The Secret Language Brother
He used to sneak into the nursery at night, creep to Curufin’s cradle, and pet Curufin’s tiny fingers until Curufin’s big eyes blinked open. With those dawn-grey eyes watching him, Caranthir would tell Baby Curufin tales of the adventures he had planned for them. He made sure Baby Curufin knew he’d never tease him for being littler or leave him behind when he couldn’t keep up. Caranthir would always wait, because they were going to be best friends and have their own language of secret signals like his older brothers’ did.
Caranthir had decided Curufin would be his favorite brother. He was tired of having no one to play with. He wanted so badly to play big-boy games with Celegorm and Maglor, the ones even Maedhros joined in, but they were always pushing him away, telling him he was a baby. Maedhros never pushed him away, but Maedhros was too old to be a best friend. Celegorm and Maglor would use their secret-language of hands to signal each other at meal table, plotting how they’d give Caranthir the slip, and no matter how tight Caranthir stuck to their sides, they always found a way to sneak off and leave him.
Caranthir had his own secret-language brother now. He grinned as he whispered to Baby Curufin about their coming, glorious friendship.
They became friends as Caranthir knew they would be, best friends. They didn’t do everything together or have everything in common, but neither did his older brothers, so Caranthir supposed that was all right. They both liked books, though Curufin’s favorites were Father’s languages books and Caranthir’s were anything with numbers in them, and those puzzle ones Celegorm teased him for carrying around even to visit the horses (Celegorm’s favorite adventure; he couldn’t understand why anyone could possibly get bored with petting horses).
When Curufin started begging Father to go to the forge with him a whole ten years before Maedhros had, everyone said Curufin would be a great smith. Caranthir spent days sulking over this development and snapping at anyone who came too near.
All the brothers had learned their parents’ craft, but Caranthir had no true talent with either the chisel or hammer and didn’t want to lose Curufin to the forge. After a time of disappointment, he conceded smith-work made Curufin happy, and decided not to hold it against his best friend. They became inseparable again. Nothing could unstick Curufin from his side. It was Caranthir and Curufin against the world.
The day came when everything fell apart. They’d been stuck in Tirion until the twins grew strong enough to survive life in the wilderness, but now Father had taken them into the wilds, the Southern jungles this time.
They’d packed light. Curufin and Caranthir had to leave some favorite books on the shelves, Maglor hadn’t been able to lug his great bear-skin drum along, Celegorm had to set the fox cubs he’d been raising under his bed free, and Maedhros couldn’t bring those stuffy tomes he’d been studying about Quendi family structures before the Great Journey.
Curufin and Caranthir had never been South, so it was a grand adventure the further from civilization they drew. The day everything unraveled, they had prepared to slip off into the brush together, sickles in hand to hack a path. But they knew better than to try and sneak-off without alerting their mother to their plans.
Curufin rounded up water-skins while Caranthir slipped down the line of the caravan to Mother’s horse. She walked beside the big grey mare with the twins perched on its back, double heads of red swaying in perfect sync. Sometimes the twins were a bit scary with how perfectly attuned they were to each other.
Caranthir hadn’t bothered listening to the fables about twins until his brothers were born. By now he was sick to death of hearing both the superstitions against them and those who looked at the twins with something akin to worship. Twins were said to be one fëa split in two bodies; two halves of a whole.
“Mother.” His mother turned from readjusting Amras’ leg in the stirrup as he kept wiggling his foot out, wanting the freedom of careless leg-swinging. “Curufin and I are going exploring.” He kept it simple, to the point.
It was Maglor and Maedhros who played word-games with Father, dancing around with their words and getting disgustingly excited when a particularly refined answer was crafted. Caranthir jumped at the chance to solve a problem of logic, or better yet one of measurement or number play his father cooked up from him, but left the fancy word-games to his elder brothers.
“Be back with the caravan before dark, and don’t stray outside calling range.” She gave the instruction with only half her attention to spare as Amras tried to be sneakier about getting his foot free.
Caranthir wasn’t of a mind to argue for more freedom. The caravan made such a commotion with all the hacking the Elves made through the tangle of jungle it wouldn’t be hard to keep within Mother’s perimeters.
“I said no, Amras!”
Mother’s sharp reprimand had Amras ducking his head, foot meekly finding its place again. Amrod’s little arms slipped about his brother’s waist, and Amras leaned against his twin’s side, mouth a downturned crescent and slender brows pinched. Amras was both more prone to mischief than Amrod, as well as more likely to take a sharp word to heart.
