The sun set golden over the forests in the west, tugging the purple tide of night in its wake. Kíli watched it from Erebor's highest battlements, narrow walkways and low walls carved into the cliff face near the peak of the mountain, and overlooking the whole of the valley below. It was a beautiful sight, to be sure. But it wasn't meant for him.
Tauriel stood close by his side, her eyes cast far out over the landscape and a faint smile on her lips. It wasn't often that Kíli saw her so at ease, even now that her presence in Erebor had stopped garnering whispers or foul looks wherever she went. She had agreed to stay behind after the battle to help with the rebuilding, a hand offered in friendship from the Woodland Realms once more. Kíli doubted there would be any such good feelings between Thranduil's people and their own, but he was perfectly happy to have Tauriel nearby. It was a miracle Thorin had let her stay at all—or more accurately it was a miracle that Kíli had been able to convince him to agree to it. Yet here she was. And here they were.
"Are we supposed to be up here?" she asked, taking her eyes off the smoldering light in the distance to cock an eyebrow at him.
Kíli grinned. "Nah," he said with a brazen shrug, "the builders haven't decreed this section structurally sound since the dragon came and went. That's why we have it all to ourselves."
"And what if it should collapse?"
"Then I have you here to save me," Kíli replied. "You're certainly good at it."
"Well, I get lots of practice."
Kíli felt the warmth of Tauriel beside him in more than just her physical presence. She was like a heated stone set in his chest, heavy and warm and holding him to the earth. Yet as usual when he was alone with her, he felt the tug of something sharp behind his ribs, the echo of words said and unsaid. He'd thought things would be so different after Erebor was won. And they were—just not in the way he'd hoped. A wall had gone up between him and Tauriel in the days after the battle. It wasn't like Kíli expected them to go skipping off to the marriage bed before the blood dried from their clothes, but the way things had been going between them… well. He'd had certain hopes.
But there was a part of Tauriel that was closed to him now. He'd seen it in the way her eyes shifted away sometimes, how she was always careful to keep her distance when she felt them growing too close. As much as it hurt, Kíli understood. He had duties, responsibilities, certain expectations that came with being a prince and were not compatible with taking an elf as a consort. Things were complicated now.They spoke no more of starlight.
Still, if being no more than friends was all they were meant to be, Kíli was determined that he'd be the best friend that anyone could ever want. The laughs they had, the inside jokes and simple companionship they had made the occasional wrenching in his chest worthwhile. He wouldn't trouble her with them.
As he watched her from the corner of his eye she leaned over the stone, her auburn hair swaying gently in the wind. Quick and light as a bird, she hopped up onto the low, broad wall separating the battlements from the open air and stepped right up to the edge.
"Careful," Kíli warned, reaching out to steady her, but she merely shot him a playful smile.
"If this walkway is going to collapse, I'm at least going to get the best view first," she said, folding her legs under herself and patting the space beside her. It was easily broad enough to sit comfortably, if you didn't consider what was waiting on the other side. Kíli stood on his toes to peer past the edge of the wall, where the cliff dropped off straight down to the mountain slopes hundreds of feet below. His stomach gave a sharp jolt, but Tauriel was staring at him expectantly.
He grinned brazenly, not to be outdone. "I like the way you think. What's the use of anything if there's no risk of horrible death, right?" With a quick hoist and a great amount of care not to look down, Kíli pulled himself onto the wall and sat facing Tauriel. If his hands gripped the edge of the stone a little tighter than hers, she didn't comment on it.
The blackened slopes of the mountain spilled out below them, Laketown a distant smudge on the shine of the lake. It all felt much more immediate when he was just a foot of space and a minute of falling away from experiencing it firsthand. Tauriel's eyes wandered the scenery below, lingering on things that Kíli couldn't make out. Eventually her gaze settled back on him. He kept his face turned away, feigning disinterest, but he felt her studying him.
Eventually she broke the silence. "I quite enjoyed watching you spar earlier today."
Kíli raised his eyebrows. "Oh yeah? Because I spent a good amount of time falling on my arse."
"Your opponents were quite skillful," she admitted with a laugh that seemed to fall on his ears like chimes. "Perhaps one day I could face you in the ring, and see how a lowly Silvan captain of the guard measures up to the mighty prince of Erebor."
