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Sunrise in the East

Chapter Text

Charlotte Charles, the girl once called ‘Chuck’, was exactly 16 years old to the minute when she first manifested her Sentinel abilities, or ‘came online’. It was during the very modest, and honestly rather sad, party her Aunts had put together for her so-called ‘sweet sixteen’.

It was just after Charlotte had blown out the candles and right before Aunt Lily could cut into the cake; the birthday girl had just been thinking to herself how really rather lovely the decorations on the cake were and wondering whether cheese was at any point involved in the construction of said cake when all of a sudden Charlotte had the strangest sensation of having the plug in the bathtub drain of her mind pulled out with an almost audible ‘pop’.

All of the colors and shapes of the world before her eyes started blurring together and swirling down that drain while at the same time the loudspeaker in brain had, quite rudely and with no intentional input from her, decided to crank the volume control all the way into the red zone. Amazingly enough, it wasn’t until her nose started to pick up the previously undetectable smells rolling through the stagnant air of the house around her that her nervous system finally gave up and ordered a complete system shut down.

Distantly, Charlotte could hear Vivian squealing in surprise and feel firm hands grasp her shoulders to hold her upright before she could pitch face-first into the cake. Dreamily she registered that yes, there was indeed cheese hidden in the chocolate frosting of her cake, brie to be exact, and this was her very last thought before she plunged down into the waiting, wonderfully muffled darkness.

Once Charlotte regained consciousness some hours later laid out on a lawn chair in the backyard, her hearing having regulated itself by the comforting drone of her bee-hives, and her nose having been cleared of any contaminants inherent in a rather over-full house of agoraphobic shut-ins, and once Vivian had made absolutely sure Charlotte wasn’t suffering any ill effects or teetering on the edge of a zone out, her Aunt had been positively thrilled with the recent development.

“Oh Charlotte, how wonderful! Another Sentinel in the family! I always had a feeling you’d present as a Sentinel dear, all the women in our family do you know. And oh I know we’re not really your Aunts, but how delightful for you to come into your gifts on your sixteenth birthday! And quite a coincidence to, considering the same thing happened to Lily and me on our sweet sixteens. They do say trends like that run in families, perhaps you’ve lived with us long enough that you’re enough like family for it to have made a difference, do you think that’s possible Charlotte? Oh yes I’m sure that’s what it is…”

The girl once called Chuck found it surprisingly easy to tune out the rest of her Aunt’s chattering as she fussed around her adoptive niece, instead choosing to look around Vivian’s boney frame to try and exchange a commiserating glance with Lily, hoping she might swoop in and save her from her sister. But to her confusion she didn’t see her missing Aunt anywhere around them.

And indeed, she wouldn’t see her for the rest of her birthday or the day after, for Lily had shut herself in her bedroom as soon as she had made sure Chuck was going to be alright. Neither of the other two Sentinels would ever be completely sure why Lily had taken the news of her niece’s new gifts so badly, but when Lily finally emerged a full day later, walking into the kitchen and grumbling about breakfast like nothing had ever happened, they wisely chose not to bring it up.

And so the years passed. In fact, 12 years, 23 weeks, 1 day, and 11 hours later, hitherto fore known as ‘now’, the girl once called Chuck was busy packing for a rather last-minute cruise to Tahiti which departed in less than a week’s time. Charlotte Charles was bound and determined to be on that ship when it left dock, no matter what her Aunts said and no matter her own fears of leaving them unattended for the weeks she’d be gone. She had decided if she stayed in this house one more minute she’d go stark raving mad, and so she was leaving. Not forever you understand, because this was her territory, and her Aunts were her tribe, and she would always come back to them in time, but for now she was determined to get out and see a little bit of the world before she got too old to enjoy it.

If this were another sort of story entirely, in 6 days time, Charlotte may indeed have crammed her bags into the trunk of a taxi cab, kissed her Aunts goodbye, and gotten into what would turn out to be the first and last cab ride of her life, and never returned alive to the stately, stuffy house behind the wrought iron fence in the little town of Coers d’ Coers. If this were that story, two hearts might have been broken at the loss of a niece and a daughter, and two other hearts might have found each other again after 20 years apart, and everything might have eventually worked out all right in the end.

But this is not that story. And let’s just say certain interested third, fourth, and fifth parties really needed Chuck to miss that boat, and since these certain interested parties also had godlike power at their disposal, well, unfortunately this story is going to have to go in a bit of a different direction then previously intended.

Charlotte was in the middle of trying to decide whether she really needed an entirely separate bag for these plaster monkeys she was meant to be transporting, or if perhaps she could simply roll them in some clothes and stuff in the bottom of her suitcase, when the world goes a bit muffled and fuzzy about the edges, and she can hear, with perfect clarity, Aunt Lily’s cry of surprise as she trips over a loose piece of carpet on the stairs and goes tumbling down them to crash hard onto the wooden floor of the entryway. Chuck can also hear, with sickening acuteness, the exact sound her Aunt’s tibia makes as it snaps upon impact with the floor, even before Lily’s scream of pain tears itself loose from her throat and echoes through the house.

She’s moving before she’s completely aware of having done so, already fighting against the haze threatening to descend over her mind at the knowledge that one of her tribe is in pain, has been severely injured. Chuck forces herself through her breathing exercises even as she takes the stairs two at a time, the sight of her Aunt lying crumpled at the bottom of the staircase enough to make her mind whirl and force her to fall back on her old calming trick of reciting every different kind of cheese she can name alphabetically by country of origin.

Vivian is already flitting around her sister, phone in her hand as she tries to keep herself calm enough to coherently explain the situation to the paramedics even as she cannot stop herself from pacing the area, delicate bird bones taunt under paper-thin skin as she goes through the same mental exercises she made her niece learn all those years ago in an effort to keep from zoning.

Chuck drops down by Lily’s head, lifting it gingerly into her lap, trying to make her hands stop shaking by smoothing them through her Aunt’s fiery hair, managing to regulate her breathing enough to begin devoting her attention to making sure she doesn’t let any warning pheromones into the air, knowing instinctively that if Lily gets riled up now she’ll do herself even more harm.

Lily herself is breathing through gritted teeth, nearly panting as she wages war with instincts that scream at her to attack, defend, she’s injured, her tribe is in danger, fightfightfightfightfight. Thankfully all her senses are too alight with pain for zoning to be a problem. Charlotte’s hands in her hair help, as do her daughter’s constant stream of murmured words of senseless comfort, the chanted repetitions of “We’re okay, we’re fine, Vivian’s fine, I’m fine, there’s no danger Aunt Lily, we’re not in danger, we’re okay, we’re fine…” steadily chipping away at the icy lump of adrenaline lodged in her throat. Lily lets out a shaky rush of air and closes her good eye, dropping her head in her daughter’s lap and letting the world slip away for a while.

Charlotte knows the ambulance will be here soon, and she lets that thought comfort her as she keeps doing her best to keep them all calm, Vivian having ended the 911 call had pressed, shaking, up against her side at some point, seeking childish reassurance in the steady stream of nonsense Chuck is still whispering. She knows they’ll be sending at least two trained Guides with the ambulance and she feels an almost euphoric burst of thankfulness at the thought, something in her hindbrain nearly whimpering at the idea of a Guide’s steady presence nearby while her tribe is in this much pain with no enemy to fight off. Three unbound Sentinels living together in one house is dangerous at times like these, and not for the first time Charlotte wonders what it would be like to have a Guide of her own, to keep her calm and make her feel safe when the world becomes too loud or too bright or too malodorous.

Abruptly, like a bolt from the blue, she wonders about that boy who used to live across the street when she was little. She couldn’t quite remember his name, nor exactly recall his face, but she finds herself wondering how he’s doing these days, what sort of man he grew up to be. If she thinks hard, she can recall a blurry image of sad gray eyes, too big in a small sad face, and a little black suit too big and obviously freshly bought for the occasion. Chuck remembers he was her first kiss, this little boy with the too-old eyes, and something deep in her heart aches when she realizes she can’t remember that kiss, no sense memory to attach to the remembered fact. She hopes he’s happy, wherever he is, and that he isn’t quite so sad anymore. Time is meant to heal all wounds they say, and hopefully, with time, it will even heal wounds that never happened in a life and a story that will for now and ever, go untold.

Because this is where Charlotte Charles, the girl once called Chuck, and her Aunt’s part in this story ends, and instead a new one rolls in to take its place.

For in this space in time currently known as ‘the present’, that small sad boy from Chuck’s memory is 28 years, 45 weeks, 6 days, and 11 hours old, and while he is named Ned, most simply refer to him as the Piemaker.

-

The Piemaker, despite his relatively young age, was the sole proprietor and owner of the popular Gifted hang-out The Pie Hole.

Being a shop that exclusively sells pies and the ice-creams and beverages that traditionally accompany them, most people wouldn't expect many young Sentinels and Guides to frequent such an establishment, leaving it instead a nice, quiet place for older people and the occasional couple to come in for a nice, quiet morning/afternoon/evening of pie, coffee, and distantly polite company.

And such a place The Pie Hole would undoubtedly be, did it not carry the rare distinction of being one of the few Tower-sanctioned meeting places for unbound Sentinels and Guides to interact in a safe environment without fear or the expectation of bonding. Acquiring a Tower-sanctioned license, and the ability to press one button and be immediately connected to the branch of the police force that specialized in gifted inter-relations and all the swift legal action contained therein, was not easy. But the piemaker had been adamant that his shop be a safe place for all members of society, Gifted or not, because it was his belief that pies, with all their various fillings, had the power, however small or subtle, to bind people from all walks of life together in the simple enjoyment of a warm, flaky slice of home.

Because to a boy whose mother had died and after which had then been unceremoniously deposited at the Longburrow School For Boys by his father with nothing more than a pat on the head and an empty promise to return, pie meant home; and people, however far off the path they may wander, always come home.

This philosophy, along with the lingering effects of grief over the death of a much-beloved racehorse, is what first drew the attention of one Olive Snook. And this attention, along with her Gifted status, is what eventually lead to Olive Snook’s employment at the Pie Hole as waitress, sous-piemaker, and, should the situation call for it, part-time bouncer. Olive loved her job and consequently took all the duties inherent in her employment, very seriously.

“Hey bub, I’m pretty sure the lady just said she wasn't interested.”

The ‘bub’ in question turned away from where he had been leering into the space of a clearly uncomfortable young Guide, to turn focus to the source of the interruption. Upon catching sight of Olive, the young man straightened from his slouch and curled his mouth in an unattractive sneer at the petite waitress, Sentinel warning-pheromones rolling off him like bad cologne. “Yeah? Well I didn’t hear that. And in case you hadn’t noticed, I ain’t done talking to the lady yet, so why don’t you just buzz off, bitch.”

Olive simply smiled up at the man, unfazed at having to tip her head back to do so, and with a voice sweet and syrupy as cherry pie said, “Oh, you’re done.”

That was all the warning she gave before she swung one small pink-heeled foot out and swept his own feet out from under him, using his distracted flailing to grab his throat in an iron grip and slam his head into the edge of the formica table hard enough to knock him unconscious but taking care not to do any permanent damage to the creep or, more importantly, to the tabletop. She didn’t relish the thought of having to clean bits of hair and blood out of the resulting crack which would not only be gross, but unhygienic.

Delicately stepping over the prone form of the other Sentinel, she calmly grabbed him by the scruff of his shirt, and in a display of strength that belied her earlier restraint, hurled the man bodily at the front doors, causing them to bang harshly open and deposit the interloper out onto the front sidewalk. Foot traffic outside the shop was barely interrupted, daily commuters already accustomed to the scene. Most walked around, though a few actually hopped over the fallen man, shaking their heads but saying nothing as they continued on their way. After all, he had probably deserved it.

Inside the warmth of the pie shop, Olive dusted her hands off decisively before returning to the table at which the young Guide was still sitting, making sure to keep the instinctual simmering rage she felt at one of her tribe being threatened by an outsider on a tight leash, but doing nothing to stop the steady waves of protectiveness she felt towards the young unbound Guide from coloring the air around her. “Do you want me to get you a refill hon? Sorry I kinda knocked your coffee all askew. Maybe a piece of a-la-mode on the house? Our strawberry is very good today.” Her efforts rewarded her with a shaky if sincere smile and Olive did a mental fist-pump in victory.

Behind her, private-investigator Emerson Codd occupied his customary stool near the center of the bar, doing nothing to conceal his amusement with the situation, snickering all the harder into his coffee cup at the sight of the man slumped on the opposite side of the counter, face buried in his hands as it had been since the would-be customer had first hit the floor.

“One of these days I am so going to get sued,” Ned bemoaned, voice muffled by his palms.

Emerson just snorted. “Please. Like anybody’s ever gonna admit to bein’ ass-whooped by a woman who barely comes up to their waist.”

“I resent that.” Olive remarked casually as she left off her fussing around the girl long enough to grab a fresh pot of decaf from the counter by Emerson’s elbow. “He wasn’t anywhere near as tall as Ned, and I definitely reach past Ned’s waist. I think.”

Ned dragged his head up and turned to face her, each movement as slow as if his joints weighed a thousand pounds. “Olive, not that I mind you dealing out Old West saloon style justice-except that I do mind and I really wish you would stop doing it. We’re supposed to let the Tower police handle things like this.”

She snorted. “What, you wanna call them over every little thing? Not likely to thank you for that, and besides, it’s not like it happens often enough to bother getting them involved.”

“Okay, but what if one day you meet someone you can’t knock out and throw out the door, huh? Will you have an all-out brawl in my store? This place is meant to be safe, homey and comforting and all those positive warm things pies embody, I don’t want to get a reputation as 'that place where the owner lets his employees beat up random customers'. That’s what bars are for.”

Olive smiled, showing teeth. “Never met a Sentinel could beat me in a fair fight, and I doubt I ever will.” Seeing the look of encroaching panic on her friend’s face, she sighed and stretched up on her tiptoes to lean over the counter to pat him consolingly on the arm. “But if that day ever comes sweetie, I’ll be sure to kick his ass all over the sidewalk instead of in the Pie Hole okay?”

Ned heaved a resigned sigh. “That’s all I ask.”

As soon as she walked away he turned to glare at the still silently laughing man across from him. “I don’t know why you think this is so funny. You’re her Guide, shouldn’t you be, I dunno, making sure she doesn’t..do things..like that?”

Emerson just scoffed and raised an eyebrow. “I’m her Guide, not her nanny. Itty-Bitty knows how far she can push her limits before she needs my help reelin’ ‘em back, and she had it under control. If I’d thought she was gonna actually kill the kid I woulda stopped her.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Stopped her from killin’ that chick last month who was gettin’ a little uh, over-friendly with you and I don’t remember you complaining back then.”

Ned colored slightly, averting his eyes as he pretended to suddenly become very busy with the dishtowel he had folded over his apron. “That was different. She was making me extremely uncomfortable, and no matter how many times I said no she just kept invading my personal space. And while I am grateful Olive stepped in when she did, even then she didn’t have to deal with her so very, uh, brutally.”

Both eyebrows were up now as Emerson regarded the other man over the top of his newspaper. “I thought she kept her cool pretty well. She didn’t even step in until that woman grabbed your behind and you yelped like a chihuahua that been stepped on.”

“I did not yelp,” Ned began to defend, only to deflate again at the disbelieving stare he was leveled with. "I may have, made a rather, high-pitched noise of surprise, but it was very short. A very brief sort of noise. And I could have handled that myself if my hands hadn’t been full with plates at the time. There was no need for Olive to leap over the counter and attack her like an angry mother lion defending her cub. It took the both of us to drag her off before it escalated from provoked assault to murder in the second degree in case you’ve forgotten.”

“Oh I didn’t forget. But I also didn't forget you givin' mini-Rambo over there permission to make the Pie Hole her territory and all the patrons therein, including you, her tribe. You knew what would happen if you let her do that.”

Ned sighed again, shoulders slumping in defeat. “I know. I don’t suppose it’s too late to get my alpha status back?”

“Oh it’s too late. Far, far too late.”

He slumped further, bottom lip sticking out in what was most definitely not a pout. “I’m gonna go bake more pies.”

With that he retreated to the kitchen, missing Emerson’s smirk at the resulting mental high-five he exchanged with Olive, who had of course been eavesdropping shamelessly. Someone had to keep dissenters in line after all, and Emerson was more than willing to run interference if it meant keeping his Sentinel’s, and by proxy his own, territorial status unchanged. If it also had the side-effect of keeping her happy, well, let’s just say that was a nice bonus.

-

Later that evening long after Olive had headed up to her apartment and to bed after helping him clean and lock up, Ned was still lingering in the fluorescently lit kitchen, the rest of the lights having been turned off for the night.

He had a perfectly legitimate reason for still being there and it wasn’t because he was ‘an insomniac with a constant low-grade sugar buzz’ like the blonde had implied, but because every three days he had to collect all the pies leftover from the previous three days and pack them up to be delivered to the local homeless shelter the following morning.

Ned’s pies never lost their flavor, nor did they get mushy and soggy on the bottom no matter their filling or how long they had been sitting in the refrigerator, but he still felt it was violating some sort of implicit piemaker/patron trust factor to continue serving three day old pie under the guise of fresh made. Besides, at the end of three days only the particularly unwanted pies were left, and if they hadn’t sold by then they probably weren’t going to. But that didn’t mean he was going to let them go to waste either.

There were a startling number of summer-fruit pies left over this time, and he made a note to start only stocking early autumn fruits; people tended to want less and less strawberry and more and more apple as the weather turned colder and people steadily became more distrustful of out-of-season fruits. In the case of the Pie Hole’s pies it didn’t really matter what time of year it was, since the fruits would always become perfectly in season the minute the piemaker touched them, but his customers didn’t know that, and so Ned would change with the seasons as he must, though it did always make him a little sad to see the brightly colored berries of summer be replaced with the more sedate colors of pecan and apple.

The piemaker of course appreciated all kinds of pies but if there was ever a pie that he could have admitted to liking a little bit less than the others, it would probably be pecan. He would never understand what made someone decide to throw nuts in a dense corn-syrup filling and serve it by the hunk in the first place. Nuts in pies were downright unnatural in his opinion.

The man had just finished boxing up the last of the leftovers and stacking them in neat rows to be picked up by the delivery person first thing the following day, when he heard the altogether unexpected sound of the bell above the front door jingling. Frowning to himself, he stepped out of the kitchen into the darkened restaurant to the sound of a voice calling “Hello? Is anyone there?”

“Yes, I’m sorry, but I’m afraid we’re closed. I guess I forgot to lock the door-”

“Oh it’s quite alright son,” the man standing just inside the door said with a disarming smile. “I figured you guys were closed on account of it bein’ the middle of the night with your lights out an’ all, but I saw a light on through the window and thought I’d try anyway. Sorry to bother you, I’ll just be on my way-”

“Wait,” Ned called, eyes running over the man’s salt-and-pepper scruff and threadbare coat, his tattered shoes and ratty fingerless gloves. “It’s okay. Uh, I still have a couple pies left over from this morning, and they’re just going to be shipped off to the shelter down the street anyway; would you like a slice for the road?”

The man turned back to regard him with keen brown eyes, amusement flickering somewhere in their depths as the younger man automatically hunched his shoulders inwards and ducked his head under the appraisal, reflexively trying to lessen his height in an effort to seem more approachable. Nodding to himself, the older man seemed to reach some sort of decision because he walked further into the store, heading towards the center countertop. “As long as it’s no trouble. You wouldn’t happen to have any peach cobbler lyin’ around would ya?”

“Oh. Yes! I mean, we have some left, hold on just a second.” He bustled back into the kitchen, hurriedly carving out a huge chunk of peach cobbler before bringing it to the man on a recently cleaned plate, hesitating as he placed it down in front of him. “Would you like me to heat it up for you? The ovens are cold right now so it might take a little bit, but maybe you’d like some ice cream with it? Nothing better than hot peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream on a nippy day like this, except maybe hot apple pie with a tall glass of milk, but I’m afraid we’re out of apple right now.”

“It’s fine sonny, you’re doin’ me a kindness already. No need to put yourself out on my account.” The man smiled at his obvious discomfort, his natural inclination towards helping customers vying for place with his other natural inclination towards a bluntness of manner that verged on the rude. “In fact, I can just take this on a paper plate or a napkin and eat it as I walk, no need to keep you up any longer since I’m sure you’ve got an early start ahead of you come mornin’.”

“That’s true, I was actually just about to head up to bed before you came in,” Ned said truthfully, bluntness winning out as it always did in the end. This was why Olive usually dealt with the people and Ned dealt with the pies. “But you’re here now and there’s leftover pie to be had and it is supposed to get pretty cold tonight. It won’t kill me to hang around a little longer while you eat.”

“Keepin’ an old man company, that’s mighty generous a you youngin’,” his eyes still laughed even as he took up his fork and began the methodical process of taking bites of food between words. “Name’s Eru by the way, don’t know if I mentioned it before. Seems impolite not to let you know who you’re gonna be talkin’ to.”

“Ned,” the brunette introduced himself absently, occupied with pouring the other man a glass of milk, because you can’t eat pie without something to wash it down with, it was the law (or at least it was to Ned). “So, what brings you out to our neck of the woods at,” he checked his watch and winced. “3 o’clock in the morning.” He had to be up in four hours; Olive would never let him live this down.

“Oh ya know, this an’ that,” Eru remarked casually after a swig of milk. “Couple a my kids actually told me about this place. Been meanin’ to check it out for a while now.”

“You have kids?”

“I’m old, a course I got kids. Whole mess of ‘em in fact. They were all quite taken with this place and now I can see why. You’re providin’ a much needed service in this town if ya don’t mind my sayin’ so.”

Ned ducked his head at the compliment, smiling in spite of himself. “I’m not really doing all that much. Surely no more than anyone else in my position would. I provide a safe place for the unbound Gifted to meet while at the same time making a profit selling confections to teenagers, it’s not altogether altruistic.”

“Still. It’s a service we greatly needed, and I know my kids appreciate all the work y’all been doin’.” Eru saluted him with his glass, grinning at him as he did so and Ned couldn’t help crooking his lips up in return. There was something about this man; something that reminded him vaguely of what he had imagined having a kindly old grandfather or wise mentor might have been like back when he had time to imagine such things. “Are you staying at the shelter down the street?”

Eru raised one bushy, graying eyebrow at him speculatively as he took his last bite and drained the dregs of the milk. “What makes you think I’m homeless?” He sounded curious rather than offended.

“Well most millionaires don’t wander the streets at all hours of the night lookin’ in restaurant windows hoping for a handout.” Ned answered matter-of-factually.

Both eyebrows went up this time. “You certainly don’t pull punches do you?”

Ned blinked at him. “I don’t know what you mean.” Nervousness dawning now, he straightened from the casual, spread-elbowed sprawl he'd fallen into on his side of the counter. “Did I say something rude? Olive says I do that sometimes without noticing, and I must admit it’s a character flaw I never grew out of as a child, along with the tendency to babble when I get nervous, thought I like to think I have that better in hand these days. Not like when I was a kid and I wouldn’t know what to say so I would just say whatever came to mind to compensate, even if it didn’t really make sense in context and no one really wanted to hear it anyway and oh my God I’m doing it now aren’t I, I should probably stop.”

And in an exercise of extreme mental control he managed to do just that, folding his lips back over his teeth and pressing his jaws together to stop the increasingly rambling string of words before he could go any further.

Eru’s shoulders shook with suppressed laughter Ned could nonetheless see dancing in his expressive eyes. “No need to panic son, I never said it was a bad thing.” Watching the piemaker’s whole body sag in relief, his carefree expression became considering. “In fact, I think that attitude’ll serve you well in coming days.”

Ned just looked confused now. “What do you mean?”

In a lightning fast move the taller man couldn’t have avoided if he’d tried, one of Eru’s knobby, dirt-smudged hands shot out and wrapped around his wrist in a steely grip that was at the same time careful not to hurt him, locking his fingers tight around the captive limb before yanking the piemaker abruptly forward, making him yelp as he was forced to bend almost completely over the countertop, the edge digging into the tops of his thighs from the awkward position.

Before he could ask what the other man thought he was doing, and indeed before he could even begin to be frightened by the sudden change in their interaction, two cool fingers were pressed against his forehead and the world started to go soft and dark around the edges.

As he began to slip into unconsciousness, the last thing Ned was aware of was the old man’s gentle voice soothing over any fear he might have felt as the world darkened. “Don’t be afraid Ned. And whatever you do, try to hold onto that spark. You’re going to need it.”

And then everything went black.

Chapter Text

Life at the Longburrow School for Boys wasn’t intolerable for young Ned, merely unfortunate and at times rather inconvenient.

For you see, the Longburrow School had the prestigious distinction of being one of the top juvenile schools in the country for turning out Gifted students and, despite this not really having any bearing on the strength of their curriculum or the enrichment inherent within their institution’s walls, and indeed relied more on pure luck, the instructors nonetheless took this accreditation very seriously.

All students past the age of thirteen were required to attend a testing session at least once a semester until their graduation in an attempt to catch any abilities that might manifest before they came online completely. While pre-judging of Gifted abilities was not necessarily an exact science, it was employed by many boarding academies in the hopes of catching such things early so as to avoid the stressful process of trying to relocate a newly online Sentinel from a place where they were comfortable to unfamiliar territory as such transitions were hardly ever smooth. It also cut the chances of accidental bonding between children down to nearly nonexistent.

Such a system was extremely successful in the many years it had been in place before Ned began school, and would continue to be successful long after he left, but the part in the middle where he, once old enough, began the twice-yearly testing, would prove a frustrating and arduous process for all involved. For Ned, despite being predisposed towards Gifted abilities on both his mother and father’s side, did not have a speck of talent from either side of the spectrum whatsoever.

He could tell you when a pie was perfectly cooked from smell alone, could tell with one glance whether a particular fruit was in season or not, and even had a less well-known predilection for avoiding detection from the other boys as well as his teachers when the mood struck, sometimes disappearing for hours on end somewhere not even the best trained Sentinel senses could ever manage to find him. But all of these things, though admirable in their own right, were nothing more than any perfectly normal person could do if they had both the inclination and the sufficient motivation to try. And no matter how many tests Ned attended in the 5 years, 6 months, and 24 days after he hit puberty, none of them ever contained a hint that he might by Gifted in any significant way.

In fact, one frustrated Guide proctor even remarked that Ned seemed to be unnaturally disinclined towards empathy, especially for one so young. That perhaps the reason the boy had so much trouble making friends and connecting with others on an emotional level was simply because he was altogether incapable of doing so, his mind shut tight as a steel trap; an anti-Guide if ever there was one. Unfortunately for the proctor, her words did not go unheard by the young man in question who, while not in possession of the hearing talents that came with sharpened Sentinel senses, was still in possession of functioning ears.

That night, after yet another failed test result and another round of pitying looks from his various instructors, Ned thought to himself that he really didn’t mind at all that he wasn’t Gifted, and that if they would just stop making him take the tests altogether than this sort of thing wouldn’t happen.

In fact, as he lay there curled up around a rapidly cooling pie-tin that barely smelled of apple and cinnamon anymore in a nearly empty dormitory surrounded by the vacant beds of other teens who had tested positive for possible abilities and already been sent away to the appropriate Tower-sanctioned schools, Ned told himself he was even glad that he wasn’t Gifted, because it meant no one would ever expect anything of him beyond that he get good grades, graduate, and go on to live a healthy and successful life, which he was more than capable of doing despite the apparent deficiency inherent in being born entirely ordinary.

Because after all, if no expected you to do great things, than there would be no one to disappoint when you failed to do those things, and that suited him just fine, really, it did.

And if there were any silent tears shed that night or for any number of the nights that came after, well, it wasn’t as if the pie would tell anyone.

-

When he starts to come to, Ned’s first sleep-muddled thought is somewhere along the lines of wondering if he had fallen asleep outside in the fields behind the house again, and that he should probably get home before his mother started to worry. His second and third thoughts consisted of questioning where Digby had gotten off to, and that he really should have worn a jacket because it seemed unseasonably cool outside.

By the time his subsequent thoughts finally fight past the lingering haze in his mind, he remembers that his mother had been dead for twenty years and that last he knew it was Fall, not summer, and by the time he realizes these things, he is also awake enough to remember that he didn’t remember falling asleep outside, and the last thing he did remember was locking up the Pie Hole with Olive.

These facts, when taken altogether, meant that he is somewhere he doesn't remember going for he reasons he also does not remember, and that is enough for his sudden increase in heart rate to jolt him the rest of the way to lucidity and for his for eyes to snap open in confusion.

The scene that meets his gaze does little to alleviate that confusion, since he is currently lying in the shade of a large boulder surrounded by a hodge-podge collection of other boulders of varying sizes, and beyond this outcropping was what looked to be an endless sea of tall yellowing grass stretching on for miles in all directions.

Ned scrambles to his feet, using his boulder to steady himself when the world around him rolls for a moment with the suddenness of the motion as all the blood rushes to his head. Once his dizzy spell fades, he looks around himself, turning in a circle to make sure that yes, he is still standing in an open plain with no discernible landmarks beside the outcropping he is currently sheltered in, and that no, blinking really hard and rubbing his eyes frantically does nothing to change the information his brain insists on relaying to him.

“Hello?” He calls, voice cracking with his rising fear. He of course realizes the futility of the gesture, since if there was no one within his line of sight, there would of course be no one within hearing range either, but understanding this meant nothing to the knee-jerk reaction brought upon by the child-like belief that told him if he was lost, he should try and find someone to ask the way home again. He isn’t surprised when no one answers him other than the wind, but that doesn’t stop the simmering panic bubbling in his gut from suddenly coming to a rolling boil as the truth sinks in that he is alone in a place he’s never seen before and he has no way to get home, and no one to ask for help.

“HELLO?” He shouts again, the word raw and scared now as he stumbles forward a few paces, keeping his hand firmly against the cool stone beside him in case his shaking legs fail him. “Is anyone out there? Hello?”

The words seemed to take on a life of their own as they leave his mouth, sparking and cracking with color, reds and purples and blues swirling together in the air before him and making the landscape hum and vibrate with the force of his building panic. He staggers away from the strange effect his voice is having on the air, panting and squeezing his eyes shut as he is hit with a sudden wave of vertigo that makes him trip and land hard on his back in much the same place as he was when he’d awakened. Whole body trembling now, he wraps his arms around his chest and curls his knees up, making himself small as he grits his teeth against their chattering and tries to take deep breaths and imagine himself somewhere safe to try and calm his racing heart.

Only it doesn’t work, because trying to imagine he is somewhere safe and familiar only reinforces the fact that he isn’t safe and is somewhere unknown, the knowledge enough to make him break out into a cold sweat and the shapes projected against his clenched eyelids start to warp and blacken.

Distantly he is aware that something is very wrong with him, for although he recognizes the symptoms of a panic attack from the few he’s had before in his life, it feels different from the previous times. His head is pounding with pain now, his thoughts writhing and wriggling away from his grasping fingers before he can catch hold of them, and he can feel his chest heaving as he gasps like a drowning man, the air too thin and at the same time too thick, barely inflating his lungs even as it pours down his throat and collects in the ventricles like soup.

The clashing sensory cacophony is too much to bear and Ned nearly whimpers with relief as his body begins to shut down in an attempt to prevent him from going into shock, his nerve-endings going blessedly numb and his tense muscles going limp before he is once more dragged down into the waiting darkness, his last thought a tenuous plea to anyone who might be listening for the world to make more sense when he next awakes.

-

At first there is nothing but the heavy, dragging darkness that wraps itself around his mind and draws him steadily down, down, down into the furthest recesses of his subconscious, his struggles to rise back towards the surface growing weaker and weaker the farther he sinks until he doesn’t have the strength left to fight and instead just lets the tide wash over him. He drifts for a while, senseless and deadened almost entirely to the pain he can still dimly feeling ravaging his body, nearly all ties to his physical self cut.

Later, he’ll realize he probably would have just kept fading and fading until eventually he never would’ve been able to find his way back to the waking world and his heart would have just stopped putting up the effort to beat as his body gave up trying to save him when he’d already mentally surrendered to the inevitable, had it not been for the sun.

Not the real sun of course, but at the time he does make the mistake of thinking that it is, because of the warmth and brightness it brings into the gray-black world surrounding him. He turns his face up to it, basking in the comfort it exudes, soaking it in and letting it fill him from top to toe until he feels weightless with it, buoyed and whole and strong and he starts swimming up, up, up towards the light. It's so easy to cut through the water now and he just keeps going faster and faster and faster until he finally bursts free of the ocean of blackness entirely, joy bubbling through him at the accomplishment, wild and fierce with the knowledge that he is free, free, free! And he just keeps going until it feels like he’s flying, the air so much clearer and purer then he ever remembers it being before and he feels like he could do anything now, anything at all.

He circles the sun, laughter like bubbles of bright joy that pop around him as he brushes against it, pushing his gratitude and happiness outwards as he tries to convey how thankful he is that it gave him a reason to fight again and helped save him from the darkness. The light radiates amusement as it acknowledges his thanks, sunbeams like gentle hands on either side of his face as it tells him that it’s time for him to return to his body and to the physical world. He sighs in agreement even as the vibrant, streaming colors of his emotions dim at the prospect of dealing with the pain and confusion he knows he’ll encounter when he does.

He allows the light to gather around him and start pulling him back towards wakefulness, until suddenly he’s startled by a tendril of cool awareness flickering past him. He turns to look for the source even as the light tries to tug him back around. He can see the other presence far in the distance now that he knows it’s there and he strains to make out what it is, taking a step toward it and brushing off the nudges that tell him to turn around and follow the light again. He just wants a quick look, he’ll be right back. And with that thought he spreads his wings once more, easy as breathing, and takes off.

As he approaches it, coasting on the winds of whispering consciousness that whip past him, he can see that it’s a tree unlike anything he’s ever seen before, leafless and gleaming silver on the horizon. It doesn’t shine and pulse with life and security like the sun, but glows steady and pale as the moon, ancient roots anchored deep in rich black earth, twisted, towering branches reaching regally for the sky.

It’s built a bit like the old beech trees that grew all over the hillside outside of the Longburrow school, the ones he’d spent hours climbing and sitting in during his youth, hiding from students and instructors alike, legs dangling over the edge of a thick branch and back pressed securely against the trunk as he watched the sky gradually change from dusk to night. A sharp burst of delight accompanies the comparison, dissipating into the distance as he closes in on the tree, knowing with a certainty that goes bone-deep that if he reaches it, it will shelter him and keep him safe as long as he nests in its strong branches. He calls out excitedly as he comes within range, meaning to land somewhere near the top and possibly never leave, the sun and its promise of peace a long forgotten memory.

Something stirs near the base of the tree at his call, and what at first appeared to be a piece of the night sky woven among the gnarled roots comes alive and uncoils slow and serpentine from where it had been curled around the trunk, stretching out one cold feeler towards him, the same icy touch of wind from before skimming across him curiously.

Somewhere something is shrieking alarm bells on every channel it can find, critical system shutdown abortabortabort but he’s so happy he could burst and he reaches those last few inches to tangle his fingers into the outstretched ink-dark strand, he’s so close and then-

His entire vision goes searing white as the sun blazes around him, encasing him in its center and bristling out to pierce the black making it hiss and recoil as if scalded by the touch and he screams and beats himself against the burning walls erected between him and it but it’s like trying to punch through solid diamond and all it does is bruise his fists and make him sob with frustrated impotency as he is dragged back the way he came, keening with distress and fighting tooth and nail now as he’s forced kicking and screaming back into his too-small body and nonono he doesn’t want to go back he wants to go to the silver tree and press his hands against it until it shimmers with golden sparks and starts to bloom again why did the light take him away whywhywhywhyWHY-

Then he knows nothing else for a long, long time.

-

When he wakes again it’s with little fanfare; no gasping and sitting bolt upright like he’s been electrocuted, no flailing awake and promptly falling off the bed in the process, no screaming bloody murder and having the nurses call for someone to sedate him, nothing like that. He simply opens his eyes and squints up at an unfamiliar ceiling for an indeterminable amount of time as he tries to gather his scattered thoughts, the process ponderously slow like trying to pour molasses on a winter day.

It takes so long, in fact, for him to realize he’s no longer lying outside in a chilly, windswept field and neither is he back in his bed at the Liberty apartments above the Pie Hole that the other person in the room finally resorts to clearing their throat politely to get his attention.

Ned turns his head in the direction of the noise, grey eyes widening in surprise when he sees the dark-haired young woman sitting at his bedside with one of his hands clasped lightly in both of hers.

She’s dressed strangely, like an extra in a period movie, clad in a floor-length silver-lavender gown of what might be velvet or something like it, her milky shoulders bared above an embroidered collar but with close-fitting sleeves that widen at the ends and fall far past her hands while at the same time leaving her able to use them unhindered. He must have been really out of it not to have even notice his hand was being held since his general policy on touching hovered constantly somewhere around ‘no thank you’ and he went out of his way to avoid it on a daily basis even among those he was close to, let alone with pretty young strangers of which he has no previous relation. He flushes and goes to tug his hand away only to have her grip tighten fractionally and he looks up at her again, his gaze having relocated itself to the quilt in discomfort. Her own calm grey eyes look him over carefully. “How are you feeling?”

He blinks at the slight clip to her consonants. Definitely not American. British? “Um. Fine I guess? I’m not really sure what happened or where I am or how I got here, but otherwise I think I’m doing okay on the physical side of things. Unless you meant on an emotional level in which case I honestly have no idea where to even start."

It’s her turn to blink at him, one slim dark brow quirking upwards minutely at the sudden rush of words. “I meant both physically and emotionally, but it is good that you aren’t in any pain. The healers said there was nothing they could do for your body since you did not appear hurt, but the Lady Galadriel said you might experience some mild discomfort from the transition, possibly in the form of a pain in your head. Do you feel anything like that?”

Ned is aware that staring is rude but he’s never heard anyone actually talk like that outside of movies and that one time Olive had made him go with her to the Ren Faire a few cities over. Which, come to think of it, might explain the dress. “A headache? No I don’t-” he pauses to consider, frowning slightly when he realizes oh, yeah, now that you mention it, his head is throbbing somewhat, but the ache is fuzzy and distorted enough to not be distracting. “Well. Maybe a little bit? Not anything worth worrying about though.”

The slight furrowing between her brows disappears and she smiles at him and wow he may need to amend his earlier statement because she’s not just pretty she’s beautiful. “That is good. Hopefully that will fade with time. Do you think you could stand? You should eat and while I could have food brought here it might be better for you to move around. You’ve been asleep for three days after all.”

Now he does jerk upright and she drops his hand at the unexpected movement, and as soon as she’s no longer touching him his headache surges but he ignores it in favor of gaping at her, knowing he must look like a fish and unable to care. "Three days? Are you serious? What happened? I don’t even feel sick! Or-or-or hurt! Oh my God what about the Pie Hole?! Olive must be worried sick! Is she here? Is Emerson here? Did you guys have to give her something to calm her down and put her in one of those special Sentinel-proof rooms and that’s why she’s not here? Did she threaten one of the doctors again, if so I’m so sorry really she’s not usually like that at all, or well I mean she is but it’s not usually so prevalent or-”

The woman stands in one swift motion and takes his face in her hands, effectively stopping the babbling before it can spiral out of control. “Peace! It is alright. I do not know the whereabouts of your friends or family as they are not here, but I am certain they would not want you to make yourself ill again by working yourself into a frenzy on their behalf. Be still and breathe deep and be assured the situation will be explained in time.” He can feel her run soothing mental fingers across his mind, working out the snarls and tangles of the emotional outburst he was building up to and he relaxes into the touch, closing his eyes and letting her take his stress away without resisting, the lightening of his load helping to calm him immensely.

When he’s pretty sure he’s collected himself again he opens his eyes and smiles sheepishly up at her. “Thanks for that. I know most Guides don’t like to link minds with strangers and stuff but that really helped. I’m Ned by the way. Sorry for the freak-out.”

She smiles back and him, eyes twinkling near silver in the sunlight coming in from the window. “It is no trouble. And it is nice to meet you Ned. My name is Arwen.”

“That’s a pretty name.”

“Thank you. It means ‘noble maiden’.”

“Wow. I’m sorry.”

She furrows her brows again and tilts her head to the side. “Sorry for what?”

He backtracks frantically. “No-I just meant-It was a joke cause-I mean-ya know what never mind. That’s cool that your parents gave you a name that means something other than just a word that you use to make someone turn around when you call it like mine is. Not that I mind being called Ned but it doesn’t really mean anything other than…Ned.”

She sounds amused when she says, “You use a great many words to say so little.”

“That is the nicest way I’ve ever heard someone tell me to stop babbling before.”

“Well that is something I suppose.” Yep, she’s definitely internally laughing at him now. Good. Amused is always better than annoyed. “Regardless, now that your..‘freak-out’ is over, would you mind following me to the dining pavilion? My father wishes to speak with you and I know my brothers cannot wait to bombard you with questions.”

“Really? Gee I can’t imagine why. Not like I passed out in the middle of nowhere and had to be rescued by someone’s entire family and then took up a bed in their house for three days. You sure your dad wants to talk to me and not just tell me to get out?” Despite his words he does swing his legs over the edge of the bed and get to his feet, the effort required taking a lot more out of him then he expects because oh right, no food for three days, and he has to rest his hand on Arwen’s shoulder for a second until the room stops spinning. She doesn’t protest and once she’s sure he’s not going to collapse she turns gracefully, long black hair and long lilac dress rippling in synch as she leads him out of the room.

“Your presence here has not been a burden so you should not feel as if you owe any of us an apology. If anything, we’re glad we found you before someone less trustworthy could. In your delicate state, any added stress could have proved exceedingly damaging, if not fatal.”

“’Delicate state’? You make it sound like I’m pregnant or something.” Ned jokes as they pass through hall after hall of intricately carved stone, head turning this way and that to try and take it all in. He’s never seen such a beautiful house before and he’s coming to the conclusion that he must be staying in somebody’s mansion because everything he sees is all mosaic stonework and finely carved wood that must have all cost a fortune. He can hear a lot of running water somewhere close by so they must be near a river or maybe a lake and he’s getting steadily more and more worried about meeting the master of the house because inbetween the enormity of this place and Arwen’s accent he’s starting to think maybe he’s been rescued by a Bond villain. “Uh, if you don’t mind my asking, and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful or anything, but what exactly is this place? Do only you and your family live here?”

Arwen stops outside of a pair of richly carved wooden doors so tall they tower over him and turns to look at him with evident surprise. “Oh. Forgive me Ned, I had assumed that once you saw more of it you would recognize this place from rumors or stories you must have heard on your travels. You are in Imladris, called Rivendell, the last Homely House left east of the sea.” She says this as though she expects him to know what it means.

He doesn’t. “Uh. Right. So. Is-Is that like a-Yeah, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

She’s frowning up at him now, the furrow back between her brows. “You’ve never heard of Rivendell? I had imagined you came from a land far away indeed by the way you spoke and how strangely you’re dressed but I hadn’t thought you would not have at least heard of this place, if only from the gossip exchanged on the road you took to get here. I take this to mean you also do not know who my father is; Lord Elrond Peredhil?”

“No ma’am. I didn’t even know people were still called ‘lord’ and ‘lady’ anymore.”

She’s outright staring at him now, incredulity written large across her dainty features. “But-you mean to tell me you have no ruling class in your land? No kings or queens nor royalty of any kind?”

He just shakes his head at her, not knowing how else to respond, crossing his arms behind his back and curving his shoulders in the way Olive tells him he always does when he’s trying to apologize without using words.

“Well that is-I mean-Well-,” she seems at a loss for words which Ned doesn’t imagine happens to her a lot and he feels kinda terrible about it. She freezes as though something momentous has only just occurred to her and she peers up into his face with something approaching trepidation. “But surely-surely you have heard of..of elves before, yes?”

He stares back at her, bewildered. “You mean like the kind that don’t exist?”

Her mouth actually drops open with shock as she looks at him, speechless. After several minutes of silently mouthing words but never managing to voice them, she shakes her head firmly, making her dark waterfall of hair sway violently with the movement. Facing the doors once more, she looks over her shoulder at him, expression determined. “You really must meet my father. He will explain.”

And with that she swings the doors open and steps into the room, leaving Ned with little choice but to follow.

Chapter Text

He’s not sure what he had imagined she meant when she said ‘dining pavilion’ but this certainly wasn’t it.

They’ve stepped outside onto a terrace overlooking what might be a river but looks more like a series of inter-connecting waterfalls that all happen to be flowing in the same direction. There are trees in a riot of early fall colors extending into the horizon on all sides of the river and the air is so crisp and clear he finds himself taking deep, greedy lungfuls of it as though he’s been deprived of oxygen his entire life.

If he were capable of feeling anything other than awe at the present moment, he would probably be hyper-aware of the spectacle he must be making of himself, staring around, eyes round with wonder and mouth hanging open like an imbecile. But as it is he’s so entranced as to be entirely oblivious to anything other than the beautiful scenery and so thankfully misses the amused smiles Arwen and her father exchange at his refreshingly honest reaction.

He’s eventually called back to himself by a polite cough from behind him and he reluctantly turns around to look at his host, drinking in the sight around him as long as he can before facing them again. At some point he had crossed to the railing to lean out over it for a better view and had somehow managed to miss the long wooden table taking up a good portion of the open space, already laden with fine silver dishes heaped with food of all kinds and Ned finds himself fervently hoping they don’t expect him to eat all of it himself, because while he is hungry now that he’s awake enough to notice it, he’s pretty sure he could never be hungry enough to pack all this food away by himself even if he hadn’t eaten in a million years.

A man steps forward from when he had been standing beside Arwen and dips his head in greeting. “I am Lord Elrond. My daughter tells me you have never before heard tell of this place, and so I would like to be the first to officially welcome you to Rivendell, Master Ned.”

His consonants are clipped and curved in the same way as his daughter’s and he has the same dark hair, though his is straight and braided at the temples where she wore her tumbling waves loose. Ned flushes at the title put before his name and extends his hand to shake Elrond’s while at the same time taking in the strange way the older man is dressed in flowing robes with a high-collar the like of which Ned’s never seen before and he’s starting to think maybe he’s been taken in by a rich family of Medieval re-enactors instead of a rich family of super-villains.

“Please, it’s Ned, just Ned. No ‘Master’ or anything before it. Really, I can’t handle that kind of responsibility, I break out in hives.” He chatters nervously as he shakes Elrond’s hand. Apparently the eyebrow raise is a family trait because there goes the same slim dark brow lifting at his particular form of communication; namely, why just share when you can over-share? Just because he knows he does it doesn’t mean he knows how to make it stop and trust him, he’s tried.

“I see. In that case, Ned, feel free to take a seat and start eating. I’m sure after all you’ve been through you have quite the appetite.”

“Thank you, I actually am starting to feel pretty hungry.” He takes a seat at one end of the table as Elrond sits at the head and Arwen settles in across from Ned. He looks around at all the choices, noticing most of it seems to consist of raw vegetable dishes and little else, and he relaxes marginally, thankful he doesn't have to have the 'um, is there a vegetarian option?' talk with his hosts, and so he loads up his plate and digs in.

After a few minutes spent on this task, it becomes obvious neither of his hosts plans to speak first and so he swallows his mouthful and bites the metaphorical bullet. “I’m really grateful to you for taking me in and nursing me back to health and everything, even though I’m still not completely clear on exactly why I needed nursing in the first place, but, do you think maybe you could explain some things to me cause I am exceptionally lost.”

“Yes, well,” Elrond shifts to steeple his fingers before his face, fixing storm grey eyes on his guest. “Tell me Ned: what do you know of elves? Arwen has told me you do not believe they exist.”

“That’s because they don’t,” Ned answers easily, not missing a beat. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, whatever you guys decide to spend your money on and do in your spare time is fine, but elves, fairies, unicorns, all that stuff, it’s not really real.” Something occurs to him and he sets his fork down slowly, uneasiness churning in his gut. “You-you do know that right?”

Elrond simply regards him levelly, none of the dropped-jaw shock that Arwen had exhibited present anywhere on his careworn features. “And what makes you think that?”

“Wh-what makes me think-? I don’t think, I know!” Ned stands abruptly from the table, chair scraping harshly over stone and he spares a second to hope he didn’t hurt either the chair or the floor because they both probably cost more than he’s ever earned in his entire life. “Those things are just fairy-tales! Legends and myths parents tell their kids at night to make them have good dreams, but they aren’t true, none of it is.” He’s properly agitated now; he can feel it thrumming through his bloodstream and make his heartbeat pick up.

“So, because you’ve been told such things are not real you take that viewpoint to be fact?”

“Wh-no! It’s fact because it’s fact! Not because that’s what I wanna believe! Look, you guys obviously checked out from reality a really long time ago for you to go to all this trouble just so you can keep this fantasy alive, but that’s all it is: a fantasy!” He’s breathing hard now, nails biting into his palms and he spares a second to think it may not be the best idea to yell at people who are clearly crazy even if they did help him out but he’s too angry to care and he opens his mouth to continue-

“Why does this matter so much to you?”

All the tension goes out of Ned’s shoulders and his fists uncurl and he just stares at Arwen who looks back at him placidly. “'Why does it matter’?” His voice is thick with incredulity.

She just nods. “Yes. Why does it matter so much to you that elves and fairies and magic be nothing more than myth? Why are you so quick to dismiss that which you can see with your own eyes?”

“My own eyes?” He parrots again and he sways slightly under the sudden vertigo that pulls at his gut, threatening to make him lose his lunch all over the beautiful marbled floor. And sure, he isn’t blind, he can see clear as day the delicate points to Elrond’s ears from where he’s standing, had seen a flash of the more pronounced sharpness of Arwen’s whenever her hair swung a certain way. “Because. Because it’s fake. This is all fake and you guys are just playing make believe.” His voice is very small. “Right?”

“Oh Ned,” Arwen’s eyes are kind and just a little bit pitying as she looks at him, standing there alone and looking so lost, his eyes shadowed with old childish hurt. “No, I am afraid that is not the case.”

And Ned feels as though his whole world has been ripped out from under him.

-

“So. Elves."

“Yes Ned.”

“Elves are real?”

“Quite.”

“Magic?”

“Yes.”

“Dragons?”

“Unfortunately so, yes.”

His voice is hesitant when he speaks next. “Unicorns…?”

Elrond doesn’t laugh, but his lips do tick up at the corners in a way that says he wants to. “I’ve heard of such creatures roaming the deserts far, far to the south of this land, but as I have never seen one with my own eyes, I will only say it is a distinct possibility and nothing more.”

Ned groans and hangs his head so his forehead presses to his knees, clasping his hands together on the back of his neck. “This cannot be happening. I must have hit my head on something and gotten a concussion and this is all a coma dream. Or a fever dream. Either one works, I’m not choosy.”

“I am sorry to disappoint you, but I'm afraid all of this is very real.” Elrond stands in a way that manages to be elegant despite the yards and yards of shifting cloth involved in the endeavor. He crosses to the smaller table near the door Arwen has disappeared through moments earlier after making sure Ned wasn’t about to collapse in shock. He’s almost sure he heard her say something about ‘alerting the others’ but he’d been to out of it with trying to process everything that he can’t be sure.

The elf pours a glass of water and bring it to the man who’d sat down on a bench near the railing when it became obvious his legs were going to give up on him if he didn’t. He takes it gratefully and downs it in one swallow, gasping when he’s done, refreshed but no less overwhelmed. Once he’s done Elrond continues, “If you would like, I can try and answer a few more questions in the time it takes my daughter to return with my sons and the Lady Galadriel but I’m afraid I do not know much more than you at this point. It’s all very strange.”

“’Strange’? You make it sound like you just found out your entire life has been a lie.” He takes a deep breath and forces it out in a great whoosh as he sits up, purposefully curving his spine too far back until it pops satisfactorily and puts his hands on his knees, shoulders squared and expression determined. “Alright. First things first: I might know what this place is called but I still don’t know where it is exactly. What country are we in?”