Mother sighed, tucking strands of hair escaping her bun back behind her ears. She raised a hand to her brow, shading her eyes as she stretched her sight over the approaching cliffs to the east. “If you see any sign of you father, tell him I don’t wish to travel as far as we did yesterday. The young ones were exhausted, and Meril is still recovering from that spider bite.”
Caranthir didn’t bother answering. If he did see his father, he would make sure to say nothing. It was better to let Mother and Father work out their disputes themselves and stay far away when the shouting started. Mother’s request may have seemed innocent, but her voice when she said ‘your father’ had not been. Nothing was innocent anymore.
Caranthir scuttled away. He spotted Curufin loitering in the front of the caravan where Maedhros and Maglor chopped a path with the hardiest of Father’s people. Maedhros had taken his tunic off in the heat, and his freckled shoulders rippled as he sliced his sickle through the undergrowth. Sweat dripped down his brow, but he smiled and laughed as he chatted with one of the stonemason’s sons.
Caranthir caught more than one glance cast Maedhros’ way, some sly, others not able to stop from staring. It wasn’t just that Maedhros was very fine to look at; it was his easiness of manner, the natural charm with which he ensnared love and admiration with a single dazzling smile and genuinely kind word.
Maglor had on a sleeveless tunic and didn’t throw himself into the work as enthusiastically as their elder brother. But Maglor held his own in the line of bushwhackers even without the broadness of shoulder many of the others possessed. What Maglor lacked in physical strength next to these primmest of males, he made up for in company. His voice led the others in one of the traditional Songs of Toil, flowing clear and pure as a mountain brook.
Caranthir slipped through the workers, reaching Malgor’s side as the song swelled like a fruit ripening under golden light. Curufin was already there, water-skins slung over his shoulder, caught up in a conversation with one of the bronze smiths. Caranthir caught Curufin’s eye, and jerked his head towards the forest, wishing to be away. Curufin waved him off, ensnared as always in any discussion hinting at further knowledge to glean.
Caranthir sliced his sickle through some low laying brush, glaring at anyone, everyone. Maglor flipped Caranthir a look, pausing to slip his sickle into his belt and take up a water-skin. “Have you seen Father since breakfast?”
“Maedhros said he was going scouting. I wish he had told Maedhros the intended route. Those cliffs look like they will herd us too far west, but then, Father might want to explore them. He found diamonds in a stream last night. Did you hear?”
Caranthir grunted. He might have.
“But then, asking Father to remember such a little thing as leaving directing is too much to ask, eh?” Maglor tried to share a dimpled smile with him, but Caranthir wasn’t in the mood.
Maglor shrugged at his grumpiness, and lifted the water-skin to his lips. After taking a gulp, he squeezed his eyes shut and poured some of the water into his face. “Ah, that is better,” he combed wet hair back from his forehead.
Caranthir hacked beside Maglor for a time, fueling his impatience into the work. Maglor picked up a song again, but the Elves didn’t jump in this time, content to listen to his peerless voice. Caranthir was thankful for the excuse not to be pressed into conversation with the other Elves. His father’s people were the best of the best, nothing like the simpletons in Tirion, but even their conversation wore on his nerves after a time.
Eventually Curufin pulled himself away and came to walk alongside Caranthir. Caranthir forgave Curufin the brush-off the minute his brother smiled at him.
Curufin slipped an arm through his. “Ready?”
Caranthir’s mouth twitched. He rested the curved blade of his sickle against his shoulder, and followed Curufin into the untamed jungle. His mood had improved enough to smile at Maglor and Maedhros when they called out a farewell.
Tomorrow Caranthir would take his turn helping Mother with the twins, scouting ahead with Father, or working up a sweat with the trail-blazers, but today was Curufin and his to explore and he was jealous for it. Even with the lessons at home, they still had more time to simply enjoy each other’s company there than on their travels. But hectic as tent life on the edges of the world was, he wouldn’t trade these days for all any lazy afternoon spent in one of Tirion’s posh gardens.
They soon discovered where Celegorm had disappeared to. They found him talking to a den of snakes with skins brilliant as jewels. His lips rounded with the strange language Oromë had taught him. He had his puppy at his side, hand idly scratching behind Huan’s ears as he knelt in the think blanket of decomposing leaves.
Celegorm looked up at their coming, teeth flashing white and eager. His eyes looked even greener in this forest of green.
Celegorm displayed the snakling wrapped about his wrist gleefully. “This little one has agreed to return with me. I am going to slip her beneath Mother and Father’s bedroll tonight. Amras will love it.”
