet seen my powers, for they were not needed to rescue Legolas."
Blair suddenly realized Gandalf might well have been able to defeat the man with his wizardly abilities, yet he had chosen not to do so. If there had been no other option, he would have stepped in and rescued Legolas, but maybe he had understood that Jim needed to use his Sentinel skills in a positive way and to see such a fortunate outcome. "You could teach me to be a better Shaman?" he asked.
Gandalf beamed upon him. "That is a good question. You do not deny what you are, and you do not expect me to perform a great working and make your gifts spring forth, full-blown. You wish to improve."
"Well, I kind of figured learning to be a Shaman isn't about the end product. It's about the journey. I'll never be able to say I know everything about being a Shaman. I have to keep learning every single day."
"And why feel you thus?"
Blair grinned. "I'm not the same person I was before I met Jim. I'm not even the same person I was before I had the press conference and told the world I was a fraud. I think as I grow and learn, my skills have to grow and change."
"Glad am I you know that, for it is a realization I could not have taught you. I will work with you, and guide you, while you remain, but it is in my heart that you will be here no more than a few weeks. If you remain until Aragorn's coronation, I will help you daily."
"That would be incredible. Thanks, Gandalf. I'll take you up on that."
"I would like Faramir to join us at times," Gandalf replied. "He is not a Shaman, nor likely to be, but he is wise in the ways of lore and history. Like you, he is an 'anthropologist', although we use not that term here in Middle-earth. He must also rule Gondor until Aragorn is crowned and then rule in Ithilien, so such opportunities will not come his way as often as he would wish them. What say you? Shall he join us?"
Blair nodded. He felt a kinship with Faramir. "I'll go for that," he said. "But how long we stay depends on Jim."
As they gathered together for an evening of singing, Jim joined Blair. "Sandburg, I've been talking to Legolas. He says there is training elf children receive that might help me. Would it bug you if I let him work with me while we're here?"
"Bug me? Why would it bug me?" Blair asked, astonished at the question.
"Because you're my guide."
"And I'll still be your guide when we go home, and Legolas will stay here. Go for it, Jim. Gandalf's gonna work with me on the Shaman thing. We'll be so good at it when we go home that Simon will be astonished. I'll let him know you had training from an elf." He laughed out loud. "I can just hear him. 'Don't tell me. I don't want to hear a thing about it.'"
"Mention elves to Simon and I'll have to shave your head. Remember the 'Blairskin rug'?"
"Watch it. I'm the one in style here, Jim." He gestured around to the group, all of whom but the hobbits had long hair, some longer than Blair's. Even the hobbits made Jim look nearly bald. "I think we should get a wig made for you so people won't think you're a poor, puny thing getting over being sick. Do you suppose orcs scalp their victims?"
"You're pushing it, Sandburg," Jim said and loomed ominously, even though his eyes twinkled.
"Come on, Jim," Blair said, laughing, "Let's go teach these guys how we sing back home."
"So bye, bye Miss American Pie...." sang Peregrin Took as he gazed out across the Anduin Valley to the distant mountains of Mordor, Faramir at his side. He didn't understand half the words to the long, long song that Blair had taught him, but he liked it. He wasn't sure who the jester was or why the music had died, or even what a Chevy was, but that didn't matter. He liked the sound of it, and had memorized every word. America was Blair and Jim's land; that much he did know, and their city was named Cascade. It had high towers, and was built on the shore of a distant western ocean. They could not sail out into the setting sun and find Valinor, but Blair had said there was a place in the West where they came from called Avalon. "It's a myth in our world," he offered thoughtfully..
Gandalf, who had been listening, had said, "Much passes into myth. Doubt not that once it was true, Blair Sandburg."
Blair had been thoughtful for a long time after that. "Maybe they're alike," he had finally said. "Language shifts, after all. A-valon-or. Do you think so, Gandalf?"
The wizard had only offered an enigmatic smile and puffed his pipe.
Faramir didn't sing with him, but stood, tall in the sunshine, his hands resting upon the parapet, and smiled as Pippin finished the last chorus and drew a deep breath. "Your kin in the Shire will not understand your song," he said.
"I don't care. I had Blair tell me what it meant." He still didn't understand a lot of it, but that didn't matter. He had learned a song or two in elvish, and he didn't know what they meant, either. He turned his back on Mordor and stared at the Court of the Fountain, with the White Tree in gentle blossoms. It would look wonderful for the morrow's coronation. "Do you think they will go away soon, to their own world?" he asked.
"Gandalf has been teaching Blair," Faramir reminded him. "I've attended some of the training. His lessons have not yet finished."
"No, but I heard Gandalf say Blair would have to go on learning all his life and that Gandalf had begun him on what he could teach. I think they'll go away after Aragorn is crowned, and we will never see them again." He sighed. "And I *like* them."
"Pippin, you will go away after Aragorn is crowned, and I will not see you often again," Faramir said.
"But I'll come back. I'm sworn to Gondor, and I will need to. I'll want to. Besides, you'll ride with us as far as Edoras, and I'll get to see you and Éowyn married."
Faramir smiled softly, the way he always did when he thought of his betrothed. "Glad I am you will stand with me there, Pippin. And I will greatly miss you when you ride away home to the Shire."
