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Before coming to Imladris, Legolas Greenleaf had met very few dwarves, and had never spent much time in their company. What he knew of that folk was what he had heard other people say; and they would mention beards, pride, and greed for gold and gems – this last one with a contempt that Legolas thought uncharitable, since surely no other race, his own included, was exempt of such desires.

After traveling only a few weeks with one of Durin's Folk, Legolas had seen enough to form his own opinion: what was remarkable about this particular dwarf was not his beard nor his pride, though both were considerable, but his hands.

For it seemed to him that the hands of Gimli, son of Glóin, were never empty and still, save when he slept.

Whenever their company was on the move, he would always have a weapon to hand, for he used his long-hafted axe for a walking-stick, and when they set up camp, his hands would be busy building a fire, clearing the ground, caring for his own gear– or anyone else’s who would let him, this being mostly the Periannath who had never taken such long journeys in the wild. 

If nothing else occupied him, the dwarf would take out a small knife, whittle out long shavings of wood, and weave them into palm-sized balls filled with dry grass and whittling chaff– to be used for kindling when needed, as Legolas heard him tell young Peregrin. And failing all else, he would sit at their dying fire with the bowl of a long-stemmed pipe cupped between his fingertips, breathing strong-smelling smoke.

Even as he spoke, it appeared to Legolas that he would talk as much with gestures as he did with words.

Legolas would be strangely drawn to watch Gimli’s hands at those times. They were not unpleasant to look at: broader than his own, and strong-fingered, with a dusting of rust-brown hair between the knuckles, moving with animate eloquence to lend emphasis or bring clarity to words when needed. Legolas was reminded of the tales he had heard of the dwarven silent language of hand-signs, and found himself now easily believing what he had once dismissed as story and rumour.

*  *  *

There was a silence among their Company as they entered the many-fabled wood of Lothórien, but it was no companionable quiet of easy travels, for they walked blind, nor was the hush of joyous awe, for they were newly stricken with grief. Yet the Golden Wood would offer them rest, and for some, surprises beyond reckoning.

Legolas Greenleaf had come prepared to find any number of marvelous things, yet he had not had foresight enough to predict his most unexpected and precious discovery – the friendship of Gimli son of Glóin. 

Improbably slow had been the nights spent wandering beneath the winter-golden leaves, yet with each hour the two of them had walked further upon paths of their very own making: from kinship of spirits towards fondness of hearts. Legolas knew this newly close companionship perplexed their fellow travelers, but it felt to him they were only seeing the swift new growth of seeds planted in the dark days before. He remembered hearing a proud song of longing echo in the high empty vaults of a once-great city and realm, and how it had moved the depths of his heart, and recalled witnessing great prowess in combat, sharpened and tempered by a grief even greater, and he remembered the very end: the shared horror of shadow and flame.

And now he was taking his last sight of Lórien without blossom, with his friend – newly-found, yet already dear – behind him on the boat.

‘I have taken my worst wound in this parting,’ said Gimli then, and Legolas felt roiling within himself the same strange and bitter feeling he had first known when watching the dwarf clasp into his hand the token of Lady Galadriel, won with words both bold and courteous where more high-handed lords had failed before him. Legolas had turned his gaze away from the unabashed look of awe upon his friend’s face then, deeply troubled in his heart. But in this tiny vessel no such recourse, for he could not unhear the longing in Gimli’s voice, no more he could unsee his hands upon the haft of a leaf-shaped paddle, steering them downstream with slow, steady strokes.

It might be unseemly of him to be jealous, yet Legolas could not help but wonder: if his silver-tongued friend were to speak words of love, what manner of speech might his clever hands make then? This was a most queer turn for his thought to take, and Legolas did not know what to make of it.

*  *  *

Many days and countless leagues later, Legolas now knew what he had had no wish of ever knowing: that his friend had gentle hands for laying out the dead – and that he would throw away his own life without a thought to give Gimli a chance to breathe a heartbeat longer. And he knew the feel of Gimli’s arms around his middle as he rode pillion, and the solid strength of him guarding his back, and knew it for a good feeling.

