Theirs had long been a clandestine affair.

Well, sort of.

She had hidden it from her friends, her family.

He never spoke of his, and never did either suggest anyone be informed, introduced.

Initially, she didn't think of telling anyone because their relationship was so unbelievable.

After that… she knew they wouldn't understand. Wouldn't approve. There were so many things they could argue, and they were all true.

But she loved him.

She had been young, and naïve, at first, for all her vaunted experience. Her father was a trader, a tracker, her brothers famed hunters in their village—and as their mother had died when she was quite young, she had been raised at the side of her male kinfolk. She could wield a sword as well as any of the village men, could outshoot them all…

Of course, he'd helped her with archery.

Still, when they met, she had been full of her own abilities. She was the only woman who hunted for the village. The only one allowed on long trading routes to the other realms—and so the only woman who had been to the west side of Mirkwood, to Gondor, to Rohan… and she'd been, of course, often to Bree and several other places that weren't intimately tied to a human king or supreme lord. If they were, she didn't know it.

Looking back on who she had been, she watched the girl's arrogance, and shook her head at it.

She hadn't held him in awe.

Hadn't been smitten or afraid.

She hadn't even really been impressed, until he finished his day's hunting quest with four arrows in fewer seconds.

Knowing she was bested, she had quickly accepted him as her better—in archery, and begged to learn.

He had taught her, sometimes seeming amused, but more often he kept that damn mask on. He wore it often, and he wore it far too well. It revealed nothing, nothing except watchful eyes—but he was so much worse than the town leaders, because he could appear open, friendly, happy, angry or sad…

It had taken her many years to learn his expressions really said nothing at all.

His life was held in his eyes, and they alone betrayed him.

By the time she learned that, they'd already been lovers for some time.

He knew, when she found him out. When she understood that the face he wore wasn't a true one.

He knew, and often would simply grow quiet, complementing her, their relationship, by not lying even in that way.

It was then that she began to understand him.

Of course, when very young, she had thought that having a lover meant she, better than anyone else before her, knew the man.

Elf, in this case.

She had realized she was wrong very slowly, and it had been a shattering truth. It had shaken her so badly she had avoided him for nearly a month—they met in the wood, of course, so she avoided the trees.

He'd never come to the village to seek her out, never had a message delivered.

And when she found her feet had made the decision her mind was unable to, and had carried her to the wood, to their meeting place, he didn't ask a single question, simply led her to one of the wood's many marvelous places.

He told her stories, for a time, and then tilted his head, studying her. The slightest smile touched his lips, and then he turned his head aside and watched the water.

She observed him, memorized him.

She took in the sunlight clinging to his hair, the nearly white pieces where most exposed to the light.

She watched the sun touch his skin and seem to make it glow, though if human, he would have been thought rather sickly, being so pale.

His body was leaner than most men she knew, and he was a bit taller, too. He had looked almost like an overgrown boy to her the first day, until she'd seen him move.

He moved with power, with grace. There was no clumsy lumbering, no clunking or hesitance.

His hands were blessed or cursed—she didn't know—with being lean, narrow, but with long fingers. She knew them to be astonishingly strong, yet more than capable of being extraordinarily gentle.

His eyes… the color alone was stunning, as so few with blue eyes had been seen in her life. Of those, none had been so deeply bright and intense. She wouldn't say she could read people's eyes—she didn't know if it could be done. At least, not in the ways she'd been told.

As with many people, though, her mind knew more than her conscious self registered knowing—she read people well, as one must to live with and among such social creatures as humans. She couldn't read his eyes, not at all.

By the time they left that little sheltered nook, she had a red mark on her shoulder from his teeth, a bruise in the middle of her back from a rock, and insight into herself that she wasn't sure she had wanted.

She would come back, every day if she could, and she would be with him. Not because she loved him, though she feared that would happen, but because she wanted him.

He was, of course, beautiful—most men could be called handsome at best, but he was beautiful in such an inhuman way that only that word could describe him.

He was a wonderful hunter, tracker, blades-master. He had, by that day, taught her much.

His skill was enough to make him an attractive match, his beauty a draw as well.

She hadn't even considered his race when she decided to let this, whatever 'this' happened to be, run its course. She wanted the male who lay beside her to be exactly what he was… she didn't care that he wasn't human.

