seikilos: (Default)
[personal profile] seikilos
Title: Walking Out
Fandom: The Hobbit
Genre: Romance
Rating & Warnings: PG
Words: 7580 this chapter; 20 409 overall.
Disclaimer: I don't own The Hobbit.
Summary: Sequel to Out of Step. A few weeks after discovering Thranduil's feelings for him, Bard still does not know whether he wishes to court him. After all, they have rarely spoken outside the meeting room--do they truly know each other? This chapter: The first day of walking out.
Author's Notes: What happens when you take two guys who don't know how to relax and stick them together for a day? This chapter, apparently.

On a side note, for those who are curious, this is what a faering looks like.

(2)


As he had suspected, he received a letter from Thranduil in less than a week; it must have been sent almost the moment Thranduil had returned to the Woodland Realm. It seemed Thranduil had some "unfinished business" in Lake-town, a phrase that Bard smiled crookedly to read. To think he had once considered the Elvenking unfathomable.

Also in that same day's mail was a letter from Tauriel, in response to his inquiries. Her reply was to the point: she could not write of any differences between Human and Elven courting rituals, for she was entirely unfamiliar with the ways in which Humans conducted those affairs. She provided a description of her understanding of a typical courtship between her people (though she warned him that she had only hearsay to draw upon) and offered to answer any questions that might occur to him.

She also did not press him for the identity of his intended, for which he was grateful. Lying to such a valued friend would sit very poorly indeed, and yet he would not inflict the knowledge upon her that she was, in fact, advising him on how best to court the king who had exiled her. While Tauriel had since made her peace with her situation, Bard preferred to avoid reminding her of such a difficult time whenever it was within his power.

He sat back in his chair to consider what he had learned. Little seemed strikingly different in the courtships of Humans and of Elves: both seemed to have at their core spending time together in pleasurable activities. What did draw his attention, however, was the absence of the physical side of intimacy. Tauriel had not written of even the simplest of actions, such as holding hands. Whether that was through oversight or embarrassment on her part, or whether the reluctance for touch he had seen among certain of the Elves he had known continued even into their courting, he did not know. It was an important question to ask, and one he included in his response to Tauriel alongside his gratitude.

After he had set that letter aside to dry, he turned his attention back to Thranduil's. Knowing there were no fearsome surprises to come from his visit—that would spring from the traditions of Thranduil's people, at least—it allowed him to respond easily, with a free-flowing pen.

He wrote that Thranduil was welcome to visit Lake-town at any time, though Bard would appreciate a message sent in advance to let him adequately prepare for his arrival. He had but one condition: that Thranduil dress as an ordinary elf, with no indication of his status.

For if you wish to know me, you must also know my people, he concluded. A king cannot truly understand any realm unless he walks as one belonging to it.

He considered his words, considered adding to them, but decided against it. Thranduil would either accept his condition or reject it, and no amount of disguising its essence would affect Thranduil's choice.

He concluded the letter with his regards, expressed precisely as formally as always, then set that letter aside as well to be sent out the following day.

*


Thranduil's response arrived before Tauriel's, though she was the nearer, and that told him his time to prepare was short. If Thranduil's haste to see Bard at his halls in the Woodland Realm were any guide, he could expect the Elvenking on his doorstep within days.

With that knowledge, he launched himself headfirst into the work of his realm, knowing he would have little enough opportunity to see to it once Thranduil had arrived. It was also something far better to turn his mind to than the implications of Thranduil's urgency.

It was two days later and mid-morning when there came a cough outside the open door to Bard's study. He looked up to see Stellan, the grey-haired man in charge of organising everything from paper to people. He was frowning as if deeply puzzled, and even before he spoke, Bard knew why.

"Beg your pardon, sire, but . . . King Thranduil is here to see you." The sentence sounded very nearly a question.

He had already placed his pen in its holder; now he rose and stepped away from his desk. "Thank you, Stellan."

Stellan did not return to his work. "Were you expecting him?"

"I was, though not for any meeting." He dropped a hand on Stellan's shoulder as he passed. "Don't worry—I did not neglect to tell you anything you would need to know for your work."

"He's dressed very . . . strangely, sire," Stellan said, following him.

He smiled a bit in spite of himself. "Is he now?"

Without waiting for the answer, he opened the right door to the waiting hall and stepped inside.

Thranduil turned at once from where he had been examining the room. Even with Stellan's warning, Bard stopped in place the moment he laid eyes upon him.

The only remaining trace of Thranduil's kingship was in his bearing. His beautifully woven, flowing robes had become a deep green tunic, tailored but simple, long and slitted to his thigh. His breeches were grey, not silver; his boots were etched with twisting vines, but were ordinary brown leather. The sword at his belt was plain-handled, in a lightly decorated sheath. His head was bare and he wore a single thin silver ring on his forefinger. Were it not for his height, Bard himself might not have known him had they passed on the streets of Lake-town.

