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What We Never Were

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2016

If it felt like he had known Thranduil all his life, it was probably because he had.

It had never been a consecutive acquaintance, never a permanent friendship. Their involvement in each other’s lives had been an on and off affair, only ever for brief moments, snapshots in their lives. They were preserved to Bard now as faded summer memories: photographs with creased corners, old shells kept on dusty shelves, a vague and confusing regret that he was never quite able to put into words.

The thought of Thranduil came to him at odd times, always lit with a warmth and a nostalgia that made him feel terribly old, to think back now on his youth.

It had never been anything, in reality. There had been no substance to- to whatever you would call the two of them together. The collective number of days they had spent together barely made up anything in the grand scheme of things, certainly not enough to count their acquaintance as a friendship.

No, it had been a thing of potential, all along, a potential that neither of them had ever been quite in the right place to grab.

Nothing of any true substance, but real and important and vital nonetheless.

And it had been so many years now.

Bard’s fingers hovered over his laptop as he stared at the screen, the image there both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time – a face he knew, but older now, a man he hadn’t spoken to in the longest of time.

He was still beautiful.

The sight of him still made something deep within Bard’s chest ache.

Like a thread that he had never pulled – and there was always a chance, wasn’t there?

He took a deep breath, and clicked open the new message.

 


 

1978

Bard’s memories of that year were vague, at best: he had been eight years old at the time, and his recollections of that year were snapshots, fuzzy around the edges, partially reconstructed from photographs and his mother’s stories.

It hadn’t been a good year, for his family, but he hadn’t really understood that at the time. To him, the world had been a bright place, made up of his mother’s baking, races up and down the narrow lane that ran down the back of their terrace, the smell of smoke on his father’s jacket.

It had been in the summer, just a month after Bard had turned eight years old. His hair had always been a messy tangle of curls, curls that only got worse and impossible to brush after prolonged exposure to the sea air, something that his mother had learnt to her chagrin that warm July. His limbs had already been too long for his body, but he’d been a bright and chatty boy, and his family had come to the small sea-side village, on holiday, for three weeks.

It had been an adventure, driving down those the long and twisting roads to the coast – the first holiday that he could ever remember having, bar the occasional long weekend trips to see his grandparents (and to an energetic eight-year-old, those definitely did not count).

It would be the first time that he had ever come to Green Bay, though time would prove it not the last.

He had been promised sandcastles and ice cream and special treats, staying up late and longs walks on the beach and a hundred other things that sounded wonderful to a child as young as he had been. He had been too distracted to do anything on the trip other than stare excitedly out of the window, the seat next to him in the back of the car piled high with cases and bags of food that his mother had meticulously packed the day before.

They had driven up in their old Ford Cortina, rust already growing around the door handles that would only grow worse in the years to come. In hindsight it had been a hideous colour, that car, the worst shade of brown imaginable at the grand old age of forty-five, but at the time it had been the best, the only car that they had ever had, bought second-hand. It had been a symbol, too – his father still spoke about that car, the first car he had ever bought, the first step to the freedom of adulthood.

He remembered that journey with a strange clarity, just like he remembered that whole trip, though given the age that he had been it should probably be much hazier. His mother had been singing quietly to herself as she watched the hedgerows roll past, that song by Gerry Rafferty with the saxophone solo, and his father’s knuckles had been white on the steering wheel. Her nails had been painted a glossy red, her hair cut to look as close to Farrah Fawcett as was possible.

“You alright, love?” she had asked him, over her shoulder.

Her smile had already been lined, but it had been warm too.

His father had been rolling in redundancy pay and anxiety – that had been the whole reason they had come away, really, to get him out of the low mood he had been in since the factory he had worked at since he had been fifteen had closed. He was a working man to his bones, his father, and his mother had insisted that the three of them go away for a while, to get them out of the house and away from the knowledge that there wasn’t a job to go back to, away from the pub and all of his friends, who were also all out of work at the moment, away from tired men cursing the unions and the Labour party and the broken dreams of Britain.

Bard was pretty sure that she had picked the Green Bay off the map with a pin, at complete random, an innocuous village tucked along the coast of Yorkshire. It was a tiny place, with very little to offer, all in all, though it was pretty enough. They had stayed in a small bed-and-breakfast one road back from the front, and they had spent a lot of time talking, his mum and dad, sat at the small formica table in their rooms smoking and trying to figure out what they were going to do next, how they were going to get by. That meant that Bard had been left alone for the most part to explore, a lonely trip for an only child, but he had made do.

The front was just made up of one street, the road narrow and the shop fronts facing the bay – there had been a pub (entirely uninteresting for him at that age), a fish and chip shop, and one ice cream stand on the corner. The headland was a steep climb but at the top of one side was a set of old ruins that he took some time to explore, though he found little in the way of buried treasure or sealed off tombs. The beach was small, though when the tide was out the curve of the bay offered a long line of rock pools.

And that was it, really – there weren’t any other children here, and not that many people in general, and so for the first few days he took the sandwiches his mum made him, a couple of pennies rattling around in his pocket, and went off by himself. In the afternoon he would buy himself an ice cream: in the evening he and his parents went for fish and chips, or a meal at the pub, whose customers were an odd mixture of the elderly and the eccentric.

It was interesting enough for Bard, for the first few days, but he had been growing bored already before he’d even reached the end of the first week.

That had changed, on the fifth day.

He’d seen the boy from a distance, as he was padding along the beach in a blaze of summer sunshine, his shoulders already tanned and freckled. There had been a boy standing in the rocks, the pools of water reflecting the bright sky overhead enough that for a moment they looked like great pieces of glass hidden among the stone. The boy’s hair was far neater than his was, cropped short, though even from a way away he could see that it was that bright blonde that always seemed white in the sunshine.

Bard would have turned around, leaving the rock pools for now, but this had been the first person his own age he had seen since he had left Manchester, and the boy had already caught sight of him anyway, staring at him for a long moment before nodding, his mouth pursing into something that was almost a pout.

“Hullo,” he’d called out, across the sand. “My name is Thranduil.”

And that had been how Bard had met Thranduil, for the very first time. It wasn’t something that he remembered in any real or concrete way – it was a haze of feeling now, of nostalgia, all tied up in the taste of the sea air and ice cream cones and the sound of seagulls screaming overhead. It was a memory formed more from looking at photographs than from actual recollection – and his mother kept that roll of photographs from that trip for a very long time, eventually passing them on to Bard.

But they had become friends in that brief summer, in the strange and inherently singular way that children do. They spent the long and heady summer afternoons together, paddling at the shore (though Thranduil never seemed to want to swim properly) or climbing the cliffs, finding strange and brightly coloured anemones in the tidal pools, trying to encourage the silver darting fishes into their hands, throwing sandwich crusts to the seagulls. Bard told Thranduil about his father, and the fact that he had lost his job: Thranduil told Bard about his boarding school, and how much he hated it. They grew so suddenly close, that summer, that Bard had been hard pressed to remember that he was going to have to leave soon after.

“Are you going to come back here, next summer?” Thranduil asked him, eventually, but all Bard had been able to do was shrug.

“I dunno,” he answered, his mouth full of sherbet lemons, all bitter and sweet at the same time, enough to purse his mouth.

(Thranduil had always seemed to have a sherbet lemon or two on him, in a twist of brown paper, tucked into one pocket or another, and he had always been willing to share them with Bard. Even now, the taste made him think of the summer by the sea, of those lost days).

Thranduil showed him the caves in the headlands that he wouldn’t have found by himself – but Thranduil lived here, and so knew all of the secrets of this tiny place. And was willing to share them, too – perhaps because he was the only child his age in the village, perhaps because Bard was always willing to follow Thranduil’s lead – perhaps because he was just as lonely as Bard was. He joined them for tea sometimes, and charmed Bard’s parents effortlessly, although Bard’s father always seemed to frown whenever Thranduil mentioned his expensive school, or his house up on the headland, the one place that he never took Bard.

Bard's mother bought them sparklers: in the days before loud public safety concerns, she didn't think anything about letting the two boys run down to the beach at dusk with them. 

They flared bright in the dying light: Thranduil's eyes had been wide and full of wonder at the sight.

Bard had cried when they finally had to leave, when those bright and halcyon days were over. He had promised to write to Thranduil every week, and had sobbed in a strange and desolate way on the car ride home.

 


 

August 19th, 1978

To Bard,

It’s a lot less fun here now that you’ve gone. My dad bought me a camera, so I’ve put in a picture of a seagull that I found. He has a broken wing, but I’m trying to fix it, so he can fly again.

From,

Thranduil

They managed to continue writing to each other, for longer than either of their parents really thought that they would – there was a certain assurance in those early letters, both of them determined to continue this young friendship.

But soon enough they grew briefer and briefer as the pair of them fell back into their own lives, found themselves in the middle of the many other childhood adventures that the pair of them would have.

December 20th, 1978

To Thranduil,

Merry Christmas!

Are you enjoying being home from school?

From,

Bard

Eventually, of course, the letters stopped. They were only children, after all, and soon enough neither of them would even be able to remember which one of them had forgotten to reply to the last letter.

 


 

1985

Bard’s family were doing better by the mid-eighties, although Bard was only just really becoming aware of how bad the situation had been when he was younger – as a child he had just accepted what was happening without quite understanding what it really meant. If they hadn’t had a lot, well, he didn’t really remember having more, and he had enough love to remain content. But now his father was back on track at work after having got a job (ironically with one of the much maligned unions) and his mother was feeling far less stress for not having to scrimp and save on everything, and they had a little more money set aside. So, in the firm and assured way that she did anything, his mother had suggested that they go on holiday again. His father had quickly agreed, and even though Bard was fifteen, and at the height of his surly phase, he couldn’t bring himself to protest (although he certainly hadn’t expressed too much enthusiasm for it, either).

He hadn’t been sure at the time why his mother picked the Green Bay again – certainly there hadn’t been a huge amount to do there the first time around. He understood a little better once he was a parent himself, that desire to relive the days when you remember your children having a particularly good time – and even now, he could say with some certainty that 1978 had been one of the best summers of his childhood.

So they had driven across the country in order to spend another three weeks in the questionable English sunshine, and when they had rounded the headland (in the same car, only much worse for wear now) he had wondered for a moment at how familiar it all looked – the little houses, the curve of the beach, the slow movement of the sea.

His parents didn’t lock themselves away this time, but he was at the age now that he wasn’t that interested in spending time with them.

He had been in the middle of his heavy metal phase, his hair a long mess running down his back, and despite the summer warmth he had worn his tight, washed out jeans every day, with his second hand leather jacket over the top. A couple of years later he would add Doc Martens to his wardrobe, the first thing that he would ever save up to buy for himself, but for now his outfit was marred a little by the scruffy plimsolls that his mother had bought him the year before, that he had already nearly outgrown.

(He winced now to see the photographs of how he had looked back then, but at the time he had been certain that he had been the height of alternative fashion, curling his lip at anyone who glanced askance at the fake black sharks tooth hanging from his ear. Sigrid had had a field day when she’d seen those pictures, though it rather unfortunately put paid to any protest he might have had to her own ripped up band t-shirts and skinny jeans.)

He had still been gangly, but now there was an awkwardness about him too, and a certain distain for the rest of the world. The village had been lonelier at fifteen than it even had been at eight: at least then he had stopped to chat to the ice cream lady, to the old men and women who took their long walks by the sea. They all looked at him with some distrust now as he stomped up and down the narrow streets, trying to waste time rather than anything else.

He just jammed on his Sony Walkman, ignoring the world, Saxon and Def Leppard blasting in his ears, loud enough to drown out the sound of the screaming gulls.

The ruins and the caves were all still there, but Bard had been much less interested in them now, no longer believing in treasure or making up stories like he had seven years ago. He had scowled and reminded himself that he hadn’t even really wanted to come – at fifteen he hadn’t really ever wanted to do anything with his parents – and he had been regretting not protesting more when, once again, he saw him.

He hadn’t really thought about Thranduil – his mother had talked about the boy that Bard had once played with, off hand, when they were packing, but he hadn’t seriously believed that he would still be knocking around, hadn’t really thought of him as anything more than a vague memory.

But he'd been wrong: Thranduil was always going to end up being more to him than that.

He hadn’t been standing in the rock pools this time, but sitting on the wall overlooking the beach, his head back and his eyes closed as he faced the sun.

Of course, Bard didn’t initially realise that it was Thranduil – as far as he was concerned, it was just some new wave tosser with blonde hair and a skinny grey suit, a boy about his own age but who looked a little older, his green cat eye glasses masking any familiarity in his features. Bard had stared at him for a moment, from across the road, wondering at the sight of someone his own age in a town full of pensioners and middle class, middle aged couples, but had felt too awkward to try and approach him. Instead he’d just carried on, trudging the same path through the village that he had taken every day.

But the next day the boy had still been there, and this time he had seen Bard too, and he stared at him carefully from over the notebook that he was scribbling in – Bard would never learn, that trip, what it was that Thranduil had in that book, but later on he would. They had shared a look, and Bard had been hit with a strange sense of familiarity, one that he had not been able to place until the boy had raised an eyebrow at him, tilted his head to one side.

“Bard?” the boy had asked, and only then had it clicked into place.

“Thranduil?” he answered. “I didn’t recognise you at all.”

Thranduil had tapped the side of his nose, all condescension and teenage pride, enough to rankle Bard, to make him set his shoulders, but not enough to make him walk away – because after all, he was the only person his age in this entire village, and Bard still had nearly two full weeks before he was due to leave.

“I recognised you,” he told Bard, the corner of his mouth twitching. “I never forget a face.”

But there had been a note of humour in his voice, and Bard had found himself shaking his head, amused despite himself.

It had been a very different experience, spending time with Thranduil now that he was older. It had been easier as children, when their social differences hadn’t divided them quite so much, when Thranduil’s family money hadn’t been so obvious, when Bard’s accent hadn’t seemed quite so strong. Perhaps in another situation they would have spent an afternoon together and then would haven’t bothered seeing each other again, but in this isolated little place it wasn’t really possible, unless either of them had wanted to deliberately avoid each other.

They didn’t explore the headlands and the beaches, but instead they shared music. Bard didn’t have a lot of time for the synthpop that Thranduil seemed to prefer, and Elvis Costello bored him something awful, though the sound did seem to fit Thranduil’s look, the green striped t-shirts that he wore underneath his skinny suits, all of them in different shades of grey. In turn Thranduil winced every time Bard played him anything by Judas Priest, but they did seem to find some common ground in the more popular music, the kind played on the radio. They both agreed that Marillion’s Kayleigh was a guilty pleasure, that Paul McCartney had sold out, that Dire Strait’s Money for Nothing would be forgotten instantly, and that Madonna’s career would die within a few years (and oh, how Bard laughed when he thought back on those conversations now, on their pretension, how wrong they had been about so many things).

But the thing was, Thranduil was interesting. He seemed to know so many things, had been taught so much at that posh school that Bard couldn’t bring himself to resent all that much. He talked about history, about Greece and India and places that Bard had never heard anything about before: he had talked about volcanoes that had destroyed entire towns, about tidal waves and vineyards and authors that Bard had never had a chance to read. But it never felt like lecturing, never felt patronising, never really felt like that was all their friendship was, because Bard had so much to share as well.

Thranduil had never taken apart an engine, or laid a wall, and he didn’t know shit about the kind of life that Bard lived. Thranduil had been taught to play the violin and the harp, but Bard had taught himself basic chords on his ratty guitar in his friend’s garage. The blonde not-quite-boy had none of the stories about friends and stupid encounters and drinking cider that Bard had – he’d never even seen Star Wars.

So, slowly but surely, they let each other into their lives, blue skies overhead, talking long into the hazy evenings, the sand and salt water doing no end of damage to both of their carefully selected clothes.

Thranduil still didn’t invite Bard up to his big old house on the headland, but on his last evening Bard did sneak out and meet him on the beach, tucked out of sight on damp sand by the cliff, and they shared a half-bottle of whiskey that Thranduil had stolen from his father’s liquor cabinet, ending up drunk and stupid. It had been the first proper alcohol that Bard had ever had, (the occasional illicit cider with his friends barely counted) and he’d been woozy within the first couple of mouthfuls, the spirit burning down his throat and leaving his chest warm, and strangely tight.

They had end up slumped against each other, their shoulders pressed together, and he remembered that Thranduil had been laughing when a strange urge had hit Bard, an urge to take Thranduil’s hand, to pull him closer.

