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The Dark Fire Will Avail You

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Long did Iaun stand there by the stones, shuddering and gasping for breath in the slowly-clearing air. He wiped his hand on the inside of his cloak, fearing nonetheless that there would be no hiding the stains of his stolen pleasure if Sérelókë’s full powers of observation were turned upon him.

Yet he scolded himself for thinking only of his own shame, when he watched that tall, mighty entity slowly fade - whip arm lowering till the flail-ends trailed on the ground, a fleeting image of silver streaks in the bloody dust.

The dust whipped up then as the outline vanished, and a small, slow whirlwind swirled across the field, ruffling the hair of corpses. It seemed to linger for a moment as the Balrog limped towards the forbidding black gates, and then as Gothmog turned, it seemed to dissipate.

It reappeared startlingly close to Iaun, and Iaun felt it in his hair like a touch, a breeze shivering his cloak back, and then a tingling sensation upon his skin and a hint of grit in his eyes. He closed them in reflex.

When he opened them again, Sérelókë lay at Iaun’s feet in his Eldar form, his fine clothing returned to him, if slightly ragged, and his chest heaving.

Iaun rushed to kneel by his side, but Sérelókë was already sitting up, running a shaking hand through his wild tangled hair tamped by the sweat of his exertion. He was smiling. “There you are, Iaun,” he said at the last. “You may have some hidden skill in observation after all, for it appears to me that you found a vantage point in safety, and missed not a moment of my victory.”

“I . . . was aided in that,” Iaun managed to admit as his face flushed hot.

“Yes, a steed of Oromë would be clever that way,” Sérelókë said, and now he seemed all recovered and the twist of his mouth was mirthful. Yet he slumped a little as he tried to rise to his feet, leaning at last upon his elbows in the dust. Iaun judged exhaustion the most likely cause, so he stood again, and reached out a hand to help Sérelókë to his feet. Sérelókë took it firmly and swiftly lifted himself as Certhasath trotted over to meet them.

“So . . . “ Iaun spoke again at last, once he had found his courage, after what seemed to him many turnings of the stars. “The Balrog . . . you . . . did that with . . . “

“Yes…?” Sérelókë said, after a pause that was nearly as long.

“Was, er . . . “ Iaun now resolved to blurt this quickly. “Was male.”

There was perhaps a half a star-turning before Sérelókë chuckled, low and deep. “Sound analysis. But I might wish for you to go deeper.” He gave Iaun a sideways glance.

“As are you. Male, I mean,” Iaun said quickly, longing to return that glance, and yet afraid.

“Well-spotted, thank you,” Sérelókë said.

“Of course I mean no imprecation,” Iaun babbled, “I mean, of course you must have noticed I am male myself….”

“I had noticed,” said Sérelókë with a longer gaze, and Iaun could no longer deny its lingering. “Now that we’ve established that the masculine form is not uncommon, I have to ask you what you hope to discern by such obvious statements.”

“Is . . . that common? In Valinor? Male with male? Female with female? Here, it is . . . sometimes done, but it is rare.”

Sérelókë fixed Iaun with a blazing stare before he nearly fell to the ground again with the force of the laughter that overtook him.

“I cannot believe . . . That you just witnessed me fucking one of the Valaraukar . . . And all you can think about . . . is that he was male! Though it was true, if I’d had a female . . . No.”

“Wait,” Iaun said, his pensive mood now changed. “There are female Balrogs?”

“Yes, of course there must be,” Sérelókë shouted, laughing. “Three or four that I know of. That idea frightens me far more!”

Sérelókë crossed his arms over his chest as laughter wracked him. Then for a moment his face crumpled as he clasped his own shoulder, and Iaun bristled at his sign of pain. Iaun called Certhasath close, wanting nothing more than to reach a safe place to rest. Obviously even Sérelókë was wounded and weary from his . . . trials. And any place of relative safety must be somewhere far from here.

Iaun mounted the horse without a thought to his scars, and started to reach a hand down to help Sérelókë up. Certhasath would bear them both anywhere they wished to go, as long as it was far from this place of death, he could read the horse that well at least. Certhasath had no more wish to linger here than Iaun did - of the Valar or not, like all horses he would want wholesome meadows to run in, fresh grass to eat; Yavanna’s gifts healthy and untainted, Manwë’s clean air to breathe, and none of those would be found in any quantity in this hostile and desolate place.

