The Game of Love: Strike

AN: This chapter is dedicated to Jessica and to Bibi, for their persistence. Thank you, ladies.

Chapter 8

"The bet was my idea, of course," Eros said, buffing his nails lightly against his toga. He cast a look through his eyelashes up at his mother. "Mustn't make it too easy, after all."

"Of course," Aphrodite answered dryly, her lips twitching in amusement. "However, you're cutting the non-involvement issue a bit fine here, my son. Don't you think it would be best to just call this one a success and move back to your own realm?" She saw him bristle and laid a placating hand on his arm. "After all, there are plenty of hearts yearning for their true desires back on Earth. What is this one maid turned elf to you?"

Eros scowled and slouched ungracefully in his chair, biting his thumbnail. "It's not that she's so important, mother. That's not the point. The point is that I brought her here…"

"Manwë brought her here," Aphrodite corrected softly. "And only because he owed a debt to you."

"A mere technicality," he replied, waving the hand he'd been nibbling lazily. "It was my idea, and therefore I should be able to do as I wish with her. It's not like I'm up to something dastardly – like that Sauron fellow. Really, is what I want too much to ask for?" He pouted.

Aphrodite sighed and silently begged Hera for patience. "Fine," she said, shaking her head. "I wash my hands of the whole affair. You and your brother are both meddling in things best left alone. Isn't it enough that you machinated the upheaval of this mortal's life, and dumped her without any warning whatsoever into a world she never even suspected existed? Can't you be satisfied with knowing that at this point, she has already met her intended true love? Can't you let nature take its course and move on?"

Eros sat up, frowning. "What is my brother up to?" he asked suspiciously, mentally cursing for not keeping an eye on Anteros. "What has he done?"

His mother regarded him silently before shaking her head again. "Never mind your brother. Will you leave well enough alone?"

"No," Eros replied, folding his arms and slouching again. "I won't. Not until I'm satisfied."

Aphrodite nodded, as if his answer was precisely what she had expected. "Very well. Do as you will, just as you always have. But don't be surprised if you receive another unwanted visit from an enraged Valar, once they figure out what you've been up to."

Eros smiled smugly. "They won't catch on. I'm too clever."

Aphrodite rolled her eyes at this and stood. "Right. Like the way you were clever with that human girl, Psyche and left the candles out where she could get at them." A sly smile curled her lips. "How is your wife, anyway? I'm sure she misses you."

He didn't smile. "Fine, mother. Tell Hephaestus I said hello, will you?" His mother's laughter lingered in the room long after she departed, as was her way of always having the last word.

Eros frowned, biting thoughtfully on his thumbnail, his brow furrowed.

Anteros was obviously up to something – something that rivaled Eros' own great plan.

It was time to find out what his brother was up to.

Laurel sat on the edge of a wooden walkway, her bare feet dangling over the edge, admiring a rather colorful bird that was perched on a branch only a few feet above her head. He had noticed her admiration and had puffed out his breast, ruffling his feathers and preening until she laughed softly at his vanity. Nonplussed by her amusement at his expense, he opened his beak and began to sing, filling the early morning air with his warbling.

She smiled and leaned back on her hands, tilting her head to look at the canopy of green and gold above her. Contentment and a kind of lazy happiness filled her. A soft breeze, carrying the scent of growing things, of flowers and earth and trees, touched her face and she took a deep breath, savoring it, before releasing it slowly. Life was so much simpler here. Sure, she missed some things from her old life (hot showers being first and foremost in the list), but for the most part, she realized, she was happy.

Laurel's smile widened as she realized that even in matters of the heart, things were looking up for her. She had not one, not two, but three men – elves, she corrected mentally – literally paying court to her, and really, there wasn't a bad choice to be had among them.

Rúmil had taken her on a tour of the city on her third day, and the more time she spent in the young marchwarden's company, the more she liked him. He was charming, flirtatious without being overbearing or obnoxious, and rather sweet. He had a gentle manner about him, and despite his teasing remarks and bold winks, he'd never done more than hold her hand. He made her laugh, and she appreciated that more than anything else about him.

Orophin, on the other hand, made her blush regularly with his simmering looks and promising smiles. She would never describe Orophin as sweet, though he was every bit as kind and charming as his brother. His flirting was far bolder than Rúmil's, and he took advantage of opportunities to place his arm around her waist or shoulders, drawing her close. The day after Rúmil had given her the tour of the city, Orophin had invited her on a picnic in one of the numerous grassy clearings that were scattered throughout Lothlórien. At one point he had taken her hand and placed a kiss on the back of it. The feel of his soft lips against her skin had made her shiver, and she couldn't help but consider what it would feel like if he kissed her.

Haldir, however was something else entirely. There was something about the Captain of the Galadhrim that made her feel like a shy schoolgirl who'd never been kissed. After her first week in Lórien, he had stopped her after her morning lesson with Lord Celeborn and presented her with the second blossom. Feeling suddenly awkward and tongue-tied, she could only nod and stammer her agreement to join him for a walk. He had offered her his hand and she had accepted it, feeling the warm, tiny thrill, almost like a static electric shock, when his long fingers curled around hers.

