A/N: Special thanks to everyone who has taken the time to review this. I'm glad so many of you have enjoyed it.
Lothiriel took a sip of wine and smiled. It was hard not to. The great hall of Meduseld was full of happy and excited people. A single day could make a great deal of difference – the mood of the hall, indeed, all of Edoras, was very different this evening than it had been the afternoon before.
Eomer was home, and she was not the only one rejoicing in that fact – it was as if the entire city had let out a relieved sigh. She was sure some of the atmosphere was due to the presence of the men in Eomer's guard, as other wives and families had welcomed the men home with the same relief she'd experienced. But still, much of the changed mood was simply due to the presence of the king. Although they were accepting of the fact that he occasionally had to travel, they much preferred having him home.
She understood the feeling.
Looking up from where she was leaning against one of the pillars, she saw him across the room, laughing at something Elfhelm had said and looking impossibly handsome. He was still in some discomfort, that was obvious from the way he moved, the way he held his arm. But to his disgruntlement, the healers had insisted on examining him that morning, eventually declaring that he would fully recover. Although she'd had no doubts about that after the night they'd shared, they'd both understood that such reassurance was necessary for the people of Rohan. With rumors circling about the rockslide, the Rohirrim needed to know that he had suffered no lasting injury.
He moved slightly, looked around the hall, then smiled when his eyes found her. She smiled back, her heart skittering a bit at the intimacy of that shared look.
Their relationship had changed.
For her, it had been realizing how easily he could have died in that rockslide, realizing how much she loved him.
She wasn't sure when things had changed for him, only that they had. The look in his eyes when he'd they'd made love that morning, when he'd been inside her…that had never been there before. As much as their loving had meant to her before he'd left for Gondor, she'd never seen that particular look of need, possession, connection, before.
She'd always known that while he desired her and enjoyed her company, that he also felt responsible for her. But it was not a sense of responsibility that had driven him through the cold rain, driven him to take foolish chances, just to be with her. The thought of that, of him being caught in that rockslide simply because he was trying to make it home for her birthday, still caused her stomach to twist. But the knowledge of what was behind that ride through the rain thrilled her.
He loved her. She was sure of it. And it changed everything.
She took another sip of wine, and realized that he'd moved, was no longer talking to Elfhelm. But before she could look around for him, she felt hands come to rest on her waist, heard his voice, husky and very soft, in her ear.
"Are you enjoying yourself?"
"Of course." She smiled up at him, didn't add that she'd enjoyed all the mundane tasks of the day, simply because she knew he was somewhere near.
"Oh?" He gave her a mock disappointed look. "That's unfortunate."
"Why?" Puzzled, she stared at him, then understood when she saw the twinkle in his eye.
He looked around the room, leaned closer to her. "Because I think we could probably retire to our chambers for a much more private celebration now," he said very softly.
Her heart leaped, and she smiled at him conspiratorially, then said, "do you think they'll notice?" as she motioned to the room full of excited people.
He looked around, then gave her a mischievous look. "Not as long as the food and drink keep flowing. Of course, if you'd rather stay here…"
She laughed, loving this cheerful, playful side of him. "Oh, no, your majesty. You're not escaping that easily."
"Who said I wanted to escape?" Even as he spoke, he took the wine out of her hand, set it on the nearest table, then started leading her through the crowd. He greeted those they passed, but didn't stop, and Lothiriel caught more than one glance that was both pleased and amused. Not only did their people not mind if she and Eomer left early, she suspected they quite liked the idea of the king and queen having a relationship where they wanted to do so.
As he opened the door to the sitting room and led her through it, Eomer admitted to himself that as much as he was looking forward to spending the evening with her, he was also a bit apprehensive. There was still too much he didn't understand about the rituals associated with a birthday. What if it ended up making her sad rather than pleasing her? What if his gift were a disappointment?
He secured the door behind them, then turned to her. She was standing next to him, staring at the fireplace with a bemused smile on her face.
"What's all this?" she motioned to where a bottle of wine and two goblets sat on the floor next to the furs in front of the fireplace, along with a light supper, several additional blankets, and a leather bag.