But Iaun hesitated and considered how the horse’s back should be allotted. He feared that, whether Sérelókë mounted in front of him or behind, there would be further rising of the knowledge of their mutual maleness, for although the worst of his desire had found recent relief, it would soon return again in force, with Sérelókë so close.

Now that Iaun knew that their sameness alone was not enough reason to lock away his desire, he feared even more to reveal it. He was small, he was crippled, he could not hope to be a fit match for Sérelókë’s wisdom and power. Sérelókë could be cruel, and he could also be kind, and Iaun did not know which type of disavowal he feared more.

Iaun resolved to make sure that Sérelókë rode behind him then, for if he rode afore, Iaun knew his own spire of courtship would manifest its vain hopes against Sérelókë’s body, and Sérelókë would perceive it quickly, and then Sérelókë might deem that he must take that moment say yea or nay. Iaun had not yet proved himself worthy, he knew, and scarce dared to hope that he ever might.

Certhasath wasn’t even his horse and Iaun knew it was not his place to decide. But as a healer, Iaun perceived that Sérelókë had the appearance of one winded and exhausted and riddled with many small wounds he did not deign to speak of, but still would need tending sooner or later, and Iaun wanted it to be sooner. And safety was yet far away. Iaun held out his hand. Sérelókë took it, and mounted behind him.

“Where shall we go now?” Iaun asked, grateful to ask such a simple question and push aside all the others.

“Doriath,” Sérelókë said, sliding his hands around Iaun’s waist. “And since you did not ask, I agree to ride behind because if you were at my back, you would see nothing. This way, there are six eyes to watch the road, not just four.”

Iaun could not miss the smile in his voice. “Doriath,” Iaun said “That’s ambitious. One cannot simply walk into that realm unbidden, nor can hope alone win one’s way within. There are guardians of stern aspect, and mazes to wander, where many have gone astray forever. There are tests of fearsome challenge, and above all the will of the lady who defends it.”

“I would expect no less,” said Sérelókë.

Iaun tried to ignore the steady rhythmic brush of Sérelókë’s thighs against his own with each of the horse’s movements, and the solid warmth that sometimes leaned against his back, the long-fingered hands that rested lightly on his sides to keep them both steady.

What frightened Iaun most was not the battle of wills Sérelókë had just won, or even the rather disturbing and violent congress that had followed - it was the changes Sérelókë had undergone, altering his body with the power of his thought into a being of terrifying power.

Certhasath huffed in relief and picked up speed as the ground leveled out. Though they wished to move briskly, there was now no urgent need, and therefore they could afford to take the long way round through the forest of Brethil.

Finally, Iaun brought himself to speak, as Sérelókë’s long arm reached around him to lightly tug on Certhasath’s mane, nudging him slightly to the west. Iaun felt a long leg behind him tighten and release against the horse’s sides, a slight canting of Sérelókë’s hips to counterbalance. Sérelókë’s body felt so solid and real against his back, not at all different from his own, and if he allowed himself, Iaun could push what he had seen back into the dusty reaches of his mind where he put so many things that he wished to forget.

But Sérelókë would not be well pleased by that. Sérelókë liked to have knowledge, the truth, out in the open. And Iaun could see the merit to it.

“You told Gothmog he was like you,” Iaun said. “That you and he are the same.”

“We once were,” Sérelókë said.

“So you are not-“ it seemed silly now, but Iaun had entertained the possibility. “A Vala yourself.”

Sérelókë laughed quietly, and Iaun could feel it against his back, a softly jerking vibration. “No, Iaun, I am not. I am a run-of-the-mill garden-variety Maia, sprung from the thought of Eru Ilúvatar in the same moment as the Valar, but of considerably lesser rank. We are legion, we take many forms, and not all of us are content with our lot.”

“You can change your body at will!”

“Yes,” Sérelókë said, “And now that I have given it deep thought, and seen its consequences in action, it’s worrisome to me that the Children of Ilúvatar cannot. It really is a useful ability.”

Iaun pondered this for a moment. “Well, I certainly was impressed by the use you made of it.” He let this hang in the air for a moment as he realized fully what he’d said, and then he began to laugh.