He had blinked, at the time, and then had shaken it off, trying to pretend that it hadn’t happened.

They had parted ways in the early hours of the morning, when the sky was already blushing with the sunrise. There had been an awkward moment of parting, both of them a little shaky on their feet, but in the end Thranduil had opened his arms, and Bard had stepped into them, embracing for a brief moment before parting again.

“I’ll see you around,” Thranduil had said, his voice a momentary whisper against Bard’s hair.

“Aye,” he had answered. They weren’t quite young enough to promise to write to each other this time: instead, Bard just waved goodbye, and head back towards the B&B.

He hadn’t cried on the way home that time: he had been trying too hard not to be sick as his very first hangover kicked in.

 


 

 

Bard had met the first girl that he would ever date a few weeks after he got back: her name was Abby, and she’d had blonde hair down to her waist, and a curve of hip that was generous enough to catch his eye the moment he had seen her from across the street, standing with her friends. He had liked to wrap his hands around that long hair, and she had laughed as he kissed her, awkward and fumbling. She dressed like Siouxsie Sioux, and backcombed her hair, and swore that she’d have dyed it all black if she wasn’t sure that her parents would be furious. 

They had lasted the lengthy span of four months – it had felt like an age to him back them.

Eventually they had broken up, over something so inconsequential that he couldn’t even remember it now. After that had come Toni, who’d worn the Ray-Ban Wayfarers that her Uncle had brought her back from America every day, even if it wasn’t sunny. She could quote The Empire Strikes Back word for word, and back then that had been a deal breaker for Bard. He’d been a hopeless wreck when she’d dumped him six months later, and for three weeks he had been certain that she was the One for him, the only girl that he would ever love.

He had to stop himself from crying when he went to the cinema to see The Breakfast Club with his friends, though he wasn’t entirely sure why. He still found himself tearing up when he watched it years later, with Sigrid, when she was fourteen and had been going through an inexplicable phrase that she described as retro.

To this day, he couldn’t explain why that film touched him in the way that it did.

He’d lost his virginity to Rebecca a year later – her hair was a mass of dark curls, inherited from her Moroccan father, and she had put With Or Without You by U2 on her cassette player after she had taken off her clothes, and he’d been proud to last the entire length of the song (once again, hindsight made him hang his head in shame). She had been very sweet, and had stroked his hair afterwards.

However, it was the spring of 1988 that had really confused things for him. He was in the last months of being seventeen, apprenticing in a garage and not entirely sure what it was that he wanted to do with his life. Only one of his closest group of friends was still in school, having won a scholarship to the local Sixth Form – one of the subjects that he studied was German, and in the April of that year he went on a German exchange. He returned with cigarettes bought cheap in customs, and his exchange partner, a tall and beautiful young man with striking grey eyes and an infectious laugh.

His name had been Arnulf, and from the moment Bard had seen him, he’d been unable to look away.

He got along well with them all for the month that he was here – he was baffled at times by their sense of humour, but was never particularly offended. He was always able to buy beer, and drank it with them despite complaining about the taste.

Bard hadn’t known what to do with the inexplicable attraction that built slowly over that month, that didn’t lessen even when he learnt that Arnulf had an atrocious taste in music (as far as he was concerned, anyway).

He still couldn’t listen to Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now without thinking of that tall German boy. 

In many ways that had been the worst month of his life.

Arnulf was beautiful. Bard tried to deny it, for as long as he possibly could, but soon enough he realised that he was going to have to figure out what it was that his heart wanted – certainly he was attracted to women, but could he also be attracted to men? Was it possible to want both? He found himself thanking back to the summer with Thranduil, to that night on the beach, to that desire to reach for his hand across the sand – had this always been a part of him, unrecognised, just waiting to wake?

It was strange to explain to his children how it had been, in the late eighties, when Thatcher had preached from her pulpit, reaching out to the masses with messages against homosexuality, about how it corrupted the youth; laws were being passed banning the promotion of any homosexuality; it was almost impossible to explain the wide-spread disgust he was certain that he would face, the spreading paranoia about AIDS, none of them even understanding what it was that they were afraid of. There was no one that he could have spoken to about these confusing feelings, no friends that he dared to confess his growing confusion to.

For a while he thought that he might truly be the deviant that his mother’s church group would have called him, had they known.

But then one day he had been listening to the radio, spring rain pattering against the kitchen window, his mother kneading bread on the counter tops. He hadn’t really been paying attention to it – the usual Radio 3 drivel that his mother seemed to enjoy – but the voice had been vaguely familiar, something from the telly he thought, and he realised that the man actually coming out as gay, right there on the radio, his voice echoing through their bright kitchen.

His mother caught his eye, must have sensed something, and for a moment he thought that she might say something to him – but in the end she looking back at her baking, and hummed a low sound of agreement.

“Brave, sayin’ that on the radio,” she commented, and said no more.

Bard barely heard her – he was too busy listening to that deep, elegant voice, talking about fear and confusion and doubt and being true to yourself and how everything would be okay at the end of it all.

He still remembered that feeling, nearly eighteen and full of a strange hope, months of confusion suddenly lifting, just a little, from his shoulders.

 


 

 

1989

If he had been unwilling to go on holiday with his parents at fifteen, then at nineteen he had been even more uncertain. He would be moving out just a few weeks later, into a shared house with several friends, and in all fairness his parents did not push him into going with them. However, when his mother mentioned that they would be returning to Green Bay, he had hesitated for some time before agreeing to come with them. It was a strange thing: he felt as if his childhood was slipping away as he slowly reached adulthood, and the urge to cling on to those scraps which he could still reach was as strong as his desire for independence.

He drove down on his motorbike, a beautiful ’77 Triumph TR7V Tiger that he had rebuilt himself in his spare time at the mechanics where he now worked full time. He trailed behind his parent’s car, spewing fumes in its old age now, and found himself smiling at the feeling of sun on his face.

The sleepy sea-side town was just as he had remembered it, still slow moving and peaceful. The rain set in on their first afternoon, but he did not let that stop him. Wrapped up to protect himself, he took his bike up the headland, to the old house where his friend had once lived, more out of curiosity than expectation: the whim had hit him as soon as he had seen that long line of sand and sea, the urge to see if that strange boy-slash-man still lived there.

The house looked different up close. From a distance it towered, dark and old and intimidating, but from the roadside it was a funny looking thing. Multiple extensions added on over the years left it looking oddly patchwork, different styles and materials all crammed together in an odd mess of styles. The gardens were sprawling around it, old dark trees twisting from the onslaught of the coastline, small perennials overgrowing twisting paths that seemed to lead off into the heather of the moorland. It lead down to the road without wall or fence pinning it in, as if its mere presence was enough to turn away intruders: it sat on its headland with all the confidence of a King, sure of its place in the grand scheme of the coastline.

But when he turned, his breath caught in his throat. The view was outstanding: even with the drizzle, the vastness of the blue-grey sea was an incredible thing, the little town nestling down in the bay looking particularly picturesque from here.

“Can I help you?”

He startled at the voice, glancing around him quickly. He hadn’t been expecting his friend (if that was the right word) to still be there, and certainly not to look so similar, but there he was, stepping out from behind a tree, entirely hidden the dark foliage up until then. His green cat’s eye glasses had been replaced at some point with a rather large smoked tortoiseshell pair, and his hair was longer, down his back now, but still just as fair as it had been as a child. He was smoking a thin cigarette, and he looked Bard up and down appraisingly before the corner of his mouth twitched up in a smile.

“Admiring the view?” he asked, a little sardonically, and Bard realised that his face was mostly hidden behind his helmet, and he took it off quickly, wondering for a moment what Thranduil would think of his own changes: his Doc Martens were polished to a high shine, his hair still below his shoulders but pushed back and a little neater than it had been at its longest, straggly stage. He had outgrown his old leather jacket: the newer one accommodated his broader shoulders, the back of it covered in patches proclaiming his favourite bands: his dark jeans were pinned together at the knees.

Thranduil frowned for a moment, and Bard watched him carefully, but then that almost-smile twisted upwards into something more genuine, and he shook his head.

“What are you doing back in this shithole?” he asked, and Bard smirked, feeling an unexpected warmth at being remembered.

Thranduil’s look was not that different now to what it had been just a few years ago – another grey suit, only rather more padded at the shoulders, with a bold pinstripe pattern. The sleeves of the jacket were rolled up, ignoring the weather – he realised now that Thranduil’s hair was rather damp, a slick down his back, and couldn’t help but wonder at what he was doing stomping around between the trees in the rain.

“Last summer holiday with Mum and Dad,” Bard replied, a lot less embarrassed to admit it now than he would have been several years before. “Thought I’d come back and see the old place one last time, y’know.”

“Alright for some,” Thranduil commented. “Father keeps dragging me back here – I wonder if I’ll ever escape the place.”

There was a note of bitterness in his voice, and Bard didn’t know what to do with it. He shrugged in response, running a hand through his hair, catching the way that Thranduil’s eyes followed his movement.

“Fancy a drink?” he asked, after a moment, and Thranduil let out a long sigh of relief.

“More than anything.”

They stared at each other for a moment longer, until Bard nodded behind him.

“Want to come down with me?”

Thranduil looked a little sceptical, but perhaps not wanting to appear afraid he nodded, gamely. Bard didn’t have a spare helmet, but the ride was only a short one, and he kept it slow on the wet, twisting roads. Thranduil let out a low noise of relief when they finally pulled up outside a pub on the front, hopping off quickly.

“You’re soaked,” Bard commented as they went inside and he stripped off his jacket, which had thankfully saved him from the bulk of the rain. “How long were you outside?”

Thranduil shrugged.

“An hour or so, I think. You know what parents are like.”

It was a cryptic comment, but Bard did not pry: more than once his friends had done similar things, storming out of their parent’s house after an argument, and though his relationship with his parents had always been a mild one, he could relate. It wasn’t like there was any place for Thranduil to really go, out here, unless he walked down to the village: he could well imagine the frustration with which he might have stomped around that sombre garden had he been in Thranduil’s position, and didn’t feel the need to criticise.

Thranduil went back to the bar, coming back with whiskey rather than beer, which Bard wasn’t used to drinking. He took to it gamely though as Thranduil threw question after question at him, peering at him through his thick rimmed glasses as Bard shared the nuances of his life, rather flattered at the attention his mundane stories seemed to receive.

“And what about you?” he asked in the end, and Thranduil shrugged, leaning back in his chair, his eyes suddenly distant.

“My father and I have very different opinions about what I am going to do,” was all he said on the matter. “I suppose we’ll agree to something in the end.”

Once again, Bard found himself unwilling to push any more – there was something about Thranduil’s voice, closed off and almost vulnerable, that made it very clear that this was not something that he wanted to explain any further.

It was a very different holiday to the ones that he had had here before. The cusp of adulthood lends a strangeness to things, and he found that he wanted to spend more time with his parents than he had done in the past. Long afternoons were spent talking shop with his father, walking with his mother around the headlands – he pointed out Thranduil’s house to her, once, and she looked at him with an odd sort of smile as he told her about their meeting again.

“You should spend some time with him, too,” she told him, taking his arm. “There is something very important about people who have known you throughout different stages of your life. They can see things in you that the people you see every day often don’t.”

It was a strange comment, but he took his to heart, and in those late evenings after his parents retired for the night he often found Thranduil in a pub – and he wouldn’t admit it, but sometimes he wandered from place to place until he found his friend, always tucked away in a corner, always drinking whisky or heavy red wines with a sophistication that Bard knew he could never match, always happy to have Bard join him. Some days, when his parents shooed him out from under his feet, he would take his bike up to the house – Thranduil always seemed to be waiting for him, and he never made it more than half way from the road to the house before he was intercepted. Thranduil was still nervous on the back of the bike, but always swung his leg over with determination, as if unwilling to let it show.

They rode across the headland moors to other, smaller beaches, to ruined buildings, to copses of trees that Thranduil knew, and spent those lazy afternoons in a strangely comfortable silence.

Thranduil’s arms were always wrapped tightly around his middle when they road, his chest flush to Bard’s back, and it was very easy to pretend that the warmth in his chest, the flush on his cheeks, came from the exhilaration of driving fast down open roads, rather than the presence of the other man on the bike.

Just as it had always been, he found that he liked spending time with Thranduil far more than he could have anticipated. For a friendship based on nothing more than the occasional acquaintance over the years he felt oddly comfortable with him, as if the distance from home allowed him to be that which he wanted, rather than what was expected. They had little in common, in many ways, but they found themselves falling back on music (Bard couldn’t help but find it hilarious that Thranduil knew all the words to Madonna’s Like a Prayer – although his knowledge of Cher and Bobby Brown was pretty entertaining too). Bard had been offended at the fact that Thranduil had never listened to Alice Cooper or Guns n’ Roses, and had made it his mission to correct that: he still cringed whenever he heard Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start The Fire, remembering the two of them staggering drunk along the front, trying desperately to remember the words.

Thranduil was older than his years in so many ways, and still seemed to know so much more than Bard about art, about fashion, about the world – and yet knew nothing about work, about independence, about the day-to-day of being an adult. In many ways he seemed to Bard to be a magazine spread: he looked the part of an adult, always catching the eye and coming out with insightful, thoughtful remarks, but lacking something real.

“I want to go into fashion,” he admitted once, when they were deep into their drinks. “I was accepted at a university to study it – but my father wants me to go into law. He’s got me a place studying that, too – and in September I’ll have to take one of them up, but God knows which one I’ll end up doing.”

He'd pulled a book from a bag, one of the many notebooks that he had always seemed to have on his person at any given time. He'd flicked through a few of the pages, showing Bard a couple of drawings, detailed and beautiful things, the sweeping lines of the human form, of fabrics shaped around it.

He didn’t say much more, and put the book away before Bard could see it properly, but it was clear enough from that conversation where the familial discord that Bard had wondered about was coming from. Bard couldn't help but ask himself what choice Thranduil would make, at the end of the summer, knowing by then that they would have parted ways, and would perhaps never see each other again. Perhaps Bard would see his name in one of the magazines whose models Thranduil looked like one day: perhaps his name would appear instead on the sign of a law firm that he would have no reason to ever visit.

Bard's own life seemed very simple in comparison, his path in life already laid out before him, carved by his own hand: for the first time he realised how good he had it, for all that his jacket was still a second-hand one and his motorbike one that he had put together himself.

Thranduil hugged him hard when they parted ways: it was sudden and unexpected and made Bard feel breathless in ways that he had not imagined he could. He found himself clinging on in turn, his hands fisted in the back of another terrible pinstriped suit, swallowing reflexively.

“Whatever you do, you’ll be fantastic,” he whispered into soft blonde hair, and Thranduil nodded, slowly.

They didn’t promise to stay in touch, and Bard had felt too awkward to ask if they could write to each other. When he rode away, into a bright June afternoon, he found himself regretting that.

 


 

 

1992

Nineteen felt like a long time ago by the time he turned twenty-two: whereas then he had been wavering on the cliff top of independence, by the time 1992 rolled around he had long fallen from its scary heights.

In many ways, things were not that different: he still wore the same DMs, still slung that same second-hand leather jacket around his shoulders, still worked in the same mechanics, still drove his old refurbished Tiger around the streets of Manchester. But so many things were different: he lived away from his parents now, in an old house which he shared with five other friends in a slightly run-down part of the city centre. There were hundreds of factories closed and empty now in the city after the unstoppable wave of Thatcherism, areas that had once been busy and more prosperous now found their prices dropping, allowing younger people less fussy about their accommodation to move in.

There had been mould on the bathroom ceiling and the place had been freezing and damp in the winter, but he hadn’t cared.

He paid his own bills, his own taxes, lived to no one’s schedule but his own.

It was Nirvana’s Nevermind that blasted from his stereo now, Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ and John Grisham’s ‘The Pelican Brief’ that sat on his bedside table, and his evenings were taken up with small, smoky music venues and cheap beer. He saw thousands of bands in those years, from a small unsigned group called ‘The Rain’ (who would later evolve into the world-dominating Oasis) to the legendary New Order.

