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[personal profile] seikilos
Title: Out of Step
Fandom: The Hobbit
Genre: Pre-slash
Rating & Warnings: PG
Words: 8094
Disclaimer: I don't own the above media.
Summary: Bard has been invited to King Thranduil's halls alone, without his council. For what reason, he does not know--the Elvenking's thoughts have always been beyond Bard's ability to guess.
Author's Notes: I'm holding three people responsible for this series: bmouse, who got me thinking about this pairing in the first place; Ewebean, whose art (especially this piece) ended up birthing this story, and bendingsignpost, who is the most enabling enabler to ever enable. I hope the three of you are happy (because I sure am).

Major thanks go to Ben for a kind and excellent beta, and for Jeff, who not only betaed but became my Tolkien loremaster. While not much of his answers to the many involved questions I've lobbed his way are going to turn up in this fic, they'll definitely be important later. Any mistakes, then, in the lore are mine.

Also--I'm now on Patreon! If you'd like to support my work, why not drop a tip in my tip jar over there? More information can be found in my profile on the site.

Thank you very much and enjoy the fic! <3

Bard contemplated the letter lying before him on his desk, his chin resting upon his hand. Said letter was a beautiful thing, writ on fine paper with script that unwound with no blotches or splatters in sight, as close to artwork as any piece of correspondence could be.

It was also giving him a headache.

The letter was from King Thranduil, who, unlike King Thorin, preferred to conduct affairs between his realm and Bard's largely in writing. It had caused Bard no end of difficulty in the early days—a bargeman had little need to practise his letters. And while time and the business of running a growing city had left him more comfortable working with a book in one hand and a pen in the other, that did not mean he relished attempting to be as diplomatic by letter as he had learned to be in person.

At the very least, Thranduil had been emerging from the Woodland Realm more often as of late, though when they did meet, Bard was not always certain this was an improvement. There was no denying the fact that Thranduil was unsettling, his pale eyes most of all. He forever appeared to be looking to something distant and something deep within Bard simultaneously.

Bard had increasingly discovered Thranduil's eyes upon him when he sought his opinion on some matter, though what the Elvenking was seeing was beyond Bard's ability to guess. Most things about Thranduil were, including his motivations for sending his troublesome letter, to which Bard had spent the last half hour attempting to draft a response. For the very first time, Thranduil had extended an invitation to his halls in the Woodland Realm, for an undisclosed purpose.

Perhaps the Elvenking had tired of Lake-town. He had never seemed fond of the city, particularly in its early days. Perhaps he had belatedly decided to return Bard's hospitality—although to an Elf, Bard supposed this was being prompt. Elves had a different sense of timing than Humans; that he had learned all too well during his days working with the raft elves.

Whatever the reason, it would not do to offend Lake-town's most powerful ally with a refusal. He read over what he had written—acceptance on behalf of himself and his council—and set it aside on his desk to be collected with the rest of the outgoing mail. He turned his mind to the next piece of correspondence and left thoughts of the Elvenking behind.

*


He received a response within a matter of days, and that had his eyebrows rising for the roof. King Thranduil must have sent an elven runner for his letter to have arrived so soon. Clearly, something of grave importance had arisen.

Ill at ease, he set aside the report on expected crop yields in the former Desolation (promising) and unsealed the letter. It was surprisingly to the point for the often longwinded Thranduil: the invitation was not for Lake-town's council. It was intended for Bard alone.

By the time he read the flowing signature at the bottom of the letter, he was already pushing back his chair. He slid the letter into his coat pocket and left his study. No one in his hall interrupted him—the look on his face must have been black indeed.

It was a fine match for his thoughts. A private, perhaps urgent audience with King Thranduil, not in Lake-town, but deep within the Woodland Realm. There were few reasons Bard could discern for such secrecy, and none that he liked. Had Thranduil wearied of his dealings with the Dwarves of Erebor, in spite of Bard's best attempts to mediate?

He strode through the lanes of Lake-town, but soon enough his movement served to straighten his roiling thoughts. He could not speculate. The only way to learn was in Thranduil's mind was to meet with him and hear the answer directly. From there, he could determine the course of action that would best preserve the peace between the three kingdoms.

He came to a stop at the end of the pier nearest his hall. He closed his eyes and took in a breath of crisp lake air, letting the still-cool breeze blow his worries from his mind. Whatever troubles the Elvenking sought to bring to his door, he would weather them, as he and his people had weathered all the troubles that were now behind them. Lake-town would continue to thrive, no matter what came to its ports.

*


The next response, to his acceptance of Thranduil's terms, came just as quickly as the last. It did not calm him. Neither did the date Thranduil had chosen for their meeting: if he were to be on time, he would need to leave the following morning.