“Impressed is a word I haven’t heard very often,” Sérelókë said, and then he too shook in laughter, the muscles of his strong but very ordinary-seeming arms tightening a bit at Iaun’s sides as he heaved with it, breathing brokenly over Iaun’s neck.

“I don’t know what else I would call it,” Iaun said. “I doubt I could have survived that.”

“You could not,” Sérelókë said with certainty. “I had to alter my elemental composition, which is a tricky affair even under more stable conditions. It’s fortunate that I’ve so far managed to maintain useful connections with various spirits associated with water, because that was what I needed to shield myself and dampen Gothmog’s flame enough to conquer and endure him. He must have always have been of a fiery nature, but his essence has been altered and intensified and twisted by a Vala, the mightiest of them all, and there is power in Gothmog that is not his alone.”

“That was marvelous. I understood about half of it,” Iaun said, bristling all over with questions. He blurted out one that was dangerous, and yet safer than some that tingled on his tongue. “So the mightiest of the Valar is . . . the only one who always dwells here now?”

“I’m afraid that’s correct. That is why your people suffer so.”

“And . . . is that why the others have done nothing about him then? Because they can’t? Because he’s stronger than they are?”

“No,” Sérelókë said. “He could defeat any one of them alone, but he could not stand for long against the wrath of all combined. There are some who have keeping of the weaves of fate in which he himself is bound.”

“Hm,” Iaun said. “And they too are bound by its threads.”

“Yes, exactly,” said Sérelókë, and Iaun could feel him nodding. Indeed, Iaun could feel every movement he made and it was very distracting. If he leaned back but a little, he was sure he could listen for the steady beats of Sérelókë’s heart - whether they kept regular time like his own, or if that too was nothing more than a choice he could make.

Sérelókë smelled a little bit like sweat and blood, and Iaun found that reassuring. The scent of recent coupling was upon him also, little different from that of the men of Iaun’s own race, and that was both reassuring and not so.

And as Iaun sniffed and sensed, he knew that Sérelókë must be doing the same, with his wit and his senses much keener. What could he smell - Iaun’s past, his present? His anger and sorrow, his fear - his desire? What would Iaun choose to keep secret, if he could keep anything?

As the landscape began to gentle and mellow, they rode slowly into a forest that was nothing like Nan Dungortheb. The trees that closed in around them were healthy and hale, and birds sang and small creatures romped and chased naturally, even though there was a faint, dreamy haze.

The wind was strong, and cool, not cold - yet when it blew hard enough that Sérelókë’s cloak wrapped around Iaun’s right side, he held it there around himself, feeling strangely sheltered and warmed.

Certhasath was tired, and now at last was willing to let it show, as he slowed and occasionally stumbled. Up ahead, the forest deepened and the path seemed to waver and fade in the distance. Here where they stood, the ground was level and the spreading trees kept the forest floor relatively bare.

A clear stream ran along the path, shallow and deep by turns, shaded by leaning willows and hazels, singing with a reassuring clarity. Further down where the trees and brush opened a little, the water fell gently over sloping rocks and spread itself out into a quiet pool before continuing on its burbling way. It was a lovely little place that felt safe, and Iaun felt he could certainly do with a wash. He also felt that Sérelókë probably could as well, though he doubted he would be the one to suggest it.

“Certhasath is weary,” Iaun said. “And here at last, I think we are as safe as may be for now, and methinks even you must rest. Let me act as a healer once again, for in times past I took pride in it, and there are many who thank my name still. I must insist on the right to tend to your wounds.”

“Mm,” Sérelókë said in agreement, turning his head around to survey the site to his own satisfaction. And Iaun sat up straight and tensed as Sérelókë’s hands at last left their loose grip on his sides and ran boldly up Iaun’s chest, digging into his leather jerkin and pulling him close. “Yes, we must rest, that’s true.”

Iaun shivered as Sérelókë’s hand curled lightly around his throat and drew his head back. He might have expected a kiss or a strangling, but Sérelókë did neither. He nuzzled his nose in Iaun’s long hair and turned Iaun’s face around just enough to drag his lips down Iaun’s jaw. He lowered his face to kiss Iaun’s neck just above his collar, and nudge the leather aside with his nose, and then he bit down.

