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Misfits

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Mirrors were not something commonly found among the Galadhrim who guarded Lothlorien's borders, nor the spartan talans in which they took rest and breaks. It also was not common for elves to take trophies or souvenirs of battle, but that was more understandable than carrying a mirror. Haldir kept a shield propped against the central trunk of the mallorn his talan was built around, a highly polished bronze shield he had taken from the corpse of an orc, which had undoubtedly looted it from some other unfortunate warrior.

Early morning light filtered through the leaves, dappling his silver blonde hair with shades of soft green. Haldir stared morosely at his image in the shield and peeled his lips back to expose teeth and gums. A bit of lettuce clung stubbornly to a front tooth, and he grimly ran his tongue over the offending matter. A quick re-inspection showed him that it was gone.

Haldir, March Warden of ‘Lorien, was ready to face the day.

 

*****

He would have preferred to have been stationed on the distant borders or to have been sent beyond ‘Lorien on an information gathering mission for the Lord and Lady. It was work for which he was well suited; the company of other elves in the tree city was not something he sought, and blending with the human populace of other lands was easier for him than most elves. The Valar had seen fit to provide him with a sturdy, broad shouldered frame made even more unique by the solidity of his musculature. Though fair enough to look upon, Haldir's nose was more aquiline than the average elf and, in his more bitter moments, he inwardly compared his cheeks to those of certain small burrowing rodents who stored their foraged food in their jowls. Disguising himself as a human youth was easy once he'd unbraided his hair and added a bit of dirt; much to his horror, the women of those settlements he visited found him an incomparable vision of masculine beauty.

Instead of guarding ‘Lorien's farthest reaches or grimly flirting with apple cheeked human beauties, Haldir perched upon a sturdy mallorn bough in full, seldom-worn dress uniform, watching Lord Elrond's entourage make its way toward Caras Galadhon. At some point he would have to reveal himself, give proper greetings, and formally escort them to the royal talan. He was the best and brightest of the Galadhrim, and he knew his services had been enlisted as a mark of respect toward Elrond's house, as well as a courtesy toward the Lord and Lady's daughter. Such was his duty to Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel and, as much as he detested the task, he would do nothing to displease or disappoint the elves that had appointed it to him.

Now that they traveled within the secure confines of the golden wood, Lord Elrond rode at the front of the company with an elf whom Haldir immediately identified as Glorfindel, hero of Gondolin. A smirk twisted Haldir's features as he perused the deceptively delicate figure casually chatting with the Lord of Imladris. His hair was golden blonde rather than silver blonde, and it had begun to curl most fetchingly in the damp air. Most unelf-like, but Haldir doubted if anyone had ever made a point of this to the elf in question.

A quick count showed twenty warriors fanned out in a wedge with Elrond and Glorfindel as its point. Five more ghosted through the trees, oblivious to Haldir's group of six defenders, all of which had spotted them while avoiding notice. At the center of the formation rode Celebrian, her moon pale tresses contrasting sharply with the dark hair and eyes of her three lady companions. The twins followed behind her on matched black mares, both armed and evincing elven deadliness in spite of their mixed heritage. The corners of Haldir's lips twitched in spite of himself. He had enjoyed the Lady Arwen's company, and was prepared to like her brothers as well.

The remaining two elves of the party were a mystery to him. A raven-haired male elf dressed in dark robes cut for riding rode ahead of Celebrian's ladies along with a younger, similarly dressed male. He made no conversation with his companion in spite of the nervous glances occasionally cast his way by the young one. The expression on his coldly beautiful face was that of extreme annoyance, and Haldir found himself commiserating silently. The young one didn't seem any happier than his elder and, judging by their appearance, Haldir guessed that travel was not something either of them enjoyed.

Loyalty. Honor. Courage. Gritting his teeth, Haldir gracefully descended, ending his downward movement in an acrobatic leap that finished in an elegant bow a dozen feet in front of the Lord of Imladris's mount. He smiled as if it pained him to do so, squared his too broad shoulders. "Greetings, Lord Elrond, Lady Celebrian. I bid you good day and welcome from the Lord and Lady of Lothlorien, and extend to you their hope that your travels have been uneventful and that your stay will be joyous. I am Haldir, March Warden of Lothlorien and, as it pleases you, I shall be your guide."

"Thank you, Haldir." Elrond took Haldir's dramatic entrance in stride; behind him Celebrian giggled, and Haldir's smile stretched upward another notch. "All has been well with us, and we hope to find the Lord and Lady in peace and good spirits."

Haldir felt as if his face would crack under the strain of maintaining a properly diplomatic expression of friendly courtesy. The stilted exchange of formal greetings continued a few moments longer until he was finally permitted to take his position as ceremonial point guard. The artificial smile vanished the instant his back was turned, briefly twisted into a sarcastic grimace. The sharp titter of female laughter reached his ears, and he glared at the path in front of him, marching stolidly forward.

*****

Haldir found it ironic that, aside from his brothers, his best friend was a princess of mixed blood who had yet to live even half the span of his own years. At first, he had resented his duty as guard and chaperone on the occasions she came to visit, viewing it as glorified baby sitting. It had quickly become apparent to him that Arwen did not require a babysitter, however, and soon he began to resent it more when duty called him away from the city during her stays.

Arwen lived within her own world of contradictions and subtle speculation, though station and appearance offered her more protection from the sly commentary of others than he. Hot, human blood flowed in her veins in spite of her delicate, ethereal beauty, and who knew what strange urges and behaviors that blood might incite? Nothing overt was ever said, not of the lady who was the granddaughter of Celeborn and Galadriel, not of the elf maiden whose hand would undoubtedly be fiercely sought, if only for the station and appearance that made questions of blood secondary. Still, the elves outside of Imladris' cocoon did not so much curiously wonder as they simply waited - waited for their silent speculations to be inevitably borne out.

Befriending a princess had put Haldir squarely in the sights of those who didn't quite dare to gossip about Arwen. He caught it for both himself and Arwen, and had known that he would when he first began thinking of her as something more than an annoying duty that occasionally kept him in ‘Lorien. No one would be so vulgar as to comment on her heritage, but Haldir had heard the edges of sotto voce conversations concerning his own impeccably elven ancestry. What they couldn't say about her they said about him, pointing out his build and less than delicate features as proof of… something. Some wrongness, some unwonted fleshliness and deficiency for which there was no evidence, yet was as unconcealable as his aquiline nose and soft cheeks.

He'd only partially succeeded in being happy for Arwen's sake at the news of her family's visit. He'd heard enough about the informal relations amongst Elrond's family and staff to be curious, but not nearly curious enough to overcome his distaste for the necessary conspicuousness his role as honor guard would entail.

"You do realize that if your mother were anyone except the daughter of the Lord and Lady I would resent this most highly," he'd said to her several evenings before her parent's arrival. "I am the Warden of Lothlorien and occasionally a gatherer of information and ambassador to the human realms, not an ornament to the honor of others."

Arwen had laughed, ignoring the disgusted glare cast Haldir's way by the elf maid who served as her chaperone. The two of them had been seated on the balcony overlooking the gardens; the lady companion sat at a distance, lips pursed as she pretended to concentrate on her embroidery.

"Grandfather and Grandmother are proud of you, Haldir. ‘Tis the reason you're Warden of Lothlorien, and the reason they want you to serve as escort and guard. Only the best for Ada and Nana."

"I like your perspective. I'd still rather be doing something useful."

"You wouldn't miss me out in the wilds?" Arwen had teased, and he'd been unable to hide his answering grin.

"You know I would."

"Well, it won't be so bad. You'll like Elladan and Elrohir. If it weren't for them I wouldn't be able to spar with you." A most unladylike sniff of displeasure had reached their ears, and Arwen cast her chaperone an amused glance. Haldir glanced at her uncomfortably.

"Perhaps we could go someplace where we would be within sight of others but not in ear shot?" he'd whispered, leaning forward, and Arwen nodded.

"Come on. We'll go to the main talan; I like the view." Arwen had turned to address the maid. "Lisaebette, you are excused."

"Do you not wish an escort, my lady?" The elf woman had asked.

"I think we can find the way," Haldir had answered dryly. Lisaebette had smiled tightly and dropped an abbreviated curtsey before gathering her sewing. Arwen swept past her without a second glance, airily waving for Haldir to follow.

"So what are they like, your brothers?" he'd asked stupidly as they'd made their way along the high, suspended bridge that connected to the central talan. He'd heard enough about the twins to make the question seem redundant, but Arwen never batted an eye.

"Cute. And kind of fuzzy."

Haldir had gawped, looking for a moment more like the village idiot than the March Warden of Lothlorien. Then he'd laughed, his lower tones mixing comfortably with her crystalline giggles in the moonlit darkness.

*****

He'd noticed no indication of fuzziness when he'd seen the twins in the golden wood, nor later when he'd had a chance to view them more closely in the Lord and Lady's receiving hall. Elladan and Elrohir looked more elven than he himself did and, dressed as they were, very little could be made of them beyond their typical and identical svelte sinuousness. Returning to the talan he shared with his brothers, Haldir viciously imagined them nude and hirsute, bristling with dark curls like the men he'd encountered in the human settlements.

"Bad day?" Rumil asked as Haldir stalked in, shutting the door behind him with more force than was strictly necessary.

"Do you need ask?"

"No, I suppose not," Rumil sighed. He'd been sprawled across the low divan doing nothing more stimulating than perusing the insides of his eyelids. It was his first full day home from border patrol, and he'd spent the better part of the day in indolent laziness planning late night excursions to ‘Lorien's public houses. In light of Haldir's mood, he wished he'd set aside this first evening to spend with his brother, but arrangements had been made already and a certain maiden of more than ordinary loveliness would be expecting him.

"Haldir, you need to relax more."

The March Warden's gaze swept over his brother's half-nude form, lingered on the partially hooded eyes and the hand loosely clasped about the neck of a wine bottle. He said nothing. Rumil ran his free hand through his blonde hair and sat up.

"I assume you have plans tonight."

"Yes." Rumil frowned, but Haldir merely nodded, face stoic.

"If you need anything I'll be in my room." Haldir turned on his heel, then paused and glanced over his shoulder. "If you drink until you are sick again, make sure you reach the edge of the talan this time or you will be even less pleased on the morrow than you would be in any event. And, if you bring home any… female companion… I'd prefer not to have to look at her over my breakfast.""

"Alright, Haldir," Rumil said lamely. He set the bottle on the floor and followed his brother's departing form with unhappy eyes. A great deal of the fun had abruptly leaked from his plans. "Hey, Haldir, I could just stay home with you tonight. We could talk, play cards…"

"No." Haldir didn't turn or slow his pace. "Go enjoy yourself." The door to his bedroom closed with a quiet, firm click. Rumil flopped back onto the divan and closed his eyes.

Chapter Text

Arwen glared, and Melpomaen cringed. "Look," she hissed as she buckled her sword belt, "Grandmother isn't going to say anything about it because Ada and Nana are here, and Ada and Nana aren't going to say anything because I'm with you."

"I'm not a guard or a chaperone!" he retorted.

"No, and that's why I'm carrying my sword. As if I'll need it." She rolled her eyes, and Melpomaen wrung his hands. He did not bother to remind her that a lady's maid would make a more appropriate companion; Arwen was too tender hearted to point out that he was the next best thing. No one would even imagine that he'd dare to make any advances on the princess of Imladris; even if the idea did occur to anyone, a person would immediately acknowledge that Arwen would be more than capable of fending him off. Arwen would no more rub his nose in the fact that he was considered widely to be Erestor's pet library mouse than he'd tell her that she and her brothers were assumed to be strange were-creatures who turned into baying humans when no one was looking. These were things that were known, but stringently ignored.

"You'll like Haldir, trust me," she said.

"He seemed rather… cold. At least, that was the impression I received."

"That's just his way, Melpomaen." She shot him a steel edged glance, and Melpomaen swallowed hard. He'd had to listen to her rave about her brothers' reaction to this proposed outing for the past hour. Elladan and Elrohir had shown no interest in visiting the overdeveloped, arrogant March Warden, and, in all honesty, Melpomaen couldn't say that he blamed them. Haldir had done his duty with all proper respect and formality, but his personality was as warm and inviting as a glacier.

"He's probably lonely. I don't think he goes out much, and usually he's away on business for Grandfather and Grandmother. I was looking forward to introducing him to the twins, but if this is the way they're going to be…," she trailed off. Arwen's lips compressed as she pulled her belt tight and turned to face her reflection in the mirror.

"You look ridiculous," Melpomaen said.

She did. The tunic Arwen wore was a compromise made with her grandmother, one that satisfied Galadriel's principles on modesty while still allowing freedom of movement. The result was something that looked like a cross between a man's tunic and a long nightshirt that had been slit to the waist at each side. Instead of leggings, she wore loose trousers beneath it that left the shape of her legs a mystery, and which would have led to insufferable chafing if it hadn't been for the tights she wore beneath them. Excess material flared over the tops of her finely made yet utterly plain black boots, and leather gloves covered her hands. Arwen grimaced.

"Come on. Let's get out of here before Elladan and Elrohir see me. Not to mention Glorfindel."

*****

Twenty minutes later Melpomaen found himself staring up into the arrogant face of the March Warden. No light had shown from within the talan, but Arwen had rapped briskly at the door nevertheless, ignoring his suggestion that perhaps the occupants were asleep or away. She had not left off rapping until sounds of movement were heard from within, and had evinced more enthusiasm than the situation warranted when a much put upon Haldir appeared in the darkened doorway looking tousled and muzzy eyed.

"Arwen." He stared down at her in worried puzzlement. "You're looking very war-like tonight."

"That's because I'm guarding Melpomaen's hide while he guards my honor."

"I see." Clearly, he didn't. His eyes flicked over Melpomaen's slender figure in bemusement. Arwen frowned impatiently.

"Are you going to invite us in?"

"Oh! Of course, come in." Haldir stepped aside and waved them through, hazel eyes quickly perusing the darkness beyond them as if a mob of curious elves might be lying in wait. Melpomaen smiled nervously and ducked his head as he followed Arwen into the shadowed talan, and Haldir quickly shut the door behind them.

"Where's Rumil?" Arwen asked.

"The Valar alone know. Wait here." He vanished into the back of the house and returned a moment later with a lit taper. Candles and lamps were lit, and Melpomaen began to relax as the small room brightened.

"This is nice, Haldir," Arwen commented as she sank onto the divan, gamely ignoring the pair of socks lying beneath the bottle strewn table. She glanced toward the window, and Melpomaen neatly hooked them under the divan with his foot. For a split second, he thought he saw a look of relief cross the larger elf's face.

"It's not the royal talan," Haldir shrugged, standing stiffly in the middle of a braided rug that looked the worse for wear. "What are you doing here, anyway? I thought you'd be spending the evening with your family."

"Ada and Nana are visiting with grandmother and grandfather. My brothers are being difficult." She glared balefully, but then brightened. "But, since Melpomaen's here, I thought I'd take advantage of the opportunity to see where you live."

"Ah. Melpomaen?" He cast a cautious look toward the dark haired elf, and Melpomaen offered him another nervous smile.

"Yes," Arwen answered. " Melpomaen, this is my best friend in Lothlorien, Haldir the March Warden. Haldir, this is my best friend in Imladris. Melpomaen's a student archivist who works with Erestor."

"Greetings, Melpomaen." Haldir did not offer his hand, and Melpomaen nodded, clenching his hands in his lap. "Is this business or pleasure for you?"

Melpomaen's mind went blank. He'd finally taken a seat beside Arwen, but glancing around the small talan he couldn't appreciate that his visit qualified as either business or pleasure. Haldir sighed as he folded himself into a chair.

"Your visit to Lothlorien." There was an edge of sarcasm to Haldir's clarification, and Melpomaen blushed.

"Um, both. Lord Celeborn's library contains books that Lord Elrond's does not, and I've been looking forward to following up on some footnotes and researching certain areas that I have only limited access to in Imladris."

"I can see how that would be a draw." Haldir felt more than a little nonplussed. His area of work demanded more than the average level of education, but he could not honestly say that research was ever something to which he looked forward.

"Haldir sometimes does ambassadorial work among the humans for my grandparents, so he knows quite a bit about history, too," Arwen supplied, and Melpomaen nodded.

"Are you part human like Arwen?" He asked tentatively, and shrank at the curdled smile he received in response.

"No, I'm not."

"Well!" Arwen said brightly, rising to her feet. "Maybe we could get some drinks, clear the table, and play cards?"

"Arwen, it's late. And you shouldn't be here anyway." Haldir's voice was remote, his mien turned dark and brooding.

"Nonsense!" Her smile had grown a trifle too wide, her tone a bit too vivacious. "The moon isn't even fully risen yet. And I've never been able to come here before. Ada won't say anything as long as I'm with Melpomaen." She picked up a few of the bottles and turned her smile up another notch. "Where do I take these?"

"He doesn't look like a lady's maid or a guardian." Haldir glowered as he grabbed the remaining bottles, easily carrying them all in his large hands. Melpomaen flushed crimson and cringed back against the couch cushions.

"No, but he's… Melpomaen." Arwen shrugged, stood poised beside the table, and quirked an eyebrow inquisitively. Haldir nodded toward an arched doorway.

"That's the kitchen." He stalked toward it, leaving Arwen to flutter along behind him in her bizarre nightshirt and weaponry. A moment later he returned bearing a wet rag and greasy deck of playing cards.

"Do you need any help?" Melpomaen asked hesitantly, and Haldir grunted in response.

"No, I think we have this under control, Melpomaen," Haldir replied. Arwen was still chattering, and the sound of her artificially cheery voice was beginning to grate. Haldir handed her the rag as he began clearing the table, haphazardly stacking the odds and ends that had accumulated on it on the floor. Melpomaen's eyes widened at the sight of a stack of drawings of elf maidens bathing – among other things – that had been hiding under a pair of riding gloves. Those were swiftly placed face down upon the floor and slid under the divan to join the socks. Arwen blithely pretended she hadn't seen them as she commenced swiping away moisture rings and crumbs.

"You do know how to play tarok?" Haldir asked, and Melpomaen nodded.

"Erestor taught me," he affirmed. Arwen and Haldir had settled on the floor, and Melpomaen followed their lead, slipping off the divan to sit cross-legged across from the blonde elf. The illuminated cards were nearly swallowed in Haldir's large hands as he shuffled, and Melpomaen stared, feeling an indefinable shiver pass through him. Haldir glanced up and shot him an icy glare.

"Is something wrong?"

"Well," Arwen said hesitantly, "you do have something stuck on your teeth."

The March Warden swore colorfully, lips pursed in a most undignified manner as he ran his tongue across his front teeth. Arwen giggled and leaned against him, wrapped a companionable arm about his waist. "I'm just teasing you, silly."

"That's not funny." A faint smile curved his lips nevertheless, and Melpomaen blinked. When he wasn't glaring or frowning, the blonde was actually rather attractive.

"Sure it is." She gave him a final squeeze before resuming her position at the table's narrow end. "Dammit, we forgot the drinks."

"I'll get them," Haldir replied. He began to rise, but Arwen waved him back down.

"No, I'll do it. Fruit juice or spirits?"

"There's wine in the cupboard, next to the glasses. Unless Rumil drank it all."

She disappeared into the kitchen once more, leaving them alone at the table. Haldir continued shuffling, eyes fixed resolutely on the cards as if they held all the secrets of life and death. Melpomaen squirmed.

"If I said anything to give offense, I am truly sorry…," he began meekly, and hazel eyes flashed cold fire over the top of the divided deck.

"No offense taken," Haldir replied gruffly. Melpomaen felt his own seldom-roused temper kindling at the clear displeasure reflected in those eyes.

"It seems to me there was." He knew his tone sounded priggish and superior, a direct result of too much time spent with Erestor, but he could not manage to shift into a less defensive mode. "It is an insult to Arwen and her background that you would take such umbrage at so simple a question."

"Is it?" Haldir bit off the words. "I'm sure that if Arwen feels insulted, she'll be the first to tell me."

"Here we go!" Arwen called merrily as she re-entered the room carrying three tumblers in her hands and a bottle under her arm. "I couldn't find any wine glasses, but…," she trailed off, smile slipping as she took in the scene. Haldir and Melpomaen faced each other in silence, the March Warden's false, frozen smile answered by the scholar's livid glare. "Is everything alright here?"

"Just fine. There aren't any wine glasses," Haldir replied.

"These will do just as well." She swiftly set them on the table and poured before resettling on the floor. "Are you going to deal, or just shuffle all night?"

"Erm," Haldir muttered, but whatever else he had been about to say was cut off by the sounds of voices and laughter outside. A look of pure horror crossed his face as he twisted around to face the door, and Melpomaen felt more than a twinge of unease at the prospect of facing whatever it was that made the warrior elf look ready to hide beneath his bed.

"No, it's okay Liian. Just as long as everyone is gone before morning." Feminine giggles met this remark, and then the door was flung open. A tall male elf made a memorable, if unsteady, entrance supporting, or being supported by, a lovely female. His ash blonde hair was tucked back behind his ears rather than braided, and over half of his shirt buttons were undone. The female attached to his side wore her hair similarly loose, and no modest breast panel concealed the hint of cleavage exposed between her bodice laces. Melpomaen stared, his thoughts flying unbidden to the pictures stashed under the divan.

"Haldir!" the blonde vision cried. "I didn't know you were expecting company."

"Neither did I." Haldir glared, lips compressed. The elf maid's eyes widened, and she tightened her grip.

"Maybe we should go, Rumil…"

"What's going on?" someone in the darkness beyond the threshold called, and Haldir closed his eyes tightly.

"Lady Arwen?" Rumil asked, blinking, and Arwen grinned. "What are you doing here?"

"They are so alike, Melpomaen," Arwen said, ignoring the question completely. "I'm sure if Orophin were here that would be the first thing he'd say to me as well."

"This is your brother?" Melpomaen asked Haldir, his voice tinged with incredulity. Haldir gritted his teeth.

"Yes, this is my younger brother, Rumil."

"Pleased to meet you." Rumil staggered inside, dragging Liian with him. Several nameless others followed behind them. "Melpomaen, right?"

"Yes, I'm a student archivist traveling with Lord Elrond's company."

"Ah. That must keep you busy." Rumil said. The blonde maid giggled, and Melpomaen nodded, clearly at a loss.

"Yes, quite…"

"Rumil, do you think perhaps this might be a good night to visit the river, or a tavern, or someone else's house?" Haldir asked tightly, and his brother shrugged.

"Well, I wasn't planning on coming home this early, but there was an… incident at the White Swan and it seemed like the best idea."

"Tell me you are not in any trouble."

"No, no, no trouble. We left before that could happen."

"Are you playing tarok?" one of the others asked, and Arwen nodded enthusiastically.

"We were getting ready to. Do you want to play?"

"Sure." The half-drunken group of elves crowded around the table, arranging themselves as best as they could on the floor. Melpomaen found himself crowded between Rumil and a narrow faced elf woman who sported a long tail of corn floss hair caught up in a blue ribbon. Rumil's hand came to rest on his knee, and he yelped, nearly jumping backwards onto the divan. Arwen scooted around to sit pressed against Haldir, her previous effervescence turned into half-panicked excitement.

"Sorry about that," Rumil smiled good naturedly as he reached across Melpomaen for the bottle. "Worth a shot, as they say." He brought the bottle to his lips and then frowned as he set it aside. "Oh, stupid me. I forgot. You're Erestor's lover, right?"

"No." Melpomaen could feel his face heating. "I'm a student archivist with– "

"Yes, yes, we caught that," Liann said dismissively as she snuggled up against Rumil. "But isn't this exciting? Lady Arwen, I never would have expected to see you here. Or to see you at all, for that matter."

"I came to visit Haldir," Arwen said crisply, sipping from her tumbler. Eyebrows raised; Haldir looked as if he wanted to slide under the table.

"Well, well, Haldir," a male dressed in forest greens that matched the glass beads strung in his braids grinned. "You've been holding out on us."

"Mind your tongue," Rumil said and shot the elf a glare, his dark expression somewhat impaired by his difficulty in focusing on its target. "Lady Arwen's reputation is not to be questioned."

The narrow faced girl sniffed, but Liian nodded agreeably. "Everyone knows they're just friends." She rolled her eyes, and glass beads jingled as the first elf shifted uncomfortably, muttering under his breath. "I mean, really!"

Haldir stiffened for a moment, and Melpomaen felt a moment of sympathy. He offered the older elf a hesitant smile of commiseration, but the expression was wasted. Cards continued to riffle between his fingers, flying with dexterous speed from hand to hand.

"So, what's the royal talan like? Haldir never tells us these things," Liann asked. Arwen began to answer, but the other female cut in, a mischievous grin spreading across her features.

"More importantly, tell us what your brothers are like. Identical twins… how interesting."

"Stop, Elaida!" Liann laughed, cheeks flushed with curiosity and amusement.

"Tell me you don't want to know!" Elaida shrugged her shoulders disbelievingly, and turned back to Arwen. "I have heard they are excellent archers. Do they ever talk about it to their younger sister? Is it true that their arrows fly true and never miss their mark?"

Melpomaen blushed scarlet in mortification; Arwen looked confused.

"I do not often practice with them…"

Arwen's hesitant reply was met by a storm of laughter. "I should hope not!" Elaida gasped, red faced with tears of mirth streaming down her cheeks. Arwen stared perplexedly, and Haldir abruptly rose to his feet.

"That is enough. Rumil, you will show your guests the way out. I believe it is time for Arwen and Melpomaen to return home." He stood over them forbiddingly, arms crossed in front of him, and the seated elves craned back to stare up into his coldly furious face, expressions of disappointment and bafflement predominating. Rumil swayed unsteadily to his feet also, unhappy awareness seeping in around the edges of his drunken merriment.

"I agree; this isn't a good night for this. Everyone up and out," Rumil deferred.

"C'mon, Rumil, not me," Liian pouted, clinging to his leg. She cast Haldir a pleading look. "I wasn't trying to upset anyone."

"She can stay." Haldir said shortly. His glare intensified and the others dragged themselves up from the floor, stumbling doorwards and muttering darkly about inhospitality and certain people getting above their place. The March Warden said nothing as they departed, finally heaving a sigh of relief when the door was shut. The girl, Liian, was still seated on the floor staring up at him wide-eyed in what could have been either intense curiosity or fear.

"I'm really sorry," she said with a slight waver. "I didn't know she wouldn't understand."

"It's alright, Liian," Arwen said, still clearly confused but doing her best to bring her diplomatic training to bear in this new and unexpected situation. Haldir reached to take her hand, and Arwen found herself wishing that she had the option to wrap herself around his leg the way the blonde girl had wrapped herself about Rumil. Across from her, Melpomaen looked utterly lost, but he, too, rose when he saw Haldir helping Arwen stand.

"Brother, truly I didn't know you'd be having company. I never would have brought everyone back here if I'd known."

"Well, it's too late now." Haldir's voice was cold. "Can she be trusted?" He stabbed a finger at Liian.

"Yes, she's alright," Rumil averred.

"Good. Get her a decent cloak. She's going to be a lady's maid tonight."

*****

The return to the royal talan took place in near total silence. Swathed in the concealing layers of one of Orophin's festival cloaks, Liian walked formally beside Arwen, doing her best imitation of the maids she had seen attending the court ladies at public functions. Melpomaen had taken Arwen's other arm, and Haldir marched grimly behind them.

"I really am sorry, Lady Arwen," Liian whispered as they stepped into the shadows of the royal talan's servants' entrance. Her eyes darted about, attempting to pierce the darkness. Arwen smiled.

"All is well, Liian. Have no fear." She took the cloak from her, folded it swiftly and handed it to Melpomaen. "Thank you for the escort."

"Anytime, my lady."

Haldir snorted, rolling his eyes. Arwen glanced up at him worriedly.

"I'm the one who should be apologizing, aren't I?" She said softly. Haldir's shoulders slumped.

"It was… inappropriate."

Arwen looked away, the stony set of her face not concealing the sadness in her eyes. Haldir sighed.

"It's alright, though, and I appreciate the thought. Hopefully, nothing will come of this. I bid you goodnight, Arwen, Melpomaen."

"Goodnight, Haldir," Arwen said, and Melpomaen echoed her. The two disappeared into the darkness, and Haldir turned, taking Liian's arm and steering her toward the back stairs.

Chapter Text

He had no idea as to what Haldir and Rumil might have said to their friends, but whatever they'd said had been effective. The week following his adventure with Arwen had been quiet – no summons to Lord Elrond's sitting room had come, nor any invitation to discuss his part in the eroding of Arwen's morals with Lady Galadriel. Melpomaen had been waiting in a sort of sickly dread, as if one of those two things were inevitable, if not both of them.

He knew Arwen had been worried, too. She'd been remarkably content to stay close to home or with her brothers since the night Haldir had returned them to the palace. Of course, Lord Elrond would believe her if she had to tell him what had taken place on that nearly catastrophic night, and the range of punishments that might be meted out to an erring princess were not as dire as those which might come to an archivist of no particular family or background. Still, she lived within an invisible network of rules and customs that did not apply to him; damage to her reputation would touch the entire family, could not be mended by word or law and had little to do with her actual words or actions. Arwen had to be careful. and if he had refused to go with her she would not have gone at all.

It was with these thoughts that he made his way along the walkways of ‘Lorien, barely registering the warm evening breeze or the sunset light filtering through the trees. He had planned on going back to work in the library after supper, but Erestor had sent him off, laughingly telling him he worked too hard. That had caused him to blush and scurry quickly away, but, then again, he'd been doing a lot of blushing and scurrying around Erestor in the last seven days.

Rumil had matter-of-factly asked him about his relationship with Erestor as if it were common knowledge that they were lovers. Melpomaen had honestly never thought of the dark haired chief advisor in such a way, but the question, which had temporarily shocked all thought from his mind, had left him wondering. He was only an archivist, but did familiarity with the House of Elrond – and by association with the Lord and Lady of Lothlorien – make him a personage worth gossiping about? He'd never thought so before. Perhaps he too, in his own small way, existed within the slightly unreal framework of royal rules and standards.

His feet were carrying him to Haldir's talan, and, though he had not planned on visiting the surly March Warden, he did not find himself disturbed at the thought of it. There was really nowhere else to go unless he wanted to tour the taverns or walk in the forest, neither of which appealed to him at the moment. Haldir had been almost uniformly unpleasant to him, and certainly the elf was unusual to look at. But there was something else about Haldir, something that had made a positive impression on the young scholar beyond Arwen's obvious trust and liking.

He'd stood up for her. Obviously Haldir understood the heavy mantle Arwen wore and always would wear as Elrond's daughter, granddaughter of Celeborn and Galadriel. He understood it better than she did, which was no new thing. Arwen managed her life with as little awareness of the facts of her royalty as she could possibly manage, an outlook which was greatly facilitated by the laid back atmosphere of Imladris, the permissiveness of her parents, and her brothers' wild natures. Outside of Imladris life was different, and Haldir seemed willing to recognize this for her, take responsibility when responsibility was required. Melpomaen frowned as he considered this; the events of the previous weeks reflected better on Haldir than either he or Arwen when looked at in such a light.

It did not take long for Haldir to appear at the door this evening. Unlike their first encounter, his hair was immaculately braided, held back from his too broad cheeks and accentuating piercing eyes. Muscles bulged under the sleeves of his tunic, and his hands were hidden behind his elbows by a crossed-armed stance. It occurred to Melpomaen that, though Haldir had not the slender beauty of the willow, he possessed a beauty that was hawk like, and no less lovely for being dramatically different from the other elves of Lothlorien.

"What do you want?"

"To thank you. That could have been…," Melpomaen drifted off, glancing aside to the walkway. "We're in your debt."

"I see you didn't bring Arwen this time."

Melpomaen did not say that she had brought him. It would have only sounded like an excuse, a quick attempt to cover himself. Instead, he shrugged. "She's been spending a lot of time with the twins lately." He shifted his weight briefly from foot to foot, than caught himself. "May I come in?"

Haldir considered, then stepped aside, nodded, and waved his hand inward in a parody of courtesy. Melpomaen accepted the invitation in spite of that, glancing around the small room in a way that he had been too intimidated to contemplate when he'd first been there.

It was simple and cluttered, but not dirty. That it was the home of three bachelors was evident; there was little in the way of feminine decoration, though the brothers' elven nature had led them to make some attempts at bringing the beauty of nature into their home. Bottles once again covered the end table's surface, along with a few pots of lavender flowers. A sketchpad leaned against one of these, and alongside it rested a sheathed dagger and pair of leather bracers.

"Rumil and Orophin are out?"

"Orophin's on patrol, Rumil's with his lover. He'll be going back out when Orophin returns, and, praise the Valar, I'll be gone when Arwen goes home with her parents."

"Isn't it… unusual… that a March Warden would be given the task of honor guard?"

Haldir drew himself up to his full, not inconsiderable height. Melpomaen blinked, feeling suddenly dwarfed by the blonde elf's stature.

"The Lord and Lady trust me. I am the best."

"If that is so, I would think your skills would be best utilized in defending the borders."

"So would I," Haldir scowled. "Would you like a drink?"

"Yes, please." Haldir vanished without asking what he would like, and Melpomaen bit his lip, standing uncertainly in the center of the rug. Finally, he crossed to the divan and settled on it. The sketching papers faced him, and he absently picked them up, glancing quickly through the drawings.

No nude elf maidens this time; instead, the images were of scenes in and around Lothlorien. Whoever had drawn them had a good eye for light and perspective. Melpomaen smiled appreciatively.

"What are you doing?" Haldir demanded sharply, and Melpomaen nearly dropped the pages. The blonde elf stood in the archway, eyes narrowed. The drawings were plucked neatly from Melpomaen's hand a moment later, a cool mug of fruit juice thrust into it.

"I was merely looking at these drawings." He gestured with his free hand. "They are quite good."

"Thank you," Haldir replied in a mutter. Melpomaen blinked. He had assumed they were Rumil's work.

"Did you draw the maidens, too? The ones I saw when I was here with Arwen?"

Haldir flushed an unbecoming brick red. "Yes, those too."

"I liked them, also. It didn't seem appropriate to ask about them at the time, though." He smiled down at his hands. "There are such things in the library of Imladris, but…"

"But you'd just as soon not risk anyone seeing you with those books." Some of the frost had thawed from Haldir's voice; Melpomaen glanced up and caught the ghost of a smile. "I have access to the royal library. They have some rather interesting books of illustrations, also." He quirked an eyebrow, "Would you like to see more?"

"Aye, I would." Haldir nodded and vanished through the archway once more, returning a few moments later with a pile of carefully stacked papers. Instead of dropping them on the wet table top, he set them on the divan beside Melpomaen and seated himself next to them.

Melpomaen caught his breath as he looked over them, eyes wide. Landscapes were mixed in no particular order with erotic images, and alongside both were expertly drawn pictures of animals, humans and elves, buildings, and still life images. Two in particular captured his attention. In one, a female archer glared out at him from the page, bow raised and arrow nocked in deadly earnestness. The other was of a nude elven male, hair loose and flowing, staring upward at a full moon from a shallow forest pool.

"The archer is Elaaindra. She's incredible with a bow, the best under my command. Right now she's doing my job for me on the borders, so at least I know matters are being handled competently." Haldir sighed, took a deep breath. "The other is no one in particular. Just something I dreamed."

"He's beautiful," Melpomaen breathed, and Haldir nodded.

"I like him: slender, fine muscled. He looks the way an archer should." An air of brooding crept over his expression as he perused the page. "And his hair. I made it longer than most males would wear theirs, but I like the texture and color."

"It's like yours."

"No, I was thinking of Rumil's hair when I did it."

Melpomaen frowned, cast him a sideways glance. "Your hair is like Rumil's."

"No, it isn't."

"Yes, it is; silver blonde and straight, like a still pool in bright moonlight." Melpomaen smiled and waved his hand over the picture. Haldir's face darkened. It was not disbelief that Melpomaen read in that look, but anger, as if Melpomaen had leveled an insupportable insult at him rather than having made a simple comment. There was shame in that look also, buried beneath the fury yet still visible to the discerning eye. Melpomaen blanched before that look, babbled the first words that came to his mind.

"May I touch it?" Melpomaen winced at the unintentional, not to mention blundering, double entendre. Haldir blinked, shock temporarily driving away his anger. Hazel eyes widened, and when Melpomaen reached to suit actions to words, Haldir stared at the approaching hand in frozen wariness, like a deer mesmerized by the gleam of moonlight off of reflective metal.

His hair was soft, smooth, and touchable. Melpomaen smiled as he ran his fingers over Haldir's temple, gently stroking the small, perfect braids. They reminded him of the velvet cords worn on Imladris' soldiers' dress uniforms, or the braided silk ribbons Arwen sometimes used to bind her own hair. He leaned forward, tracing the braids to where they were caught up by a simple wooden clasp, and abruptly realized that his face was bare inches from Haldir's. He sat back hastily, jerking his hand away.

"There aren't many blondes in Imladris. Most have dark hair like mine. The twins' turns reddish in the sun because they're half-elves, and Erestor's is black like a crow's wing." He stared fixedly at the picture on his lap, aware that he was babbling but unable to stop himself. "And Arwen's is black too, but mine's more of a light brown…"

"And almost everyone in Lothlorien is blonde." Haldir took the drawing back and returned it to the pile, rising to his feet without meeting Melpomaen's eyes. "I'm going to put these back."

"Alright." His hands knotted together anxiously in his lap. Haldir darted out of the room, and when he returned a few moments later he was wearing his quiver and carrying a bow.

"I have to go find Rumil. I nearly forgot that we had plans for later in the evening. He, Liian and I."

"Oh." Melpomaen rose. "I'm sorry if I've made you late."

"Not at all." The high color had receded from Haldir's cheeks, his tone was once again smooth and cold. "It was kind of you to visit."

He opened the door and stepped to one side, waving his arm in almost the same gesture he had used to invite Melpomaen into the talan. However, the motion lacked the air of sarcasm his invitation had conveyed. Haldir clearly wanted him gone, but there was no sense of thinly veiled anger or disgust in this.

Melpomaen stepped out onto the walkway, pausing while Haldir let himself out and closed the door behind him. "Perhaps I could come by again sometime?" he asked.

Haldir smiled tightly. "That would be fine. If you'll excuse me." He did not wait for a reply, and Melpomaen was left to stand and stare as the March Warden walked swiftly away.

*****

Haldir had no plans with Rumil and Liian, and he doubted that Melpomaen believed he did. The young elf had not called him on it, and that was all that mattered. Like Arwen, Melpomaen seemed to understand and accept the idea that a person could have their own reasons for being less than forthright, and, more importantly, he was willing to let such matters lie. As a warrior, Haldir knew better than to be selective in his perception and, as an artist, he could not create falseness. Friendship was another matter, however. He and Arwen were more than up to the challenge of not discussing things that loomed so large before them that one would need to be blind not to notice them, of ignoring them until they grew so large as to become invisible.

He liked Melpomaen, though he didn't want to do so. Outwardly, he had all the appearance of a library mouse, but he'd been able to summon up enough courage to speak his mind to Haldir during his first visit. That had made a positive impression on Haldir later, but more important to his mind was the sock incident. That had spoken volumes, one simple, thoughtless movement meant to spare embarrassment, a silent removal that reflected the invaluable ability to see and ignore, not simply to fix things but to make them gone.

All of that changed, though, when Melpomaen touched him. Eyes could look away, tongues could lie still, but there was no hiding from touch, no false pity or false affection transmitted through the warmth of his shy fingers. Arwen rarely touched him, both because it was inadvisable for her to be seen embracing him and because she knew he was uncomfortable with it. Only his brothers were openly affectionate with him, but affection wasn't the word he'd use for the way Melpomaen's fingers had played over his braids. Haldir didn't know what word he would use.

Melpomaen had said his hair was like Rumil's, and it had not been the subtle jab Haldir had originally assumed. He was not like Rumil; he had only to look in his mirror to see that he had none of his brother's delicacy of form, nor any of his lithe, slender elegance. Melpomaen had not said he was like Rumil, however; only that his hair was the same, long and straight and silver blonde. That much was the truth, though it was another truth that went unspoken; comparing similarities could only lead to thoughts of differences. Haldir preferred to see nothing of his brothers in himself, nothing that would draw attention to the many things that were unalike.

It was not his habit to visit the taverns of Lothlorien. Too many of the lower ranking warriors under his command frequented them while they were on leave, and Haldir believed in keeping his distance. Authority had to be maintained, as did the respect and obedience of those who took their orders from him. It would not do to become too familiar with them, to share in their pastimes, conversations, and jokes. Even so, he needed someone to talk to. Not Arwen, with whom, by their own rules of friendship, he could not discuss such matters. This left Rumil, who almost certainly was with Liian, playing cards and dancing at the White Swan. Haldir soon found himself before the tavern door, ruefully reflecting that the ill-thought lie he had told Melpomaen had become the truth.

