As they had been all day, more thoughts about Thranduil crept up as Bard was getting ready for sleep that evening, this time centred solely on the elf of his dreams. How was he supposed to act around him? He’d avoided thinking of it all day, but so close to sleep he found the thought could no longer be ignored. As easy as it was to brush off carrying on a relationship with someone who wasn’t real, Bard didn’t think he could actually do it. Should actually do it. As a friend was one thing, and while it might not be healthy to have one’s best friend be nonexistent, it was worse to have the same be true of a romantic partner. Had not the Master’s relationship with money, or Thorin’s desire with the Arkenstone shown just how twisting such a one-sided love could be? Besides, the island didn’t need him anymore. Thranduil seemed to know what he was doing with the forest, everywhere else was fixed, and the skies had opened to give up water.
On the other hand, had he not been happier this past year? Oh, a great deal of things had changed, but wasn’t the half of his life that he spent with Thranduil a large reason for that? Having someone who listened, who empathized and guided. It was a wonderful feeling, and only more so because it was flawed, uncertain, beautiful, firm-standing, knowing, Thranduil. Maybe the romance was taking it a bit far, and although he definitely felt like they’d been heading there, they could always go back to just being friends. There was no real reason to give that up when it brought about so much good in his life. His children had said he seemed happier, so he obviously acting negatively to those around him like the Master or Thorin had done. Wasn’t it better to stay like that?
Sleep came before he made a decision.
Again Thranduil was already there when Bard entered the dreamscape, joy written across the elf’s scared face as he strode toward the man.
“We’re traveling so I cannot stay for long, but I wished to see you.” The elf murmured before greeting him with a kiss. When Bard didn’t respond, the elf pulled back, eyebrows drawn together in confusion. “Bard? Is there something wrong?”
Bard hesitated, but slowly nodded. He still wasn’t fully decided on what to do, but on this at least he was certain. No matter what lies he used to try and convince himself.
“We can’t do this.” He winced at the bluntness of the words, refusing to look at Thranduil for fear of what he’d see. “This, the romantic relationship. It’s one thing having my best friend be a fabrication, another thing to fall in lov- to be involved with someone who doesn’t exist. I can’t do that.”
When silence met his declaration, Bard chanced a glance up at Thranduil to find the elf looking stricken, beginning to reply and then pausing, his eyes going distant as if hearing something far away. The distance persisted for a few moments before passing, and the elf continued as if nothing had happened.
“Bard, this,” He momentarily closed his eyes, taking a deep breath before admitting, “This is real. This has always been real, since the very first time you appeared here, in my dreamscape. I refrained from telling you, as I didn’t- Well, we don’t have the time to discuss that. My point is that this is real, what I feel for you, and you for me.”
It was so unbelievable that hope didn’t even begin to rise at the attestation, and Bard was already shaking his head. “No it’s not. And trying to convince me that it is won’t do any good. Or trying to convince myself, whatever this is.” When it looked like Thranduil was still prepared to argue, he added, “Look, let’s just go back to being friends and forget about all of this. I know you’re not real, but I want you as my friend anyways.”
That distant look crossed Thranduil’s face again, and when he came back, the elf looked frustrated. “No.” He stated, shaking his head, “We aren’t leaving this, but I don’t have enough time to convince you.”
With that he twisted his hand, a knife appearing as if from nothing. Bard’s eyes narrowed in bewilderment, then widened as Thranduil turned the knife back on himself. Automatically reaching for the weapon with a protest on his lips, Bard’s fingers just brushed the handle as Thranduil took a step back and sliced a thin line down the base of his thumb. Bard’s interference had curved the line at one edge, dragging the knife upward at it moved away from his palm.
“Thranduil, what are you doing?” He cried, reaching out again and this time succeeding in wrenching the knife from his friend’s grip, flinging it away and taking the wounded hand in both of his own. “This is not what you do to convince me you’re real.”
Ignoring Bard’s attempts at stopping the bleeding, Thranduil dismissed his concern. “It’s barely a scratch, you needn’t worry. It’s only to prove my point. Bard, listen to me!” A hand grabbed Bard’s chin, forcing to meet Thranduil’s eyes. “Tomorrow I’ll arrive in Dale, and this mark will still mar my hand. Everything that happens here in the dreamscape happens in real life. I promise this is-”
And then Thranduil was gone, as if he’d never been there in the first place.
Waking up the next morning was horrible, Bard’s mouth dry as dead grass and a headache softly pounding at his temples. It was a few moments before he remembered the happenings of the night before, and he groaned as they came back. After Thranduil had disappeared, Bard had stood in place for the rest of the night, waiting for something to make sense. When nothing had, he’d blankly took in his immediate surroundings, only then noticing the light mist of rain still falling from the sky. Water had returned to the island, but he was more confused than ever. Why had his mind decided on that as a method of trying to convince itself of a false reality?
