“Can’t you make the damned horse behave?” Gimli growled, as he was jarred by Arod’s nervous sidestepping.
Legolas glanced over his shoulder and smiled. “You should be used to riding by now. Besides, you’re holding on tightly enough to squeeze the air out of me.”
Gimli tried to loosen his grip slightly, but the horse’s uneasy dancing made him grab the elf tightly again. Not that he wanted to give Legolas any more excuses to make rude suggestions about Gimli enjoying being bounced against the elf’s ass, but he wasn’t going to fall and injure himself just to save his pride; besides, Legolas would just think of something else to make rude comments about anyway. Gimli had never known before his journeys with Legolas that elves were capable of exactly quite so many extraordinarily dirty jokes or suggestive remarks; it’d kept Gimli on his toes like he hadn’t been since he was a lad, trying to keep up.
“I wouldn’t have to hold on so tightly if you could control your horse,” Gimli retorted.
“Do you want to get off and walk?” Legolas asked.
“No, because you’ll ride off and leave me in this blasted dark, ugly forest by myself,” Gimli said, looking up at the dense canopy of Mirkwood trees that blocked out the sun, leaving the forest floor in perpetual twilight. “But what is the beast so nervous about?”
Legolas looked back again. “He doesn’t like the forest.”
“Why not? He belongs to a wood elf.”
Legolas scowled. “First of all, Arod was born and raised on the plains of Rohan. He’s used to open spaces. And I, ignorant dwarf, am a Sindarin elf, not a Sylvan elf, and being as how I am from Mirkwood the uneducated might be excused for making such a mistake, but I’m quite certain you ought to know better.”
“He wasn’t this nervous in Fangorn,” Gimli said.
“No, but Mirkwood was under Sauron’s influence even before he found his base in Mordor, and his presence bred dangerous and ugly things, and they’re far from eliminated…”
Arod froze, eyes wide, ears sharply pricked in alarm. Legolas reached for his bow as something large and heavy and crackling like a hundred suits of armor being dragged over stones scuttled through the trees. Gimli swung his axe free and hefted it.
He was not, could not be prepared for the nightmare that came scrabbling and clattering out of the trees on eight jointed, hairy legs: a spider that could have straddled a wagon with the vast span of its limbs, a massive, shining black body with a wide head and four huge, gleaming, multifaceted eyes. Its jaws clicked and clattered loudly, dripping fluid, as it clattered toward them.
Arod scrambled backward in terror. Legolas landed on his feet, bow ready and hand reaching for an arrow. Gimli hit the ground with a grunt and rolled away from the horse’s dancing hooves before grabbing for his axe. He stumbled to his feet to find his friend tossing aside his bow and reaching for his double blades; the thing was too close for arrows. He slashed at the creature, but the narrow blades barely nicked the heavy carapace, and the spider lashed out at him with jaws like sets of saw blades.
Gimli was already charging toward the beast when he heard Legolas shout and heard the two blades clatter to the ground. The sight of his friend with the massive jaws closing around his waist turned Gimli’s vision red, and he launched himself forward, feeling the slashing jaws drop the elf and close around this new morsel. He grinned as the thing bit down on the mithril armor beneath his tunic.
“Not so tasty, eh?” he growled, and swung his axe with a vicious two-handed blow.
The heavier blade buried itself between the creature’s glittering domed eyes and split the black shell wide open. The spider flailed, dropping its prey and lurching sideways before collapsing in a mass of convulsing legs. Gimli jerked his axe free, making sure the beast was dead, before turning to his friend.
The elf was sitting up carefully, looking more puzzled than anything else, but his tunic was slashed and soaked with blood.
Legolas looked up at him, dazed. Gimli remembered hearing from his elders who’d survived the journey through Mirkwood long ago that the spiders in this place had a terrible venom that stupefied and paralyzed its victims. He examined his unresisting friend quickly, finding a gash across his upper arm, another across the opposite shoulder, but most concerning, two deep wounds across the pale skin of his abdomen where the beast’s jaws had clamped down and bitten into him. The elf studied his own injuries for a moment.
“Minor wounds, for an elf,” he said, almost absently. “But those spiders’ bites are venomous.”
Gimli shivered; Legolas had told him on their travels that the elves of Mirkwood had fought these dangerous spawn of Sauron’s evil influence for centuries, and that the creatures and their poison had claimed many warriors’ lives.
“What must we do?” he demanded.
Legolas looked up at him. “My father’s halls… they’re not far. The healers there can treat me. If we ride fast, we can be there in a few hours.”
“Is that fast enough?”
“I hope so. We have to hurry. This venom will start to paralyze me and you’ll never get me on the horse.”