Thranduil lifted his eyebrows—it seemed Bard had stared too long. "Good day to you."

"And to you." Bard couldn't help the shake of his head as he continued the rest of the way into the room. Behind him, he heard Stellan close the door. "Forgive my rudeness—you caught me by surprise."

"There is nothing to forgive. I am aware that what I wear is unlike my usual attire. Does it suit your purposes?"

There was the smallest touch of concern that marred Thranduil's seeming detachment, and so Bard immediately replied, "It does, far better than I would have thought possible. If you are recognised, I will be greatly surprised."

He most certainly did not add that the clothing suited far more than Bard's purposes. In it, without the distractions of fine clothes and jewelry, Thranduil's beauty became still more pronounced. But it was in a way that was accessible, not remote.

Bard's fingers curled slightly at his sides.

The assurance seemed to be what Thranduil had been seeking; some of the tension faded from him as he replied, "I am pleased to hear it. Shall we depart?"

Bard pushed aside his unhelpful thoughts. "A fine idea."

He held the door for Thranduil, who drifted through to wait for him. Once outside, Bard slipped his hands into the pockets of his coat to stop himself from worrying at anything and set a moderate pace. Thranduil joined him on the left, allowing Bard to make his first, predictable foray: "How were your travels to Lake-town?"

"Fair. I was surprised to see that the cold of winter lingers here even still," Thranduil replied.

"The lake keeps the chill." He nodded at a trio of women who stepped into an alley to allow them to pass, and could not help but note the stares Thranduil drew even in plain dress. "It will be some weeks yet before we feel the true warmth of the sun."

"I see."

Thranduil went silent. Though he showed no obvious interest, Bard could tell he was taking in every last detail of Lake-town.

After a moment, Thranduil remarked, "The extensive work you and your people have accomplished in this city is a testament to the strength of your will."

"Ah, now." At the chiding note to Bard's voice, Thranduil looked over. "We agreed that there was to be no talk of realms."

Thranduil briefly pursed his lips. "That was not my intent."

"Even so. As much as your words are kind, they will not allow us to become acquainted with each other."

Of course, now the burden of conversation had been dropped upon his shoulders, and it was not one he wore comfortably. After a few paces where his footsteps rang far louder on the wooden walkway than Thranduil's, he drew inspiration from their destination.

"Have you ever been to the markets of Lake-town or Dale?"

He did not expect it—Thranduil seemed to have little interest in non-Elvish affairs—and so he was surprised when Thranduil responded, "Not of Lake-town past or present, but the market of Dale I visited several times."

Bard's eyebrows flew up. "Did you indeed?"

Thranduil slipped him a look. "I am not immune to curiosity. Dale once attracted wonders from far beyond my lands, wonders I would not see unless I travelled for many weeks, or even months. It provided a rare opportunity."

It was a moment before Bard could search up a response to that. "What did you find? The children will want to know," he added. "There are few stories of Dale as it once was that remain among our people."

He had hoped the mention of his children would be enough to overcome Thranduil's typical guardedness, and he was right. Without hesitation, Thranduil spoke of traders from Rohan to the south, of the instruments they brought and the way their music would float on the air, of the rare times they traded fine horses the equal of Elven mounts. He spoke of those who came from beyond the Sea of Rhûn, with rich-colored cloth as light as breath whose weaving was a secret even to his people, of the medicines composed of ingredients unknown to Rhovanion but potent enough to make its traders very, very rich.

Of the toymarket of Dale, Thranduil said little. Though Bard had grown up with stories of its marvels and its fame, he knew why Thranduil declined to speak of it: the toys were Dwarven-crafted. Even so, despite such a large omission, Thranduil's descriptions lasted until they had reached their destination.

Bard blinked a few times to clear the long-past images from his mind, then said, "Welcome to Lake-town's market. It's a little small, given it is the middle of the week, and you will not find any wonders—unless you count good food as a wonder. Still, it may be of interest."

Thranduil made no reply. It seemed he had spent his words for the moment. He looked about, and Bard felt his good mood melt at the sight of his detached gaze. He had thought they had been off to a good start, but it seemed only the past, not the present, could captivate Thranduil.

He glanced past Thranduil to Ulmhild's stall. She raised thick brows; he nodded and reached for a coin.

Noting his movement, Thranduil turned to look at him, a question in his tilted head. At the same time, Ulmhild tossed an apple into the air. Bard stepped forward for the catch—and nearly fumbled it, for Thranduil spun, sudden and violent, to track the apple's flight with both eyes.