Unlike the public houses in human settlements, the Swan was not a dark, close place that smelled of sweat, smoke, and spirits. Instead, it was bright and airy, lit by a multitude of hanging lanterns. The front door and the casement windows were all open, and the common room led onto a broad lanai unusual for the high railing surrounding it. Haldir supposed this was a practical bit of architecture, considering the condition many of the Swan's patrons ended up in before they left.

Haldir ignored the curious glances his arrival provoked, moving swiftly to the back of the room where Rumil could be found playing darts with a small group of male elves. Liian darted about the room with a large, round tray braced against her hip. Haldir remembered that she worked at The Swan, and was not usually able to spend time with Rumil until the public house closed its doors. He offered her a distant nod as he passed; she blinked in surprise, returning an uncertain smile as she hurried about her business.

"Haldir!" Rumil called as his brother came into view. "It's good to see you out!"

"Could I have a moment of your time, brother?" Haldir ignored the incipient stream of small talk, ignored the cluster of elves peering at him curiously. Rumil frowned.

"Is something wrong, Haldir?" He set his darts on the table and stepped forward, lightly resting his hand on Haldir's shoulder. "Give us a few moments," he called to the others while steering his brother toward the moonlit lanai. Haldir shrugged the hand off, but willingly accompanied Rumil.

"No, nothing's wrong."

"Of course there is. You didn't come here for the dancing or the wine."

Haldir swore softly, looking away. At the rail's opposite end a pair of elves, male and female, clung together in a close embrace, lips passionately locked. The darkness hid the rising color in Haldir's cheeks, and he glanced back at Rumil. "This wasn't a good idea."

Rumil closed his eyes for a moment and sighed. "Whatever it is, I have time for it. You're upset by something."

"Melpomaen," Haldir blurted.

"Who?"

"The dark haired elf that was with Arwen that night."

"Oh yes, the student-archivist-with-Erestor and so on and so forth." Rumil rolled his eyes. Haldir scowled.

"It is an honorable profession."

"I never said it wasn't." Rumil cocked an eyebrow. "So, what about him?"

"He was over again today."

"And this is a problem?" Rumil appeared to consider the matter, waiting expectantly. Haldir bit his lip in an unaccustomed display of uncertainty. His hand drifted upward as if to twist in his hair, but he caught himself before he could begin twining it in his fingers.

"He touched me. He touched my hair, and said it was like yours."

"Oh, Haldir." The confusion left Rumil's eyes, replaced instead by a look of tenderness. He slung an arm around his brother's waist, gave him a brisk hug. "You like him, don't you?"

Haldir said nothing, gazing past Rumil into the darkness.

"You think he likes you. Is that the trouble?"

"Yes." The single word was harsh, uneven. Rumil sighed.

"Please do not tell me that the March Warden of Lothlorien is afraid of a librarian."

"It's different!" Haldir stepped out of his brother's embrace, glaring at him fiercely. "I should not have come here."

"Wait, Haldir." Rumil caught his arm as Haldir was about to stride past him. "I know it's different. Believe me, I know. You think you might be reading too much into it, am I right?"

Haldir blinked and nodded curtly. Rumil needed no light to know that his brother's face was scarlet with embarrassment, that the dull look in his eyes was one of shame. He gently touched Haldir's arm. "Tell me what happened - exactly what happened. The others can wait."

The account Haldir gave was concise but accurate, given as he might have reported an account of his travels to the Lord and Lady. Rumil leant against the rail and listened, head bowed, brow furrowed with concentration. At last Haldir finished, waiting stoically for Rumil's judgement.

"I think he's interested," Rumil finally said. "Go see him. And take your braids out."

Chapter Text

Melpomaen stared out the library window, legs crossed under his robes, snuggled into the wingback chair that he did not quite dare to sit in by daylight. It was Lord Celeborn's chair at Lord Celeborn's desk. The fact that the Lord of the Golden Wood favored his study over the open access library was secondary to the fact that the furniture was his. Even so, Melpomaen preferred the view from this seat to another, enjoyed the sheltering closeness the chair's high wings provided. It was good to sit here, to gaze out into moonlit darkness, to think and imagine, or to close his eyes and pretend, for a short while, that he was master of all he surveyed.

His thoughts did not range so far or grandiosely this night. Instead, his imaginings were an extrapolation of memory, of silken blonde softness that he'd only touched with shy fingertips. The braids had not been like velvet cords, he'd finally decided. No, they were softer than that, yet still too strong to be compared to anything so airy as gossamer or spider strands. Nor were they really like Arwen's silk bands, many of which he'd seen thrown away as the individual strands began to snag and give way under overly enthusiastic usage. Haldir's braids were like the elf who wore them – contradictorily beautiful.

Melpomaen blinked, stunned by the thought. Did he think Haldir beautiful? He closed his eyes, summoning up an image of the surly March Warden. He was taller than average, even for an elf, heavier of frame and more sturdily built than other elven warriors. It was this more than anything that had made Melpomaen wonder if there was human blood there, though the human heritage of Lord Elrond and his children did not show in that regard.

He remembered Haldir's reaction to the innocent question concerning his heritage, and Melpomaen cursed himself for a fool. Of course Haldir was sensitive about it; his own reaction to the tall elf's appearance and subsequent ambivalence as to whether or not to use the word "beautiful" to describe him told Melpomaen everything he needed to know about Haldir's cold aloofness. He thought of that damning phrase – "library mouse" – and the cold, impotent anger he felt when those words were spoken within his hearing. He thought of Arwen's thick-skinned refusal to hear the words that were spoken of her and her brothers. She had enough sense to have never asked Haldir to what he owed his distinctive features, and she also had enough sense not to take offense at his discomfort. She understood it, and he should have also.

He also should have known better than to compliment him, even if in such a round about way. He himself hated compliments on his appearance almost as much as Arwen did. Arwen's beauty was a qualifier, something that was mentioned as a way of softening her other, more disconcerting characteristics. She was lovely and that was supposed to explain away all else, excuse even where excuses were not needed. Arwen had once told him that she thought it would be an excellent joke on her potential suitors if she were ugly as an orc; then they would be forced to even greater creative lengths to explain their interest.

Melpomaen himself was most often described derisively as pretty. Not lovely or beautiful, but pretty – and he knew it had nothing to do with his appearance. A pretty mouse, that was he, soft spoken and appearing delicate in his robes, well mannered and willing to remain in the background. He thought again of Rumil's off-hand question concerning his relationship with Erestor, and his cheeks brightened with color. Pretty mouse; pretty pet. Haldir had at first been angry when Melpomaen had remarked on his hair, and that should not have seemed so foreign to him, not when anger was his own first response to comments about his looks. The only difference was, whereas Melpomaen knew he was attractive and took offense only at the belittling quality of the compliments paid him, Haldir did not believe himself to be beautiful, and had assumed it an attempt at either pity or insult.

Lost in his thoughts, he did not hear the library door open, nor did he take note of the figure ghosting toward the desk until he heard a familiar voice call his name.

"Melpomaen?"

His eyes flew from the window, widened, fixing on the elf standing uncertainly to one side of the desk. Haldir still carried his bow and quiver, but Melpomaen noted that his hair was loose, tucked behind his ears as Rumil's had been on the night he and Arwen had visited Haldir's talan. Silver blond locks swung at either side of his face in loose waves that were softly incongruous beside his masculine features.

"I thought you were going to be out with Rumil and Liian tonight." His words came out flustered rather than accusatory, and Haldir shrugged uncomfortably.

"They wanted to go to the river, and I didn't want to go. I've come to see you."

Just like that, as if it were only natural to show up in the royal library after dark, as if his simple declaration was all the explanation he needed, as if Melpomaen would, of course, feel overjoyed to be graced with his company. Disconcerted came closer to the mark than overjoyed; pleased nervousness also factored in, not to mention utter perplexity. He almost asked Haldir why he'd come to see him, but caught himself before he could speak the potentially offending words. Haldir stood, stolidly waiting, and Melpomaen mentally scrambled for some conversational gambit.

*****

Haldir felt rising alarm as he faced the young archivist. Already, they had reached an impasse, and they hadn't even begun to converse yet. Rumil's advice suddenly seemed very distant, and he hadn't the foggiest idea as to how to go about flirting. Women, he reflected, were easier. They expected him to be direct and lacking in subtlety, and what little poetry he was capable of summoning up was always adequate for them. He imagined himself comparing Melpomaen's skin to the smoothness of satin and mentally winced. No, that wouldn't do.

"So, this is where you work," he inanely observed, and Melpomaen blinked.

"Yes. I'm not doing anything now, though."

Haldir nodded, reached to re-tuck a loose tendril of hair. Melpomaen followed the action with his eyes, and Haldir felt a mercifully brief urge to ask Melpomaen if he preferred the braids. "Maybe we could go up to your quarters, have a drink?"

Melpomaen rose with alacrity, and Haldir found himself flummoxed both by his own poorly chosen words and by the younger elf's reaction to them. -- Dear Elbereth, it sounds as if I've propositioned him! And he's getting up, and it doesn't look as if he's doing so to slap me! --

"If you don't want to, that's quite alright," he blundered on, "I mean, we don't have to go – "

"No, I've seen your home. It's only fair that you should see where I am staying." Melpomaen cast Haldir a quizzical glance as he pushed the chair in and, though Haldir could not be certain, he thought Melpomaen was blushing. Butterflies danced in Haldir's stomach, and he considered taking Melpomaen's arm as the younger elf joined him. After a short interior debate that communicated itself as stiff silence, he settled for following Melpomaen toward the door.

*****

Five minutes later in Melpomaen's guest room, matters had not improved. Melpomaen sat on the edge of his narrow bed while Haldir perched similarly on the single wooden guest chair. Their conversation had stumbled back and forth between Melpomaen's work, which interested Haldir not at all, to Haldir's adventures, which were more entertaining but which Melpomaen could not relate to in the least.

Melpomaen sipped from his glass, and nodded along as the March Warden explained something about armed fortifications and human built siege engines. As a historian he did know quite a bit about such things in an academic sense, but he had no inclination or desire to add first-hand knowledge to his store of experience. Haldir wore the unhappy expression of one who knows he is boring his audience beyond all measure yet is helpless to stop. Melpomaen could sympathize; he'd felt the same way when he'd been explaining the organizational system of Lord Elrond's library.

If the blond elf had been planning seduction, Melpomaen thought, this was an exceedingly odd way of going about it. Haldir was now gesticulating with his own wine glass, apparently attempting to illustrate some point about battering rams. The hair at his temples had darkened with sweat, and Melpomaen smiled genially, considered rescuing him. Seduction might not have been Haldir's plan, but… Melpomaen was curious. Beautiful or not beautiful, he wondered, and maybe I wouldn't mind touching his hair again. At last, Haldir paused to take a breath, and the younger elf spoke.

"Do you have a lover, Haldir?"

Haldir froze, staring at Melpomaen as if he'd suddenly grown a set of horns. Library mouse, indeed Melpomaen thought with satisfaction, noting by Haldir's blank expression that all thoughts of armaments and battering rams had abruptly fled.

"Um, no. No, I don't," Haldir replied.

"I like the way you're wearing your hair tonight." It wasn't the best line he'd ever heard, but Melpomaen didn't think that it mattered. Haldir was nodding mutely, and Melpomaen doubted if he was even aware of his own movement. He reached to touch a few strands that had crept forward, and Haldir flinched. "I don't have a lover, either."

"You don't?" Haldir's tone was hesitant, both doubtful and hopeful.

"No. I never have had one. Have you?"

"None that I'd mention."

Melpomaen sensed Haldir's growing tension, but he did not draw away. "During your adventures?"

Haldir nodded, but volunteered nothing. Melpomaen easily interpreted the shamed expression Haldir wore, admiring the way he did not lower his gaze or cringe away, and he also felt a flaring of anger, not toward the blond warrior but for him. So, his lovers had been human women. Melpomaen guessed that he'd lain with them to assuage his need for closeness as much as to ease his other physical needs, and he further conjectured that it was that of which Haldir was ashamed.

"Never any males, though?" He let his fingers drift through the perspiration dampened tresses at the warrior's temple, slid the locks free from behind his ear. Haldir's jaw tightened, the glazed expression in his eyes shifted to dull embarrassment.

"No."

There were no words that could follow Haldir's final admission, nothing Melpomaen could imagine saying that would soothe away the feelings his questions had roused. Anything he might choose to say would sound like empty platitudes, like pity, so Melpomaen said nothing at all. Instead, he leaned further forward, bridging the space between them and pressing his lips to Haldir's.

Their kiss was not easy and natural. They did not embrace, and Melpomaen did not feel that their lips met so much as accidentally collided. Hazel eyes widened and crossed slightly due to their proximity to Melpomaen's; smooth, full lips did not soften or part. Melpomaen broke the kiss, his cheeks coloring as he became aware of the absurdity of their position, of the sturdy March Warden now sitting fully back in his chair while he himself lowered over him like a lecherous villain out of a bad play.

"I'm sorry." His eyes cut to the floor as he began to draw back. "I guess I shouldn't have…"

"No," Haldir said abruptly. Melpomaen's eyes darted up once more as large hands gripped his forearms. "It's alright." Haldir's tongue tapped briefly, nervously, at his upper lip. "Again?"

Melpomaen blinked, nodded, hovering awkwardly halfway between Haldir and the edge of the bed and frantically wondered if he should settle into the March Warden's lap or attempt to pull him forward. Haldir settled the problem by rising and pulling Melpomaen up with him. A pleasant thrill of mixed nervousness and pleasure ran through the smaller elf as strong arms enfolded him, as he pressed himself against Haldir's muscular form. Again their lips met, and this time Melpomaen was startled by the softness of it, the gentle chasteness of smooth lips against his own. It was not that different from other kisses he had shared, except the fact that he had never had to rise onto tiptoes to kiss an elf maid, nor been held so surely and securely.

And Haldir seemed perfectly willing to follow his lead. Melpomaen shifted his hands to the blonde's broad shoulders, as much for added leverage as to fulfill the urge to touch. Haldir did not object when Melpomaen stepped lightly up onto his foot, nor when Melpomaen's tongue gently explored the seam of his lips. This time Haldir did open, and though Melpomaen was not terribly experienced he did know what to do. Haldir tasted like wine with a faint flavor of underlying mint, and Melpomaen became so lost in it that he barely registered it when Haldir lifted him completely off of his feet and, incidentally, off of Haldir's.

Then Haldir was turning with him, moving backwards, sitting, reclining. The change in position was achieved with a fluidity of motion that left Melpomaen surprised and breathless. He found himself gazing down into hazel eyes, his knees positioned at either side of the warrior's hips. Haldir's face was flushed, his eyes dilated, and Melpomaen suddenly realized through the haze of pleasurable sensations where this encounter was supposed to be leading.

He bowed his head, covered Haldir's broad cheeks with kisses as he struggled to stifle nervous giggles that would certainly have been misinterpreted. His knees slipped on the coverlet, bringing him into contact with unambiguous, rigid heat. Haldir gave voice to a low moan at the touch, and Melpomaen's stomach danced with excited, giddy butterflies. He rotated his hips experimentally against Haldir's, eliciting more half-strangled cries through tightly clenched teeth, and it was only through sheer force of will that he did not immediately attempt to rip the clothes from the warrior's tense body.

A distant voice in the back of Melpomaen's mind screamed that matters were progressing much too quickly, that this was not the way he would treat a shy elf maiden for whom he had feelings. Another voice immediately overrode the first, insisting that Haldir was neither shy nor an elf maid, and that he had no idea what feelings he might have for the warrior. That in and of itself gave him a moment's pause, but then Haldir was twisting under him and the thought was temporarily lost.

His hands shook on the laces of Haldir's tunic, and it took several tries to wrestle the recalcitrant garment over his head. The snug fit of the undershirt beneath it stymied him for a moment, but then Haldir was wiggling his shoulders, working with him to be rid of it. Melpomaen offered up a silent prayer of gratitude to the Valar that he had experience with helping Arwen with her sword belt, and that Haldir had removed his bow and quiver earlier.

Melpomaen's clothing was less complicated than Haldir's, and between them they finished the job of undressing in a lustful haste that spared no thought for gracefulness or dignity. Haldir's leggings caught at his boots, and Melpomaen tugged both free, muttering expletives under his breath. He had already kicked off his soft-soled house shoes, and a shimmy and slide had been all that was necessary to remove his own trousers. At last there was nothing between their bodies, nothing to frustrate their need for contact save for one of Melpomaen's thin black socks, which had not come off with its companion shoe.

Melpomaen forced himself to show some restraint, not to grope and fumble over the smooth, pale flesh beneath him. Instead, he ran his hands across firm muscle, slid them down over chest and belly. One thumbnail caught a peaked nipple, and Haldir gasped, trembled, and arched his shoulders back into the pillows. A wicked smile curved Melpomaen's lips, and he moved his hands back so that his fingertips were pressed against Haldir's ribs and his thumbs lay over the dark nubs. Haldir bucked under him as he began sliding them back and forth, dragging his nails over erect flesh; Melpomaen hung on, squeezing his thighs together against Haldir's body in a mutually bruising grip.

Haldir's arousal lay heavily against his sweat slick abdomen; Melpomaen's rubbed across it with each movement of their bodies. The sensation was maddeningly electrical, teasing and needful. Melpomaen's knowledge of what two males could do about such a situation was purely academic, but he knew enough to realize in the part of his brain that was not fogged with desire that he didn't have the materials at hand to accomplish it. No massage oil or lotion, no jar of cream or even a bowl of bath oils that might be crushed into usefulness. He didn't think the moment was right to ask Haldir if he had any bowstring wax. Taking a deep breath, he slid a hand downward and curled it around Haldir's stiff length.

The angle wasn't what he was accustomed to but, judging by the response he was receiving, it was working well enough. Haldir's hips thrust upward, threatening to unseat him, and Melpomaen flexed his thighs harder, briefly and accidentally tightening his grip. Hazel eyes, which had previously been closed, opened wide, but Melpomaen recognized the expression of bliss on the warrior's features before he could stammer an apology. Adopting a firmer hold, he began to stroke, sitting back on Haldir's thighs harder in an attempt to keep the supine warrior relatively still.

Strong hands reached for him, and he batted them away in a gesture that would have been laughable in a different situation. Melpomaen had no idea if someone who could cheerfully sleep in a bedroll in the dirt would spare a thought for lotion or bath oils, and he had no desire to find out. Pressing a hand to Haldir's solid chest, he hissed, "Be still."

Oddly enough, it worked. Haldir blinked at him, and for a moment his eyes again widened, becoming impossibly deep and liquid. He nodded his reply, and something in that gesture sparked Melpomaen's desire more than anything else had. Gazing down into eyes that had gone nearly blue, he took his own member in hand.

Melpomaen rode the rise and fall of Haldir's thighs, giving himself up to the intoxication of sensation. It was not the same as pleasuring himself in the darkness of his chambers, not with those eyes upon him, and not with the heat of Haldir's flesh in his perspiring grip. Low cries and moans met his ears, and he could hear his own entwining with them, creating a wordless, arrhythmic song that was nonetheless perfect in its meaning. He felt the abrupt tightening of the muscles beneath him, the tension of that final plateau reached and the ultimate effort made to strain above and beyond it. His own body responded, reaching the same place as Haldir's cock convulsed within his hand. A few moments later his own essence was mixed with Haldir's, dripping over his fingers and onto Haldir's ridged abdomen.

He collapsed on top of Haldir, being careful even through the delightful laziness of ecstasy reached to keep his hands off the sheets. Haldir didn't seem to object, and Melpomaen wiped his fingers across the warrior's chest. That elicited a slightly disgruntled murmur, and Melpomaen braced himself up, looking down into Haldir's face.

"Was that…"

"That was perfect." Haldir's eyes were again closed, though his expression was smooth, almost peaceful. "I'm sticky."

"Oh!" Melpomaen bit his lower lip, glanced sharply away. "There's a bowl of water; let me get it…"

He parted from Haldir and scampered for the washbowl and towels. It seemed strange to feel shy about cleaning the warrior's body after what they had done together, but his cheeks flushed with renewed color just the same as he wiped at Haldir with the damp cloth. He kept his eyes lowered as he washed himself, finishing with his hands and pausing briefly to inspect his fingernails.

He had no idea what prompted his next words, whether it was the sight of the blond March Warden stretched across his bed in delicious disarray or if it was no more than a vague idea of what ought to be said.

"Will you spend the night?"

Full lips curved in a gentle smile. "Yes; thank you, Melpomaen."

It felt even stranger to be thanked, but Melpomaen only nodded as he dropped the towels into the bowl. Haldir scooted over to make room for him, and with mixed feelings of warmth and trepidation he slid in beside him.

Chapter Text

He had no desire to be alone, but there was absolutely no one he could think of with whom he wanted to spend time. Well, there was one person, but that was out of the question. He was the March Warden of Lothlorien, and he would not trail after an Imladris librarian like a smitten elfling. Besides, Melpomaen was undoubtedly busy, and it would not do for him to interrupt another's work.

Haldir had awakened at dawn's first light, as was his habit. Melpomaen had been sleeping soundly at his side, so removing himself from the bed had required more than the usual movement of limbs to accomplish. It was not the first time Haldir had shared a bed with another, but he'd rarely awakened to find himself so firmly entangled. Melpomaen's slender form was deceptive; there was weight and strength to that body. And, he slept like a stone.

He hadn't the foggiest idea what the politics of morning-after behavior entailed. The women he'd lain with had never expected anything of him; most had not even expected that he would stay the night. This was different, though. He hadn't lured Melpomaen to his talan, nor initiated the encounter, and he had no idea what thoughts Melpomaen might have on what constituted proper behavior in one with whom he'd shared his bed. Several of the women he'd been with had left soon afterward, or after a brief nap. He'd never thought anything of it other than to be relieved that he would not have to deal with them the following morning. Would Melpomaen feel likewise?

It had not been difficult to locate parchment, ink, and a quill in the chamber of an archivist, but the decision to leave a note had only created new problems. "Thank you for a lovely night," did not seem appropriate. Neither did "What are you doing later?" In the end, Haldir had settled upon briefly explaining that he was required to attend Lord Celeborn's early conference.

That had been true enough, though his attendance this day had been more for formality's sake than out of any absolute need for his presence. The borders were quiet, and his services as over-qualified honor guard or guide were not required by anyone. The remainder of his day was free, and Haldir fervently wished that Lord Celeborn could have thought of something, anything, for him to do.

Rumil had been asleep when he'd returned to their talan. Rumil was still asleep, and that was a source of even more worry. What time had Rumil returned home? Did his brother know that he had spent his entire night out? Haldir shuddered at the thought of the barrage of questions that would certainly assail him if that were so. There would be no avoiding it, not when he'd expressly asked Rumil for his advice.

He'd been lying on the divan for the better part of the day, and the half-full bottle of wine on the table was looking better with every passing moment. Haldir resolutely ignored it, forced his self to focus on his mixed feelings and vague misgivings. There was not a single thing about the situation he was in that he was sure about; indeed, he wasn't even sure if he was in a situation.

He didn't think he'd been planning on seducing Melpomaen when he'd sought him out in the royal talan. It was his nature to follow words with actions though, to move on decisions with immediate surety. Rumil had said to go to Melpomaen, and the logic of that had made sense once seen from his brother's more experienced perspective. It had not occurred to him that Rumil had probably not meant for him to go to Melpomaen well after the supper hour, or for him to invite himself to his chamber.

Haldir stared up at the roof beams, reflecting that he still knew almost nothing about Melpomaen. He didn't know where the elf had been raised, who his friends in Imladris were, whether or not he was quartered in The Last Homely House or had his own home. He didn't know what had drawn him to an archivist's work, what his other interests were, or what he did to relax after a long day. Their conversation had been extremely limited, leading to a fumbling encounter that bore more resemblance to those he'd had with certain apple-cheeked barmaids than he really liked to think about. Those encounters had been the furthest things from relationships, and that thought gave Haldir more than a moment's pause.

Even so, it had been good, good in a way that had been both exciting and disconcerting. He hadn't wanted Melpomaen to stop after that first, blundering kiss - hadn't wanted to frighten Melpomaen, to make him second-guess himself. It had been too good to touch, never mind with whom or in what ways. Melpomaen had felt good in his arms, against him and then on him, and there simply were no words to describe his feelings about the way Melpomaen had touched and looked upon him. No other elf had ever done anything like it. It had been easy to lay back and let the younger elf take control, to let sensation wash over him, and then to curl up in blissful exhaustion at his side.

*****

Melpomaen's steps slowed, and he glanced doubtfully at the bundle of wildflowers he carried. They were Arwen's idea, though he supposed he couldn't really blame her, considering how little information he'd given her.

"What would you give to someone whom you are interested in, or someone who might be courting you?" he'd asked. Arwen had raised her eyebrows in a manner that was alarmingly reminiscent of her father and shrugged.

"What would I give? Or what should you give? Is there someone whom you fancy, Melpomaen?"

He'd squirmed under her dark, interested gaze and shook his head. "I don't know yet. But if there was…."

"Well, what I might give and what you should give are two different things. I can get away with things like braided locks of hair and handkerchiefs. Who is she?"

Melpomaen had ignored the question. "Well, then what sorts of things have been given to you?"

"Not until you tell me who she is." Arwen's tone had been firm, her stare unwavering as she stood before him, hands on her hips.

"Give it a few days?" he'd asked pleadingly. "And then I'll tell you? I promise."

"Alright," she'd sighed heavily, rolled her eyes. "I've been given jewelry, hair combs, a couple of sashes, and more bouquets of flowers than I can count. Does that help?"

It hadn't. Melpomaen could not see himself giving Haldir jewelry or hair combs, and he could only conclude that the customs of gift giving between males and females did not make the transition to two males well or easily. Most of the things he thought Haldir might like were too extravagant to be appropriate. That left him with flowers, and, with the thought of pots of violets beside a notepad of drawings in mind, he'd set out to collect some.

Wildflowers had seemed more suitable than the delicate blossoms growing in Lady Galadriel's garden, so he'd set out to gather and arrange them as he might have gone about any piece of work that required his exacting attention. Stems were cut to appropriate lengths; thorns were removed; the whole of it was arranged and carefully tied with a dark blue ribbon. The result was lacking in creative originality, but Melpomaen had approved of its symmetrical sparseness. It was colorful but not overdone, and Melpomaen felt that he wouldn't object to having something of its like adorn his own desk.

As his footsteps carried him ever closer to Haldir's home he found himself more dismayed than pleased, however. He'd worn his favorite black brocaded robe for the occasion, the one that was cut to show his navy blue leggings and silver grommeted boots. His hair was carefully braided, and the small bundle of flowers was clutched in black-gloved hands. He looked as if he was on his way to court a nobleman's daughter. Melpomaen's throat went dry as he envisioned himself tilting his head back to look up into Haldir's face, thrusting his fistful of bow-tied forest weeds into Haldir's bowstring callused hands.

Ahead of him a group of elflings were playing on the wooden walkway, and Melpomaen stopped to watch them, his thoughts turning. Whatever had possessed him to think that he should bring Haldir a gift in the first place? He supposed that after what had happened between them they were friends at the very least, but still… Haldir might take it the wrong way. For that matter, Haldir might not be expecting to see him at all. The note he'd left had told Melpomaen absolutely nothing, and there certainly had not been any flowers left for him on his office desk. Melpomaen frowned, staring irresolutely at the suddenly problematic gift he'd arranged.

One of the female elflings was wearing a wooden play tiara, and when Melpomaen finally reached his decision he approached her and offered an extravagantly courtly bow. The other children clustered about her as he handed her the wildflowers and she giggled, color rising in her cheeks.

"For the fairest lady in all of Caras Galadon," he said, and she returned a clumsy curtsey.

"Thank you, my lord," she replied in her best imitation of a noble lady, her efforts only somewhat impaired by the impish light in her eyes. Melpomaen offered her a farewell salute as he returned to his original course. The elflings immediately dashed off, undoubtedly eager to tell the rest of their friends about the "noble" elf they'd encountered. Glancing over his shoulder, Melpomaen watched as Haldir's flowers vanished around a corner and out of sight.

*****

Standing outside of Haldir's door a few minutes later, Melpomaen wished he had the flowers back, if for no other reason than to have something to hold onto. He felt no less ridiculous for their lack. The feeling was not alleviated when Rumil opened the door and blinked down at him in surprise, and then dragged him inside, grinning broadly.

"Haldir! You've got company!" Rumil shouted toward the archway, and Melpomaen stood frozen, his practiced smile curdled. Panic flared as he realized that none of his plans had taken Haldir's brother into consideration, and that his prepared speech no longer applied in the absence of the flower arrangement. Rumil finally remembered that he was still holding onto Melpomaen's arm, and Melpomaen rubbed at it dazedly once it was released from his grip.

"It's good to see you again, Melpomaen!" Rumil enthused. "I wish I could stay and visit with you two, but I was just heading out."

"You're leaving?" There was an edge of consternation to Haldir's words. Melpomaen's wide-eyed gaze turned to the archway where Haldir had appeared. The older elf's hair was once again braided, and his soldier's uniform had been replaced by simple tunic and leggings. The expression in his hazel eyes matched Melpomaen's.

"I'd love to stay, I really would, but Liian and I have plans."

"I thought Liian worked tonight."

"No, no, you're thinking of tomorrow night." Rumil swept his fingers through his hair quickly, achieving a look of tousled sultriness. "It's time for me to go."

"But Rumil…" This time the note of desperation in Haldir's tone was more evident. Melpomaen's gaze flashed back and forth between the brothers nervously.

"Sorry, Haldir." Rumil cast Melpomaen a beaming smile. "Have fun!" He called as he darted out. The sound of the door closing behind him was impossibly loud, exceeded only by the ringing moment of silence that followed in its wake. Melpomaen swallowed, tore his gaze away from the mute fixture and turned to Haldir.

"Good evening," he said.

Haldir blinked. "It's nice to see you again."

They stared at each other, and the distance between them seemed like miles instead of a matter of only a few feet. Melpomaen shifted his weight from one foot to the other before catching himself. He couldn't remember much of the previous night's attempt at discussion, and none of what he could recall was in the least bit helpful.

"So, your brother goes out a lot?" he asked, and Haldir nodded.

"Rumil's quite popular."

Melpomaen nodded his head, feeling like a complete buffoon. When he opened his mouth again he felt a palpable sense of dismay mixed with shamed relief at the sound of his own words.

"Would you show me where you keep your pictures?" It was every bit as direct as Haldir's request that Melpomaen take him to his room for drinks. Melpomaen mentally winced, feeling a rush of self-disgust as he saw an expression of matching relief soften Haldir's features.

"This way," Haldir said. Melpomaen followed, trembling with excitement and thinking, But that's not what I meant, not what I meant at all.

Chapter Text

Haldir's silver-blond hair had flared into molten fire under twilight's dramatic glow, and Melpomaen ran his fingers through it admiringly. He had taken out the slender braids, but the tangle of passion-mussed tresses spread over the pillow did not lend an air of seductiveness. Carnal heat brought out innocence in Haldir, left him open and transparent in a way that denied his usual air of cold distance. It was a metamorphosis that Melpomaen found fascinating, both in its outward unfurling and in its slow, but certain, reversal. Haldir's cycle was a closed circled – from cocoon to butterfly to cocoon once again.

His gaze swept over the pale, powerful body that lay against the soft sheets in languorous, post-ecstatic bliss. Nude, Haldir was not an elven anomaly of bulk and exaggerated musculature. A more slender physique would have only given him the appearance of a scarecrow in his Galadhrim uniform; viewing the whole of him, Melpomaen saw that his build was proportionate to his height. It occurred to him that if Haldir's unspoken wishes were granted, the effect would be far more absurd than the present reality.

Their lovemaking had been slower and gentler, though they still had not dared ultimate completion. It was not what Melpomaen had imagined in his solitary dreams, while, at the same time, it went beyond those dreams. There was little in the way of fluidity; inexperienced hands sought to pleasure unfamiliar flesh, and each new discovery was made in the wake of awkward pauses and adjustments of limbs and positions. He could pleasure himself more quickly and surely, as he was certain that Haldir could do likewise, but the act of touching and being touched by another granted fulfillment deeper than orgasm. It was a rush of thought and emotion, and Melpomaen knew that he would rather have this than the certainty of self-knowledge.

He tried to convey this through hands and lips and tongue, tried to say in the language of touch what he could not put into words. He could have chosen to interpret the soft light in Haldir's eyes as understanding, but Melpomaen knew the language of lovers was failing him. They were not lovers. They were two people who came together in carnal rapture because that was easier than the other things that lovers did. It was quicker and more gratifying. It was less nerve wracking, and it allowed each of them to maintain their own fantasies. Melpomaen did not know if he cared for Haldir, or only for the peaceful vulnerability their lovemaking granted Haldir. He didn't know if Haldir dreamt of his touch, or only of being touched. Flesh could not convey what was a mystery to the heart.

"Are you sleepy?" he asked softly.

Haldir smiled, shook his head. "No. Are you?"

"No." Melpomaen sighed, traced a finger along the line of Haldir's jaw. "When will your brother be home?"

"I don't know. I didn't even know he was going out."

"I don't have any brothers or sisters," Melpomaen said. "What is it like?"

Haldir shrugged against the pillow. "Sometimes it's nice; sometimes they're a nuisance. Living with Rumil is like living with two different people, and Orophin… well, sometimes I suspect Orophin joined the Galadhrim for no better reason than that Rumil and I did." His eyes met Melpomaen's briefly, gauging the younger elf's face for interest. Melpomaen smiled, and Haldir shifted comfortably against him. "Being in command doesn't do much for family dynamics, either."

"No, I wouldn't think so."

"I try to keep them out of my rotation, but…," Haldir gestured vaguely, "that's just not always possible. Sometimes I think I should just get my own place."

"They'd still be your family."

"Yes." The word came out clipped and tight, not a sentimental agreement but an admission of something that could be coped with but not cured. A small frown knit Melpomaen's brow, and he pressed a gentle kiss to Haldir's cheek.

"Are you sure you're not tired?" Haldir asked, and Melpomaen smiled, shaking his head.

"Again?" He asked, and Haldir tapped his tongue against his upper lip, shifting his eyes to the right in an incongruous yet endearing expression of shyness.

*****

Haldir closed his eyes, and sank into Melpomaen's kiss. He was amazed at how easy it was to touch Melpomaen and let himself be touched. He'd always preferred to maintain his personal space, and had never been affectionate or demonstrative with others. The only embraces he readily tolerated in his daily life were those from his brothers, either Rumil's sudden hugs of overflowing enthusiasm or Orophin's shy hugs of adoring hero worship. When they'd been younger he'd held both of them to comfort, but he himself had only vague memories of being similarly held. His position among the Galadhrim demanded that he keep himself aloof; his position in the eyes of all others demanded the same, if only for the sake of his pride.

With Melpomaen it was different. Haldir saw the same curiosity in the eyes of the younger elf that he saw in the eyes of others, but it was not hard-edged curiosity, a morbid urge to see his differences made plain. Melpomaen was all tousled hair and wide, bright eyes, questing hands that explored the unfamiliar terrain of thick biceps, broad shoulders, taut pectorals, and abdominal ridges as if they were a new and paradisiacal land. Those hands constantly returned to travel between shoulders and hips as if to measure that exaggerated distance, width tapering to narrowness in an inverted triangle that was not unusual in and of its self, but only in its scale compared to others.

Melpomaen was different, too, and though Haldir didn't want to admit it, that was a great relief. Haldir was accustomed to seeing the bodies of warriors, archers, and swordsmen posed in varying attitudes of alertness or moving in the balletic violence of combat. He knew what those bodies looked like in uniform and casual dress, on duty and in repose, and even nude, bathing in clear pools of forest water. Melpomaen had not the lean muscled build of an archer, nor the lithe sparseness of form developed by one who had turned his body into a weapon. There was strength there, and definition, but it was obvious that his lifestyle was a sedentary one. Slender was the word that best described him, slender waist and slim hips and thighs, well formed yet soft when not flexed in the heat of passion. It was obvious that Melpomaen could never go the distance with a trained defender of the Wood, and Haldir felt a sneaking sense of relief at this. They were too different to be compared, either favorably or unfavorably.

Perhaps it was this that made it easy to allow Melpomaen to lavish attention upon him, hold and caress him, to propel him into bliss and then soothe him into slumber. Certainly, there had been none of his original nervousness when Melpomaen had asked to be taken to Haldir's room. They had joined wordlessly on his simple, unadorned blankets, moving together in sweet harmony and growing passion. Melpomaen had settled into his lap, wrapped a navy blue clad leg about his waist so that they had been pressed together in a lover's embrace, and it had been easy to support the smaller elf's weight atop his folded legs, delicious to feel the rain of butterfly kisses on his cheeks, lips, and chin.

The process of undressing had gone more slowly, and this time it had been Melpomaen's garments that had proven troublesome. Even so, they had managed to remove his robe and tunic, leggings and undergarments, boots and both socks by increments, facilitating their efforts through small movements of arms and legs, minute re-positionings that postponed the fulfillment of their desires, and turned the act of disrobing into its own form of foreplay. Melpomaen's secret flesh became a gift to be carefully unwrapped, and savored in its gradual revelation.

Now, this second time, the necessary hindrance of clothing was gone, and Haldir had only to submerge himself in the rising waves of passion. Melpomaen's hands drove thought away, and Haldir was grateful because he didn't want to talk about his family or his work. He wanted to forget all of that, to be consumed by a need so all encompassing as to render any other thought insignificant; he wanted his world to narrow until there was nothing but himself held in Melpomaen's arms.

Haldir expected to feel Melpomaen's hands trace their familiar course from ball of shoulder to ball of hip, and was surprised to feel lips and tongue following that path instead. He closed his eyes, stretching his body into a pose of perfect openness. This new sensation was teasing, tantalizing, wetly provocative in its avoidance of those parts of him that shivered and trembled in desirous anticipation.

A moment later, Haldir's eyes flashed open as lips moved laterally from hip to navel, as Melpomaen settled between his legs, palms flat at either side of his bowed head. He whimpered, writhed in frantic need, knotting his hands in the blankets as Melpomaen's tongue darted in and out, circled and tapped, kitten-like. The urge to wrap his fingers in dark hair, to push insistently downward, was nearly insupportable. Muscles twitched and jerked in a confusion of contradictory signals, of mind and body screaming at cross-purposes into a tangle of overheated nerve endings. Then, abruptly, the confusion was resolved as lips and tongue moved lower still, settling experimentally over the head of his rigid arousal.

A movement of tongue, careful envelopment into damp heat; Haldir was distantly aware of his own voiced intake of breath as Melpomaen lapped at smooth skin, slowly circled the mushroom cap's ridge, tentatively licking over his weeping slit. Self-control nearly vanished under Melpomaen's unintentional teasing. Haldir's hands buried themselves in brown silk, and it took all of his remaining willpower to keep himself from shoving down and thrusting upward into that enticing darkness.

Daring more, Melpomaen slipped further down, allowing Haldir's shaft to slide further between his parted lips. Somehow, over the pounding of his heart and the ringing of his ears, he could hear Melpomaen's harsh breathing, could feel his left hand trembling upon dancing stomach muscles as his right curled around the base of Haldir's cock. There was a momentary pause as Melpomaen took a hitching breath, lips briefly releasing their hold, and Haldir keened in desperate want. Then he was once again captured in a vise of heat and wet suction. Though unable to take Haldir's entire length, Melpomaen's lips nearly touched the base of his thumb with each downward motion, and that was more than enough for Haldir. Melpomaen concentrated solely on rhythm of motion, on the hollowing of cheeks and seal of lips. His teeth grazed, and he glanced up worriedly, rhythm temporarily broken.

That was the final piece of stimulation needed to drive Haldir over the edge. Melpomaen's eyes were wide and luminous with reflexive tears; his lips formed a soft circle around the purpled head of Haldir's cock. Instinct drove him to thrust his hips upward, and Melpomaen immediately bowed his head once more. For a split second, Haldir saw Melpomaen's eyes grow wider yet before his visage was hidden behind a veil of soft brown hair; then silver-shot darkness thundered behind his closed eyelids as he was overtaken by all-consuming rapture.

The sound of Melpomaen coughing and spluttering barely registered past Haldir's warm, golden haze. He reached out lazily, caught the hand still clutching his hip and pulled Melpomaen down atop him.

"Are you alright?"

"Fine. I'm fine, Haldir." His voice was strained, but there was no hesitance in his needful squirming atop the warrior's body. "Touch me, Haldir. Touch me, please."