Celegorm was forever getting himself into mischief, but always wiggling out again by the power of his pretty eyes and the dimpled, boyish grins he’d been blessed with. Standing side-by-side when those dimples flashed, it was easy to look passed Maglor’s black hair and Celegorm’s fair and note all the lines in their faces that shouted their brotherhood.
As a young man freshly passed his majority, Celegorm was far too old for such childish pranks, but he’d taken them up again with all the relish of an elder brother showing off his tricks for a younger because it made the twins’ laugh. There was too little laughter in their family these days. Sometimes one of Celegorm’s ridiculous shenanigans was all that tugged a smile to Amrod’s quiet mouth.
Curufin and Caranthir were too wise to get tangled up in the prank’s backlash. The cost of a moment’s laughter would all too easily be another round of their parents’ raised voices.
Father would share in the amusement as long as the snake didn’t interrupt a train of inventive thought. Mother used to laugh a great belly-shaking laugh in their youth when Celegorm came home trailing field mice and hiding toads in his pockets. Now she had only a tongue-lashing to reward Celegorm’s efforts with. She was too tired these days to sink her fingers into clay or pick up a chisel. Caranthir wondered sometimes if she would mourn his absence as fiercely as she grieved for the loss of her work.
Curufin and Caranthir left Celegorm to his snake charming. They’d spent years in the Northern wildernesses, but this Southern one of towering trees, rain and more rain, huge bugs, and jewel-colored birds and flowers was like walking the surface of an alien world. They broke through a particularly dense patch of underbrush to reach the waterfall they’d heard crashing beyond.
The sight sucked the air up from their lungs like a sweet kiss. The water fell in a sheet so sheer they could look through it like a shaft of light. Without the huge-leaved trees concealing the Tree Light, it rained gold on the green, green everything. Even the rocks were green, covered in a moss thick enough to serve as a carpet. Curufin turned to him with a grin Caranthir returned, and they started tearing off their clothes in a race to see who could reach the water first.
Caranthir’s feet got tangled in his leggings, so Curufin beat him, jumping into the pool with a whoop, limbs spinning wildly as he soared through the air. Caranthir followed a moment later, skimming a jagged rock by inches to break the pool’s surface with a splash. He found Curufin’s leg in the water and yanked. His brother’s retaliatory kick hit him in the gut, and he had to paddle to the surface for air.
They spent hours leaping off the highest rocks, swinging on the abnormally strong vines, and playing dunking games. The caravan had long passed, but they told each other it would be easy enough to follow the trail it blazed through the forest. They were reluctant to draw such a perfect afternoon to a close.
They stretched out on slabs of mossy rock and let the heat dry their skin. Their bellies pressed into the yielding moss, their heads pillowed in their crossed arms, and faces turned to each other.
While they may not have everything in common, Caranthir could listen to his brother speak for hours. Curufin was like Father. His eyes would glow with excitement, movements intensifying in animation the longer he talked and the deeper he sunk into the wonder of which he spoke.
Caranthir propped his chin on his cupped palm, a little smile on his face as he watched Curufin rise to his elbows in the passion of his speech. Caranthir hadn’t stuck with the art of forging long enough to have a basis for the advanced technique Curufin attempted to share the wonder of, but he liked watching Curufin like this, liked having those intense eyes turned on him when they shone star-bright, and liked the way those cheeks pinked, delicate as the blush of sea-shells, the color splashing the sharp arc of cheekbones.
He watched Curufin: looking at those pale hands punctuating words, and traced the curl of lashes thick as black lace. He wanted to reach over and run his fingers though Curufin’s drying hair that looked silken as the strands of one of Maglor’s songs.
Water droplets slid the curve of Curufin’s spine to pool in the dip just before the swell of his ass. Muscles were forming under Curufin’s skin, the child’s body left behind for a youth’s, and Caranthir wondered what they would feel like shifting beneath his fingers, his lips—
He snapped the thought off. He felt lightheaded, sick. Curufin was his brother. How could he think…how could he want— what was wrong with him?
Curufin’s face titled close, mouth shaping strings of perfect syllables as he articulated his points as neatly as Maedhros. Curufin, his clever, crafty, brilliant brother. His best friend. His beautiful brother who he wanted—
“Is something wrong?” Those innocent, oblivious eyes looked up at him with absolute trust.
“Nothing,” Caranthir climbed to his feet, suddenly ashamed of his nakedness. “I think we should get back, that’s all. They’ll be setting up camp soon, and we’ll have to help with the tent raising.”
