Elrond leaves Gil-galad's arms and armor to be buried with him, less out of any superstitious feeling that they will help him where he is now bound than out of a revulsion against the idea of being burdened with these cold heirlooms. He is the caretaker of too many relics of the dead already, for the sake of history and heritage. But he has no desire to set these things up as a museum piece or a shrine. They will recall to him only ash and mud and grief, not sunlit days in Lindon when he was young.
When he lays Gil-galad's circlet atop the shrouded remains -- no one desires to look at what Sauron's fires have made of flesh and bone -- a murmur goes through the crowd. Cirdan, who has stood steadfast at his shoulder, clears his throat.
"This he wore for battle," he says. "His crown still awaits in Lindon."
"I am sure it will be safe in your keeping," Elrond says. His voice is calm and even. His fingers linger on the cloth, just for a moment. He takes a breath, and remembers how to let go.
Later Cirdan takes him aside in the camp, now finally being disassembled around them, his shaggy brows knit. "I will keep the Havens as I always have," Cirdan says, "but I do not rule the Noldor. They need a king."
"I can't imagine why they would," Elrond says. "There cannot be more than a handful of Noldor who intend to remain on these shores. To claim to be their king would be absurd. They can follow your rule if they wish to remain in Lindon, or come to me in Rivendell if they prefer. My house is open to them. But it is a household, not a kingdom."
He waits for Cirdan to tell him that he is shirking his duty. Instead Cirdan puts one arm around him in a kinsman's embrace, and kisses his cheek. "Be happy," he says. "For what it's worth, I think you're wise."
"Wisdom I can aspire to," he says. "Happiness …" At the moment, that seems absurd, and yet there is the whispering voice of foresight, unbidden and unwelcome, telling him that there is happiness ahead of him, that he will heal whether he likes it or not. As he has always done. He has mastered the craft of surviving.
"Well, we'll see," he says, and for a moment can almost feel a hand resting on his shoulder. Instead of reaching for it, he touches the ring on his left hand, like standing on a high sea cliff with the salt wind at his back, and stepping away to the day's work in front of him.
He arms Gil-galad for battle, although he is many centuries beyond doing an esquire's offices. All the same, neither of them questions it as he helps Gil-galad into his armor, fastening vambraces and settling the cuirass over his shoulders. At last he pins Gil-galad's cloak at his throat. His hands stop there against his will, feelng the warm pulse beating at Gil-galad's throat.
It's less a decision than muscle memory, turning into each other's arms with the same old familiarity, kissing with hungry fury. All ideas of honor and valor are eclipsed abruptly with a hard anger at Sauron for making this war necessary, for forcing them to spend the lives of people who are precious, irreplaceable, unique.
"What do you see?" Gil-galad says, his hands on Elrond's arms, steadying him as he did in their youth when foresight sometimes came blindingly hard and unexpected enough to make him stagger. It's unneeded now, but he doesn't pull away.
"Nothing," he says, and it's almost the truth. He can see no single doom to come, only feel a black foreknowledge of terrible carnage, like the beating of heavy wings too thick to appear as more than a black cloud blotting out the sky. "Don't talk to me of battle."
They don't talk, after that, wrenching what pleasure and comfort they can from the few minutes they have. It's little enough. It's enough to matter.
Afterwards, Elrond resettles the armor he's stripped off, and pins the cloak again, neatly this time without wasted movement.
"We have a better chance because you're here," Gil-galad says, and Elrond understands that they're done not talking about battle.
He has to choose his words with care, not wanting them to be bitter ones. After the fall of Eregion, he had sworn that he was done with war, and would have his house be a place of healing and knowledge. But war is not yet done with him.
"Never again, I hope," he says, and closes his eyes against the beating of black wings.
Gil-galad does not visit Rivendell, and so it takes Elrond entirely by surprise to look up and see him dismounting his horse as casually as if he were an everyday guest. Elrond strolls toward him, trying to give the impression that there is nothing out of the ordinary about the visit in any way.
Gil-galad looks about him, his reins looped carelessly in his hand. "It's nice," he says. "This place."
