There wasn’t a considering thought in Bard’s mind as he automatically jumped forward to try and put out the fire, but a hand on his chest brought him to an abrupt halt.
“What are you doing?” Bard demanded in confusion, trying to come up with an idea of how to stop it. The whole forest was on fire at this point, was it even possible? “We have to put it out before it spreads!”
Out of the corner of his eye he caught his friend shaking his head, but it wasn’t until spoke that Bard stopped pushing. “I started it.”
Thranduil started it? The man stared at his companion, beyond confused. Thranduil hated fire. Had lost so much to it, even now wearing the scars from the dragon fire in full view, blind in one eye and permanently disabled. Why would he bring fire here?
As Thranduil so often did, he spoke before Bard could ask, answering his question before it was given voice. “In nature fire is as cleansing as it is destructive. Forest fires have been torching parts of Greenwood for years, sparking from lightning or drought and giving room for new growth.”
“But-” The man cut himself off with a glance towards the red and orange flickers, memories of Smaug rushing through his vision, screaming echoing in his ears. “How are you so calm about this?”
Thranduil sighed, one hand reaching up to hover beside the ruined part of his face before he let it drop. “Immortal recall has always been both a boon and a curse for my people, but time and effort have worked enough on my memories that I can see the differences before me. Dragon fire is an evil thing. Here no such darkness can touch.”
Bard started a little at the mention of dragons, but forced himself relax into Thranduil’s touch, staring out with him at the fire. Houses fell and burning flesh was carried forward on a gust of wind. He shivered. Thranduil may have gotten to a place where the fires of his memories were distinguishable, but for Bard the dragon had attacked only a year previous.
“In order for new growth to sprout, the fire must first burn away the old and dead plants.” Thranduil said softly in the tone of a lecture. “The seeds will fall and spread, and in the space left behind there will be room for the sun to reach the ground, nurturing and growing new seedlings.
His friend trailed off and Bard stood in silence, waiting for him to continue and taking well needed comfort in his closeness in the meantime. “In Greenwood we have not had a fire for many years. It is a, mixed thing, when one lives in and around so many trees. To see them burning down around you, and know that the fire will bring life, but also the possibility of death. Still, while I truly wish it were not so, I almost hope that the lack is a contributor to the darkness that has fallen over the Greenwood. Otherwise the blame would be all my own.”
“Who’d blame you?” Bard blurted out, so taken aback that the fire fled from his mind for the moment as he stared at Thranduil. Sure, he’d heard rumors from people who knew nothing of the king, but he’d never put stock into them, let alone though Thranduil would.
“It isn’t a matter of who. Voiced or not, it was still my doing, or rather my negligence.” Thranduil admitted, closing his eyes and tilting his head back. “I faded Bard. Perhaps not completely, but still enough that my inattention let darkness creep into the Greenwood far quicker than it would have had we attempted to stop it.”
Bard didn’t know nearly enough about what had happened to Greenwood to say whether or not it could’ve been stopped, but, “Faded?”
The other nodded, finally turning to face him, an almost guilty expression painting his face at the admission, speaking as if each word was dragged from him. “You once spoke of elves dying when their love does.” A pause. “While it isn’t completely true, we do fade when we’ve lost all purpose in the world, a state that ends either in death or a journey to the Undying Lands. When my wife died, I thought my time had come and I fell into a depression that can lead to fading. By the time I realized that I was still needed in this world, for my children and kingdom, I had already lost so much. Too much, I thought, to return from.
“I mourned for many years, lost in the grief that plagued me day and night. By the time I opened my eyes again, Greenwood had become Mirkwood, my people’d deteriorated to a shell of what they’d been, and most of my children were gone.” His friend shut his eyes tightly, clenching his jaw. “I do not blame them for leaving, I would not have wished them to stay. I was not the only one who lost someone, and by the time I’d remembered that, it was too late. You know I’ve sent letters, but I still do not know now what they think of me, nor do I know if I wish to find out. I’ve written it, but I don’t know if they understand how much I love them.”