Laurel found Haldir's brand of charm to be startlingly different from that of either Rúmil or Orophin's. He didn't talk a lot, but when he did, he always had something interesting to say, and when he complimented her, she had the feeling it wasn't idle flattery. He was sincere. And there was something else she found particularly odd and intriguing about him. She didn't feel the need to fill the silences that fell between them with chatter and small talk. Their silence was comfortable, companionable, as if they had known each other for ages, instead of days. He lacked Rúmil's easy natured charm, and Orophin's smoldering sensuality, but she didn't seem to mind. She rather liked his serious nature.

She sighed, and shifted, sitting upright once more. Her sudden movement startled her bird companion and he flew away, much to her chagrin. It was just as well, she supposed, for the morning was passing, and she was already late for her lesson with Lord Celeborn.

Celeborn wrapped his arms around his wife's slender waist, rubbing his cheek gently against hers. She laughed softly, her own arms twining about his neck.

"You seem to be in an amorous mood this morning, my husband," she said, feeling the press of him against her stomach. She shivered as he placed soft kisses against the sensitive skin of her neck. "Not that I am complaining."

Sliding his hands lower, he cupped the gentle swell of her buttocks while he nuzzled the delicate curve of her ear. Galadriel's soft sigh encouraged him further, and he roguishly pulled her tight against him even as his lips sought hers.

"Eh-hem…"

They separated swiftly, like a pair of clandestine lovers, and Galadriel was the first to regain her composure. Celeborn found something interesting and invisible stuck to the front of his robes and he busied himself with removing it. It gave him time to recover his usual unflappable demeanor.

Haldir stood at the door of Celeborn's study, his eyes fixed on some indefinite point behind Galadriel. His lips twitched as he struggled to contain his smile. "Forgive my untimely intrusion." His voice quivered ever so slightly. "I had a request, but it can wait until a later time."

Galadriel smiled, her cheeks slightly pink. "What is your request, Haldir?"

The Marchwarden cleared his throat again and looked down, studying his boots. "I was informed today that Elladan and Elrohir are returning to Imladris. I would like to be on their escort detail."

Galadriel hid her smile as her husband finally managed to put himself to rights. He frowned faintly as he regarded Haldir.

"I understood that you would be returning to the northern fences soon," Celeborn said. "Is there a particular reason you wish to deviate from your scheduled rotation?"

It was difficult to tell on an elf as stoic in nature as Haldir, but Galadriel thought she detected the slightest flush of color on his cheeks.

"My reasons are of a personal nature," Haldir answered quietly. "Orondo has already agreed to take my watch until I return."

Celeborn nodded and glanced at his wife, before looking candidly at the captain of his guardians. "I see." A small smile curved his lips. "Would I be correct in guessing that your request might have something to do with the company that Elladan and Elrohir will be keeping when they depart?" It was no secret that Haldir had been spending time in a certain elleth's company, an elleth who happened to be joining their granddaughter in seeing their grandsons off on their return journey.

Haldir nodded, his expression strained. "Aye." His reply was so faint they scarcely heard it.

"Then, so long as Orondo has agreed to the switch, I see no reason you should not lead the escort," Celeborn said. "Perhaps it would also be a fine opportunity to visit Fennas before returning home." Galadriel squeezed his hand, warning him not to overplay it. Haldir would not appreciate the nudge, no matter how well intended it was. He cleared his throat and said with an innocent, concerned air, "It has been a few months since we have had news from the settlement there."

"Aye," Haldir said, not fooled for an instant. "So it has. I shall pay an inspection upon our return, so long as Arwen and Laurel are not minded of the detour."

"What are you smiling about, muindor?" Orophin asked suspiciously as Haldir searched through his wooden trunk at the foot of his bed. "You look entirely too satisfied for my liking."

Rúmil leaned against his brother and chuckled. "It is only that he has outsmarted us both. He has made an agreement with Orondo to exchange rotations for a fortnight. While we shall be standing our watches on the Northern Fences, our dear Haldir shall be accompanying Arwen and her brothers to the borders, and Laurel is going with them to farewell Elladan and Elrohir."

Orophin snorted. "How did you manage to get Orondo to agree? He did not seem so very eager to return, what with having finally caught fair Niním's regard."

Haldir lifted his traveling pack from the chest and looked at his brothers with an unrepentant grin. "Aye, at first he was most reluctant to agree, until I pointed out that by switching rotations with me, he would be free for nearly four weeks after his watch had finished. I do believe that was the influencing factor in his decision."

"When do you depart?" Rúmil asked, a curious gleam in his eyes.

"Tomorrow morn, just after sunrise," Haldir replied, folding his extra set of leggings carefully and placing them in his pack. "Why?"

Rúmil smiled, grabbing his cloak from the hook by the door of their talan. "Then I have a visit to make."

Orophin snorted, watching his brother's disappearing backside for a moment before turning to look at Haldir. "I think our Rúmil has already won this wager," he said seriously. "He spends more time with Laurel than any of us."

