Alone. He stretched his arms out and whirled on the grass like a child, his face turned towards the sky as he laughed, feeling the wind in his braids and the nip of the cold autumn air on his cheeks. He loved this season most of all, when the chill crept into the world, painting it with fire; it made him feel alive. The winter he hated, the cold and snow and darkness reminding him of the Helcaraxë, memories he preferred forgotten.
He did not allow his mood to darken as he swirled quicker, dancing under the falling leaves in the growing darkness. He felt free. Free from the responsibilities that he had never wanted, never thought he would have and, for the first time in weeks, he felt light-hearted. Above him the stars appeared, bright and beautiful as they lit the night sky. He was, for the moment, happy.
Faster he danced, head flung back and arms spread wide, his heavy raven braids swaying from the movements, tapping against his back and hips in a wild rhythm. There was a wantonness, an abandon in his dance that he allowed nowhere else, a sensuality of movement that had no other outlet. His breath deepened, quickened, as he swayed.
“I love seeing you like this.” The musical voice behind him slid through the darkness, covering the whispering of the rustling leaves.
Surprise broke his rhythm and for a moment he stood frozen before he spun around, disbelieving. His feet slid slightly on the damp ground but he did not care as he stroked a strand of midnight hair from his face, staring incredulously at the tall Elf who was leaning against a tree. Slowly a smile spread over his face, delighted, ecstatic – the surprise of the moment and his joy making him forget himself and so he let his emotions shine brightly in his eyes, allowed his smile to be warmer than it should have been as he flung himself at the other. He half expected the other to fade from his touch, a sprite brought forward by joy and happiness – something unreal and ethereal. Instead the hard chest against his and the strong arms wrapping around him were reassuringly real, and so he regained control over himself again. He pushed down the emotions that had filled him and reluctantly rebuilt the wall of lies between them.
“Maitimo,” he said, his voice warm and happy. It had been long since last he had seen his older cousin; too long, his heart whispered. His mood sobered. He had not been king then; his father had still lived and the responsibility of ruling had yet to threaten to break him with its smothering heaviness. “I had not expected you. When did you arrive? Has something happened?”
Maitimo smiled and his heart threatened to stop. Had he thought the light of the stars beautiful? He had been wrong. Dark copper locks fell freely, unrestrained around the strong face as the silver eyes glittered down at him. “I wished to see you, Findekáno,” he said amusedly. “I had no other reason than wishing to spend some time with a good friend. We arrived maybe an hour ago. Macalaurë is seeing to the formalities.” Maitimo watched him carefully. “Is our visit welcome, cousin?”
“You are always welcome here, Russandol,” he said softly. “That you already know.”
Unenthusiastically he looked back towards the buildings that meant duty and responsibility, wearing a mask of someone he was not. “We should go back,” he said reluctantly, only to look back, stunned, when his wrist was grabbed.
“There is no need for us to return yet,” Maitimo said calmly. “You will fare better if you relax some more before going back.” He smiled wryly at the surprise in his cousin’s face. “You thought I could not see the change in you? Findekáno, this…” he gestured helplessly, “quiet, grim Elf that you change into when merely thinking of going back, it is not you. It would be impossible not to notice the difference, pitya.” He sat down on the damp ground, smiling up at the younger Elf. “Sit with me a while, Findekáno?”
“I hate this, Maitimo,” he said quietly, sinking down on a boulder. “I was not made to rule.”
“You are wrong, Findekáno,” came the reply. “Macalaurë was the first to name you valiant, little cousin, and valiant you are. You will care for our people because you love them, because the duty is heavy and reluctantly borne, because it is the right thing to do, and you will do it well. Better than my father or yours, both too blinded by other things, and certainly better than I would have done.”
He remained quiet. He did not agree but was unable to find words for how he felt, how he was choking a little more each day and so he leaned forward, putting his face in his hands as he shook his head quietly. He felt Maitimo’s hand run lightly over his hair.
“You are strong, pitya. I have faith in you. I hear that an engagement is coming.” There was a small smile in Maitimo’s voice. “Love will make it easier to carry.”
He stood quickly, backing away slightly as the ache in his heart intensified. “We should go back,” he said again, walking without making sure his cousin kept up with him, fleeing the emotions that threatened to crush him; even kingship was easier to bear than this.