It was James’ ‘Born of Frustration’ that he sang in their old, useless shower, and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ that he listened to on his Walkman when he jogged along the filthy canals of the city. He found Grunge early, the first style that he had really embraced entirely as his own for the ease and rebellion of the scruffiness of it all, and now his wardrobe of ripped jeans and studded leather was supplemented by misshaped jumpers, faded flannel shirts, oversized band t-shirts. He tried to be ashamed of it all when he looked back on photographs of himself, but even now he couldn’t bring himself to be. There was something about the way he dressed back then, just throwing anything on without caring, that to this day still made him feel free.

He still had some of those band t-shirts, tucked away in the back of his wardrobe for days in his studio, old beer and cigarette stains joined by paint, and he revelled in the wearing of such visible legacies of his past.

Then, one day in September, he found himself in the vicinity of Green Bay again. He had not really considered it: he’d gone up to Middlesbrough for a gig one Friday night after work, and had woken early on Saturday morning after the friend at whose flat he’d crashed had got up for work. His plan had been to drive back home, possibly after a café breakfast to rid him of the last of his hangover, but as he was driving out of the suburbs his eye was caught by its name on a road sign, and on a whim he turned off in its direction.

It hadn’t changed much: it never seemed to. Caught in a permanent time freeze, he couldn’t help but think, as if nothing would ever move on. He wondered as he caught sight of the house on the headland what might have become of Thranduil, but he did not follow the road up to it, not today. It seemed too unlikely that the same coincidental meeting would occur again, and besides, he was not planning on staying here too long.

He stopped by the sweet shop, and in a fit of nostalgia bought a bag of sherbet lemons - the taste of them was bitter and delicious and he had crunched his way through a handful before he had even made it five minutes from the shop. There still wasn’t all that much to do around here, but in the late morning it was quiet, and peaceful, and he found himself smiling to himself as the sun tried its hardest to fight its way from behind the hazy clouds overhead. He wandered along the beach for a while, rolling up his jeans and carrying his DMs, smiling a little to himself at the feeling of the sea lapping at his feet. But the one-too-many-beers the night before were beginning to have their effect, and he had never gotten around to his breakfast, so soon enough he wandered along the front and found the first pub that was open and serving food.

He pushed his way through the door after knocking sand of his feet and replacing his boots in the street, and he glanced at the menu behind the bar before he looked at anything else. It was only after he placed his order and the landlord poured him a lemonade that he took in his surroundings, starting with surprise when he caught sight of a very familiar face tucked away in a corner booth.

Thranduil had not embraced the Grunge vibe, or perhaps it just had not arrived in North Yorkshire yet. He was looking thinner than Bard remembered, his hair pulled back in a loose braid thoughtlessly, and his grey, three-button sports jacket was rolled up to the elbows, exposing a white-grey-black graphic design t-shirt underneath it that did not quite match. Bard frowned a little when he saw the whiskey on the table in front of him.

He approached him almost cautiously, suddenly very aware of the faded jumper he was wearing under his leathers, worn through at the elbows, and the fact that he smelt of cigarettes and beer from the night before. Despite his concern, Thranduil’s eyes were responsive when they caught sight of Bard, and he nodded his greeting before gesturing to the seat next to him – certainly he didn’t seem drunk, which was something, although he still didn’t really understand why the other man would be drinking at – he checked his watch – quarter to twelve in the morning.

“Hullo,” he said, taking a seat. “Long time no see.”

Thranduil smiled, though it did not quite meet his eyes.

“How have you been?”

Bard shrugged, an easy thing. And just like that, he felt himself slip back into their strange friendship as if it had only been a week since they had seen each other last, not three years. His food came and Thranduil stole chips off his plate, they debated music and how terrifying The Hand That Rocks The Cradle had been when they had both seen it separately in the cinema. But Thranduil looked tired, dark circles under his eyes and a weariness about his movements that made him seem far older than his years, and in the end Bard could not help but ask.

“Is everything alright?”

Thranduil smiled, a strange smile that didn’t seem to mean anything.

“My father died last week.”

Bard blinked: he had not been sure what he was expecting, but it had not been that.

“I’m really sorry,” he mumbled, for lack of anything more meaningful to say, and Thranduil shrugged.

“Don’t be,” was all he said, and Bard bit his lip. There was an awkward silence between them, as Bard chased the last of his lacklustre salad around his plate, and then Thranduil downed his whiskey quickly.

“Let’s go somewhere else,” he said, and Bard nodded.

He expected Thranduil to lead the way, but when they came out onto the street he simply hovered, eyes on the sea, as if quite lost. Bard couldn’t help but step forward, his hand taking hold of Thranduil’s forearm in an uncertain attempt at comfort.

“What do you want to do?” he asked, and Thranduil laughed, a guttural, ugly sound.

“I want to go back to that terrible house and drink all of my father’s liquor cabinet,” he answered, and Bard looked up at the sky for a moment. "And I want to go swimming. Father never let me swim in the sea, do you know that? He said it was common and dangerous and not befitting of my time."

Bard bit his lip. 

“Alright,” he replied, and Thranduil glanced at him, surprised.

“I mean,” he continued, after a moment, “As long as you don’t mind me crashing at yours. Because I don’t know how big this liquor cabinet is, but I’m guessing I won’t be up for driving back to Manchester once we're done.”

The corner of Thranduil’s mouth twisted upwards, familiar and strange at the same time, and Bard felt that same effusive warmth seep through his chest at the sight of it that he had once known when the two of them rode across the moors together.

"That's fine," he replied, and then padded away towards the front. The sky was scattered with a few puffs of salt-and-pepper clouds and the air was still quite warm, though Bard had no doubt that the beautiful blue-grey of the sea was a deceptive thing. The North Sea was not exactly known for its balmy temperatures. 

The tide was in, only a slip of sand visible. Thranduil paused on the wall at the roadside and pulled off his jacket, his shirt, revealing a pale, bony chest that looked as if it had skipped some meals in recent weeks: there was a small bruise on his hip, startlingly dark against the white of his skin, as if he had pinched his skin to stop himself from screaming. 

He kicked off his shoes too, and then stepped straight down onto the sand in just his suit trousers, striding into the water, not stopping until the water was up to his stomach. 

It gave Bard some hope that it might be warmer than he had thought: when he followed Thranduil in a moment later, only in his jeans, he realised his mistake. 

"It's freezing!" he yelled, as he caught up with him. Two old ladies sitting on a bench further down the front glanced over at them, bewildered, and Bard waved awkwardly at them until they looked away again. 

"Is it?" Thranduil asked, taking a step out further. "It feels quite nice, actually. Just like I imagined that it would."

"Fuck," Bard muttered, shivering, wrapping his arms around his chest and trying not to wince as each inhale brought the water slightly further up his chest. 

Thranduil made a low, strange sound, and then dived under the water, which splashed against Bard and made him swear once more. It took him a moment to process what exactly had happened, and when he did he glanced around wildly, seeing only the fair strands of Thranduil's hair under the water, drifting lazily as if he wasn't moving, and for a moment he felt panic well up in his chest before Thranduil's head broke the surface again, swallowing air deeply. 

"What the hell is wrong with you?!" Bard yelled, grabbing him under the arms and heaving him to his feet. "I thought you were going to drown!"

"Why would I do that?" Thranduil asked, already shivering. 

"Come on," Bard said, not knowing how to answer. Thranduil's body felt worryingly cold, and he towed him to shore quickly. "We're getting you up to that damn house of yours, and we're getting you warm again. This was a stupid idea."

Thranduil was leaning against Bard now, and he huffed a quiet laugh. 

"I make a lot of those."

They had no towels of course, nothing to help them dry off, but Bard wrapped his jumper and layers around Thranduil, leaving only his leathers for himself. Thranduil's hair was a wet snake down his back, soaking into his suit jacket which Bard had forced his arms into. He stood, still shivering and damp and wrapped in layers that were not his own, looking lost and unsure of what to do: his eyes were as grey as the sea, and they were watching Bard carefully now, like a wild animal would, waiting for sudden movement.

“We're driving up,” he told him as he fitted his own helmet over Thranduil's wet hair, and the other man snorted.

“Might as well risk my life on that death-trap,” he answered, after a moment. “What the hell else do I have to lose?”

Thranduil clung to him just as tightly as they rode up the slightly slippery road, and Bard felt a familiar heat build despite the chill as Thranduil’s breath warmed the back of his neck, a heat that he tried to force down, too concerned for the chill of Thranduil's hands and the desperate way with which he had thrown himself into the sea to consider that as a possibility right now.

His forays into his sexuality had been limited to say the least: women he had known well since he had first lost his virginity. He was willing to admit that he was attractive enough, that he was funny and clever and never had much of a problem finding someone to come home with him, and his friends all expected him to take full advantage of that. But he had never raised his attraction to men with them, too afraid with their responses, with what they would think of him and how they would act around him. Because of that, he perhaps had not had quite as much field with that side of him as he would like. The occasional fumble in alleyways behind clubs down on Canal Street, a couple of heated nights in the other man’s apartments – that was about it.

But the feeling of Thranduil’s arms around him were filling him with the sort of heat that only ever came when he was quite a way into his drinks: he forced himself to ignore it. This was not the time.

Luckily, the cool wind against his wet jeans was not exactly conducive to arousal. 

The house looked about the same: the twisting trees cast dark shadows across the path to the front door despite the brightness of the day, and he found himself feeling even colder as he strode quickly to keep up with Thranduil, who seemed to be in quite a hurry to get inside.

“I hate this garden,” he muttered under his breath as he reached for his keys, his hands shaking, struggling to hold them. “I’ve always fucking hated it.”

Bard hummed in response, not knowing how to respond but desperate to get through the door - although, when they finally did, he found himself half-wishing he could go back outside. Inside the house was no brighter: dark wood, brown leather and stained glass obstructing the grey sunlight and making the place seem sombre: it would have done so even without the knowledge that its owner had recently passed on. The place had that musty quality that comes with closed up rooms and rarely used furniture: Thranduil seemed to glide through the place with an elegance beyond what Bard could ever accomplish, leaving him to trail awkwardly in his wake.

That was, of course, until he stumbled, his wet clothes leaving a dark stain against the old wallpaper.

Thranduil led him to a room at the back of the house: a fire had already been laid in the grate, and Thranduil lit it with a zippo he pulled from the recesses of his jacket, burning his fingers in the process. He disappeared quickly afterwards, coming back in clean, dry clothes, a towel wrapped around his hair, a matching towel and jumper in his hands for Bard. 

The jumper was too small, tight across his broad shoulders and riding up a little too high on his stomach, but he did not complain - he just wrapped his towel around his shoulders and huddled closer to the growing warmth of the fire. 

He didn’t turn on a light, and Bard did not raise to try to find a switch. The dim grey light and the flickering fire felt cosy, warmer than the rest of the house, and he took the bottle of brandy (no doubt horrendously expensive) that Thranduil passed him with a small, awkward smile.

The hours passed quickly. They sat on the floor, pulling cushions from the sofa, ignoring the stiff and uncomfortable looking furniture around them. Thranduil smoked cigarette after cigarette, stubbing them out in a cut crystal ashtray on the floor next to him. The brandy went quickly, followed by vodka, followed by whiskey. He knew he needed to say something, to do something, to ask about that moment when Thranduil had thrown himself beneath the water, to find out what was going on, They didn’t speak about Thranduil’s father: the subject didn’t even come up until they were already having to lie down on the floor, unable to sit up straight.

“Are you going to stay here?” Bard found himself asking, staring up at the moulded ceilings. There was beauty in this house, he couldn’t help but think, despite the darkness, despite the death. There was potential for something wonderful here, if only someone were to put the love into it: if they stripped back the dark floorboards and decluttered the terrible, poorly kept furniture.

Thranduil didn’t reply. Bard didn’t know if he didn’t want to answer, or if he still hadn’t made up his mind.

“I’m sorry for asking,” Bard said, in the end, when the silence between them became long and awkwardly drawn out. He forced himself to sit up, his head swimming, and was horrified to realise that Thranduil was crying, silent tears that rolled down his face, gathering in his hair.

“No, no no,” Bard whispered, half crawling, half falling across the floor to gather him awkwardly in his arms. “Forget I asked, forget I said anything, I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

Thranduil shook his head, hiding his face in Bard’s shoulder. The fire behind them had flared up bright, and in his slightly blurry gaze Thranduil’s hair looked like copper.

He had drunk too much to be able to deal with the onslaught of emotion. He didn’t know what to do, all the right words left this head and he found himself petting Thranduil’s hair hopelessly. Thranduil’s leg was thrown over his, the pair of them still lying awkwardly on the floor, Thranduil’s shoulder’s slowly shaking as he continued to cry silently.

“I wasn’t ready for any of this,” Thranduil mumbled, and Bard made a low sound of agreement, of sympathy, the kind of sound that was trying desperate to say aloud that he was here, even if he couldn’t do anything but be present.

“I’m sorry,” Bard answered, his voice barely more than a whisper. “I’m so sorry.”

They lay there, tangled up in each other, for the longest time, until Thranduil’s shoulders stopped shaking and his breath evened out, and he pulled away to take a long pull from the rather bitter schnapps that they had turned to after polishing off the brandy. His eyes didn’t look at that different, despite the tears – unlike Bard, it seemed that Thranduil did not go red and puffy after crying.

Thranduil didn’t seem quite able to meet Bard’s eye, after that – he distracted himself by rolling a cigarette, and then another, and then more still, until he had a long line of them on the rug in front of him, little white lines of paper and tobacco in the dim room.

Bard bit his lower lip, worrying the chapped skin there, until he couldn’t stop himself anymore, and he reached out, tilting up Thranduil’s chin, so their eyes met.

“It’s alright to be sad, you know,” he said. “It’s okay to show it.”

The corner of Thranduil’s mouth twisted upwards, bitter and brief.

“That’s not the way I was raised.”

His tone was odd, too many feelings mixed up in it to be able to differentiate any singular one, but if Bard was to hazard a guess, it was that Thranduil sounded regretful, though he couldn’t really understand why that was – for showing emotions, perhaps? Or for still believing that it was wrong to do so. Bard wasn’t sure either way, but right now, he couldn’t find it in himself to care too much when Thranduil was so obviously hurting. Instead, he simply shrugged.

“Fuck that, then.”

The smile that caught Thranduil’s mouth then was odd, not quite happy, but it wasn’t quite as sad as the last one, either.

“I would like to kiss you,” Thranduil said, quietly, his eyes flitting away from Bard to the fireplace, the dusty curtains, the shadowed corners of the room. “But I’m not sure how you would feel about it.”

Bard swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry.

Had he thought about kissing Thranduil? Not consciously, no – but he had always been aware of that warmth whenever Thranduil wrapped his arms around him, hadn’t he? He had always known what it really meant, even if he hadn’t really been willing to think about it in any great depth. He still didn’t quite know what he would have defined himself as, if anyone had pushed him for an answer, but he had accepted that he was attracted to men a long time back – it wasn’t such a stretch to accept too that he was attracted to the strange young man in the old house on the hill.

“I wouldn’t have a problem with that,” he said, and his voice was much quieter than he had meant it to be, hesitant and warm. And finally Thranduil had smiled for real, only a small thing but one which reached his eyes, moving towards him across the carpet, awkward from the alcohol, his mouth slanting across Bard’s with a tenderness that made them feel, for a moment, as if they were much older and wiser than they actually were.

"You’re wonderful,” Bard had mumbled, into the naked curve of Thranduil’s shoulder, his skin soft against his mouth.

Thranduil’s hands had been cool, and his grey-green eyes gentle, and he had laughed, pulling him down the corridor from the dim, firelit room, through grey and haunted corridors to a bedroom stripped of the dark wooden panelling, lighter than all the rest, and a bed made up with pale blue cotton sheets.

 


 

He didn’t give Bard a number, didn’t ask him to stay in touch when he left the house the next morning, but he did kiss him goodbye, sweet and warm, the kind of kiss that stays with you, that lingers in your bones for years afterwards.

The whole ride back to Manchester, Bard felt as if he were flying.

 


 

 

Had he wanted to call Thranduil? In some ways yes, but in many ways he had been content to let their strange friendship be. He did not know the man well enough to intrude in his life, in his grief, and he was certain that had Thranduil wanted him to stay in his life, that he would have found a way to make it happen.

That night with Thranduil – those gentle touches, those soft kisses, those young and tender explorations – left him smiling for days, for months, and though on occasion he felt a certain longing to repeat the experience, he knew in some deep down, unspeakable way that to climb on his bike and drive back to that old house would be to begin something that he was not yet ready to finish – that it would be unfair, on both him and the other man. It was perhaps the first moment of wisdom in his young life, and though it would not be the last he would often think back on it, in later years, and wonder if that was the moment when he had first truly become an adult.