He whistled, and Arod approached, eyeing the dead spider nervously. Legolas, wincing at the pain from his wounds, climbed onto the horse’s back and pulled Gimli up behind him. The elf’s bloody hands left red smears on the horse’s white coat. Legolas spoke quickly to him in Sindarin.
“He’ll go to my father’s halls. Don’t let me fall, or you won’t get me back up. My father is expecting us… he’ll have his trade advisors sitting around waiting to talk to you. He’ll make sure you’re well tended to.”
“What about you?”
“You’ll have to tell them what happened. I won’t be able to.”
He urged the horse forward, and Arod set off at a brisk canter. Gimli kept a tight grip on his friend, feeling blood on his hands through the torn tunic. At first the elf seemed all right, though tense and silent, but as they rode on, Gimli would feel the lean muscles start to tighten and arch as the venom reached them. Gimli had to work hard to keep him upright and on the horse as his body gradually went rigid, muscles locked in spasms, breathing harder as his chest tightened.
“Legolas? You hear me?”
Legolas managed a hint of a nod.
“Are we almost…”
Arod stopped, looking warily at the part of a dozen wood elf guards. Gimli remembered that Legolas had told him for every Mirkwood guard you saw, there were four you didn’t. Fortunately, they immediately recognized at least one of the riders.
Gimli tried to draw on what Sindarin he had learned, knowing the wood elves spoke their own dialect of it and little Westron. “He’s hurt. A spider attacked us. It bit him.”
Alarm spread through the little group.
“Where is the spider?” one asked.
Gimli indicated his axe and motioned smashing it into the spider’s head. He heard strongly accented Sindarin chatter, something about “spider-killer” and “the dwarf” and something about King Thranduil expecting them. Finally, two darted off toward the low mountain ahead.
“Follow,” one guard said. “Healers will be waiting.”
Gimli nodded and clicked his tongue to urge the horse on.
At the craggy entrance to the mountain halls, the forest opened into a tree-lined and well-kept road leading up to the flat stone doorway. Gimli could see what appeared to be stables down the low slope, with horses grazing along the grassy riverbank, and in the branches of the trees he could make out the small treetop dwellings of the wood elves. Arod moved carefully, sensing his rider’s state.
As the approached the gates, a number of guards emerged, talking excitedly, but Gimli’s attention was caught by one elf who was clearly not a native of Mirkwood; at first glance she reminded him of Arwen and her twin brothers, tall and graceful, with long dark hair and gray eyes in a pale face. She spoke softly, but at her direction a number of wood elves rushed forward bearing a stretcher of two poles with heavy fabric between them. Another took Arod’s reins, but the horse snorted and jerked his head away.
“Easy, friend,” a voice said, and Gimli didn’t have to look to know that it was the dark-haired elf; her Sindarin lacked the heavy accent of the wood elves. She petted his neck to soothe him before looking up at Gimli. “They’ll take him to the stable and care for him.”
Gimli nodded. “All right, then. Don’t give them any trouble, horse.”
Arod gave a derisive snort, and Gimli was almost certain the horse had understood him. He climbed off the horse’s back while the dark-haired elf eased Legolas from his seat, strong despite her slender frame, and the wood elves lifted him on their stretcher and hurried away.
“Wait!” Gimli exclaimed, suddenly horrified to see his friend injured and disappearing out of his sight.
“Don’t fear. They’re taking him for me to treat him.”
He glanced at her, and she returned his look with a brilliant smile.
“I’m the chief healer of Mirkwood. My name is Mereneth; I’ll care for him.”
“But I should stay with him!” Gimli protested.
“I’ll make sure you’re back at his side soon,” she said gently. “But you must meet with the King first and explain what happened, and a dwarf in these halls is quite an event, so you won’t be allowed to roam around until Thranduil has introduced you properly.”
Gimli nodded grudgingly as one of the elves led Arod away.
“I’ll make sure you can be with him soon,” she promised.
Gimli frowned. “How does a Rivendell elf come to be chief healer of Mirkwood?”
She laughed. “Not all dark-haired elves are from Rivendell.”
“No, but you look and speak too much like Arwen to be from anywhere else.”
“You know more about elves than one would think, Master Dwarf, and a comparison to Elrond’s Evenstar is a compliment indeed. I trained with him for many years before Celeborn asked for a healer to come to Mirkwood and teach Elrond’s healing techniques.”
“Leg… the Prince has taught me things.”
She touched his shoulder. “Go with the guards and see the King. I’ll summon you soon.”
“Master Dwarf, he’ll be drugged and know nothing of what happens to him for the next day or two, most likely.”
“Fine,” he muttered. “And it’s Gimli, ma’am.”