The ironic note in her voice was not lost on him. "You're just saying it like that because you expect me to lose," Kíli said.
"Perhaps," Tauriel replied. "But I welcome the opportunity for you to prove me wrong."
"Someday, for certain," Kíli promised her. "There's a good chance Thorin would have your head for daring to raise a sword against a crown prince, but he'll come around."
Tauriel shifted her position beside him, heaving in a deep breath of the mountain air. In a move that made Kíli's heart pound, she unfolded her legs and let them dangle clear over the edge of the wall, kicking in open space.
"Will you please be careful," he said, his hand unconsciously flying to her arm. Elf-agility or no, he wouldn't see her fall.
She looked at him in surprise. "I never thought I'd see the day when you told me to be careful," Tauriel mused. "Just yesterday you took me riding in the mine carts and nearly sent us both hurtling straight in a solid wall."
"I'm not good with heights," Kíli replied stiffly.
Her smile turned wicked. "Am I making you nervous?" She scooted a little further over the edge, stretching her legs out lazily into the air as if she were lounging by a pool, not at the edge of a deadly precipice.
"Tauriel, stop it!" he groaned, clinging to her with both hands as his heart beat madly in his chest.
With a laugh she finally repented. His pulse didn't slow at all until she had settled back on safer ground with her legs tucked safely under her body once more. With a slow shake of his head he fixed her with a scalding glare.
"You know what? Fine. Fall off the ramparts, see if I care," he grumbled, which only seemed to encourage her. He'd moved much closer to her during her little display, so that now they sat side-by-side with their legs gently pressed together. She made no move to pull away. The contact was enough to help Kíli feel less like his heart was going to jump out of his throat. Or that he ought to push her over the edge himself. "I should have known better than to take you up here. Just asking for trouble."
"You speak as if you aren't planning your payback right now." Her broad smile in his direction wasn't enough to ease the tension in his back.
"Oh, you bet I am," he said loudly. "It's going to be awful. Just terrible. You should definitely save yourself and apologize now."
Tauriel grinned. "Never."
Kíli nodded solemnly. "Alright then, your fate is sealed. Don't say I didn't warn you."
She tossed her head back with another laugh, and Kíli wished that her joy didn't affect him so. He could have forgiven her anything for a smile, a glint in her eye. She was beautiful even when she was tormenting him, which she seemed to do more and more often these days. He wished he could say he minded.
After a long, quiet moment, Tauriel pulled one knee up to her chest and propped her arm up on it. "How different things are from when we first met." Something in her tone had changed, left the teasing notes behind. He'd gotten used to this treatment, the moments of laughter and closeness cut short as she pulled away. Yet this wasn't the same wall between then Kíli had grown to recognize. There was a wistfulness on her face Kíli hadn't seen in a while.
"Things are changing even more quickly now that Erebor has been retaken," Kíli said. His face turned a bit sullen. He hated to be reminded of the wall that had gone up between them. "Uncle's going to try and force me to grow my beard out any day now."
Tauriel smiled. "It would suit you." She seemed to be staring at him more intently than before. "You didn't wear your braids like that back then either." Her hands drifted over the beaded ends without touching. "They're very intricate."
"Not much time to give them attention on the road. Or that was my excuse, at least. I don't much like doing them myself, but it's a sign of my station now," he admitted. His fingers toyed with the ends, picking one out in particular. "Each design means something different, you see—this pattern is meant for protection. This one symbolizes royal station. Fíli did these ones, I forget what they mean. Normally they'd be in my beard too, but…" he shrugged.
"We elves do them differently," Tauriel said. "Less complicated, in both design and meaning." Kíli's froze as he suddenly felt her fingers brushing through a strand of his hair, smoothing it down almost absentmindedly. His heart beat faster as she began pulling her fingers through it, gently guiding any tangles out.
She must have noticed him tense, for her hands paused. "May I?"
The words to politely decline dammed up against his teeth. He should gently pull away, tell her that hair-braiding was no meaningless gesture to dwarves, that what she was doing was more intimate than she knew. But he knew if he did that the curtain would fall between them again. Her intentions were innocent, he told himself. There was no need to make things awkward. Clearing his throat, he finally found his voice: "Yes."