While this was not the first Bard’d heard of Thranduil’s worries over his children, it was the first he’d heard of fading. Focusing on that, he reached out, angling Thranduil’s face towards him so the other would have to meet his eyes.
“Thranduil, this is not your fault. You didn’t bring the darkness. You aren’t the reason Greenwood is sick. Yes, maybe you could’ve stopped things from happening so quickly, but it could’ve gone a lot worse too. Far more elves might’ve died if you’d gone after it. You can’t know either way, and beating yourself up over it isn’t going to change things. All you can do is move on with what you know.” Bard didn’t know enough about what was happening to Greenwood to speak beyond that. Whenever the topic came up it was skirted around and out of respect for his friend Bard had let it go by the wayside. About his children he knew more. “And you’ve spoken enough of your children for me to know you love them. Yes, things have been strained between you, but it isn’t the end. You’re the one always telling me about how long you elves live. You still have time enough to tell them. Writing letters is a start, speaking to them, inviting them back here. You will see them again, and you can fix this. If it helps, I’ll be right beside you, though I know you can do this even on your own.”
Though the look on his friend’s face told Bard Thranduil didn’t fully believe him, he nodded, pulling away from Bard’s grasp and looking back out at the forest again.
“It does help.” He murmured, the gentle admission making Bard feel warm at the amount of trust placed in him.
“This was my wife’s forest.” Thranduil said suddenly, making Bard blink at the change of subject. He’d almost forgotten the burning trees. “Out of all the dreamscape she loved it the most. The trees are mine, but the vines, the sounds, they were hers. All the mosses and many of the flowers. They grew because of her, though I don’t know when they died. With her, or with my negligence afterward. Either way, they’re my memories of her. Were, I suppose, now.
“I’ve thought about it a lot, actually,” The elf continued, his words conversational, his body language displaying something close to tears in anyone else. “How much I had been clinging to something already gone. This forest, this place has been dead for so many years, and I’ve been grasping at long ago memories of when it had life. So used to my isolation that I’ve become complacent in it.” He took a deep breath, stance straightening. “But no more. She would not want this. I do not want this”
That had been something Bard had needed to tell himself many times after his own wife’s death. That she wouldn’t want him to wallow in grief, but to continue living life to its fullest. He’d have wanted the same for her, were their positions switched.
“I suspect I have long since accepted her death, just grown too comfortable in separation to do anything about it” Thranduil finished almost wistfully, throwing a mirthless small half smile Bard’s way.
Bard returned the smile. “Had my children not still been of the age to need me I probably would’ve done the same thing. It was hard moving on, but necessary. I lived for my kids then, and eventually started to live for myself again. It took a long time, in mortal standards at least, but I managed.” He paused, staring out at the flames as he added, “Living for another person after her wasn’t something I could’ve imagine doing for a very long time.”
“Wasn’t?” Thranduil asked lightly.
Bard could feel the gaze on the side of his face, but refused to look, his cheeks feeling warm. This likely wasn’t the right time to say this, but Thranduil had asked. “Wasn’t.” He agreed.
“Bard…” Thranduil trailed off, and this time the man turned to look at him almost against his will.
There was something shining in the elf’s clear eye that he couldn’t read. It wasn’t an unfamiliar look, having appeared more frequently over the past month, but now Bard was beginning to think he knew what it was.
For a moment they stood there in silence, and it felt like they were on the edge of a precipice. Everything waiting, even the sounds of the fire crackling and its jumping orange glow fading into the background. Nothing was more important than returning the gaze of his best friend, half blind, scared and the most beautiful person he’d ever seen.
Then the moment was broken and Thranduil was kissing him, proving that the previous moment hadn’t been perfect, and that, oh, that this one was. Bard barely noticed a hand coming up to rest on the back of his neck, one of his own running over the ruined side of Thranduil’s face, reverently mapping out the rough skin.