Haldir shifted beneath him, snaking an arm between their bodies and closing his hand around Melpomaen's shaft. For a moment they held this awkward posture, and then Haldir parted his thighs, slipping rigid heat between them, closed, pressed. Melpomaen moaned as he began to move, rocking between sweat slick muscle, against secret flesh that was hot and barely giving. Fingertips dug into Haldir's shoulders, even teeth bit into the skin above his collar bone, and Haldir wrapped his arms about his lover, moving in tandem with him until Melpomaen's body stiffened in ecstasy, until he heard the soft rush of breathless endearments pouring forth even as hot liquid coated his smooth inner thighs.

"Stay with me," Haldir whispered into the tangle of Melpomaen's hair, and the younger elf nodded, clutching him tightly as he nuzzled against Haldir's neck.

Chapter Text

Arwen's bow was smaller and lighter than those carried by the Galadhrim, but it was a real weapon rather than a lady's toy designed only for short range target shooting. She was a fair shot with it, too, and Melpomaen suspected that if she had the time and inclination to take archery seriously she'd eventually best Elladan, if not Elrohir, in the annual contests of skill. As it was she contented herself with watching the tournaments from the stands, and occasionally calling out instructions and advice – much to her brothers' annoyance.

Melpomaen tried not to fidget, or to look either Arwen or Haldir in the eye. Arwen knew something was being kept from her, and that had done nothing for her mood over the last few days. He didn't think she was capable of violence, but the idea of an irritated, bow-wielding Arwen was enough to make him nervous. As for Haldir… well, sooner or later Arwen would badger Melpomaen into taking a shot at the carefully placed target, and when that happened he was sure he'd sink through the ground in sheer embarrassment.

Silence reigned. Several yards away the ubiquitous lady's maid turned a page in her book, continuing to ignore the ongoing farce taking place within the clearing. Arwen cast Melpomaen a narrow glance before refocusing on her target. She drew and released, and her arrow flew straight, if not true, striking the edge of the third ring from the center. Melpomaen thought he heard stifled laughter from above them, and judging by the dark look on her face, Arwen had heard it, too.

"Some of us," Arwen spoke loudly to the mellyrn, "have other things pressing on our time besides target practice."

No reply was forthcoming. Melpomaen pictured gray and green clad defenders lounging amidst the concealing foliage, smirking. Arwen jerked another arrow from her quiver and fired, this time a bit more successfully. Colorful expletives reached Melpomaen's ears, and behind them Haldir chuckled.

"Did you learn that language from your mother, Arwen?" he asked snidely, and she cast a glare over her shoulder at him.

"No, I learned it from Lord Glorfindel, and I had advanced lessons from your little brothers. I wonder from whom they learned it?"

This time the rustling in the trees was more distinct, but it was Haldir instead of Arwen who directed a blood-curdling stare into the upper branches. Whereas Arwen usually settled for addressing the empty space above her head, Melpomaen got the clear impression that Haldir was actually marking the identities of the guardians who had drawn this particular detail. Silent stillness immediately resumed above them, and Melpomaen could not quite suppress a small trill of laughter.

It had been a bad move. Arwen's attention shifted from Haldir to Melpomaen, and, for the first time since they'd set out, a sincere smile curved her lips.

"I'm sorry, Melpomaen, I haven't let you have a turn yet."

"Oh, that's alright, Arwen." His heart abruptly plummeted into his stomach. "I didn't bring a bow."

She frowned in puzzlement. "So? You can use mine. It wouldn't be the first time."

Melpomaen took a deep breath and stepped forward as if he were approaching the gallows. It would do no good to argue, and would only draw more attention to himself. In Imladris it didn't bother him to fire off a few arrows alongside her, more in the spirit of comradery than out of any real interest in the sport. She wouldn't understand his sudden reticence, and Arwen was not known for her ability at picking up subtle hints. Best to get this exercise in humiliation over with quickly.

Arwen's bow was a little too light for him, as was its pull. Since she'd commenced teaching him archery, he'd learned to compensate for this, but he'd never practiced enough to be even remotely skilled, nor did he own a more appropriate weapon of his own. Heaving an interior sigh, he tried to block awareness of their invisible audience from his mind as he took a red fletched arrow from Arwen, nocked, drew, and released. It landed solidly in the outer ring, but Melpomaen felt grimly relieved that he'd at least managed to hit the target. He was about to step back when Arwen placed another arrow in his hand.

"I think you're improving," she said brightly, and Melpomaen suddenly and fervently wished that a freak bolt of lightening would strike him, thereby ending his silent misery. He felt as if he was moving in a nightmare as he released the second arrow, managing to do no worse than he had with the first. Melpomaen closed his eyes when another arrow was pressed into his hand, and blinked in confusion a moment later when he opened them to see that this one was white fletched instead of red.

"You shoot like a girl," a low voice spoke in the vicinity of his ear, and Melpomaen felt heat rising in his cheeks.

"And what's wrong with the way girls shoot?" Arwen asked. Her tone was calm and perfectly level; it could have been mistaken for the voice of reason by anyone who didn't know her. Melpomaen was familiar with the deceptive quiet that could precede Arwen's storms, and he froze, hands clenched on the smooth wood of bow and arrow.

"Nothing," Haldir replied smoothly, "if you're a girl. There's a difference in the way males and females handle a bow."

"I taught him," she said, and, though far from relieved, Melpomaen felt a lessening of silent tension.

"And a good job you've done of it. But…," large hands moved over him, adjusting his stance, re-aligning his shoulders, "I think this will help some." Haldir patted Melpomaen's arm lightly. "Now try."

Melpomaen doubted that any force under heaven could now carry any arrow of his to the target, but there was no way to back out. He swallowed and heard a dry click as his suddenly arid throat contracted, then he drew back and released Haldir's arrow.

"See?" Haldir said, and there was only the slightest tinge of amusement in his tone. Melpomaen stared. It had been a far from perfect shot, but he'd done much better with it than he had with the first two. He dared a glance over his shoulder, and Haldir smiled down at him. "You really need something heavier…," Haldir started to reach for his own bow, glanced back at Melpomaen and seemed to think better of it. "But Arwen's will do for now. Again."

Another arrow was handed to him, and again Haldir's hands arranged and re-positioned him. And then again. And again. And again. Melpomaen had no idea how the arrows were reaching the target; he had ceased to focus on the red inner ring after the second white fletched arrow was handed to him. His awareness was centered on strong hands, on the heat of Haldir's body so close behind him.

"You might as well be doing this for me," he finally said, and he could hear the smile in Haldir's response.

"Would you like me to?" Haldir didn't wait for a reply. Instead, he stepped closer, until his body was pressed firmly against Melpomaen's back. His strong hand covered Melpomaen's on the bow, and he drew an arrow from his quiver smoothly, placing it in Melpomaen's hand. Melpomaen's heart fluttered madly as his arms were raised higher than his own ability to aim would allow for, as the bowstring was pulled back as easily as if it was a strand of spider silk.

"Release," Haldir whispered, and Melpomaen barely felt the string leave his numb fingers. The whine of the arrow's flight was indistinguishable from the ringing in his ears, and he could only stare mutely as the projectile impaled the target's center ring. His head lolled back against Haldir's chest, and he could feel the soft breeze of Haldir's breath ruffling his hair.

"See? We'll make an archer of you in no time."

And to that Melpomaen had no reply. He nearly staggered as Haldir stepped away from him, and could not summon up the courage to glance back once more. Somewhere behind them he heard a book slam shut with heavy authority, and his eyes darted to Arwen. She stared back at him, eyes swallowing her face.

"Lady Arwen," a voice called from the clearing, "I think it's time we return to the palace."

"Yes, I quite agree." The smile she bestowed on Melpomaen held a glint with which he was all too familiar. "I'm sure you won't object if Lisaebette and I ride on ahead?"

"Not at all," Haldir answered for him, and Melpomaen nodded, stomach churning in expectation.

*****

An hour later, Melpomaen opened the door to his room and was greeted by a well-aimed flying pillow. Arwen had further armed herself with the cushion from her rocking chair, and Melpomaen raised his hands to fend off the rain of ensuing blows.

"Why didn't you tell me!"

"I was going to!" He managed to get a grip on the cushion, and a brief tussle took place before Melpomaen wrested it away from her. "I was waiting for the appropriate time."

"The appropriate time?" Arwen asked. "And when would that have been? Three weeks after we'd returned home?"

"No… well, actually, I was going to tell you tonight."

"Uh huh." Her lips tightened, and she dropped down onto the edge of Melpomaen's bed. "May I have my cushion back?"

He eyed her warily but complied, stretching to maintain the greatest possible distance between them as he returned her weapon. Arwen snatched it from his hand, but appeared somewhat mollified.

"So… Haldir," she said contemplatively. Melpomaen fidgeted nervously, and Arwen's miffed expression abruptly shifted to a wide grin. "I guess you must have decided he's not so bad, after all."

"Aye." He felt a smile tugging at his lips, and he crossed the room to sit down beside her. A moment later his arms were crossed over his head as the cushion plummeted down in an unexpected attack.

"That's for going out without me," Arwen said primly, and Melpomaen laughed.

"Truce!"

"Alright… but only if you tell me everything."

"Everything?" He asked wickedly, and Arwen's eyes widened.

"Did he kiss you?" Melpomaen's face flushed scarlet, and Arwen squealed with delight. "He did! Ai, Elbereth, he kissed you! Did you like it? What was it like? I always thought that kissing Haldir would be like kissing Elladan while he's half asleep."

"Well, unlike you, apparently, I have no reference point on Elladan." He clamped his hand over the potentially deadly cushion before she could raise it. "But Haldir… well, Haldir," he paused, searching fruitlessly for words. "It's nice."

"Nice? That's all you have to say for it?"

Melpomaen thought of tangled limbs, tousled hair, and twining tongues, and blushed even more brightly. "Very nice."

"Oh, you. I would think someone as educated as yourself could do better than that." Melpomaen began to reply, but Arwen abruptly clapped a hand over her mouth, stifling a new burst of giggles. "Was he the reason you were asking me about gifts?"

Melpomaen nodded, and Arwen collapsed backward onto the bed laughing until tears flowed. "You gave Haldir flowers!" Her words were barely intelligible through her giggles.

"I didn't actually give them to him." He shifted slightly, glancing back at Arwen's tear-streaked face. "It didn't seem like such a good idea once I'd actually left the palace."

"I would have loved to have seen the look on Haldir's face if you had given them to him. Or even better - the look on Rumil's face." She wiped her cheeks with her knuckles and grinned at him merrily. "Seriously, though, Haldir would have liked them; wouldn't have had any idea what to do with them or what to say about them, but he would have liked them."

Melpomaen's brow knit. "So you think I should have given them to him?"

"No!" She fought off a fresh wave of incipient laughter. "I don't know if either of you would have ever recovered from the trauma if you had! I'm just saying that Haldir is not so stiff and proper as he seems, nor so lacking in sensitivity."

"I know," he said quietly, and her expression grew serious.

"Be careful, alright?" she asked. Melpomaen cast her a worried glance.

"You think Haldir would play me false?"

"No." Arwen bit at her lip, seeming to consider her words. "I mean be careful of him. Haldir… he's not like Rumil."

"I'd gathered that much."

Arwen slapped him lightly on the arm. "That's not what I meant. It's just that he does have feelings somewhere under there, and, though most people don't know it, they are hurt very easily."

"I'd guessed that." He glanced down into his lap, contemplated the backs of his folded hands before looking back at Arwen. "I promise I'll be careful."

"Good enough, then." She pushed herself upright and rose, reaching to tousle his hair. "I had better go back to my room to prepare for dinner. See you later tonight." She grabbed her cushion and headed for the door, pausing once before letting herself out. "Keep me informed!"

Chapter Text

"Word has it that you're now teaching remedial archery and menacing librarians in the forest, brother!" Rumil grinned broadly at Haldir from where he perched cross-legged on the kitchen table, working blue ribbons into his braids. Haldir scowled.

"I was not menacing him."

"Ah, so the rumors are only half right." He tied off the end of one plait and began another one. "Now, I've heard several versions of this. I'm hoping the one that involves your bow, his ear, and your tongue is the true story."

Haldir swore colorfully, and Rumil burst into gales of laughter. The ribbon slipped through his fingers, and he paused in his efforts, resting his hands on his thighs and allowing the braid to come loose as he tried to regain control of himself. Haldir's face had turned brick red; it was clear that elder brother was not amused.

"Have they nothing better to do with their time? I marked each of them, Rumil; it wouldn't be any great difficulty to see them posted where only the birds and squirrels will have to endure their mindless chatter."

"Oh, for the love of the Valar, Haldir!" Rumil exclaimed. His laughter had tapered off, and he cast his brother an impatient glance as he returned to his braiding. "You knew you weren't alone. Did you really think no one would talk? You might as well have grabbed him at midday in the market place."

It crossed Haldir's mind to remind Rumil that he could just as easily join the three gossiping defenders at Lothlorien's furthest border, but he refrained. It was comments like these that had precipitated much of the domestic tension in their household over the years. Haldir made a conscious effort to leave his duties behind when he came home from the borders or the palace, but sometimes his temper got the better of him.

"I could see that he was embarrassed," Haldir said shortly, staring stolidly past Rumil to the unremarkable kitchen wall. Rumil glanced up from his busy fingers, casting Haldir a quizzical glance.

"Melpomaen?"

"Aye. And Arwen… well, you know Arwen. She doesn't embarrass."

"No, indeed." Rumil chuckled. "It's a shame she was born a princess. I can think of half a dozen lifestyles that would suit her better."

Haldir shrugged. It wasn't Arwen whom he was interested in, and Rumil picked up on his distracted indifference. He pointed at one of the kitchen chairs. "Sit. Tell me about it."

"Arwen wanted him to take a turn with her bow, and it was obvious that was the last thing he wanted to do." Haldir sank tiredly into the chair, resting his elbows on the table near Rumil's knee. "And, Rumil, it hurt watching him with that bow. I mean it was actively painful. She'd taught him how to handle it, and…," Haldir shook his head, let his chin sink into his hands.

Rumil hid his smile. He could well imagine the sight Melpomaen must have made, and could understand the hysterical glee of the surreptitiously watching guardians. Under different circumstances, Haldir would have shared in that glee, but Rumil decided it would be best not to point this out.

"And I knew he wouldn't have been so damned embarrassed if I hadn't been there." His eyes turned upward to his brother's face, and Rumil could read discomfort and embarrassment of his own in their hazel depths. "Because… well, you know. I'm…" Haldir's eyes returned to the tabletop, and he flinched in surprise a moment later when Rumil's index finger abruptly appeared an inch from his nose.

"Don't. Don't even say it, Haldir," Rumil said earnestly. "Not after all of these years of hearing you tell me, Orophin, and anyone in earshot that you're Orom�'s gift to the Galadhrim, the best, the brightest, and on and on and on. If you tell me you felt badly because you're an expert archer, I will scream like a maiden."

Haldir blushed as he pushed his brother's finger out of his face. A bashful smile curved his lips, and Rumil blinked in surprise. He'd seen many emotions cross Haldir's features, but this shyness was a first.

"Alright, then, I won't. There has been enough talk today without having our neighbors wondering what terrible things I am doing to you."

"And what makes you think they would assume that it's me screaming?" Rumil asked brightly, and Haldir laughed. Tension lifted from his features and he leaned back in the chair.

"Well, at any rate, I felt badly for him, and so I tried to help him."

"And would that help have been such that stories which include ears and tongues might be extrapolated from it?" Rumil asked. He'd finished with his braids and now sat facing his brother, elbows on knees. Haldir colored more brightly yet.

"He made a comment, said that I might as well be shooting for him. And so… well, I did."

"Oh, yes, I can see where that story came from!" Rumil's eyes danced with amusement. "Though he is on the short side; I imagine you wouldn't have been able to reach much more than his ear tip."

"Rumil!" Haldir's shocked tone brought on a renewed wave of laughter. "I did nothing of the sort. And he's not short. It's only that I'm tall, and he's… he's… slight of stature."

"He's short!" Rumil crowed, clutching his stomach. "Please stop, Haldir, I don't know if I'll ever recover!" He wiped his streaming eyes, managing to limit his merriment to the occasional chuckle. "And how did he react?"

"He didn't object," Haldir said evasively.

"No, I wouldn't think so," Rumil smirked. "You do know that I'm aware that you two haven't been playing cards all night in your room, don't you?"

Haldir attempted a glare, but was unable to hold the stern expression. His lips quivered in the beginnings of a smile, and he glanced away. "Well, I'd suspected that you'd guessed as much."

"Orophin is not going to know what to make of this." Rumil shook his head in mock sadness. Haldir blinked.

"I'd completely forgotten! He's due to come home tomorrow."

"You really have been distracted." Rumil arched an eyebrow. "I think this is the first time you've ever forgotten the schedule. Need I mark the day on the calendar when you're due to return to duty?"

"No, I remember that date." Animation abruptly faded from Haldir's face. Rumil frowned, concerned.

"This is serious, isn't it?" he asked, and Haldir darted him a quick glance before looking away.

"I really don't know, Rumil." Haldir sighed heavily. "I do know that I wish he wasn't leaving so soon, and that I wish I were not, either."

Rumil had never known Haldir to be eager to return to the city, nor displeased to be leaving it. Still, he said nothing, pursing his lips and appearing to consider the matter. At last he spoke.

"I know that when I return from the borders that Liian will be here."

Haldir cast him an impatient look. "And I know that when I return Melpomaen will be in Imladris."

"Not necessarily." Rumil's tone turned philosophical. "Lord Elrond is not the only elf with a library, you know. And then there's Arwen. Will she be staying?"

"I don't know. What difference does that make?"

"Well, if Arwen stays she might like it if her good friend from home stayed with her for a while. I've gathered that no one seems to object to their friendship."

"No, Lord Elrond is fairly lenient, and, in all honesty, it seems to me that Erestor is the only one who even notices that Melpomaen is there." His expression darkened, but once again Rumil made no comment. "Still, Lady Galadriel might feel differently, though I think Lord Celeborn is more of Elrond's opinion on it."

"Don't borrow trouble, Haldir," Rumil said. "Talk to Arwen."

Haldir nodded slowly. "I think I'll do that." He frowned, glancing down at his hands. "Do you love Liaan?" he asked abruptly, and Rumil smiled.

"I don't know. Does it matter?"

"Well, I don't know. Maybe, if she has expectations of you."

"If she has any, she hasn't shared them with me." Rumil shrugged. "I don't like trying to guess what may or may not happen one hundred years hence. It's a waste of time and energy, Haldir." He licked his lips, considering his next words carefully. "If you're thinking of Melpomaen, might I say that perhaps you're being a little premature in your worries?"

"It's only that I don't know what he's thinking," Haldir said dully, and this time it was Rumil's turn to sigh.

"No, you don't, and you never will, and that's all there is to that. It's why people talk to each other, Haldir." Rumil smirked. "Though if you ask him how he'd like to decorate a talan with you five hundred years from now, he may well run screaming into the night."

Haldir's eyes flew wide with alarm, and Rumil stifled a chuckle. "I'm only saying that you should relax a little, and work with what you do know."

"Oh? And what is it that I do know at this moment?" Haldir asked in a tone tinged with impatience.

"Well, you know he's an archivist who can almost handle a bow, and, from that you can deduce that tonight he's going to be a very sore and aching archivist. I bet he'd love it if you paid him a visit, maybe with a bottle of massage oil."

Haldir's eyes lit up, and a broad smile brightened his face. "I never thought of that! Thank you, Rumil!"

Rumil laughed. "I'm a veritable well-font of wisdom, dear brother."

Haldir rolled his eyes as he rose from his seat. "I don't know how I would manage without you."

"Oh, neither do I," Rumil replied airily. "Where are you going?"

Haldir shot him a disbelieving look. "To get ready for tonight, of course." He turned and left the room, and Rumil watched, grinning. Orophin would be surprised, indeed.

Chapter Text

Word traveled fast within the royal talan, and Melpomaen was more than grateful to return to his room after dinner. His musings on what place he held in Lord Elrond's household in the others' eyes now seemed very small and trite. That he had been concerned about the off-hand assumptions that were being made about he and Erestor now seemed laughable. It was nothing compared to the looks of curiosity, amusement, and bafflement that had followed him since he'd left the baths an hour before the dinner hour. He could only imagine what was being said.

For the first time since he'd come to work at the Imladris Library he found himself wishing for the status that would have allowed him to sit at the high table with Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel rather than at the lower table among the skilled, quartered servants. People would still talk, of course, but they would do so more discreetly; and, he would be able to do some talking of his own, if he were so inclined. They'd be patting him on the back instead of looking at him as if he had suddenly and inexplicably grown wings or a tail.

He smiled as he imagined himself casually chatting with Lord Glorfindel. -- Oh, yes, Haldir. He's not really such a bad fellow once you get to know him. And, though I wouldn't wish to sound disloyal to our Imladris defenders, I must say that, in some regards, the Galadhrim do it better-- Melpomaen could almost hear Glorfindel's trademark laugh, and, for a moment, his smile broadened even further before abruptly fading away.

What was he thinking? That he would allow others to laugh at Haldir if that would save him from their scrutiny? His cheeks colored with shame as he remembered himself standing next to Arwen, holding her bow and listening to the derisive rustle of mallorn leaves. Haldir could have ignored him, could have left him to stand there and make a fool of himself alone. Instead he'd stepped forward, and put himself squarely in the sights of the tree city's gossips - and he'd done that for his sake.

Melpomaen sank down onto his bed, rubbing his left arm ruefully. Gossip had not been the only result of that minor catastrophe. His back, shoulder, and arm ached; his fingers were blistered. It had been that last draw that had really done it to his fingers. Haldir's hands had been over his, and Haldir was able to draw the string further and hold it longer than he could. At the time he hadn't noticed; with Haldir's body pressed so firmly against his own he didn't think he would have noticed if the string had cut completely through his fingers. Now he was feeling it, though, and he could only be grateful that he held his quill with his right hand instead of his left. As it was, he didn't think his left hand or arm was going to be good for much of anything on the morrow.

He glanced up sharply a moment later when his door began to open. It swung inward by a couple of feet, and then the person on the other side of it seemed to reconsider, pulling it halfway back. Melpomaen watched, more puzzled than annoyed as it jittered there. At last, his visitor knocked lightly, still holding the door partially open, and Melpomaen stifled a giggle.

"Come in. You're almost in anyway."

The door completed its inward arc, and Melpomaen's heart missed a beat as Haldir stepped inside. He was casually dressed, and once more his hair was unbound. His smile was slightly embarrassed, and Melpomaen grinned.

"Not used to knocking?"

"Well, no, actually." He glanced down at his boots, then back to Melpomaen. "I thought I'd stop by. I brought something… I thought you might be a little sore after today."

Melpomaen watched in mingled horror and gratitude as Haldir produced a bottle of massage oil from behind his back. The older elf was wearing the same expectantly nervous expression that Melpomaen imagined he would have worn if he had presented Haldir with the bouquet of flowers.

"Haldir." Melpomaen licked his lips, swallowed, stifled any potential bursts of hysterical laughter. "Haldir, did you carry that through the entire palace? I mean, not in a pocket or belt pouch?"

"Well, yes." Haldir looked puzzled. "Of course I carried it. Why wouldn't… Oh." Color suffused his face, and his eyes shifted away from Melpomaen's. "Dammit, I wasn't thinking." His hands curled around the bottle as if attempting to hide it. "I'm sorry."

"No, don't be sorry," Melpomaen said. "And don't you dare try to put it away now." He patted the mattress next to him, and Haldir joined him, resolutely avoiding his gaze.

"I am sorry, though, about earlier today. If I'd left you alone no one would be talking, and my brother would still be the only one who knows that we don't spend our evenings playing cards." He spoke toward his lap, and Melpomaen wrapped an arm around his waist, wincing slightly as he did so.

"No, instead I'd feel even worse for having made a fool of myself in front of you." He took a deep breath, squeezed carefully. "I'm not ashamed of you, Haldir." He felt a twinge of conscience at his words, remembering his imagined conversation with Glorfindel. Melpomaen quickly pushed the thought away, and leaned against Haldir's shoulder. "Are you going to do something with that?" he asked, nodding his head toward the bottle of oil lying on the bed.

"Oh!" The color had been receding from Haldir's cheeks; Melpomaen was amused to see it renewing itself. "That. Yes."

"Good." Melpomaen began wiggling out of his tunic, wincing as he pulled it over his head. Haldir scooted behind him to help him with his undershirt, and Melpomaen grabbed his calves before his boots could do any more damage to the coverlet. "These have to go."

"Sorry," Haldir murmured near Melpomaen's ear, and Melpomaen shivered as he set about unlacing Haldir's footgear. First one and then the other boot fell to the floor. Haldir wrapped his arms around Melpomaen, pulling him back until their bodies were flush against each other. "Rumil told me what the guards have been saying. Word has it that I did this."

Melpomaen's eyes widened and a small whimper passed his lips as Haldir's tongue touched his sensitive ear. For a moment he stiffened, but then he melted bonelessly against Haldir, head canted at a severe angle to permit fuller access. The blond warrior worked from lobe to tip, pausing to lightly nip and suckle the delicate peak, and Melpomaen shuddered when that warm wetness finally drew away. The sensation had been incredibly intense, nearly as delicious as the direct touches of more heated contact. His leggings suddenly felt far too tight, uncomfortably so, and he remained lying back in Haldir's arms.

"Aiya, Haldir," he whispered raggedly. "If you'd done that, Iluvatar Himself could not have guided my arrows home."

A low chuckle met his words. "Nonsense. You had me to help you." Haldir's hands moved to his biceps, pushing him into an upright sitting position. He attempted to create a little distance between himself and Melpomaen, but the younger elf promptly wiggled backwards against him once more. For a moment it appeared that the two would wiggle their way completely off of the bed, but at last he managed to position Melpomaen properly. "I did not come here solely to ravish you!" he admonished, and Melpomaen glanced back over his shoulder, pouting.

"But what if I wish to ravish you?" He asked, and Haldir grinned.

"Then you will have to wait," he said as he unstopped the glass bottle. "I won't have you moving about like an elderly human cripple tomorrow."

Grumbles met his reply, but they vanished into soft moans of pleasure as Haldir's competent hands moved over sore and aching muscles. The art of massage was one in which Haldir was skilled; among the Galadhrim, the knowledge of soothing aches and pains was learned in tandem with weapons training, if not in any official way. He had performed this service for both Rumil and Orophin on occasions without number, and that favor was always repaid in kind. Haldir knew exactly which muscles would be strained, where and how to touch to ease the aches and stave off the incipient stiffness that would make the morning-after miserable. Of course, this was not the same as with his brothers; Haldir had never felt an electric thrill at the sensation of their skin under his hands, nor felt lightheaded with the desire to touch. They had never shivered and strained back towards him, had never glanced back over their shoulders through eyes dilated with lust.

Melpomaen twisted under his hands, turning to face him. His face was flushed, and the ends of his hair were darkened where they had fallen onto his oil-glazed skin. "Take off your clothes, Haldir," he said, his tone low and promising.

"I'm not done with you yet," Haldir replied, and there was only the slightest quaver in his voice.

Melpomaen smiled. "Yes, you are. And now I want to start with you."

Hands attacked the front of his tunic, fumbled at laces, tugged and pulled. Melpomaen's expression was intent, narrow in its single-minded focus. It was a look Haldir was familiar with, a look that meant all else had vanished from Melpomaen's mind and that, for this small segment of time, nothing existed for him except for Haldir. I did that. Haldir thought giddily as he moved to facilitate Melpomaen's actions, as his slick hands reached for the closure of Melpomaen's breeches.

He spared no thought for the oil stains left on Melpomaen's remaining clothing as he worked the younger elf out of them, thought nothing of the oil darkening the fabric of his own clothes. His tunic and undershirt were gone, and somehow Melpomaen had acquired the bottle, pouring the warm liquid over Haldir's smooth chest. It drizzled down in warm rivulets, pooling at the waist of his leggings before slyly absorbing into the cloth, slicking yet hidden flesh. Then Melpomaen's hands were there, too, slipping on laces, pushing, pulling.

Lamplight gleamed on oiled flesh, upon Melpomaen's night lily whiteness and Haldir's lightly honeyed cream. They slid together and against one another, hands skating nearly frictionlessly on each other's bodies, technique forgotten in the sheer desire to touch, feel. Haldir found himself kneeling upright over Melpomaen's seated form, and he shuddered in ecstatic anticipation as Melpomaen's lips and tongue began dancing over his cock, while Melpomaen's hands slid over the curve of his buttocks and along the backs of his thighs. His own hands moved to the dark silk tangle of Melpomaen's hair, caught in it as the soft tresses adhered to the oil on his fingers and palms. Melpomaen only clung more tightly, moaning as he allowed himself to be drawn forward to envelop hot, rigid flesh.

He rocked in Melpomaen's hold, in and out, head thrown back and blond hair clinging darkly to his shoulders and back. Wave after wave of expanding pleasure built and broke, and Haldir was almost beyond sensibility when he felt Melpomaen's fingers working upward to the cleft of his buttocks - working inward, parting them. Cool air touched his hidden opening; hot fingers kneaded inner flesh. Haldir moaned, froze, and gazed downward into dark eyes that were now peering upward. A single digit circled his puckered opening, and Haldir whimpered, biting his lip as he read the unspoken message in those dark eyes: Let me.

For a moment, the only movement was that of lips and tongue and finger, each moving in a slow dance of tantalization that threatened to undo the older elf. At last he bucked forward in graceless need, voiced his wordless assent as his hands once again tightened in Melpomaen's hair. The single finger became more insistent, stroking over him with gentle care and increasing pressure, and Haldir felt his stomach dance with nervous anticipation, even as the unremitting cycles of swelling pleasure began to increase once more.

There was a moment of panic as he was breached, a sickly feeling of shocked realization as muscle gave way not through his own compliance but only as a result of steadily applied, oiled pressure. Resisting this gentle invasion was futile, impossible when his traitor body gave way so easily and sweetly for this slickness that was not pure pleasure, but instead a faintly burning discomfort and fullness. Haldir's first instinct was to struggle against it, to balk, or pull away. But his only option was to move forward into Melpomaen's eager mouth, a wet heat that demanded motion.

Melpomaen sensed his confusion, felt the quivering of thighs and involuntary shivers that ran counter to the rigid heat sliding smoothly over his tongue. He let Haldir's cock slip from his mouth, gazing upward to watch his lover's tense face.

"Are you alright, Haldir?" he whispered, and received an abbreviated nod in response. He was not all right, Melpomaen knew, though he did not want to admit it, and he gently eased his finger back out, slowly began circling once more. "I'll be careful with you, Haldir. I promise."

Hazel eyes met his own, clear and vulnerable, ambiguously pleading. Melpomaen nestled closer, felt the soft tangle of blond curls against his chin, the heat of Haldir's arousal against his cheek. "I love you, Haldir," he said, and he had no idea from where the words had come; he knew only that he wanted and needed, and that Haldir was so painfully close. Haldir did not respond in kind. He blinked, and when his eyes re-opened they revealed shock and amazement, transparent awe and uncertain delight that easily surpassed any ecstatic expression of carnal fulfillment. Suddenly Melpomaen was not so sure of himself. Again he felt a twinge of conscience, barely felt before being pushed away, and Haldir was lowering himself into his lap, face beatific as he slowly impaled himself upon the finger Melpomaen had retracted but not pulled away.

Thought vanished; anything that could have persuaded Haldir to this now seemed perfectly acceptable. He was tight, incredibly tight, so tight that it seemed impossible to Melpomaen that Haldir would be able to accept his not inconsiderable length and girth. Now it was as if he wore a single-fingered glove held in place by a hot, pulsating ring of fire; as if that glove was alive, gripping and massaging, flexing in an ecstatically erratic rhythm. Melpomaen leant his sweating brow against Haldir's breast bone, listened to the hitching quality of Haldir's breathing, corkscrewed and stroked inside of him. He knew there was something inside that would make this more than just something to be borne for Haldir, and Melpomaen searched relentlessly, thrust and twisted, crooked his finger and finally added another.

He had no idea how long they remained that way; how long Haldir knelt on shaking knees; how long his face was pressed to uncomfortably hot flesh that was slick with both oil and sweat. Haldir's length pressed against his stomach, and Melpomaen's free hand circled it as his fingers scissored inside of the warrior's body. Then, at long last, he'd found it, that small hidden spot that guaranteed ecstasy.

Haldir nearly screamed, bucking between Melpomaen's hands so insistently that Melpomaen feared he would topple them both. He abandoned the idea of establishing a rhythm swiftly, allowing Haldir to set his own, and, though he had wanted to bring the blond to his climax while taking him for the first time, the thought of seeing Haldir coming undone thusly became too much for him.

It only took a matter of minutes. Haldir was panting, gasping, straining between Melpomaen's hands, and then his body stiffened, turning to steel as his orgasm gripped him. Cream jetted in pearlescent streams, spattered on Melpomaen's chest, mixing viscously with coating oil and beaded sweat. Haldir sank down against him, his greater weight threatening to bear Melpomaen down onto the sodden sheets, and the younger elf slipped from beneath him before that could happen, heart racing.

"Hands and knees," he said, voice thick and shaking. Haldir gave him not so much as a nod in response, but complied nevertheless. Melpomaen felt a heady rush as he watched Haldir position himself, witnessed the trembling of shoulders, the exaggerated dance of thigh muscles, and the quivering of firm buttocks. His arms were crossed on the pillow, cheek nestled against his wrist, but his hair formed no modest veil as it clung to shoulders, back, forehead and cheeks. His back had become an inverted arch, and the globes of his buttocks were prominently displayed. Melpomaen parted them, moaning at the reflexive shudder of the powerful body before him.

The glass bottle was no longer easy to grasp, but at last Melpomaen had the stopper out once more. Penetrating Haldir was easier now; there was almost none of his initial resistance, no instinctive move to repel. Again Melpomaen felt that enclosing heat, but this time he felt no doubt, no concern for the practicality of what they were about to do. He wanted only to be inside of Haldir, to feel the indescribable pleasure of spilling his seed within his body.

Haldir hissed as Melpomaen pressed his cock against the ring of barrier muscle, but Melpomaen didn't think he could have stopped at that moment even if Haldir had shrieked in agony. Even so, he moved slowly, carefully, as carefully as he was capable of moving within that delicious tightness that was unlike anything Melpomaen had known before. There had never been anything to compare to this, nothing like this sheathe of flexing muscle, the surge of sheer power he felt at the sight of this powerful body submitting so beautifully, so perfectly.

There was no hope of making it last, and Melpomaen knew it. He could feel the tension in Haldir's body, hear his partner's labored breathing, and could hear his own voice speaking in a soothing litany of nonsense as he gently stroked Haldir's flank. All of that was distant, though, not as real as the scarlet fire that raged through him, rendering all else insignificant. He felt the minute relaxation of muscle around his throbbing member and began to move, to rock toward that place of starlight and moon breeze. Time stood still and Melpomaen's hands locked on Haldir's hips, scrabbling for purchase upon slick skin as everything vanished, as awareness narrowed until there was nothing but pleasure, nothing but rapturous release.

The two collapsed upon the bed, and Melpomaen barely managed to roll off of Haldir's overheated body. "Are you alright?" he muttered against Haldir's shoulder, vaguely aware that he was supposed to say something. Haldir's eyes were closed, his expression serene.

"I'm fine," he murmured. "You love me?"

There was no time to think, no time to consider his feelings as they lay there together in the mess of oil and sweat soaked sheets, as Haldir rested peacefully beside him. Melpomaen licked his lips, answered in the only way he could imagine answering, the only way he could bear to reply.

"Yes, Haldir."

"I love you, too." There was happy relief in Haldir's voice, and Melpomaen shifted uneasily beside him. He reached to gently caress a broad, strong shoulder, and made a moue of disgust as his hand encountered mixed sweat and oil. They were filthy, their clothes were filthy, and Melpomaen's room did not boast a private bath. A basin of water and a shared towel would not suffice this night.

"We're going to have to go to the baths."

"That's fine," Haldir answered blissfully. "I don't care who sees me."

"Mmm," Melpomaen answered, his thoughts running in uneasy circles. His words from earlier in the evening came back to haunt him: I'm not ashamed of you, Haldir. "Let's go then. I'm sure I have something in the wardrobe that I can drape you in."

Chapter Text

Dawn light barely stained the horizon as Haldir stepped through the door of his talan and almost immediately stumbled over an object lying directly in his path. Closer examination revealed the object to be a sturdily made, gray and green mottled pack that sported a design of small, embroidered birds on its flap. This could only mean one thing; the patrol that had not been expected until later in the morning had arrived early, and Orophin was home. Haldir swore under his breath, more out of habit than any real ire. It would take more than a misplaced pack to put him out of temper this day.

"Gosh, Haldir, I'm sorry," a voice spoke from the archway, and Haldir glanced up from the offending piece of equipment. Orophin stood in the semi-gloom, nervously twirling the end of a loose braid. "I meant to put it away before you woke up; I didn't know you were out…" his words trailed off, and Haldir shrugged.

"It's alright. Should have been paying attention. Is Rumil up yet?"

"Yes, he's making breakfast. Should I tell him to put on extra for you?" Orophin's tone was still uncertain, and Haldir threw him off further by offering a broad smile.

"I'll tell him myself."

The windows were open wide, but the table lamp had been lit to offer additional light until the morning sun had risen further into the sky. Rumil stood by the small stove pushing eggs around a skillet in a daze; he'd probably had even less sleep than Haldir but needed to be awake early this day in preparation for his leave taking on the morrow. The blue ribbons were gone, as were the braids. His hair was uncharacteristically pulled back in a haphazard horsetail, and it looked as if he were wearing the same clothing he'd worn on the previous day. Haldir grinned.

"Fry a couple for me?" he asked.

"Fry ‘em yourself." Rumil didn't look up from his efforts. In the doorway, Orophin sucked in a shocked breath, and Haldir suppressed a chuckle.

"Sit down. I'll take over from here," Haldir offered, taking the spatula from Rumil's hand. The younger elf nodded agreeably and slumped into one of the kitchen chairs.

"You're chipper this morning," he muttered, rubbing at his bleary eyes. "I take it things went well?"

"You could say that." Things had gone more than well. He felt sore, and lightheaded with sleepiness, but he honestly could not recall any morning better than this one. Melpomaen had said that he'd be over later in the day, and Haldir looked forward to that with a giddy elation that was not in the least bit quelled by the fact that he'd spent the entire night in Melpomaen's arms.

He divided the eggs between two plates and carried them to the table. A small platter of sliced fruits and cheese had already been prepared, and Haldir snagged a bit of apple. "Is there enough for everyone?"

"No. Not with the way you eat," Rumil replied.

"You can have half of mine," Orophin interjected swiftly, and Haldir cast him an amused smile.

"No, you just got home. Is there any more sausage in the larder?"

"Pig fat," Rumil said flatly. He fixed Orophin under his bloodshot gaze and leveled a didactic finger at him. "This is what comes of associating with humans, Orophin, and you'd do well to bear this in mind if you have any ambitions towards becoming a March Warden. First you make friends with them, and next thing you know you'll be eating pig fat."

Orophin's eyes widened in alarm. Haldir sighed. "I do not buy fatty sausage, Rumil, and you've never even tried it."

"Nor do I wish to. And, we're out. Orophin's dog ate it."

"Orophin's dog?" Haldir asked. Some of his good humor had begun to fade, and he held onto what remained with grim tenacity. Orophin squirmed, glancing down at his eggs.

"She's just a puppy," he mumbled. "I didn't know the sausage was yours."

"Well, of course not," Haldir replied sarcastically. "We always keep meat in the larder for stray animals, don't we, Rumil?"

"Oh, leave him alone, Haldir. I told him it was alright." Rumil managed a look of concern that went oddly with his disheveled appearance. "I just can't believe that stuff is good for you."

Haldir took a deep breath, and turned back toward the stove. "Tell me the pork roast is still there. Tell me that your concern for my health did not extend to feeding the pork roast to a stray mongrel, and I will be satisfied."

Rumil sighed heavily. "It's still there, Haldir, and it's all yours."

"Good." He cracked two more eggs over the skillet, considered the four remaining in the wire egg basket, and then began cracking those as well. "Where and how did you acquire a dog, Orophin? No, never mind." Haldir turned sharply, leveled the spatula at his youngest brother. "All I need to know is where it is, and if it's house broken."

"She's asleep in my room, and, yes, she is."

"Alright, then." He turned back to his eggs, mentally congratulating himself for keeping his temper. Closing his eyes, he called up the memory of Melpomaen washing his hair, forcing away the image of a small dog wolfing down his breakfast. Silence reigned behind him as he flipped the eggs and stared at them for a few moments longer before transferring them to a plate. The sun had risen more fully, flooding the kitchen with morning light and rendering the lamp unnecessary. Haldir turned, dropping the skillet into the wash basin with a hiss.

"One of these days you're going to crack the skillet doing that," Rumil said around a mouthful of buttered bread. Haldir ignored him, his gaze fixed quizzically on Orophin, who was staring at him in perplexity.

