Even with Thranduil’s many helpful directions, the beach didn’t take nearly as long as the basin had, something Bard didn’t let on that he was thankful for. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the beach, it was just a, strange, place, he supposed. Yes, strange would be the best word to describe it. Reality was so obviously bent there, even more so than the rest of the island, when one could see out to the edges. Looking from his feet up to the horizon line and then to the sky’s zenith, he almost got vertigo from the unnatural change. Rocks, pebbly and dark, slowly shrinking down to sand as they got further out, finally fading into black at some unknown edge, with only the distant specs of stars to mark the change. Further up and the stars—thick at first—became sparser, turning into the light sky of the dream, whatever time of day it was showing at the moment. Ignoring the three lower quarters of his vision at the horizon line, he could almost make the mistake of thinking he’d look down and find himself back in Laketown or Dale, watching the sky to guess the time as he went about his day.
Still, while he was glad to move on from the beach and that unsettling horizon for now, there was always more to do, and another two months passed before he and Thranduil moved to the strip of prairie outside the basin. He was able to see more of the dead forest there, but Thranduil subtly distracted him every time his attention became too focused.
It might’ve been irritating if there wasn’t so much to be done on the prairie, but as it was he would just smile knowingly and go with the prodding. When he noticed, that was. Thranduil was very good at being subtle, and oftentimes he’d only make the connection later on, if he did at all. It was easy to be distracted. The drought had killed all of the plants, and the inconsistent wind had pulled the weaker ones from the ground, shaping the stronger ones and the ground around them. The ground itself must’ve at one point been soil, and while Bard was determined to force it back, it was even harder than the stuff he’d found in the basin. Turning it was a thankless job, and night after night was devoted to it.
He might’ve temporarily given up or moved on if it weren’t for Thranduil. The other still didn’t physically help, but their conversation let Bard relax into the work, ignoring how hard it was for the enjoyment of talking with his friend. They’re already spoken so much, yet there was always more to add. From the uncertainties involved in ruling to the varied relationships with their children, and then to the vulnerabilities and downsides of immortality.
Bard had already known how much Thranduil loved his children, but though their conversations he also learned that Thranduil no longer knew how to speak with them since he’d unintentionally distanced himself with their mothers passing. How two of them had left Mirkwood—though Thranduil always called it Greenwood—altogether, moving to live among other elves Thranduil only knew by name. When Legolas left after the battle, Thranduil had been crushed, far more than he’d let on in their earlier conversations around children. He’d let him go because he didn’t know how to ask his youngest to stay, and didn’t think it was fair to do so besides. He worried and feared for all his children, out there in a world that was slowly growing darker and less fit for the immortal elves with memories far better than could be considered healthy. The amount of death Thranduil had seen was stunning, and Bard realized just how little though he’d given to the ramifications of being immortal. Of living on while all others died around you. Unfeeling elven king indeed. How jaded one must be to have experienced all that Thranduil had, and yet how caring to still be impacted by it.
In return Bard offered what solace he could, and shared his own experiences with his children. He wasn’t sure how well he did, but Thranduil seemed to appreciate Bard’s attempts, welcoming hearing about the man’s own troubles.
Bard started as haltingly as Thranduil had in his thoughts, but soon he too was divulging the worries that followed him, his own thoughts and troubles, speaking of cold nights in Laketown, wanting to do his best by his children but finding it so hard in a town where the Master hated him and the people therefore shunned him for fear of the man. Where the only job he could get where he had even a measure of freedom was ferrying barrels from the elven kingdom, and even then the Master often stuck his unwelcome fingers into Bard’s business. Of feeling like he was failing his children, even now that doors were opened for them, by simply not knowing what was and was not acceptable. What was concern and when did it become smothering? He knew he wasn’t capable of viewing his children as subjects, and had no desire to do so, but how was he supposed to view subjects anyway? Was he doing well in the compromise he’d found, of appeasing as many as he could while still doing the right thing?
Though Thranduil could rarely offer a solution to Bard’s problems with his children, he returned the listening acceptance Bard had given him, and seemed almost eager, in his own way, to help with Bard’s worries as a king.
Much of Thranduil’s advice was understandable and well thought out, and more and more Bard had to remind himself that this was not real. That the Thranduil of his mind was exactly that, a made up figment with the appearance and voice of the elven king, rather than the actual knowledgeable ruler of Mirkwood; Greenwood, Thranduil insisted. Still, as time progressed, soon it no longer mattered that the elf was not real. The man would go to work for the day, would sit through meetings, write delegations, appear among the people, and do personal business, and then at night he would go and speak with the elf who was becoming something a little more than his best friend.
It was an unmentioned tradition that Bard would arrive at the island first, with Thranduil arriving relatively soon afterwards. The first time after he started visiting regularly that Thranduil hadn’t shown up at all Bard had found himself anxious, convinced that he had lost his friend. Every time his worries were proven unfounded, and his friend would reappear, whether it was the night after, or the one even after that. Thranduil wouldn’t mention anything of his disappearance, but would sit Bard down next to him and the two would rest in silence, enjoying the comfort of closeness and the light touch of their arms pressed together. Unwilling to jeopardize anything and accidently send Thranduil away for good, Bard never made allusion to it either, or even thought of anything strange in his appearances beyond the times he saw his friend again.
Never thought of it, that was, until the first time he was there before Bard.
It was an otherwise normal night, only set apart because Bard had finished all he wished to do on the prairie the night before and was going to start on the dead forest the next. He would’ve been finished earlier, but Thranduil had convinced him to dig something of a trench between the prairie and the forest, with empty dirt for a meter to either side of it. When Bard figured out how to get water into the dream—though for some reason he was sure Thranduil knew how—the trench would fill and could be used to divert the flow of liquid from one side of the island to the other. He wasn’t exactly sure how it’d work, Thranduil never explained beyond a few pointed comments, but he trusted his friend enough to do it.
Bard hadn’t been thinking too heavily about the dream before he’d gone to sleep, far more focused on the waking world. It was two days before the one year anniversary of Smaug’s death, and almost everyone would be coming to meet for a celebration and political meeting in Dale. The elves from Mirkwood, dwarves from Erebor, and men from Dale, all meeting in the far more neutral and geographically central Dale to discuss the trade and diplomatic agreements between the three kingdoms under the guise of a celebration for the people. Well, it wasn’t completely a guise, but still.
That very morning a late shipment of supplies for the celebration had come in from a nearby newly set-up trading outpost, and while Bard still didn’t actually understand what had gone wrong, he’d needed to be there to calm down the yelling and fussing merchants and buyers. Afterwards he’d been swept up by his tailor—his tailor, a personal tailor, what was his life—to try on new ceremonial clothes. Then Tilda, currently apprenticing under said tailor, had wanted his attention on her newest set of clothing designs. Always happy to spend time with any of his children, Bard had quickly lost the rest of the day there, eventually sending them both to bed when he’d glanced out the window and noticed how dark it had become.
So while Bard was later than usual, he’d been so before and still Thranduil had arrived even later. With this past precedence, he had not been expecting to see the elf already present. Not that he’d been expecting much of anything, thinking perhaps to take the night off to rest, exchange a couple stories with Thranduil and muse about the coming event.
Instead, opening his eyes to the dreamscape, he was faced with Thranduil’s back, his friend motionless as he stared out at the dead forest, and the orange glow that lit it from within.