His voice sounded slightly hoarse, even to him, yet after a brief moment he felt Tauriel's hands return to their work. Unable to see what she was doing, Kíli focused on the feeling—the gentle tug on his scalp as she divided a small section of his hair, the tiny movements as her deft fingers wove the strands back together again. It would be incredibly peaceful, but for the fear probing at the corners of his mind.
He knew there was no one likely to stumble across them here, yet still he felt a flutter of unease. If anyone could see what Tauriel was doing it was sure to cause a scandal. If it were any dwarf other than kin putting a braid in his hair, Kíli would have taken it as an invitation. But Tauriel was not a dwarf, he reminded himself. He couldn't treat her like she was. But just for a moment he let himself imagine that she knew, that things had been different between them and her fingers gliding through his hair meant more than he'd ever dared hope. Het let his eyelids flutter closed, thinking of how he'd be able to reach up and feel the braid in his hair long after her hands were gone, binding him to her like a mark of ownership. He thought of telling people proudly when they asked who had woven his hair—but it was only a fantasy. Nothing more.
"There," Tauriel said as she let the completed braid fall from her fingers. "Now you have an elvish braid."
Kíli reached up to feel it, pulling it down over his shoulder to inspect the work. It was simpler, as Tauriel said, but it had a sort of delicate grace to it. He smiled down at it, not daring to look her in the face just yet. He hoped she hadn't noticed the heat creeping up his neck. "It's beautiful."
"It's the best I am capable of. I'm afraid I never took to the skill."
He met her eyes at last. "And what does this design mean?"
A faint smile touched her lips. "Our customs are not so complicated. It can mean whatever you choose it to."
Kíli smirked in spite of himself. "Well, that's not very helpful. Don't I get a hint?"
Tauriel shook her head in amusement. "It means that I am happy to be with you now."
The words left a strange hollow in his breast. With an twist of his lips he let out a short laugh that he hoped was offhanded. "You know, in dwarven culture it's quite a gesture to braid someone's hair. If people saw me wearing an elven braid they'd certainly begin to ask questions."
A shadow stole over Tauriel's face, enough to make Kíli instantly regret opening his mouth. "Forgive me. I did not mean to overstep my bounds. I'll remove it immediately." Her fingers began to unweave the strands.
"Wait," Kíli said, his hand flying up to stop her fingers short. Her eyes met his sharply. "I don't care if they ask questions."
Tauriel stared at him warily. "And how will you answer them?"
"I'll tell them to bugger off," Kíli said. The words surprised even him—he realized they were true. He didn't care about his duties. Not as much as he cared about her.
Tauriel smiled at him sadly. Her hand was still enclosed in his, wrapped around the end of the graceful braid in his hair. The contact flooded Kíli with memories, a tide of longing so strong it swept him away. Let go, he told himself, desperation beating at the inside of his ribcage. You'll drive her away. Let go.
With a stab of painful relief Kíli felt Tauriel's fingers begin to slip out of his. But she wasn't pulling away. With a slow, careful twist of her fingers, Tauriel enlaced their hands just as they had been that day in Laketown so long ago, him lying on the table drowning in white light and delirium, her with the weight of his words weighing down on her. She stared down at their hands now, and Kíli felt the pad of her thumb running up and down the side of his finger. He felt as if it were him now that was being dangled over the side of the cliff.
"You asked me once if I could love you," Tauriel murmured. Her face was turned away, her eyes downcast. Kíli wanted to beg her not to continue, because whatever she was about to say would change everything and it was so much easier to wander in this pleasant in-between, wanting and never having, but never losing either.
"I just wanted you to know that I could, that I so dearly want to let myself—" she cut herself off with a pained twist of her lips. "Now, this is true cruelty," she said bitterly. "I did not want to tell you because I did not want to see you in pain. But I do care for you, Kíli. Very deeply."
Kíli's heart went still. His chest opened up like a chasm, terrible hope expanding so quickly that he felt like he was hollow inside except for the ringing of her words. As if it were someone else speaking, he heard his voice distantly say: "Oh." He was clinging to the edge by his fingernails, about to tumble over into emotions he knew he couldn't control. Still, he held on. "And why would telling me that cause me pain?"
With an expression of quiet agony, Tauriel's fingers pulled out of his hand and settled down defeated in her lap. She lifted her head up, resolve and restraint hardening the line of her jaw. "I think you know."