Either way it was folly. False hope where there was none.
It was in a perpetual sort of daze that Bard went about his day, getting up and putting himself together, eating breakfast and meeting with the dwarves when they arrived first thing in the morning. It must’ve been obvious to everyone he spent any time with that his behavior was off, but he couldn’t find it in himself to care. He’d expended so much effort attempting to stamp out that fragile piece of hope that he hadn’t noticed it taking root.
It was that well buried hope that had him later jumping to his feet upon the news of the elves impending arrival. A cruel, cruel thing, near blinding him to every fact stating that dreams were only dreams, and had no power over reality.
Bard didn’t hear an advisor asking him if he was well, already striding to the door in as everything else turned to haze, fear and hope clawing at each other inside his stomach. He barely noticed a few of the dwarves, King Thorin included following him at a distance out of the meeting hall, as if they were curious about his out of character mannerisms, yet not curious enough to risk it looking like they were greeting the elves. Bard’s eyes were only for the tall figure riding in on an elk, at the head of the procession of elves coming towards him.
Even knowing better than to think reality could be twisted so, he couldn’t stop himself from walking halfway out to meet Thranduil, coming to a stop only when meeting cold, blank eyes. The elvenking was as beautiful as always, a picture of perfection even with the emotionless mask and his scars hidden. Under a glamor in deference to the supposed vanity of the elves.
King Thranduil didn’t look at Bard as he dismounted, but that damning hope commented on how odd it was that the king wasn’t waiting until the ceremonial gate to dismount. Nor was he staring down at Bard from atop his mighty stead while wondering what was wrong with the lowly man.
And when King Thranduil’s eyes met Bard’s, that little hope grew tenfold. This was no stranger he faced. He knew these eyes, despite both of them being clear, he knew that subtle tilt to the elf’s eyebrow, the nervous jump in his finger that betrayed nervousness. He knew this elf, he did, oh please let this be his elf. Please, someone, anyone, let this be the Thranduil he knew.
The king drew closer until he was standing directly in front of Bard, and in a move that was surely at a normal speed but seemed to take years, lifted his hand to Bard as if in offering. For a moment more Bard could do nothing but stare into the elvenking’s expectant and slightly uncertain eyes, and then he glanced down to what the other was offering.
There, on Thranduil’s palm at the base of his thumb, was a barely healed over cut, one edge slightly upturned like a backwards checkmark.
It was like being doused in a bucket of cold water on a boiling day, seeing the sun for the first time in weeks during a harsh winter, eating food after a long day of abstinence. Like coming home. Time itself seemed to stand still as Bard’s mind slowly comprehended the reality of hope fulfilled.
Then, all in a rush, everything flooded back in and Bard surged forward, grabbing the elf king’s face in his hands and kissing him passionately, pouring all his pain and despair and that damnable hope that had plagued him for the past two days into the kiss. Thranduil, Thranduil, not King Thranduil at all, kissed back just as fiercely, letting out a soft sigh of happiness as he pressed back against Bard.
Bard had thought that that one taste of Thranduil had been enough to stay with him, but this kiss proved him wrong, the fresh flavor of the elvenking something he was sure he was already addicted to. Too soon he had to pull back to breathe, grinning foolishly up at the elf. With or without the scars and the island and the solitude, this was his Thranduil, and this was real.
“I promised” Thranduil murmured, and Bard let out a content chuckle.
“You did.” He agreed, brushing a wayward lock of Thranduil’s hair behind his ear. “Given that you’ve not led me astray yet, I suppose I should’ve believed you.”
Thranduil nodded seriously. “You should.” Tilting his head a little, Thranduil’s eyes darted away for a moment before coming back to meet Bard’s. “And given that I have been attempting to advise you since you’ve become king, I feel obligated to inform you that this sort of display is not befitting of royalty, and should be kept to a minimum.”
“A minimum?” Bard laughed, still too happy to really consider anything further than the two of them. “But not discarded completely?”
“Of course not.” Thranduil agreed with mock distain. “A good king never burns bridges where he can help it, and given that I would be the one involved in such a display with you, I’d hate to deprive myself.”
Again Bard laughed, content in a way he’d not been for far too long. It didn’t matter that they were in the full sight of so many people, or that before this Bard had been completely unaware that Thranduil had been real all this time, or that he had no idea how a relationship between two kings would work. All that mattered was the look on Thranduil’s face as he looked at Bard, gaze flicking over the man’s features like his friend was cataloging him into his memory forever. The feel of his hair beneath Bard’s hands, the taste of him in his mouth, the joy in his presence.
At the moment, nothing else mattered but this.