He heard Maitimo’s soft step behind him, catching up after his abrupt departure. “Findekáno?” The melodious voice was worried and warm and he fisted his hands harder, his nails digging into his skin. Around them the first snowflakes started to fall, a light dusting of white: the hated winter had come.
Gratefully he saw the tall, dark Elf waiting for them in front of the heavy stone buildings and smiled warmly. “Macalaurë, it is wonderful to see you again.”
Macalaurë tilted his head and smiled at him, the odd smile that never reached the eyes that seemed to see straight through others. “And you, valiant one.” If Maitimo’s voice was melodious, Macalaurë’s was music, the rich, vibrant tones unrivalled by any other. “You look tired. The loss of your father has hit you hard.”
He felt himself nod, admitting his weariness and grief. Macalaurë had that effect on others - even when they wished to remain quiet, he received an answer. It was, he decided, the way his cousin’s eyes saw straight through your soul, stripping away all need to hide, all deception and all lies. Feeling Maitimo’s hand on his shoulder, he lowered his eyes quickly, hiding his heart as best as he could from Macalaurë’s all seeing stare.
“Findekáno?” Maitimo said again and he forced himself to smile as he turned.
“Have you been given rooms yet, cousins?” he asked brightly as he moved fluidly away, walking in front of them as he asked for news of their brothers and their lives and told them little bits and pieces about his own. When he was asked about his own brother and sister he shook his head quietly. “I have heard nothing since Gondolin was built,” he admitted. “Turukáno keeps his city safe.” He hid his pain at the loss of them and his niece, of having to deal with his grief without the loving support of the others that suffered, and smiled at them instead. “It is for the best,” he said brightly. “I am glad that they are safe.”
He left them at the door of the rooms that he assigned to them, excusing himself with the duties of his office and, for the first time, when he entered his father’s office he was glad for the weight of duty pressing down on him. The lightheartedness and joy of the evening had fled and he tiredly leant his head against the table, cradled in his arms as he cursed himself. Would he marry as his councillors asked? Maitimo seemed to think it wise and perhaps it would be, but how could he promise love and honour to an innocent maid chosen for him when he already loved another? His father had known; ever since he had gone to Thangorodrim he had known, and had despised the weakness in his eldest son, unable to understand how Fëanáro’s sons could be loved after what had been done. His father had never seen that the sons and grandson of Finwë had all been trapped and cursed together, long before the Kinslaying and the burning of the ships.
The fire crackled in the fireplace to his right, the warm red glow reminding him of hair the colour of fire and he closed his eyes, aching as a lone tear slid down his cheek. The night deepened and he did not move, and at some point the sounds of the keep faded away and he fell asleep, slumped forward over the table. A high king too lonely and weary to seek his own rooms.
It was still night when he awoke and the fire sparkled cheerily in the fireplace. His neck and back were sore and stiff and he winced when he straightened, rolling his head gently from side to side to ease the tense muscles when he froze. He sat by the door, tall, quiet and hauntingly beautiful.
“How have I insulted you, Sire,” his voice was soft, quiet, “that you shun my company? I had thought us friends, Findekáno, and yet you run from me.”
He felt himself lower his gaze, unable to meet Maitimo’s eyes. “You have done nothing wrong,” he said finally.
Maitimo stood, pacing over to the fireplace, his hair glowing a deep copper in the dim light. “You say there is nothing wrong and yet your voice is short and polite, offering nothing but the kindness one may give to a stranger. I ask you again, Findekáno, how have I wronged you?”
“You have not,” he answered again.
“Never before have you lied to me, Findekáno,” Maitimo whispered. “Of you alone I have ever heard truth, until this day. What do you not wish to tell me, cousin? Why do you hide?” Falling quiet, Maitimo turned towards him, grief and pain etched deep in grey eyes that rarely showed feelings. “If I could undo the past,” he said hoarsely, “I would. I would undo the Kinslaying, I would see your father alive again - but I cannot do that, Findekáno. I can not undo what has been done.”
Bitterness filled his mouth as he watched he whom he loved over all others. “I have not asked you to,” he answered, forcing his voice to a calm he did not feel. “You are tired, Maitimo, you see things that are not there.”
His cousin shook his head slowly, a veil of restraint and pride falling over the clear eyes as he straightened. “No,” he said quietly. “I do not. Our horses need a day of rest, Sire; we will leave you at dawn the day after tomorrow.” He bowed curtly and turned, leaving the room in a deafening silence.