As soon as he had a firm grip on his purchase, Bard's gaze flicked to Ulmhild's once more to see that she clearly found the reaction as odd as he. It wasn't until Bard showed Thranduil the apple in his hand that he relaxed and his fingers uncoiled from the hilt of his sword.

There was silence between them, until Bard pushed past it. "That is Ulmhild. She sells me a bite of something each morning to finish my breakfast."

"Have you not already eaten?" Thranduil asked, as if he had not been on the verge of slicing Ulmhild's apple from the air only moments past.

"I have." But I wanted something to do with my hands to make matters less uncomfortable. "But I felt like something more." He hesitated, then suggested, "Shall I introduce you to her? If you would like something to eat as well, I could not recommend any vendor more highly."

"Very well," Thranduil consented.

As soon as they drew near, Bard apologised, "I'm sorry if we startled you, Ulmhild. I should have warned my friend that apples fly in Lake-town."

"It's quite all right, sire," Ulmhild replied, taking his coin (and the one he added as an apology) with long brown fingers. "I expect the fruit is better behaved in Mirkwood."

She gave Thranduil a curious look, and so Bard introduced, "Ah, this is—"

"Celtharan," Thranduil said, thankfully, for Bard had remembered too late that he knew few Elven names and Thranduil's true name would hardly do. He bowed the lowest Bard had ever seen. "Bard tells me your produce is among the best Lake-town has to offer."

Ulmhild sent a dark-eyed glance to Bard at "Celtharan's" use of his untitled name, but then, with a pleased smile, said, "I'm not so sure about that. King Bard is a very kind man, as I'm sure you know" —Thranduil did not so much as blink at the blatant fishing— "but I do make sure to offer only the best. Can I interest you in some fresh radishes? I picked them myself this morning."

Thranduil listened politely as Ulmhild recommended nearly every variety of produce at her stand, but at last he selected an apple to match Bard's. When he reached for a coinpurse at his belt, however, Bard held up a hand.

"You are my guest," he said to Thranduil. "Allow me."

He had expected an argument, but Thranduil only murmured a "thank you" and allowed him to pay. As they left the stand, Ulmhild gave him a large wink. He felt his ears burn red and quickly looked away.

Once they had walked on, Bard gave Thranduil a look. "'Celtharan'?"

Thranduil looked back. "Yes."

". . . Never mind." He bit into his apple.

Thranduil did the same. Immediately, his eyebrows rose. At Bard's curious expression, he swallowed his mouthful and said, "It is good."

"Of course it is. I would not purchase poor food for you."

His displeasure must have been clear, for Thranduil was quick to say, "I meant no offence. I simply had not realised the crops cultivated in the Desolation had grown so well."

"These are not from the Desolation," Bard replied. "Ulmhild's family has tended their small grove of apple trees for generations. They are not easily grown this far north, and so it is a source of pride for her family."

"You seem to know her well," Thranduil remarked. "Is she a friend?"

He shook his head. "We speak occasionally, that is all." When Thranduil did not stop looking at him, he added with too much haste, "Shall we continue? I believe today is one of the bookseller's days."

Thranduil appeared mildly interested in what the bookseller had to offer, but little else seemed to capture his attention. Bard wished he were surprised. He'd known that seeking to impress Thranduil would be futile—he'd seen the Elvenking's halls. But he had hoped for some sign that Thranduil was attempting to appreciate Lake-town on its own merits. The remoteness of Thranduil's gaze as it passed over kitchen knives at one stall, wooden combs at another, suggested he was not.

By the time he had led Thranduil to a pub for the midday meal, his humour was poor and difficult to hide. He felt Thranduil watching him as he went to purchase two bowls of fish soup, bread, and ale for them; once he returned with the meal balanced upon a large tray, he had barely seated himself before Thranduil spoke.

"What is it that troubles you?"

Bard looked at him. "Forgive my directness, but I seem unable to keep your attention today."

Thranduil's lips parted in that way that forever drew Bard's attention to their shape. It did not improve his temper.

"You believe I am uninterested in what I am seeing?"

"Aren't you?"

Thranduil took a moment to choose his words. Bard prepared himself for anger.

His preparations, as it turned out, were unnecessary.

"It was not my intent to lead you to believe thus. I do not find your city dull. I merely seek to understand. Though I may appear bored, I am instead lost in thought. Yours is a world completely unlike mine."

Bard let out a breath. It seemed he had yet to fully acquire the skill of reading Thranduil's moods. "So it is."

"It is at times difficult for me to comprehend what you value." Thranduil's gaze lowered—but then he lifted his blue eyes beneath his lashes and sent Bard's pulse pounding. "But I am trying. I have learned you do not easily give away your heart, and so I need to take care not to underestimate the city that has captured it so completely."