So it had been going for many years.

When her father died, she could choose a brother to live with… or she could live alone in her father's house.

Instead, she defied the village expectations by building a house in the woods.

Her brothers helped her, having long ago given up on trying to understand their little sister who only got better with her odd skills when they stopped teaching her, who never looked at the men in town with interest, though she'd gathered her share of looks, for all that it was widely known she would make a lousy wife—as she knew little of the domestic chores that were expected of a good wife.

They helped her build a house, a small house but a good one, and they left to return to the village center, left to be with their wives and children, letting her be crazy in her own space, without interruption from them.

It was clear to her from the moment they left her hearth when the little house was built that they would not return unless expressly invited.

Because of that unspoken disapproval for her moving out into the woods, away from family and the safety of the village, she never worried about it when he came over, when he spent the night or spent the week.

As the years passed, she learned more about him, and more about herself. She could look back and see how he'd influenced her. She was quieter, now. More thoughtful, less brash, though perhaps that came with age, anyway. He… never changed. She just saw a little bit more of who he really was.

There were many days that stuck out in her memory.

The day that she'd taken his wine glass from the bedside table instead of her own, and noticed it tasted differently than she remembered from her own—she'd confirmed it with another sip from the other glass, which she'd left on the bureau.

He'd noticed her study, of course, and simply waited for her to be sure of it, before he withdrew an empty vial from his leggings, which by then had been splayed hap-hazardously on her floor.

She'd asked the obvious question, but his reply had not been what she'd expected. 'There will be no children.'

It should have struck her long before to wonder how she had never conceived. Fertility had never been an issue in her family. Both of her parents were among at least a half-dozen offspring, as were their parents before them. Her own siblings numbered five, with four lost before of seven months, two of those never having drawn breath.

The idea of an elf being infertile was ludicrous—they were beings of power, majesty, and earth. The earth was rarely barren, if tended properly.

All those years, he'd been giving her something to prevent conception. She hadn't known, and he certainly hadn't volunteered the information… though, to his credit, he hadn't misled her in the slightest.

In some part of her being, deeply hidden from her normal thoughts, she wanted children.

As he was her lover, that small longing had naturally attached itself to him, to the nights they spent together… along with the indolent days.

But…

Eventually, she conceded he was probably wise to do what he had done. A half-elven child would have the worst of both worlds—a long life, but not immortal. He would grow up to make many friends, who would either die or hold him apart because they knew that he would one day die. Belonging no where and with neither people, it would be a difficult and troubling life, one she knew she could not wish upon her child.

Nor upon his.

She knew, with whatever instinct given either to humans or just to women, that he would love his child deeply.

Even if the mother was human.

She had grown several years older that night, as she thought about his words and all that they truly said. She had uttered a small 'oh', and turned onto her side to sleep, her back facing him.

She didn't try to feign sleep. She knew it wouldn't work. He could hear her heart, her very breath, and those two things were so common and ordinary to him that he didn't have to keep track of them. He blended the two together without thinking about it, and so he simply knew when she wasn't asleep, when she was upset, when she was fighting laughter.

He did not sleep until later in the night, and he was rather a creature of habit in that one regard.

So she knew he was awake. Knew he knew she was awake.

Knew he would know of her tears.

Years later, she looked back on that night and was proud of herself for not being loud or obvious with her tears. They were shed for the children she might have had that she never would.

They were shed for herself, as that had been another time she knew they were so different.

He hadn't reached for her. Hadn't tried to comfort her as she cried.

Of course, there was little he could have done to comfort her. Holding her would have been insufficient, and crooning things into her ear was hardly something she could imagine him ever doing, be it with a lover or a distraught child, even assuming that would have helped.

The next day that came to mind was one of mourning. A very well loved aunt had passed, and she was crying all the way to her house from the village.

In her mind, he'd been impatient, hurtful and cold when she explained her distress.

She'd blown up at him, screamed at him for a few minutes before ordering him out of her house.

He had rolled his eyes and then shook his head, leaving quickly with a few muttered elvish words rattling off under his breath.

The door had blown shut and he was no doubt long gone before she got over seeing him roll his eyes.

It was so unlike him as to stun her.

Many hours later when he returned, she'd seen the anger lingering in his eyes, though he smiled slightly at her.