Kíli was quiet for a good long minute before looking up at her once more. When he spoke, his voice was firm. "I don't, actually."
She glanced at him. "You know we cannot be together. I cannot let you abandon your responsibilities—"
"Responsibilities?" Kíli gestured at the wide, empty space around them. "I see no responsibilities here. Only you."
The look on Tauriel's face softened. "We cannot stay up here forever, Kíli."
Kíli''s lips twisted. "I don't see why not. We could live off birds and lichen, drink rainwater. I'm getting tired of Bombur's cooking by now anyways," he said with a shrug.
Tauriel shook her head. "I wish it were so simple."
"Maybe it can be." Kíli reached up to cup her cheek in his hand, tilting her face towards him so she could see him smile. The golden light had faded into dusk, painting her face with soft cool light. "There's no one here to tell us what we can't do." His other hand stroked through her hair to toy with one of the braids there. Surely she felt the pounding of his pulse in the hand which still gently touched her cheek. "No one to say you can't put a braid in my hair." He leaned forward, slowly, carefully, waiting for her to pull away. She didn’t. His gaze flitted from her eyes to her lips and back, a wordless question.
"No one to say we can't do this," he whispered, and closed the distance between them. Tauriel's lips pressed gently to his, soft yet firm, neither pushing nor pulling away. Her smell was all around him, like leaves and sweet spices that set his head spinning. He felt the gentle touch of her fingertips drifting over his neck, dragging as if to start pulling him closer but doing nothing more than touching.
Excruciatingly, he pulled away so that their lips were a finger's breadth apart and cracked his eyes open. Tauriel's eyes slowly opened to regard him under lowered lids. The guarded expression was back on her face, with no trace of happiness or relief. Just a cold mask. Kíli let his hands fall away. Suddenly he felt sick. He'd pushed too hard. She didn't want this, she'd said so himself. Now he'd driven her away for good.
"I'm sorry," he said, feeling as if the breath wouldn't stay in his lungs. "I thought—I didn't mean to—I should go."
Just as he was about to stagger to his feet, Tauriel's hand shot out and grabbed his shoulder in an iron grip. Her face was hard. "Kíli. Shut up."
He had no other choice. For a long moment she just sat there, staring, that calculating expression in her eyes. Kíli couldn't let himself speculate as to what was going on.
"Doing this is not going to be easy," Tauriel said in a low voice. Her hand was still wrapped around his, her grip strong, her eyes boring into him searching for some answer he didn't know he had. "If anyone found out it could ruin your claim to the throne. Even destabilize your uncle's. Being together would be incredibly selfish for both of us."
Kíli didn't flinch away from her gaze. He didn't know what she wanted. But all he had left was his honesty. "I don't care."
"We'd always have to hide this," she insisted. "Catching what moments together we can, always afraid of being discovered. It may never be enough for you."
"I don't care."
Tauriel stopped. Something desperate writhed behind her eyes. "I am an elf. You're a dwarf. That is one thing that will always stand between us, no matter what we do."
Kíli's hands tightened on hers. He saw the difficulty of what lay ahead of them. The impossibility of it. He knew that any happiness would come tempered with hardship, that this wasn’t the smart thing or maybe even the right thing. And to that he had only one response. "I don't care."
Her eyes flicked down, as if she were giving it a moment's thought, before raising to meet his. There was determination in them now. "Me neither."
Without another word, she leaned forward and kissed him again, fierce and possessive, their teeth clashing and their hands clutching at each other as they struggled to get closer. He wanted her, her taste and her smell and her stubbornness and her laugh. Kíli knew he was over the edge now, tumbling into whatever this was between them with no chance of going back. He knew that someday he would have to hit the ground. But he didn't doubt for a second that the fall would be worth it. Because they were here together, and the stars were coming out, and there were some things worth jumping for.
"We need to be careful," Tauriel whispered insistently in the scarce moments when their lips were apart. "We can't let anyone know."
"Not even Fíli."
"Oh come on! I can trust him."
"I mean it, Kíli."
"Fine, fine," he groused, nipping at her lower lip and enjoying the sound of her breath hitching in her chest. "No one will know. Not even Fíli. Now can we please stop talking about my brother so I can focus on kissing you?"
"I insist on it."