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Beta: Innocencest

Chapter 2

Macalaurė stood before the long mirror in the communal bathing room which lay at one end of the house. When they were quiet and deserted, he enjoyed to soak in the large pools of hot, steamy water, watching the way candlelight danced over the ripples whenever he shifted. Now he was mostly dry, the towel lying at his feet, and he was looking at himself, occasionally reaching with curious fingers to explore the developing contours of his slender adolescent body. He was endlessly fascinated by the changes, the childish nondescriptness shifting into gangly gawkishness. His shoulders were broader than they used to be and his face had lost its cherubic quality, to be replaced by the intense earnestness more usually seen on an Elf far older. His limbs, he decided, were too long for him at the moment. He assumed he would grow into them soon enough; at the moment, his elbows simply looked bony and his arms rather skinny. He turned to one side, examining himself in profile. His hair hung, dark and straight down his back, falling over his shoulders and not quite reaching his slim hips.

"My little brother is growing up fast." Maitimo's voice from the doorway was affectionate, mild. He moved behind Macalaurė, wearing only a towel round his waist, to look at them both. "You are almost as tall as me these days."

Macalaurė compared them in the mirror. He was barely up to Maitimo's shoulders - but then, so were most Elves. Maitimo's hand, resting on his upper arm, was large, strong and rough; his own were elegant and long-fingered, the supple hands of a musician.

"And you are certainly growing handsome," Maitimo remarked. "The /nessi/ will start to take interest in you before long."

Macalaurė reflected on this and failed to work up any particular enthusiasm for the idea. He had better ways to spend his time: composing, writing poetry, working for his lessons, singing softly to himself and running fragments of tunes through his mind. "I do not particularly want to /nessi/ to chase after me," he concluded honestly. "I have never found them especially interesting."

"No?" Maitimo asked. "Not to share laughter, stories and conversation?"

Macalaurė shook his head. "When I wish to do that, I come and find you."

"Not for the kisses and then soft words and smiles, then?"

"Brother," Macalaurė replied, with a slightly perplexed smile, "what is this love of yours for kisses? I cannot see the appeal of tasting someone's wet mouth for the fun of it, and as for those revolting sucking noises…" He looked at Maitimo oddly as the elder Elf began to laugh, not in an unkind way, but with mirth sparkling in his eyes.

"You have never kissed anyone?" Maitimo seemed a little surprised - Macalaurė supposed that when Maitimo was his age, he would have done so more than once.

"I have been busy," he protested lightly.

Maitimo gave him a gentle poke. "I will see to it that you have some teaching then, little fey one. I think you may enjoy the lessons."

***

Maitimo proceeded to introduce his brother to a number of young /nessi/, and more than a few youths as well. Macalaurė enjoyed conversing with them, discussing their interests and his own, discovering new opinions and viewpoints - though, as always, he rapidly tired of niceties and small talk and they would always eventually lapse into silence. Maitimo encouraged him to pursue the more successful introductions, to attempt romance, even, but Macalaurė was not enthused.

One /nķs/ certainly intrigued him, her love of music and poetry matching his own, but he found himself intimidated by her easy charm and quick sense of humour, when juxtaposed beside his own shyness and quaint eccentricities. So although the friendship persisted for many years in an odd, halting kind of way, nothing more than that ever came from it.

Eventually, thankfully, Maitimo gave up on his attempts to help, realising that Macalaurė was content as he was. The two brothers grew close as Macalaurė moved from adolescence into adulthood, riding and later sparring, when Fėanįro insisted that his sons started to train seriously in the arts of arms.

***

Then Fėanįro's family was banished, and Macalaurė found himself utterly at a loss. He had formed only a tiny handful of close friendships and, of those, only the one with his elder brother could now continue. His next three brothers found his distant and reclusive nature too peculiar for their tastes and much preferred to spend their time hunting, drinking, practising their swordplay and so on. The youngest of Macalaurė's siblings, the redheaded Ambarussa twins, found their fey elder brother a little easier to understand - they had their own quirks, and knew from experience how it felt to be considered strange and treated with a cool wariness by others.