Autumn passed in a grey haze, never quite cold, never quite bright – leaves fell wet from rain, and clogged the gutters and the roads, rotting and mulching quickly. He opened his front door each morning to the smell that rose from them, not unpleasant, the smell of damp earth and stillness, comforting and unusual in their brick and mortar street, so far from anything green and open. He layered old, thin jumpers on top of each other, and stopped drinking quite so much, content enough now to sit back and watch his friends make mistakes, to make sure they got home safely at the end of the night, rather than making a fool of himself.

December came, and with it a day that would stick in his mind for the rest of his life. When two bombs exploded on the morning of the fourth, a chilly, grey day, he had at first not believed that such a thing could happen, not so close to his own home: he had skipped work, driving straight to his parents’ house, convinced despite the radio reports that something else had happened, that something had happened to the two of them. Of course, nothing had: he had a cup of tea with his mother, whose hair was laced with silver now, whilst his father ha calmly made toast, a little achy now on his old knees.

The 1990s flew by for Bard, his early twenties flitting by with a speed that simultaneously terrified and excited him. His chest hurt the first time he heard Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun, and he didn’t abandon the grunge style that he took so much comfort in, even as it became all the more popular in his own friendship circles, even as it became harder and harder to find flannel shirts in charity shops that hadn’t already been bought by over-eager teenagers. He bought a second-hand pair of Chelsea boots on impulse, scuffed and soft, and his friends laughed at him, telling him that he’d sold out, and he never ended up wearing them – they looked stupid with his baggy jeans. He stuck more pins to his old jackets and shook his head in mock outrage at the neon colours he saw other people his age wearing – because he had been trying so hard, even though he hadn’t realised it, had been trying so desperately hard to be different, as if that was enough to make him special.

The mod look came back, and though he didn’t pay much attention to it, now and then he thought of Thranduil – when he caught sight of a particular grey suit, a particular pinstripe.

One night, in a chilly month in 1995, Bard kissed a man in the alleyway behind a club just for the green velvet suit he had been wearing, tailor made and so soft to the touch that Bard had longed to wrap it around himself.

His boss, a strong but gentle old man, retired after the second bombings in Manchester, the ones in 1996. He hadn’t been hurt, hadn’t lost his home or his business or any loved ones, but he had perhaps lost his hope. His parents had moved over from Cork when he had been twelve, for jobs in Liverpool, and he shook his head sadly as he told Bard how his accent – lilting, soft, almost lyrical – was now getting him glances in the street that made him feel uncomfortable.

“I don’t know how it is all going to end,” he said, quietly, “And no doubt it’ll come to nothin’, as it always does. But I’m goin’ home, to be on the safe side. I’ve got a sister in Dublin, and she worries, y’know?”

Bard did know, and perhaps he should have worried more, though as the old timer had rightly predicted, and initial rush of prejudices had faded relatively quickly, the country easily distracted as it ever was by penalty shootout defeats against Germany, by Dolly the sheep, by the divorce of the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Bard’s bedside table was piled high with books still: he came to Discworld late, at the publication of the twentieth instalment in 1996, and to this day Hogfather was still the most thumbed of any of his Pratchett’s. He would have read it three times by the day that Tony Blair took Downing Street on the second of May 1997, a day which stuck in his mind not just for the landslide victory of the Labour party (well celebrated by Bard and his friends, though Blair himself was certainly later regretted) but as the day when he met, and fell in love with – Frieda.

It had been a whirlwind affair: within a year he had proposed, getting down on one knee with the smallest diamond ring in the shop, the only one that he had been able to afford. She had shoved it onto her ring finger with such enthusiasm that she had scraped herself, and he had kissed the pink skin better as he whirled her around the room of the small terraced house that they had moved into together just a couple of months before.

Of course, everyone had thought it had been too soon: even his mother, who had been longing for Bard to marry since he had first turned eighteen tried to caution him on the haste, but in his mind there had been no doubt that this woman, this fantastic woman with laughing brown eyes and a haze of caramel hair, was meant to be in his life. They had moved in together after three months, engaged within ten, and married at twelve, in a small ceremony at her parents’ parish church. Her mother had tried to convince her into a great cream puff of a dress, but none of them had had the money for anything that lavish, and in the end she had walked down the aisle in a white silk slip dress, her hair loose around her bare shoulders.

God he had loved her – he still did, even now. And back there had been no greater feeling than her soft, plump arms wrapped around his neck, the feeling of her breasts pressed against his back as she curled against him in sleep, the softness of her hair against his stubble when he buried his face in her hair, laughing. She was beautiful, and funny, always tossing her head back in laughter, and when he looked now at photographs of them he couldn’t help but smile to see how happy they had been, how full of life, how full of joy.

 


 

1998

They had done everything quickly: by the summer of 1998 they had been deliriously happy and three months pregnant: the prospect of being a father at the age of twenty-eight had not put him off in the slightest, for already many of his friends were settling down, and the thought of a little child, made up of the two of them, made his heart feel impossibly full. Mildly terrified too, of course, but also deeply excited.

They still hadn’t had much money: Frieda was a receptionist for a small law firm, and he had somehow ended up the senior mechanic at the same place where he had worked since he was eighteen, but all their money went to rent and to savings for their child – they knew that soon enough they would have to move, to a bigger place than their one-and-a-half bedroom terrace, one closer to a school, and they were happy enough to cut back on things in order to save for it. Bard had already traded his motorbike in for a small but serviceable car, with only a small pang of grief at his passing.

But they decided to take a small holiday in the early June of that year, something cheap and not too far away – they had a lovely long weekend at a bed-and-breakfast near York, making love with the ease and languor that can so often only be achieved when there is nothing to do with the day than enjoy each other’s’ company, Bard tracing the small bump of the baby with gentle hands, kissing a line from between her breasts to her belly button whilst she laughed and swiped at him. They took long walks, surprised by good weather, falling into bed early, and sleeping late.

And then, rather to Bard’s surprise, Frieda had suggested that they visited Green Bay.

“It’s only an hour or so away,” she remarked, over breakfast one morning. “And I’d like to see it, after hearing so much about it from you.”

For of course she knew all about it: he had no secrets from her, and nor would he have wanted to. She knew of the strange lonely man on the clifftop, their odd friendship that had blossomed on rare, spaced apart occasions, and she knew too of that one night in the cold, dusty house – he had never hid the fact of his sexuality from her, and she had never taken any issue with it, which in many ways had made it all the easier for Bard to talk about it to other people.

They drove there without delay: Oasis’ Don’t Look Back in Anger played on the radio, and he sang along, smiling a little to himself. Was it true, he wondered as their car cleared the headland, that this little town never changed, or was it that he was overlooking the changes each time, determined to keep those halcyon memories intact in his mind? He couldn’t be sure, for now, looking over those weather-beaten roofs and narrow streets, he felt the same pang of recognition that had hit him the last couple of times that he had been there.

“It’s lovely,” Frieda breathed from beside him, and he reached for her hand, squeezing it for a moment before carrying on down the road, to the town itself.

Now he was searching for them he could see some differences: several of the independent shops had been taken over by chains, and at least one of the pubs, he thought, had changed its name, presumably having been taken over by new owners. The colours of the houses along the front had changed with new layers of paint, and the sweetshop had been closed and replaced with a newsagent, but he went into it anyway, buying them each an ice cream, just for the bittersweet pang of nostalgia that hit him.

“Do you want to walk on the sand?” Frieda asked him, but he shook his head, and they went instead on a lazy stroll along the road that traversed the beach, avoiding the sand. He couldn’t quite see the house on the hill for some time, until at one point he turned around and saw the chimneys sticking out from the headland, and he pointed them out to Frieda, whose eyes lit up in interest.

“You’ve described it so often,” she said, taking his hand. “I half feel like I know what it looks at, but it is nice to see even a bit of it, for real.”

He smiled, turning back to her, but as he did his eye was caught by a flash of blonde hair on the sand beyond them, and he started at the sight of a young boy, no more than two years old, who was watching them look at the house with some curiosity. He was oddly familiar, something in the hint of the cheekbones still mostly hidden under the softness of youth, something in the line of his mouth, the colour of that hair-

“Legolas,” came a voice, a voice that definitely was familiar, from below. “Come and put a jumper on.”

The speaker was hidden by the wall that separated road from sand, but he would have known it anywhere – it had been several years since he had heard it last, but he rather felt like he would never not recognise it, no matter how much time went by, and he stepped forward, leaning an elbow on the wall and leaning over.

“Hullo,” he said, smiling widely. “Fancy seeing you here.”

Thranduil – for who else could it have been – started in surprise, before turning towards him from where he was sat on the sand, leaning back against the stone. He looked a little older, Bard couldn’t help but think, a little tired too, but he did not look worse for the creases beginning to form around his eyes. His shirt was a faint paisley pattern picked out in pale greens, and by his side was resting a suit jacket that looked, to Bard’s warm amusement, noticeably mod-like in its cut: his hair was long still, pulled back in a thick braid down his back, gleaming even in the light of the slightly overcast day. He stared at him, his mouth slightly open, before his hand came up to push his glasses up his nose, as if trying to hide his surprise.

“You just keep coming back, don’t you?” he said, but his voice was not unfriendly. “Though I can’t understand why for the life of me.”

“It’s all the good memories,” Bard quipped, and then Thranduil smiled, his shoulders relaxing a little, and for a moment it looked as if he were about to say something more. But Legolas had slipped to his side, staring up in shyness at the two adults by the sea wall, tugging carefully at his father’s arm.

“Daddy,” he whispered. “Who are they?”

Thranduil turned his eyes to his son, and Bard realised then that the smile he had seen before was nothing compared to the brilliance of that which he gave to his child – he ran his hand through Legolas’ fair hair, messing it up a little.

“This is my friend, Bard,” he told him, pulling him down onto his lap. “And his friend…”

He trailed off, and Bard turned to Frieda, pulling her a little closer.

“This is Frieda,” he told the two pale, blonde boys on the sand. “We got married last year.”

“Then congratulations are in order,” Thranduil said, his voice warm and genuine. “And it is a pleasure to meet you, Frieda.”

“And you,” she replied, leaning over a little more. “Particularly after I have heard so much about you. Would it be alright if we join you both for a while?”

Thranduil glanced first at his son, who pressed closer to his father as he nodded.

Conversation came easily: Bard shouldn’t have been surprised at that, for it always had with Thranduil in the past. The man said little about what he had been doing since last he and Bard saw each other, and though he wanted to ask what decisions Thranduil had made with his life since then, it felt too awkward to do so. They spoke instead of how Bard and Frieda met, of their own child who was on the way – and Thranduil’s eyes lit up at the news. He told them too of how Legolas’ mother and he had met, and when the boy ran off across the sand to investigate a recently emerged tide-pool, he explained a little further.

“We get on terribly well,” Thranduil told them, quietly. “But we were always more friends than anything else, and I think we decided even before Legolas was born that there was no point pretending that there was the romantic sort of love between us – we would have driven each other up the wall, and that would have been far worse for him in the long term, I think.”

Bard had nodded, understandingly, glad that there was no tragic story there, glad that there was no new grief in the life of the strange, sad man on the cliff.

“We’re still very close, of course,” Thranduil remarked, a moment later. “She lives about an hour away, and Legolas’ school is about half way between us. So he spends a week with me, and then a week with Elaine, and were all happy enough, which is all you can ask, really.”

Bard couldn’t bring himself to argue with that: nor could he find it in himself to turn down Thranduil’s offer of dinner, particularly when Frieda turned beseeching eyes on him – he knew how much she wanted to see the house, and if he was going to be honest with himself, he wanted to see it again too.

They drove up separately, Thranduil making a light-hearted quip about the improved safety of Bard’s transport when he caught sight of their car, and Bard found himself surprised at the changes in the house on his arrival. The dark, sprawling trees had been pruned back, dead limbs removed so that the light filtered through green, bright leaves: the path had been cleared of moss, the half-dead undergrowth cleared to make way for ferns, sweet grasses, wildflowers. Bard stopped to pick a daisy, twirling it between his fingers, startled by how different it all was now.

Before it had been a dark and threatening forest: now it seemed calmer, a dappled glade in a pleasant woodland. Legolas did not keep to the path, flitting between the trees, occasionally kneeling down and checking something at their roots.

“We stuck fairy doors on some of the trees,” Thranduil said, with a smile. “I paint little acorn shells, or leaves, for him, from the fairies sometimes – he’s checking to see if there is anything new.”

It took only a moment for a cry of joy could be heard from somewhere in the garden, and Legolas came dashing back with a victorious look in his eye, and indeed there was a fallen leaf painted in gold held carefully in his chubby hands. Thranduil swept him up into his arms, inspecting the leaf as it was held out to him for inspection.

“Very good,” he said, gravely. “The fairies must know that you’ve been brushing your teeth properly.”

Legolas grinned wide, revealing his little, pearly baby teeth, yet to fall out and be replaced. Thranduil carried him through the front door, putting him down on the mat with a gentle pat to his head, and helping him off with his shoes: as soon as he was done Legolas went barrelling off through the house, and he turned to welcome in his two guests.

Bard could not help but be struck by the changes: even from the outside, it had been clear that work had been done to the house, the old and peeling paintwork redone, the windows clean and draped with light, gauzy fabrics rather than the faded, heavy velvets that Bard remembered. The dark woodwork was still there, and so too was much of the heavy furniture, but the walls had been repainted, the old wallpaper stripped away and replaced with pale colours, giving the place a much brighter feel.

“It looks good in here,” he said, and Thranduil nodded, though a small frown formed on his brow.

“It’ll look even better when I get the time to sort it out properly,” he remarked, but said no more on the subject, leading them through to a large, well-scrubbed kitchen, light and airy and sitting them at  a well-used wooden table in the middle of the room.

“I don’t eat in the dining room,” he remarked, as an explanation. “It’s far too large for just the two of us.”

The place felt different to Bard than it had done before, and the change was more than a coat of paint and thinner curtains: he felt it as they drank herbal tea, as Thranduil made a simple pasta meal, as their conversation drifted pleasantly through the gentle evening. There had been grief in this house, disrepair, the sorrowful feeling of a place that was not cared about at all, but this was not the case anymore: its dark corners seemed less powerful now, its ghosts long gone, perhaps escaping through those cleaned windows.

Thranduil, when pressed, handed over to them an email address for Bard to contact him on when they parted that evening, and Bard placed it carefully in his wallet, where it was to remain for many years, unused.

He wasn’t sure why he never managed to send a message. He would blame it, whenever Frieda mentioned it, on how busy their life became soon after: they returned to work from their holiday with vigour, Bard taking as many extra hours as he could to save money for their baby, and soon after he was offered another job, at a chain of mechanics. The pay was better for the hours, but moving to a new place of work was a steep learning curve: the independent shop in which he had started had left him more than capable to deal with engines, but had not prepared him for the paperwork, the bureaucracy, the politics of the place.

Before they knew it Frieda was into her third trimester, as big as a whale – she was forced to take her maternity leave two weeks before her due date, even though she had planned on working right up until her waters broke. When the baby came it was in a rush and a hurry on a cold night in November, after twelve long hours of labour which Frieda had borne with the patience and grace of a saint whilst Bard had been a gibbering wreck of fear and exhaustion.

“Typical man,” she had told him fondly, later. “Making all that fuss. It wasn’t that big of a deal now, was it?”

Their little girl came into the world screaming, and he had cried the first time he had held her in his arms, her red face screwed up and ugly but the most beautiful thing in the world to her doting parents. These were the days before paternity leave, of course, and it tore at him to leave his two girls each morning, knowing that the hours until he could return to them would feel endless: he came back as early as he could, taking over the care of the little one for several hours until she would fall asleep, glad that he was able to have even this short time each day to bond with her. Suddenly, The Manic Street Preacher’s If You Tolerate This had a whole new meaning for him.

The months flew by with such a speed that it took them both by surprise, and they realised that they still had not thought any further on the house that they had been saving up for: then came the house hunting on Saturday afternoons, the mortgage applications, the many disappointments until they finally settled on a place, with a mortgage that was only a little crippling, and after that, of course, came the horror of moving house.

