Fandom: Lord of the Rings
Summary: Different cultures place value on different things. Legolas learns what braiding means to Dwarves.
Notes: This fic works from the idea that braiding another's hair and beard is one way that one Dwarf might lay claim to another, and mark them as theirs, though regular grooming is not so personal on its own, and that for Elves, grooming one's partner is a particularly erotic act, but braiding is a practicality thing, since braiding your own hair well is difficult.
It happened first after they left Lorien. Gimli approached Legolas with a thick wooden comb in hand and a faint pink tinge to his cheeks and said, "Ah, Legolas? If you could help me a bit..." Then he'd coughed once, slightly embarrassed, and muttered something about not being able to see the back of his own head and needing help redoing the braid his hair was set in. The tips of Legolas's ears had colored a bit at that, but he'd nodded and Gimli had taken a seat between his knees, his head tilted forward while Legolas combed out the tangles that had accumulated since they left Rivendell, replaiting the hair into a single long, neat braid that fell down his back. When it was done, he'd taken the comb and muttered a thanks before stalking off to.. actually, Legolas wasn't sure where he'd gone, because he'd felt the sudden need to be elsewhere himself. It had taken all of his self-control to focus on simply combing and braiding Gimli's hair, and not to run his fingers through it the way he wanted to. Gimli's hair was soft, woolly and slightly coarse to touch; it was nothing like the fine silk of Elven hair and he found he wanted to touch it a lot more.
The second time it happened was after Helm's Deep. Gimli's hair had become matted with blood, both from his own head wound and the blood of his enemies, and he'd had to pull out all of his braids to wash it. Legolas had sat watching him for several minutes while he tried to wet the whole of it in the basin he'd been given, but the angle was awkward and he was trying avoid his injury. Seeing an excuse, Legolas had come over and batted his hands away.
"Let me help," he said. For a second, Gimli had flushed a bit, but then he nodded once. Legolas sat straddled on the bench, his knees on either side of the basin, and bid Gimli to lean back so Legolas could get at all of his hair. He had taken his time, then, working through Gimli's hair bit by bit, ensuring that none of the matted blood remained. Once it was clean, or as clean as it could get with their limited supply of water, he'd indulged himself, playing with Gimli's hair a bit while he wrung out as much of the water as he could. Eventually, though, Gimli had passed him the many rings and ties that held his hair in place and quietly asked Legolas to restore his habitual braid.
The third time was back at Hornburg, while they stopped to rest before marching on. Gimli had approached him wordlessly, the wooden comb in hand, and Legolas had taken it just as silently. He made quick work of the braid; there was little time, but it gave him a few minutes pleasure to take Gimli's hair in his hands again, and it eased some of the tension he'd felt for the past few days.
Once, he looked up and saw the sons of Elrond watching him very curiously, but they said nothing and so he offered no explanation.
The fourth, fifth, and sixth times happened over the course of the next few days, while they passed through the Paths of the Dead and then down the river to Minas Tirith to join the battle. Each time held the same rushed feeling, as they had no time, but each time he also came away feeling a brief loss of tension and anxiety. He wondered if Gimli knew just how Elves felt about grooming and hair, but he doubted it; Gimli would have never asked what he had of Galadriel if he knew exactly what it was he'd asked. No, he probably just saw it as a quicker, more convenient way to have his hair braided than attempting it himself, and Legolas was in no hurry to correct that assumption if it meant he could continue to feel those soft strands between his fingers.
With Minas Tirith and preparing for the march to the Black Gates came a chance for a proper wash in a proper tub. Legolas unwound the plaits from his own hair and let it drift in the water for awhile before washing it; it was glorious, to feel so clean again. While he lathered the soap into his hair, he wondered idly what it would feel like to have Gimli's fingers in his hair for a change. Gimli's fingers were shorter than his, rougher, calloused from years working in mines and at forges, but he knew they must be capable of fine precision, if his axes were any indication (made by himself, he'd said, when Legolas had admired them back in Lothlorien), and exceedingly gentle when necessary.
He pursed his lips thoughtfully while he dried his hair. It wouldn't be fair to ask Gimli to comb his hair, not without telling him what it would mean, but he could always get him to plait it for him. He grabbed his own comb- this one much finer than Gimli's thick one, and carved from bone- and ran it through his hair until ever tangle was gone.
He found Gimli in their shared room, running a whetstone over the blade of one of his axes. He looked up and nodded in greeting when Legolas entered, and Legolas held up his comb when he did.
"I need help putting my braids back in," he said lightly.
He'd expected Gimli to agree, turnabout being fair play and all, but Gimli's mouth had fallen open before promptly clamping shut again.
"I can't," he muttered. Legolas quirked an eyebrow at him.
"I just can't."
He was staring at his axe, refusing to meet Legolas's eyes, and Legolas frowned. Perhaps he could only do Dwarven braids? Legolas found he didn't mind; he actually rather liked the idea of his hair done into a Dwarven-style braid. It would be a nice change from the fine Elven plaits he was accustomed to.
"It doesn't have to be an Elvish braid," he said. "I wouldn't mind a Dwarvish braid, really."