Still, his only true friend now was Maitimo. The eldest of Fėanįro's sons did not seem to mind Macalaurė's company; even when the younger Elf spoke at length about dreams he had had as if they were indistinguishable from real events, or seemed to bring invisible people into their conversations, Maitimo never showed sign of being perturbed. He let his little brother braid his hair into creative and sometimes downright odd styles or rearrange the clothes in his extensive wardrobe according to some precise set of criteria that only Macalaurė would ever understand. When Macalaurė burst out laughing in a silent room, usually entertained by a joke or comment from one of his secret friends - who, even in adulthood, did not leave him - Maitimo often asked to share in the mirth.

What Macalaurė often found he appreciated most about his brother was that Maitimo never pretended to understand when he did not. If he failed to comprehend the joke, unlike others he never gave that fake, tinny laughter which Macalaurė considered to be patronising and occasionally insulting. Maitimo was never patronising, and Macalaurė found comfort in this. With his tall, red-haired brother he always knew where he stood - he personally treated everyone with frank honesty, and from Maitimo he received the same straightforward treatment. Macalaurė never did understand those polite lies others liked to exchange to spare one another's feelings; most, he found, were transparent to almost everyone and the longer the pretending persisted the longer it took to rectify the problems and the more deeply the lies stung when discovered.

Over the years of exile Macalaurė grew more introverted and, people said, still more fey. His parents began to show concern but Macalaurė assured them it was a simple case of loneliness. Eventually, even Fėanįro admitted that his sons were under no obligation to share this exile; if Macalaurė wished to return to Tirion, no one would argue.

"Do you not miss your friends also?" Macalaurė asked his elder brother after what seemed like eternity in exile. It was the first thing he had said in nearly two days and so Maitimo started slightly before answering.

"Yes," he said. "Very much."

"But you have not gone back to Tirion."

Maitimo nodded agreement. "No, I have not yet gone back."

"Why not?"

Maitimo was quite for a while. Then he replied, his words reminding Macalaurė of a conversation between them decades before, "I have not lost that sense of loyalty to my family, I suppose. Just as Grandfather came with Father into exile, I do the same. Whether he was wrong or right, I feel I should, as his son, be there for him and stand by him."

"So does that mean you are intending to remain here until the exile ends?"

"Yes, little one."

Macalaurė settled himself a little deeper into his chair, feeling slightly like a tree putting its roots into dry, hard earth. "Then I will remain also."

He continued to spend a lot of time with his brother in the time that followed. He tried to be unobtrusive, but would often be found sitting in his brother's room with a glass of wine and a book of songs or old tales.

Maitimo began to grow as quiet and withdrawn as his brother as the years passed. One evening late summer he entered his rooms in a patently bad mood, glancing at Macalaurė and suggesting in a slightly strained tone that perhaps he would not be good company tonight.

"I am *never* good company, brother," Macalaurė replied with a soft smile. It was hardly something with which Maitimo could argue, as he returned to his book again for several minutes before continuing, "Is it something to do with Father's exile coming close to its end?"

Maitimo looked up, having though Macalaurė had become sufficiently engrossed in his book to have forgotten completely that he was not alone. "I had not realised you knew about that."

"I am not fond of crowds," Macalaurė said quietly, "but I do listen a lot. I think people tend to forget that one can hear and remember conversations without participating in them."

"Yes, then," said Maitimo as he rearranged the cushions on the couch for greater comfort, curling up tiredly in the nest he had built for his long frame. "But not directly, as such. Now we are likely to return to Tirion, Father says I need to start thinking perhaps about marriage. I…am not enthusiastic."

"I thought you liked things like that: kissing, /neri/ and /nessi/, companionship…"

"Oh, I do," Maitimo conceded. "But…" He paused. "I do not want to choose so soon. You have seen the tensions between our parents, even if they are deeply in love - I do not want that kind of difficulty, if I can help it. I will not rush into a marriage, however much in love I think I am at the time, only to discover some ten, twenty, one hundred years later that the match was far less suitable than we had suspected."

