(I) A birthday present for AzureSkye23 - my dear friend, my unfailing source of inspiration, and my indispensable co-conspirator. Here's the wacky idea we tossed around in the fall - hope you enjoy!
(II) This story is compliant with my and Skye's Postliminium verse, in which Celebrimbor is aware of Sauron's identity, but keeps him around because - long story short - they both have Issues.
(III) This story adheres to the particular Second Age timeline in which Galadriel departs Eregion between S.A. 1350 and 1400, after the Gwaith-i-Mírdain have seized political power at Sauron's urging, leaving Celebrimbor lord of the realm. (See 'The History of Galadriel and Celeborn' in Unfinished Tales, where it's one of several versions of events.)
(IV) The title is taken from Gimli's song in 'A Journey in the Dark,' the fourth verse.
Elrond stirs sugar into his tea, looking across the low table to Celebrimbor and the Maia with whom the Fëanorian is sharing a couch.
"So, cousin, for Annatar's benefit," Celebrimbor is saying, while Annatar himself looks on warily,"to what extent are we actually related?"
Elrond smirks. "To what extent do you count forced adoption?"
Celebrimbor raises his cup in a sort of mock toast. He laughs. "Fascinating terminology."
Elrond's smile grows. "Well, if you like the act too, it makes us first cousins-"
"Hold on, I wouldn't say I like the act-"
"Very well," says Elrond, putting down his teaspoon, "if you find my fostering illegitimate, we're-if I've calculated correctly-fourth cousins, twice removed."
"'Fourth cousins, twice removed,'" Celebrimbor parrots, mock-musing. "Disappointing. Does that even count as related?"
"Try as you may, Tyelpë," Elrond says, matching him with mock-cajoling, "you're not getting out of this family that easy."
Celebrimbor snorts. "Trust me, I know." His lips twitch as he blows a curl of steam off of his teacup.
Next to him, the Maia is all faintly shimmering aura and sharp edges. Squirming a bit in his seat, he peers keenly down into his own mug, as if waiting for the loose leaves to line up and tell him the mysteries of the universe. Who knows, maybe it works that way for his kind-especially one who comes from the East.
"First sign he's a liar, whoever this Annatar is," Ereinion had said, two centuries back, and flung aside the missive. "He says he's from Aman, yet he's sent an Easterling for an emissary. There are only two things brewing that way, Elrond: war and Shadow."
"I know." Elrond had folded his hands behind his back. "Nothing about this adds up."
"I don't like it." Ereinion had pursed his lips and drummed his fingers against the desk. "Show the Man out, won't you?"
Elrond had shown the Man out, and hoped to hear no more of Annatar. So when the cross-realm Noldorin gossip mill had finally cranked out the word about Tyelpë's new resident Aulendil, Lindon had raised its hackles, and-if not broken-certainly stiffened diplomatic relations.
For two centuries, nothing untoward had surfaced.
"Galadriel must be handling it," Ereinion had said, with something almost like confidence, whenever the subject had arisen. "It would take more than a divine mandate and some shiny objects to break down her guard…" With the unspoken caveat: '...whatever in Arda Tyelpë may have gotten himself into.'
But then a month ago, it hadn't been the gossip mill but a messenger from Galadriel herself that brought the news: "I have been obliged to take an indefinite leave of absence from Eregion."
Ereinion had snorted. "Aren't we just the queen of euphemism? She could have just said, 'Tyelpë and his, ah, associate kicked me out."
Elrond had folded his arms. "Does she strike you as the sort who would accept a coup as such?"
Ereinion had snorted again, then folded the letter and after a moment, looked back up at Elrond. "Go check it out for me."
For a guy nicknamed Starlight, it was not the brightest idea.
"Don't you think they might be a bit hostile to-"
"Nonsense. Tyelpë wouldn't turn you away. You… could be considered his closest living relative."
"Sure, if you close one eye, discount his repudiation, ignore my dubious adoption, and gouge out the other eye so you're incapacitated and can't make the trip to Eregion."
Ereinion had sighed. "Come on. He'll be delighted to see you."
So a fortnight, several late spring downpours, and a misbegotten attempt to disarm him at the gates of Ost-in-Edhil later, here Elrond is, drinking tea with his fake cousin and the twitchy incarnate Power at his elbow.
Ereinion called it. Celebrimbor seems delighted to see him.