Though he knew that nothing would be accomplished by brooding over Thranduil's motives for the remainder of the day, it took effort on his part to bear down upon what was in front of him. It was with relief, then, that he reached the end of his working hours and could at last return home.

Bard kept to a strict schedule as often as he could, though it was not imposed upon him by anyone or any group—he was a king, crowned four months past, even if he wore the title as uncomfortably as he might a suit of armour. No, the imposition came from within, negotiated with Sigrid, Bain, and Tilda.

In the early days, he had worked to serve Lake-town until the candles in his study were guttering. There was so much to do and so many looking to him for aid that he came very close to neglecting his family without realising it. When Sigrid had at last complained—quiet Sigrid, who took on far too much for her age—it had cut him to the heart. From then on, he had made certain to keep his children well informed of his plans, to involve them when he could, and, most importantly, to never let them believe they were unloved. It was above all for them that he sought to make Lake-town flourish, and he would not lose them even as he pursued the future that was meant to be theirs.

The lamps were lit as he arrived home. The tired muscles of his face could not hold down a smile at the sight. Ensuring that her father had a warm and cheerful welcome each night had become Tilda's job, and it was one she took seriously. Almost every window of the two-storey house that was now theirs was bright, inviting him to enter. He could do nothing else but obey.

"Da! Welcome home!" Tilda called as he stepped inside. She launched herself at him almost before he could close the door.

Bard caught her tight in his arms and kissed the top of her head (he needed to stoop far less these days). "Thank you, love. How was your day?"

Tilda immediately began filling him in as Bain joined them from the kitchen and Sigrid from the next room to receive their own hugs and share their own news. It wasn't until they were all in the midst of dinner (a stew prepared by Bain) before his children had the time or breath to ask him about his own day.

"It was . . . an unusual one," he answered Bain's query. "It seems the Elvenking wishes to see me alone in his halls, without my counsellors. I'll be leaving tomorrow morning to meet with him. I hope to be back in no more than a week."

Sigrid was frowning. "Just you? That's a bit odd, isn't it?"

"It is, yes." He smiled a little. "Perhaps I've managed to impress the king in some manner and he wishes to show his appreciation."

"Will you tell us all about the Woodland Realm and the Elvenking's halls when you come back?" Tilda asked, her own smile far larger.

"I won't spare a single detail," he promised.

The next voice was Bain's, and it was quiet. "Be careful, Da."

Bard looked at his son, turning solemn. Bain had nearly seen him die, the day Smaug had destroyed Lake-town, and had nearly died with him. Of all his children, Bain understood the fragility of their lives best.

Bain met his gaze. Bard reached out, cupped his hand around the back of Bain's head, leaned forward to kiss his brow.

He let go and sat back. "I will, love. I'll be back soon with a few stories to tell. I promise."

The somber shift in mood didn't last—Bard made sure of that. He might still be known as "Bard the Grim," but never with his children. He cast about for something to lift their spirits and soon found it in the form of gossip from Hilda about the dwarf-princes' latest exploits.

Soon even Bain was laughing (though Bard himself could feel nothing but gratitude that such mischief-makers were the headache of the Dwarves and not his). The upcoming journey was forgotten for almost the rest of the evening, as he had hoped.

*


He woke the next morning to the sound of whispers from the kitchen. Rather than investigate what his children were up to, he left his bed and began his preparations. They did not take long—he had little enough to pack, no horse of his own to saddle, and few supplies to bring with him. By the time he had completed his morning routine, the noises from the kitchen had stopped.

Moments later, Tilda was at his door. "Da?"

"Yes, dear one?" Bard asked as he finished tying back his hair.

"We made breakfast for you. You should come get it while it's hot."

Bard crossed the room and hugged Tilda close. "So I should. There's little sadder in the world than a hot breakfast gone to waste."

It wasn't only breakfast his children had made for him, he soon discovered—they had all risen before the sun to ensure he would have lunch besides. They even had worked together to bake him his favorite treacle biscuits. When it came time for him to depart, his goodbyes were said with hoarse voice and his embraces were long. His children bid him to come back soon and he made his promise. How could he not hurry back with what he was leaving behind?

Before departing Lake-town, he visited the nearest stable. When the owner, Ylva, discovered he was planning to travel to the edge of Mirkwood, she insisted on sending one of her handlers with him. Bard could not fault her. Though the forest was becoming safer with each passing day, it was still not a good place to leave a horse.

The handler's name, he soon learned, was Synnove. She was a fair woman with wavy brown hair who wore a short sword at her belt. As they left Lake-town, Bard made certain to watch her carefully. Some had become dazzled by the idea of King Bard the Bowman, heir of Girion, slayer of Smaug. Others, though they had grown fewer in number, remembered him as a poor bargeman and resented his fate.

But Synnove was of the third sort: she remembered his past but had no quarrel with his present. Instead, knowing who he had been let her speak and laugh easily with him, and soon he was glad of her companionship.