"I would think the same," Macalaurė agreed. "A lifetime is a long time."

Maitimo gave his brother a crooked smile. "Though the time our parents spend nagging me feels like longer still at present."

Macalaurė offered his brother little cakes from a plate beside him, smiling sympathetically at Maitimo. The elder Elf took some, pulling them to pieces before eating them.

Some long minutes of thoughtful silence passed before Macalaurė spoke again. "Do you remember when you told me about kissing?"

"Yes, little one."

Macalaurė paused. "I think I would like to try it now."

Maitimo gave a deep sigh and stood, embracing his brother gently and staring into the large, slightly distant eyes. "I wish I could help you now, but who is there for you to kiss? We only have our family, and the servants."

"What about you?" Macalaurė spoke not as an innocent, but with a soft note of challenge directed towards those who would condemn him for making such a request. This was no chance whim; he knew it crossed a boundary Maitimo had never sought to step over before, and it did not frighten him.

"I…" Maitimo took a step back, stuttering. His fingers flexed nervously at his sides. "It is wrong, my little fey one. We should not."

"Why is it wrong? Whom does it hurt?" Macalaurė closed his eyes and turned away, his secret friends whispering to him all at once in a chaotic clamour of strained voices. What did Maitimo fear? And why not Maitimo, in the end? Of all the people he cared for, Maitimo was the one who had earned his trust without reserve or question. It seemed perfectly natural that he should place himself in his brother's hands for such an important moment.

Macalaurė opened his eyes slowly and looked down as Maitimo's fingers traced along the line of his lips. "I…I do not want to make you uncomfortable…"

The normally smooth voice which had charmed many a /nķs/ was shaking a little as Maitimo answered, "It does indeed hurt no-one…" He seemed to take this as a conclusion to his thoughts and soft lips suddenly and tentatively brushed Macalaurė's.

It was nothing like the dreaded wet, perfume-heavy kisses exchanged by relatives and family friends at festivals, nor the deliberately messy kisses bestowed by one young child on another in an attempt to tease and torment. It was as light as a summer breeze and as welcome, tingly and delicate. Macalaurė wiped his lips automatically afterwards but then sighed with satisfaction. "Oh," he said quietly.

Maitimo placed his palm against Macalaurė's cheek, staring at him earnestly. "Oh?" The fingers ran over the dark locks of Macalaurė's hair. "Did I frighten you, little one?"

"No," Macalaurė replied dreamily, his eyes falling closed again. "Not frightened." He tilted his head and leaned up to kiss his brother once more, this time allowing their lips to linger against each other for a few more sweet seconds. And this time, he did not wipe his lips at the end. "It is…nice. Nicer than I ever expected."

"Nice the same way a glass of wine is nice?" Maitimo teased. No one else teased Macalaurė; no one else seemed to know where the line lay between his understanding the teasing and mistakenly thinking that the other was sincere.

"No." Macalaurė shook his head with conviction. "Nice like the sun dawning on a spring meadow, on dew-soaked grass glistening in the light and on delicate yellow flowers, with the scent of new blossom riding on the breeze is nice."

Maitimo's smile was gentle and affectionate. "I see someone has been borrowing my book of love stories… I wondered where that had got to." He played with Macalaurė's hair for another moment. "You can be fey, little brother, but let it never be said that you are not the sweetest, most charming of Elves." He persuaded Macalaurė to sing for him then, though he still spoke little; by the time Macalaurė took his leave, both their moods had grown lighter.

***

Macalaurė wondered in the days, weeks and months that followed why Macalaurė had not spoken again of the kiss they had shared, let alone suggested a repeat of the experience - an idea which, oddly, had preoccupied Macalaurė's thoughts greatly.

Eventually he grew tired of wondering and approached his brother directly. "I am sorry if you did not like the kiss. I did not offend you, did I?"

Maitimo dropped his eyes awkwardly, becoming suddenly very interested in adjusting the already tight girth of his horse, which he had been about to take out for a ride. It took a long moment of loosening and then tightening the highly polished buckles before he replied. "Do not worry, little one. There is nothing wrong with your kisses; the fault is mine, not yours."

