The tea ran steeped and bitter down her throat, and Anairë grimaced, pushing the glass from her. She had come late to the balcony to find Eärwen, whose breakfast sat before her untouched, instead twisting a pearl necklace around and around her fingers, her lips moving in time with the soft clicking sounds. Her gaze never lifted from the sea visible beneath the railing, and Anairë began to doubt she had even heard.
Anairë swallowed a lump in her throat. "Are you quite done counting yet?" The sound had begun to wear on her nerves, first only because of the steady string of pearl ticking onto pearl – but when she passed close by Eärwen and heard her breathe name after Telerin name, she could not help imagining it to spell out loss and guilt, and it was enough to wish to rip the necklace from Eärwen's throat to toss it down into the waves, but she could not bear to do that to her friend.
Eärwen's lips and fingers continued moving. Click, click, click.
Anairë pushed her chair from the table and rose. Down the side of the balcony ran a flight of steps down into a secluded cove, and mercifully both the distance and the water obscured the clicking sounds. She lowered herself into the warm sand against a pile of rocks and with her eyes followed the path of the sun over the water. Summoned and ignored...
* * *
Eärwen must have drowsed, for when a servant came to clear the table and woke her with a touch to the shoulder, Anairë was gone. A trail of footprints just above the watermark of the incoming flood, beginning at the stair from the balcony led away around a tumble of rocks fallen from the cliff during the storm Uinen had raged against the Noldor after their coming. Eärwen slipped downward, standing for a moment to let cool spray rain on her face – courage - and followed Anairë's trail.
Anairë sat in a patch of shadow behind the rocks; inconspicuous with her dark hair and dark dress as though she meant to become a part of the rock-pile. It is always rocks with the Noldor, Eärwen mused, but why Anairë should wish for such security escaped her understanding.
"Honesty now," said Eärwen and crouched into the sand at her friend's side. "You only arrived last night, you barely spoke to me then, and now you leave your food unfinished and hide out here? What is it, dear heart?"
Anairë started as though she'd been slapped in the face, hearing the moniker she had, once upon a time, used liberally for all those dear to her, and that Eärwen had adopted without thinking when she'd first heard it murmured shyly against her lips, against her ear, when they had both been young and careless, and more than a little besotted with each other that day in the empty baths.
"Am I that to you, truly, or do you take delight in mocking me?"
Eärwen rocked back onto her heels, speaking quickly in a low, insistent voice. "I – there is no mockery here unless it comes from you. If I wronged you in any way, please -- you are the only one I can now count on to be my friend, and I was overjoyed to hear that you had accepted my invitation. Reigning is very lonely, Arafinwë and I parted as friends but parted nonetheless... and the people look to me now that they cannot look to anybody else. If it was my failure to greet you because I sat in council to fund the restoring of our ships when you arrived -"
"- there, again. Can you not simply let it go, must you rub into my face that it is my fault, too? First with your council, then with your pearls and all the names, and not paying me any heed. If you care so much for the dead then don't summon the living to drown them in your grief as well!"
"I -" Eärwen dug her toes into the sand as though to anchor herself against the accusations, but words, it seemed, would do nothing against such raw bitterness. Instead she reached out a hand to brush Anairë's shoulder, slide down her arm when she permitted that first touch, and finally knit their fingers together.
"Anairë, you are being unjust," said Eärwen, softly, and gave her hand a squeeze. "But I think I understand what ails you know, and I will tell you this – there is nothing here that I will grudge you for, and if it seemed so... that was ill chance, not ill intent."
Anairë looked up, squinting her eyes half-shut. Eärwen knew that expression, knew it well indeed – some conflict was resolving itself in her friend's mind, as it had when Eärwen had smiled away her doubts and wished her all possible joy with Nolofinwë. She slid her palm against Anairë's, warmly.
"But will you tell me, why the pearls?" The rushing waves that Anairë would usually weave her words over and be easily heard, now made her voice near-inaudible. "Why do you need to spell out all those losses to yourself? How are you bearing such loss and still find ways to comfort me, when I --"
"-- act like an aggrieved child?" A smile took the edge off her words, and Anairë lips twitched in answer, even though a blush rose red in her cheeks.
"Yes, when I act like an aggrieved child."
"Dear heart," Eärwen said again, this time more softly, and closed the distance between them. As though afraid Eärwen might withdraw her hand at the additional closeness, Anairë's grip tightened around her fingers.
Eärwen looked straight into her eyes and inched closer still, until she could feel Anairë's breath on her face. "There has been so much suffering here that I had to learn to draw strength from it – anything that eases the grief of one of my people eases a part of my grief... and the names you heard me recount – they are the ones who settled into a modicum of peace again already, and meditating on them reminds me that I have accomplished much already, and that more can be done. They are not the ones who still need help. I see them every day. I do not need to carry a reminder of them."
"Then I apologize, and hope that you will forgive me." The words finally came louder and easier, and Anairë's free hand wrapped around the pearl necklace to let the beads roll through her fingers. She closed her eyes before lifting them to her lips.
"There is nothing to forgive, dear heart," said Eärwen. "Unless it is that you should prefer to kiss my necklace rather than my lips. I might take grievous offense at that." They laughed, and it seemed that broke the spell of anxiety lingering still on Anairë's motions; the final crease on her brow smoothed as she seemed to come to a decision – that this was permissible, necessary – indeed, that it was - she was - welcomed and wanted.
"Then --" Anairë tugged Eärwen closer still with her free hand, until their lips met and opened – she still tasted faintly of the bitter tea – until Anairë moaned into the kiss and eased herself down onto her elbows in the sand, until Eärwen followed, draping her warm body over Anairë's, lowering her head for their lips to meet again, briefly, trailing over Anairë's jaw, over the rim of her ear to its gentle point. Anairë reciprocated easily, teeth raking over Eärwen's skin and catching on her collar-bone, and Eärwen's fingers clenched tighter into hers even as a first wave of the rising flood crawled white-foaming around them on the sand, the surf climbing higher and drenching their summer gowns into translucency.
When the water withdrew, Eärwen saw with a smile, a pearl swept up by the wave glinted by their linked hands. A coincidence, surely, but before Anairë could reclaim her attention kissing and sucking downward over the swell of her breasts, Eärwen resolved to fashion it, too, into her necklace, murmuring Anairë's name against the rush of the sea.