He was rewarded with that stunning smile again. “Of course.”
Allowing himself to be led into the great stone hall, Gimli studied the smooth walls and arched doorways, feeling momentarily at home; they were clearly the work of dwarves, not elves, and he remembered Legolas telling him that while other elf rulers has shunned contact with other races, considering them to be dirty and violent, Mirkwood elves had historically maintained trade with both humans and dwarves before Sauron forced them into isolation, and that Thranduil likely hoped to reopen those old ties with this visit. The fine workmanship of these halls, with dwarven stonework and elven detail, spoke to a long-ago cooperation between the two.
The tall, solemn-faced elf that strode toward him could only be King Thranduil; he wore no crown, but his pale gold hair in elaborate braids matched his son’s in color, and the proud, stern features spoke of confidence in his authority. His robes were green, richly embroidered with gold thread, and two wood elf guards stood at his side, waiting.
“Gimli, my Lord,” he said, lowering himself to one knee as was expected for greeting royalty, especially royalty one didn’t know well or wish to offend yet.
“Your visit was anticipated, but the circumstances of your arrival were not,” he said, frowning. “I understand that my son is injured, but owes his survival to you.”
Gimli patted the weapon at his side. “Owes it to my axe, my Lord. The shells those beasts wear don’t seem to hold up well to an axe-blow to the head.”
Thranduil almost smiled. “Perhaps I will have some of my hunters trained in this weapon. I would greet you properly as an honored guest and a member of the Fellowship, but…”
“You wish to see to your son, sir. And if I may, I would like to see him as well.”
The King frowned. “I’m not sure that’s…”
“My Lord? Healer Mereneth has asked me to come and fetch the dwarf.”
Both turned to find a young-looking elf in plain brown robes who had just emerged from one of the halls.
“Why is that?” Thranduil asked.
“She says she wishes his assistance in treating her patient,” he said.
“What would she want… are you a healer, Master Dwarf?”
“Not at all,” Gimli said, frowning.
Thranduil turned a sharp eye on the assistant healer. “Why does Mereneth need assistance?”
The elf shifted uncomfortably. “She didn’t say, specifically, sir.”
“That’s not the answer I asked for,” he said sharply.
“Sir… I think she hopes the dwarf will be able to calm him.”
“Calm him, hmm?” Thranduil said, shaking his head, and Gimli saw a trace of amusement on his face. “I’m sure it couldn’t be that my son is making his treatment difficult.”
Gimli, forgetting he was in the presence of a King for a moment, snorted. “That’s hardly a surprise.”
Thranduil glanced at him, and Gimli wondered if he should not have spoken, but the hint of weary humor in the King’s eyes was one Gimli recognized; it was rather the same look that crossed Lord Elrond’s face when he told stories of his twin sons’ endlessly troublesome, often dangerous, occasionally embarrassing, but nonetheless amusing antics.
“What do you mean by that, Master Dwarf?”
“Just that your son… has been known to be rather stubborn, when he wishes to be.”
Thranduil finally did smile slightly at this. “He has been an ill-tempered and willful child since he was old enough to walk. They say he takes after me.”
Gimli was startled for a moment that the King would speak so about his son, but the way the assistant healer stood listening to the conversation as if it were nothing new told Gimli that the Prince’s rebellious nature, and his father’s disapproval of it, were not secrets in Mirkwood.
“Should I go with them, sir?” Gimli asked.
Thranduil waved his hand. “Off with you. I’d walk with you myself, but the boy will only become more uncooperative if he knows I’m there.”
Gimli nodded and turned away, then stopped as he heard the King’s voice behind him.
“Master Dwarf, if you can assist them in helping my son, I will be personally grateful for it.”
“Yes, my Lord,” Gimli said, bowing his head quickly before following the healer away.
The elf led him quickly down the well-lit halls, through a maze of turns and chambers.
“This is the healers’ hall. It has been quieter since Galadriel drove out Sauron’s forces from the south, but still many elves suffer injuries battling the remnants of his evil.”
He stepped into one of the rooms, a fairly large chamber with lamps along the walls illuminating a plain bed with white sheets, now streaked with blood, and a table with an array of bottles and herbs and a small kettle heating over a little flame. He was alarmed to find his friend stretched out on the bed, tight and arched and wide-eyed, a strap across his chest and arms and another across his legs keeping him from flailing. Mereneth stood at the table, examining a small glass bottle of some unpleasant-looking green liquid. Seeing Gimli, she smiled reassuringly.
“It’s not as bad as it looks.”
“Why is he tied down?” the dwarf demanded.
“He’s confused,” she said. “I don’t think he knows where he is.”
“How badly is he injured?”