"I will think of you often," Pippin said. "All of us will remember. But I think we need to go home. Our kin will not know what happened to us, and they'll be worrying dreadfully. And I think Frodo needs the Shire." He looked up at Faramir. "He's been through more than any of us can realize, except maybe Sam. And the Shire is so peaceful and beautiful."
"I wish for peace for Frodo," Faramir returned, and his voice was thoughtful. "He holds so much joy at the survival of all and the peace of the world and is greatly glad for Aragorn, that he will be King, but I think he needs the comfort of home."
They shared a silent look, and Pippin could tell Faramir worried about Frodo, just as he did. Sometimes Frodo seemed so ordinary, laughing with Sam, exploring the White City, reading the books Faramir loaned him, talking with Gandalf. But at other times, a lost and almost frightened look would come into his eyes and he would stare out wordlessly at the Mountains of Mordor until someone startled him from his abstraction and the shadows would slip away. Yes, he needed the Shire. He would be better there. Pippin was sure he would be.
He hoped he would be.
To turn the subject, he said, "You have studied with Gandalf and Blair, you said?"
"I have attended some of the training. It hardly seems training at all, for they merely talk together. Yet Mithrandir is so wise. He prods Blair to ask questions, and then he will turn around and ask the questions back again and make Blair find his own answers. It is not magic as we know it, but there is wisdom to it. Blair struggles, and always he thinks how the things he learns will help Jim. Gandalf says that is good, that he studies unselfishly, but that anything he learns to help Jim will also help Blair."
"How?" asked Pippin, for he had no grasp of what magic Blair practiced. It was not like being a wizard, for Gandalf had said it was not, but it seemed almost not to be magic at all, in spite of the fact that it had brought the two here from whatever world Cascade was in. "It doesn't sound like *doing* things, the way Gandalf does, almost like a letting go, and trusting the magic to do things on its own."
"I think it is like that," Faramir replied. "At times, I can almost feel it within me, but never quite. Blair sees something I cannot see, a vision of what he calls a 'spirit animal', a guide in the form of a wolf."
"A *wolf*!" Pippin shuddered. "I would hate that. Wolves are terrible."
"This one is not terrible," Faramir said. "Blair fears it not. I have never seen it, not even the suggestion of it, but Blair says that, at times, it laughs with him."
"Well, if you have to see a wolf, I'd rather it was a laughing one than a growling one."
"I have seen too many wolves to wish to see even this benevolent one," Faramir replied. "But Gandalf fears it not. I think he can see it and speak with it."
"Gandalf can do anything," Pippin proclaimed.
"It is good you think well of me, Peregrin Took," Gandalf said, approaching with Blair, his hair scraped away from his face and bound at the nape of his neck, at the wizard's heels. "But there are things even I cannot do."
"You returned from the dead," Blair reminded him with a grin.
"And in that, how do I differ from you, Blair Sandburg?" The wizard smiled at his pupil. "You are learning to be cheeky. Have you been studying secretly with Pippin? He is almost always cheeky to me these days. The respect due to my station has been lost through familiarity."
"Gandalf, I do, too, respect you," Pippin cried. "I'm not cheeky. I'm just...friendly." He offered up a wide smile, careful to make it as cheeky as possible.
"The Valar help us," Gandalf said and smiled at Faramir, who laughed.
"You are beset, Mithrandir. I would be sorry, were you not so much enjoying yourself."
"Ah, familiarity has affected you as well, my son. I will leave the three of you together, for I am utterly weary." He clapped Blair on the shoulder. "You make great strides, my pupil. When you return home, you will continue to learn, as you have done."
"And realize I will never stop learning," Blair chanted as if it were a familiar part of his lesson. "You've gone through this all your life, Faramir, having him teach you and make you answer your own questions?" He shook his head with mock pity. Now that he had grown a fairly decent little beard, Pippin thought he looked just like the men of Gondor.
"And welcome it always was," Faramir said.
"You are both scholars in your hearts," Gandalf said and bestowed fond smiles upon Blair and Faramir. "And always will be, no matter that your paths have led you in other directions. Always you will find that time for study and learning, even if you must snatch it from your other duties. Books will not go away," Gandalf finished. He clapped both of them on the shoulder, winked at Pippin, and turned for the Hall of the Kings.
Blair watched him go. "He's one of the greatest guys I've ever met," he said. "I wish I could study with him forever."
"Can you not?" Faramir asked. "Need you return to your world? Here both of you would find a home. I have come to greatly enjoy our discussions , and Jim is welcomed and appreciated here. I do not think the people treat him oddly because of his gifts."
"No, they treat him as if it were natural, and will smile and talk to him when they meet him if they think he's in the mood for it, and leave him his privacy if not," Blair said. "They call him Sir Jim, and I think he kind of likes that, even if it feels weird. When he smelled that fire on the fourth level last week before anyone else, so they could put it out, and the baker gave him a whole pie as payment, I could tell he thought it was pretty great that they just accepted him as he was." He sighed. "It's different at home."
"But still you miss it?" Faramir asked.
"You'd miss Minas Tirith if you left it," Blair replied simply. "Just like Pip misses the Shire." He grinned down at Pippin, who nodded.
"But I will leave it to dwell in Emyn Arnen with Éowyn in a year or two," Faramir replied. "Yet I know that is different, for I have served in Ithilien many a year, and it, too, is home to me. And to live with Éowyn – wherever we live together will be home."