But he would be glad if he could be spared from ever recalling the long dark hours he had spent bereft of that comforting company, shut inside the great keep of Helm while the enemy raged against the walls, waiting for the first light and the order to ride out, to meet the dawn and the glorious death. Wondering, without daring to hope, if he would ever know what had become of the one who had grown so dear to him. 

Yet the morning sun had not brought a swift and bitter end, but a hope unexpected and undreamed-of. 

And afterwards, in the scant hours before king Théoden would depart to summon the whole of his people to arms, Legolas sat vigil at Gimli’s bedside. He could not keep his eyes from the stillness of the dwarf’s strong hands upon the rough blanket, the knuckles blossoming with fresh bruises even though he had worn tough leather to protect them. He had worn a cap of steel as well, yet now had a newly clean bandage wound about his head. But a scratch, he had called it, a glancing blow. Yet if the blade had scored but an inch lower… Legolas shuddered and squeezed his own hands into tight fists in his lap to keep himself from reaching out and waking his friend for little reason.

As the noontide drew close, he touched gently at the back of Gimli’s hand, sorry for interrupting his well-earned rest, yet glad, for it did little good to sleep long with a head wound.

Dark eyes blinked open, alert and focused on him, and Legolas’s heart beat a little easier for it.

‘What is it?’ asked Gimli, his face contorting as he stifled a yawn.

‘It is noon, or nearly so. We must soon make ready.’

‘That much I guessed and did not need told.’ Gimli sat up, his gaze never leaving Legolas. ‘I meant whatever it is that makes you wear that look upon your face.’

Legolas opened his mouth, then closed it as quick. Gimli reached out and clasped his forearms, as warriors would do, his grip warm and strong and alive. ‘Tell me.’

And Legolas spoke the plain truth: ‘I thought of how I might have found you dead upon the field.’

‘It would have grieved you, then?’

‘I beg you not to mock me or our friendship by asking that,’ Legolas snapped, gripping him back fiercely. ‘Yes, it would have grieved me sorely.’

Gimli bowed his head. ‘I meant no insult, and would have you believe that I would have been greatly sorrowed, had the opposite occurred. For I am much honoured to be counted among your friends.’

‘Such dear a friend I never thought to find when first embarking on this journey,’ said Legolas softly, glad to feel the warmth and solid strength of Gimli’s arms under his hands. ‘And such affection comes with a fear of loss in these troubled times.’ A strange shiver passed through him as he spoke, hot and cold at once, bringing a flush to his face like the bite of a deep-winter frost, or the glare of high-summer sun.

‘If it did not, it would be little worth the name,’ said Gimli, looking intently at him. ‘But it does little good fearing for what might have been, yet was not, or what might come to pass on a day yet unlived.’ 

‘Is that not why we fought today, and will fight in the days after– for fear of what might come to pass if we do not?’

‘No. We fought to live another day when Mordor has not triumphed, and finally, to see our fears come to nothing.’

‘Do not try on me your clever words and trickery– that is the same thing I said myself.’ Legolas was leaning forward, close enough now to see the corners of Gimli’s eyes crinkle as he smiled.

‘No tricks,’ said Gimli, ‘only my honest thought.’

Legolas moistened his lips, his mouth strangely dry of a sudden. He did not know what he was about to do, only that he did not wish to let go of Gimli, not now, and perhaps not ever.

A horn sounded down in the courtyard: a five-note signal that felt like to startle them both.

‘It must be noon,’ said Gimli, and reached for his boots. 

Legolas let his hands fall into his lap, empty and oddly bereft. ‘So it must be,’ he said. He looked about them and saw the room already half-empty, only those remaining now who were not fit to ride.

‘A time for everything,’ said Gimli and shrugged into his padded jerkin. ‘Now is the time for us to go and put the fear of our blades into enemy hearts, if our luck still holds.’ He paused, then slowly, hesitantly, touched his hand to Legolas’s cheek. ‘Then, perhaps, one day, will be a time for merrier things.’

The memory of his hand lasted far longer than the simple touch itself, lingering as they rode down from the fort and past the strange forest that had sprung up overnight, out of the valley and onto the wide grasslands. And Legolas felt almost guilty to have such great joy in his riding companion, on such a grave errand as theirs. Yet he could not help the bright swell of his heart at their quiet conversation, at Gimli’s very presence, alert or dozing, made known to him by the shifting weight against his back, and the reassuring circle of his arms around his middle.