Elrond settles into a chair opposite the younger man, his own expression thoughtful as he considers the question. “The land in which we are currently residing is known as ‘Middle-Earth’ as a whole, Arda amongst the elves, and of course the other races have their own words for it. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘country’.”

“’Middle-Earth’, really? Is there an Upper and Lower Earth too?”

Elrond looks like he’s not sure whether he’s joking or not. “No.”

“I’m kind of flying blind here; I just want to make sure I cover all the bases. Okay more on that later. Next question: where did you guys find me? And how?”

“You were found in the fields just outside of the Hidden Pass that leads to Rivendell, very close to the secret entrance in fact. My sons were the ones who were sent to retrieve you and bring you back here for healing. As for how we knew you were there in the first place, well,” He deliberates for a moment. “It would be best to let Lady Galadriel tell you that, as she will be able explain it far better than I.”

“And that’s another thing, who is ‘Lady Galadriel’? I’ve heard you mention her a bunch of times, and so did Arwen but I don’t actually know who she is.”

“The Lady Galadriel, Mistress of Lothlorien, is the High Guide of Arda. She is the strongest Guide to ever walk these, or indeed any, lands known or otherwise. She is the one who saw to your wounds and helped put you on the path to recovery.”

“But,” Ned’s brows furrow. “Arwen said ‘the healers’ looked at me when I got here and that I didn’t have a scratch on me.”

“Perhaps not on your physical self, young Ned, but you were most certainly in need of healing of a different sort.”

The voice is low but feminine and both of them turn towards the door as one, Elrond standing and bowing at the waist when he sees the woman in the doorway but Ned can’t do anything but stare. He had though Arwen was beautiful, and while she was, this woman is something else altogether.

Her hair is wavy and long like Arwen’s but instead of dark her hair falls past her hips in a waterfall of gleaming gold, her skin pale and flawless in a way that doesn’t look real, clear sky blue eyes glittering in a face carved as carefully as though by the hand of a master. She wears a modest silver circlet to keep her hair back from her face but she couldn’t look more queenly even if she’d been dripping in jewels, her unadorned white dress rippling and flowing around her like water as she steps onto the terrace, dipping her head in acknowledgement to Elrond before turning to Ned with a smile that reaches her eyes and makes them shine all the brighter, as though lit from within.

He’s conscious of the fact that he’s openly gawking at her in awe but he can’t seem to do anything to stop it. This is obviously Galadriel and while he gets the not-unwarranted urge to bow he’s not sure how to do it properly so he just stands there and tries to will the floor to swallow him up as she continues to watch him with those glimmering eyes like she can see every thought in his head. He really hopes that isn’t the case, since his thoughts are mostly stuck on a loop of ‘ohgod ohgod ohgod ohgod ohgod ohgod' and 'don’t you dare throw up on her'.

Her sky-bright eyes flicker over his face as though searching for something. Whatever she finds it makes her relax marginally and has her smile widening the barest amount. “I see you are on your way to recovery already. This is good, but will take a lot of effort on your part to maintain; I cannot be the one to keep your power contained forever, even I am not so strong as that.”

Once he finds his voice, Ned manages to rasp, “Sorry, but ‘power’? What power?”

Her smile fades slightly and she steps closer to him, making all the muscles in his back tense in response. He hadn’t realized how very tall she was, and she looks him in the eyes without having to tip her head at all. She looks deep into his eyes now, searching more with her mind than with her sight, and he can feel the very fringes of a vast, shining consciousness that stirs some sense of familiarity in him, brush briefly against what might be his soul before drawing away and he shivers under the touch of it, even more humbled and awed than before.

Her smile is gone entirely now, and while the micro-expression on her face might not technically be a frown, there is a concerned edge to her keen gaze that hadn’t been there earlier. “I understand now. I had not fully realized the effects such powerful shields might have on your memory. Thankfully it has not caused any other adverse reactions, but urgency is no excuse for inattention. I should have been more careful, and for that I apologize.” She inclines her head slightly and before he can even begin to do more than wheeze in response to that she turns away, moving to sit in the chair Elrond holds out for her, faint smile in place again.

“Lord Elrond, would you like to handle further introductions? I must gather my thoughts on how best to explain all that has happened to your guest; such an event is unprecedented in all my many years, and I would not want to be remiss in my duties a second time.”

“Yes, my Lady.” He agrees easily, facing Ned again and holding out one hand to indicate the two other dark haired elves that had arrived with Galadariel but had remained a respectful distance behind while she spoke to Ned. “May I introduce my sons Elladan and Elrohir; they are the ones who brought you here and have been most eager to talk to you about your experience.”

The two men smile as one as they approach Ned, and it might make him uneasy if he couldn’t see for himself the way the one on the left (Elladan?) was nearly vibrating in place with excitement to finally get to talk to their mysterious guest, and his brother (Elrohir?), while outwardly calm still appears as though he’s fighting back an excited grin of his own with the way the muscles around his mouth keep twitching.

The twins are identical in every way, in height, build, and coloring, right down to the length of their straight jet-black hair, eyes a clear dark blue unlike their father's and sister’s own stormy gray. They are also, as Ned is coming to understand might be true of all elves, startlingly handsome, slender and strong with high-boned cheeks and flawless skin. Their beauty is almost eerie in its symmetry, but after the embodied perfection that is the Lady Galadriel, Ned is confident he’ll never find anyone so beautiful ever again, and so is able to disregard their unearthly attractiveness in favor of listening to their words.

Elladan is nearly bouncing in place with glee, making him appear far younger than he really is. “It is nice to finally meet you Ned. Elrohir and I were so impatient to get to speak to you properly we thought we would go mad when you didn’t wake up for three whole days.”

“Yes and in your madness you began pestering me with questions, as though I might have the answers in his stead,” Elrohir remarked dryly. “It really is fortunate you woke up when you did; I was starting to think maybe I should smother him in his sleep, if only to get a reprieve.”

Elladan punches him in the shoulder for that, and Elrohir pushes him back in retaliation and soon enough their scuffling like children and Ned can’t help but grin at their antics, some of his nervousness bleeding away in the face of their good humor. It all comes rushing back however, when Elrond calls from where he’s taken a seat next to Galadriel at the table, “Boys that is enough. Leave our guest alone for now, we have much to discuss.”

In Ned’s experience, such discussions, when called for with such a tone of foreboding, rarely end well, and so he sits back down at the table with extreme caution, the twins taking seats next to their sister opposite him. They all turn as one to face Galadriel at the head of the table, her eyes closed as she gathers her thoughts. Taking a deep breath, she opens them and fixes her gaze on Ned’s face. “What do you know of the Gifted members of your race? The Sentinels and Guides?”

Ned blinks at the unexpectedness of the question; he had been expecting her to ask for more clarification on how he came to be in this strange world. “Um, not much? I mean, if you’re asking if I personally know any Sentinels or Guides, the answers yes, Olive and Emerson. They’re a bonded pair, Olive works at my shop and Emerson is a private investigator-er, he looks into suspicious crimes and tries to find out who perpetrated them in order to alert the proper authorities? And I was tested all through school, but if you’re asking if I myself am Gifted the answer is no, I’m not. Which I don’t know why you would be asking because you probably know that already, being that you’re, you know, you.”

Galadriel looks unfazed by his characteristic babbling, but he can see from the corner of his eye that the twins are gaping at the amount of words he managed to say in the amount of time he said them in. “Perhaps before your coming to this land that was true, but that is no longer the case. I believe the trauma from being cast from your world to this one has brought the latent talents in your blood to the surface.” At his uncomprehending stare her eyes soften and she continues gently. “I can assure you, you are indeed Gifted Ned. I would go so far as to say you may very well be the most powerful Guide I have ever encountered, of any race.”

“Other than you of course.” Ned manages to whisper, his mind reeling too fast to process anything else. When the elf does nothing but study him with that same kind, maternal look in her eyes, he clears his throat and tries again, stronger this time and maybe a little hysterical. “Other than you of course?” He doesn’t mean to make it sound like a question.

Her expression does not waver as she replies, “On the contrary. I do believe that with the right training, you could one day surpass even my abilities, by a rather large margin at that. I have never seen such potential in one so young before.”

Ned looks around wildly at everyone else sitting at the table, hysteria rising when he sees none of them appear surprised by this revelation even as his own world begin to tip wildly off its axis. A cool hand touches his and he flinches, snatching his hand away and turning to look at Arwen, her youthful face creased in concern. “You must remain calm Ned. We understand this is a lot to take in-”

“Do you? Do you really?” He’s aware his voice has risen at least three octaves but he’s more worried about the fact that his whole body has started to shake under the weight of all that he’s learned. He wraps his arms around himself to try and stop it, itching to leap to his feet and run as far and as fast from this place and all the confusion he’s felt since he woke up here but he’s rooted to the chair, his body refusing to obey him. He directs his focus back to Galadriel, speaking through chattering teeth, “You must be mistaken. I-I-I’m not special, not Gifted. I’m Ned the piemaker, I make pies and occasionally catch murderers, but I’m certainly not the most powerful anything to ever walk anywhere, on this Earth or any other. I don’t even feel any different!”

“That is because I have constructed a barrier around your mind in order to reign in your new gifts. When you first awoke in the fields near Imladris, your confusion and fear at your unfamiliar surroundings caused your fea, your spirit, to overflow your body and detach itself entirely, and the pain of that separation sent out a cry of distress heard throughout the whole of Middle-Earth.” Once she’s sure she once more has his full attention she goes on, “I heard your call echoing through the trees of my home in Lorien, and was able to reach out and bring you back from the brink of a psychic overload.”

“You were the sun,” he breathes through numb lips, his body having ceased shaking only to go cold with shock.

“Yes. ‘A guiding light’ to bring you home. It is a technique used to summon zoned Sentinels back to themselves, but it worked for you as well. Never before have I seen someone’s fea detach itself completely from the body like that; three days ago I would have said such a thing was impossible, which you have obviously proven untrue. It is why you must try to remain calm now; any undue stress on the barrier will cause it to deteriorate and your mind to spill out again, and if that that happens your body may not recover this time. In fact, if I had not gotten to you when I did, I fear your physical self never would have recovered from the shock and eventually your heart would have simply stopped beating."

“I remember now. You were the sun, you lifted me out of the black sea.”

She smiles again. “Yes.”

He’s beginning to calm down now, forcing himself by sheer willpower to breathe normally, and the questions are helping to keep him grounded. “What about the beech tree?”

She doesn’t look startled precisely, but she is obviously taken off guard. “'Beech tree’? To what do you refer?” Something flickers through her sapphire-shine eyes, too fast for him to guess what it might be.

“The silver beech tree from my dream. Only I guess it wasn’t really a dream, but I do remember that part clearly. The sun and the sea and the tree glowing in the distance. It looked sick, bare and leafless, but it also looked…” He casts about for a word. “Safe. Comforting. Like I could land on its branches and make myself a nest and never have to worry about anything ever again.”

The dark-haired elves all share silent, pointed glances between themselves. Triumphant and gleeful (the twins), worried (Arwen), and admonishing (Elrond) by turns. The golden-haired elf’s expression doesn’t change other than a slight widening of her smile. “Though I saw no tree, I would expect that it was meant to represent your Sentinel.”

Ned gapes at her and she hides a laugh behind her hand. “It is not so uncommon. When a Guide finds themselves in such a stressful situation as the one you were in, it is instinctive to reach out for the comforting presence of one’s Sentinel. However, it is usually only used among bonded pairs because there is already an established link between their minds that they can follow. With your soul having disconnected from your body, it simply cast itself out to blanket the entirety of the land with your distress call in an attempt to summon your Sentinel to your side. Had I not intercepted you before your minds connected, nothing would have stopped him from coming to find you while you were in so much obvious pain.”

“Why did you intercept us?” If he concentrates he imagines he can still feel the light burns he sustained from throwing himself against the walls she had used to cage him in. “Why didn’t you just let it happen?”

Her eyes are very serious now, and she leans forward in her seat to impress her point. “If I had let your minds connect, even for the briefest moment, with how powerful the both of you are, the bonding process would have begun. Your Sentinel resides far, far to the east, over ranges and rivers; the two of you are too far away from one another to be able to complete the bond before the agony resulting from an unfulfilled bond would have killed you both.”

“But that isn’t how bonding works,” he protests, shrinking back in his seat when they all turn to stare at him at the boldness of his statement. “Is it? I mean, Olive and Emerson’s bond is platonic, which mean they never, well, completed it like it’s supposed to be, with ya know, uh, sex.” He knows he’s blushing and he really wishes he wasn’t because he isn’t a kid anymore, he should be able to talk about things like this without stammering. He rushes on, “But they get on just fine.”

“Among the average Gifted, such things are possible, as long as the bonded pair remain within relative proximity to one another. But while you may be the strongest Guide in the whole of the world, so then is your Sentinel far beyond even the strongest of Gifted amongst Men.”

“Wha-? But you just said my Sentinel”-he’s not sure why he shivers at the word-“is a man, you said ‘he’.”

Galadriel actually raises her eyebrows at him. “In Middle-Earth, you would be considered a male of the race of Men, while your Sentinel is a male of the race of the Eldar, the Elves.”

“Oh,” he squeaks weakly, filing that bit of information away for later. “My Sentinel is an Elf than?”

“Yes.”

“So you know who he is?”

The twins have a sudden and inexplicable coughing fit and he turns to look at them in confusion only to see Arwen frown and reach over to swat the closest (Elladan, he thinks), on the shoulder in reprimand while Elrond clears his throat and gives them a disapproving glare. Anxious now, he looks back to the other Guide with wide eyes, hoping she’s not about to tell him his Sentinel is some backwoods drunk who just happened to win the Gifted cosmic lottery.

She smiles back in reassurance in the face of his anxiety, but there is a shadow of something that might be concern over her lovely face now and it doesn’t quite reach her eyes as it did before, and that certainly doesn’t help his skyrocketing blood pressure any. “Yes Ned, I do know who your Sentinel is.”

“A-And?”

“Your Sentinel is the current Elvenking of Mirkwood. Thranduil Oropherion.”

Chapter Text

It’s strange how fast a week can pass once it already has and you’re left looking back and asking yourself where exactly the time went. Or at least, that was what occurred to Ned as he sat on his bed in his temporary room in Rivendell, staring at his hands, or more specifically, the little black rectangle in his hands. He had found it in the pocket of his jeans when he’d gotten up, bathed, and gotten redressed in his new traveling clothes that morning. He had stared at it for a full thirty seconds before he was able to recall what precisely it was and what purpose it served and when he remembered, he had been forced to hurriedly sit down on the bed lest his legs refuse to hold him up any longer.

It was of course, his cellphone, but the mere fact that it had taken him so long to remember its function had rattled him. With all that had happened in the past 7 days, 6 hours, and 23 minutes, things like cellphones, electricity, and running water had seemed so very far removed from his current circumstances as to be nearly absurd. To click the power button and have the screen cheerfully light up to inform him that he still had forty-percent battery life, had felt even more so.

There’s a polite knock on his door as he sits contemplating everything that has happened to him since he arrived in this foreign, fantastical land and when he doesn’t answer, the door opens to emit Arwen. “My brothers sent me to collect you. They say they’re ready to depart as soon as you join them.”

When Ned nods but make no move to stand or look up from the device in his hands she crosses to the bed and settles next to him. She peers curiously at the little box he is so preoccupied with. “What is that?”

“My cellphone.” He finally looks up at her confused silence. “It’s a thing that lets you talk to people over long distances. Well, you can if they also have a cellphone and you have their specific number-like a code, or a password-to type in to contact them with, but it doesn’t work now of course cause there’s no celltowers or anything. So now it’s mostly just a really expensive paperweight.”

She regards him quietly for a long moment, sharp gray eyes missing nothing, before she extends one slim, pale hand with a question in her lovely eyes. After a moment of internal debate, he obligingly places it in her waiting palm.

She turns it over and over in her hands, examining it from every angle, rotating it until the screen is facing her. Running one smooth fingertip over the slick, shiny surface, she presses the small button on the bottom and jumps nearly off the bed when the screen obediently lights up. The corners of his mouth quirk at her startled reaction and she smiles back in slight embarrassment. Glancing back at the illuminated screen she points at the background photo on his lock-screen. “Who is this?”

He leans a little closer in order to see over her shoulder, a true smile crossing his face at the sight of the photo she's pointing at. “That’s my friend Olive. She works with me at the Pie Hole.” Feeling the need to elaborate, he goes on, “She took that a few days before I came here. It was a slow day and she was fiddling around with my phone because hers doesn’t have a camera in it, just taking pictures of herself making funny faces and posing with the pies, but all of a sudden she just leans over, grabs me, and tells me to smile, so I did and she took that photo and set it as my background.”

His heart clenches at the memory of her laughter and the sense memory of her deceptively wiry arm around his neck. His smile in the photo is genuine, if a bit shy, while hers is bright and sunny, her temple pressed to his to get them both in the frame.

He had explained the concept of photography and cameras to Arwen and her brothers earlier in the week during one of the twins’ nightly questionnaire sessions at dinner, but he knows most of what he just said went over her head. Still her eyes are soft with understanding when she passes it back to him. “You miss her a great deal.” She doesn’t have to be a Guide to sense that.

“Yeah. I miss them all. Her and Emerson and Digby. And the Pie Hole, but that counts more as a ‘someplace’ rather than a ‘someone’.” He clenches the phone tightly so that the edges did into his palms. “I hope they’re doing okay.”

She watches him for a few more seconds before asking, “Would you like to take a picture of me?” He must look surprised so she explains, “To remember your time in Rivendell. And so that perhaps one day you will be able to show your Olive, so she will know you are not a ‘nut case’ when you tell her of your experience here.” The twins had gleefully picked up bits and pieces of his questionable speaking habits and started incorporating them into their own speech at every available opportunity, but Ned hadn’t known Arwen was paying enough attention to do the same, and the realization makes a rush of warmth suffuse his whole being.

“I think I’d like that. If you don’t mind I mean.”

“Of course.” She fusses a little with the skirt of her dress, making sure it falls correctly before folding her hands in her demurely in her lap and lifting her chin. “Is this alright?”

He smiles as he raises the camera. She looks like she’s sitting for a portrait. “That’s fine.” He hits the button then taps on the little box to make it bigger before turning it around to show her. “There, came out great.”

There’s an almost childlike delight on her features as she looks at the picture with wide eyes, making her look already youthful face appear even younger. “That is astonishing! And so fast!”

There’s a hint of wonder in her large gray eyes that makes them sparkle and shine and Ned can feel his homesickness abate, if only a little. He still misses his friends and his home, but even so, he can’t really bring himself to regret being here, especially during moments like this.

-

He follows Arwen out to the main courtyard that leads to the bridge over the river and when he sees their small traveling party all gathered, five in all including him and the twins, he can feel his heart rate pickup and a cold sweat start on the back of his neck. It’s one thing to logically know that their journey was about to start, but to see it actually getting under way is another thing entirely.

He doesn’t realize he’s frozen at the top of the steps until he feels a careful nudge against his shields and he turns to find Arwen regarding him with soft concern. He makes himself smile at her in reassurance, though it feels false even to him, but it’s enough to give him the gumption to make him take the few stairs required to reach the courtyard and approach their gathered company. Elrohir elbows his brother and nods his way and they both come to meet him, identical mischievous expressions on their faces.

“There you are! We were beginning to worry our sister had gotten lost on her way to retrieve you.”

“Yes, we thought we would have to send out a search party before we’d even managed to leave Imladris.”

“Which would have been a truly tragic waste of time we don’t really have to waste.”

“Tragic indeed.”

Arwen rolls her eyes at her brothers’ teasing but tips her chin up to accept their parting kisses-one per cheek-none the less while Ned ducks his head to hide his grin, some of his nervousness receding at the scene until Elladan turns to him expectantly. “In all seriousness, now that you’re here we really must be going. It’s nearly an hour after daybreak already and if we’re to make the Misty Mountains before the sun sets we must leave soon.” At Ned’s nod he turns away and strides back towards their group. “Come, I’ll show you to your horse.”

The elf’s guidance is unnecessary, since Ned’s horse towers over its counterparts by at least three hands. They’d had to send someone to Bree to find him a mount since none of the elvish steeds were anywhere near tall enough for the man’s long frame. He'd balked at the news, insisting they didn’t have to go through so much trouble for him, but the truth was that they did, since, as Elrond had sensibly pointed out, none of the horses in Rivendell could have carried him very far without considerable strain. (“Also you would look exceedingly ridiculous.” Elladan had added.) Ned had caved under such logic and tried to distract himself with the other preparations to be made, one of which required having several changes of clothes procured for him, since he couldn’t expect to wear only the clothes he’d arrived in for however long he was to remain in Middle-Earth.

He’d originally submit to this logic as well, until it was discovered that there wasn’t a change of clothes to be had in the whole place that would fit him, and then been told that his measurements would have to be taken in order for some clothes to be made for him. Clothes made specifically for him. BY HAND. He’d nearly wheezed himself into hyperventilating at that, no matter how many times the willowy elf maid assigned to the task had tried to reassure him that it was no great trouble, since he didn’t see how that could possibly be. Thankfully, by the time he’d finally been wrestled into standing still long enough without fidgeting for his measurements to be taken, the courier had returned with his horse and he’d all but fled the main building for the stables.

The horse they’d found for him was a chestnut mare of a breed that looked a bit like a percheron but stood slightly taller. The people of Middle-Earth had no name for the breed, just that it was a kind of draft horse. She was built powerful and stout and stood eighteen hands high and her name was ‘Earth-Shaker’, with good reason.

Despite her size she was sweet and inquisitive and he had liked her immediately, finding the refresher course Elrohir had made him take after learning he’d only had horseback riding lessons once in school and that had been nearly twenty years ago, nowhere near as daunting as he’d feared they’d be. At the end of his three days of lessons Elrohir had declared him ‘passable’ but with a quirk to his lips that said he’d done better than was expected and that was good enough for Ned.

“Hey Shaker, you ready to get going?” he asks once they’re in range, huffing out a laugh when she butts her head against his chest affectionately. “Well at least that makes one of us.” She'd already been loaded up with his various packs and provisions he’d been given despite his protests and bore the weight easily.

He carefully puts one foot in the stirrup and hops up to throw his other leg over his saddle like he’d been taught. Elladan would never insult him by offering him a hand up but he does hover nearby just in case until he’s sure Ned is secure then flashes him a quick grin before he heads back to mount up himself, leaving the other Guide sitting alone and feeling very conspicuous on his massive charger surrounded by all of the slighter, swifter elvish horses.

He can feel his nerves returning and he grips the leather of his saddle until his knuckles turn white, but Shaker is having none of that and she twists around to headbutt him again and he obediently scratches under her chin, making her whicker happily. This proves a sufficient distraction until Elrohir calls for them to move out, moving to the head of the party with his brother and Guide slightly behind to his left with Ned on the other side with the two other elves bringing up the rear. They would see them as far as the Misty Mountains before returning to Rivendell and when Ned had asked why all anyone would say was that the road to, and through, the mountains wasn’t as safe as it once was. A small group moving fast would be better going over the mountains but extra eyes to keep an eye out while on the Great East Road was always a wise choice. That was foreboding enough to discourage him from asking further questions.

He doesn’t know the names of the two elves accompanying them, though by focusing like Galadriel and Elladan had been teaching him and stretching out a thin tendril of his mind, like unraveling a single thread from a spool (“Careful not to let the whole thing unwind Ned.”), and ghosting it along the bright points of light that are their spirits he can tell they’re a bonded Sentinel-Guide pair like Elrohir and Elladan. He would try to engage them in conversation if only to be polite but his experience with the elves of Rivendell over the last week had taught him that while the majority of them were distantly courteous, some of them had been terse and rude and others hadn’t deigned to speak to him at all.

Strangest of all had been the elves who stared at him as he passed or darted quick glances at his face before looking away and pretending they hadn’t been looking at all. When his first few tentative overtures of camaraderie had been shot down he had taken to withdrawing into his room to eat his meals or hiding out in the stables grooming Shaker, desperately wishing he had the means to stress-bake his nerves away.

He thought maybe one of the twins had noticed his discomfort because after a couple days of this treatment, Elrond's children developed the habit of popping up during the day just when his spirits were starting to sink: Elrohir at the stables to jokingly bully him into another riding lesson, Elladan to cajole him into yet more Guide shield-strengthening exercises, and Arwen to sometimes just sit quietly with him while she read a book and projected such a feeling of peace he couldn’t help but feel calm in her presence. Lord Elrond had even once come to coax him out of hiding in his room with an offer to show him around the nooks and crannies of Rivendell, a venture that proved both enlightening and enthralling and had kept him entertained for hours, chattering happily about how beautiful all of it was while the older elf had mostly remained silent but always appeared to be listening attentively.

He was going to miss Elrond and Arwen, and even Lady Galadriel, even if he had never managed to relax fully during their lessons, constantly fidgeting and avoiding her gaze in a fit of shyness whenever they were in the same room. She had been endlessly patient with him and his fumbling attempts to construct his own shields so that she could remove the blocks she’d built to hem in his power. Neeedless to say the first few tries had been so unsuccessful that soon he was ready to tear his own hair out in frustration at his inability to visualize even the most basic level of shielding.

“Agitation will only make it harder to hold on to positive emotion Ned,” she’d soothed during their third such lesson and yet another failure on his part. “You must remain focused. There is nothing shameful in defeat; you cannot expect to fully master knowledge you have only recently gained. Now close your eyes and we will try again. Listen to my voice and let it guide you.”

He’d acquiesced, trying to flick his own self-irritation away like patting excess flour off an apron, as Elladan had taught him. It didn’t work as well as he’d hoped, but it helped center him to the point he felt he could try again. Sensing this, Galadriel had moved to take his hands in hers as she had the previous times but stopped at the last second, folding her hands in her lap instead. Physical contact was essential to most new Guides, helping them to focus and remain grounded to their bodies even while they cast their minds out or turned inwards; so far it had only made Ned go rigid and develop a mildly concerning twitch in his right eye. He didn’t even notice the change as her gentle voice washed over him, lulling him back into his mindscape.

“Imagine you are someplace safe. Warm and content, nothing can harm you here. This is your place of escape and nothing and no one has your permission to enter it. Imagine there is a door and it is locked from your side and nothing can ever open it from the outside. The key is in your hand, do you see it?”

This part he could manage and he nodded, looking down at the small bronze house key in his palm. “That is good. Now look up at the walls, what do they look like?”

This step was harder and one Ned struggled with time and time again. First he’d tried to imagine the plain dark paneled walls of his apartment above the Pie Hole, then the cheerful white walls of the Pie Hole itself. His apartment had refused to take shape, but the Pie Hole had worked for a while, and he’d even been able to describe what was in the room before he’d looked up and seen Olive standing in front of him with a pot of coffee in one hand and a smile on her face and he’d been subsequently shocked out of the vision. Galadriel had warned him he could be the only person allowed in his safe place, and so a restaurant where he was used to people coming and going was most likely not going to work.

This time, he held onto the feelings of safety and contentment he’d been able to conjure up with everything he had, gathering them up and throwing his arms wide, trying to will the feelings to paint the blank black walls of his mind with warmth and color and to his unending shock, they did. “There’s cherries on the wallpaper.” He said aloud in surprise, “Cherries on a pale yellow background.”

“Good, you are doing well. Now the floors, what do they look like? Describe them to me.”

He dropped his chin to stare at his feet, minty green and white checkerboard tile appearing under his battered converse like they’d always been there. He details this to Galadriel, wonder in his voice as he elaborates, turning in circles to describe everything in the room that is a carbon copy of the kitchen in his childhood home on a Sunday afternoon, sunlight streaming in through the window and the sugary, buttery smell of strawberry pie, his mom’s favorite, in the air.

It’s when he mentions the smell that Galadriel begins drawing him out of the vision. “That is perfect, you have done very well. I can feel the shielding around your mind strengthening. Now you must remember that no one is allowed in this space, it is yours and yours alone. It is impenetrable, comforting and above all safe and it must stay this way for the shield to remain strong. Remember that Ned.”

-

“Still with us there Ned?”

He jerks out of his reverie at Elladan’s voice and grins sheepishly at the elf’s amused expression. They’re situated just within the circle of firelight where they’ve made camp for the night, the mountains looming over them, jagged and imposing, black shapes in the dark.

It had been decided during the day’s ride that the two other elves would remain with them until morning’s light before turning back and they were presumably already asleep on the other side of the fire with their backs toward them. Elrohir is sitting at attention knee-to-shoulder with his Guide, eyes glassy as the Sentinel sent his sight out to keep watch around the campsite, making sure nothing snuck up on them in the night.

The brothers had been cautious when they first told the man that their bond went beyond the platonic, though it was mainly out of necessity: Elrond was the second strongest Sentinel in the whole of Middle-Earth after Thranduil, with Elrohir just a step behind his father, making his abilities too strong to anchor with anything other than a full bond.

They had been pleasantly surprised when all Ned had done was shrug, apparently having prepared for his disgust at the notion. He had explained that in the ‘modern’ world he was from, it was common for Gifted identical twins to be bonded, though it was unusual for the bond to be anything other than platonic, but not unheard of. You couldn’t choose who your soulmate was, he had stated simply; that had been on the second day of his stay in Rivendell and they had been nothing but friendly ever since which he was beyond grateful for. He had few friends back home and it would be nice to expand the circle, especially since he was alone as far as acquaintances went in this new world.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to check out on you,” Ned rolls his shoulders to try and loosen the muscles, idly cracking his neck, making Elladan wince at the sound his bones make as they click together. “I was just thinking about Lady Galadriel’s lessons. I thought maybe it would help me get the hang of this next shield layer.”

“Don’t sweat it,” the elf warrior dismisses, mostly just to make the wrinkles between the other Guide’s eyes disappear at his casual use of a phrase he’d picked up from Ned during their previous conversations. He allows himself a mental cheer of victory when the lines vanish to be replaced with the hints of a smile, feeling his brother’s own amusement drift through their link when he does. “You will conquer this next step with time and practice. Creating a safe place to serve as a touchstone is the least difficult part; it’s erecting the barriers to ensure that place stays safe that is the hard part.”

“Oh great,” Ned groans, straightening his spine and taking a deep breath. “Okay. I'm ready.”

“Alright. Now, you’re standing outside your sanctuary. The door is barred from the outside, but something is missing, tell me what it is.”

“Daisies.” There is no hesitation.

“What about them?”

“There used to be a huge field of them behind my house that I spent most of my time in as a kid. I would take my dog Digby with me and we would chase each other and roll down the hills until my mom called me in for dinner. I don’t see any flowers, just a wasteland.”

“Then you’ll just have to sow the seeds yourself. You control this space, so you can make the flowers grow. Bring the land to life.”

And so he does. He bends down, skimming the pads of his fingers over the grey, barren dirt, golden sparks jumping from his fingertips to sink into the ground, prompting a small tuft of vibrant emerald grass to sprout just below his hand and begin spreading outwards when he flattens the whole of his palm on the ground. He crouches fully, keeping his weight on his toes and presses his other hand to the ground, green growing between his splayed fingers. He gathers the feelings invoked by the memories of countless hours spent running free in the fields, bright summer days that felt as if they would stretch on forever, and compresses them into a tight ball of warmth behind his sternum before throwing his arms wide, hands palm-side out, and pushes the feeling out to manifest as a wave of golden light that pours flashes from beneath his feet to saturate the ground.

Immediately, bright yellows and deep, verdant greens spring up at his feet, rolling out to stretch on for miles and miles around the little one-room shack he’s made to contain the memory of his mother’s old kitchen.

It’s strangely satisfying to watch something appear from nothing in such a way, so much so that he initially resists the gentle, insistent tug that reminds him of the world outside this little slice of home he’s managed to create for himself. It feels as if he could stay in this place forever, sitting down, legs straight out in front of him, and leaning back on his hands in the flowers that had once been so tall in comparison to his eight-year old frame but now only come up to just over his knees.

A weight comes to rest lightly on his shoulder, firm but not too tight and he sighs, assuming its Elladan come to tell him play time is over. He turns his head, a half-formed plea of ‘five more minutes, mom’ on his tongue when he startles to see that the hand isn’t slender and unadorned like Elladan’s, but broad with a ring of twisting silver cradling a smoky blue stone at its center on the index finger.

He jerks his head up, suddenly desperate to see exactly who the hand belongs to but the sun is behind their head, creating a dazzling white halo that temporarily blinds him and obscures their face.

Then there is a familiar voice calling his name, the panicked tone of it drawing him up and out of his mindscape and he fights as hard as he can but he doesn’t know how to get free and he reaches back to the stranger, straining his arm to reach their outstretched hand but he’s too far away now, he can't reach, and, and, and-

NED! Wake up! Wake up now!”

Ned gasps awake, chest heaving as if he’s just run a marathon, identical worried faces blurry and distorted above him and he almost sobs with frustration. He had been that. close. AGAIN, and again he was yanked away before he could really see his Sentinel’s, face. First Lady Galadriel, now this, and he can’t help but think he’ll go mad long before they reach their destination if this kind of thing keeps happening. He’s not sure how much more of this he can take.

Chapter Text

They are slow to depart the next morning, both Ned and Elladan left weak and aching by the psychic backlash caused by the violence the elven Guide had used to force him out of his trance. Elrohir barely leaves his brother’s side, despite Elladan’s numerous assurances that he will be fine, in fact he already is fine, and ‘please, do stop hovering you’re going to give me a rash’.

Ned apologizes no less than thirty times in the time it takes them to recover and start breaking down their camp, but Elladan just waves him away with a wry grin. "Lady Galadriel cautioned me before our departure that since you are not fully trained, you do not yet know the boundaries of your own strength. It is my own fault for being too sure of myself and my abilities and not heeding her warnings.”

Elladan seems to accept the whole situation with a sort of chagrined good humor, accepting the various aches and pains that are more mental than physical as a sort of punishment for his over-inflated self-confidence. Ned however, mostly retreats back into himself after yet another of his attempts to apologize is rebuffed before it’s even fully left his mouth, sure in that fact that the brothers are just too kind to admit that they can’t wait to be rid of him now, and that any further overtures toward friendship will be turned down in the same manner.

He is quiet all through the process of strapping their provisions back to their mounts and saying goodbye to the other two elves, even maintaining his miserably chastened silence during the long trek to the path at the foot of the mountain where they will begin their climb. The brothers ride a little in front of him, exchanging significant glances back and forth for nearly two hours, mutual frustration flowing between them at their inability to think of a way to draw the man back out of his shell until Elrohir is suddenly struck with an idea. He pulls up on his reins to fall back to walk side-by-side with Ned, a silent conversation held mostly through wriggling eyebrows and exaggerated facial twitches telling his Guide to be patient and trust him on this one.

“So, Ned,” he begins conversationally, listing slightly in his saddle to lean into the Guide’s personal space and frowns minutely at the way the other flinches slightly away from him, at the way Ned raises his left shoulder and ducks his head like he’s preparing for a blow. The automatic defensive gesture makes anger simmer low in his gut at the thought of whoever had taught him to react that way before banishing those musings for now and smoothing his expression out again. “You remember in your riding lessons when I explained that because of her size and overall mass, Shaker could never outrun a trained elvish horse at a full gallop?” He purposefully keeps his tone light, ignoring the look of confusion and mental prodding his brother is aiming his way, keeping his eyes trained on the man’s face, hoping he will take the bait.

His patience is rewarded when Ned lifts his head enough to peak at him over his hunched shoulder. “Yes…?” He draws the word out cautiously, but with a hint of curiosity as to where this line of questioning could possibly be headed.

He doesn’t have to wait long for his answer because the slow, mischievous smirk that unfurls across the elf’s sharp features tells him where this is going before he even speaks. “Don't you want to find out if I was right?”

That’s all the warning the Sentinel gives before he abruptly leans over his horse’s neck and says something quick and soft in Elvish that makes the white gelding leap forward as if his tail had suddenly caught fire, taking off at breakneck speed in the direction of the mountains which are still at a few miles in the distance. Elladan’s own grey steed goes tearing after him not seconds later, having finally cottoned on to what it was his brother was trying to do. Now to see if it will work.

Ned does nothing but stare after them for a long moment, his mouth hanging open in shock and even Shaker has stopped walking in surprise, snorting in confusion at the abruptness of the change of pace. Slowly, very slowly, something that might be excitement starts to unfurl inside his chest and he leans down to speak into Shaker’s ear. “What do you think girl? You think we can outrun them?” The mare shakes her mane and tosses her head in answer, pawing at the ground impatiently as she senses her rider’s anticipation. Ned lets himself grin and flattens his torso even further along her neck, before he whispers the command Elrohir had taught him into one twitching ear. “Nor.” Run.

She doesn't need to be told twice. She gathers herself, bunching all of the powerful muscles in her legs, and he can feel the tightening of her sides and it reflexively makes him squeezes his legs tighter around her middle and on her reins just before she also lunges forward, charging after the rapidly fading elves with all the controlled, unstoppable power of a freight train, gaining speed as she goes and fast making up the distance the other riders had managed to cover with their head start.

Ned can’t see himself in that moment, but if he could he probably wouldn’t have recognized him own face, twisted as it was into a grin that bares too many teeth, high spots of color on his cheeks, and his stormy grey eyes alight with an almost feverish shine. A unfamiliar feeling he has no name for bubbles up inside of him and he can’t help but throw his head back and laugh at the pure insanity of it all as they not only catch up to the elves but even start to overtake them, the wild joy that comes from straddling the back of a horse running flat out at top speed lending him a fearlessness he’s never known before in his entire life.

And for a single fleeting, shining moment in time, he for once feels truly capable of conquering anything.

-

It takes them just shy of two weeks to reach their destination. The road is long and winding and, at times, inescapably boring; and lo does it seem to go ever on and on. But while the days may be dull the nights are spent huddled warm and comfortable around a campfire, swapping stories, tales, and legends under a sky filled to the brim with so many stars that Ned does nothing but stare up at them in awe night after night after night. All in all he can think of many a worse way to have spent the last thirteen days.

Now as Ned gazes up (and up and up and up) at the gnarled, knotted trees that loom ever higher over them as the approach, while he had long expected to feel frightened or anxious about whatever it is that’s supposed to come next, instead all he can muster is a deep, aching sorrow at the dilapidated state of what was obviously once a beautifully magnificent forest. It’s as if he can sense the energy, or lack thereof, that’s meant to be flowing through it, the lifeless, blackened husks of the trees on the outskirts of the forest throbbing like an infected wound that he can feel all the way down to his soul. He dismounts Shaker and takes a step closer to the treeline as though drawn by an unseen force, the overwhelming desire to press his hands to the empty trunks nearest to him sudden and fierce enough that he clenches his hands into fists and shoves them up into his armpits, arms crossed over his chest in order to avoid temptation.

“What’s wrong with it?” His question shatters the early morning quiet that has settled around them and the twins both stop what they're doing to turn around and look at him in reaction to the obvious sorrow in his words.

“What’s wrong with what?” Elladan’s asks, curiosity evident in his clipped accent.

“The forest. With the forest, I mean. It feels,” he casts about for the right word, “sick.” Which is a vast understatement.

He doesn’t miss the surprised glances they exchange. “What?”

“We weren’t sure you would be able to sense it,” Elrohir explains. “The darkness that poisons the air and rots the trees to their very roots. Most Men cannot. They avoid this place because of the fell things that creep in the shadows, and because the wood elves who roam these woods are not kind to trespassers, but they do not see the decay, do not feel the pain of the Earth as if it were their own as elves do.”

“Even we cannot truly comprehend it,” Elladan added. “The elves that settled in Rivendell in days long past gave up the safety of the woods for the stability of the river Bruinen, and so our ability to hear the voices of the trees has faded with time. As for the wood elves, it is said that is why they so jealously guard their kingdom, as a mother might guard a sickly child, in order to protect it from any further harm.”

“I can see why,” Ned remarks softly, turning back to face the trees, hugging his arms tighter around himself as the pull to touch life back into them returned full force, the rustling branches overhead looking too much like grasping fingers against the fiery, riotous colors of sunrise, swaying in the breeze like they are trying to beckon him further in, straining to reach down and wrap around him so they might never let him go. The very idea should probably terrify him. It doesn't.

Elrohir comes to stand beside him, scanning between the tight clusters of oaks that make up the outermost rim of the forest. “Our messenger should have arrived nearly a week ago, and yet I don’t see any guards assigned to wait for our arrival. There is no way to get to the Elvenking’s halls without a guide who is familiar with these lands; we would be hopelessly lost within hours.”

“Then what do we do?”

“There’s nothing we can do,” Elladan sighs, coming to stand at his Sentinel's right hand. “We’ll have to wait for them to find us. Hopefully the guard is simply in the process of switching out from night to day watch and we will not have to wait long.”

Unfortunately, this does not turn out to be the case and they are left waiting outside the forest for the rest of the day and well into the night, to the point that they are eventually forced to set up camp once more, accepting that whatever it is that has drawn the attention of the Royal Guard, it isn’t something that can be easily fixed. The elves tie up the horses and start the fire, talking quietly with each other in Elvish ("Sindarin," Elladan had corrected him with a laugh two nights into their journey. "It's not as if we call the native tongue of your people 'Manish' now is it?") so as not to disturb their companion, who had taken up a silent vigil as dusk gave way to night, knees drawn up and his arms wrapped around them as he watches the trees for any sign of movement, the gnawing need to do something growing with every breath.

It is maddening to be so close and yet so far from something he has been both dreading and anticipating in equal measure for weeks now. Elladan calls him away for his nightly Guide training at some point, but he can’t concentrate well enough to even summon his mindscape and the older Guide ends their lesson much earlier than usual, understanding that they will get nothing done tonight with Ned in such a state. The drive to be near his Sentinel in like an ever-present yet unscratchable itch beneath his skin, steadily driving him mad with the yearning to satisfy it.

Finally he is the only one left awake, the other two having gotten into their bedrolls some hours before. Or at least, he assumes they’re sleeping, their wide-open eyes reflecting the ocean of stars that wheel above them. Sleep won’t come no matter how hard he tries and he eventually gives up in frustration, getting up to pace around the extinguished fire-pit, warring with himself against the insane urge to enter the forest alone and touch a few of the tree back to life.

‘It wouldn’t even make a difference!’ the more rational, and up until a few weeks ago, much more developed part of him psyche argues. ‘Even if I make a few dead trees healthy again, a few healthy trees will just have to die in return! It’s idiotic!’

But the part of his psyche ruled by emotion, the part that seemed to be taking precedence more and more recently, doesn’t care. He wanted it because he wanted it, and just this once, he was going to do something spontaneous, even if it was also something potentially dangerous. ‘Or fatal’, his logical side grumbled in defeat as he quietly crept out of camp and stepped just inside the treeline.

He walks in a ways, making sure to walk in a straight line for as long as he can, not wanting to lose track of the camp but also not wanting the twins to wake up and wonder why all the visibly dead vegetation of yesterday had mysteriously flourished overnight. He stops when he comes upon the first oak that blocks his path and figures that is far enough.

Without further fanfare he reaches out and taps one fingertip to the rough wood of the trunk, golden light immediately sparking from the end of his finger and engulfing the tree in a shimmering wave. He grins as the rotten wood groans in what he imagines to be surprise as holes drilled by burrowing insects in the trunk and the mold that had infested the old oak’s beautiful leaves until they had turned black and heavy either sealed over or fell away. In a manner of milliseconds the proud oak is standing tall and straight, leaves once again lush and vivid green reaching joyfully for the stars, dry, cracked roots digging eagerly into cold dirt in search of water.

He smiles and tucks his hands into his breeches pockets, his breath fogging in front of him despite the earliness of fall, his smile fading when he remembers that in order for this one tree to live again, another equally beautiful oak is about to die. He wishes he still had his trusty watch on him so he could count down the minute if only for habits sake, but he hadn’t been wearing it when he’d woken up in Middle-Earth even though he’s sure he’d had it on while he was closing up the Pie Hole, and his phone had still been in his pocket. He settles for meticulously counting out ‘one one thousand, two one thousand…’ all the way to sixty seconds, exhaling in a rush when he reaches it, feeling regret twist and coil around in his heart. Maybe this had been a bad idea after all. He doesn’t feel any better, only worse.

He berates himself for doing this, turning back to return to his bedroll and futilely try for sleep once again when he trips on an upraised tree root he swear hadn’t been their earlier, and pitches towards the tree he’d just brought back to life, automatically wrenching his hands out of his pockets and throwing them out before him to catch himself before he can crack his head on the rough bark of the tree.

He jolts to a stop with one foot still caught under the root, whole body angled awkwardly forward with his face smashed against the back of his hands, regret making him sigh gustily as he rights himself, accepting that this venture had been a complete failure, since now there would be two dead trees instead of one since the minute mark was up; he’d just ended up making everything worse. He looks sadly up at the oak once he’s sorted out his limbs, sure that it’ll have returned to its previous state due to the second touch of his bare hands, only to frown in confusion when he realizes that it’s still standing just as straight and defiant as it had been before he’d tripped. He reaches out tentatively and taps the trunk again, then again, until he finally flattens his whole palm to the craggy surface where it continues to remain impossibly, stubbornly alive.

He stares at the tree, then at his hands, then back up at the tree, distantly glad no one’s around to see him since he’s sure he looks ridiculous, gawping at his hands like he’s never seen them before and regarding the outwardly utterly ordinary tree with the kind of amazement he's sure is usually reserved for those who had just witnessed an act of God. He snaps out of his stupor and careens around, slapping both hands flat against the tree just to the left of the first one, another oak, impatiently waiting as it too unbends and flushes with vibrant color before whacking at it a second time, a hysterical noise bubbling from his mouth when it too remains unchanged when by all accounts it should be dead.

He turns his way this way and that, staring up at all the other diseased, decrepit trees and then down at his hands, pausing for half a second before he plunges into the dark depths of the woods without a second thought or a pause to debate the intelligence of this plan, arms spread as far as they can go, fingertips brushing over tree after tree after tree, leaving a trail of gold light and creaking wood in his wake, oak, redwood, and beech flying past him as he runs.

A fierce joy starts to build in him, winding its way through his veins until he’s laughing, unabashed and buoyant and absolutely wild with it. He races pell-mell headlong down any trail that presents itself to him until he bursts into a clearing, panting and gasping for air, sparks still fading out behind him as he stops to focus on getting oxygen back into his starved lungs. He has no idea where he is and there’s no way he could find his way back out of here even if he wanted to, since its too dark to discern the swath of living trees he's carved through the forest from the dead ones without the light of his power to lead him, but honestly the thought doesn’t even occur to him.

Still half-drunk on power and adrenaline he drops to sit on the ground, working his leather boots off as fast as he can along with the socks he stuffs back into the boots once he has them off, scrambling back to his feet and grinning all the wider when the brown, broken grass beneath his bare feet instantly turns soft and green, just like everything else has in this strange, magical place. He walks in circles around the clearing, grass growing in his footsteps as he walks the circumference of the huge stump that dominates most the area, grief coloring his happiness as he frowns at the sight of such senseless brutality. He sits gingerly on the rim of the stump, elbows on his knees as he begins to come down from his high and understand just how completely out of his depth he is.

He hangs his head between his shoulders, back curving as he considers his options, which he doesn’t have many of at the moment. The only thing he can think of would be to cast his mind out and try to find Elladan or Elrohir, and tell them to follow the curving swath of miraculously alive trees he’s cut through the woods that they'll doubtlessly be able to see clear as day with their incredible elf night-vision, even though that will lead to questions he won’t really ever know how to answer.

He sucks in a deep breath and lets it go, sitting up and closing his eyes to begin attempting to find a way to navigate around his own shields as well as Lady Galadriel’s so that he might be able to reach out for them only to freeze when the cold tip of an arrow presses against the nape of his neck.

“Do not move,” a feminine voice warns, just in case he would ever try something so foolish when someone has a weapon drawn on him. “I do not know how you came to be here, but trespassers are not welcomed in these woods.”

“I-I’m not trespassing, or well I guess I am since I know I wasn’t technically supposed to go running off on my own like a child that’s been given too much sugar and set loose on an unsuspecting toy store, but I do, actually, uh, have a right to be here. Sort of.” He’s babbling, he knows he is but it’s a nervous condition, one he has no idea how to stop.

“I said not to move,” the woman snaps sharply. He had started raising his hands reflexively, a hard-wired instinct when one is being threatened with a weapon. He goes stock still with his arms half-raised. “You say you have business here, what is it?”

“I came with Elrohir and Elladan, you know Elrond-Lord! Lord Elrond’s-sons? From Rivendell. A messenger was sent but we weren’t sure if it was received since there was no one to meet us when we got here so we decided to make camp and wait but then I got overexcited and now here we are.”

He had already been in the process of lowering his shields in preparation to call for help so he can clearly sense her startled, suspicious surprise at his words. “You are the Guide that was sent to speak with my king? You are Ned?”

“Yep, that would be me, and I would really appreciate it if I could have that meeting in one piece and arrow free so do you mind maybe lowering your-”

“Stand and turn around,” she interrupts and he can hear movement that he desperately hopes means that she’s lowered her bow. “Slowly.”

He gets to his feet and turns in place as slowly as he can, squeezing his eyes shut without meaning to once he’s entirely facing her, arms still half-raised and praying he’s not about to get an arrow to the throat. He hears her gasp and he opens his eyes to meet her own emerald green ones.

She’s beautiful, of course, with long auburn hair and the high cheekbones common to her race, wearing a close-fitting uniform of some kind under a tooled leather bodice. She’s also searching his face with wide eyes, taking in his features with something that looks like shock, bow strung but slack in her hands.

“By the Valar,” she whispers at last. “You really are him aren’t you? The Guide whose cry was heard ringing throughout all the vales and woods of Middle-Earth; the Guide it is said will one day surpass even the Lady Galadriel herself."

It’s not a question but he still feels the need to say something in return, starting to get twitchy under her unwavering stare. “Um. I guess so?”

She seems to finally notice his quiet distress at the intensity of her regard and she shakes her head as if to clear it. “My apologies. I had not known you were of the race of Men, for the messenger did not specify, and I had just assumed..But it matters not.” She holds out her hand and he stiffly moves to take it and is endlessly embarrassed when instead of shaking it like he had assumed she would, she clasps it in one of her own and bows slightly at the waist. “I am Tauriel, Captain of the Royal Guard. I was sent to escort you back to my king’s halls.”

“Oh, well, in that case,” he gently extracts his hand from her loose grip since she’s gone back to staring and seems to have forgotten she’s still holding it, crossing them behind his back once she notices and quickly lets go. “Lead on then.”

-

Tauriel leads him back to the campsite without any apparent forethought or effort, blessedly choosing an easier path then the one Ned had torn through the night before, weaving through the close-knit trunks with the ease that comes from being born and raised in these woods, leaving him floundering to try and keep up with her swift strides. By the time they finally exit the forest the sun is already risen, leaving him wincing in the unexpected brightness after having spent so long in the dark.

As they approach the campsite, they can hear several raised voices having a heated argument in Sindarin, and as they draw closer he can see the twins standing shoulder-to-shoulder, glaring at a tall blonde elf clad in intricate metal and leather armor whose face he can’t see from this angle. The other five or six elves scattered in a rough circle around them are all clothed in variations of the same uniform as Tauriel, all with long reddish-brown hair, making the platinum blond hair and silver detailing on his armor stand out sharply amongst them, so out of place it seems intentionally done.

Elrohir spots him first, giving a shout of relief at seeing him returning in one piece, the brothers darting over to him while Tauriel steps up to have a rapid whispered conversation in Sindarin with the blonde elf. Ned bears the twins’ fussing with what he thinks to be admirable good grace, something in him relaxing to see familiar faces after the night he’s had. He lets them poke and prod him, ignoring the faint hissing and dark mutterings at the few bumps and bruises he’d managed to accumulate trying to follow the she-elf through the woods without losing sight of her. He knows he must look a fright, his clothing rumpled and stained but thankfully not torn, the hollows beneath his eyes bruised purple-black from lack of sleep, and he can feel dirt clinging stubbornly to his cheek. It doesn’t do wonders for his self-confidence but he still keeps his chin up when the blonde elf approaches him, Elladan and Elrohir turning identical unimpressed sneers on the newcomer.

