Legolas closed his eyes and felt the water against his skin. The chill of the water brought him back to himself. He lifted his hands to his face, the motion slow and deliberate, and smoothed over the skin that Aragorn's roughness had chafed. He ran his fingers through his hair and felt how silken it was, unlike the wiry thickness of Aragorn's own locks. Legolas's hair was a pale golden color, while Aragorn's was dark. Legolas's hair was so soft to the touch, while Aragorn's was not.
Legolas's skin was pale in the pale Lothlorien light, filtering through the leaves above. The shadows were gentle but eerie. All was golden, gray and green: the green of the grass and the leaves' reflection in the water, the gray of the leaves' shadows, and the gold of Legolas's hair, of his soft skin. Undisturbed by the scenery, he was yet troubled, but no less beautiful for the sudden pain and darkness concealed behind his eyes. He watched his own hands distorted beneath the water's surface. With the rustle of the wind upon the leaves, Legolas let out a sigh, quiet, quiet.
A light rustle in the bushes told him then that he was being watched. The tension in his shoulders showed his watcher he had been discovered. The air was taut as a bowstring.
The tree bark realized its vulnerability, sudden and breathless, as if one mighty axe was ready to fell the forest.
Slowly, Legolas turned.
"You look fey," Gimli said, voice gruff, like pitted stone. He stood by the side of an old oak and his hands looked rough as the tree bark, his beard just as gnarled.
"Fey and fell, I am sure," Legolas replied. He was quieter than the unnoticed stream, yet young in the old woods. Gimli breathed loudly, moved loudly, spoke loudly, a sudden disturbance in this world. It was refreshing but in an abrasive way; he was an intruder, but it brought Legolas's defenses up. He needed that incentive.
"Something troubles you," Gimli replied, watching the odd vulnerability of Legolas in that moment, though it was not because o his nudity. Something had passed here, moments before Gimli himself had stumbled upon the scene. And whatever had happened was what caused the darkness in Legolas's deep eyes, shadows like a cloudy night, all stars hidden. Legolas's expression was yet beautiful and sad at once, so that the elf reminded Gimli of the Lady of the Woods. The gut comparison made the dwarf heartsore, though why it was, he could not tell.
"Not for long," Legolas said softly. It seemed as if he spoke to himself, and the meaning of his words was unclear. Gimli watched the line of Legolas's arm, that pale, slim line, and unknowingly, he licked his lips.
"It would seem the trouble runs deeper than a passing pain," Gimli said. "I have never thought you a creature prone to caprice."
"I would not talk of it." Gimli's eyes narrowed. Legolas was very much there, soft and naked and there indeed, but his eyes were very much removed. Their sight was turned elsewhere. Truly, Legolas's beauty rivaled the beauty of even Galadriel, Gimli thought to himself, and then banished the very idea as a trick of the odd light, an illusion wrought of the trembling shadows. Sometimes, it took such a place to remind the dwarf that, though strong and determined, they were all of them vulnerable, in their own ways. Aragorn cared passionately and deeply; he did not seem a vulnerable man, but so much rested on his shoulders, and Gimli knew of the sorrows that made prey of his heart. Frodo's bruised eyes were like ghosts in the night, haunted by shadows, filled with fear of what he had seen, what he saw, what yet he would have to see. Frodo was Samwise's most open wound, that much was obvious, for the plainer yet heartier little one would carry his master to the fires of Mordor and back again; that devotion, that love, was all laid open and bare in his worried eyes. The other two halflings - why, they were so vulnerable to the world, to its harsh hands and its harsh blades and its harsh truths, death and deceit and partings. Boromir listened too often to the doubts of his own heart; this would be his ruin, for Gimli saw too well the two warring forces that played in the tightness of Boromir's jaw. Gimli admitted that he himself was a very proud dwarf, sometimes a bit too rash, sometimes a bit too loud, sometimes a bit too opinionated; but after all, he told himself after that, these were signs of a big heart, a brave heart.
So what, then, did the elf fear to feel?
"No," Gimli said slowly, drawing his words out in the lingering silence. It festered, the dwarf thought, as would a disease. "No, you would not talk of it; then I would, neither, for it disturbs the peace of this place."