"What?" he asked, and Orophin gestured toward him with a slice of apple.

"What happened to your clothes, Haldir?"

Haldir glanced down at himself, blinked, and then swore. As it had turned out, Melpomaen hadn't had anything he could drape Haldir in, and so he'd been forced to wear the same clothing in which he'd arrived. The condition of those clothes had completely slipped his mind, and in the previously dimly lit kitchen it hadn't been readily apparent. Dark oil stains marred the material from the neck of his tunic to the closure of his leggings, some of them obviously in the shape of hands and fingers. Rumil looked up from his breakfast, stared, and then burst into laughter.

"Haldir, you did know you were supposed to undress before using the oil, right?"

Haldir opened his mouth as if to make some rejoinder, and then closed it with an audible click.

"Rumil, Haldir has a lover," Orophin announced in a tone of wondering awe, and for a moment it appeared that Rumil might choke on his last bite of bread.

"Yes, Orophin, Haldir does indeed have a lover." He rose from his seat, still snickering, and dropped his plate into the wash water on top of the skillet. "And judging by the looks of you," he directed at Haldir, "I need to have a talk with that boy."

His laughter trailed behind him as he ambled out of the kitchen, leaving Haldir standing speechless with his as yet untouched plate of fried eggs.

*****

Haldir woke to the sound of voices and the yipping of a dog. Rumil and Orophin were immediately recognizable. It took him a moment to place the third, unaccustomed as he was to hearing it mingled with the voices of others. Melpomaen.

He leapt out of bed, reaching for the shirt that he'd uncharacteristically dropped on the floor before remembering the stains. For the first time, he understood why Rumil was usually so out of sorts upon first waking, and why he wore his hair down so frequently. There wasn't any time to braid it, nor time to look too closely at what garments he pulled from his wardrobe. Satisfied that his clothing choices at least matched, Haldir swept his fingers back through his hair and hurried from the bedchamber.

In the living room, Rumil was stretched out on the couch, a bottle of apple juice near to hand instead of the usual wine. Orophin and Melpomaen sat on the threadbare rug, and a small, floppy-eared black furball danced excitedly, if clumsily, around and between them. Melpomaen wore a light blue tunic, and Haldir saw to his horror that the front of it was now liberally covered in long, black hairs.

"What is that?" Haldir asked in dismay, and Rumil tilted his head back against the divan cushions to face his brother.

"That is Melpomaen." Rumil grinned cheerfully. "You may remember him from last night."

Haldir glared, and Melpomaen laughed. Orophin drew the furball protectively into his arms, and the creature stared back at Haldir through chocolate brown eyes that held only the dimmest vestige of intelligence.

"This is Peony," Melpomaen said, reaching to scratch the animal's head. "Come here and say hello."

"You named it Peony?" Haldir asked disbelievingly, and Orophin shrugged.

"She just seemed like a peony."

Haldir regarded the puppy dubiously as he approached. He saw nothing even remotely peony-like about the animal, which was now wriggling it's way out of Orophin's grasp. Melpomaen beamed up at him, took his hand and tugged him downward. It would have been an easy matter to haul the smaller elf to his feet, but Haldir settled onto the floor beside him, lips compressed.

"She likes you!" Orophin happily announced as Peony attempted to clamber into Haldir's lap.

"It stinks." Haldir wrinkled his nose. "And it's shedding. And, dear Valar protect us, Orophin, look at its feet!"

"What about her feet?" Melpomaen asked. He scooted closer to Haldir, leaning his cheek against the older elf's arm as he looked down at the puppy.

"Its feet are huge. This is not going to be a small dog." It was more difficult to hold onto his ire with Melpomaen pressed so closely against him, but Haldir could not completely quash the wave of rising dismay. Peony jumped up to place her front paws on his chest, tongue lolling. A streamer of drool descended from the corner of her mouth, unceremoniously smearing across the front of his tunic as Peony rubbed her face against him.

"Orophin." His voice was flat and smooth. It was a tone with which both of his brothers were quite familiar. Haldir closed his eyes, hearing a buzzing in his ears that only his brothers could provoke; it was the sound that he'd often thought would be the last he'd hear before finally going completely and irrevocably insane. The body leaning against him shifted, and he opened his eyes, glancing down. Melpomaen gazed up at him in perplexed curiosity, and Haldir swallowed, reconsidering his next words.

"Orophin." His tone was gentler this time. Orophin wore a hunted expression, but now there was also a trace of cautious hope. "Dogs don't live in trees, Orophin. Don't you think Peony might be happier on the ground?"

"You have to admit she wasn't too pleased with being brought up the lift." It was Rumil's first interjection into the conversation, and Haldir cast him a grateful glance. Rumil smirked in reply, tipping back the apple juice and settling in to continue watching the scene unfold.

"She's still just a puppy, Haldir. And where will she go when it rains? I don't want to keep her in a kennel like a human would."

"No, I wouldn't want that, either," Haldir said through teeth bared in a smile of almost painful artificiality. At the moment, he could have cheerfully seen the creature consigned to Mordor. He did not bother to ask Orophin where he thought the other beasts of the wood went when it rained; it would have been a wasted effort. Peony had begun chewing on his boots, and Haldir grimly refrained from kicking her. "We could build her a house. One she can go into and out of at will."

"You'd do that?" Orophin asked in wonderment, and Haldir nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He could already hear the commentary on the only talan in Lothlorien to sport a miniature house for a dog on the ground beneath it.

"Thanks, Haldir!" The smile Orophin bestowed upon his eldest brother was positively radiant. "I knew you wouldn't make me get rid of her. Rumil said you would, but I knew better."

Melpomaen wrapped an arm around Haldir's waist and squeezed, gazing up at him with a smile that was only slightly less brilliant than Orophin's. Suddenly, Haldir felt roughly two feet tall. Behind him he thought he heard a chuckle from Rumil.

"Of course I wouldn't make you get rid of it," he said gruffly, looking down at the wretched canine in order to avoid making eye contact. "She's cute."

"Please, Haldir," Rumil said, amusement evident in his tone. "There's no need to overdo it."

Chapter Text

Haldir gazed down through the kitchen window, watching Orophin and Melpomaen as they worked out the design of Peony's house. It had been decided that the house should be built offset from their talan so that Orophin would be able to see it from above, and, of course, Orophin had assumed that Haldir wanted to set to work on it immediately. Melpomaen had been amenable to this, and, with much counterfeit good humor, Haldir had commenced making plans and delegating duties.

"I thought you were helping," Rumil said, coming to join Haldir by the window. Haldir raised his chin, bestowing a superior look upon his brother that left Rumil completely unfazed.

"I am helping. I'm getting them drinks, and when I've done that I will supervise their work."

"I bet you never thought you'd spend your leave supervising the construction of a dog house." Rumil grinned broadly. "I think I like Melpomaen. He's a good influence on you."

"And what is that supposed to mean?" Haldir's tone was frosty, but Rumil only shook his head in mock despair.

"Oh, Haldir. If I explained it to you, it just wouldn't be the same." He turned his gaze back to Orophin and Melpomaen, his grin turning to one of amusement. "Are you sure he'll be alright down there amidst the hammers and nails?"

"He's not incompetent," Haldir said stiffly. Actually, he'd been surprised himself at Melpomaen's familiarity with hand tools. He knew he shouldn't have been; it wasn't as if the elf had been born in a library, but it had still caught him off guard. Between he and Orophin, neither help nor supervision was really required. A small line appeared between his brows as he returned his gaze to the pair chatting and laughing below.

"I never said he was," Rumil continued, oblivious to the uneasy expression that had crossed his oldest brother's face. "He just didn't strike me as the sort who'd have much experience with manual labor. What does his family do?"

"I don't know," Haldir answered a trifle defensively. "It's never come up."

"Mmm," Rumil said noncommittally. "Well, he likes animals, though."

"That's fairly obvious." Haldir's shoulders slumped. "Did Orophin tell you how and where he got that thing?"

"Found it just inside the border. Alone. Probably abandoned and wandering."

"I can understand why. Whatever it is, it's not a hunting dog or a guard dog. I've noticed that humans only seem to value animals if they are useful in some way." There was more than a hint of contempt in his voice, and Rumil cast him an amused glance.

"And, of course, you are more enlightened. You have opened your arms in the spirit of love and compassion to this poor, homeless creature."

Haldir's lips tightened. "Why couldn't he have found a cat? Something small that's able to climb, doesn't require training, and that would probably wander off of its own accord eventually?"

"Because the Valar have a strange sense of humor. Are you planning on taking that down before it's completely lost its chill?" Rumil gestured toward the canteens Haldir was holding.

"I should have told Orophin to get his own damned water."

"Careful now." Rumil offered him a nauseatingly saccharine smile. "Must be on your best behavior for Melpomaen, now mustn't you?"

Haldir snarled in reply, and Rumil darted from the kitchen before his brother's temper could get the better of him.

*****

It felt good to be working with his hands again, and Melpomaen was pleased to find that, though long disused, the skills he had learned on his family's small farm had not been forgotten. The work he had done then had been of a more practical nature than the building of a doghouse, but the frivolity of his endeavor did not diminish his pleasure in it. Neither did the steady ache in his arms, back and shoulders. Haldir's ministrations had done a great deal toward easing those previous pains, but Melpomaen knew that, thanks to Peony's arrival and Orophin's enthusiasm, the next morning would probably be worse than this one had been. Even that knowledge left him unfazed; another thing he remembered from his elfling days was that not all pain was bad pain. Sometimes all it meant was that one had worked hard.

Orophin had originally wanted to build a miniature replica of an elven house, but Melpomaen had talked him out of it, explaining that Peony's main interest would be in having a place to shelter from the wind and rain, or the cold in winter. Remembering Haldir's comment on her feet, they'd settled on a large box design with a sloping roof. It would dwarf Peony when it was finished, but Melpomaen was confident that she'd grow into it. Haldir had said she would, after all.

"I think I'll paint it red," Orophin happily chattered. "If I'd thought about it I'd have realized that windows don't make much sense for something like this, but I'd still like to make it more attractive."

Melpomaen nodded amiably, and continued to pound in nails. He'd found that the occasional nod was all that was required to make conversation with Orophin, and that was something of a relief. He was far more accustomed to talking to his betters than with his equals, and his night out with Arwen had admirably demonstrated his lack of social skills. Orophin, however, was not in the least put out by his reticence. He rambled unconcernedly on topics ranging from his last tour of duty on the northern fences to stories both Haldir and Rumil probably would have preferred him to have kept to himself.

Haldir had gone to get them drinks, for which Melpomaen was quite grateful. It was a hot day, even in the shade of the sheltering mellyrn, and he was not as comfortable removing his shirt as Orophin seemed to be. Orophin had cast his aside at the outset, and it was doubtful that he would ever wear it again. Almost before it had hit the ground, Peony had grabbed it and begun running in enthusiastic circles about them with the garment clenched in her jaws. She'd managed to trip over it twice and, though this only seemed to amuse Orophin, Melpomaen was sure that in the end all that would be left would be some vaguely green and gray rags and tatters. Haldir had watched in grim silence, and after Peony's second fall he'd decided that drinks were in order.

Haldir had not removed his shirt, either, but Melpomaen's memory of his bare torso needed no reminders. As he worked and listened, he studied Orophin's half-bare form curiously. Whereas Haldir's skin was gold touched, Orophin's was gilded as if he spent a great deal of time shirtless under Anor's rays. He did not possess Haldir's breadth or bulk, either. Orophin's musculature was smooth and streamlined; his body could easily have been that of a dancer rather than a warrior. Instead of wearing his hair in neat, functional braids, Orophin had merely tied it back, twisted and pinned it up in deference to the day's heat. He looked relaxed and utterly unselfconscious, and Melpomaen found himself wishing that Haldir could possess that same easeful comfort.

"Still thirsty?" Haldir's voice came from behind and to the right of him; Melpomaen glanced back at him, away from Orophin's form, and smiled. Haldir smiled back, but the expression on his face was narrow, his eyes opaque. It was very close to the expression he had greeted Melpomaen with when they'd first met, and the words of greeting that Melpomaen had been about to speak died on his lips. He took the offered canteen and tipped it back, unmindful of the slightly metallic taste of the tepid water. Orophin easily caught the canteen Haldir tossed at him, thanking him before taking a long draught of his own.

"I was just telling Melpomaen that I'd like to paint Peony's house, and I was thinking just now that it might be fun to put real roof tiles on it as well. What do you think, Haldir?" Orophin asked. Water glistened on his face, and he absently wiped it away. Haldir's smile turned into something closer to a grimace.

"I think that's an excellent idea, Orophin. I'm sure Peony would like that."

Orophin cast him an uncertain glance. "I don't think Peony would care one way or another. I just think it would look nice."

For a moment, Melpomaen thought Haldir would lose his grip on the last shreds of his temper, but when he spoke again it was with the same careful calm that had characterized his speech since emerging from his bedchamber. "This is your first day home, Orophin, and I'm sure you'd like to go visit your friends. Why don't you do that, and Melpomaen and I will finish this up?"

"Are you sure you wouldn't mind?"

"I wouldn't mind at all," Haldir said tightly, and Orophin grinned.

"Thanks, Haldir!" Orophin rose to his feet, once again beaming radiantly. "It was really nice to meet you, Melpomaen." Melpomaen barely had a chance to offer his own farewell before Orophin was gone, darting fleet-footed toward the upward spiraling stairs.

"Don't forget your-" Haldir sighed, and cast a loathing glance toward the puppy who had settled down to chew on Orophin's shirt. "Well, I don't expect he'll be needing it again anyway. That's a uniform shirt, Melpomaen." He regarded his companion seriously. "If Rumil has any sense, he won't let Orophin borrow any of his."

"Mmm," Melpomaen responded intelligently.

"I'm beset. Those two are trying to drive me insane, and –that- is the final straw." He shot a dark glance at the puppy that was now lying spraddle-legged on her back. "I want my own place."

"They don't seem that bad," Melpomaen said uncomfortably. "And the puppy… she will grow up, Haldir; she won't always be this way."

"Not that bad." Haldir's lips tightened. "Orophin especially, right?"

Melpomaen had the distinct impression that he and Haldir were carrying on two separate conversations which fit together only by coincidence. Haldir had settled into Orophin's spot on the grass, and had picked up where his brother had left off with an unnecessary degree of concentration. Melpomaen could feel the tension rolling off of him, the barely restrained anger, and something else that was less easy to define. He took a deep breath, choosing his words carefully.

"He's a bit talkative, and, for the life of me, I cannot see how he has made a living as a fighter, but I suppose he is nice enough."

"I trained him myself," Haldir said. There was frost in his tone, and Melpomaen suddenly felt his own impatience rising.

"Is there a problem, Haldir?" he asked shortly. "Besides your inexplicable dislike of a creature that has done you no harm?"

Haldir's eyes darted up to meet Melpomaen's, and for a split second Melpomaen saw confusion and perhaps even panic in their hazel depths.

"No. No problem, Melpomaen." He sat back, perusing the result of their labors. "I'd thought to make the roof hinged to make it easier to clean."

"Alright," Melpomaen answered. Peripherally, he saw Haldir shift uncomfortably, saw silver tresses sway as the older elf cast him a quick, surreptitious glance.

"I'm sorry," Haldir said brusquely.

"For what?" Melpomaen could not quite keep the sharp edge from his tone. Between them silence spun out, and he could not help but wonder if even Haldir knew for what he was apologizing. He wasn't sure if it mattered; clearly it had cost him a great deal to give voice to those two words. Melpomaen didn't think he would have spoken them merely to smooth things over.

"I said I'm sorry," Haldir repeated.

"Accepted, Haldir," Melpomaen said softly, his words barely carrying to where Haldir sat engrossed with the roof of Peony's house.

"Will you stay tonight?" Haldir asked.

It danced on the tip of his tongue to refuse. He wasn't entirely sure that he wanted to stay, not with Haldir out of temper, not in light of this strange, half- heard conversation in which he had unwittingly participated. Ambiguous apology aside, there was still something bothering Haldir; his refusal to enlighten Melpomaen and his efforts to ignore it did not change the basic issue.

Haldir looked up from his work, eyebrow raised. It should have been a look of amused enquiry, but what Melpomaen saw was Haldir's earlier expression of confusion and fear. Melpomaen heard Arwen's words echoing in his ears, --Be careful of him--, along with his own unthinking declaration of love.

"Of course I'll stay." Was that relief in Haldir's hazel eyes? Melpomaen did not know; he looked uncomfortably away

Chapter Text

A single lamp burned on the low table, giving the room a warm, comfortable feel. Night was kinder to Haldir's home than daylight, though closer examination had shown Melpomaen that the furnishings were not poorly maintained trash. Much of what the brothers owned was old, and had seen a great deal of use. Melpomaen guessed that some of their belongings, such as the threadbare carpet and faded divan, had been new when their parents had been young. This was not the House of Elrond, where ancient items might be saved and displayed later in order to lessen the effects of time upon them; what was here was to be used and enjoyed. In a way it reminded him of home, though he could not help but wonder why certain items hadn't been replaced.

Rumil had gone to bed early, looking more respectable than Melpomaen had ever seen him. At some point during the day the horsetail had vanished, replaced by warrior braids similar to those Haldir wore, and after his bath they had been re-plaited for sleep. Earlier, Orophin had reminded Melpomaen of an elfling dressed up as a soldier; now, Rumil looked every inch the off-duty Galadhrim. It was rather disorienting after days of having seen him only when he was on his way to or from outings with his friends.

"Do you miss them when they're gone?" Melpomaen asked. He leaned his head back against Haldir's shoulder, feeling the shifting warmth of Haldir's hand on his abdomen. They had been reclining on the divan thusly since returning from the baths, and Haldir did not seem eager to relinquish his grip any time soon.

"Yes." He sighed, tickling Melpomaen's ear with his warm breath. "I hate to admit it, but yes. Sometimes it seems to me that they are trying to drive me out of my wits, but…" he trailed off, tilting his free hand palm up in a mocking gesture of surrender. "I don't know how we came to have such different temperaments."

"You aren't going to petition for new quarters." It was a statement rather than a question, and Haldir shrugged.

"Eventually, but, for now, no. This was our parent's home." He said that as if it explained all, and Melpomaen nodded.

"I miss my family sometimes, too."

"I thought you had no siblings," Haldir said.

"No, but my parents. They still live near the mountains, though I expect they will not for much longer. I imagine they will not move into Imladris proper, but will set out for the Grey Havens and thence to Valinor."

"Even now the mountains are not safe," Haldir said, and Melpomaen sensed his frown.

"No, they're not, but they will not leave, not until they absolutely have to. I think, though, that's why they were so willing to send me to Imladris when they saw I had aptitude for something besides terrace farming."

"Terrace farming?" There was disbelief in Haldir's voice, and even a hint of amusement. "Do not tell me that you were a farmer!"

Melpomaen twisted in Haldir's arms, offering him a mocking scowl to go with a swift jab to the ribs. "And how do you think the fruits and vegetables you see in the market place arrive there, oh mighty warrior?"

Haldir snickered. "I'm sorry, love, I just can't imagine you grubbing in the dirt."

"I did not grub in the dirt." Melpomaen glared, and Haldir stifled another burst of chuckles.

"Of course not. But I must know how you came to be an archivist in the Last Homely House from the mountain wilderness? And how did you manage to never learn proper bowmanship?"

Melpomaen squirmed in Haldir's arms. "Does every elf have to know how to use a bow?"

"No, but I would think that it would be a necessary skill to one living in such isolation, and in the vicinity of enemies."

"We were not isolated." Melpomaen glanced back at Haldir, and Haldir saw that his face was crimson with embarrassment. "There were other families, not all close, but enough so that we were almost a village. It was safe."

"It was not safe; I know enough of the area to know that."

Haldir was right. Melpomaen understood that intellectually, but he found that he could not convey the feeling of security and normalcy life on the edge of the mountains had held. It was what he had always known. All of his life he'd listened to the unspoken undercurrents between his elders, the understanding that they would not be forced from their chosen homes by creatures of darkness. He remembered stubbornness and pride, the refusal to give so much as an inch of either literal or metaphoric ground. They did not shun or disparage the enclave of valley elves, but neither did they wish to join it. The choice they'd made was one they would not go back on, however hard-pressed their own small settlements might become.

A hard season there had not meant a particularly snowy winter or a summer of drought; it had meant increased activity among the orcs and their allies, bolder attacks by small groups of darksome creatures that had wandered further down from their own pits and lairs. In a time beyond the reach of Melpomaen's memory, Elrond's warriors had protected them, but that time had passed. Now the farmers could count upon an escort to and from the spring and autumn festivals, but that was all. Imladris had her own problems to deal with, and her warriors were in short supply. The offer to descend into the valley was always open, but Elrond could no longer spare fighters to protect the little villages of the foothills on a continuous basis.

Melpomaen had never been suited to be a warrior, and a warrior's skills were as essential as any others utilized in the borderlands between the valley and the high mountains. He could remember both his mother and father carrying bows and wearing twin short swords as a matter of course. His mother had taught him fletching alongside other, more domestic chores, and he'd grown quite good at that. Actually using the arrows he'd made had been another matter; the problem had been a combination of inaptitude, which might have been overcome, and complete lack of interest, which could not be. What had caught Melpomaen's interest instead had been the lessons taught by the tutor sent up from the valley.

He knew in his heart that this was why the process of sending him to Imladris had gone so quickly and smoothly. Melpomaen's mother and father had never outright told him that it wasn't safe for him with them, nor that he was meant for other places and different achievements. Still, he had heard those words anyway, had understood their worries, and now he heard them echoed in Haldir's words.

"I came to be in Lord Elrond's employ because I'm not a warrior. I never wanted to be a warrior." That was not entirely true, but Melpomaen saw no need to explain further. "There was a teacher sent up from the valley, and she spoke to my parents about sending me back with her."

"And that was that," Haldir said. His tone was ambivalent, and Melpomaen shot him a quick, defensive glance.

"It was not as if they threw me out."

"No, I suppose not. Did you want to go?"

"Yes and no." Melpomaen shrugged against Haldir's chest. "I was excited about going to live in the city, but I knew I was going to miss mother and father. I wished they could come too, and, well…" he tilted his head back, casting Haldir a sideways glance, "there's a bit of a principle in the high villages about not going to the valley to live. That bothered me for quite a while."

"So you stayed in The Last Homely House."

"No!" Melpomaen laughed. "Do you think Lord Elrond takes in every stray elfling who wanders into Imladris? I stayed in the home of Mistress Ylaana, the teacher who brought me down. Her family are artisans; they make decorative earthenware of a very high quality. That was actually Ylaana's main work during the spring and summer months. As it turned out, teaching was only a sort of hobby for her. She had a better than average education, but no real interest in doing anything with it. I think, in the end, that what it came down to was her liking of children."

Haldir shuddered. "I cannot imagine going out of my way to spend time with a bunch of dirty elflings. Couldn't she find any in Imladris? Or perhaps have some of her own?"

"I don't think Ylaana was any more interested in bonding than she was in becoming a scribe. She had her wild streak, though."

"Oh, I can imagine," Haldir snickered, and Melpomaen gave him another elbow jab.

"I did not mean like Rumil," he said sternly, and Haldir nodded, endeavoring to stifle his laughter. "I meant that she liked her privacy, enjoyed going out alone more so even than most elves. In that she was like you. I don't think she went to the high villages out of any sort of missionary zeal, but rather to be out on her own for a time."

"Indeed. And so, from thence to Lord Elrond's employ?"

"More or less." Melpomaen shrugged. "I attended the school in Imladris, and did quite well. My instructors recommended me to Lord Erestor's secretary's assistant, and I found myself working as a sort of glorified errand boy to Lord Elrond's advisory staff. Things have progressed from there."

"So, you like it in Imladris."

"Yes." Melpomaen smiled with satisfaction. "Lord Erestor has taken an interest in me since then, and, eventually, I'll take my place as head archivist. And who knows but that afterwards I might move on to an advisory position of my own."

"Mmm," Haldir murmured. His tone was less pleased than Melpomaen's, and to the younger elf's ears it seemed to hold a hint of worry. "So, what do you think of Caras Galadon?"

"It's beautiful here, truly exquisite. It's not as comfortable as Imladris, though."

"How so?" Haldir asked sharply. Melpomaen wiggled his shoulders uncomfortably.

"I did not mean to give offense…"

"None taken, but I'm curious."

Melpomaen took a deep breath. "Lord Celeborn's court is more formal than Lord Elrond's house. I've never truly thought of The Last Homely House as my home, but I cannot even imagine ever feeling that the royal talan is home. People here seem so much more conscious of status."

Haldir frowned. It was true enough; he had visited Imladris before and found Lord Elrond's haven to be much more open and accepting than his own homeland. "There is no law that says that a servant of the court must be quartered there."

"No, but sometimes it's more convenient."

"I do not live in the barracks."

"I didn't even know there was a barracks," Melpomaen laughed, and Haldir grinned.

"Yes, there is, though not as humans would build them. There is an entire section of talans near the main hall and armory for the use of the Galadhrim should they so desire to live there, or during times when it would not be feasible to send runners all over the city in the event of emergency. There are also offices and an entire bureaucracy to go with it – a military force can't operate solely on scrawled messages and runners."

"In Imladris, that is Lord Glorfindel's concern."

"And do you think Lord Glorfindel does it all himself?" Haldir snickered. "I'll grant you that he's quite competent, but still…"

Melpomaen glared, but forbore to further abuse Haldir's ribs. "It's an entirely different area from mine."

"As you move up I think you'll find that won't always remain so. Lord Glorfindel's and Lord Erestor's spheres of influence overlap more than you might think."

"I never really thought about that."

"It's something you might want to consider. I often find the paper work end of things frustrating. Perhaps I could use an assistant."

"Oh, and for what would you use your assistant?" Melpomaen asked teasingly, ignoring Haldir's half-serious tone. "And what if your assistant found a use for you, instead?"

"I think I could handle that, but, then again, I might have to punish him for insubordination."

"Really?" Melpomaen could not quite keep the quiver out of his voice. Haldir's hands had slipped from his abdomen to his thighs, parting them and rubbing slow circles against the inseam of his leggings. "And how would you do that?"

"First, I would have him strip until he stood before me completely nude. I wouldn't leave him wearing so much as a pair of fussy black socks."

"Is this a common practice among the higher ranks?" Melpomaen asked, striving for a tone of objective enquiry and failing completely. Haldir's hands had moved upward and inward, now lazily rubbing at the apex of Melpomaen's thighs. Breathing was becoming difficult, and he was sure that conversational ability would soon fail him completely.

"Oh, the customs of the Galadhrim are many and secret. After telling you this I'll have to keep you here for security reasons, so you'd best pay close attention."

"Well, then, tell me what comes next."

"Would you prefer if I showed you?" Haldir rumbled, and Melpomaen trembled against him.

"Have I been insubordinate?"

"Terribly." Haldir nipped at the peak of Melpomaen's ear, eliciting a gasp. "And later I will take you into my room and show you exactly how a March Warden deals with such behavior."

For a long while no further words were spoken. Haldir had unlaced Melpomaen's leggings, freeing his throbbing erection and stroking it excruciatingly slowly. He arced his hips upward into Haldir's grip, moaning softly at the teasing, tantalizing touch. Haldir's other hand had moved upward so that his arm was locked about Melpomaen's waist, holding him in place, and the younger elf strained against that firm yet gentle restraint. He wanted Haldir, wanted him so badly he could almost taste it, but it was clear that Haldir had other plans. Apprehension tinged his steadily building arousal, but that seemed less important than Haldir's touch, Haldir's heat pressing against him, encircling him.

Then, abruptly, that touch was gone. Melpomaen blinked and hissed in protest as Haldir unexpectedly jerked his tunic down over his lap. A moment later he heard steps on the walkway outside, and then he himself was scrambling to organize his appearance. Melpomaen had just begun to rise from the divan when Haldir's arm once again circled his waist, pulling him back down. A startled cry burst from his throat, and then the door swung inward.

Orophin's eyes widened in shock and embarrassment as he took in the tableau before him, and Melpomaen closed his own eyes, aware of heat rising in his cheeks. Haldir had gotten him decently covered, but it was still fairly obvious what they had been doing. His erection was well showcased by the fabric of the tunic held taut over his thighs, and there was little he could do about it without making the situation worse.

"Ai, Elbereth, Haldir - I'm sorry!" Orophin stammered. He began to cross the room toward the archway, then thought better of it. "I – I'll just – just… go. Somewhere else. I'm so sorry, Haldir."

"It's alright, Orophin." Melpomaen had expected Haldir to be furious, but instead his voice was oddly calm. "We were just getting ready to go to bed anyway." He released his grip on Melpomaen, but the younger elf remained frozen in place.

"No, no, I'll go anyway." Orophin's eyes were fixed firmly on the floor as he backed out the door. "I need to check on Peony and…" his words trailed off as the door shut. Haldir laughed, and Melpomaen sprang up from the divan as if it had burned him.

"You knew he was coming home," Melpomaen hissed as he jerked his leggings' laces. His gaze was intent upon his fumbling fingers, and he did not raise his eyes as Haldir swiftly sat upright.

"I lost track of time. I'm sorry, Melpomaen."

"You certainly don't seem to mind being barged in upon."

"And you are the one who keeps indicating that I should relax more. You know my brothers live with me; why is this my fault?" A hint of Haldir's previous temper crept into his level tone, but there was an artificial quality to it. Nevertheless, what Haldir had said was correct. Melpomaen wavered, caught between his mistrust of his lover's contradictory behavior and the truthfulness of his words. Haldir rose to his feet, stepping forward to face Melpomaen. "Are you coming with me?"

"Yes," he muttered, still not placated but unwilling to make a scene. Haldir smiled.

"I'm sorry, love." He touched Melpomaen's cheek. "I'll make it up to you, alright?"

"Alright," Melpomaen said, and a small, grudging small curved his own lips. "Come on, before Orophin runs out of things to keep himself occupied."

Chapter Text

Melpomaen allowed himself to be led into Haldir's bedchamber in spite of his misgivings. Neither of them had spoken a word since leaving the main family area, and Melpomaen silently cursed himself for his easy capitulation. There had been more to what had just happened than poor timing; Haldir had consciously pulled him back down before the door had opened. He had wanted Orophin to see. He had not been overtly crude about it, but it was clear that Haldir had wanted to present a picture too plain for even Orophin to misinterpret.

The bed was unmade, something which Melpomaen had never seen before upon entering this room. The sheets were rumpled, and the plain beige coverlet had been carelessly thrown back. Haldir's clothing from the previous night lay in a pile on the floor instead of in the wicker basket by his bureau, and the older elf stepped swiftly passed Melpomaen to scoop them up and deposit them in their proper place. Despite his irritation, Melpomaen could not help but suppress a smile; he himself would have been more likely to kick them under the bed.

"I'm sorry about the mess." There was a hint of embarrassment in Haldir's voice, but Melpomaen said nothing. Aside from the unmade bed and dropped clothing, the room was as stringently neat as it always was. Not so much as a speck of dust marred the surface of Haldir's bureau and shelves, or the top of his small desk. A carefully evened stack of papers rested at one corner of the desk, and a single page lay in the center. Melpomaen drifted over to it, curious, and found himself gazing at his own image.

"Do you like it?"

"You flatter me," Melpomaen said softly. Haldir came up behind him, winding an arm around his waist.

"I don't. That is you."

"Hmm," Melpomaen said musingly. The picture was not an erotic one; in it he was depicted sitting on the edge of Haldir's kitchen table dressed in the black robe and blue leggings he'd worn the day after Haldir's first visit. He looked comfortable and relaxed, though Melpomaen could not imagine himself behaving in such a nonchalant manner. Haldir's eye had been true to the delicacy of his features and slender build, but there was a straightforward glint in the eyes that took Melpomaen aback. The expression Haldir had given him was one of challenge.

He let the drawing fall to the desk and reached to page through the stack set to the side. Haldir shifted uncomfortably but did not stop him, and Melpomaen swiftly fanned them out over the previously clear desktop. Here was Rumil in braids and an extravagantly flounced shirt, Arwen with her bow, a group of unfamiliar elves playing cards at the living room table. And, finally, there were two more in which he saw his own image. In both he was held in Haldir's embrace, and in both Haldir's back was to the viewer.

Melpomaen frowned as his gaze moved between the two drawings. In one Melpomaen was almost lost in the arms of what looked to be a blond man inexplicably dressed in a Galadhrim uniform. The second was kinder, though no more accurate; in it Haldir was more slender and the variance in their heights was not so great. It was clearly an idealization, but any relation to reality had been lost in the dreaming process. It could have been any blond elf holding Melpomaen in this picture, any elf at all.

Melpomaen's thoughts shifted to Haldir's behavior earlier as they'd worked on Orophin's doghouse, to the too-tightly reined control he'd shown up until then. He thought of Orophin's happy chattering, his own perusal of Orophin's bare torso, and of a canteen tossed rather than handed to the young Galadhrim. His gaze moved back and forth between the drawings, between images of himself held by either a man or an anonymous archer, and at last he turned to look into Haldir's eyes.

"Do you trust me, Haldir?" Melpomaen asked abruptly. He dropped the pictures on the desk.

"Of course." Haldir blinked. There was honesty in his voice, but there was something else, too - something murkier and less easy to identify.

"And do you know that I come here to see you, to be with you?"

"Yes." Now Haldir's tone had become impatient. "What does this have to do with anything?"

"A lot, I would think, since you've made such a point of ownership." Color stained Haldir's cheeks. Embarrassment did not set well with the blond archer; Melpomaen could see the quick shift to anger already beginning, and he raised his hands to gently rest upon Haldir's shoulders, meeting his eyes squarely. "You are the only one for me, Haldir."

"You are not the one whom I am worried about," Haldir said through clenched teeth.

Melpomaen took a deep breath. "I see. So, it is the attentions of others that concern you, and you feel that I am so fickle that I would, of course, be easily swayed."

"No." Haldir glared, pushing Melpomaen back and away from him. "That is not what I meant, and you know it."

"I do? What do you mean, Haldir?" He did not raise his voice, but his tone had sharpened. "Do you believe that you have so little to offer that perhaps I'd find another's attentions welcome?"

"I don't have to listen to this." Haldir drew himself up to his full height, and the look he bestowed upon Melpomaen could have frozen molten steel. "If that is what you think of me, then you have no reason to be here."

"It's not what I think of you, dammit!" Melpomaen stepped forward, completely undaunted by Haldir's proud, menacing glare. "I'm trying to understand what you think, what is going through your head when you're standing between me and your brother the way his dog would guard a bone. Or when you're drawing this… " He turned and snatched up the drawings still lying on the desktop.

"Give me those!" Haldir reached for the pages, but Melpomaen stepped back, waving them just out of his reach.

"Who is this in these pictures with me, Haldir? Of a certainty it isn't you."

The last of Haldir's control slipped. Cursing under his breath, he moved forward and grabbed the sheets of paper in Melpomaen's grip. "You will give those back to me now, Melpomaen," he said warningly.

"No, I won't." The smaller elf scowled. "I'm not one of your brothers, and I'm not one of your soldiers. What are you going to do about it?"

The sound of tearing paper was incredibly loud in the momentary, charged silence between them. Melpomaen's stunned gaze dropped to the piece he still held, wrinkled and now torn, in his clenched fist. The remaining half vanished between Haldir's hands, and he swallowed hard as the older elf crushed it into a ball, flinging it across the room.

"There. Is that better? Are you satisfied?" The cool evenness of Haldir's voice did not deceive Melpomaen, but, as before, he did not back down.

"No, I'm not satisfied. You need to figure this out, Haldir."

Melpomaen tried to push past him, but was brought up short when Haldir grabbed his arm. He jerked back, but had no hope of breaking free of Haldir's grip, and, instead of fighting it, he stood still, glaring back at the taller elf with eyes that spat fire.

"I don't need to figure anything out, but perhaps you could explain why you object so strenuously to being seen with me."

"I do not object to being seen with you." He tugged ineffectually at Haldir's grip. "What I object to is being displayed like something you won at an archery competition!"

"I was not ‘displaying' you, as you put it. Is it so wrong for me to want people to know…" Haldir's words trailed off, and Melpomaen stared up at him, waiting in both angry frustration and curious anticipation.

"To know what?" he snapped. Haldir scowled.

"To know I love you."

"That you love me," Melpomaen echoed softly. Haldir said nothing; his face was as coldly set as it had been on their first meeting. The hand gripping Melpomaen's arm relaxed but did not fall away, and the younger elf understood that Haldir would say no more on the subject. "Want others to know you love me, or want others to know I'm yours?"

Still, no response; only those hazel eyes gazing down into his, projecting anger, humiliation and fright in fractured waves of blue and green. Melpomaen knew that Haldir would not ask him to stay again; the choice was his as to whether to pull loose from the archer's now lax grip, or step forward to hide from that gaze in his arms. Melpomaen could not quite bring himself to do either.

"You have to believe in me, Haldir." He lifted his hands to touch Haldir's cheeks, feeling the instinctive flinch that always came when his hands strayed to Haldir's face. "You have to trust me."

"Be mine, then."

"Aren't I?"

"No." Haldir did not look away. "That is not what I mean. Be mine the way I'm yours. Let me…" He continued to suffer the light touch on his cheeks, moving both of his hands to rest just above Melpomaen's elbows. It was a gentle touch that intimated something less gentle; the hardness of muscle and calluses could not be disguised by lightness of contact. The hands that grasped Melpomaen's arms reflected Haldir perfectly, and Melpomaen could not help but feel giddiness in his stomach that was not entirely arousal. Those hands swept down the length of his arms, settling heavily on his shoulders, and Melpomaen found himself as unable to answer Haldir's request as Haldir had been unable to answer his own queries.

"I've never…" he said feebly, and Haldir smiled, razor sharp rather than sensual.

"Neither had I. But I did." His lips curled further, turning into something more like a sneer. "For you. You have to believe in me, Melpomaen."

For one moment of crystalline clarity Melpomaen knew that he should free himself from that deceptively light grip, walk past the March Warden and never return. This was too much, more than he wanted to deal with in what he'd thought would be a simple affair. He didn't want to look up into predatory eyes, nor deal with the emotional depths that lay beneath that simmering surface of ready anger. He didn't want to be Haldir's, not in the way that Haldir clearly meant, not by an act premeditated in fear and jealousy. Still, there was the matter of his own words being thrown back in his face, words meant to calm that had obviously achieved the opposite affect, and had pushed Haldir to call his bluff. Yes, there were his words, and there was also Haldir's heat, and heavy hands that could be gentle in spite of the hardness of muscle and roughness of calluses.

Instead of walking away he tilted his head back when Haldir bent to kiss him, opened to him, allowing the slow domination of heat and wetness. He stood like a doll, not returning the embrace that Haldir now folded him in, but softly conforming to it nevertheless. Haldir tasted him, tasted his lips and continued from there, kissing the high planes of his cheeks, the sensitive curve of his ear. Rage had fled; now Haldir touched him as if he were made of glass, handled him as if he were an exquisite gift, something precious. --Perhaps that's what he thinks I am-- Melpomaen thought dizzily as he was lifted off of his feet and carried to the bed.

It was the first time Haldir had ever touched him so familiarly, so surely, since the day that he'd accompanied Melpomaen and Arwen to archery practice. Haldir's uncertainty and Melpomaen's dignity had not previously allowed it, but Haldir's interpretation of Melpomaen's silence had made it possible, and now Melpomaen felt weightless in his arms, felt deliciously, terrifyingly lost. He had never considered this, never stopped to think of the course his words and actions were leading him upon, and, though he knew this was not the final destination, he understood that it was a crucial crossroads - not a point of no return, but one from which a return would be difficult at best.

There was urgency in Haldir's touch, but not the swift, desperate heat he'd been expecting. Melpomaen cooperated only minimally with the removal of his clothing, lifted limbs and raised his hips as needed, allowing Haldir to do the work. The older elf might have mistaken his still submission for lack of interest had it not been for the pulsing heat that lay at the apex of Melpomaen's body, or the strained gasps and low moans evoked by Haldir's hands and lips. Inaudible murmurs met Melpomaen's ears, words muffled by flesh and thickened by passion, words that Melpomaen was unsure that he wanted to hear anyway. The tone was enough; soft and sweet, reassuring, and laced with gratitude in a way that made Melpomaen tremble with shame as much as with desire.

He opened himself to Haldir's questing hands and throbbing desire even as he held onto his internal refusal, hearing Haldir's placating words as if from a distance when heat, hardness and roughness touched the soft swell of his buttocks. He consciously willed thought away at the touch of oiled slickness and forced himself to relax, to give as Haldir had given to him. There was pain, but not as much as he had expected, a discomfort and burning as fingers carefully invaded. Closing his eyes, he imagined Haldir's face twisted in passion rather than opening them to see the reality, imagined himself astride Haldir's utterly willing body. Then he lost track of even that as something more insistent than cautiously probing fingers pressed against and into him.