He was still gladder when she offered to skin the rabbit he shot to supplement their dinner rations. She even took the late watch. Ylva's concern for her horses had been his good fortune.

As they approached the edge of Mirkwood, he was sorry to wish her farewell. It was rare for him to have any but his children to speak with about matters unrelated to the survival of Lake-town. He raised a hand in parting—she returned it—and then he stepped into Mirkwood.

He was instantly met by four Elven soldiers, one of whom he recognized as Laigeth, the dark-skinned woman who had succeeded the banished Tauriel as captain of the Elvenking's guard.

"Hail King Bard," Captain Laigeth greeted him as she stepped forward, in front of her soldiers. "I bid you welcome on behalf of my lord, King Thranduil. He awaits you in his hall."

"Well met, and I thank you for your welcome," Bard replied. "Lead and I shall follow you and your guard."

The captain nodded briefly, turned (her soldiers followed her lead with the perfect unity that left Bard uncomfortable even now), and began the walk along the river that would bring them to the Elvenking.

He was pleasantly surprised to discover that while Captain Laigeth was not as merry of company as Synnove had been, she was still willing to converse with him. After a few hours' travel, the other guards also contributed the occasional word to the conversation. And when he needed to request a moment to catch his breath, explaining that Humans required a slower sustained pace than Elves—especially Humans who had too often been trapped behind a desk as of late—Laigeth actually smiled as she ordered her guards to halt. It left him feeling easier about the mysterious meeting that awaited him.

That feeling began to ebb away as they arrived at last at Thranduil's halls. Bard found himself wishing he had been afforded the opportunity to visit the Elvenking before now; he did not like the idea of being distracted from a meeting of such importance by his awe.

At first, he thought he might be able to proceed without reacting too obviously. The entrance to the hall, set into a great rise in the forest, was beautifully carved from stone warmed by the golden light of the setting sun. It was a sight beyond any in even the ruins of Dale, but still not so grand as Erebor, which he had visited on numerous occasions over the past years.

But when the great blue doors opened inward and he stepped into the main hall itself, any hope of detachment was lost.

The Halls of the Elvenking were an equal to Erebor, for all they were as unalike as the Elves and Dwarves that had crafted them. While there were no high ceilings to impose insignificance upon visitors, the alien grace of the halls achieved the same effect. Wood and stone throughout were married, shaped and carved into curving bridges and stairways that twined in and out of view. Below the bridges he and the elven guard crossed, streams flowed; waterfalls spilled between thick stone pillars.

The last of Bard's ease left him then. Following Laigeth to their unknown destination, he refused to be conscious of the loudness of his mud-stained boots on the stone floors or the ragged hem of his travelling coat. If King Thranduil intended to send him a message by bringing him into his halls, it was not one he wished to receive.

He was shown to a set of rooms larger than the main square of Lake-town. Laigeth told him that someone would soon come to lead him to the king's audience chamber and departed.

Bard took a moment to orient himself, standing several paces from the door. The same tree motif was everywhere he looked: carved into the walls, on the backs of two chairs and the supporting pillar of a table set at the far end of the room, traced shallowly into the floor. Even the grate of the fireplace was its own iron copse. The scent of water was in the air from an upraised pool next to the doorway and he could hear more water running somewhere deeper inside. It seemed that, for all Thranduil's people lived underground, they did not wish to forget the forest for even a moment.

He spent no further time examining the rooms, suspecting that Thranduil's un-Elvish impatience had not yet spent itself. Instead, he used the time to beat the road-dust from his clothes, to wash hands and face and comb his hair. He had no clothes grand enough for these halls and he doubted he would have the time to change into what he had brought with him, but he could still be as clean as time allowed.

He had only just returned his shaving razor to his kit when there came a quiet knock at the door.

When he opened it, he found an unfamiliar elf dressed in long blue robes standing outside. "My lord Thranduil awaits your presence."

"Lead and I shall follow," he said as he had that morning. He seemed to be doing very little leading of his own that day.

It was not a long journey from the guest quarters. Nor was it difficult to guess his destination. He was led upward along a central path, and as they rose, so did his tension, for at the end of that path was a throne.

His guide withdrew when they had crossed the final bridge to the small audience area. Bard was acutely aware of the elf's departure, even as his eyes remain fixed on the figure before him.

Thranduil sat upon a raised platform that forced those who came into his presence to lift their faces to him. The throne itself was of wood shaped in the same manner as the stone pillars that were the foundation of the hall. From it sprang antlers that must have once belonged to a truly monstrous elk—each was far longer than Bard was tall.

The Elvenking himself was dressed more finely than Bard had ever before seen. The robes he wore were of his customary silver, but woven through with threads of shimmering gold and spring green. His legs were crossed; he held a staff of deep brown wood, his long fingers curled loosely around its length. His crown mirrored the design of the throne in its woven branches, and small yellow flowers similar to those Bard had seen in the forest near the hall blossomed along its curves.