Iaun cried out in surprise and ecstasy. It would have taken him long to work up the courage to ask for this, for what he’d wanted ever since he laid eyes on this being. But he had not had to ask - it was given, and soon would be taken. He no longer needed to fear what Sérelókë knew, not in this regard at least. He leaned back into Sérelókë’s biting kisses to his neck, turning his head aside to show his openness, and bucked a little on the horse’s back when one of Sérelókë’s hands slid down to grasp him lightly between his thighs.

“I think,” Sérelókë murmured, in a deep vibrating voice that was as much sensation as sound, “you are right. We should dismount and camp here.”

His voice purred softly in Iaun's ear and Iaun nearly went limp at the pleasure of it -- all limp but for one part -- trying to keep from whimpering too much as Sérelókë’s tongue skittered along the edge of his ear. "I do not make assumptions, I make observations,” Sérelókë said. "If I have erred in this one, I trust you will let me know. But I perceived in your gaze and your pulse and your breath and the subtle changes in your scent at my close proximity and my touch, that you are drawn to me. That it has been long since you had a companion to fulfill your needs. That you are strong in your lusts once you know you are permitted to ask for what you want. And you should know by now," and here he gave Iaun's shaft a promising squeeze through his breeches, "that I am not one who will balk at . . . unusual requests.”

Iaun did not need to ask him how he knew. “You have not erred,” Iaun said quietly, still tingling from Sérelókë’s touch but holding still where he sat, with no idea of what his next move should be. “Not in this matter.”

Sérelókë moved back suddenly and braced himself on Certhasath's back as he swung down to the ground gracefully, his long legs bending in a supple way that captured Iaun's gaze, rapt as he admired their slender strength. Despite having seen that amazing performance with Gothmog, Iaun could not assume he knew what Sérelókë would look like unclad - this time, in the body he currently wore, which seemed so very compatible with Iaun’s own. Could it be different every time? Iaun’s head swam with confused desire, mild trepidation, uncertainty.

Sérelókë stood there smiling, the same breeze that rustled the leaves stirring his cloak and ruffling his strange, curling hair. He rested a hand on Iaun’s thigh for a moment before stepping back to give the Elf room to dismount without landing right upon him. Iaun’s shoulder twinged as he swung himself down, but his leg did not betray him as he landed almost in Sérelókë’s arms. Hands on his shoulders to steady him, Sérelókë leaned in close for just a moment, inhaling him. Iaun reached for him, and Sérelókë stepped back, just away enough, smiling with a threat and a promise.

“Is it safe to build a fire here?” Sérelókë asked.

“You’re asking me? You didn’t just . . . deduce it from the smell of the air and the sounds of the wild creatures?”

“I am new to this land, and you are the experienced woodsman between us,” Sérelókë said. Iaun knew he was showing respect and appreciation for Iaun’s own knowledge, and he felt a small pulse of gratitude.

“Safe enough,” Iaun said. “This forest is old and dense and wild, but not poisoned, not malicious. As fair a place to camp as any other. That water should be good to drink as well, and I’m sure I can find us at least a hare to eat.” Then a strange thought occurred to him, a question he never thought he’d need to ask anyone. “That is, I certainly do need food from time to time. Do you?’

Sérelókë paused and thought for a moment. “I have eaten on occasion, yes. I am starting to think I might need to more often here. Changing shape and shedding flesh was more difficult than it was in Valinor. I think I am becoming more . . . solid.” With a smile, he took Iaun’s hand and pressed it to his chest. A steady heartbeat pulsed there. Iaun felt something else flashing through him, a tingling warmth that made him jump, and then move his hand back, seeking for more of it.

“Let me look at you,” Iaun said, and his voice came out rasping. “I saw you wounded.”

“I healed.”

“I don’t trust that,” said Iaun, prepared to be stubborn.

“I will let you see for yourself,” said Sérelókë, and the heat in his eyes made Iaun shiver. “Go and hunt now, and tend to me later. You know my wounds will not kill me soon.”

I know I couldn’t survive the Balrog, Iaun thought. I am not certain I will survive you. But there is no fear that can stop me now.

Sérelókë smiled and drew away slowly, letting Iaun’s fingers trail down his belly, feeling firm warmth through the fine cloth that covered it.

If you are going to stay in this land long, I will see you in garb that protects you better, Iaun vowed silently, whether you believe you need it or not.