His friend let out an almost pained noise at the touch, and it was only Thranduil’s previous reassurances of only feeling pressure that stopped Bard from immediately backing away. Instead he ran his fingers under the other’s sightless eye, then back and into his hair, gripping it as Thranduil deepened the kiss with a light sweep of his tongue over Bard’s lips.
Letting him in, Bard couldn’t stop a noise from leaving him at the taste. Like something sharp, something cold and enticing that had Bard pressing forward greedily as if he could search out it’s source by touch alone. All too soon he had to break it to breathe, grinning foolishly and resting his forehead against Thranduil’s.
Thranduil’s returning smile was lovely, and he let out a small huff of happiness, a sort of dazed realization growing on his face, happy and disbelieving. Unable to resist, and now seeing no reason to do so, Bard leaned in for another quick kiss, then another.
When something landed on his head he ignored it at first, until there was another, and another, and then a couple at the same time, and something trickling down the side of his face. Pulling back in confusion, Bard looked upwards and received a fat raindrop in his eye for his troubles.
“Wha-?” He gasped, staring at the sky in awe. Where before it had been relatively clear, now the sky was filled with plump clouds, heavy and dark with rain.
More rain fell around them, and within moments Bard was soaking wet, staring up into the sudden downpour. The background hissing grew in a wave and he turned to see steam pouring from the flaming trees. Laughter spilled out from beside him and Bard jerked back to Thranduil, almost gaping as he took in the other’s joy.
He had seen Thranduil laugh before, seen happiness on his face and heard it in his voice. But this, this was so much more. Thranduil was laughing openly, his face shining as he stared at Bard. So soon into the rainfall his hair was already soaking, weighed down and sticking to the sides of his face.
Seeing him now, Bard couldn’t believe he’d ever mistaken Thranduil for being cold and unfeeling. His elf felt everything, he just didn’t let it show. It was only here in this place that he felt safe enough to drop his mask. Sadness for the burning fire and now joy at the rain.
Then Bard was being pulled back in and they were kissing again, rain coming down in buckets around them and the muted fire hissing and spitting to the side. Despite the memories that had been filling Bard’s mind only a short time ago, it was a delightful contrast, the crisp taste of the elf as he explored his mouth and the smell of ash and wet smoke from the fire as it died. They kissed for something like ages, and this time it was Thranduil who pulled away, opened his mouth to speak, and someone knocked harshly on the door.
Bard jerked to wakefulness, mentally cursing the bad timing as the last wisps of the island slipped away. The feel of the Thranduil’s lips on his lingered, and it was in a sort of daze that Bard got up, calling out an acknowledgement to whichever of his children had woken him up. The sound of running feet faded off down the hall as the child left, onto the next task.
Hastily throwing on his clothes, Bard didn’t bother with picking out anything extravagant. The preparations for tomorrow’s arrival of the elves and dwarves would need to be finished today, but he wouldn’t be meeting with anyone who’d be offended at his lack of expensive formal dress. Thankfully most everything except for last minute arrangements and dealing with mishaps was already done. Considering how clear the memory of his and Thranduil’s meeting had been, Bard honestly didn’t know how focused he’d really be. He was far too impatient for the arrival of the elves.
Halfway into his overcoat Bard stopped, his joy falling to ash in his mouth. The elvenking that would arrive, the one who would use those stables, he would not be Bard’s friend. There would no scars on his face, no small smile playing on his lips reserved solely for Bard. This elf was as distant and cold as the stars in the dream, with a tendency to be harsh even when he helped. It was not Thranduil who would come. Not Bard’s Thranduil, anyway. Greenwood- Mirkwood’s King Thranduil.