How could he be expected to remember to send an email, after all of that?

But he knew, deep down, that that was not the only reason: something still held him back, some fear at what any lengthier connection to Thranduil might mean.

 


 

 

The millennium had been hyped to no end: Bard and Freida had ended up falling asleep on the sofa, curled around each other listening to Eagle Eye Cherry’s Save Tonight at half past ten, so they missed the big moment, but 2000 came none the less, bringing with it another swelling of Frieda’s middle, another little one to add to their growing family. Bard could not remember ever having felt so happy as he did the first time he saw the new little life on the sonogram monitor, Sigrid perched on his lap and staring with curiosity at her new little brother.

Bain met the world in the early spring of 2001, far quieter than his sister had been, but just as beautiful to his parents. Post-natal depression hit Frieda in the months that came after: she was the same fantastic mother that she had always been, but when the children were asleep she would withdraw into herself, staring off into the distance or going to sleep at the same time as them.

Bard had not known what to do, not at first: nothing in his life had prepared him for it – in fact, he hadn’t even really known what was going on until he caught sight of an article about the subject in one of the magazines that they had in the waiting room at the mechanics. He had gone home, and asked her as gently as he could about it, and she had cried, admitting that things were not right but that she had been too afraid of admitting it.

They had gone to the doctor’s together. It was not the sort of thing that could be fixed immediately, Bard knew that, but he would have spent the rest of his life supporting her, if needed.

Time, patience and communication helped them through, and as the months passed, things improved, until eventually, Frieda was smiling as much as she had ever been.

Bard began to feel old, for the first time in his life, and he couldn’t help but think that that was terribly unfair, given that he was only thirty: every now and then, though, he would find himself remarking on the changing music and fashion with the sort of remarks that his father would have made. Never before had he even registered these changing shifts, and he couldn’t help but wonder if that was a symptom of age as well, or if all the talk of a ‘new millennium’ made him look for change more than he had ever done before.

The frost-tipped highlights and artfully distressed jeans that seemed to be the fashion now confused Bard, though as vintage rock t-shirts came roaring into fashion he at least took some gratification in the old things still hanging in his wardrobe, even if years of work had left his shoulders too broad to actually wear them now – they were relegated to Freida’s pyjama shirts, though there were a few he kept in a drawer, in vain hope that he would somehow shrink down to fit them once again. Freida wore army combats and tank tops now, slipping into newer trends without paying much attention to them: two children had left her wider around the middle, and she didn’t care a bit, unashamed of her stretch marks – Bard was glad for her confidence, glad that she was happy, for her certainly found her as attractive as he ever had.

He survived a little better with music: the melodic post-Britpop and emergence of British singer-songwriters were not his favourite, but not dislikeable, and there were a few acts here and there that he did enjoy, though he rarely had the time to go see as many new acts as he had once done. He took solace in Franz Ferdinand and the Libertines, Placebo and the Arctic Monkeys, plugging his headphones in during work and drowning out the drama of his co-workers.

For his thirty-second birthday, Frieda bought him a sketchbook: he still wasn’t sure when she had caught sight of the doodles that he would occasionally make in his work notebook, quick sketches done in biro in the margins, but she clearly had.

“You’re quite good, you know,” she told him, quite serious, for once. “You should try it, practise, because if you want to, and you enjoy it, I think you could create some quite beautiful things.”

He hadn’t been certain, but she had turned her wide, brown eyes on him and he had caved, sitting for an afternoon in their little garden, both delighted and frustrated in turn with what he managed to create with the set of pencils that she had given him. But it was a strangely addictive contradiction of emotions: despite himself, just a few days later, he found himself pulling out that sketchbook again, and as the months passed he found himself enjoying himself drawing more and more.

For their next Christmas, Frieda passed him a set of watercolours with a kiss.

Time passes, it always does: Frieda left the office where she worked for a better administrative job with Manchester University, through which she also began a part-time course in IT, quickly becoming enveloped in the new world opening up to her. Bard was proud of her, and when he realised that he was starting to feel lonely when she spent so many evenings studying in their little box-room/home-office, he signed up to an oil painting course at the local night school, determined not to become the sort of partner whose own selfishness curtailed their wife’s enjoyment.

2004 brought Tilda into their lives: she was a month premature, a tiny thing who had to spend two weeks in hospital, but she was more than making up with it in noise by the time they brought her home from hospital. For the first time Bard was able to take time off work to help Frieda in those early days, for a six-year-old, a three-year-old and a new-born was more than enough work for anyone, even if they were as strong and patient as Frieda.

They moved to a bigger place, Frieda’s increased salary helping them along the way, to a place close to a good high school, for they were starting to think of those sorts of things now – in the meantime, it had a big garden with swings, and a conservatory full of light for Bard to draw in. He sang along to All the Way to Reno and Dakota to himself on long afternoons, spent painting, as his children played outside.

As the sun set the lights strung out across their patio flickered in to life, lighting the scene with a soft glow. 

He never thought of what could have been.

Why would he, when nothing could go wrong?

 


 

2008

I’m thirty-eight, he thought to himself in horror when he woke up on his birthday that year. Where the hell did the last twenty years go?

It was not a good birthday, by anyone’s standards. The economic crash had not been kind to the world at large, and the company for which he had worked had gone under with it, leaving him unemployed for the first time in his life, suddenly at a loss for what to do.

It might have been much more manageable had he still been in the family home, with the kids around to fill his time and distract him, but he had moved out just a few months before his job had suddenly disappeared, after a very amicable but still somewhat painful separation from Frieda.

He still wasn’t sure what had happened between them: he still loved her, he knew, but it wasn’t the same kind of love as when they had first been together, and he knew that it was the same for her. Perhaps they had been pretending for some time that things were normal: perhaps they simply had not wanted to think about it. All he knew was that one day he woke up and realised that things had changed, and he had tried, for an excruciatingly long few months, to try and fix things, before they had sat down together and talked it through. As always, she had been the stronger one, the one to bring it up, and they had held each other as they cried, as they grieved something which had once been beautiful, something which had come to a gentle but definitive end.

The children had taken it quite well: times were different now, Bard couldn’t help but think. When he had been ten, he hadn’t even known what divorce was, but Sigrid had many friends with separated and divorced parents, and though she had been initially upset, much of her own sadness had been assuaged when Bard had gotten his own apartment just ten minutes from the family home. He still came around for dinner once or twice a week, still saw the three of them all the time, and the fact that he and Frieda were still friends, didn’t shout or argue or blame each other, seemed to make the change easier for the three children.

It made him sad, sometimes, to think that Tilda, now four years old and bright as a button, would never remember living with him permanently, but it made more sense for them to stay in the family home, with all its space and happy memories, and Frieda worked from home now, could do the school runs and be there if they got sick, like he couldn’t.

Well, like he couldn’t have done when he still had a job.

You’re bitter, he told himself as he forced himself out of bed on the morning of his worst birthday, trying not to remember that he was exhausted and confused and unsure what he was doing with his life, which were all pretty good reasons for bitterness: instead, he went into his cramped living room and pulling out his laptop, determined to spend his day sending out his resume, and ignoring the fact that he was getting older. He turned on the radio on his way over, and scowled as it tuned into the smash hit of the year before and terribly unfortunate Bad Day.

But, once again he found that he didn’t have the energy to go through the depressing rounds of online adverts: no one had the money to hire, companies were too afraid to expand, and he was sick of reading through rejection emails. Instead he opened up his calendar, looking at the three weeks over the summer when Frieda had said he could take the kids away, if he liked. She had done it kindly, with no pressure, and now would be as good a time as any to try and find somewhere. He couldn’t take them abroad without dipping more into his savings than he would feel comfortable doing, but he could manage a stint somewhere in the UK quite easily, he was sure.

There was plenty to choose from, and soon he was overwhelmed, flicking through converted barns in Dorset and youth hostels in Oben and former windmills in North Wales and trying to ignore the buzz in his head that sounded just like his own voice, reminding him that he was single, in a scruffy apartment, miserable and missing kissing his children as they went to sleep every night, alone and unemployed, discontent even though he knew that so many had it worse.

Unbidden came a memory of him from his youth, on his motorbike, still full of hope, and he got up to make a coffee, trying to ignore the voice, forcing himself to think instead of all the times he had been happy – he thought of his children, of his parents, of warm sun on his neck, the taste of sherbet lemons with the sand of Green Bay under his Doc Martens, and…

Green Bay, he repeats, not sure if he had spoken aloud or not. It had been a long time since the memories of that place had come to him, but once he let it in it came in full force, and for the first time that day he smiled.

He picks the children up from school, and the four of them make a cake together. They have made him presents, and by the time his parents come to join them for dinner he is almost feeling like his old self again. After he walks them back to Frieda’s, he goes home, logs back on, and searches. It doesn’t take him long to find a place in the small town: two twin bedrooms, a small kitchen-cum-living room, only two streets back from the front. It was just the right size for a single dad and his three kids, and he books it without hesitation.

Sigrid, at ten, is still young enough to be excited by the prospect of a holiday: she rides in the front seat on the ride up, finding appealing CDs from her Dad’s collection and flicking through them until she finds her favourite songs, singing along loudly. It might have been annoying, but he just finds himself grinning and singing along with her to The Tide is High and These Are The Days of Our Lives at full volume. She is surprisingly cooperative at the idea of sharing a room with Tilda for three weeks, and she devours the huge pile of books that she has brought over the course of their holiday, chatting away with a brilliant passion to him about the characters she loves and the stories that she wants to be a part of.

Bain is seven now, full of energy – Bard doesn’t know where he gets it from. He practically vibrates in excitement the entire journey up, trying to join in the singing even though he doesn’t know the words, and he bounces around the apartment exploring every nook and cranny, finding something fascinating even in the smallest and most mundane details. He demands that Bard plays every type of beach game with him that he can think of, and within a couple of days Bard is glad that he kept up jogging and has maintained at least a decent level of fitness into his late thirties, because children with a significant other versus children alone are a very different task – he runs himself ragged, and he suddenly has a whole new level of admiration for those single parents who have done the whole thing by themselves.

Tilda is still his baby at four years old – she starts school in September and periodically will pipe up with questions for all of them, obviously worrying about it. Bard’s favourite part of his morning is brushing her hair into whatever style she wants that day, and the nice thing about a holiday like this is that they have nowhere to be by any particular time, so he can spend as long as he wants styling it into increasingly elaborate up-dos, often facilitated by online style blogs. After that, she is happy chasing after him and Bain, and eating ice cream, which Bard has decided they are allowed every day on holiday, as long as they brush their teeth properly.

It's exhausting, but he realises soon enough that he hasn’t thought about his life back in Manchester even once – the days are too packed with the sort of thing that entertains children, taking them to other neighbouring, larger towns to funfairs and aquariums: they stay in Green Bay many days though, playing on the sand and picking through the rock pools, and on the odd rainy days they rent films from Blockbuster, and crowd together on the small sofa, singing along to the Disney songs that are now engrained in Bard’s head after a decade (God, how has it been a decade) of being a parent.

He didn’t see Thranduil around the town, and though he was tempted at times to ask a local what had happened to him he always ended up shying away from it, not sure what finding out would achieve. They drove up past the house on a couple of occasions, and it is alive with movement, but the wrong kind: workmen are crawling all over it, and the whole place looks completely gutted, and he can’t help but wonder if that means that Thranduil has moved away, has finally cut whatever still tied him to this little seaside town.

He hopes he is happy, wherever he is, and wonders if he will ever run into the strange man again, one distant day.

But as it turns out, it is not all that far away after all, for half way through their last week, when Bard finally felt as if he had caught up with himself again, he ran into him once more. Not on the beach this time, not the sea wall with his face to the sun, not even nursing lonely drinks in a pub, but in a local corner shop, looking harried and buying, of all things, a plastic bucket and spade.

“Don’t ask,” was the first thing that Bard heard, that voice still as familiar to him as it had been the last time they had spoken nine years ago. “An idiot photographer has decided it is absolutely necessary.”

Bard missed the cheery response of the cashier, too busy trying to usher his kids to the end of the aisle in time to catch him.

Thranduil’s hair was still long and elegantly cut, his grey wool suit (because when did he wear anything else) slim cut and at the height of fashion, even to Bard’s untrained eye. The corner of his mouth quirked upwards at the sight of the pale green silk pocket square tucked into the breast pocket – he still hadn’t changed his colours.

“Da!” piped up Tilda, pointing at the fruit shelves, catching Thranduil’s attention. “Can we get grapes?”

Bard nodded, suddenly unsure whether or not to speak to Thranduil, whether he would even remember him after ten years – but then Thranduil was striding over, Sigrid’s eyes wide as he tossed his long hair over his shoulder.

“Bard?” he said, sounding as unsure, for a moment, as Bard was feeling, before he seemed to check himself. “One day I’m just going to find out that you’ve moved to this damn place, aren’t I?”

“Not quite yet,” Bard answered, reaching out his hand to shake Thranduil’s, oddly formal and grown up now. “It’s been a long time – how have you been?”

“Well,” Thranduil replied, his eyes glancing warmly over the three children. “You never kept in touch! I didn’t know you’d had more children.”

Bard rubbed at the back of his head, a little awkward.

“You know how it is,” he told him, trying to evade the question. “Real life always gets in the way. But yes – this is Sigrid, Bain, and Tilda.”

He patted each one in turn, and Thranduil nodded, crouching down so he was on their level.

“Hello,” he said, quite seriously. “I’m Thranduil, and I’m an old friend of your father’s. I met your mother once too, when she was pregnant with you, Sigrid.”

The three pulled back a little, suddenly shy, and a smile ghosted across Thranduil’s face as he straightened up again, obviously not offended by their response, knowing children well. He turned instead to Bard, the hint of a smile still playing around his mouth.

“How is Frieda?” he asked, and Bard shrugged.

“She’s well,” he said. “She’s ending up in computer programming now, believe it or not. Doing really well. We divorced just last year, but we’re still good friends.”

It was defensive, too defensive, and he knew it, but it was too late to take it back, so he held Thranduil’s eye contact, not wanting to look away, not wanting to show that it still stung, even though it had been mutual, even though he knew it was for the best. But Thranduil just nodded, no remarks about the impossibility of a friendship like that, and Bard belatedly remembered the story of him and Legolas’ mother.

“How is Legolas?” he asked, trying to cover up the sudden and unexpected flush of embarrassment that rose in him. “He must be, what, eleven, twelve now?”

Thranduil nodded. “Thirteen next month. He’s fine, just starting to enter his rebellious phase I think.”

“I’m not looking forward to that one,” Bard remarked, laughing a little. He glanced down as Tilda tugged on his arm, holding the carefully selected punnet of grapes up for his inspection.

“Good choice,” he told her, ruffling her hair.

“What else is new?” Thranduil asked, trailing after Bard as they continued their way through the shop: already small, the aisles now felt too small, Thranduil pressing close enough that Bard could feel the warmth of his body, and he felt an unexpected surge of adrenaline at it.

He tapped his foot as Bain stopped to peruse the bread.

“Not much. I heard you say something about a photographer?”

“That’s right,” Thranduil answered, taking the side-step in his stride. “I’m the senior editor of a magazine now – this idiot photographer doing one of our summer spreads decided they wanted plastic buckets, all that summer seaside stuff.”

“Surely you’ve got people who can fetch that kind of thing for you,” Bard remarked, teasingly, and that almost-smile flickered around Thranduil’s mouth again. His eyes were more lined, Bard noticed, than before, the creases half-hidden behind his frameless glasses with their stainless steel arms, very chic, very modern. He wouldn’t have noticed those wrinkles at all if it wasn’t for how close they were standing.

“I do,” Thranduil answered, “But since I had to come here to check in on the house anyway, I thought I’d do some of my own grunt work.”

Bard nodded.

“I saw the old place, when we drove passed it. Are you selling up?”

Thranduil shook his head.

“I was going to, but… I can’t quite bring myself to do so, anymore. I’m just renovating – and I didn’t want to stay there whilst everything was being changed. It brings up old memories.”

Thranduil looked a little surprised at himself, as if he hadn’t planned on revealing that, and gently, hesitantly, Bard leant over, bumping his shoulder against Thranduil, who shot him a half-confused, half-grateful look. Still trailing after the children, no longer paying attention to what they were putting in the basket, he took a deep breath.

“Well, your work sounds great. I’m out of work at the moment, unfortunately – the company I was with closed in the crash.”

