The years come on at once, or so he tells himself. Sure, Balan had moved slower, his joints creaking more and more with every rise and step. There was more silver threaded through his beard, through his hair.
Like falling stars. Finrod had said, pulling the coiling locks into a loose braid and clasping them with silver beads, just another bit of jewelry. Another accoutrement. Would kiss the lines at the corners of his love’s eyes and pull him into bed.
Somewhere along the way the silver had turned to white, had gone from streaks of light against the black of his hair into something that chased all the color away, swallowed all the black until it was nothing more than a few hidden threads among the white.
Maybe he had not seen. Maybe he had not wanted to see. But now, watching Balan pull his tunic over his head, moving so slowly -- oh, so slowly -- roll his shoulders and rub at some pain there. Turns to look back at Finrod with a half-apologetic smile on his face and Finrod blinks back the emotion that burns at his eyes and beams at him.
“Here, let me brush your hair.”
His fingers shake as the comb’s teeth drag through that mane of white, no black to be found in those curls now, and he thinks about every morning he rolled out of bed and bounded down the hall. Every day he did not stop to do this, didn’t touch, didn’t feel, didn’t try to commit every detail to memory over and over.
There are a thousand missed moments and he feels each one, lets the comb fall from his loose fingers and presses his face to the back of Balan’s neck and breathes him in.
“What’s wrong?” Balan asks, so softly, and he knows, has always known.
“It is nothing.” Finrod says, trailing his fingertips up Balan’s arm to the edge of his sleeve. It’s a lie. It’s everything , Balan is his everything, and more the fool is he for it. Forty years is a breath, a blink of an eye, a heartbeat and it’s not long enough, so he tells himself the lie again and again. “It’s nothing.” Presses a kiss to Balan’s jaw, feels his own breath catch in his throat and wraps his arms around the man’s chest, pulls him back against him. “Let us go back to bed.”
It’s not a fight at all, and Balan lets himself be pulled into Finrod’s arms, tucked up under the blankets, both of them half-dressed and he grins up at his king, threads his fingers through Finrod’s and pulls them to his lips to kiss. Balan’s hands tremble all the time now, the knuckles gnarled beneath tanned skin, freckles fading into more lines that Finrod had never noticed before and so he counts them, listening to Balan’s breathing even as he falls asleep. Watches the rise and fall of his chest beneath the blankets and counts those too, each one more precious than the last until at last he feels safe enough to let the tears fall.
How many nights did he turn away, warm and safe in the man’s arms and never thinking that these days might come sooner rather than later? How many nights could he have stayed awake just a little longer to watch him sleep, to watch every twitch and smile, hear every snore and half-muttered dream. How many nights did he grouse and grumble at his restless bedmate, retire to another room for sleep when he should have treasured those nights like jewels.
Balan stirs, blinks sleep-darkened eyes at him and he can’t brush the tears away fast enough. “Go back to sleep, my Bëor. You are dreaming.”
“I told myself that the first night I saw you.” He says, and all the years seem to fall away for a moment. “I’m here, Nom. I’m not going anywhere yet.”
And he believes him, because he wants to, wants to believe that this is just another point on the map and that the road stretches on and on ahead of them. There are years and years and years to look forward to, so he closes his eyes, feigns sleep, listens for those tell-tale snores again and lets himself simply be, here with Balan.
“Death is an assured thing for my people, as certain as the sun rises and sets and rises again.”
“But not if you are safe with me in Nargothrond.” Finrod had said, laughing it off. “There is nothing here that will harm you, save Edrahil’s temper perhaps.”
Balan -- now Bëor -- had smiled at him, a sadness in his eyes that Finrod had never seen before. It was not a sadness for himself, but rather for Finrod, for this elf who did not yet know the pain of age and death, of fading away. “I will grow old, my king, and I will die one day. You will have to accept this.”
“I will not.” Finrod stood angrily, turning away from him. “You speak so certainly of this, but how do you know?”
“I have seen it, though my people do not often live long enough to grow old. I can feel it.” Balan’s hand was warm on his shoulder and he wanted to lean into it, to kiss him and apologize and beg him to never speak of this again. “But I am not yet ancient, and that is years away. Come, tell me a story while there is yet time.”
The memory forces his eyes open, pulls him back from the edge of sleep and he cannot help but reach out and touch, feel the warm body just an arm’s length away.
How will it happen? He wonders, ice in his veins stealing his breath away and the tears come again. Will it be dramatic? Will he be there and then gone? Would it be like his uncle, a flash of flame and then nothing left but ash and memory?
And what of the aftermath? Will there come a day when he does not remember the color of Balan’s eyes, or the feel of his skin, his curls beneath his fingers? Will he forget his laughter, the deep rumble of his voice when he has had too much wine and sings some bawdy song for him? Will he find himself looking over the things they have collected together and wonder what, if anything, they ever meant to him?
It frightens him, tears at him with clawed hands until his ribs ache, his heart pounding like a terrified, caged bird.