Blair tilted his head, his face thoughtful. "It's not exactly the same for Jim and me, but he's my family now, you know, my brother. I've got my mom, when she decides it's time to drop in and cause a little trouble, and Jim has his dad and a real brother. And we've both got friends. But Jim is –"
"Like Merry is to me," Pippin said, understanding what Blair struggled to say. "Even when he's at Brandy Hall and I'm at the Great Smials, he's still my greatest friend."
"Yeah," Blair agreed and grinned. But his face was very thoughtful as he stared unseeingly at the White Tree. Did he wonder if they might stay after all?
Beyond the Tree, Gandalf climbed the steps to enter the Hall and greeted the soldiers on guard duty there. Just before he reached the door they opened to admit him, he looked back, his face thoughtful. Pippin raised his hand and waved.
Gandalf bowed his head to the trio, then he entered the hall in search of Aragorn.
Pippin opened his mouth to ask again if Blair and Jim would stay in Middle-earth, but at the end, he decided he would follow the advice Gandalf had once given him, here at the Citadel, and say nothing at all. It was not a decision Blair could make on his own, and he must long for his own world after several weeks in Middle-earth. Pippin understood that, because he longed for the Shire, for a place where he knew how to go through each day, knew what was expected of him, knew the rules of life. Blair and his friend Jim still had much to learn of Middle-earth.
"Control," said Legolas. "That is what you are learning with your abilities. Regulating them grows more instinctive as you work, and this is good. But as I have come to know you better, I see you strive always for control, and not merely with your sensory abilities."
"Shouldn't I? I've seen my senses go haywire if I don't rein them in."
"They will not 'go haywire' now," Legolas reminded him. "I have spoken with Blair more than once, and have told him the manner of our work together, how you learn simple words to ease you into a more tranquil state, and he has joined us on several occasions. It comes easier?"
"Yeah, it does. You think if I'd tried this when I was a kid, I'd have learned more easily?"
"In the world of men, it is easier to learn when young, is this not so?" Legolas had seen and understood it more than his elven kin did, for he had many ties to a wider realm.
"It is in my world," Jim agreed. "A small child can learn a language without effort, but when you're older, it's harder. It's not impossible, but neither is it instinctive."
"That is why our first exercises were simple and repetitive. I learned such when I was very young. Not even as control, but as a natural facet of life. Control is good in some things, but in others, it places a restriction upon life that should be lived as the rivers flow and the wind sighs through the trees."
"Yeah, the letting go of control is the hardest thing you've taught me," Jim admitted. He grimaced. "I'm not used to that."
"No. Control is the means you use to hide your shame."
Jim tensed, his muscles growing rigid, and he gritted his teeth. "What the hell are you talking about?" What right did the elf have to talk to him like that?
Legolas looked him in the eye. "You have saved my life, and have since given yourself over to my training. I feel I know you well enough to speak. Shame I say, for part of your need for control is a need to be normal, as you perceive normalcy. Yet for you, normalcy includes what is to mortal man a wondrous gift. You dwell in a land where it is difficult for you to see it, but you have been blessed."
"That's what Sandburg thinks, but then he doesn't have to live with it," Jim said tightly.
"He lives with it so greatly, he has sacrificed his future to it," Legolas rebuked him gently. "He would not count the price too high. Do you count the price too high to be 'different'? All of us have our gifts, and to avoid them and conceal them within is to destroy ourselves. Thanks to you, I live. I will always be glad of your gifts. There is no shame. If you bow to it, you surrender to the unkindest elements of your world. Never forget that there are those among them who did not rush to mock or exploit, but who might have smiled to themselves to know there remained a touch of wonder in your world, and I sincerely believe they are in the majority."
"Yeah, but those aren't the people who get in my face about it."
Legolas puzzled a moment over the idiom, as he often did, but he asked for no explanation. "Always there are those who would fault one. The man who would have taken my life saw me not as Legolas but as a symbol of what he hated and feared. Those who see you as odd and threatening perceive you as a symbol and not as an individual. One with such narrow views may learn better from exposure to you, but if he does not, you must not judge yourself from his narrow viewpoint."
"Yeah, Sandburg tells me that, too. But he's not the one out there in full view."
"No. That is a choice you must make, to use your gifts for the betterment of the world, or to let them die, and with them the finer part of your spirit. You made no hesitation to reveal your abilities when I lay bound and in peril, nor did you hold silence when the child was trapped beneath the stones, nor when you smelled the start of the bakery fire. In your own world, should a life be in jeopardy, you would not hesitate."
"No," Jim admitted. "I couldn't. When I became a cop I swore an oath to serve and protect. That's what we're supposed to do, defend the people against all kinds of threats, from criminals, from accidents, from whatever comes along." He heaved a sigh. He could talk to Legolas, not as easily as he could talk to Sandburg, but on a similar level, beyond the casual interaction of guys back home on poker night or at a Jags game. There was no judgment in Legolas's words, simply a statement of truth as he perceived it, and understanding, even when Jim stiffened with resistance. To spend an hour a day with one whose senses were even sharper than his own was humbling enough, but for Legolas to look into his eyes and see things Jim did not wish to admit, even to himself, was tough.
"You really buy into this shame thing?" he asked.