He said it in a rush, half choking on the words, but a wave of relief hit him as soon as he had finished, and he wondered to himself how long he had been holding that over himself, keeping it as a guilty secret, making himself feel guilty through his own secrecy. It hit him in a sudden rush that it really wasn’t his fault that all this had happened, and Thranduil’s mouth softened a little as he watched him, as if he could tell what was going on in Bard’s head.

“Sorry,” he said, to the awkward silence. “I suppose I haven’t really got used to saying it yet.”

Thranduil nodded, and then something seemed to occur to him.

“Were you still a mechanic?” he asked, frowning a little. “I know a man in Leeds, he’s looking for a part-timer – I can put you in touch, if you like.”

Bard blinked.

“You would… I mean, it’s great of you, but I’m not sure I will go back to it. I mean, it is all I’m trained to do, but I never really went into it because I was passionate about it, and if I can, I’d like to try something else, something that I love. And I couldn’t go to Leeds anyway, I want to stay close to the kids, but I’m… sorry, I’m rambling.”

“That’s alright,” was Thranduil’s reply, his voice gentle.

“I’m just sort of taken aback – you barely know me, really, and you’d try and help me like that?”

“Of course I would,” Thranduil said, frowning just a little. “Why wouldn’t I?”

Bard shrugged, not knowing what to say.

“Maybe you should take the time to ask some other people for advice,” Thranduil said, softly, after a moment of quiet. “I think there are a lot of people who would want to help you, if you let them, you know.”

Bard smiled, just a little.

“You don’t know me well enough to say that – I might be awful.”

Thranduil shook his head.

“I’m an excellent judge of character,” he said, and then suddenly he was smiling, a proper smile, bright and amused and enough to set off a forgotten heat in Bard’s stomach, something warm, something that made him feel rather ridiculously content. But then Thranduil’s phone went off, and he glanced at his watch, with a frown.

“I have to go,” he said, “Which is a shame. How long are you here for?”

“Only until Friday,” Bard replied, and Thranduil’s mouth thinned.

“Pity," he said in turn, and he sounded as if he really meant it. "I'm not due back until next week. Do you still have my email address?”

Bard nodded – because he did, the scrap of paper tucked in his address book, kept for over a decade, and even now he wasn’t sure why he had clung on to it.

“Good,” Thranduil said. “And for the record, I think you should do something that you enjoy, if you get the chance. And I think that anyone who would turn down the chance to work with you, or spend time with you, or anything – they’re clearly idiots. So don’t stop believing in yourself – and don’t stop yourself from asking for help, either. From me, if you ever need me.”

It was a strange thing to say, oddly passionate, and Thranduil glanced away, his turn now to be embarrassed. His hand was fleetingly warm on Bard’s arm as he squeezed it, before stepping away, out of the intimate proximity that had existed between the two on this little aisle, between the digestive biscuits and the canned soup.

Bard swallowed, fighting against the strange urge to reach out and touch Thranduil in turn.

“Good luck,” was his farewell, and Bard smiled, nodding.

“Thank you,” he replied, but Thranduil was already turning, striding quickly out.

 


 

 

Their last few days passed quietly, and without incident. Despite his hopes, he didn’t run into Thranduil again, but it left Bard with a strange confidence, a peacefulness which he hadn’t felt before. Thranduil had believed in him enough to offer to help him, off the bat, no strings attached – just the thought of someone having that confidence in him was enough to life his spirits, to help with his own belief in himself, currently at rock bottom.

He hadn’t really expressed to anyone his desire to do something else before, too embarrassed to admit it, because he still didn’t know what that might even entail, and he still wasn’t any the wiser by the time they left.

He dropped the kids back off at their Mum’s (he was finally starting to think of it as hers, rather than theirs), and when she saw his expression as he stood in the doorway she took his arm, leading him into the house and through to the kitchen after the kids ran off upstairs with their bags. He was surprised to realise that the sting of bitterness that he had felt the last time he was inside the house had faded to something gentler: he could look around him now without quite grieving the life that he had lost, with just a touch of nostalgia, instead. It had only been a few months, he thought, but the weeks away had allowed him to let go of whatever dark and miserable part of him that had been weighing him down.

“You look better,” Frieda said, as she put the kettle on. “Less tired, which is good. How was the old place?”

He shrugged.

“Much the same. I don’t think I ever want to see a volleyball again, but we had a great time.”

“Good,” she said, smiling, but when she turned to him it was with a quizzical look in her eye.

“I was a little surprised when you said that you were going back to Green Bay, after so many years, but I suppose you’ve always had ties there.”

“Mm,” Bard answered, reaching for the tea towel to mop up a splash of water from the sink, only realising what he was doing half way through, putting it back down with a sheepish look. “Sorry,” he told her.

She shook her head.

“Any friend of mine would have wiped it up, you’re overthinking it.”

Bard nodded: he probably was, but it was hard to know what to do in a house that had once been your own that wasn’t any more. What was pushing the boundaries? What was now okay to do? It was an uncomfortable feeling of displacement.

“Did you see Thranduil?” she asked, her head to one side, her eyes bright and amused, and he found himself shrugging.

“Briefly, we ran into him in the supermarket, but only for ten minutes or so.”

She nodded, and for a moment he thought she was going to press him further, but she seemed to accept his reticence, the slight flush across his face.

“You look like you’re trying to make your mind up about something. What’s going on?”

He smiled, despite himself: she had always been astute, and she knew him better than anyone else, didn’t she?

“I don’t know,” he said, steeling himself. “I need to find something to do – but I think I want to do something new. I just don’t know what.”

She nodded, the corner of her mouth curving upwards in that sweet little way that had always made him want to kiss her: that urge had gone, now, but the sight filled him instead with a warm affection.

“You could go back to school,” she said, twisting a strand of hair around her fingers thoughtfully. “Like I did. Find something that you want to study.”

Bard wrinkled his nose.

“It doesn’t really appeal,” he said, honestly. “I know you’ve done fantastically well after you went back to study, but… I don’t know, I just can’t see myself doing that.”

She hummed, turning to spoon coffee into the cafetière as the kettle clicked off.

“What about your art?” she asked, and he blinked.

She turned to look at him, folding her arms.

“I know you don’t like to show it off, but I’ve seen bits and pieces, over the years, and you’re really quite wonderful. Those oil landscapes that you did last summer – and your ink drawings, too, the portraits of the kids – they are all brilliant. And I know you love doing it – the only time you look happier than when you’ve got paper in front of you is when you’re playing with the kids.”

Bard looked at his shoes as Frieda poured the coffee, breathing out heavily through his nose. He hadn’t even considered the prospect of his art being a viable thing for him to do – as Frieda said, most of his completed works were wrapped up in brown paper and stacked under his bed, out of sight and out of mind – most of the time he never really considered showing them to other people.

“What about Ben’s?” she asked as she passed him his mug, referring to a sprawling independent coffee shop a few streets away which often showcased the work of local artists, and which had a wide clientele of local middle class business men, women who lunch and younger, student types.

“You think?” he asked, and she nodded, patting his hand.

“Worth a shot, right?”

And, because he had always listened to her advice, several days later found Bard chatting away to the owner, showing him the photographs he’d had developed of the work he was proudest of, feeling cautiously optimistic as the eponymous Ben nodded enthusiastically, before picking out six images which he wanted to show.

 


 

 

Things, after that, changed quite suddenly.

His paintings had sold within a week – a house record, Ben had told him happily, pouring him a cappuccino on the house. Bard had let Ben price them, not having a clue what that sort of thing actually went for, and he had still been reeling at the numbers on the cheque in his hands by the time he went home with an order for another six paintings blind-siding him. There were many things that the money could have gone on – he was up to date with his payments to Frieda, but he could have used it to move to a nicer place, could have replenished his savings, could have done anything sensible, but instead, two days later found him with second-hand but relatively new motorbike in need of fixing up.

Was it a mid-life crisis? He wasn’t sure, but the moment he started taking it apart on the drive in front of his building he felt something calm settle inside him, something right, as if he had found a little part of himself that he had left behind somewhere, on the way.

The next six took ten days to sell, and this time for substantially more. They had just been ones he had pulled from beneath his bed, ones that he had done and then put away because he had only ever seen the flaws in them, never the beauty, but it seemed that other people did not have the same scruples as him. A lot of that cheque went on replenishing his old art supplies, replacing dried up brushes and messed up ink liners and colours that he had run out of years ago, and the rest went back into his savings – he’d seen a nice apartment, two and a half bedrooms and access to a garden, that was just as close to Frieda’s. If he got that place, then the kids would be able to stay over at his place some nights, and that was his main goal right now.

Frieda laughed herself silly the first time he showed her the motorbike, but when she’d stopped she hugged him tight.

“I’m glad for you,” she told him. “You’re finding yourself, again.”

Bard nodded, his arms wrapped around her, the sweet scent of her hair a familiar and comforting one.

“I didn’t realise I’d lost myself,” he admitted, and she patted his back.

The kids thought the motorbike was awesome, though Bard was unwilling to let them ride on the back, still a bit wobbly himself after so many years away from it. But he picked it up again quickly as the time went by, everything suddenly speeding up along with his driving. He picked up his brushes again for his third set of paintings, and when he delivered the next set Ben was hovering.

“A couple of people have asked me, after that portrait head in the last set, if you do commissions?”

Bard hadn’t had an answer ready, never having thought about it before – but he found himself agreeing, and so followed five or six very well paid family portraits, normally of children or couples, and one rather memorable one of a beloved family pet. He found that work enjoyable, meeting families, hearing their stories, working from photographs that he staged and took himself. He supposed he might have carried on in that vein for years, doing reasonably well for himself and enjoying waking up for work in the mornings, but then he was approached by a local up-and-coming graphic novel publisher, who was wondering if he would be interesting in coming on board with them. It turned out that one of their senior staff members had a rather unhealthy dependency on a morning macchiato from Ben’s, and they had seen some of his smaller ink line drawings on the walls. It was only a commission based gig to begin with, and it had been a steep learning curve. He’d never done work like it, but they were supportive and indie and new enough to be willing to send him to workshops so he could learn.

To begin with he did two or three page stuff for their monthly magazine, which showcased up and coming writers, learning as he went: his first big break came when a young writer approached him through the company, and between them they mocked up scenes from a stand-alone graphic novel. He had slaved over it for months, doing his portrait commissions and sending paintings to Ben at the same time: he and Annie, the young artist, spent many nights up late with their panels, meticulously perfecting each one.

She blasted Fall Out Boy from her iPod speakers, and within a month he knew all the words to the songs he liked by them, even if he didn’t have a clue what any of them were called – he found himself humming ‘you can only blame your problems on the world for so long’ on the tram in the city centre, gaining him many odd looks along the way. She introduced him to The Killers (and Sigrid had been very impressed when she realised that her father actually knew modern music), and Tegan and Sara – suddenly he was buying Green Day and Blink 182 and Gorrilaz albums, and wondering if he wasn’t all a bit too old to be listening to them, and not caring.

He played her Foo Fighters and Bloc Party and Oasis in turn, and the two of them both listened to Resolve on repeat the night before their interview.

Bard had been convinced that he would fuck it up for the both of them, that they’d take one look at his stuff and throw them out without even taking the time to look at Annie’s incredibly crafted story, her beautifully constructed characters, the wonderful world that she had created.

But he hadn’t – the senior staff had been very pleased with what they had created together, and a month later he found himself signing a rather terrifying publishing deal.

It had been a year until the complete thing was finally published, and to his bemusement it was actually successful.

The forward for the graphic novel had been enough for Annie to pay off her student loans and for Bard to put down a healthy deposit on an apartment – not the one he had first thought he would get, but one that actually was a little closer to the kids and larger, too. He tried to increase his payments to Frieda, but she didn’t need his money, so he moved it all to a savings account for the kids, for if they wanted to go to university, or for their first cars, or anything they needed it for. He bought himself a leather coat, the first piece of clothing he’d ever bought that cost him three figures, but as soon as he touched the supple fabric and sheepskin lining he couldn’t leave it behind.

He and Annie were offered a contract for another book together, and they took it gratefully: they could work their own hours, which meant that he never had a problem with seeing the children multiple times a week: they moved pretty fluidly between their two parent’s houses now.

His weekends were for his children: he took Sigrid to her football matches on Saturday morning, cheering her on from the stands, getting her back in time to pick up Bain to take him to his ballet class in the afternoons. He had been shy when he had first asked his parents if he could take up dance, but they had only ever wanted their children to do what made them happy. The mothers in the dance studio often stared at him, the broad-shouldered former mechanic with his earring and shoulder-length hair tied back in a bun, always in jeans and boots and his beautiful leather jacket – some of those glances were judgemental, some were appraising, but he ignored them all, refusing to be made to feel awkward when he was there to support his son. Sundays were normally spent doing something that Tilda enjoyed, zoos and aquariums and Manchester’s air and space museum, and even as they entered their teenage years Sigrid and Bain continued coming along with them, sometimes a bit moody, but most of the time the sweetest children Bard had ever known (though he was willing to admit that he might be a bit biased).

They got a cat together, the four of them, a tiny little tabby with pale green eyes that kept getting up on his bed no matter how many times he tried to shoo her away. 

The kids loved her: he called her Kayleigh after the old song that still made him smile, and she kept him company on the nights when he was alone.

In the end he pulled out Thranduil's email address: time had flown quickly since that summer holiday, but he thought that he might finally be ready to establish something more than a fleeting contact: or at least, he felt that he wanted to be ready, and he hoped that that was close enough. 

It took him days to work out how to phrase the email, what to say, how to say it, and in the end he sent it off still feeling like it was wrong somehow. 

Perhaps it was for the best that it reappeared in his inbox seconds later: the email scribbled on the piece of paper, an old late-nineties address, was no longer in use. 

He had no way to contact Thranduil any more, and he wondered, as he stared at the failed delivery notification, if that wasn't for the best right now. 

He needed to sort himself out: he needed to learn how to be a single dad: he needed to find himself again.

 


 

 

2016

“Da, why don’t you date someone?”

Sigrid was eighteen now, and going to university in September, which baffled Bard – how had she grown up so quickly? Already his oldest baby was an adult, and he tried very hard not to let that make him feel terribly old. His children had never paid much attention to his love life (or lack thereof), but in the last couple of years both they and their mother had seemed to become more concerned about his near constant single life, wanting to see him happy, and with someone that could love him as much as they did.

It made Bard feel a little awkward, sometimes, particularly when it came from Sigrid, and he shifted on the sofa uncomfortably. The two of them had been watching an old Bond film, and she had taken the opportunity of an advert break to raise the question, sounding much more insistent than usual – he doubted he was going to be able to brush off the question this time.

“I’m… it just hasn’t really come up,” he replied, knowing full well that it sounded a little lame, even to him, and as he perhaps could have anticipated Sigrid frowned at him.

“Isn’t there any nice woman whose caught your eye? No one you’ve fallen head over heels for at the pub?”

Bard shook his head, shifting down a little lower in the comfy sofa.

“The only woman I’ve ever loved, my darling, is your Mum.”

Sigrid made an appraising noise, glancing down at the chipped green polish on her nails.

“What about men?” she asked, a little shyly, and Bard started in surprise.

“What?”

“You know,” Sigrid told him, a little sarcastic, sounding just like her mother. “Men, that thing that you are.”

Bard swallowed. He had never raised the subject of his sexuality with his children – it had never come up before now, but he supposed that he should have done, should have explained to them, should have made more of an effort.

“Where, ummm-” he started, unsure of what to say.

“I heard Mum talking to Grandma on the phone about it,” Sigrid cut across, quickly, sounding a little guilty. Bard blinked – Frieda’s mum had passed away several years before, so Grandma could only have referred to his own mother, who he had never admitted his sexuality to. Had she guessed? Had Frieda told her?

“They were saying that they hope that you find a nice man or woman to make you happy, and I can put two and two together, you know. There is nothing wrong with being bisexual Da, or however you chose to define.”

Bard coughed.

“Bisexual will do,” he said, sounding a little strangled despite himself. “I suppose I should have told you kids myself, but it hadn’t ever really come up.”

“It’s alright,” Sigrid told him, sounding very genuine. “I don’t mind, and neither will Bain or Tilda – nor does Mum, or Grandma! Though Alex did, that’s why they broke up.”