"The world is closing in upon it already," Legolas murmured. Gimli made a rough noise deep within his throat.
"And yet it shall be remembered yet, by some hearts," he said, sober. Legolas nodded, once.
"Why are you here?" The question was an honest one, though Gimli felt uncomfortable. It seemed that for all he was quite naked, hidden up to his hips by the form-morphing water, Legolas was not for a moment made uncomfortable. It was only that Gimli had caught him with that look in his eyes - that was the invasion that Legolas's spirit defied.
"It was," Gimli began, "ah." He looked up to the leaves, far above him. "I was taking a bit of a walk; it seems, I woke late, and there was naught else to do in this place, but go wandering."
"You were lost," Legolas said.
"Not," Gimli explained fairly, "lost, though I was not quite sure of my way." He made that rough sound in his throat again. Legolas smiled.
"And so you stumbled upon a glade and a pool and an elf bathing," Legolas said, his voice containing what might have been a wry tone, though Gimli's ears were far too hot to hear correctly. "Though, if I judge rightly," Legolas continued, "I am not the elf you would have wished me to be, had you known such events would come to pass this late afternoon." Gimli moved like a sack of chain mail being dragged about by an Orc. He took a step forward, as if on the offensive suddenly, and then his anger petered out.
"I would not talk of it," Gimli said. Then, "You are more alike in complexion and in expression as the Lady herself than any other; though it seems whatever troubles you lends that extra depth to your eyes." The assessment threw Legolas off guard for a moment. Gimli's eyes looked like a fox's. "So it would seem," Gimli continued, voice gaining strength even as he gained the upper ground, "that my luck holds, as best as it may, in such times as these."
"You would have had the Lady bathing here," Legolas murmured, and whether his eyes were laughing or merely shocked, it was impossible to tell, "but, if not she, then I, myself, would suit your purposes and fancies well enough? You speak as one gone mad, Master Dwarf." In truth, Legolas was unsure, for the dwarf was laughing, if the shake of his beard could be indication enough, but there was a steel and a strength to his eyes that suggested he did not say all these words in jest.
"I would not talk of it," Gimli said again, and that was all. Legolas's eyes grew dark, and darker still. The change was harsh, and sudden.
"And I would be no man's second choice; nay, and no dwarf's, either, the opinion asked for, or no."
"I was watching you bathe," Gimli said steadily, once a long and shaky silence had passed. There was an honesty in the dwarf's voice that soothed Legolas. It was a voice as plain and simple as sunshine on the earth. It was a voice as firm and solid as rock. There was no cruelty to it, though, no bite of an axe-edge. "And it was a pleasant sight." Legolas bowed his head. Stray strands of golden hair moved about his face in the gentle breezes. Gimli had never before felt so wrong in any one place, such an intruder, so unwanted. It was as if all of Lothlorien had lifted up in protest against him, to drive him out, never to see such beauty again. And after all: he was the opposite of everything within this bower, and the struggle between himself and the elf merely a microcosm of an age-old feud between two races. Gimli knew why elves were loved, knew of their beauty, of their gentle nature, their enchanting voices, lifting to the sky in song. He knew why he and his people hated them so, the roughness of himself contrasted with the tender, slim form that stood, half bowed, before him.
"I wonder at it," Legolas said, not unkindly, and though Gimli waited for more, none came.
"Wonder at what?" he asked at last, impatient.
"When did you stumble upon me?" Legolas queried at once, eyes narrowing, expression shrewd.
"But a few moments before you sensed me there. What do you wonder at?"
"It was nothing; it was but a… You saw no one with me?" Again, Legolas's voice was a challenging thing, his eyes slashes of sunlight on darkness.
"Was there someone with you?" Two can play at this game, Gimli thought, bristling. The trees seemed to come a little closer though, upon his heels, after he spoke. Perhaps it was not wise to play this game, he decided at last, in this place.
"There was no one," Legolas said.
"Then why did you ask?" The elf was lying to him. It annoyed Gimli on two levels, though he had not the command of words necessary to express either.
"It was but a question." Gimli watched Legolas for a long moment before he next spoke.
