Maedhros wasn’t sure what he expected from the newest High King of the Noldor.
They hadn’t met before— Fëanor’s line had thought it best to skip Gil-galad’s coronation, which had been a smaller and more somber affair than previous ceremonies. Most things were smaller and more somber these days than they had been in the past. They had not had cause to meet since then, either. In truth, Maedhros had been avoiding Gil-galad since the Havens.
But he and Maglor had brought Elrond and Elros here in hopes that they would be safer, and maybe happier, and the lord of the household could not rightly be evaded. Maglor had gone with the twins to check on their living arrangements, leaving Maedhros alone to take the measure of Ereinion Gil-galad.
They stared each other down for a moment, both unreadable but not quite hostile. Not hostile was a good sign, thought Maedhros, given their far-from-ideal history.
Gil-galad was also shockingly short. Not that it detracted much from his authority— the posture took care of that, the drawn-back shoulders and fiery determination in the piercing grey-blue eyes— but it was noticeable despite the heels of Gil-galad’s sturdy boots.
“Nelyafinwë Maitimo,” said Gil-galad at last. It was subtle, but his was the voice of one much more accustomed to Sindarin than Quenya. Gil-galad shifted his weight, the heavy blue fabric of his cloak shining in the dim light of wall-mounted flame, and asked, “Would you care to come in? Your brother may be a while yet.”
“You’re inviting me in?” asked Maedhros. His own battered voice sounded almost humorously incongruent so soon after Gil-galad’s clear, youthful speech.
Gil-galad shrugged. His hair was dark for the most part, but the flashes of gold at the end gave Maedhros pause when he saw them out of the corner of his eye.
“I see no harm in it, as things stand now,” said Gil-galad. “We have no silmarils, after all. I am prepared to accept that you have come here in good faith.”
Maedhros shook his head and let out the barest breath of a laugh.
“You’re young, aren’t you,” he said. “You know that you have every reason to hate me, and no reason to forgive.”
“Who says I forgive you?” asked Gil-galad, then laughed and said, “If we’re going to have this argument, we might as well go inside and have it somewhere warmer.”
Maedhros accepted the offer this time, and followed Gil-galad to a parlor that was indeed much warmer than the chill night air outside.
“I can make tea,” said Gil-galad.
That’s ridiculous, thought Maedhros. Why would you entertain me like that?
“Do what you will,” he said instead, and then, “If you don’t forgive me, why offer… this?”
“It’s simple,” said Gil-galad. He turned around from where he’d been fiddling with a teapot and a flame.
“Is it?” asked Maedhros. “I can’t see how.” He watched Gil-galad break eye contact, sigh, and set some water to a boil before answering.
“I’m sure you know better than most,” said Gil-galad finally, “that the world is awfully cold. I will not have a part in making it more so.”
“Not even to me.”
“I suppose you’re about to tell me I’d be justified in doing so.” A small smile touched the corners of Gil-galad’s lips as he shook his head.
“No,” he said. “There are many things I am not sure I can forgive, but far fewer that I cannot try to offer compassion for. Have some tea, Maedhros.”
“As you say,” Maedhros conceded. “That’s noble of you.”
“Thank you,” said Gil-galad with a melancholy smile. “I’d hope I have at least a little nobility in me, what with being High King and all.” He sat down opposite Maedhros and pushed a cup of tea across the table, where it sat steaming.
“Nobility,” echoed Maedhros dryly. “I wonder what that counts for in these times.”
“Really just responsibility under a different name,” said Gil-galad. His tone of voice was light enough, but there was no sparkle in his eyes as he shifted his teacup from hand to hand, gazing into its depths without much focus.
He looked tired, thought Maedhros. That was a feeling he could understand. And Gil-galad had made an effort to offer him compassion, so—
“I’ve watched many people be High King,” said Maedhros. “It’s hard.”
He did not miss the flash of almost-hope that crossed Gil-galad’s face before it was shut down as quickly as it had come.
“Well,” said Gil-galad slowly. “It’s… everything is so much larger than it was when I was. When I was a prince.”
“You don’t want to say it’s difficult,” said Maedhros. He did not smile unbidden, but it was a nearer thing than it had been in a long while. “None of the other High Kings I knew did, either.”
“Good to know I am not the first.”
Gil-galad pressed his hands to the warm surface of his cup and took a sip of tea, prompting Maedhros to do likewise as the silence simmered between them.
“You are the son of Orodreth, right?” asked Maedhros finally.
“That I am,” said Gil-galad.
“Funny,” said Maedhros. “Celegorm and Curufin did not mention a son.”
“Perhaps they did not want another interloper in their path to the throne of Nargothrond,” said Gil-galad coolly.
“Perhaps,” said Maedhros. Again his eyes were drawn to the soft gold glow of the ends of Gil-galad’s hair, but he said nothing of it.