She waved a hand dismissively. “He’s an elf. The wounds will heal in a matter of days once I can treat them to draw out the poison. I’m more concerned about him harming himself fighting the effects of the venom if I can’t treat him. He may start having difficulty breathing, and I don’t want to sedate him too deeply; it’s dangerous with elves, because we don’t sleep as mortals do.”
“What can I do?”
“Talk to him. See if you can get him to understand we’re trying to help, and to stop fighting.”
Not likely, Gimli thought, amused, but he approached the bed anyway. The elf’s eyes were wide open but didn’t seem to see anything, pupils constricted to pinpricks even in the dim light. Gimli hadn’t quite realized before exactly how blue those eyes were. Legolas grasped at the sheets with his hands, the only part he could still move freely, and Gimli could clearly read the confusion and near-panic on his friend’s face.
“Legolas,” he said. When this drew no response, he raised his voice. “You! Elf!”
Legolas blinked, stilling for a moment.
“Stop this foolishness immediately. They’re trying to help you. You’re hurt.”
He frowned. “Gimli?”
“Yes, Gimli, you idiot,” he said, relieved.
“Help… please… let me loose…”
“They’re trying to treat your wounds. Don’t you remember the spider? You need medicine.”
Legolas twisted against the straps. “Let me go… please…”
“If you let them give you the damned medicine, maybe they will let you go!”
He pressed the elf’s shoulder back to the bed with one hand. Legolas went still at the touch, breathing hard.
“I don’t know… no medicine. Who are they?”
Gimli glanced at the healer as he spoke. “Don’t be daft. You know I’d never give you anything to harm you, right?”
“All right, then.”
Mereneth, understanding, handed him a small blue vial. “He needs to drink all of it.”
Gimli turned back to Legolas, realizing his hand was rubbing soothingly over the elf’s shoulder.
“You’re going to drink this now, elf, or I’ll force it down your throat.”
Legolas squinted, trying to focus on his face.
“Trust me, Legolas,” he said.
Legolas nodded slowly, and offered no resistance as Gimli tipped the contents of the vial into his mouth. He grimaced, but swallowed it. Gimli glanced at the healer again.
“It works quickly. It will relax his muscles and calm him. He should be near to sleep soon, and then I can untie him and put poultices on his wounds to draw out the poison. You may go…”
“No!” Legolas said sharply, alarmed.
Gimli pressed his shoulder. “I’ll stay, elf. Easy.”
“Don’t leave me here alone.”
“I’m not leaving you.”
Legolas relaxed slightly. Mereneth motioned to one of the other healers.
“Find a comfortable chair for our guest, please, and set it by the bed.”
“But a dwarf, ma’am…”
“I do not believe it was a question. The King has allowed it. Master Gimli is an honored guest and he shared the journey of the Nine Walkers with the Prince.”
Quick murmurs, and a chair quickly appeared by the bed. Mereneth dismissed the assistants.
“What were they saying?” Gimli asked.
“After all this time with our Prince, you don’t speak Sindarin?”
Gimli bristled. “I leaned proper Sindarin, not that gibberish these people speak.”
She laughed. “Sylvan elves are a different breed than others you’ve met, and they have their own, very old ways. Their dialect is old and quite unique. They said that they had heard of the deeds of the Nine Walkers and the battles they fought together.”
“Aye,” Gimli muttered, sitting down in the chair.
“I’ll be down the hall,” she said, extinguishing some of the lamps to dim the room. “He should be asleep, or at least resting, soon. I’ve never had a patient fight the drugs like this…”
“Too much time with a dwarf,” Gimli said, shrugging.
“You’re the first dwarf I’ve met, but so far you are neither cruel nor ignorant. I have apparently been misinformed.”
She smiled. “Yes. I was also told dwarves were terribly ugly.”
“Hmph. Compared to elves, that may be true…”
She stroked his wiry hair. “Not at all. Perhaps not so fair and pretty as elves… but you must have noticed, Master Dwarf, that all elves are fair and pretty. After thousands of years of looking at pretty faces, I can see how one might find beauty in something less ethereal… something more alive, and of this world instead of the isolation elves live in. Immortality does not mean freedom from care… I think we become more solemn and more lost in ourselves as time passes.”
Gimli frowned as he watched her leave. Perhaps that was why Legolas preferred his company to that of other elves, and why he seemed to laugh and smile freely only when they were traveling together alone. Of course, Gimli’s dwarf kin were wondering when he was going to return to the rapidly thriving Glittering Caves that were his to command, but he was in no hurry. They had no need for him; just as Mirkwood, it seemed, had no need for a hot-tempered prince.
In the dim room Legolas muttered something and jerked at the straps binding him. He blinked and forced his eyes open, fighting the effects of the drug.