Thranduil looked down upon him, his silver-blond hair flowing over his shoulders. Bard looked back, his spine stiff, his eyes narrow, and his lips tight.

"Well met, King Bard of Esgaroth and Dale," Thranduil said to him, his deep voice pitched low. "Welcome to my halls."

Perhaps Thranduil believed they were well met, but Bard would not let the lie past his lips. "I thank you for your hospitality, King Thranduil."

A phrase of empty politeness, the minimum required were he in Lake-town. Perhaps Thranduil would read more into it than was there—he seemed to have far less understanding of Bard and his people than Bard had believed before this day. If he did, it was no concern of Bard's.

Thranduil's fingers flicked where they rested upon the arm of his throne. The lantern light glinted off the great white gem on his forefinger. "Thranduil. There is no need for titles between equals."

"So we are equals."

It was not wise of him, but he could be pushed only so far. He had accepted an invitation. He had not answered a summons.

Thranduil's brows lifted slightly. After three years of negotiating and conducting business with him, Bard knew the Elvenking's surprise was great.

"Of course. You are a king with your realm as I am a king with mine."

Bard said nothing. He continued to stare up at Thranduil on his throne.

It was difficult to tell when his point reached Thranduil, but reach him it did: Thranduil uncrossed his long legs and laid aside his staff. He rose and descended from his throne with slow steps, the train of his robe flowing behind him.

He did not verbally acknowledge the reason for Bard's silence. That was something else he knew of the Elvenking—he did not admit to mistakes. He changed his behaviour and acted as if such had been his plan from the start. It sent King Thorin into a dark temper that Bard had often need to coax him from. Though Thranduil's ways were something Bard had come to accept, today, his sympathies were with Thorin.

"I would invite you to dine with me," Thranduil said once they stood upon the same level. "A great meal awaits us in the feast-hall."

"I accept your invitation," Bard replied. "But I would not wish to give offence to your other guests or shame the work of your people by appearing in my travelling clothes."

"There are no other guests," Thranduil corrected—but then, he blinked. He leaned forward in the smallest of movements. "Have you not yet changed?"

"I did not have the time," Bard said. He remained unmoving, feet planted, hands gripping one another behind his back.

"Then the feast can wait."

Thranduil waved his hand. Bard heard the faintest of footsteps as someone approached from behind him, but he did not look away from the Elvenking standing at the base of his throne.

"Speak with any of my people when you have prepared. They will lead you to me."

Bard did not thank him. There was nothing worth being thanked.

Instead, he nodded once. Thranduil had said that they were equals. Even if none of his actions had indicated as much, Bard intended to take him at his word. "Until later."

He turned to find the same blue-robed elf from before and followed him away.

*


Bard did not rush to change his clothes, but neither did he linger. He took precisely as much time as he needed.

As he shook the wrinkles from his second coat (an extravagance he had not yet grown accustomed to), his thoughts were on Thranduil's odd behaviour. He had expected great resistance to his challenges, but had received none. It had been as if he had set his shoulder against a door he had thought barred, only to stumble through unhindered to the other side. Combined with the news that not only was he to be without his council, but so too was Thranduil to be without his, it left him uneasy. Whatever Thranduil wanted from him could only be an exceptionally private, sensitive matter. And when business between two realms was conducted this way, it could only be for ill.

Once he had dressed, he walked over to the still pool by the doorway (how the elves kept it clean was beyond his guessing). He consulted his reflection, then, once he was satisfied nothing was amiss, exited the chambers to find a guide to the feast-hall.

When he arrived at his destination, which was equally grand as the main hall, it immediately became clear that his questions about Thranduil's intentions would remain unanswered for a while yet. Though Thranduil spoke truly when he had said that there would be no guests, Bard could see at least four servants waiting near the Elvenking's table, and in one corner were two elves playing the flute and harp.

There were, however, no visible guards—and neither had there been any within easy reach of the audience platform earlier. It was the first time he could remember seeing Thranduil unguarded. Was it meant to be a show of trust?

A corner of Bard's mouth tugged upward. Or perhaps he was no threat to a warrior who had practiced his skills for millennia.

He walked past rows upon rows of empty chairs, feeling more than slightly odd about the whole affair. An entire cavern was being put to use solely for his benefit, and he still did not know why.

As he drew close to the Elvenking's table, elevated above all others as the audience platform had been, Thranduil rose. "Welcome once again. I hope you did not feel rushed."

Bard scanned the table. A place was set at the opposite end; he continued on and seated himself when Thranduil did. "Thank you. I hope I did not keep you waiting."

To his surprise, Thranduil's lips curved into what might have been a slight smile. "There is no delay within the capacity of yout kind that can cause an Elf impatience."