He wants to shake Balan awake, wants to make him kneel and swear upon all his rings and upon all the stars in the sky, upon Manwe himself if he must that he would never leave him alone. Wants to cling tight to him and beg him do not go where I cannot follow you, my dear.
There are still years yet, he tells himself and breathes in shakily. Reaches for Balan and curls his fingers around his wrist to feel the flutter of a pulse against his palm and lets himself drift to sleep. If he sleeps now, he can pretend it is yet another day, can forget all of this for just a little while longer.
Balan rises first when next they wake, drops a kiss onto his bare shoulder and murmurs something sweet against his skin. Finrod stirs, pulls the blankets over his head and begs for a few more minutes.
“Wake up you sleepy thing, they will be looking for us at dinner.”
“Let them.” Finrod said, the anxieties from before gone for the moment and yet he is still loathe to move. “I will have dinner brought here.”
“As you wish, my king.”
“You know how I hate that when we are alone.”
“Are you not my king?” Balan asks, hand on the curve of his hip as he pulls him gently towards him. “Am I not your Bëor?”
Finrod breathes, letting a smile curl the corners of his lips. “You are much more than that, and you know it.”
“Aye, and you are more than my king, which you know well by now.” Balan laughs, sleep-tinged and rumbling the way he remembers from those first night together, wrapped in furs in Balan’s tent. “But look at me now, old and weathered. Wrinkled and ugly I am, how can you stand to sleep next to this?”
It is a joke, meant light-heartedly but Finrod’s eyes fly open, all want of sleep and warm blankets gone, his words like a bucket of cold water thrown on him. “No!” He takes Balan’s face in his hands and looks at him fiercely, blue eyes into brown. “You are as beautiful as the day I met you.”
“Now, Nom, you are taking the words straight out of my mouth.” Another laugh, and how can he be so casual about this. “Though I would say you are more lovely, were it possible.” There’s a shift, a shadow that passes between them and Balan strokes Finrod’s cheek with a calloused thumb, smiling at him. “Send for food then, let us pass this night together.”
It’s as simple as a word to the guards, from them to to the servants and to the kitchens. He has little appetite tonight, but watching Balan tuck into his dinner he finds himself picking idly at his own plate, a lazy, loving feeling stretched over his face.
“Do you remember your first week here?”
“Aye,” Balan says through a mouthful of bread, takes a long drink of wine to wash it down. “I got lost so often I thought Edrahil was about to paint a map on the walls for me, for all the times he had to rescue me.”
Finrod laughs then, and it feels good, feels easy. “No one knew what to make of you.”
“The feeling was mutual. All your rituals and rules. I knew how to be the chief of my people, but you are a king. It took getting used to, especially sleeping in so soft a bed without having one eye open and one ear to the ground. And look at me now, strutting about like a peacock, like I half own the place.”
“Do you not?”
“Not at all. I am but a vassal.”
“You are more than that, Balan.”
“Bëor as well.” Balan corrects, buttering another hunk of bread. “A title I chose knowing well what weight it carried. I do not regret anything in these long years.”
Long years, Finrod feels his lip tremble, tears pricking at the corner of his eyes so he ducks his head, refills his own glass. Long years, and it is a weight in itself, how differently they saw the passing of time. What was a heartbeat to him was half a lifetime to Balan and he thinks for a wild moment he might scream. That he might run outside into the night and scream at the heavens, at the Valar, at Eru himself at the unfairness of it all.
“Where have you gone, my love?”
Finrod blinks, coming back to himself. “It is nothing.”
“I know when you are lying. I have been with you long enough to tell.”
“Not long enough.” The words rush out of him before he can stop them, and Balan sets down his knife, watching him.
“Love.” He says carefully, reaching for him, presses his fingers to the back of Finrod’s hands. “What has you so melancholy tonight?”
He wants to tell him, wants to tell him everything. All of his fears and all of his secret anguish. Wants to tell him that a thousand years would never be enough, that there is too much they will never see together, never do together. There is so much that Balan will miss and too much that Finrod will have to live through alone. Wants to tell him, when you leave me, I will never be able to sleep in our bed again, for I will always look for you in the night and reach for you in the morning and you will not be there.
“I love you.” He says instead, turns his hand over to capture Balan’s fingers. “My Bëor, my Balan, my dearest. I love you more than I have ever been able to say.”
There are tears in Balan’s eyes now, and he grins in spite of them, presses the heel of his free palm to his eyes and chuckles. “You’ve got me all weepy now, you know? Look at me, I am a mess for you.”
“Aye. And I know it. And you know I know it, and how much I love you in turn. Shake off that sadness, and be here with me, else I am going to eat all your food.”
“I will never stand in the way of a healthy appetite.” Finrod says, tracing the lines in Balan’s palms, committing them to memory. The feel of those hands, calloused by axe haft, and all the years of peace and quiet has done nothing to diminish them.
He looks up at Balan, looks at him long and hard. All the lines and wrinkles, the fading freckles and the white of his hair, the loose skin at his throat and all the many things that time has touched, has taken and changed. All these changes and yet he is still his Balan, his Bëor, still the man he fell in love with so many years ago. Still as handsome, still as lovely and wonderful, and time cannot take that from him, for all that it has taken and all that it will take.
