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The Burden of Beauty

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"I cannot leave now!" Glorfindel stepped back from the window. "It has started snowing."

Few of the Noldor of Gondolin would enjoy facing such weather. And yet... "I thought you liked snow," said Ecthelion.

"I do. But... Here, come look at this."

How bad could it be? While it was true that the evening had proven rather absorbing, had they really been so focused on each other as to ignore a snowstorm? Well, maybe. Ecthelion walked up to the chink in the curtains Glorfindel was using for his pre-departure surveillance, and lifted some of the heavy fabric aside; it was his window, after all, and looking out of it, even in the middle of the night, could hardly arouse suspicion.

He beheld a dazzling sight.

It was snowing, yes, but only lightly. So, he had a clear view of the courtyard, where the flagstones looked even whiter than usual, and a little fuzzier. In contrast, the frozen cascades of the fountain looked sharp and clearly defined -- even slightly sparkly, wherever the light of the lamps hit them just so.

The whole scene might have seemed too tritely perfect in its beauty, if not for the line of animal tracks crossing the north corner, and setting everything off with its mild asymmetry.

"Ah," said Ecthelion quietly, without turning around. "I take it you are worried about footprints?"

"Yes. Just picture it: a track leading from you house to mine." Glorfindel placed one hand in the small of Ecthelion's back. "Left in the middle of the night, the tread patterns betraying that the walker felt full of joy. Imagine the scandal!"

The concern was appropriate, but, under the circumstances, Ecthelion could not feel appropriately concerned. "What scandal? You are famed for being full of joy."

"Not to this extent," said Glorfindel. Joyously, in fact. "At any rate, things should get safer at dawn, what with all the morning traffic."

"Right." Letting the curtain fall, Ecthelion turned to face him. "So, you will have to wait until then. I can make up the spare bedroom downstairs, and--”

"I am NOT staying in your spare bedroom."

“It is a rather chilly room, I know, but there is a down comforter in the chest, and if I start a fire, it--"

“In fact, I am staying here.”

"Here? With me?" Ecthelion felt impressed. "You are most welcome, of course, but I have to warn you that I am now completely... exhausted, and so I doubt I will be able to--"

"Ecthelion, you can be so strange sometimes." Glorfindel was frowning. "I feel quite drained myself, but even if I did not... Sex is not water, or smalltalk. Offering an endless supply of it is not part of your obligations as a host. Or, in fact, any supply of it, even if the guest is me." His frown deepened. "If the guest is someone else, then I very much hope you--"

"You mean we would just... sleep?" Ecthelion glanced over at his bed.

"We have dozed away together before, even in that lumpy monstrosity of yours."

"I know. But..." But that was only natural in the afterglow; even tired as he was, Ecthelion could not imagine drifting off with Glorfindel right there instead of, for example, staring at his hair all night. "Well, it seems a bit of a waste of our time together."

"While putting me in a spare bedroom is an appropriate use of it?"

"With you in the spare bedroom, we would not be together."

Glorfindel opened his mouth as if to respond, but then shut it, and set about the task of removing the clothes he had so recently put on. "Anyway," he said, voice muffled by fabric, "if we cannot sleep, and you cannot attend to your duties as a host, we could just talk, for a change."

"We talk all the time."

"Yes, in public."

"In private, too."

"Well, a little." Glorfindel had, for once, started folding his clothes properly. "But you have to admit, it is mostly things like, 'I am extremely turned on right now', or, ‘Oh where did I put that flask of oil’, or maybe, 'Glorfindel, you look so great, you could be a shining Maia.'"

It was Ecthelion's turn to frown. “I am quite confident that I have never uttered any of those phrases. Especially not the last, vaguely blasphemous declaration. Although... that one does sound like something you might say to your mirror.”

“And who could blame me?” Glorfindel struck an athletic pose, his now-bare torso gleaming in the low light; Ecthelion could not help smiling. “Anyway, you do say things that express the same sentiments, but in a more original, personalized way. Like, for instance, 'When I look at you I sometimes forget to be morally uptight for several minutes.'"

"I did not say that. Not in those exact words. Anyway,” Ecthelion concluded, “I was very drunk at the time. Much more so than tonight. So what did you want to talk about, then?”