Bard grasped for his spoon, dipped it in his soup, and raised a mouthful to cool. "I am glad to be wrong."

Thranduil waited to catch his eye. There was nothing distant about his gaze when he responded, "As I am to be about much concerning your people." Before Bard could recover from that miracle, Thranduil went on. "What do you have planned for this afternoon?"

"More walking along the canals," Bard replied. "Though, if you would prefer, we could travel by faering."

"Might we. . . ." Thranduil stopped.

Bard felt his eyebrows rise. Since when was the Elvenking at a loss for words?

"Yes?" he prompted.

Thranduil took up his own spoon and turned it in his long fingers. "If you are willing, I would meet your children. It would be an honour."

It took Bard a long moment to respond, even when it was clear from Thranduil's withdrawal that he took silence for rejection. But when Bard found his voice, he replied quietly, "Of course you may meet them. Your visit would bring them great happiness."

Thranduil's head had lifted with unusual suddenness at Bard's acceptance. His eyes were still the slightest bit widened when he asked, "Would it indeed?"

"Aye. Since my stay at your halls, they have been forever asking me for news of you."

He did not mention that Bain and Sigrid seemed most concerned with whether Thranduil was pressuring him to accept his courtship. That would do no good here.

"Then I would not wish to disappoint them," Thranduil said with a lightness of voice Bard had heard only once before, in the Woodland Realm.

"Tilda will be in school a while yet. When she has finished, I will take you to my home."

"I look forward to it," Thranduil said with such sincerity that Bard ducked his head to sip the soup from his spoon. It had gone cold without his notice.

*


It was difficult to say what Thranduil made of his midday meal, though Bard watched closely—or perhaps the difficulty came because Bard watched closely. Whatever his thoughts were, Thranduil kept them firmly to himself.

Bard held the door once more for Thranduil when they left. It was a motion that had yet to be trained out of him (a king was not meant to be holding doors for others, he had been told time and again). Still, Thranduil seemed pleased, in spite of the small dance they found themselves doing when Bard attempted to rejoin him on the left and Thranduil made space for him on the right. It seemed that, while they were settling somewhat into each other's company, they still had some distance to travel.

And, thinking of travel: "Would you prefer to continue on foot or by boat?"

It took Thranduil little time to decide, a fact Bard made note of. "I have only rarely been afforded the opportunity to travel on the water in recent times. The Forest River is not ideal for sailing, and I have little interest in rafts."

Small wonder it was that the Forest River was "not ideal" if even half the stories Bard had heard of it were true. He did not speak those thoughts aloud, but said only, "What about a faering?"

"What means of travel is that?"

Bard pointed to a boat tied up nearby that was long and wooden, with a pair of oars in front and back. "That is it. A faering may be paddled by one or two, although as your host, it would be rude of me to insist upon your aid."

Thranduil considered the faering for a moment. After misunderstanding him so greatly that morning, Bard made no attempt to guess his thoughts as he waited.

"Very well," Thranduil at last agreed. "Where do we obtain one?"

That was a good question. Bard had a faering of his own for quick travel, but it was halfway across Lake-town. It seemed a waste of time—not to mention his energy—to fetch it and row all the way back before his tour had even begun.

He glanced about and laid eyes upon an old man, fair beneath his wind-tanned skin, who sat upon a nearby doorstep smoking a long pipe.

"Good day to you!" Bard called and then had to keep back a grimace when the old man began to lever himself to his feet. A shake of Bard's head only just kept him seated.

"King Bard! It is a great honour!" the man exclaimed—loudly. It seemed he was at least somewhat deaf, unfortunately for them both.

Bard heard shutters opening down the canal and did his best to ignore the sound. "I thank you. Tell me, do you know who owns that faering? I wish to rent it to show my friend Lake-town by water."

The old man briefly took in Thranduil, his gaze travelling up and up, before returning to Bard. "It's mine, sire, and you may use it for free—no, no, sire, keep your coin," he added when Bard drew out his purse. "You can have the faering to keep, if you'd like, and it would be my joy."

Bard held in a sigh and returned his purse to his pocket. "Using it for the afternoon is plenty. Thank you for your kindness. What is your name?"

"Snorre, sire. May you and your friend have a pleasant afternoon together," the old man replied. He grinned suddenly. "And may I say, sire, how good it is to see you enjoying yourself at last."

Snorre's words may have been innocuous, but the brightness of his tone and the width of his grin gave another meaning to his wish altogether. Rather than attempt to address the implications, Bard jerked a nod and went to untie the faering with the hope that his cheeks were not as red as they felt.