". . . I'll be certain to remember that," was all Bard could think to say to such an open display of good humour.

It was a strange business, being served his food, far different than when Bain or Sigrid filled a plate for him. For a start, he would also serve his children in turn, those few occasions he had the time to cook for them these days. It was clear that would never happen here.

It also went without saying that his children were not ageless beings of grace obeying the command of their king.

"Thank you," Bard said quietly once the elf serving him had finished; he spoke his gratitude again when his wine goblet—a match for King Thranduil's—was filled by another.

Both elves looked startled; their only response was to bow and step back to allow him privacy. When Bard turned his gaze across the table, it was to find Thranduil frowning slightly. Whether it was in confusion or disapproval, he could not tell. Thranduil made no comment, however, but only picked up his utensils. Bard did the same.

The opening course was of the freshest greens he had ever before tasted, drizzled with some sort of tangy liquid. Though he was sorely hungry after the day's travel, he forced himself to eat slowly. Judging from the performance Thranduil had put on earlier, there would be plenty of food to come.

"How were your travels to my realm?"

Bard looked up. "Pleasant," he said and tried not to grimace at the way his voice echoed through the hall. "It seems spring has come earlier to the Woodland Realm than to Lake-town. I only wish I could have admired more of the beauty of your forests."

"Oh?" Thranduil's head tilted to one side. "Did you not have the time?"

A wry smile touched his lips. "I am a Human and not as young as I once was. I cannot keep an Elf's pace, though your guard did take pity upon me when they saw me lagging."

Thranduil's eyes lowered. "I see."

Suddenly, the harp and flute seem to over-fill the hall. Bard cast about, searching for something to say to make them recede. Curse his inability to speak lightly!

". . . Perhaps I'll have time later to see more of your realm, if you'll permit it," he said at last. "My daughter, Tilda, has asked for as many stories as I can tell about the Woodland Realm."

And then Bard's eyebrows had risen. At his words, whatever strangeness had come upon Thranduil had vanished, leaving . . . softness. Gentleness, perhaps. It was an expression he had never before seen upon the Elvenking's face; the sight of it made his heart catch.

"She is your youngest, is she not?"

His fondness was plain even to him. "Aye, but growing up fast. She's twelve now and coming into her own."

"I would hear more of her, and your other children, if you are willing." When Thranduil must have read his surprise, he went on. "Children come to us very rarely. They are the greatest treasure of the Elves."

Bard gave Thranduil a long look. It could have been a way to make him let down his guard, asking a father to speak of his children. But—Thranduil's interest seemed genuine. There was an earnestness there Bard had not thought him capable of.

And so speak of his children he did: of Tilda's determination to protect her family after they had been saved from orcs by Tauriel (though Bard knew far better than to speak of their saviour by name); of Bain's struggle to learn as much as he could, knowing he would one day be responsible for the fates of every person in Lake-town; of Sigrid, grown up too fast, who had stepped into her mother's role and who denied herself in spite of Bard's attempts to persuade her to let him go short instead.

After a time, he had hesitated, certain he must have lost Thranduil's interest long ago. But that had evidently not been the case: Thranduil had looked rapt, and his meal had laid forgotten on his plate. When Thranduil's eyes had met his, his brows had lifted in question at the interruption. Bard had taken a sip of wine and continued on.

A larger pause came when one of the servant elves moved to refill his goblet. Bard was quick to cover its mouth with his hand, which did not escape Thranduil's sharp eyes.

"Is the wine not to your taste?"

Bard blinked at the echo of his voice. Somehow, the enormous size of the feast-hall and the length of the king's table had filtered from his awareness. Then he shook his head. "It's exactly the reverse. I learned all too well as a young man that the wines of the Woodland Realm are far too potent for Humans. We do not have even the smallest portion of your stamina, I'm sorry to say."

"A pity. The wine only grows in sweetness as one drinks it."

"I would become very poor company were I to continue," Bard replied. "Unless your reason for inviting me here was to allow me to experience the floor beneath your table, I should refrain."

There was a silence between them. Bard's stomach clenched. The music continued.

"No," the Elvenking said at last. "That was not my reason."

Whatever odd companionship there had been between them was lost after that. The food served during the remainder of the meal was far better than anything Bard had tasted in his life, but to swallow it down was nearly impossible. How had he been able to forget that he still did not know Thranduil's intentions? Now he could think of nothing else, and he watched the Elvenking closely for some sign he could hope to interpret.

He found none. The light that had come into Thranduil's face as he had listened to Bard's tales of his children had faded, leaving him as unreadable as always.

Their conversation did not recover, either. They were left with inquiring about the state of each other's realms until the last dish was cleared.