His eyes are almost unnaturally blue as he scans Ned from top to toe, thinly veiled contempt marring the otherwise polite gaze, making the Rivendell elves bristle but Ned merely squares his shoulders and lifts his chin higher, looking down his nose at this unknown elf, tired of cringing under judging stares he’s done nothing to deserve. If this person has something to say to him he can come right out and say it. “Can I help you with something?”

The blonde elf jerks in surprise, blinking, the haughtiness around his mouth and eyes fading, making him look much younger then the sharp cut of his jaw and breadth of his shoulders would suggest. “Apologies. I simply had not expected you to be-” he cuts himself off at the nearly sub-vocal warning growls from the dark-haired elves flanking the man, flicking his unnerving gaze over them before looking back to Ned. “No matter. My name is Legolas, Prince of the Woodland Realm. My guard and I are to show you the way through the forest to my father’s halls.” His tone is carefully formal now, his arms crossed behind his back in what might pass for parade rest in the land Ned is from. “I am sorry for the delay. One of the other patrols was attacked by spiders nearby and we were the only ones close enough to offer them aide. We did not think it would take so long to clear out the nest and no one could be spared from the fight in order to bring you the message. We are glad to see you have arrived safely, and if you will follow us now, we should be able to reach the safety of the underground caverns by nightfall.”

The twins nod stiffly, bumping their shoulders against Ned’s as they leave him to finish packing their things, the friendly gesture of solidarity causing him grin to himself and making one of Legolas’ dark brows lift in consideration. Tauriel comes over to stand at her prince’s side, a disarming smile on her full lips.

“Welcome to Mirkwood, Guide Ned.”

Chapter Text

Legolas’ prediction holds true and it only takes them until sunset to reach the inner-most sanctum of the Woodland Realm, where everything is still green and blooming lush, the Corruption, as the wood elves call it, having not reached this far inward yet.

Ned stares around in obvious awe once they break through into the still-living heart of the woods, mouth open and head twisting this way and that, trying to take all of it in at once the way he had his first day in Rivendell. He’s so distracted in fact, that more than once one of the twins have to reach out to steer him back on the path, and on one notable occasion Tauriel is forced to lunge and snatch him back from the edge as they cross the bridge to the gates that guard the Elvenking’s halls as he’s far too busy gawping up at the intricate vine designs that make up the columns outside the gate to bother looking where he is going. He flushes and hunches his shoulders in embarrassment and firmly promises himself to pay more attention from now on.

Then they’re passing through the huge blue doors into the underground section of the kingdom itself and all thoughts of caution immediately abandon him at the sight of the soaring stone ceiling far above them and the winding, thin rock bridges that connect each upraised dais of natural stone to one another over what appears to be a sheer drop of several stories into the river that tumbles and chases itself over the rocks far below ("The River Running," Elladan informs him). The twins eventually give up trying to get him to focus and simply press shoulder-to-shoulder (or, well, shoulder-to-bicep) with him, one on either side, in a sort of frog-march to keep him from falling to his death, thankfully more amused than irritated at having to do so.

They’d already been told that the king would see them in the morning, since most of the kingdom’s day-to-day business was already shut down at this time of night so over a series of twisting bridges and arching tunnels that Ned doesn’t even bother trying to memorize, they are eventually led to what appears to be a hallway of guest rooms, small and seemingly little used, with only four doors on each side lining the corridor. Elladan and Elrohir are given the first room on the left while Ned is given the room two down on the right, which strikes him as odd, and if the frowns on the two dark-haired elves faces are any indication, it doesn’t make sense to them either; but they don’t question it so neither does he, choosing to shrug it off as unimportant.

His room is small but neat, a simple, elegantly carved wooden bed frame taking up most of the room to the left, with just enough space for a table with a wash basin with a mirror mounted above it, and a large subtly patterned rug covering most of the stone floor. He relaxes infinitesimally at the plainness of the space, having feared it would be as grand as the rest of the caves and thusly not to his taste at all. He wastes no time in setting his packs down at the foot of the bed and turns to thank Tauriel for showing him to it when he pauses at the slight frown on her face, her eyes assessing the bed-frame.

“Is there something wrong?”

Her leaf-green gaze flickers to him at the question. “I’m afraid we were not expecting you to be so tall. I do not know if this bed will be serviceable.” She appears genuinely sorry at the oversight, thin brows curving down in consternation.

“Oh no don’t worry about it, its fine!” He hastens to reassure her. “I’m used to sleeping on short mattresses; my bed at home’s the same way. Really, it’s fine.”

She doesn’t seem placated, and in fact his words make her mouth turn down even more sharply at the corners. “That may be, but while you are staying here we would like you to be as comfortable as possible. It is no trouble to have it replaced, as long as you are not truly opposed to the idea.” He has a feeling she would replace it even if he kept insisting that she didn’t, so he just sighs and nods, deciding not to fight it.

Lips ticked up in satisfaction now, she crosses her arms behind her back and bows slightly as she turns to go. “Excellent. I’ll send someone to have that fixed within the hour. If there is nothing else you need, I will leave you to get settled, I’m sure you are very tired from your journey-”

“Um, actually-!” He bursts out before he can think better of it, flinging one hand out as if to forestall her departure. “I-I don’t know if, if it’s allowed, or if you even have any idea where I could find somewhere to-” Her eyebrows rise at the vehemence of his stuttering and he wills himself back on topic. “Anyway, I was wondering if maybe there was somewhere I could possibly, uh, bake? Just a little, nothing crazy, but it’s just that I’m a piemaker, so it's kind of what I do, and I haven’t really been able to bake pies what with everything that’s happened and to be honest I’m starting to get a little twitchy with all this pent-up pie baking energy, so do you know of somewhere where I could, I dunno, do..that?”

Mercifully, she doesn’t ask for clarification for his sudden rush of words, head tilted slightly and tapping one slender finger to her chin as she thinks. “Well the main kitchens are out of the question, I fear you’d just be underfoot.” She watches him deflate, keen eyes considering him for a moment before she speaks again. “However…There is a separate kitchen you might make use of. It's small and unused, and certainly no one would mind you being there, though I do not know how well stocked it is, and it is all the way on the other side of the caverns; you would need to find someone to lead you back here once you were done.”

“I can totally do that, really,” he assures her quickly, so excited at the prospect of finally getting to bake again that he’ll agree to almost anything. “And if I can’t find anyone I’ll just spend the night in the kitchen, trust me, I do it all the time.”

That was the wrong thing to say, he knows it as soon as the furrow appears back between her brows. “I gather you did not sleep much this last night and that you are unused to so much travel in such a short time; you must rest or you will fall ill if you insist on continuing at this pace.”

She must see the quiet desperation in his eyes because she sighs, turns, and beckons for him to follow. “But a few more hours should not do you irreparable damage. Come, I will stay with you while you investigate and see if the facilities are up to your standards, and perhaps we can return tomorrow so that you might ply your trade if there is not time tonight.”

He falls in behind her happily, a distinct spring to his step at the prospect of getting back in a kitchen after weeks out of one, forgetting once more, if only for a moment, to be anxious of whatever would happen to him come morning.

-

The she-elf hadn’t been kidding when she said the kitchen was all the way on the other side of the caves; it took them nearly half an hour of walking to get to it, quickly leaving the cavernous central area and entering a series of interconnecting hallways cut into the living rock itself. Passing doors with simple, detailed carvings around the borders, which lead to what might be other living quarters, their walk mostly silent as Tauriel concentrates on their path, mentally reviewing her long memorized internal map of this part of the caves, having not been this way in several years. Ned takes the time to keep taking in the details of everything they pass, still dumbstruck at the construction of it all, though this time at least he manages to stay on track without assistance.

Eventually, they come to a narrow corridor that branches off from the rest and continues on for a while before ending abruptly at a short stone stairway, at the bottom of which is a singular door, undecorated save for one carefully detailed leaf of some kind carved into the middle of the upper portion of the door. They’d passed several such doors on their walk, some with the same leaf marker as this one, some with different leaf symbols, and he assumes the distinction means something, even if he’s completely at a loss for what it might be. He doesn’t want to ask, not wanting to risk his ignorance offending his guide and cause her to take him back to his room, or worse, leave him here. However, without being prompted she points at the carving herself, “Poison oak. If you see a door stamped with this symbol it means to ‘keep out’. Unless you leave the door open, no one will enter without your permission.”

“Ah.” He files this information away for later, examining the carving for a little while longer even after she’s opened the door and stepped inside, making sure he has the basic shape memorized, not wanting to get in trouble by blundering in somewhere he isn’t supposed to be. Once he’s certain he’ll remember the design, he turns to glance over the kitchen, stopping dead at what he sees.

While he’d been preoccupied, Tauriel had done something akin to flipping a light switch, making the few bulbs placed at the end of the metal spires mounted in the ceiling glow brightly, illuminating the space. Absently, he makes a mental note to ask her how exactly such a thing is done, since he very much doubts it’s anything as straight-forward as electricity, but for the moment he’s too dumbstruck to form the words, mouth hanging open as he stares. The room is set up in much the same way as his kitchen in the Pie Hole, except here the tables and utensils are lacquered wood and ceramic instead of stainless steel and marble.

There’s a long, narrow table pushed up against the wall just inside the door, neatly stacked with bowls and shallow circular tins with knives, spatulas, and rolling pins orderly grouped together and laid out in front of them. Another, stouter table dominates the middle of the room, bare and simple, set up facing a set of three narrow slits cut into the far wall, the deep blackness of the night sky beyond the room showing through them. In the daytime, the room is probably warmly lit with sunlight, the overhead lights unneeded. The room is bare of superfluous furniture or decoration and roughly circular in dimension, a huge wood-burning oven taking up the corner diagonal from the door, bracketed on either side by two more doorways, one that leads to a stairway, the other leading apparently nowhere, the other end of it obscured by shadow.

“Where does that hallway go?” He asks when he regains his voice after the wave of flabbergasted awe recedes. Tauriel is watching him silently, some unnamed emotion in her face that gentles the planes and angles of it and makes her emerald eyes soften to jade. To be so pleased by something so simple...

“Outside. A garden was planted there at the same time this kitchen was constructed. It is small, but open to the air, and there is a large, fruit-bearing apple tree within it, along with a little patch of tilled earth sown with strawberries and other plants, and the courtyard is lined with berry bushes of all kinds. Everything I'm assuming one would need to make pies and pastries of many different kinds and flavors.”

His eyes had glazed over at her description, overwhelmed at the mere idea of such a place. “It sounds beautiful,” he breathes. Worry begins to creep in and he turns to her with a frown, “Are you absolutely sure I’m allowed to be here? It seems pretty…private, to me.” Much as he wants to, he wouldn’t want to intrude on someone else’s personal paradise.

“Quite sure.” She’s amused with him, he can tell, though thankfully there's no mockery in it. “It was built some decades ago and has never once been used since its completion as far as I am aware. The plants are primarily self-sustaining one they are in the ground, and there is no one to concern themselves with how much dust gathers. It never crossed our minds to ask why our mercurial king would order such a thing made just to board it up and make no mention of it again. It has sat here empty all this time, just waiting for someone to come along and breathe life into it. I am sure you will find it much more engaging than anyone else in the kingdom might.”

Ned idly runs his fingers through the thin layer of dust covering the center table, brushing it off on his pants as he considers the kind of temperament, not to mention wealth, it would take to commission something like this to be done out of the blue and then simply abandon it. The thought makes his fears for the morning return and he circles the room to stand before the oven for lack of anything better to do. “Can you show me how to light this?” He asks over his shoulder.

The elf comes to stand beside him, narrow eyebrows arched high with incredulity. “You earn a living as a baker and do not know how to light an oven?”

He quirks a sheepish smile at her; it’s a valid question after all. “It’s, uh, a lot different than the one I have at home. Built different than the ones we use in the land I’m from. I could try it on my own, but I’m almost certain I’d burn the entire forest down in the attempt.”

She smirks at him, the expression shadowing her sharp features with mischief in the dim lighting. “Luckily for us both it is my duty to prevent such calamities from happening. Budge over a little; this takes a bit of space to manage.”

-

They’ve gotten a fire started by the time they’re interrupted by a runner come to fetch Tauriel, her help needed elsewhere in the kingdom. Their conversation is conducted entirely in swift Sindarin, but Ned thinks he catches the word for ‘spider’ somewhere in the mix, having picked it up on the walk from the edge of the forest/ Elladan had translated bits of the Mirkwood elves’ conversation on the journey for him so he wouldn’t be completely lost, and both the twins had refused to answer any attempts at conversation by the wood elves in anything except English (“Westeron”, Arwen had informed him back in Rivendell), unappreciative of the other elves obvious ploy to pretend the sole Man in their company wasn’t there at all.

The she-elf is reluctant to leave him at first, but after he’s promised no less than fifteen times that he will not try to find his way back through the caverns without her, and that yes he did know how to properly put out a fire, and no he wouldn’t let the blaze get out of hand, and for goodness sake Tauriel will you just go, I’m not a child, I’ll be fine, she finally departs with the messenger, saying she’ll be back as soon as she can and to ‘please for the love of the Valar, stay. here.’. He’s not sure why she’s so convinced he’ll try and wander off, after all, he has everything he could possibly want right here in this room.

He sits by the fire for a while, content to listen to it pop and crackle, letting the sound sooth his quaking nerves and the warmth seep comfortingly into his bones before he unfolds himself from the floor and banks it with the bucket of sand placed nearby for just that purpose. He wanders around the room for a while, poking around all the nooks and crannies he can find, discovering ample storage space under the big center table for bags of flour and other ingredients, and even a deep rectangular depression covered by a wooden lid with a handle in the floor next to the door he’d entered through that he thinks might be sort of makeshift cold-box to keep butter and other such things from spoiling. The builders had certainly thought of everything and not for the first time he wonders what could possibly have moved the king to build a place like this only to abandon it right after.

He sifts through the supply table on the side of the room opposite the oven, picking through everything and examining each item with a professional eye, making a mental catalogue and trying to see if there’s anything that might be missing that he would need and wondering if maybe one of the elves would be so kind as to point him in the right direction of a Walmart or-

“What are you doing here?”

He starts so badly he drops the bowl he’d been checking over for cracks, making it clatter loudly on the stone floor as he whirls around, eyes wide in surprise since he hadn’t heard anyone come in. There’s a stranger, an elf of course, standing at the foot of the stairway he’d noticed earlier, head tilted slightly as he looks at Ned, who on his part is convinced that his heart has actually stopped beating at the sight of the other male.

Lady Galadriel is beautiful, yes, of course, but in the untouchable, Madonna-esque way that statues depicting ancient mother goddesses are beautiful, all rounded edges and golden internal radiance. This elf is as far from that type of beauty as it is possible to be, all sharpness and ice where she had only been softness and warmth. He’s very tall, even taller than Ned, which is no easy feat even if it is only by a few inches. His hair is arrow-straight, as most elves’ hair is, and cascades to his waist in a thick sheet of silver-white, so pale that it could almost be mistaken for very light blond if one isn’t looking hard enough. Sharp cheekbones and an austere nose in a meticulously crafted oval face, skin smooth ivory over the contours of it. His eyes are by far the most striking thing about him, silver-blue black under curiously dark brows, pupils fixed and vacant in a way that makes Ned feel as though the elf can see deep into the core of him, like the barriers of muscles and bone that hide his innermost thoughts are nothing under the intensity of such regard.

Dimly Ned registers that he’s dressed richly, a deep burgundy and fire-orange cloak gathered at the crooks of his bent arms over an exquisitely detailed silver and gold brocade tunic beneath which long legs clad in gray-green leggings and high mahogany brown boots can be seen when he moves. He is, in short, the most astonishingly attractive person the piemaker has even seen, and if he hadn’t felt out-of-place and shabby before, he most definitely does now, feeling over-long and awkward next to such obvious natural grace. He prays the floor will just open up and swallow him before he can do something do something monumentally stupid like open his big mouth and actually try to talk to-

“I said, what are you doing here? No one is meant to be in here without express permission.”

Ned does not squeak in surprise at being addressed by someone so gorgeous (and dear sweet mother of mercy, that voice is not even fair), because he is a grown man and not a teenage girl, thank you very much, however he does color bright red all the way up to the tips of his ears and relocate his gaze to the toes of his boots as he replies. “Uh, well, I-I-I-I, T-Tauriel? Tauriel, said I could use this kitchen since I would just get in the way if I tried to use the main ones, but she didn’t say anything about needing special clearance to be back here, or anything like that…”

The tall elf inclines his head slightly to one side. “Ah. In that case, I regret to have to tell you that you were both misinformed. I will have to discuss this with Tauriel later. In the mean time, you will have to go back to your rooms. I am sorry for the trouble.”

“B-but,” he gathers the courage to look up at the other male through the meager protection of his fringe, only to flush crimson again and look back down at the floor when he finds himself still on the receiving end of that diamond-bright stare. “I’m not sure how to get back to my room from here, she told me not to leave until she got back so she could show me. This place is enormous, and I don’t want to get lost and go missing and for no one to find me for years and years until I’m nothing more than a nicely dressed skeleton hidden in some far off tunnel somewhere. That would kind of be a waste after coming all this way.”

The elf watches him for a few more moments, probably piecing together a meaning out of the ridiculous mish-mash of words that had just come out of his mouth. Finally he settles for twitching one dark brow upwards and pointing out drily, “As most of the Royal Guard is composed of Sentinels, including Captain Tauriel herself, and if I am correct in guessing you are the Guide who arrived here flanked by Elladan and Elrohir, one of the most powerful bonded pairs to have ever lived, I very much doubt you could go missing for very long without being found with all due haste.”

“Oh. Right, yeah, that..makes sense.” His embarrassment levels are at an all-time high now and he’s sure his face must in fact be throwing off heat with how hard he’s blushing. “And I’m sorry, for not introducing myself earlier. I’m Ned.” He sticks one arm out jerkily, reflexively, to shake hands with the unfairly handsome stranger.

Said stranger doesn’t even deign to glance at his hand, shifting his unnerving gaze to somewhere over Ned’s left shoulder. “Yes, I had gathered that.”

He steps past the Guide, giving him a wide enough berth that only the hem of his cloak brushes against the man’s shoes as he passes. “If you will follow me, I will show you the way back to the guest quarters, and have a talk with Tauriel about leaving you alone in the first place. She is young yet, but she should know better than to let an unbound Guide wander off unprotected.”

Stung at the snub and at the carelessly insulting words, Ned shoves his fists in his pockets and hunches his shoulders up near his ears, grumbling half to himself as he follows after the elf. “I didn’t ‘wander off’. And I don’t need a babysitter; I can take care of myself.”

The elf doesn’t even bother to pause his gliding stride as he leads them back out onto the interwoven bridges and platforms. “Of that I have no doubt, but the point stands. You are untrained and Gifted with a deep well of power you do not yet know how to properly wield.” He halts without warning, making Ned flail to a stop to avoid crashing into him. He turns his head to train those strangely distant eyes on the piemaker once again. “What’s more, you have proven yourself within the first minutes of our acquaintance to be in possession of a rather pronounced nervous disposition. If an unbound Sentinel had come sniffing around you, would you have been capable of rebuffing them without biting off your own tongue in the trying of it?”

Angry now, Ned pulls himself up to his full height, squaring his shoulders and glaring right into that ridiculously beautiful face and, for the first time in his entire life, has to resist the very powerful urge to stick his fist right through it. “I’m not a child,” he hisses between grit teeth, already tired of having to say it. “I do know how to say ‘no’ and make it stick. Besides, I’m here to look for my Sentinel; I’m not going to throw one out on their ass if there’s the off chance they could be the one I’m supposed to be finding!”

Finally, something that might be classified as an emotion clouds that expressionless face, eyes darkening with what on anyone else would be called anger, formidable brows drawing together in the middle. “You would have let an unknown Sentinel share space with you? Let them touch you?”

Properly worked up in a way he cannot ever remember having been before in his life, Ned is utterly blind to the warning signs the elf is putting out now, the first heavy traces of ozone, the tell-tale scent of warning pheromones, starting to charge the air around them. “I’m not usually real big on the touching thing, but yeah if that’s what it took for me to recognize my Sentinel, I could suffer through a handshake or two!”

Thin upper lip drawing back ever-so-slightly over his teeth in snarl, the elf steps into the man’s personal space, somehow managing to loom despite the closeness in their heights. “You will do no. such. thing.”

“Oh yeah?” Mouth twisting into an ugly sneer, he takes a single step forward so they are nose-to-nose. “And who's gonna make sure I don’t? You?” he spits the last word with as much contempt as he is capable of.

Vaguely, he registers on some base level that the elf is actually trembling with suppressed rage now and it makes something dark and brutal in the pit of his chest so very smug to see it. ‘Good,’ it snarls with sickening glee, ‘let him lay a hand on us. We will kill him for the insult. We will destroy him for it. We will make him suffer for-’

Aran nin!”

The shout rips Ned out of the noxious headspace he’d been forcibly sucked into, leaving him reeling and shaking in the absence of all the terrible depraved rage that had been fueling him mere seconds ago. His legs fold under him and he sits down hard on unyielding stone, the pain that results from the crack of his tailbone hitting the floor helping to clear his mind the rest of the way. His stomach rolls at the realization that he had been willing, been wanting to hurt someone and hurt them bad, wanted to see them suffer, wanted to listen to them scream-

It’s only supreme force of will that keeps him from throwing up everything in his stomach right then and there, hiding his face in his knees and shuddering all over with cold sweats as he desperately tries to reinforce the walls in his mind, hoping it will help keep whatever that-that thing was out, barely aware of the harsh Sindarin argument being conducted just over his head, so focused is he on strengthening his shields. A gentle touch on his shoulder nearly sends him tumbling over the ledge as he shies away, remembering his precarious position just in time to catch himself.

His hazy vision reorients itself enough for him to make out worried green eyes close to his own, the whole blurry picture coalescing to form Tauriel out of the random smears of auburn and white. “Are you alright, Ned? Please answer me. Should I fetch a healer?”

“No, I’m-” his voice is scratchy and hoarse, like he hasn’t had a drink of water in days, and he clears his throat and swallows painfully before he tries again. “What happened?” The words are quiet, scared. The other elf, the silver-haired one, is gone.

The concerned cast to the she-elf’s lovely features deepens at that, and he can faintly feel her rubbing soothing circles between his shoulder blades, the motion as comforting as it is grounding. “I do not know. I felt the first stirrings of my King’s fury all the way to the barracks and I feared I would not arrive in time to stop..whatever it was that might have happened had I not arrived in time. But I can't help but think it might not only be he who is at fault here. What ever possessed you to bait him in such a way? You must have known how protective Sentinels are of their Guides, and King Thranduil is no different; to imply that you were willing to accept a Sentinel other than he to bond with...What precisely did you say to him? He was so angry he even accused me of trying to-”

“Wait, wait, back up,” he croaks, her words starting to process now that his nausea has abated enough that he can risk lifting his head to hold her gaze without his stomach revolting. “Are you trying to tell me that that was Thranduil? The Elvenking? My Sentinel?”

Tauriel nods, frowning. “Yes of course. You could not tell?”

Ned feels the color drain from his face, swaying in his mostly upright, seated position on the floor. A million different responses, questions, and babbled observations race through his mind all at once, but the one that keeps repeating over and over on loop in his mind is the one he eventually voices aloud: “Oh I am so screwed.”

Chapter Text

Beatrice “Beaty” Greene, now Beatrice Baker, was 30 years, 10 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, and 17 minutes old the day she happened to glance out the window leading out to the backyard as she was vacuuming the living room, and smiled to see her four year old son sitting out in the daisy fields as he had been all morning, nothing more than a thatch of messy brown hair among the endless miles of yellow and white that covered the hills behind the house.

He had barely moved from that position since just after breakfast, diligently working on something he held in his lap with his head bowed. When she’d called him in for his lunch and she’d asked him what exactly it was he was doing out there, he’d only giggled and grinned his crooked, gap-toothed smile and said in his tiny, lisping voice, “’s a seeecret Mama!” and would say no more. He'd wolfed down his PB&J and bolted back outside as soon as he’d diligently put his plate in the sink with the help of the small step-ladder kept in the corner for just that purpose.

It was almost dinner time now and when she went to call him in this time he came running towards her full tilt, skinny arms held aloft clutching the fruits of his labor and she laughed as she scooped him and his project up in her arms, settling him on one hip with the aching realization that soon he would be too big for her to do so, that her baby was growing up. But that was a thought for later because right then, her little boy was holding up his accomplishment for her to see. “Isn’t it pretty Mama? I worked real hard on it.”

“I know you did baby, I saw you,” she told him, her exaggeratedly impressed tone making his narrow little chest puff up proudly. “May I see it?” He handed it over to her, scarcely able to contain his excitement, almost bouncing in her hold with anticipation while she examined his offering.

It’s a garland, painstakingly woven out of daisies and some other flowers she can’t remember ever having seen growing anywhere in Coers d’ Coers before. The thick, sturdy base was made of what looked like a mixture of leaves and dried grasses, and her amazement is not at all feigned now as she turned it over as best she could with only one hand free, analyzing it from every angle.

“Ned, this is lovely!” And it is, it could easily have been mistaken for the work of a street-vendor or professional florist rather than a little boy who still needs a step-stool to see over the counters. “I mean it, sweetheart. Where did you get all of these beautiful flowers from?”

“The pretty green lady gave them to me!” Ned chirped immediately.

“’Green lady’?” Beaty parroted in confusion. “Honey I was watching you through the window all day, there was no lady.”

“Yeah there was Mama, she was real nice! She showed me how to make this. She said you’re ‘pposed to wear it like this,” he took the garland from her slackened grip and places it carefully on her red waves like a halo. “For you! I as’ed her if I could give it to you even though it was ‘pposed to be for me cause I thought you’d like it more.” He peered worriedly up into her face. “You do like it, don’cha?”

“Hmm? Oh yes! Yes dear, I love it.” She smiled at him and pecked a kiss on his cheek. “Thank you very much. I’ll wear it to show Daddy when he gets home, okay?”

“Okay!”

“Okay. Now go wash your hands for dinner, go on.” She set him down, her arms always feeling strangely empty when she does it, and he scampered off. Frowning in earnest, she gently removed her new crown in order to examine it more thoroughly.

In addition to the yellow and white daisies she would have expected, there were also a number of small pink flowers she didn’t recognize, and a few white flowers she’d originally mistaken for daisies but could now she were of a slightly different shape then they should be, and strangely enough, three large white and red carnations, evenly spaced in the front and to either side of the circle. Turning it over and over, she found nothing outwardly sinister or worrisome about it and she shrugged off her worries, thinking perhaps he had found them growing wild out there in the fields and picked them for their uniqueness. Truth be told she hadn’t had an eye on him every second of the day; it was possible he’d wandered deeper into the fields while her back was turned.

It’s as she went to gingerly place the halo on the mantle, intending to put it back on when her husband gets home so she can model it for him as she’d promised, she blinked at the sudden feel of petals crumbling off in her hands and she hurriedly set it down, not wanting to further unravel something her little boy had worked so hard on.

At first she was dismayed and then merely curious when she noted that the small blue-purple petals crumpled in her palm don’t match any of the flowers visible on the garland. The little curled petals look so familiar and it takes her a minute of thinking about the impromptu horticulture lessons of her youth, clambering after her mother on their daily walks in the forest that skirted their farm before the memory hits her like a bolt from the blue:

Monkshood.

She raced into the kitchen, finding Ned already perched on his stool, leaning way over in order to reach the faucet to wash his hands like she’d told him to and she grabbed his hands a little too roughly in her panic, making him yelp in surprise, but not pain, at the suddenness of the grip. “You didn’t put your hands near your mouth did you? You didn’t put any of the little purple flowers in your mouth did you baby?”

Fear made her frantic and she knew she was scaring her son but all her maternal instincts were registering was ‘poison’, ‘unsupervised’, and ‘my son’.

Tears threatened in his big gray eyes as he shook his head ‘no’ violently, brown waves flopping into his eyes with the motion. “No ma’am. The nice lady, she said not to, an-an’, you said not to put stuff that I don’t know where it came from in my mouth no more cause it could be bad, and you both said so I didn’t, I’m not a baby.” His lip wobbled with suppressed tears, not understanding what he did wrong but knowing that he’s in trouble anyway.

She saw this and gathered him to her, rocking him in her arms when he buried his face in the fabric of her dress. “Oh baby I’m sorry. Shh, it’s okay, I didn’t mean to scare you, I’m sorry. You didn’t do anything wrong okay? I’m not mad, don’t cry honey.”

She cradled him, murmuring nonsense until the tears stopped, and then she wiped his face gently with a wet dish cloth, picking him up and depositing him on the counter when he clung to her. “I’m very sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you sweetheart. Now I’m going to ask you a question, and I need you to be completely honest with me, alright? Only the truth.” She waited until she got a small nod in return, heart twisted into knots at seeing her little boy so subdued, still sniffling wetly, when just minutes ago he had been so happy. “Where did you find the little purple flowers? The ones you put in the middle?”

His face, still babyish round and soft contorted at the question, knowing the answer but also knowing his mother wouldn't like it. “I told you Mama, the pretty green lady gave them to me. She told me to be real careful and not to touch my face and to make sure I washed my hands after I touched ‘em.”

Beaty sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Alright well, where did the lady get them?”

“From nowhere,” he rubbed his runny nose on his sleeve morosely, not a trace of guile or dishonesty anywhere in his skinny frame. “They was growin’ in her hair, and she just picked ‘em and handed ‘em to me when she said I needed t’ start th’ next part.”

No matter how many times she asked him the same question over the next few days, always broaching the subject carefully so as not to frighten him like she had the first time, his answer was consistently the same, ‘the pretty green lady gave me-’.

Eventually she stopped asking, deciding to let the matter drop, but watched Ned like a hawk for the next month, making sure he absolutely never left the yard, and he didn’t, and neither does he bring the flower garlands into the house again, or at least, not where she could see them. She threw out that first garland before her husband got home, and made Ned promise not to tell his dad at the same time she apologized for ruining his present. He’d just shrugged his narrow shoulders and never spoke a word about the green lady or the garland ever again, and Beaty allowed herself, or rather forced herself, to believe that was the end of it.

But then one day, nearly six months later, she was cleaning her son’s room while he was at kindergarten, and when she went to sweep under the bed she knocked a box out from underneath it, toppling it and sending the contents spilling across the floor. Withered, dried petals, stems, and leaves scattered in all directions, leaving her frozen in the middle of the colorful, fragrant explosion of evidence surrounding her.

She'd very calmly gathered up every single petal and leaf, and very, very carefully made sure every single piece of greenery got back into the box, and that it was replaced in the exact same spot as it had been previously, and said not a word to her five year old when he came tumbling home that afternoon, chattering excitedly about how much he really liked kindergarten and how he’d made a new friend named Charlotte, and how she’d just moved in across the street with her Dad and can they please go bring them a ‘welcome-to-the-neighborhood’ pie, please Mom, please?

Beaty never hinted at the guilty little secret she’d found squirreled away in her son’s bedroom, but the very next day she went out and got Ned a squirmy Golden Retriever puppy, and presented him as a gift ‘for doing so good at school, honey'.

Her son had been ecstatic, exclaiming and giggling over the wriggling ball of fluff that seemed bound and determined to lick every single inch of exposed skin on his new owner. She'd simply watched her son run around with the newly-christened ‘Digby’ until the sun was long past set, a quiet, sad smile on her face. She wasn’t sure why, but from the very first moment that box had tipped over and spread her son’s most carefully guarded secret across his bedroom floor for all the world to see, she knew that her little boy’s life was going to a hard one, fraught with danger and intrigue, and wonder too, if he allowed it.

She had also been convinced, then and there, standing still and silent among all those delicately crunchy husks of a child’s most intricately fantastic imagination, that she would not be around long enough to see the man her beautiful, brave little boy would grow into.

And exactly 2 years, 5 days, 12 hours, and 16 minutes later, she would be proven right.

Chapter Text

No sooner have they entered the hallway that contains the guests quarters then does the door to the twin’s room bang open and Elladan come hurrying out. The air around the elf practically hums with the intensity of his worry, and he immediately starts fluttering around Ned anxiously, asking him what happened, what’s going on, what could possibly have happened to to anger the king so badly, etc. Thankfully he appears to be talking more to himself then to Ned, not bothering to wait for a response to a question before going on to the next one, for which the younger Guide is immensely grateful. He feels like he needs to sleep for ten thousand years, the exhaustion of the last few weeks finally catching up and hitting him all at once like a sack of flour to the face.

Elrohir follows after his brother, stalking over to Tauriel and looming into her personal space, warning pheromones thick like the cloak of a gathering storm around him. “What happened?”

Tauriel had wisely paused at the entrance of the hallway, not wanting to push her welcome, but now she glares at the other Sentinel, upper lip twitching like she wants to bare her teeth but is fighting the urge. “I do not know. I didn’t witness most of the conversation as I was more focused on crossing a great amount of distance as quickly as possible. Why do you not ask Ned? He is the one who was actually there, after all.”

“I'm not asking him, I’m asking you,” Elrohir snapped, stepping even closer so that they were nose-to-nose. “Because you were the one who was supposed to be guarding him so that this sort of thing did not happen, because you were meant to keep him safe, a task at which you have obviously failed!”

Tauriel does snarl at that, jerking her head back and baring her teeth at the insult. “He is safe! No harm will come to him in these halls, you know as well as I that King Thranduil would never lay a hand on-”

“I know nothing of the sort! In case you have forgotten, your ‘king’ has gained quite the reputation for insanity. Who knows what he would do if he felt challenged-”

“My lord is not ‘insane’! He might be ill-tempered at times, that I grant, but he is not mad-”

“Perhaps you might believe that because you are biased, not to mention pig-headed-”

I am not-

“Elrohir!”

“Tauriel, please!”

Both Sentinels snap their jaws shut in unison at the Guides’ shout, Elrohir because of the obvious reproach in his brother’s voice, Tauriel because of the hint of pleading in Ned’s. They both take a pointed step back from each other, though they still glare at one another, and Tauriel folds her arms behind her back to keep from reaching for her weapons.

She bows jerkily to the three of them. “I am sorry for my behavior, it was unbecoming. I will leave you to your rest now, and return in the morning to let you know when my King will be available to greet you properly. Good night.”

And with that she turns and disappears back into the gathering darkness outside of the still lit hallway, leaving the three companions alone once more.

Ned ignores their rapid-fire questions for the moment, stumbling through the door to his room and sits down hard on his bed, barely aware of the fact that it had indeed been exchanged for a larger one. He rubs at his temples, a pounding headache beginning to build in the space between them. “Can we not do this now, guys? I’m really tired and I just got into a shouting match with royalty so I don’t really think I’m up for Twenty Questions right now.”

The brothers exchange a look at the words ‘shouting match’ and Elladan takes a seat on the bed next to the man, resting one hand lightly on his shoulder. “Please Ned, we’re simply concerned. We could feel the gathering negative energy all the way from the other side of the compound. Can you at least tell us what the king said, or did, that got you so upset?”

“That’s just the thing, I don’t know,” he groans as he scrubs his hands over his face and rakes his fingers through his hair. “I mean, he was kind of a jerk, but not so much that I should’ve lost my temper like that. I yelled at him! I’ve never yelled at anyone before in my life!” He drops his face into his hands. “It was like the words weren’t even really mine, like I could feel something in my gut churning everything up and making me say things I didn’t mean-or well, I did mean them but I never would have said them, not out loud, especially not to anyone’s face.”

Elladan is frowning at him when he picks his head up again. “You sensed something influencing your actions? Do you know what it might have been?”

“I have no idea. It just felt…ugly. Kind of, I don’t know, oily, slick.” He shudders in revulsion at the memory of its horrible excitement at the prospect of bloodshed. “As if something invisible was slithering over me and making me say things I didn’t want to say, making me feel things I didn’t want to feel. I wanted to hurt him, the king. Badly.”

“That certainly isn’t like you. Did you check your shields after Tauriel interrupted you? To see if there were any cracks?”

“I wasn’t thinking that clearly. I just tried to make them stronger, to keep it out.”

“That might not have been the smartest thing to do,” Elrohir points out. “If it had already breached your shields, you may have just locked it in with you.”

Ned goes cold at the very idea of that monstrous energy still lingering somewhere inside of him, and he must turn a very interesting color because Elladan hastens to reassure him. “But you appear yourself presently, so it must not have a very strong hold over you yet, which means we can still rout it before it gains any more influence. With your permission, I will put you to sleep and hunt down this outside force and banish it. You would need to allow me inside of your shields first in order to do so.”

“You? Why can’t I do it myself?”

“I believe it would be inadvisable to try, since it has already altered your mental state once, it theoretically do so again.” The elf smiles, a teasing glimmer entering his blue eyes. “And, no offense meant, but I do have much more experience, and it has taken you nearly two weeks to even progress past the second level of shielding, a process which takes most elf children three days at most.”

“Oh, ha ha, make fun of the newbie, I get it,” Ned rolls his eyes in mock-offense, laying back on the bed and stretching until his spine popped, relaxing, every muscle turning to liquid at finally being in a bed again. “Alright, how do I let you in without bringing the whole thing toppling down? Something tells me that wouldn’t be the best of ideas right about now. Or ever, really.”

And so Elladan guides him through the steps needed to allow someone under another’s shielding, the both of them sinking deep into their temporary mental connection, Elrohir content to sit on the floor at his brother’s side, back pressed to his leg and letting his eyes unfocus as he sinks into the half-aware resting state of elf sleep and waited for them to finish. He looks up a few hours later when his twin stirs, sitting back and rubbing at his eyes with a sigh. “How did it go?”

“Well enough. The corruption was easy to find, stark black in the bright yellow glades of his shields, like a mad wolf set loose in a hen house, tearing asunder everything it could get its teeth on and leaving a clear path of destruction in its wake. Thankfully the damage was not so extensive it could not be put down before it progressed any further.” He rubs at his forehead tiredly. “What worries me is how it got so far past not only his barriers, but the Lady Galadriel’s. It’s almost as if this darkness was already there before they were constructed, and has only recently woken up. It is troubling to say the least.”

He smiles at the love Elrohir pours into their bond to sooth his worry, reaching out to tangle their fingers together. His frown returns when he looks back to Ned though, the man’s face peaceful with sleep, the pinched lines around his eyes smooth, and he looks so very, very, heart-breakingly young.

Joined as they are in mind, they both recall the memory of a day back in Rivendell, gathered around their father’s table, laughingly asking how old their strange new companion was, and the ice that had flowed through their veins as one when he had smiled and said, “Twenty-eight”, in his mild baritone, as untroubled as if he hadn’t just professed to being barely out of infancy. Elrohir exhales roughly and bumps his head against his Guide’s knee, “He does not deserve this.” He doesn’t explain further; his brother understands.

Elladan smiles sadly and gives in to the urge to brush the sleeping man’s messy fringe out of his eyes. “They never do.”

-

Ned’s dreams are fragmented and ghostly, slipping away from his grasping fingers before he can get a good look at them, and he wakes some time later alone and aching from one such dream that he cannot remember after he opens his eyes. He hangs on to the one bit he could still recall, the hazy memory of a woman-his mother?-laughing and singing to him while they sat surrounded by the yellow and white smudges that made up the landscape. He remembers thinking she was beautiful, but the vision is fading fast and he lets it go, sitting up with a sigh, his heart feeling hollowed out.

His shields are solid when he probes them gingerly, searching for cracks in the foundations, but there are no irregularities that he can find, and the darkness that had lingered from his earlier outburst had been thoroughly dealt with, leaving him ashamed and embarrassed. How could he ever be expected to look his Sentinel in the eye after the things he’d said? The king may have been just as much at fault, but at least he hadn’t been the one to intentionally try to instigate a fight. The Guide groans and drops his head in his hands, exhausted despite his rest. He wonders how long he slept, whether it is still night or if the sun has risen yet; without windows it is hard to tell, and the twins had extinguished the candles when they’d left the room. He should probably get up and go looking for them, or at least poke his head out the door and see if the rest of the kingdom is awake yet.

He’s in the middle of gathering the energy required to get up and take the few steps necessary to reach the door when he is saved the effort by the door opening before he actually succeeds in heaving himself upright. Tauriel cautiously peeks around the doorframe and smiles in relief to see him already sitting up. “Oh good, I was afraid I was going to have to wake you. You’ve been asleep for most of the day, and Lord Elrond’s sons were becoming concerned we would need to call a healer for you; they will be glad to know that is not needed.”

He groans again at this information. “You mean I slept a whole day away again? I’m getting extremely sick of doing that. Surely sleeping this much can’t be healthy.”

“Sleep is the easiest way for the body to heal itself from any injury, whether it is mental, physical, or even emotional, since it forces long periods of inactivity to allow the wounds to heal without interruption,” the Sentinel points out practically. “This is true of all races. Even elves will sink into what you might call ‘true sleep’ if the need is great enough.”

He looks up at her, eyebrows raised in surprise. “Elves don’t sleep?”

“Not in the way Men do, no. It is more of a light trance to allow the mind to rest, though the body needn’t have to. Elves sleep with their eyes open and their bodies alert, so it can be achieved anywhere, even while walking or riding, so it is usually done on long distances excursions, mostly out of boredom.”

He blinks at her a few times, processing this. “Wow. Well that’s….Useful.”

Her lips twitch. “Indeed. If you are feeling better, my king would like to speak to you now, to officially welcome you to Mirkwood. You slept through the earlier greeting with Elladan and Elrohir, which is perhaps for the best. My lord wishes to speak to you alone.”

Ned sucks in a breath so fast his lungs twinge sharply in protest. “He wants to talk to me? Alone? As in, one-on-one? With no witnesses in case he decides to horribly murder me?” He can feel his anxiety building at the thought and he forces all the oxygen out of his lungs in rush, hauling himself to his feet before he can think better of it, proud of himself when the walls and floor stay where they’re supposed to. “Sure, why not, I’ve lived a good life.”

The she-elf is frowning now, all traces of good humor gone, and she takes a step closer to him, tipping her head back in order to meet his gaze seriously. “King Thranduil would never harm you, nor would he ever allow harm to come to you, just as he would never let any guest of his to be harmed whilst in his house. I don’t know what the Rivendell elves have told you, but my king is not a monster, and he is not without reason. He will not judge you harshly because of what transpired yesterday; the circumstances were not ideal, and certainly not the usual way in which a potential bond-pair would meet. But, should you truly feel threatened, I will be right outside the door, and should you need me, all you will have to do is yell.” She watches his face, making sure he believes what she’s saying before her eyes soften. “But it will not come to that. My lord is much more controlled then that, and not so very quick to anger, no matter what others may believe. Come, we will go at once and get this sorted quickly so that you can join your friends in time for the evening meal.”

“Now?” He squeaks, looking down at his dirt-stained clothes, still covered in road dust, his boots encrusted with dried mud. He knows he himself can’t be much better, unwashed for the better part of three days since crossing the Anduin, hair lank and greasy, skin colored several shades darker with dirt. “But I look like…I can’t even think of a something terrible enough to describe it, that’s how bad I look. I can’t meet royalty looking, and probably smelling, like a hobo-a-a vagabond!”

It’s Tauriel’s turn to blink at him, stepping back to give him a once over. “Well, you did technically already meet him yesterday and he didn’t find you offensive then, and I can at least attest to the fact that you smell fine, if rather like horse, which is understandable-” he’s not sure what his face does at this news, but it must be pretty bad because her green eyes widen almost comically and she hastens to add, “-but all the same, perhaps the meeting can wait until you’ve bathed. I will show you to the bathing area now, if you would like. I’ll just have someone bring you a plate. Is there anything in particular you would like to eat?”

“To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll be able to eat anything with how nervous I am,” he tells her frankly, hurrying to wrangle a change of clothes out of his packs. “Something very light. Maybe just a salad and some tea if you have any.”

He can tell by the expression on her face what she’s going to say next before she even opens her mouth; it’s the same face Olive makes when she thinks he isn’t taking care of himself, and man wouldn’t she have some words for him if she saw how he’d been treating his health lately. “I know, I know, that doesn’t sound substantial enough,” he cuts her off quickly, “But if I promise to have a huge breakfast can we just let the matter drop? I actually might throw up if I eat anything heavier, and something tells me that won’t make a very good second impression.”

She is wryly amused now and she doesn’t argue, merely lifts an expressive ginger brow. "No I should say not. Hurry up then, I shall inform him of the delay, but it is unwise to keep my lord waiting any longer than is absolutely necessary. He may not be the ogre others make him out be, but neither is it a particularly good idea to stretch his, ah, let us say limited store of good will.”

-

By the time Ned is as ready as he’ll ever be for a meeting like this, skin scrubbed pink with the vigor of his washing, hair still wet but mercifully clean, and smelling like nothing thanks to the Sentinel-friendly soap he'd been given, the stone halls are back at the same level of subdued inactivity they were the night before, making it appear as though not much time has passed since their last encounter, even though he knows logically a full day had already come and gone. He’s twitchy at the thought that he’d kept the king-the king!-waiting so long.

He fidgets with the hem of his tunic as he waits for Tauriel to return, grateful he’d still had something clean to wear after so long on the road, stomach gurgling warningly as it digests the vegetables and tea he’d forced down inbetween getting dressed and breathing deeply to avoid a full on panic attack. He’d been successful, but the feeling was creeping back up on him the longer he waited for her to finish speaking to the king in private before coming to retrieve him.

He closes his eyes and grits his teeth as he goes through the calming steps Elladan and Lady Galadriel had drilled into him, imagining bundling up his nervousness and terror and putting it in a box that he ties up with twine and stacks neatly with all the other boxes that will be gone come morning, breaths coming easier at the artificial peace the exercise generates. It is a small, false comfort, but it works all the same, and when Tauriel does eventually come to fetch him a few minutes later, he thinks he might even able to get through this without making an utter fool of himself if he’s very, very lucky.

She shows him to the top of the stairs that lead down to the elvenking’s private rooms and nods at him to go on without her while she assumes parade rest at the entrance to the staircase. Some of the tension in his shoulders relaxes with the assurance that she really isn’t going to leave him there without backup, no matter how much she thinks he won’t need it. He takes another deep breath in and releases it in a gush, straightening his spine and pulling his shoulders back before he starts descending the stairs.

He makes his way down the winding staircase that wraps around the trunk of a massive tree, trailing his fingers over the rough bark in wonder at the size of it, delighted when gold doesn’t spark at the touch, meaning the tree is still alive all on its own and for a moment he even forgets to be afraid. This small bit of happiness carries him down the rest of the way, and even drives him to boldly push off the last step and a few paces into the room where he might have otherwise lingered in the meager protection of the unlit stairway. He’s almost managed to convince himself that this won’t be so bad after all, when Thranduil looks up from where he had been sitting at a desk situated in the corner and it immediately feels as if all the air has been sucked out of the room.

He’s just as staggeringly beautiful as he had been on the previous encounter, dressed similarly in flowing silver-gold robes with the same cloak gathered around him as he slowly rises to round the pool separating his alcove from the staircase with enviable grace. Ned desperately tries to get his legs to move or his mouth to open, to say something, to at least greet the Sentinel now standing a polite distance away and watching him with those unnerving eyes, but his body is refusing to respond to his commands, too intimidated to do much other than stand there and try not to collapse under the weight of his own stifling embarrassment, eyes on his freshly cleaned boots as he searches for something to say that won’t make him sound like a complete idiot.

“I want to apologize for my behavior.” Ned tries not to jump at the suddenness of sound after so long spent wallowing in silent awkwardness and mostly succeeds. “There is no excuse for how I spoke to you, it was immeasurably rude and uncalled for not only from a king, but from a Sentinel with whom you have no previous relation, especially since you had done nothing to deserve it.”

He crosses over to a high, narrow table placed in another alcove set to the other side of the stairs, once more taking great care to give the man a wide enough berth that there is no possibility of them touching. For some reason that irritates Ned enough that when Thranduil indicates for him to take a seat at the table he goes without complaint, sitting down and resisting the childish urge to cross his arms over his chest in a huff, instead holding himself ramrod straight, hands clasped with grating formality on the polished wood in front of him.

In contrast, the elf sinks into his seat with the same fluid grace with which he seems to do everything, leaning back slightly and rubbing at his temples with a sigh, a show of vulnerability that dispels Ned’s irritation and leaves him confused, brows furrowed and feeling suddenly very wrong-footed. Where is the cold haughtiness he had mentally prepared himself for? The disdainful sneering he had grown so accustomed to from the elves outside of Lord Elrond and his family, and now maybe Tauriel? He doesn’t know how to react, or what to say, so he remains silent, waiting for the elf king to continue.

Thranduil takes his hand away from his temples and sits up straight, steepling his fingers on the table in a mirror of the man across from him as he goes on. “My actions were so unwarranted in fact, that Tauriel has informed me that I owe you an explanation, and I find myself agreeing with her. Please understand; when Lord Elrond’s messenger arrived here bearing the news that my Guide had been found at long last, I told him there must be some mistake, for you see, my Guide is dead.”

Ned jerks in surprise, slumping against the back of his chair, eyes wide. He opens and closes his mouth several times, before he finally gets out, “Y-You…had a Guide before? Your…wife? Husband?” He feels horrible, heart in his throat at the thought that this might have all been one big mistake, that the Lady Galadriel had been wrong after all, and his Sentinel was still out there somewhere and they’d come all the way here and dredged up painful memories for no reason. After all, he still felt nothing of the pull towards the king that he had been told to expect upon meeting his Sentinel, his supposed soulmate. Maybe his power had simply reached out for him because he was the most powerful Sentinel in range, instinctively trying to latch on to the comfort and safety inherent in a strong Sentinel, rather than because they were truly meant to be together. He’s not sure why the thought sends such a pointed stab of agony through him so he ignores it, making himself listen to the elf who had started speaking once more.

“My wife, though I loved her more dearly than I have ever loved anyone before or since, other than my son, was not my Guide. She was not Gifted at all in fact, a rarity amongst elves. No, my wife had been gone from these shores for a great many years before I first felt the pull of my Guide. I felt it the moment he was born, and I knew he would be of the race of Men, for no elf children have been born in Arda for many centuries. This knowledge brought with it a mingling of joy and sorrow, that even though I now knew my Guide had finally been born into the world, it would be several more years before he would be old enough to seek me out, or for me to go looking for him. But I had gone so long without an anchor, I thought surely I could go a few decades more without going completely mad.” His pale lips twitched slightly at the corners at the memory, before grief shadowed his face once more.

“For four years I felt the hair-thin thread that bound us together strengthening, so slowly at times that I feared I truly would go out of my mind in the meantime, and so I ordered the kitchen beneath these rooms to be built, without fully knowing the reason why, merely acting on the half-formed thought that maybe I could one day offer it to my Guide as a sort of..engagement present, if the phrase could be used in such a way. However, one day near the end of its construction, I felt the fledgling link between us sever so abruptly it was as if it had been cut by a sharp knife.” Something tightens around his eyes at the remembered pain.

“Until that moment I had not noticed how deeply I had come to rely upon it, to provide a small comfort when the day had taken its toll, and when it was gone it was as though my world had been swept out from underneath me. I knew then that the only explanation as to why the tie was snapped so brutally was that my Guide had to be dead, at no more than four years of age. I was devastated. I withdrew from my people and went into such a profound state of mourning my son began to fear that I would never recover from it. I did recover, eventually, for his sake, if not entirely for my own.”