Thranduil followed, watching from the walkway as Bard stepped into the boat and uncoiled the rope in the stem.

"Your subjects show great love for you," he murmured.

That did not help with Bard's warm face. Concentrating on his preparations, he replied just as quietly, "They have good hearts and open them freely."

Thranduil was silent a moment. His next words sounded thoughtful. "They also display much comfort with you."

He looked up at Thranduil and shrugged stiffly. "I am of them. I lived as they did for much of my life. It is difficult to be over-reverent of a man who spent most of his life steering a barge." Without waiting for a response, he added, "You'll want to set your foot into the—"

Thranduil stepped into the centre of the faering with the ease and confidence of one who had been born on the water. Barely a ripple showed around the boat as he seated himself in the stem.

". . . I thought you said it has been long since you had last travelled by boat," Bard said after a moment.

Thranduil wore a tiny, smug smile. "It has."

Bard said nothing more but only shook his head at the unfair grace of the Elves—and of this elf in particular. Once he had settled himself in the stern, he pushed off from the walkway and began to row.

It was cooler on the water, though Thranduil gave no sign of noticing. He looked about as Bard took him through beautiful and ugly sections of Lake-town alike. Mostly, their conversation consisted of Bard speaking about the areas of the city through which they passed. Occasionally, however, Thranduil would ask questions that Bard would answer as best he could. And sometimes, they would both fall silent and listen to the sounds of the city around them.

". . . Why are you smiling?"

Bard blinked a few times. Thranduil's deep voice seemed oddly loud; they had not spoken for the length of the canal. When he recognised the question, his smile did not fade, but grew.

"Listen."

Thranduil tilted his head. To both their ears came the sound of a woman singing "Unnur the Cooper." When she reached each chorus, more voices would join in, then fall away when the verse came once again.

"I have not heard such singing in Lake-town as there has been in the last year," Bard explained softly after a time, not wanting to drown out the music. "When I was a boy, few sang as they worked and never so joyfully. It brings me great pleasure to hear music in the air."

Thranduil said nothing, but only faced forward in the faering and kept listening. Bard hummed along with the tune as he rowed even after the song faded from his hearing.

When the sun began to lower toward the waters, Bard rowed them back to where Snorre still sat on his stoop, joined now by several friends. Once again, Bard attempted to pay him for the use of his craft and was refused. Snorre's friends all regarded Thranduil with great curiosity, which Thranduil fortunately tolerated with patience. Bard made a quick introduction of his friend "Celtharan" and then ducked away, citing business needing tending. The chuckles that followed suggested all too clearly what business they thought that was.

"Is it so unusual to see you in the company of another?" Thranduil asked, exactly as Bard had hoped he would not.

Bard thrust his hands into his pockets, grimacing as his fingers found the apple core from that morning. "Aye, it is. I spend time when I can with friends, but. . . ."

"But?" Thranduil prompted when he hesitated too long.

Bard kept his gaze on the far end of the path. "I have not walked out with anyone since Signy died eight years past. My wife," he added, though perhaps he did not need to.

He heard Thranduil draw in a breath, but in the end, he did not respond. Bard could only be grateful.

The somber mood between them did not last, however, for soon Bard's house came into view. He sighed out a breath, feeling his shoulders loosen.

"Here it is: my home," he said and glanced to Thranduil. "It is the one with the blue trim—Tilda's favourite colour."

"Did you paint it for her?" Thranduil asked.

"Two summers past." He smiled a bit at the memory. "She was forever running out with water and food so I would not weary myself. Bain and Sigrid helped, too, with the painting."

He lengthened his stride to be certain to arrive first. He opened the front door, stepped through, and called, "I'm home with a guest."

Immediately, Tilda popped up from the corner chair in the main room. "A guest? Who—ooh!" she broke off when Thranduil stepped inside. "Is this King Thranduil?"

"It is, yes," Bard began, but got no further, for Tilda turned and yelled, "Bain, come down, King Thranduil is here!"

There was a clatter and a thump upstairs; before Bard could remind Tilda of her manners, Bain was on the stairs, eyes wide. "King Thranduil?"

Then his son flushed deeply, for his voice had cracked as it had not in years. Bard glanced at Thranduil—but Thranduil was smiling, the expression . . . fond.

"Is Sigrid upstairs as well?" Bard asked as Bain descended the stairs with as much dignity as he could summon. Poor lad.

"She's visiting Laerke next door," Bain answered. He seemed to be trying to deepen his voice a bit.

Bard smiled suddenly. "She is, is she? Would you fetch her for me, son?"

"A-All right, Da." Bain started for the door, then stopped within two steps. He bowed to Thranduil and said, "It is an honour to meet you, Your Majesty. Welcome to our home."