If their luck held, he thought, if they both came out alive into a time of peace beyond this present struggle, he would not want for anything if they only could go on wandering the lands as they did now.

But those journeys of imaginary bliss might forever remain in the land of might-be, while beneath the true sky of Middle-earth their path was forced upon them by a great haste in a greater need – and it led them on the dreaded Dimholt Road, and through the darkness beyond.

*  *  *

The sight of the night-dark sky, sprinkled with a handful of stars after the oppressive weight of the mountain above them was almost as welcome to Legolas as the sound of Arod taking a full, shuddering breath of the cool air after the fearful panting that had got him through the tunnels. He walked the horse a little ways to the side of the path, then turned back towards the tunnel mouth and waited. He knew Gimli had walked in behind him; he had heard him, and heard him well.

Many dúnedain passed him with their horses, then finally, Elladan carrying the last of their torches. The high-arched gateway stood empty and darker than the stone around it. Darker by far than the sky above them.

When had it been that Legolas had last heard the sound of Gimli’s footsteps? Before they had passed the closed door and the unfortunate’s bones, perhaps– Legolas found he could not tell, for the time had felt oddly slow in the bone-dry darkness of those caverns, loose like a rope carelessly coiled and dropped, and his mind had been fully on Arod, who even now was moving his feet restlessly, eager to be gone from this place and the cold breath of the mountain.

He would need to go back. Legolas was already looking about for Aragorn as he heard it clear through the snorting and scuffing of nervous horses: the scrape of steel-shod boots on stone, and never had any sound been so welcome to his ears.

It was too dark for him to see Gimli’s face clearly as the dwarf at last came stumbling out, but his laboured breathing was plain to hear.

‘Are you hurt?’ Dropping to his knees, Legolas felt out the breadth of his chest, the length of his arms, without knowing what he sought, for what manner of injury could the shades of Men possibly inflict upon still-living flesh? Certainly something grave enough, he realized with a sudden grim clarity, else they would be of little use as allies of war.

But Gimli batted off his hands. ‘I am well enough,’ he grumbled, yet his face felt cold to the touch, and his cheeks were wet as if with tears.

‘Forgive me,’ whispered Legolas urgently, ‘for leaving you.’

‘No. You did as needed to be done.’ Gimli stood up straight and beat dust off his clothing with rapid flicks of his hands. ‘Now let us be away from this accursed place!’

And so the company mounted and dashed down the hills with a madman’s haste, and Legolas felt Gimli’s hands tremble against his middle, and it was as if he carried all the chill of the Dimholt Road within his very body. He spoke no more, and this heavy silence brought more dread to Legolas than the shades of Men ever could. 

At midnight, they reached the Stone of Erech upon its hill, and there set up camp, with the summoned host of Oathbreakers surrounding them, silent and out of sight, yet present, like the fading of mist, or the sound of a whisper beyond the cusp of hearing. 

Like many of the rangers, Legolas started a small fire of grass and twigs. But even with no wind to disturb it, the flame was slow to catch, and puny and weak when it finally did. Any other time, he knew, Gimli would have long since scoffed at his efforts and set to the task himself. But now the dwarf sat statue-still, as if grown from the hill itself, wrapped in his cloak and his own chill silence both, and Legolas did not ask. 

Instead, he kept feeding the struggling little fire, and poured some water into the much-traveled plate-steel mug he had taken from Gimli’s pack, setting it at the very edge of the flames. Then he waited, letting the capricious heat warm his face, and watched the flickering light reflect dull and distant from Gimli’s eyes, fixed far into the surrounding darkness. As the water began to slowly steam and simmer, Legolas poured it into his own wooden cup. A fresh green scent wafted up from the crushed leaves at the bottom: thyme, nettle and sage – if only they would now work as potently for the chills of the spirit as those of the body! Be as it may, Legolas had to try. He curled his fingers around the smooth-sanded wood and took some small comfort in the sweet-smelling steam as the drink steeped.