“Stop being difficult,” Gimli said sharply. “You’d be in less pain if they could treat you.”
Legolas didn’t respond until Gimli laid a hand on his shoulder again.
“Why can’t I move?”
“Stop fighting and go to sleep, elf.”
“It’s not safe…”
“Daft creature. Go to sleep. I promise my axe and I will be at your side till you wake.”
Gimli resisted the impulse to brush the blond hair out of his friend’s face. “I’ll make sure no one harms you. I promise.”
Legolas relaxed slightly. Gimli removed his hand, but the elf’s eyes immediately flew open again.
“Stop it! I’m right here!” he said, pressing his hand to the elf’s chest, feeling his heart racing.
“Good. Don’t go anywhere,” he murmured, words slurring just a bit.
Gimli sat still, feeling his friend’s muscles slowly loosen under his hand, his pulse slowing, the rapid rise and fall of his chest easing into something like slumber.
When Mereneth returned, Legolas was laying quietly, and made no move to stir when she untied the straps.
“What now?” Gimli asked.
“You can help me treat his wounds. I’m afraid if I bring in my assistants he’ll get upset again and we’ll have to start over.”
She took a small knife and quickly sliced through the bloody clothes, tossing them aside until her patient was stripped naked. Gimli winced at the ugly, reddened wounds, especially the gashes across his abdomen; they would be life-threatening in a mortal, but the healer seemed unconcerned.
“No fear, Master Dwarf. He’ll easily heal from these.”
She brought a wooden tray to the bed with clean bandages, thick strips of cloth, and a still-warm paste of bitter-smelling herbs. She applied the paste to the wounds, ignoring Legolas as he squirmed and protested as the poultice burned into his open wounds. Gimli rubbed his shoulder, and he was still again, though frowning in his sleep.
“Be still, elf.”
“He trusts you,” Mereneth said, securing bandages over the poultices.
“Many battles together. His arrows and my axe. I would trust him to watch over me if I were in need.”
“I’ll leave you with him, then. I have other patients.”
Gimli glanced at his friend’s naked form. “Should he have a blanket?”
She shook her head. “The poultices will make him feel unpleasantly hot. Just leave him be. They’ll probably make him sweat a bit too.”
Gimli settled back down as she closed the door. Legolas stirred sleepily, his face tightening in pain.
“Stay where you are, Legolas.”
The elf’s eyes were closed, but he muttered quietly.
“I shouldn’t be here…”
“Not here… where is Estel?”
Gimli scowled; of course his friend would think of the handsome Ranger in his dreams. He’d seen the bond between the two of them, and been surprised that Legolas had preferred to travel with him than stay in Minas Tirith with the newly crowned king.
“What about Estel?”
“He’s late… for his wedding. Arwen is waiting.”
“And where are you?”
“Under the trees…”
His hand fumbled and grasped at Gimli’s wrist where the dwarf’s hand rested over his heart.
“Hush. Can’t what?”
“Ruin everything… he would never understand.”
“Estel wouldn’t understand?”
Legolas scowled. “Not Estel...”
“Where are you?”
“Looking… under the trees.”
“You’re in Mirkwood, Legolas. You’re home.”
“Not home,” he murmured. “Home is where… anywhere…”
Gimli caught motion out of the corner of his eye and was startled and mortified to see the elf’s smooth, pale-skinned cock, which he had been studiously ignoring, beginning to stir and harden.
“Elf?” he asked quietly. “Who are you thinking of?”
“Never tell him…”
“Who?” he asked, his hand seeming to move of its own accord as it smoothed over the elf’s chest, trying to calm him, but when his rough palm brushed over one small nipple, Legolas inhaled sharply, and his cock twitched.
The mortification had rapidly become an almost unbearable fascination. He rubbed the nipple between calloused fingers, drawing a low moan and the elf arching up into his touch.
Gimli sighed and drew his hand back. It was cruel to torment his friend in such a way…
The handle turned on the door. Gimli jerked back and managed to be sitting back in his chair with arms crossed when Mereneth walked in, but there was nothing he could do to hide his friend’s aroused state. His face reddened, and the healer laughed.
“Don’t look so embarrassed, Master Dwarf. It’s not the first time I’ve seen it with a patient under this drug.”
“Oh?” he asked, trying to sound unconcerned.
“Elves don’t sleep or dream as mortals do. He’s only drugged enough to keep him under, and in that state they seem to dream rather vividly.”
Gimli frowned. “What do you mean?”
She looked away, evasive. “Nothing. He’s dreaming, but he’s not completely unaware of what’s happening around him... they tend to speak while dreaming, too, so don’t let that alarm you.”