"Come, I'll show you the orchard," Elrond says, and they walk, leaving the horse to graze calmly in the tall grass of the clearing.
"You always did like orchards."
It would be so easy to say remember when -- that afternoon they should have been dealing with the quarrelsome politics of Lindon, and instead escaped to lie down among the apple trees, and then sprawled eating apples in the sun --
Gil-galad reaches up and picks an apple, and without speaking of it the memory is abruptly as vivid as reality, the taste of apples strong in Elrond's mouth.
"You could have come before now," he says.
Gil-galad turns the apple around in his hand, not taking a bite. "You could have come home to Lindon," he says.
And there the words are, lying between them unanswerable, because Elrond has made a home for himself, and he does not mean to leave it. There are people here who depend on him, and, more, there is quiet and study and an ever-growing library salvaged from the ruins of Eregion and brought from Lindon or from far Numenor over the sea. This is his home, and he will fight to defend it when he must, but he will not march again to war.
Not true, a whisper of foreknowledge says, and he takes the apple from Gil-galad's hand and takes a bite to banish the vision. He has still made his choices for here and now.
"I didn't actually mean to ask you to come home," Gil-galad says.
"You didn't ask me to come home," Elrond points out.
Gil-galad nods, acceptance of who they are in his expression. "I came to bring you something." He slide the sapphire ring from his finger and holds it out to Elrond. When Elrond doesn't take it, he takes the apple back and presses the ring into Elrond's palm in its place, closing his fingers around it.
"You can't be serious."
"You will make better use of it than I will," Gil-galad says. "Tend your orchards and your library. Keep them safe."
"And what about the armies of the Noldor?"
"Well, I still have them," Gil-galad says. He turns the half-eaten apple around in his hand, and then lifts his eyes frankly to Elrond's face. "It wasn't made for war," he says. "Use it for something better."
"You could come here," Elrond says.
"I'm the king," Gil-galad says. "I don't have a choice about that." He holds out the apple again, more of a peace offering than the ring heavy and warm in Elrond's palm.
I forgive you, Elrond is tempted to say, but there was never really any betrayal between them, only the cold knowledge that their paths had diverged as quietly and certainly as two streams flowing around a rock, and would not flow back together.
"I could show you the rest of the house," he says, and puts the ring on his finger so that he can take the offered apple.
Elrond's forces are not enough to relieve the siege of Ost-in-Edhil, not enough to do more than prepare to cover the retreat of those who can escape. His hope, until the last few days, is that Gil-galad's host will arrive to join his forces from the north.
Then the messenger arrives, a solemn-eyed boy whose every move as he hands him the dispatch is mute apology. Elrond thanks him and sends him to sit down and eat before opening the roll of parchment.
Gil-galad is not coming. The Numenorean fleet he has called for has not yet landed, and Gil-galad will not throw his entire strength against Sauron's forces now. If they are defeated before the Numenorean ships arrive, the strength of the Numenoreans will not be enough alone to defeat Sauron. They will be destroyed piecemeal and utterly defeated.
All of this is sensible, all of this is wise. And if they once said, I would do anything for you, I would die for you, surely that did not include I will engineer the utter defeat of the free peoples of Middle-Earth through poor tactical choices for you. His heart has sunk, but he is not angry. It is a setback, he tells himself, the fortunes of war, nothing more.
It is later -- after Ost-in-Edhil has burned and the Enemy has met him on the field with Celebrimbor's mutilated corpse as his battle standard and Elrond's troops have turned and fled in a rout he could do nothing to prevent -- that he realizes he is finished with something, in a way that has nothing to do with anger. It is a feeling like the sharp tug of a rope parting, a sudden and disorienting freedom.
He takes the survivors to the hidden valley he has camped in before, a beautiful place where the river Bruinen cascades down in a dozen rills to the valley floor. It is quiet there, even when they begin to build.
He's never valued quiet before, but now, even as he begins to fill his household with friends and welcome guests, he appreciates the sound of birdsong in the morning, not the demanding call of gulls on the shore, but quieter songs that do not speak of places far away.