“Well.” Glorfindel walked over to the bed, and sat down by the headboard. “I do have an idea for a game. We could pose each other personal questions. About things we have always wanted to know, but could never ask in public.”

“Like, ‘Is that your real hair colour?’”

“Come on, everyone asks me that. I meant things you personally do not already know the answers to. So more like, ‘Which son of Feanor do you find the most attractive?’”

“It seems improper to discuss unsuspecting people in this way.” Ecthelion sat on the other end of the bed. “Besides, it is obviously Maedhros.”

"He is the obvious choice, yes. But I would have expected you to name Celegorm."

"Why?"

"Because of his golden hair," said Glorfindel, running a hand through his own.

"Well, in Celegorm's case, I am not sure that is his real colour."

"An excellent point." Glorfindel rearranged the pillows into a high pile, so he could lean against them. "I have long noticed that unlike me -- or Idril, for that matter -- he does not have even one light-haired parent. It is very suspicious. But, anyway,” he continued very casually, “getting back to Maedhros... Have you ever met him? Outside of official appearances, I mean?"

"Briefly. I doubt he would even remember me." At Glorfindel's skeptical look, Ecthelion continued, "His brother used to hold these... symposia, he called them. Musical gatherings. Maedhros dropped by a few times."

"Did you--” Glorfindel sat up. “What did you think of him?”

“I am not sure I got a very clear impression.”

“So you did not speak, or anything?”

“Well, a little... But you have to understand, I was young, and it was thrilling to be there. For the music, I mean. And there was so much to take in... Even apart from the performances, Maglor had come up with an exhaustive new notation system for--”

“Ecthelion...”

If Glorfindel had one flaw, it was his inability to get excited by advances in musical theory. “Sorry. Anyway, Maedhros and I did speak. We were introduced. We made polite chatter about... the usual things.” Ecthelion searched his memory. “Sailing, maybe? A horse he had bought? One time, he took some grapes off my plate -- I remember feeling surprised, although I was too preoccupied to eat them, anyway.”

“Preoccupied by Maglor’s new system, you mean?” Glorfindel laughed, and lifted his legs onto the bed so he could lounge against the pillow-stack. “You supposed he would not remember you, but the truth is, you do not remember him! You cannot have been all that impressed by his good looks."

"I do understand his appeal, but I did not find him so enticing as to forget my priorities.”

“Right... You know,” Glorfindel gazed up at the ceiling, “I may not be called ‘well-formed’ quite as often as he is, but I bet that I could distract you from musical notation.”

“No bet! You have distracted me from even higher priorities for, as previously noted, minutes at a time. Although... If I knew, in advance, that this was your goal, I could defend myself better. So, perhaps...” Ecthelion glanced over to find Glorfindel focused on him once more. “We could try it now, if you like. What would you want to stake?”

“Hmm.” Glorfindel’s eyes were bright. “I will enjoy thinking of something appropriate. But maybe for our next meeting? It would not be fair to start now; not while you are, by your own admission, exhausted. Speaking of which... Why are you sitting over there, instead of resting here with me?”

“Maybe because you have claimed all my bedding?”

“What, these things?” Glorfindel tapped one of the pillows. “I had assumed you put them out only when I was visiting. To replace the rocks you normally use. As penance for some-- Oh, just come here, would you?”

He indicated his shoulder. Ecthelion, who was beginning to feel a bit ridiculous sitting upright while his guest relaxed, moved onto the bed and stretched out, resting his head in the suggested spot.

“Thank you,” he said. “Your shoulder does feel rather like my usual rocks.”

“You are most welcome.” Glorfindel’s hand curled round to rest on Ecthelion’s arm. “So, have you thought of anything to ask me?”

“Let me think...” Ecthelion closed his eyes. The lack of urgency -- of any need to sate desire, or to get back to life and work -- left him feeling unanchored, afloat; innocent, in a way. “How about: what were you like as a child?”

“Much as I am now, I think. You know, lively, amiable, accomplished. And lucky.” His hold on Ecthelion’s biceps tightened momentarily. “Speaking of which, I have a really good question for you. Something I have wanted to know for months.”