Haldir's hand locked around Melpomaen's length, teased him into complete arousal even as he essayed that first, slow inward glide. This time there was pain, more so than there should have been from the tension that Melpomaen could not quite release. The rhythm of Haldir's hand on his cock sang out discordantly against the pain of opening and stretching, the two screaming separate imperatives in a confusion of hot necessity. Melpomaen's hands darted upward, clamped onto Haldir's shoulders as the elf lowered over him, fingers biting into collarbones.

"Stop. Haldir, please," he hissed through clenched teeth, and immediately Haldir froze, hand paused in mid stroke.

"I'm sorry, Melpomaen, love, I didn't mean…" Melpomaen had never heard panic in Haldir's voice before, but he heard it now, and with a supreme effort of will he opened his eyes. Haldir's eyes were dilated with lust, but the expression he wore was one of guilty horror. "We won't do this if I'm hurting you."

"No. Just… give me a moment, Haldir." He shifted his grip to hold Haldir in place as his lover attempted to pull back. It was not what he'd meant when he'd asked him to stop, but Melpomaen could hear other words, words he himself had spoken when Haldir had first come to his bed. He remembered his own need, his own urgency, and his own lack of control as far as the blond warrior was concerned. And he remembered Haldir's acceptance.

It seemed an eternity that they remained frozen, Haldir sheathed within Melpomaen's body, before the younger elf felt a lessening of both pain and pressure, relaxing enough to make movement possible. Again, soft words fell upon his ears, and when the smooth rhythm of Haldir's hand resumed he found himself moving with it, arching carefully, disorientingly caught between building excitement and apprehension.

And then, at last, he felt Haldir's thickness brushing against something that sparked quicksilver ecstasy, something that made him forget everything except want and need. Melpomaen twisted back against the sheets, raising his hips in complete willingness as he was filled again and again, rocked, propelled beyond concerns that had suddenly been rendered meaningless. There was only heat within and without, and then he was beyond even that, crying out rapturously as he fell into the oblivion of ecstatic release. Then Haldir, too, was falling, driving into him in one last forceful thrust before sinking down into his arms.

The sound of a solid object striking a wall jolted them from their daze. Haldir raised his head from Melpomaen's shoulder and grinned down at his tousled lover.

"We're keeping Rumil awake, love."

Melpomaen closed his eyes tighter. Thought was beginning to seep back through the post-orgasmic daze; along with it came a sense of discomfort that went beyond the steady ache in his lower body. Haldir frowned.

"Are you alright?"

"Yes, fine." He cracked an eyelid, peering up into Haldir's shadowed face. "And I'm sure Rumil has kept you awake a time or two before."

"No," Haldir said absently. "I don't usually allow overnight guests when I'm returning to duty."

Melpomaen stared. "And you don't think he'll be upset?"

"Oh, I'm sure he will, but he'll complain about it to someone else. I make the schedule, you know."

Melpomaen let his eyes drift shut once more, feeling tension and frustration return in the wake of Haldir's comment. Of course, Rumil would talk about this even if Orophin did not. It seemed that Haldir had succeeded in killing two birds with one stone. Melpomaen considered giving voice to this scathing thought, but abruptly closed his mouth before the words could leave his lips. Haldir had asked him to be his, after all.

And he had not refused.

Chapter Text

First light had not yet dawned when Rumil emerged from his room, fully dressed in the greens and grays of the Galadhrim, hair braided and weapons at the ready. Unlike his brothers, he was not by nature an early riser, and, aside from the necessity of it during his tours of duty, he had no great desire to watch the sunrise. His face was set in a scowl as he strode into the small kitchen, and Orophin's presence at the stove did nothing to alleviate his ill temper. He paused in the doorway, resigned to the cheerful greeting he knew awaited him.

"I'm making breakfast," Orophin said, and Rumil cocked an exasperated eyebrow at his brother's back.

"I noticed. Eggs and…?" he asked. It was a given that there would be eggs; Orophin seemed to feel that eggs were a requirement in the morning. It was one of the few things on which he and Haldir concurred.

"Griddle cakes." He glanced back over his shoulder, his expression oddly guarded. "Is Melpomaen still here?"

"Yes, indeed he is," Rumil said through gritted teeth. "And I can tell you exactly what time he and Haldir went to bed, what time they actually fell asleep, what time they woke up later in the night, and when they fell asleep again."

"Oh." Orophin flipped a cake in the skillet, and bowed his head in thought. "Do you know if Haldir is upset?"

"He didn't sound upset at third watch this morning. Why?"

"Well, I know what time they went to bed, too. They were… um, in the living room when I got home." He transferred the cakes to a plate and cracked a couple of eggs over the skillet, attention fixed on his task as if it required complete focus. Rumil frowned ponderously as his brother's words filtered down through his sleep-fogged mind.

"You walked in on them - in the living room," he said, reaching the correct conclusion in a sudden lightening flash of deduction.

"Haldir didn't sound angry…"

"Huh. So that's what they were arguing about for the first half hour."

"They argued?" Orophin's expression was concerned as he carried the plate to the table. "I didn't mean to, Rumil. I mean, that was truly the last thing I expected…"

Rumil sighed as he dropped into a chair and set about buttering the cakes. "You don't need to apologize for walking into your own home."

"But you know how Haldir is."

"Yes, and I think Melpomaen was probably the one upset, not Haldir. Haldir should have had enough sense to take it to his room, and I have a hard time believing that he'd have that kind of lapse in judgment."

Orophin frowned. "Melpomaen seems nice."

"Uh huh." Rumil frowned into his plate as he began shoveling alternating bites of eggs and flat cakes into his mouth. There was half an hour to spare before he would have to depart – not enough time to explain everything to Orophin. Rumil cogitated as he ate, pausing to take a swallow from the cup of juice Orophin set in front of him.

"Too much grease on the griddle, Orophin," he mumbled around a mouthful of food, and Orophin frowned defensively.

"Maybe you put too much butter on them," Orophin suggested.

"I know exactly how much butter I like on my flat cakes, and the butter is not the problem."

"Next time you can make your own breakfast if you'd prefer," Orophin retorted. Rumil said nothing, and Orophin stood irresolutely between table and stove, spatula still in hand. His frown wavered, and at last he dropped the spatula into the wash basin. "Next time I'll try the corn oil."

"That might work. Now, listen, because this is important; Haldir needs guidance."

"Haldir needs guidance," Orophin repeated uncertainly. "Rumil, Haldir has never needed my guidance on anything in his entire life."

"Yes, but this is different. He's going to ruin things with Melpomaen if someone doesn't help him out, and I'm not going to be here to do it. That leaves you."

"You're not saying this just because they argued last night, are you? Everyone argues from time to time; it doesn't mean anything."

"This time it does." Rumil leveled his egg-laden fork at Orophin, expression serious. "Now you're going to need to be aware of a little more than your dog because this is important. This is Haldir's first lover."

"I'd think that it's his business." Orophin wore a mulish expression, and Rumil inwardly groaned. Overall, his youngest brother was of a tractable nature, but when his mind was set he could be difficult to persuade. "You might feel up to nosing into his personal life, but I have no desire to spend the next six months in the outback of nowhere. Do you remember the time I decided to paint his room for him?"

Rumil winced. It had actually been a quite attractive shade of blue, but Haldir had taken exception to it in a rather spectacular way. It had been almost a year after the incident before Orophin had quit calling Haldir "Sir," even at home.

"This is not like that, and I promise that if there are any problems I'll take care of it. Or at least trade duties with you."

"No matter what he comes up with?" Orophin looked skeptical.

"No matter what," Rumil replied. He willed away the sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. Orophin would not have been his first choice had he any other options; though he was hopeful that their efforts would be beneficial, he had no doubts as to how Haldir would feel about their meddling. Their eldest brother had never taken kindly to others doing things for his own good, and Rumil knew it. Still, he had to make the attempt.

"What exactly do I need to be aware of?"

"Well, you know…" He waved his free hand vaguely as he neatly dispatched the last bite of griddlecake. Orophin stared perplexedly at him.

"No, I don't."

"Get him to talk. That's important."

"You must be speaking in jest." Orophin rolled his eyes. "Haldir talks at me. We don't talk with each other."

"Now, that's not true." Rumil wiped his mouth absently with his sleeve, gazing across at his brother with all evidence of sincerity. "Think of how he's been lately. I bet you didn't really think he'd let you keep Peony, now did you?"

"Well, no. Not really." Orophin's face lit up. "And he wasn't angry with me for forgetting my pack in front of the door, either."

"Yes, he's been in a remarkably good mood. Talkative. He came to see me a while back at the White Swan." That was true enough, though Haldir's motivations for the visit hadn't been social. Rumil saw no reason to explain that to Orophin.

"Talkative. Hmm. Did he bring Melpomaen to The Swan?" Orophin asked.

"No, that was actually a little before they became an item."

"I see." Orophin frowned as he took a seat opposite Rumil. "So, what manner of advice do you want me to give him?"

"Well, don't advise, at least not per se… you can't make him feel that you're telling him what he should do."

"Uh huh. This sounds manipulative, Rumil."

Rumil closed his eyes and mentally composed a brief and fervent prayer to the Valar. "I am not asking you to trick Haldir, or to do anything that would be… upsetting. Just talk to him, and use your own best judgment."

"Rumil, that won't work!" Anxiety gave way to alarm. Rumil made an emphatic hushing gesture at him, eyes darting to the archway. Orophin lowered his voice, but his tone still carried an edge of panic. "You can't just expect me to know what to say."

"You don't give yourself enough credit, little brother. You've had lovers before; I daresay you know more about it than he does."

Orophin blushed. "It's different. This is Haldir we're talking about. He's not going to listen to anything I have to say."

"We've already been over this." Rumil rose to his feet. "He will listen, and I have every confidence in you." That was straining matters quite a bit, but he mustered all the sincerity he could manage as he clapped his brother on the shoulder. "You've a talent for seeing through complications, getting down to the basics. I don't think either Haldir or Melpomaen are much good at that."

"But where do I begin?" Orophin nearly wailed, and Rumil produced another manufactured smile.

"Keep him happy. Ask him about the trials and travails of being a leader among the Galadhrim. Ask him to teach you how to do something. Tell him how much you admire the way he handles his bow. Just get him talking. And be subtle."

"Subtle." There was hopeless puzzlement in Orophin's tone. Rumil felt his smile wavering at the edges, but held onto it grimly.

"Yes. And now I have to go. I know you'll manage."

Orophin trailed after him to the door, eyes downcast as if he were being led to the gallows. He'd been looking forward to returning to the city, but now he wished he were still on patrol. There would be no parties or trysts with pretty elf maids for him, not if he had to take care of Haldir, as Rumil wanted him to do. Orophin shivered; the mere idea of taking care of Haldir made him shake in his boots.

"Rumil, maybe I could go instead of you. You're better at these things."

"I would if I could, but you know Haldir would have my head if I switched with you this late." Rumil beamed at him, and Orophin managed a smile that looked more like a grimace. "See you later, Orophin."

"See you, Rumil."

Orophin swallowed hard as his brother strode out the door, leaving him in oppressive silence. Outside he could hear the sound of Rumil's boot heels carrying him down the walkway, away from their talan and their eldest brother's troubled love life. Heaving a sigh, he turned back to the kitchen to wash the breakfast dishes and formulate a plan. Not that any plan of his would make any difference to him, Orophin reflected resentfully. If matters didn't work out with Haldir, he'd be in trouble with Rumil. Either way, he'd almost certainly end up in trouble with Haldir. All around, his choices looked bleak.

Chapter Text

Haldir darted the occasional wary glance across the table at his brother. Dinner that night was pork roast and vegetables at Orophin's suggestion, and the younger elf was putting away his share with much more enthusiasm than Haldir had expected, especially after Rumil's comments on pig fat. The meal was good, but it hardly warranted the praise Orophin was showering upon it between bites of potatoes, carrots, and meat.

"You really should have invited Melpomaen to dinner tonight, Haldir. I bet he would have liked this." Orophin wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and smiled winningly at his brother. Haldir frowned.

"I don't think Melpomaen likes pork."

"Have you asked him? I didn't think I'd like it, but this is really good," Orophin enthused. Haldir blinked, considered replying, and then returned his attention to his own plate. Undeterred, Orophin continued. "Will he be over later?"

"I imagine he will, Orophin," Haldir said, his tone carefully even. "He's been over every other night."

"Good! We could play cards!" Orophin swiped at the pork broth with a piece of buttered bread, and stuffed it unceremoniously into his mouth. Haldir looked away. "Rumil said you both know how to play tarok."

"Have you checked on Peony lately?" Haldir asked, gripping his knife and fork a bit more tightly.

"Yes, I fed her right before we started making dinner. She's fine, Haldir." Orophin beamed. "I'm really glad you're warming up to her enough to worry, though."

"I am not worried about your dog, Orophin," Haldir said to his plate. Orophin's brow creased, but then smoothed just as swiftly.

"It's alright, Haldir; I won't tell anyone that you like Peony. Though I'm not sure why that bothers you. Melpomaen likes her, too."

"I do not like Peony," Haldir said through gritted teeth.

"You don't refer to her as `it' anymore."

Haldir stabbed the chunk of meat on his plate more viciously than was necessary, and shot Orophin a thin smile that was utterly lacking in merriment. "I don't refer to you as `it' either, now do I?"

Orophin's gaze dropped to his plate; his broad smile instantly vanished. For a long moment the only sounds were of flatware tapping on earthenware. Haldir licked his lips, taking a deep breath.

"I'm sorry, Orophin. I didn't mean that."

"Yes, you did," Orophin mumbled as he slid a bit of potato across his plate. "I'm not stupid."

Haldir paused, stifling the first, easy response that rose to his lips. "You're my little brother, and I love you. I shouldn't have said that. Alright?"

"Why don't you want me to play cards with you and Melpomaen?" Orophin's eyes were still fixed on his plate, his long blond hair veiling his face. Haldir noted with some impatience that he'd managed to drag the ends through his pork broth. "You want me to spend the night with the dog."

"I don't want you to spend the night with the dog. It is only that I like to spend time with Melpomaen alone."

Blue eyes flashed through the blonde curtain, and Haldir felt a sudden, fierce stab of guilt as he saw the moisture collecting in them. "What did you think would happen if you'd just said that? That I'd fly over the table and try to kill you with my dinner knife?"

The tone of Orophin's voice was more accusatory than Haldir was accustomed to hearing. That, combined with his unshed tears, finished the job of disarming him. "Why haven't you been off with your friends?" Haldir asked gently. "It's not like you to be home so much, and I only thought of my plans with Melpomaen."

"Because I wanted to spend time with you," Orophin replied.

The meal Haldir had been looking forward to suddenly held all the appeal of a plate of sawdust. "I don't see any reason why we couldn't play a few hands of cards before you go to bed, or whatever," he said gruffly. "Do you still want me to show you that new fletching technique tomorrow?"

Orophin nodded, the light returning to his eyes. Again, his hair danced onto the edge of his plate, and Haldir felt another surge of guilt as he remembered his earlier, irrational impatience. "Good. Now finish your dinner. It's time for me to have a bath."

"Aren't you going to finish your own, Haldir?" Orophin asked.

Haldir rose, dropping his knife and fork onto his plate with a muted clatter. "No, I'm just not that hungry after all. You can have the rest for Peony."

*****

Haldir answered the door almost as soon as Melpomaen finished knocking upon it. After emerging from his bath, casually dressed and with hair unbraided, he'd spent the next hour cleaning the family room with nearly mechanical efficiency. Orophin had offered to help, but had been peremptorily waved away to nervously watch from the dubious safety of the divan. Rumil's clutter was cleared away; tables were washed; shelves were dusted; the threadbare carpet was swept. An afghan was brought out to cover the faded cushions of their mother's rocking chair, and it seemed to Orophin that Haldir spent an inordinate amount of time straightening and tucking it in. Melpomaen had, after all, seen their family room many times before.

It was not by any means customary for Haldir to take such an interest in housework. Orophin's anxiety steadily mounted, and he grimly fought the urge to talk, to simply open his mouth and let whatever happened to cross his mind pour out in a silence-breaking stream. More than anything he wished he were back on patrol, deep in the Golden Wood where orders were precise and expectations high, but blessedly clear. Even the prospect of facing an armored regiment of orcs would have been preferable to this. Orophin knew what to do when faced with such a threat; he had not the foggiest idea of what to do in this too quiet room with his unsettlingly focused eldest brother.

Then Melpomaen had arrived, and the dam broke. Seeing Haldir nearly drop his dust rag in his haste to answer the door had been all that it had taken. He'd commenced babbling the moment Haldir and Melpomaen had parted from their greeting embrace, and hadn't managed to stop yet.

"The rocker was our mother's too, and the divan. Most of our furnishings were hers, actually. I don't remember her, but Haldir does, and he wants to keep all her things. I think those shelves were her mother's before her, weren't they, Haldir?" he asked brightly.

Haldir nodded absently, his gaze briefly flickering over the tops of his cards.

"So, when you move will you divide these things between yourself and your brothers?" Melpomaen asked. His tone was innocuous; the sideways glance he cast Haldir was oddly ambivalent.

"He doesn't have to give me anything," Orophin said before Haldir had a chance to answer. "Since I don't recall her and he does… and, besides, Haldir's not moving." He paused, flicking his tongue nervously across his lips. "Are you?"

"Eventually. And you should have something of our mother's."

"Yes, well, maybe the paper weight? The butterfly one?" He turned back to Melpomaen, smiling effervescently. "It's an amber globe with a butterfly caught in the middle of it."

"That must be lovely." Now it was Melpomaen's turn to barely look up from his hand.

"You can have it if you want it," Haldir said, casting a skittering glance in Melpomaen's direction.

"Thank you, Haldir!" Orophin replied. He realized in despairing distaste that his hands were sweating. "Do you have anything from home in Imladris, Melpomaen?"

"A set of bookends that my father made for me, and a lamp."

"You don't have your own home, as we do, though, do you?"

"No." Another swift glance toward Haldir from beneath lowered lashes. "I'm quartered in the Last Homely House."

"That must be lovely! Still, I'm sure you're looking forward to having a place of your own instead of a room."

Melpomaen shrugged. "Right now it's the most convenient thing. When I'm head archivist I'll have a suite, which is rather more to my liking."

"That will be quite a while, though, won't it?" Orophin asked, and again Melpomaen shrugged in return.

"A few centuries maybe."

"And what do you think of our library here?"

"It's certainly more imposing than Lord Elrond's." Melpomaen tossed a card down, grimacing. "The cards don't seem to agree with me tonight."

"No, they don't." Haldir smiled, but the expression did not reach his eyes. "I daresay I've got the better of you."

"Easy come; easy go."

Tense silence descended. Haldir pushed his unbound tresses back from his face with an impatient scowl; Melpomaen perused his cards with studied intensity. Orophin, who had been losing since they'd begun and didn't care a wit, cleared his throat.

"I've always been glad that we have our own home. Our father built this talan, and Haldir has taken care of it since he and mother left for Valinor."

"You never told me your parents had left Arda, Haldir." Melpomaen looked up from the cards, his attention abruptly engaged.

Hazel eyes met brown eyes, but the older elf said nothing, though his lips parted as if he would speak. Orophin filled the gap, blithely picking up where he'd left off.

"Yes, and Haldir took care of Rumil and me. I was just a baby then, but Haldir didn't want us split up, and he didn't want to lose our home. He'd have been a March Warden a lot sooner if it hadn't been for us. For a long time, he served as a palace guard instead of going on border patrol."

"Is that why you were bothered by the idea that my parents had sent me to Imladris?" Melpomaen asked, eyes still riveted on Haldir. "Because yours had to leave?"

"I hadn't thought about it." Haldir's eyes dropped to his cards, but the dullness had faded from them, replaced by something that almost seemed to be embarrassment. "Orophin, have you had a chance to take Peony her scraps yet?"

It was a dismissal, and this time Orophin understood it. "No. I'll go now, unless you two want to play some more."

"No," Haldir and Melpomaen said almost simultaneously. They exchanged glances, and Melpomaen blushed. "I'm tired," Melpomaen said lamely, and Orophin nodded.

"I'll be back in a bit. See you later." He rose to his feet and turned to the kitchen, his thoughts turning as he considered the sudden shift that had just taken place between Haldir and his lover.

Chapter Text

Haldir was grateful for the narrowness of his bed, the lack of space in which to stretch out or move away. Melpomaen had no choice but to lie in his arms during those tender moments before and after lovemaking, nor could he curl away from Haldir when sleep began to settle. Within the confines of smooth sheets and soft pillows, Haldir did not have to wonder whether his touch was welcome, or how contact might be interpreted.

Since the night Haldir had made love to Melpomaen, his urge to touch had become insistent, almost obsessive. It was almost as if he half-believed Melpomaen to be a ghost, and had to lay hands on him to continually reassure himself of his lover's reality. Haldir did not want ethereality or ghostly gossamer, but solidity, undeniable in shape, weight, and heat. His hands had become butterflies constantly dancing about his lover's form, skating lightly over braids, resting on shoulders, brushing against hips. Each time he touched, Melpomaen was still there, and every time his hands moved away doubt would encroach once more.

"I should have realized that your parents were gone, Haldir. I'm sorry." His cheek rested in the hollow of Haldir's shoulder; his voice was soft, his breath a warm, gentle breeze against Haldir's bare skin. Haldir touched his hair lightly.

"It was a long time ago."

"Does that matter?"

Haldir considered the question, letting his thoughts drift back, not to the day his mother and father had left - he had not actually seen them leave - but rather to the week following that day. It had not been the same as watching Rumil for a few weeks while their parents visited Imladris; not the same at all when the only guardian to survive that ill-fated journey had settled baby Orophin into his arms. The archer had not given Haldir any words of sympathy, he himself had been too grief stricken at the deaths of his comrades to spare much sympathy for anyone.

"No, I don't suppose it does. I still miss them."

"Was it very difficult?" Melpomaen asked, and Haldir shrugged.

"Yes and no. Not the way Orophin thinks, anyway. He's always seemed to feel that he held me back somehow, and that's not how it was. What's a few decades, more or less?"

"A lot to someone his age, or mine," Melpomaen answered. "How old are you, Haldir?"

"One thousand and thirty eight. I'm not exactly ancient, you know." There was amusement in his tone rather than irritation, and Melpomaen dared a small chuckle. Haldir squeezed him in a one-armed hug. "I didn't mind working in the city, but I hated it. Do you understand what I mean?"

"You didn't mind it because it was for your family, but that didn't mean you were happy about it."

"Right." Haldir closed his eyes and sighed softly. "I was only officially off duty for a few months; long enough for Rumil to learn how to take care of Orophin while I was at the palace or on city patrol. That…" he licked his lips, frowning as he searched for the appropriate words, "that was the best and the worst time."

"How so?" Melpomaen asked. He shifted in Haldir's arms, turning his head so that he could see Haldir's face. The older elf's expression was both contemplative and strained, an odd combination that set incongruously on his softly molded face.

"I loved Orophin, but I hated being tied to the talan," he said abruptly. "There were times when he'd have me laughing so hard I could barely remain upright, and times when I thought I'd run screaming into the forest if I had to stay with him for another minute." His jaw tightened, and when he spoke again there was tension in his voice, along with guilt and shame. "There were times when I wished I could give him away. Then, later, I'd be feeding him or playing with him with his rattle and I'd think of that and feel… I'd feel terrible. It was better after Rumil learned to help."

"I can't even imagine that," Melpomaen said, a hint of admiration creeping into his voice. "Being alone with two elflings under such circumstances."

"Well, it wasn't so difficult. I was still entitled to everything I received while on duty; we weren't starving or lacking for anything."

"Still…" Melpomaen shook his head, his hair sliding against Haldir's chest. "Was Rumil good with him? Orophin, I mean."

"Yes, and I daresay he can't wait to marry and have a passel of elflings of his own." Haldir rolled his eyes. "He was easily distracted, though. Those first few weeks after I'd returned to duty I did nothing but worry from the time I left the talan until the time I returned to it."

"I can imagine."

"No, I don't think you can." There was nothing defensive or accusatory in Haldir's tone. He spoke calmly, surely. "It is not in our natures to feel so strongly, or to be so divided in our feelings."

"Really?" Melpomaen said. His brow furrowed as he considered Haldir's words, but when he looked up into the blond elf's face he saw it was once again smooth, serene. "There are many things I feel strongly about, and there have been times when my emotions have worked at cross purposes."

"But you weren't trapped, Melpomaen. You had a choice, whereas I had nothing but the task of reconciling my feelings with my situation. So much of what I felt was wrong; but that, at least, no longer matters."

"You can't help what you feel, Haldir," Melpomaen spoke tentatively. "It seems to me that when you speak of reconciliation, what you mean is that you think you should have been happy with the circumstances, or at least content."

Haldir shrugged. "Well, if that is what I mean, then it's something I never succeeded in. Rumil was always better with Orophin than I, and if matters improved it had more to do with Orophin growing older than with the development of patience on my part."

"You tried," Melpomaen said softly, and Haldir chuckled. This time the sound was low and bitter, and Melpomaen fidgeted uncomfortably at the sound of it.

"It's not those who try who take the gold medallion in the tournaments, but only those who succeed." Haldir glanced down at him, cocked a sarcastic brow. "And, besides, you were not there. How would you know if I tried?"

"Because I know you."

"Aye, that you do. And in more ways than one." The bitterness faded from his expression, leaving behind a slow-spreading smile that had nothing to do with questions of effort and success. Melpomaen returned the smile, but the expression he wore was troubled.

"You imagine yourself to be more unique than you are. I, too, have had opposing feelings on a single matter."

"Moving to Imladris?" Haldir asked. There was a hint of patronization in his tone, but Melpomaen ignored it. "You'd mentioned something about that."

"Yes. And other things."

"What things?" He pulled Melpomaen atop him, gazing into the younger elf's deep brown eyes. "What troubles your peace in the library of Imladris?"

"Does it matter?" Melpomaen responded, tossing Haldir's own words back at him.

Haldir smiled. "If it matters to you, then it matters to me."

"You needn't worry yourself on my account." He lowered himself and pressed his lips to Haldir's effectively cutting off any further words. When at last they parted, Haldir's cheeks were flushed, his eyes closed in an expression of purest bliss. "I only feel one way right at this moment," Melpomaen purred.

"As do I, dear one," Haldir breathed, and again their lips met, doubt temporarily banished once more.

Chapter Text

Orophin had no idea what to do about the situation between his brother and Melpomaen, and he fervently wished that Rumil had never laid this task upon him. It was one thing for Rumil to involve himself in matters that were none of his concern; Rumil had always been the one to offer unsolicited comments, take it upon himself to help where help had not been asked for, or to make other people's affairs his own business. His cheerful, laidback manner allowed him to get away with those things, but Orophin did not have that ability. It seemed to him that the best - and only - thing he could do would be to stand back and wait for the inevitable to happen.

A week had passed since the night he'd managed to get himself invited to play cards with Haldir and Melpomaen. In another week, Lord Elrond's party would be returning to Imladris, and Melpomaen would be going with it. If Haldir and Melpomaen had discussed this directly, Orophin knew nothing of it. It seemed to him that sometimes they danced around the topic; Haldir's indirect questions would be met with oblique answers, and comments that could be interpreted in a variety of ways were made. It was worrisome, to say the least.

Golden light filtered down through the mallorn leaves, brightening the green of Peony's house to the shade of a ripe cooking apple. Peony herself lay in a small black heap by Orophin's feet, legs splayed skyward, head turned, and tongue lolling from the corner of her mouth. Orophin frowned even as he lowered himself to the ground and scratched the puppy's head. She was yet another sign of what was wrong with Haldir, and though he was glad that he'd been allowed to keep her, he was unsettled by the ease with which he'd won that battle – if one could say there'd been a battle at all. Melpomaen had liked Peony; Haldir had buckled.

The elder brother that Orophin knew was often impatient and easy to anger, but he was also stable, reliable, and, most of all, predictable. He was solid, a rock upon which his younger brothers could set their feet or against which they could place their backs: immovable, constant. If their family could be compared to a mallorn, then Haldir would be the roots that lay wide-spread beneath the dark earth: drawing nourishment from the soil, holding the tree in place, strengthening it to withstand the fiercest winds, the harshness of bitter winters, and the heat of summer. Neither rock nor root shifted or swayed, and neither consulted ought but necessity. They did not curry favor or apologize for what they were, and, until recently, neither did Haldir.

There had been no argument over the dog, nor need to muster a defense or summon up crocodile tears, simply because Melpomaen liked Peony. The house Peony lived in featured a hinged roof and aesthetically pleasing style for the same reason. Haldir had taken to cleaning their talan himself, most often in a state of anxious frustration, because of Melpomaen. Because of Melpomaen Haldir restrained his temper as well as and for as long as he could, and for Melpomaen he'd adopted Rumil's style of hair dressing in spite of the fact that loose tresses only accentuated the roundness of his features. Haldir nearly fawned over the dark haired elf, occasionally behaving in a way that was near to sycophantic, and Orophin could only watch in increasing dismay and rising anger.

Melpomaen was darkly lovely; there was no denying that. Orophin might have even developed an interest in him himself had Haldir not been so obviously infatuated with the elf, and if he had not seen the way in which Melpomaen toyed with Haldir's affections. The Imladris elf was at one moment attentive and at the next distant, his expression shifting between distracted worry and complete concentration. Sometimes it seemed to Orophin that he was consciously avoiding Haldir's touch, while at other times he would embrace Haldir with a species of ferocious protectiveness that Orophin could not understand. Haldir needed no one's protection; certainly, he did not need the protection of this diminutive archivist who could not even manage a light bow. Yet, oddly enough, Haldir seemed to think otherwise. He accepted those almost custodial embraces not only willingly, but also eagerly. Outside of their talan, Haldir was as reserved as he'd always been, but within it his body sought Melpomaen's unconsciously, instinctively. Orophin did now know if this inexplicable need was meant to prove something to Melpomaen or to Haldir himself.

Rumil would undoubtedly approach Melpomaen if he was a witness to all of this. Rumil would advise Haldir to ask his lover forthrightly if he planned to stay or go, and whether his feelings were true and lasting, or waxing and waning as the fickle moon. If Orophin were to suggest such a thing, Haldir would almost certainly tell him to mind his own affairs, and be none too gentle in the telling. As for Melpomaen… the dark haired elf was beautiful, and at times he could be pleasant, but at other times he was all frozen intelligence, brittle as a dagger tipped icicle. In a confrontation with Melpomaen, Orophin knew he would find himself flailing for words, lost in the frozen web of logic Melpomaen would be able to weave, unable to find his way to what needed to be said. Or, conversely, he might find himself delivering his speech to a wall that might or might not deign to reply.

Orophin was neither stupid nor simple, though many assumed him to be so. He understood that his brother and Melpomaen were better suited to each other than even they knew. Both were cut off from the world, though in different ways and for different reasons. Both were thought different, and both handled those differences by ignoring them, either by hiding in a library or hiding in the forest. Both were skilled and intelligent in their own ways, and both had been deemed prodigies in their respective fields. Rumil might have used these similarities that did not make a match, but rather described opposing sides of the same coin, to bring them together. Orophin understood emotion far better than he did logic, however, and he had not Rumil's guile. He understood much as Peony understood her master's moods, and, like Peony, he had not the slightest idea as to what he should do, if anything at all.

"Peony, I just don't know how to handle this," he said softly, reaching to scratch her exposed belly. The puppy responded by pedaling her back legs in the air, eliciting a wan smile from the young guardian. "I do not understand this at all."

He continued his efforts, moving upward to scratch beneath her chin, heedless of the stream of drool dripping from the side of her half-open mouth. "They say we are the blessed of the Valar, but I daresay life would be simpler if we were all dogs. We'd be happier, and easier to please; I imagine that were I to find you a large mop and dyed it black, you'd be pleased to spend your life with it, wouldn't you Peony?"

Peony woofed, a high pitched puppy bark that brightened Orophin's smile. He nodded pleasantly, accepting that as a response, and nearly leaped to his feet when a low voice spoke from behind him.

"You're talking to it. Her," Haldir said, and Orophin's face flushed with embarrassment. "Please tell me she doesn't answer you, Orophin."

"No," he muttered down at his hands, "she doesn't. What brings you here?" He raised his gaze slightly, and was surprised to see that Haldir was carrying a plate heavily laden with chicken bones.

"Just getting rid of some garbage." Haldir's expression twisted into something that was almost amusement as Peony, who'd scented the garbage, staggered to her feet and began dancing around his boots. "Here, you miserable beast, I've brought you something." He dumped the bones unceremoniously onto the grass, and Peony, who seemed not in the least disturbed at being addressed as "miserable beast," set to with a will. Haldir was not quite able to hide his smile, and Orophin essayed an uncertain grin. "What is it you do not understand, and why do you want to be a dog?"

"It's nothing important, Haldir." The grin vanished the instant he realized his brother had overheard his conversation with Peony. "Well, it is, but… well, it's just something Rumil said."

"Rumil…" Haldir mused, crossing to Peony's house. He lifted the hinged half of the roof absently, appearing not to notice his youngest brother's fidgeting. "Rumil says a great many things which I do not understand, but I've never let that worry me."

"Until recently, right?" Orophin asked, eyes fixed on the ground. Beside him Peony continued to dine, crunching the bones between her teeth with noisy enthusiasm. Haldir glanced sharply toward him, eyebrow lifted.

"No, I can't say that I've begun worrying about anything he has to say."

"That's not what I meant." He swallowed hard. "I meant that lately you've understood him. Right?"

Orophin could read the impatience in Haldir's expression, and he forced himself to relax, concentrated on loosening the knot in his stomach, the tightness of his clenched fingers. He didn't wait for Haldir to demand that he start making sense, but forged bravely onward. "About Melpomaen."

"Melpomaen." Haldir's voice had taken on a measured quality with which Orophin was familiar. "I have noticed that you've taken a remarkable interest in him. What exactly has Rumil told you?"

"I'm not interested in him," Orophin said in a rush. "I'm interested in you."

"Oh, this gets more and more interesting all the time." Haldir's expression was a blend of amusement and mock lechery, and Orophin's color abruptly shifted from white to scarlet.

"I didn't mean that, either!" he blurted. "I meant you and Melpomaen. I want you to be happy, Haldir."

"And I'm not?" Again he raised an eyebrow, leaning against Peony's house while waving his hand in an expansive gesture. "What's there not to be happy about, Orophin? Here I am with a young lover, a home, my dear brothers, and a dog. I'm ecstatic, Orophin, simply overflowing with joy."

"What are you going to do when he leaves?"

For a long moment there was silence, and Orophin thought that Haldir would not answer him, that he would turn on his heel and return to their talan. At last he did speak, though, and the words he spoke came as no surprise.

"That's none of your concern."

"It is. Because…"

"Because you want me to be happy; I'm sorry, I forgot." The expression in Haldir's eyes was hard and flat. He stared at Peony, and his face set in a grimace as she swallowed the last of the bones and then loped back to frisk at his ankles. "Can't you do something about her?"

"No. You made friends with her when you gave her food." Orophin did not raise his eyes as he spoke, but continued to speak to the grass growing in Haldir's shadow. "Why are you being like this? Why did you come down here?"

"Being like what?" Haldir asked, voice tight. Orophin made no response, and, with a heavy sigh, Haldir continued. "What exactly did Rumil say to you?"

"He just said that he was excited about you and Melpomaen, and that I should try to be more helpful." It was not quite all of the truth, but it was all he intended to share. He watched Haldir's shadow nod its head slowly.

"And being nice apparently includes being underfoot. Well, I am at least relieved to know that Melpomaen is not the source of your fascination. I would have hated to have had to cut off any parts of you."

The words were spoken lightly, and Orophin glanced up long enough to shoot him a glare from behind the golden veil of his hair. "We care about you, Haldir. Much as you seem to hate it, we do."

"I know." Haldir nudged the puppy aside with his foot and moved to stand beside Orophin's seated figure. "And I'm grateful, Orophin. Really." The awkwardness of his tone indicated sincerity, and Orophin blinked in surprise when a large hand settled on his shoulder. "I appreciate it. But… back off a little, Orophin. Matters will go as they will, and there is little that either you or I can do about it. Rather like this beast of yours."

"She's not a beast," Orophin said, and Haldir chuckled, though the sound was lacking in humor.

"No, I suppose she isn't. And I really did come here to give her the scraps. I didn't know you were here."

"I wish Rumil was here," he said glumly, and Haldir settled down beside him.

"Rumil has a way of overstepping himself. Did he charge you with watching out for me, or some other such ridiculousness?" Orophin's surprised glance told Haldir everything he needed to know. The older elf laughed humorlessly, lips twisting into a sneer. "I think I need to have a talk with dear brother Rumil. How did he manage to talk you into such nonsense?"

"He didn't give me much choice."

"I see." He clapped Orophin's back in a reassuring manner. "Well, you can see that I'm doing quite well, and that I'm managing Melpomaen without any troubles."

Orophin saw nothing of the sort, and if any managing was being done, it didn't seem to him that it was his brother doing it. He blinked and nodded uncertainly, and Haldir flashed one of his new, dazzling and disconcerting smiles. "You can give yourself a break. Go visit Renaelle and her friends tonight."

"I'm sorry, Haldir. I just wanted-"

"To help, I know." The smile was beginning to curdle around the edges, and Orophin took his cue. Rising to his feet, he beamed an equally false smile back at his eldest brother.

"I'll see you later tonight or tomorrow, then."

"Yes. Have fun, Orophin."

Orophin let his smile drop the instant his back was to Haldir. His brother's words had given him more to worry about rather than less, and, though his steps were light and quick as he approached the bottom of the stairs, his heart was heavy. Casting one last glance behind him he saw that Peony was once again lying spraddle-legged, this time with Haldir absently scratching her black furred chest.

Chapter Text

Caras Galadhon was not, as Melpomaen had discovered, a city well suited for solitary contemplation unless one chose to remain behind one's bedchamber door. He had been enamored of the city when he had first seen it; its ethereal light and beauty, its gracefulness, its airy openness had called to his heart in a way that no other product of elven hands had done. It had suggested to him a degree of perfection and harmony that rendered material barriers pointless. Caras Galadhon was, he'd thought, a paradise where the angelic hosts had neither the need nor the desire to hide their works or words from anyone.

Soon enough he realized his error. It was that which gave the city its air of ethereal loveliness that was paradoxically suffocating him, that sense of others always within earshot or visual range, that damnable, oppressive openness. Only behind the door of his small guestroom did he feel that he had total, unendangered privacy. In both the village of his birth and in Imladris, it was not so difficult to be completely alone, nor was it considered untoward to want to be. Here, in the city, the desire for solitude was viewed with doubt - whether out of real mistrust or simple pique at attempting to thwart the city's gossips, Melpomaen did not know.

He needed time to think, and he was sick to death of his small, spartanly appointed room. It was not in the nature of elves to want to spend the bulk of their time within four walls, unable to see the out-of-doors, but it was the only refuge that Melpomaen had. The library would not suit; Lord Erestor had begun chasing him out of it at the end of the workday in the misguided belief that Melpomaen was overworking himself. In the forest there was no way of knowing who might be watching and listening, not when the Guardians were as silent as shadows and the common citizenry only a half step behind them in soundless stealth. He had no desire to sit picturesquely by the fountains so that all and sundry could speculate on what or whom might be responsible for the expression of pensive intensity on his fair face. Lady Galadriel's garden was closed to him, and that left… his room.

Melpomaen knew that there was more than a shred of paranoia to his thinking, but he could not manage to restrain his growing discomfort. It was really no wonder that Haldir spent so much time and energy on projecting a constant image, and no wonder that the image he had chosen was so off-putting. Not that doing so helped him much, Melpomaen reflected. Haldir was a curiosity piece to the people of this city in a way that chilled Melpomaen's blood.

Melpomaen frowned, and let his head sink into his hands as he sat on the edge of his narrow bed. Haldir. Everything came back to Haldir, from his own growing sense of claustrophobia to his self- imposed exile in this closet-like chamber. Haldir was the one who could persuade him to leave it, to venture forth into the city projecting his own newly created image of uncaring obliviousness, and Haldir was the reason that he felt such a need to sequester himself to begin with.

The March Warden was not nearly so simple as Melpomaen had thought; he could not be neatly and comfortably placed under the heading "arrogant and unpleasant," or "skilled but surly," or even "prickly yet sensitive." There was more to him than these tidy categories, more than Melpomaen had guessed at, even when the stiff, barely polite older elf had allowed him to see the stack of drawings that depicted not only the world around him, but also the world that he dreamed. Haldir was a puzzle to which Melpomaen had found enough pieces to spark his unwilling interest, one that he knew he should leave alone, but that he couldn't help but want to see complete. Only one week remained in which he could solve the riddle, and it seemed to Melpomaen that though only a few pieces were left, those missing were the crucial ones.