Findekáno stood slowly, torn between his pride and his need to run after his elder cousin, to cling to the one he had always loved above all others. His steps were heavy as he crossed the floor, sinking down in the seat Maitimo had left, the scent of cinnamon and pine still clinging to the worn leather. Sighing, he curled up in the seat, comforted by the subtle scents. He would call for his councillors in the morning, he decided; call them to do that which he has so far been unable to do – to accept the engagement they had offered him. Maitimo, he knew, would not come back once he left; he had driven him away. It was better this way, that only one of them knew of the desires that should have been unnatural between cousins; he had no wish to taint Maitimo with the knowledge.
Morning came slowly to the keep, darkness lingering longer as the autumn deepened and matured. He stood by the window, looking out over hills that had been lightly brushed with snow, and he shivered. Somehow it seemed appropriate for him to take this decision in winter, the season that always left him numb and deadened. His councillors had been called when first light had come and would join him once the fast was broken. For the first time in years he would not be there as the first bread of the morning was broken.
“You need to talk to him, valiant one, not hide behind your own fears.”
The melodic voice behind him made him jump but he refused to turn, unwilling to meet the eyes of his cousin. Had Macalaurë already seen what feelings he hid?
“You talk as if that would be an easy feat, cousin,” he said tiredly, “or a just one, not an abomination of our laws.”
“And what good will laws do for my brother when he loses what little still remains of himself? What good will laws do him when the last one he trusts turns away?” The music jarred and became hard to the ears, cold as steel, and he shivered at the change in the usually honeyed voice. “What good will laws do you when you lie broken on the battlefield never having known a lover’s touch, or when he falls with nothing but hard words between you? Will the laws comfort you then, Findekáno?”
He shivered and closed his eyes, hiding the sting of tears, pushing away the scream that threatened to choke him as Macalaurë left, closing the door quietly behind him. Long he stood by the window, staring unseeingly into the falling snow.
A quiet knock woke him from his thoughts and he turned reluctantly, his emotions in chaos. Slowly he turned and sank down into the chair by his desk, running a hand tiredly over his face. He would have to cancel the meeting; he could not do this now, not yet.
“Macalaurë said you wished to see me, Sire?” Maitimo’s voice was cool and polite as he opened the door, bowing respectfully.
He felt himself pale, blood draining from his face as his chest constricted in panic. He could not do this. Could not – and yet he had to, Macalaurë was right.
“Sit down, Russandol,” he said, his voice sounding surprisingly calm as he crossed the room, pouring a rich, heady wine into two goblets. He resisted the urge to empty his own and refill it before returning to his desk and handed the second glass to Maitimo before sitting down once more. “We need to talk, Maitimo,” he said quietly, raising his hand to stop his cousin from speaking. “I need to talk; I owe you an explanation.”
He fell quiet, nausea rising within him as he sipped at his wine, his eyes closed. Beside him he heard the light clinking sound of crystal being placed on wood.
“I am listening.”
“This is not easy for me,” he started eventually, hating the thickness he could hear in his own voice. “You mentioned an engagement last night when you arrived.” He paused, uncomfortable and afraid beyond what Thangorodrim had ever managed.
“Is that why you avoid me, cousin?” Maitimo’s voice softened slightly. “Do you not think I would be happy for you? That I would willingly step back from your friendship if your wife would demand it? Pitya, I thought you knew me better than that.”
“No,” he whispered. “No... There will be no engagement. I have never loved the Nissi, Maitimo; Neri have always been the ones to catch my eye since I first came of age, and one more than others.”
“Unusual but not unheard of.” His cousin’s voice sounded strained to his ears and his heart sank. Was Maitimo one of those that frowned upon love between Neri? That too was unusual but not unheard of. “Who is he, Findekáno, that has chosen to turn his back on the most valiant of our people?”
He smiled bitterly as he rose, turning his back on Maitimo as he returned to the window. “He does not know,” he admitted. “I never told him.”
He heard Maitimo move behind him, the sound of the wine glass being lifted again as he knew those grey eyes rested on his back. “Why not? There is none more deserving of love; he would be a fool to shun you.”
He shook his head, not turning, not looking at the one whom he loved. “No,” he said wryly, forcing an amusement he did not feel into his voice. “He would not; he is a cousin, Maitimo, blood kin close enough for our laws to forbid it.”
Behind him the wine glass shattered. “Macalaurë?” Maitimo’s voice was hoarse, quiet.
