The celebrations for Aragorn’s coronation lasted well into the night, and when morning dawned, Gimli awoke with a soft grunt and a roaring headache. His memory was blurred, but he recalled warmth and levity, surrounded by good friends and good ale, and decided the evening a success. He rubbed at his eyes, feeling his brain pulse.
“Ach, Mahal’s beard.” He groaned.
Beneath him, his pillow stirred.
Gimli’s eyes flew open and he sat up far quicker than intended, alarmed. The room swam and he let out a deep groan, pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes.
“Indeed.” His pillow murmured softly and Gimli twisted to find Legolas curled on the floor behind him, looking as serene as if he hadn’t drunk a drop, which Gimli knew was a falsehood because his blurry memory distinctly recalled the laughter in the Elf’s face as he challenged him to a rematch of their drinking contest. Legolas drank nearly as much as he did, if not more.
And then, apparently, if their current positioning was to be believed, they collapsed on the floor in an out of the way alcove to curl together in sleep. Gimli felt a flush rise heavy on his cheeks and he cleared his throat roughly. Apparently, his subconscious self was far more honest of his most secret desires in sleep than he would like.
“How do you fare?” He asked as Legolas tucked his legs beneath him neatly.
“I have been better, but I am not unwell.” The Elf admitted, reaching up to rub delicately at his eye.
Gimli watched him for a moment, marveling at his ability to look as though he’d just awoken from a restful sleep with nary a hair out of place. “I doubt you are as bad off as I, laddie! My head feels as though Mahal himself beats his mighty forge within my very skull.”
Legolas laughed lightly. “Indeed, for I recall clearly you drinking much in celebration. Not even a Dwarf, as hardy as you are, may awake from that whole and well!”
Gimli shoved at him half-heartedly and Legolas allowed himself to fall, still laughing, against the wall. For a moment they regarded each other, smiling like fools. Finally, the Elf turned his head to examine their surroundings, a smile still gracing his lips, and it was then that Gimli saw it.
The braid was clumsy, crooked, thicker than any Elf would rightly wear, and Gimli’s heart expanded to fill his throat. It was clearly a Dwarf braid, and it was even more clearly a drunken attempt at courtship braids – anyone with the knowledge who looked upon Legolas now would recognize the braid for what it was and assume the Elf claimed.
It was by far the cruelest torture he could have imagined.
Gimli wet his lips, wondering how best to proceed – for what choice did he have but to confess to Legolas what he had done and in so doing, reveal the deepest secret he’d long since buried within his heart? What choice did he have but to speak of that which he’d sworn to himself he would never speak, so to save them both the painful conversation and himself the shattering of his very heart?
What ending could this have but his witnessing Legolas combing the braid from his white-gold hair with those pale, slender fingers?
Ah, what a fool he was.
Legolas peered at him anxiously. “Are you well, mellon nin? Have you pain in your head?”
“Nay.” Gimli whispered hoarsely. “But I would speak with you.”
Legolas frowned, eyes raking over him, examining every inch of Gimli’s face. Gimli shifted uncomfortably beneath the Elf’s piercing gaze. A stray strand of hair slipped from Legolas’s mussed braids and fell into his eyes and Legolas reached up to brush it aside. His fingers brushed the braid Gimli had woven and he paused, blinking. A shiver raced down Gimli’s spine at the sight of Legolas’s fingers against the braid and for a single desperate moment he imagined that the braid were proudly worn.
Longing filled him, a longing so bitter and fierce that it closed his throat and burned his chest, but he found he could not look away.
Legolas’s fingers danced over the clumsy braid, following its path all the way down his scalp, and when his fingertips had reached their journey’s end, he turned wondering eyes on Gimil.
“How came I by this?” He asked, his voice even, and Gimli pressed his lips tightly together.
“I remember not.” He croaked, cowardice winning out against his pounding heart, and he felt his chest crack cleanly in two at the disappointment that flashed in Legolas’s eyes, feeling as though he had failed some kind of test.
“Shame.” Legolas said lightly, though his face was anything but. “I would have liked to know which Dwarf I have pledged myself to, for I know so few.”
Gimli swallowed dryly as Legolas tilted his head. “Although,” said the Elf quietly. “Perhaps this Dwarf regrets his mistake. Much happens under the influence of a fine ale, and there was much of that.” He laughed, a soft short sound without a trace of humor. “For what Dwarf would willingly bind himself to an Elf?”
He waited a beat, then two. Gimli did not move, though every fiber of his body yearned to move, to go to Legolas, screamed at him to open his mouth and finally speak the words that stockpiled on the tip of his tongue.
Finally, Legolas’s face emptied of any emotion, smoothing into an Elvish nonchalance that Gimli now recognized for the mask it was, and reached up to remove the ties keeping the braid in place.
Gimli sucked in a breath and found he could hold his tongue no more.
“Wait.” He jerked forward, clasping Legolas around the wrist. Legolas froze, examining him, his fingers on the braid.