"Do you not? You demand rigid control, because you perceive your senses as beyond control. Yet it is not control you require, but a more positive form. Discipline."
"It's the same," Jim argued.
"No. Discipline is the regulation of your own nature, judging what you can manage and how well to manage it. Control is an attempt to regulate that which is beyond your own power."
"So I should just be laid-back and hang loose when...."
"I know not the terms, but I understand. When...?" he prompted.
"When everything's going nuts around me?"
Legolas gave a faint chuckle. "Blair has told me of the 'house rules,'" he admitted. "And while it is good to lay boundaries, too many inhibit the natural flow of life."
"Too few and there's chaos," Jim challenged.
They smiled at each other. "Discipline will allow you to discover the proper balance," Legolas said after a moment. "Remember, you have enough to regulate within yourself. To attempt to regulate the world will produce only great frustration. Be easier with yourself, and upon yourself, Jim Ellison. Come, I think we have finished our time together. Tomorrow, Aragorn becomes King. He is King already but tomorrow the crown will be placed upon his head."
"People have been crowding into the city until you'd think there'd be no more room for them."
"Some of them have set up tents on the Pelennor," Legolas reminded him. "Before we end our lessons, I will ask you to consider one thing."
"What thing?" Jim asked warily. That was the trouble with Legolas. He was always coming up with stuff that forced Jim to think.
"The newcomers to the city have not sought you out to stare at you and point at you," Legolas said. "Some may have heard of my rescue and will be interested. But most people have their own lives to lead. So it is in your world, too."
Jim remembered a crook or two asking for his autograph, flashbulbs going off in his face, tabloid reporters bugging his dad and his brother. Minas Tirith was a lot kinder, and they had enough people to stare at already: Aragorn, the King come again after more than a thousand years, an elf and a dwarf, Frodo, who was recognized everywhere as the Ringbearer. Jim and Frodo had commiserated with each other over the burdens of notoriety, but here in Minas Tirith, it was a kinder notoriety, heavily laden with respect. Sandburg had definitely brought them to a place where loyalty and friendship were valued.
Jim rubbed his chin. Unlike Sandburg, he had chosen to remain clean-shaven, although most men here wore beards in varying degrees of length and thickness. Gimli had such pride in his flowing beard with the braids in it. He didn't care if his was the most dramatic beard in the city. Instead, he strutted through the streets, proud of the attention he received. He was delighted with the honor of bearing the crown for tomorrow's celebration. He was a dwarf, and none could make him be what he was not.
Legolas gazed at him with that intense look that made Jim wonder if elves could read minds after all. In anybody else, it would have made him freak and pull away, but Legolas never invaded, even if he probed deep and would not yield if he felt his point worth making. To prove he had at least guessed what Jim was thinking, he said, "If you take away anything from our time together, let it be this. You are a Sentinel. It is what you are. Be proud of that, and live it. That does not mean you should go through the streets of Cascade and shout it to the high towers. But do as you have done here, what is needful, without shame, without resentment." He lifted one eyebrow. It wasn't only in the ears that he sometimes resembled Mister Spock. "Can you do that?"
"Long as Sandburg's there, too, I think I can," Jim admitted.
"Then I am satisfied. Come. I would speak with the elves who came from Lothlórien for the coronation. Gimli is greatly saddened that the Lady Galadriel came not, for he is greatly fond of her. I must console him."
"I've heard enough since I got here to know it's not the usual thing for an elf and a dwarf to be buddies," Jim said.
"No, it is not, but a true friend is worth his weight in mithril, Jim Ellison. Forget that not." He pressed his hand to his heart then laid it upon Jim's shoulder.
"I won't," Jim said. "Hannon le."
"Now come the days of the King!" Gandalf announced in a ringing voice to the assembled crowd. At Éowyn's side, Faramir smiled in elation to see his King standing tall and proud, before the Hall of the Kings, wearing Gondor's crown. He had long dreamed of the coming of the King, but had never expected it to happen in his lifetime, just as he had not expected the fall of Sauron. Yet here he stood, free, well content with his King, with the woman of his heart at his side.
"This day does not belong to one man but to all," Aragorn called in a ringing voice. "Let us together rebuild this world that we may share in the days of peace." He looked out across the gathered throng who cheered in elation. For a moment, Aragorn's eyes touched Faramir's, and the King inclined his head. Faramir bowed. To serve as Steward to such a man was an honor he would cherish all his days.
The White Tree sent forth its blossoms in a glorious white rain as if the tree itself – and lost Númenor, too – meant to honor the King. As Aragorn sang in the high elven tongue the words Elendil had sung when he came to Middle-earth, Faramir translated them to Éowyn in a whisper. "Out of the great sea to Middle-earth I am come. In this place I will abide, and my heirs, until the ending of the world."
Aragorn then moved among his people. He passed Faramir first and Éowyn, then Éomer, King of Rohan, and here came Legolas, looking the elven prince he was, a simple circlet upon his head. He represented his father, the King of Mirkwood. The two greeted each other like the friends they had been far longer than Faramir had been alive, and then Legolas guided Aragorn's attention to the elves to the King's left. Aragorn stiffened.
"What is it?" Éowyn asked, straining to see.