Alex was Frieda’s new boyfriend - or had been, he supposed. He had been on the scene for a couple of months, and though Bard did not particularly mind him, he had never really warmed to him either – but, as he often reminded himself, as long as he was good to the kids and to Frieda, it wasn’t his place to have an opinion.

“Your Mum and Alex broke up because I’m bisexual?” he asked, baffled by the turn in conversation.

“No, well… sort of? He overheard Mum too, and then I heard him say that he didn’t know that you were a… well, I’m not going to repeat it, but he was bloody rude. And then Mum started yelling at him and they got in a huge fight, and she ended up saying that she refused to tolerate any man who couldn’t respect the father of her children, and showed him the door. She was awesome.”

Bard felt a warmth flood through his chest, a rush of affection for the much loved mother of his children, still his number one defender after all these years. He couldn’t say that he wasn’t happy that she had ended her relationship with a man who would make intolerant remarks about sexuality, whatever it was that he would have said, but he was sorry that it hadn’t worked out better, that he hadn’t proved himself to be a better man.

“She’s always been amazing,” he told her, truthfully, and Sigrid nodded, smiling. She leant against his side, and he wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pressing a whiskery kiss against her head – his stubble was rough and he kept it on the longer side, now that age had thickened it out a little, making it less patchy.

“So its fine, and she told me later that she was glad she found that out about him now before she got serious about him.” Sigrid didn’t sound all that bothered that Alex was out of their life, and he was suddenly grateful for what a wonderful personal she had turned out to be.

“You’ve grown up to be a pretty incredible young woman, you know that?” he said, quietly, the corner of his mouth quirking upwards. “And I don’t think I can take credit for it.”

Sigrid nudged him.

“You’re pretty cool too, you know. And so is Mum. So I’m happy – I have a sweet, bisexual graphic artist for a Dad, a supportive, badass software developer for a Mum, and I’m a…”

Bard grinned at the flattery, despite himself.

“You’re a what? A soon to be English Literature student?”

She shifted, her voice suddenly more serious.

“Well, yes, but…”

Bard bit his lip: it sounded as if she was trying to tell him something important, and he tried to calm the fluttering nerves in his stomach, unsure of what was coming.

“Go on, if you want to tell me,” he said, gently. Sigrid made a humming sound underneath her breath.

“The sexuality thing.”

Bard nodded.

“Mmhmm?”

Sigrid was looking at her nails again.

“I just never really got it,” she said suddenly, quickly, as if she had to let it all out for fear of losing her nerve. “It never made any sense to me, because I’ve never felt the way that people always describe it, and I thought that there was something wrong with me for ages, but then I looked into it and it turned out it is a thing, and it isn’t anything that’s wrong with me – it’s called asexuality, and I know I should have told you and Mum sooner, but I didn’t know-”

“Hey, come on,” Bard said, speaking up as soon as he heard the quaver in her voice. “Take a breath. You know that your Mum and I, our love for you is a pretty unconditional thing, yeah? It isn’t the kind of thing that could ever change, no matter what revelations you put to us.”

Sigrid let out a long breath, as if in relief, and it broke his heart for a moment to think that she might have doubted them.

“I just…” she trailed off, and swallowed. “Thanks, Dad. It’s kind of a different thing knowing that, to hearing you say is.”

“Yeah,” he replied, squeezing her shoulder. “Maybe I should say it more often.”

She huffed a quiet laugh.

“I think I’d have still worried, no matter how many times you said it to me.”

He nodded, kissing her hair again, wondering what to say, struggling for the words to properly express his love for his children, his willingness to support them through everything and anything. But Sigrid, it seemed, wasn’t done, and this was her moment to talk, not his to cut over her. He had always believed that children should have the time and space to express their feelings, so he held himself back, letting her carry on.

“Aren’t you upset though?” she asked, that quiver back in her voice. “Because the thing is, I don’t know if I ever want to be in a relationship, and I don’t know if I’ll ever have kids, and if you and Mum really want to be Grandparents-”

He took her hand, and brought it to his mouth, kissing the back of it.

“I very much doubt your Mum has thought about it, because I haven’t,” Bard told her, trying once again to show how much he supported her in his tone. “I don’t think the three of you will ever be old enough in your head to have babies of your own.” “But you know, Sig, it is your body, and your life, and your decisions – your mother and I, no one in fact, has any right to have expectations of you. Ever. And you should never make your decisions based on what you think other people want you to do.”

She nodded, and snuggled closer to his side, pressing her face into his arm for a moment.

“Alright,” she said, and though her voice was still a little wobbly, he thought that it sounded a little happier, this time.

“But have there been any men, Da?” she said, suddenly, and he groaned in his mind. “If there haven’t been any women?”

“I thought you’d dropped that?” he said, and she glanced up, snorting at his expression.

“Nope. Teenage daughters are here to pester you,” she told him, quite seriously, and he pulled a face.

“Shouldn’t it be me interrogating you about your love life?”

“Ha, that’s not gonna happen.”

He nodded, resigned, as she nudged him again. “Go on, tell me!”

“Fine,” he said, sighing. “There was one, once. Sort of. It never was a real thing, but-”

Sigrid’s eyes were wide. “Tell me about him!”

Where to begin? Bard took a deep breath, not even sure himself how best to describe his relationship – if you could even call it that – with the blonde man in the lonely house on the hill, his eyes the colour of the North Sea, his hands shivering as Bard pulled him from the water.

“It’s strange, when you think about it. I first met him when I was just a child, and over the years I ran in to him several times, so really, I barely know him. But every time I have, it has felt like we’ve been the closest of friends for many years.”

He smiled then, despite himself. “I… when you get older, your memories do a strange thing. Many of them fade away, and other shine bright – they become sort of like the streetlights on the path of memory lane, you know?”

She nodded, watching him carefully.

“Anyway, I have a lot of streetlight memories. Those are the most important ones, the most defining ones – hundreds of you three, your Mum too, my parents, my art. But all the times I met Thranduil are there too, still so clear in my mind even after all this time.”

“Did you love him?” she asked, and it took him a moment to remember that she was an adult now, and old enough to have the truth explained to her properly.

“I never knew him long enough to love him, but I think that I could have, if ever we’d stayed in touch. I think, in a lot of ways, that was why I never did.”

It was surprisingly easy to say, particularly given the fact that he had never really admitted that to himself before now. But it was true, wasn’t it? He might not want to think about it, but the intimacy that had always existed between them, the strange closeness, the heat and the way that he had always made Thranduil smile – it was enough to make him believe that had they ever tried, something quite incredible might have happened.

“What was his name?” Sigrid asked.

“Thranduil,” he answered, grinning at her expression. “What? That was his name!”

“That’s a weird name,” she told him, pulling her phone out of her pocket and tapping open an app, which he didn’t pay much attention to.

“His son was called Legolas,” he remarked, and she laughed.

“And I thought the three of us had weird names. What was his surname?”

It took him a moment to remember, but when he did, he smiled.

“Greenwood. Thranduil Greenwood from Green Bay.”

She glanced up at him, a little frown creasing her brow.

“That place we went to on holiday that time?”

He nodded.

“That’s right.”

She stared at him for a moment, and then her eyes went wide, as if remembering something.

“Wait, it wasn’t the man with the blonde hair, was it?”

“How do you remember that?” he said, confused – she had only been ten years old at the time, and they had only met Thranduil for a few minutes in a supermarket, not exactly the most memorable of situations.

“I thought he looked like a Disney princess,” she said, sounding a little embarrassed. “The hair, you know. Look, here he is!”

Bard blinked as she waved her phone at him in excitement.

“What?”

She rolled her eyes at him.

“I’ve found him on Facebook. Oohh, he’s really attractive Da.”

“Shut up,” he said, suddenly mortified, but before he could stop himself his curiosity set in. “Show me.”

She grinning, tilting the screen so that he could see, scrolling through the pictures that they were able to see. Thranduil looked – well, he looked good, but Bard had been expecting that. The frameless glasses that he had worn last time they met had been replaced with a thick rim pair, very similar to the ones he had worn when they had been young, and though he looked a little older he was wearing his middle-age with a grace that he probably should have expected. His hair was just the same, perhaps a touch lighter from silvering (and Bard couldn’t talk, his own hair had started to salt-and-pepper in the last few years). There were only a couple of pictures, one of him with a young man who looked a lot like him, both of them in suits – clearly Legolas. There was one that looked professionally taken, in a sharp, moss-green shirt with an open collared white shirt, another where he stood on a beach that looked suspiciously like Green Bay in the middle of winter, wrapped up in a thick, grey checked coat that looked as if it had been made for him.

He’d been tagged with his son and a young girl with red hair in the kind of picture that teenagers took these days, the camera up at an angle, Thranduil looking just a little confused as the two teenagers grinned. His expression was so wonderfully human, unlike the others, warm and baffled and just like any Dad being confused by his children, and Bard’s chest warmed at the sight of it.

“He does look good,” he admitted, and Sigrid grinned.

“What does he do?”

Bard shrugged.

“Last time I saw him, he was an editor at a magazine, I think.”

“Hmm,” she said appraisingly, scrolling through his profile – most of the information was set to private, to her disappointment. “You should add him, Da.”

Bard shook his head, frowning.

“No, wouldn’t that be weird?”

She stuck her tongue out at him. “People do it all the time Da, that’s the point of Facebook.”

He wasn’t sure - it didn’t feel right, somehow, but she was turning those big grey eyes on him, and he felt himself caving. Kayleigh, older and a bit fatter now padded into the room, rubbing her head against Bard's leg as if she was agreeing with Sigrid.

“I’ll think about it,” he said, and she seemed satisfied for now, though he rather suspected that this would not be the last he would hear about it.

He reached down, and scratched his cat between her ears, wondering.

 


 

He played with the idea of adding Thranduil on Facebook for a few days, but he still could not quite bring himself to do it. He couldn’t explain it, but after all this time, something so definitive seemed wrong, somehow. What was he trying to achieve, with this? Thranduil might be married by now – the red haired girl might well have been his later child with someone new.

But now that Sigrid had put the idea in his mind he couldn’t bring himself to do nothing, and in the end the answer came to him in the middle of the night. The address of the old house on the hill was easy enough to find with Google maps, and so, a couple of days later he found himself penning a letter, not really sure what would come of it, sticking a stamp on the envelope and shoving it into the post box before he could talk himself out of it.

 

Dear Thranduil,

It’s been a long time, and I know that is my fault. I tried to email you, but the one I had for you got rejected – I suppose the account must have deactivated. I don’t know if you are even still living here, but last time we spoke you said that you had ties to the old place still, and I thought it was worth a shot. I feel that I owe you a letter, anyway – you probably don’t remember this, and it doesn’t matter, but all those years ago, when we were children, and we wrote letters to each other – well I don't really remember for sure, but I think it was probably me that forgot to reply to the last letter you sent me. So here it, nearly forty years late.

I owe you thanks, as well as a letter. I don’t think you’ll ever know just how important our last meeting ended up being – it inspired me, in a lot of ways. I never did go back to engines and oil, other than in my own time. I did what you said, and went into what I love – I’m an artist now, though that still feels odd to say. I do family portraits and sell my paintings in a local coffee shop, but most of my time is spent as a graphic novel artist. We’re in talks about our first novel being turned into a Netflix original series, which is kind of amazing and kind of terrifying at the same time. I love what I do. I’m not sure if I would have worked up the confidence without you.

I hope you’re well, I hope your son is too, and that the renovation of the house left you happy with it. My kids are fine, suddenly terrifyingly grown up – Sigrid is off to university in September, which can’t be right, because I swear she was only turning ten last week. Bain doing well in school, but his passion is in dance – he’s been doing ballet for six years now, and maybe I’m biased, but he’s incredible. Tilda has covered her bedroom walls in pictures of sharks and coral reefs – she wants to be a marine biologist, or an astronaut, depending on her mood. I respect her ambition – and I wouldn’t mind seeing a daughter of mine on the moon.

I’d like to hear from you, if ever you’d like to talk more.

You’ve been the strangest constant in my life, over these long years.

All the best,

Bard Bowman

 


 

 

And then, just a couple of days after he had sent off the letter, he logged into his facebook. He rarely used it, only to send Sigrid and Bain links to silly things and keep in touch with old friends. Several notifications were flashing, and he ignored them, expecting more of the usual game invitations and posts to groups that he mostly ignored. There was a new friend request too, but he left it alone, expecting just the usual distant relative interested in his life, or super-fan who had searched his name (he kept meaning to change his name, or his security settings, to avoid such a thing, but still hadn’t got around to it).

Instead, he opened up the new message, taking a sharp intake of breath when he saw just who the new message was from.

 

Thranduil Greenleaf:
You didn’t send a return address, which means that now I’m the one guilty of never replying to your last letter, which is incredibly unfair. Luckily your surname is easy enough to track down.

Thranduil Greenleaf:
And you don’t have to thank me, you know. I might have helped you last time, but I’ll consider it repayment for when I saw you after my father’s death.

Thranduil Greenleaf:
Anyway, I despise facebook – I only have one to annoy my son. But here’s my number – if you ever want to talk, just give me a call.

He added the phone number to his mobile immediately, before he lost the nerve, and stared at the new entry for a long time.

 


 

 

“Sigrid said that you’d told her about Thranduil,” Frieda said, when he came around to pick up the kids that weekend.

Bard stared at her, wrong-footed, and she grinned at him. She was still beautiful, he thought, her honey hair worn at a shorter length now, her soft, round arms tanned lightly from time spent gardening in the sun. There was a spray of freckles across her nose which were new, now, and a confidence and gravitas about her movements that made it clearer than ever that she was a woman to be reckoned with, a woman used to leading.

“She said that you promised to get in touch with him.”

She raised her eyebrows, her smile teasing, and Bard scuffed at the ground with his boots. He’d bought Doc Martens again a couple of years ago when he realised that they were suddenly fashionable again, and it still made him grin to see that familiar yellow stitching, remembering being young.

“Yeah, I did,” he said, and she nodded, clearly curious.

“Have you?”

Bard shrugged.

“I wrote him a letter – he replied on facebook.”

She smirked. “At least he lives in the twenty-first century.”

Bard rolled his eyes at the long-standing joke that his family shared about the old brick of a nokia that he still used, unwilling to enter the rest of them in the era of the smartphone. As far as he was concerned, if it still worked then why bother replacing it, but everyone seemed to find that mentality baffling.

“And…?” she said, trying to get more out of him, and for a moment he considered winding her up by keeping it all a secret, before changing his mind – he’d end up telling her eventually, anyway.

“I’m going to call him, later tonight, I think.”

She beamed. “Good.”

Bard frowned, a little bemused.

“What do you look so happy about?”

“I’m just glad for you, that’s all,” Frieda told him, reaching out and squeezing his arm. “You deserve to find someone.”

He shook his head. “It’s just a phone call!”

She winked at him.

“Yeah, but think what it might turn into.”

Her insinuation was clear, and despite himself he found a flush of embarrassment building on his cheeks – no doubt he was going terribly red, and he rather resented that he still blushed so easily, even now he was in his forties.

“We’ll see,” he said, and she nodded, knowing now to push him any further.

“Keep me posted.”

“Will do, love,” he said, as the kids finally came running down the stairs, their bags slung over their shoulders – they didn’t need much, for a good portion of their belongings also lived at Bard’s. He watched them as they kissed their mother goodbye, and began to follow them down the garden path before he remembered something.

“And stop talking to my Mum about my sexuality!” he called over his shoulder, grinning to himself as she burst out laughing.

Bain frowned, looking up at him, and Sigrid shot him a warm look from the street.

“What does that mean?”

He wrapped arms around both Bain and Tilda’s shoulders, falling into step with them on the pavement as they made their way towards his apartment.

“Well, I probably should tell you both about it.”

 


 

 

It took him a long time to work up the nerve to call, waving backwards and forwards on whether or not to go through with it. Half a dozen times he had brought up the number and then put the phone down again before he eventually pressed the green button, holding his breath as it rang three times before being picked up.

“Thranduil Greenwood,” came the curt voice from the other end of the line, and Bard swallowed. This was a stupid idea, he couldn’t help but think, unsure all over again.

“Ah, hello,” he said, after an awkward moment. “Um, this is-”

“Bard?” came the voice from the other end of the line, suddenly warmer in recognition. “You sound just the same.”

“That’s right,” Bard replied, his shoulders relaxing, more confident now. “How long has it been this time?”