Curufin sighed, rolling over and arching his back in a stretch. Caranthir’s mouth went dry, and he quickly turned away to grab his clothing, hastening into his leggings before Curufin could witness his inappropriate reaction to his brother’s naked body.
He tried to keep his eyes averted as Curufin dressed, but they kept slipping over, watching those coltish legs stick themselves into leggings that clung from the moisture lingering on his skin. He bit his lip when Curufin bent over to retrieve his boots before he’d pulled on his tunic.
Curufin stood back up with a toss of his glossy hair from his eyes. “Maglor promised to sing for us tonight, that new one he has been working on for ages and has been so secretive about.”
Caranthir could choke out no more than a grunt.
Curufin perched himself on a rock and started stuffing his feet into his boots. “I thought it was about a girl, but I suppose not if he is going to sing it for Mother and Father. I still think he is mooning over someone. He kept mysteriously disappearing at home.”
Caranthir hummed. There was too much pounding in his head to concentrate on Curufin’s words. He wanted to yank the tunic out of Curufin’s hands and replace the water on his skin with his lips.
How long had this sickness been hiding inside him? How many stray thoughts had he brushed aside that were the first warning tolls? Had he been born crooked? Was this the root of all the flaws in his character others (but never his family) pointed out?
(Must you be so argumentative, Caranthir? Control yourself for once! You’re glaring again. Don’t be ridiculous, of course you can help it, nobody’s face is ‘just made that way.’ Did you hit your cousin? It doesn’t count as an apology if you insult them during the giving! )
“I think it is a Vanya,” Curufin scowled, tying up the lacing on his tunic. “I saw him taking the road to the Mountain once. A Vanya, yuck!” Curufin made a face, expecting Caranthir to return it, but Caranthir couldn’t get his facial muscles to work properly. Curufin frowned. “I suppose it is not that awful. I mean, it is not like he would actually marry one.”
“We should get going.” Caranthir turned away, striding for the path they’d forged.
“Caranthir!” Curufin hurried after him, but Caranthir was the elder and the taller. He out-distanced Curufin easily until his brother broke into a run to catch him, and then he didn’t have an excuse for actually running away.
Curufin grabbed his arm, and Caranthir flinched at the contact, trying desperately not to look down at that flushed face, lips parted for breath, eyes distressed.
“Something is wrong. Tell me!”
Caranthir brushed the hand off, and hated himself all the more for the hurt he planted in those beloved eyes. This was his best friend, there were no secrets between them, or there hadn’t been. Caranthir’s black moods had never lasted long when Curufin sat down beside him and bumped their shoulders together. They shattered with a single smile from Curufin’s mouth.
“Come on,” Curufin rallied. “Stop being a bear and tell me.” He smiled, tentativeness hiding in the folds as Caranthir glared back, burying his terror in a harsh brow and compressed mouth.
He hadn’t been lying when he told that dullard he couldn’t help his frowning face. It really was the way his face was made. His brows were too heavy, mouth too thin, nose too sharp, cheeks too freckled. He looked odd for an Elf, but it wasn’t the lack of beauty that bothered him about his features, it was that everyone kept accusing him of being angry even when he wasn’t! He was angry often enough to know the feeling of a clenching belly and words pressing so hot against his tongue he just had to release them. He resented being accused of emotions he wasn’t feeling. No one but his family ever believed him when he said he wasn’t angry (as if he didn’t know his own mind!), and others’ patronizing words inevitably awoke the very emotion they’d been accusing him of in the first place!
Now he turned the full power of his glare on a person he’d never, never, been angry with. Curufin’s smile faltered. “Caranthir?”
“You’re so pathetic sometimes! I don’t want to babysit an annoying child like you every moment! Why can’t you just leave me alone!” He shoved Curufin with his body as he lurched into motion, needing to get away. He heard Curufin cry out as his lighter frame crashed into the ground.
The universe upheaved inside his head, its backbone splitting open, pulling its guts up with it. He wanted to scream. He wanted to hurt something. He wanted to run back, pick Curufin up, and make him understand how sorry he was. But he wanted to press his mouth into Curufin’s too, wanted to learn what his brother’s body would feel like under his, so he didn’t stop running.
He reached the cluster of tents, but slunk in the tree shadows, not venturing within the light of campfires without his brother with him. The light had long turned silver before Curufin arrived, and Caranthir’s stomach had been cramping for what felt like eternity, eyes raking the darkness for a sign of his brother, fretting over going back to look for him and trying to convince himself Curufin would be fine.