"Your fault?" Macalaurė was sceptical. He honestly could not think of anything Maitimo had done that was hurtful, impolite or inconsiderate. Yes, he knew perfectly well of the general laws about relationships between kin, but he had long since reached the conclusion that it could do no harm if any such acts took place behind closed doors, as in this case. He and Maitimo had even discussed the matter, long ago and with hypothetical cases.

"Yes, little one. I am so sorry." With that, Maitimo swiftly changed the subject in a pointed manner that indicated he did not want to discuss the subject further. Finishing with his horse, he led the animal out and mounted quickly, riding away at a trot.

***

The exile ended. The deplorable massacre of Finwė came, leaving Macalaurė horrified and disgusted. He visited the memorial to his grandfather daily for a long time after, bringing fresh flowers and singing into the wind. He even gifted one of his beloved flutes to his grandfather, a small, delicate instrument made long ago and decorated with simple carvings. Finwė had loved his grandson's music and the flutes most of all, probably more so even than Fėanįro. In the past he had frequently requested the young Elf's presence at dinner parties and feasts to play for the guests, much to their enjoyment - even as a small child, stepping up on to a dais and finding all eyes turned upon him, Macalaurė had never disappointed. When he performed, he suspected it may have been the only time they understood him properly.

He developed a habit of spending hours some afternoons by his grandfather's graveside, oblivious to the passing of time and the comings and goings of other Elves, or the change in weather. Maitimo noticed his brother's behaviour and took to accompanying him on the little pilgrimages in order to remind him when it was time to go him and cover him with a cloak when it rained. "I miss him too," the elder brother quietly admitted on many occasions as he took Macalaurė's arm to coax him up.

But Macalaurė returned from the exile to find that those few dear friends he had left behind in Tirion now shunned him. There were not many Elves left now who wanted to admit to friendship with the Fėanorians; they brought shame upon the Noldor, it was said. His greetings were met politely but with a cold disinterest that stung deeper than the harsh taunts of childhood. He saw in Maitimo's eyes that he, too, had experienced this shunning - even their cousins were now wary around them. Kind, as always, but more guarded somehow and less welcoming than Macalaurė remembered.

Soon, however, the attitudes of their former friends ceased to be their greatest concern. That hideous, fateful day came when Fėanįro drew his sword and swore the Oath that doomed his family and people. To Macalaurė, there was no question. Just as Maitimo had said once, it was loyalty to his family; Maitimo stepped beside his father, eyes bright with the intensity of the atmosphere, slave to his father's fiery charisma, and Macalaurė stepped after. Maitimo spoke the words of the Oath immediately. His voice was low and clear and, to Macalaurė's ears, strange, as if even then some part of Maitimo was sickened and filled with dread by what he was swearing to.

To Macalaurė, the point was not the words but the principle - his family were the only ones to whom he was sure he could still turn when he needed them. If he abandoned Maitimo now, who did he have? So he swore an oath he hated, and never regretted doing so - only the words of that oath.

The time that followed was insanity. The sense of horror never left him - his own horror, and that of the other Elves around him. There was confusion, too, and the tension in his brothers' movements was evident even at a glance. Maitimo was sick several times the day after the Oath, unable to rest or eat.

After that came the Kinslaying. Macalaurė wished in a way that he could actually remember any of it, so that he could at least give the innocent, peace-loving Teleri the remembrance they deserved, and be able to reflect properly on the enormity of his heinous actions. But at the drawing of the first swords he stopped thinking, surrendering to the wash of crimson that descended over his eyes. His only memories of that time were of anger, desperation, noise and blood. In the days that followed, as the Noldor swarmed over the bloodstained decks of the white ships, he found a small cabin below decks where he curled up on the tiny bunk and cried, then slept in spite of terrifying nightmares, then woke and cried some more.

There was a light knock on the door and Maitimo entered, hair and clothes stained like Macalaurė's own, and quietly folded himself into the small space on the bunk beside his brother. "I am sorry you were drawn into this, little fey one. It is not your fight; you should not have to bear the consequences."