Thranduil inclined his head. "The honour is mine, Bain, son of Bard."

As Bain went red, Bard's heartbeat quickened. Thranduil's affection for his children was plain, and in a dizzying instant, his decision of whether to properly walk out with Thranduil seemed much less difficult.

He stepped aside to let Bain past and said as evenly as he could, "Please, come in and sit down. Shall I make some tea?"

"Thank you. That would be most welcome," Thranduil replied and went to seat himself on the fireside bench.

Bard paused in the kitchen doorway, glancing back to see how Tilda felt about being left alone even briefly with the King of the Woodland Realm. He needn't have worried. Tilda had followed Thranduil to the bench and had sat down next to him, far closer than Bard had ever before seen anyone dare. His gaze flicked to Thranduil, but his posture remained relaxed, and so Bard continued into the kitchen.

"Have you been having a good day with Da?" he heard Tilda ask as he went to check the water in the kettle.

"I have," Thranduil replied. "Your father is an excellent host."

It seemed he was fortunate to be in the kitchen for this part of the conversation: his sympathy for Bain and his discomfort was abruptly renewed. Ignoring his embarrassment as best he could, he stirred up the fire and set the kettle on the stovetop, then went to lean against the doorframe separating the kitchen from the main room.

"Where did you have lunch?" Tilda was asking as he settled into place.

"I did not learn the name." Thranduil turned to him.

"Rafter's Rest," he told them both.

Tilda nodded. "That's a good choice. You should take King Thranduil to The Black Arrow the next time, Da. Their soft rolls are even better than Bain's," she confided to Thranduil.

"'The Black Arrow'?" Thranduil repeated with a glance Bard refused to catch.

"They named it after Da, like Dragonslayer Inn," Tilda explained. "There are a lot of places named after him these days."

"Excuse me," Bard said quickly when he caught movement out the front window, and he went to meet his eldest children.

"Why didn't you tell us you were bringing King Thranduil here?" were Sigrid's first panicked words to him, spoken not in Westron but in the Lake-town tongue.

"Because I didn't know." He caught his daughter by her upper arms, rubbed his hands down them to soothe her. "He asked this afternoon if he might visit you. You needn't worry—he seems to like the three of you well from my stories."

Sigrid took in and released a breath, settling. Bard let her go. "I still wish we'd had some warning."

"Cheer up, Sigi," Bain put in; he seemed to have calmed as well. "At least Da didn't bring him in through the toilet this time."

A shocked giggle burst from Sigrid and even Bard found himself grinning. Now that was a picture.

"All right, darling, ready to go inside?" he asked Sigrid when the moment had passed.

"Ready, Da," Sigrid told him with a smile.

He opened the door and led the way to where Thranduil and Tilda were, if anything, sitting still closer on the bench.

"Greetings, Your Majesty," Sigrid said in Westron, with barely a tremor in her voice. Her curtsy was steady and sure. "You honour us with your presence in our home."

"Well met, Sigrid, daughter of Signy," Thranduil replied; Bard heard Sigrid gasp softly. "There is no need for titles between us, as I have already told Tilda. 'Thranduil' is sufficient.

"And now" —he transferred his gaze to Bard— "I would ask why your son thought my arrival could have been a very different one."

Bard stared. "The door and window were shut. How did you hear that? And how did you understand what you heard?"

Thranduil smirked. "I have lived in this land longer than Dale has existed. Though I do not speak your tongue, I understand it well enough."

Bard made a very firm note of that (and also made a great attempt not to wince, for several of his councillors had at times spoken their language in front of Thranduil, thinking they would not be understood). Before he could devise a response to Thranduil's question that would not unbalance the peace of the region, Tilda answered instead.

"Bain was talking about how Da had to smuggle in King Thorin and his Company."

Instantly, she had Thranduil's full attention. "Was he indeed?"

"Tilda. . . ." Bard groaned. They would be at war by morning.

Tilda paid him no heed, clearly far too happy to have a story to tell the Elvenking to listen. "The old Master of Lake-town had spies everywhere, so Da brought them all into the city inside barrels of fish. Then they had to climb in through our toilet! Sigi and I didn't know they were coming, so it was a real surprise. I was only nine, so I thought they would bring us luck." She giggled.

"I presume all they brought you was a great stench," Thranduil replied, making her giggle again. He looked up to meet Bard's eyes. "I had wondered why one particular shipment of Dorwinion wine had a strange taste to it. Now it seems I have found my answer."

Thranduil may have found his answer, but Bard could find no words at all. Could that possibly have been . . . a joke? From Thranduil? It seemed impossible, and yet Thranduil's good humour was undeniable.