‘Here,’ he said a little while later, ‘drink it while it’s still hot.’ He pressed Gimli’s unresisting fingers around the warm cup, and ai , but they were cold beneath his hands.

‘No,’ said Gimli, shaking his head, his movements slow as of one barely awake. ‘There’s no need.’

‘Don’t lie to me,’ said Legolas. ‘Warm your hands at least. Please.’ 

‘Leave off– I don’t care for your pity.’ He made to push the cup back to Legolas, who pushed back, uncaring for the hot liquid splashing and burning across the back of his hand.

‘You’re mistaken,’ he said firmly. ‘It’s not pity.’

‘What else would you have it be?’ Gimli snapped back, and Legolas was unaccountably glad for even this little spark of his usual temper. ‘What else is good for a dwarf who would lose his courage and wits beneath a mountain? Who would so dread the darkness under stone–’

‘No,’ Legolas interrupted him. ‘You overcame. Or did you not see the bones of that one poor fool who did not– who did lose his wits in the end?’

‘Easy words for you to speak– what are a mortal’s fears to you?’ Gimli huffed sharply. ‘Dust in the wind.’

And it had been a long time indeed – or so it felt to Legolas, who well knew it was barely months – since such harsh words had been last spoken between the two of them.

‘Fears of a friend weigh heavy on me, mortal or not,’ he said softly. ‘Will you not let me help?’

‘You cannot,’ said Gimli, with his head bowed, and the still-steaming cup held forgotten between his two broad hands. ‘And I will not speak of it.’

‘Then do not,’ Legolas agreed – to this statement, if not the other. ‘But let us share a meal at least. It does no harm even if it gives no aid.’

To this, Gimli said nothing. But after a moment’s consideration, he took a taste of the warm drink, then another. ‘Share, you said?’ he then suggested.

Legolas did not take the offered cup, but instead pressed his hands tight over Gimli’s, grateful to feel some warmth already returning to them, and took a sip, breathing deep on the scent of summery green. When he looked up, there was a puzzled kind of frown over Gimli’s dark eyes, but he made no question.

‘It is true that I do not fear the shades of Men,’ Legolas admitted, ‘nor did I dread their underground paths. But the wood that guards it, the one they’ve named Dimholt– that chilled my blood.’ He took another swallow of warmth to calm the cold queasiness that sought to well up again within him. ‘With my eyes, I could see the trees, tall and green, yet with my heart… I could sense no life in them, no spirit. I do not know how such a thing can be, but I wish it was not.’

They sat a while in silence, and Legolas could feel the tension in Gimli’s hands beneath his own. Gently, he rubbed his thumbs across Gimli’s knuckles, feeling the smooth shape of bone beneath the scabs of half-healed hurts. Gimli sighed, and his breath brushed warm over their joined hands.

‘Yet for all our wishing, it was, and it is,’ he said. ‘And it cannot be changed.’ He fell silent again, and it would be a long time indeed before he next spoke of the Dimholt Road.

All around them, men were settling themselves down in the winter-dead grass, for what little rest they might gain, and Gimli soon did the same, wrapping himself so tight in the cloak of Lórien that only the tip of his nose and a stray wisp of beard showed beneath the hood. As for Legolas himself, the only weariness he felt was in his heart, and this bare hilltop, with the clouds gathering heavy and dark above them was no place to ease it. But perhaps he might yet help another, if not himself.

‘It is a cold night,’ he said, without expecting an answer, and lay down with the whole length of his body pressed against Gimli’s back, spreading his own cloak over the both of them. The dwarf still said nothing, but when Legolas found his hand, he did not pull it away, and Legolas held it in his own all through that long, long night, until the pale dawn that had no strength to warm them. And to himself, and to the stars watching shrouded and distant upon them, he swore that never again, as long as there was breath and heart left in him, would he let his friend to do battle alone.

*  *  *

The land of Lebennin was fair and green and rich with gardens, or so the songs had told Legolas; but none if it could he see as their company swept through. All about them was grey and silent and empty, and not with the expectant quiet of early spring, but with the fear that the winter might never come to an end. He did not know which was more to blame: the chill of the Dead that dogged at their heels and trailed in their wake, or the oppressing pall of unnatural darkness that knew neither night nor day, but he hoped it would soon pass.