"I did what I was supposed to do," Macalaurė replied after a pause. "I had as much right to take the Oath as you and father; I simply chose to stand by you, as it is my duty to do."

"You did." Maitimo stroked Macalaurė's hair back from his face, a habit he had developed in Macalaurė's childhood and never gave up. "Your loyalty has always been absolute and beyond question."

Macalaurė sighed, standing and peering out of the small porthole over the blue-grey waves. "I left them all behind, you know. Except one." He reached into the folds of his tunic and brought out the snail shell flute. It had survived intact, in spite of its apparent fragility, and he laid it on a little shelf by the bunk. "Perhaps I will have to start the collection anew."

Both brothers fell silent for many minutes after that. Macalaurė saw no reason to speak, and Maitimo could think of no suitable reply to his brother. In the end, Macalaurė broke the silence with a question. "What happens now?" They had travelled far enough over the sea, clinging to the shore, that Tirion was out of sight now. The north looked grey and hostile to Macalaurė's eyes and he could not see any good coming from those barren, unwelcoming lands.

"We go north," Maitimo said quietly. "The sea is said to be narrower there, even though the weather may prove treacherous for us." His expression was troubled still, shadowed with shame at their recent deeds.

Macalaurė looked at him suspiciously. "Then what?" His voice took on an uncharacteristically hard edge. "Even assuming that we find the land everyone claims lies on the other side, the land from which our grandfather's generation travelled, who knows what we will find? Beasts, hostile Elves - how can we even be sure there is food there? This is insane, brother. We should go back now."

"It is too late for that now," Maitimo replied, his voice weary.

Macalaurė thumped the glass of the porthole in frustration. "Why not? We have made mistakes before - you have, I have. But we were never banished for them. Even Father's exile came to an end eventually." He started to panic and pace, disturbed by all these unpredictable changes, the seemingly infinite list of unknowns. "Brother, we have to go back! If we go to the other side, we will all end up dead! I can feel it already…"

Maitimo rose slowly and came to enfold his brother in strong, supportive arms. His voice was low and sad as he spoke. "After what we have done, I do not think we deserve anything better. I am sorry…but this is our fate now. What if you and I take care of each other in this new land, hmm?"

Macalaurė flinched at the first touch but eventually felt himself calm again and allowed his head to be guided to rest on Maitimo's strong shoulder. The fabric smelled of blood and sweat and fear and he realised he probably smelled the same. "Yes," he decided. "Maybe we have earned it after all." He closed his eyes. "We can do that. I suppose the others will wish to find themselves lands to lord over…but I do not see the appeal, myself. I just want to have my music back and seek some peace. I can stay with you, I hope?"

"Of course," Maitimo assured him soothingly. "I like to have you around." His fingers began to comb through Macalaurė's matted hair. "I have heard people say that you are strange, maybe even a little mad, but I have always considered you to be far saner than any of the others."

"I am not mad," Macalaurė responded, having faced the accusation himself enough times. "I just look at things more."

Maitimo smiled softly then and placed a finger under his brother's chin, tilting Macalaurė's face upwards. Macalaurė realised a moment before their lips met that Maitimo was going to kiss him once again and turned a little in his brother's embrace so he could return it more easily. His lips parted slightly and Maitimo's tongue crept shyly into his mouth, turning the kiss from a small, chaste gesture of reassurance to an expression of…? Macalaurė decided it was best not to try and name what it was he felt right now. Instead, he let his tongue hesitantly entwine with Maitimo's, touching it to his brother's lips and then daring to explore his mouth. The kiss was a little clumsy, especially at first, but there was a sweetness and gentleness to it that Macalaurė found utterly breathtaking.

The secret friends had gone elsewhere - none of them looked on as he pulled Maitimo closer to him, trying to prolong the kiss for eternity if he could. Rivulets of fire seemed to be trickling beneath his skin now - a curious sensation, but an exciting one.