The kettle began to whistle; Sigrid jumped.

"Oh, I'll get that, Da," she told him when he made for the kitchen. "You sit down."

"All right. Thank you."

He let her by, and as he did, he heard the tail of Tilda's next question: ". . . tell me how old you are?"

"Tilda!" Sigrid cried from the kitchen. "You can't ask him that!"

"She causes me no offence with her curiosity," Thranduil thankfully said. "She may ask whatever she likes." He turned his attention back to Tilda. "I was born in the two hundred and fiftieth year of the First Age, over six thousand, seven hundred years past."

Bard dropped into the corner chair like a stone into water. Six . . . thousand. . . .

Never before had his forty-two years seemed so—so paltry.

There was silence. Even Tilda seem to have lost her words.

At last, Bain spoke, hesitantly. "You . . . you said that you lived here before Dale was founded. You must have known Girion, then. Of Dale, I-I mean—our ancestor."

Thranduil turned on the bench to face where Bain was still standing. "I did know your ancestor, yes. The ties between the Woodland Realm and Dale were not so strong as they are now, but even so, we met numerous times."

Bain at last came forward to sit, though in a chair and not on the bench. None of them were quite so brave as Tilda. "Would you be willing to tell us about him?"

"Of course."

For some time, Thranduil spoke of Girion and Dale as if those days were only weeks and not centuries gone. Most of his tales were grand in nature, though a few (such as the story of when Girion's horse had shied and had thrown him at Thranduil's feet) were not. Gradually, all three of his children overcame the shyness Thranduil's great age had inspired, even Sigrid—though when Thranduil offered his thanks for the tea she brought, eyes level upon her, the cup she held out nearly rattled off its saucer.

Bard said little, but watched closely. It seemed Thranduil had spoken truly when he had claimed children were "the greatest treasure of the Elves": with Tilda, Sigrid, and Bain, he displayed a patience at which his behaviour in meetings had never hinted. Bard had not seen smiles come so easily to Thranduil in all the time he had known him, and there was nothing guarded or rigid about his pose. Dressed as he was, listening intently to Tilda speaking about her school and Bain's shy words about his studies in governing a realm, Bard could nearly forget that Thranduil was a king.

After a time, he excused himself to help Sigrid prepare dinner. Mindful of Thranduil's hearing—which seemed to be extraordinary even for an Elf—they only shared a glance and a one-armed hug before sitting to work.

Once the meal was prepared and they were all seated at the kitchen table (he and Thranduil at each end, Bain on one side, and Sigrid and Tilda squeezed in together on the other), Sigrid would have apologised again and again for the simpleness of the food, but Thranduil stopped her words.

"It is I who should apologise. My impatience to meet all of you overcame my propriety. What you have prepared, I will eat with gratitude."

If only King Thorin could hear those words, Bard thought in wonder as Sigrid sat back with a heavy blush across her cheeks.

It was not as merry of a meal as was customary for their home, but it was far from unpleasant. Thranduil's patience continued throughout, and the conversation did not once flag.

As Tilda and Bain cleared the plates, however, Bard decided not to test his unnatural luck.

"We should not keep Thranduil much longer. He's had a full day," he said was a glance to check for agreement. He received it, but Thranduil's lowered lashes suggested reluctance.

"Will you come back again soon?" Tilda asked with a hopeful note in her voice as she set dishes in the sink.

"As soon as I am granted an invitation to return," Thranduil promised, earning a brilliant smile.

"Come tomorrow—we'd be happy to have you," Tilda offered.

At the sound of a soft chuckle, Bard turned to stare. Strange warmth filled him as Thranduil replied, "It would be best if you asked your father first."

"We'll talk," was all Bard could say in reply when Tilda turned her gaze to him.

All three of his children joined them at the door, Tilda in front with Bain resting his hands on her shoulders and Sigrid next to him. They made a beautiful picture.

"Thank you for your visit," Bain said with a return to formality.

"We hope it was a good one," Sigrid added.

"Have a good evening!" Tilda finished, stepping forward to hug Bard.

And then, before anyone could stop her, she hugged Thranduil as well.

Thranduil looked thunderstruck. It was the only word that could describe the degree of shock upon his face, from his wide eyes to his mouth fallen open. His hands hung in midair, but before he could decide what to do with them, Tilda stepped back and gave him a full smile.

Bard, in no small shock of his own, watched Thranduil pull himself together enough to offer a ". . . Good evening to you all," before he walked—not glided, but walked—-out the door.

As soon as he had followed and closed the door behind them, Bard said, "Please forgive Tilda's behaviour. She is an affectionate girl and often forgets herself in her enthusiasm."