When Curufin finally emerged from the caravan’s beaten path, Caranthir sprang up from his seat on a fallen log. Curufin’s gaze found him in an instant. A war took place there, but desire for his best friend back had Curufin walking towards him.
He wasn’t smiling, but Caranthir knew all he had to do was apologize and Curufin would forgive him. Things could go back to the way they had been. Only they couldn’t, never again, because when Curufin walked through a beam of silver light he looked more beautiful than a Vala to Caranthir. He wanted, he wanted—
He turned his back on Curufin and slapped a tree branch away, marching towards camp. He heard a sucked breath, the sound edging towards wetness. And then Curufin said, ‘Brother,’ and it nearly broke him, nearly pulled him back, nearly unwound his steps until he had Curufin in his arms, soothing away all the hurts. That’s what big brothers did. And that’s what kept him walking away because Curufin was his brother, his baby brother, and what he wanted to do to him wasn’t anything brotherly.
Curufin didn’t find consolation in Celegorm’s company that first night, or for many nights after. He hadn’t learned to bury his heart and strike back when it hurt. He wasn’t yet a creature of revenge and sharp edges. He was still the bright-eyed youth who didn’t understand what he’d done wrong, and so was determined to make Caranthir love him again. But Caranthir never stopped loving him. He loved him too much.
Curufin was eager to be found worthy of love, even back then, and experience hadn’t taught him yet to secret that eagerness away. Caranthir pushed Curufin away again and again, hurting him with words to keep him from getting too close. His cruelty pushed Curufin right into Celegorm’s arms. Caranthir was the first to teach Curufin the pain of abandonment and sowed the first seed of the thorn-tree Curufin became.
Caranthir wanted to hate Celegorm when he saw the two of them together, side-by-side like Curufin and him used to be, but Celegorm was impossible to hate. There had been questions and concerned interventions from Father and Mother and all his elder brothers, but he would not speak of what caused him to drive Curufin away. All their questions hadn’t crept close to the truth, why would they? What he desired was sick and not something normal minds would consider.
A part of him desperately wished his walls would be knocked down and he could collapse into Mother or Father’s laps, vomiting his vileness all over them so they would fix it like he used to believe they could fix anything. But his world fell apart scant weeks before their family did. Already the fights were a near nightly occurrence, and Mother left them there in the wild lands of the South. Her abandonment shattered everything.
The shock of Mother’s voice as she screamed, ‘I’m done with you!’ at Father, the furious tears on her cheeks she scrubbed away as she kissed her boys goodbye and they watched her ride away and leave them, not even Maedhros’ pleas able to sway her, left Caranthir and Curufin’s ruptured relationship a shelved matter, something to be unknotted at a later time when the stress fractures stopped creeping through every facet of their lives.
Or that was what Caranthir thought, and both wanted and cried himself to sleep over. But Father wouldn’t let him push him away. He pursued Caranthir until Caranthir broke and spilled everything, and it felt so good. Father wiped the tears from his cheeks, kissed his brow, and told him he was loved. Father gave him the courage to re-build his friendship with Curufin. It wasn’t the same, he’d wounded Curufin too deeply for trust, but for a time it was enough.
And then it wasn’t, because a part of Caranthir had hoped, secretly, that when Curufin was older they might…that Curufin would look at him and see…but Curufin brought a girl home and told them he was going to marry her. It was never going to be all right again. Caranthir ruined what little friendship Curufin and he had left.
The years passed, and it became as common to see Celegorm and Curufin together as it once had been to see the two of them. Caranthir wondered if Curufin forgot the friendship they once shared. He never could.
Their friendship was wrecked (by his own hand), but he couldn’t destroy his desires so irreversibly. They followed him into the night, into every moment his eyes spent lingering a little too long on Curufin’s face. And they poisoned everything. They made him do things, say things, he couldn’t seem to stop himself from.
He was vicious, lashing out at Curufin, punishing him for not loving him back. Even though he knew Curufin couldn’t force his heart, still he cried out for its return. Curufin threw nasty words back, but not one of them hurt like Curufin’s arm about his wife’s waist or his head bent close to Celegorm in a secret language that Caranthir was barred from, nothing but an outsider looking in.
Story note: I wrote this story originally as a one-shot, but then decided I wanted to flush it out more. So, this first chapter’s pace is more like a one-shot than the later ones.
Chapter warning: underage character experiencing sexual thoughts about another underage character. Caranthir is 17, and Curufin is 14-15.
Character pic: Caranthir
The Secret Language Brother