Ned is only partially aware that his vision has gone hazy because of the tears that have gathered in his eyes while the elf spoke, the genuine sadness in the deep, accented voice making something in his chest throb with pain. He clears his throat, but his voice is still hoarse with emotion when he speaks. “I am so sorry. I-the Lady Galadriel said-no, no that doesn’t matter now. I’m deeply sorry, really I am, for having taken up so much of your time and bringing up all these bad memories. I'll just go let Elladan and Elrohir know that there must have been some mistake, and we’ll leave first thing in the morning-”

“You will understand my astonishment then,” the elvenking interrupts him, uncanny stare once more fixed unwaveringly on Ned. “When I hear movement downstairs for the first time in decades and go down to find my Guide standing there, whole and healthy, as if nothing had ever happened.”

The man gapes at him, mouth hanging open, utterly blindsided. “But I...Huh?”

“I will admit to a more coherent, if no less startled reaction myself.” Thranduil continued smoothly. “I knew the moment I walked into the room that you were without a doubt who the messenger proclaimed you to be, though the recognition of this did nothing to prepare me for how to react. My first instinct was to deny it, but for a Sentinel to refuse to believe his own senses is the height of foolishness, and so I was forced to confront them head on. This unsurety of how to proceed is what led to my less than acceptable behavior, and once again, I wish to express to you how regretful I am, and to propose, if it is alright with you, that we start anew this day.”

Ned knows he’s still doing a very good imitation of a goldfish, so he winches his jaw shut and swallows hard, throat clicking dryly. “Uh, and how do we do that exactly?”

The king’s lips twitch almost imperceptibly before his expression goes carefully blank once more, though unless it’s a trick of the light, Ned is almost certain the icy aloofness in his stare thaws, if only a little. “By beginning as we should have: with introductions.”

Here he draws himself up straight, bowing his head elegantly and letting his eyes slide closed. “I am Thranduil Oropherion, King of the Woodland Realm, and I bid you welcome to my kingdom.”

Ned flails quietly, comprehension dawning when he doesn’t look up after a few moments that he is waiting for the man to introduce himself in turn. He sits up rigidly, and tips his head until he’s staring determinedly at his own flushed reflection in the highly polished surface of the tabletop. “Thank you, King Thranduil”-he winces at the unintentional drawl his accent puts on the name and rushes on-“I’m Ned, of…well, thank you for allowing me to stay here; I'm sure we'll be able to avoid such conflicts in the future, now that we have a better understanding of each other.”

It’s a good thing he keeps his sight fixated firmly on the table, and so misses the way Thranduil’s quicksilver eyes flicker open, ink black pupils dilating wide at hearing his name on his Guide’s lips. “Let us hope so.”

Chapter Text

Ned barely manages to stumble back up the stairs and out of the stairwell, still dazed from his encounter with the Elvenking, before the twins are on him and dragging him back towards the hallway that contains their rooms. The both of them are muttering under their breath in Sindarin, no doubt complaining about interfering wood-elves and their tendency to make off with their human without consulting them first. Ned leaves them to it, head still swimming with confusion over what precisely just happened. He certainly hadn’t expected that meeting to go as well as it had. For one thing, he had thought there would be a lot more shouting involved.

The Rivendell elves don’t stop until they’re back in his room where he’s manhandled to sit on the bed by Elrohir while Elladan sits on the bed across from him, one leg tucked under him with his torso twisted so he can face the younger Guide in a mirror of their positions of the night before. The piemaker eyes the elf warily, recognizing the signs of an impending Guide-to-Guide heart-to-heart. “You’re not about to impart the secrets of the universe to me are you? That’s your ‘imparting wisdom’ face. I don’t trust that face, it usually means you’re about to tell me something that’s going to make my head hurt later.”

Elladan’s expression doesn’t waver an inch at his attempt to lighten the mood, which means it must be serious indeed. “How did your meeting with the king go?”

Ned leans back on his hands, tipping his head back to stare at the rough-hewn stone of the ceiling. “Honestly? I have no idea. He was much more courteous this time around if that’s what you’re asking, no yelling or anything like that. We talked some-or well, he talked, and explained some things to me about why he acted the way he did, and he apologized for the way he acted-” Two sets of blue eyes blink in surprised unison “-and then he asked if I would be alright with ‘sharing a meal’ with him twice a week so we can try to learn more about each other. So that’s probably going to be awkward as all get out, but other than that, he was perfectly polite the whole time. It was weird-very formal, but not off-puttingly so.”

Some of the tension seems to bleed out of them at that, and Elladan’s face relaxes into a smile. “That’s good at least. Elrohir was threatening to, ah, ‘clean his clock’ if he was rude to you again.”

Elrohir grins, sharp and vicious. “And I would have too. Adar probably wouldn’t have been too happy, but I definitely would have felt better.”

“And Thranduil would have turned you to mince-meat, and then I would have had to be the one to tell Adar of your unfortunate demise, and then there would have been full-scale war because of the rashness of your actions.”

His Sentinel shrugs. “Yeah, but at least I would have felt better."

The look his brother shoots Ned is one of exaggerated long suffering, deep-water eyes huge and woebegone in his angular face. “You see what I have to deal with? Try having that for a Sentinel why don’t you? Feel sorry for me.”

Ned’s shoulders shake with silent laughter at their antics, letting his twisting emotions settle and fade in the wake of it. “Oh you know you love him. Now are we going to do anymore shield exercises or are we going to just talk? I apparently slept for most of the day so I’m not really tired yet; probably won’t be for a while.”

“We could do both,” Elladan suggests, getting comfortable, leaning back against one of the carved posts at the foot of the bed. Elrohir collapses to the floor next to them, somehow managing to look graceful doing it though Ned has no idea how, cross-legged and angled so that he can press his side against his brother’s leg and still see the door. “We actually came looking for you for shield-training. If you can get the last layer of shielding done tonight, I was going to suggest we drop a few of the Lady Galadriel’s shields.” The elf’s eyes soften at the sudden jolt of nervousness he must feel from the other Guide at that.

“You’ve been almost completely cut off from your power for nearly a month now, and though you have been able to put a few of the easier beginning techniques into practice, it hasn’t been without great difficulty. We have been training you as though your Gift is very weak, but that is not the case in the least and as such we can’t keep it up for much longer without stunting your growth beyond repair. Dropping a few of the Lady’s shields should help balance you out to a degree, and once you’ve gotten a handle on the new influx, we will drop a few more, and repeat the process until only your shields remain. It is tedious, but it is the best way to ensure you don’t get too overwhelmed with your new abilities all at once while also making sure you don’t advance too slowly. Neither would have very favorable outcomes, for anyone involved.”

Ned sits forward. “Do you think her shields are the reason I couldn’t tell the king was who he was just by looking at him? Everyone keeps telling me I should feel some sort of pull to be with him, or near to him, or whatever, but I don’t feel anything at all, or at least, not anymore, and even I know that can’t be normal. When Olive first clapped eyes on Emerson I had to lock her in the storage room to keep them from jumping each other right there in the Pie Hole.” He shudders with horror at the memory. “And I still had to threaten to knock Emerson out with a rolling pin before he would back off enough for them to calm down and think rationally.”

The twins are snickering at his plight like he knew they would those jerks. “Why did you stop them at all?” Elrohir asks sensibly, twilight eyes laughing at him over the edge of the mattress. “I can understand not wanting them to bond in the middle of your bakery, but surely you could have gotten them to one of their homes before they progressed that far; didn’t you say Olive lived in a room above the Pie Hole?”

“Yes, but that’s not the point. Neither of them actually wanted a full bond, both of them had been complaining about it to me just days before actually, at different times of course. This was back when I first met Emerson. And since I knew it wasn’t what they wanted and it was just the hormones talking and Olive was closest, and a lot more portable, I just grabbed her and put her behind a door that locked from the outside until they could talk with their upstairs brains since they didn’t even know each other’s names yet for crying out loud! Once they stopped listening to their instincts they settled on a platonic bond and they’ve been happily running roughshod over my life, as a team, ever since.”

Elladan is still radiating amusement clearly enough that even Ned’s dulled senses can pick up on it but at least he’s not laughing anymore. “To answer your question, yes, the extra shielding is probably the reason you couldn’t tell who Thranduil was with just a look, and why you feel no pull to be near him at all times in order to initiate the bonding process, but it also may be because Thranduil is actively trying to keep you out, and with your-ahem-level of training, there is no way you could ever hope to even scratch his walls unless he purposefully lowered them. Even once you are fully trained I doubt you could do much damage, though if you simply hurled raw power at them I suspect they would cave eventually, but not without significant damage to both of your minds. He has been at this quite a bit longer than you after all.”

There is an undignified snort from the floor at the vastness of that understatement. The man just rolls his eyes at the both of them. “Longer than a month you mean? I’m shocked. Really, I’m astounded. If you two are done laughing at my pain can we try and start on the last shield now, ya know, like adults? Or is that beyond you both?”

The elf waves his sarcasm away loftily as he scoots closer so that his bent knee is just barely brushing Ned’s, having learned early on, as Lady Galadriel had, that physical contact was more detriment than help when dealing with this particular fledgling Guide. “Yes, yes, we can begin. If all goes well you should be able to get this done tonight, perhaps even within the hour. This is the easiest shield of the three, since it is really only meant to be that: a shield, an initial defense against unwanted, foreign, mental and emotional backlash.

“All Guides can sense the emotions of others of course, no matter their strength, but unless you concentrate, you should not feel them as strongly as if they were your own, as you might do if you focused on a particular person hard enough, since all newly-manifested Guides would go mad within a manner of weeks if they were forced to experience every emotion of everyone within range at all times. That is what this shield is for, to be a wall between your mind and the minds of others. It can take the form of anything you like, from a literal wall, to a dense forest, or even a bottomless trench that catches or ensnares anything that tries to get in that you don’t consciously want there.

"However if you were trying to purposefully channel something from someone outside of the wall, it would be like building a temporary bridge over the trench and then burning it behind you, or creating a path through the woods which only you know how to follow back to the source. It must be sturdy with no obvious breaches, but other than that it can be anything you want. In this case it is more, if you imagine it to be safe, then it will be, rather than having to build it up brick-by-brick from scratch as with the other shields. Then you were relying on positive emotion, here you are relying on physical fact.”

“Sounds easy enough,” Ned muses. “Too easy. Couldn’t someone just climb the wall? Or find their way through the forest or what-have-you?”

“Well, yes, in theory, but most experienced Guides create far more layers of shielding than just the inner three that you know; these are simply the main ones that all beginners must master before moving on. Think of them as your ‘true’ shields while anything that comes after them are your, ah, ‘just in case’ shields. In battle, your shields are more for the benefit of your Sentinel than for you anyway. Remember, your shields protect your mind, but they also serve to ground your Sentinel as well.”

The man nodded. He remembered that from one of his first sessions back in Rivendell with Galadriel. “‘A beacon in the storm, a touchstone of serenity in a maelstrom of sensory input,’” he parroted faithfully. “I remember likening it to being a lighthouse, and then having to explain what a lighthouse was and she smiled at me-” he fights back a blush at the memory, mustering up a half-hearted glare when they both smirk at him in response “-and told me that sounded exactly like what she meant. Then she mentioned someone named ‘Elendel’ and I got confused.”

“Eärendil,” Elladan corrects absently, eyes already slightly glazed over as he stretches out his mind toward Ned’s. “I don’t think we got to his story during our customary campfire tale swaps on the road, which is strange really, considering he was our father’s father. Are you ready?”

“No, but let’s do it anyway.” He answers honestly, sliding his eyes shut and carefully reaching out to tangle his thoughts with the other Guide’s. “Now what am I supposed to be doing exactly?”

-

It takes two hours and the combined efforts of both of the twins shouting his name both aloud and with their minds to snap him out of the stupor he’d fallen into as he concentrated on constructing his wall. He blinks his eyes open and rubs at them blearily, mentally exhausted even if his body still feels well-rested. “So how’s it look?”

“See for yourself.” There a note of awe in Elladan’s voice and before Ned can ask him why a gentle mental nudge has him turning his metaphorical ‘sight’ inward once more, mouth falling open in amazement at what he sees.

It’s a hedge. A hedge two stories high and covered in unnaturally vibrant emerald leaves, but a hedge nonetheless, and though that in itself is impressive, it isn’t until he takes a step closer to examine it further that he sees what’s so truly remarkable about it. Beneath the wide holly leaves is an interlocking solid mat of thorns as long as his hand and as thick as his splayed fingers, and even as he watches, stunned, a fat, scarlet drop of what must be poison beads at the tip of one of the viciously curved spikes and begins to drip down the side, viscous and lethal as spider venom.

It’s the single most impressively terrifying thing he’s ever seen and he can’t keep the admiration out of his own voice as he breathes, “Wow. Are you sure I made that?”

“Quite sure as I was the one who sat and watched you build it." Elladan confirms drily. "Once we entered your mindscape you required little input from me before you set to work. It was as though your subconscious already knew what it wanted and it was only waiting to be set to the task. It is quite remarkable. I doubt even a master Guide trained in the healing arts could have done better in such a span of time.”

There is pride in the elf’s voice and Ned’s lips quirk even as he pulls himself out of the vision once more. He’s not sure who his teacher is more proud of, his student or himself but he doesn’t comment on it. It's true that without his instruction Ned never would have gotten anywhere near this point. As far as the man is concerned, his friend has more than earned a little self-congratulatory back-patting.

Elrohir apparently doesn’t agree, since he prompts his brother with a pointedly raised eyebrow, “Yes, Ned sure has come a long way, hasn’t he?”

Elladan’s pale cheeks color very faintly and he straightens from his comfortable recline against the bedpost. “Of course! That is what I just said.”

Elrohir hums noncommittally, but lets the matter drop when his brother flushes a shade darker at the unspoken chastisement in his tone. “Do you think you’ll be able to drop the Lady’s shields now without jeopardizing the structure?”

“Yes, without a doubt. A Wall of such strength should be capable of holding even under the most powerful of assaults, never mind the day-to-day spillover from those without shields or the intentional prodding from any upstart who might think to test his mettle.” He turns back to the younger Guide and holds out his hands, palm up. “However, dropping the shields will take more concentration, so I’m afraid physical contact is unavoidable.” His tone is apologetic. “Are you ready?”

Ned sucks in a deep breath and lets it out loudly, reaching out to clasp the elf’s narrow hands decisively. “Probably not. Go for it.”

He expects to drop back into their shared mindscape but Elladan simply closes his eyes for a moment, skimming his consciousness lightly along Ned’s outer shields in warning before seeming to gather his power to himself and press at the foreign barriers surrounding the man’s mind until they give way all at once like they were made merely of sand rather than mortar and brick.

If he had been asked what he was expecting, the sudden jolting wave of vertigo that accompanies the barriers' collapse wouldn’t have been it. To be honest, he hadn’t really expected to feel anything at all, something deep in the back of his mind still thinking that there had been some sort of mix up and that he really wasn’t Gifted in the least and this had all been a giant fluke, but that thought is finally dashed as his brain spins and warps and scrambles to reorient around the abrupt inflow of new information it has no previous frame of reference for.

Even with his eyes closed, he can tell where the twins are without looking, their minds flickering like tongues of blue flame in the blackness behind his eyelids, both of them flaring bright with alarm as his distress mounts, the heady heaviness of their concerted concern clogging his throat and making his lungs heave as he fights to breath past it, instinctive animal panic sparking to life in his gut when he realizes that he can’t.

Dizzily he notes that he could now tell without asking which of them was a Guide and which a Sentinel, the knowledge suddenly bone-deep and automatic but he’s more focused on the smelltastenoisefeel of emotion oppressive in the air, rushing in through the solid stone walls and under the crack in the door jam, ebbing and flowing through him like the tide, not just from the other two occupants of the room but from outside as well and he wants to tell Elladan that something is wrong, that he must have made his shield incorrect after all because he can sense everything but even as he thinks this he can feel his shield holding firm, bending and twisting and rebuffing the storm of outside emotion like a tree in a windstorm. But it’s not enough, he can feel so much he’s drowning in it, has no way to sort through any of the information, his brain isn’t structured correctly to withstand so much new sensation at once. He can’t even tell what or who he’s sensing and the spark of panic is beginning to catch flame and mount into a towering forest fire, he can’t do this, he’s drowning, it’s too much, he can’t, he can’t he can’t he can’t-

Then something deep within the heart of the underground kingdom stirs, lifting its head and twisting to look for him, scenting the air and uncoiling to reach out and brush a calming night-dark tendril against the agonized throb of his psyche. And just like that his fear is gone, he can breathe again and he gasps in deep, steadying lungfuls of oxygen as he grits his teeth and bears down on the teeming, overflowing river of his mind, turning the floodwaters back, mastering the raging torrents into steady, eddying order, directing it to twist this way and that and carving new pathways where none existed before, forcing it to obey, and obey it does, meekly bending to his will and flowing where he tells it to until he feels centered once more.

He pries his physical eyes open, blinking in the too-dark dimness of his room, spent and shaking in the aftermath. He’s surprised to find Elladan and Elrohir pressed to either side of him, the Sentinel with a steadying arm wrapped around his back while the Guide has a hand clamped to each of Ned’s shoulders, body turned in a way that can’t be comfortable to accommodate from his still-seated position, forehead pressed to the back of his hand on the man’s right shoulder, a steady stream of what definitely isn’t Westron but he’s pretty sure isn’t Sindarin pouring from his mouth in an uninterrupted murmur as they both hang onto him.

Ned has no idea when they moved, and his voice croaks in his dry throat when he asks, “So what did I miss this time?”

Both dark heads snap up to look at him, worry lines etched deep into their handsome faces as they look at him with pure relief.

“Oh thank the Valar!” Elladan gasps. “You wouldn’t respond no matter what we did, and your spirit was fluctuating so wildly I was sure it was going to rip itself free entirely! It took everything I had to keep your soul in your body, and even then it fought me. I wasn’t sure I would be able to hang onto it long enough for you to come back to yourself, or that you even would and I’m so very sorry Ned, please forgive me, I don’t know what happened, I-”

“He thought he broke you,” Elrohir cuts in from his other side, letting go of Ned to begin carefully prying loose the vice grip his brother still had on the man’s shoulders. “Ease up hanar nin, he’s alright now, it’s over, no need to bruise him.”

Elladan lets go as though burned and is across the room before Ned can blink, gripping his elbows and curling in on himself in a way that shocks the other Guide, having never seen the normally confidant young elf so visibly shaken before. “I am truly sorry my friend, I do not know what could have possibly happened to make the Lady’s shields fold like that, I swear I only meant to knock down a couple but then nearly half of them came crashing down at once! I was able to stabilize the others in time, but there is no excuse for such recklessness. I could have done irreparable damage to your mind!” He reaches up to wind his fingers into his hair, pulling sharply at the roots, wild-eyed and near vibrating with the strength of the horror the thought invokes.

Elrohir is on his feet and next to his brother in another of those too-quick movements for human eyes to register, arms wrapping around him and murmuring assurances into his ear, their bond glowing bright in Ned’s mind’s eye, pulsing with light as he sends waves of calm into his Guide through their link.

Ned gets to his feet too, fidgeting with the foreign desire to press his hand to his friend’s shoulder and pass positive emotion via the physical contact while at the same time assuring him verbally that everything is alright, the autonomic response so foreign and startling that he ends up doing nothing but keep his eyes on the toes of his boots, hunching his shoulders up near his ears and desperately wishing he had pockets to stick his hands into, settling for tucking his arms around himself and clamping them tight under his armpits. “It’s not your fault. There were-are, pretty extenuating circumstances, and it’s not like you’ve ever had to deal with anything like this-like me, before. I’m sorry for making you push yourself so far, I didn’t mean to hurt you-”

“No!” Elladan interrupts forcefully, shaking his head hard enough to make the ends of his ink-black hair whip with the movement. “No, no you should not apologize, it is I who-” he cuts himself off abruptly, clenching his eyes shut tight in an effort to control himself, gripping one of Elrohir’s wrists so tight his knuckles are stark white, though his brother shows no signs of protest.

Finally he exhales gustily, and when he looks up at Ned again, he’s overwhelmingly relieved to see the usual composure starting to knit itself back together in his friend's eyes. “Thank you, for not being angry Ned, but I do not think you completely understand the severity of what I just did, what might have happened to you if I had not been able to reinforce the rest of your shields before the tide dragged them under. You could have died Ned. The shock could have killed you.”

“But it didn’t,” the piemaker points out (what he believes to be) very sensibly, if a bit tentatively.

The mirthless laugh that earns him is so much like a sob it makes something in Ned’s heart crack to hear it. “Yes but it could have. Perhaps it would have anyway if Thranduil hadn’t been able to call you back to yourself. It's him you owe your gratitude to, if you owe it to anyone. Not me.”

“But you’re the one I want to thank,” Ned insists, daring a step toward them, desperate to make him understand and try to alleviate some of the self-loathing he can feel swirling in the air around his friend. “I don’t blame you for-”

“Ned,” Elrohir speaks up sharply. “I’m sorry, I know this is your room, and you must be tired after all that’s happened today, but do you think we could be alone for a moment? I’m afraid this isn’t helping.” There’s no judgment or blame in his eyes, just a vast well-spring of pity at the man’s obvious agitation. “I promise we won’t be long.”

“No, yeah, sure, take-take all the time you need,” Ned hastens to reassure him, tripping over himself as he scrambles for the door, beyond thankful for the out and hating himself for it at the same time. “I’ll just-I’ll just go for a walk, let you guys talk it out for a little while-”

“Don’t go far,” Elrohir tells him just as he succeeds in wrenching the door open. “We don’t need you to get lost in these Vala-forsaken caves on top of everything else.”

“I won’t,” Ned promises before beating a hasty retreat, closing the door behind him and striding quickly for the end of the hallway, muscles shaking with the urge to run that he suppresses with sheer willpower.

He doesn’t stop until he’s out on the walkway again, breathing in deep chestfuls of cool, damp air, fists clenched and teeth grit so hard he can hear the bones grinding in his skull, ashamed at the hot prickle of impending tears he can feel building behind his eyes. He’s not a crier by nature, never has been; he didn’t cry at his mom’s funeral, or when his dad abandoned him for a new family, or when he first realized he had no way to get back to the two friends he did have back in his old life before this whole mess started, and he’s certainly not going to cry now, even if he’s sure he has finally managed to alienate the only people in this strange world who might actually give a damn about him. He presses the heels of his palms against his eyelids until starbursts go off behind them and trembles with frustration and anger at himself for not being able to do anything about any of this. Why is he even a Guide at all when he’s still so useless when it comes to emotion and comforting people and why does this keep happening-

“Feeling sorry for ourselves, are we?”

His head snaps up at the sudden voice from the darkness and finds an elf watching him from the other end of the walkway, leaning back against one of the undecorated balustrades that shore up the ceiling, arms crossed over his chest and returning the man’s startled gaze with an unimpressed one of his own. He’s a Guide, Ned can tell, a strong one, and as he pushes himself off from the wall and starts toward where Ned’s standing, he feels the mental equivalent of a shove against his outer shields, black disgust and vicious contempt hitting him like a slap to the face and he stumbles out of the elf’s way under the power of it. “Well I suppose that’s for the best, since you’re certainly not getting any sympathy from me, or from anyone else around here.”

His face and voice remain completely blank but the sneer is obvious in the scorn in his tone as he passes the stunned man, long, lithe strides carrying him almost to the other end of the bridge before Ned finds his voice again. “You don’t even know me.”

There’s no anger left in him now, just exhausted defeat, and the elf pauses to hear it, turning back to spare him one last disdainful glance, green eyes reflecting the light off the river like a cat’s in the darkness. “I don’t have to. You’re here to kill my king. That’s all I need to know.”

And with that he’s gone in a swirl of auburn hair, vanishing into one of the many off-branching tunnels in this part of the kingdom, leaving Ned alone once more.

This time he does nothing to stop the slow fall of tears as they finally break their dam and start to slide silently down over his cheeks.

Chapter Text

It’s Tauriel who finds him a little while later. He'd felt her approach from several corridors away, her concern clear in the flame-bright flicker of her spirit in his mind. She hesitates when she sees him and he can sense the war her instincts are waging with one another as she hovers on the outskirts of his personal space; to approach or not to approach?

Finally, she decides to risk it and takes a seat next to where he’s curled in on himself in the shadow of a column off the main walkway, sitting just close enough that her side is brushing his and he can feel her body heat, a question and an invitation both. He doesn’t fight the urge this time and just wordlessly shifts so that his side is pressed firmly against hers, pressing gratitude through the contact though he doesn’t lift his head from where it’s buried in the arms he’s using to hug his knees to his chest.

They sit in silence for a while longer, Tauriel in wordless support and Ned at a loss for what to say. He knows his projected pain is what brought her here from all the way in the soldier’s barracks, and he’s grateful that she bothered to come at all, considering they still barely know each other. He feels he should offer her an explanation, but when he turns his head to the side and opens his mouth what comes out instead is, “Will you teach me how to use a sword?” His voice is thick and scratchy from crying and he feels her body stiffen at his words, surprise flashing through her at the request.

He can feel the instant instinctive denial swirling through her at the idea of putting a Guide in any kind of danger, but to her credit she gives the idea some thought before choosing her next words carefully, “Why do you want to learn? I assure you, you will find no danger within our borders that the Royal Guard cannot protect you from. We would never intentionally let you come to harm.”

“I don’t want to be useless,” he tells her bluntly, not bothering to beat around the bush. “The twins would probably teach me if I asked, or they would have if I’d brought it up before, but I’ve never been in a real fight before, or at least not against someone who knew what they were doing. I have a feeling that might change sometime in the future, and I want to be prepared.” He doesn’t mention that he’s pretty sure the danger would be coming from someone from within the kingdom, the memory of that other Guide’s hatred still seared into his mind. “So will you help me?”

She considers it for a little while longer. “No,” she decides eventually, holding up a staying hand when he opens his mouth to protest. “I will not teach you, cannot teach you if there is the slightest of chances you might be hurt, and there always is such a chance in learning even the basics of swordplay. No, no Sentinel would be willing to teach a Guide and risk injuring them, it goes against our very natures. All Guides who wish to join the Guard are taught by other Guides, and so shall you be.”

A slight smile upturns the corners of her mouth at his obvious shock at her easy acceptance. “You are right, this world is not as safe as it once was in days past, nor is the forest itself as...pure as it once was. You would do well to be trained in case something were to happen and you should find yourself alone and in need of defending your life or the lives of others. I cannot say such a thing will never happen, and so you must be prepared for such an eventuality. I will find you a teacher and come collect you in the morning, if that’s alright with you?”

He blinks at her, still stunned she had agreed so easily but gives her a tentative, watery smile that makes her own countenance brighten to see. “Sure. No reason to waste time I guess. How long do you think each lesson will be? Will they be every day? And can you promise no one’ll laugh cause I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be anything anywhere near graceful about it. There will most likely be a lot of flailing and falling on my face involved.”

Her eyes are sparkling with humor now, making them dance like sunlight through spring leaves. He wants to tell her not to be so serious all the time and to laugh more, but despite these steps in the right direction, they aren’t friends yet and so he keeps his thoughts to himself. “Oh you will almost certainly be teased, all new recruits are, but if it gets too bad just tell me the names of those involved and I will speak to them." Her grin is wide and feral in the half-dark, making her teeth gleam like wolf’s in the light reflecting off the river below them. “Trust me, if anyone mocks you in anything other than jest, they will not do so for long.”

Ned spares a fleeting thought to Olive, and how much she would have gotten along with Tauriel should they ever have the chance to meet, and feels the blood drain from his face when he pictures the havoc they would wreak together. Maybe, he thinks for the first time since arriving in Middle-Earth, it’s a good thing he came alone after all.

-

The sun is barely threatening to rise in the sky by the time Ned finally gathers the courage to return to his room, the decision born mostly of not wanting to be found curled up in a corner when the rest of the kingdom starts to wake. He bids Tauriel good night and she promises to send someone to bring him to the training yards in a few hours, during which she suggests he try to at least attempt sleep so he won’t be too tired for his first session and he agrees readily enough. Now he just has to face the twins he can sense waiting for him in his room. Though he can feel no lingering emotional turmoil, he still braces himself for the worst before pushing the door open.

The brothers look up in sync and Elladan immediately stands and comes to hover just outside his preferred bubble of personal space, anxiously scanning his face for something he must not find since most of the tension in his shoulders bleeds out of him in a rush and they slump with relief. Still, his smile, when it comes, trembles slightly at the corners and makes something in the man’s gut twist with shame at being the cause of it. “You’re sure you’re alright?”

“Yeah, no harm, no foul,” the man assures easily, collapsing inelegantly onto the bed once more, exhausted and trying to rub the beginnings of a stress-headache out of his temples before it can take hold completely. Uncertainty at their continued silence makes him glance up, gray eyes worried under dark brows. “Are we good? I mean-Are we still friends? Because, cause, I was assuming we were friends before and I would really like to continue being friends now, unless I got it wrong somehow and you guys were just being nice above and beyond the call of duty, before, and you don’t actually want to be friends with a grown man who can’t even manage to build shields with the same efficiency as an elf toddler, in which case I fully understand and you guys shouldn’t feel like you need to hang out with me any longer, it’s cool, it’s fine, it’s whatever-”

“Ned!” Elladan interrupts, a wave of calm sweeping out from him to sooth his building anxiety like a balm. His smile is much less shaky, and there’s cautious amusement in his eyes when he speaks now. “Of course we’re friends. Of course we are. You needn’t doubt that.”

“Yeah for better or for worse,” Elrohir chimes in from his seat in the only other chair in the room near the opposite wall. “You’re stuck with us now. Better get used to it.”

The piemaker looks back and forth between the two of them for a moment, as though making sure they’re being honest, a feather-light touch skimming both their minds before withdrawing, and neither brother will ever be entirely sure if the other Guide was intentionally trying to figure out if they were lying or if it had been a reflexive response.

That’s when Ned grins, wide and genuine and both of their hearts stutter in tandem at the rare sight. There’s nothing shy or wary in this smile, in the way it reaches his eyes and sets them alight with pure happiness, making him seem to glow from within, or about how it pulls to the right in a slightly crooked way that should look unbalanced but only serves to make it more endearing. To say it transforms his face utterly would be an understatement, and the twins are left with a strange stirring of awe in the wake of it, like they’d just witnessed Elbereth kindling the stars, calling forth light when before there had been only darkness.

“Good,” is all he says to that, lips still twitching with a giddiness he can’t control, not catching the way his companions-his friends-have suddenly ceased all movement. “In that case, I’m going to have to ask you hooligans to please get out so I can try and get some sleep. If I don’t get my days and nights figured out soon my body is going to be less than thrilled with me in the long run.”

-

He achieves about two hours of fitful sleep after the twins say their good-nights before the runner Tauriel sent to wake him knocks on his door. He scrubs at his face wearily, letting the illusive wisps of whatever dreams he had slip away without a fight. If he couldn’t remember them when he woke up, they probably weren’t important enough to be remembered anyway.

He tugs on his boots on and goes to the door, not bothering to change clothes, since he’s unsure if he has anything suitable for sword-training, and greets the guard politely but doesn’t try to engage him in conversation, which seems to suit the wood-elf just fine and he simply beckons for the man to follow him as they leave the hallway behind and journey far into the depths of the caves on a different route than Tauriel had led him before. Ned supposes that makes sense; he vaguely recalls the king saying the kitchen she had shown him was located near the king’s rooms and so the soldier’s barracks would probably be in the opposite direction. He assumes.

He’s no less amazed by the construction or the sheer enormity of the place today than he was two days ago, and he begins to worry his head might come unscrewed completely with the way he’s swiveling it back and forth, trying to look at everything they pass while at the same time keeping the guard in his sights. The elf doesn’t look very old, perhaps around Ned’s age, maybe even a little younger, and the man wonders at that, having noticed before that elves don’t appear to age very fast, or if they do it’s very gracefully, much more so than humans. Elrond had three grown children after all, and yet he barely looked mid-forties.

Something churns in his gut at the realization that maybe Elves lived longer than Men, which is why they appeared to age so slowly; it hadn’t occurred to him to ask and now he’s worried maybe he should have. He doesn’t have much time to reflect on it though, since no sooner does the thought cross his mind than his guide stops outside a doorway and gestures toward it, “Captain Tauriel said you were to meet her here. She should be along shortly.”

He nods, “Alright. Sorry you had to be pulled off of whatever doubtless more pressing matter you were assigned to in order to show me around. But I do appreciate it. Thank you.”

The guard blinks in surprise, before a small, pleased smile breaks over his face, making him look far more approachable than the flat, distant expression he had worn for their entire walk had made him appear. “It’s no trouble. Truthfully my duties have not yet started for the day, so it was no hardship to be called away from doing nothing but waiting around for my rotation to start.” He hesitates, glancing over his shoulder quickly before taking a step toward Ned and lowering his voice conspiratorially. “Don’t be intimidated by Captain Tauriel. She’s tough on all the new recruits, but once you show her you’re not utterly incompetent she will ease up.”

“Oh, I see,” Ned whispers back, leaning in and looking back over his own shoulder as if the auburn-haired she-elf might suddenly pop out of thin air. “Thank you for the warning. I’ll try to keep it in mind.”

“See that you do,” the elf affirms with mock-seriousness before the same boyish smile flits over his face again, making him look very young indeed before he inclines his head slightly and turns to head out of the hallway again, leaving the man standing in the entryway feeling much better about his chances of fitting in, or not standing out as much at the very least, as he’d worried he would. He turns to step into the room cheerfully, something that might be hope starting to take root somewhere within his ribcage.

The space is enormous, much bigger than any indoor room he’d seen in the kingdom so far, roughly oval in shape and about as large as a high-school basketball court, the domed ceiling arching high above his head, a cluster of those strange lights he’d noticed before casting steady, even illumination over the whole area. It’s mostly empty, a few weapons wracks lining the walls, the floor even but unpolished so as to minimize the risk of tripping or stumbling, and there are a few other doorways set into the walls of the room that doubtlessly branch off into other parts of the compound.

It’s utterly deserted so Ned wastes time wandering around the perimeter of the room, looking over what he assumes are practice swords since even he can tell the edges have been intentionally blunted, admiring the elegant swirls and clean lines of the various blades, unlike anything he’s ever seen in a museum or even in the movies before. There are many varying lengths of swords in all sizes and shapes, and he’s in the middle of trying to figure out which one he’ll be expected to use when he hears his name being called and he turns to look, finding Tauriel already headed across the room towards him, a tall fair-haired elf at her side.

“Ned! Bain aur. Did you sleep alright?”

“Define ‘sleep’,” he jokes, hurrying to clarify when she furrows her brow and opens her mouth as if to do just that, “I mean-sorta? More like a light nap-a doze if you will. Either way I’m rested and ready to learn.” That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but he is ready to learn, if he can. “What’s up first?”

“First, I would like to introduce you to your instructor,” she motions to the blonde elf who steps forward and inclines his head in acknowledgement. “This is Amdir. He is to be your tutor in the study of Elvish sword-fighting. He has been training recruits for as long as I can remember, long before I entered the Royal Guard. He is the one who trained me, in fact.”

“Sorry in advance if I fail spectacularly at this,” he warns as he shakes the elf’s hand. “Not to say I won’t do my best! But I’m not exactly what one would call graceful or sure-footed even by Men’s standards, let alone by an elf’s. Comes of hitting a growth spurt late I think, makes for more elbows and knees then I know what to do with sometimes. It’s been a problem more than once in the past.”

The elven Guide (strong, Ned’s new senses inform him, very strong) doesn’t quite know what to do in the wake of such a pronouncement and glances at Tauriel with his eyebrows raised, as though expecting her to translate. She just gives a minute shake of her head which Ned is pretty sure means ‘he always does that, just go with it’. He recognizes the exchange from when non-regular customers would look to Olive for help deciphering his patented version of Sarcasm-and-Babble 101. He’s seen that look a lot.

“I will…keep that in mind,” he decides eventually, a faint air of amusement about him. “But I do not think you need to be worried. I’m sure I have trained worse recruits than you through the years. Trust me, I could tell you things about some of my students in their early days that would cause them no end of pain and embarrassment to have me repeat. As long as you do not somehow manage to succeed in chopping off your own ear and half of my nose with one swing, as one notable student I could mention almost did, then I think I may even be able to count you among one of my best students to date.”

“Wow,” Ned breathes. “That’s…That’s horrifying. Yes, let us hope I do better than him.”

“It was a her, actually,” Amdir corrects glibly, sliding his gaze over to Tauriel, who has turned a rather impressive shade of maroon that reaches all the way up the curves of her ears and suddenly developed an avid interest in the roughly-hewn stone of the far wall, steadfastly ignoring the Guides’ amusement, or in Ned’s case, drop-jawed astonishment. “She would go on to become one of my greatest success stories if you can believe it, once she abandoned that stubborn Sentinel mindset that kept her flinching away every time she nearly landed a blow. Only took me three instances of beating her so soundly she could barely move until it finally got through that I was quite capable of handling myself, which is more than I can say for some.”

The Sentinel clears her throat, voice remarkably steady despite her still prominent blush, “Sir, with your permission, I will take my leave now and allow you to discuss Ned’s training regime with him further.”

“There’s no need,” he informs her. “We are done for today.” At their surprised expressions he merely smiles. “I only wanted to meet with him today to get a read on how I will need to structure his lessons, and I think I have learned enough. We will begin tomorrow, after this young Man has had a proper night’s sleep.” He gives Ned a pointed look, satisfied when the younger Guide hunches his shoulders and drops his head in sheepish acknowledgement. “And a hearty meal. As it is, if we tried to begin his training today, it would not surprise me if he were to faint within the hour. Men are not like Elves, Captain, they cannot, and should not, be expected to engage in prolonged strenuous physical activity without proper preparation. You would do well to remember that. Good day.”

And with that he nods to the both of them and turns, vanishing into one of the numerous exits nearby, leaving them standing silent in the middle of the room.

Ned frowns and looks back at Tauriel, opening his mouth to ask what that had been about but she beats him to the punch. “He was expressing his displeasure with me for what he sees as an attempt to curry the King’s favor by keeping you preoccupied without making sure all requirements had been met to secure your health first.” She pivots to face him, crossing her arms behind her back and assuming parade rest. “In this he is both correct and not. I did think to keep my king happy by making you happy, but I assure you I did not do it in the hopes it would reflect well on myself.”

“Still, he is right, I shouldn’t have been so hasty, and for that I apologize. Last night you seemed,” she casts about for the right word. “Unduly troubled by things outside of your control. I only thought that, perhaps, if I provided a suitable distraction…”

Ned hurries to interject when she hesitates, waving away her concerns. “Nononono, I totally get it, it’s fine. It was a good plan, one I appreciate, really. Based on what you know about me, it makes sense that you would try to help me, ah, ‘better’ myself, only, I’m not really what you would call a, a, fighting kind of person. I wanted to be a Jedi when I was little, ya know, like most kids, pretended to go off on adventures and fight in great battles and save the day and all that, but the truth is that’s not who I am. I’m not a hero, I’m….a piemaker.”

“Granted I’d rather be a piemaker who can defend himself against Orcs, or direwolves, or what-have-you, but mostly when I need something to do, I make pies, which I haven’t been able to do in almost a month what with everything that’s happened. You wouldn’t happen to know how I could fix that would you?” he asks, eyes so childishly wide and hopeful she can’t do anything but try to hide her smile behind her hand when faced with it.

“Why don’t we go see what we can do?” she suggests, not bothering to hide her grin this time at the way he nearly bounces in place with delight at the thought, happily following her as she leads him once more out into the open-air maze of walkways.

He’s quiet for a while as they walk, speaking up only when they enter the part of the caves he vaguely recalls housing the kitchen from the first day. “What your favorite kind of pie?” He’s already going over long-memorized recipes in his head, making a note to ask the twins the same when he sees them next.

Her eyes are Granny-Smith green in the half-light when she glances over her shoulder to answer him. “Blueberry.”

Chapter Text

Over the next week, Ned’s life begins to settle into a routine.

Which suits him perfectly, considering most of his adult and adolescent life had been built upon routine. When he was in boarding school, he had a schedule to keep, a specific time to wake up, get dressed, and a structured day-to-day regimen. When he left school, his life continued on much the same track, since he had to be up at a certain time to get everything ready for the day before the Pie Hole could open, and during the day he knew exactly where he would be, and how many hours he had until closing, cleaning up, and going to bed. Lather, rinse, repeat.

It was a rut, but a comfortable one, and then a dead man had to fall from the sky right on top of him and consequently bring Emerson Codd and his frequent, unplanned encroaching on Ned’s daily life, waltzing into his shop and dragging him off to the morgue or to interrogate witnesses or what-have-you. He doesn’t like interruptions to his routine, but being a part-time dead-waker did help pay what few bills being a full-time piemaker couldn’t manage and so he put up with it, though not always with good grace. And then he fell into another world and his entire life was completely up in the air, no structure at all, and he didn’t care for it, not one bit, and so he welcomes this new pattern, such as it is, eagerly.

“Has anyone ever told you that you are remarkably easy to please?”

Ned looks up from where’s been diligently rolling out dough into a perfectly even sheet, pausing to push his sleeves further up his arms as well as to give Tauriel’s question due consideration. “You know I think I have been told that once or twice actually.” He returns to rolling out the dough. “Can’t say I disagree. Give me a kitchen, unlimited access to the ingredients contained therein, a working oven, leave me alone, and I am perfectly content for hours at a time. Low maintenance, that’s me. Like a goldfish. Or a houseplant.”

The elf captain grins at him, wide and unrepentant; she’d stopped trying to remain aloof after her fourth or fifth such trip to visit Ned in ‘his’ kitchen, at first just to make sure he was getting along alright, popping in for a handful of minutes at a time to check that he was still breathing and hadn’t managed to set himself or his surroundings on fire in her absence before saying her goodbyes and disappearing back into parts of the kingdom unknown, off to do whatever it was highly-trained, skilled elf Sentinels did while they were on Guard duty. It continued that way for about two days, until the man had finally succeeded, through the use of much careful cajoling and the judicious application of the patented guilt-trip, in getting her to actually take a seat in one of the stools someone had procured and brought up to the kitchen along with all the the other baking things he needed (on Tauriel’s orders) and presented her with a rather modest slice of blueberry crumble that he had spent the day making as a ‘thank you’ for putting up with him as he worked on getting settled in.

She had tried to resist at first, insisting that all this fuss wasn’t necessary, but if there was one thing Ned had never in his life been shy or uncertain about, it was pie, and so he’d simply shoved a fork into her hand and instructed her to eat with an expression on his face that he’d learned from Olive that always got any young, rowdy Sentinels making too much noise in the Pie Hole to sit up straight and start saying ‘yes ma’am’. It didn’t quite have the same effect on Tauriel, but one look at the no-nonsense set to his brow had her hastily scooping a bite of the pie into her mouth, green eyes lighting up with surprised delight as the tart, juicy flavor of the ripe blueberries exploded over her tongue, a perfect counterpoint to the savory-sweet butter and sugar crumb topping.

She’d cleaned her plate in record time and had looked seconds away from tossing dignity out the window entirely and licking the plate clean so he’d hurriedly placed a, rather less moderately sized, piece in front of her, and grinned as he watched her happily devour that as well. Something in his gut unwound at the sight, happy to see someone so obviously enjoying the fruits of his labor again after weeks out of the kitchen.

“Amdir told me your lessons have been going well,” the she-elf continues, trying to surreptitiously sneak a fresh strawberry out of the bowl at the Guide’s elbow, an ultimately failed venture that got her swatted at with the flat of a wooden stirring spoon, barely yanking her hand back in time to avoid a hard rap to her knuckles.

“Really? Well then he’s just being nice because-stop that you, otherwise there won’t be any left for the pie!-I’m pretty sure I haven’t learned anything useful yet. I have somehow avoided tripping and falling flat on my face thus far, so thank heaven for small miracles, but I wouldn’t say anything is going ‘well’. ‘Not as bad as it could be’ is probably a more accurate summation of events.”

“I don’t think you give yourself enough credit,” Tauriel chides, slowly starting to inch her hand toward the bowl again. “He seemed quite pleased with your progress when I spoke to him. He said your balance was good and that you have a natural affinity for predicting your opponents’ moves.”

“Not sure how he could tell since I haven’t actually sparred anyone yet, just gone over the forms he’s been teaching me while he watches and makes sure I don’t mess up." He moves the bowl to his other side, opposite from where she’s sitting, raising an eyebrow at her exaggerated, childish pout when he does. “Although he did act like I was getting better faster than he thought I would. He even said he might have me try some actual sparring tomorrow against a younger member of the Guard. Just hope they take it easy on me.”

“I’m sure you’ll do fine,” she assures, leaning over the table to watch curiously as he moves the rolled crust into the tin, pressing and smoothing it against the sides to get out the air bubbles. “And your dinners with the king? How have they fared so far?” His grimace must say it all since she winces in sympathy. “That bad?”

“It’s not…’bad’ exactly,” he allows as pulls the bowl of strawberries toward himself and starts chopping to give himself time to think of a way to describe it succinctly. “It’s just. Awkward. Awkward is the best way to put it. And tense, that’s another good word. I mean, he’s always polite, he greets me when I walk in and he’ll ask me if whatever we’re eating is okay with me, which it always is by the way, delicious, I really need to figure out how to get to the main kitchens so I can shower whoever is in charge of his meals with praise, seriously, but that’s it.”

“He doesn’t say anything else the whole time, just eats silently and thinks about, I don’t know, important matters of state or something while I just sit there and try not to sweat my way through my tunic. I keep waiting for him to tell me more about himself, or ask me about myself, even, or, or, comment on the weather I don’t know, something, but he never does. It kind of puts a damper on things to be honest with you. I’m starting to think maybe, he just, doesn’t really want me here.” His shoulders sag, and he lets his head hang, staring morosely at the little pile of halved fruit he’s cut so far. “Maybe this was a mistake after all.”

In a blink Tauriel’s at his side, pressing a hand to his shoulder, her concernaffectionfrustration tumbling against his outer shields at the contact. “I’m sure that is not the case,” she soothes, a frown knitting her brow. “You are exceedingly hard not to like, Ned, this I can say for certain, though I do not pretend to understand why you are so convinced otherwise. If I may speak frankly, and forgive me for being blunt, but it does not sound like you’ve exactly been taking the initiative to try and start a conversation during these meals either.”

He groans and scrubs a hand across his face, shoving the smell of fresh-cut strawberries into his nostrils forcefully with the motion. “I know, I know, you’re right. He’s just so,” he makes a helpless, all-encompassing gesture, flinging his arms wide, “Intimidating! He’s a king, Tauriel, a king! How am I supposed to talk to royalty? He might be my Sentinel, but that doesn’t really make this any less stressful you know, it makes it more so! What am I supposed to say to a person like that? I make pies for a living for God’s sake!”

“I’m not really sure what your profession has to do with it,” the she-elf points out sensibly, moving to lean on her forearms on the counter to his left, face tilted up to look at him as she speaks. “It is clear you enjoy what you do, and you are very good at it. My king is not a-what was that word you used the other day-a snob, who would turn up his nose and refuse to speak to one of a lower station just because of that station. Besides that, you are his Guide. The Valar would not have seen fit to weave your fates together if they did not think you would be a good match for one another.”

In an abrupt blur of motion, she snaps one hand out and plucks a ripe strawberry off the top of the pile, popping it into her mouth and dancing lightly out of range with a satisfied smirk when he yelps and swipes at her, holding her prize tauntingly between her teeth for a moment before chewing and swallowing, smug in her victory. “Have faith. Learn to take risks, even if they are small ones. And for Elbereth’s sake, speak to him the next time you see him! Surely it cannot be that difficult.”

Ned groans and let’s his head hang again, mood lightened but melancholy not entirely forgotten, speaking more to the cutting board than to the elf when he mutters, “Easier said than done.”

-

When Ned gets to the training room just after dawn the next day for his usual session with Amdir, he’s surprised to find the elf general isn’t alone, but instead talking quietly with an elf the man recognizes as the runner Tauriel sent to bring him here on the first day. They look up when he enters.

“Ah Ned, right on time, as usual. I would like you to meet Elros,” he gestures to the younger elf, who inclines his head. “He will be your partner today as we go through a few of the forms you have learned so far. You’ve progressed rapidly, and so I thought we would see how you fair against an opponent.” He goes on before Ned can get properly worried about that particular idea. “Not that I expect you to spar today you understand, just practice the blocks and counters you’ve already learned so that you can feel the impact of one blade against another and learn how to prepare for it. It can be jarring for beginners, and we cannot have you dropping your weapon at the first sign of force in a real fight.”

The man nods; that makes sense. He reaches out to shake Elros’ hand with a small smile. "Nice to see you again. Sorry to have to pull you away from doing more interesting things to help me out. Again.”

The brunette elf returns the smile and the handshake. “As before, it’s no trouble really. Captain Tauriel has me on night watch for the next few weeks, and it really is dreadfully boring trying to find ways to entertain myself until my shift starts. You might even say you’re the one doing me a favor.”

“If you say so,” Ned replies, stepping back and swinging his arms slightly to loosen them. “So, where do you want me?”

The next several hours are spent going ever-so slowly through the various lunges, feints, blocks, and counters Ned has managed to get the hang of in the last seven days, even if he is not by any means comfortable with it yet, his movements still too jerky and tightly controlled to flow smoothly into one another as they should. Still, his stance and his grip are good, and when Amdir’s warning proves true and he isn’t completely prepared for the sudden force and jarring recoil of metal clashing against metal, he at least has enough sense to tighten his hold rather than drop it in surprise as most new recruits are wont to do. Soon Amdir decides that they will be fine on their own for the rest of the lesson and leaves them to it.

Elros calls for a break at the two hour mark, more for the Ned’s benefit than his own, and the man is only too happy to seize the chance to lower his sword and gulp water like a dying man from the skin he’d brought with him, swallowing in great gulps that leave him gasping for air but satisfied, unabashed and only grinning along when Elros snorts and shakes his head at the spectacle he’s making. He’s earned this water alright? He’s going to get the most out of it.

He’s seriously considering whether he has enough shame left to stop himself from upending some of the water over his head and shaking out his sweaty hair like a dog, and has just come to conclusion that no, he’s not that far gone yet, but he might be by the end of the next hour, when a voice that doesn’t belong to himself or Elros suddenly rings through the still air.

“Finally gotten over ourselves have we?”

Ned’s head snaps up and his gut twists as he recognizes the voice of the Guide he’d met on the bridge, jerking out of his slouch and turning to face the elf as he strolls casually across the room toward them, an ugly sneer twisting his handsome features, lips curling back over his teeth when he looks at Ned, like he’s smelled something foul before flicking his dark hazel gaze to his training partner. “Can’t say I approve of your new choice of companion Elros. Did Tauriel and Amdir stick you with this? Cause I’d complain, were I in your position, I really would, unless you’ve done something worthy of such torturous punishment”-Ned flinches in spite of himself, stung at the insinuation that his company is something to be endured, not actively sought-“in which case first of all, how dare you, and secondly, how dare you not include me.”

Elros glare is icy as he regards the newcomer, reproach rolling off him in waves. “Don’t be such an ass Galion. He hasn’t done anything to you.”

“Wrong,” Galion sing-songs airily, circling them slowly and pretending to peruse the weapons racks nearby, affecting disinterest. “He exists, moreover, he exists in my general vicinity. Seems like he’s done plenty to me.”

“What the hell is your problem with me?!” Ned bursts out, temper fraying, fists clenched so hard his nails are gouging crescent divots in his palms. “I don’t get you! I don’t even know you, and I don’t understand how you can hate me this much when I’ve barely said two words to you the entire time I’ve been here!”

“‘Don’t understand’?” the elf parrots, face suddenly wiped clean of emotion, eyes going flat dark and blank even as his emotions roil and mount behind his straining shields, and Ned can feel the dam starting to buckle under the building pressure. “You don’t understand? Then allow me to explain it to you.” He takes a step closer to Ned, the single movement unnaturally fluid and dangerous, but the man holds his ground, his own outrage growing. “I don’t like you, I hate you, because you? Are unworthy. My king has survived many, many years without a Guide to stabilize him, has never sought, nor needed, the anchor lesser Sentinels require just to function on a daily basis. He doesn’t need a Guide, he never has, and if ever the day came where he did require one, there's no possible way he would ever deign to lower himself to accept the help of an inferior. Man.”