An elf maiden approached Aragorn bearing a white banner displaying the White Tree. Faramir had never seen her before, but the incredulous joy on his King's face made her identity clear. Arwen Undómiel, daughter of Elrond of Rivendell. In full view of his people, Aragorn pulled her close and kissed her.
"So we shall have an elven queen," Faramir said to Éowyn. "The people approve." Indeed they did. Their cheers proved their joy for their King's happiness.
"That wasn't part of the plan, was it?" Blair Sandburg appeared at Faramir's side, elaborately clad in blue and silver, with a cape lined in silver. He grinned as he rose on his toes to see over the heads of the crowd, and gave his cloak a little swirl as if he loved the feel of it.
"No, it is a welcome surprise." Faramir beamed at his King, then nodded a greeting to Blair. At his side, Jim appeared less than comfortable in formal attire. He had never worn a cloak the whole time he had been in Minas Tirith until now, and he held the look of a man who found the garment strange and uncomfortably alien. Yet the warm browns of his attire became him well, and Faramir saw more than one lady of the court eyeing him with great interest, prepared to vie for his attention.
"Is that Arwen?" Blair asked. "Gandalf told me about her. He didn't know if she was going to go to Valinor or not."
"She has come here," Éowyn said. "I think she will stay."
Faramir turned his eyes upon her to judge her reaction, and saw her beaming fondly upon the pair as they walked toward the four hobbits. Clad in the clothing of their home in the Shire, the halflings stood on a platform that had been constructed so they could see over the heads of the crowd. Frodo had not wished to be part of the great ceremony; a most humble hobbit, indeed. Now as the four bowed to Aragorn – look at Pippin, relishing the eyes of the crowd upon him – Aragorn spoke.
"My friends. You bow to no one." The King knelt before Frodo and his friends, and Arwen with him.
Faramir instantly dropped to one knee, and all the people did the same, even Blair and Jim. Even Gandalf on the steps. Such fondness Faramir saw in the Wizard's eyes as he gazed upon the hobbits.
After the little ritual to honor Frodo without singling him out -- and also to honor the other three, who had helped to save the world as well – people broke into smaller groups and many conversations were held. Blair stayed near Faramir, asking questions about the various rituals of Kingship, and about the crown Aragorn wore.
"Yes, it is the actual crown worn by Eärnur, Gondor's last King," Faramir replied. "He was a mighty warrior, but perhaps not a sensible man, for when the Witch King challenged him, he accepted the challenge and rode to Minas Morgul to engage in single combat. He never returned."
"Because no man could slay the Witch King, right?" Blair grinned. "We heard about that." He bowed to Éowyn in the local style, even if he had once told Faramir that bowing was not the custom in the land of America.
She inclined her head. "In truth I fought in defense of my fallen uncle, and thought not that I would be his slayer. I expected to die, but I could not allow him to despoil my uncle's fallen body." Her eyes gleamed brightly, and she put out her hand to Faramir, and pressed it against his heart.
"I'm sorry," Blair said quickly. "I didn't mean to remind you."
"No, fear not. I had not expected the power to slay him, and would have fallen if not for my dear Merry. But when he said no man could slay him, and he staggered from Merry's blow, the chance came. I would put it behind me, though."
"I can understand that," said Jim. "If you have to remember, remember that you were brave and did what was needed, and go on from there. And if your memories get to you, tell Faramir. Talk to him about it."
"Oh, good advice, Jim, when your own style is to turn into a clam," Blair cried, the light of teasing in his voice.
"A clam?" Faramir echoed in surprise.
Blair laughed. "Clams are supposed to be silent. That's why when somebody is not talking, we say he clams up."
"I have been making note of your many colorful idioms," Faramir said. "It intrigues me to see how this one has developed. This will go into my notes."
"I can tell you more of them," Blair volunteered. "I've been making my own notes about the way you do things here, and the history of the world. I never had to take notes in ink with a quill pen before, but it's great."
"Glad I am you enjoy Middle-earth." Aragorn came up to join them, Arwen at his side and Pippin trailing behind them. At once Pippin rushed to Faramir's side and smiled up at him.
"Everyone bowed to us, did you see, Faramir?"
"I did indeed, myself included. And well deserved." He inclined his head to Aragorn. "My King, for now you are in every way."
"My Steward. I would have you meet Arwen Undómiel, daughter of Elrond of Rivendell, she who will be my wife. Arwen, this is Faramir, son of Denethor, who is becoming my right hand, and his betrothed, Éowyn, Princess of Rohan."
They exchanged delighted greetings. "You are most welcome here," Faramir told her, "for although he has not spoken of it, Aragorn has been longing for your arrival even as he went through his daily duties. To see such joy in his face also brings me joy."
When Éowyn had spoken to Arwen, also offering her welcome, Aragorn faced Blair and Jim. "And these two are visitors in our realm, Blair Sandburg and Jim Ellison, who come from the distant land of America, far beyond Middle-earth." When they had bowed to Arwen and exchanged greetings, Aragorn eyed the two. "I am glad you are here at such a moment, when Gondor, and all of Middle-earth, has found peace. You are welcome here. And I would have you know that, should you choose it, you would be welcome to remain here always, for you have both found places in my land."
"Stay here?" Blair echoed, no doubt remembering the earlier conversation. He darted one quick glance at Jim, who had tensed with sudden rigidity. Like Blair, he showed no expression at all.