Once the serving elves had stepped back, Thranduil stood with more suddenness than grace. His wariness growing, Bard rose as well. He found himself wishing he had not left his bow and quiver in his rooms. He did not expect to need them—his fears were not of that nature—but their presence would give him a sense of control over the situation, however false.

"Would you care to retire to my chambers?" Thranduil asked quietly, so quietly that the returning echo was but a whisper.

Bard's palms went damp as his heartbeat quickened. So, at last he was to learn what was in Thranduil's thoughts.

"Very well," he said.

Thranduil left the dais with flowing movements. Bard took long steps until he was able to walk at Thranduil's side, taking care not to tread upon the train of the Elvenking's robe. That, he thought, would have him dumped outside in an instant, forever ignorant of Thranduil's plans.

Perhaps that would not be such a tragedy.

Far too soon, Thranduil stopped in front of a heavily carved blue door, a match for the ones that served as an entrance to his hall. This door, however, bore an upraised tree with arching branches, picked out in gold paint—or, more likely and quite literally, gold leaf. It bore fruit of the same white stone that was set into Thranduil's largest ring.

"My chambers," Thranduil murmured, though it was hardly necessary.

He flicked his gaze to the helmeted guards on either side of the door. Silently, they stepped forward and departed. Thranduil opened the door and moved inside. All Bard could do was follow.

The room he found himself in was similar in layout to his own at Thranduil's halls, but somehow larger. Though Thranduil crossed to the near side of the chamber, Bard took only a few steps before stopping. He was intruding on something far, far too private. The invitation did not matter. He knew to his core that he did not belong here.

"What" —he cleared his throat— "what would you have us speak about?"

Thranduil did not answer, and nor did he turn around. He instead remained facing a tall, delicate table that was built into the side of a bench with a seat covered in pearly-blue cloth.

His arms rose, and slender fingers grasped the spring crown.

Bard barely breathed as Thranduil set the crown on the table. The silence between them was so deep that he heard the scratch of branches as the crown came to rest.

Next, Thranduil's hands did something in front of him that Bard could not see. He did not understand until Thranduil took hold of his robe and began to slip it from his shoulders.

"What are you doing?" he demanded, his voice harshened by incomprehension.

He received still no answer as Thranduil set aside the robe on the bench, where it lay like a stream woven into cloth. Now all that Thranduil wore was a tunic, simple in line but made of the same woodland fabric of his robe, and his silvery breeches.

Thranduil's spine was as straight as Bard's had been when Bard had first faced him upon his throne. He watched Thranduil's shoulders tighten, then drop.

"Bard."

His heart caught. Thranduil had never, not in three years, spoken his name alone before. He had never spoken any word without smoothness or control.

Thranduil spun, his hair whirling out in an arc, and he strode forward. Before Bard could react, throw up his hands or jerk aside—

Thranduil's lips were upon his.

Bard froze, in mind and body both. Thranduil did not stop kissing him.

The King of the Woodland Realm was not skilled. He kissed without his seemingly eternal elegance, like a man who had not kissed another for a very long time.

It was that thought Bard could grasp. His hands, stiff fingers spread in the air around Thranduil's body, lowered to his shoulders. Gingerly, he eased Thranduil back and turned his head to break the kiss.

He looked back immediately to see Thranduil's dark lashes flicker, then rise.

"I—" Bard began when blue eyes focused on him.

He was still holding Thranduil by the shoulders. His hands flew back, the air shockingly cool after the heat of Thranduil's body.

"I—I need to think about this," was what jumbled out of his mouth, and before he had finished speaking, he was out the door. If Thranduil made any reply, Bard did not hear it.

*


His mind should have been alive with fast-darting thoughts, with new understanding of old events, but it was not. There was too much inside his head and so he could think of nothing. He only travelled the high pathways of Thranduil's halls with hard steps, turning at each fork without decision. The elves of the hall made space for him; he had no room in him to acknowledge them as he passed, their hair and feather-light clothing stirred in his wake.

When one elf did not stand aside, it was not until the very last moment that he recognised the obstacle. He pulled up, stumbled on the edge of the walkway, and was caught by a strong hand.

His breath left him as he met the gaze of—the son, not the father.

He swallowed, said as lightly as he could, "Thank you. That would be a long drop."

"Think nothing of it," Legolas replied, but immediately went on. "Did something happen to upset you? You appear distressed."

"Do I?" Bard very nearly laughed. He ran a hand over his hair and was unsurprised to find wisps flown free from their tie.

In that instant, his pursuing thoughts caught up to him. They crashed into him with merciless force, leaving him breathless.

He had misunderstood everything, from the very first letter Thranduil had sent. He had not been called to a secret meeting of kings. Thranduil had not been impatient or trying to shame him with displays of riches and power.

His mind leapt back to Lake-town, to Bain's attempts to make his hair fall just right before a certain girl passed him on the street, to Sigrid smoothing her skirts and taking a deep breath before going to borrow flour from the young lady who lived next door.