All through this desolate land they rode, and among the grim and quiet company none was more so than Gimli son of Glóin. As the days wore on, his eyes grew as hard and cold as the blade of his axe, now sharpened fine enough to split wind in twain, if the chill air about them should ever be persuaded to move. Legolas had seen him make ready for battle before, but such single-mindedness sat ill with him, and made him watchful.

Yet perhaps he need have worried more for his own self. As the leagues grew shorter and the river drew closer, the sky turned no lighter, but on the day they first joined battle, his own fate also caught up with him, its white wings bright against the starless and sunless gloom.

He was on foot, speeding down a lane between leafless trees, chasing and gaining on his enemy, the grim joy of the hunt burning bright in his veins, and one ear trained on another set of running steps close behind him.

Their company had not come in secrecy, but with a great noise, with a sudden charge of armed riders and a clang of steel upon armour and flesh, and the sound of their coming startled up a flock of seabirds from their roosts. 

Clawing the air with their bone-pale wings, they sped upwards, calling to each other in high, strident voices.

The sound pierced Legolas’s heart, caught and pulled, like a dozen fishing-spears, and he stumbled, hands falling to his sides, their movement uncompleted, their purpose in this place defeated. His feet turned on their own, like half in a dream, away from the fray and to a straighter course, to where the water beckoned with a rich scent of salt.

He heard a clash of steel, but it came to his ears far-off and distant, and did not touch him. Someone screamed in great pain, but it was muted and dull beneath the sound of birds, and quickly cut off. The grey sunless fields and the huddled grey houses wavered and dimmed before his eyes, overlaid with a brilliant vastness of water, bright with unclouded sun and awash with its own living light.

And then he came to a stop, held in place by a force he could not move. Blinking, he looked down into a pair of dark eyes glaring up at him. ‘Gimli,’ he said. ‘Unhand me, please.’

‘Not yet, I think. Not until you tell me what struck you.’ The hands on his arms gripped tighter.

‘...seagulls,’ Legolas whispered, his eyes drawn up to the circling birds.

‘Do not jest–’ Gimli stopped with a frown. ‘Are you hurt in the head?’

‘No…’ But there was a cold stain upon his cheek, and as Legolas touched it, his fingers came away sticky with blood.

Gimli shook his head. ‘It’s not yours, that much I know.’ He stepped slightly back to hold him at an arm’s length. ‘Tell me true, he demanded, looking him over with keen eyes, 'are you unharmed?’ And now Legolas could see the axe holstered in his belt: the blade was still bare, the over-sharp edge stained dark.

‘Yes.’ Legolas drew a deep breath to steady himself, yet a shiver stole through him as the birds kept calling high overhead, and for a sliver of a moment, for half a heartbeat, he was tempted– not for the Sea, but for the solid strength that had stopped him, for the hands gripping him steadfast and true when both his mind and sight had become a perilous quagmire. How he longed to simply crumble, to fall forward into Gimli’s arms and take comfort in him, but that was a luxury he could ill afford. 

He was still standing, was he not, still holding his bow– and to his surprise, a single arrow, hanging loosely between two fingers of his right hand. He felt his face heat with a sudden flush of shame at being so easily overcome by distraction. ‘How goes the fight?’ he asked. 

Gimli shrugged and nodded towards the far-off glimmer of the river in the East. ‘Barely worth the name– they’re in a rout already.’

'Then we should give pursuit, should we not?' Legolas sought to lay into his voice all the false eagerness that would have him take the trail South. But that was not his purpose here, no matter what sleeping curse in his blood the birds had awoken.

Yet as Gimli released him, he swayed forward in spite of himself, almost as if the force that had pulled him to the shore had now changed its course.

Gimli put out his arms to steady him. ’So you are unwell.’

‘It will pass,’ Legolas claimed even as he leaned his weight onto Gimli, then shook his head sharply. ‘No, that is a lie.’ And he squeezed his eyes tight against the tears that would fall, rising with a burning tide from the hollow place newly scraped into his heart. 