One who had never looked twice at Bard in a romantic or even friendly light beyond a united front against the dwarves. One who bore no scars to highlight his beauty with their tale or survival. One who would not smile in greeting. All the amusing and personal stories Bard knew about the elf were just that, stories his own mind had made up. All the things that no one else but Thranduil knew were still his alone. While originally he’d been quite happy with a sounding and complaining board for all the aspects of his life, at some point he had come to truly appreciate the fact that there was someone who knew so much about him and yet didn’t judge him for it. Someone who didn’t exist.
Only outside of the dreams, Bard reminded himself. King Thranduil was different from Thranduil, but that didn’t mean that he’d never see Thranduil again. He’d been there on the island every night for almost a year, he wouldn’t just disappear now. While no, it probably wasn’t healthy to cling to that, Bard focused on it, rolling the thought over in his mind while he finished pulling on his shirt. He’d just have to treat this King Thranduil as a distant but allied ruler, and not slip up and mention anything that Thranduil had told him. It would be, hard, but it wasn’t the end of the world. Maybe it was insane being so attached to someone who only existed in his mind, but there wasn’t much he could do about that, and no one would know anyways. The lack of scars and Thranduil’s fond smile would have to be enough for him to differentiate between the two Thranduil’s. The icy king and the one he loved, as a friend, and now perhaps more.
“Are you okay da?”
Bard looked up to find Sigrid standing in the doorway, a curious look on her face. “You look sad”
Inwardly Bard winced. If his daughter could tell that from mere moments of idle observation, how was he supposed to hold up around everyone else? Still, he hadn’t been expecting anyone to be looking. When tomorrow came, he’d just have to have perfected a mask of normality.
Really, he’d known King Thranduil was coming for weeks. This remembrance that Thranduil wasn’t real shouldn’t rock Bard so. He’d already known that.
“I’m fine Sigrid.” He answered, testing out a smile. “I just remembered something that’ll hopefully be fixed before it becomes a problem.”
She nodded, but after a moment inquired shrewdly, “Given what’s happening tomorrow, is this about the elvenking?”
Had he been holding anything it would’ve promptly met the floor. “What? Why would there be something wrong with him? There’s a lot going on tomorrow.”
Was he really that transparent? But then how would she know who his thoughts were about? He didn’t think he’d spoken of Thranduil much outside of the dreams. Sure, he’d probably mentioned him in the same way he’d mentioned the dwarven rulers, but how had she made that connection so fast?
“Oh, no reason.” Sigrid said with a shrug, then added, “You should get downstairs before Bain and Tilda eat everything. I thought I’d made enough for us all, but you know how the two of them can be.”
With that she flashed him a smile and left, allowing him his rather pathetic deflection. While he really didn’t want to talk, and was thankful she hadn’t forced it, he knew he must look very upset for her to grant him that concession. Not to mention he’d still no idea how she’d figured it out.
Heading downstairs after her, he slid into a free chair at the table to a chorus of greetings from his children. Asking how they’d slept and how everyone was doing, he thought he would get away without any mention of the elves until Tilda spoke up.
“Aren’t you excited to see Thranduil again da?”
Choking on the mouthful of water he had just taken, Bard did a double take. “Why would I be?”
“Well you always look so happy after receiving a letter from Mirkwood.” She looked confused, and Bard decided he really needed to work on his deflections. He’d thought he’d been getting better at them recently, but evidently he’d been wrong, considering how bad he’d been doing that morning.
Frowning at the statement, Bard considered it, unaware he had been so transparent about his feelings. His feelings for someone who wasn’t real, he forcibly reminded himself.
“We wouldn’t mind, you know.” Sigrid added, pushing around the rice on her plate. “I like King Thranduil. He’s really interesting, and respectful, and he likes baking pie.”
Apparently there hadn’t been enough surprises yet today, and it was still only the morning. “He talks to you? Enough that you know he likes pie?”
“Oh yes, he stops by the kitchens sometimes. When he’s here I mean. And after the Battle of The Five Armies he was there to see how the supplies were being handled. We baked a pie together” She smiled happily, tilting her head meaningfully. “He’s very nice.”