He covered his face with a hand.

"King Bard?"

It was the wrong voice, husky instead of deep and smooth and—and uncertain, Thranduil truly had sounded uncertain.

Bard looked up.

"Prince Legolas, what does your father think of me?" he asked abruptly.

Legolas blinked a few times, rapidly. "My father? He respects you greatly. He has almost since the moment he met you. He believes you are a wise and fair leader who has done much for his people."

Those words alone were dizzying—he had known Thranduil preferred to deal with him over King Thorin, but that was faint praise indeed. To learn he was so esteemed should have been enough, would have been far more than he dared hope before this day . . . but now it could only be a start, not an end.

"Is there anything else?"

Legolas was silent. He looked directly at Bard, neither saying yes nor no with word or gesture.

Bard understood all the same. He turned. "Which way to your father's chambers?"

"Follow the path downward. Turn left when you reach the bottom," Legolas said.

"Thank you."

"I wish you well."

Bard paused. Then he continued on.

*


The guards had not yet returned to their posts when Bard reached Thranduil's door. It was something for which he was deeply grateful. He would act upon his decision whether they were present or not, but their absence made what he was about to do easier.

He knocked, then wiped his hands upon his breeches. He had no time to wonder what to do with himself as he waited, for the door opened almost immediately afterward.

Thranduil stood in the doorway, lips slightly parted at the sight of him. His robe was over his shoulders, but unfastened, as though Bard's knock had interrupted him. And—his eyes were wide. They did not look beyond him or within him, but they rested upon him as any ordinary, vulnerable man's might, for the first time Bard could remember.

That was what allowed him to speak.

"May I come in?"

"Of course." Thranduil stood aside immediately. He sounded as if he did not yet believe Bard was there.

Once again, Bard did not move far into Thranduil's chambers. He had been wrong about not belonging here, but it still felt like many steps too far and too fast.

Thranduil closed the door behind him and turned. He did not lean against it, but Bard thought he might be drawing strength from the solidity behind him. Even less than perfectly dressed, he was still as beautiful, as inaccessible as always.

No—as he was now, he was accessible. And that had changed much.

Bard cleared his throat. "You've never courted a Human before, have you?"

"No."

The word was spoken quietly, and oddly, that too was fuel to his courage.

"Generally, we like to be aware we're being courted before the courtship is underway."

A line appeared between Thranduil's brows. Usually, Bard saw it when Thranduil was irritated, but he knew that this time, its source was a far different emotion. "Did you not know?"

"No. I thought I was here to secretively discuss the business of our realms."

Thranduil blinked. "The business of our realms . . . ?"

"Aye." A smile flickered across his face. "It caused me no end of concern."

Thranduil, somehow, drew himself up to stand straighter still. "I . . . apologise for any anxiety you suffered from this misunderstanding."

Bard stared for a good few seconds. When he found his voice again, he replied, "Think nothing of it." He tried a smile again. "As a father, I'm well used to worrying."

Thranduil's expression did not lighten, and too late Bard remembered the tension that existed between him and his son.

He was quick to move on. "I would like to say that I'm willing to start over, now that we both are aware of what is in each other's minds, but I can't just yet."

The sudden stillness of Thranduil's expression at the word "but" was a blow to the heart. He pressed forward quickly, hardly aware of the steps he took toward the other man.

"I need time to think. This is not something I can decide quickly, and nor would I even if I could. Will you give me that time?"

Thranduil looked at him, still at him. "Of course." A faint softness came over his expression, around his eyes; Bard's mouth dried. "Did I not say that there is no delay within the capacity of your kind that can cause an Elf impatience?"

Bard swallowed, suddenly aware of the way Thranduil's gaze tracked the movement of his throat. "So you did. I hope not to test that."

He moved back and could breathe again. "Now I must rest. Today has been a long day."

Thranduil inclined his head and stood aside from the door. Bard's breathing grew easier still.

"Turn left when you leave, follow the path, and turn left again at the first branch. You will reach your quarters soon after."

"Thank you," he said. "I do not yet have the knack of navigating your halls. I doubt I would have found my way before morning."

"Ask any of my people if you lose your way. They will gladly guide you."

He wondered how widely Thranduil's feelings for him were known, whatever they were. He did not ask, and neither did he want to.

Instead, he walked to the door. "Good night."

He hesitated, thought about saying more—even if only Thranduil's name—but in the end remained silent. Better not to give hope where even he did not know if it was warranted.

He looked back, however, to watch as Thranduil replied, "Good night. . . . Sleep well."

He didn't return the wish, for Elves did not sleep. Instead, as a smile stole onto his face, he said, "I intend to."

It was not until he had followed the path to his chambers and closed the door that his heart settled into its regular rhythm after he had witnessed Thranduil's answering smile.