“He did mumble a bit,” Gimli muttered.
She smiled and brushed the hair away from her patient’s face. He frowned and made a gesture as if to swat her hand away. She laughed.
“Very well, then. I see it’s not my company you wish for.”
She walked toward the door, glancing over her shoulder. “It should stay dim and quiet in here while he rests. Elves heal best when they can be undisturbed and at peace. It will be several hours before I need to come back and remove the poultices. If he seems to be worse, have someone come and find me immediately.”
He leaned back in his chair, his hand still resting on his friend’s chest, feeling it rise and fall, slow and even now. For a long time the room was silent, but after some time Legolas stirred and muttered something to himself.
“What’s that, elf?”
“Are you dreaming?” he asked, leaning closer to listen to the answer.
“I think so.”
“Do you know where you are?”
“Under the trees… somewhere. Riding…”
Gimli thought for a long moment, wondering if he wanted to ask the questions he was thinking of. Part of himself told him to keep quiet, to let the elf rest, and not to ask questions that his friend, in such a dreamlike state, might answer even if he never would while awake. Still, the fascination overrode his hesitation; the elf was always so reserved with his thoughts, so distant in sharing what was in his head or his heart no matter how much trust Gimli thought had grown between them. He knew he should not ask, but somehow, the way Legolas had spoken earlier, the dwarf wondered if he might forever regret giving up the chance to ask them. It was not in a dwarf’s nature to leave things as they were. They were always digging, always searching, always looking for the gem at the core of the stone, the thin line of gold in the endless tunnels. They did not set down a stone and walk away from it, wondering what was inside.
“Can you hear me, Legolas?” he asked.
A slow nod.
“Tell me what you’re dreaming of.”
He smiled softly. “Fangorn Forest. A fire… at twilight. Only a small one, of course…”
“Mustn’t anger the trees,” Gimli said, remembering.
“The trees have been kind. They have given us apples… they’re stewing over the fire.”
“Thinking… that I would never have expected a dwarf to carry spices.”
“I like good food as much as anyone else, elf. What else?”
Legolas frowned and turned his head away. “No.”
“No?” Gimli repeated, watching his friend’s face. “There’s no one here but me, Legolas. What is it? What are you always hiding from me? From the others, I can understand… but haven’t we traveled far enough together… fought side by side together… don’t you know there’s nothing you could tell me now that would change any of that?”
The elf’s face remained tense, almost frightened. “You’ll leave me. Alone. Again.”
“Elf… have you been alone since we left Rivendell together?”
“And you’re afraid I’ll leave you alone and just go away? Don’t you know me better than that by now, you stubborn creature?”
A small smile crept across his face. “No one… speaks to a Prince that way.”
“You’re not a prince to me, elf. You’re a friend. What would make me change that?”
“If you knew…”
Gimli felt a chill. “If I knew what, Legolas?”
“What I want,” he murmured.
“Tell me what you want, then.”
“You don’t…” he murmured, stirring uneasily.
“Legolas… if you want something from me… anything… I can deny you nothing. Do you not know that by now?”
“Please,” he said softly.
“Tell me. I’ll do nothing you don’t ask for.”
“Elf, do you think I’ve followed you all those other mad places, but wouldn’t follow you to this one? I promised you I would be here when you woke…”
“Dwarves never break their promises, Legolas. No matter what circumstances might change in the mean time.”
Legolas raised a hand, found Gimli’s wrist, and clasped it tightly.
“Want you,” he murmured.
“Ask, then, friend.”
“Stubborn dwarf,” the elf said, smiling slightly. “Please…”
The hand tightened around his wrist. “Please touch me.”
Gimli’s hand nearly shook as he moved it back to the small, dark nipple that had gotten such a reaction before. When he rubbed it between calloused finger and thumb, the elf moaned and arched up into the touch. Gimli let his hand slide over pale skin, tracing the ridges of ribs, skirting the bandaged wounds. He’d seen his friend unclothed numerous times; unlike dwarves, elves took every available opportunity to bathe, although it was a habit Gimli was gradually taking to as well. It was, after all, pleasant to be clean, and though he’d told himself if had nothing to do with the simple pleasure of watching his friend stripped bare with water dripping from his hair and sliding over his skin, it would be a lie to say he’d never looked. Legolas looked, unabashed; elves seemed to have few if any concerns about nudity, whether their own or others’. Perhaps it was a natural consequence of having flawless bodies… but then again, the elf had looked over Gimli with the same inscrutable gaze he turned on anything he found interesting. It had embarrassed him at first, but he’d decided the elf was just curious. Dwarves were hairy, yes, but not more so than the hairiest men, and though they appeared squat and broad in their armor, they were generally stocky but, at least in youth, well-built and more neatly-proportioned than many expected. Gimli was not ashamed of his body and had learned to take his friend’s inspections in stride.