The Maia perched next to his first-cousin-by-abduction, however, is decidedly less so. Well, Elrond thinks so. Eönwë is the limit of his own exposure to the Maiar, and Eönwë's body language habits probably aren't representative of the whole order, but still. There's something unnatural about his eyes (they're cat-like, pupils too small in this lighting). He also doesn't take them off Elrond.
"Don't get me wrong, Elrond. This is the best sort of surprise," Celebrimbor is saying. The ridiculous amount of silver bracelets on his wrist clanks together distractingly as he gestures with his empty hand. "But after two hundred years, I have to wonder…" Elrond bites his lip and keeps his eyes resolutely off of Annatar, mentally rehearsing his litany of cover stories. "Were you avoiding Artanis?"
Elrond could laugh with relief. He does. "No," he says, "certainly not. I- we just-"
"So what kept you away?" Celebrimbor persists. "I'm only a month's journey up the road."
"Coincidentally, the road happens to go both ways." Elrond winks to soften what might have otherwise come out a bit more sharply than intended.
Celebrimbor's gaze still darkens, however. His hand drifts to Annatar's shoulder. "In my defense," he says, tone still light "Gil's borders aren't exactly the most open these days."
Elrond glances between the two of them. "What, you can't travel alone?"
"Oh, I could. I just- I hate to go where my friends aren't welcome." Celebrimbor brushes something off Annatar's collar, then smiles amicably back at Elrond.
"But you still let me in here," Elrond says slowly.
"I mean, obviously we don't have the same border policy that you do." Celebrimbor lowers his hand and beams.
"Obviously," Elrond echoes. He looks Annatar up and down, holding the Maia's gaze for a moment.
Annatar's posture stiffens, and he leans forward, like that species of lizard Maglor mentioned once-the one with the giant frill around its head, usually laying limp, but raised like a great, round sail whenever the poor tiny creature is trying to look as inedible as possible.
Annatar, however, looks neither poor nor tiny. On the ghastly side of thin and pale, sure. And on the ghastly side of attractive too, for all that's even possible. From what Elrond knows of the Maiar (of his great-grandmother from tales, or of Eönwë firsthand) he could probably lay Elrond on his back without lifting a bejeweled hand from his pointy knees. But here he is, posing like prey.
Fine, then. Elrond can play predator. He stretches his lips into a diplomatic grin.
"You've been quiet, Annatar," he says, "for all you've been just as gracious as Tyelpë in admitting me."
Annatar seems to shrink before Elrond's eyes upon being addressed. He swallows, then smiles back, expression as measured as Elrond's. "I'd hate to interrupt two kinsmen's conversation after such a long silence between them…" He trails off, then looks away from Elrond with a theatrical air. "...especially when I may or may not be the cause of it, you know."
"In that case I do hope I'm not making you uncomfortable." Elrond takes a sip of his tea. It's lukewarm now, and he swallows it with a grimace. "It was nothing personal, regarding your entreaties," he lies. "We just have certain policies left over from Beleriand regarding strangers in the realm."
"Adapted from Doriath's policies, I presume?" Annatar returns. There's a barely detectable terseness running under and through the words.
"Or Turgon's in Gondolin," says Celebrimbor. "Possibly Finrod's?"
Elrond quirks an eyebrow. "Let's just say we learned from a long, long, long family history of laughably bad choices."
"So you're saying An and I haven't?" Celebrimbor laughs and jostles Annatar's elbow. Annatar smiles weakly.
"No no, certainly not," Elrond assures him. More lies. Maybe he's alright at this espionage thing. "You've perhaps learned some of the opposite lessons," he goes on, "what with your opening to Hadhodhrond and the Avari. Besides, the city's gorgeous. What you've done with the architecture- and the infrastructure- what I saw on the walk here alone was remarkable."
That much is true: the city is gorgeous, all delicate spires, airy avenues, and a few bustling canals. It's a flourishing metropolis nestled in the Mountains' arms, a symbol of new life for the Noldor after the horrors of the past Age. (The only echo of Beleriand is the skeleton-white color of its stones.)
"It's all to Annatar's credit," Celebrimbor says, with an affectionate glance at the creature. "We couldn't have managed any of this without his expertise."
"You flatter me, Tyelpë," Annatar laughs, glancing at his lap, but he can hardly hide a bit of preening.
Celebrimbor rolls his eyes with the same fond air. "I'm sure it isn't too late for him to do the same in Lindon…"
"No, thank you."
Elrond and Annatar say it at once-Elrond lightly, Annatar with a strange fervency.