Even before he had finished his apology, Thranduil was shaking his head. "Do not discipline her. This world would be a better place were more as giving as she."

For a moment, Thranduil was silent, gazing through the lamp-lit window of Bard's home. Then, he turned back to Bard. "I understand now why you are so proud of your children. They are extraordinary."

Bard was glad of the darkness to hide his flush—though perhaps that meant as little to Thranduil as a closed door did to his hearing. As lightly as he could, he said, "Many have tried to win my favour through flattering my children. If that is—"

"It is not."

Bard took in a breath that was not all the way steady. ". . . I am happy to hear it."

He looked out across the square, its soft lights like unseasonal fireflies in the falling dusk. "Will you walk with me?"

"Gladly," Thranduil said softly from his side. Bard did not dare to look.

He set a slow pace, which Thranduil matched. Still without glancing to him, Bard asked, "How long until you must return to the Woodland Realm?"

"I have few pressing duties," Thranduil replied. "The business of my realm does not move at the same pace as yours. I leave it to you to decide."

That was a relief, and it was not. Bard took his time responding, attempting to balance manners with the unknown weight of his heart.

At last, he said, "I can give you tomorrow and perhaps one day more. After that, I can delay my work no longer."

"Of course." There was no displeasure in Thranduil's voice. "Your people need you. That I understand far better than I did before this day."

Bard did not attempt a reply to that. A few steps more, and then he stopped beneath a lantern hung from someone's walkway and turned to face Thranduil at last. The yellow light of the lantern softened Thranduil's face, warmed the winter sky blue of his eyes.

Or perhaps the lantern was not the reason for those changes to his expression, a corner of his heart whispered or wished. He pushed the words away.

"I thought we might visit Dale tomorrow," he said through the discomfort of a dry mouth. "If that is agreeable to you, we will need to leave early."

"It is," Thranduil replied, his quiet voice making Bard's seem loud. "It has been long since I walked its paths, with the exception of three years past."

"It may look different now. We have not been rebuilding Dale exactly as it once was."

"I look forward to seeing what has changed."

A silence between them. Bard licked his lips.

". . . Where will you go now?" he asked.

"I have made camp on the shore of the Forest River. I will retire there until morning."

Bard felt his eyebrows lift. "You could stay in the city."

"At the Dragonslayer Inn?" The note of amusement in his words made Bard flush. "This is simpler. There are fewer questions to avoid."

"If you're certain."

He took in a breath—let it out. No, he was not nearly prepared to invite Thranduil to spend the night at his house, no matter how poorly the situation sat.

He hesitated a moment longer, then said only, "Well . . . I hope you have a pleasant night. Come find me an hour past sunrise. I should be ready then."

Thranduil nodded once, acknowledging. He smiled a little. "May your sleep be peaceful."

He returned the smile, in spite of his suddenly jumping nerves. "Thank you. . . . Good night, Thranduil."

For a few breaths, it seemed as though neither of them would break this final moment of their day. If anything, Thranduil was leaning in, ever so slightly.

With a great effort of will, Bard forced himself to turn and walk back to his home. It was some time before he heard Thranduil's light footsteps move away as well.

*


Of course his children were waiting for him when he returned.

"Well, Da?" Bain asked once he was inside.

"What happened?" Tilda added.

"We've agreed to meet early tomorrow morning and visit Dale," he replied. "It seems he hasn't properly visited since Girion's time."

The answer seemed to satisfy Tilda, though perhaps not Bain and Sigrid—not fully. Rather than think about that, he went to sit on the fireside bench. All three of his children joined him.

"What do you think of him?" Bard asked once they were all crushed cosily together.

"I think he's lovely, Da," Tilda replied immediately. Bard was certain that was the first time anyone had so described Thranduil in all his six thousand, seven hundred years. (Six thousand, seven hundred years!)

"Can he come visit again?" she went on.

"As long as your siblings don't mind," Bard replied.

"We don't mind if you give us some warning," Sigrid said, giving him a bit of a look.

"He may ask to visit tomorrow," Bard told her. "I would not be surprised—he's very taken with you."

"We'll be ready," Sigrid promised.

They all fell into a warm quiet, watching the fire with arms around each other. After a time, Sigrid spoke again.

"You told him about Ma."

He looked around Bain to see her. She sounded hesitant . . . but not disapproving.

"Only her name," he said and waited.

He watched Bain and Sigrid exchange looks.

". . . You should keep seeing him, Da," Bain said.

Bard hugged him tighter against his side. "Is that your blessing?"

Bain looked at him seriously, taking the jest from Bard's words. "Yes."

He looked to Tilda, who bounced a little against his other side.

"Yes!"

And at last to Sigrid, who had known their mother best of all.

"Yes."
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