There was not enough room to properly pace about, but Melpomaen rose and attempted it anyway. Three steps from headboard to footboard - five more if he continued to the wall before returning. He forced himself to maintain a steady, sedate rhythm rather than moving frenetically, keeping his head down and his hands at his sides while he considered the problem of Haldir. His lover was a warrior and an artist, though his skill with the bow outstripped his talents with the quill. His appearance was unusual, enough so to have drawn the unwanted attention of elves who thought themselves perfection personified. Though not an orphan, his parents had left him to raise two elflings, one an infant, and he had done so with a degree of grim determination that was both awe inspiring and frightening. He carried himself as if he were far above those whom his duties called him to interact with, and in some ways he was right to do this; Haldir had risen to the prestigious rank of March Warden entirely on his own skills and merits.

It was that last which Melpomaen kept finding himself returning to; if all thoughts led to Haldir, then all thoughts of Haldir seemed to lead inexorably to his position within Lothlorien. Haldir, Melpomaen thought, should not be a March Warden, should never have attained leadership within the ranks. It simply should not have happened; not under the unfriendly scrutiny of so many others, not when he'd been subjected to the loss of his family, not when he'd found himself abruptly in the position of parent rather than elder brother. His attitude and behavior should have gone against him, and Melpomaen knew enough of the ways of the world to know that skill and ability were not all that people were judged by. Haldir's entire past should have worked against him, leaving him an eternal soldier following orders, but never giving them. And that was at best; at worst, Haldir might have ended up a silent, bitter craftsmen or farmer, dourly biding his time until Orophin reached his majority, so that he might set sail to Valinor as his parents had.

That none of those fates had befallen him spoke of a greater strength within him than the physical strength needed to draw a bow or wield a sword. Haldir was not only a member of the Galadhrim, but Captain and March Warden, and that told Melpomaen that he could make friends where necessary, say the right things at the right time, and balance skill and ability with the more slippery grease upon which the wheels of bureaucracy turned. That the elves under him were willing to follow his leadership in spite of slandering tongues, even in spite of their own jokes and sallies, spoke of trust and belief in what he could do, if not of personal friendship or liking. People respected Haldir, even if they did not like him, and that said quite a bit in and of its self. When Haldir put his mind to something, he accomplished it; when something caught his interest, he pursued it.

I've caught his interest . Melpomaen thought, and stopped in his tracks. Why? Because I am the only one who has shown any interest in him, or is there something more? Could there be something more?

It was an uncomfortable train of thought. Melpomaen did not want something more, not in this city, weighed down with a history of hurts both small and large; not in the life of someone who attracted him, but whose past had set snares in his future. Haldir was nothing so poetic as an oyster creating pearls from pain. He was scar tissue layered on scar tissue, straight and proud, arrogantly challenging, almost asking for more so that he could once again prove that he could withstand it. Melpomaen had heard that in some human lands there were fighters known as gladiators, men and women who fought to the death for the entertainment of others. Sometimes he received the impression that this was how Haldir perceived himself, as a sort of gladiator of the mundane whose fight never ended. Melpomaen did not want to feel a matching pride in Haldir for this, but what he wanted and what he felt had become two entirely different things where Haldir was concerned.

It suddenly seemed of the utmost importance to finish the puzzle, to see all the pieces connected, the picture made plain. All that was left were the reasons behind the actions, the knowledge of what drove Haldir, what made him a leader rather than an outcast. Haldir would not want to give him those answers, but Melpomaen was confident that he could badger them out of him. Most people would not be able to do that, but Haldir had given him leverage; he had allowed Melpomaen inside sufficiently enough that he could perceive and take advantage of the weak points in the March Warden's personal armor. He would know the reasons why, and then… well, then he'd have something else to think about.

*****

He stood on the talan's doorstep, grateful that the day was not so hideously hot as the previous days had been, and feeling mild annoyance at the length of time it was taking Haldir to answer the door. It usually opened almost before he'd finished knocking. Maybe Haldir was combing his hair, or rushing to tidy the small family room. Melpomaen smiled complacently; there were some things about this relationship that he'd have no difficulties growing used to. A moment later, his smug expression shifted into surprised confusion when Orophin rather than Haldir opened the door.

"Good day, Melpomaen," Orophin said. Melpomaen frowned; his presence seemed to be causing a great deal more confusion on the part of Haldir's youngest brother than he could understand. "Haldir's out."

"Out?" Melpomaen questioned.

"Out," Orophin repeated. For a moment they stood in silence, Orophin shifting nervously where he stood, Melpomaen staring back at him with one eyebrow inquisitively quirked. "He went to the market," Orophin finally clarified.

"Oh, so he won't be gone long, then?"

"No, I guess not."

The tall blonde gave no sign of moving from his position in the doorway. Normally, Melpomaen would have taken the hint and left, but over the course of the past week he'd learned that bulldozing worked remarkably well on both the eldest and the youngest of the brothers. "May I come in to wait?" he asked, and Orophin jumped back from the threshold as if he'd been burnt.

"Oh, of course! Please come in."

"Thank you, Orophin." He stepped past Orophin, casting him an ingratiating smile, but that seemed to only heighten his nervousness. Remembering Haldir's fit of jealousy on the previous weekend, Melpomaen could not help but wonder what might have been said to Orophin to create such anxiety. He firmly banished the thought from his mind, squelching the ready sparks of frustrated anger within him unmercifully. That was not what he was there for. Choosing the rocking chair as the least potentially problematic seat, he made himself comfortable and set to work putting Orophin at ease. After all, Haldir's youngest brother might be able to provide more of the answers he wanted, and more easily, than Haldir himself could.

It was not as difficult as Melpomaen had thought it might be. Once the young elf had calmed himself enough to take a seat, persuading him to talk was not a problem. Persuading him to cease talking was more of an issue. Orophin sat perched on the edge of the divan rambling on about his dog, his vegetable garden, and his first experience of human cuisine on the previous weekend. Oddly enough, he made almost no mention of his experiences as a Guardian; Melpomaen had expected that to figure highly in the life of a young elf who spent more time away from his home than in it.

"Did you always want to be a guardian?" he finally asked, the words quickly inserted while Orophin paused for breath. Orophin blinked, then shrugged.

"Actually, no. I'd thought to be a gardener when I was an elfling, and to one day work in the royal gardens." He smiled and shook his head. "I changed my mind about that after Haldir gave me my first real bow. He taught me to use it. After the first training session, he said I was a natural with it, and after that I knew I wanted to be an archer."

"Hmm," Melpomaen said. He still had a hard time imagining Orophin as a Guardian of the Golden Wood; even after seeing him in his uniform the idea still wouldn't take hold. "So, you're good with it, then."

"Aye." His cheeks colored and his gaze dropped in a self-deprecatory manner. "Rumil says I'm actually the best, but he's wrong - Haldir is. He's won the archery competition at the autumn festival for the last twenty years."

"Really," Melpomaen commented, "and how high do you usually place in it?"

"Me?" Orophin laughed. "Oh, I don't compete. Not much point, in my opinion."

It was Melpomaen's turn to blink, but, after a brief interior struggle with curiosity, he pressed on toward his original goal. "And what about Haldir? Why did he want to be a Guardian, and to move upward in the ranks?"

"I don't know." Orophin shrugged. "I guess because he likes to be in control. He always used to say that if you want something done properly, you'd best do it yourself."

"And what do the elves under him think of him?"

Orophin squirmed uncomfortably. "You know he's not popular," he finally said, and Melpomaen nodded, waving his hand in a negating gesture.

"Yes, but they follow him anyway. What is it?"

"Haldir is Haldir." Again Orophin's gaze dropped to his hands. "It's different out there; they know his worth, they know what he can do, and they don't question it. Everything is very basic."

"What do you mean, basic?" Melpomaen leaned slightly forward, intensely interested in Orophin's response. It seemed to him that here was the crux of the matter, the final answer that he needed and wanted. Orophin licked his lips, surprised and discomfited to have Melpomaen's full attention.

"Everything depends on trust. Trust in each other; trust in one's leaders. When trust fails, people die." He spread his hands as if presenting a matter of simplicity so obvious as to have never been previously questioned. "Liking doesn't have anything to do with it. Haldir's good."

"Yes, he certainly is." Melpomaen sank back in the rocker, thoughts spinning. --Control and trust.-- He considered the two concepts, moving them about on the foreground of his thoughts until they fit within the puzzle. --Haldir is good because he doesn't trust; he wants to be in control so that he does not have to trust. Others trust him because he's good, and so they rely upon him in spite of their lack of liking. And what does a person who trusts no one and is in control secretly desire?-- Melpomaen swallowed hard, memories of Haldir lying content in his arms abruptly surfacing with crystalline clarity.

"Are you alright, Melpomaen?" Orophin asked, and Melpomaen blinked as the blond elf rose, a worried frown wrinkling his fair brow.

"I'm fine; just thinking," he said.

"Haldir's home," Orophin announced, head cocked to one side. Melpomaen stared as the young elf quickly crossed the room and stood with his hand poised on the door latch. A moment later he, too, heard footsteps on the outdoor walkway, and he also rose to his feet as Orophin opened the door.

"Melpomaen's here to visit," Orophin announced as Haldir strode in, carrying a large mesh bag. His expression was smooth and stoic, set in the public mask that he always seemed to wear outside of the talan, but that expression froze as his gaze flickered between his lover and his youngest brother. For a moment, that perfect facade slipped, revealing something more than volatile anger. Melpomaen read worry and fright there; he saw the struggle within Haldir not as effort made solely to please him, but as a real battle with the desire to trust and the long habit of not trusting anyone at all.

Melpomaen did not wait to see how the struggle would end. Instead he stepped forward, wrapping his arms about Haldir's waist, and rested his head against Haldir's broad chest. For a moment, there was no response, and then strong arms encircled him, holding him tightly in an embrace that was only somewhat encumbered by the bag still held in one large hand.

"I waited for you," Melpomaen murmured against a leather-clad shoulder, and tilted his head back to receive Haldir's kiss. Any other response seemed unimaginable, and though it danced on his lips to tell the older elf that in a week's time he'd be leaving, he could not quite find the proper words with which to frame that announcement. Instead, he allowed himself to be swept off into the kitchen, nearly carried by the force and strength of Haldir's arm as easily as the mesh bag was carried.

Chapter Text

Outside, rain poured down in gray sheets that slashed through mellyrn leaves and beat an incessant staccato rhythm on talan roofs and walkways. Melpomaen stared morosely through Arwen's bedchamber window, his view obscured by the incessant rain. Beyond the glass there was nothing to see but gray on gray, and Haldir would be expecting to see him later. If the rain abated he would go, but he'd already decided that if it persisted Haldir could come to him if he wanted to see him that badly.

"How long is this supposed to continue?" he abruptly asked. Arwen glanced up from her knitting, and shrugged.

"How should I know?"

"I thought maybe your grandmother would have said something about it."

"Contrary to popular belief," Arwen said archly, "Grandmother does not use her mirror to foresee every small detail of life in Lothlorien."

"Hmph," Melpomaen mumbled. He rather wished that Galadriel was freer with her talents; he could think of several matters of pressing importance to him that could be aided by a bit of divinatory guidance. "Why are you so domestic today?"

"There's nothing better to do, and there's nothing wrong with knitting. Do you know how to knit?"

"No," Melpomaen answered, his gaze once again returning to the window.

"Come here, then. I'll show you how to make a chain stitch, and we'll go on from there. You can help me make afghan squares."

"That's alright, Arwen. I'm not that interested."

Again she looked up from her work, this time freezing Melpomaen in place with a forbidding stare. "There's nothing wrong with knitting. Or do you think it's mere women's work, and unworthy of you?"

"I never said that, Arwen, I am just not that interested."

"What if Haldir wanted you to knit?" she asked, needles and yarn forgotten in her lap. Melpomaen sighed.

"Haldir does not want me to knit, trust me."

"But if he did," Arwen pressed, "would you tell the March Warden of Lothlorien to do his own damned knitting?"

"Well, why not?" he said, rolling onto his stomach and propping his chin in his hands. "It's not as if it's mere women's work and unworthy of him."

Arwen glared, but the slight twitching at the corner of her lips gave her away. She bowed her head swiftly to conceal her smile, but was unable to completely stifle a small burst of giggles. "I'm trying to picture Haldir knitting, and I really can't imagine it."

"Oh, if I asked him to he'd do it," Melpomaen said, an edge of frustration creeping into his voice. "I'd be buried under an avalanche of sweaters, scarves, hats, gloves, and mittens, all with the symbol of the Galadhrim worked into them for the benefit of anyone who might want to know from where all my fine new garments came."

He'd expected Arwen to laugh, but, instead, she frowned. "Are you and Haldir having problems?"

"No, not problems, per se…" He pushed himself back upright and crossed his legs, settling his elbows on his knees and his chin on interlocked fingers. "What makes you think we're having problems?"

"Usually a person who is in love does not mock his lover behind his back."

"I'm not mocking him," Melpomaen said, rolling his eyes. "It's just that he can be… a little stifling."

"Stifling," Arwen repeated. "What do you mean, ‘stifling'?"

Melpomaen swept a hand back over his hair, skewing his braids, and scowled as he tried to find the right words. It was difficult to describe the behaviors that left him so uncomfortable and uncertain. Haldir was no longer himself; he reminded Melpomaen of an elfling tiptoeing around a larger bully. It was not a comparison that he appreciated, either for its revelation of Haldir's vulnerabilities, or for its portrayal of himself. Orophin's Haldir, who needed to be in control, was far preferable to this new Haldir, who carefully avoided anything that might lead to hearing anything he didn't want to hear, and who treated Melpomaen as if he were all that mattered.

"Arwen, have you ever been courted by an elf who tried to do and say only what he thought you wanted to hear and only what he thought you wanted to do? Someone who seemed perfectly willing to change anything just to have a few moments of your time?"

"Yes, once or twice." She wrinkled her nose. "I cannot imagine Haldir behaving so."

"I don't know what to do." Melpomaen's gaze dropped to the coverlet, and he began picking idly at the peach colored threads.

"A while back he asked me if I would ask Grandfather if you could remain here with me after Father returns home," Arwen said quietly, and Melpomaen glanced up sharply.

"He did?" His lips tightened briefly. "He never told me that."

"I refused. I told him that if he wanted you to stay, he would have to ask you himself."

"He hasn't done that, either." Melpomaen took a deep breath. "This has become so… involved."

"Tell me about it," Arwen said. "I don't know if I can help, but sometimes it does a person good just to speak of the matters that are troubling them."

"I suppose." Melpomaen looked up from the coverlet, briefly meeting Arwen's dark eyed gaze. "Well, to begin with, we've done more than kissed."

"Really?" Arwen's eyes widened, and she leaned forward expectantly, her ball of yarn rolling forward to teeter precariously on her knees. Again Melpomaen looked up, this time blinking in startled embarrassment at her avid interest. "You did? What was it like? Was it your first time? Did it hurt? Is he-"

"Arwen!" Melpomaen exclaimed. "There are some things you don't need to know!"

"Well, I am going to marry one day, and you wouldn't want me to be totally ignorant on my wedding night."

"It's different with a maiden," Melpomaen said evasively. Arwen rolled her eyes.

"I know that; I'm not a complete dunce. But still," Arwen shifted, lowering her voice as she leaned yet further forward. "Haldir's such a… large elf. Is he-"

"No! I'm not telling you that. I thought you wanted to listen to me." Melpomaen's cheeks were scarlet. Arwen sank back into her chair, pouting disappointedly, but apparently willing to let the topic go.

"Yes, I'm sorry." She pulled her yarn back to safer ground, and studied her half-finished afghan square with undue intensity. "But… did it hurt?"

Melpomaen sighed. "Arwen, if you want to know about… lovemaking… well, you need to talk to your mother, not me. Alright?" Arwen blushed. Melpomaen fidgeted, and finally gave in. "Alright, then! The first time it did, but not after that, and, though I've never been with a female, I've read that it's the same way for them the first time. Are you satisfied?"

"No, but I guess that's good enough." She darted a glance up from her square. "I'm sorry I interrupted. Please go on."

Melpomaen paused before resuming his story, making sure there would be no further outbursts. Arwen had rearranged her features into an expression of sincere interest that was somewhat unnerving, but she seemed to be seriously trying. He took a deep breath and continued.

"The first time was an accident." Arwen frowned, and he hurriedly tried to explain himself. "It was unexpected, I mean. We were in my room, and neither of us had a clue what to say to the other, and I was curious, and one thing just led to another…"

Arwen nodded, smiling with dreamy enthusiasm. "You were overcome by his strength and unique beauty."

"No." Melpomaen cleared his throat, briefly sidetracked by her description of Haldir. "You think he's beautiful?"

Arwen shrugged. "He doesn't look quite like most elves, but he's not unattractive. Father doesn't look completely elvish, either. Cirdan has a beard." She looked genuinely surprised by his question. "I've always rather liked Haldir's build. I feel safe when I'm with him." Her eyes briefly narrowed. "Don't you dare tell anyone I said that, though."

"Not a word." Melpomaen smiled. No, it would not do for anyone to know that the outwardly fearless princess ever felt the need of someone else to keep her safe. "At any rate, though, it had more to do with his willingness and my… um, curiosity. I'd never, and I knew he'd let me if I wanted him-"

"He let you?" Arwen blinked, struggling to hold back another burst of giggles. "You mean Haldir... he… you…" she stammered, cheeks pink with merriment. At last she gave up, directing her gaze downward to hide her amused smile behind the veil of her hair. Melpomaen glared.

"Yes, and what is so funny about that?"

"Nothing, Melpomaen," she mumbled, and took a deep breath, bringing herself back under control once more. "So, you're saying that the first time was mere physical attraction."

"I guess." It wasn't quite as embarrassing to admit that to her as he'd thought it would be, not after she'd admitted that she found Haldir's appearance striking. "I thought that was all there was going to be, but… well, I do like him. And he… he thinks he's in love with me."

"Thinks?" Arwen repeated. "You don't think he is in love? Or is it that you're not in love with him?" Now her tone was serious. Melpomaen closed his eyes, and took another deep breath.

"I don't know, Arwen. In some ways he's so damned vulnerable, and I don't want to hurt his feelings. But…" he lifted his hands in a gesture of helplessness. "I've made a mess of things."

"How so?" she asked, folding her hands atop her square.

"He's jealous, for one thing. When Orophin came home he practically snarled at his brother any time he came close to me. And, he's so careful around me, like he's reviewing everything he says and does in advance to make sure that he does nothing of which I wouldn't approve. And, when he finally loses his temper, or let's out some of what he's really feeling, he apologizes for it. I'm not sure who he is, Arwen, just that he's lonely, and he wants me to stay with him."

"And what have you been doing? You still haven't said what you've done to make a mess of things."

Melpomaen licked his suddenly dry lips. On the inside his feelings were mixed, dread and desire, the urge to care for and the urge to run away. There were no words to describe the way he felt when those hazel eyes met his own, when he looked into them and saw the silent pleading that lay behind Haldir's facade of cold indifference. Haldir would never say the words that his eyes spoke so eloquently, and when Melpomaen saw those raw, voiceless emotions he could not bring himself to speak, either. He imagined hazel light shattering, could envision Haldir turning his back on him, speechlessly walking away to finish crumbling in silent solitude. When Melpomaen thought of that, he felt as if he would shatter, too.

"I can't tell him I'm leaving. I just… can't."

Arwen's gaze was puzzled. "But he knows you're leaving. It's no secret."

"Yes, and I mention it sometimes, indirectly." He stared back down at the coverlet. "I talk about what I want to do in Imladris, about the library, about Lord Erestor saying that one day I might be a counselor. But, it's like he's hoping that I'll change my mind, and I can't tell him I won't. I feel like I'm dying when I think about saying that to him." He looked at her pleadingly, and Arwen frowned, eyebrows drawing together in an expression of mixed worry and irritation.

"And you think it will hurt less to go on like this right up until the night of your departure? Or were you planning on simply leaving without bothering to give him any notice at all?"

"No, no, Arwen." The thought had occurred to him, but it was one that he'd shoved away as too shameful to entertain, even in passing. "I'm going to tell him, but I've let it go for so long."

"If you don't love him, why is this bothering you so much?" she asked. Melpomaen offered her a look of blank confusion.

"I do not love you in that way, either, but I wouldn't do something to intentionally hurt you."

Arwen's gaze turned impatient. "We are but friends, and I would not ask you to change your lifestyle based on that. I daresay there is more wrong then you've admitted to if you've been lying with Haldir, but consider him no more than a friend." Her tone was sharp, and there was more than a little of Galadriel's authority in her voice when she continued. "It is not in the nature of our people to take lovers lightly."

"Does it look to you as if I'm utterly heedless of Haldir's feelings?"

"As a matter of fact, yes, it does." She held up a hand, waving him to silence as she continued. "It sounds to me as if you do not want to speak to him of this because you want to spare your own feelings. It's your own guilt that is eating at you; if you thought this could be done without causing any pain, you would do it in a heart beat."

Melpomaen opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it again. When at last he spoke, his voice was low and barely audible. "If it would cause no one pain, it would not be an issue. It's the pain that I fear; his pain, that he doesn't talk about, but which I see in his eyes."

"I've never thought you a coward, Melpomaen," Arwen said softly. "I never thought you would run from complications, or hide from your own feelings."

"Dammit, Arwen, it could not work between us! Am I supposed to forget about the library, forget about the things Lord Erestor has told me, forsake the chance of advancement into your father's advisory staff because I feel sorry for Haldir?"

"He doesn't need your pity," Arwen said sharply, and Melpomaen gritted his teeth, once more dragging a hand through his hair.

"No, but that's what I feel sometimes. You should see the looks that are cast our way when we are outside of his talan. We're a joke, Arwen, not a couple to be complimented and commented on."

"So, then what you are saying is that you care for him enough to lie with him, and enough to dread telling him you must return to Imladris to pursue your ambitions and perhaps to find a more suitable, acceptable lover. One with fewer complications; one with as well as of whom you don't have to be careful." Her words were lightly laced with sarcasm, and Melpomaen flinched.

"You make me sound cold, Arwen, but it's not like that. I've wanted to be in the position I'm in now since I was old enough to know that there was more in this world than terraced potatoes and rows of carrots to hoe. Why am I the one who should have to give that up?"

"My father's library is not the only one in Arda," she said shortly. Melpomaen scowled.

"No, but his is the one that feels like home to me. And what's so wonderful about this place where one can't stick one's nose out-of-doors without being commented on by half the population? Why should I have to give up my dream to be paraded before all of Caras Galadhon as Haldir's prize?"

"Who cares what anyone else thinks!" Arwen said, her tone suddenly fierce. Once more she leaned forward, her face twisted in an unaccustomed expression of anger. "That's what this really comes down to, isn't it? Do you think I do not know what they say of me? Do I hide in the royal talan, not daring to step outside for fear of the wagging tongues of others?"

Melpomaen blinked, flinching away from her sudden outburst. It was the first time Arwen had ever spoken directly of the nonsense that was spoken of her and her brothers, the first time she had shown anything but amusement at the tales told by the elves of her grandparent's city. "It is different…" he began, but trailed off under the heat of her glare.

"It is not different. They call father half-human, and they use the same words for my brothers and me, and never mind that what human blood we carry is so watered down as to be nearly insignificant. They talk, and they laugh, but we do not hide as you are hiding, Melpomaen; we don't make up reasons why we cannot be who we are. Will you become one of them? You don't want to deal with Haldir; perhaps you won't be wanting to be seen with me, either."

"Arwen, I will always stand by you." His face had gone deathly white, and he held his hands tightly clenched to keep them from shaking.

"Will you? Then why can you not even bring yourself to talk to Haldir about this? Why can you not take your mind from your own feelings, not even for a few moments?"

"I'm afraid!" Melpomaen blurted. The look Arwen cast him was completely lacking in sympathy.

"Afraid," she repeated disdainfully. "I have something to say to you that might come as a surprise. Sometimes I'm afraid. Sometimes my brothers are afraid. You know that Haldir is afraid. You can't use that as an excuse forever, though. Somewhere down the line you have to quit making excuses, decide what you want, and act."

"I'm going to tell him tonight," Melpomaen said as he stared down at his whitened knuckles. "I'm going to tell him that I cannot remain here."

"Do that, then," Arwen said coldly, "but do make sure you know why your are telling him that." She rose from her seat, dropping her yarn, needles, and squares into the basket beside the chair as she did so. "And now I think you'd better go. You'll want the time to do some thinking, I imagine."

She had not said it outright, but Melpomaen knew when he was being told to leave. He said nothing as he unfolded himself from the foot of her bed and rose to his feet. Arwen did not escort him to her chamber door, and he paused briefly as he stood, hand poised on the door latch.

"It's not the way you think it is, Arwen."

"What I think it is doesn't matter," she replied. "Good day and farewell, Melpomaen."

"I'll see you later," he said, opening the door and stepping out. She gave him no answer, and he crossed the empty sitting room beyond her bedchamber alone, thoughts whirling as he made his way to the outer hall.

Chapter Text

Haldir had not expected Melpomaen to come that night, not through the pouring rain and fierce winds that rocked the suspended walkways in a manner that seemed precarious to those unaccustomed to them. He had not given the matter much thought, but had planned to make the trip to the royal talan before sundown in order to take advantage of what little light there was on this gray and dismal day. Orophin had brought Peony up, not wanting to leave her alone in her house through the storm, and Haldir had accepted that, anticipating being absent from the talan during her stay. He'd been preparing to leave when he'd heard the knock at the door, and had been surprised and gratified to find Melpomaen standing there, soaked to the skin and looking thoroughly miserable.

The dark-haired elf had refused a change of clothes, but gladly accepted the offer of a towel. Instead of dripping on the divan, he'd taken a seat on the floor beside an equally wet Peony, unmindful of the odor of wet dog and the loose fur that was now clinging to his green leggings. Haldir had brought him a mug of hot cider, and then he too had settled onto the floor with his lover and his brother's animal.

"Are you sure you don't want something else to wear?" he asked, and Melpomaen shook his head. Strands of wet hair stuck to his cheeks, and he brushed them aside with an irritated scowl.

"No, I'm fine, Haldir." Even white teeth briefly appeared as he bit his lower lip. Haldir frowned, a familiar feeling of giddy nervousness twisting his stomach.

"Is something wrong?" he asked carefully, uncertain as to whether he wanted to hear Melpomaen's answer. There was only one thing that he could think of that might be bothering Melpomaen; a time and a date that Haldir did not want to think about.

"Haldir," Melpomaen said. His eyes darted to the floor, then back to meet Haldir's gaze. "Haldir, we're going to be going home soon, and I'm going to miss you."

Haldir had known it was coming. He'd known it was coming since the moment he'd seen Lord Elrond's entourage at the edge of the Golden Wood, known it since the first night he'd spent in Melpomaen's arms. They had come from Imladris; they would return to Imladris. It was as simple and obvious as the rising and setting of the sun, the one a perfect predictor of the other. Nevertheless, Haldir felt himself freeze, felt the uneasiness at the pit of his stomach form into a hard, desperate knot.

"Must you?" he asked, numb lips moving as if of their own accord. He could hear his voice, but it seemed to him as if it was some other elf speaking, certainly not himself. Haldir of ‘Lorien would not ask such a thing. Still, the voice was his, and so it had to be him. "Could you not remain yet a while longer?"

"No," Melpomaen said softly. "Haldir, you must understand. My work is in Imladris, as are my friends, and my family is near. I can not forsake what I have now."

"Of course not," he replied. His tone was even. There was no hint of harshness to give away his feelings, and he mentally congratulated himself even as he blinked hard against an unaccustomed stinging in his eyes. "You want to be an archivist there."

"Yes, and other things. You understand, don't you?"

"Aye. I am sworn to my duty, as well." It was different, and both of them knew it. Haldir had sworn an oath to defend and protect Lothlorien; his work was not mere duty or the following of a whim, but the ongoing fulfillment of a vow. If Melpomaen had sworn an oath to Lord Elrond, he had never spoken of it.

"I do care about you, Haldir. A great deal."

"I know." He rose abruptly to his feet. "Well, I didn't have a chance to clear the talan tonight. I wasn't expecting you to come through the rain." There was not much to clear, but Haldir began picking up the few odd dishes Orophin had left out, then swiftly began shelving the books lying on a table beside the rocker. Melpomaen stared, eyes round and wide as Haldir hurried about the room. It didn't matter. Haldir knew he was behaving oddly, but the thought of sitting back down across from his soaking wet, beautiful, leaving lover was more than Haldir could take.

"Do you want to stay the night?" he asked, his back turned as he set a small yarn doll back in its place on a high shelf. Behind him, Melpomaen cleared his throat.

"It's up to you, Haldir. Do you want me to?"

He didn't know if he did or not. Melpomaen was leaving. Everything he'd done and said had not succeeded in changing Melpomaen's mind. He thought of all the times he'd held his temper, all the careful words, the effort he had made for Melpomaen. Time had grown shorter and shorter; Melpomaen had said nothing and neither had he, and he'd thought that perhaps that meant something. Maybe, just maybe, the lovely, dark-haired elf truly did love him. And now…

"It doesn't matter to me," he said flatly.

"Maybe it would be better if I returned," Melpomaen said uncomfortably.

Haldir's shoulders slumped, but his voice did not waver. "That's why you didn't want a change of clothes."

"I didn't know what you would say, Haldir. I do love you."

"But you're leaving." He began to say something more, than stopped, reconsidered his words and then began again. "I'm sorry, Melpomaen. You never gave me reason to think you would do otherwise. I merely hoped that you might."

"I'm sorry." Melpomaen's voice was low and gentle, coming from directly behind Haldir. The taller elf turned, and was surprised to find Melpomaen standing close behind him. He had not heard him rise, nor had he heard his approaching footsteps. Inwardly he berated himself for his inattention. "Haldir…" his eyes were deep, eloquent with pain, and Haldir could not help himself. He pulled the bedraggled elf into his embrace, held him tightly, forcing down the knot that had formed in his throat even as he refused to loose his hold.

"I love you, Melpomaen," he whispered into wet, wind-tousled hair, and he thought he heard a small sob in reply. "I understand."

"Why do you love me?" Melpomaen mumbled into the taller elf's shoulder, and Haldir shrugged, helpless to translate feelings into words. At last Melpomaen pulled away from him, eyes downcast, hands clasped before him. "Do you want me to stay tonight?"

"No." Haldir's voice was thick with unvoiced feeling. "I don't think that would be such a good idea. I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Melpomaen whispered. He turned toward the door. "I do love you."

"Get out." There was no heat in his words, only hurt and the desire to finish swiftly what could not be salvaged. "I don't want to hear anymore."

"Alright." Melpomaen's hand rested on the door latch. He turned back to face Haldir, his expression one of pure misery. "I didn't know what to do."

"Fine. Good night, Melpomaen."

The younger elf stood as if frozen, and at last it was Haldir who left, turning his back on Melpomaen's slender form and walking, head down, into the shadowed kitchen archway and thence to his chambers. A few moments later he heard the snick of the door latch, and he sank down onto his bed, burying his face in his hands.

*****

There was not so much as a single candle burning when Orophin returned to the talan, and he nearly tripped over Peony as he carefully crossed the darkened family room. He frowned as he rounded the corner to his room. The hour was not that late, and Haldir almost always left a light for him; indeed, he was surprised that Haldir was not still awake. There was no sound of quiet voices, nor any of the other sounds that Orophin had grown accustomed to hearing when Melpomaen stayed the night. A quick glance back into the family room revealed Haldir's cloak, still hanging on its hook by the door. His brother was home, and for some reason he was alone, either asleep or lying awake in the dark.

Orophin paused in the archway, for the first time consciously trying to hear what might be going on beyond his brother's door. His eyes widened as he listened. There was a sound, faint but there, inaudible unless one was straining to hear it. Haldir was crying. Orophin had never in his life seen or heard Haldir cry, and his own heart ached at the unfamiliar sound.

For a long moment, he hovered in the short hall, caught between knocking on Haldir's door and slipping past to his own room. The sound of those low, choked sobs frightened him, left him feeling unsure, unbalanced, lost. Haldir was not supposed to cry. Haldir was the strong one, the one who had comforted him when he had cried, the one who did not need comfort. Orophin wavered, started to turn away from the forbidding blankness of his brother's door and the sounds behind it, and then abruptly turned back. Swiftly, before he could lose his nerve, he rapped his knuckles against the smooth wood.

Silence. Orophin felt tears prick at his own eyes as he strained to hear. There was nothing, no sound at all, and he felt a sudden jolt of inexplicable fear. Once more he rapped at the door, listening. Still nothing, and then the sound of renewed sobs, lower than before and nearly inaudible.

"Haldir?" he called. "Haldir, please, are you alright?" He berated himself for the frightened quality of his voice, but there still was no answer. He knocked again, louder this time, more insistent. "Haldir?"

"I'm fine, dammit. Go away." It sounded like Haldir, impatient and at the edge of his temper, but there was a faintly watery quality to his words that made Orophin's stomach twist into an uncomfortable knot. He let his hand fall to the door latch, and, though he'd never entered either of his brothers' rooms without leave, he turned it and pushed the door carefully open.

The sight that met his eyes caused his heart to rise into his throat. Haldir sat on the edge of his bed, head bowed, golden hair shimmering in the moon's light. His shoulders were slumped and trembling, and he did not look up as Orophin stepped tentatively into the room.

"I said I'm fine!" he snarled. "Go feed your dog. Or bathe her. Or something."

"You're not fine," Orophin said, his own voice trembling. "You're crying, Haldir." He crossed the room and, greatly daring, sat down beside him. "What happened?"

"It doesn't matter."

"It does." He wrapped an arm tentatively around his brother's waist. Haldir did not give in to the embrace, but neither did he pull away from it. "When I was an elfling, you used to sit with me when I cried."

"Do I look like an elfling?" Haldir snapped. He still had not raised his head, and, though he had brought his voice under control, his shoulders still shook with silent sobs.

"No. But I love you, Haldir," he whispered, and Haldir abruptly stiffened, twisting away from his brother's gentle hold. Fresh tears began to flow, and this time the flood of emotion was more than he could hold back. Orophin blinked, utterly unprepared for his brother's reaction to his simple declaration of caring. He didn't think, but immediately acted, sliding over to hold his brother in his arms just as he had once been held, and though Haldir resisted at first, he finally allowed the warm contact. Cold refusal became almost desperate neediness, and Orophin found himself caught in his brother's steel grip, helplessly stroking Haldir's broad back as the older elf wept against his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Haldir, it's alright," he soothed. "Please stop crying."

"Melpomaen's leaving," Haldir said, the words somewhat muffled. "I knew he would be, but…"

"I know. You wanted him to stay. I'm so sorry I couldn't help you, Haldir, so sorry," Orophin said. "I didn't know what to do."

"It's not your fault, Orophin. It's me." He inhaled deeply, at last raising his head. Orophin reached to push his loose tresses back behind his ears, and was appalled to find him red eyed, cheeks flushed and tear stained. He felt a moment of nearly nauseating vertigo as he looked at Haldir - saw the bloodshot eyes and trembling lips. This was not the way things were supposed to be, and he felt a brief, vicious stab of hatred toward Melpomaen as he gently caressed his brother's cheek.

"It's not you; it's him. He should be proud to stay here with you." Haldir did not dignify that statement with a reply, and Orophin sighed, tongue darting out to touch his upper lip. "You're the best, Haldir; I know because you've told me so. All the Galadhrim are jealous of you, and you're Lady Arwen's best friend. You took care of me and Rumil, and you do everything better than everyone else."

Haldir's expression twisted into a sneer at his brother's words. "Not everything, it seems. You think too much of me, Orophin."

"I don't," his brother replied. "I couldn't. There will be someone else for you, I know there will be."

"And what if I don't want anyone else?"

To that, Orophin had no answer. "Do you want me to stay with you?" he asked instead, and again he saw a flash of pain in Haldir's eyes, bright and jagged edged. No answer came, but Orophin had not been expecting one. Silence was the closest his eldest brother would come to admitting need, and Orophin accepted that silence without comment. Kicking off his boots, he pulled Haldir back against the coverlet and lay down beside him, enfolding him in his arms. It felt wrong to be holding Haldir instead of being held, but he forced back that shamefully selfish thought, and gently kissed Haldir's cheek.

"Thank you, Orophin. I'm sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry for. You can sleep now. I won't leave."

"I know you won't."

No further words were spoken, and the elder lay in the embrace of the younger, quietly shattered and seemingly held together only by the strength of Orophin's arms.

Chapter Text

Melpomaen had thought that his desperate anxiety would end once he'd reached a decision, that with the topic of his departure broached he would be able to find peace. There was no peace to be found, however, no settling of his spirit in the wake of voicing his foreordained choice. He had imagined that what had happened between himself and Haldir could be compartmentalized; it would be an odd conflict existing as its own self-contained unit in the middle of his carefully plotted progress between the small farm tucked in the foothills of the Misty Mountains and the seat on the council he had not yet attained. Instead, his mind refused to draw that harsh, solid black line separating Lothlorien from his life before and after his visit there. Even in his thoughts, Haldir was stubborn, refusing to remain where Melpomaen wanted him to stay, crossing that imaginary line with sure steps and insisting upon standing straight and proud in the middle of his path.

They had not spoken since the rainy night upon which Melpomaen had firmly stated his intentions. Melpomaen had wanted to speak to him, wanted to somehow soften the blow, but, realistically, he knew there was no way to do so. Haldir had not come to him, and he had not expected it. Haldir's pride would not allow for that, and Melpomaen's fears would not permit him to go to Haldir. Even so, he felt a constant ache that was more spiritual than physical, a slippery feeling in the pit of his stomach, a whispering in his thoughts that told him he'd made a mistake. Cold logic could not banish that whispering, and, instead of finding peace, Melpomaen felt more divided than he had been before his last conversation with Haldir.

From his position in the wedge formation, he could catch only an occasional glimpse of silver blond hair, or a momentary view of broad shoulders, quiver, white fletched arrows, and bow. As on their arrival, Haldir had been appointed the task of point guard for their departure, and, as then, he looked neither right nor left, but kept his back straight and eyes forward. There was no threat so close to the city, and Melpomaen understood that, in addition to the Imladris guards fanned out about their party, there were also Galadhrim moving above them, hidden by the sheltering mellyrn. Haldir did not need to cast about him for any danger; his presence was honorary, a token of respect paid to Lord Elrond by the Lord and Lady of the Wood. Melpomaen wished, just this once, that Lord Celeborn had less of an interest in forms and propriety, and that the silent, invisible guardians in the trees might have been deemed sufficient.

The sun was setting. Soon, Melpomaen knew, Haldir would turn to signal a halt to the day's travel. Melpomaen would gratefully dismount his horse, secretly yearning for the saddle, bridle, and reins that humans used as he arranged his bedroll beside Erestor's, and then settled by the fire for the evening meal. Haldir would vanish into the trees. Haldir was, of course, perfectly welcome to the fire and the provisions shared between the Imladris elves and even some of the Galadhrim, who would emerge from their hidden positions for a hot meal and conversation before vanishing once again. Melpomaen knew that it was his presence that kept Haldir away, that by seating himself in the circle of flame-lit faces, conversation, and merry laughter, he was driving the other elf away.

Melpomaen was jolted out of his guilt-ridden thoughts as his horse abruptly halted, coming to a stop as the riders about him halted, rather than at his rider's direction. Melpomaen glanced up sharply, eyes moving swiftly from his horse's mane to Haldir's face, visible only in stuttering, fractured moments as the elves between them moved, preparing to dismount. Haldir did not seek him out as he glanced over the group; his gaze seemed to pass over and through Melpomaen as if the younger elf were not even there. Melpomaen hastily ducked his head, beginning the careful business of removing himself from his horse's back with as much grace as he could muster.

If you had done things differently, Haldir would be helping you now A traitorous voice whispered in his mind, and Melpomaen shoved the thought rudely away. He did not want things to have been done differently; his home was Imladris. Haldir was too possessive, too insecure, too-

Strong? The interior dissenter whispered again, and, this time, Melpomaen could not hold back the insidious stream of doubts, paradoxical phantoms of what might have been creeping forward, now that it was too late to change his mind. You solved the puzzle; you know the truth. He is strong enough to have continued in the face of suspicion and unfounded gossip; he raised his brothers alone; he succeeded when all the odds were against him. There is so much more to him than his doubts and fears, so much more that you could have known. Still might know...

"I want to further myself in the employ of Lord Elrond, live in Imladris," he muttered under his breath. Erestor glanced up from untying his bedroll, quizzically raising an eyebrow.

"Did you say something, Melpomaen?"

"No; I'm sorry, my lord - just thinking out loud."