'And in truth, I am hurt,' he confessed, 'even if the wound does not bleed. But I beg of you: let us not speak of it until such time when the pain is not so freshly bitter.' He gathered himself and turned to look to the river. 'Then you may pity my lot, but not before.' For on that sunless hour, the full, cruel measure of his fate had dawned to him, together with the choice that it would exact from him. Ai , to be saddled with a longing that would not be eased by another’s embrace, but only by forever departing from it! 

The only thought more bitter was that it had taken such pain for him to finally know his own heart.

'And I would beg of you: never believe I would offer pity to such a brave, proud soul as my friend here.' Gimli ran the comforting weight of his hands down Legolas's back, and somehow this simple act of kindness was the one that balanced him. The winter-dead grass was pale and dry once more, with no foam-glimmer of wave, and the birds, still unsettled, were merely a flock of seagulls on wing.

Almost the same, but not quite. Never more so.

*  *  *

Anduin was not the Sea, yet the deep dark silence of the Great River at night held in its heart the song of Ulmo, for all rivers flowed down to the sea in the end. 

But tonight, they rowed upstream, to find ruin or to take victory before the White City of Gondor. Legolas had promised they would speak, and now was the time. He found Gimli at the prow of the grandest ship, looking out upon the dark waters. Coming to stand beside him, he laid his hand upon Gimli’s where it rested on the gunwale, and took comfort in the warmth of his skin against his own.

‘I would offer an explanation,’ he said quietly. ‘For what befell me in the battle.’

‘I believe I can guess part of it,’ said Gimli. ‘Seagulls, you said. And I recall a certain missive that made mention of them.’

Legolas nodded, twining his fingers between Gimli’s, yet without daring to look at him. ‘Beware of the Sea – those were her words, and the fool that I am, I thought myself quite safe, with many leagues between myself and the shore. Yet the longing came over me, just as she warned it would, with more force than I could have imagined.’

‘The longing for the Sea, you mean?’

‘For the Sea, for the sailing, for the Uttermost West,’ Legolas sighed and bowed his head. Below, the waters whispered of wind and tide and the end of the journey, and he heeded them not.

‘I am sorry that it should pain you so.’ Gimli leaned closer, which should have calmed Legolas, but now only made his remaining breath stick in his throat and tangle around the words he would say.

‘I should thank you for the pain’ he managed, hopelessly inadequate. ‘It’s for your sake only that I still walk this earth to feel it!’ Afterwards, when his thoughts had been his own again, he had realised that it did not matter to the Sea or the land beyond whether he arrived in flesh or in spirit, and the thought made him sick in his heart. 

‘Durin’s beard,’ he could hear Gimli mutter under his breath. ‘I could not have done otherwise,’ he said aloud, ‘but I would be glad if it were to be the last and only time. Never have I so feared for another’s life.’ His voice cracked in the end, and Legolas squeezed his hand tighter. 

‘Forgive me,’ he whispered.

‘No need. It’s over and done with, I say. Besides–’ and now Gimli laid his other hand over Legolas’s, and the elf felt his heart jump as his hand was so enclosed, the now-familiar hot-and-cold flush stealing upon his face unseen in the dark– ‘there’s no counting such debts and services between those of one heart.’

Behind them, wood creaked, and men grunted as they worked against the current. Each oar made a quiet splash as it slipped into the river, the sound magnified into a soft, rhythmic swoosh by their sheer number. Under their feet, water parted before the sharply curving prow of the ship, but if it made a sound, Legolas did not hear it; it was as if he had become deaf to all else save Gimli’s voice, echoing over and over in his head, low and soft, and as tender as the hands holding his own.

And to think how close he had come to never knowing this, to living out all his countless years without ever knowing the sweetness of being loved in return!

With his pulse beating rabbit-fast in his throat, Legolas took Gimli’s both hands in his own, his breath shuddering aloud between his lips as strong thick fingers slotted so very easily through his own. Something new awakened within him then: a restless, hungry urgency that made his clothes feel too tight upon his body, and Gimli’s hands in his own like the only right thing in the world, yet too little; for this, too, he now learned: to love was to yearn– for a touch, for another’s skin, for the feel of their heartbeat against one’s own. He stooped forward until his forehead rested against Gimli’s, and heard him draw a startled breath of his own. ‘Those who share one heart,’ said Legolas, and his voice sounded strangely low and rough to his own ears, his words stumbling, too fast in their eagerness, ‘would they not also share their pleasures?’