"You're the one I trust to do this," Gil-galad says. "Take your forces south to meet the army Sauron is marching north to Eregion. I'll follow as soon as the Numenoreans arrive."
Elrond traces his route on the map spread out on the table between them, an aid to memory that he doesn't need; he can see every inch of the road he will follow in his mind's eye, but not what he will find when he arrives.
"I'm not a general," he says.
"You're every bit a general," Gil-galad says, frowning at him as if he didn't expect this attack of false modesty. Elrond frowns back at him, because that wasn't what he meant at all; they used to speak the same language effortlessly, but it's become harder as both of them have changed and grown from young manhood to the fullness of their strength. He meant for them to change together.
"I'll do it, of course," he says.
"Your books will still be here when you get back."
There's a touch of jealousy in Gil-galad's voice, as if his books and the time he spends now in the healing hall are time stolen from him. But he can't turn back time and be nothing but Gil-galad's esquire and friend, content to help him face the overwhelming demands of the crown without shouldering burdens of his own that are more suited to his own talents. He loves Gil-galad beyond words or breath, but he can't give everything he has to him. There is other work that needs his talents more.
That night is bittersweet, full of lingering touches that foreshadow long separation, and some other threat that beats beneath his pulse, something he won't try to name. If it's his death, he won't look it in the face yet. There will be time some other night.
In the morning he arms himself for war, and sets out on the road south.
"You know we ought to go back," Elrond says, shaking his head at Gil-galad as he keeps his horse's nose resolutely turned away from the city.
"And spend all day listening to Oropher complain?"
"I think that's part of the job," Elrond says, and Gil-galad plucks an apple from the tree overhead and throws it at him. "Hey!" he exclaims, laughing. "I see it is my fate to be punished for honesty."
"Perhaps I just like throwing things at you."
It turns into a game of chase among the trees, as light-hearted as his games with Elros when they were boys. In the end, they tumble down among the fallen apples, abruptly hungry for each other, tugging at clothes rather than stripping them off, staining them with grass and dirt.
Gil-galad hands him an apple, and he leans back contentedly in the grass and takes a bite. The taste is sweet, like tasting the scent that hangs heavy in the grove. In Lindon, there will be pressing crowds full of impossible demands for Gil-galad, and stacks of records and petitions for him to sort through, and the constant undercurrent of politics tugging them to and fro.
"Let's never go back," he says.
"That sounds good to me," Gil-galad says, and lazily raises an apple to his lips.
The ships are leaving shore, the Host of the Valar departing. It should be a relief for them to bear Morgoth away, but all Elrond can think at the moment is that a great brightness is leaving, flaming up and then vanishing like the sun diving into the sea. He knows that nothing like it will ever come again.
There was some part of him that was tempted to go. He watches the gulls swooping and diving over the great expanse of the sea, and knows that an even greater brightness lies beyond it, holding the answers to questions he hasn't even learned to ask yet.
But his brother is here, and while he knows now that his brother will someday die a mortal death, here and now he is alive, a beloved companion Elrond would not willingly leave. And there is great beauty here, and friends yet to make, and so much to do.
A hand rests on his shoulder, and he turns to see Gil-galad standing beside him, watching the ships disappear in the distance. At least Elrond had a choice. Gil-galad is High King of the Noldor, and he has to stay and try to rule them, whether he will or no. It seems an impossible task, but perhaps Elrond can help, in some small way.
"So what happens now?" he asks. He's suddenly aware of how close they are, his skin prickling hot at the touch in a way that feels awkward at the same time that it makes his heart beat faster. He thinks for the first time that if he turned into Gil-galad's arms they might kiss, but he's not quite ready to step out on that ledge yet. He knows abruptly that he will, a warm reassuring thread of foresight, like the scent of something sweet not yet tasted.
"Well, we'll see, won't we?" Gil-galad says. And they will. They will see what happens next together.
"So we will," Elrond says, and turns away from the sea cliff, stepping away toward the day's work in front of them.