"'Tis a sign of a creative mind, or so I've heard," the advisor said. The expression he wore was one of sympathy, and Melpomaen stiffened against it. How much did Erestor know, how much of what Melpomaen deemed his private business had been brought to the ears of Lord Elrond's chief advisor? It seemed that in Caras Galadhon there was no such thing as private business. "Do you need any assistance?"

"No." Melpomaen responded more shortly than was necessary as he worked the clasps holding his own travel pack and bedroll tightly bound to the horse's back. Erestor said nothing, but remained where he was, a hint of reproof evident in the set of his mouth and the slight narrowing of his eyes. "I'm sorry, my lord," Melpomaen said at last. "I am weary and sore. I think I shall take my rest as soon as camp has been set."

"Have you eaten?" Erestor asked. Most of the concern had left his voice, and Melpomaen felt contradictorily bereft at the shift. Cursing himself silently, he finally tugged his pack and bedding loose. Both landed in an untidy heap at his feet, and he forced himself to meet Erestor's cool, dark gaze. The advisor did not volunteer aide again, and Melpomaen answered his question through a tight, false smile.

"I had some lembas, not too long ago."

"That is well, then. And, since I see you have your business in order…" his eyes flicked to the bundles lying on the ground, and Melpomaen's cheeks reddened dully. "I will see to my own. Pleasant dreams, Melpomaen."

The younger elf muttered a barely polite response, but Erestor had already turned away, carrying his own neatly arranged travel necessities with him.

*****

Haldir lay prone on a wide mallorn bough above the Imladris elves' encampment, his gaze appearing to take in the entirety of the scene below him. It was not apparent that his eyes kept returning to the brown haired elf who had taken to the warmth of his bedroll without benefit of supper; any of his fellow Galadhrim who might be watching would see only their March Warden surveying his charges. That most of them knew he had more reasons than those of duty to take such an interest in this mission was something on which he chose not to dwell.

For the past four days, he'd felt Melpomaen's gaze upon him, dark eyes like arrows piercing his back, even through the soft wall of fellow travelers and Imladris fighters. Tomorrow would be the last of it, the last day of feeling the heat of that gaze lying heavily upon him, impaling him in spirit as surely as Melpomaen had impaled his flesh. This would be the last night upon which he would be able to watch, hovering like a green-clad phantom, an unlikely angel suspended in the darkness between heaven and earth. The prospect of this strange journey's ending filled Haldir with both soul-deep gratitude and wordless pain.

He'd witnessed the exchange between Erestor and Melpomaen, though he had not yet had the opportunity to escape into the security of the mallorn's cradling boughs. It was obvious that the young elf was no traveler; the unusual clumsiness of his movements told of sore muscles, and his awkward handling of his travel gear spoke of inexperience. Haldir had assumed that the older elf would help Melpomaen, and he'd felt a stab of jealousy at the thought. He'd willed himself to push that unworthy emotion away, forcing himself to recognize that Erestor would make a much more suitable companion for Melpomaen than he himself would. Erestor was an elf of education and grace, one who understood logic and respected carefully laid plans. Erestor would understand why the promise of advancement meant so much to Melpomaen, and would understand the young elf's distaste for the unsettling openness of Caras Galadhon. They would be perfect together.

Jealousy and resignation had been followed by swift, flaring anger a moment later when Erestor walked away, leaving Melpomaen to fumble with his equipment and stiffly set out to spread his blankets where he could lie on the fringes of the fire's light. He'd almost cut short his discussion with Lord Glorfindel to go to him, but then remembered that he had no duty toward Melpomaen, nor any privileges, nor any desire to be reminded of such facts. Haldir did not want to talk with Melpomaen, and certainly did not want to have him close enough to touch, close enough to incite the speaking of the pathetic words that murmured constantly within his heart.

Melpomaen had gone to his blankets without dining with the others, but Haldir knew he was not asleep. He knew the shape Melpomaen's body made beneath warm coverlets when reverie overtook him; it was not his wont to lay stiffly, hands folded on his chest in the manner of a human corpse laid out for burial. The eyes staring upward were not glazed in slumber, but turned that direction as if to pierce the camouflaging layers of green and gold and brown, to see Haldir where he lay in similarly restless repose. If he had not been so sure of his hiding place, it might have disturbed him as the feeling of Melpomaen's eyes at his back disturbed him. But the barrier between them was not the shifting of careless bodies but the well-known solidity of darkness, leaves, and branches. He watched Melpomaen, allowing their eyes to meet in a one-sided communication of unheard need of which only he was aware.

He did not lead you on he thought to himself, listening to the internal voice that had become so important to him since the last time he and Melpomaen had spoken to each other. He never gave you reason to believe that he would stay with you, never made any promises. It is only your fault that your heart aches, only your fault that you expected too much, sought too much, more than you had any right to believe in.

Haldir nodded, a slight movement that blended perfectly with the swaying of leaves and small branches in the softly sighing wind. Below him Melpomaen still had not moved, but his stillness could be interpreted as an agreement of sorts. Certainly, he had not approached Haldir during daylight hours, had not reached any sudden change of heart. His wakeful stillness could be viewed as a reflection of that, and what did he dream of as he lay there? Of Imladris, of a library that was warm and open and friendly; of a seat in a stone circle encircled again by trees and flowering bushes? When sleep overtook him, would he see himself in burgundy robes, or perhaps in homespun garments, standing in a row of vegetables? Haldir didn't know, but he was sure that Melpomaen did not dream of Caras Galadhon, and did not see silver hair and hazel eyes gazing down into his own.

*****

Reverie did not claim Melpomaen until late into the night, until that pivotal hour just before the moon reached its zenith and might have revealed a shape in the trees, a watchful guarding shape that reassured even in its own insecurity.

Chapter Text

The great library of the Last Homely House was warm and inviting, arranged to encourage visitors, and designed to reflect Lord Elrond's relaxed, informal style. The cherry wood shelves did not loom over hapless visitors, towering upward in an intimidating tower of knowledge, but were of such a height that the topmost books could be reached with only the aide of a low stool. Many of the lower shelves bore scratches and scuffs, and not a few of the lowest were scarred with small bite marks from a time when the twins had been teething babies. Wide windows let in bright morning sunlight, and there were no dark or hidden corners. Even the furniture had been chosen with an eye toward comfort rather than appearances. Aside from the necessary long tables and chairs where study and research took place, there was a scattering of softly cushioned, mismatched chairs, ottomans, and even a small sofa on which visitors could relax while they read.

It was a room that Melpomaen had always enjoyed spending time in, and he considered it a privilege that he had access not only to the main library but also to the connecting rooms where ancient scrolls and certain private volumes were kept. He had spent hours at those long tables, painstakingly transcribing the words on crumbling scrolls to smooth vellum pages, writing and checking inventory lists, and doing odd bits of research assigned to him by the head archivist, and, later, by Lord Erestor himself. He had loved the scent of leather bindings and dust, paper and ink, the smells of polished wood, and the garden fragrance that wafted in through the wide windows when the wind was right. The library had been both haven and heaven to the young elf, but now he could not find peace amidst the books and dancing golden dust motes.

A series of crates, lids levered off and set carefully aside, had been arranged in neat order beside one of the tables. Lord Elrond had made quite a few acquisitions in Caras Galadhon, not to mention some few that had been delivered from the human lands during his absence from Imladris. Most of the books, scrolls, and maps that had arrived were of historical interest, but there were also a few collections of illustrations, a set of fancifully illuminated fairy tales, and even a few works of fiction set during the Last Alliance.

Melpomaen examined each with a critical eye as he carefully wrote down each title, author, and genre on his inventory sheet. Some would need recopying; others needed their bindings repaired or replaced. Several of the scrolls were in particularly bad condition, though still legible, but the maps, at least, were mostly in decent condition. There would be much work for the house scriveners in the weeks ahead, not to mention the work of shelving, re-organizing, and re-copying of the official inventory list. It was work that could be delegated, for the most part, but Melpomaen knew that he would find himself doing many of those tasks himself. There was little else that held his interest since returning from the Golden Wood, little else that could keep his mind from thoughts of his stay there.

The work that had satisfied and fulfilled him now seemed hollow, and the beauty of Imladris was unable to lift his spirits. After weeks of feeling as if he were under the scrutiny of countless eyes and the subject of countless conversations, he now felt paradoxically alone. He felt himself haunted by hazel eyes, by a tall shadow that walked with him but was helpless to speak or touch. He could not count the number of times he'd thought of Haldir, wishing that he could turn and comment to him on something he'd seen or read. He imagined himself inviting Haldir to the river or down to the stables. His mind's eye conjured images of the imposing elf standing at the archery range, leaning in the library's doorway, reclining on his bed.

"Melpomaen," a voice spoke from the library's entrance, and the young elf jumped, startled. A blot of ink marred the surface of the inventory sheet, and his brow knit in a scowl as he turned to face the intruder. A moment later his expression smoothed as he recognized Lord Erestor.

"I'm sorry, my lord. I will re-copy this immediately."

"My concern is not for the paper." Worry was apparent in the older elf's dark eyes. "Have you not taken lunch, Melpomaen?"

"I'm not hungry. I thought it best to continue here."

Erestor frowned, crossing the room to quickly examine Melpomaen's work. As usual, it was precisely done, perfect save for the splotch of ink halfway down the length of the page. For a long moment, Erestor stood irresolute, dark gaze fixed upon the page, seemingly caught between speech and silence. At last he spoke, choosing his words with care.

"Melpomaen… it seems to me that your thoughts are far from here."

"If you have any complaint with my work-"

"No, no. Your work is excellent, as always." He let the paper fall to the table. "However, since we have returned it has been noted that all you do is work. Your presence has been missed not only at the dinner table, but also at breakfast and supper on more than one occasion. You've been spending far less time with Arwen, as well."

Melpomaen blushed, but forced himself to face the elf lord directly. "Forgive me, sir, but I had not thought that my affairs were of such interest to others." He had expected Erestor to take offense, call him to task for insolence and then leave him to his work. Instead, the elf lord smiled.

"Of course you are of interest to us. You are a part of this household, and some day you shall be more than an under librarian preparing lists and shelving books."

Melpomaen lowered his gaze, saying nothing. Erestor nodded as if Melpomaen had agreed wholeheartedly with him, idly trailing his hand over the cover of a leather-bound tome lying between them on the table.

"Would I be wrong if I were to guess that your thoughts are with Haldir of ‘Lorien?" he asked gently, and Melpomaen glanced up swiftly, surprise evident in his expression. Erestor chuckled. "Aye, I believe I would be correct in that assumption."

"My lord, I assure you, whatever may be troubling me will have no affect on my duties here; you need have no worries in that regard."

"I am not in the least worried about your duties." Erestor replied. "Young one, do you truly believe that is all any of us are interested in? That as long as you perform your duties well, we have no thought of you?" Again Melpomaen did not respond, and Erestor sighed. "Melpomaen, I have served as advisor to Lord Elrond for many long centuries, have been at his side before Imladris was built, and shared my thoughts with him at his asking since time out of mind. Now I would ask you if you would hear my advice."

Melpomaen blinked, startled and more than a little pleased that the chief advisor found him worthy of his time. He nodded, eyes dropping to the floor as he waited for Erestor to speak.

"Compromises are not always made in the counsel chambers, and a compromise is not an agreement by which two people receive part of what they want. A compromise is an agreement in which two people, for whatever reasons, agree to accept part of what they do not want. Do you understand me?"

"I'm not sure that I do," Melpomaen said slowly, mulling over Erestor's words.

"Sometimes we come across that which we desire, desire so greatly that we are willing to give up something else in order to have it. The question is how much we are willing to give up, what we are and are not willing to negotiate. How greatly do you desire this elf, Melpomaen? How much of what you don't want are you willing to accept for him? It seems that the all-or-nothing approach is not suiting you."

"This is who I am, my Lord." Melpomaen said softly, encompassing the library with a gesture of his hands. "This place, these people."

"Neither the library, nor the counsel chamber, nor even the demands of Lord Elrond define me, young one," Erestor said. "Nor do I believe that you are so shallow that you can be defined by a room full of books."

"I don't know what I want, my lord."

"No?" Erestor questioned, raising an eloquent eyebrow. "Well, then perhaps this is best for now. Distance is clarifying, and the poets say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. I bid you good day, Melpomaen."

*****

His own chambers lay on the southern side of the Last Homely House, overlooking the relatively plain side yard view. Nothing but forest beyond the yard, trees upon trees, leading to the mountains and eventually to another, more captivating forest. Melpomaen sat on the trunk at the foot of his narrow bed, gazing out the window and thinking of Lord Erestor's words.

A single sheet of paper lay on his small desk by the door. The inkwell was uncapped, and a quill lay beside it. His idea had been to write a letter, but he had no idea what to write. What was left to say to Haldir, his lover whom he had left with only a limping apology by which to remember him? Haldir who was jealous, Haldir who was overly protective, who demanded so much merely by looking at him, and who communicated his need through touch when he couldn't communicate it in words. Haldir who lived within a display case world, one that revealed his shortness of temper and prickly demeanor with cruel clarity, who had his reasons for being what he was, and who had nothing to hide behind save for those very traits by which he was known.

Haldir, whom he could not stop thinking about.

He'd already attempted one letter, his thoughts circling around Erestor's comments on negotiations and compromises as he'd written it. It had come out cold and oddly judicial in tone, something that might have been the work of an arbitrator working out a contract between two unruly parties. Melpomaen had read it over and known that Haldir would not accept it, and he needed Haldir's acceptance. The warmth and beauty of Imladris had become dust. It no longer mattered that Caras Galadhon was a city that had made him feel hideously exposed, an instrument of flesh and tightly strung nerves played by gossips and ever present watchers. Imladris, however, had become a sort of purgatory in which time passed slowly and painfully. It would be no great sacrifice to trade one form of misery for another, especially now that he was uncertain as to where misery truly lay, or what the source of it was.

He thought of the off-hand comments Haldir had made, about Lord Celeborn's library, and the office staff that worked out of both the royal talan and the Guardians' headquarters. An image of the great library of Caras Galadhon rose in his mind, and he paused, considering. It was not the environment he was accustomed to, as it did not possess the warm openness of Lord Elrond's home. He'd said that he could never feel at home there, but Haldir had countered that statement, saying that there was no law that servants of the court must live within the royal talan. Melpomaen's expenses within the Last Homely House were few; he'd managed to save a respectable amount of money. A home of his own was not beyond his means, though it would have to be a small one.

He could see a list of opposing desires forming, what he wanted and what he didn't want, wishes that could only be fulfilled with the acceptance of that which was less desirable, want tempered with uncertainty. It was a risk, but one that he knew he had to take, not so much because he wanted to, but because he could not live with the not knowing. He could not tolerate the endless days and nights of wondering if he'd made a mistake, of wondering why he was haunted by hazel eyes

Melpomaen rose from his trunk, turned his back on the view of the forest and returned to his desk. His hand moved with sure confidence as he covered the blank page with his neat, even handwriting, his letter addressed not to Haldir, but to the head archivist under Lord Celeborn's advisory staff.

*****

Lord Erestor signed the letter with a flourish, and sprinkled fine sand over the wet ink. His dark eyes were smiling as he glanced up at Melpomaen, and, much to the younger elf's surprise, he produced another letter from the top drawer of his desk.

"You'll want to post this one, too. It's my recommendation," he said with a grin. Melpomaen stared.

"But how did you know-"

"It's my business to know these things," Erestor answered in a tone of mock self-importance. "Little escapes the notice of the chief advisor of Imladris. And," he continued in a more serious tone, "I do think this is a good idea for more practical reasons, as well. For one who has political ambitions, learning the ways in which others rule isn't a bad place to start."

"Thank you, my lord. This means a great deal to me," Melpomaen replied. Erestor carefully brushed the sand from the first letter, and handed both back.

"No thanks are needed, young one. May Elbereth's blessings go with you."

"Are you sure, then, that-"

"Of course." Erestor waved a negligent hand. "The rest is all formalities. I'm sure you'll be hearing back in about a month, and I daresay you can keep yourself busy in the meantime."

"Of course, my lord." Melpomaen bowed. "Good day to you, then, Lord Erestor, and again, you have my thanks."

Chapter Text

There was always tension in the north and east, those borders of Lothlorien that were near to Mirkwood and Dol Goldur, where the bastard offspring of Shelob yet haunted as well as Sauron's orcs. The council had driven the darkness from the land which had once been called Green, but the wood elves yet fought the creatures of darkness that attacked and then fell back, their numbers falling and then rising, and falling again, in a constant cycle of jealous hatred born of evil. At times, those creatures dared greater quarry, or wandered from their courses to fall into the sights of the archers of the Golden Wood. There, at the northern and eastern borders, they were slain, cut down by arrows raining from above or pierced by steel wielded by the merciless Guardians.

Haldir had returned to the north the day after Lord Elrond's entourage had left, rewriting the schedule to keep himself far from the city for as long as possible. The tension suited him, as did the sporadic engagements with the enemy, and occasional sorties over the border to make preemptive strikes against those fell creatures who came too near for comfort. His swift rescheduling had made it necessary for him to place himself with Rumil for a longer stretch than he liked, and it also left Orophin with an unexpectedly lengthy leave of absence. Haldir could have cared less; in his opinion, the elder of his two brothers deserved the extra duty, and the youngest had earned a vacation.

Looking Orophin in the eye had been difficult on the morning after Melpomaen's last visit. Haldir's memory of that night and the following day was one he tried to keep at arm's length, but which tormented him nevertheless. It was not like him to weep, not like him to need comfort. Orophin had given that comfort, though he'd obviously been distressed himself by Haldir's unexpected and unnerving collapse. Shame had mingled with the pain of loss as he'd wept in Orophin's arms, listening to the soft words of gently sympathy spoken by his tenderhearted brother.

He'd let Orophin stay with him, unable to ask but also unable to drive him away, and when Haldir had awakened in his youngest brother's arms he'd been momentarily and uncharacteristically disoriented. It had not been Melpomaen's slight figure nestled close to him, Melpomaen's small hands resting on his back, nor Melpomaen's chest his head had been resting upon. Memory had returned when he'd opened his eyes to see blond hair, slightly lighter than his own, trailing across the pillow, and he'd immediately shut his eyes again. For the first time in his life, he'd felt the urge to simply keep his eyes closed until everything around him went away.

Orophin had not allowed that. Instead, he had dragged Haldir out of bed and fixed a bizarre breakfast that included virtually everything in the pantry, a meal fit for an army of hobbits served by his overly solicitous, subdued sibling. He'd had little appetite, but his urge to argue with his brother had been at a remarkably low ebb. It had been easier to eat, mechanically forking one bite after another into his mouth while Orophin fussed about him. However, he had drawn the line when Orophin had attempted to comb his hair for him. As soon as he'd eaten enough to satisfy Orophin's worry, he'd dressed and braided his hair, and departed for the barracks office to prepare for duty.

Now he sat cross-legged in the middle of one of the small wooden flets hidden in the trees, staring blankly out at the softly glowing mellyrn, gold blended with Ithil's silver light. This tour of duty had been quieter than he'd either expected or wanted. A small group of orcs had been slaughtered a few days back; a small group of travelers had been politely but firmly redirected around rather than through Lothlorien's borders. That had been all, and the unwanted quiet left him with nothing more than time. Time in which to remember; time in which to think.

"Haldir," Rumil's voice was soft, barely above a whisper. It was his on-duty voice, different from the bright tones Haldir was accustomed to hearing at home, a voice meant to carry no further than the person to whom he spoke. Haldir narrowed his eyes, offering his brother a blistering glare.

"If you wish to complain about the new schedule, you can feel free to direct a memorandum on that topic to the high general's advisory staff, or to Lord Celeborn, or send it by ship to the Valar themselves, but do not bother taking it up with me."

"I'm not here about the schedule," Rumil replied, ignoring Haldir's harsh tone. "I'm here because of you. What happened?"

"Nothing has happened." He replied.

Rumil made his way to Haldir's side, gracefully seating himself by his elder brother. For a long time neither said a word. Haldir cast his brother an oblique glance, licked his lips, and finally spoke. "I do not care to discuss my personal affairs here."

"Haldir." The look Rumil gave him was reproachful. "How long have we served together that you think that I would forget my place here so easily, merely because I am interested in you?"

Haldir grinned, but it was steel-edged rather than humor softened. "I am so blessed. In the past three months, both of my brothers have declared their interest in me."

Rumil blinked, the reference escaping him, but he refused to be diverted. "Please tell me what happened - with Melpomaen."

"You could always wait and ask Orophin next time you are on leave," Haldir said sharply, and Rumil winced.

"He told you."

"You should have known he would," Haldir said impatiently. "Of all the people whom you could have chosen to mind my business, why Orophin?"

"Because he loves you." He was also the only one whom Rumil could have asked, but he decided to leave that out. "Orophin looks up to you. You know that, Haldir. He'd do anything for you."

To that Haldir had nothing to say. He returned his gaze to the trees, jaw set, fingers tightly interlocked where they rested on his lap. There could be no argument, no rejoinder to that, nor means to express the many ways in which he found his youngest brother's simple adoration suffocating rather than reassuring. And then there had been that first night without Melpomaen, and Orophin's gentle pleading: --Please stop crying, Haldir-- The memory of that made him feel guilty, weak, undeserving of the constant admiration that he so often lost his patience with, and which seemed to be shared by no one else.

"What happened?" Rumil asked again, and this time Haldir shrugged, the gesture almost angry in its sudden ferocity.

"As I said, nothing happened. Lord Elrond's entourage went home. Arwen decided to go with her parents, and Melpomaen returned to his duties, just as I had to return to mine."

"I see," Rumil replied softly. "I'm sorry, Haldir."

"For what?" he asked brusquely.

"I know you wanted Melpomaen to stay."

"Want does not consult necessity," Haldir recited. It was a proverb his mother had used, a comfortless saying which he'd first said to himself on the day that word had come to him that his mother and father were not returning home, but traveling on to the great ships docked at the Gray Havens' harbor. He'd recited it to both Rumil and Orophin on countless occasions, and now, once again, he was saying it to himself.

"Want and need are not always separate things. I know you love him."

"I'm moving when we return," Haldir said abruptly, changing the subject. Rumil frowned.

"You've talked about that off and on for years. Why now?"

"Why not now?" Haldir replied. "I'm tired of never having any privacy."

"Orophin will be upset," Rumil offered. Haldir shrugged.

"Orophin will get over it. And it's not as if I'm moving to Mordor; he will still see me. You and Liaane can have the family talan; keep Orophin and Peony as pets."

"Why must you always be so callous toward him, Haldir?" Rumil asked. Though he did not raise his voice, there was more than a hint of irritation in his tone. Haldir glanced at him sharply, raising a slender eyebrow.

"Because I won't remain in the family talan forever? Because I assume you will eventually want to settle down and have a family of your own?"

"No," Rumil said tightly. "Because you treat him as if he were nothing more than an annoyance, something of only slightly greater significance than that barking mop he brought back from patrol."

"That is not true," Haldir said stolidly. "He is of great value on patrols. I never doubt him in the field."

"In the field," Rumil repeated acerbically. "Has it not occurred to you that your relationship to him as an officer is the least important in his eyes? You're his hero, Haldir!"

"Maybe I shouldn't be," Haldir retorted. "He's a bit old for hero worship, and I'm not really hero material, now am I?" His words were heavily laced with sarcasm, and Rumil flinched, momentarily stunned by the vitriol behind his brother's words.

"Haldir… I do not understand."

"Really? Do you think I do not see the pitying looks, or the curiosity? Do you think I do not know why Melpomaen-" he stopped abruptly, his words cut off as if by a knife.

"Why Melpomaen did what?" Rumil asked carefully. Haldir turned to stare at him, his hazel eyes full of bitterness.

"What you expected him to do. Why else would you have set Orophin to ‘take care of me,' as he put it? But, since you're interested, I'll spare you the wait and give you the details myself. He told me he was leaving, I sent him home, then wept like a child who'd lost his favorite toy and had to be comforted by Orophin. Are you satisfied now? Is that what you wanted to hear?"

"No, Haldir," Rumil whispered. "Do you truly think us so unfeeling that we'd hope for your suffering?" Haldir made no response, and Rumil continued. "And, if Melpomaen chose not to stay for reasons as shallow as those you ascribe to him, then he is not worth having."

"Again I am gifted with the wisdom of the ages. Though, I must say this is better than your last two bits of advice. ‘Take down your hair,' and ‘bring him a bottle of massage oil.'"

"I'm sorry, Haldir," Rumil said. "I only wish you the best. You know that, don't you?"

Haldir looked down at his hands, still interlaced, still white at the knuckles. "I do, Rumil. I am the one who should be sorry. This is not your fault."

"Give it time, Haldir."

"Aye, time. That we have plenty of." He turned his gaze skyward to where Ithil rode the night sky. "You should get some sleep before it is your turn for watch."

"And what of you?"

"I'll sleep. Eventually." He waved a hand at Rumil, shooing him away with a gesture that was almost comical. "Go."

"Alright." Rumil rose, lightly brushing his knuckles across Haldir's braids as he did so. "You believe me, though, that I only wanted the best for you?"

"Yes, Rumil. Good night, Rumil."

"Good night, Haldir." He knew he would get no further with his brother, and with a final, abbreviated salute he stepped over the flet's edge and onto the first nearly invisible rung of the half-ladder beneath it. Instead of continuing downward to the forest floor, he moved with light dexterity from rung to branches and boughs, finally coming to another flet both higher and broader than the one Haldir had claimed. The shapes of several sleeping guardians could be discerned, each wrapped in thin, green mottled blankets. Rumil silently stepped around and over them, working his way to his own blanket on the opposite edge.

Far below, Haldir remained, still staring into the golden glow and midnight darkness, body still, hands interlaced.

Chapter Text

Orophin's eyes narrowed as he watched the party of travelers cross the border into the Golden Wood. It was a small group, all Imladris elves, and all dark-haired with eyes of midnight or midnight blue. Several soldiers rode with them, but Orophin's gaze skipped over them quickly, dismissively. It was the elf at the center of the group that he focused upon - not the young one in the uniform of a courier, nor the elders dressed in dark robes cut for riding. None of those were of interest to Orophin. It was only the other young one who caught his attention, the brown haired, slender beauty with large dark eyes, the one who sat his horse as if it pained him to do so: Melpomaen.

Orophin had only returned to duty five days previously, and he had not expected to have to deal with anything besides the occasional groups of orcs and other dark creatures that dared the Golden Wood's defenses. He was a soldier, but not a leader, and he could count the number of times when he'd been called upon to give orders on one hand and have fingers left over. Haldir had always told him that this was not something to be ashamed of but, rather, proud. The officers among the Galadhrim knew they could count on him, knew their commands would be obeyed without question, and in a military setting that quality in a soldier was invaluable. Now he found himself staring down at Melpomaen's figure, utterly flummoxed as to what to do.

Should he send a message to Haldir? It would not be difficult to do so; runners moved between the different patrol groups frequently. If he did that, however, everyone in his own patrol group would know why, and Orophin knew how Haldir would feel about that. Would Haldir want to know? Should he know? Those were the questions that circled in Orophin's mind as he followed Melpomaen's movements, unconsciously bringing his bow to bear as if he were intent upon the movements of a foe rather than on his brother's former lover.

No, Orophin finally decided. This was something that Haldir would discover in his own time, if it were anything that required his notice. Haldir did not need anything else disturbing his peace of mind. Orophin could still remember with perfect clarity the feeling of his brother's arms clutching him and the shuddering sobs that had wracked his body. He had been afraid that Haldir would break down entirely, but by the next morning everything had been back to normal – or at least close to normal. There had been no more tears, no more of that desperate and utterly alien need for closeness. Haldir had eaten and left, saying nothing more than that Orophin could expect more time off than what had originally been allotted to him.

There was nothing good about any of it, and Orophin knew it. Haldir had not screamed and wailed, but it was not his way to do such things. Of course, it was also not his way to weep, but he'd had more than enough provocation. Watching the slim figure riding obliviously below, Orophin swore to himself that Haldir would not be further provoked. His only regret was that he could not notch an arrow and put it through Melpomaen's heart. If he had one.

*****

The journey from Imladris had been uneventful, if not particularly pleasant. Melpomaen was no one's excuse for a horseman, and his previous experience with long rides had taught him that travel would never be something to which he'd look forward. Still, anticipation that was a blend of anxiety and excitement had kept the trip from boring him, and now that he lay on his bed in the talan Lord Erestor had made arrangements for him to have, he felt both exhilarated and overwhelmed by the possibilities before him.

He had given up on trying to explain it to himself. Returning to Caras Galadhon had felt not only like the right thing to do, but the only thing to do. He'd tried talking to Arwen about it, but the usually enthusiastic princess had been oddly evasive, her interest leaning more toward speculative consideration than whole-hearted approval. That did not matter to Melpomaen, however. Haldir had become an obsession, thoughts and memories of him twining in a disturbing, intoxicating, and partly fictionalized stew of feeling.
Lord Erestor had given Melpomaen a reasonable means by which he could discover, or rediscover, the truth behind that obsession, and once the letters had been sent his fate had been decided.

Lord Erestor had spoken of compromise as an agreement in which two people accept part of what they do not want, but after some reflection Melpomaen felt that he was having to accept very little. It was the all or nothing quality of his earlier musings that had previously tripped him up, the erroneous idea that choosing to explore his feelings for Haldir meant choosing to give up Imladris. He had never stopped to think, then, that a time of employment in Caras Galadhon would increase his value in Lord Elrond's eyes, that gaining the approval of Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel could only be of benefit to him in Imladris. If matters between he and Haldir developed into something more than the strained, unsettled attraction that had been between them prior to his first leave taking… well, he'd cross that bridge when he came to it.

He had been somewhat disappointed to discover that Haldir was not in the city, but in retrospect he'd decided that was for the better. Haldir's absence gave him time to think, time to plan, time to formulate the informal proposal he wanted to make in words the March Warden would listen to and accept. Melpomaen could not see himself making any declarations of undying love, not when he could still remember the misgivings he'd had, the feelings of suffocation and paranoia that had as much to do with Haldir's behavior as with the sense of always being watched, listened to, talked about. The increasing sense of claustrophobia had not all been a product of living under the scrutiny of the tree city's residents - a large part of it had been Haldir himself.

Melpomaen had two sets of memories, two opposing visions of Haldir that were contradictory yet interconnected, one fading into the other almost seamlessly. He remembered hands that touched constantly, light pats and gentle, decorous clasps, hands that could not quite keep away from him but which seemed seeking reassurance rather than passion, reaffirming realization rather than searching for pleasure. There were embraces that were fraught with neediness, or with jealousy, or with an oblique exhibitionism that framed their relationship for the eyes of others. There was embarrassment masked as anger, fright masked as anger, shame masked as anger, and Melpomaen could not understand what there was to be embarrassed or frightened of, of what Haldir had to be ashamed. He couldn't understand any of it, and the constant slow simmer had been frustrating, maddening, and frightening in its own right. And Haldir could not seem to understand that.

There was another side to Haldir, though, and it was this side that Melpomaen had been haunted by in Imladris, which had kept him from immersing himself in his work or taking joy in the simple pleasures that had previously occupied his spare hours. Those memories were of a Haldir whose dreams lay in a stack of drawing paper on the corner of a spotless desk, one whose sources of joy, admiration, and desire were revealed in artful strokes of a quill pen. On his homecoming Melpomaen had tried to make his own quill reflect the beauty Haldir's brought to life so effortlessly, but he had been unable to do so. His hand could produce only perfectly even, legible lines of Sindarin, Westron, or Quenya; he could not give his hopes and dreams life as Haldir could.

The part of Haldir that created those line drawings of heartbreaking beauty was also the part that came to the fore when they'd lain together in Haldir's bed, and the touches that took place there had not been about neediness or jealousy. Instead, Haldir's acquiescence had been an unselfconscious giving, a sharing of self that had risen from the same well font of admiring, joyful desire from which his art sprang. That Haldir could laugh easily, could smile not only with his lips but also with bright hazel eyes, could touch Melpomaen not for reassurance or as a way of making a statement, but simply for the sake of touching alone.

Melpomaen had thought that he didn't want the complications that Haldir represented, couldn't accept the layers of scars or the fa�ade Haldir hid them behind. In Haldir's absence, however, those things slid to the back of his mind, settled there like autumn-torpid wasps with only enough remaining energy to make their presence known, but not enough to sting. Instead of thinking of those things, he thought of silver blond hair spread over white linen, about supple, yielding strength and bowstring callused fingers walking the distance from nape to waist, spider-like. He thought of midnight revelations and puzzle pieces that fit perfectly together, forming a picture that was as simple and beautiful, in its way, as those that rested on the corner of Haldir's desk.

*****

The elf maiden by Peony's house regarded Melpomaen in a manner that was distinctly unfriendly, her gaze dropping from his face to the small covered dish he carried in both hands. Melpomaen slowed his steps but continued his progress. He had discovered earlier than none of the brothers were currently within the city, but he'd decided after supper that he'd bring Peony a treat. In the four months during which he'd been gone she'd grown significantly, and even if Orophin had remembered to ask someone to feed her for him,
Melpomaen was sure she could use all the extra food she could get.

"Peony has already had her supper," the elf maiden said coldly. "You can take that back."

"Good evening, lady." He bowed politely, making up for her rudeness with a pointed excess of courtesy. "I am deeply gratified to know that Peony's welfare has been seen to; however, I daresay she would have more use for these chicken bones than I have."

Much to the nameless maiden's chagrin, Peony seemed to be in agreement with Melpomaen. She'd roused herself from her peculiar splayed position, trotting over to dance excitedly around Melpomaen's feet. Much to his dismay, he saw that she could already nudge above his knees with her nose. Haldir had been absolutely right when he'd
said she would not be a small dog.

"Well, I suppose, then," she sniffed. "Though I'm surprised that you'd be concerned for a dog."

"Why wouldn't I be?" Melpomaen asked, a hint of asperity creeping into his tone. "I'd had no idea I'd made such a poor reputation for myself in the Golden Wood. Have I done ought to offend you, lady?"

The female glared. "We know what you've done to Haldir."

Melpomaen blinked, and raised a questioning eyebrow. "What I've done to Haldir?"

"Orophin told us all about it. How you led him on, and then left him with only the barest shred of an excuse!" she exclaimed, eyes widening dangerously.

Melpomaen opened his mouth to defend himself, then closed it again. He had no intention of discussing his private affairs with a stranger, particularly not with this stranger who had already cast him in the role of villain. Instead, he asked, "Are you a friend of Haldir's?"

"Nay, I am Orophin's friend, and I have heard quite enough about you from him. Are you satisfied with yourself, that you brought the proudest March Warden of `Lorien to tears?"

Melpomaen stared, words suddenly abandoning him. It had not occurred to him that Haldir might have wept for him.

"There was no agreement between Haldir and I, no-"

"Enough!" the female said, her tone sharp and angry. "Save your poor excuses for Haldir, if he will listen to them. Take your dish and leave. You're not wanted here."

He did not demand to know by what right she ordered him from the forest floor, nor did he put up any other argument. Her glare was not diminished by the abbreviated bow he offered her, and, without another word, Melpomaen retrieved his dish and turned back toward the stairs.

Chapter Text

The lack of furnishings granted the talan the illusion of space, but an illusion was all it was; Melpomaen's talan was little more than a divided box set in the lower section of the towering mellyrn. It consisted of three rooms: a tiny bedchamber into which his bed and trunk barely fit, a kitchen crowded by a small round table and single chair, and a living room that boasted a couch and an end table upon which Melpomaen had set a small lamp. The only decorations were the tragic theatrical mask Arwen had once given him for his birthday and a sword with a decorative handle that he'd hung over the tiny fireplace.

In spite of his efforts to make the talan a home, the nearly empty rooms were impersonal, as warm and inviting as a nondescript single chamber in a middle class inn. Once the initial excitement of having a place of his own had worn off, Melpomaen had found himself loath to spend much time there. Sitting by the central fountain with a book felt better than lying on his couch. Taking his meals at a nearby tavern was preferable to cooking meals in his own silent kitchen.

He had just returned from his nightly visit to Peony's house. It had become a matter of principle to him, to take his scraps to the small, green house after supper if for no other reason than to spite the elf maid who'd previously warned him off. He had not encountered her since that first night, and he suspected that she had intentionally changed her hours to avoid him.

Are you satisfied with yourself, that you brought the proudest March Warden of `Lorien to tears?

Her words echoed in his mind as he carried his plate to the kitchen basin, washed it, and stacked it in the small drying rack. He was not satisfied, not with himself or with Haldir, nor with the tepid welcome he'd received, or with the tiny talan that he could not bring himself to call home. Melpomaen felt as if he were doing no more than playing house while he waited - waited for Haldir, who was not a pastel tinged memory but a real person, a person who hurt, a person who had cried. When he thought of Haldir's tears it certainly was not satisfaction that he felt, but bitter shame.

He did not bother to light a candle as he crossed the kitchen to his bedchamber, nor did he make more than a desultory effort to hit the wicker laundry basket as he stripped out of his clothing and tossed them in the basket's general direction. His sheets needed to be washed, too, but he closed his eyes and lay down in the wider bed than the one he'd grown used to in Imladris with only a sigh of resignation. This was not the Last Homely House, nor was it the Royal Talan; there were no chambermaids coming to take away the dirty linens and laundry. There was only his self, a small metal tub, a washboard, and a wringer. It had hurt to let go of part of his carefully saved money on such items, but Melpomaen had still found that preferable to carrying his laundry down to the river, there to beat stains out of soiled robes on a flat rock.

Melpomaen had thought that he'd managed to save a decent amount of his pay, but inside of a week in Caras Galadhon he'd known his error. Life in the Last Homely House had been cheap and easy. He certainly hadn't had to bother with his own wash, and meals had been served in the dining hall three times a day. Three sets of robes, burgundy and green, had been provided for the advisors' support staff. Most of the money he'd earned had been his, free and clear, and he'd thought himself very thrifty with it. His only weakness had been a predilection for new clothing, and Melpomaen often thought sourly that clothes were now the only things he'd never have to worry about lacking. He currently had a trunk crammed full of them, a wardrobe in which the hangers and rack were eschewed in favor of tight folding and stacking, and a corner in which a tower of leggings, trousers, tunics, and shirts teetered precariously ceilingward. The three hooks on the wall held his new blue and silver work robes – everything else was hopelessly wrinkled.

In Imladris there had been meat with his supper every night. In Caras Galadhon he supposed he could snare his own small game if he chose to – and if he had time aside from work and the countless little household chores he'd never given a thought to in Imladris. Otherwise, there was the market, and he'd quickly realized that meat would only fit the budget if he cut back on it to once a week. In Imladris he'd routinely bathed with scented soaps and dried himself with large fluffy towels,and had helped himself to the identical white bathrobes that always hung in the bathhouse. In Caras Galadhon, there was scented soap for those who could afford it, but for all else there was either plain lye soap to be bought, or hours spent over hot, stinking vats to make one's own. Melpomaen didn't even want to think about the cost of large fluffy towels or white bathrobes. The same applied to creams and lotions, jewelry, hair ornaments, paper, ink, books, shoes, furniture… everything.

Melpomaen glared up into the darkness, skin shifting against rough sheets, and thought of Haldir and how he had managed with two elflings in his care. Meat would never have been an issue, nor for one of Haldir's exemplary archery skills, but everything else… Melpomaen knew that the brothers sent their laundry out with one of the city laundresses, and that she took care of their mending as well as the washing. He knew that between the three of them they could well afford the few luxuries he'd seen in their talan: Haldir's set of kitchen knives with the pearl inlaid handles, Rumil's strawberry scented hair soap, Orophin's set of window sill crystal figurines. That had not always been the case, though. Once, not that long ago, it had all been Haldir's responsibility.

Melpomaen had no idea what a Guardian drew in terms of pay. Better than what he himself was making, he knew, but he could not imagine that it had been enough for three. Had Haldir learned to wash and sew, to cook, and clean, and make those household necessities that the money would not cover? He himself knew how to do many of those things, but could never find the time. How had Haldir found the time, between watching an infant and doing his duty to the city? He imagined Haldir exhausted, dragging himself through his daily rounds with circles under his eyes and a barely perceptible slump to his posture, an absence of that proud strut he'd grown so accustomed to seeing.

Had he cried then, Melpomaen wondered. Closing his eyes he could envision it; Haldir with his face in his hands, crying nearly silently at the kitchen table after Rumil and Orophin were sound asleep. Had he stared at his red-eyed reflection in his bedroom mirror afterward, wondering how long it would last, how long he himself would last, when he would be free? There had not been parties and dances and tavern get-togethers for Haldir; instead, there had been hours filled with the crucial mundane habits of a parent and home owner, trips to the market and trips to the river, children to feed and clothe and tend. Perhaps that was why Haldir never taxed Rumil for his adventurous spirit and questionable interests; Haldir was pleased that Rumil was having a chance to enjoy those things that he himself had not.

