He caught sight of the man for the first time at the gas station. Brown hair, longer than most. Tired eyes. His clothes were rugged, patched up in many places, his dingy jeans stuffed into work boots and his hands in the pockets of a brown jacket. Scruffy, but not slovenly. When he ordered his food from the window seat in the diner, he smiled at the waitress and knew her name.
Thranduil liked him. That was enough.
He had been following the man for a while, the choking fumes of a deftly punctured gas tank drifting through Thranduil's open window on the night air, as the truck passed out of town and under the open arms of the forest. It broke down slightly sooner than Thranduil had anticipated—hardly a problem. These country roads were rarely traveled by any that didn't need to. When Thranduil pulled up beside the man's stopped vehicle and offered him a smile and a ride, there was no one to see the man's grateful expression as he slipped into Thranduil's car. No one to stand by and call out a warning as the taillights were swallowed by the dark branches of the trees.
"Thanks for stopping," he said, offering Thranduil a grin. "You're a real lifesaver."
Thranduil's own smile was less friendly. "Your gratitude is misplaced."
He could kill him right now, he mused. Simply pull off to the side of the road, turn off the lights in the car, pin the man's head to the seat back with a single hand and bury his teeth into his neck. He could smell his blood even now, the sharp metallic pang of it like something physical pulsing against Thranduil's skin. He breathed it in deep, his hands resting lightly on the wheel. He would wait a while longer. He'd never been one to go for the quick kill. He liked to savor it.
The man seemed to be slightly nervous now, those animal instincts prickling with a message that had come far too late: There is a predator nearby. You are prey.
"Anyway, I should have phone reception to call the tow truck once we're out of the woods," the man was saying with an uncomfortable edge in his voice. "And I'm Bard, by the way."
"Bard," Thranduil repeated idly. The name sounded guttural in his throat. "Like a musician."
Bard laughed. "I guess so. I never was good with instruments." A pause stretched between them. "Aren't you going to tell me your name?" he said at last.
Thranduil chuckled. "Maybe not."
Bard raised an eyebrow. "Why not?"
Thranduil glanced at him out of the corner of his eye, with a smile that could have been playful. "Perhaps I like to remain mysterious."
He saw the man grin and look away, slightly flustered perhaps. The car's headlights passed a gap in the trees, just wide enough to fit the body of the car if he swerved from the road and sent them both crashing into the arms of the waiting forest. Perhaps he wouldn't do it in the car. That way he wouldn't have to be neat. He would drive as far as the forest let him, ignoring the man's protestations until he slammed on the brakes, would drag his companion out of the car by the front of his shirt, fabric ripping, slam his shoulders against the trunk of a tree and drive the breath from his lungs. He imagined the first scream would be hoarse and choked as he began to feed. The thought of it sent a pleasant prickle down Thranduil's spine. If the police ever found the body, no doubt they would call it a bear attack.
"It's a good thing you came along so soon," Bard said. "Not too many people come out this way at night, and with the bad phone reception I might have had to walk."
"Do you live far from here?" Thranduil asked, rubbing his thumb over the surface of the steering wheel in idle, meaningful circles. He could feel the man's eyes follow the motion.
"Not too far," he said after a moment. "There's a little cluster of houses just outside the next town over."
"And you live alone?"
Perhaps the man misunderstood Thranduil's intentions—he hesitated. "Just me and the kids," he said at last.
Thranduil's smile widened. "How many children?" When Bard didn't respond, Thranduil glanced over with an apologetic smile, calling to the surface the easy charm he'd managed to cultivate in order to put humans at ease. "Forgive me. I didn't mean to pry. Just tell me where to take you, and I won't ask any more questions."
Bard smiled, the inner animal soothed for now. "No, it's alright. I guess I'm just a bit jumpy—stranger's car, dark night, middle of the woods and all."
Thranduil chuckled. "Understandable."
"I have three," Bard said. "Two daughters and a son. Their mother passed away." The last part he said almost too quickly, with the practice of someone who had come to anticipate the question.
Thranduil wasted no time on empty condolences. "Childbirth?"
The man looked at him sharply. "How did you know?"
Thranduil shrugged. "A lucky guess, I suppose. From the way that you sounded while talking about your children."
Bard shook his head. "You know, most people just say that they're sorry for my loss."
Thranduil glanced at the other man. "Do you want me to?"
Bard was quiet. "Not really."
A smile crept back onto Thranduil's lips as he drove, the headlights carving a hazy patch of light out of the road ahead of them. He could smell the sweat lingering on Bard's skin, hear the rustle of each thread in his clothing as the other man shifted position. His heartbeat was like a gentle, insistent tapping on the periphery of Thranduil's mind, impossible to ignore. It had been some time since Thranduil had hunted like this, taking the time to stalk his prey instead of simply feeding on the drunk or forgotten in back alleys with little ceremony or enjoyment. He had almost forgotten it felt to have the hunt singing in his still, silent heart.
He could feel Bard's eyes lingering on him more freely now, studying him when he thought Thranduil wouldn't see. The weight of his eyes moving across him was as real as the press of fingertips working their way over him, learning every detail.
"Don't take this the wrong way," Bard said after a moment, "but you're very strange."
Thranduil laughed, shooting a languid look across the car. "Would you believe I get that a lot?"
"Yes," Bard replied. Thranduil let his eyes briefly trail over the man in turn, noting how he lounged in his seat, elbow propped on the opposite armrest, knees apart, one foot resting on the inside of the door while the other tapped a nervous rhythm on the floor of the car. He made no effort to disguise his examination the way Bard had tried to do. The other man laughed uncertainly.