The anger had stunned her more than his eyes rolling earlier that troubling day. It shocked her, because he was smiling, and it was a normal, calm smile that she'd seen several times every day she'd spent with him.

She had to wonder how often he'd hidden such anger from her before.

Haltingly, she had asked how he could so easily dismiss someone who meant a lot to her.

His reply was quick, easy, and reminded her that he was an elf.

It was amazing, really, but she usually forgot. She'd gotten used to his inhuman beauty, to his grace, his sheer strength, his ears and his eyes. They no longer were cause for pause, for reflection. They simply were, and were a part of him.

Only when something like this came up, showing her how great the chasm between them was, did she remember he was not human, was not brought up knowing or believing what she did.

When she reminded him she was human, his face was blank.

He had not forgotten.

With that gaping chasm yawning in the back of her mind, she explained that to humans, death was final. There would be nothing besides rest—no reunion, no magical and deity run castle to wander in until rejoined to all past loved ones at the end of the world.

He blinked, and that slow anger had faded. He moved forward, until each knew they were forgiven their words and their tempers, and then had taken her to bed.

In ways he kept her young. His eternal youth could brighten her day and make her happy even after a depressing visit with her family, which was growing ever larger and more distant from her. He laughed, he sang, he did things that she could never understand—they could have been tricks, or they could have honestly been magic, and she would never know.

In ways, he made her older than she had ever had any right to be. She learned so much through his silences, through his limited words. The days that stuck out in her memory were often the ones that had aged her.

There was one day prior to this one on which she had been aged greatly. She was old by human standards, anyway, though not yet fully grey and with but a few wrinkles. She was beyond children, beyond a family of her own, and she watched him look out at the blinding rain from the safety of her room.

She had been considering his visits.

She never knew when he would come, or how long he would stay. Sometimes he would come visit for a few hours every day, while others he would be absent for months. Sometimes he stayed for weeks, others for a single night.

He never said anything about his comings or goings, and she had never asked.

She realized then that she didn't ask because she was afraid of the answer.

Now, though, physical age was creeping up on her, and made her consider her life. She loved him, and could think of nothing else she could have done.

"You will not die when I have."

He turned, studied her face for a moment before returning his gaze to the rain. "No," he said simply.

"Will you even grieve?"

"I shall," he answered quietly.

She sighed, but shook her head with a small, rueful smile. "Not as elves grieve."

"You do not know how elves grieve."

"I know they may die of grief."

He looked at her, and shook his head slightly. "The love deep enough to cause death cannot come in a mortal's lifetime."

"What of those who loved humans? Did they not die?"

He smiled slightly and returned to the window. "She-elves, who were losing children as well as mates. Who by some quirk of the Valar's will were more tightly bound to their men than ever…"

Than ever we shall be.

He didn't have to say it. She could almost hear it.

"Do you even love me?" she asked, and the pain she expected didn't come.

"Yes," he agreed quietly, finally turning, moving to the bed, sitting facing her.

"Not as I love you," she whispered.

"There are many ways to answer that," he mused, the left corner of his mouth turning up.

"I'd like to hear them."

The slight smile faded, and he sighed. "Humans and elves are very different. You have recognized that for many years."

She nodded, her eyes unconsciously averted.

"Elves do not and cannot love as humans do. Humans fall in love much more easily than elves. A courtship said to take a long time could be a matter of years. For elves, there is far too much to discover, to understand about the other to be so hasty. After a hundred years they may know enough to begin courtship in earnest."

"Then what of when with humans?"

He closed his eyes briefly, and it was his turn to look away. "With humans, we know the time is to be far too brief and fleeting. We either ignore it, or jump in with both feet."

"Which have you chosen with me?"

He shook his head. "Perhaps I was being simplistic. You are not an elf—you do not have the time to know me. Nor do you have the time to become someone I could spend eternity with."

"I'm a moment of simple pleasure, then?"

He smiled, warm and amused. "Things with you are never so simple… and I've known too long this conversation was pending to give myself over to the pleasure."

She looked away, and sighed heavily.

He touched her cheek, drawing her eyes back. "I do love you."

"Not as I love you," she repeated, quietly.

"No," he agreed, shaking his head. "You love me as any woman would love a man she has claimed as a lover for more than forty years without children or a true household being set up to show for it. Perhaps a bit more, as you forgive my transience rightly as a matter of my being an elf, and having duties and responsibilities there." He kissed her lightly, a stalling technique she allowed him.