He broke away in the end and the glorious moment of crystal and light shattered. He spoke softly to Maitimo, his voice lower and rougher than usual, "I love you."

Maitimo was still holding him, his expression rather surprised and confused. But the words seemed to get through to him and he smiled slowly. "Never for a moment have I doubted it, my little fey one. And I can promise you that you have my love also. There are few enough people who will even speak to our family now, but I know with you that I will always find companionship." He kissed Macalaurė again, lightly, and sat back down on the bunk, pulling Macalaurė with him.

The embrace was safe and Macalaurė relaxed into it, his head moving to rest once more against Maitimo's shoulder amid the mahogany hair. Of course they were still all going to die, but he was not frightened by the prospect any more.

***

Maitimo was severely seasick as the journey progressed, starting after the Noldor received the Doom of Mandos and cowered in horror at a prediction Macalaurė had known for days before that. He was honestly amazed how they had so easily assumed that all would be well once they reached the far shore; how could it possibly have been, if they gave it a moment's thought? Macalaurė put himself in charge of fussing over his suffering brother, encouraging him to drink more water, rest and be pampered.

By the time the ship finally reached land, Macalaurė had taken to sleeping in his brother's cabin in order to better watch over him. They would often squeeze on to the small bunk together, sleeping with limbs entangled and wrapped around each other's bodies.

Few of the other Elves on the ship made much attempt to help Macalaurė care for his brother except when asked directly to assist. Although nominally loyal to Fėanįro, their discontent was clear and Macalaurė was quite aware of the pervading sense of discomfort at what was currently happening. Still, he made sure that Maitimo received the best care possible under the circumstances. In his spare time, he even managed to persuade the mate to teach him about steering the ship. He was more comfortable with the vessel once he understood how to control it.

Maitimo spent most evenings, when the nausea eased, wondering and worrying about his cousins. Macalaurė shared his brother's fondness for Nolofinwė's sons, young as they still were and, although he knew Arafinwė's children rather less well, he enjoyed their easy generosity and friendliness. Though he never did quite manage to fathom Arafinwė's daughter.

They had both assumed, of course, that Fėanįro's first act upon landing would be to send the ships back to fetch their favourite cousins. Maitimo's spirits lifted sufficiently as the boat neared land that he ventured from his cabin to sit on deck for a while, looking forward to a few more days' time when he would be able to delight in the company of his dear friends once again.

***

Instead there were flames. He was not even sure how they started, only knowing that orders were being shouted and his brothers were running towards the ships. Unable to think, coughing violently from the smoke and overwhelmed by the insane whirl of light and noise and frantic voices, he just did as he was told, without further thought.

He collapsed halfway through, hands pressed to his ears and eyes shut against the chaos around him. His mind was full of the faces of Elves, but not the Elves here. He saw Telerin faces, terrified, wide eyes and tangled, bloodstained silver hair. There was another face too, when he turned back and opened his eyes, this one no figment of confused memory: Maitimo. The eldest son of Fėanįro's brow was creased with pain and his lips were pursed, pressed into a thin, pale line. That was when Macalaurė once more found grounding in the present and cried out in fear and confusion, dropping his torch and fleeing from the smoke and tongues of fire.

Hours later when he woke from sleep filled with turmoil and nightmares so horrific that he screamed in his sleep, he found himself in one of their tents. He washed in a basin of icy water standing by the bed and dressed in a clean robe that someone had left for him, coming out to find his father or preferably Maitimo. Father stood on the edge of camp, eyes narrowed and shoulders tense, his strained posture indicating that for now, others were to respect his space and keep their distance. Macalaurė watched his father for some minutes, taking in the stiff back and bowed head, thick ebony curls for once unbrushed and unbraided, and realised that for some reason, Fėanįro was labouring under a burden of profound despair and anger.

"Our youngest brother was on one of those ships," a quiet voice said. Macalaurė turned, looking up at Maitimo. The eldest son of Fėanįro wore no expression and his voice was flat, devoid of inflection. "His body now rests among charred wreckage beneath the sea."