"Maybe you should keep your eyes on the road," he said, though it was more of an observation than a suggestion. Thranduil did what he was told with a quirk of his eyebrow, letting Bard return to his own furtive scrutiny. He could hear his heartbeat speeding up ever so slightly, heard the click in his throat as he swallowed. He wanted nothing more than to look over and catch a glimpse of his Adam's apple bobbing beneath the skin. He could simply stop the car in the middle of the road. No one would come. If they did, he could kill them too.
"The turn to my house is coming up," Bard said, a note of tension in his voice. The decision was here. There was enough thick, dark woods to get lost in if Thranduil pulled over now. He wondered if the man would be afraid. If he would beg for mercy, cite his children, try to fight. Thranduil had no doubt that he would. He could practically hear his cries even now, feel the feeble blows he would land even as Thranduil's teeth exposed his artery. He could make life last for hours if he wanted to, sucking hundreds of shallow wounds until the man could do nothing but stare blankly ahead, nearly too weak to breathe, as Thranduil nuzzled the last minutes of life from his neck.
But then again, perhaps a few short hours were not enough.
He made the turn.
It seemed to him that the man's body relaxed ever so slightly as they trundled onto the side road which would take them to Bard's house. Thranduil could hear his pulse slow to something more sedate, the nervous tapping of his foot settling. An island of light appeared in the darkness ahead, a troop of small houses clustered together against the encroaching forest, almost seeming to stand guard. Thranduil eyed them with distaste. They were sealed against him as tightly as thick bubbles of plastic, protected from his kind by rules so old they were written into his very being. He could not enter—unless, of course, he was given an invitation.
"This is us," Bard said, gesturing to a house with a front stoop illuminated by the warm glow of a porch light. Thranduil pulled into the driveway, letting the engine idle as he turned to meet Bard's eye.
If the man's instincts were still telling him to run, Thranduil saw no sign of that now. He sat still, his vision locked with Thranduil's without fear. His hands twisted at the seam of his jacket before he quieted them in his lap with a nervous smile. "I owe you one. Really."
Thranduil shrugged his shoulders with half of a smile. "Don't mention it. Just doing what anyone would do."
Bard's smile twisted into something slightly different. "I just have to make sure the kids are in bed. …Would the mystery stranger like to come inside for a thank-you drink?" he asked, and Thranduil could have crowed, could have laughed in his face and then kissed him on the mouth, could have dragged him through his own front door and torn his throat out over his own kitchen table now that he had permission.
He didn't. He merely smiled, a dark smile that suggested so much yet promised nothing. "I'm afraid not," he said quietly. "I've got to go."
If Bard was disappointed he hid it well. He merely looked away with a slight smile, his fingers drumming a quick rhythm on the armrest. "Right, of course." A shape appeared in the front window, whisking aside the curtains and then turning to speak to someone else inside. Bard unbuckled his seatbelt.
"That's my cue," he said. After a moment, he held out his hand. "Thanks again. Really."
Thranduil stared at it for a moment before reaching out to take it, sliding his hand over the other man's warmer, calloused one. If Bard felt surprise at the coolness of Thranduil's skin, it didn't show. He could feel the man's pulse beating against his fingers like something struggling to escape.
"Well, if you change your mind about that drink," Bard said, "you know where to find me."
As their hands fell apart, Thranduil let his fingers slid over the other man's palm in such a way that he felt Bard's heart-rate jump. The smile he fixed him with was inviting, and showed lots of teeth. "Yes I do."
Bard grinned, looked away, and looked back again, his eyes doing a nervous dance between Thranduil and the door. His hand rested on the handle, ready to leave. Thranduil could keep him here for longer if he wanted, but he made no effort to. Finally, Bard popped open the handle to let the cool night air flood in, mixing the smell of pine and mold with the heady smell of sweat and blood.
"Until next time, then," Bard said, climbing out of the car.
"Until then." The door slammed shut, and Bard walked up to his front door with shoulders that slowly relaxed the further he got from the car. Just as he reached the door he turned to glance back at the car, only for a moment, before he laughed quietly to himself with a shake of his head and raised his hand in a final farewell. Thranduil returned it, though he doubted Bard could see anything but the glare of headlights. The door opened and swallowed Bard up, leaving Thranduil alone in the dark.
He drove back into the woods. The hunger which had driven him to hunt in the first place railed against him, shrieking and wailing like something mad inside of him. He felt empty, hollowed out with a dull knife, craving heat and fear and flesh like a drowning man craved air. He fought the feeling down. He had found something new, something more important than that all-consuming thirst. The promise of a game, and someone who was willing to play. Thranduil smiled to himself in the darkness. It had been too long indeed.
Halfway through the woods, he caught a glimpse of the dull, tan hide of a deer flashing through the trees. In an instant it was in front of him, a whole herd, racing across the road so fast they could have been a dream. He floored the accelerator. The thud of a body hitting his car was enough to jolt the hunger back to life, and when he stepped out of the car to find the animal writhing and twitching on the asphalt, he sank its fangs into its throat with enough force to break its neck.
It was not enough to satisfy. Only to whet his thirst, to hone it as sharp and keen as the edge of a knife. It sang within him, tearing at him from the inside as he tossed the deer's carcass aside. When he killed Bard, he would make it slow.
He was going to enjoy this.