Now he had a chance to look at Legolas as he had never seen him before, stretched out in front of him, naked and aroused and half lost in dreams, shaking under his hand as it moved lower, his palm coming to rest just beside the elf’s navel. His hand, which had not released Gimli’s wrist, tightened again, not to hold him back, but to make sure he didn’t pull away.
“Tell me what you’re thinking of.”
“Riding. Through Fangorn. Arod… and your hands on my waist. Where they always are.”
Gimli moved his hand to rest where it always did when they rode, but before there had always been cloth between his hand and the warm naked skin beneath.
“There,” Legolas murmured.
He slid his hand from the elf’s waist to his hip and then, as Legolas arched up to offer it, to rest under one smooth buttock. Legolas made a soft sound and shifted against his hand. His half-hard cock stirred, then twitched and hardened abruptly when Gimli squeezed his buttock lightly. Gimli’s own cock pulsed at the sight and at the feel of the elf’s skin against his palm.
“Please…” Legolas murmured.
Gimli could not have misunderstood, not with Legolas tugging his hand toward his cock. Gimli reached and wrapped his calloused hand around the heated, silken skin, breathless at the elf’s raw moan. Legolas released his grip on Gimli’s wrist and grasped at the sheets, trying to thrust up into Gimli’s hand. Curious, he ran a rough thumb over the soft head, and Legolas gasped.
Gimli’s other hand found the vulnerable inside of the elf’s thigh, surprised at how easily his legs parted at the slightest pressure from Gimli’s fingers. He stroked upward till his fingertips found tight golden curls. Legolas jerked up into his hand, pleading, and Gimli’s hand moved faster on his cock, tightening as it became slick. His other hand found the soft places below, stroking his fingers up to feel the elf’s sac tighten a moment before he cried out and gripped at Gimli’s arm as his body trembled and his slickness covered Gimli’s hand.
He slumped back to the bed, and for a moment Gimli feared he had harmed him, but Legolas smiled slowly.
“You’re still here.”
“Of course. Don’t be daft.”
“Yes, elf. I’ll stay.”
He found a spare cloth and cleaned up the evidence of the activity, then quickly allowed himself his own release, so close to the edge from watching the elf’s response to his touch that it took only a few strokes and a bitten-back groan to relieve his need. He tidied himself up and tucked himself away before slumping back in his chair. Legolas reached out, his movement slow and lazy now, and groped until Gimli grasped it. The elf smiled, twisted his slender fingers between the sturdy, calloused ones, and turned his head to doze.
Gimli wasn’t sure how much later it was when there was a knock at the door and Mereneth cautiously peeked in. Relieved to see that all was in order, she smiled and stepped aside.
Thranduil strode into the room, his stern visage softening at the sight of his son sleeping quietly, all the pain and fear vanished from his face. Gimli considered taking his hand back from Legolas, but the King had already seen it and said nothing. Instead, he looked toward the healer.
“He is well?”
“He is out of danger,” she said. “Our friend dwarf was of great assistance in calming him.”
Thranduil nodded to Gimli. “I give you my thanks, Master Dwarf. While I had intended to reopen trade with your people regardless, I am very greatly pleased to have you here to represent your kind… and to assist with my difficult son.”
Legolas stirred, and Gimli murmured for him to be still. Thranduil motioned for Mereneth to leave them, and when he spoke it was in a lower voice.
“Legolas has never sought the company of his own kind, no matter how fair the maiden we wished to wed him to. He had… male friends; this is not uncommon for young ones among my people.”
“Nor mine, sir.”
“He has spent most of his life off hunting or roaming or training, but always along. I do not know that he has another friend who would have been at his side as you have been.”
“He does make it difficult, my Lord.”
Thranduil laughed. “Yes, he does. Perhaps he had to meet a dwarf to find his match in stubbornness.”
Gimli lowered his eyes. “I suppose you’ll be wanting him to stay…”
The King waved his hand dismissively. “Legolas? He’ll be gone before his wounds are healed. He never stays anywhere for very long. He seems to… need to move, always. Always traveling, fighting… seeking something, perhaps.”
Gimli glanced at the elf, sleeping peacefully; he could never think of Legolas as anything but the slim, graceful youth he appeared to be, rather than the battle-hardened immortal warrior he truly was.
“Perhaps I’ll step outside and smoke my pipe,” Gimli said, hoping to think and clear his head.
“We have very fine pipeweed,” Thranduil said.
Gimli made an appreciative sound; his was stale and dry.
“I shall have some brought immediately,” the King said.