Heat crawled up his face. What had seemed like a good idea when he made the arrangements earlier with Meduseld's housekeeper now merely made him feel foolish. "I wanted it to be special."
She turned to him, laid her hand against his cheek. "The evening itself is special, but this is simply lovely." Her eyes glinted with excitement. "Now what?"
He pressed a kiss into her palm. "Now we celebrate."
He led her to the furs, motioned for her to sit down. He settled next to her, then poured the wine. Handing her one of the goblets, he sipped from the other one before looking at her again.
"If there is some particular protocol or ceremony for the celebrating of birthdays, now would be a good time to tell me."
Her eyes softened, and she leaned over and kissed him. "It's not about protocol. You've already given me the greatest gift, just by remembering it."
"Let's see if I can do better than that." He started to reach for the leather bag, then paused. "Are you hungry?"
She stared at him for a long moment, then started to laugh. "That's cruel."
He grinned at her. It had been a serious question – how did he know that eating first was not part of the ritual? But at least she was amused by it.
He resumed pulling the bag to him. It was his saddlebag, the leather so well-conditioned it had kept its contents dry even through the heavy rains. He opened it, pulled out another, smaller leather bag. Handed it to her. "These are from your father, brothers, and Faramir."
A curious look on her face, she opened the bag, pulled out five rolled up parchments. Her expression softened. "Letters." She smiled up at him. "I'll enjoy reading them later."
"It is my intention to send a messenger to Minas Tirith as soon as these rains cease. He could carry replies for you, if you like."
She smiled. "I would like that very much." Then, to his surprise, she leaned over and kissed him. Five very thorough times.
It took a moment for his mind to catch up. "One for each letter? Is that part of the ritual?"
"I think it's now part of ours," she said mischievously. "Since I can't thank my family, it's only right that I thank the one who delivered the letters."
"I knew I was going to like this celebration," he smiled as he reached into the bag again, pulled out another small leather bag. "This is from your father," he said quietly.
"I wondered if you'd see him. I wasn't sure." Her voice was now a tad unsteady, but she smiled at him.
"He and I talked about the possibility of our visiting Dol Amroth next summer, as long as nothing unexpected happens."
"I would like that." She untied the drawstring, drew out what was inside. It was wrapped in a soft cloth, and she gave him a puzzled glace as she further unwrapped it, then simply sat and stared. "He's been carving driftwood again."
Eomer watched as she lightly traced the oddly shaped wooden box she was holding. It was light in color, and almost seemed luminescent.
"My father has always loved carving the wood deposited by the sea when he had time; it's been a very long time since he's had the luxury." She lifted the lid, laughed with delight.
Imrahil had taken a single piece of driftwood and carved it into a trinket box. The lid fit so snugly it was hard to tell that it even came apart until you looked closely. And inside, wrapped in more soft cloth, were several particularly beautiful sea shells. "I used to collect sea shells and interesting pieces of driftwood when I was a girl." She touched the shells softly. "What a lovely thing for him to have done. He's sent me the sea," she added with a laugh. But he heard the tremor in her voice.
"It was not intended to make you sad," he said gently.
Startled, she looked up, hastily wiped away a stray tear. "I'm not sad. Not really. It's just…" her voice faded, then came back stronger. "There are four shells here, plus the driftwood box." She tucked the shells back into the box, set it aside, then leaned over, slid her arms up around his neck. "That gets you this, I think." And kissed him.
His mind emptied.
When he was able to focus – and breathe – again, he realized she was nearly in his lap, looking at him with an uncertain and shy smile completely at odds with the passion of the kiss. And then he understood. She was as aware as he that their relationship was changing, and as much as she loved the gifts, she wanted the evening to be about the two of them rather than just being a celebration of her birthday. But while she'd always responded enthusiastically to his lovemaking, she'd never really taken the lead in it, and was feeling a bit insecure about what she was trying to show him.
He would reassure her. Wrapping his arms around her, he prevented her from shifting away from him, then leaned down, nuzzled her cheek. "If you keep thanking me that way, we may not get to the rest of your gifts," he murmured.
She laughed softly, then pulled away from him. "We can't have that."
