Disclaimer: Gríma and Éowyn belong to Tolkien. I'm just playing with them. I make no money from this fic.

A/N: Birthday present for the wonderful 13 o'clock Erik. Happy birthday, love. ^_^

It was a strange thing, being counsellor to the Théoden King and his family. To be the King's right hand was to be part of his family, and yet not so; to be one of the people Théoden loved the best, and yet not truly be loved. It was a position of limbo, of uncertainty, of distance – inches away, leagues between.

Gríma was good at navigating uncertainty and duality. His life had always been strange like this – one of the people of Rohan, yet never a part of them; child of Gálmód, but never accepted as such. He was one thing in public and another in private, the man with a thousand masks. He knew when he was wanted and when he was not; knew when he could measure the distance in inches, and when it was measured in leagues.

It was not until her that the distance became confused. It was not until her the distance became both inches and leagues all at the same time: feet and fathoms twining and strangling one another, strangling him.

He could not stand to be so close. He could not stand to be so far away.

It was one thing to pretend to be part of Théoden's family, and another to want to be part of it. Pretending was easy. It required only a bit of tricks with the mask: wearing the appropriately concerned face, fretting and fawning over Théoden's health or Théodred's safety or Éomer's recklessness. It was like soothing children to sleep, whispering pretty lies and promising that no, no monsters were hiding in the dark. Father will make certain.

But with Éowyn, the mask shattered. She saw right through the pretty lies to the core of what Gríma was; shattered the mask with one piercing glance, and exposed what lay beneath. She saw the twisted map of Gríma's emotional distance and traced a new path, unfamiliar, in a measure without a name.

He wished that he could hate her for it. But he loved her, desperately, without reason or sense.

It was insanity to love Éowyn. She could never be his. He was the shadow to her family's light, the thing that was but was not one with them, the presence who existed only to pretend. He knew all their secrets, was responsible for keeping them – and yet he did not belong. A dog might love its mistress, but though it might lay in her bed and receive her touch, it was only a dog.

Gríma, who had so long lived with duality, with the strange shape of half-distance, half-closeness, found himself for once totally lost. He had never felt like this for anyone, had never been taken so totally off-guard. And now that it had happened, he did not know how to regain his footing. He scrambled madly to play his role properly, to soothe again, to whisper and to promise, to stay at the outskirts and only come when called; but he could not stay away from Éowyn. Time and time again he was drawn back to her. At night when he wandered sleepless, he would walk in circles, aimlessly he thought; but then he would find himself at her chamber door, and he would know it was not aimless at all, these nighttime walks he took. He would turn and walk away, disgusted – but he always came back. He could not stay away.

In court, when she came, Éowyn often stood behind Gríma – directly behind. He could feel her presence even through his robes, burning him. Even as he listened to the cases brought before the King, even as he advised Théoden on how best to handle this political matter or this small dispute, he was itching to turn and touch her, to stroke his fingers across her silken flesh, just once. Surely just once would be enough – just one time to close the distance, to feel the inches between and not the leagues.

For the time being, it was the leagues that Gríma felt the strongest, even when she was at his side. And so it was that Gríma began to despise those times when Éowyn departed Meduseld. He could not stand to see her go – not even for a few hours. To see her leave was to make physical the separation he already felt from her, and bearing the pain of that quiet, internal barrier was already too much for him.

He was driven, then, to overstep his place for the first time in his life – to enmesh himself where he did not belong, to try and join the family instead of remaining, contented, in the shadows where he should have stayed.

Around the age of fourteen, Éowyn had taken to visiting some of the nearby villages for a few days, to help with caring for horses, crops, and children. It was a mercy mission of sorts, but also her way of reassuring the people that even in these dark times Théoden King cared for his people and had not forgotten their safety or comfort. It was a wise and powerful move: the people loved Éowyn dearly for her kindness, and Théoden by proxy for approving her visits. When this had first begun, Gríma had had very little sense of Éowyn; she had been kept mostly with her ladies in waiting, and he saw her only at mealtimes and at public functions, where she was always carefully guarded by her brother and cousin.