*


Bard awoke to stars overhead. He blinked a few times, frowning. His mind reached for an explanation until it seized one: the stars were chips of white gems in a blue-painted ceiling. He was not outdoors, but in the guest chambers of Thranduil's halls.

For a moment longer, he lay back on the long bench Thranduil had provided him (he suspected it was ordinarily used for reclining, not sleeping). Then he sighed. It was time to begin what promised to be a complicated day, the first in a long series.

This time, he was not rushed. No one came looking for him and so he took advantage of the rare luxury. He could have spent longer than usual over washing and dressing, but he refused to. Changing his habits felt like a decision already made and he had told himself he would make none before he was well settled back in Lake-town.

He left his rooms—which he had discovered the previous night were a shorter distance from Thranduil's than he had first guessed. After asking a passing elf about breakfast, arrangements were made, and more food than two could eat was very soon delivered to him. He spared a moment to wonder just how much Elves thought Humans ate before getting on with doing the meal justice.

He did not see Thranduil until it was time to depart, and even then he was beginning to wonder if he would see the man at all. He had been on the verge of mounting the white horse Laigeth and four new guards had brought him when abruptly, all five elves were at attention.

A moment after that, the doors to the halls opened and Thranduil glided through. He was followed by a blond elven man who carried three cloth-wrapped parcels in a basket over his arm.

Bard glanced at Thranduil's companion only briefly before resting his gaze on Thranduil himself. "Good morning."

"Good morning. I hope you slept well."

"Better than I expected," he answered. He had predicted a sleepless night for himself, but it seemed his circling thoughts had well and truly lost the battle against his weeks of inadequate sleep.

"I am pleased to hear it." Thranduil made a small gesture in the air; the elf behind him stepped forward. "I have some small gifts for your children, as an apology for taking their father from them."

The back of his neck tightened. "Thranduil—"

"This has nothing to do with what we discussed," Thranduil interrupted. "I have been informed that Human children grow quickly. That means the time of their childhood is something that should not be spent carelessly."

Bard knew the expression Thranduil wore. It was the one that told him further negotiation was useless: the Elvenking would not be moved.

He sighed. "I thank you for your generosity. The children will be delighted to receive gifts from the Woodland Realm."

Thranduil nodded once. "For Tilda."

The elf behind Thranduil unwrapped the largest parcel. Inside was a dagger with a wood and silver hilt in a leather scabbard. Thranduil took the dagger and unsheathed it so that Bard could see the elvish lettering that followed the curve of the blade. In Thranduil's hand, the dagger looked laughably small, but it would be a sizable weapon for Tilda.

"So that she may protect her family," Thranduil continued.

He sheathed the dagger. When Bard opened his mouth to protest the richness of the gift, Thranduil tilted his head to one side.

Bard kept his objections to himself—for the moment.

Thranduil returned Tilda's gift to the accompanying elf and accepted the middle-sized parcel. "For Bain."

This held a leather-bound book. Stamped into its cover was the branched tree emblem Bard had seen throughout Thranduil's halls. When Thranduil undid its ties and opened it, he revealed blank pages of thick paper, far richer than anything to be found in Lake-town.

"So that he may record what he learns and grow into a worthy successor."

Last was the smallest parcel; when its contents were unveiled, Bard had to swallow down his words with force.

"For Sigrid." Thranduil held up a delicate necklace of silver so that its clear blue stones caught the sunlight. "So that she may have something of her own to treasure."

His stomach was knotted, had been since the first gift had caught the light. "This is too much for me to accept."

Thranduil lifted his brows. "Do I need to remind you of the value Elves place upon children? These are trifles. I would have offered far better were I not aware you would refuse."

Bard searched Thranduil's expression, calling upon everything he had learned of the man since the Battle of the Five Armies. If there was even a hint that Thranduil was attempting to buy his favour through his children, he would ride away and not look back, and let that be his answer.

But there was no hint. Thranduil seemed sincere, as he had last night, when he had been asking after Bard's children. It had been the most relaxed, the . . . happiest Bard had ever seen him.

He thought of Legolas and the rumours he had heard, remembered those very few times he had seen father and son together.

Slowly, he nodded. "Thank you. I will give these gifts to my children with your regards."

Thranduil's expression relaxed the slightest amount. "I wish you safe travels."

He turned to go. Bard mounted his horse as the gifts were passed to Laigeth to add to her pack.

Bard hesitated. Then: "I hope to have an answer for you soon."

Thranduil's even steps checked. Then he continued into his halls and the doors swung shut behind him.

Bard turned his horse with only slight difficulty—riding was becoming more natural to him by the year and it seemed Elven horses were well-trained. Once he ascertained everyone else was ready, he nodded to Laigeth.

She nodded back, then set off on the route that would bring Bard back to his own realm, where the embraces of his children and a great deal of thinking awaited.
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