"Ponder it," Aragorn said, "for it is not a choice that can be made lightly. And tell me what you decide."
*Stay here? Look at Jim. He's freaking. He thinks I want to stay and he doesn't know what to make of that. Doesn't he trust me yet?
But to stay here? Look at him. Nobody singles him out in the crowd. People know he's a Sentinel but they accept it. They're glad of him here. Nobody's gonna exploit him here. He's learned a lot from Legolas, probably things I could never teach him. When we've worked together, I can see how far he's come. This might be the greatest place in the world for him. If Jim wants to stay, then I should stay with him.
Does he even need a guide here? His senses are more controlled than I ever saw. It's become so natural for him. Legolas could teach him things I never thought of.
Legolas won't stay here in Minas Tirith, though. He has family and his father's court in Mirkwood. He'll go away and then Jim would need a guide again.
A second-best guide....
What does he want to do? You'd think by now I could read his face, but I can't. Not a shred of expression there. Nobody can turn into stone as well as Jim.
Does he want to stay? Is this the choice Incacha said we'd have at the end, to go home or stay here in Middle-earth? This is a great place and these are great people. I wouldn't mind staying here myself. I haven't even missed computers or TV or pizza. Well, maybe pizza....
What about his dad and brother? I know he's not really easy with them, but it's coming. Would he vanish without letting them know? And if we go home, could I ever bring us back?
Do I even know how to go home?
That doesn't matter so much as Jim. What does he want to do?
Whatever it is, I'll go along with it. I'd rather be with Jim than home -- these days, home is where he is. He's my brother. That's the bottom line. I told him it was about friendship a couple of years ago. It still is, more so than ever.
If you want to stay, Jim, I'll stay with you.*
*What the hell kind of choice is this? Sandburg? Come on, give me a sign here. You want to stay, don't you? I've seen you drinking this all in. This is an anthropologist's wet dream. Myths and legends galore, a bunch of brand new cultures for you to study. I've seen you talking to Faramir, and you're both so excited at the cultural exchange thing that you're stumbling over your words.
Nobody here thinks you're a fraud. Nobody gets on your case about the diss. It's a clean slate for you, where you can just be Blair Sandburg, not the guy who confessed to the whole world that he was a fraud -- for my sake. No more crank phone calls, no more encounters with your students who look at you like you betrayed everything they stand for. They like you here. I've seen folk smiling when you go by, and talking to you eagerly whenever you stop for conversation. You jumped right into the lifestyle here, feet first, and never quit reveling in it. You'd love to trek off and visit the Shire, and Mirkwood, and Gimli's people, and stop at Rohan to see what the Rohirrim are like. You want to go to Faramir's wedding, and now probably they'll have a huge ceremony for Aragorn when he marries his Arwen.
There'll always be something here for you to stay for. The longer we stay, the harder it will be for you to go home. All those Shaman lessons with Gandalf.... Never mind he isn't a Shaman and they don't really have Shamans here. I've seen you come away from your lessons looking so eager and delighted, as if the world was opening up for you in ways you never thought possible. I've listened to you rave about how great it is to study with a wizard.
No wizards in Cascade.
Come on, Sandburg, give me a sign here. For a guy who lets it all hang out, you can be as secretive as me. If you want to stay, I'll stay for you. You gave up your whole life for me. I can't do any less for you.*
"I think I have stolen their breath away," Aragorn said to Faramir with a smile. "Come, Jim, Blair. You need not decide this minute. It is a huge decision. I know not if it would even be possible. But believe Gondor would welcome you – and it is not for your magic, Blair, nor your senses, Jim. It is because you are Blair and Jim, whom we have grown to trust and value."
"If Jim wants to stay, we'll stay," Blair cried.
At the same moment, Jim insisted, "If this is Sandburg's choice, I'm with him."
They heard each other's words and stared at each other, eyes wide with awe. "You'd stay for me?" Blair said scarcely above a whisper.
"Hell, yeah. You gave up everything for me, and you love it here," Jim said. He added with sudden awkwardness, "You'd stay for me?"
"Nobody gets on your case here or stares. They treat you the way people back home *should* treat you. It's safe for you here."
Aragorn chuckled. "Ah, so each of you would stay for the sake of the other."
They looked at each other, and the perplexity fell away from their faces. They smiled, a smile of peace and contentment, and great joy.
Gandalf, who had joined them silently just in time to hear Aragorn's offer, stepped closer. "Then both have learned the lessons needed here. I saw the doubts upon your faces resolve into willingness to go along with what the other chose. You would both make sacrifices for each other, yet to stay would not be a sacrifice, for both of you could find true happiness here. It may or may not be the right choice, but only the two of you will know. Come, Blair Sandburg, tell me the answer. And you, Jim Ellison, allow him to speak."
Jim started to speak then caught himself. "Sandburg?" he prompted.
Blair hesitated a moment, then his face cleared. "Staying here would be easy," he said. "It would be great; there are wonderful people here, and even if it's different, it could be home. I've enjoyed every second of it – well, not when Legolas was in danger, but all the rest." He drew a deep breath. "But if we stay here, it's a cop-out." Suddenly he grinned. "There's another idiom for you, Faramir. It means we'd be taking the easy way out and not facing the consequences of our actions. It would almost be like running away. What happened in Cascade happened, and if we don't see it through, we'd never really come to terms with it. And we've got family and friends there. To leave without a word would be so wrong. Jim?"