Maedhros thought maybe he should change the subject. His comment had drawn more tension into the set of Gil-galad’s shoulders. Then again, such was life of late.
“You didn’t like Celegorm and Curufin,” said Maedhros. It was not a question. Gil-galad gave him a look that was partway between calculating and shy.
“It does not matter now,” Gil-galad said heavily. “you’re right— I did not like them. I thought I wanted revenge one day, but hearing of their deaths…” He laughed, but rather than mirth there was aching sadness in the sound. “I never wished it upon anyone. Not upon Doriath, not upon your brothers.”
And not upon me, evidently, thought Maedhros. Well, that’s new. He surprised himself with the next words out of his mouth— they were almost lighthearted, almost friendly.
“How is being High King?” he asked.
Gil-galad started at the question. She’d thought that that line of conversation was safely out of the way, but evidently not. She paused before answering, taking a long sip of tea and mulling over her options.
She could lie, but Maedhros would see through her. It was unnerving to be around someone with as much experience as him. She could also tell the truth, but…
That would be dangerous, Gil-galad thought. She and Maedhros were not friends, no matter how much effort she had put into being kind. And she did not want to lose his respect.
Finally, she asked, “Do you drink?”
“I have not recently,” answered Maedhros.
“I was thinking we might need something a little stronger than tea if you want to ask that question of me and get a true answer,” said Gil-galad. She hoped the amused snort she got in return was a good sign.
“That bad?” asked Maedhros, not unkindly.
“It’s not bad, exactly, no,” said Gil-galad. She downed the rest of her tea and sighed, putting one elbow on the table and her chin in her hand.
“You led for a long time,” she said all of a sudden, looking up at Maedhros. “Still do. How? How do you accept that people’s lives are in your hands?”
“Hand,” said Maedhros with the ghost of a smile. He was a little surprised when Gil-galad gave a laugh that was genuinely amused enough to be undignified.
“Most people get uncomfortable when I say things like that,” he observed.
“Ah, well, I suppose I’m used to it. I’m getting the alcohol,” said Gil-galad by way of a response, her expression turning wistful for a moment.
That was odd, thought Maedhros, but he was prepared to let it go. He finished his tea and let Gil-galad replace it with wine.
“You don’t,” said Maedhros.
“Pardon?” asked Gil-galad.
“You don’t really accept that you’re in charge of so many people’s lives, except when it helps to think about it like that. And sometimes, you have to ask for help.”
Gil-galad made a face at him.
“I wonder how much I’m willing to bet that you don’t, in fact, ask for help,” he said.
“This is my advice to you, not exactly my personal experience,” said Maedhros, completely deadpan.
“Right,” said Gil-galad, smiling wryly despite the exhaustion now tangible in his posture and eyes. “And have you got any more advice for me, then?”
By the time they’d gotten through the first bottle of wine, the advice Maedhros was giving had gone from genuinely thought-out suggestions to, “Always bring a harp wherever you go,” which was accompanied by slightly hysterical choking laughter.
Gil-galad was much more sober, despite the fact that they’d had a pretty even split on the alcohol. She put down her cup and lay her head down in her arms.
“Ai,” she sighed, “this was not how I expected our meeting to go. I suppose we’ll have to agree not to remember anything we’ve said to one another.”
“Wish I didn’t remember a lot more than that,” said Maedhros.
“I bet,” said Gil-galad. She dragged herself upright to go get another bottle of wine. She was just tipsy enough to reflexively pat Maedhros’ shoulder as she walked past, automatically taking into account the ever-present damage she knew was there.
Maedhros didn’t flinch; her movement had given him ample warning, but he did lift his head off the table and look at her.
“I think you’ll do well,” he said.
“What?” asked Gil-galad. She opened the second bottle and drank directly from it this time.
“With the… the…” said Maedhros. “Elrond. Elros.”
“Ohhh,” said Gil-galad, sitting back down. “I’ve never taken care of a child.”
“Probably better than me,” said Maedhros.
“Your alcohol tolerance is terrible,” mused Gil-galad.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Maedhros. “Listen.”
“I’m listening,” said Gil-galad. “I’ve been listening this whole time.” Maedhros’ eyes on her were oddly piercing despite his mildly dazed state.
“See, ‘s what I mean,” he said. “You’re not cruel. You try.”
“I was not made for war,” admitted Gil-galad. “Perhaps it’ll be the end of me. But you might be right— I try.”
“I was made for war,” said Maedhros. “Or not made. Remade for it.” Gil-galad wondered if she should try and pry the teacup from his hand before he shattered it with the force of his white-knuckled grip.
“Oh, I wish I didn’t understand that so well,” said Gil-galad, the hidden princess of remaking oneself. Not that Maedhros would understand her meaning. Not that anyone did, or would.