Too long, he thought, as Thranduil replied.

 


 

They spoke often, over the next month. They called each other several times a week, always in the evenings, and brief conversations often turned into long sprawling things, lasting hours, until the night had truly set in and one of them had to excuse themselves to go to sleep. Bard wasn’t even sure what they spent so long talking about – everything, he rather thought.

All he knew was that he hadn’t gone to bed smiling this often in years.

It started off innocuous at first, of course: the sort of conversation that you have with a person that you haven’t spoken to in a long time. They exchanged stories about their children, funny anecdotes and news about what they were all up to, what they were doing for a living now – Bard explained his own work, and had cautiously inquired about the mystery that was Thranduil’s.

“I’m an editor at British Vogue now, actually,” he had told Bard, and there was a contentment in his voice that Bard was glad to hear.

“That’s quite impressive. You manage that from Green Bay?”

Thranduil had laughed.

“It’s amazing how much work you can do from home when everyone is terrified of you. But I commute down to London for at least a couple of days of every week.”

“So you did go into fashion then, not law, like your father wanted.”

There was a moment of silence, and Bard had wondered if he had overstepped the mark, bringing up the past like this, but then Thranduil let out a low noise, somehow comforting, as if he had been trying to tell Bard that it was okay, that he was only thinking, and Bard had relaxed.

“No, actually – my bachelor’s degree is in law. And after that I went and studied Journalism for a while, and I found my way to fashion through that fairly quickly – I was lucky. My mother had known some people before she died that were willing to help her son along his way.”

“I bet you’re incredible,” Bard had said, despite himself, and Thranduil had let out a low noise that might have been a laugh.

Sigrid was aware of these conversations: there was no way to hide them from her, and nor would he have wanted to – she didn’t pry all that much, just shot him warm smiles from time to time when she happened to hear his phone going off with a text. They were nearly all from Thranduil, asking him if he was free to talk, so he couldn’t really feign innocence.

Sometimes their conversations went into deeper territory.

“Elaine?” Thranduil said down the line one evening, after Bard had inquired after Legolas’ mother, interested in what had happened in that part of Thranduil’s life since last they had met. “She married, many years ago. Her wife is a beautiful red-head from Ireland, very temperamental. They have a daughter, she’s about five years younger than Legolas, but they are very close, which I’m glad about. I never wanted him to grow up an only child.”

Bard had inhaled, realising then the identity of the red-haired girl in the photo, and he had almost said something, before realising that he didn’t want to admit that he had gone through Thranduil’s Facebook photos in case the other man thought it odd.

“You never think of having any more, then?” he asked, and Thranduil made a low sound.

“Not really on the cards, I think. Of course, you never know, but it seems unlikely at this stage of my life.”

“Oh?” he had asked, curious. It had been a polite inquiry, and for a moment Bard had thought that Thranduil had brushed it off, but then he had taken in a deep breath, as if ready to confess something.

“It’s… relationships are a funny thing, for me. I have to be very emotionally close to someone before the thought of a sexual relationship enters the equation. There has to be an intimacy that I have very rarely found, in my life.”

Bard nodded, even though Thranduil couldn’t see him, understanding.

“So would you define as… demisexual?”

Thranduil made a noise of surprise.

“Not many men our age would know that term.”

Bard laughed, not disagreeing. “My daughter came out to me a few weeks ago as asexual. I’ve been reading up, trying to understand a bit better.”

Thranduil hummed. “That’s very brave of her. It is hard to tell people, even harder to understand. I certainly didn’t know what was happening with me when I was her age.”

“She’s wonderful.”

That sort of thing normally led to more stories of their children, of course, something which they both seemed to enjoy, but Bard had still been curious about Legolas’ half-sister, and had brought it up some days later, unable to hold back anymore – the need to learn more about the man on the other end of the phone was almost impossible to ignore, and though they had known each other their whole lives there were vast sections of their personal history left to be shared.

“Tell me about Legolas’ sister. It sounds like you’re fond of her.”

Thranduil had made a fond sound of agreement at that. “Tauriel’s a wonderful girl, and Legolas dotes on her – I baby sat for her a lot when she was younger, to give her mother’s a chance to go out.”

“Unconventional,” Bard had remarked.

“From what you’ve told me, you’re one to talk,” Thranduil had swiped back, in good humour, and Bard had grinned, unable to argue with that. “Yes, it is – but Elaine and I were and still are great friends, and we never loved each other to ever hate each other when it ended. I am glad that she is happy, and her wife is wonderful too – and even if that was not the case, I have never seen the point in blaming a child for something that happened before she was born.”

“Very true,” Bard had replied, rubbing at his chest with one hand idly, so used to the tightness there that came from talking with Thranduil, from the sound of his voice, from all that he was learning, that it almost seemed normal to him now.

There had been so much that he had not known about Thranduil, so many years for the two of them to catch up on, and he liked this long and slow process of discovery and rediscovery: there were stories in both of their lives worth telling, lives and choices and relationships to be explained, and doing it in this way, from the comfort of their own living rooms, was a peaceful way to do it. But as the weeks started to roll by, the urge to see Thranduil once more grew all the stronger.

“I can’t believe you still have an earring,” Thranduil laughed down the line, after an offhand remark. Bard reached his hand up self-consciously, feeling for the black spike that had lived in his ear for as long as could remember: he had never really considered taking it out. But Thranduil’s voice was not unkind, rather, gently amused, and Bard found himself smiling too.

“It got worse,” he admitted, grinning. “I got a tattoo a couple of years ago. Everyone was convinced I was having a mid-life crisis, and I felt incredibly cool, right up until Sigrid turned eighteen and got two of her own. Now she’s cooler than me, and that just makes me feel like a sad old git.”

Thranduil laughed, and Bard wondered what he looked like, right then in that moment.

“What is your tattoo of?”

“It’s a shoulder piece, all leaves and vines, with flowers – my kids’ birth flowers,” he said, without thinking, even though he was often quite protective of his tattoo, keeping it mostly hidden, not liking to explain the reason behind it to people – it was for him, a private illustration of the most important part of his life, but with Thranduil it didn’t even occur to him not to explain it.

“It sounds beautiful,” Thranduil had told him, and Bard had smiled self-consciously.

 “You can see it sometime.”

It had been offhand – they still hadn’t brought up the possibility of meeting, but Thranduil had made a low sound, almost sweet, and Bard could have sworn that his heart had skipped a beat at the prospect.

“I’d like that.”

And then, of course, it had happened, finally, right at Bard was beginning to wonder if either of them would ever work up the nerve to initiate it.

“I’m in Manchester next week,” Thranduil had told him, on an idle Sunday afternoon. “I’m taking Legolas to the airport early next Saturday morning, he’s off on holiday with some of his friends from University, no doubt to cause havoc. If you’re free, we could have lunch.”

Bard had smiled, hopelessly wide.

“I’d like that.”

 


 

He’s terrified by the time he pulls up outside the restaurant on his bike, trying hard not to stare through the glass front of the place. He focuses on finding a parking space instead, glad that though Thranduil chose the place that it isn’t scary looking – in fact, from what he can see with his quick observation, it looks cosy, and friendly.

There is a long moment when he walks through the door and cannot see Thranduil, and he panics, convinced that he has been stood up, for there is no elegant blonde man sat at the tables – but then he sees him, on one of the sprawling sofas closer to the coffee bar, and he relaxes only for a second before he is nervous all over again.

There is a strange finality about the way that they look at each other, as if they know that this is the last time that they will do this, the last time they will have one fleeting moment together. Thranduil is beautiful, as he always has been, but for a moment Bard thinks he sees every Thranduil he has ever known. There, sprawled on the brown leather in a well cut pair of suit trousers and a soft cashmere jumper is a the young boy with the sunburnt nose and the pockets full of sherbet lemons; the skinny teenager with the new wave pretensions and cat-eye glasses; the lost young man woozy from brandy afraid of being alone in his own haunted house; the young father sat in the sand, worrying about the cold and looking happy for the first time; the smart, frowning business man, rushing off to work with a plastic bucket clasped innocuously in his hands.

All of them at once, and so much more.

But then he smiles at Bard from across the room, and all of a sudden the rush seems to still, and suddenly the man on the sofa is just that: a little older, his hair more silver around the temples now and a little ruffled, as if he has been running his hands through it; there are small lines around his mouth, his clothes are draped elegantly across a slender frame, and for half a moment before his expression smooths out he looks just as nervous as Bard himself feels.

“Hello,” Thranduil said, as Bard came closer. “I wasn’t expecting to see you arrive on a bike – it made me feel awkward and twenty years old again.”

And then Bard smiled, and his nerves were suddenly gone, for how could he be afraid when it was so clear that Thranduil felt just the same.

“Sorry,” Bard said, smiling so wide that his cheeks hurt. “You look fantastic.”

Thranduil smiled, just a little, his head ducking down to hide what Bard suspected was a flush of embarrassment.

“So do you,” he replied. “Though I can’t say I’m surprised.”

They fell into conversation with ease, sitting beside each other. They drank coffee, both of them ordering new things as soon as they had finished the last, as if they were afraid that the other might leave, and perhaps it was inevitable that sooner or later one of them would raise the question of why, after all these years – why, after so long.

It was Bard, in the end, who did so. The conversation had reached a natural end, Thranduil finishing a story of Legolas’ exploits at school, and he had been going to chip in with a complimentary story about Tilda’s first day at nursery, but instead his mouth seemed to run away on its own accord.  

“We’ve met so many times, haven’t we – and never stayed in touch.”

Thranduil stared at him for a moment, before the corner of his mouth twitched upwards.

“Like ships in the night,” he said, amusement in his voice. “That’s how Elaine has always described it.”

Bard was a little surprised, but it was somewhat secondary in his mind: he had realised that somewhere along the way they had moved even closer to each other, and as Thranduil had spoken he had moved a little, so now their knees were pressing against each other, just a light touch, but almost impossibly warm.

“You told her about me?” he asked, feeling suddenly breathless, and Thranduil had quirked an eyebrow.

“Of course.”

Bard glanced down at the near empty mug in his hands, wondering how long he had been holding it: when he looked back up he caught sight of the clock above the bar, and realised that it was close to shutting up for the evening. The thought that somehow terrible, the premise of parting once more, of their lives going off in their separate direction once again.

“Why do you think we’ve never kept in touch?” he said, and he sounded as breathless as he was feeling now, his eyes fixed on Thranduil’s grey-green eyes.

“I don’t know,” Thranduil replied, his elbow on the arm of the sofa, his head propped up on his palm, his fingers curving around the line of his jaw. “I suppose we were never in the right place to manage it.”

Bard smiled.

“Right time, right place, so on.”

Thranduil’s eyes were bright, and full of promise.

“Exactly.”

The barista cleared his throat, but Thranduil didn’t seem to hear, his eyes focused only on Bard, so alive and full of questions and enough to make Bard feel faint.

“Do you believe in fate?” he asked, and Bard shrugged.

“I don’t know. In many ways, I don’t, but sometimes when I think of you, I do.”

His voice was lower than he had meant it to be, and now Thranduil had to glance away, finally letting the barista catch his eye. Bard ran a hand through his hair, suddenly unconcerned about what he was saying, as long as he let it out.

“I don’t believe that we would have kept meeting so many times without a reason.”

Thranduil glanced back at him, amused and affectionate and everything that Bard had always half-known, and so much more.

“Other than the fact that you kept coming back to my boring little seaside town.”

“Hey,” Bard shot back, mock-offended. “Some of the best memories of my life have been in that boring seaside town. I won’t hear any criticism of it.”

Thranduil had raised his hands in defeat then, and they had caved too to the pointed looks from the staff members, slipping out onto the street. There was a terrible moment when it had seemed as if they would part ways, return to their respective houses, disappear from each other’s lives once more, but then Thranduil had shaken his head, and asked if Bard would like to go for a walk.

He had led his old friend away from the busier part of town towards one of the canal paths. These had been twisting, filthy things when he was younger, running along them with his Walkman clipped on to his arm, but someone had taken the time to clean them up since them. Now they were quite pretty, given that they ran through the city centre, and quiet still before the evening rush. The sun in the sky was low, golds and pinks lighting up the dark canal waters and catching in Thranduil’s hair, in the gold and silver strands of it, making Bard want to touch it, with the slowness and reverence that he felt the moment deserved.

He didn’t, but when Thranduil stepped closer, so that their shoulders brushed with each step that they took he could not stop a smile from curving across his mouth.

“I did always hope that one day we would meet each other again,” Thranduil said, quiet. The light was growing dimmer now, the closeness between them feeling all the more intimate and familiar. “When perhaps we were both ready.”

Bard nodded, and wondered.

“Ready for what?” he asked, and Thranduil glanced at him, calm and collected on the surface, the only thing betraying what Bard hoped was anticipation the warmth in his eyes.

“Ready for anything,” Thranduil said, so quietly that no one else would have been able to hear, not that it mattered, for they were quite alone. “For everything, maybe. I don’t know. But I’d like to see.”

Bard slowed, and then stopped, and Thranduil did too, turning towards him, waiting.

“I would like to kiss you,” Bard said, the same words he remembered from all that time ago, when the two of them had come together in a dusty, lonely house: they were loaded words, and it was clear to both of them what he meant by them: if it were to happen, they knew, then it would be more than a kiss on a canal bank, more than one isolated night with years of silence to follow. It was why he had never followed it up before, why that swooping fear-hope-heat cut through his chest every time he had seen the man again over the years.

He wasn’t sure if Thranduil would remember where those came from, but he needed to say it, to be sure that they were in the same place, that this was what they both wanted, both needed – because he couldn’t start this if he didn’t know for sure that

“I wouldn’t have a problem with that,” Thranduil told him, the corner of his mouth twitching upwards, clearly amused, remembering – and his fingers brushed against Bard’s, gently, giving him time to pull away – but he didn’t want to.

He laced their fingers, pulling him just a little closer.

“And tomorrow,” Bard said, moving forward so that their foreheads were resting against each other. “Tomorrow I’d like to call you, and fix a day to come and see you again. Not in a year, not in a decade, but soon. A week, maybe. Whenever you want, but we’re not leaving it that long again. Maybe never again, if you don’t have an issue with that.”

Thranduil was smiling, that rare and real smile, brilliant and full of life.

“That sounds perfect,” he answered. “Now kiss me, please.”

And Bard did.

 


 

 

Life is a funny thing, isn’t it?

He voices that thought on the morning of his fiftieth birthday, as he lies in his wide, soft bed and watches the rain pour down the glass of the bedroom window, listens to the sound of the sea that is always audible from the old house on the sea, no matter whereabouts you are within it. A good thing, he adds, quickly, and full of surprises, but funny, none the less.

The things that you think will never change often do, and those which seem so transient can become permanent – you can never guess what will make up the sprawling mess of your life, and perhaps part of the enjoyment is not being able to guess, is never knowing what will happen next.

From beside him, fair hair spread across the pillow, Thranduil raises his eyebrows, amused, and reaches out to flick his nose gently.

He reaches out: there is orange paint under one of his nails that he didn’t manage to scrub off last night, and the skin of Thranduil’s arm is soft and warm. He shifts closer to him, until their legs are tangled beneath the sheets.

“We should get up,” Thranduil tells him, but he doesn’t make any move to leave the warm confines of their bed. “The family will be here by lunchtime, and I don’t think they’ll wait happily on the front lawn whilst we shower, you know.”

“Aye,” he says, but he kisses Thranduil’s forehead, and snuggles closer, humming chorus of Kayleigh under his breath, into Thranduil’s hair. As if she knows, the eponymous cat jumps onto the bed, and swats at his foot underneath the covers until he moves, giving her room to curl up.

His life is a wonderful thing. He has known what it is like to be afraid, to be lost and to make mistakes – but at the same time, all life must come with a little sorrow, and he is pretty sure that his measure of happiness far exceeds anything else.

He has beautiful children – his three kids he loves beyond measure, and there are two new children (though none of them are really children anymore to anyone but their parents) in his life, as well. He has a wonderful ex-wife, good friends, good parents too. He has a job that fulfils him and a CD collection that takes up an entire bookcase and a shelf of graphic novels that have his name on the front cover.

He has a man who loves him, a man that isn’t going anywhere, that has finally become a real constant in his life – a man who loves him despite knowing how he had dressed in the eighties.

Bard wouldn’t change a thing.