Bain, who’d been silent up until now, actually agreed with a nod, adding, “Sometimes when we get supplies from Mirkwood he comes. Unlike most of the people we deal with he’s fair, never trying to shortchange us. Not like the Master at all. And in his letters he’s really helpful, especially because not many of us actually know what we’re doing.” He paused, squinting at his plate, “He’s also stopped by to talk about how we’re doing, and about you before. In a weirdly formal way.”
Bard stared at the table. He’d had no idea King Thranduil had so much interaction with his children. Then again, the cynical part of his mind piped up, perhaps King Thranduil was only doing so because they were in places of influence. Instantly he berated himself for the thought, shoving it out of his mind. King Thranduil may not be Bard’s Thranduil, but the elvenking still wouldn’t use children like that.
He was saved from coming up with a response when a knock on the front door sounded, and he grasped the distraction with both hands, using it as an excuse to bid his children good day and clear his plate, leaving to the sounds of them chattering about the coming celebration. Determined to put the whole thing out of mind.
Though he’d thought the day would drag on—and while for bits it did—for the most part it flew by with all the last minute preparations needing to be done. They’d had a few celebrations over the year, mostly as reminders that they’d survived and were rebuilding, but this would be a larger one given the amount of things being celebrated. The one year anniversary of the Battle of The Five Armies, of beginning of Dale’s rebuilding, of getting out from under the Master’s thumb, of the death of Smaug. There were many more tragic things to remember, but most people preferred to celebrate. There had been enough mourning.
Not to mention the new work needed to be done on the dwarves accommodations, as they had been unaware Dis, the sister of Thorin, would be coming as well and as such changes had to be made. Bard was slightly confused as to why it hadn’t been assumed she would be coming in the first place, but what was done was done, and they needed to move on.
With their rivalry, the dwarves and the elves had almost competed in the timing and splendor of their arrivals to Dale the last few times they’d had a meet up that invited both races, and Bard was expecting the same thing the next day. They must derive some sort of amusement from the power play, but Bard didn’t understand why. While it was a toss-up as to which would arrive first, he for some reason guessed it would be the dwarves, and therefore they would need a room prepared for Dis right away. Then again, perhaps it was just wishful thinking.
For the first part of the celebration and during the meetings it would be impossible for Bard to avoid King Thranduil, but during the rest he could at least try and spend time elsewhere. Not enough to tempt offending the other, which would be hard considering how much time the two of them usually spent together at these celebrations, but it would be good practice for potential future occasions. Better he see the other as little as possible to avoid potential slip ups. It was almost too bad it was the elvenking he’d be mixing his Thranduil up with. The elvenking was good at condescendingly imparting extremely helpful knowledge. King Thranduil was harsh, but also helpful and kind, just rather bad at it.
Bard shook his head, no, that was him mixing up King Thranduil with Thranduil. Something he could not do in the quickly coming week.
Really, it wouldn’t be all that bad. King Thranduil didn’t actually know that Bard had been dreaming about him every night or so for the past year and a half, so if the man acted off, that wouldn’t be his first conclusion. It would be weird if he acted too familiar, but the elvenking had always allowed a certain lack of decorum with Bard that he’d seen him verbally eviscerate others for. So hopefully if he acted a little too familiar, Thranduil, King Thranduil, would accept it as a mark of an inexperienced king.
The elvenking would be there for a week, he’d leave, and Bard would go back to his life.
Bard grimaced. His life of being in love with a figment of his imagination. He’d been avoiding thinking it thus far, but really, how had it come to this? He certainly hadn’t expected anything of the like to happen whenever he’d entertained the thought of being with someone else. Not to say it was something he’d seriously entertained. He admired other people, of course, but the thought of actually being with them? That appeared solely reserved for Thranduil. Thranduil, who didn’t exist.