Celebrimbor chuckles. "Alright, alright." He cuts his eyes at Annatar. "Just trying to get us a visit to the Sea."
The Maia pales further, creating the approximate effect of bleaching paper. "You know I'm not all that fond-" he starts.
Celebrimbor snorts. "I'm teasing you. Smile a little. You've been tense since Elrond arrived."
Somehow, Elrond is relieved Celebrimbor's noticed. Annatar, then, mustn't normally be this unnerving a personality (that'd be torture to live with). Alternatively, it also means Celebrimbor most likely isn't under some kind of blinding enchantment. Elrond mentally notes this for Ereinion.
"Have I been?" Annatar's asking, head angled toward Celebrimbor, blinking sun-gold eyes a bit too innocently.
Elrond buts in, predator again, all grinning teeth. "That's why I was concerned I was making you uncomfortable, Master Aulendil."
"Not at all," Annatar says, with a forced kind of smoothness. "You merely...look like someone I used to know." Annatar scratches his neck almost idly, as if there's a loose string under his high collar. Celebrimbor's eyes follow his hand, and he nods once, slowly, as if he knows about the string and wishes he could cut it out.
"A friend?" Elrond says, though that doesn't appear to be the case. He wishes his tea were still warm so he could sip it and lean back casually. As it is, he tilts his head to one side, and tries not to look interested.
The smile, to Annatar's credit, doesn't leave his face. "Not exactly. Just an...acquaintance."
Celebrimbor is frowning into his own cold tea.
"Of yours too, Tyelpë?" Elrond prods.
"Ah," Celebrimbor starts, "in Nargothrond...ah, well...no?"
Elrond cuts him off. "Because the main two people I've been told I resemble are my brother-" He pauses. "-and my grandmother."
A beat. Celebrimbor and Annatar cut their eyes at each other. And then burst out laughing simultaneously, They're a pair of craftsmen, and the laugh is neatly manufactured: little strings of packaged guffaws.
They go on like this for half a minute while Elrond stares. And then, at last, both of them at once, as the laughs trail off: "Ha, ha, ha. No."
"Lúthien?" says Celebrimbor, smirking. "You flatter yourself, cousin."
Elrond flushes to his ears. "Well um, I- they always - ah- I can't help what I've been told."
Both Annatar and Celebrimbor are grinning cheekily now.
"In your defense, it was clearly very good for your sense of self-worth, little cousin." Celebrimbor's eyebrows shoot up, and his lips twitch as he leans across the table to pat Elrond on the arm in teasing patronization.
Elrond swats at his hand. "In my own defense, my sense of self-worth needs all the help it can get." He gives a mock-dignified sniff.
Celebrimbor settles back into the couch. "Besides," he says, still all smiles, "where would Annatar have possibly seen her?"
"I…" Elrond stammers for a moment, before a reply clicks together. Oh, Ereinion would be proud of this one. "I don't know," he says, with a shrug to accent his of course very natural and conversational tone, "perhaps in Mandos while her fëa was there, or on one of Vaire's tapestries since he did"-just the slightest emphasis-"spend the last Age in Aman…"
Annatar looks more comfortable now. "Lord Elrond," he says, playfully lifting an eyebrow, "your sense of self-worth is trying too hard. When would I have been visiting the Halls? I was- am a Maia of Aulë." Funny slip. (Elrond notes it.) Annatar coughs; so does Celebrimbor.
"Speaking of Aulë," says the Fëanorian quickly, rising, "why don't we get up and go for a tour of the workshops?"
And leave this topic of conversation here in the tearoom, hmm? Elrond wishes he'd brought a notebook, if jotting oddities down in it wouldn't be so conspicuous. He gets to his feet.
Annatar turns to Celebrimbor, standing also. He narrows his eyes. "Which workshops?"
"Workshops? Did I say workshops?" says Celebrimbor, and puts his hand to his forehead. "I meant observatories! Of course. Would you care to see our meteorological technology, Elrond? It's quite impressive."
Elrond keeps his face practicedly blank. "I would love to," he says. "Lead the way."
Annatar and Celebrimbor steal a glance at one another as the three exit the room-and the house-through a side door. Outside, the late afternoon sun is bright. Elrond blinks, adjusting, and shades his eyes with his hand as he falls in step beside Celebrimbor.
"You'll love it, Master Star-dome," the Fëanorian is saying. "We've got anemometers to measure wind speeds, several barometers-and you should see the telescopes. We'll stay through the evening to have a look at the stars."
Elrond nods along. Around him, the city gleams bone-white.