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in the bottle, sang the soul

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“I can think of a good way to settle this.” Azaghâl laughs and thumps his fist on top of the barrel. His laughter trails off at Maedhros’ raised eyebrow and folded arms, “What, ye never settled a debate with a proper test of strength?”

From near Maedhros’s elbow Maglor snickers, not bothering to stifle it, wine sloshing in his own cup. “Well you see--”

“Silence.”

Maglor closes his mouth with a click of teeth, drains half his cup and settles back into the grass with a shrug, glaring up at his brother.

“You an’ me,” Azaghâl says, refusing to let the moment hinder his mood. There are few things in this world that can loosen the tongue of even the sturdiest dwarf as a good ale, and there’s plenty of it tonight. Small comforts, too hard to find of late, but he's in high spirits (and other spirits as well) and of a mind to share, even with this surly elf. “Last one standing claims his victory.”

“I believe the question was of gem-setting and skill, not drinking.” But there's a twitch of his lips, so slight as to nearly be missed, that betrays that Maedhros is considering it. “I fail to see how this would settle such a question.”

“You elves, all poetry and song and yet ye’ve got no imagination.” Azaghâl gestures and two cups are brought to him. He holds one out to Maedhros, smile never wavering. “Unless you think Noldor wine is too piss-weak to compare to a fine dwarven brew.”

Maedhros’ eyes narrow and he takes the cup. Behind him, Maglor gives a bark of a cheer, fills his cup again and laughs. “Master dwarf, you seem to know my brother well!”

“But which shall we bet on, hm?” Fingon teases, drifting over, the firelight catching the gold in his braids and for a moment Maedhros can only stare.

“You would bet against Nelyo?” Maglor grins, “Did you hear that, brother?”

Maedhros says nothing, taps his fingers against the metal cup and considers. Azaghâl fills his own tankard and Maedhros follows. He worries his bottom lip between his teeth as Azaghâl repeats the terms.

“Cup for cup, you an’ me. Last one standing claims victory for their kind and the other admits their lack of skill in smithing and drinking.”

“Careful Azaghâl,” Fingon says, more than half-serious, “you speak to a son of Fëanor.”

“I know exactly who I am speaking to.” This look a challenge now, a gauntlet thrown.

Maedhros fills his cup and drinks. The first mouthful of foamy ale nearly makes him sputter and gag, so unlike the wine he is used to drinking. His mouth feels dry already and he wrinkles his nose. Azaghâl bellows a laugh, sharp and short and then he drinks, downs the mug before Maedhros can bring his cup to his lips to try again.

“There's one for me!”

Fingon drops gracefully to the ground next to Maglor, plucks the wine from the bard’s fingers and whispers something to Maglor that has the other elf stifling tipsy giggles.

Maedhros has had quite enough of laughter on his behalf, but he would not be bested in this. He takes a deep breath and chugs the ale. It's not as bad this time, sweet under the froth, something earthy that is surely an acquired taste.

“Well, well. I dinnae think ye had it in ye!” Their cups are refilled and Azaghâl wastes no time, ale trickling from the corners of his lips in his haste.

Maedhros steels himself and drinks, and as he swallows the last dregs of it there's a pressure in his chest that claws up into his throat. His eyes widen and he  swallows desperately around it, but he cannot call for help. As soon as he opens his mouth to voice this distress a sound tears from him that leaves him blushing to the very tips of his ears.

There are peals of laughter from behind him and he spins on his heel to glare at Fingon at Maglor. Azaghâl stops his rebuke.

“There it is! Put some hair on that chest of yers. Come now, yer not admitting defeat, are you?”

“To you? I think not. Another.” There's a lopsided smile on his scarred lips and a gentle touch to the back of his leg. He knows it is Fingon, would know his touch, his fingertips anywhere.

The third tankard is easier than the second, the fourth easier than that. The fifth leaves him giddy, and he spills half of it on his tunic.

“Oi there! Ye’ve got t’ drink it, not wear it!”

Maedhros shrugs and calls for his tankard refilled halfway and tries again. There's a tingle in his fingers of his left hand -- his only hand, but he pushes the thought away. Not tonight, not now. He hasn't felt this way in too long, carefree, careless. The dwarf that brought their cups converses with Azaghâl in some harsh language and he strains to hear, frowning. Whatever is said seems to be agreeable, perhaps a discussion of the rules, and Azaghâl takes his cup clumsily to refill them both. Ale sloshes foam over both their hands and they laugh together, slurred and hoarse.

I've had too much, Maedhros thinks, knows the headache that will follow come sunrise but the dwarf is still standing and so is he.

He throws the cup back and drinks deep. More spills and he stumbles, head spinning. Someone takes it from him and presses it back, full again and he moves automatically, drinking. He's going to be sick but he is nothing if not stubborn. He's lost count of the ale and the barrel has to be near empty now, but he's still drinking --

-- until the ground tilts dramatically. He flails his arms out, numb fingers keeping a tight hold on the metal cup as he tries to catch himself, regain his balance. There are twin cries behind him but he can barely hear them. He stumbles, feet tripping over each other stupidly and he sees Azaghâl’s stunned face, blinking blearily up at him as he crashes into the dwarf and they both plummet to the ground like stones.

I've lost I've lost I've --

“Yer -- heavy bastard,” the body under his groans and pushes at him but he can't move. The world is spinning too fast, the bright stars above are a blur of light and dark, inky black and blue-white.

“I believe it's a tie.” Fingon.

Maedhros lifts his head, grimacing. He has to close his eyes, the firelight is too bright.

“A tie? No, tha’s improsa -- implass -- get off me.” More shoving, and Maedhros rolls off of Azaghâl with a soft hiccuping sound.

Fingon kneels next to them both, grinning, wine stains on his lips and Maedhros wants to kiss him, wants to taste it, but he can't seem to make himself move so he just smiles dopily up at him and hopes the other elf understands what he wants.

Clearly he doesn't.

“Your rules, master dwarf. Last one standing, and you both fell at the same time. Surely one of your strength would have been able to withstand an elf’s weight otherwise?”

Azaghâl sputters indignantly, mutters something about bloody fey things and cheatin’ but Maedhros can barely hear him. Fingon’s lips brush against his ear, and there's a smile in his voice.

“Seems I have saved you yet again, cousin.”