The quays of Alqualondë are quiet in the early hours of the morning. The mariners put out to sea just before dawn, and it's not yet time for the merchants of the open-air harbour markets to uncover their stalls and set out their offerings. Though Ecthelion hasn't been to the port since he was a youth following his harbour-master grandfather from ship to ship, his eyes are focussed on one thing only: the vessel directly in front of him, its sails drawn up and its crested flag rippling in the breeze.
Glorfindel, walking beside him with his cloak folded over one arm, reaches out and laces their fingers together; only the tightness with which he holds Ecthelion's hand belies the importance of his coming departure. When they reach the gangway, Glorfindel turns toward him. It is Ecthelion, though, who breaks the silence.
"Be safe," he says.
Glorfindel nods, then raises their linked hands and rests them over his heart. Words would be small reassurance, and they've already said their goodbyes. He steps onto the gangway before releasing Ecthelion's hand, and a moment later disappears belowdecks.
Ecthelion waits on the pier until the ship, silhouetted against the still-rising sun, clears port and unfurls its sails. He does not stay to watch it fade, eastward, into the hovering mist.
* * *
They are blessed with clear skies along the road to the shore. When darkness falls on the first night, Glorfindel sings, softly, as if to himself. Old songs, ones Ecthelion remembers from Nevrast, and before that from the Ice, from the nights when the wind wasn't strong enough to tear the breath from their mouths. Singing had not been permitted on that first swift, silent journey to hidden Gondolin.
The second night, Ecthelion accompanies Glorfindel with his flute, and continues to play, at Glorfindel's request, when his voice falters. He sets the flute aside only when Glorfindel is sleeping, and lies awake for a long time beside him, the stars shining bright overhead.
By the next night the air smells of sea-salt, and Alqualondë's lamps are a shimmering blur on the horizon. Ecthelion lies with his head on Glorfindel's chest, their limbs entwined under a single cloak and the rest of their clothing on the grass nearby.
"I should have left some extra blankets," Glorfindel murmurs into his hair, "to make sure you're warm at night."
"It's not the chill in my bed that I fear," says Ecthelion, and listens to the beating of Glorfindel's heart.
* * *
"I've sent the letter to my parents," Glorfindel says, pulling the curtains closed and sending the room – with its white-draped furniture and storage crates neatly stacked in corners – into near-darkness. The rest of his house has been similarly set in order, and already the air feels still and silent around them. "It's not enough," he continues, "but it's the best I can do."
"I know you would have preferred to see them," says Ecthelion. He opens the front door; all that remains is to lock up then return to his own home for the night, with Glorfindel, before taking the road in the morning.
"They'll be upset, and I can't blame them," Glorfindel says, key in hand. "Talk to them," he says, as he steps outside. "Help them understand."
Ecthelion nods, but a part of him is still unsure that he even truly understands Glorfindel's desire to leave peace behind in favour of conflict and uncertainty. Unquiets of the mind, though, those he does understand, and perhaps too well.
"Promise me," Ecthelion finds himself saying, "that when you return, you'll do it by sea and not by way of Mandos."
Glorfindel is quiet, for a moment, and then replies, gently, "I can make no such promise."
Ecthelion smiles. "I know."
* * *
Ecthelion is not reading – indeed, is not even glancing at – the book open on his lap. Instead, his thoughts have drifted back to a conversation several days ago, one that had started out as an argument and calmed into an honest discussion, or perhaps debate, that had lasted well into the evening. In the end it had not entirely been Glorfindel's words – though they had been spoken with quiet conviction – but Ecthelion's knowledge that he, however spontaneous and impatient, was never rash, that had swayed him and convinced him that Glorfindel was only doing what he felt he must.
He waits today, here in his home, while Glorfindel stands in front of the Valar with an almost-unheard-of plea to return to Middle-earth – or what remains of it. So much of what they knew has been lost to the sea.
Ecthelion rises, abruptly, at the sound of footsteps outside the door. Glorfindel enters, and shuts the door behind him before raising his head. He does not speak; he does not have to. There are words enough, in his eyes.
"When do you leave?" Ecthelion asks, after a slow, steadying breath.
Glorfindel's response is to cross the room in three long strides, wrapping Ecthelion in a crushing embrace. No matter the answer, Ecthelion knows, it will not be time enough.
* * *
Though the sun has set the stars are still hidden; even the moon is nothing more than a dull glow through the clouds that had drifted in mid-evening. The scent of carnations from Ecthelion's garden floats on a light, cool breeze. Glorfindel, on the bench beside him, tilts his head back and closes his eyes.
"We should talk," he says.
It is not entirely unexpected. For months, now, Ecthelion has been noticing a vague and uncharacteristic unease, in Glorfindel. Not something that can be discerned in his words or seen in his behaviour, but a feeling, something unsettled that Ecthelion can sense at certain quiet moments. It did not abate, as Ecthelion had hoped, during Glorfindel's recent visit with cousins a day's ride to the south.
"I've been thinking," Glorfindel begins, "about something you said, once, on an unescorted ride outside the city when such things were still permitted."
"Something I said?"
Glorfindel nods, but waits a long moment before continuing. "Preservation is not aid." His smile is brief, and strained. "I remember that. I remember your frustration, on the rare occasion it showed."
Ecthelion's brow furrows. His memory is as clear as Glorfindel's; he recalls, too well, being ill-at-ease with the idea that the High King of the Noldor and the rest of his people lived with the threat and shadow of Morgoth over them, while Gondolin was safe, preserved within its walls. Their isolation had been troubling, to him, but those had been thoughts best left unvoiced within earshot of Turgon.
Ecthelion slides an arm around Glorfindel's shoulders, and wonders why he speaks of this, now.
"At the time," Glorfindel says, leaning into the touch, "I thought you were looking at it from the wrong angle. But now... I think I understand." He pauses to take a long, deep breath. "I feel like that here, Ecthelion. Like I should not be here, protected and at peace, when there is still so much conflict on other shores."
Ecthelion's time in the Halls had soothed any lingering guilt, and brought him to a better understanding of his part in the Song. It is hard for him to imagine that resolution being incomplete, or temporary, especially for one as strong-willed as Glorfindel. In the moment it takes for him to gather his thoughts and put words to them, Glorfindel has already spoken.
"I feel like I should still be able to offer what aid I can."
"Glorfindel," Ecthelion says, and shifts, then, so he can look into his eyes. "You spent your life offering aid. You died fighting for our people's lives." He hadn't seen Glorfindel fall, nor had they discussed it since their release, but one of the woven tapestries in the Halls had showed him all he needed to know.
"I know," says Glorfindel, turning his face to the eastern sky. "But perhaps that is, somehow, not quite enough."