He’s practically spitting the words at him by the time he’s done, having moved forward while he spoke so he’s now well within Ned’s personal space, leaning in and snarling the words into his face, black tar hatred whipping at the man’s outer shields, searching for a weak point. He doesn’t find one.

“Oh. I see,” Ned intones, expression hard as he stares the other Guide down. Because Galion can try to loom and look imposing and try to smother him under a choking cloud of bile and rage but Ned actually does have half a foot of height and at least fifty pounds on the other male. If it came to actual blows the piemaker wouldn’t stand a chance, but right now he doesn’t care, he doesn’t care because he’s angry, he’s pissed as hell, how dare this Guide try to belittle him, how dare he try and tell him he isn’t worthy of his own Sentinel. “You’re problem isn’t with me, it’s with my race is that it? Or maybe you’re just full of shit, and you don’t want to own up to the real reason you don’t think I’m good enough for Thranduil”-he doesn’t take vindictive pleasure in the way the elf flinches at the proprietary way his tongue curls around the name; he honestly doesn’t but he almost wishes he does-“isn’t because I’m not an elf, it’s because I’m not you.”

And he does feel a little spike of satisfaction when honest-to-God shock flickers through that flinty tree-bark stare, but he suppresses it, leaning in until his face is inches from Galion’s, pressing his height advantage for all it’s worth. “Because you think he chose me over you, even though we both know that’s bullshit since it’s biology, or destiny, or whatever’s fault.” All the fight goes out of him at once and he straightens again, exhaustion starting to tug at the base of his skull at the helpless fury still boiling behind the elven Guide’s eyes. “He no more chose me then he would have chosen anyone else. It’s not a popularity contest, its fate. And for what it’s worth? I’m sure he would have preferred you over me anyway.”

Something breaks in Galion at that, and Ned aches a little at the sheen of frustrated tears that enter his eyes ust before the elf throws himself back, whirls around in a flash of red-brown hair, and strides for the exit. “Keep your pity, for someone who requires it,” he snarls over his shoulder. “Because I most certainly do not.” And then he’s gone.

Ned turns back to Elros, who is watching the doorway Galion disappeared through as if expecting him to reappear at any moment, face inscrutable. When he doesn’t return, his shoulders relax and he looks up at Ned, regret shining in his own dark eyes. “I’m sorry about him. He’s not usually that much of a jerk. He’s just worried for our king.”

“You sure? Looked and felt an awful lot like jealousy to me,” the man points out dully, feeling wrung out by the encounter.

Elros nods, expression apologetic now. “Yes, that is true as well. Galion is technically the king’s butler, but really they’ve been friends for a long time, and I think my lord sees him as more of an unofficial advisor than anything. Though he tends to indulge in Dorwinion wine more than is strictly appropriate, he can usually be counted on to keep a cool head and give concise judgement in fraught situations, and I know his advice has persuaded our king not to make rash decisions on more than one occasion. He didn’t use to be so angry. There was a time when he was the quickest of us all to laugh or tell jokes, but then…,” he hesitates, glancing at Ned, then directs his gaze to the floor. “Then my lord said his Guide had finally been born, and that he was of the race of Men. Galion was devastated, much more so then King Thranduil to be honest, who seemed to accept his fate without remorse or undue anger. His acquiescence never sat well with Galion.”

“What do you mean ‘accepted his fate’?” Ned questions in confusion. “Just because I’m a Man? Why is that so bad? Please tell me there’s something I’m missing here, because right now it just seems to me like everyone in this kingdom is a huge racist for no adequately explained reason.”

“It’s not your race, not necessarily,” Elros assures him quickly, looking back up and locking eyes with him earnestly. “Just your mortality.”

“Mor-‘My mortality’? What does that have to do with-” and all at once he understands. It feels like someone has just plunged a sword of ice into his gut. “Elves are immortal.”

“Yes,” the other male sighs, not noticing the man’s blank-faced horror at the revelation. “And my lord has lived a long life, even by elvish standards. He has made his peace with it.”

“With what exactly?” Ned asks, voice hollow and lips numb. Somewhere, deep in the bowels of his mind, something is screaming, a high-pitched, unearthly wail, muted for now, but steadily building.

He can’t feel his face and so he has no idea what his expression is doing, but whatever emotion he does or doesn’t see there makes the elf hesitate a beat before continuing, watching the Guide with worried brown eyes. “With-Well, with his death. After all, fully bonded Sentinels never outlive the death of their Guides.”

Something deep in the pit of Ned’s psyche shatters, and the bottom drops out of his world.

And then he’s running.

-

He bolts out of the training room into the hallway, racing full tilt for the end where it opens up onto the lattice-work of walkways that make up the center of the kingdom-

“-no elf children born for centuries-”

-he has no idea how he knows where he’s going without one of the wood-elves to show him the way, having never tried to reach this part of the caves from the training areas before today, but he doesn’t stop to ask directions, doesn’t need to-

“-he has been at this quite a bit longer than you after all.” And Elrohir snorts in amusement-

-he knows exactly where he’s headed and he doesn’t break stride once, doesn’t falter even when elves have to jump out of his way as he charges past them, barely acknowledges they’re there, brushing off their bright flares of irritation and surprise that follow him as he passes-

“-to my father’s halls.” Says the tall blonde elf with the too-cold eyes, who looks so much like Thranduil, down to the cut of their jaws and the shape of their mouths. An elf that doesn’t look any younger than Ned-

-his chest aches with exertion, and the muscles in his legs shriek complaints but he doesn’t stop, he’s already tired from practicing with Elros, he’s pushing himself too hard but if he slows down now he’ll lose his nerve. He throws himself down the coiling staircase that leade to the king’s private rooms before he can think twice-

“-you’re here to kill my king. That’s all I need to know."

-and then he’s at the bottom of the staircase and Thranduil is rising from his seat at his desk, and Ned is panting like he’s run for miles, maybe he has, he doesn’t know how expansive these caves are after all. His chest is heaving like a bellows, frantically trying to draw more air to his oxygen-starved lungs, shaking like a leaf and pouring sweat, every nerve ending he has feel like it's on fire but he has to talk to him about this now, he has to stop this before it goes any farther-

“Ned.” Thranduil’s voice is quiet but firm, steadying and grounding and all it takes to pull him out of the spiral he was unaware he was slipping into, and his mind settles around the whirlwind of his emotions, not calmed but no longer in danger of snapping free and as soon as he remembers how to work his mouth he blurts-

“We can’t bond.”

The elf blinks at him, slowly, before cocking his head to the side slightly, a micro-smile tugging at the corners of his pale lips. “Not with you in this state we cannot, I agree. But we may revisit the topic after you have calmed down, if it helps.”

And Ned’s heart twists because the Sentinel is teasing him, still trying to draw him down from the emotional frenzy he’s worked himself into, and maybe they don’t know each other that well, and maybe he doesn’t want Ned, not like that, but other than that first misunderstanding, Thranduil has never been anything but polite, even kind, to him and the thing is-

The thing is Ned could fall for him given time, it would probably be easy, but it can’t happen, it can’t because then Thranduil’s days would officially be numbered, his immortal life-God, immortality, he could live for years and years longer than Ned, and oh my God how old is he now-brutally shortened to the eye-blink allotment of years afforded to humanity and he can’t do that to him, he can’t because then Thranduil would die, and it would be his fault, someone would die because of him again and he can't live with that, he can't, not again, not ever, ever again-

“I don’t mean right this second,” he bursts out before he can throw himself into another mental tailspin. “I mean ever. We can’t bond ever. As in, never. At all.”

The gentle light that had entered the elf’s typically empty eyes vanishes, leaving them silver-ice blue and diamond-hard. He regards the man levelly now, aloof and emotionless, like a marble statue. “Oh? And what has brought this about, may I ask?”

“It’s not you,” he swears, “it’s-it’s-it’s-”-me-“it’s just that, this is all, so, so sudden, and a little overwhelming, and I really shouldn’t have let Galadriel and Elrond talk me into this after all, it’s not fair to you, I know, I’m really sorry, but-”

“Are you not happy here?”

“What? No, no it’s great, everything’s great here, everyone’s been so nice-well, almost everyone, but that’s-"

"'Almost' everyone?"

"What?" Ned shakes his head, momentarily derailed. "What, no, no, look, that's not important right now, like I said, it’s not you, and it’s not your kingdom, it's not your people, it’s just that-”

“I see. Then could it be that you would prefer another Sentinel?” His eyes go wintery pale and cold. “Tauriel, perhaps?”

What?” Ned yelps, shocked. “Tauriel? No, it’s nothing like that, it’s-look, I know you don’t want me-want me here, and-and that’s fine, really it is, you don’t have to pretend anymore, I get it, I do, so it really shouldn’t be such a big deal. I’ll just go back to Rivendell with the twins and explain to Lady Galadriel that this was all just a big mistake and-”

“The Lady Galadriel’s home is in Lothlorien, not Imladris,” the elvenking interrupts. Something flickers across his beautiful face, too quick for the Guide to catch, and as usual, his shields are too well-maintained to let a hint of what he’s feeling slip out. The look he favors the man with now is considering, honest curiosity coloring his voice when he speaks next. “That is what has distressed you so? That you believe I do not desire you?”

“No, it’s not that, it’s-” Except that it is, a little, and he seizes the excuse gratefully. “Okay, yes. Yes it is that. And that’s fine. You’re you and I’m me and I understand why you wouldn’t be thrilled with being bound to me for the rest of-And I mean, to be fair, we haven’t really talked much, or at all really, even though we’ve had dinner twice now, and I don’t think I know you any better than I did before I got here, and I realize it’s because you were just trying to be nice and I appreciate that, I do, but you can stop pretending now because-”

“That is what you think I am doing? Playing pretend? As though I were a child, or you a delicately-bred maiden in need of cosseting?” There’s that hint of..something again, there and gone, leaving behind a calculating gleam in those otherworldly eyes as he looks Ned over once more, slower this time. “If I put your fears to rest, or if your worries were rendered invalid, would you wish to fully bond with me right now?”

Ned gapes. That hadn’t been the reaction he was expecting. “Bond-right now right now?” he croaks, blindsided. “Like, you mean, with all the uh, intimate parts that entails?”

A whisper of amusement slips past the Sentinel’s carefully controlled guard. “Yes.”

Ned is sure he’s gone fire-engine red, can feel himself blush all the way to the roots of his hair, and he hates himself for it, just a little bit, but he can’t resist ducking his head under that witchlight stare, embarrassed. “Uh. No? I mean, not that you’re not-cause obviously you’re-but it’s just that, I don’t know you? Not anything substantial anyway. I kind of figured that’s what the dinners were for, but then you never said anything, and I guess I never really did either, so, no, if-if we were going to bond, which we aren’t, I would prefer to do it once I was more comfortable with you, I suppose.”

The elf nods, unsurprised. “Understandable. Commendable, even. There are those who would not hesitate to do anything asked of them for the chance to bond with the Alpha Sentinel of the East. Not that I would ever do you the dishonor of believing for moment you were such a person, one look at you would be enough to tell anyone that was not the case.”

He glides a few steps closer to the man, bringing him within range of Ned’s personal space, which in all their prior meetings he had always taken great pains to avoid. “And you are right, we do not know each other well enough to trust one another with such an act. It would be wise to wait until such a time as a mutual accord could be reached. But Ned, you are my Guide, whether we are bonded or not, and until the moment we complete our bond,” his deep voice has gone so soft the man has to lean forward slightly to be able to hear him, not realizing Thranduil has also tipped his head forward until the last words are practically whispered against Ned's unconsciously parted lips. “I will always want you.”

And then he drops his shields.

Lust like Ned has never known rips through his body, making him cry out at the intensity of it, stumbling back until he’s pressed flush against the wall beside the staircase, gasping under the onslaught. Alien thoughts and emotions flow over his outer barriers easily, lapping over the top of them and flowing in to lick at his inner shields, rubbing themselves fire-warm and catlike against them but doing nothing to try and force their way in, which they could do, some part of him that isn’t drowning in arousal can tell, they could crack open his inner-most defenses and pull him under with laughable ease, a consciousness so vast and blazing dark-bright he would never be able to stand in the face of it, wouldn’t want to.

“This is what an incomplete bond is for a Sentinel,” rumbles Thranduil’s voice from somewhere nearby but not close enough, not nearly close enough, and it sets off multi-colored sparks behind his eyelids, and when did he close his eyes anyway? God it’s so hard to think when he feels like he’s on fire. “It is different for Guides, those who are ruled by their emotions and not their senses. They long for their other half, true, but they do not need them, down to the very marrow of their bones, not as Sentinels do.”

He’s coming closer, Ned can feel it, but he’s still too. far. away. His Sentinel, his Sentinel, his. Why isn’t he doing anything? Can’t he see that his Guide is in pain?

“You are untrained yet, and I knew you would not be able to withstand this without succumbing, just as I knew I would not have been able to stop myself if you had said yes to me that first day.” The intensity of the foreign consciousness’ touch in his mind changes, caressing and stroking at his walls, and he nearly sobs, spreading his legs and arching his throat, eyes screwed shut and jaw clenched taunt, submission in every trembling line of his body. Thranduil reaches out, long fingers hovering bare centimeters from his skin, tracing the air above his Guide as he writhes, desperate and wordlessly begging to be touched. He nearly purrs the words into Ned’s ear, “And you would have said yes. If I had asked.”

Then it’s all over. Thranduil draws away, his mind wrenching itself apart from Ned’s and his shields come slamming up, leaving the Guide bereft and panting in the wake of it, face flushed and nerves buzzing, confused and achingly hard. He’s still splayed against the wall, nails scratching gouges in the stone, and he would be mortified, but he can’t quite remember which way is up at the moment, or how his knees are suppose to work, so he’ll have to save that part for later.

Thranduil is speaking again, voice clinically detached and normal once more, not a hint of the heated growl he had used only moments past. “But that would not be consent. If you had wanted it, it would only have been because I did, and even if you did not regret it once we were fully bonded, I would have had to live with the knowledge that I had taken that choice from you, had forced you,” he spits the words out as if they were poison. “As surely as if I had held you down and taken what I wanted, as if I were nothing more than a mindless beast, a slave to my baser nature. No. No, I could not do that, and I will not. With time, it may come to pass that you will decide to accept what our instincts would demand of us but until such a time arrives, I will not have you make such a decision against your will. But Ned, from now on, do not ever once think I hold myself apart from you because of a lack of desire. You have just experienced firsthand how incorrect that assumption is.”

He softens slightly, politely averting his eyes as Ned struggles to regroup. “Forgive me, I merely wished for you to understand fully. I will give you the opportunity to collect yourself. Good day.”

And true to his word, he turns gracefully and exits the room without another moment's hesitation, leaving Ned still painfully turned on and far, far more confused about the situation than he ever was before.

Chapter Text

By the time Tauriel finally locates him, spiritual presence glowing worry-bright in his minds eye , he had recovered enough to haul himself down to his kitchen only to collapse on the bottom-most stair, loose-limbed and waiting for the elf Sentinel to reach him. His mind is still hazy, but the physical effects of what had transpired had mercifully faded before she all but bursts through the kitchen door.

“There you are!” she cries, hurrying over and crouching in front of him, hands hovering before her indecisively, instinctively wanting to check him for injury but not sure if she was allowed. “Valar beyond, I was worried! No one knew where you had gone. Elros came to find me after you ran out of your training session and the sons of Elrond and I have been searching for you for over an hour now. None of us could find you no matter how far we cast our minds or our senses, and we could not even be sure if you were still in the kingdom.

"What happened to make you run off like that so suddenly? Surely Galion’s words could not have upset you so much.” Giving in to the urge, she reaches out to gently cup his chin in one hand, turning his head carefully to either side, concerned green eyes scanning him for visible signs of trauma.

“It wasn’t so much his words as the information he unintentionally imparted.” He submits to her ministrations, tilting his head obediently this way and that so she could check him over. “Tauriel, did you know elves were immortal? Because I didn’t.”

That makes her sit back on her haunches, eyes wide and mouth dropped open in shock. Her voice is nearly a whisper when she speaks again, “You were not aware of this?”

“Nope. How could I be when I’ve never even seen an elf before in my entire life, and had, in fact, been told since birth that elves were nothing more than fairy tales and myths? So of course, deprived of this knowledge that apparently everyone other than me possessed, how could I have possibly known that the reason Galion hated me so much was because I’d basically signed his king’s death warrant just by being here?” His voice is utterly devoid of emotion; he’s still too numb for hysterics, but it’s wearing off.

“Surely Lord Elrond, or his sons, would have told you…?” she questions uncertainly, watching him warily. “The Lady of Light, certainly would have-”

“Tauriel how old are you?”

She blinks at him, momentarily thrown. “I-? Just over two thousand and three hundred years. Young, by elvish standards, though I am several centuries older then Prince Legolas.”

“Two thousand years,” he repeats flatly. “And when exactly was the last time you had to think about being immortal? Have you ever actually considered what that meant, instead of just accepting it as a natural part of your life?” His eyes track the miniscule muscle twitches in her face that gives away the answer before she even opens her mouth. “Never. The answer is never, am I right? Nothing to be ashamed of. Pretty sure if I’d been alive for thousands of years, lots of things would have slipped my mind by-thousands of years, FUCK!”

The she-elf jumps at the sudden explosion of noise, stunned at hearing such a foul word come out of the normally mild-mannered Guide’s mouth, eyeing him with increasing concern as he buries his face in his hands and pulls his knees up to his chest in a quick, self-protective gesture.

“I can’t even process how long that is, what it means for someone to actually live that long. And you said you were young! Young! How old is old for an elf then, huh? Five thousand? Six? Jesus Christ, how old does that make Thranduil? And how young does that make me by comparison? Absurdly so, I’m assuming. God, and the twins even asked me how old I was one night in Rivendell, and the looks on their faces…shit. Shit, fuck, son-of-a-bitch, goddamnit.” He curls up tighter into a ball, wrapping his arms around his legs and pressing his stinging eyes into his knees. He is not going to cry, not again. Before coming to this place he could count on one hand the number of times he’d cried before in his life with fingers to spare, and now he was on the verge of breaking down for the second time in as many weeks. “I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I’m built for this kind of thing.” I don’t think I’m strong enough to handle this.

Something nudges lightly on the top of his bent head. He looks up in surprise to see Tauriel standing in front of him, a bright green apple sitting in the middle of her outstretched hand. He hadn’t even heard her move. Her smile is only slightly self-conscious as she explains, “I remember you saying that you favorite pie flavor is apple, but sadly I have no skill what-so-ever in the culinary arts, so I’m afraid this is the best I can offer.” Her smile doesn’t waver, and her eyes are soft, but Ned can feel the frustration she tries to bury behind her shields, how upset she is with herself that she doesn’t know how to comfort him properly.

But the fact that she cares enough to try at all is enough for him, and he takes the proffered fruit with a small smile of his own. “Thank you.” He rolls it between his palms slowly as she eases herself down onto the step next to him, side not quite pressing against his as she lets him muster his thoughts in silence for long minutes. Eventually, he takes a deep breath and goes on, “I’m twenty-eight years old. At most, Thranduil will only have seventy more years to live if we complete the bond. Seventy measly years out of the thousands and thousands that have come before it. How can I do that to him?”

The elf Sentinel sits quietly for a few more moments, considering his words. “It is true that the span of a Man’s life can seem as a mere blink of an eye in the long life of an elf,” she begins carefully. “But I believe that seventy years can be a very long time indeed, if that time is used properly.”

He huffs something that’s not quite a laugh. “A very diplomatic answer.”

She grins broadly back at him, eyes dancing with mischief. “Well I do what I can.”

He does laugh at that, and though it is rusty and hoarse, it is genuine, as is the smile he gives her. “Thank you. Really. You’re a good friend Tauriel.”

He doesn’t realize what he’s said until he feels her stiffen, and his own body goes rigid in response. For a second he can’t believe he’d said something so stupid; what if she doesn’t consider them friends, what if she doesn’t even want to be friends with him, what if he just trampled all over what camaraderie they had managed to build? And she’s just staring at him with wide gold-green eyes and oh no this is terrible he really put his foot in it this time, why can’t he ever learn to keep his big mouth shut-

But then she smiling at him again, wide and unrestrained and beautiful, and he can sense the slightly giddy happiness bubbling up inside of her. “Good. I may not have many, but what friends I do have, I always try to make sure to help them in any way, big or small, that I can.”

He grins back, relieved. “Great. That’s-that’s great.” A wild thought occurs to him then, and his mind starts racing with the beginnings of a plan even as his mouth keeps moving without his full permission. “You know, if you’re still in a helping mood, there is another thing I could really use your help with.”

-

“I’m still not entirely sure this is a good idea.”

Ned pauses at the tree-line and turns back to look at Tauriel who has stopped a few paces behind him, arms crossed over her chest and a look of consternation on her face as she glances back the way they came. “Please Tauriel. I really need to do this.”

“Do what exactly? You still haven’t told me what we’re doing out here at all,” she snaps, her tone so unexpectedly waspish he starts back in surprise. She sighs, softening, “Forgive me. But I don’t understand why you cannot simply tell me what it is you want me to know inside the caverns. Where it’s safe". She stresses the last word pointedly.

“Because it’s not really something I can just tell you. It’s much easier to show you.” He sees her open her mouth, probably to ask ‘show me what’, so he rushes on, a note of pleading creeping into his voice. “Please Tauriel. Let’s just go a little further into the forest and I promise all your questions will be answered. Just trust me on this, okay?”

Her too-keen eyes scan over his face for a few more seconds, before she sighs once more, tension leaving her in a rush. “I do trust you Ned. Alright, lead on. My only stipulation is that we stay within sight of the gates, so there is less of a chance of putting ourselves in danger.”

He’s mildly amused that she included herself in that scenario, since they both know full well that if they are attacked in the forest, it won’t be her they need to worry about, but he says nothing. “I can do that.”

He turns back to face the trees and begins walking once more; if he strains his hearing, he can just barely detect the whisper-rustle of leaves brushing against one another that means she’s following.

They walk on for a while longer, until they pass the ring of healthy, green growth that wraps defiantly around the heart of the kingdom, and out into the dark, rotting wastes of the forest beyond it. Ned stops again as soon as they pass outside the ring of still-living trees, momentarily overwhelmed by the oppressive weight of misery and decay that seems to press in on him from all sides. It had been hard to walk through it before on their journey to the caves, but to his newly heightened awareness, he could swear he can actually hear the forest crying out in agony.

It’s a difficult to breathe past the heaviness in the air but he manages it after a brief struggle and he turns to look at his companion once more. The she-elf is fidgeting uncomfortably a few feet away, watching the forest suspiciously, every muscle in her body tense as if she expects them to be ambushed at any moment. She’s broadcasting her uneasiness loud and clear, and he’s sorry to have put her in such a position; he can practically see the internal battle she’s waging with Sentinel instincts that scream at her to get him (a Guide) out of danger immediately, and her own unspoken promise to trust that he knows what he is doing.

True to his word, the towering blue gates that lead back to the expansive halls of the kingdom are still visible between the tree-trunks, and he can feel how she desperately tries to center herself around that, forcing herself with skill born of long practice to breath deep and calm down by sheer force of will, locking her senses down tight and binding them as well as she can to her own spirit without the assistance of a Guide to aid her. His own instincts itch at him to go over and lay a steadying hand on her shoulder, to press his mind up against hers and let her draw strength from his nearness, to blanket her flagging willpower with soothing waves of calm and safety...

But that is not his place. It would be cruel to give an unbound Sentinel that kind of security only to have to rip it out from under them again when he eventually had to return to his own Sentinel, and so he does nothing. He stays where he is and tamps down the urge that tells him to help a Sentinel in need, wraps his arms around himself and tucks his chin to his chest, doing his best to radiate a peace he doesn’t feel and hiding his own roiling emotional tempest of nerves and fear behind his innermost shields so that she can’t pick up on them, and hates himself a little bit for not being able to do more.

Eventually though, she settles, dragging her senses back to herself and lashing them tight to their respective sensory organs, sorting the confusing maelstrom of information they’re trying to force into her mind all at once with the tedious ease of necessary practice, gathering everything into a tight ball deep in her mind and building up a shield to hold it all. The shield is weak, and it buckles and strains under the pressure of what it contains but it holds because she forces it to, because she won’t accept anything less. Finally she opens her eyes, the beautiful sunlight-and-leaves color of them gone dark and pinched with exhaustion and old pain, and still she musters up a smile for him, strained though it is, able to smell his worry on the air as easily as if he’d spoken it aloud. “I’m alright. No need to look so upset. Nothing I haven’t had to handle before.”

That doesn't make him feel better but he doesn’t push, and he doesn’t apologize for having to put her through this, though he wants to; he knows she would just brush his apologies away and go on insisting there was nothing to be sorry for and so he doesn’t try. Instead he gathers his nerves and takes a deep breath, determined to press on despite his own building anxiety. “What I’m about to show you is a secret. One I’ve only ever been forced to share with one other person before and only then because circumstances made it so I couldn’t keep it to myself any longer. I have never willingly given this information to anyone, because I’ve always been too afraid to do so. Afraid that I would be taken to some lab somewhere and experimented on, or forced into using this secret to benefit others, or worse.” He falters for a moment before going on, doing his best to ignore the way his companion-his friend’s -eyes have gone saucer-wide at his words.

“But-but I don’t..I don’t think you would-would tell anyone if I asked you not to, or-or would use what I’m about to show you for your own benefit, because…because I don’t think that’s the kind of-I know that’s not the kind of person you are, and I-I’m tired…” He takes a deep breath and meets her rounded eyes squarely, clenching his jaw and biting his nails deep into his palms to try and hide the hair-fine tremble that’s running through his entire body. “I’m tired of hiding. I’m tired of being afraid. And I think I could use this secret to help people, maybe help a lot of people, but I can’t do it alone, I don’t think, and so I want you to be a part of it. If you would.”

Tauriel opens and closes her mouth several times, struggling to find the words to express her shock, her pride, her gratitude at being entrusted with such a secret; a treasure so well guarded he’d apparently never even shown it to the Sentinel-Olive-he often spoke of with such fondness, and hadn’t even seen fit to share with her king, his Sentinel, yet. She’s not sure such words exist, in Westron or Sindarin, or if they do she doesn’t know them, and so in the end she just bows her head gravely, and makes sure her voice does not waver when she says, “I would be honored.”

His smile is shaky but true when it comes and he turns to face the tree nearest to him, a venerable old redwood gone ash gray and brittle from the mold and burrowing insects that have slowly eaten it from the inside out. “You say that now, but you haven’t seen what I can do yet. So hold that thought.” He sucks in a deep breath and holds it, lungs aching as he slowly stretches out one faintly shaking hand and hesitates for only a bare second before flattening his entire palm to the worn bark of the tree.

For one heart-stopping moment, he wonders what he would do if nothing happened, if his power had suddenly and mysteriously abandoned him right when he needed it the most and he was left standing with his hand pressed against a dead tree with no explanation to offer the confused elf at his side. But he needn’t have worried.

Gold light sparks into existence the instant his hand makes contact with the tree, washing over the entirety of it in a matter of seconds, spreading life and color as it goes. Knitting together deep holes gouged like mortal wounds into the wooden flesh of the trunk, mending cracks and nicks left by age and dehydration, burning out rot and mold in an instant, and bringing forth a burst of glowingly healthy leaves from every previously bare branch and twig, leaving the ancient tree regally crowned once more, repaired roots sinking deep into the earth and dragging water and nutrients into its living boughs as it hasn’t been able to do in countless years before.

Ned smiles to see the redwood standing proud again, feeling the vitality of its life humming happily against his palm like a steady heartbeat. Just to be sure, he raises his hand just enough so that it is no longer in contact with the tree before tapping it lightly against the trunk, something in his chest crumpling in giddy relief when the tree remains healthy and alive. Remembering his audience, his smile falters as he braces himself and turns to face her, terrified of what her expression might reveal. He isn’t prepared for what he sees.

He was prepared for shock. He was prepared for horror, fear, even disgust. He wasn't prepared for amazement. He definitely wasn't prepared for awe.

But there it is, projected clear as a bell ringing from the depths of her soul and reflecting in the enraptured expression on her face. She stares wordlessly at the tree he’s just revived, a hand covering her open mouth as she regards it with the kind of speechless awe usually reserved for witnessing acts of God or other such miracles. She takes a tentative step forward before freezing, flicking her gaze to him as she stretches out one timid hand toward the tree, as if not sure if she’s allowed to touch. “Can…Can I…?” He nods silently, still stunned at the unexpectedness of her reaction as she carefully sets her hand on the tree’s trunk. Her rounded eyes widen even further when she breathes, “Ainima Kementari. It’s-It’s warm.”

“It’s alive,” he points out lamely, not sure what else to say. Emerson had certainly never reacted this way when presented with this particular quirk of his; mostly he’d been dismissive, or irritated, or even repulsed. Maybe not because of Ned’s ability exactly, but because of the results it produced. Most people didn’t tend to take well to the dead suddenly sitting up and carrying on a conversation, especially if critical bits of said dead person’s general makeup were missing, such as an ear, or most of their face, or their entire lower body. The piemaker had never been completely sure what it said about him that he had always accepted such things with such aplomb.

“How is this done?” she asks him, her voice still low and reverent, as if speaking too loudly will break the spell. “What magic is this, that it could bring forth new life from that which has been long dead?”

“I. I’m not sure, exactly. I never really questioned it that deeply before. To be honest, ever since I learned I could do it I’ve mostly been trying to forget about it.”

“’Forget?’” she gasps. “Why would you ever want to forget about something so wonderful? Surely the time and work alone, that you must have put into learning such a powerful spell would be enough reason to put it to as much use as possible.”

“Wha-? No, no you misunderstand! I didn’t learn how to do this, by reading it out of some spell-book or being taught by professors in some far-off wizarding school or what-have-you,” he hesitates. “I was-well, as far as I can tell I was born this way.”

“Born,” she repeats flatly.

“Uh. Well. Well yes. I only found out I could do it when I was about eight years old, but I’m assuming that it’s a genetic thing-er, something that I’ve always been able to do-I just didn’t know it until an opportunity presented itself for me to find out.”

She’s looking at him with open wonderment now, and he balks to see actual tears beginning to form in her eyes. “To be born with such amazing power contained within you, and yet you feel the need to hide it away for fear that you will be shunned or exploited for possessing it. Truly it is both a blessing and a curse to be chosen by the Valar in such a way.”

“Ch-?! No, what, no! I wasn’t, I wasn’t chosen by anyone, or by some great amorphous omnipotent deity of some kind. This is just-just,” he gestures frantically at nothing in particular, desperate to get his point across; anything to make her stop looking at him like that, like he was something much more then he really was. “A fluke! A-a-a genetic mix-up! A recessive gene from way, way back in human evolution, or something. Something with a very logical, scientific and easily quantifiable explanation”-he insists to the immortal, ageless being while they were standing in the middle of an ancient, magical forest in a mystical land like something out a C.S Lewis novel-“with absolutely nothing magical or supernatural about it at all.”

“I understand,” she says seriously, expression grave, though that reverent light still hasn’t faded from her eyes. “It is an incalculable honor and a great privilege to be entrusted with such knowledge. I thank you for choosing to show me this despite your no doubt well-founded fears, and I assure you, your secret will always be safe with me. I swear it.” She bows her head solemnly.

He gapes at her for a few more moments, throat working as he tries to find the words to explain to her how very wrong she is, about him and about his ‘magic’ touch, but he gives up soon enough, her determination and devotion to his cause, freshly kindled and fierce as a bonfire, radiating out from her core so strongly he can almost see it. He knows with certainty that she will not be swayed on this point, and a part of him is grateful for it, basking in the knowledge that someone has found him worthy of such unquestioning loyalty, but most of him just feels slightly dirty, like he’s lying to her somehow though he’s done nothing but tell the truth since they set foot out of the kingdom’s gates.

“Well, thank you, I suppose, and uh, you’re welcome? Or something. Look, the reason I showed you this was because I wanted to ask if you would help me in, I don’t know, bringing life back into the forest I guess. Cause I really don’t want to get hopelessly lost and eaten by gigantic spiders, which I’ve been told is a valid fear in this place, so I was hoping you could come with me whenever I went out on these, ah, excursions, so that that doesn’t happen.”

“Of course,” she agrees without hesitation. “Lead on.”

“Great!” he blurts with false cheer, turning to continue on deeper into the dark and murky depths of the forest. “Great,” he mutters under his breath, feeling as though his life has begun to spin yet ever farther out his control.

-

Watching Ned work his particular brand of magic on the forest of her birth grows no less fascinating nor awe-inspiring the longer she watches; in fact, she believes it may even grow more so.

When she had told the Man that she was counted young among the members of her race, she hadn’t been exaggerating. By the time she was brought into this world and aptly named a daughter of the forest, Greenwood the Great was already a far-distant memory in the minds of her peers. Mirkwood is all she has known throughout her comparatively short life, and while it is true that she loves her homeland no less fiercely then she would had she seen it in its prime, still she longs to see it healed and returned to its former glory so that she might experience it for herself, yearns for it in the way only a wood-elf can. But secretly, she had long ago accepted that it was never to be. That there was no force that existed in this or any other world that could cleanse the forest enough to allow it to recover from its destruction at the hands of the encroaching Corruption. She had made peace with what she had believed to be this fact.

And yet now. Now she has been proven wrong so suddenly, everything she thought she knew turned so abruptly on its head by this one strange, astonishing Guide of Men. And what’s more, she’s almost entirely sure that he doesn’t truly comprehend the monumental scope of what he has done here today.

For as she watches him move from tree to tree, sometimes laying his hands on or sometimes simply tapping a finger here and there, spreading gold sparks and verdant greens and browns the likes of which she had never expected to see in her beloved blighted forest in his wake, deep down in the most secret and closely guarded parts of her heart, she begins to hope.

Hope that one day, such healing can be wrought to all corners of Arda. Hope that such incalculably powerful magic may one day banish the corruption and atrocities committed in millennia past at the hands of the Black Foe. Hope for her king, that such shining, guiding light will finally be able to accomplish what not even Legolas had managed, and finally help him to see that not all the world is without redeeming qualities; that life still is worth living, even in such dark times at these. Hope for herself, that she might live to see such wonders in her lifetime. Hope for a brighter, better tomorrow, and for all of the tomorrows that will come after.

The Man stops to look back at her-and she must resist the impulse to flinch back in surprise as she always does when he faces her head-on, the resemblance so strong as to still be startling no matter how many times she sees it-and offers her a tentative, crooked smile, concern palpable in the air eddying around him no doubt caused by the sight of the silent tears streaming over her cheeks. Tauriel can find no words to offer him in reassurance, and so instead she merely shakes her head in dismissal, and smiles brilliantly back.

Chapter Text

The sun is already beginning to set in the west by the time they walk back through the gates into the underground kingdom.

He and Tauriel part ways just inside the gates, and he is more than a little embarrassed when she bows deeply at the waist to him before she departs, her new fierce conviction in him that had only been refined and sharpened throughout their walk in the forest shining star-bright in her spirit like a pillar of light. He still doesn’t know how to even start to deal with that, and so he pushes it to the back of his mind for the time being as he heads down the now-familiar winding and crisscrossing paths that will take him back to his secluded kitchen.

He’s exhausted, mentally and physically, not to mention emotionally, after the day he’s had, and he’s so tired he’s nearly giddy with it, but he’s sure his mind is still too wired to force it to shut down just yet. He has a half-formed idea when he enters the kitchen involving baking until he inevitably falls asleep awkwardly bent over a counter with his head pillowed in an empty pie-tin, as has happened in the past-Olive was never pleased when she found him like that in the mornings, but it kept happening none-the-less-but at the last second he veers away from the oven and heads down the short tunnel that leads out to his personal garden instead.

When he’d first stepped foot out into the garden one morning not long after he arrived and was granted official permission to use the space, he’d been so flummoxed he’d simply stood and stared with his mouth gaping open like a fish for at least a full minute, too busy trying to process what he was seeing to bother worrying about how ridiculous he must have looked.

Tauriel’s description of the garden had been straight-forward enough that he had been expecting a few tilled rows of dirt sown with strawberry plants, a couple berry bushes, and a young apple tree that reached no higher than his shoulder, all contained within an open-air, enclosed courtyard no bigger than the kitchen it was attached to.

That…wasn’t what he got.

Turns out ‘garden’ had been a bit of an understatement. The carved arch doorway that lead onto it from the kitchen was set into a natural rock wall that curved around the space in a half-circle about twice the length of the kitchen that abruptly ended in a cliff edge that hung precariously out over the waterfall caused by the River Running tumbling out of the outlet that allowed it to flow uninterrupted through the caverns. Berry bushes of all kinds lined the walls to either side of the archway, only ending when the cliff began. Blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, even boysenberry and a small bright-red berry he’d had to think hard to remember were called lingonberries, were all accounted for.

The strawberry plants had indeed been planted in a patch of worked earth carved from the stone and placed so the shadow of the mountains kept their delicate stems sheltered from direct sunlight. So far, he hasn’t encountered so much as a grass snake taking shelter under their leaves. There were even two rows of adolescent peach trees nearly as tall as he was and bowing under the weight of their unpicked fruits carefully set into artificial dirt-filled hollows that had been cut into the stone nearer the center of the courtyard.

But it was the apple tree that was the most amazing thing about it all. It clung precariously close to the edge of the cliff that hung out over the water, wind and water erosion exposing a few of its roots to the spray of the falls. It was amazingly tall and gnarled with age, bent crooked under the weight of the centuries it had seen, but it held it’s fruit-laden branches high and proud, it’s branches strong and sturdy enough and it’s wizened trunk pock-marked with plenty of natural handholds to make climbing it to harvest its apples an easy task for a seasoned tree-scaler like himself. He had yet to lose his footing or have a branch give way beneath his weight.

He makes his way toward the apple tree now, climbing it easily and settling on one particularly sturdy bough that extends slightly farther out over the water than the rest, leaving a portion of the sky uncovered by thick leaves or swinging fruits. He kicks his legs idly as he stares up at the sky, watching as the last of the riotous colors of sunset finally fade from the horizon, leaving only blue-black sky glittering with thousands and thousands of far-off stars.

When he’d experienced his first night on the road, watched the sun set behind the Misty Mountains and had first been confronted with a sky lit with millions of stars, he’d nearly driven Shaker off the path, hands lax on the reins and mouth hanging open in awe. It was the most beautiful sight he’d ever seen, and not even the twins teasing could make him embarrassed enough to stop gawping, head craned backwards and round eyes reflecting back the light that wheeled and twinkled above them as they rode.

It had gotten to the point where Elladan finally called out from behind him, amusement clear in his voice, “Don’t tell me they don’t have stars where you come from?”

“Not so many. Not that I’ve ever seen.” He’d then spent the rest of their ride and the setting up of camp explaining about light pollution and how it made the night sky so murky that it was impossible to ever see more than a handful of stars at once, even in remote areas where the sky was less polluted. To say that they had been shocked and appalled would have been putting it lightly. It wasn’t hard to understand why either, not after they’d explained the origin of elves at the Waters of Awakening, and the Vala they called Elbereth who had supposedly created the stars just for them.

It was a good story, beautiful even, though Ned didn’t necessarily believe a word of it. But as origin stories go, it was a much better tale then that of Adam and Eve and the banishment of humans from paradise. Elladan and Elrohir had been so sympathetic when he told them the story of Genesis, and he still wasn’t completely sure why. It was only myth after all.

Still, even without such a rich and intricate cultural background, it’s easy to see why the two of them would be horrified at the prospect of a night without stars, if this is the scene they are accustomed to every time the sun goes down. Not for the first time, he wishes Olive and Emerson were here to experience all of this with him. Olive would be enraptured, and he’s almost certain even Emerson wouldn’t be too cantankerous about the whole thing; not even he could be angry when faced with a sight like this. He misses them so much sometimes, it’s almost physically painful. He’s not sure what’s worse, missing them, or the times that seem to happening more and more frequently lately, where he forgets to miss them at all.

“May I join you?”

The sudden question, though not overly loud, none-the-less shatters the absolute quiet of the night enough to make Ned yelp and have to flail wildly in order to keep from falling backwards out of the tree. The smooth bark chafes his palms and he has to lock his knees under the branch to keep him steady; he swears the sound the wind makes as it rustles through the leaves surrounding him makes it seem as though the tree is laughing at him. Once he’s no longer in danger of falling out of the tree, he twists his head, heart still pounding against his ribcage, to see Thranduil standing calmly on the branch just below him, the two platforms far enough apart that the elvenking has to tip his head back just slightly to peer up at him, icy eyes sparking light shards of diamond when the starlight refracts back in them through the gaps in the leaves.

“Th-Thranduil!” he exclaims in surprise; he hadn’t even heard him climb the tree, but something tells him he shouldn’t have expected to. The Sentinel quickly glances away to look out over the falls but not quick enough to mask the way his pupils had widened sharply at hearing his name spoken by his Guide. Ned blushes fiercely and internally berates himself at the way something low in his abdomen had tightened at the hunger he'd seen in the elf’s eyes before he’d looked away. “What-When did you-? Uh. Never mind. Sure. Sure, you can, you can join me. If you want to.” It is your kingdom after all.

Flicking a glance up at him, the elf king nods and stretches one long arm up to grip the top of the branch Ned is sitting on, and in one fluid motion the man never would have thought possible if he hadn’t witnessed it for himself, pushes off from his own branch and vaults himself up so he’s sitting as far from Ned as the impromptu bench will allow in a manner of seconds, hands resting elegantly in his lap and not a single strand of long platinum hair out of place, eyes trained on the expanse of stars once more, leaving the man blinking in shock at the speed of the movement.

They sit in silence for a handful of minutes, long enough that Ned is just beginning to relax and think he’s not going to say anything more when the king suddenly speaks. “I have been led to understand that I owe you yet another apology.” The man barely has time to digest that before he goes on, “This is unprecedented. That I should conduct myself in an manner unbefitting enough to owe you an apology not only once, but twice in as many weeks indicates an unsettling and deplorable trend on my part, and I want to assure you I will do everything in my power to ensure that it does not happen again.”

“Uh,” Ned blinks in confusion. “I’m. I’m afraid I’m not sure what you mean. What do you need to apologize for?”

“Tauriel told me”-and for a second, just for a second, the piemaker’s heart stops-“that prior to a conversation with a member of the Royal Guard, you were not aware that elves were immortal. She informs me that discovering this information distressed you greatly, as I well understand it would, and that is what provoked you vehement denial of a future bond between us. Not, as I had inferred, your belief that I did not desire a bond with you.”

The blush is back, and he looks away to stare down at his hands, limp in his lap because he refuses to wring them together and further increase his resemblance to a heroine in a gothic novel. “I can see why you would think that, since I kind of let you believe it was the problem. And it was, ya know, a part of it, but once I figured out that if we bonded you would basically be signing your life away, I couldn’t really think of a way to explain that in the heat of the moment, so I kind of just latched on to a smaller part of the thing and let you run with thinking I was worried you didn’t want me. But, um,” he can feel his face heating up even further and he tucks his hands under his thighs to make sure he won’t start twisting them together in a fit of nerves after all. “I-I don’t. Think that anymore. Not-Not after this-After earlier.”

Blessedly, Thranduil’s gaze remains trained on the stars, and so he either does not notice or is at least polite enough to pretend not to notice Ned quietly expiring from embarrassment beside him. “Yes. My behavior earlier today was what I wished to apologize for. I should not have forced my emotions on you without your permission, as was the point of keeping them locked behind my shields in the first place. I was just so surprised by, what I thought to be, the erroneous conclusion you had drawn that I acted without considering the burden I was placing on you. I hope you will forgive me for it.”

“There’s nothing to forgive,” Ned insists honestly. “It was a ridiculous conclusion to draw. I know how, uh, well, I think it’s called ‘bonding heat’, works. I’ve seen it first hand, in action, I mean. Well, not, in action thank God, I managed to avert that particular disaster, but I knew of it, and I knew it was a thing that happened when compatible Sentinels and Guides clapped eyes on each other. But I didn’t feel anything, and I hadn’t since stepping foot in the forest, so I thought maybe something was wrong. I could have sworn I felt something pulling me towards this place while we were on our way here, but once we actually met, I didn’t feel it anymore, so I thought either I was just high on hormones and mistaken, or,” he hesitates for a moment, reluctant to admit what exactly it was he’d thought, but rallies and forges on. “Or, that after we met, and you realized how completely ordinary I am, you had changed your mind, and that if there had been something there before, it had been purely instinctual, and once we met, it, wore off. Or something similar to that. But like I said, I don’t, ah, think that anymore.”

Pale lips twitch up just the barest amount at the corners. “Good.” The momentary smile fades and the elf’s face is blankly serious once more when he speaks. “I too felt the tug of the thread-like tether that had formed between us when our minds brushed before the Lady Galadriel forced us apart pulling tighter and tighter the closer you came to my kingdom. I could sense nothing from such a light connection beyond your relative location to myself, but even that was near agony; to know you were so close but to not be able to go to you. As the yearning increased with every step that brought you closer to Mirkwood, on the night before you actually set foot in my kingdom I made the decision to build a wall between us, effectively snapping the thin bond as I would not have been able to do had it been allowed to grow any stronger. As I said before, I wanted our first meeting to be as natural as possible, untainted by instinctual reactions, so that we might form a more accurate opinion of one another without worrying whether it was what the other really wanted. However,” the light amusement is back in his silver eyes when he cuts them towards the Guide, “our first meeting still did not end up going the way I had wished it to, regardless.”

Ned can’t repress a rather indelicate snort at that, but there’s a small smile tugging at his own lips now. “Well I should hope not. Neither of us conducted ourselves with what I would call grace on that particular occasion, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

“Very true.”

They let the conversation fall away, returning to watching the stars for long minutes. Or well, Thranduil fell silent and went back to thinking whatever thoughts ageless elven kings occupied themselves with in their downtime, and Ned went back to watching the stars, eyes straining to pick out the especially bright points that would indicate any constellations he might recognize, with little luck. The twins had told him stories about the various constellations that had sounded nearly identical to the few stories of the ancient Greeks that he knew as well, but still he couldn’t figure out how exactly it was he was supposed to be able to make pictures out of points of light that, to him, all appeared the same.

His continued failure to pick out the constellations did nothing to change that fact that they were-“Beautiful,” he sighs after uncounted minutes spent listening to nothing but rushing water and leaves swaying in the breeze. “The stars,” he clarifies when the Sentinel tilts his head just slightly to the side in what he guesses to be confusion at the unexpectedness of his words. “I was just thinking about how beautiful they were.”

The elf lifts his face towards the sky, the incline of his chin so slight as to be nearly unnoticeable. His lamplight eyes suddenly shadow with an old sorrow, and his voice is soft and almost melancholic when he agrees, “Yes. Beautiful.” Before the man can muster up the courage to ask what caused the abrupt change in the other’s demeanor, he speaks again, voice clipped and dispassionate once more, “As I am sure you are aware, we are to have dinner tomorrow night, as per our previous arrangement. With your permission, I would like to begin the process of binding my senses to you.”

Ned blinks rapidly, blindsided, and his mouth drops open in shock, “‘Binding your senses-’? Are you sure, I mean, don’t we have to, ya know,” and his face is scarlet again, he can tell; he hopes that isn’t going to become par for course when speaking to his Sentinel. “Er, well…”

“Training my senses to use you as an anchoring point does not require a full bond,” Thranduil assures him before he can work himself up to a proper lather. “Though it usually precludes the eventuality of one. That does not have to be the case in this instance; as I said, that decision lies with you. However, I thought that beginning the process now rather than later would be more beneficial if you do decide you would like a full bond. To attempt to center all of my senses to you at once, during the completion of the bond, would be overly strenuous, and perhaps even dangerous, to the both of us.”

“Oh.” Ned furrows his brow, “I didn’t know that.”

“It is not usually the case, but since the both of us are naturally much stronger than most Gifted pairs, the results will be more volatile than they might be otherwise. I believe it would be much more beneficial to attempt to transfer them one at a time before trying to move on to completing a bond, should that ever happen.”

“I see. That makes sense. Um. Sure, I guess we could give it a try?” He doesn’t mean to make it sound like a question, and he tries to sound more convinced when he asks, “Which sense did you want to start with?”

Finally, Thranduil looks at him head-on as he hadn’t since he first took a seat beside him, vacant silver-blue eyes seeming to stare straight through Ned when he answers, “Sight.”

-

Ned is on-edge and jumpy all through the next day, barely able to focus on anything that isn’t the impending dinner with Thranduil later that night. As such, much of the day passes in a blur, but a few things do stand out in his memory.

Like when he first stepped out of his room the next morning and was instantly besieged by the twins, both of them babbling apologies and speaking over each other so quickly their voices merged together and made their words as impossible to draw meaning from as the rushing of a river over rocks, though he was able to parse the gist.

They were sorry they hadn’t been as thorough in their education of elven history and lore as they obviously should have been, if he hadn’t known that elves were immortal even after all the tales they’d told him on the road, and they hoped he wasn’t too upset with them or if he was that he would eventually come to forgive them, because they were sorry, really they were, could he ever forgive them?

Eventually he’d succeeded in assuring the distressed sons of Elrond that he wasn’t angry with them, really, he wasn’t, and it was partially his fault anyway for not asking the questions he obviously should have been asking in the first place in order to find it out for himself, and yes, some of those heroes in the stories did seem to live an awful long time didn’t they? And wasn’t there even an elf currently living in Rivendell who shared a name with one of those heroes; Glorfindel wasn’t it? Oh that’s is the same one from the story is it, well he really should have figured that out on his own then shouldn’t he, see, he was just being willfully oblivious, so it’s also his fault, and please stop clinging you two, I can’t walk with the both of you hanging off me like that.

Once he’d reassured them as much as he could and been released to continue on his original mission of getting to his kitchen to try and bake away as much of his stress as was possible before that night, everything went blurry again, and the only other clear memory he has of that day is when he was abruptly pulled out of his own head by someone politely clearing their throat to get his attention, and he looked up from rolling dough to find the blonde elf from the first day, the one who looked so much like Thranduil, hesitating just inside the door.

“I hope I’m not disturbing you,” the young elf began, keeping his startlingly blue eyes trained on the floor in what, on anyone else, the man might have assumed was nervousness. “Tauriel said this was the most likely place to find you during this time of the day, and I wished to speak to you as soon as possible.”

“Oh, uh, no, you’re not disturbing me, I just, um,” he’d grabbed a towel from the counter to wipe his hands on, unsure as to what could have prompted this visit. “What did you want to talk to me about?”

The elf-prince, Ned had mentally corrected himself-flicked his gaze up long enough to glance at the piemaker before returning to looking at anything that wasn’t him, and yes, he definitely was nervous, what with the way he kept not-quite shifting his weight back and forth as he remained standing awkwardly by the door, as though unsure whether he was welcome. “I wanted to apologize for my behavior upon our first meeting.” Ned had blinked at that, wondering what could possibly be in the water that kept making people feel like they should apologize to him when nothing was wrong, and the young Sentinel had hurried on, misinterpreting the gesture. “I know we haven’t spoken since that meeting, and I’m afraid that was intentional on my part. You must understand why I would want to keep my distance from the Man who would one day take my father, my king, away from me.”

Understanding had flared in his gut at the prince’s words, bringing guilt right along with it. Of course, no wonder the elf had been so chilly to him. He’d opened his mouth to tell the prince that he didn’t need to apologize, that he understood, but the elf had ploughed on, as though he thought he might lose his nerve if he didn’t get all the words out at once. “But that was no excuse. I should have spoken with you about it before this, and perhaps if I had, a lot of confusion and misunderstanding could have been avoided for all involved, but since I cannot go back and try to alleviate the damage that has already been done, I just wanted you to know that I regretted my actions as well as any hasty conclusions I might have drawn about your character without giving you a chance to defend yourself.”