Gimli got, if possible, even more tense; a tick jumped in his temple and his jaw clenched harder. He took a long, deep breath and breathed it out through his nose before glaring up at his friend.
"I said no, Legolas. Don't ask me again."
And then he rose and left the room, leaving Legolas to stare after him in a daze.
The first people he saw after leaving the room were Elladan and Elrohir, and Elladan- or possibly Elrohir; Legolas had never learned to tell them apart- obliged him by braiding the back of his hair for him. He made quick work of the braid and the three made their way out of the building together.
"I would think you'd have your Dwarf do the braids for you," Elladan said. The tips of his ears turned a bright shade of pink and twins gave him a pair of matching, knowing looks.
"I asked," he admitted. "He refused."
Elrohir threw an arm around his shoulder while the other reached over to tug playfully at the braid.
"Perhaps next time he might be more obliging, then."
They spotted Gimli then, leaning on one of the parapets overlooking the city. He turned around when he heard them; his eyes moved from Elladan's arm around Legolas to the braid that had been swiftly done into his hair. With a growl he shoved off of the wall and stormed away, leaving Legolas and the twins to stare, stunned, after him.
There was no talk of hair again until after the battle was over, after they'd returned to Minas Tirith. Legolas had combed out his hair and was looking for the twins so one of them could do up his braids, and he happened upon Gimli instead.
"Have you seen Elladan and Elrohir?" he asked. Gimli's eyes flickered to the comb and ties in his hands, and he shook his head. "What about Aragorn, then?" Aragorn wasn't great at braiding, but he could be counted on in a pinch. Gimli frowned.
"Because I cannot do my own braids and since you have refused to help me-" He was cut off by a growl. His eyebrows migrated toward his hairline in shock, and his nostrils flared. He didn't like the way Gimli was glaring. "And just what is the problem?"
"There is no problem," Gimli said. His eyes dropped. "I have things to attend."
He spun on his heel to walke away. He was muttering to himself, and Legolas was able to pick out the words "Not the SAME, it's not the same". Legolas reached out and grabbed his shoulder, stopping his retreat.
"Exactly what is not the same, Master Dwarf?"
"Nothing," Gimli said. He growled. "Or everything. Nothing is the same, Master Elf, and these things are better left unknown. I cannot braid your hair. Let us leave it at that."
"I fail to understand why. There was no problem when it was I who was braiding your hair."
"It just IS. It doesn't mean the same thing."
There was a pained look in those dark eyes. He almost seemed to be telling himself more than anything. Legolas's face softened, and he knelt in front of his friend so that they were face to face.
"Gimli... what does braiding mean to Dwarves?"
Braiding was very personal to Dwarves, and who could do a braid was just as personal, and said a great deal about the relationship. Not just anyone could do up a Dwarf's braids. For a Dwarf to braid another Dwarf's hair was to lay a claim on that Dwarf, to mark them as their own.
The comb shook in Legolas's hands as Gimli talked, but Gimli was refusing to look at him, staring instead at the floor.
"The first time was just practical," he said. "It needed redoing, and I couldn't get it myself. You and Aragorn were the only ones I expected to know how to plait well, and I knew you were less likely than Aragorn to understand the significance. But after Helm's Deep, when you cleaned my hair..."
Legolas's hand trembled. He was beginning to understand.
"By Helm's Deep, I had begun to recognize my own-" He ducked his head even more; his ears and face were a brilliant shade of red. "I had begun to realize my own feelings. I knew you wouldn't understand it yourself, but it didn't matter."
"I belong to you, Legolas. That's what this braid means." He flipped the braid over his shoulder; it was exactly as Legolas had left it the last time. "I will always be yours, whether you are mine or not, and I told myself it would be fine to let you claim me, because I already belonged to you. But I could not braid your own hair for you, because I could not lay claim to you without your knowledge. Perhaps it wouldn't have meant as such to you, but it would have felt like a betrayal to me."
Legolas understood more. "Then when you said 'not the same'-"
"I was reminding myself that just because the sons of Elrond, or Aragorn, might braid your hair, did not mean they had any claim over you. I was jealous of them."
There was silence. Legolas stood.
"I have to go," he said, and his heart broke at the pained look Gimli gave him. He put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "I have to think about the things you've said."
He found himself in the garden, and came across Elladan and Elrohir. They noticed his hair hanging loose as he approached.
"Do you need your braids done, Legolas?"
Gimli's words about being jealous flitted through his mind. He wasn't sure he wanted Gimli braiding his hair, but the least he could do was not let anyone else do it, either. He shook his head and sat down on a nearby bench; when he leaned forward, the loose curtain of his hair fell around his face and blocked the twins' faces from view.
Gimli's admission was still echoing in his mind. I will always be yours, whether you are mine or not. Gimli had told him once, in Lorien, that Dwarves only offer their hearts once, and if it wasn't accepted they simply carried on, quietly desiring but never acting. They wouldn't force a gift that wouldn't be taken.
Gimli had offered Legolas his heart.
Gimli loved Legolas.
Legolas... just wasn't sure he loved Gimli.
Legolas got very good at braiding his own hair.