Haldir shook his head. "No, I would not say that. They seem close, but in friendship, nothing more. He has done aught but hold her hand."

"So he says," Orophin replied, shaking his head. "Yet he brings her flowers and writes her gently worded notes of regard and leaves them for her daily. He is a romantic."

"And you are not?" Haldir asked with an arched eyebrow. "I have witnessed your wooing when you are truly intent upon it. Do not hold yourself shy of Rúmil, dear brother," he said kindly, "For I think that Laurel regards us all with true affection."

There was a gentle tapping at Laurel's door, and she looked up from the book she was reading with a small frown. Though hour was not very late, she was alone in the talan; Niním had left a while ago to have a private supper with Orondo, and Merelind was spending time with Arwen. Laurel was not expecting any visitors, for she had begged off accompanying Merelind to Arwen's talan, not really feeling in the mood to be social. Lord Celeborn had given her a book on the different species of flowers that were native to Lórien, and she found herself, surprisingly, intrigued by it. They had discovered, quite by accident, the Laurel had a 'green-thumb', a natural talent with plants, and she was even more surprised by how much she enjoyed spending time in Galadriel's gardens. She couldn't remember spending much time doing any sort of gardening when she'd been living her old life, but now she wondered how she'd managed to live her life without it. There was something very satisfying about it – to plant a seedling and watch it thrive and grow under her careful guidance; such a sense of accomplishment when it finally bloomed forth.

The soft, yet insistent rapping came again, bringing her out of her musing, and she set her book aside to answer it.

Rúmil stood outside her door, a handful of white flowers she recognized as elanor, no doubt 'donated' from Galadriel's garden. He offered them to her with a smile.

"I don't know where I can put these," she laughed, bringing them to her nose for a sniff. They had a very faint fragrance, nothing she could categorize from her former life, but very pleasant. "You have given me so many. Not that I'm complaining," she added hastily, not wanting to sound ungrateful for his thoughtfulness. "These are lovely. Thank you."

"May I come in?" he asked.

She nodded and stepped aside, closing the door behind him and heading for the cupboard, where she hoped she would find at least one empty vase. The cupboard was bare, however, and she was forced to settle for mixing the elanor blossoms in with the alfirin he had brought her the day before. The soft, pastel alfirin blended nicely with the gold and silver blooms of the elanor, and she found the affect very pleasing.

It wasn't until she finished fussing with the flowers that she realized that she was alone with Rúmil. Granted, they had been alone before on their walks and rambles around the city, but there had always been the distant presence of other elves. The few times he had visited her talan, Merelind or Niním had been present. She'd never been truly alone with him before. The realization made her nervous, and she felt her face grow hot under his bemused regard.

"Tea?" she offered gamely, offering him an overly-bright smile. "Or perhaps something to eat?"

Rúmil smiled down at her. "No, thank you. Haldir tells me you are leaving tomorrow morning to see Elladan and Elrohir off on their journey home."

Laurel nodded, relaxing somewhat. Silly, to be nervous. Rúmil was her friend. A sweet, sexy, and handsome friend, but a friend nonetheless. He'd never done anything to make her feel uncomfortable in his presence. "Yes. Arwen wanted to, and I thought it would be nice to get out and see more of Lothlórien." She tilted her head up at him. "Will you and your brothers be coming along?"

Rúmil shook his head. "No. Orophin and I are returning to duty, but Haldir has arranged to be escort for you and Arwen."

"Oh?" She tried to sound normal, even though her stomach gave a noticeable lurch at the thought of riding for several days in Haldir's company. "Well, that will be nice. Not you and Orophin going back to the fences," she amended quickly. "But having Haldir escort us." She shut her mouth before she could babble any more nonsense.

Rúmil laughed softly and took a step closer to her. "Will you miss me?" he asked, reaching up to stroke her cheek with the back of his hand.

"Of course I will," she protested, looking at him earnestly. "How could I not? You are my friend…" She never got any further, because he silenced her words with a kiss. As kisses went, it was fairly chaste; just a soft, exploration of her lips with his own. Chaste or not, she felt it all the way to her toes. She had just brought her hands up to rest on his shoulders when he drew back, looking down at her with a faint smile.

"There," he said finally, reaching up to brush a stray hair from her face and tuck it behind her ear. "Now I can return to the fences and not be plagued by the wondering of what it would be like to kiss you, and worrying that you will forget me while in the company of my charming oldest brother." He stepped away and turned, giving her a wink. "Good night, Laurel."

Before he could leave, and before she could lose her nerve, Laurel stepped forward and stopped him. Rising up on tiptoe, her eyes on his startled face, she brushed her lips across his cheek. "Good night, Rúmil."

He left with a smile that lit his whole face.

She busied herself with making a pot of tea, and tried not to feel guilty for her conflicting thoughts.

She liked Rúmil, and his kiss had been more than pleasant. But overshadowing it was the persistent and delightful twinge of anticipation she felt at the knowledge that Haldir would be their riding escort.

Laurel gulped her tea, determined to maintain a sense of calm over which of her myriad suitors was doing what and when.

It scalded all the way down.

Tbc…