Ned had waited for a moment, just to make sure the rush of words was over, but apparently he’d waited too long, since the elf-Legolas? Yes that sounded right-had gotten quite twitchy in the ensuing silence and had bid him a hasty farewell and disappeared back through the door before the man could draw breath to call him back, leaving the piemaker off-balance and wondering what exactly it was that had just happened. Well, that, and also wondering what the prince’s favorite flavor of pie might be, and wondering if Tauriel might know. It wouldn’t do for the prince of the realm to be forever skittish in his presence after all, especially if Ned was eventually to be bonded to the king.

But that was all hours ago, and now he’s left looking around at the fruits of his labor and thinking, for perhaps the first time in his life, that he has made way too much pie. He’s covered every available flat surface, other than the floor, with pies of all fillings, flavors, and glazes. So many that even if he were still in the Pie Hole, it would be impossible to try and sell them all before they ‘went bad’. He’s simultaneously impressed and dismayed at himself. Such were the dangers of stress baking.

He sighs and pulls his apron off, washes his hands in the water bucket kept warm beside the stove and dusts as much excess flour off his clothes as possible. He’d completely lost track of time and so he wouldn’t be able to change before the scheduled dinner, but there was no visible fruit residue that he could see, and the kitchen was wonderfully ventilated so at least he wasn’t sweaty, which is really the best he could have hoped for in this situation. Baking all day had done wonders for his mood, at the very least. And so he takes a deep breath, draws himself up to his full height, squares his shoulders, and marches up the stairs that lead to the king’s personal rooms before he can psyche himself out again.

The room looks just the same as it has the last two times Ned’s shared a meal with the elvenking, and he’s not entirely sure why he expected it look any different, but it’s still something of a surprise. The long table is set as it always is, one plate at either end of the table, along with utensils, and a few serving platters in between. Never extravagant, never needlessly luxurious, no more food than two people could hope to eat in one sitting. That had surprised him the first time too, since he would have thought someone of Thranduil’s station would be likely to lord that station over those below him on the cosmic totem pole, but he’d yet to see him exhibit such behavior and was starting to get the feeling that he most likely never would.

The elf Sentinel is nowhere in sight, and so in a fit of reckless courage he moves his plate to the chair just to Thranduil’s right, and takes his seat quickly before can change his mind, sitting ramrod straight, every muscle pulled wire-taunt tense at his own daring.

Thankfully Thranduil enters not a moment later with a soft greeting and takes his place at the head of the table. He says nothing about the sudden seating change, but there is a hint of something that might just be a bit pleased at the change in his expression, and it doesn’t matter if Ned is imagining it or not, even the implied acceptance makes all the tension leave him in a rush.

The trend set by their previous dinners continues and neither of them speaks for the duration of their meal. Ned because he can’t think of anything to say that won’t sound completely inane, and Thranduil, well, because he’s Thranduil. Even passed in complete silence with Ned taking the smallest bites possible to try and stave off the end of the meal, time seems to fly until they’ve both cleaned their plates and the Guide is just starting to think he’ll burst with the oppressive weight of expectation he can feel pressing down on him when Thranduil finally lowers his fork.

The elf king sighs and turns towards Ned, his face and voice both utterly serious when he says, “If you are uncomfortable, this need not happen tonight.”

Ned, who has wound himself up so much with the waiting that he’s begun to feel like a coiled spring, nearly jumps clear out of his seat at being addressed and has to grip hard at the underside of his chair to prevent tipping out of it. “What? No! No, it’s okay. Its fine, I’m not, uncomfortable.” His voice is much too squeaky for that to sound believable even to himself and he takes deep breaths and tries to calm himself before he tries again. “Well, okay, yes, I am uncomfortable, but not because of the-of the binding your sight to me thing, more because of the whole sitting in complete silence for about an hour and having to nothing to distract myself from psyching myself out about what’s about to happen thing. I really am alright with the, with the, um, the whole sight, plan, I’m just, I have a few questions.”

“Perfectly understandable,” the elvenking nods solemnly. “I will try to answer any questions about the process that you may have to the best of my admittedly limited ability, as it is my first time attempting such a thing as well.”

“Right.” That thought actually helps sooth him a bit, the idea that Thranduil may also be a little out of his depth on this particular occasion, despite how ludicrous the very idea of the always composed and together elf being ‘out of his depth’ sounds. He wracks his brain for a question to ask, because he’s sure he did have at least one at some point, where did it go, it was just on the tip of his tongue-and then he suddenly remembers something that had bothered him since their conversation the night before and he blurts out, “What did you mean when you said ‘transfer’? You said you would need to transfer your senses to me, which kind of implies that they’re already bound to something else, but you said you’ve never had a Guide before, so unless I’m just confused about the phrasing…?”

Something shutters behind the Sentinel’s eyes, the approachability he’d been projecting to try and put the Guide more at easy turning into something more icy and sharp before he slams his walls up between them once more, leaving Ned reeling and frantically trying to backpedal in the aftermath, but Thranduil merely holds up a hand to cease his babbled attempts to take the words back. The skin around his eyes has gone pinched and something minute shifts in his face just so and all at once it’s not hard at all to imagine that he’s lived an untold number of years, there’s something indescribably old about the way he fixes his stare somewhere just over the man’s left shoulder, his voice so emotionless it makes Ned flinch when he speaks again, “No, you are right to ask. I had hoped you would pick up on my choice of words, at the same time I wished their implied meaning would escape you completely. But you are no fool. And you deserve an answer.” He takes a deep breath.

“Five thousand years ago, a great battle was fought between all the free peoples of Middle-Earth, who had allied themselves with the Valar, and the Enemy, Morgoth and his armies, a war that ended the First Age. It has since become known as the War of Wrath and fallen into obscurity, just another one of the many battles fought throughout the Ages.” The mild baritone of his voice has gone flat and dry as he begins, as though he’s reading from a textbook.

“I fought in that war along with my father, though I was the one between us who survived and went on to become king in his stead. I was badly wounded during the course of battle, and fell unconscious, and what happened after that I have no remembrance of aside from waking up in the Houses of Healing in Rivendell long after the final battle was over and won. The healers said I had awakened as a Sentinel just before I was wounded, but of this time I also recall nothing. I only knew that the world had become something unbearable to me; a world too loud, too bright, too…much for my newly enhanced senses to handle. A Guide was sought for me, but none were found who could temper my senses well enough to be of use, and indeed, in most cases it would have been dangerous for them to try. I spent weeks upon weeks drifting in and out of consciousness, in what the race of Men have since dubbed a ‘fugue state’ for far longer than I should have, since my physical wounds had already been healed. I was insensate and unable to travel under my own power, but my wife ordered I be brought back to the Greenwood, hoping that the ancient magic inherent within it might call my wandering spirit back to itself. Her desperate plan succeeded more fully then ever she could have thought, or ever could have known to fear.”

Thranduil pauses, as if he’s not sure how to go on, to explain what it was that had happened as soon as he was carried over the borders into the Greenwood, but words aren’t necessary, since Ned has already figured it out, staring at the elf king with huge grey eyes, his words barely a whisper when he breathes, “In the absence of a suitable Guide, you bound your senses to the forest instead.”

The elvenking trains those beautiful, empty-no, not empty, Ned numbly corrects himself, blind-eyes on the man to his right, and there is something infinitely sad in the smile he offers him when he says, “Yes. Though not out of any rational intent on my part. I believe it would be more accurate to say that in the face of my suffering, the forest itself made that decision for me.”

“That’s why you’ve never needed a Guide before. What’s kept you sane all these years.” Five thousand years, Ned recalls with something like shock, feeling as though ice has replaced the blood in his veins. “But if your senses are bound to the forest, then that means, you can’t…you can’t see me...can you?”

“No Ned,” Thranduil confirms, sorrow and old pain twisting and curling through the air around him, so vivid Ned can almost see it. “I have not been able to use my eyes to see anything in over five thousand years. I never again laid eyes on my beloved wife after that day, nor have I even been allowed to bear witness to my kingdom falling into decay around me; I have never even seen my own son, not once in his entire life.”

“He looks just like you,” Ned hears himself say, though he can’t remember telling his mouth to move.

“Does he?”

“Yes,” Ned confirms, and his mind is starting to reboot and reorganize itself, coming slowly back online as he continues speaking, “Except for his eyes. His eyes are blue. Bright blue, like a robin’s egg.”

Thranduil smiles, but it is brittle and painful and Ned wants to beg him to stop before he breaks his heart. “His mother’s eyes. That is a comfort, thank you.”

“Don’t thank me, you won’t need to thank me in a minute.” Because he’s come to decision, his flickering spirit flaring brighter and brighter with the iron-clad conviction, the singular thought he can feel taking root in his soul, howling with a voice louder than the hurricane of emotion battering at his mind. Help him, his instincts command. Help him. And he intends to. “Because by tomorrow you’ll be able to see it for yourself.” He sits forward in his seat, determination blazing so bright from his core he knows Thranduil can feel it by the way his sightless silver eyes widen the barest amount.

Because he’s made up his mind. No more worrying, no more embarrassment, no more beating around the bush; this isn’t about him anymore, and it never was, not really. He will do anything and everything in his power to help his Sentinel, and he will not let anything, not even his own fears and reservations distract him from this path now that he’s made up his mind to walk it, not again.

“Tell me what I need to do.”

Chapter Text

Turns out, what Thranduil needs him to do pretty much amounts to ‘come stand over here’ and ‘hold still’.

Which are a lot simpler and less perilous instructions then he had been expecting, honestly, but he obeys without question, following the elf to a patch of clear space near the center of the room.

“Normally, if a particularly powerful Sentinel wished to bind their sight to their chosen Guide, they would simply need pick a particular facet of their Guide, committing everything about, perhaps, the shape of their nose, or the exact shade of their hair or eye color, to memory, fixing it in their mind and focusing all of their concentration on it until the binding happened naturally,” the king explains, positioning them so that he is well within Ned’s personal space, less than a square foot of air between them. “However, since I cannot see you in order to find one aspect to focus on, I will attempt to build a mental picture of you in my mind and will my eyes to see you instead.” Sensing the man’s confusion, he assures him, “The results should be the same.”

“But how will you build a mental picture if you can’t see me?”

“Through touch.”

“‘Touch’?” Ned parrots with a squeak, forcing himself not to take step back from the elf in alarm, already acutely aware of their nearness as it is. “B-But how-I thought, your senses, aren’t they-the forest-”

“The majority of my senses are bound to my lands yes,” Thranduil explains patiently, his vacant eyes fixed somewhere just over Ned’s left shoulder. “But a thin link still attaches them to my body, so that I might move about under my own power, unaided.” His lips quirk slightly at the corners, and there is even a very light edge of teasing to his tone when he says, “It would not speak well of the grace of the elves had I spent the last few millennia colliding with walls, or tripping over any obstacles that happened to appear before me unexpectedly. Also, I would assume, rather dull, if all food was but ash in my mouth, or all music as inconsequential as the whistling of the winds. How would anything get done, I wonder, were I reduced to such a state that I could not even hear my own advisors advising me? No, it is sight alone that has been entirely lost to me all these years, and while the others are faint, they are not so much so that I cannot apply them to any needs that may arise.”

“Oh.” Well now he feels a little ridiculous. After all, had he actually thought the other male had spent the last five thousand years completely cut off from the world around him; ruling a kingdom and dictating to his people, all without raising even the slightest suspicion of his near insensate state? “Yeah, that makes-yeah. Um, alright. So, so touch, huh?”

“Yes,” Thranduil agrees easily, though some of the amusement fades from his expression, his tone once more utterly serious when he says, “If the thought discomfits you, as I said, we may wait until such a time as you think would put you more at ease with-”

“No!” the man interrupts, that new conviction blazing up within him, most of his uneasiness vanishing like a puff of smoke in the wake of it. “I want to help! I promised I would. And I will. Just tell me what to do.”

The elf blinks at him, the only suggestion of surprise at the rapid change in his demeanor. “You need not do anything. Just,” he lifts pale, long fingered hands up as though to cup Ned’s face, stopping just shy of actually doing so, heavy embroidered sleeves slipping down to the crook of his elbows as he does. “Do not move.”

Even with the warning, Ned isn’t completely prepared for the moment Thranduil’s hands make contact with his skin, and he can’t stop himself from jerking back slightly in shock; an instinctive reaction born primarily of a lifetime spent avoiding the casual touch of others, and partly from the surprise of having his Sentinel’s bare hands on him. He stills immediately, blushing fiercely and profusely thanks whatever deities may be listening that the elf doesn’t seem to have enough feeling in his hands to be able to discern the change in temperature, or if he does, once again he is too polite to call attention to it.

Thranduil cups Ned’s jaw in his hands, the tips of his elegant fingers resting on the man’s temples while his thumbs lightly settle to either side of his nose before dragging gently over the slight arch of his cheekbones. The elf’s brow furrows minutely in what looks like consideration, sightless eyes fastened on Ned’s face though he can’t see it. “I had not known you were so tall. Most Men I have encountered before have been much shorter than I; the same could be said of many of the elves I have met as well.”

“I get that a lot,” Ned mumbles shortly, trying not to dislodge the king’s hands with the motion, mindful of his command not to move, and keeps his own eyes riveted in the middle of the elf’s chest, vainly willing his blush to disappear before Thranduil has a chance to see it for himself.

The Sentinel hums noncommittally and continues his slow exploration of the Guide’s facial structure, skimming his cheekbones once more before moving to trace the strong, straight line of his nose with one tapered fingertip, resting momentarily on the fleshy tip of it before withdrawing once more to trace the subtle square cut of the man’s jaw, gaze unwavering from its seemingly fixed point just under Ned’s left eye.

With the elvenking’s face so close to his, it’s nearly impossible for Ned not to analyze him in return, seeing as it might be the only time he could do so without being noticed, and so he allows himself to look his fill while he still has the chance.

The other male was startlingly beautiful in a way few men could be without being effeminate, which he most definitely is not. He is too tall, and far too broad through the shoulders to be anything even closely resembling womanly, and though his hands are as pale and long as the rest of him, the palms are wide in a way no woman’s could ever be, and his brows are certainly too strong to be anything but masculine, which in truth does help to offset the oval shape of his face and keep it from being perhaps too beautiful in a way that might otherwise find it feminine. Even his hair, though it reached nearly to his waist, perfectly straight and so pale a silver as to seem almost blonde at first glance didn’t soften him much, did in fact give him an even more severe air then it would have had it been curly, or tended to wave when it got long, as Ned’s did.

His nose is another thing that keeps him away from the effeminate, being strong-boned through the bridge but thin and long enough to be what Ned thought might be called ‘austere’. His cheekbones were high-boned and strong, as most male elves’ were, not delicate like Tauriel or Arwen’s. His lips-and here Ned fought again to keep himself from blushing, and again failed-were well-proportioned for a man, neither too full nor too narrow, and were curiously without color, unlike Ned’s own rather embarrassingly pink lips tended to be. His eyes of course, were probably the most striking thing about him, unnaturally silver-blue-green as they were, pupils fixated maybe a little too wide to appear completely normal when viewed from so close, and it was obvious they did not track movement as they should once one paid long enough attention to notice.

While Ned had been gawking, Thranduil had been continuing his own tactile perusal of Ned’s features, feeling his way around the man’s jaw and up to his hairline, where he pauses a moment to run one hand through Ned’s hair, making the Guide startle before freezing again at the suddenness of the gesture. The elf looks visibly perplexed at the state of his hair, murmuring quietly too himself, “So short…” before passing his hand through the cropped brunette strands once more, nails dragging lightly at Ned’s scalp and making the Guide shiver at the feel of it, which causes Thranduil to snatch his hand back immediately, leaving the man at once bereft and profusely relieved at the same time.

Thranduil starts to frown, just a slight furrowing between his brows and the barest downturn at the corners of his mouth, as he completes his careful investigation by smoothing both thumbs over Ned’s brow line. He starts from the beginning, crossing the curve of the cheekbones, over the nose, down to the jaw line, quicker this time, and the confusion seeping beneath his shields only strengthens, making the Guide worry that he’s done something wrong somehow, despite following the Sentinel’s admittedly limited instructions perfectly.

On his third such circuit of the man’s face, fingertips feather-light and moving so fast Ned can barely feel them, the piemaker watches with avid interest as those too-wide pupils seem to shudder and shrink, before widening again, trying to adjust to visually confirm the information it can feel being relayed through the deadened nerves connecting to the elvenking’s hands.

Finally, and so unexpectedly Ned doesn’t even have time to gasp, Thranduil drags the pad of his thumb over the swell of the man’s bottom lip, something he hadn’t done the previous two times, leaving the Guide tense and shaking at the bolt of lightning that races down his spine at the gesture, not having had time to brace his shields which had fallen lax in the absence of tension.

He would be more shaken in the wake of it if the elf hadn’t chosen that moment to go utterly still, cupping Ned’s face though his hands have fallen slack and the man can feel the way his focus has abruptly turned inward, and even if he can’t quite feel the exact moment the bond catches and holds, he can see the moment it happens when Thranduil’s pupils shrink back to the proper size and new awareness suddenly floods the other’s expression, leaving him blinking and staring just over the top of the man’s head as his mind struggles to process the influx of stimuli that comes from a sense it hasn’t had access to in thousands of years.

Eventually, the longer the both of them stand in unbroken silence, the piemaker starts to fidget, and instantly wishes he hadn’t when the elf’s eyes snap down to look at him again, causing him to freeze again immediately. If he had thought it was uncomfortable to be the center of the king’s focus before, it’s nothing to the way it feels now as Thranduil’s sharp silver eyes flick back over every dip and angle he’d previously only been able to feel with his hands, linking the two sensations together to better understand what it is he’s seeing at this moment.

The frown flits back across his face for a second before it clears, Thranduil’s lips twitching up at the corners and amusement clear in his voice when he speaks again for the first time in what feels like hours, but can’t have been more than twenty minutes at the most. “Ah, now I understand. So this is what Elrond’s messenger was trying to warn me about. I admit that at the time I had not believed him, though now that I have witnessed the evidence first hand, I find myself thinking his caution was not as stridently posed as perhaps it could have been, given the circumstances.”

Ned blinks back at him uncomprehendingly. “I’m sorry, uh,” he swallows, his throat clicking as he tries to summon nerve enough to speak coherently with those keen eyes still tracking over every miniscule flinch and pull of his facial muscles, and the man prays that once the elf reacclimatizes to being able to see, his eyes will lose some of their piercing intensity, though somehow he doubts it. “I’m-I’m not really sure what you mean. Elrond’s messenger warned you about what? About me?”

Thranduil doesn’t seem fazed, his amusement still quite plain when he says, “Your appearance Ned.” as though that will explain everything.

“My appearance? You mean my face? Why, what’s wrong with it?” He’s not sure whether he should be insulted or not, but from the way the king’s face once more fades into that micro-frown that on anyone else would signal mild consternation, but on him indicates a deeply felt confusion, he has a suspicion he shouldn’t be.

The elf peers into the man’s face still trapped in his grip, scanning it for any signs of deception or guile. “You truly have no idea as to what I am referring?”

“Nope.” And it’s kind of starting to irritate him, actually, how often he finds himself in the dark these days. “So I would appreciate it if you would just tell me, and then we’ll both be on the same page.”

“It would be easier to show you.”

Oh yes the Sentinel is far too amused about this, whatever ‘this’ is exactly, and Ned has a bad feeling born of years of schoolyard torment that the joke is going to end up being at his expense. Nevertheless, he obediently follows after the elf when he beckons the man over to the small pool of water situated in another part of the expansive rooms, and automatically leans over to look at their reflections within it when Thranduil indicates for him to do so. “Tell me, what do you see?”

“Our reflections.”

“Yes. Do you notice anything unusual about them?”

“Such as?”

“Their similarity.”

“What? What are you talking about, we don’t look anything like-” The rest of his sentence gets caught in his throat as he chokes on his next breath, staring wide-eyed down at the still water collected in the stone basin that reflects their images back without a ripple, because they do. They do look alike. Astoundingly so, in fact.

He twists his head this way and that, and the only thing that keep him from grabbing Thranduil by the chin and making him turn at the same time so he can look at the both of them from the same angle and make sure he’s not completely losing his mind is that the elf is already obliging him, mirroring him exactly, expression composed and the projected calm emanating from within his shields the only thing that prevents Ned from having a mental breakdown right then and there.

How had he not noticed this?! He had just stared at the other’s face for nearly twenty minutes, committing every detail of it to memory as the elf did the same to him, and it had never once occurred to him to wonder why his features looked so familiar, not once, or if it had, he had attributed the vague feeling of having seen him somewhere before to the fact that he looked so much like Legolas, not because he looked so much like him! This can’t be happening. Jesus Christ they even have the same nose-the same profile-holy shit how had never realized this before, how, how, HOW-

“Ned!”

The accented voice, firm and deep and sounding nothing at all like his own, rips him out of the tailspin of shockconfusionhorror that he had begun to spiral down into, and then there are hands on his shoulders turning him away from the pool, hands that are broad and long and just like his-but no, no, they’re much paler, and they’re wearing rings, he doesn’t wear rings, they get in the way of making pie, and he’s not the type to wear jewelry in any case, but they look good on Thranduil, really, not ostentatious or out-of-place at all-and then one of those familiar-not-familiar hands reaches up and grips him by the chin, forcing him to meet the determined steel eyes that are inches from his own, and oh my God how can he still find him so beautiful when they look just the same, what’s wrong with him- “Ned, I need you to calm yourself. Your shields will not hold if you continue on this path, and our bond is not yet strong enough for me to call you back should your spirit break free, you must breathe deep and center yourself; regain control. There is no need for such an overwhelming reaction to something so small.”

A hysterical laugh bubbles up from somewhere inside him at those words. “‘Small’?! You call this small, like it’s no big deal? We have the same face.”

“No we do not.”

“‘Do no-’?”

“Do not. Our features are very similar, yes, but they are not identical. Focus on that. Focus on the ways we are different, instead of the ways we are alike, and you will see. Breathe deep and focus.”

Hysteria is still threatening to overwhelm him at any moment, but he forces himself to do as he is told, closing his eyes tight and heaving in a great, deep chest-full of air and holding it for a count of three before letting it go, making sure to tilt his head down slightly so he doesn’t exhale directly into Thranduil’s face when he does, then opens his eyes again, bracing himself, and it’s-not as bad as he thought it would be, actually. Maybe because he’s ready for the shock this time or maybe because he’s frantically following Thranduil’s lead and darting his eyes over every tiny differing dip and hollow of the elf’s face.

Because there are differences, now that he’s looking at the details and not the overall whole. Their jaw-lines for one, Ned’s boxy and Thranduil’s a smooth curve; their hair and eye colors are the most obvious, and their ears of course, but also their skin tones, and the way their brow bones sweep down to their temples, one sharper than the other, and the way their eyes are shaped just a tiny bit differently. Not the same, still uncannily close, but not off-puttingly so, and this realization makes most of the horrible tension winding Ned’s muscles into knots disappear, taking the terror of an impending panic attack with it, and he sags in relief like a marionette with its strings cut, making that almost-smile return to curl Thranduil’s mouth upwards when he feels the last of it drain away. “There now. I told you that you need not get so upset. It is only a minor thing after all.”

“Not exactly the word I’d choose, but I take your point.” He steps back, needing space, and the elf lets him go without protest. Ned tucks his hands into his armpits, shoulders hunching and reaching one hand up to rake his hair the wrong way and then smooth it back into place, a nervous habit he’s had surprisingly little cause for in recent days, and he can’t meet the king’s gaze when he asks, “This really doesn’t bother you?”

“No.” The elvenking folds his hands together, tucking them into his wide sleeves. “Why should it?”

“Because it’s weird!” Ned burst out, bringing his shoulders up even higher and shifting his weight from foot-to-foot, because damnit it, one of them should be fidgeting, and he knows for a fact that it won’t be Thranduil. “I mean, I’ve seen some strange things, wonderful things mind you, but strange, since I’ve come to Middle-Earth, but this one has to be the strangest. Don’t you think so?”

The elf merely lifts one dark brow, that damnable smile that’s dangerously close to becoming a smirk quirking his lips up again. “I have seen stranger.” Which, okay, yeah, fair enough. “I can see you need time to think about this on your own. I had wished to ask you to accompany me to a feast to be held at the end of next month, but perhaps that discussion should wait until you have had time to center yourself once more. We can converse about it during our next meal.”

“No, no, I’m okay,” he shakes his head hard, willing himself to believe his own words. It almost works. “Well maybe not one-hundred-percent okay, but I’m calm, we can talk about it now if you want. What feast? Where, here?”

“No, in a kingdom not far from here, only three or four days ride to the east. A dwarven kingdom, called Erebor by the dwarves and the Lonely Mountain among Men. Every year on the last day of autumn, on what the dwarves call Durin’s Day, they hold a feast to honor the greatest of the seven dwarf lords, from whom the king of Erebor and his family are descended. All allies of the King Under the Mountain must attend, of which I am one. Since you are to be my Guide, you are invited to attend as well, but you do not have to come if you would rather stay here where you are comfortable, though Tauriel would be making the journey with me, since she is Captain of the Royal Guard, and I know not how long the sons of Elrond are intending to stay, so you may be without entertainment, were you to decide to stay here for the two weeks we would be gone.” There is something like mischief dancing in his eyes now. “One can only bake so many pies before they run out of combinations to try after all.”

Ned flushes, wondering if and how the elf king had found out about his baking frenzy from earlier in the day. “Er, yeah I-I kinda figured that out, ya know, today. So yeah. Yeah, I mean, I’d like to go. It-It sounds fun, and I’ve never seen a dwarf before, let alone a whole dwarven kingdom, so I’ll go with you, sure.”

“Are you certain? You need not give me an answer now; there are still several weeks in which you might think it over-”

“No!” Ned interrupts before he can think better of it, trying to steady the crumbling conviction that had seemed so unshakable not even an hour before. “I don’t want to think it over, or I’ll end up talking myself out of going, and I want to go, really, I do.”

There is something softly pleased in the upturn of the smile Thranduil gives him now. “I am glad. I had hoped you would decide to join me.”

Ned smiles back helplessly, feeling more than a little besotted in the wake of such an admittance. “Well, that’s good then. I’m-I’m glad you invited me, in that case. I can’t wait.”

Chapter Text

“I can’t do this. I can’t believe I agreed to do this. What was I thinking? Why didn’t somebody stop me? Tauriel. Tauriel is it too late to back out?”

“Yes, Ned. We leave tomorrow at first light.”

“But can’t I get out of it if I claim temporary insanity? I bet I can. Is there a law?”

“None that I know of.”

“Well there should be. ‘Agreements made under duress are not viable once the agree-er has had a chance to come to his/her senses’ or something. I should ask Thranduil about it. Maybe he’d make it into a law if I asked nice and baked him a pie or something; lull him into a false sense of security. An ulterior motive pie if you will.”

“Hmm,” Tauriel hums noncommittally, barely listening anymore; she’s heard the same spiel accompanied by varying levels of vehemence in recent days as the date of their departure for Erebor neared and subsequently threw the piemaker into an emotional tailspin. This mostly one-sided conversation is the third one in the last hour alone, and so the she-elf has gotten very good a tuning out the words and only responding when prompted; Ned is fully aware of this, but it doesn’t stop him from babbling on regardless.

“I really can’t do this,” he repeats for the hundredth time, staring at back at his own pale-faced countenance in the full-length mirror he’d been maneuvered in front of so that the, blessedly patient-though that patience has long since worn thin-elven tailor could do a final check on the fit of the new formal outfit he’d have to wear when he was presented to-presented to! Like a suckling pig at an old-time feast!-King Thrain and his court in less than a week’s time. “Really I can’t. I’m going to mess this up somehow I just know it.”

The red-haired Sentinel looks up sharply at that, refocusing on the Guide before her, hearing and smell growing keen enough for her to hear his racing heartbeat and smell the true, stark fear that hangs around him like a shroud. “What do you mean?”

The fear of getting stabbed ‘accidentally’ in the leg with a straight-pin (again) by the tailor currently hemming the bottom of his breeches is the only thing that keeps him from shifting his weight back and forth in agitation. “You said I’m going to have to accept something from the dwarf royal family right? Some sort of gift?”

“Yes. It is tradition to present the new Sentinel or Guide of a powerful political ally with a gift, to honor their newly bonded status,” she is watching him closely now, narrowed green eyes watching his every move like a hawk. “Even though you and the king are not yet fully bonded, the custom still applies. Ideally it would be something small; a token, nothing more.”

“But since elves and dwarves hate each other, it won’t be.” Ned’s tone makes it clear he considers the ages-old feud a personal offense and she has to duck her head to hide her smile.

“Perhaps a bit oversimplified, but accurate. They will probably use it as a way to try and prove their supposed superiority. As I understand it, they are still smarting over what they took as an insult stemming from the gift King Thranduil chose to give to Guide Baggins when he became Guide-Consort to Prince Thorin.”

“What did he give him?”

“Seeds.”

“Oh,” he frowns at his reflection, not wanting to risk further incurring his tailor’s wrath by turning his head to look at the she-elf. “That doesn’t sound so bad. But I thought dwarves didn’t like growing things?”

“True, but Guide Baggins is a Hobbit, not a dwarf, and he hails from a lush, green land far, far to the west, past the halls of Rivendell, very near to the sea. They hail Yavanna first among the Valar and are very devoted to tilling and working the fields of their homelands. They are insular and rarely ever journey far from their homes, if indeed they leave at all, so for Mr. Baggins to not only travel so far in pursuit of his Sentinel, but also to choose to stay with his bonded in a place so very different from all he has previously known was, and still is, considered astonishingly daring of him. But even the most stalwart of hearts can grow homesick, and since Erebor is a mountain and without earth to till or naturally growing things of any kind, Prince Thorin built his Guide a terrace garden and fill it with rich, dark earth, and bid him plant anything he liked, so that he might be happier in his new home.”

“Let me guess: nothing grew.”

She glances up at him in surprise. “Not a single sprout. How did you know?”

He shrugs. “Sometimes hard work and dedication just aren’t enough, if the weather or the climate is wrong.”

“Very true. The Prince-Consort was devastated, and as his sadness grew, his health began to deteriorate to the point that Prince Thorin was ready to tear the mountain down with his bare hands if only to see his Guide smile again. All of the heads of the seven dwarf families had already given their gifts, but King Thranduil had not yet given his, as he was the last to arrive. He had heard the tales of the Hobbit’s sorrow and the Prince’s desperation, and so when he arrived at the Lonely Mountain, he bestowed upon Guide Baggins several packets of seeds and bid him sow them, and promised they would grow and grow strong, no matter weather, season, or sun.”

“And did they?”

She met his eyes in the mirror with a grin. “Indeed. That was nearly three years ago now and Mr. Baggins still sends our king the first pick of his prize-winning tomatoes every summer.”

“Still not sure why this is a bad thing. Shouldn’t Prince Thorin have been happy?”

“Oh the prince was beyond effusive in his expressions of gratitude. His father, King Thrain, and the king’s advisors, less so.”

“Because they think Thranduil was showing off.”

“Yes. And perhaps he was, a little, but not to the degree which they believe. Guide Baggins had to journey through our kingdom to get to his destination after all, and my king found him to be a, shall we say, refreshing change of company during his stay, and so he truly wished to help him if he could, even in so small a way.”

“And because he wanted to rub the dwarves noses in it.”

“That was considered a favorable outcome as well, yes.”

“So they’re going to use me as a way to get back at him?”

“They will try,” she admits with a frown. “Even more so than if you had been, say, prince Legolas’ Guide. Because while Mr. Baggins is only the Consort of a prince, you are Guide-Consort to a King, and even then not only a king, but the Alpha Sentinel of the West, the Elvenking himself. And so they will try to get back at him through you, yes.” Her eyes find his in the mirror again, sincere regret in their clear depths. “I am sorry that it is so.”

“Nothing to be sorry for, unless you’re the one who decided that this whole doubtlessly mortifying debacle has to happen in public oh my God what am I going to do? There’s going to be so many people, what if I trip, what if I freeze up, what if I just throw up on somebody, shit I can’t believe I agreed to this!” Ned buries his face in his hands, stress-nausea making his stomach churn and causing cold sweat to break out on his skin. “Why did I agree to this?”

“Ned!” Tauriel strides up to the man, banishing the tailor with a single brusque swipe of her hand, and steps well within the Guide’s personal space, ruthlessly squashing the instincts that command her to hunt down the cause of his distress and tear it limb from limb and places her hands on his shoulders instead, looking up into his downturned face and trying to catch his eye. “Be calm! What is it about this that has you so distraught?”

“I don’t do well in front of crowds; I never have. All those eyes on me, watching me, judging me. It makes my skin crawl just to think about it.” He forces himself to raise his eyes to meet hers, and hates himself a little for the timidity he can hear in his own voice, “What if I make a fool of myself? Worse, what if I make a fool of Thranduil?” What if I’m not good enough?

“Oh mellon,” she tips her head down slightly to rest her forehead against his. “Is that all this is? There is no need for such worry. You could never bring shame to my king even if you tried every day for the rest of your life.”

“But-”

“No, be still and listen,” she shakes him once, shortly, to get her point across. “You are my king’s Guide. That fact alone would be enough to earn you his undying loyalty along with the very highest of his esteem. But more than that, you are a truly good person, Ned, inside and out, though for reasons that escape my understanding you seem to be under the misapprehension that this is not the case. There are many who would have exploited and used to their own gain the position that you now hold, which you have not done; no, instead you have worked hard to make yourself worthy of such a lofty title, not only by trying to improve yourself alone, but by forming friendships with those you could otherwise have ignored or belittled, and by showing true kindness and a willingness to learn not only to your Sentinel, but to everyone you come across as well, even if they do not show you the same courtesy.”

She tightens her grip on his shoulders and pulls back to hold his gaze once more, firm belief making her eyes glint emerald-dark. “For these reasons, there is nothing you could ever do to lose my king’s respect, nor mine or Legolas’, and certainly not the favor of the sons of Elrond. You may not believe me now, but one day in the future, you will, I am sure of it, as we will all strive to make it so.”

Ned’s can’t even pretend to himself that there aren’t tears in his eyes by the time she finishes speaking, since his vision has gone hazy with smears of color as they well up and he refuses to let them fall. His smile is genuine but more than a little watery when he speaks again, voice hoarse and shaky with the effort of reining in his emotions. “Okay, but did you just call me a melon?”

Tauriel grins at him, wide and unrepentant once more and claps him once on the shoulders. “It means ‘friend’, a fact of which I know you are well aware by now. Come, change back into your plain clothes quickly and let’s be off, we still have much to do before we depart on the morrow. If we don’t hurry we won’t get it all done, and it won’t do to be late.”

-

Somehow they do manage to leave on time the next morning, an occurrence that Ned is sure relies almost entirely on the efficiency and speed of the elves, since all he remembers of that morning consists of Elladan shaking him awake from a dream that dissolves as soon as he opens his eyes-though he would swear the silver beech tree from all those weeks ago had featured prominently in it-struggling into his clothes in the dark, someone that he thinks was one of the twins dumping his pack into his arms, and then steering him out the door before he’d even finished fully blinking the sleep from his eyes.

The next thing he knows they’re in the stables, which are apparently connected to the main complex via an open-air walkway over the falls, a fact he had been completely ignorant of until that moment, and he’s being greeted with an excited head-butt from a delighted Earth-Shaker, whom he hadn’t seen he first arrived in Mirkwood. He’d been able to mount up on his own at least, Shaker’s enthusiastic ‘good morning’ having both knocked him flat on his behind and also succeeded in clearing the last of the cobwebs from his bleary mind. They had departed almost immediately after, pointing their horses east into the rising sun.

They clear the trees sooner than Ned would have expected, until he realizes that the cavern network must be much, much larger than he had first thought, and he spares a moment to wish he had been more awake for the walk to the stables, since he’s sure he must have passed at least a hundred more tunnels than he had never seen before. One of these days he’s going to properly explore the entire complex; preferably with Tauriel along so he doesn’t get hopelessly lost.

Elrohir nudges his horse forward to walk alongside Shaker, an altogether too-awake smirk on his face for so early in the morning, in Ned’s opinion. “Finally back with us are you? I was beginning to worry you’d fallen into some sort of trance, or that perhaps the sunrise had bewitched you in some fashion, what with how fixedly you have been staring into it for the last hour.”

“A bad habit to get into, mind,” Elladan speaks up from the man’s other side, his voice gravely serious, having approached while Ned attention was on his brother. “If you must stare into the middle-distance, do choose somewhere better than directly into the sun. You can go blind if you do that you know.”

“Or so we’ve heard,” Elrohir allows with a mock-solemn bow of his head.

“Ha, ha,” Ned intones flatly, striving to appear as unamused as possible, in order to better play along. “Very funny. What ever will I do without the two of you for the next however long? Why, I might actually be able to get something done with my life without the two of you clowning around, wouldn’t that be a novel experience?” He’s only mostly kidding.

“Aw you know you’ll miss us.” Elrohir grins at him, amusement still lingering in his smile, though the mischievous lilt to it has faded. “Admit it.”

“Well, maybe a little,” Ned admits with a sigh, as woebegone as though the words had been forcefully dragged out of him. “But then, I guess I’ll just have to make do with Legolas and Tauriel. Isn’t that right you two?” He raises his voice slightly to call out to the two elves riding a little ways in front of their impromptu-trio.

Tauriel doesn’t answer, not that Ned had expected her too; he had felt her consciousness skim past the last of Lady Galadriel’s shields still hemming in the edges of his mind as she cast out her sight to surround their group, keeping watch over the sprawling, open fields as they approached an offshoot arm of the River Running, where they would say good-bye to the Rivendell elves before following the river east to some place called ‘Esgaroth’, which the two wood-elves had said they would reach by nightfall with luck.

Legolas, however, does twist to glance around at them, a small smile playing around the corners of his pale lips as he calls back, “Oh yes, of course. What with how obviously predispositioned towards recklessness Ned is, we will make sure to keep an extra close eye on him until we reach our destination, for fear that he might otherwise find himself in terrible danger at the hands of monstrous spiders or other such unsavory beasts. Not to worry, Elrondion, he is in good hands.”

“Of that I have no doubt,” Elrohir rejoins, and to his credit, there is not one trace of the sarcasm or scorn that might have found its way into his words only a month ago. “We will expect him to visit us in Rivendell before the end of the year, so be sure to keep him in one piece until then.”

“And you will be coming to visit us before the year is up,” Elladan insists, not even bothering to phrase it as a question. “Even if we have to come drag you out of Thranduil’s thorny clutches ourselves.”

“Uh-huh,” Ned agrees easily, having long since given up trying to understand what exactly their problem with the elvenking was. “Of that I have no doubt.” And he didn’t; the twins didn’t threaten, they promised.

He would miss the both of them something fierce once they said good-bye, he knew, but he hadn’t been lying when he said he’d be fine in Tauriel and Legolas’ company either. Tauriel could be strict and harshly blunt at times, but she was also quick to smile and easy to talk to once you got to know her. Legolas as well, to Ned’s surprise, was kind-hearted and a bit of a goofball once you got past the sneering exterior he apparently presented to everyone upon their first meeting, if a bit quick to take offense, though his affront never lasted long. Tauriel was definitely already his friend, and he had a good feeling Legolas could be too, with a little more time; after all, the elf prince’s favorite pie was cherry of all things, and Ned was of the very firm belief that nobody with that natural an inclination towards sweet things could possibly be a bad person. Pie was always a very good judge of character, even if the piemaker himself was not. (Emerson and Olive would probably disagree.)

They say their farewells to the twins and go their separate ways when they reach the river. Ned very resolutely does not turn around to watch them go; they had had a proper send-off the night before, the brothers ambushing him as soon as he and Tauriel finished with his last clothes fitting, dragging him off and chattering loud enough to drown out the she-elf’s indignant shouts. They’d holed up in the twins’ room, had dinner, and swapped stories like it was just another night on the road and the man had been too happy to remember to be sad. But that was then and this is now, and the only thing that keeps him from getting emotional is the fact that he can still sense the brothers’ minds, pressed up against his outermost shields, broadcasting their own sadness at having to part, along with their eagerness to see him again in a few months. He’s still sad, but it helps, and he takes comfort in their minds nearness until they eventually peel themselves away once they’re out of range.

With all but the very last of the Lady’s shields gone, broken down by himself and Elladan a week prior, he could sense and communicate with them long after they probably would have lost his mental signal on their own, but he lets them go without a fuss. Wallowing won’t do any of them any good.

Sensing his gloom, Legolas stretches his mind out cautiously, ghosting a question just along the outside of Ned’s shields, and the piemaker presses reassurance back through the hair-thin link; he’ll be fine, but he doesn’t much feel like talking. Appeased, the Sentinel withdraws and they ride in silence for over an hour, the man content to watch the fields pass by, knowing it must be rather boring for the elves, since they’re used to such sights, even though the rolling countryside is still a novelty to him, the air crisp and clean, with no highways or skyscrapers to interrupt the view.

Paradise, or as close to as he’s ever seen, and he’s sure he’ll never get tired of it, even if the silence does start to grate on his nerves after a while. Casting about for something to say, a question he’d been meaning to ask clarification on pops into his mind, unbidden. “Tell me again why exactly Thranduil had to leave a week earlier than we did?”

“It is another tradition.”

Tauriel’s voice answers him from much closer than he had been expecting and he looks around, startled, to find she has pulled her horse up slightly so she is now walking beside him instead of in front, Legolas leading their party alone now. Ned can tell without asking that it’s Legolas’ turn to sight the surrounding area.

“Dwarf-Elf relations being what they are, in an attempt to foster trust between two such disparate peoples, a certain Dwarven king put a law into effect that stated that any newly-bonded Elf Sentinels who were allies of his house would have the opportunity to arrive a week prior to any scheduled event, such as a feast, or a peace talk, in order to make sure that the place they would be bringing their new Guide to was safe, and that no threats existed which might cause their bonded harm. If such a threat were found, it would be dealt with swiftly and to the highest form of Dwarven justice,” Tauriel explains.

“After this Dwarf king died, this law was never overturned and still exists to this day, and though there are few who still honor the old ways or even remember them, King Thrain is one such individual. He prefers to follow the laws created in days past to engender peace between our peoples to the letter, for fear that someone will accuse him of trying to start a war if he does otherwise. Though no such accusations have ever been made in his lifetime, there is just cause for him to fear such things. He is a good king, if a bit paranoid.”

“So you’re saying Thranduil left early to make sure no one was going to try and kill me the minute I stepped through the door?” Ned summarizes. “How…archaic.” And a little bit sweet, in a weird sort of way.

“Indeed. Besides, no one would ever be so foolish as to try to do injury to the Elvenking’s Guide.” The she-elf’s wolfish grin is all teeth. “For they know the fate that would await them should they dare try. My king’s temper is famous for a reason.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Ned confesses honestly. “But I’ll take your word for it.”

After all, Thranduil had never been anything but courteous to him. The elvenking he was familiar with was polite, if a bit chilly in manner, and, as the last few dinners after the sight-binding have shown, he could also be kind, thoughtful, and wickedly funny when the mood struck. It was a welcome change from the silent, awkward meals from before, and Ned had honestly missed them after the king had departed, and, if he was being completely honest with himself, he was more than a little eager to see the elf and continue where they had left off on getting to know each other better. The thought made something in the pit of his stomach swoop and then twist in on itself in a way that isn’t anything close to unpleasant.

They talk on and off for a while after that until it’s Tauriel’s turn on watch, and then Ned spends the next few hours conversing with Legolas about this and that, both keeping the subjects light, both of them still testing the waters around each other, not sure what was safe conversation and what wasn’t.

And so the day is spent easily, no sudden orc attacks or anything that requires immediate attention, something which seems to put the elf Sentinels more ill at ease instead of less, the more hours that pass without incident cranking their anxiety levels up another notch until they’re both riding as close to Ned on either of his sides as their horses will let them, keeping him in the middle and both of them casting their senses out at once, leaving the Guide to his exasperated musings about the chivalric code that apparently existed among Sentinels and Guides no matter the universe.

Just the thought of how exactly Emerson would have reacted in a similar situation has him snorting so hard in amusement at the scene he would doubtless make at being treated like something fragile to be protected that Shaker nearly kicks one of the elven horses in surprise at the sudden noise.

Finally, just as the sun is starting to sink at their backs, they crest the rise of a large hill to find the Long Lake laid out below them in a dip between the surrounding hillsides. The tension that had wound up the elves since departing the forest leaving them all at once at the thought of being out of the open once more while the man could do nothing but gape in slack-jawed astonishment at the sight laid out below them. Tauriel had said that Men often called Esgaroth ‘Laketown’ and now he could see why. He had assumed the city would be built on the edge of the lake, not floating in the middle of it.

In another time and place, the collection of wooden buildings might have looked ramshackle or decrepit, the wear-and-tear of countless years of water damage taking their toll and making the city into nothing more than another poor fishing village in steady decline, but in the here and now it is not so. The buildings are wooden and obviously old yes, but they are also in good repair and freshly painted in bright, cheerful colors, nearly every window lit from within by warm, flickering candlelight, giving the whole town a generally inviting feel. Boats of all shapes and sizes swarm around the sizeable town, making it look small in comparison, and even from this distance Ned can hear laughter and music, the constant hum of hundreds of people going about their daily business as a community, the dull roar of it all something the man had almost forgotten the familiarity of after nearly two months of living among light-footed elves.

He can’t tell if he’s more excited or terrified by the prospect of interacting with humans again after so long away from them. He had never even seen humans since he’d come to this world, he realizes with a jolt of shock. His throat clicks drily as he swallows, already overwhelmed without even having set foot in the place yet, able to feel the ebb and flow of hundreds of minds even from here, making it feel as though something pressing is hard against his temples from the inside of his skull. That can’t be a good sign.

“Ned?” Tauriel’s voice jars him out of his thoughts and he jerks around to meet her wide, concerned eyes. “Are you alright?”

“Fine,” he lies shrilly, his voice raising several octaves with his nerves. “Perfectly fine. Don’t worry about me, everything’s great!” His voice cracks on the last word, and he winces.

The look she gives him tells him in no uncertain terms that she doesn’t believe a word of that. “Are you sure? We needn’t enter the town just yet if you would rather wait, or we could press on a bit more before camping for the night.”

“We can?” he asks in surprise.

“We can indeed, if that will put you more at ease,” Legolas adds from Tauriel’s other side, his own bright blue eyes shaded with worry as well as he watches the man carefully, the Guide’s obvious distress at the prospect of entering the town overriding any sense of safety the Sentinels might have previously felt at the sight of it. “It is not imperative that we stay in Laketown. Though we will need to at least pass through Dale on our way to the mountain, to make our greetings to Lord Bard, the same pleasantries need not be exchanged with the Master of Esgaroth, who is an altogether rather odious man, truth be told. We don’t usually stay here on our way to Erebor, but we thought you might wish to be among your kind again, since you have spent so long away from them. If that is not the case, we can press on for a few more hours.”

“Yeah, I-yeah,” Ned breathes, relief making him slump in the saddle and release the white-knuckled grip he hadn’t noticed he’d had on Shaker’s reins. “If-If you guys don’t mind, I, I think I’d prefer we just camped instead of staying in town. As long as you’re sure you don’t mind. I don’t want to put you guys out just for my sake.”

“Not at all,” Legolas hastens to assure him, willing to agree to anything that will keep the Guide’s panic from returning. “We’re quite used to sleeping on the road, or in the saddle if need be, so don’t worry about us. It is no trouble.”

“Definitely not,” Tauriel chimes in earnestly. “Esgaroth is crowded and loud at the best of times, never mind how claustrophobic it can become on festival days like this one. Dale is much more pleasant in that regard, and if you wish to be among Men there, you can. We will continue on and make camp on the opposite end of the lake.”

And with that, they turn their horses east once more, leaving Ned to follow and try to banish the guilt he feels at being the cause of the abrupt change of plans. No matter what his companions said, he’s sure they would rather sleep on beds and not the cold, hard ground, as anyone would, and not for the first time he wishes he wasn’t so terrible at social interaction.

He sighs and turns his face up to the sky as the first stars start to appear in the darkness spread out above them, and sends out a prayer that’s more of a plea that he’ll be able to face all those people at the ceremony when the time comes, if not for his own sake, then for Thranduil’s. He won’t let his Sentinel down, he promises the far-off points of light fiercely. He won’t.

Chapter Text

It takes another full day of riding before they finally enter the city of Dale around noon on the third day after they set out on the road.

The gates of Erebor loom almost ludicrously high over the city of Men despite being yet another mile or so in the distance, and Ned forces back his ever-building anxiety when it flares higher at the sight of them, making sure to hide it deep in the depths of his subconscious behind his innermost walls to keep it from bleeding visibly into his aura. It won’t do him or anyone else any good for him to panic now, not after they’ve come so far. There’s no turning back, he reminds himself firmly. Quit being such a pansy. What would Emerson say if he could see you now?

His distracted musings over the well-deserved tongue lashing he would no doubt receive from the gruff private investigator at his wavering courage keep him occupied as they ride through the streets of the town, Legolas and Tauriel in the lead, walking two abreast on their narrow elvish horses, while he follows behind on his much larger steed. A change had come over the both of them as soon as they were within the city limits, and they sit still and silent in their saddles, faces wiped carefully blank, spines straight and gazes fixed ahead of them. The man would be more worried about their sudden turnabout if their minds weren’t so tangled around his own that he can practically taste the emotions that belay their stern expressions every time he inhales.

They had both tethered their minds to his own as soon as they were within sight of Dale, wordlessly explaining that it would be easier for him to keep track of them and call on them when needed if they were separated this way, for his own protection they insisted. Ned has a feeling their seeming courteousness is less about his safety and more about assuaging their own fears of losing their king’s unbound Guide in an unfamiliar environment but he hadn’t argued, instead taking hold of the mental ropes they’d tied to him and dragging them deeper into his own psyche, throwing up shield after shield in their wake to hide the links from prying eyes and, well, maybe for his own piece of mind as well; he was allowed to be worried about them too, after all. Both Sentinels had relaxed exponentially after that, reliefgratitudeembarrassment spiraling down the temporary links at his easy acceptance. They had expected him to refuse what they saw as an invasion of his privacy but he’d just shrugged; it wasn’t like they had to maintain physical contact with him in order to make it work, so he saw nothing to be uncomfortable about, a fact that apparently mystified both of them but seemed perfectly reasonable to him.

The three of them ride on for the better part of an hour, heading towards the house of Lord Bard in order to pay their respects and formally request permission to stay within the city’s walls for the night. The piemaker tries very hard to ignore the curious, suspicious stares of the people of Dale as they ride past, gritting his teeth and reinforcing his shields to try and keep out the bright flares of their surprise and interest-and in some cases, at the sight of the elves, childish wonder-from flooding his mind. The effort of maintaining the radio silence inside his head makes his temples throb but his shields don’t so much as waver and gradually he starts to relax his deathgrip on them, and starts to really trust, for the first time, that he’s built them correctly after all, and they will actually function as they’re meant to, despite his own fears. The lessening of his fears also serves the dual purpose of making his companions relax even further, and though they still don’t turn to look back at him, he can just barely see the edge of a tiny smile on Tauriel’s face, and the broad, tense lines of Legolas’ shoulders uncoil minutely.

When their destination is finally in view, Ned is surprised at the relative simplicity of the structure. True, it does stand a bit taller than the houses and buildings surrounding it, and looked as though it might contain more rooms, it wasn’t necessarily grander than any of the other admittedly impressive buildings in the town, and neither was it the tallest. Unlike Laketown, here everything was constructed of sturdy creamy white and reddish stone, a fact that speaks to its relative wealth, and it was also much, much larger than Laketown had been, nearly three times as large. Prosperous, and peaceful.