“Do you remember,” he asks, and lets the words hang between them. He wants to remember, but more than anything he wants Balan to remember, wants to give him something to hold on to, something to keep him here with him.
“Try me.” Balan says, a glint in his eye. “I remember everything.”
The food sits between them, forgotten. They trade stories back and forth; that night in the woods and how the both thought it was but a dream, the long days of learning each other, their languages and habits. That first night together in Balan’s tent, how they fumbled through it, laughter on their lips and how they ruined those furs, sleeping in the morning after. The day that Balan had turned to him, knelt down on one knee and taken his hand, pledged his life and loyalty for just a little more time with Finrod and how they had both pretended they didn’t cry about it later. Those first days, weeks, months, years at Nargothrond and all the wonderful moments between then and now.
For a moment, time seemed like just a monster in a story, something that could not touch them here, even as Balan’s shoulders drooped and his words slurred from want of sleep.
“Come,” Finrod says, standing and holding out his hand. “Let us go back to bed, when can continue this in the morning.”
“Just a little longer.” Balan says softly, moves with that slowness that make Finrod’s heart lurch and ache. Leans his weight into Finrod as he is guided to the bed, raises his arms so that Finrod can undress him and chuckles as Finrod brushes a kiss against his shoulders, his throat, the corners of his lips. “What I wouldn’t give to be young again, and press you down into the sheets like I used to.”
“Hush. I only need you here with me.”
The silence stretches comfortably, and Finrod can feel Balan’s eyes on him as he undresses, crawls into the bed next to him and lets Balan pull him gently into his arms.
“This was lovely.” Balan murmurs, kisses the tip of Finrod’s ear and grins at the shiver. “Tonight was good, we needed this.”
“I agree.” Finrod says, and in spite of it all he feels almost tired, feels a sort of comfortable exhaustion settle into his bones. “We should do it more often.”
Balan doesn’t say anything to that, wraps his arms a bit tighter around Finrod and holds him close. For a while, their breathing rises and falls together, a perfect thing in sync. He presses his back to Balan’s chest and feels their hearts beating. It lulls him, safe and warm here.
“I don’t want to sleep.”
“Aye, I know. But you must.”
“I feel like all I have done today is sleep.”
Balan laughs softly at that, like it were some private joke, and Finrod turns to look at him. His question is answered only with another kiss and a quiet. “Hush now, sleep with me.”
And he does, lets his eyes close with the promise of another day and night together tomorrow, just them, as it should be.
He wakes in the middle of the night, chilled for all the blankets and tugs at the corner of the sheet, thinking perhaps Balan has stolen them all again.
“Dearest one, blanket hog, give me some of them.” He murmurs it, but his heart is racing and he opens his eyes with some effort.
The bed is cold, and yet he can feel the weight of another body behind him.
His hand is cold, stiff, and there’s a sound ripped from him, clawing past his teeth into the darkness. Something shrill and terrible, caught between a a sob and a scream. He doesn’t want to turn, doesn’t want to see. Wants to close his eyes and tell himself it is all a dream. Draws that hand close to his chest and breathes, in and out, in and out . When he opens his eyes again, all will be right, as it should be.
At last he turns, tears hot on his face as he sees. Balan looks as though he is merely sleeping, a smile turning up the corners of his mouth -- that mouth, I just kissed it not so long ago, warm and alive and -- but there is no sound, no rise and fall of his chest. No gentle snores or muttered curse for all of Finrod’s moving. White curls splayed upon the pillow, the blanket drawn up to his shoulder, still on his side towards Finrod the way they had fallen asleep.
He can feel a scream, loud and terrible in his throat and he swallows and swallows again, reaching out with trembling hands to shake them both from this nightmare. His skin is cool to his touch, and when he shakes him those eyes do not open, do not look up with sleepily. They stay closed, that smile still on his face, hand still outstretched to hold Finrod.
Perhaps he should feel some relief at this, quiet and peaceful in their bed. Balan had left him in love, in good memories and one last night together in each other’s arms. He swallows back the scream; his guards would come, they would take Balan away, would guide Finrod gently out of the room with pitying looks and words meant to comfort and he does not want that yet.
We did not have enough time. And he shakes with it, with the force of it all, with the tears and the anger and the hurt, with the unfairness of this. We did not have enough time, it was not enough, it was not enough, it was not.
Just a little longer. For all it’s worth, he has this. He wonders if, wherever Balan has gone, maybe he could see him even now. He brushes a curl from his forehead, chest heaving with each sob, each half-muffled sound. His hands move automatically, push him gently to his back and fold his hands upon his chest. Pulls the blankets to his shoulders and leans over him to press a kiss to that cold forehead, tears landing on Balan’s cheeks and that won’t do, not with that ghost of a smile on his lips still.
“Goodnight,” he says, “My Balan, goodnight and sweet dreams.”