"Yeah, Sandburg. I like it here, too. Maybe not quite as much as you do, but it's been good for me – and good *to* me. I could be happy here." He looked at Aragorn. "I know Sandburg could. But we can't run out on our responsibilities."
"Yet you were willing to stay for each other's sake." Gandalf smiled. "You have made a wise choice for the correct reason, and your understanding of each other's need, even if it offered you a few moments of reasonable doubt. Such need not reflect upon your trust of each other."
"Are you *sure* you can't read minds, Gandalf?" Blair asked and stared at the White Wizard expectantly.
"*I* think he can," Pippin said and winked at Gandalf before he smiled up at the pair. "You found your way here once. Maybe you can come again one day."
"A wise suggestion from my Fool of a Took," Gandalf said with a smile. "Bear it in mind. The time may come when you would choose to return, either to visit or to stay."
"Should you do that, you would be welcome." Aragorn clapped each man on the shoulder. "I must go now and mingle with my people and with our distinguished guests. I see Faramir's uncle waiting to speak with him, and I must escort Frodo to Lord Elrond, who is eager to meet with him again." He bowed to the company, who all bowed in return, and Éowyn curtseyed.
"Wow, Jim, isn't it great?" he heard Blair cry as he and Arwen moved on. "We can come back here. I'd want to, wouldn't you? I think I know the way...."
A quick knock on the door was the first sign that the transition home had worked. They had changed into their clothing from home, although Blair wondered if that would happen automatically if they didn't. He wasn't sure he wanted to chance it because he'd grown used to the clothing of Middle- earth. He did wrap the cloak he had come to love for the swirl of it around his shoulders as they took their place on a bench in the room they had shared. Their goodbyes all said, hugs exchanged with their new friends, they had retreated to their room and Blair had drawn Jim into the dreamscape, where Incacha awaited him.
"The Sentinel bonding ritual is complete," the Shaman had said to them in what Blair heard as fluent English, and Jim later confessed he heard in Incacha's native Chopec. "You have been successful. You have made a choice, as required, and made it wisely. Many such journeys are possible."
Blair gave a sputter of laughter. "Just like the Gateway to Forever on Star Trek," he muttered under his breath. Then Incacha and the blue-lit jungle faded away and the loft came around him, complete with someone knocking at the door.
Rain beat against the balcony window as it had when they had left, and the fading light seemed just as bright as it had when they had departed. Was it the same day? Moments after their departure?
Had any of it been real?
The cloak no longer hung around his shoulders. Blair heaved a regretful sigh, but its absence didn't discourage him. It had been real. He was certain of it, every bit of it.
"Company," Jim said. "Simon."
If the caller was someone they knew, Jim could always identify him if he concentrated, but this time he hadn't concentrated, just known. Was that the elf training at work? Or had he expected Simon to stop by? Maybe he'd heard the elevator and the sound of the wheelchair Simon still used when he went any distance, although he got around Major Crime with a cane these days.
"You get it," Blair said and sat huddled on the couch. He missed Gandalf. He missed Faramir and little Pippin. But the loft was familiar and warm, even with the June rain beating against the window.
Jim got up and went over to the door. "Come in, Simon," he said.
"I suppose you knew it was me." Simon wheeled in with the skill of a pro, although it was a skill Blair was sure he would happily forget when he dumped the chair in a few more days. He let the wheelchair roll forward, but his hands fell away from the wheels. Eyes wide and mouth ajar, he stared at Blair as if he had never seen him before. "What the hell! Sandburg...?"
Jim stared at Blair as if he had managed to overlook gaping wounds or a sudden purple rash. "What?" he said blankly. Whatever Simon saw, Jim didn't.
"What's with the fake beard?" Simon asked.
"Beard?" Blair's hand shot up and touched his chin. His *beard. Omigod.* He had become so used to the chin fuzz, he hadn't even thought about shaving before coming home, and it hadn't occurred to Jim, either. It had been good not to shave, especially since no one in Middle-earth had heard of a safety razor, let alone a Remington or Gillette. "Beard!" he gasped. "Jim...."
Simon wheeled over. "That's either the best stage makeup I've ever seen or you've figured out how to grow a beard in a couple of hours."
Blair and Jim stared at each other. Proof. Utter and irrefutable proof that it had all been real. He shifted on the sofa and realized he was sitting on something.
"Stage makeup?" he ventured hesitantly.
Simon wheeled up to him and touched his chin. "Son of a bitch, it's real! What is this, some weird Sentinel thing? No, don't tell me. I definitely don't want to know. The beard has got to go, Sandburg."
"I'll shave," Blair replied, grinning. "But I think it makes a great look." He jumped up and ran to the bathroom to look in the mirror. Yep, there he was, the Middle-earth version of Blair Sandburg, the Shaman who had studied with a genuine wizard. He grinned at himself in the mirror, content with himself, with his life, even if the times ahead were sure to be rocky. Then he emerged, snatched up his cloak and put it on. He was sure it would look weird with his jeans and flannel shirt."
"If that's the latest campus fashion..." Simon began, and then fell silent. "Hell, Sandburg, sorry. But let's forget about that. I came over to tell you –"
Someone else knocked on the door.