Mereneth looked Legolas over. “He’ll sleep several more hours, at least. Take your time.”
Gimli sat on the broad stone ledge outside the gates of the Mountain King’s halls, packing the fragrant pipeweed into his pipe and watching the sun hover low over the dense canopy of Mirkwood. The wood elves, still very aware of the forest’s dangers, were hurrying back with their weapons and baskets of fruit and other harvests; one held up a rope strung with good-sized fish.
“Dinner for guest!”
Gimli nodded and lit his pipe, savoring the taste. So it was not uncommon for young elves to engage in such activities with other males; among dwarves, it was considered to be something akin to general horseplay and an appropriate release of excess exuberance without getting into trouble with young ladies or their fathers. Perhaps this was just an odd notion, his friend’s interest…
But Legolas was no lad, he knew. He was older than Gimli, older than the oldest dwarf Gimli had ever known. He was no over-excited elfling chasing anyone who would roll into bed with him. He was an adult, and a prince, and a warrior. The Legolas that Gimli knew was never capricious, never frivolous, always deliberate in his decisions. If he could be hot-headed and over-quick to draw arms at times, Gimli had never known him to casually share anything of his heart. Always composed, Legolas was… even on Aragorn’s wedding day, when the elf had stepped aside with his knowing smile to let Aragorn claim his bride. Gimli had assumed that there was something behind those eyes he couldn’t see; he had known Legolas would follow Aragorn to the ends of the earth. It had not occurred to him before now, though, that perhaps it was loyalty rather than love that drove his dedication to the Ranger-King, and that perhaps the sadness and wishful quiet that drifted over his friend in rare moments was not, after all, mourning the loss of Estel to his Arwen, but longing for something else he believed he could never have.
When he finally made his way back inside, finding the healers’ halls on his own with a dwarf’s natural instinct for direction underground, he found Legolas alone, sleeping, but when Gimli approached he blinked and opened his eyes. His pupils were still small despite the dim light and he blinked, trying to clear his vision.
“Told you I’d be here.”
Legolas shook his head as if to clear it and sat up gingerly, wincing. Gimli, alarmed, quickly grasped his uninjured shoulder to steady him.
“Easy, there. You’re hurt.”
“I remember. A spider. And coming here. And…”
His face suddenly shifted, blue eyes darkening.
“I dreamed,” Leoglas murmured.
“What did you dream of?” Gimli asked, trying to sound casual.
Legolas studied him for a long moment before speaking. “Do you not know?”
Gimli lowered his eyes. “Aye. But I can forget, friend, if you wish it.”
“Do you wish to forget it?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I do not.”
He finally managed to look at his friend, who was smiling almost shyly.
“Lay back and rest, before that healer comes in and shouts at me for disturbing you… or worse, before your father shows up.”
“Has father been unpleasant?”
“No, but he seems to think you don’t have an ounce of sense in your pretty blond head.”
Legolas grinned. “He’ll think so even more if he ever finds out…”
“About this,” Legolas said.
He grasped Gimli’s beard with one hand and pulled him closer. Gimli resisted for a moment, just by instinct, but he felt Legolas draw away and leaned forward to bring them together. He had imagined, he had to admit, what kissing a creature as ethereal as an elf might be like, but Legolas was warm and real, all soft skin and wiry muscle under his touch, his mouth surprisingly firm and determined. After a moment, he drew back.
“What?” Gimli demanded, embarrassed.
“I think it is a terrible shame that elves don’t grow beards.”
“I don’t,” Gimli said.
Legolas frowned. “Why not?”
“Because you would grow long, silky, ridiculous beards, and probably put silly braids in them as well, and spend all day brushing them like the vain creatures you are…”
Legolas yanked sharply on his beard. “Have we not discussed the difference between vanity and personal hygiene?”
“As many times as we’ve discussed your…”
Apparently Legolas decided there was no topic he cared to discuss at the moment, so he managed to silence Gimli quite thoroughly with another, rather more determined kiss.
They would have many other things to add to their repertoire of good-natured arguments, as they left Mirkwood and rode on, with the vague pretence of visiting the Glittering Caves, but seeming to be in no hurry. For example, there was the argument about whether elves’ long legs were not designed for swiftness but for being the perfect length to drape over a dwarf’s shoulders during certain activities, and there was the debate about whether the calloused skin on a dwarf’s palms and fingers was really from stonework, as Gimli claimed, or from excessive self-pleasuring, as Legolas continually implied. Not that any of it mattered; no matter how many rude and vulgar comments were made during a day’s ride, nights wrapped together in bedrolls under the stars were always a respite, when insults gave way to warmth and bare skin, and no words in any language were at all necessary.