She blinked away tears and took another long drink of wine, hoping Maedhros wasn’t in a state to notice. She was hardly in a state herself, if she was honest. But despite the company, there was no sharp jolt of paranoia and fear over not being perfectly pulled together, and Gil-galad welcomed the feeling.
“I fucked up,” said Maedhros.
“Everyone did,” said Gil-galad. “You. Your brothers. Me. Probably my father. That’s what they say, anyway.”
“With the twins,” specified Maedhros. “They… they can use swords now. Probably too young, but what could I do? Never too young to be attacked.”
“I’ll keep them safe,” said Gil-galad fiercely.
“‘S why we brought them here,” said Maedhros. He looked up, and the expression on his face was dark and haunted. “You’ll be better for them than us.”
“I hope,” said Gil-galad. “Oh, I hope. But I don’t know.”
“You’re not a murderer.”
“I’m trying not to be, but I might have to become one.”
“It’s what being High King is, sometimes.”
“I don’t know how to be High King.”
“But you are.”
“I don’t know how to do it right!”
The shout of frustration escaped before Gil-galad could stop it, and she froze the moment she heard her own voice raised in the close, warm air of the room.
“Could give it up,” said Maedhros. “I did.”
“No, I couldn’t,” snapped Gil-galad. “Sorry. That was harsh. But there’s people— people who need me. Or not me. They need a leader, and it just so happened to be me. I can’t be a disappointment, not now.”
“Am I a disappointment?” asked Maedhros.
“You don’t need my opinion,” said Gil-galad. “You’re— well, you’re the son of Fëanor, and I am the daughter of Orodreth.”
Neither of them noticed the slip of the tongue. Gil-galad was standing with her hands clenched at her sides, trembling, not knowing that the blaze in her eyes matched Maedhros’ despite her words.
“So what?” asked Maedhros.
“So nothing,” said Gil-galad at last. She sank back down and put her face in her hands. “I’d appreciate if you never told anyone about this.”
“I’ll keep my mouth shut,” said Maedhros. Gil-galad laughed despite herself, laughed until the tears she’d been suppressing came back and poured down her face, until she couldn’t breathe and her vision was a mess of swirling color.
Maedhros couldn’t remember now what he’d expected Gil-galad to be like. He could remember his first impression, though— lithe, young, kind but somehow preoccupied. Now, he supposed he knew what she’d been preoccupied about.
He watched Gil-galad half-sob across the table from him. Dark hair, soft gold ends, freckles and grey eyes and a valiant attempt at a grin through tears.
Maedhros surprised himself by swallowing a sob of his own. A detached part of him wondered how that had happened. It’d been a long time, at any rate. If Gil-galad hadn’t already asked him never to mention any of this again, he thought, he’d have had to make that same request himself.
But they had made an agreement, and there was no reason not to keep it.
Maedhros didn’t cry, not really, but Gil-galad had a sort of earnest gravity that pulled him closer to feeling things that he hadn’t in half an Age. And she was so young, so young, trying not to let compassion be dampened by all the heavens’ weight on her shoulders—
“If you remember nothing else, and I don’t either, remember this,” said Maedhros. “You aren’t the first, won’t be the last. And not alone. You’re not alone.”
He didn’t know where the words came from (dark hair, gold ribbons) but he heard Gil-galad thank him and felt her take his teacup and put it somewhere safer.
“I’ll try to remember,” she said, “but I think this might be a night to forget.”
Gil-galad was gone when Maedhros woke up. He sat up and took in the room— he hadn’t moved or been moved, but there was a heavy blanket around his shoulders and he couldn’t tell when it had been put there. His cup was still there, this time full of hot tea again, but Gil-galad’s was nowhere to be seen, and neither were any of the wine bottles.
Maedhros had just picked up the tea when there was a knock at the door. He knew it was Maglor without looking.
“I’ll be there in a moment,” he called, then drank the entire teacup in one go, ignoring the burning. He guessed Gil-galad wouldn’t be there to see them off personally. That was fair, thought Maedhros. The memories of the previous night were blurry, but there was a sense of privacy that should not be broken.
He put down the cup, folded the blanket, and placed it on the table before joining his brother outside.
“What did you think of him?” asked Maglor.
“Not what he seems,” said Maedhros. He caught Maglor’s slight, exasperated eyeroll without looking.
“Anything more specific?” Maglor asked.
“No,” said Maedhros. “Yes, but it doesn’t concern you. Elrond and Elros will be fine.”
“I suppose that’s the best we could hope for,” said Maglor.
He spared one last glance for Gil-galad’s house as they left; Maedhros did not. There were memories best left behind, for now, buried until they had the time and the luxury of unraveling them.
Not now, thought Maedhros.
For now, he would forget.