He smiled, knowing he was caught out, and moved to stroke her hair. "I love you for accepting my absences. I love you for not demanding more than I can give. I love you for understanding why we cannot be more than we are, and I love you for moving past that. I love you for the love of the world I see in your eyes when you watch the flowers bloom. I love you for the pain I see in your eyes when you return from the family you are somewhat estranged from—and I love you for not blaming me, when you might well have done. I love you for your brashness, for your arrogance, for the gentleness and quiet the years have given you in greater measure than those first two, which yet remain. I love you for your insistence we eat proper meals while I'm here, when I would absently forget. I love you for your love of the bow, your love of the blades. I love you for the awe in which you hold my hard-earned skills. I love you for not noticing the way the forest has darkened. I love you for holding me as if I am the only thing real in the world. I love you for trusting me, for believing in me and what I feel for you, though you've long known it is not the same as your own feelings for me. I love you for being able to fool yourself in that matter, and yet able to accept it. Finally, I love you for being mortal, for you have taught me more than I would ever be able to teach you."

"You do not love me as a lover."

"Not as a man would," he agreed, and she finally felt a flicker of the pain she'd expected at first. "But you would not have understood that I loved you, had we never become lovers. I could have said the words, and you wouldn't have believed them. You would have married someone in the village, and looked back at me with only some regret."

She looked out the open door at the rain, and considered his words. He was, of course, right. Had he never touched her beyond instructing her in archery, she would have moved on, would have never loved him as she did.

Would that have been better?

She snorted softly when she considered asking him—he'd anticipated that request, and had already answered it. She would have looked back with only some regret.

But some regret was more than she felt now.

She loved him, and she would never understand him.

That day, she had given up on worrying about it, had simply leaned against him and let it all go. He loved her, and though it was with a love she could not fathom, it was enough.

Now, she was truly dying. Age had caught up entirely, and was seeping life at an alarming rate.

He hadn't been there, but a niece from town had come to visit. She was the only one who visited, and upon seeing the illness of age eating at her will, had quickly fetched a healer and much of her family.

She had wondered, at times, if he would come and go no farther upon seeing the house they had shared overrun with strangers. Most of the time, though, her thoughts were too disjointed, trying to piece together what everyone was saying, as they all spoke softly and seemingly at once.

But he stepped into the room, as they berated her for never having a family, for moving away from them.

He stepped into the room.

As she stepped out.

He stood silently, absorbing the pain and shock of that moment, even as the old man sitting beside her checked her for signs of life.

He knew she was gone. He had felt her leave.

Still, he stepped forward, moving silently among humans who had not known of his existence. He sat beside her and tucked the dark flower he'd picked on his way into a gentle wave of white hair, then gently stroked her cheek. He leaned over her, and took a kiss from still warm lips, before whispering words of prayer he doubted would do any good. She would be at peace, wherever it was that humans went.

He had made sure of that.

He got to his feet and reached behind the bedside table, pulling his spare bow and quiver from its traditional resting spot. He placed them upon his back, and then drew his dagger from the place between mattress and headboard, fastening it quickly to his belt. He glanced swiftly around, but the remaining traces of him would be alright if left to human hands.

He paused to touch her hand once more, and let his eyes close for an instant. "Goodbye, love," he whispered, before walking from the room.

He was not unaware of the humans there, but he did not care for them.

All he had cared about was the woman he had loved for many years, and more deeply than she had been able to understand.

He had known her thoughts in her eyes. He could have told her what she was thinking even when she would not admit those thoughts to herself.

She thought she loved him more than he loved her, merely because he admitted, in a way, that were she an elf, they would not have been lovers.

She didn't understand that given time—a few centuries, maybe more—that then, they would have been more than lovers.

They would have been mates.

He had long known that simple, damning fact. Given time, they would have been so much. Given time, they would have been so close. Given time…

Time that her mortality had forbade them.

He had kept himself a bit more apart, knowing that.

It was only that slight distance that he had kept which allowed him to refrain from loving her too deeply.

Finding one's future mate usually allowed for a quick jump into the relationship.

It would have killed him.

If only they had had the time that now loomed emptily before him.

They would have been mates.