There’s a Sentinel waiting outside of the house when they stop in front of it. Tall and dressed well, though not in excessive finery, with curly black hair neatly tied back and a deep frown carving harsh lines into his otherwise handsome features. “Hail Prince Legolas of the Woodland Realm,” he calls out as they all dismount. “Welcome to Dale.”

“Lord Bard,” Legolas returns calmly, voice utterly without inflection. Gone is the elf who not three hours earlier had nearly laughed himself off his horse at Ned’s atrocious pronunciation of the few Sindarin words they had been trying to teach him to pass the time. In his place is someone much more reminiscent of the prince with the icy blue eyes that had regarded Ned with such sneering disdain upon their first meeting, and the reminder almost makes the Guide quail at the memory. “We thank you for your hospitality. I trust all is well?”

The question has the effect of somehow etching the frown even deeper into Bard’s face until it’s nearly a scowl. “Since you mention it, no, all is not well, as it stands. Your arrival is most fortunate in that regard.” He glances around at the people still milling about in the square, taking a step forward and lowering his voice so only they can hear him. “Come inside, quickly. I need to discuss something with you. Now.”

Legolas’ eyebrows rise, the only tell on his face of the concern Ned can feel swirling through him at the Man’s words. “I see. In that case, lead the way.”

Bard nods once shortly before turning and disappearing into the house, the three of them in tow. The inside of the building is much the same as the outside in the sense that is less ostentatious then one might expect of someone of his station. The floors and staircase are made of good, solid wood, and the rooms are large and uncluttered, but otherwise the place is simple and unadorned, nothing that speaks of opulence or obnoxious wealth. Ned likes it immediately, even though he does have to duck slightly to get through the door to what appears to be the kitchen that Bard leads them too.

It’s as he’s ducking through the doorway that Bard turns back to them and his eyes seem to catch on Ned for the first time, surprise flitting across his face, smoothing his frown and taking some of the lines out of his face, making him appear much younger and less careworn than he had originally seemed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there, Guide…?”

“Ned. Just, uh, just Ned.”

“Guide Ned. If you’ll pardon us, I need to speak to your Sentinel and Prince Legolas about an important matter, if you wouldn’t mind waiting in the living room, my daughter will bring you some tea if you’d like-”

“Ned is not my Guide,” Tauriel interrupts sharply. She and Legolas had both bristled defensively at the dismissive nature of Bard’s tone when addressing him. “He is the Guide of my king. We are escorting him to Erebor to join his Sentinel for the Durin’s Day celebration.”

Bard’s eyes widen and shock ignites in his aura as he turns back to regard Ned with new consideration. “The Guide of the Elvenking? I had heard the rumors of course, but I had no idea…My apologies.” He bows his head to the piemaker. “I did not realize who you were, but even so that is no excuse for rudeness. Please forgive me; it has been a trying day.”

“No problem,” Ned assures him hurriedly, already starting to back out of the room. “I understand, uh, I’ll just go wait in the-”

“Actually, I would rather you stayed. You may be of some help, in fact.”

“Help?” Ned blinks at the other Man. “Help with what?”

“The crops,” Bard responds flatly, brown eyes going hard-edged and shadowed with worry. “The crops have failed.”

-

“I do not understand how such a thing could have happened!” Tauriel snaps once they’re all sitting around the table in Bard’s kitchen, cups of tea at their elbows and a small platter of biscuits before them placed there by Bard’s oldest daughter Sigrid, a pretty young Guide who had flushed and ducked her head shyly when the she-elf had thanked her for the refreshments. “How can you say the crops have failed and yet this is the first we’ve heard about it? Winter is nearly upon you! This information should have been passed along before now.”

“We thought the fields might recover,” Bard explains, running a hand over his face tiredly. “At first it was only a few plants, withered and brown in spite of regular watering and without over-exposure to the sun. The farmers found holes eaten through the leaves, and so they assumed it was an insect infestation, and the plants were disposed of immediately, along with the surrounding stalks, in hopes of stopping it before it could spread further afield. But somehow it spread anyway. Suddenly, vegetables that had been perfectly healthy not a day before were rotten through come morning’s light. We still don’t know what caused it, since no further signs of insects were found, and there were no obvious hints of sickness in the soil. I would go far as to say it looks like witchcraft, though I have no proof. An entire field, half of our crops lay black and stricken as if with some pox now. With luck we may be able to keep ourselves fed through the winter, but there will be nothing left to sell or trade; Erebor will be without food, unless a solution can be found.”

“There would be war,” Legolas predicts darkly. “Dale is the primary supplier of fresh fruits and vegetables to the Lonely Mountain. Without those crops, the dwarves will be desperate, and desperation can drive even the coolest heads to madness.”

“And we all know dwarves are not known for their cool-headedness at the best of times,” Bard chuckles without mirth. “The prospect of a winter in these mountains without food stores is not a pleasant one. They will be outraged, and they will be right to be so. The orchards haven’t been touched, Yavanna be praised, but without that field all will be lost.”

“If that’s true, then pardon my saying so Mist-er, Lord Bard, but it sounds to me like you would need a miracle in order to fix it,” Ned offers bluntly.

“Well you’re not wrong,” Bard agrees with a humorless grin. “When I heard you would be staying in Dale on your way to the mountain, I had hoped that something could be done, but discussing it here now I’m beginning to think this may be beyond the skill of even the wood-elves.”

“Well then I’m not sure how exactly I would be able to help, if Tauriel and Legolas can’t. I’m hardly a master gardener or anything, I’m lucky if I can even tell which fruits are fresh when I go to the market.”

“Be that as it may, you are still a Guide are you not?” The corners of Bard’s lips twitch slightly, what might on a less serious day have been amusement lighting his eyes for a moment. “A powerful one, if I’m any guess, for you to have caught the attention of one such as King Thranduil.”

“So they tell me,” Ned confirms. “But I’m still not sure what that has to do with anything. It’s not as if I can use my Guide abilities to make seeds grow.”

“True, but in these most easterly parts of Middle-Earth there exists a belief that the blessing of a powerful Guide can work wonders on all manners of things, be they territorial disputes or blighted crops.”

“My blessing? What good will that do?” Ned asks in confusion.

“Probably nothing. Don’t worry, it’s not as if I expect you to bring the dead back to life,” Bard smirks, seemingly oblivious to the way Ned and Tauriel had both stiffen at his words. “But my people need hope, and that is something you can offer them. Even the knowledge that you, a Guide of some strength, is walking the rows of the ruined fields would be a comfort to them. I know I can ask you for no more than that, but ask for it I must nonetheless. Will you do it?”

“Yeah,” Ned rasps, pausing to gulp his cold tea to try and sooth his suddenly parched throat, steadfastly ignoring the way Tauriel’s eyes are boring a hole in the side of his head. “Yeah, I guess I can give it a shot.”

-

“What am I going to do Tauriel?” Ned asks the she-elf with as little hysteria as he can muster under the circumstances, twisting his hands together nervously. “What if it doesn’t work?”

“It worked in Mirkwood,” Tauriel responds calmly, radiating peace as well as she can past the haze of her own worries. “You’ve returned nearly half of the forest immediately surrounding the center of the kingdom to health in the last month alone.”

“That’s different, Mirkwood is ancient and magical all on its own, for all we know, all I did was provide a catalyst.” He paces the corn rows in agitation, raking his fingers through his hair and then combing it back into place the next second. “I don’t know if that’ll work here. My power isn’t even supposed to work that way in the first place, it could have just been a fluke! A one time only kind of situation, where it can’t be duplicated if there are any variants in conditions. A once in a lifetime chance.”

“You won’t know unless you try,” Tauriel points out reasonably. “And did you not say your ability comes with its rules? A life for a life?”

“Usually, yes.”

“Then look at it this way: if it does not work as it did in the forest and returns to functioning as you say it always has before, then they will still have the exact same number of crops as they had before you tried.”

Ned stops dead and pivots slowly to stare at the elf, mouth hanging open. “That’s…very true. I didn’t think of it like that.”

She smiles at him. “I know.” She crosses to stand before him and takes his face in her hands, telegraphing her movements so as not to startle him, and tips his face down to gently bump her forehead against his. “You needn’t be so fearful all the time mellon. You are quite capable of making good decisions, and I know you would never willingly bring further harm to these people. Trust yourself Ned. What we believe will come to pass will come pass, because we will subconsciously endeavor to make it so. So do not go into this believing it cannot be done, because then it truly cannot. Believe instead that there is a chance it can be done, even if it’s a small one, and it will happen if you allow it to. Believe.”

He closes his eyes and leans into her touch, and when the images come, as they always do in times like these, of all the times he’s believed in something only to watch it crumble into dust-

-his mother’s prone form on the floor of his childhood bedroom, cold like she’s been dead for hours, who won’t move, won’t get up and smile at him again no matter how hard he tries-

-and blow away before his eyes-

-“I’ll be back” and a happy family that doesn’t include him going out trick-or-treating, no recognition in his father’s eyes and a candy bar pressed into his hand-

-instead of wallowing in them and letting the tidal wave of guilt and fear and shame drag him under as it always has before-

-Charles Charles thumping to the ground with harsh finality, his best friend’s piercing screams when she comes outside and finds him lying there, her cries of agony ringing through his ears long after she’s stopped voicing them-

-this time, he lets the wave crash over him, and then…he simply lets it go. Lets it all slip through his fingers and wash back out to sea, leaving him drenched and shivering, but still standing in the wake of it, not drowning or tossed about in the churning waters of negative emotion.

The feelings are still there or course, still present, as perhaps they always will be, but for the first time in over twenty years it occurs to him that maybe, just maybe, Tauriel is right. And as he draws away from her slack hold, he smiles down at her, a true smile, small and crooked, and her honest delight at seeing it makes something in his chest clench with affection for this person who is able to have so much faith in him when he’s never allowed himself to do the same, and as he suffuses the link between their minds with his gratitude, and she grins widely back at him in response, he finds himself hoping beyond hope that he will one day find his way back to the Pie Hole, if only so that he might hug Olive and thank her profusely for always being there for him in times just like these, even when he didn’t necessarily deserve her support.

“Alright, okay, I think,” he takes a deep breath and lets it out shakily. “I think I can do this. I know I’m at least ready to try. I don’t know that it will work, but there’s nothing that says if it’s worked once it can’t work again, right? So let’s get to it.”

“Gladly. I’ll help in any way I can.”

“Great, cause I have something I need you to do.”

“And what is that?”

“Please go back to Bard’s and wait with Legolas because I am definitely not going to do this with you standing here on the off chance that I fail spectacularly and end up having to go back with my head hung in shame. If that happens I would prefer to have time to lick my wounds in peace first.”

Thankfully she doesn’t look offended, or particularly surprised at his request. “I had a feeling you were going to say something like that. Very well, I will go back. With luck I will be able to keep prying eyes from this place until you are ready while at the same time avoiding my prince and Lord Bard’s question as to your desire for complete privacy while you ‘bless the fields’.”

“Bard did seem kind of confused. He didn’t say anything to stop me though.”

“As if he’s going to argue with the Guide of the Elvenking when you’ve already graciously agreed to his request. At most he simply considers you odd, at worst, he might assume you to be a ‘snob’, not wanting to have an audience while you work your magic.”

“I hope not. I like Bard,” he frowns when he realizes this. “He cares about his people, about keeping them safe. He seems like a good man.”

“He is.”

“Well good. Now, and I say this with the utmost affection, get the hell out of my field. I’ve got work to do.”

She laughs and holds up her hands in surrender at his mock-severe tone. “I’m going, I’m going.” Her smile softens as she looks up at him. “Good luck.” And with that she turns and strides back up the hillside that dips down into the hollow between the city and the mountains that contains the fields, and vanishes over the rise in a flash of fiery hair, leaving him alone in the blackened wasteland.

Bard hadn’t been exaggerating about the degree to which the field had been devastated. Everything was in utter ruin, almost every single vegetable had burst, their liquefied insides pooling around their pulpy, soggy carcasses, the stench of decay so profound and cloying it was detectable even before you crested the hill and actually caught sight of it. Strangely though, he doesn’t see any bugs, not even flies, despite the glut of rot and purification that would normally have attracted them by the hundreds.

And what made it all the stranger was that the field directly across from it, separated by only a four-foot thick dirt walkway to enable the farmers to pass between the two sections, was completely untouched, every vegetable ripe and verdant, corn growing tall and tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and assorted other ground vegetables sprouting healthy and green as far as the eye could see. To say the juxtaposition was eerie would be a gross understatement.

Ned looks down at the furrows he’s currently standing between and winces to see the state of what he thinks might have once been tomato plants hanging limp and rotten grey-black from their trellises, their fruits nothing more than shriveled, dripping black husks of what they once were. The picture they make is so revolting as to be pitiful and he hurriedly crouches and barely hesitates before brushing the tips of his fingers over the nearest plant, the instinctive disgust that curls up his spine at having to touch something so obviously diseased immediately easing when the gold sparks flicker into being at once and consume the entirety of the plant in seconds, replacing ashy grays and withered blacks with greens and reds, new, perfectly ripe tomatoes hanging heavy and juicy from the ends of their stalks in the blink of an eye, repaired leaves turned happily up to the sky, greedy roots sucking up water as quick as they can until the entire plant is nearly glowing with health in the fading light of early dusk.

The piemaker takes a moment to grin proudly at the little life standing out so brightly in the sea of death around it, almost as though in defiance, before he surges to his feet and scrambles over the divider into the still-living field until he’s standing among the endless rows of tomato plants, worried gray eyes flitting over the them as he forces himself to count to sixty as slowly as he can, once again mourning the loss of his trusty watch in situations like these.

He makes himself count all the way to one hundred and twenty just to be sure, and when every plant he sees stays alive no matter how many times he walks the rows, the same giddy hope he had felt that first night, running through the night-dark forest without a thought for direction or danger, shedding gold light and spreading life behind him as he goes takes hold inside of him, and he pushes it back as well as he can, reminding himself over and over that it’s too soon to get excited, he’s not sure it really worked yet, but no matter how many times he repeats it the words like a mantra ‘it’s too soon to tell, it’s too soon to tell’, he can’t quite make himself believe it, not completely, and there’s a new frantic urgency to his movements as stumbles back into the field of ruined crops.

It takes every drop of courage he has to reach out and tap that lone tomato plant again but he does it, and a laugh that’s more than a little hysterical punches out of him when it remains alive, no matter how many times he runs his fingers over the leaves and carefully prods the plump fruits. He drops to his butt in the dirt, yanking frantically at his boots until they come off, ripping his socks off after them before climbing back to his feet, only to freeze once more, gaping in wonder, as gold sparks instantly spreads from his soles, washing out to suffuse the plants nearest to him with light, bringing them to life as surely as if he’d touched them but he didn’t, he didn’t touch them, didn’t have to, it was like the power was just pulled directly from him, like a hook had been sunk painlessly somewhere in his core and was just lightly tugging...and he didn’t even have to touch them, he didn’t have to touch them, he just had to want it badly enough…

The next few hours are a bit of a blur for Ned. He’s half-aware of racing pell-mell through the fields as fast as he can, much like that night in Mirkwood, except not the same at all because for the first time in his entire life, he’s able to use his power, his-his gift, without fear of the cosmic consequences of his actions. He runs and runs, shooting his arms out to smack against browned corn husks and skim the sprouting, limp tops of carrots and beets and other vegetables as he goes, laughing the whole time until he runs out of air to do so, but he can still feel the huge smile stretching his face nonetheless. He’s half-aware that he must look like a crazy person, sprinting to-and-fro, arms akimbo, jumping over plants as they spring up under his feet and twisting to avoid the cornstalks as they shoot up and proffer their husks to the sky as his touch, mad, cackling laughter ringing through the valley all the while. If he had enough presence of mind left to devote to such things, he would be fervently grateful that there’s no one here to see him like this.

He has no way of knowing that someone did see him, an old farmer who had just returned home from a trip to Laketown and so hadn’t received the edict from Lord Bard to leave the fields undisturbed for the rest of the day, because a powerful Guide was going to be working his blessing over the land and did not wish to be seen doing so for fear that it would break his concentration.

After the farmer had put away his horse and cart, and unloaded what few goods he hadn’t managed to sell at the market, he had thought to go to the fields and see if things had improved, and if not to see what else, if anything, might be done to salvage what vegetables could be saved, if any could. He alone sees Ned that day, catching only a glimpse of him as he rushes by, shape made indistinct by speed and the golden power that falls upon the parched earth like rain in his wake. And so Ned has no way of knowing the awed tales the old man brings back to the town, of a nature spirit that leaped and danced, fleet and agile as a deer through the fields, bringing life and vitality back to the cracked and ruined land.

No one might have believed these stories, but for the evidence they would see with their own eyes as the sun set that evening, lead there by the farmer long after Ned had climbed, filthy and streaked with rich, dark mud, panting and nearly dripping with sweat, exhausted but happier than he could ever remember being, out of the newly restored field of crops and made his way on shaky, coltish legs back to Bard’s house, deaf to the whispers that swell and follow him as he passes.

-

Bard had nearly been beside himself with shock and gratitude when he saw the very literal fruits of Ned’s labor, and he looked at the Guide with such bald-faced awe and wonder that it honestly made him a little uncomfortable, but other than his effusive thanks and the offering of his home as a place for Ned and his companions to stay for the night, nothing more was said, nor questions asked of how the Guide had achieved it all, for which the man was profoundly relieved, since he had no idea what he would have said if such answers had been demanded.

Legolas had been amazed into speechlessness, and Tauriel had been almost unbearably smug. Both of these attitudes continue well into the next day after they had depart for Erebor to the cheers and near worshipful thanks of the people of Dale as they pass through the streets on horseback once more, which make Ned duck his head to hide his scarlet face and pray they would pass outside the city limits soon.

As they’re approaching the towering gates of the dwarven kingdom, Tauriel spurs her horse up to join Ned in the lead of their group, leaving Legolas to his silent contemplations as he follows them, seemingly unaware of his falling behind. “The people of Dale have given you new titles you know,” she teases him lightly, a huge smile on her angular face at his obvious discomfort.

“Oh no,” he groans. “I hate titles. Why is everyone so obsessed with them anyway? What’s wrong with just calling people by their names?”

“I don’t know, I think you might find their chosen names for you rather flattering,” she muses airily. “There are several to choose from after all. Some call you nature-spirit, others miracle-worker, yet others light-walker-”

“Oh God-”

“-but most seem to have decided to call you ‘Life-Bringer’, which I suppose is the most accurate, given the circumstances.”

Ned goes quiet at that, turning the words over and over in his head, analyzing them from every angle, and Tauriel leaves him to it, content to ride in silence until the shadow of the mountain looms over them and they are mere yards from the entrance to Erebor, when the man finally speaks. “Life-bringer?”

“Yes,” Tauriel confirms, smiling secretly to herself at the way Ned considers the term for another long moment.

“I guess, if I have to have a title,” he says at last. “That one wouldn’t be so bad. It is what I did after all, and it’s not flowery or egregiously exaggerated or anything. It’s just something I do, like piemaker, I make pies. Life-bringer, I bring life. That’s…okay I guess.”

“Completely.”

“Yeah,” Ned mutters to himself as they finally reach the great stone doors that open into the Lonely Mountain. “Lifebringer. I could get used to that.”

Chapter Text

Ned’s first thought immediately upon riding through the great stone doors that guard the entrance to the kingdom and dismounting Shaker as a dark-haired dwarf comes forward to take charge of her is not particularly articulate nor witty and mainly consists of a train of thought somewhere along the line of: Dang. This place. is enormous.

Everything in sight, as far as the eye can see is made of towering columns of carved or gold-plated stone that sweep up all the way to the vaulting high ceilings that seem to end miles above them, making the man feel very small indeed as he stares around himself in awe. The entrance hall is wide and short, abruptly ending a little ways in to show a bustling plaza beyond it, busy with the stout, thickly dressed shapes of hundreds upon hundreds of dwarves going about their daily business within the kingdom. He’s never seen so many people, of any kind, in any one place before, and he hangs back, not wanting to risk being swept away in the tide.

“So, we’ve arrived,” Tauriel comments from his side after arranging to have their packs taken to their rooms. She smiles up at him. “What do you think?”

“I think it’s big. Really big. Damn this place is huge. Even the statues are a thousand feet tall. It almost makes you think they’re trying to compensate for something.”

The she-elf snorts so hard she breaks into a fit of coughing to mask her laughter as Legolas joins them, casting her a questioning glance before turning to address the piemaker. “Tauriel will be staying with you until the ceremony tonight, but I must join my father in the preceding discussions with the dignitaries today. I will see you later during the ceremony.” He grins, a spark of mischief thawing the icy, feigned aloofness that has already started to slide back into place over his features. “Try not to get into too much trouble while I’m gone.”

“Trouble? Us? Ludicrous,” Ned deadpans, making the blonde elf’s grin widen fractionally before he nods to the both of them and turns to enter the sea of people.

Just as the man turns his head to ask Tauriel where they should go first, a sudden cry rings out over the constant droning roar of noise-“Look out!”-the voice is clearly male, but pitched high with urgency, and as he snaps his head back around to find the source of the yell, several very strange things happen at once.

He sees Legolas whip back around towards them out of the corner of his eye, and he vaguely hears Tauriel’s startled yell of warning, but it’s as though he’s underwater, everything muffled and indistinct, time slowing down as his outermost shields fall like playing cards and his consciousness rolls outward like a river flooding its banks. The ties that had bound the elf Sentinels’ minds to his own had been dissolved earlier in the day, but try as he might the barest thread of connection still remains, and his mind uses these as an outlet, racing down the lines linking them and making his vision split oddly, and he knows without knowing how that he’s not seeing the world with his own eyes anymore.

It’s as though he’s looking out from behind both Tauriel and Legolas’ eyes, and he can see himself, his body, still standing in the same place he had been seconds before when the cry first rang out, and he can also see the blurry, fast-moving shapes hurtling towards his frozen form, heading for a collision course if he doesn’t find some way to avoid them. It should be impossible, there should be no way he could move fast enough to get out of the way in time, but with time moving slow as molasses like his altered perception says it currently is, he thinks he might just be able to manage it.

Distantly, he senses Tauriel’s intention to reach for the sheathed knives on her back, a reflexive reaction to a perceived threat, but she can’t draw weapons in a dwarven kingdom without causing an interspecies incident, Ned is sure of it, and he tries to push the truth of that thought into her mind down through their link; don’t move, I can handle this, he presses into her mind and she freezes instantly, arms half raised to reach over her shoulders for the handles of her blades, and he spares the briefest moment to be thankful for her trust in him before returning the majority of his attention to the matter at hand.

Under Amdir and Elros’ infinitely patient guidance, he had been doing pretty well in his sword lessons over the last month and a half, memorizing the various feints and blocks and strikes with relative speed and aptitude, but no matter how hard he tried or how carefully Amdir showed and re-showed him the movements, he couldn’t replicate the flowing, one-two-three hit style of swordplay the elves were so famous for, remaining jerky and awkward no matter what they tried until the man was ready to give up in frustration, willing to blame his humanity for his inability to replicate the forms correctly, to say that the problem was that he was built too differently to be able to ever achieve that kind of thoughtless grace.

But Amdir hadn’t let him, adamant that it could be done, they just hadn’t found the right method of teaching him yet, and so the lessons continued in a seemingly endless cycle of try-and-fail until finally, one day, Amdir had banished Elros from the training room, taken the practice sword from Ned’s hands, set it aside, and firmly declared that they were going to be working on the necessary forms without the weapon in his hands, to see if that would help. And, much to the man’s amazement, and the elf’s secret relief, it did.

Without the weight and constant hyper-awareness of the sword in his hand, it was almost laughably easy to copy Amdir’s movements, almost what he would imagine doing tai-chi would be like. He wasn’t anywhere near as smooth or naturally balanced as the elf general of course, but neither was he a stumbling wreck. It was progress.

With Amdir’s calm, even voice speaking from the depths of his psyche-“You have to feel the next movement Ned, not think about it, just feel where the next blow will land and how you will need to move to avoid or counter it”-he merely does as his muscle memory instructs. Step, dodge,twist, and then he was once more standing neatly beside the she-elf, in the exact same place as before, potential collision averted and the world all came rushing back in at once, color and speed and sound and he staggers slightly under the suddenness of the onslaught, firmly attached to his own mind once more, wondering what the hell that had all been about.

He looks up to find Tauriel staring at him, an unreadable expression on her face and he frowns, about to ask her what’s wrong, when twin groans of pain from directly behind him divert his attention to the pile of tangled cloth and hair that makes up the two dwarves collapsed in a heap just behind him, rubbing at aching heads and grumbling at the various aches they’d apparently gained from smacking into the wall behind Ned, having been unable to stop their forward momentum in time.

“What is the meaning of this?” Tauriel snarls and the man blinks in surprise at the vitriolic nature of her words, rage snapping off her like sparks from a bonfire.

Two heads snap up to look up at them with wide, startled eyes, one pair brown, the other blue, before the two dwarves are scrambling to their feet, hurriedly brushing off and straightening rumpled clothes as they both give the man and elf identical winning, toothy grins.

“Fili!”

“Kili!”

“At your service!” they chorus as one, bowing deeply at the waist before bobbing back up in unison. For a moment, Ned is so strongly reminded of Elladan and Elrohir he can’t help but return their bright smiles with one of his own.

“Sorry about that,” the blonde one (Fili?) speaks up. “Weren’t looking where we were going as well as we should have been I suppose.”

“Yeah, we didn’t mean to almost crash into you like that,” the brunette (Kili? They’d both introduced themselves almost at the same time), adds soberly, looking up at Ned with such huge, innocent brown eyes the man has a sneaking suspicion he’s used that look to get out of more than one scolding in his lifetime. “We’re late to meet our uncle so we were in a hurry, we didn’t see you until it was too late to stop.”

“Don’t worry about it. No harm, no foul,” Ned assures them. “You didn’t even tap me.”

“Yeah and wasn’t that a neat bit of footwork,” Fili observes, idly twisting one of the beads at the end of one the braids worked into his mustache while he looks up at the man, considering. “Where’d you learn to do something like that?”

“Oh, well,” he stutters. “Thank you? I learned if from Amdir actually, he’s an elven general that lives in Mirkwood and he’s been teaching me-”

“Mirkwood? You’re here with the Elvenking’s envoy then?” Kili questions, flicking his gaze to the red-haired she-elf still firmly planted at Ned’s side, and, for some reason, blushes bright red when she turns her glare on him, still angry enough to spit fire. His voice is barely more than a mumble when he goes on, staring at the stonework under his boots, appropriately chastened. “I didn’t know there were any Men arriving with the Mirkwood contingent.”

“Ned is my king’s Guide,” Tauriel grits irritably, turning sharply away from the two young dwarves when they both look up at her in shock, pacing a few feet away to speak in low, fast-tongued Sindarin with Legolas, apparently assuring him everything was fine and that she had it well in hand.

“Really? You’re the Guide-Consort to King Thranduil that everyone’s been talking about?” Kili asks excitedly, momentary embarrassment forgotten in the wake of this new information. “Nobody told us you were a Man.”

“Er, sorry? Maybe they didn’t think it was important enough to mention?” the piemaker guesses haphazardly, having a feeling that isn’t the case in the least.

That thought is confirmed with Fili snorts in derision. “Or they didn’t feel it was important to tell us specifically, more likely as not.” Noticing Ned’s confusion, he explains, “Our mother is Lady Dis, sister of Prince Thorin, our uncle. We’re King Thrain’s grandsons.”

“You two are princes?” he asks in surprise, then immediately tries to backtrack. “Uh, not that-I mean, not that you couldn’t be-cause I mean obviously you are but-I just, I wouldn’t have guessed? No, no, that’s not what I meant, I mean, uh-”

“It’s alright,” Kili cuts him off before he can make an even bigger fool of himself, both brothers looking deeply amused by his babbling. “We get it. Most people don’t expect us to be who we are when they first meet us. Uncle says we’re lucky we weren’t born heirs to the throne like he was, otherwise he would despair for the future of Erebor, if we were the ones who were going to be running it.”

“Speaking of Uncle Thorin and running,” Fili says, tugging at his brother’s coat and glancing back the way they’d been heading. “If we don’t get a move on, he’ll have our heads mounted on pikes over the palace gates as a feast for the crows. You know how he gets when we’re late.”

“Is that the reason he’s so cranky all the time? I always assumed it was on account of that huge stick he has shoved up his-”

“Kee!” the blonde dwarf calls, already hurrying off through the crowded walkways once more. “Hurry up!”

“Coming, Fee!” Kili yells back, half-turning to follow his brother before pausing to grin up at Ned once last time. “We’ll see you at the ceremony tonight. Good luck!” Then he dashes off in the direction Fili disappeared in, both of them lost in the crush of bodies within seconds.

Ned grins, amused and thinking that maybe this ostensibly stuffy, completely un-fun official political visit won’t be so bad after all, though his good mood falters when he looks over to find Tauriel glaring daggers into the side of his face. “What?”

She sneers, upper lip curling back over perfectly even, white teeth disdainfully before slipping into the ebb and flow of the crowd as smoothly as a fish through water, leaving the piemaker with little choice but to follow.

-

Tauriel strides through the throng of dwarves without bothering to pause to make sure that he is following, shoulders stiff and hands fisted at her sides as she goes, the man scrambling to keep up as she easily weaves her way through the crowd without stopping. He can’t see her expression from this angle, but he’d wager every cent he doesn’t possess in this world that it is a fearsome thing to behold, barely checked rage rolling off her in choking waves that make any who glance her way hurry from her path less they risk being trampled.

She leads the way to the rooms they’ve been given for the duration of their stay with a single-minded intensity that would terrify much stronger Men than he, and sick fear rolls in his gut at the thought of something he did being the cause of her ire. He trails after her as she enters a hallway placed off the main plaza that apparently contains the guest rooms, jumping in fright when she abruptly slams open one of the many doors set into the side of the grand corridor and enters into the room beyond, leaving him with little choice but to enter after her, warily.

The door has barely closed behind them when finally Ned can’t take it anymore and blurts, “Can you please tell me what it is that I did wrong that made you so angry with me, so that can at least try to apologize for it? I can’t take much more of this silence.”

Tauriel whirls to face him, eyes flashing and hair flaring out so that she seems momentarily wreathed in flames as she glares at him. “You say this as though you do not already know what you have done.”

“Because I don’t,” the man insists desperately, fidgeting in place and fighting the reflexive urge to hunch his shoulders and duck his head to try and protect himself from the blistering whips of fury that lash at his shields. “Please, just explain it to me. I swear I have no idea what I did, but I’m sorry for it anyway. Please Tauriel, what did I do wrong?”

Her narrowed green gaze scans his face for any sign of deception, and when she doesn’t find any, a tiny bit of tension leeches from her stance and the scalding waves of her anger recede just slightly. “You truly don’t know.” It isn’t a question and she sighs, rubbing tiredly at her temples. “Ned, in the entrance hall just now, what happened?”

“Two dwarven princes almost plowed into me?” he offers hesitantly, not understanding.

“Yes, but that is not what I meant. You avoided them, stepped from their path before they could knock you from your feet. How?”

“I’m not..entirely..sure? I mean, I heard Kili say look out, and I heard you yell my name, and then it was as if my mind, just, stretched somehow? Suddenly it was like I could see through both you and Legolas’ eyes and I could see where I needed to move to get out of their way, and so I did.”

“You did not do this consciously?” she asks in surprise, most of her anger vanishing in the wake of his explanation. “It was not your intent?”

“No, and I’m still not completely sure how it happened, or what I did, or if I could even replicate it again.” He falters, unsure. “Is that what you’re upset about, that I entered your mind without permission? I promise I didn’t do it on purpose, and I won’t ever do it again, I swear. I didn’t read your thoughts or anything, it was only for a second.”

“That is comforting, but it is not why I am upset.” She sighs once more, the last of the tension leaving her. “Do you remember what else you did?”

“No…?”

“You saw me reach for my knives, yes?”

“ N-Oh. Yeah, yeah I did, or well, I felt you start to reach for them I guess.”

“And you stopped me.”

“I did?” He frowns, trying to remember; it had all happened so fast. “I remember wanting you to stop, trying to tell you to hold on, that I had it under control. I saw you stop, so I assumed you heard me, that you trusted me to handle it.”

“You did not ask me, you told me. You must understand the difference mellon,” she steps into his personal space, looking up into his face earnestly, making sure he is listening. “When it comes to skills in the mental arts, even a weak Guide is stronger in the ways of such things then most average Sentinels. When you pressed your will into my mind, it did not feel like a request, it felt like a command. If you were a weaker Guide, perhaps I could have fought back against you, but you are not weak, and when you ordered me to be still I could no more have disobeyed then I could have separated my own head from my shoulders with a single swipe of my blades.”

“I forced you to stop moving?” His voice has gone utterly blank, mind shuttered. “Just by wanting it?”

“Yes. Do you see now? If there had been real danger, I wouldn’t have been able to intercept it, to keep you safe. If you had been harmed on my watch I would have never forgiven my-”

“I forced you to stop moving just by wanting it?” he repeats, louder now, speaking over her.

“Yes?” she affirms slowly, noticing for the first time how very pale the Guide has become. “I believe it is mostly used as a defense tactic. No sane Sentinel would ever lay hands on any Guide, unbound or otherwise, but the desperation of a decades old uncompleted bond can drive anyone to madness and if an unbound Sentinel is unwilling to take no for an answer-”

“I took control of your body?!” he bursts out, voice rising shrilly on the last word, jerking back away from the she-elf, recoiling from her in horror. “I-I-I made you do something against your will? Without even meaning to?”

Tauriel frowns, taking a step forward only to freeze in surprise, green eyes wide when the man flinches back from her, stumbling until he’s pressed to the wall, curling into himself, his bright-edged panic turning the air acrid and setting off every instinctual warning bell she has. “Ned, be calm. As you said, it was an accident, and you did not mean to-”

“But that’s just it!” he explodes, sliding down the wall until he’s curled into a ball at the base of it, knees pulled up to his chest and arms wrapped around them, shoulders hunched up near his ears protectively. “I didn’t mean to! I did it without even thinking about it, without even knowing I was doing it, or how to do it, or even that such a thing was possible in the first place! I’ve never heard of a Guide being able to-to-to, subvert someone’s will like that, why is that even a thing? Who does that?! Why would anyone ever want to do something so horrible?”

“As I said, it is primarily used as a last line of defense. No Guide would ever willingly bend such power to the pursuit of their own ends. None that I have ever heard tell of anyway.” Moving carefully so as not to startle him further, she eases herself to sit on the floor before him, maintaining a substantial distance between them. “Please don’t misunderstand. I would never hold you accountable for an unconscious reaction.”

“You should,” he retorts miserably, panic abating only to be replaced with despair. “How could you forgive something like that? It shouldn’t matter if it was on purpose or not; I took control of your body,” he spits, voice brimming with self-recrimination.

“I don’t believe you have any say at all in what I find forgivable or not,” she points out coolly, millennia-tempered rebuke in her words. “What is done is done, and we cannot ever hope to rewrite the past. I have forgiven you, and so I will speak no more about it. Unless you have plans to do something like this again in the future?”

“No!” he assures her vehemently, uncurling from his defensive huddle to better hold her gaze, eyes round with hurt that she would even ask him such a thing. “Never! How could you ever think that?”

“I don’t,” she soothes with a small smile, any remaining doubt she might have had disappearing in the face of the disgust he clearly held for the very idea. “And I know you don’t think it so either. Come, let us dwell no more on this topic.” She gets to her feet and offers him a hand to help him up. “Do you still want to explore the kingdom a bit before the ceremony tonight?”

“Well, yes,” he affirms, peering up into her face, looking for any signs that she was lying about letting him off the hook before taking her hand and letting her haul him to his feet. “As long as you don’t mind. But do you think I could have a bath first? I’m kind of sick of smelling like horse.”

“As am I,” she teases gently. “Let us see what can be done to remedy that, shall we?”

Chapter Text

After a detour to the baths located down the hallway from their rooms, a relatively quick trip made longer by Ned trying very hard not to knock into anything and his general unwillingness to touch anything at all less he damage it in some way (“Just get in the pool Ned.” “The bottom is lined with silver Tauriel! Silver! Who does that?” “All I know is you had better get in before I throw you in, I wasn’t joking about you smelling like horse.”), and a change of clothes the two of them finally make their way back out to the busy plaza so Tauriel can begin her tour.

“This is the main entrance platform for the kingdom, but other than some rather ostentatious statuary there is little of interest on this level as it is mostly reserved for housing important dignitaries and guests. We should make our way down one floor to the marketplace; there is much more to see and do there.”

“Sounds good to me, these statues are starting to freak me out. Who in their right mind would spend that much time and money to cover a three story tall stone dwarf in gold plate anyway?”

“They aren’t plated.”

Oh my God. Why would you ever-?!”

They eventually make their way down the winding marble staircase centered in the middle of the receiving platform to the market level, which somehow defies all laws of nature and physics by managing to be even more crowded then the plaza above it, and much louder as well, the constant dull roar of thousands of people milling about and talking cut through with various vendors and shopkeepers hawking their wares at top volume, hollering to be heard over the noise. It’s enormous and packed with people and loud as all get out, and there’s no way they’re going to be able to get through it all without being bumped and pushed around by the general tide of activity and hubbub and taken altogether is should all be terrifying, and it kind of is but-but-but-

Ned loves it.

He loves the hustle and bustle of marketplaces, always has since he was little and his mother would take him to the farmer’s market in town on Sundays and let him help her pick out the ingredients for that day’s pie, handing him fruit after fruit for him to inspect with all the somber seriousness a four year-old could possess and deciding if they passed the bar or not, buying him sweet honey straws to eat as they walked; it was as close to heaven as a child like him could ever imagine.

And even though those days are long past and this particular market looks nothing like the peaceable outdoor produce stands of his youth, there’s something about it, the mostly friendly chatter of people paying or haggling over various items, the crinkle-clack-thump of purchases being wrapped or boxed to be hefted on shoulders and carried away, the cacophony of savory-sweet smells coming from the various food stalls-everything about it makes something that had until now been unnoticed and wound tight in the pit of his stomach unravel and he feels lighter and happier then he has in days, smiling so wide he’s practically beaming.

He reaches back and grabs Tauriel’s wrist unthinkingly, “Let’s go!”, and drags her with him as he plunges into the fray, an action he only gets away with because she’s so startled by his seemingly unprompted delight that she forgets to set her heels and instead allows herself be towed along with relative good grace, a small smile twitching up the corners of her own mouth, something deep in the recesses of her hindbrain telling her to be happy simply because the Guide is happy.

He gets away with it until he stops at the first stall that catches his eye, a vendor selling meat pies small enough to eat as you walk, at which point she lightly but pointedly shakes him off, making him flush and grin crookedly at her in apology before he turns to speak with the dwarrowdam waiting patiently at the counter, politely interested customer-smile already in place. “How much for one?”

The dam opens her mouth to answer before hesitating, cutting assessing eyes between the Man and the Elf. “Five coppers,” she answers, and her smile has a definite edge of challenge to it now as she looks up at the much taller male.

Tauriel straightens and draws her shoulders back, a harsh frown twisting her mouth as she prepares to tell her off; the sign hanging in front of the counter clearly says three coppers, and even that is a bit overinflated but Ned just chirps, “Okay.” and digs around in the small bag hanging from his belt to find the coins and thusly misses the gobsmacked expression on the baker’s face at his easy acceptance. She had been expecting an argument, insults, or for them to storm away in disgust at the obvious swindle, and she doesn’t quite seem to know what to do when the man simply places the money in her outstretched palm without a fuss.

She stares down at the coins in her hand for a moment before looking back up at the man, still appearing oblivious that anything is amiss. “Ah, right, yes. Well. What kind would you like?”

“Do you have any with just vegetable filling?”

“Wh-Ah, yes, actually. Baked fresh this morning, since I heard there was going to be elves visiting the mountain, I’ll-I’ll get that for you right away.”

She bustles over to the table behind her, flustered, and the she-elf steps up to speak into Ned’s ear. “She just cheated you out of two coppers.”

“I know, but I didn’t want to be rude,” the Guide responds easily, unconcerned. “I figured we’d be getting a little bit of a cool welcome, if Elf-Dwarf relations are as bad as you and Legolas say they are. No need to rock the boat over a couple pennies on way or the other.”

The elf Sentinel stares at him for a moment, incredulous, before shaking her head and stepping back from his shoulder as the dam comes back to the window. “One of these days you’re going to stop surprising me, but I can see it will not be this day,” she mutters, mostly to herself, wryly, but Ned hears her anyway.

“Here you are then,” she says as she hands over not one but two wrapped bundles, hurrying on when the man opens his mouth to point out the unasked-for addition. “It’s on the house. I, um, don’t think I’ll be sellin’ too many vegetable ones today after all, might as well not let them go to waste.”

“Oh. Well thank you.” Ned grins down at her, delighted, and the dwarrowdam smiles helplessly back, charmed and more than a little abashed at her earlier snap-judgment and Tauriel has the sudden inkling that this is going to be a very interesting day indeed.

She’s not wrong. For the rest of the afternoon they move among the rows of stalls, stopping at each one so Ned can ask fascinated questions about all of the handmade wares, from food to jewelry to carvings to etchings, he makes sure to visit each one in turn. The receptions they get vary from cool to cautious to blatantly distrustful, but without fault by the time they walk away, even if they don’t buy anything, which is most of the time, Ned’s obviously honest curiosity and earnest questions have usually succeeded in wrangling a smile out of the cooler shopkeeps, a noticeable release of tension from the wary ones, and even the scowling dwarrows and dams can’t stay completely on guard when confronted with it.

By the time they stop at the last stall, nearly three hours from when they started, Tauriel has long since stopped being astounded by the faultlessly friendly demeanor Ned seems to exude as easy and unconsciously as breathing, though it still is quite a sight to behold. She knows it isn’t fully honest, knows the man is trying as hard as he can to show that he, and by extension, her, is as harmless and approachable as can be, but neither is it even halfway feigned. Astonishing. He could be a fantastic liar if he ever put his mind to it.

“Wow, Tauriel, look at these,” he breathes, eyes round with wonder as he crouches to better examine the myriad of carved and varnished animals and figures placed on a low wooden bench before the open-air stall. “They’re beautiful.”

“Well that’s a mighty nice thing to hear, laddie,” the dwarf with the funny hat behind the counter says cheerfully, his bright grin so wide even the long, looping ends of his mustache can’t hide it entirely. “And I’ll take the compliment, but they aren’t just for lookin’ at you know.”

“They aren’t?” Ned frowns, squatting so low on his heels he actually has to tip his head back slightly to look up at the dwarf. “What are they for then?”

“Playin’ with o’course!” He laughs at the dumbfounded expression on the man’s face, nothing unkind in the sound but Tauriel still bristles. “I’m a toymaker by trade, make no mistake. Most of ‘em move too, if yer wantin’ to pick ‘em up and give it a try.”

“These are toys?” Ned asks in considerable surprise, looking again over the fine details and deliberate attention to detail on the carvings. And apparently they move too! “They’re so delicate! I would be afraid of breaking one if I even picked it up. Are you sure?”

“Sure I’m sure, give it a go, there’s a lad, I promise they won’t bite ya.”

Still unsure, Ned carefully picks up the carving that had preoccupied him the most, a stag that could stand comfortably in his palm but was also taller than the length of his hand. At first he thought it was a deer but upon closer inspection he thought it might be a likeness of some similar but larger animal, perhaps an elk or moose of some kind, the antlers wide and flat and curving skyward opposed to spindly and branchlike. It was so finely constructed as to be nearly lifelike, the polished wooden eyes gazing calmly back up at the man as he examined it from head to hoof. He found a small cleverly concealed spot between the neck and back that when he pressed it, the stag bent its head as though grazing on his hand.

It is the most amazing piece of artwork he’s ever seen and he tells the dwarf so, making his grin widen under his mustache. “Glad to be of service. Are ye wantin’ to purchase it then?”

Ned looks up, startled, and opens his mouth to say no, thank you, it’s lovely but he has no idea what he would do with it, he would much rather leave it for a child that would doubtlessly appreciate it better, but before he can speak a sudden hush falls over the market, the shout and clatter of the crowd around them falling to quiet whispers and murmurings, a mere trickle compared to the raging torrent of before and he turns around to see what could possibly have caused such a thing and-

Thranduil is making his way around the square with his small contingent of wood-elves, Legolas at his side, skirting the market politely in a vain attempt to not interrupt the flow of people that part silently around him like water regardless.

He’s facing Legolas, turned away, head bowed slightly as he listens to whatever Legolas is saying to him and so Ned can’t see his face, but even from this distance he can see that the elf Sentinel-his Sentinel-is wearing a crown, something the Guide has never seen him in before, that looks to be made of twisting, sharp-pointed branches, some kind of red berry nestled in the crooks between the spires. It gives him a handful more inches of height he really doesn’t need, since he already towers nearly two feet higher than the dwarvish masses around him and Ned hasn’t seen him in weeks, and something embarrassingly fluttery and warm unfurls in his chest at the sight of him, something deep in his psyche uncomplicatedly happy to see his Sentinel whole and healthy after a time apart, and he barely has time to wonder if it’s a good idea for him to go over and say hello when Thranduil suddenly straightens up and turns around to look directly at him, the laser-cut crystal intensity of his gaze lancing clear through the man despite the distance between them and Ned is moving before he’s finished making the decision to do so, weaving his way through the still-frozen crowd toward the elf.

The similarity between their features is still jarring, especially now after he hasn’t seen been exposed to it for weeks, but he forgets all about that as soon as he’s within arms-reach of the elvenking and the elf’s silver-blue eyes soften just so at the edges and the cold mask he wears in the company of others cracks minutely enough for his lips to tug upward at one corner. “Hello Ned.”

Suddenly shy, conscious of all the curious stares he can sense around them, the man ducks his head, a flush suffusing his cheeks. “Hi.”

“I trust your journey was not too difficult? Legolas said the weather held fair, and you have made good time.”

“Uh yeah, it was-it was alright.” God what’s wrong with him? He is not the heroine of a gothic novel dammnit, he knows how to talk to handsome (gorgeous) men-elves rather-without falling all over himself. “How have the talks been going? Okay?”

Something flashes through those too-keen eyes for a moment, there and gone before the man has the time to properly analyze it. “They are proceeding as they always do: well, if slowly.” A lie. He’s lying and Ned doesn’t know how he knows that but he does. “Are you prepared for the Guide welcoming ceremony tonight?”

“As much as I’ll ever be I guess.”

“You are not worried?” He knows him too well.

“Not really.” Ned grins at him, forgetting the eyes around them just for a moment. “I’m as prepared as I’ll ever be.” And you’ll be there, the thought slips out without his intending it to, brushing against the ironclad shields of the elf’s mind, and he knows the Sentinel hears it, the inherent trust contained in those words, and understands what the man is trying to say without saying it by the way his calm facade eases infinitesimally in response.

“I will look forward to seeing you then.” And with that the elf king inclines his head to the Guide and turns to continue on his way, his guard following once more, and Ned is left staring after him for some time, an absolutely besotted expression on his face before he shakes himself out of it and remembers to be mortified by his own candidness, hurrying back to Tauriel’s side and desperately ignoring the stares and pointing and whispers aimed at him as he goes.

The friendly dwarf at the toymakers stall is giving him a much more considering look now as he idles before the stand, trying to will the heat in his cheeks to recede. “So, yer the Guide of the Elvenking everyone’s been talkin’ about recently. I had wondered, what with you bein’ in the company of an elf and all.” The shrewd light in his eyes fades to be replaced by the merry twinkle from before. “But I suppose that’s neither here nor there is it? On to more important matters; have you decided if yer wantin’ to buy that carving or not?”

Ned is so unspeakably grateful to the dwarf for not making a big deal out of what just happened that he’d be perfectly willing to upend his money bag on the counter if the dwarf asked but as he looks at the stag once more his head is filled with images of molten silver eyes and a crown of branches that spirals like antlers, just as sharp and twice as dangerous, and he doesn’t even know if elves celebrate something like Christmas or any other gift-giving winter holiday, but the days are getting colder and well-

“I’ll take it. How much?”

-

Two more hours have passed and Ned had insisted on taking another bath before getting dressed for the ceremony, frantically scrubbing at every speck of dirt, real or imagined, with the unscented soap provided, until his skin is pink and raw and his hair is as clean as it’s ever been, at which point he finally consents to leave the bath, Tauriel’s increasingly irritated yelling at him to ‘hurry up, we’re going to be late!’ from beyond the door spurring him into panicked motion.

So jittery with nerves is he that he barely remembers to shove his legs into the soft leather breeches commissioned for the occasion before scurrying out of the bathing room and back into his own room where his tunic is already laid out and waiting for him.

He would normally be more uncomfortable at being without a shirt in the presence of someone of the female persuasion but it’s Tauriel, and besides he’s long since gotten used to Olive barging into his bedroom while he’s getting dressed in the mornings, muttering darkly under her breath about laundry and broken washing machines as she disappears into his closet to ‘borrow’ yet another of the few t-shirts he owns but never wears for expressly this purpose. Belted at the waist, his shirts are more than long enough on her tiny frame to serve as a makeshift dress until she can do her laundry and it’s enough of a regular occurrence that it doesn’t even occur to him to be self-conscious about his bared torso as he picks up the garment from the bed, about to ask the she-elf exactly how he’s supposed to do up all these ties and laces when a touch of her hand on his shoulder-blade almost makes him leap out of his skin and whirl around to face her.

“What? What, what, what is it?”

“You have constellations marked out on your skin.” Her voice is practically awe-struck, green eyes round with wonder. “How is this done?”

“Wha-? Oh you mean my freckles?” he questions in confusion, putting his back to the full length mirror situated against the wall and craning his neck to look over his shoulder at the flurries of light brown spots scattered across his upper back. “They’re caused by staying out in the sun too long. Pretty sure they’re a bad sign actually. Why? Surely you’ve seen freckles before?”

“Never,” the she-elf denies with a shake of her fiery head. “I have not had much occasion to see a Man without his clothes,” she points out with an amused quirk of her brow. “And I don’t believe elves are capable of such things.”

“You’ve got freckles,” he throws out distractedly as he finally succeeds in wrestling the ties of the tunic open and starts shrugging it on. “Across the bridge of your nose. They’re faint, but they’re there.”

“I have?” she asks in surprise, going over to the mirror and leaning in, ghosting her fingertips across one pale cheek when she realizes Ned is right. “Extraordinary. How could I not have known this?”

“How did I not notice Thranduil and I look ridiculously alike? Because neither of us spend a lot of time staring at ourselves in the mirror I guess and-for the love of God how does this thing work?! Tauriel. Tauriel help.”

She turns to look at him and can’t help the snort of laughter the sight prompts her to make. “Well first of all you’ve put it on inside out, so that might have something to do with it. Come here and stand still-stand still I said! Honestly how you ever managed to survive into adulthood without due assistance is absolutely beyond me sometimes.”

-

To try and convince himself that he isn’t nervous is an exercise in futility and so he doesn’t even try, pacing the floor in front of the doors to the throne room and twisting his hands together worriedly. The great stone doors are guarded by two dwarves in full armor who have said nothing to him the whole time he’s been waiting here, content to watch him fret himself into a state of high emotion even as he tries vainly to suppress it. The walls are thick enough that he can’t hear anything that’s going on in the room beyond while the doors are closed, but he can sense the minds of hundreds upon hundreds of people nearby and no matter what he’s had to tell himself to actually make himself show up today, he’s absolutely terrified of what will happen as soon as those doors open.

Tauriel had left him here nearly an hour previous with instructions to wait and try not to panic, which he’s managed to do so far, though he’s not sure how much longer he’ll be able to bear the mounting tensions before his control shatters and he bolts for the exit. Only the remembered promise he’d make to the stars that night on the road, to not disappoint Thranduil, to not let him down in front of all these people, keeps him in place though his legs itch to run the other way. He can do this, he can and he will.