Iaun smiled and shouldered his bow and went hunting, grateful for the temporary relief from the pressure building within him. By the time he came back with two rabbits, Sérelókë had already kindled a bright, popping fire and sat beside it warming his hands. Sérelókë’s eyes tracked every one of Iaun’s small movements as he skinned and cleaned and cooked the little beasts, studying closely every detail of Iaun’s sharp knife at work on small bones and muscles. They ate in near-silence, and Iaun observed that Sérelókë tore into the meat with none of the delicacy he might have expected. “Builds an appetite, I’d imagine,” Iaun said with his mouth full. “What you did to Gothmog.”

Sérelókë wiped his mouth on his sleeve and turned to Iaun with grease-slicked lips smiling. “It appears I do need sustenance here,” he said. “To keep my strength up for the things I want to do to you.”

There was little meat left on the rabbit bone Iaun dropped, so he grieved it not. Quickly now he reached for his healer’s bag and looked at Sérelókë. “I remind you, I did not fail to notice you were wounded. Are you warm enough to undress for me?”

“Always,” Sérelókë said, his gaze steady and his voice deep and low.

So Sérelókë had not reconsidered his promises then, and he was no longer playing coy. Iaun watched those long white fingers unclasp his cloak-pin and lay that garment out on the ground behind him. Slowly Sérelókë unbuckled his belt and laid it aside - sword still close, Iaun noted with satisfaction. He was learning the ways of this land fast enough. His tunic had clasps at the shoulder to loosen its collar, and with a bit of a grunt he struggled to lift it up and over his head, leaning forward at last bare to the waist in the form he wore most often.

In the starlight, his skin was white and smooth over lean muscles and long bones, dark hair falling over his shoulders like a curtain of sky and vines. The lines made by Gothmog’s whip had the harmless look of scars long-healed, but he shivered as Iaun caressed them with the salve of herbs he swore by, just in case. “Yavanna has set a great virtue in these,” Sérelókë said in a deep, soft voice. “But I also credit the pleasure of your hand.”

Iaun could not help but make a sound that was not a word, as he kept stroking Sérelókë’s skin, feeling it warming to heat beneath his touch, though the ointment was well worked in long ago.

“If you are not cold, Iaun,” Sérelókë said. “It is only fair that you and I are matched in our state of undress. And if I am not mistaken, I believe that when we were first considering this campsite, you looked to that pool in the stream as a desirable site for bathing. That appeals to me, I suggest we make use of that.”

“I am not cold,” Iaun said, and he could not recall what cold might have once felt like, for in Sérelókë’s closeness, he was deeply warmed, and aware of the chafe of his own clothing as he had not been before. His mind wandered unbidden, entertaining the image of Sérelókë’s white hands undoing his clasps and fastenings, peeling travel-worn linen and leather from his skin, letting his fingertips roam.

“This, your hröa, your body . . .,” said Sérelókë, as though he were already touching, drawing him close. “You can’t change it at will, which is why your scars still pain you.”

“Well, yes,” Iaun said. “It’s me. This. It’s all I am.”

“It is not all you are,” Sérelókë said firmly as his right hand wandered upward to stroke Iaun’s neck.

“Well, it’s the only body I have and I’m rather attached to it. I imagine it must be different for you. Yours. Your body, that you’re in. That you can change.”

Sérelókë shrugged, and the irony of using his body to speak in whatever small capacity did not appear lost on him in that moment. “It is not the same as yours. It’s a fána, an illusion. I shape it with my mind. I am ëalar, spirit that needs no body. It is transportation - it takes me from place to place and shape to shape and I find it especially convenient in material matters. I sense with it, I touch, I feel. But I can discard it and walk without, in time of need. You already know this. You’ve seen it.”

“I might not be entirely convinced you are real,” Iaun said, grinning. “It’s said that those who wander alone for too long in the dreaming woods begin to imagine things that are impossible, and to speak with companions who are not there.”

“I am here,” Sérelókë said. “You would do well to avoid such idle fancies.”

“I do love a good tale,” Iaun said. “In my time, I’ve been known to tell them. But I’ve run out of old stories, alone for so long and with so little of import happening around me. I think that in your company, I shall never again have a shortage.”

Sérelókë started to lean towards him and then stepped aside quickly, leaving Iaun to nearly fall forwards. “Come to the water and wash with me,” he said. “I suspect I smell of brimstone.”