"It was Aragorn," he said quietly, so as not to anger the threat at his back, "that you were with." This was not a question. The muscles in Legolas's lithe shoulders tightened, knotted. "What passed between you is that which troubled you." Gimli nodded once, satisfied, in a grim way. It seemed that Aragorn had the love of all in the fellowship - though beautiful things flocked to adore him, a man, only a man, but with greatness in his hands and eyes.
"I would not talk of it," Legolas warned. His words meant 'go no further,' clear as the day. Gimli scowled; no elf told him what to do and what not to do. It was anger at this presumption, and anger, too, at Aragorn - foolish anger, almost youthful - that he had dared to hurt one so lovely to look upon, that drove Gimli onward, and so foolishly onward it was.
"You would not talk of it because I am right, and it is true," Gimli pressed, hands with their gnarled knuckles held in tight fists at his sides. "Aragorn has the love of many. Perhaps he did not need yours?" Legolas's eyes flashed in anger.
"I would not talk of it," was all he said, and something in the simplicity of the statement chastened Gimli.
"Or could not return it," he said, as one trying to mend something gone beyond all hope of repair. "Could not, for all that he thinks he must do for the world, for faces whose names he does not know, for people whose lives he believes he has tarnished with the name he has inherited." Again, there was that sound - Legolas recognized it as a grunt of annoyance, what might have been in another creature a challenge against injustice, a half-roar.
"It is many things," Legolas answered. "I am young yet, it seems; Aragorn, far younger than I, but understanding far more."
"He is the sort for breaking hearts, lad," Gimli said, aware in a sudden and painful way of his own short stature, the roughness of his face, the tangles in his beard. "Though he will bear that knowledge as a burden, as well." Legolas let out breath through clenched teeth. The sound was brittle.
"He would not hurt anyone, if he could but help it; and yet his wisdom cannot rule the hearts of others."
"No, they cannot." It was a terrible thing, to be so ugly and so small in such a beautiful and such a vast place. Gimli turned to go.
"You were watching me bathe?" Legolas asked. The question was young, and sincere.
"Aye, it would seem, though not for very long." There was bitter laughter in Gimli's reply.
"Then stay but a little while longer," Legolas said, "and see what you would have wished to, without the leaves of bushes to block your sight."
"You ask me to stay?" Gimli asked. The world was very quiet.
"If it would please you," Legolas added. He took a step backwards, and the water lapped like fingers against his hips, the curve of his backside. Gimli could near feel the cool touch of it himself. Slowly, he lowered himself to the ground. He leaned on one elbow, rested his other arm on a raised knee.
"You are a strange lad," Gimli said gruffly, "and no mistake to that. But I have been on my feet for a long time now; it would suit me, to rest myself here a little, in the shade, in the grass." Legolas said nothing more in answer, but moved again, turned sideways in the splay of gentle light. His hair caught the sunshine like gold, pure, spun gold. Gimli would have liked to touch it, but the calluses, the cracked skin of his fingers, would have caught the delicate substance. He would have liked to touch it, yes, had he known he would not snag or tear it on his own, coarse hands.
The sound the water made against Legolas's skin was entrancing, some strange song of the forest. Legolas trailed his fingers through it, then lifted them, wet. He touched his own shoulders with those graceful, smooth hands, uncallused from his many years with a boy. He let the water trail small rivulets down over his shoulderblades, into the dip of his lower back. There, he closed his eyes to the feel.
He repeated the motion.
Then, he was for a very long time very, very still. He was letting his fingers dry. He ran them through his sun-warmed hair when at last he chose to move again, undoing an imaginary tangle here, or there. He touched the back of his own neck, where the hairs were short and soft, and he turned his eyes to look at Gimli's own. It was a strange feeling, being watched by such honest, open eyes, for the dwarf was a rough creature, loud and unsubtle. Aragorn hid things always but Gimli was open and indeed watching Legolas, not some other, unnamed shadow.
"I am watching," Gimli said, understanding the need for reassurance, though he didn't know what it was. Legolas bowed his head in acknowledgement, and ran his fingers down his chest. They plunged, swift and silent, into the water once more. Every movement was devastatingly graceful.
Gimli was silent, respectful.