“No,” he whispered. “The eldest of the sons of Fëanor has ever held my heart.” He closed his eyes and held his breath as he waited for his cousin to leave, to break whatever pieces remained of his heart.
Silence stretched between them, thick and heavy, suffocating.
He shook his head as his cousin began to speak and turned, slowly. “Do not say it,” he whispered, raising his eyes. Maitimo’s face was an unreadable mask, all reactions carefully hidden as he backed away, the door closing softly behind him.
A strangled sob escaped him as he slid down the wall, allowing himself to time to break, to shatter.
He could hear his councillors outside the door a short moment later, but felt too empty to move, and so he let their knock go unanswered, as he did for the one calling him for the noontime meal. Darkness crept into the room but he did not care. Today he would grieve; tomorrow he would be strong again, for his people.
The dinnerbell came and went and yet he did not move, sitting quietly in the dark long after the fire had died, staring blindly at nothing as his heart and soul slowly bled to death.
The soft creaking of the door alerted him that someone had entered but he remained on the floor, hoping they would leave upon finding the study empty. Instead, strong arms wrapped themselves around him as he was tugged into an embrace, his head laid to rest on a muscular shoulder.
”I am sorry, Findekáno,” Maitimo said quietly, his voice muted against the black braids. “I did not realise how much my leaving would hurt. For more years than I have dared to count my heart has been gifted to only one, without hope, without light, without anything but his friendship. It shocked me, Findekáno, to hear my own feelings come from your lips, and I did not handle it well and for that I am sorry.”
He shook his head, the ache inside him deepening. “Do not come to me out of pity,” he said quietly. “I can survive without your love, but that would kill me.”
Gentle lips pressed against his braids. “There is no pity, indonya,” Maitimo whispered, his voice warm, loving. “Never pity.”
Letting out a shaky breath he leaned heavily against his cousin, taking comfort from the strong arms around him, the light kisses on his hair. They did not speak again. The evening deepened into night as they sat in silence – drawing heat and strength from each other. Somewhere in the distance the midnight bell chimed, a frail, brittle sound ringing over the snowy hills and the cold keep.
The hand running through his hair slowly travelled to his neck and he shivered at the sensation of Maitimo’s hand on his skin. Parting his lips slightly, he closed his eyes as his head tilted and their mouths met in a first kiss. Slow, tender touches of lips and tongue as their breathing turned shaky. Maitimo tasted strong, spicy, and almost shyly he deepened the kiss, wrapping his hand in the wild copper hair. His and his alone. The thought made him shiver as it slowly sank through his mind and a fire lit beneath his skin.
He shifted in the embrace, twisting, turning until his legs straddled his cousin, his beloved – and his tongue delved deeper, drinking the taste of Maitimo as if nothing else could keep him alive. Hungrily, desperately, he kissed him as his hands tore at clothing, his own and his lover’s, until they both lay bare on the floor, the pale light of the moon giving their bodies a silver shine in the darkness. Mouths slid over warm skin and muscle, touching, tasting, devouring in need.
Hard flash rubbed against hard flesh, hands and tongues caressing, savouring closeness and flavours as their breathing grew harsh and ragged. Rough caresses of calloused hands bruised their skin, legs entwining, their bodies pulling closer as the fire built. Gasps and whimpers broke the silence as they arched together, mouths locked on necks and shoulders, teeth threatening the break skin as they shuddered together, hot, slick and sticky.
He lay trembling in Maitimo’s arms as their breathing calmed and their bodies cooled, his head resting on the strong shoulder as his fingers traced the muscular chest and stomach. The wooden floor was hard beneath them, yet neither was inclined to move. Never before could he recall feeling so relaxed, so at peace; it was as if all his worries of ruling had melted away and changed, reformed into something new and different, something bearable. Leaning up on his elbow, he smiled down at his lover, running his fingers over the beautiful face. Maitimo smiled up at him, his eyes glittering with happiness and peace in a way they had not done for a long time.
“Love will make it easier to bear, indonya,” he whispered as he bent down, catching the warm mouth again in a slow, languorous kiss as the fire crept through him again.
The snow lay heavy over the hills as he stood in the gate, watching them until they disappeared out of sight. Around him the keep bustled with preparations for the Midwinter Festival, children building creations in snow as the adults worked: cooking, chopping wood, decorating. He alone stood still amidst an ocean of movement, gazing in hope to see a last flicker of copper over the snow, and his heart ached for snowmelts and spring