Iaun shivered at the sound of his voice, not the cold - for the night was mild in this starlit wood, and he looked forward to cleansing himself of the grime of travel and the air of battle. In his kit, he found the cake of cleansing herbs and beeswax, and tossed it gamely in his hands, giving Sérelókë a wink and a smile that was more confident than he felt. He tossed it to Sérelókë, who sniffed it in curiosity and gave a look of satisfaction.

At the edge of the pool, Iaun sat on a large, flat stone and tugged off his boots. They were soft but sturdy leather, well-made and had served him well for many journeys, but they were showing their age, and might no longer shield him from much damp without repairs. Sérelókë would notice this, of course.

The water felt glorious as it ran over his feet - cool but not cold, soothing and refreshing, and Iaun let out a little sound of delight. Which brought him a snap of the sharp, knowing eyes of Sérelókë, who seemed to drink Iaun in with his studying gaze.

Iaun had never been one to feel shyness about his body, especially in the practical matter of bathing with others, but he hesitated now at the laces of the soft breeches that were the last barrier between himself and those eyes that missed nothing and knew nothing of modesty. For Iaun was aware - as Sérelókë must be also - of the firmness and heat of the member that strained against his laces. Iaun was half tempted to walk into the water half-clothed this way. But that would be an admission of cowardice, would it not?

Count on Sérelókë to show no reluctance - instead it seemed he waited until he had Iaun’s full and unbroken attention before he unlaced and peeled snug cloth from his hips and thighs, displaying long graceful legs and a generous, curvy backside. Iaun’s eyes could not help but linger long on the thatch of dark hair at the base of his belly and the member that sprang from it - not fully erect, but plump and flushed with promise, and undaunted by the coolness of the water. Sérelókë waded in to the tops of his thighs, to all appearances showing off as he ran his hand slowly down his lean belly to draw Iaun’s eyes.

He was beautiful, uncannily so. And his own eyes seemed as locked to Iaun’s every move, in return and in kind, as Iaun waded into the water to his waist, sighing in relief as the cool, cleansing sweetness of clear water cradled and lifted him and began to wash away his grime and strain.

“That,” Iaun said, looking Sérelókë up and down with a new boldness once he realized once and for all what had set him at unease. “This - fána that you wear, that you make with your own mind as a tailor would sew a robe with cloth and thread - this. . . is beautiful. You do me great honour to let me gaze upon it, and even more so to let me touch it. And yet . . . “ He started to laugh now, for it was so obvious. “you have missed something if you wish to blend in perfectly with the Children of Ilúvatar.”

Sérelókë looked indignant as he gazed down upon himself from chest to foot, his lovely member cupped in his large hand in the sweet-scented water as he washed himself lazily. “I assure you, I-”

“Oh not that,” Iaun said quickly. “That - that - is flawless and without equal.” Truthful he was, and his mouth was beginning to water for yearning. “It is this, here,” Iaun ran his hand over his own belly. “A small detail of no use whatsoever. Do you see what I have that you lack?”

“An oddly deep small circular scar on your abdomen,” said Sérelókë. “Intriguing, by no means marring your beauty. Do please tell me how you came by it!”

“I . . . came by it by being born, Sérelókë,” Iaun said. “This is the scar of the place where I was attached to my mother while she fed me in her womb. There is a cord that is severed at birth. The place of connection remains. You have forgotten to include that detail.”

“Oh!” Sérelókë cried, slapping his own forehead, a stream of starlit water trailing. “Stupid! There is always something!”

“I suppose it would never occur to you,” Iaun said carefully. “If you were never born.”

“No, no, it had not,” Sérelókë said, leaning forward to study Iaun’s own navel with uncomfortable intensity. “Fascinating. Bit of a spiral formation there, overlaps of skin - a pathway that once led directly into your stomach, before you were able to eat for yourself. Hm.”

He stood back and pressed a fingertip into his own pale, flat belly, in roughly the same proportionate spot, and Iaun watched in amazement as Sérelókë’s skin rearranged itself into a shape like Iaun’s own. “There. It would not do to have such an obvious flaw.”