“What?” He asked, and his voice was tight and low. “Speak your piece and be done, Gimli, so that we may never speak of it again.”
Gimli winced at his tone, faltering. Words failed him, vanishing as swiftly as they’d come, and he cursed his clumsy tongue. “I—” He cleared his throat. “I recall now that it was I who braided your hair last night.” He looked down and away with the confession. Legolas was still for several seconds, silent, and when Gimli did not elaborate, Legolas let out a soft breath.
“It is as I said.” He said quietly. “Many things can be influenced by the merriment of good ale.”
Gimli’s head jerked up as Legolas made another movement towards the braid, wrist twisting in Gimli’s grip. “You would remove it then?” He asked, and immediately wished his mouth sewn shut, for there was his pain and desperation and desire, laid bare in his words and tone for the entire world to hear.
Legolas’s eyebrows flew to his hairline. “Would you have me remove it?” He countered, his bold words belied by the liquid emotion in his eyes. Gimli’s mouth dried instantly, and his fingers curled around Legolas’s wrist, feeling the leap of the Elf’s pulse beneath the pad of his thumb.
“I… would not have you tied to me.” Gimli said carefully, and watched in dismay as Legolas’s face shuttered and the Elf leaned away. Desperately, he leaned closer, following Legolas’s retreat. “Nay, Legolas, that is not what—”
“I would not have you uncomfortable, mellon nin.” Legolas cried, reaching yet again for his hair, dragging Gimli’s hand with his own so that his knuckles brushed against feverish Elvish skin. “Allow me to remove it so you may stop gazing upon me with such dismay and we may speak plainly.”
“Just listen, you stubborn impossible Elf!” Gimli snapped and tugged Legolas’s hands down and away from his hair, clasping them between his own. Their hands fit together easily, worlds apart but yet painfully familiar. Gimli stared down at them for a moment, drinking in the sight. “You bid me speak my piece.” He murmured, tracing a thumb across Legolas’s knuckles and wondering at the tremor he caused. “Allow me to say it.”
Legolas bowed his head and Gimli looked up at the Elf, at the shower of white-gold that hung down over his face, at the braid that seemed to stare him in the face as though it had eyes of its own. He could not resist disentangling one hand and reaching up, brushing unsteady fingertips against it. It was indeed clumsy, made with fingers fumbling with the dulled instinct of drink. What he would give to redo it properly, to see the braids worn proudly in Elvish hair, to know that this feeling burning in his chest also burned in that of the Elf sitting so close to him on the floor!
Gimli took a deep breath, straightened his spine as much as he could while seated on a stone floor and fixed his gaze stubbornly upon Legolas’s face. “I would not have you tied to me, if you did not wish it. If you did…” Gimli cleared his throat, finding it difficult to speak. “If you did by some miracle I dare not dream of burn with the same unspoken secret as I, then I would sunder all that might keep me from you so that I might braid your hair thusly every morning.”
Stunned silence followed his declaration and Gimli moved to stare fixedly at the floor. Legolas’s hands remained clasped tightly in his own, and Gimli waited for them to be gently withdrawn, for the kind but firm rebuke, for his heart to be a burden to bear, treasuring their friendship above all else and yearning in silence for the rest of his days.
Then Legolas sighed, a soft and shaky exhale. “Foolish Dwarf.” He breathed, and Gimli winced, but Legolas pressed forward. “I would sooner lose every hair upon my head than remove this braid and pretend it did not exist.”
Gimli’s head jerked up and he gaped at Legolas, whose eyes held not the pity he had expected but rather a kind of wild joy. Legolas leaned forward and rested his forehead against Gimli’s, peering into his eyes. “I feared the ale was twisting your senses last night when you insisted on braiding my hair. Ah, and what a cruel torture it was, for I dared not hope…”
“Nor I.” Gimli’s voice was hoarse, roughened by emotion, and he felt as though his chest may burst with all the feelings contained within. “But for all my Dwarven courage I would have remained silent to the end of my days.”
“Aye, and I the same.” Legolas’s eyes twinkled and his lips tugged upwards in a smile. “But for last night when you insisted upon braiding my hair, all the while insisting I prettier than any of the Dwarves in Erebor, with the exception perhaps of your own mother.”
Gimli turned an abrupt scarlet, unable to stop the chuckle that bubbled forth from a chest light with relief. “Halt your tongue. Impertinent Elf.”
“Stubborn, beautiful Dwarf.” Legolas breathed, and surged forward to claim a kiss.
Sometime later, as both Elf and Dwarf arrived late to breakfast, sporting new braids and flushed countenances and pleased expressions, the High King of Gondor and Arnor rolled his eyes to the heavens in a very kingly manner. (However, those standing close to him at the time could report hearing such words as “at long last” and “stubborn fools”, and would note the teasing smirk upon the King’s face as he stood tall and lifted his goblet high in a toast.)