He smiled, then reached for the leather bag. "This is from Eowyn," he said, handing her another piece of rolled up parchment. "It's not a letter."
She gave him a puzzled look before carefully breaking the seal and unrolling it. He heard her quick intake of breath as she stared at the drawing. "This is lovely. I had no idea that your sister was talented in such a way."
"I didn't either," he admitted, looking at the drawing of Faramir. "She used to draw instead of practicing her letters when they were teaching us to read and write, but she hadn't done any deliberately for years – at least not that I'm aware of. Parchment is not as easy to come by in the Mark as it is in Gondor, which I'm sure is a factor in it."
She was still staring at the likeness of her cousin, lightly tracing his figure. Then she looked up, smiled. "I shall treasure it. But the next time I see her, I shall tell her that as fond as I am of Faramir, that there's another drawing I'd much rather have." Color came into her cheeks, but she kept her eyes steady on his.
It took a moment to realize she meant a drawing of him, and his heart jerked. Unable to stop himself, he leaned down and kissed her. "That you would say that is a gift to me, so I get this kiss," he said quietly.
When he lifted his head, he hugged her to him for a moment, then reached for the leather bag. Refused to feel nervous that all that was left was his gift.
He pulled the small pouch out, handed it to her. With a curious look on her face, she glanced at him before untying it, dumping the small item out in her hand. She made an impatient noise when she realized it was yet further wrapped, and quickly unbound it, only to let out a soft cry when she could finally see it.
Her fingers trembled as she held the pendant up to the firelight, which he took as a good sign.
She turned it around, and he saw her face go still as she identified what she was seeing. It was done in silver filigree, a graceful and intricate design of a horse facing a swan, and in the middle, between them, two jewels – dark green and blue, bound together with thin strands of delicate silver.
"For Rohan and Dol Amroth," she murmured. Tears came, and she turned to him, leaned against him, even as she continued to admire his gift.
He hugged her to him, kissed the top of her head. "Gimli created it from a design I gave him."
"He did? I didn't think he did this kind of work."
Eomer smiled. "He was intrigued by the concept; he also quite liked sharing in your birthday gift."
"But the design idea was yours." She lifted her head, looked at him.
She smiled, lifted her free hand to touch his face. "I love that Gimli did it for me. But I love that it was your idea even more. It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."
"It's not as beautiful as you are." Even as the words left his mouth, he winced, felt heat rush into his cheeks. Was that the best he could do, when there was so much more he wanted to say?
Her smile at the words faded to confusion as she noted his embarrassment, and he reached up, cupped her cheek with his hand, rubbed the soft skin with his calloused thumb. He wanted the smile back.
"I have no problem mustering my men for battle," he said finally said quietly. "I can negotiate peace between different eoreds, and I can hold my own in debates with my council. But you…I have no words for you, for what I've come to feel for you."
As he spoke, the puzzlement faded, her eyes softened as she gazed at him. Then she pulled away from him, stood up. Before he could quite grasp what was happening, she slipped out of her dress, then pulled off her shift.
Breath strangled in his throat, and coherent thought fled.
Blushing furiously but with her eyes still on him, she settled in front of him again. Then the blush faded, was replaced by a knowing smile as she took in his response to her, and she touched his chin, brought his eyes up to hers.
"Words are important, but can also be over-rated." Her words were soft. "Show me."
He swallowed, managed a breath, pulled her to him. "Gladly, my love," he murmured unsteadily as he bent to kiss her.
It was the middle of the afternoon, two days later, when he found her standing in the middle of the great hall, a bemused look on her face.
"Lothiriel? What is it?"
She smiled at him, but her expression was still puzzled. "I was just talking to two more of your guards. Do you know that nearly every one of them has made a point of telling me in the last two days how glad they are that I'm here and how much they appreciate me? It's wonderful, but—what? What's so amusing?"
Thinking of his efforts to explain birthdays to Eothain, and the other man's baffled reaction to the concept, it took him a long moment to stop laughing, but he finally brought himself under control. Reaching for her hand, he brought it up, kissed it. "I believe that's your final birthday gift, my love."