Even when he and Gimli parted ways for a brief time, so that he could return to Mirkwood and Gimli to Erebor, he wouldn't let anyone else do his braids. It felt a bit like taunting Gimli, reminding him that what he couldn't have was being given freely to others.
Gimli said nothing more of their conversation. When Legolas did not bring it up again, he took the cue and understood that his gift had been refused. But he never removed the braid Legolas had placed in his hair that last time, and he gave pained looks to Legolas when he thought the other wasn't looking. He said nothing, though, and Legolas let him find his own way to be all right again.
By the time they returned to Minas Tirith with their kin, their relationship had returned almost to normal. Legolas almost managed to convince himself that perhaps Gimli had moved past his attraction, if not for the braid still in his hair, now a frayed mess after all this time. Sometimes, his fingers itched to comb out Gimli's hair and do the braid up again, but he couldn't; he wouldn't claim Gimli when Gimli had no claim over him.
So he kept his hands to himself, and worked on the gardens of Minas Tirith, while Gimli worked on the gates. They shared a room in Aragorn's own home, and at night Legolas sat in the window seat, staring out at the stars and singing quietly to himself (and to Gimli, who occasionally woke enough to complain about Legolas's singing keeping him awake before rolling over and going right back to snoring loudly). He washed and combed and braided his own hair, and if sometimes he imagined those rough hands caressing his locks instead of his own fingers, he told himself very sternly that it was unfair to Gimli to think such things, and shut the thoughts away.
The braid was neat and tidy, the tangles gone, and the only indication that it had been done by his own hand was the way it crooked ever so slightly to one side at the top. The wooden comb sat on the dresser, dark snarls of hair caught in its teeth. They stared at each other for a moment that stretched into eternity; without a word, Legolas turned and fled the room he'd only just entered, a whole plethora of unidentifiable emotions coursing through him.
Gimli was pretending to sleep. Legolas knew he was pretending because he knew Gimli almost as well as himself; better in fact, he thought, remembering that it had taken him over a year to realize how he felt. Legolas knelt at the side of the bed and nudged him. Gimli's eyes opened immediately and he stared at Legolas in the dark. Legolas folded his arms on the bedside and pillowed his head on them, looking back at his friend sadly.
"Gimli," he murmured. "I have been a fool, a stubborn, thoughtless fool. Can you ever forgive me?"
Gimli blinked at him. "I could forgive you anything, Legolas, but what do you apologize for?"
Instead of answering, Legolas took Gimli's hand and placed something in it, rising to sit on the edge of the bed, his head tilted forward. Gimli squinted at the white comb, then at Legolas's back, his hair fanning out over Legolas's back like golden silk in the moonlight.
"I apologize for making you wait more than a year for me to realize my own heart. Gimli, will you braid my hair for me?"
"I- you're- are you certain?"
Behind him, Gimli shuffled to sit up. He put his feet either side of Legolas's hips and reached for Legolas's hair, letting it run through his hands for a second, then he stopped.
"Wait- won't work," he muttered, "too tall."
Legolas took a moment to grasp his meaning. He looked around for the low stool they kept in their room and brought it quickly over, sitting it beside the bed. When he sat on it, he was just the right height for Gimli to reach his head comfortably.
He'd expected Gimli to just comb and braid, and was surprised when Gimli took his time, gentling out the tangles with care. Legolas hmm'ed in pleasure as a handful was combed back behind his ears while calloused fingers followed the lock all the way down his back, and Gimli chuckled.
"Yes. How did you-?"
"Aragorn told me." A lock on the other side of his head received the same treatment and his shoulders almost melted at the sensation. "I came across him combing Arwen's hair and came away feeling I'd been a voyeur. When I went to apologize, he said it's a very erotic thing for Elves."
Legolas nodded, the tips of his ears now bright pink. He swallowed. "Gimli, I never-"
"Shhh, it's all right." The fine teeth of the comb ran from his forehead all the way down to the end of his hair, brushing imperceptibly against his back and sending chills down his spine. "That's why I took the braid out; I knew then that wasn't the part that had mattered to you."
He hmm'ed again as a few bunches were gathered for the braid, deft fingers pressing into his scalp and the comb's teeth guiding those chosen strands where he wanted them. Gimli made quick work of the braid itself, and any hair he didn't want in the braid was brushed gently aside, sending chills coursing through Legolas every time. When the braid was done, Legolas reached behind him to feel it. It was thicker than he was used to. Gimli leaned over his shoulder.
"A Dwarven style braid," he said, "so there's no doubt who you belong to."
His breath was hot on Legolas's ear and the possessive tone to his voice sent a delicious shiver through his body. He turned around so they were face to face and leaned forward, slipping his arms around Gimli's waist and tilting his head back to look up at him. The thick braid was a pleasant weight on the back of his head. He smiled.
"Gimli, my beloved, I do not think there has ever been any doubt about who I belong to."
A soft smile settled onto Gimli's face, and he leaned over to capture Legolas's mouth in a long, slow, sweet kiss that sent more shivers through Legolas's body. Legolas pulled back and grinned.
"But if you have any doubts of your own, I would be happy to soothe them."