“Go on.”

“Do you think-- No, wait. Do you know that you are attractive?”

Ecthelion had been preparing for -- dreading, really -- something of a more intimate nature. “Excuse me?”

“Well, you keep making statements implying that you have no idea what you look like.”

“I know exactly what I look like.” Ecthelion searched for the right words. “I have... regular features, harmoniously combined. So, as a result, I look... decorative.”

“Decorative? Like a vase?”

“Well... yes, perhaps like a well-made ornamental vase.” Fearing this sounded conceited, Ecthelion amended it with, “But probably not a vase I would have in my house."

“What?” Glorfindel started; Ecthelion felt his shoulder tense. “Why not?”

"It would not really fit the decor. I am picturing something rather fussy. With a gleaming metal foot, elaborate scrolled handles, jewel and enamel inlays, and a vivid, intricate painting on the front, maybe of a courting couple, or a sunset. Or both."

“You call that well-made? In terms of requiring a lot of skill to put together, maybe, but-- Eru. I am going to have nightmares about this strange object. Is it really meant to resemble you?”

“Well, no -- sorry, your mention of vases confused me. I think a better example might be... parade armour. Something designed to impress, not to actually protect anyone from anything.”

"Well, the best armour is both fully functional, and beautiful enough to raise the spirits of one's comrades." Glorfindel turned to put his other arm around Ecthelion. "I accept your new metaphor,” he said into Ecthelion’s hair.

Vexed by the ongoing misunderstanding, Ecthelion could not relax into the embrace. "Thank you," he said stiffly. "But most warriors -- myself included -- are unwilling to trust unfamiliar, fancy armour on sight, while something obviously functional requires little testing. And it is the same with ornamental people: others tend to assume that looking fancy is their greatest skill. Or that they are making an effort to look that way, because they want something.”

For a few moments, Glorfindel lay in silence. At last he said, “Are you implying that you yourself dislike good-looking people?”

“No, of course not. I mean, I do not blame anyone for their natural appearance. But perhaps you are right that I discount their looks -- perhaps it is why I was not drawn to Maedhros.”

“I see.” Glorfindel remained uncharacteristically still. “But surely, you are drawn to-- Anyway, I have to admit that I do not empathize with your experience of the... the burden of beauty. At all.”

“Well, it is different for you, I suppose.”

“Is it? Why? Because I am not--” Glorfindel’s immobility came to an end as he sat up, dropping Ecthelion onto the bed. “Look here, I believe... No, I know, with certainty, that you find me attractive.”

“Well, of course.” Ecthelion looked up at him. Even his hair looked agitated -- which, oddly, suited him. “In my opinion, you far outshine me. But, then, I am hardly objective. My response to you is informed by what I know of your many fine qualities. Like warmth, honour, diligence--”

“So you think I have inner beauty. All right. Thank you.” Glorfindel was clearly struggling to compose himself. “But what about my... outer aspects?”

“Let me think.” Ecthelion focused on speaking evenly, to set a good example. “As you know, I admire your hair, to a frivolous and worrisome degree. And your body, although that is linked in my mind to your valour, and your hard training, and the interests we share. Finally, I could stare at your face for hours, but I would spend those hours very aware that you are behind it, so-- But look, why does any of this matter?”

“Because I like being considered attractive.”

“Attractive for your looks, specifically. Rather than for yourself. So, attractive to people who do not know you.” It was Ecthelion’s turn to sit up. “Which people?”

“Everyone, I suppose.”

Now they were eye-to-eye, awkward questions were harder, but Ecthelion’s suspicion demanded confirmation. “Do you mean women?”

“Well, ‘everyone’ does include women. And, in fact, some of my favourite people-- Oh, Ecthelion!” Glorfindel’s eyes lit up with understanding, and some of his serenity returned; when he took Ecthelion’s hand, the act had the usual calming effect. “Your jealousy is, as always, gratifying, but completely misdirected. Because, of course--”

“My jealousy is misdirected?” While reassured, Ecthelion now felt a little aggrieved. “Mine? What about the odd conclusions you were privately drawing about Maedhros?”