"What is this, Grand Central Station?" Jim asked. He went over. "Dad, come in."
William Ellison entered, noticed Blair's beard and did a double-take. "That's a neat trick, Blair. Fastest beard in the west. It'll never fly at the police academy."
"He's right," Simon said. "The beard has got to go."
"As well as the academy," Jim's father said, winning stares from Jim and Blair, and a nod and a smile from Simon. "Sandburg, I've got news for you, and I think you're going to like it. Chancellor Edwards has been *persuaded* to retire, to leave quietly after making a statement that exonerates you. The new Chancellor is willing to take you back, with an extension of the date for you to present a new dissertation topic and complete your preliminary work. You'll have to keep a low profile at first, but I don't think you'll mind."
"What?" Blair stared open-mouthed at Jim's father. Jim stared, too, and there was awe in his eyes that his father had pulled this particular rabbit out of his hat.
"How did you swing that one, Dad?"
"It helps to have friends in high places," William said with a grin that took years off his face. "Chancellor Stoddard wants you to come by tomorrow, Blair. The university had no right to jump on the press bandwagon when you had never submitted that dissertation. The only thing they could fault you on is the long delay in completing it, and that will be overlooked under the circumstances. They chose not to go through the process of a lawsuit, and essentially settled 'out of court'."
"Stoddard?" Blair cried. "Eli Stoddard?"
"He's been campaigning to vindicate you since this all happened." William looked at his son. "Jim, he knows about you. Not from anything Blair said; he insisted Blair never told him word one and that he just reasoned it out. He'll keep your secret for Blair's sake. I'm afraid there are always going to be people out there who will know, and feel smug about it. Even people who will try to exploit you."
"But I won't let them," Jim said. "If they try to use it against me – crooks with bright lights or noise or other sensory overload things – it won't work."
"Legolas taught you how to cope with that?" Blair cried hopefully.
Jim gave a nod. "And gave me a list of exercises I should share with you so I'd keep in practice." He grimaced. "More tests. That ought to make your day."
"One other thing," William Ellison said, although Blair could see him biting back questions about who Legolas was. From the way he was grinning, Blair suspected he was about to produce a second giant rabbit from that wizard hat of his. Maybe he was kin to Gandalf.
"Go ahead, Dad," Jim encouraged. "I'm beginning to wonder how I ever got along without you."
That made William's eyes warm. "I hope you won't have to wonder in the future. But here's what I've done. I had a long heart-to-heart with the police commissioner this afternoon. Blair, ever since you and Jim teamed up, Jim's arrest record has been outstanding. Major Crime has been successful but your advisor status was a part of that, and he acknowledged it. You're now an official police observer, assigned to Major Crime, and partnered with Jim. You'll have to juggle it with your teaching assistant position and writing a new dissertation, but you've been doing that all along."
Blair's heart thudded wildly in his chest. "Oh, man, this is incredible." He grabbed William's hand and pumped it vigorously. "The best of both worlds," he said. "I can't thank you enough."
"Neither can I." Jim held out his hand to his father, who clasped it and then used it to pull Jim in for a hug.
"I haven't been the greatest father, son," he said. "But I'm changing that."
"This makes up for one hell of a lot," Jim said.
Simon laughed. "I'd gotten the word on the observer status reinstatement," he said. "That's what I came over for. Welcome back, Sandburg."
Blair caught Jim's eye. *Welcome back*, he thought. What a great homecoming, even if he did have to lose the beard. He and Jim shared an elated smile. If they hadn't chosen to return home....
But they had, to a home that was full of promise.
"Hey," Blair said with a grin so wide it was all he could do not to burst out laughing. "If I'm not going to the academy, maybe I should keep the beard. Professors have beards, and now it looks like I'll be one after all."
"So what will you do for a dissertation?" William Ellison asked.
"Well, let's see." Blair grinned broadly. "I think it's going to have to be something about myth and magic...."
Faramir rounded a corner and came face to face with Gandalf, who stood in the corridor while celebrating people flowed around him. The wizard's face was still, contentment in his eyes, and when he saw Faramir, he called out a greeting.
"What pleases you, Gandalf?" he said. "Apart from Aragorn's coronation, the fall of Sauron, and the dawn of peace, that is?"
"Those things please me greatly, but I am smiling because of our two friends from the distant land America."
"I'll miss them," Faramir said. "They were good men."
"And are, in their own land." The wizard's smile widened, and he took a contented puff of his pipe. "They are home and well, and life for them is good."
"You've seen them there?" Faramir asked. It would never have occurred to him to doubt such would be possible.
"Faint, transparent images, no more," the wizard replied. "But enough to know that Blair has been reinstated at his teaching position and that he and Jim will work together as before. And that is very good news. It is how they can best serve, and that is always the finest choice."
"It is indeed," said Faramir, who could not help but think of how he had served in Ithilien, and how he would now serve as both Steward and Prince. How he could best serve? Yes, it was, and with Éowyn at his side.
"If you will excuse me, I must find Legolas and tell him," Gandalf said, and hurried down the corridor, leaving Faramir to pause near a window that looked out over the Pelennor. In the distance, the Anduin sparkled silver in the starlight.
Peace. In Middle-earth and for distant friends.
And maybe, one day, they would return.