Macalaurė's hand came up to cover his mouth and then he turned away, dashing off to be sick with horror at the consequences of his unthinking actions. "We did that…" he murmured when he returned, fingers clenching and unclenching with unconscious restlessness.

"No," Maitimo replied, his voice no less even before but a frown creasing his forehead. "I did not. I stood aside; I wanted no part in it."

A heavy sigh came from Macalaurė as he looked up at his brother, his insides aching with shame and guilt. "I wish I had stopped to think. I wish I showed your strength." Returning to the tent, he started to go through the sacks and chests placed inside, pulling out a few changes of clothes, some small personal items and a few basic necessities. "I suppose this is the strongest thing I can do now…" He stopped, meeting Maitimo's eyes sadly. "I know you must hate me now; I hate myself enough, at least. But I need to ask you one last favour. Tell my brothers - and our father - that I love them, in spite of this."

"Where are you going?" Maitimo challenged. His tone told nothing of whether he approved or not.

"I…I do not know," Macalaurė replied after a long pause, the question having interrupted his train of thought and thrown him somewhat. "Just away from here. I have already hurt you enough." He thought of his youngest brother, auburn hair framing a warm smile and quick, intelligent eyes, his selfless dedication to his twin and the way they could each coax laughter from the other, no matter how gloomy their moods. Now the elder Ambarussa would be alone - without his brother he would be like half a person. "I will not have a part in destroying our house any further," Macalaurė concluded. He realised this was probably the most decisive he could ever remember being, but it was the only decision his conscience would permit.

"No," Maitimo replied quietly, expression unchanged - except that the corners of his eyes had softened slightly, making him appear less accusatory.

"Brother, I want no more deaths on my conscience."

Maitimo closed his eyes, his eyelashes dark with moisture, and the cool expression finally faded to one of pain and anguish. He held Macalaurė tightly, shuddering slightly. "I fear it is too late for that now, little Fey One. The choice is no longer ours to make; we forfeited it from the moment we took the Oath."

"This has already gone too far," Macalaurė argued. "We are better off submitting to Eru's judgement now, no matter how harsh it may prove, rather than doing more damage."

"You are right," Maitimo finally agree with a soft sigh. He spoke so quietly, voice heavy with resignation, that Macalaurė had to strain to hear. "And yet…we have come this far already. We may as well take it to the end - perhaps we may earn ourselves some trace of redemption if we manage to break Morgoth's power in the process of retrieving the Silmarilli. And perhaps once we have regained them, Father might agree to give them to the Valar, as they should be." The note of uncertainty and scepticism in his voice confirmed what Macalaurė suspected - Maitimo desperately wanted to believe this, but the reasonable part of him knew it was no more than wishful thinking.

"No, I am leaving…" Macalaurė repeated.

The strength returned to Maitimo's tone. "No, little fey one. You cannot… The Oath is too strong - if you try to break away, it will call you back, over and over." He took his brother's hands, squeezing them. "At least with your family you will still find comfort and love."

"So you do still love me?" Macalaurė was genuinely surprised - after his brother's earlier coldness and evident pain, he had been ready to believe that any affection Maitimo once held for him was now thoroughly lost.

"Of course I do." Maitimo smiled, sadly but warmly, and kissed his brother lightly on the lips. Then his smile disappeared as his expression grew serious once again. "What you - all of you - did last night…it will take me a long time to forgive, if I ever manage at all. But I suspect it will take you longer still. And still, it does not change the fact that you are my dearest and closest brother, and your kisses are the sweetest I have ever known." He shared one such kiss with Macalaurė now, longer than the peck of a few moments before and oddly intense. Then he continued, "Stay here. Stay with us. When the Oath eats at our hearts and minds and wills, at least then we will both have somewhere to turn…"

Macalaurė stood for a long time, enveloped in his brother's tight embrace, before quietly pulling away and turning his travelling sack out over the low, uncomfortable cot on which he had woken. "If our fate truly holds nothing but despair, death and misery, I would sooner not face it alone."

Maitimo's hand, heavy and warm, came to rest on his shoulder. "Neither would I."