"Right, Maedhros...” said Glorfindel, green eyes narrowed. “Well-formed Maedhros, who ate your grapes.”

“You think that was flirtation? Ridiculous. The obvious counter would be: he is Feanorian, I am part-Teler, he coveted my grapes, and so he did what came naturally. But that is not fair to him, so instead I will say that it was his house, and for all I know he had grown those grapes himself, and wanted them back, while I was ignoring them completely.”

“I grow grapes, too,” muttered Glorfindel. “I bet mine are much better, and less ignorable.”

“Hmm,” said Ecthelion, since no better response suggested itself. “Anyway, it must be my turn to ask a question. Shall we lie down again?”

“Let us lie down, by all means, but I do not believe we have finished discussing my appearance.”

“Very well.” Ecthelion returned to his earlier position on the bed, and on Glorfindel’s shoulder. “So, you had just finished telling me that you wanted all the people -- regardless of gender -- to notice all of your obvious good looks, all the time.”

“Which they generally do.” Yes, Glorfindel’s usual confidence certainly was back. “But what I had not finished telling you was that, while I do enjoy being generally appreciated, you are, of course, my main target. And that it seems like a deplorable waste for my main target to overlook one of my greatest strengths. ”

“I think you have many greater strengths, but if we must discuss this particular one, I do remembered that-- You know how I told you I had never truly noticed you until we started sparring in Vinyamar?”

“Yes. Eru, that was fun.” Glorfindel rolled his shoulders. “I used to get so wound up over our matches... I would lie sleepless, and replay them in my mind for hours, analyzing each move you had made again and again, unaware that I did it only to bring your memory into my bed -- or that I really wanted more than a memory. And that, one day, like today--” His free hand came up to rest on Ecthelion’s chest, toying with the closure of his robe. “Is your exhaustion fading, by any chance?”

“Gradually.” Lonely, frustrated nights... Ecthelion remembered those all too well, both from the far-off past, and from more recent stints at the Gate. This was exactly why talking felt so wasteful: surely they owed it to themselves, to use their time together to make new, un-lonely memories? But right now, even as Glorfindel’s hand slipped beneath his clothes, he remembered that he had a point to make. “Anyway, I had met you before Vinyamar, of course. Do you know what I thought then?”

“That I had glorious hair?”

“Well, yes, but even apart from that, I thought you classically beautiful. No, hold on.” He evaded Glorfindel’s predictable attempt to roll on top of him and kiss him. “I am not finished. I have to add that, in spite of my objective awareness of you, I did not feel real attraction, since I had assumed that you were empty-headed and frivolous, which rather proves my point about -- what did you call it? -- the burden of beauty.”

Glorfindel gazed down at him. “It is proof of your own prejudices, certainly. Or...” he continued, a bit sadly, “it might be proof of the intrinsic good judgement you possessed before I unwittingly seduced you. Because, actually, I am frivolous.”

Ecthelion frowned. “You are not.”

“Then how do you explain... well, this whole conversation?”

“I cannot explain this whole conversation. It is too bizarre. However...” Ecthelion reached up to touch Glorfindel’s face. “I can easily explain your so-called frivolity, which, as I have long known, is just a pose you graciously maintain to put others at their ease, as part of your approachable charm. You would be far too intimidatingly perfect without it.”

“You truly believe--” Glorfindel’s cheeks were bright red. “I think I have to assume-- to respond as if you were joking. So: ha ha, good one, Ecthelion.”

“Thank you.” As Ecthelion contemplated the novel sight -- Glorfindel, shocked into modesty -- he felt deeply touched. And, really, no longer tired at all.

“Unless, of course...” Glorfindel seemed to rally. “Unless, when you say ‘overwhelmingly perfect’ you are comparing me to something like that perfect ornamental vase I was so... intimidated by.”

“And not to your unignorable grapes?”

“Which grapes? Oh, right. My main advantage over Maedhros. Ah, I wish I had never asked you about the Feanorians.”

“You had to. Because I was being a terrible host.” Ecthelion reached up to touch Glorfindel’s hair, then slid his hand further, to the back of his neck. “So let us try a different game. Are you sure you want to leave our musical notation bet for another day?”