But years had passed. Éowyn was eighteen now. Gríma had come to know her and she him; her brother and cousin, when they were present, still tried to protect her, but she was too strong-willed for them to cage. And even though Gríma knew, without question, that to remove Éowyn from these mercy missions was likely a terrible idea, one of the worst and most selfish he'd ever had, he began to work his will upon Théoden's to see to it that the visits stopped.

Poisonous words he whispered in the ears of Théoden King. "In the absence of a proper guardian," he said once, "Do you really think it wise to let Éowyn travel? Her brother is not here to protect her, nor her cousin..."

He was immediately rebuffed. "Éowyn is capable with a sword," Théoden replied. "And at any rate she will have guards sent with her, some of my finest."

Gríma tried again a few days later. "My liege," he began, "The very guards you intend to send with Éowyn have been caught carousing while on duty, and sleeping as well. I can name witnesses. You cannot trust Éowyn with them. I would advise you – "

Once again, Théoden was quick to reply. "Those guards shall be dealt with," he said, "But there are others. These journeys are too important to Éowyn, and to me, to cease over the foolishness of some of my men."

Undaunted, Gríma began the attack again, another day. "Are you certain that permitting Éowyn to travel that path is wise?" he murmured, when Éowyn's route was outlined for Théoden. "It is very dangerous. Orcs have been seen there recently, your scouts report. Can you in good conscience let Éowyn go? She might very well be slaughtered."

This time, Théoden hesitated. Gríma saw his chance and pounced. "I am certain you would not want Éowyn to suffer and perish as her father did," he said, his voice buttery and warm with sympathy. Pretty little lies.

"Perhaps just this once," Théoden conceded, finally. "She can always go another time, when the path is safe."

Of course she had been angry. Of course she had protested. She had tried to argue with her uncle, but Théoden would not be budged.

"Uncle, this is unfair – to both me and those I intended to visit!" Éowyn cried. Gríma flinched at her distress. He did not want to make her suffer. Truly, he did not. But to see her going away from him... no, not this time. Not now. He could not bear it.

"Of course it is dangerous," Éowyn continued, impassioned. "Their lives are in danger all the time. But that's why someone must help them – so that they know they're not in danger for nothing, that we're trying to protect them as best we may."

She stood before Théoden, trembling, her hands clenched into small fists; and for a moment Gríma feared that she would sway the king. Certainly Gríma would have given into her, if not for that painful ache of longing, the ice cold fear that she would leave and never return – that he would never close the distance.

But Théoden was not swayed. Gríma's whispered words were stronger than Éowyn's passion.

"I will not see you suffer and die like your father," he said, his voice cold and firm. "Like your mother..."

He stood abruptly and left the throne room. Éowyn stayed before the throne for an instant, shaking a little. Gríma watched her for a moment, tongue darting out to lick his lips; then he rose and took a few steps towards her – slow, measured steps, steps that counted the inches as they disappeared. "My lady," he said, "I am sorry. My liege only means to – "

She turned her cold eyes on him, and Gríma froze in his tracks. She traced every line of his face, every contour of his nose and chin and brow. Gríma tried to hold the mask in place, but he could feel it slipping, as it always did when she was before him. Her jaw tightened; she pursed her lips, and she met his gaze with icy fury.

"You did this," she said.

Gríma lifted his chin. "Your safety is your uncle's tantamount concern, my princess."

"I know what my uncle values," Éowyn retorted, cheeks flushing with her rage. "Better than you, it would seem. Why would you counsel him to do this? It is ill advice you give, counsellor, to abandon our people thus."

"My king has not once abandoned his people in his reign," Gríma replied. He twisted his fingers behind his back, the only outward sign of agitation. "If they become ungrateful to him, for the sole reason that he does not wish to see his niece come to harm, then what sort of people are they, who do not value their king for the work he does?"