He watched Legolas's fingertips as they rolled up Legolas's sides, he watched Legolas's palms as they smoothed Legolas's own shape, he watched Legolas's hands still on his shoulder again, imprinting wetness on his skin.
Gimli leaned forward from the place where he sat, breathless as if he had just run a great distance. And dwarves were not known for their skill in running. They were quick to anger, not quick to move.
But Legolas had long, slim legs, long and slim and strong. He ran swift as if the wind were carrying him, across flatlands or rocky terrain or through tall grass. It was a wonder to see him move, the grace with which he parted the air before him, and left the ground almost untouched in his wake. Legolas was, Gimli mused, as each successive inch of pale skin began to glisten with water, as much a part of the air as he was of the earth. Gimli harbored the strange image of being able to breathe him; but it turned into the desire to bury his face in that golden hair, to smell the earthen, woodland scent of him, and the otherworldly impulse was lost forever.
And then Legolas's hands stilled.
"I grow weary," Legolas said softly. Gimli wondered how long they had been there, for the light seemed to suddenly grow dimmer, darker. The sun was sinking, or had already fallen. He had been so intent upon the light of Legolas's hair he had forgotten the passage of time, that the hours moved by whether or not he gave them any regard.
"It grows late," was all Gimli could find within his heart as a reply. Legolas drew himself, naked, out of the water, and stood there, unsure of where to go. There was Gimli, small, compact, a jarring sight in the midst of the trees. It was as if there was a little rock amongst the bushes, solid and immovable, stubborn but displaced all the same.
"I had not noticed the sun sink," Legolas said at last, grasping for words as any other at that point would have grasped for their clothes, "and yet it is already gone down behind the hills. Night has fallen." Decisive, Legolas moved forwards towards Gimli, and then settled himself down, slow upon the face of the earth. He was aware, quite aware, that Gimli was now watching and memorizing his every movement, and so he took care, more than he had ever done before. Gimli did not speak; indeed, he was more quiet than ever he had been. Legolas laid a hand against the dwarf's rough cheek, tangled his longer fingers in the bristly hair. "You are so different," he said calmly, "than all else to be found here. You are rough, and unnatural; but I would like to learn your face, the very lines of it, more than I would the face of any other I have ever come to know." Gimli allowed the touch for a little while, even with the knowledge that he could not return it. When he spoke next he spoke slowly, with a sadness to his tone that he would also have been at a loss to explain.
"Learn my face as scholars learn the lines of a book," he said carefully, "as gardeners learn the earth. But not as a friend would learn a friend; a lover, a lover."
"You assume too much," Legolas returned, drawing his thumb down the line of one thick dwarf braid. "There is more to this elf than meets the eye; just as there is more to this dwarf than this elf ever knew."
"I would not ask for more than I would be given." Gimli stilled the hand upon his jaw, marveled at how smooth the foreign fingers were against his own. "Even I am not so bold, or so thick-skinned." Legolas shook his head. Their eyes, for a moment, met. Then, easy and slow, Legolas shifted so that he lay upon his side, and he dropped his head to rest against Gimli's thigh, half against his lap.
"Elves give more than most know," he said, with a fragile youth that Gimli both feared and loved at once, "as much as is in their power to give, at times, though they do it so softly most never know what it is they have received. Those who care to listen, and look, however," and here, Legolas found Gimli's hand again, the rough palm, the short, blunt-tipped fingers, "see more than they expect."
"You speak these words because you are searching for one who will soothe your spirit, or your pride." Legolas tensed, relaxed again. "I did not mean that," Gimli admitted, once Legolas was again at ease.
"Then perhaps you should spend more time thinking," Legolas said, almost bemusedly, "before you do, indeed, say anything at all."
"Aye, aye," Gimli muttered, "you can change a subject faster than I can blink, I notice, and what a talent that is, in a pinch."
"And you'll notice, elves do not get lost, certainly not in the woods; nay, nor anywhere else, for that matter."
"Perhaps," Gimli said, only half-joking, as he dared suddenly to tangle his rough fingers in Legolas's hair, "I should not go wandering oft without you."
"No." Legolas shivered. It was a pleasant shivered. The woods lent its leaves towards laughing, and the breeze made even Gimli feel light as the air. "Perhaps not."