Several weeks after he has left Lorien, Thranduil cannot remember if he shared a single word with the Marchwarden. He is not even sure he ever learnt his name. So it’s strange that his mind keeps returning to him - those eyes, those hands - and it’s strange how he remembers such a thing as how his ears turn down a bit at the tips, almost like those of a newborn kitten.
Strange, but not unpleasant. They evoke something in Thranduil that he thought was lost.
For once, he does not mind strange.
”I wonder if it’s cold in the north”, Haldir says.
Orophin looks up from his half-finished bowl of soup, raising a quizzical eyebrow. ”Why on Arda would you want to know if it’s cold in the north?”
”Nothing”, Haldir says. He watches the flecks of sunlight dance on the boards of the talan, and on the edge of his mind an image floats around of sun shimmering in silver hair. It doesn’t mean anything, but it’s pleasant to think of. ”They must have snow up there sometimes, mustn’t they? Can you imagine the Elvenking in a winter fur?”
”By the Valar”, Orophin says. ”Not that again.”
”You always talk about the Elvenking.”
”I do not.”
For no apparent reason, Haldir blushes. ”Do not.”
To be honest it’s possible that he does, but that isn’t very strange. Thranduil is powerful and important, different but still much alike his Lorien kin; he is bound to leave an impression on anyone he meets. Haldir has stood close enough to see the light play in the depth of his eyes, and the sun in his hair, and a smile in which the Ages and all their sorrows are contained. It is a month since he left (and eight days and five hours; he rode from Caras Galadhorn in the morning) but Haldir cannot be the only one who still thinks about him. Occasionally.
”You didn’t see him, Orophin”, he says. ”If you had…” He trails off. There is so much to say he doesn’t know where to start.
But Orophin’s eyes widen, and he puts the bowl down. ”Haldir…”
”Don’t tell me… you can’t be…”
”No. Be what?”
”Of course not!”
”Lunch break is over”, Haldir says, and before Orophin can protest he walks to the middle of the talan and climbs down the ladder. His face is heating. He refuses to know why.
Spring comes finally, even to the depths of Mirkwood. It is unusually sunny, or maybe Thranduil has spent more time outside this year - paperwork has not seemed as important as before, and he has felt more like walking the gardens that sitting inside with the curtains drawn, staring into a book he knows he will never finish. Galion has noticed, but otherwise he would not be Galion.
With spring comes an unexpected visitor.
”From Lorien?” Thranduil says. ”I did not think we would hear from them so soon. Who is the courier?”
”Who is the courier?” Galion repeats. ”I have no idea, I don’t know any elves of Lorien. Shall I tell him to wait? It didn’t sound very urgent.”
”I will recieve him at once.”
”He’s been riding hard, maybe some rest…”
”I will recieve him at once”, Thranduil says, and Galion leaves with a short bow.
When he is gone, Thranduil sits for a while staring at nothing; the he stands up, walks over to the fire, forgets what he was about to do, walks back to the desk - finds that he cannot sit still, and longs for something to do with his hands. He realizes he cannot just stand dumbly in the middle of the room when the courier arrives. Whoever it is - and it is probably no one he has ever met - they are a representative of Lorien, and Thranduil must look presentable in front of them.
There are footsteps in the corridor and in the last minute, Thranduil grabs a book near at hand and sits down in an armchair by the fire.
”The courier is here”, Galion says. ”Shall I send him in?”
”Haldir of Lothlorien, my lord”, Galion presents him, and when the courier hesitates in the doorway, Galion shoves him lightly in the back and closes the door behind him.
Thranduil stands up to greet the courier. He smiles; he who never smiles at strangers. But they aren’t strangers. Not really. They’ve met before.
Though Thranduil never did learn the Marchwarden’s name then.
The Elvenking’s hands are slender and smooth and Haldir is very aware of his own, hardened by years of weapon’s training and dirty from the road. He doesn’t know what to do with them, doesn’t know how to stand. It’s the Elvenking, of course. Anyone would be nervous in his prescense.
”These are good news”, Thranduil says, without looking up from the letter. He has avoided Haldir’s eyes entirely and Haldir is both relieved and disappointed. But the Elvenking does not need to look at a lowly courier.
”Yes”, he says. ”Our borders were under great strain during the winter. We will not relax yet, but at least we can breathe out.”
”Has there been fighting?”
”I thought you looked a warrior.”
”I, uh - thank you. I mean, yes, I am a warrior.”
”You could not have made it alone through Mirkwood otherwise”, the Elvenking says and tosses the letter aside. ”I am sorry you had to see it in this state.”
”I am sorry too, my lord, but is it fairer around the palace.”
”Don’t you think? The air is lighter, and the trees - they’re happier. The wind has hope. It’s because of y… of you elves, I think.”
For the first time, the Elvenking looks directly at him. ”You listened.”
”To the trees. You do not know them, but you listened.”
”I grew up in the trees”, Haldir says, and smiles at the thought of home. He has never been this far from Lorien. Mirkwood is shockingly different, and yet at the heart the same. ”I have listened to them all my life.”
The Elvenking smiles back. It is a sad smile, but it reminds Haldir of the trees outside the palace, strong and hopeful still. ”Tell me.”
It is long since Thranduil listened with pleasure to a story. In fact, it is long since he listened to anything that isn’t about the realm, isn’t about business at all.
Not that he hears much. When Haldir speaks of his home his eyes lit up, and he moves his hands to describe the course of a river or the shape of telain, and the fire-light catches in his hair, and it is all Thranduil can think of.