Still, it seemed to Melpomaen that Haldir had never let go of that time, had not recognized the moment when his freedom had been returned to him. Haldir was not old as elves reckoned time; his youth was far from past. Yet, still he remained, a dour presence in a talan that could be filled with laughter, grimly tackling responsibility with his own mixture of resignation and pride, no longer in expectation of anything at all. He had no ear for the comments that spoke of his courage and skill, nor for those that touched on his looks in curiosity rather than mockery. Certainly there had been those who spoke cruelly of him in Caras Galadhon, but the more Melpomaen thought of it the more he remembered that most of the talk was not malicious; careless, perhaps, but not aimed to hurt. The idea that there was not a single maid in all of Caras Galadhon who would desire the strong, reliable, expert March Warden was purely ridiculous. It was Haldir who refused to see the truth, not the people around him. And then Melpomaen had arrived.

Melpomaen frowned as he thought of that. Yes, he had arrived, and perhaps possibilities had begun to emerge for Haldir, thoughts and imaginings that he'd previously deemed impossible or unrealistic, even frivolous. Perhaps he had sensed his own freedom in Melpomaen's smile and touch, begun to see that some of his responsibilities had been lifted. He himself had wanted an adventure, but Haldir had wanted more, had finally dared to dream of more, and when Melpomaen had left that dream had been shattered.

"I'm sorry, Haldir," he whispered into the darkness. "Truly, I am, and I swear that I will make this up to you. Somehow."

Chapter Text

Talans were not locked in their owner's absence in Lothlorien for thievery was not an issue among the elves who resided there. The talans were so built as to use the mighty trees that held them to protect their inhabitants from all but the worst of the elements, and it was a rare thing for an elf to return from his business to a shuttered home. Only in the event of a particularly fierce storm would such be necessary, and then the homeowner could count on neighbors to let themselves in to shutter the glassless windows.

Haldir's mood was not lightened by the bright sunlight streaming through windows, or by the familiar comforts his family talan had to offer. He would have preferred to remain on duty, but Lord Celeborn himself had ordered this leave, and he'd been none too gentle in the giving of that order. Haldir still felt raw-edged after the reprimand he'd received from the Lord of the Golden Wood, and, though not pleased to be home, he was at least grateful to be away from the audience hall.

It had all come down to the thrice blasted schedule, and the chaos which had ensued when he'd attempted to place himself permanently in the field. If he'd been thinking it wouldn't have happened, but Haldir had to admit to himself that it had been a long while since he'd thought clearly about much of anything. He was not the only March Warden in the Golden Wood, though he was the highest placed, and what he had done had effectively barred two others from duty. Complaints had been made, and those complaints had led to this day's early morning meeting with Lord Celeborn himself, who wanted to know if he could handle such simple matters as managing the roster or if he needed someone to do it for him.

"You're still moping about Melpomaen," Rumil said. He lay sprawled across the divan, gazing at Haldir over the rim of a three-quarters full wine bottle. Haldir might have taken umbrage at the words, but his brother's tone was sympathetic. Sighing heavily, he dropped into the rocker.

"I can't seem to stop thinking about him. I don't know why." Haldir glared at the rug as he spoke, noting for the first time how truly old and ragged it had become. Its colors were faded, and he could see the floorboards through it in three different places. Looking up from it he felt a sudden surge of disoriented nausea. Everything was old; everything was faded, paling into a grayness of memory in the bright sunlight.

"This place is like a mausoleum, Rumil," he muttered darkly. "We need new… everything."

Rumil blinked, eyeing his brother warily as Haldir rose from the rocker and strode to the nearest window. "I never really thought about it, Haldir. It's just… home."

"Did you know these used to have a pattern of song birds on them?" Haldir said, plucking at the curtain. "The sun's faded it completely away." He gripped the fabric in his hand and abruptly yanked, jerking the offending material from the window - rod and all. Rumil jumped, sloshing wine onto the front of his tunic.

"Haldir…" he said, licking his lips, and Haldir cast him a smile that was both pleasant and disturbing.

"Orophin likes it to be bright. I'll get new curtains, maybe in pale green. And furniture. And a new rug. That one saw the last of its usefulness a thousand years ago. Orophin did me a favor not so long ago; we can pick designs to suit him for a change."

"Haldir, I don't know if that's such a good idea." Rumil licked his lips, eyes moving between his brother's face and the downed curtain rod. "Maybe you should give this some thought. Right now you're upset; maybe you'll miss mother's things."

Haldir's expression tightened. "She's gone, Rumil. Saving her belongings won't bring her back."

Rumil bit his lip, thinking quickly before trying a different approach. "If you want to do something for Orophin, maybe you should wait for him to come back from duty and ask him what he'd like. He'll be home tomorrow."

Haldir stiffened. It was exceedingly rare for the three brothers to be on leave simultaneously for any length of time, and that they were now led back directly to the conversation he'd had with Lord Celeborn. He did not comment on that, however, but picked up where his and Rumil's discussion of redecoration had left off.

"And spend the next thousand years waiting for him to make up his mind?" Haldir had begun removing the hooks from curtains and rod, finally dropping the mass of nearly sheer material to the floor at his feet. "No, I think we can handle this ourselves. You do want to help, right?"

It had been a long time since Haldir's dictatorial tone had completely worked on Rumil when they were within their own home, but now he found himself being swept along as easily as Orophin might have been. "Sure, Haldir. I'll see if any of my friends could help us move things."

"Good. Let's get going."

*****

It was well after nightfall when Haldir and Rumil slumped down onto the new sofa and chair that graced their hastily redecorated family room. Rumil's friend, Terryn, collapsed on the floor, as exhausted as the brothers by their whirlwind shopping spree. Haldir's approach to shopping had been dizzying, and though his characteristic impatience with all things domestic had been evident in both his quick choices and refusal to wait for custom designed furnishings, the final arrangement was actually quite pleasant. In only a few instances had he allowed the shopkeepers to talk him into specialty items, and even in those cases he'd picked up furnishings to fill the temporary gap. The only thing to survive the final cut had been the rocking chair, and it had been taken to be re-finished, and an order for new cushions for it had been placed.

Haldir surveyed the family room from his seat beside Rumil, grimly satisfied with the new decor. The room seemed larger, airier, and brighter than it had previously been, and he was sure that it would meet with Orophin's enthusiastic approval. As a matter of fact, Haldir expected that Orophin's enthusiasm for it would likely drive him out of it. A small smile curved his lips at the thought. Terryn, catching sight of the smile, grinned.

"Melpomaen's going to be surprised when he sees this," the elf commented. Rumil's eyes flashed open, and his face paled as he looked swiftly to his older brother. Haldir's eyes narrowed.

"Why would Melpomaen be seeing it at all?" he asked, bitterness creeping into his tone, and the sprawled elf frowned in uncertainty.

"I'd just assumed you were doing this for him since he's staying in the city now."

Haldir restrained the urge to lick his lips as he considered which part of the elf's sentence to pursue. Melpomaen had returned. Had Lord Elrond or Lord Erestor sent him? That seemed unlikely; someone more experienced both in the ways of travel and with the court of Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel would have been a wiser choice for a political mission. No message had come to him informing him of the arrival of Imladris dignitaries; no special detail had been assigned. All that went against the idea that Lord Elrond was directly involved. What other reason could Melpomaen possibly have for returning to Caras Galadhon? Haldir's heart skipped a beat.

"I would not change my home to suit another's pleasure," Haldir said stiffly, none of his racing thoughts revealed in the set of his face or tone of voice.

"No, I suppose not," Terryn said, his _expression doubtful. Sighing, he rose to his feet. "Well, the hour grows late, and I must be getting home. Morning comes too early."

"I'll agree with you there." Rumil had stretched out on the sofa, feet propped on its arm. He waved his hand languidly toward the door, making no effort to rise. "You'll excuse me if I don't show you the way out."

"I think I can find it," Terryn chuckled. "Have a good night, both of you."

"Thanks for your help, Terryn," Haldir said. He began dragging himself out of the chair, but Terryn waved him back.

"Stay where you are - I don't need an escort. And you're quite welcome."

Haldir waited for the length of a slow ten count after the door had shut behind Terryn before turning on Rumil. "No one sent word to me. -He- sent no word to me." He leaned forward in his seat, fingers interlaced and elbows on knees. "What is he doing here, Rumil?"

"How would I know?" Rumil asked. A look of worry appeared on his face as he pushed himself upright. Haldir frowned.

"Take your boots off if you're going to have your feet on the sofa. And tell me what you think."

"What I think?" Rumil asked warily, leaning forward to unlace his offending footwear.

"Yes, what you think," Haldir snapped. "I've had enough of you and Orophin tip toeing around me. What do you think Melpomaen is doing here?"

"You think he's here because of you," Rumil stated. The boots fell to the floor with a thud, landing in their accustomed positions under the new table. Haldir glared.

"No, I think he's here early for the harvest festival."

Rumil scowled as he peeled off his socks. "You're not talking to Orophin, Haldir. But, since you ask me so nicely, I'll tell you what I think." He dropped the socks next to his boots and sat up straight, bare toes wiggling in the new, thick rug. "I think half your problem is your attitude; that's why Melpomaen left, and I have no idea why he's back. I will grant you that it was wrong of him to lead you on as he did, but this is not entirely his doing and I'm done mincing words with you."

Haldir stared. For a long moment neither spoke, and when at last he broke the silence his gaze dropped to the floor. "I know it was my fault, that I expected too much."

"Dammit, Haldir, that's not what I said." Rumil's eyes flashed with a mixture of frustration and irritation. "When did self pity become a part of your repertoire?"

"I am not pitying myself." His voice had taken on a tone of warning, his gaze lifted from the floor to squarely meet his brother's. Rumil rolled his eyes.

"This is exactly what I'm talking about."

"I'm relieved to know that one of us, at least, knows what you're talking about," Haldir shot back. "I asked for your thoughts on this, and-"

"No, you didn't," Rumil cut in. "You demanded information the way you might have asked a scout to make his report. Now tell me, why are you asking me for my thoughts?"

Haldir gritted his teeth. It was clear Rumil was not speaking rhetorically; the expression on the younger elf's face was one of intense, anticipatory interest. "You have more experience in these matters than I," he finally said, voice low and embarrassed. Rumil nodded, but there was no hint of self-satisfaction in his expression, only grim agreement.

"Yes, and that's fine, because there is yet plenty that you know more of than I do," Rumil continued, eyes never wavering. "Now tell me this, Haldir; when you ask a question of others to which you require an answer, do you do so with sarcasm and a demanding tone?"

Color suffused Haldir's face. "You would dare to speak so to me in my own home?"

"Your home? And it's not mine, also? And what of the way you speak to me, brother?" Rumil rose to his feet, his patience at an end, and he did not back down when Haldir rose, towering over him. "Orophin and I have both bent over backward for you during this-"

"I never asked you to," Haldir said through gritted teeth. "I do not need a caretaker, nor do I thank you for involving yourselves in my business."

"No, no thanks from you, and I didn't expect any." Rumil shoved a tendril of loose hair behind his ear, and narrowed his eyes. "Though of course you feel differently about my `involvement' when you want my advice – so long as it's given sweetly and politely, and with all proper deference. And as for Orophin, well, you've done him such a favor, now haven't you? You've -allowed- a grown elf to have a pet in his own home, and you've even chosen new furniture for him! And don't bother telling me it's because you owe him. We both know perfectly well you've done it to assuage your own guilt."

"I have done absolutely nothing for which I need feel guilty," Haldir said, his voice low and flat.

"I know that, but I don't believe you do. How was it that you put it? You wept like a child crying over the loss of his favorite toy?"

Haldir's hand locked into a fist at his brother's words, and for a terrible moment it seemed that momentum alone would draw that fist back, and then propel it forward. Rumil did not cringe away. His eyes dropped to his brother's knotted hand and then moved upward to meet hazel eyes. When he spoke, his voice was conversational, dangerously even. "I swear to you, Haldir, if you take a swing at me, you're going to have a fight on your hands. I'm not Orophin."

The color drained from Haldir's face at Rumil's words, even as his eyes dropped to his own fisted hand, shocked at how a conversation that had begun so innocently had gone so far out of control. "I am sorry, Rumil," he muttered, eyes still downcast. "I would never, ever strike either of you… I wasn't thinking."

"Haldir." Rumil's voice was soft, unexpectedly gentle. He placed his hands on his brother's shoulders and stepped closer, forcing Haldir to look into his face. "This is the problem. This is what always happens. You won't back down from the simple things; you won't relax, even a little. You're like a pull chain that's nearly reached its breaking strain, and, when you finally do reach it, you're always sorry afterwards." Rumil sighed, his expression sympathetic. "All of this started because I want you to show me the same respect that I willingly show you."

"Rumil… I'm sorry." Haldir's tongue darted out to touch his upper lip. "You push me."

"No," Rumil said, shaking his head. "Do not blame me. I fight beside you, remember? I know that the March Warden of Lothlorien is not so easily swayed by the words and actions of others. No one makes you do anything."

"Dammit, Rumil!" Haldir nearly wailed, but there was no anger in his voice. Instead, there was something almost like desperation, a sense of uncertainty that was rarely, if ever, heard in Haldir's speech. "You don't understand."

"No, I don't," Rumil replied. "Come sit down and explain it to me the way brothers do, rather than like an officer to a soldier."

"Alright."

Rumil was relieved to hear the steel returning in Haldir's voice. He let his hands drop, and returned to the sofa, this time patting the cushion beside him. "Start at the beginning."

Chapter Text

He stared up at the stars as he'd done every night since Melpomaen had left, looking up through wind-shifted patterns of mellyrn leaves, boughs, and branches. He had not wanted to lie in his own bed where Melpomaen still remained as a ghostly presence. Even with the bulk of the family's old furnishings crammed into his small room, he could still see Melpomaen there when he closed his eyes: Melpomaen standing by his desk, going through his wardrobe, or lying in his bed. The dew damp grass by Peony's house was preferable, as were the green and brown mottled blankets that Melpomaen had never slept beneath.

Peony had been thrilled to see him, gangling out from behind her house to greet him with wet paws and attempted sloppy kisses. He'd fended her off with considerably more patience than was his usual wont; in an odd way, the beast reminded him of her master. Orophin could also be counted upon for enthusiastic, if less messy, welcomes and Haldir had rarely treated his youngest brother's energetic spirit with more than off-hand annoyance. That was something else that Rumil had called him to task for, but Orophin was not present to hear Haldir's apologies. Instead, there was Peony, already large though not even half grown, lying over his lap and slobbering on his bootlaces.

What had Melpomaen made of his behavior towards his brothers, Haldir wondered while idly scratching Peony's cheek. Rumil had suggested that it was all linked. His constant annoyance, his unassailable dignity, his inability to cease being the March Warden in the presence of others – all may have played a large role in the abrupt ending of their relationship, or so Rumil thought. What had Melpomaen seen? Someone prickly, whose ire is easily roused, someone who takes himself too seriously, who sees offense where none is meant. When they were alone together that was not the case… but hadn't he noticed that at times Melpomaen seemed to speak more slowly, as if he were carefully considering the words he would speak? Tailoring them, perhaps, for the ears of an elf that not only looked for derogatory intent in the words of others, but also expected to find it.

Rumil only thought he understood all there was to see, but Haldir knew there was more, much more that Rumil could not understand. He tried to cast backwards in his mind, to find a time and place when he had not been the March Warden, but it seemed to him that there had been no such time. The official granting of that title and position had only signified the outward recognition of a position of authority he had held almost since he'd been an elfling himself. It had been a vindication of all those years spent not only in weapons training, woods craft, and stealth, but also in areas of personal responsibility that had been just as crucial, though unseen by others. It was an invisible badge that declared that he was indeed good enough, strong enough, capable enough to lead - a mark he was compelled to rise to every single day. That was what Rumil did not understand, that what he had achieved was redemption, that what he saw reflected in the eyes of others was both vindication and challenge. Maintaining that grudging esteem was not a task that could be tossed lightly aside.

Was Melpomaen worth setting that aside for? He had been hurt when Melpomaen had placed a higher value on his career than on his heart, but was he not faced with the same choice? Of course, this was assuming that Melpomaen had returned to Caras Galadhon for his sake. Haldir frowned at the thought. No message had been sent informing him of Melpomaen's arrival, not from any of the Guardians or Melpomaen himself. There were many reasons why he would not have received word, but knowing that did not ease the anxiety. He had not questioned Terryn, mainly because he had not wanted to appear as a love-sick elfling pining after his lover, but now he wished he'd given over that bit of dignity in exchange for some explanation of Melpomaen's presence. Once again, though, he'd chosen to be the March Warden. Head before heart, and now all he had were his own whirling thoughts.

*****

Melpomaen stared up at the ceiling, thoughts spinning. The March Warden of Lothlorien had returned to the city, had been in conference with Lord Celeborn, and then had gone to his home. This was the information/news that had filtered down to the library, reaching his ears while he'd been at his desk working on the restoration of an ancient manuscript. He'd found the text fascinating until that information had reached him. Later in the day he'd also heard about the mad shopping spree, of Haldir and Rumil's whirlwind visits to woodworkers, rug makers, seamstresses, and upholsterers, and also of the comedic effort made to wrestle their purchases up Caras Galadhon's interminable flights of elegant stairs. Now, at the end of his day, he had a rough idea of what Haldir's family room might look like, but he had not the foggiest idea what the author of the manuscripts he'd been working on had written.

In the months since Melpomaen's arrival, he'd adopted a new attitude toward the Lothlorien grapevine. At times it was an untrustworthy instrument, but at others it brought news more swiftly than the city's heralds, not to mention tidbits that were more entertaining and occasionally thought provoking. The trick was to separate speculation from facts, some thing at which he, a student of history, was fairly adept. It was also an instrument through which new information could be transmitted, a means by which old news could be given a new spin. Melpomaen had set to work at that soon after his arrival. Speculation had been rife concerning his reasons for seeking employment in Caras Galadhon, and, though he had not been privy to the details of that line of gossip, he had intuited much from the bright eyes and seemingly innocent questions asked by his co- workers. His responses to those questions had been calculatingly honest. Yes, he'd come to advance his political career, and, yes, he'd come because he missed Haldir. Yes, he thought Haldir attractive. Yes, he loved Haldir. Yes, yes, yes. Haldir might refuse to hear him, might turn him away without so much as a single word, but it would not be said that Melpomaen was a coward, or that he was ashamed.

Haldir's reputation had grown in his absence and that, too, was Melpomaen's doing. It was easy enough to let slip a comment here and there, creating a new angle on the image of the standoffish elf, something for the general public to consider with curiosity. Melpomaen had enough sense not to step too far out of character, not to be overly graphic in his praise, or say more than Haldir would feel comfortable with the public explicitly knowing. Still, the idea that the brawny, almost mannish March Warden was a skilled lover had caught on quickly. Close behind that tidbit of seemingly innocently given information was the news that he was an artist of rare talent, and a compassionate soul who was, beneath his cold exterior, capable of feeling for others. No dramatic shift in public opinion greeted these additions to the constant flow of gossip, but there was a change in the undercurrents, a sort of morbid speculation as to the intimate affairs of the March Warden that leant in a more kindly direction than previously. It was not wonderful, Melpomaen knew, but it was an improvement.

Lying in his nearly empty chamber he thought of these things, wondering how Haldir would feel about his subtle manipulation of the city's gossips. It had been such a simple thing to do, and had seemed like a gift that increased in value as it was passed along. He felt as though he had turned Haldir back into a person in the eyes of the public, but whether Haldir would be appreciative of his efforts he did not know. It was not always easy to tell how he would react to different matters. Haldir was too often steel, and though Melpomaen had been able to reach past that before, whether he'd still be able to do so now was open to question.

If the word he'd received was accurate, Haldir's talan was now done in shades of melon and green, light and refreshing. Such a change also made Melpomaen curious, particularly since he knew that much of the brothers' furnishings had belonged to their parents. What had possessed the March Warden to abruptly redesign their entire talan on his first day back from the borders? Had it anything to do with him? Melpomaen could not understand how it could; he had seen Haldir's home before, and had not been put off by it. Also, Haldir had no way of knowing that Melpomaen was within the city, no reason to think that Melpomaen might be viewing his handiwork. Haldir's redecoration, Melpomaen suspected, had more to do with the desire to forget than any desire for change.

By noon of the following day Haldir would know of his presence, having heard the rumors through Rumil even if he spoke to no one else. Melpomaen knew that Haldir would not come to him. His dignity would not allow that, and Melpomaen did not blame him for it. He would have to go to Haldir, and quickly, if he expected any good to come of this.

Tomorrow he thought as he gazed up into darkness.

Tomorrow night.

Chapter Text

The first light of dawn had barely touched the horizon when a shriek of delight filled the air, quickly followed by the sound of a boot striking a door that had been only partially closed. For a moment silence reigned, and then the sound of muttered swearing commenced. Footsteps darted along the hallway, followed by a muffled apology and the click of a door being solicitously closed. The second boot struck, but this time the door was secure and the colorful sounds of cursing from within were no more than a faint mutter. Haldir grinned as he tightened his own bootlaces, awaiting the inevitable.

"Haldir?" Orophin's voice called from the hall, low and filled with barely contained excitement. "Are you awake?"

"Yes," he replied, pitching his voice low so as not to disturb Rumil any more than he'd already been disturbed. "Come in, Orophin."

The door swung inward, hit the arm of their old family room chair and rebounded, nearly hitting Orophin in the face as he stepped inside. Quick reflexes saved him, and the expression of excitement shifted to confusion as his gaze moved over the haphazardly stacked furniture crowding his eldest brother's previously uncluttered room. Finally, his eyes came to rest on Haldir, who was sitting at the foot of his neatly made bed, braiding his hair.

"You put everything in here," Orophin said, and Haldir nodded.

"Where else could we have put it?"

"Um." Orophin picked his way along the narrow, furniture-lined corridor to stand by his brother. He'd already shed his pack, but his quiver and arrows were still strapped to his back, his knives still sheathed in place. Dirt and dust nestled in the creases and folds of his uniform, and, after a brief hesitation, he seated himself cross-legged on the floor instead of on the bed beside Haldir. "Peach is my favorite color, Haldir."

"I know." Haldir neatly tied off an evenly plaited perfect braid. "That's why Rumil and I chose peach and melon and green." Orophin opened his mouth, but Haldir raised a hand, forestalling the incipient stream of excited babble. "Come up here and sit. I need to talk to you."

Orophin rose slowly, giving Haldir ample time in which to change his mind. Instead of reconsidering upon closer inspection of Orophin's filthy uniform, he patted the bed beside him in a peremptory gesture before finishing his final braid.

"Is something wrong?" Orophin asked nervously. Haldir took a deep breath and shook his head.

"Rumil and I had a talk. Well, maybe more of an argument."

Orophin winced. "You and Rumil aren't getting along again?"

"No, we're getting along fine." For a long moment Orophin thought that Haldir would say nothing more; the older elf simply stared down at his hands, turning the comb he'd been using between his fingers. At last he looked up, and Orophin shifted uneasily beneath his brother's steady, hazel gaze.

"Orophin, thank you. Thank you for being there for me before I went back on duty."

"You don't have to thank me," Orophin said. Greatly daring, he took the comb from Haldir and gently held his brother's hand between his own. "You're my big brother, Haldir. That's all."

"No, it's not all. And Rumil had to point that out to me, and I feel…" he cleared his throat, staring down at their joined hands, "ashamed that I couldn't see that for myself."

Orophin scooted closer, rumpling the bedspread and catching his brother in a spontaneous, one-armed hug. Haldir blinked and stiffened, but instead of pulling away he leaned into Orophin's embrace.

"Don't - you're going to get my clothes filthy!" Haldir said, but there was amusement in his voice even as he briefly hugged Orophin back before pushing him away. Orophin bounced on the edge of the mattress, eyes shining.

"Why are you all dressed up today, Haldir?" Orophin plucked at Haldir's sleeve, fingers sliding down to the silver embroidered cuffs, and Haldir shrugged.

"It just seemed like a good idea."

"Like redecorating?"

Haldir smiled, and for the first time that morning there was a note of falseness to his sunny expression. "That was for you, Orophin." He licked his lips and glanced downward, and then looked up again to meet his brother's eyes. "Alright, I'll admit that I had my reasons for wanting to change things, but I was thinking of you when Rumil and I were picking things out."

He'd expected disappointment, but instead Orophin grinned. "Thanks, Haldir. That was really sweet of you." Orophin rose to his feet, smile intact and eyes shining. "Give me a few minutes to change and wash up, and I'll put on some breakfast."

*****

Ashamed did not even begin to cover how Haldir felt as he listened to Orophin's exuberant chatter. It hurt to realize that such a small effort, and one that had not even been entirely meant for his benefit, could please Orophin so much. It hurt to see how little it took to please Orophin, and to realize that he'd often held back those little things that pleased his brother so much out of little more than petty spite.

It had not only been Haldir's behavior with Melpomaen that Rumil had called him to task for, and Haldir winced inwardly as he recalled the words that Rumil had dragged out of him. "I don't want to be his hero, dammit!" he'd said to Rumil. "I don't deserve it, and I'm just trying to make him see that I'm not what he thinks I am!"

"It doesn't matter what you think you are or what you think you deserve," Rumil had replied. "In Orophin's eyes you're more of a father than a brother to him. How do you remember our father? How do you want Orophin to remember you?"

That had stung. Their father had been a kindly elf, slow of temper and inclined to listen. It had been he who had taught Haldir how to handle a bow, had praised him and complimented him, told him how fortunate he was to have been blessed with a strong warrior's body. Haldir had always known that his father was happy with him, but as he watched Orophin dart about the kitchen like a nervous butterfly, it occurred to him that his youngest brother had never had that surety. Yes, Haldir had trained his youngest brother as their father had trained him, but it had not been the same. Their father had only guided Haldir on the path he'd already chosen for himself; Orophin, the gentle gardener, had chosen the warrior's path on the basis of a single compliment made by his idolized eldest brother.

"Do you have plans for today?" Orophin asked as he picked up their breakfast dishes.

"No, thought I'd stay close to home." Orophin cast him a quick sideways look, but made no comment. Haldir's eyes dropped briefly to the table as he remembered Rumil's words about honesty. "I might be having company later," he finally clarified.

"You don't mind if I stay home, too?"

"Of course not."

"Good! Rumil will probably be going out, but you could help me with repotting the house plants if you want."

The idea of spending his day with the plants did less than nothing for Haldir. Instead of snapping at Orophin, he offered a slightly tight smile. "I might get my clothes dirty."

"Oh, well, okay then," Orophin nodded agreeably. "What do you want to do then?"

"Just relax. Do nothing. Yesterday was rather taxing."

"It'll do you good to do nothing." Orophin smiled shyly. "Who are you expecting?"

"Maybe Melpomaen."

"Oh." Much of the enthusiasm abruptly drained from Orophin's voice. "Would you mind if I made a comment?"

"Actually, yes," Haldir said firmly, but not unkindly. "I have enough on my mind, Orophin, and I think I already know what you would say."

"Alright then." Orophin dropped the dishes into the washbasin and crossed the room, catching his eldest brother in a quick hug for the second time that day. "I hope he shows up, then, since you want him to."

"Thanks, Orophin," Haldir said, accepting the hug and rising to his feet. "Need any help drying dishes?"

"No, that's alright. Thanks for asking." There was genuine gratitude in his tone, and for a moment Haldir felt roughly two feet tall.

"Too bad. I'm going to help you anyway."

Orophin blinked, his smile briefly freezing and then returning a moment later when Haldir strode purposefully across the room to the wash basin.

Chapter Text

Once morning had passed, the day crawled by painfully slowly. Haldir had refused to leave the talan, spending his day stretched out on the sofa, Rumil-like, dressed in one of his better combinations of green and blue. That he was waiting was understood, but that fact went unremarked upon, even by Orophin, who had spent his day repotting plants on the kitchen table after they'd finished with the breakfast dishes. Haldir had drifted in at one point, muttering vaguely about flowers, and that had resulted in an arrangement of riotous color tied with one of Rumil's silk ribbons and placed in a glass vase on the new family room end table. At different points in the day the flowers had migrated from the vase to the shelves beside the door, and for a while they'd also lain on Haldir's chest as if the older elf was not entirely certain what he wanted to do with them. By evening the arrangement had taken on a bedraggled appearance, and Orophin had hesitantly suggested that Haldir really should leave them in the water.

Haldir knew the hours kept by the advisory committee's staff in the royal talan as well as he knew the routines of the Forest's guardians, but within the set times for beginning and ending the clerical staff's routines were changeable, shifting by the amount of work apportioned them. The dinner hour was the only time set in stone, but Haldir found it unlikely that Melpomaen would slip out in the middle of his day on personal business. That left the darkening hours after the library was officially closed, assuming that Melpomaen was not staying late, that he had nothing pressing to do after work, or that he was coming at all.

The thought that he could take himself to Melpomaen's talan, flowers in hand, had crossed his mind, but it was an idea Haldir refused to entertain. He knew where Melpomaen was staying; that was information Rumil had given him, unasked, in his usual matter-of-fact manner. It was in the lower section of the tree city, small, and undoubtedly shabby, though Haldir had not seen it with his own eyes. He had a fair idea of what a student archivist would be able to afford, and the image that rose in his mind was not promising. His hands itched at the thought of a roof that might be in need of repair, wide sliding doors on tracks that needed fixing, and window shutters that did not quite meet.

The thought of doing those things for Melpomaen pleased him immeasurably, but his dignity would not allow that long, nerve-wracking walk to the Imladris elf's talan. He had not been the one to leave, nor had he been the one to return, failing to send any message either before his departure or upon his arrival. He had no idea if Melpomaen's presence in Caras Galadhon related to himself at all, and the idea of standing on Melpomaen's doorstep while the younger elf awkwardly explained that he was on extended business for Lord Elrond made him feel ill.

"Are you sure you don't want anything to eat, Haldir?" Orophin asked, poking his head into the family room. Worry shone in his bright blue eyes, and Haldir forced a smile.

"No, I'm fine."

He was not fine. Outside, full darkness had fallen. There was no sound of footsteps on the walkway; no indication that there had been any reason for him to be dressed in greens and blues that brought out his eyes, or to have had flowers arranged.

"Haldir…" Orophin said, uncertainty in his tone. "I just don't think he's worth this. You can do better." It was the first time Haldir's family room vigil had been commented upon. Haldir raised an eyebrow, but the expression was lacking its usual air of superiority and sarcasm. He felt hollow, empty of emotion.

"You think so, Orophin?" he asked, unlacing his hands from behind his head and pushing himself upright. "Maybe I'm not such a prize either. And maybe I don't want better."

"I wish you wouldn't talk like that," Orophin said, edging further into the light cast by the set of matched lamps on the table. He carried a plate in his hands, mounded high with pork rib bones. A small smile tugged at the corners of Haldir's mouth at the sight; Orophin had come over to his side of the pork argument.

"Did you remember to clean the table before you made supper?" he asked, and Orophin cast him a reproachful glance.

"Of course I did."

Haldir sighed. "I'm sorry, Orophin. It's just… well…" He closed his eyes briefly, then rose resolutely to his feet. "Give me that. I'll take it down to the beast for you."

Orophin chuckled. "The beast. Maybe I should paint that on the front of her house." He handed the plate to Haldir, who could not quite hold back a chuckle of his own.

"Indeed. I'll be back eventually, Orophin."

*****

Haldir tensed at the sight of the figure bearing a plate of his own crouched down by Peony's house. The usual gruesome sounds of breaking bones and appreciative growls could be heard, along with the low tones of someone chatting agreeably with the large black animal that was beginning to resemble an outsized bear cub. Haldir slowed his steps as he approached, eyes narrowed as he studied the figure silhouetted by Ithil's silver light.

"There's a good girl, Peony," the elf quietly enthused. "I know you like beef better than chicken, and I certainly agree with you there, but there won't be any more beef for a couple of weeks." Greatly daring, he leaned forward and hooked a bit of gristle back from where it had caught in the dog's fur. "Here, you missed this bit."

"Melpomaen?" Haldir called, and the figure abruptly straightened and whirled, plate falling from his hands to land solidly on Peony's head. The dog seemed unfazed, continuing to contentedly crunch and growl while her benefactor stood frozen by her side.

"Haldir?" He said nothing more, and as the distance between them closed, Haldir could see the _expression of anxious anticipation on the younger elf's face. Melpomaen's eyes were wide and frightened, searching Haldir's face hopefully, nervously, uncertainly. He had dressed himself in the dark blue leggings and black robe he'd worn on the day he'd thought to bring Haldir flowers, but this time the robe did not seem to hang quite right. It was too loose, hanging from his shoulders as if he were an elfling who'd borrowed his father's clothes for a game of dress up. Also, Haldir noted, the fabric was creased as if it had been folded rather than hung.

"You've lost weight," he said, and Melpomaen blinked, glancing down at the animal that was now looking at Haldir expectantly.

"I was going to come up," Melpomaen said. "I was just…" He waved his hand at Peony, and Haldir smiled tightly.

"She's a good listener." His gaze shifted down to the plate in his hands, eyes widening briefly as he rediscovered the source of Peony's interest. He dumped the bones unceremoniously, and ducked down to pick up Melpomaen's plate. "Here."

"Thank you." Melpomaen licked his lips. "Haldir. I'm sorry."

"I am, too, Melpomaen. Sorry."

An expression of panic crossed the younger elf's face. "Haldir, I came back because I missed you. I made a mistake."

"No, I didn't mean it like that," Haldir said, inwardly cursing his ineptitude with words. "I meant that I'm sorry, too. I shouldn't have been so… so…" he trailed off, eyes drifting toward the trees before swinging back abruptly to meet Melpomaen's gaze. "Dammit, Melpomaen, I just couldn't believe it was true."

"I know," Melpomaen whispered. "I didn't understand."

"You came back here because of me?"

Melpomaen nodded, and Haldir took a deep breath. For a long moment the only sound was that of Peony's enthusiastic dining. Haldir grimaced, suddenly aware of the ludicrous setting in which their first meeting was taking place. "Come up with me?"

"Of course."

*****

The lights were on, but Orophin had taken himself to bed, and Rumil was not yet home. Haldir held the door, and Melpomaen stepped inside, glancing around curiously.

"This looks nice. I have to admit that at first I couldn't picture it in peach and melon and green."

"You knew?"

"Well, I heard." Melpomaen colored and glanced down at his feet. "You know."

"I guess I do." Haldir shut the door behind him. "I was tired of looking at it the way it was… everything was old, all of it reminded me of things that I'd rather forget."

"Like me?" Melpomaen asked quietly. Haldir bit his lower lip, his eyes darting away.

"Well. Yes. I suppose."

"What did you do with the old things?"

"They're all in my room. I couldn't quite make myself get rid of it all in the end."

"I'm glad," Melpomaen said. "I never meant for us to be something that you'd want to forget."

"Well, that's how it turned out," Haldir said harshly, then caught himself. "I'm sorry, Melpomaen. I know it wasn't all you, it was I, too. I just… couldn't understand."

"Neither could I. I hadn't planned for falling in love, Haldir."

"In love?"

"Yes. I never lied about that." He stepped forward and reached to gently touch a slender braid at Haldir's temple. "The first time I saw you your hair was braided like this. You looked so… proud and unreachable."

Haldir swallowed hard. "Do you like it this way?"

"Yes. It's more you, the elf I saw for the first time in the woods of Lothlorien." His hand moved from braid to shoulder, and then he stepped forward, wrapping his free arm around Haldir's waist and pressing his cheek to the taller elf's chest. "I missed you so much."

"We'll do better this time," Haldir said, his words muffled in Melpomaen's dark hair, and received a fierce nod in response.

He did not loosen his grip on the younger elf as he walked them slowly around the end table to the new sofa. Together they sank down onto it, their embrace turning awkward as they settled into a side-by-side pose. Reluctantly, Melpomaen released his hold, his hands drifting upward to press against Haldir's cheeks, palms meeting beneath his chin. "Erestor told me that sometimes we have to choose to accept some of what we don't like in order to be happy. Maybe I'm not having to accept as much as I originally thought."

"Melpomaen," Haldir said. His eyes flickered downward, but with his face held in Melpomaen's gentle grasp there was no way to escape the young elf's darkly luminous gaze for long. Their eyes met again, and Haldir spoke slowly, carefully, bringing words forth as laboriously as if he were mining gold from the earth. "It is not easy for me to relax, not easy to quit being the March Warden of `Lorien. It's not easy to forget things that should be forgotten. I fear I made it seem that you would have to accept a lot in exchange for very little."

"Maybe if I'd been more open with you sooner, we could have had this talk a long time ago. And things would have gone differently," Melpomaen replied, letting his hands drop from Haldir's face.

"Do you want to go back to my room?" Haldir asked, and Melpomaen smiled and shook his head.

"No, Haldir, not this time." Melpomaen's eyes briefly lowered, and when he met Haldir's gaze again it was through a fringe of dark lashes. "This time I want to go slow so we don't miss a single thing."

Chapter Text

Steam rose in an aromatic haze, swathing the elves on the bath's ledges in wispy clouds of grayish white. Both males and females shared the hot water with a casual lack of modesty, chattering and laughing over the steady sound of rushing water. Actual washing was done behind the screens arranged at one side of the cavernous room, and those who now sat or reclined in the naturally heated pool did so for a chance at relaxation or an opportunity to catch up on the city's gossip.

"Well, I for one was shocked that Haldir decided to take up with Melpomaen again. That young one must have something going for him if Haldir's willing to live with him," one of the females said as she swiftly wrapped a towel about her long, silver-blond tresses. "I'd thought sure that he'd be too proud for that."

"Aye," another commented, her eyes rolling toward the first speaker. "Do you remember when Brielle complimented Haldir on his eyes at the festival? I swear, if looks could kill, Brielle would be trading stories with Mandos now!"

"Aye, he's a proud one. And I suppose he has a right to be, though I can't say that I'm too impressed with that `cut above' manner of his."

"Melpomaen must not mind it," one of the males said, splashing water at the girl reclining on the ledge. "But then again, I've heard Haldir has other sterling qualities of which we know nothing." He grinned wolfishly. "They are living together, after all."

The maiden with the wrapped hair giggled. "And doubtless Melpomaen is thrilled on a variety of levels. That place he was living in was simply awful."

"Well, whoever would have thought a student librarian would want his own talan!" The second female sat upright, wiping her face with the back of her hand and casting the male elf a mock glare. "I could have told him he'd not be able to afford it, and I work in a tavern!"

"Watching them move made washing windows a much more pleasurable undertaking," another female said as she idly inspected her fingernails. "Haldir took his shirt off."

"He didn't!" the second female exclaimed, leaning forward abruptly. Water sloshed, and the first female scowled.

"He did, Mara, and I saw the whole thing." Her smile turned wicked. "And there's a bit more to him than there is to the average elf, and all of it looked good from my angle, if a tad on the pale side."

"I don't believe I've ever seen Haldir less than fully dressed," the first female said, a trifle dryly, "and I'm not sure that I'd care to see him so."

"Oh, you," Mara said, rolling her eyes. "You just don't want to admit that you're curious. Fortunately, I will assuage that curiosity anyway; I can tell you that all that bulk is pure muscle."

"Well, we could have guessed that. I daresay I've never heard of a flabby March Warden."

"Even with those cheeks?" the male asked snidely. The second female giggled and splashed at him with her toes, once more upsetting the towel turbaned female.

"They're cute! Like a chipmunk's cheeks."

"Ai, Elbereth, don't let him hear you say that! You'll be reduced to a cinder along with poor Brielle!" the male retorted. Mara pouted.

"Well, at any rate, it took less time than I'd thought it would for them to wrestle all that heavy, antique furniture to their new place. You'd have thought Haldir would have sprung for new."

"He's probably broke after redecorating his old talan for Rumil and Orophin," the second female interjected. "I heard from Liiane that he paid for all of that."

The male elf shook his head perplexedly. "I just can't understand why he went to all that expense just so he could move out a year later. And not to take a bit of it with him, either!"

"Maybe he thought of it as compensation for his brothers having to put up with him," the first female said with a grin, and the second female frowned.

"Stop it, Laurelle. I know from talking to Liiane that he's not so bad. Just a bit… overbearing at times. And he's loosened up a lot here lately."

"Aye," Mara said, stretching back languorously. "He took Melpomaen dancing at the Swan. Now that was a sight; it looked like they couldn't make up their mind who was leading."

"Males." Laurelle rolled her eyes. "Though I suppose that underneath it all, one couple isn't very much different from another."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that," the solitary male elf remarked, casting Laurelle a look of mock annoyance. "I think you need to sample the company of more males to know that for sure, and I'd be happy to aid you in your research."

Laughter mingled with the rising steam, easy and companionable, identical with the laughter shared between two other elves in a talan not so far away.