“That was unfairly done, for now you have no flaws at all,” Iaun said softly. Turning away in embarrassment, he lowered his body fully into the water, to finish cleaning and to hide his obvious arousal, and perhaps to soothe it a little with the coolness of the water. The pool was deeper than he had first judged it, and he found that if he allowed himself to float, he had nearly enough room to swim - not as freely as he had done in his youth on the broad flat stretches of the great river Anduin, but enough to lift the strain from his creaking scars.

As Iaun drifted, weariness and fear floated away from him to be washed away as the stream gurgled and sang over rocks below. Enchanting was its music, speaking to him of moments of peace and safety, when the heart’s desire was not so far out of reach. For a time he half lay and half swam, and the canopy of trees opened to admit the sight of Varda’s glimmering jewels far above. He thought he could let himself be lulled to dream and yet stay safe, such was the power of the murmuring song.

Yet another voice spoke to him, and gently but firmly did it rouse him. Sérelókë sank in the pool to his lean shoulders, water streaming from his wild hair, and he swam towards Iaun smooth and quick, like a supple river creature.

Iaun sat up after rinsing his own hair, letting it stream down his back and trail in the water, shivering as its strands seemed to float by their own will into Sérelókë’s hands. With that grip upon him, cradling his head, Iaun leaned forward into it, his feet on a floor of smooth round pebbles and his knees and thighs brushed by slick skin. He closed his eyes and turned his face up eagerly, expecting the touch of Sérelókë’s mouth against his own. What he got instead was hot breath and heated words, speaking directly into the place where a kiss should be.

“Iaun,” Sérelókë said. “Long has it been since you had a lord you would follow. Do I not speak true?”

“You do,” Iaun murmured, opening his eyes to see a deep-set grey gaze binding him with chains of silver. It was too soon to be sure this was the desire of his heart, but the desire of his body sprang and thrummed, overwhelming in his veins. His knees went weak, and signalling his surrender he sank, giving in to the pull of Sérelókë’s strong arms, letting himself be lifted to his waist and drawn close. For a moment he let his muscles go limp, as he took his first taste of the feeling of giving himself over.

“Brave you are,” Sérelókë murmured. “No coward would trust me after what you’ve seen.”

“Perhaps no wise one would either,” Iaun said, and he could nearly feel the water on Sérelókë’s face warm and wet on his own.

So close had he pressed in that Iaun was startled when Sérelókë rose to his full height, splashing Iaun but a little as his sleek body emerged from the water, and Iaun found himself face to face with his belly, wet and shining and completely inviting; his shaft half-hard and enticing in its nest of dark dripping curls.

Were this certain of his other companions of the road in times past, Iaun would know what to do - hands on slim hips without hesitation, drawing the tip of that taunting member between his lips, teasing it to full hardness with his tongue.

Yet he stayed still, eyes uplifted, up the long planes of Sérelókë’s chest and up to his face, questioning in silent supplication, waiting. His shoulders straightened in remembered dignity, but the rest of him hovered humbled, a warrior awaiting his command.

Large, gentle hands reached down to cup his face, and swept Iaun’s hair back, trailing nails over the points of his ears as Sérelókë took a light grasp of Iaun’s hair, turning Iaun’s face to gaze up at him fully. Sérelókë’s face was stern in the starlight with his thick hair plastered to his head and neck, his eyes hooded, his sharp cheekbones starkly shadowed, but his full lips parted in a promising smile.

“You are wary and slow to trust, as I have observed before,” said Sérelókë, running a hand down Iaun’s throat, digging nails in, giving just the slightest squeeze. “Yet you allow this. Your hand sometimes trembles with the damage of your shoulder wound, yet now it is calm and still as a pool with no wind while you bide your time waiting to touch me. Your thigh muscles trouble you, yet you have crouched long in the water now with no ill effects, and when I bid you rise, I have no doubt you will do so smoothly. I have never known anyone to show as much trust as you are giving me now, and I have given you little reason for it.”

“I do beg to differ,” Iaun said carefully, lowering his eyes. “You showed great worth as a comrade in arms back in the forest.”

“True,” Sérelókë said. “But that alone would not relax you so, when you are so still and at ease with your life in my hand. It is not trust that you feel, not entirely.”

Iaun shook his head. “No. It is . . . less than that, and also more.”

Sérelókë took a moment to think, and then he once again gave Iaun his full attention. “Then I hope to reward your ‘more’ and by so doing, earn the full measure of your ‘less.’”