‘If they live out the day, I’m sure they will,’ said Gimli, so close now that Legolas could feel his warm breath upon his face.

Legolas had no words to answer him with. He still did not know exactly what he was about to do as he leaned in, but soon discovered that there was great joy to be had in the learning.

He had thought it would be strange, as any new thing was, and it was true that he didn’t know where to put his hands, or how to tilt his head so that they wouldn’t bump noses by accident rather than design – but sharing soft laughter from another’s lips was new to him as well, and that was a delight.

What he had not expected was the gentleness, and how it brought no relief to the longing that burned and sparked through his veins. It was as if each slow, tentative slide of their mouths together, each soft, warm taste of Gimli's lips, or the wiry brush of his beard against Legolas's skin, the iron-and-smoke tang wafting into his nostrils as he buried his nose into the thicket of curling hair– it felt to him like it only pulled the need closer to the surface, until his whole skin felt like it might crackle and burst at the slightest touch–

And then he noticed the tremble in Gimli's hands as they carded through his hair to gently tilt his head into the kiss, felt the hitch of his breath as Legolas clutched him closer, heard the sound of what would have been a moan if it hadn't been smothered into the cling of their mouths– and he realised that perhaps Gimli, too, was keeping a rein on himself, as desperate and wanting as he was.

With a heaving breath he pulled away, if only far enough to look Gimli in the eye in the faint light of the ship's lantern. 'We will live out the day,' he vowed, and with all his might he willed the words not to be empty, else he might not convince his hands to ever let go.

'Fates willing,' Gimli whispered back, and their next kiss, still too chaste, still too sweet, became a promise as binding as any oath put into words.

*  *  *

It was the night after the battle, and in a rented room bartered with what little trade they still carried on them, Legolas Greenleaf no longer cared for things that other people might have to say about dwarves, their beards or hands or otherwise.

What he was learning to know, with great delight and certainty, was that the hands of this one dwarf, this Gimli son of Glóin, made his body sing with pleasure like no others ever had before and like no others ever would.

They had spoken, at first, seated on the too-narrow bed, hands clasped in hands, and Legolas had learned he would not be the first to know Gimli in the way he was about to, and it had shaken him, for all that he had known their ways were different. But then Gimli told him he had never considered marriage; that he had thought himself one of those who would walk alone through this life and the next.

'But I was wrong,' he said, 'I was merely waiting to find you.'

Legolas had told him then; that they could be wed before the night was out, in the manner of his people. If they both were willing. And Gimli had not answered him yea or nay, had simply taken his hands, and kissed both of his palms, then the inside of his wrists, where his pulse beat heated and quick, and it had been enough. Enough for Legolas to lose himself, mind reeling for the love of him, desperate to finally kiss him without restraint, to feel his hands on his body and skin.

He only stopped at the sight of him, of this stranger become friend, who loved him like he had no other; all his solid strength, once hidden beneath layers of clothing and armour now lay bare, his big hands pressed to the mattress above his head, fingers curling around Legolas's own, the gaze meeting his soft and dark with desire. Mine, came the whisper unbidden to his lips. Mine, for this night, and all those that would come after.

It was like a feast where could not choose where to begin, and it was like drowning alive; he could not get enough air, yet he felt filled to overbrimming, trembling and brittle as Gimli's hands traced sweetly-aching paths over his skin, drawing notes of pleasure yet unheard-of from his body. Yet he could not surrender, not fully, for his own curiosity burned to explore and to discover what he himself might do to bring the same delight to his beloved. 

All that he could, he would learn in this one night, for their time together would be short, and likely made even shorter by ill luck and an enemy's hand. 

But they had both chosen to be part of this fight, just as Legolas himself had chosen his lot: to love, and to be loved, and to know the full joy of it. And this he deemed a fair price for any grief that might come to him on a day not yet lived.