Éowyn stared at him, silently. Her brows knitted into a frown, and she studied him intently, eyes searching his for something, anything. Finally she spoke. "There is some other motivation behind all this," she said quietly. "You want something else."

His palms began to itch, suddenly and without respite, an itch that nearly burned. He wanted to touch her. He needed to touch her. He needed to feel her skin beneath his hands. Oh, yes. He wanted something else. He wanted something else quite badly.

Éowyn tossed her hair over her shoulders impatiently. "You have no right to intervene," she said. "You are just my uncle's counsellor. You cannot control me or my movements."

The itch was driving him mad. His eyes slid from hers down to her throat. He wondered what it would feel like, to stroke her pale neck, to press his lips just above her throbbing pulse. The thought shattered whatever bit of the mask he had maintained. "Can't I?" he murmured, taking a small step closer.

Éowyn stiffened. "What?"

His eyes flicked back up to hers, and he gave a thin smile, twisted, weak. "You cannot go," he said, his voice rising just a little. "You cannot go, because I will not allow it."

Éowyn curled her fingers into fists. "It is not your right to deny me passage."

"I am the keeper of your uncle and his family," Gríma retorted, eyes glittering in the flickering light of the fire in the hall. "I am sworn to protect you all from harm – you most of all, at the behest of your uncle. And I will not see you dead at the hands of the orcs that slew your parents." He stared at her, and saw the sudden spark of fear in her face. "I will not see you dead at all," he murmured.

He hesitated for just a moment, fingers fluttering nervously behind his back. Then, so suddenly it startled him as much as it startled her, he reached out and cupped her cheek.

The itch dissipated almost at once. Her skin was cool and soft, tender beneath his questing fingers. Her eyes closed, just for a moment, and in that moment the leagues between them became millimeters, then disappeared. He was touching her, part of her, melting into her. He belonged to someone, finally, at last; and she in turn belonged to him.

Then her eyes opened, and she stepped back, a quick, defensive step, and the leagues were there again, endless, empty, eternal.

"You can't do this," she said, her voice trembling.

Gríma's palm began to burn again. He closed his fingers, scratching, willing the itch away. "I already have," he replied.

She opened her mouth. He expected some sort of protest or threat: I don't understand! I'll make you stop. I'll find a way. I'll tell my uncle. I'll call my brother, my cousin.

Instead, she spoke in a voice barely above a whisper, her eyes wide and frightened.

"Let me go."

The itch ceased. His eyes searched her face for a moment. Was it possible? Could he let her go? He had had his moment. He had touched her skin, had closed the distance. He had asked for only one time. He had promised himself that was all he needed. But the itch was starting again, an angry tingling stretching all the way up his arm. He bit at his tongue, feelings warring within him. She stared at him, every inch of her pleading with him. Could he deny her? But what if he granted her this, and then she did not return? No. The thought was unbearable. He started to speak, firm in his resolve –

Then Éowyn reached out and took his hand, and his resolve crumbled. The distance between them was gone, and she was there with him, sinking into him again. He crushed her hand in his, frantic, euphoric, hardly daring to breathe.

"Please," she said quietly.

He swallowed. There was a bitter taste in his mouth, a taste he didn't recognize. He wavered, dancing between fear and love, between wanting her to be happy and wanting to keep her here.

He closed his eyes and swallowed again. "I can't," he said, his voice a choked whisper. "My princess... I can't."

Her fingers were suddenly torn from his. His eyes flew open, and he met her gaze, furious, heated, burning. "You can't hold me here forever," she spat.

His eyes narrowed. The itch flared to life again, more than an itch now – now a burning, an incurable, painful heat at the center of his palm, radiating to his fingertips. His eyes traveled down her neck to her collarbone, following the neckline of her dress, tracing the contours of her body before letting his eyes flicker up to hers once more.

He did not speak. He did not have to.

Watch me, said his eyes. I will.