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Not by Sea

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When Anairë wakes, she is alone. There is a noticeable, uncommon lack of warmth at her back, and when she reaches out her hand touches only the sheets. It must be barely past dawn; the light slanting into the room between loose panels of gauzy curtains is softly golden, touched with lavender and pink. Anairë is not wholly surprised to find Eärwen gone from their bed – over years near-uncounted, Eärwen has learned to indulge in the luxury of languid mornings, but when her heart is unsettled she still wakes when the stars have not yet faded from the sky.

"Eärwen?" she calls, though she does not expect a response.

Anairë reaches for her dressing gown. It rustles, when she lifts it; a slim envelope is tucked into the pocket. The broken seal bears Arafinwë's crest. It is the same envelope that had been pressed into Eärwen's hand by a hurried messenger last evening, as they were about to take the short road to the heart of Alqualondë, and Eärwen had calmly placed it on her writing desk before they left as planned. Returning home under the light of the moon, Eärwen had passed the desk without a noticeable glance, Anairë's hand clasped firmly in hers as they climbed the stairs to their bedroom.

That simple letter Eärwen had set aside for another time had seemed, to Anairë, as conspicuous even as the fathomless eyes of the Maia messenger who had graced their home some weeks before, though it was not unexpected. Anairë takes a long breath, now, before folding her legs beneath her on the bed and reading the words written in Arafinwë's neat, flowing script; afterwards, she does not return it to her pocket but places it on Eärwen's night-table. Hands clasped in her lap, she studies the inscription above the seal for a long moment before touching her feet to the floor and descending the stairs.

She and Eärwen had always spoken openly of their children, even during those precarious times when old bonds crumbled in favour of new. Anairë had let slip an occasional 'if', but for Eärwen, it was unfailingly 'when' – when her children would return. More than once, after sunset and under stars, they had theorised on how it might be if all those they had lost for a time sailed from the East into Alqualondë's harbour, in triumph rather than tragedy. She and Anairë would be but moments away, and would not have to endure seemingly-interminable days' travel from elsewhere once the news reached them. That is how the hope – or the dream – had gone: that they would return by sea, and not by way of Mandos.

The truth is not so simple, nor so easy to accept.

Anairë does not need to take time to look for Eärwen in their home; she passes through the halls without hesitation and steps barefoot onto grassy, sandy shores lit by pale dawn light. Eärwen is a silhouette against the rising sun, knee-deep in the surf with her skirts swishing in the current. Her hands are at her sides, but as Anairë watches, Eärwen reaches out with gently curled fingers to touch a passing wave. Anairë cannot help the barest trace of a smile from pulling at her lips; she imagines a very young Eärwen, not standing in the ocean at daybreak but walking beside it at dusk, the rhythmic wash of waves against the shore offering both clarity and peace. Eärwen's choice of communion may have changed, over time, but the reasons for it remain the same.

At Anairë's soft footfalls, she turns her head, though not quite far enough for their eyes to meet. Anairë stands for a moment at the water's edge, then gathers the hems of her dressing gown into her hand and steps into the sea, coming to a stop when she is close enough to lay a hand, lightly, on Eärwen's shoulder. Not a second later, a white-cap splashes around her waist, and Anairë gasps at the sudden chill. Eärwen smiles. Anairë does not have to see it; she feels the subtle, silent laugh under her hand, and lets the fabric of her wet gown fall from her hand to mingle with Eärwen's in the water.

The quiet between them stretches out, unchallenged, until Eärwen suddenly dives forward under an approaching wave. She emerges facing Anairë, with wet hair trailing down her back and droplets of sea-water clinging to her eyelashes. Anairë cannot help but touch her – her lashes, her lips, her cheek, her collarbone. In this light – in all lights – she is beautiful.

Anairë's natural, stubborn loquaciousness pushes her to speak until she cannot resist any longer; against the maelstrom of words that threaten to spill in all directions she manages, not without effort, to limit herself to, "Will you go?"

Eärwen heaves a deep sigh. "He's my son," she says, but the simplicity of her response is betrayed, thereafter, by the rising tide in her eyes – hope and memory, longing and loss, love and fear and faith and pride. All of it fresh again, like sharp glass underfoot rather than sea-smoothed sand.

Anairë folds Eärwen into her arms, allowing barely a moment's thought to the water seeping through the silk of her light gown. Again they lapse into wordlessness as the last stars disappear and the sun burns away what remains of the sea-mist that had curled around the shore in the night. Anairë focuses on Eärwen's heartbeat, and her own, slowing her breath to share the rhythm of the sea. In their shared hopes and dreams, they had chosen to dwell on the joy, and not on the potential sting of salt in old wounds – or new.

"I will not," says Anairë, softly. For a moment she thinks Eärwen has not heard, but then she steps back to look Anairë in the eye. When Eärwen seems about to speak – perhaps to protest or perhaps to agree – Anairë continues. "If you desire it, we shall travel together, but I would prefer to stay with my own family. It would please them – and more important than that, it would, perhaps, be easier on you... and your son, and his father."

Eärwen contemplates a moment, her gaze drifting to an unknown point over Anairë's shoulder. "Yes," she says, with a decisive nod. "All right."

"I think--" starts Anairë again, but Eärwen cuts her off with a finger across her lips.

"I think the itinerary and particulars can wait," she says, and moves her hand to tuck strands of Anairë's hair – slipped loose from her braids during the night – behind her ear. "You can set yourself to planning to your heart's content," she says, her eyes growing warm with familiarity. "But... not just yet, please." She stands on her toes to reach Anairë, to pull her into a light, slow kiss, as much for comfort as for love. Afterwards, Eärwen shifts to lay her head on Anairë's shoulder, and Anairë is content to hold her and brace herself against the waves, rising with the wind.

"Will you come inside?" she asks, after a time.

"In a moment," Eärwen says, and takes a step away, reaching out for Anairë's hand before turning her face to the sun.

**