They forget about dinner. There’s too much to talk about. Before Thranduil knows it, he has told the Marchwarden almost everything - about the Shadow over Mirkwood, about the patrols he must send into the forest knowing he might send them to their deaths, about his wife. But also about happy things, and small pointless things - and they sit for hours saying nothing at all, and it doesn’t feel strange. When Haldir falls asleep on the couch, Thranduil sits down by his desk to write a letter to lady Galadriel. One that will require an answer.
”I don’t believe this”, Rúmil says and doesn’t seem to know if he should be amused or angry. ”You slept…”
”In the Elvenking’s study, yes.”
”And he let you sleep there.”
”Yavanna save us”, Rúmil says, and then he laughs. Since it’s Rúmil, Haldir assumes he understands.
He stretches out on his back on the talan and watches the blue sky between the waving branches. He wonders if the sky is blue over Mirkwood too, and if the Elvenking is watching it. They could be watching the very same sky at the very same time. The thought of it makes the distance between them seem smaller.
Suddenly Haldir is laughing too, because it is all so stupid and unbeliavable. He does not even know what it is. He fell asleep in the Elvenking’s study, because they had stayed up late to talk - that’s all that has happened.
And yet not. Neither of them has ever talked freely to strangers, not about such private things. They match each other. They make each other laugh. More than anything, they understand each other. And when Haldir thinks about Thranduil, he feels as if a piece has fallen in place inside him that he never even knew was missing.
The morning has been cloudy, but around noon it becames bright blue, and Thranduil leaves his study and walks down to the practise ranges. He hasn’t taken as much interest in his son’s archery training as he would have liked, but today he finds the energy to watch.
He thinks about Haldir. One day his son will have similar hands, marked and calloused by the bow, strong and confident. Legolas would like Haldir, Thranduil muses, but then, who wouldn’t?
He leans to the fence and watches the younglings practise. Legolas is not aware of him yet. It was long since he stopped asking his father to come and watch. But Thranduil is here now and he thinks he might try to be here more often. He thinks about what Haldir said, that the trees around the palace are still hopeful. He thinks that if the trees have hope, Thranduil can have hope too.
He looks to the sky. Sooner or later Galadriel must answer his letter. It only makes sense to send a courier who knows the way.
Spring passes and Haldir has no idea what he is doing. He patrols the borders on routine, sits for hours in the trees and thinks of everything and nothing at all, and he would not notice if a hundred orcs walked by under him chanting war songs at the top of their lungs. When he talks it comes out normal, but he has no idea what he is saying. Sometimes he in unreasonably happy, and sometimes he wants to cry.
All he knows is that the songs he used to find so boring, those that were are love, suddenly makes perfect sense. That he has never heard a more beautiful story than the one of Amrod and Nimrodel. And that his heart skips a beat whenever someone mentions Mirkwood or the Elvenking - or a couch or a fire-place. Orophin notices and starts using the words as often as he can, until Haldir nearly pushes him out of a tree.
The minstrel’s sing of Beren and Luthien and Haldir wants them to skip the adventurous parts and go right to when they marry.
When Thranduil looks south over Mirkwood, it is not only the shadow he sees.
”Galion”, he says, ”have you ever wondered how it would be if the Lórien elves lived closer to us?”
”No”, Galion says. ”I have not.”
”I think that would be pleasant.”
”You don’t even like lady Galadriel.”
Thranduil turns from the window. ”Lady Galadriel isn’t the only elf in Lórien. There are many others, and they are not at all like her.”
Galion is quiet for a moment, as if he has suddenly understood something.
”No”, he says slowly. ”I am sure they are not.”
In May Haldir is called upon by the lord and lady again. When he stands before them to recieve the message, he is suddenly afraid. So much time has passed. For a person like Thranduil, with all his memories and his knowledge, what does an evening’s talking by the fire mean? Does he even remember? Maybe during spring, Haldir has thought so much about it that things that weren’t real - words that meant nothing, glances he only imagined - became real in his head.
And suddenly he cannot breathe.
But he has already agreed to go, so he does, prepared for the worst. It is almost full summer when he arrives, and even Mirkwood is green and joyful. Haldir is taken to the gardens, where the Elvenking is waiting under a blooming apple tree.
When he sees him, Haldir forgets about the fear. He can’t explain it - it’s the way Thranduil looks at him, the way the light plays in the depth of his eyes - it’s the sun in his hair, and that smile in which the Ages and all their sorrows are contained, but in which there is also hope. There can never be any doubt. They understand each other too well.
Haldir knows finally what it is all about. And he is not afraid at all.
Several months after they met, Thranduil can still remember every single word he spoke to the Marchwarden. The name Haldir is still sweet and a bit stingy on the tip of his tongue. His mind keeps returning to him - his eyes, his hands - and things like how his ears turn down a bit at the tips almost like those of a newborn kitten.
They evoke something in Thranduil that he thought was lost. When the Elvenqueen was taken from him, his heart was torn so severely he thought he would never fall in love again. Thought he could never be whole enough for it to happen.
But it does happen, only when he looks the other way. He does not realize it until the Marchwarden comes walking under the summer sky and there is sunlight in his hair and Thranduil smiles a little and he straightens. He straightens because in those eyes, in that smile, he finds strength to carry the burden of all his sorrows. And then he knows.
In the end, falling in love is very easy.
All he has to do is let go.