His role in this is faultlessly simple, he just has to walk down the platform leading to the throne where King Thrain will be waiting with the other members of his family to formally acknowledge him as Guide-Consort of the Elvenking, at which point he will be given an outrageously expensive gift that he will have to accept with a smile and a thank you, and then he’ll be allowed to go stand by his Sentinel until Thrain leaves the room and then they can do the same. Simple. Easy. Gut-wrenchingly horrifying. He can do this, he can-

Suddenly the dwarven guards snap to attention and reach out in unison to each grab one of the handles of the doors, and with a sickening jolt he realizes it’s time and he steps up to stand before the doors, his own pale face reflecting back at him from the golden inlay scrolling across their jewel-encrusted surface.

“Good luck,” the guard to his right whispers just before they haul the doors open as one, leaving Ned standing alone at the end of the walkway as what looks like every dwarf in the entire kingdom turns their heads to look at him.

He’s shaking, he knows he is but all he can do is desperately pray it isn’t as obvious as it feels as he sucks in a deep breath and takes the first step out on the walkway, then another, and another. He wasn’t expecting the platform to be so long, and it’s completely packed with people on both sides as he had known it would be, only a thin sliver of silver-plated path left clear for him to get by. He studiously avoids looking at any of them, fixing his eyes on his destination, the dais that holds the throne of the King Under the Mountain, his overtaxed mind catching on every random detail it can to try and stop his impending emotional breakdown.

King Thrain is a large dwarf with a great salt-and-pepper beard, intricately braided with all manner of precious stones and bright-polished metal beads, richly dressed, with a great bushy mustache that doesn’t quite hide the stern cast to his features, with a great scar bisecting his right eye, forcing it shut. A warrior king if ever there was one.

There are four other dwarves lined up to the right of the throne, two he recognizes as the young princes he’d met in the entrance hall earlier, Fili and Kili, dressed up in their courtly best and looking visibly mutinous about it. Next to them is a tall, black haired dwarrowdam that must be their mother, the Princess Dis. The cloth of her dress is a rich dark purple that speaks of wealth, though the cut is relatively plain and the embroidery is minimal, only a few silver and gold beads glinting in her mass of dark curls, the hair on her face too short for braiding but combed neat and shining. Even to a Man like him the princess is beautiful and he imagines she could have her pick of any suitor she wished, though other than her sons, she stands alone.

The last dwarf, stationed directly at Thrain’s right hand, must be Prince Thorin. He looks much like his father, stern browed and serious, with the same ink black hair as his sister. His beard is shorter than most of the other dwarves he’s seen throughout the kingdom, a short braid under his chin capped with a silver and sapphire bead the only concession to vanity he can see, along with matching beads in the braids that frame his face, and a heavy signet ring on the ring finger of his left hand. He too stands alone which surprises Ned enough to stave off his white-knuckled fear for another moment or two. Where is the famous Guide Bilbo Baggins he’s heard so much about?

He scarcely has time to wonder about that before he comes to a stop before the throne and raises his eyes to meet King Thrain’s, catching a flash of silver and red out of the corner of his eye and noticing for the first time Thranduil, Legolas, and Tauriel standing with the rest of the Mirkwood envoy to the left of the throne. Their presence helps alleviate some of the terrible pressure in his chest and he heaves in a thankful breath, unaware that he’d stopped breathing somewhere back around the halfway point of his walk.

“Welcome Ned,” Thrain booms, the volume of his gravel-rough voice loud and abrupt enough that the man isn’t the only who jumps. “Guide-Consort to our esteemed ally Thranduil Oropherion, Elvenking of Mirkwood. We are pleased to make your acquaintance, Guide Ned.”

Dimly understanding the dwarven king is using the royal ‘we’, the man bows his head and says, “As I am pleased to make yours, o’ King Under the Mountain.” as he’d been told, glad that he’d remembered the correct response in time.

“We hope you have been enjoying your visit to our fair kingdom these last hours, and implore you to continue to do so for as long as you are a guest in our halls. In honor of this, I ask that you please accept this modest gift to show our esteem for our woodland allies.”

He motions with one be-ringed hand and another dwarf hefting a very large chest with obvious effort comes forward and Ned obediently steps up to meet him, taking another deep breath and schooling his face into as calm a mask as he can manage, hoping the gift won’t be as extravagant as Tauriel had led him to believe and so he won’t make a fool of himself, when the dwarf opens the chest and Ned promptly forgets all about affecting courteous gratitude, mouth falling open in shock at the contents of the chest, his own quiet gasp echoed and redoubled a hundred-fold by those watching the events unfold.

Diamonds. The entire chest is filled practically to overflowing with glittering, glimmering diamonds of all sizes and shapes and cuts, shining coldly up at him and reflecting in the wide-open gray of his eyes, turning them bright-sheen silver in their refracted light. Nestled on the top of the huge pile of gems is a necklace, beautifully constructed of delicate traceries of silver and diamond, a singular piece of jewelry that doubtless cost more than he ever has or will ever be able to make in his entire life.

It’s all so ludicrously overblown that he can’t help feeling a little offended, as though he’s being mocked in some way, but he knows the part he’s meant to play, the lines he’s meant to recite, and so he does. “You are much too generous o’ King. I thank you for your gracious gift and hope someday to be able to repay your kindness with the accord it is due.”

The smile Thrain favors Ned with is sharp-edged and nasty, not at all amiable as he says, “We are glad you find our little offering so to your liking. We will have the chest sent to your guest chambers immediately.”

He barely waits for Ned’s nod of understanding before he’s standing from his throne and making his way down the few short stairs at the foot of it. “We look forward to our next meeting at the feast. We hope you find that it is also to your liking.”

With that he strides out of the room, shaking off his son’s urgent attempts to get his attention as he follows after, speaking low and harsh into his father’s ear, and the scene they make is confusing enough the Ned looks around at Tauriel and Legolas, meaning to ask for an explanation for the strange behavior when the looks on their faces make him freeze, the words dying in his throat.

The prince and the captain are pissed, expressions coldly thunderous as they track Thrain’s quick retreat with narrowed, cat-slit eyes, their fury boiling so hot in their veins Ned is almost expecting the dwarven king to catch flame under the intensity of it aimed in his direction. He is only now cognizant of the whispers that have broken out like wildfire around the entire room, a thousand dwarves discussing the events at the same time, incredulity and worry running rampant through their minds. Utterly lost, Ned looks to Thranduil, expression questioning, only to find the elf king’s too-sharp gaze fixed on Thrain’s speedy exit as well.

Thranduil’s icy mask of indifference has not slipped even an inch, but the barely checked rage in those glittering silver eyes when they flick their attention to rest on Ned, the venom contained within them so potent it nearly makes him stagger backwards even though he knows it isn’t aimed at him is enough to quail any thought he had of trying to ask the elvenking what is going on, why is everyone so upset. Whatever it is, the man has a feeling he’s not going to like the answer.

Chapter Text

“I don’t understand what went wrong!” Ned calls out as he lengthens his not-inconsiderable stride in an attempt to keep up with the two elves who are somehow still managing to outpace him. “Why is everyone so upset?”

Neither of them answer, fury crackling and sparking almost visibly across the tense lines of their shoulders as they lead the way back to the lavish rooms their party had been given, heedless of the few dwarves they pass who scramble over themselves to give them as wide a berth as possible. Ned can’t say he blames them, and he can’t stop to apologize for his companions’ uncharacteristic rudeness or he’ll lose them in the massive labyrinth of interconnecting stone pathways and archways, though he does wince in sympathy at the petrified squeak one particularly small dwarf in oversized woolen gloves makes, ink-smudged fingers gripping a large book to his trembling chest like a leather-bound shield when Tauriel snarls at him in passing for not getting out of the way quick enough.

He glares at the back of the she-elf’s head, making sure she can feel his disapproval winding through the significant cracks rage has made in her shields, and is meanly gratified at the way she flinches and wavers half a step, a flicker of guilt flaring up at the image he plasters across her mind of the clear terror in the dwarf’s eyes. Good, she should feel bad; the poor kid had looked even younger than Fili and Kili.

By the time they finally wind their way back through the kingdom to the royal guest wing, he has officially had enough. “Okay, stop!” he snaps as soon as they cross the threshold, one hand shooting out to keep the spring-loaded stone door from swinging shut in his face. “Enough! I get that you’re pissed off, but that doesn’t give you an excuse to act like children throwing a temper tantrum! I want answers and I want them now.” He lets the door go to fall shut with a bang that makes the Sentinels jump and swing around to glare at him. He meets their eyes with a glare of his own and crosses his arms over his chest, unmoved. “Tell me what’s going on.”

Legolas steps into the Guide’s personal space, leaning in to hiss, “You are not in any position to be demanding anything of us Man.”

Ned just gazes coolly back at the irate prince, lids heavy and voice void of inflection when he intones, “Is that a fact?”

He knows his resemblance to the Elvenking in that moment is so blatant as to be startling, which is of course the point, but he still feels a twinge of regret at the way the blonde elf falters and drops his eyes, twitching with a son’s reflexive urge to back down when confronted with his father’s ire. Ned sighs, the rest of his irritation leaving him, shoulders slumping tiredly. “Please, just-just explain it to me okay? Cause right now, none of this is adding up. What went wrong?”

“It was nothing you did,” Tauriel assures him from behind Legolas where she is perched on one of the few padded chairs in the room, tension still pulling her muscles taunt and her chin high. “It was Thrain. That stunt of his at the ceremony.”

“What stunt? I thought everything went according to plan; he offered me a gift, albeit a ludicrously over-the-top gift, I accepted it, and then he dismissed us. I thought that was what was supposed to happen.”

“In theory, yes,” the she-elf tells him as Legolas turns to begin pacing the circumference of the room. “But you must understand, if he had offered you even half of what was in that chest, a fourth, it still would have been too much. To offer that amount for something as routine as the acknowledgement of an ally’s new Guide, even an ally as rich and powerful as the king of the Woodland Realm, is an insult of the highest order, akin to a slap across the face in a crowded banquet hall. He was mocking our king, worse,” here the tightly controlled outrage seeps back into her hard-edged emerald eyes, “he was mocking you.”

“Me?” he repeats, aghast. “Why would he do that? I’ve never even met him before today.”

“It is because you are of the race of Men,” Legolas bites out suddenly, not pausing in his agitated circuit of the room. “A mortal life bound to that of an immortal one. He views your bond as a weakness, an error of judgment on my father’s part. It is his way of signifying his contempt with my father for even deigning to accept someone King Thrain views as unworthy.”

Seeing the wince Ned can’t quite cover up at the reminder of what it means for Thranduil to be bound to him, Tauriel hastens to add, “All of this would be enough to incite our king to anger; the public humiliation of his chosen Guide would be enough to enrage any Sentinel, and aran nin already knew how distraught you were about being the focus of attention anyway, but that was not the worst part.”

“It gets worse?”

“Yes,” she confirms grimly. “Because King Thrain, in his audacity, also presented that necklace as part of your Acceptance gift.”

“Why is that such a big deal? I know it must have been incredibly expensive, and it was a beautiful piece of workmanship, even I could see that, but compared to a chest of cut diamonds the size of my fist-”

“On a monetary scale you would be correct, the value of the chest as a whole far outweighs that of a singular piece of jewelry, no matter how finely wrought, but that is not the point.” Legolas has stopped his pacing and the serious cast to his features makes him look more like his father than ever when he explains, “The point is that that necklace had already been commissioned and paid for by my father, personally, months ago.”

“Meaning it was not Thrain’s to give,” Tauriel interjects. “To present an item that had already been bought and paid for as a gift, and to give it to you instead of to our king in such a public spectacle, with the whole kingdom watching...the magnitude of such an insult is incalculable. This is tantamount to a declaration of war.”

“War?!” Ned gasps, and his mind’s-eye fills with bold, lurid headlines decrying the latest military invasion on foreign soil while smaller articles detail in clinical, detached type the ever-rising death toll, and he can hear the sounds of explosions, bombings distorted through the audio of a cellphone camera, a picture from his childhood of his father and two other men, teeth grit in parodies of smiles against a sepia-toned desert backdrop. “What war? No, no, no, no, no, no, that-that can’t be right! Why would King Thrain do something like that? Risk the lives of his people for something so ridiculous? Is he insane?!”

“That is looking like a distinct possibility, yes,” Legolas agrees flatly. “Thrain would have to be mad to think he could take on the woodland realm alone. Such an unprovoked attack would promote outcry across Middle-Earth. Lord Elrond wouldn’t stand for it, and I don’t think the Lady and Lord of Lothlorien would stand idly by if they witnessed such events unfold. Bard would take my father’s side, which means Dale would stand with us as well. And despite what Thrain might think, the dwarves of the Iron Hills and the Blue Mountains are not fools; they would not come to his aide, even if he were willing to part with some of his vast hoards of gold to try and tempt them into his service, which I sincerely doubt. It would be a suicide for him to even try such a thing. It would be a slaughter.”

“Then why would he do it?”

“Because madness is not rational, mellon,” Tauriel points out. “I would be astonished if he’s even taken one of those factors into account, let alone considered them all.”

“But-But Thranduil, he won’t let himself be baited right?” Ned asks desperately, searching their faces for any sign that the situation isn’t as dire as they make it sound. “Sure he’s upset now, but he’ll cool down right? Talk some sense into the dwarves?”

“He may not have a choice,” Tauriel shoot down his hopes bluntly. “If Thrain forces his hand, if he launches the first salvo, my king will have no choice but to defend himself and his people. His duty is to the safety of his realm, not to the peace of the land.”

“But he’ll at least try to find a way to avoid fighting right? Try to talk it out at least?”

The Sentinels exchange a telling glance, both unsure of whether they want to distress the Guide further. “Not. necessarily,” Legolas hedges. “My father’s temper is, ah, unpredictable at the best of times.”

“But surely he doesn’t want war.”

“Of course not, but if he decides that the events of today are enough of a challenge, he is well within his rights to order us all to pack our bags and be ready to leave at first light.”

“And if that happens, it will be seen as acceptance. War would be inevitable.”

“Well then we have to do something! Talk to him before that happens!” Ned all but shouts, gesturing frantically with his hands, uncomprehending as to why they’re still sitting here when they could be out preventing unneeded bloodshed.

“We could try,” Legolas agrees, voice gentle when he continues, “But there is a chance it may already be too late.”

-

The Guide-Acceptance feast is just as awkward as Ned feared it would be, if not more so. He’s seated to Legolas’ left, with Thranduil on the prince’s other side, and as far as he can tell, the elvenking doesn’t speak a single word to anyone for the duration of the meal, and though Legolas tries, the man is much too nervous to speak more than a few words himself, and so their entire (enormous, outrageously long) table is nearly silent, a stark contrast to the rest of the noisy chamber. Ned is starting to get the impression that dwarves as a people may just be incapable of doing anything quietly when they could do it just as well at top volume, which, while not exactly a bad thing, the exuberance can get a bit exhausting after a while.

Not to say the dwarven royal family is being particularly rowdy. Aside from Thrain, who is drinking and eating and laughing just as uproariously as the rest of his people, either oblivious to or flagrantly ignoring the tomb-like silence that has fallen over his children. Fili and Kili try to get their mother and uncle engaged, chattering almost nonstop with forced, brittle cheer, telling bawdy jokes, and even tossing plates back and forth over the older dwarves heads when nothing else seems to catch their attention, their efforts only brought to a halt after a harsh word from their mother when a carrot from an enthusiastically hurled plate lands in her carefully braided hair.

The princes subside after that, Fili stabbing mutinously at his potatoes with his knife like they’ve personally offended him, while Kili keeps sneaking quick glances at Tauriel around his uncle and grandfather’s considerable bulk, only to stop and flush bright red to the roots of his dark hair when Ned finally quirks an eyebrow at him after the fifth or sixth such furtive glimpse.

The man immediately feels bad for letting on that he knew what the young dwarf was doing; it had been the only thing distracting him from his own dire musings, and he’s disappointed to have even that small comfort taken away, leaving him alone with his thoughts and the knowledge of what he has to do as soon as the feast is over. He has to talk to Thranduil before the morning comes, and maybe he can talk him out of doing anything rash. Not that he has any idea how he would stop him if he did decide to leave after all, but he knew he’d have to at least give it a shot. The worse his Sentinel could do was yell at him right? And nevermind what the nauseous twisting in his stomach said about that, he had been yelled at by people he lo-cared about before. It didn’t kill him then and it wouldn’t kill him now, so he would just have to suck it up and face the music.

Telling himself that was all well and good, but when Thranduil finally did rise from the table after what felt like a small eternity and turn to head out of the hall, a terrible feeling of dread washed over him, and like having a bucket of ice water unexpectedly thrown over his head, the sensation was not a pleasant one. It froze him to his seat for a few crucial seconds, long enough for the tall elf to disappear down the corridor leading back to his rooms, leaving the man to nearly trip over his own feet in his haste to go after him when a nudge from Tauriel finally snapped him out of the fear-trance he’d fallen into. He has no idea which of the many apartments in the royal guest wing was Thranduil’s and if he doesn’t keep him in his sights, he knows he’ll miss his opportunity for sure.

By the time he stumbles out into the corridor, all he sees is a flash of silver and white vanishing around a bend to his left and he hurries to follow, mentally chiding himself for his earlier inaction. When he finally throws himself around the corner, the Sentinel is already turning down yet another hallway and Ned sprints after him, determined not let him get away. So determined, in fact, that he isn’t paying as much attention to where he’s going as he should be, so when he barrels down the hallway after his quarry, he nearly crashes headfirst into the very person he was chasing.

He flails wildly in an attempt to halt his forward momentum before he hits the elf, but he needn’t have bothered. Instead of moving out of the way, Thranduil instead steps neatly forward, getting under the man’s guard, and in a simple, impossible to replicate maneuver, takes hold of Ned’s right wrist and left hip and spins him forcefully around and steps in front of him so that the man is facing back the way he came, standing perfectly still and left blinking in astonishment at the inhuman speed of the movements that had kept them from colliding messily. Astonished enough that at first he doesn’t completely register their new positions, but when he does, he knows he flushes all the way up to his hairline in much the same way Kili had earlier.

To keep him from falling backwards at his body’s center of gravity’s abrupt shift, the elf had wrapped his right arm around the man’s waist, pressing them chest-to-chest to steady him, his left hand still wrapped carefully around Ned’s wrist, holding both their arms out and to the side as though they’ve simply paused in the middle of dancing, looking down at the Guide with something that might be amusement to add a spark to his otherwise distant silver gaze. “If you wished to speak to me, you need only have called out and I would have waited. There was no need for such excessive haste.”

Beyond embarrassed both at their compromising position and because such a plan had honestly never occurred to him, Ned ducks his head, breaking eye contact and habitually tugging his bottom lip between his teeth. “Right, well, um-I uh, I would have done that, really, if I had, uh, thought about it. But I didn’t so, um.”

“I had surmised as much.” The elvenking doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to release his Guide, and there is definitely fond amusement in those uncanny eyes now as he catalogs the man’s expression, unable to avoid lingering for longer than might be appropriate on the swell of the lip rapidly turning red under Ned’s unconscious attentions. “Am I also correct in assuming that you did wish to speak to me about some pressing matter that you felt required such urgency?”

“Uh, no, not-not really,” Ned stammers. “I just wanted to say, um, to talk to you about some-Oh!” He snaps his head up to look into Thranduil’s face again, mortification forgotten in the wake of returning memory. “I wanted to talk to you about the Acceptance ceremony; about what King Thrain did.”

Just like that the teasing light left his eyes, returning them to their customary frigidity once more. “I see. Well then I am afraid your strident pursuit has been in vain. There is nothing to discuss.” He releases the man without further preamble, leaving him bereft in the absence of the elf’s comforting body heat, pushing open the door to his apartment and entering it as though the conversation is over.

But Ned isn’t about to let it go that easily. “On the contrary, I think there’s a lot to discuss.” He slips between the elf and the doorframe before he loses his nerve, turning back to face the elvenking once he reaches the middle of the lavish room. “You can’t actually be thinking of going to war over something so small.”

“‘Small?’” Thranduil repeats, face coldly impassive despite the anger Ned can sense building up behind his shields, belying the calm he projects on the surface. “I assure you, the matter is neither ‘small’ nor as insignificant as you may believe. A great insult has been paid to me and mine and I intend to repay that insult with interest when the time comes.”

“You can’t be serious!” Ned bursts out, fiercely ignoring the heat that flares in his gut at the possessive way Thranduil’s tongue curved around the word ‘mine’ in reference to him because no, bad hormones, that is demeaning, not sexy goddamnit, show some self-respect. “You expect me to believe that you would be so petty as to risk the lives of your people, your son, in a war with a powerful kingdom just because their king decided to be a jerk to you?”

“To you, the insult was paid to you,” Thranduil says, taking a slinking, too-fluid step closer to Ned, forgetting himself in his rising anger, and the room is starting to smell of ozone; a warning. “Not to me. I would not be so ‘petty’ as that.”

“You think I want you to start a war over me?” he demands, properly annoyed now, refusing to be cowed; they both know Thranduil could never-would never lay a hand on him. “I’m a big boy, I can take care of myself. This is hardly the first time a bully has tried to get under my skin, and I’m starting to think it probably won’t be the last, though I had hoped I’d left all this macho posturing behind me once I finished middle school.”

“Is that all you think it is? Then clearly you do not have as full a grasp on the situation at hand as you would like to think you do.”

“Please, enlighten me.”

“He humiliated you,” the elf growls, barely half a foot of air between them now, both of them glaring the other down, silver locked with slate. “In front of all those people, he degraded you. Offering you those pretty trinkets, he insinuated-”

“What?” Ned sneers. “What could he possibly have been trying to say with that gift other than the obvious? That I am unworthy? That I’m not good enough for you? That I-”

“That you are no better than a whore!” Thranduil finally snaps, pushed to the breaking point, the cracks in his perfect porcelain mask widening to the point that he actually curls his upper lip back over sharp white teeth in a snarl, visibly enraged, and Ned recoils as though he’s been slapped. “That the only reason I chose you was because you are beautiful, because to him there is no other sane reason I could have wanted someone he has deemed so inferior to one of my station; a concubine only worthy of being draped in riches and used to adorn my bedchambers. He may as well have said the words himself, the message would have come across the same.”

Ned stares at him, shocked into silence, something deep inside him shivering in the wake of the emotional blow. He had thought the Sentinel was upset because of the faults Thrain had been trying to snidely point out about the elvenking, not-not about this. “O-Oh. I…I didn’t know. T-Tauriel and Legolas said-”

“Tauriel and Legolas would never wish to see you in pain. That is why they did not tell you the full gravity of the insult Thrain paid to you today.” Thranduil looks tired now, all of the fight gone from him with the realization that his Guide is hurting because of his careless words. “I am not so kind as they in this respect, I fear, nor in many others. Time warps all things eventually, you see, and the Eldar are not immune to this, though there are times I find myself wishing in vain that we were.”

Slowly, moving carefully enough that Ned can read his intentions and pull away if he wishes, he gently cups the man’s cheek in one broad palm, tipping his face up so he can see the apology reflected in the elf’s eyes. “I have hurt you. That was not my intention.”

“I know,” Ned whispers, before taking a shuddering breath and straightening his shoulders, holding the elf’s gaze firmly once again. “I still don’t want you to do something stupid because of me. My hurt feelings are not worth ending lives for.”

The Sentinel searches his face, unfathomable eyes seeing every emotion he is showing as well as any he might think to hide. “You do not wish for me to do this?”

“No.”

“It would cause you pain? Undue suffering?”

“Yes.” Ned answers without hesitation, knowing his Sentinel side needs to hear it put in those terms. “Lots of undue suffering. There might even be tears.”

“Indeed?”

“Yes, and I’m not usually a crier, so that should tell you something.”

“Well I cannot allow you to shed tears of sorrow if there are steps to be taken in preventing such a loathsome occurrence,” Thranduil assures him gravely, a tiny smile playing around the corners of his pale lips. “So I find I must submit to your better judgment. I will endeavor to find some other way to express my…displeasure with the dwarves. One that does not involve spilt blood.”

“See that you do,” Ned dictates with mock-severity, knowing he’s being teased, a smile crooking up one side of his mouth as well.

He sighs and leans into the hand that is still cradling his jaw, humming in pure contentment when the elf sweeps a thumb over the swell of his cheekbone, eyes falling to half-mast as the warmth that radiates from where they’re connected starts to turn his bones to mush, swaying just that much closer to Thranduil, who is still standing much too close to him. Or perhaps…not close enough?

“Ned,” Thranduil breathes, warm breath ghosting across the Guide’s unconsciously parted lips.

“Hm?”

“You should go back to your rooms soon, before the feast ends. The hour is late, and if anyone sees you exiting my rooms at such an hour, well,” he inclines his head just barely to the side, leaning in just a hairs-breath more, his own half-closed eyes drawn to the man’s soft mouth as unerringly as a moth to an open flame. “There will be talk.”

“Then let them talk,” Ned responds without thought, emboldened by the uncomplicated desire he can feel seeping into his skin due to Thranduil’s proximity. “We already know what they think of me anyway. It’s not a crime for a Guide to spend the night in his Sentinel’s room.”

“Which is why I requested we be given separate rooms in the first place,” Thranduil offers sensibly, though he makes no move to pull away.

“Truth be told I’m not sure I even know where my room is in relation to yours.”

“Down the hall third room on the left,” he elf answers without hesitation, molten silver eyes watching as his Guide shivers at the implication in those words, eyes sliding all the way open, and if Thranduil were anyone other than who he was he might have groaned at the way the man’s pupils had swollen wide with lust, black swallowing up the normal storm-sea gray. “You really should leave.”

“Why?” he questions softly.

“Because if I kiss you,” Thranduil responds just as quietly, their lips practically brushing with every word. “Can you tell me with complete honesty that it will stop with just a kiss?”

Ned hesitates for a fraction of a second, something deep, deep in his subconscious not giving a good holy damn about the consequences at this exact moment in time, thank you very much, before he exhales a sigh and finally pulls away, stepping back from the elf, a wry smile twisting his mouth. “No, I can’t promise that.”

“Then I bid you good night, Ned,” Thranduil says calmly, appearing outwardly composed once more, but the man isn’t fooled.

He quirks one last crooked grin at the elf before he turns to make his way toward the door. “Good night, Thranduil.”

Chapter Text

The awareness has always been there, like an itch at the back of his mind. The sense that something was missing, or was just out of reach, and if he merely stretched his arm far enough, he would be able to grab hold of whatever it was, though it always remained just out of reach. It was endlessly frustrating.

He remembers being an elfling sitting in his father’s lap, chubby, clumsy fingers intent on braiding flowers, as well as a few pretty weeds before he’d learned the difference, into his father’s pale hair and asking, “Ada, what is it like when you meet your meleth marthannen for the first time?”

Oropher had smiled at him, warm sunlight reflecting in his clear green gaze and said, “Oh it is a wonderful feeling my son, the best, most important thing in the entire world. It is like…like coming home after being away for so long you have forgotten how beautiful the land is, or if you had gone to bed one night in the deep winter only to wake up and discover spring has suddenly arrived with the new day. There is nothing else like it.”

“Is that how it felt when you met emel?”

“Yes, exactly.”

“And will it be like that for me as well?”

“Perhaps,” his father had answered vaguely, grinning at the confusion he no doubt saw in his young son’s face. “It is different for everyone Thranduil, and I would not presume to tell you how it will feel when you first lay eyes on your fated partner, but I do know that it will be special and amazing no matter what.”

King Oropher had been good with words, offering kindness and counsel as easily as breathing, the epitome of what it meant to truly be a Guide, as well as a just ruler, and his people had loved him for it. And though he may have been born with his father’s fair hair and tall build, he favored his dark-haired mother as well in his hawk-sharp silver eyes and solemn, slow-kindling temper. Where Oropher was giving and trusting, with moods that were as quick to change as the summer breeze, full of joy one moment and sorrowful the next, his mother was cautious but fierce in her loyalty once it was earned, her countenance as outwardly calm as still water on the surface of a lake. They had represented everything that was good and stable in his life when he had been young, the perfect pair, everything a bonded Sentinel and Guide should be.

To their son, it seemed that there could never truly be balance in the world if you were to have one without the other. And with time, he would come to realize he was right.

Three thousand and some years have passed since Dagorlad, and Thranduil is still not sure whether he will ever be able to completely able to forgive his father for his actions on that day. If he had only waited for reinforcements, if he hadn’t been so assured of his own invincibility-But he wasn’t at his father’s side during that fatal charge, and so he’ll never know for himself the reasoning behind his decision to strike before the time was right, and it is not his place to judge when he is not in possession of all the facts.

But seeing what the loss of his father did to his mother-for Oropher to be so impatient that he could not even wait until he had his Sentinel, his bonded beloved, by his side-for this he is not sure he can ever forgive him.

For he was the one who was left behind to witness his mother’s slow decline in health, how the bright spark of her spirit flickered fainter with every passing day away from her Guide until she barely had the strength to draw breath. His proud, fierce, warrior queen of a mother, reduced to nothing more than a wasted shell of her former self.

She fought for as long as she could, fought to stay strong for him, her only son, but it was a long, brutal battle, and she was losing ground day by agonizing day until finally, sitting at her bedside one night, he had gripped one of her fragile, bird-bone hands in both of his and begged her, “Emel, please, stop this. Do not prolong your suffering on my account. Let go mother, and rejoin with adar in the Halls of Mandos. Everything will all be alright. I will be alright.”

She had stirred then, and though he couldn’t see it, he knew she turned her face to look up at him with those once bright silvered eyes that he had inherited from her-and it hurt to think of their sheen dulled by pain and grief-and with great effort lifted her free hand and placed it on his cheek, so faded by now that he can barely feel her touch. “Ion nin,” she whispered, voice reedy and weak with the agony of loss. “I love you. You will be a great king.”

And then she was gone.

He’d had to bury people before, friends and brothers in arms who had died on the field of battle, but never like this, never after he had watched them slowly deteriorate from the inside out, eaten alive by a force that could not be seen or fought, and he gained new respect for mortals that day, especially for the Men, who lived such short, often brutal lives anyway, only to have them end early due to sickness. What fortitude must such a people possess to see loved ones die, to see their children die while they stood by, helpless to do anything to stop it, and yet still find a way to continue on afterwards despite it all? At least he had the comfort of knowing his parents were reunited and at peace under the watchful eye of Mandos; Men didn’t even have that small assurance.

Sireryn had helped him to recover, had made him smile and laugh again when he would otherwise have let himself fall into despair. His wife had always been good at that, as strong, wild, and beautiful as the Greenwood of her birth, and she wouldn’t tolerate him taking the easy way out, wouldn’t let him give up when she knew that there was still so much to see and do, to live for in the world.

She was his best friend and he loved her dearly, and when her true love had fallen to an orc raid when traveling over the Misty Mountains, it had been him she turned to in her grief. They’d had a good, happy life together, and he’d given her the opportunity to bear and raise a child, something she had wanted more than anything in the world; but she was not his Guide, and he was not her lost love. So when she returned from a trip to Rivendell, and he could sense the sea’s tide pulling at her bones, he had wished her fair weather and safe travels, and she had hugged him tight in farewell and made him promise to not give up on his search for his other half as she crossed the sea to be with her own.

Legolas had been young, but had long since reached his majority by then, and though he was sad to see his mother leave, he understood, and did not hold any ill will against her, since he would see her again one day.

Thranduil had kept his promise, had always kept that awareness, that sense of wrongness, of something being incomplete in the back of his mind, and settled in to wait for his Guide to show themselves, to seek him out when they were ready. And so the millennium had passed, and while the longing never grew worse, as it doubtlessly would have if he had not had the forest to steady him, his Guide had never appeared; and the forest grew ever darker, a creeping sickness he could feel slithering ever farther into his kingdom and into his very veins. His forest, his anchor, was rotting by inches and he, he was…changing. Into what, he could not say, but he could feel it happening, worsening as the years went by, but he could do nothing to stop it, he was too tangled with the forest by now, to separate himself from it would mean death or madness or both and he could not do that, he would not risk the lives of his people, the life of his son, he could beat this, he could hold on, he would-

A spark. A tiny flame flickering in the darkness, and a profound sense of wonder as he wraps his spirit around it, cupping it in his palms, unheeding of the biting pain of black, corroding acid evaporating from the darker corners of his mind with an angry hiss, unable to withstand the blinding light of his joy. His Guide has at last been born into the world.

Legolas had known almost immediately that something had changed in him, and he had been happy for his father, even as the first icy tendrils of sorrow had wound themselves around his heart. They both knew what it meant for him to just be sensing his Guide now, after seven millennia of silence. There had been no elf children born in Middle-Earth in nearly two and a half thousand years. His Guide was mortal, which meant Thranduil’s years were now numbered to a mere one hundred more if he was lucky, a handful of decades if he was not.

But the elvenking did not care. For four years he nurtured that shivering flame, coaxing it to climb higher, to burn brighter, shielding it from the cold winter storms of his ancient spirit and watching with awe as it grew. He has never been so aware of the changing of the seasons in all his long life as he waits for his Guide to reach their majority so that he might finally, finally have that bond, that love his parents shared and-

The flame goes out.

Snuffed, as if it were never there in the first place.

There are no words to describe the depths of his anguish.

He moves through his days as though in a fog. He feels nothing. All light has gone from the world and there in nothing worth living for now. Only his duty to his son, to his people, keeps him alive, keeps him going. He binds himself even more fully to the forest, sinking every last shred of his consciousness not necessary to keep his body alive into its decaying roots and festering marshes, and gives himself over to the corruption seeping through this bloodstream like a poison. His moods grow blacker, his temper shorter, and his paranoia, his distrust of the outside world, grows.

Then an elf carrying a message from Lord Elrond of Rivendell arrives in his kingdom, a Noldor, and the ugly, monstrous thing that has taken root in his soul rears up and hisses with fury, but outwardly he is as calm as the waters of a lake without wind.

The page is not fooled; he can sense the danger lurking beneath the placid surface and so he delivers his message as quickly as possible: a powerful Guide, a mortal Man, has been found and is being tutored by the Lady of Light herself, and it has been determined that this is his Guide, the Guide of the Elvenking of Mirkwood. His name is Ned.

Thranduil is furious, he is outraged, his inscrutable mask cracks and the Rivendell elf’s eyes widen and his face goes ashy white with fear and he hastily makes his good-byes before almost bolting from the throne room.

He is smart but Lord Elrond is not, not if he thinks he can fool him, taunt him with something he knows he can never, ever have, and the Lady Galadriel has walked this earth for too long and grown far too complacent in her own power if she thinks for one moment he will not raze Lothlorien to the ground for this, he will destroy them, they will not get away with this-this-this injustice! This mockery! This abject cruelty! They will pay, he will make them all pay for-

A spark. A faint voice on the wind calling out to him, a bonfire where there was once a candle flame, and the blackened thing wound around his heart picks up its head and turns to scent the air, points its scarred muzzle westward and reaches-

And he’s there. His Guide. He can feel him, he’s there, he’s alive, he is coming to find him at last, and finally he will be whole as he has never truly been before. And once he’s finally here Thranduil will never let him leave again, he will keep him here, will keep him safe and happy, and he will be mine, he will be mine, and I will be his, and I will do anything to make sure he never leaves me again, anything, anything-

Thranduil takes a deep breath and slowly lets it out as he sits back from his desk, leaning against the straight wooden back of his chair as he forcefully reorders his thoughts and suppresses his tumultuous emotions until they can be neatly tucked back behind the primary wall of his shields. It is becoming harder and harder to keep as strict a control over his emotional and mental state as he has these past five thousand years since he’d bound his mind to what was then called the Greenwood. Having his Guide so near and yet so far out of reach was maddening and not at all good for his control. Ned is not good for his control. And yet he cannot bring himself to be anything but content with that fact. How strange.

He wonders idly what the man is doing at this exact moment in time, as he often finds himself doing of late. Scarcely two weeks had passed since he’d anchored his sight to his Guide here in this very room, and yet he would swear he can feel their bond becoming stronger every day. Slowly of course, and it is still far weaker then the purely Sentinel part of him would like, but it is enough, for now. He can see with his eyes what he hasn’t been able to in five thousand years, can see how truly into disrepair his kingdom has fallen, can see how diseased the forest has grown instead of merely feeling it slowly rotting him from the inside, and he can still feel it, still too wrapped up in the forest to be out of danger yet, but it’s influence has faded with Ned’s help. And he can see other things too, beauty he hasn’t been able to fully appreciate in so long, and may never have had the chance to witness otherwise.

Like the sight of the night sky awash with stars and glowing as bright as day to his sharp elven eyes, might never have known that his captain of the guard has the exact same shade of red hair as his wife, wavy where Sireryn’s had been a riot of ringlet curls, a rarity among their kind she had complained about extensively every time she’d had to comb it out after washing, he may never have been able to see for himself what a strong, brave young prince his son has grown into, his face so like his own but for his mother’s always laughing cloudless sky blue eyes.

And he may never had seen Ned’s face, a near carbon copy of his own yet different in so many beautifully fascinating little ways, the way he flushed at the slightest thing, or averted his eyes when he was nervous or embarrassed, or the way one side of his mouth always ticked up a little higher than the other when he smiled. For these many gifts he already owes Ned too much to properly express, and with luck and patience this may only be the beginning.

Suddenly overcome with the desire to simply be near his Guide, to confirm with his own senses, muted though they are, that he is well and happy, an urge he has grown accustomed to indulging in recent weeks, he closes his eyes, blocking out distraction and focus his mind on the thin, humming chain that links them together, gripping but not tugging it as he follows it back to its source.

He brushes up against his Guide’s shields, and strong and steadfast though they are, he knows it would only take the slightest pressure to bring them tumbling down, Ned’s instinctive desire to connect their minds as bone deep as his own unwavering certainty that he will rip apart anyone and anything that ever brings his bonded harm, and so he doesn’t push. Instead he merely stretches his awareness all along the outermost wall, keeping the touch light enough that the man doesn’t even notice it, his attentions elsewhere.

The elf waits for a few moments, unhurried, before he gets a brief flash of an image. A clay-brick oven, a fire already lit in its heart, bowls and tins and a too-fast sense of a knife slicing with practiced ease through ripened fruit. The kitchen then, and as the Sentinel rises to cross to the stairs that lead down to the floor below his chambers, he begins to withdraw from Ned’s mind, having achieved his goal, when one more quick flash stops him.

The impressions are confusing at first and it takes him a moment to puzzle out what they mean. A sense of a vibration, a pitched waver in the air, the memory of a woman’s haunting voice, and the repeated plinking chords of an instrument he doesn’t recognize, and then he understands: Ned is singing as he works.

A sense of profound melancholy washes through him at the realization. It has been many years since he has been able to really enjoy music with his hearing, impaired as it was. His ears were perhaps the least affected by his bond to the forest, through necessity mainly, since without his sight his hearing had to do most of the work of keeping him balanced and cognizant of his surroundings. Because of this, he could technically still hear things in his immediate vicinity, but it was a though words and sounds weren’t entirely processed by the correct parts of his brain, leaving voices murky and seeming much quieter than they actually were, and leaving no way for him to distinguish between different instruments or the words of a song. It hasn’t bothered him in quite some time, but now, he finds himself longing to hear his Guide’s voice as he sings quietly to himself as he practices his chosen craft. And well…who says that he can’t? He will have to bind his hearing to him at some point, and unlike with his sight, he needn’t be touching Ned to do so.

Pressing his mind more fully against Ned’s shields, he starts down the winding staircase, focusing intently on that sense of rising and falling pitch, trying to find the pattern, and if he opens his own shields a little more, he can almost catch the words of the song, enough to understand that although the words convey a deep sense of sadness, the tone is a hopeful one. A ballad perhaps? If so, it is not one he recognizes, though this is of little surprise as he knows next to nothing about the musical inclinations of the race of Men and less then that about the kind of music Ned might favor from his own world.

He’s nearly at the bottom of the steps, light spilling into the darkened hallway from the warmly lit kitchen beyond, and he’s managed to detect a pattern to the melody and he thinks the words are that of a love song, but he cannot quite-there!

“-time stands still, beauty and all..he..is, I will be brave, I will not let anything take..a-way, what’s standing in front o-f me,” Ned sings under his breath, and his accent is such as Thranduil’s never heard before and he steps up just outside of the doorway, keeping to the shadows of the staircase as he basks in the novelty of being able to hear his Guide’s voice. His singing is on pitch and harmonious but his voice wavers hesitantly, as if even now, alone as he believes he is, he is worried about bothering someone. “Ever-y breath, ever-y hour has come to this. one. step..close…er.”

Even if the man’s singing had been atrocious Thranduil doesn’t think he would have been able to care, content as he is just to listen to him as he moves around the kitchen, the scrape of a wooden spoon on a ceramic mixing bowl, the metallic chink of a pie tin being place on a counter, the rustle of clothes as he moves. Absently he wonders at what the story behind the song Ned has chosen might be, eyes sliding closed to listen as he continues, voice rising slightly with greater confidence in the memorized lines. “I have died every day, wait-ing for you, darling don’t be afraid, I have loved you for a thou-sand years, I’ll love you for a thou..sand..more…”

Thranduil’s heart almost stops beating, and he pushes off from the wall, half turned into the light of the doorway, focusing intently as Ned’s voice falls again in a way that he now realizes must be part of the ballad. “One..step..close..er…One. step. close…er…”

He pauses so long at first the elf thinks the song must be finished, but there a note of trembling anticipation in the air, like a held breath, as though Ned is gathering his courage, and his suspicions are proven correct when Ned goes on, voice rising in volume and determination, as though he truly believes in the what he is saying when he sings, “And all along I believed, I-would find you, time has brought your heart to me, I-have loved you for a thou-sand years, I’ll love you for a thou-sand more…”

His mind is filled with memories of his parents, of the love they shared, and of a tale, ages old, of an elf maiden who loved a mortal man and lost him, of a love that transcended the very laws of death itself, and he doesn’t know how to feel, frozen with indecision as he wars with conflicting impulses that tell him to retreat back up to his rooms, that he is intruding on something that is meant to be private, and the almost overwhelming urge to go to his Guide and wrap his arms around him, to reassure him with his presence that everything will be alright, a response to the pervading sadness he can sense lingering around the man.

In the end he does neither, instead waiting quietly as Ned finishes the song, something deep inside his ribcage cracking at the desolation in his voice as he finishes, voice near a whisper as he sings, “One. step. close-er….”

“One…step…close…er…”

Chapter Text

The dream always starts out the same. He’s climbing up the side of a steep hill in the middle of the night, the sky lit with the millions of stars he’s already become used to seeing when darkness falls in Middle-Earth, and he doesn’t recognize his surroundings but he knows he has to get to the other side of the hill, that there’s something-someone-important beyond it and they need his help, someone he cares a lot about and he wants to help them, he will, and when he crests the rise he’s looking down into a shallow valley, like a bowl carved in the hollow between the hills that go on for as far as the eye can see, and there is the silver beech tree, glowing dimly in the center of the valley.

He starts picking his way carefully down toward it, determined to reach it and….and he’s never quite sure what exactly he means to do when he gets to it, but he knows it’s important that he get there nonetheless, when something shifts at the base of the tree, a massive black shape that he had at first mistaken for shadows on the ground, as though a piece of the night had suddenly come to life, and he freezes in surprisefearawe as the shape slowly uncoils from around the tree, a long tendril detaching from the whole and reaching up, up, up into the sky and he’s sure he stops breathing because he’s never seen anything like it.

The tendril is actually the neck of some great beast, the wedge-shaped head turning to watch him and at first he thinks it must be a snake, but no snake could ever grow so large, and despite the moon-silvered slit-pupil eyes calmly assessing him, its snout is too long and wide to truly resemble that of a snake, and as he slowly resumes his cautious descent towards the tree and what he assumes to be its guardian, he can see that the body is constructed all wrong, with back legs and forelimbs like that of a mammal, and a long whip-like tail that wraps around the tree protectively, and even in the depths of his unconscious mind he refuses to even contemplate the word ‘dragon’ but the thought sneaks in despite his best efforts to keep it out, even if the beast has no wings that he can make out against the void black form of its body.

Once he’s finally made his way down the lip of the valley, he’s standing almost close enough to touch the creature, it’s bulk taking up all the space surrounding the tree so that every path toward it is blocked and it dips its great head to observe him better, snout almost brushing his side and its muzzle alone is almost as long as he is tall and this is the part of the dream where he usually starts to panic, wondering what possessed him to come this close to an unknown, possibly dangerous creature and he seriously contemplates scrambling back up the hill the way he came, and sometimes he does and the dream ends there but this time, he steels his nerves and turns to look at it head-on and oh-

Terrible, heart-clenching pity wells up within him, banishing any fear he might have felt because the poor beast is so horribly mangled it’s impossible to tell what kind of creature it might have once resembled, most of the exposed skin of its muzzle pulled tight and shiny with old scars, sharp, curved teeth exposed along it’s jaw where the flesh has peeled away, the rest of it covered in filthy, matted fur with scales erupting in patches across it like a rash, twisted, branching horns that at one time must have reached impressively for the stars now broken and cracked with age and neglect. What he can see of its neck is no better, shaggy fur ending abruptly partway down to give way entirely to midnight scales, and the rest of its body blends too well with the surrounding darkness that gathers in the hollow valley like mist to tell how badly patchwork and broken the rest of it is and he can’t be anything but thankful for that small mercy because what he can see is overwhelming enough, even if it’s not even the worst part.

No the worst part is the pain he can feel bleeding from the creature, sluggish, white-hot pulses of it like an infected wound that’s gone untreated for too long, and though it doesn’t thrash or howl in agony, does nothing but stare passively back at him as he looks his fill, he can feel it all the way down to his bones, the understanding that it has been in so much pain for so long that it doesn’t remember any other way too live, doesn’t even really notice the pain anymore, constant and all-consuming as it is.

It’s diseased, sick and wounded and dying and he hurts so much, the beech tree forgotten for the moment because its pain is his pain and he will do anything to alleviate it, will draw the pain like poison from a wound and take it into himself if he has to, anything, and he extends one hand without a second thought, meaning to set it on the beast’s massive snout, and here the dream is different every time as well, for sometimes it rears back, lightning-fast, avoiding his touch as though afraid of him, and other times it merely twitches slightly to the side in gentle reproach, not drawing back but making him understand that if he tries again it will retreat, and other times-

Other times it looks at him, sizing him up, and he pauses with his hand outstretched, waiting, and then slowly, ever so slowly, it bends its head just that much more, as though to nudge into the palm of his hand, and just before it makes contact and his heart is about batter its way out of his ribcage with anticipation-

He gasps himself awake, fighting to sit up, tangled in his bedclothes, heart racing and pouring sweat in the chill of his room made of stone deep within a mountainous dwarven kingdom, panting like he’s run for miles, and with no memory of what exactly it was that had woken him up.

-

The market is much less lively then it had been the day before, and a lot more unwelcoming. Shopkeeps who had smiled and been polite yesterday now look guiltily away or disappear into the back of their stalls when he passes them and the ones who had been recalcitrant but grudgingly accepting before outright scowl at him today, as if somehow he’s the one at fault, as if he’d done something unspeakable in order to deserve their king’s ire. With the less than warm reception and the pounding headache he’s had since he’d woken up this morning which has only grown steadily worse as the day goes on, Ned is already exhausted and ready to call it quits, and go back to his room to hide and it’s not even midday yet. At least the toymaker with the funny hat seems happy to see him.

“I wouldn’t let it get ye down laddie,” he advises with a smile, his sympathy, which normally would be a welcome balm to his hurt feelings after the day he’s had, instead grates against his impaired shields like rough-grit sandpaper. “We’re normally a much friendlier bunch, but with all the political nonsense stirred up by our rock-headed king last night, everyone’s a bit more on edge than usual.”

Despite feeling like his head is going to split open at any second, the man still appreciates what the dwarf is trying to say and he smiles back weakly in gratitude, gathering his energy enough to stridently ignore the stare Tauriel is drilling into his back. “So basically it’s not me, it’s you?”

“Exactly,” the dwarf winks with a grin, brown eyes twinkling merrily. “Give ‘em a day or so and then the Durin’s Day festival will be in full swing and everyone will have forgotten all about it. Or at least, be much more willin’ ta ignore it once they’ve got some drink in them.”

Feeling slightly heartened by the dwarf’s words, he and Tauriel grab a spare table at one of the numerous taverns spread across this level of the kingdom, Ned barely suppressing a groan as he rubs at his temples, trying to will the throbbing to stop by sheer willpower. What he wouldn’t give for a bottle of ibuprofen right about now.

The she-elf’s blatant worry had cranked up a few notches in time it took for them to walk from the market to the pub and he’s glad she cares enough to fuss, really he does, but for right now, her hovering is really starting to get annoying. “Had I known you were prone to headaches I would have made sure to pack some willow bark in order to make you a tea that would help. Is the pain very bad? We can try to find an apothecary that carries it within the kingdom, though I doubt we will find any, and I’m not entirely sure where we would even begin to look but maybe Master Baggins-”

“I’m not prone to headaches actually, and I’m not a child,” he snaps waspishly, patience wearing thin. “I can handle a little pain just fine, so will you please just get off my back?”

He doesn’t have to look up to feel the startled hurt that’s doubtlessly reflected in her face and all his directionless anger leaves him in a rush, leaving him guilty and miserable. He sighs and lets his aching head drop into his arms that he’s folded across the tabletop. “I’m sorry, that was rude and uncalled for. I don’t know what’s wrong with me; it’s like I’m twitchy and on edge for no real reason, and everyone’s emotions are so loud, which is not helping the situation. I don’t know what’s wrong.”

He can sense her hesitance, carefully considering her words before she speaks again rather than risk the chance of him biting her head off again and feels even guiltier. What is wrong with him? “Do you think you may be falling ill? I’ve heard Men have a tendency to contract sicknesses quite suddenly when exposed to unfamiliar surroundings. And you have been experiencing more stress than usual of late; perhaps it has impaired your body’s natural defenses to such things.”

“Maybe you’re right,” he agrees, voice muffled by his arms, more to take further sting out of his earlier words and not because he actually thinks that’s the problem, though it would make sense. He doesn’t feel sick, not really, just..frustrated and itchy, like his skin has somehow shrunk two sizes in his sleep and he wants to scratch it all off just for something to do. He changes the subject, hoping to take his mind off it, “Where’s Legolas? I thought he said he was going to join us today.”

“That was the plan until the incident at the ceremony last night. After what happened he thought he should accompany King Thranduil to the rest of the meetings with King Thrain and his council, to make sure nothing, ah, unfortunate happens.”

Ned snorts in amusement. “You mean in case someone snaps and everyone starts trying to strangle each other at least Thranduil will have back up?”

“Or a witness at the very least,” she comments drily, grinning in relief when his shoulders shake with suppressed laughter, only to immediately snap to attention to glare a warning at the nervous-looking dwarf that is approaching their table, practically reeking of discomfort. She had just gotten the Guide to relax, and she has a feeling whatever this dwarf has to say is about to reverse all of that.

She isn’t wrong. “I’m sorry, but you two are going to have to leave,” the dwarf tells them, looking painfully apologetic about it. “These tables are for payin’ customers only.”

Ned starts to rise and apologize, not wanting to cause a fuss, but Tauriel remains seated, glare unwavering as the dwarf, who is dressed well enough under his apron that he must be the tavern’s owner, starts to sweat under the intensity of it. “Then I suppose you’ll be telling those gentlemen at the table behind you to leave as well, since they don’t seem to be interested in ordering anything and are taking up much more of your valuable space than the two of us.”

The dwarf glances fearfully over his shoulder at the group in question, about ten dwarves in all, the majority of whom are currently watching the proceedings with smug, unfriendly smiles, aggression coming off them in foul waves that make the she-elf’s hackles stand up and her hands itch for the knives sheathed on her back. The pub-owner lowers his voice, tone pleading, “Look, I don’t want no trouble, so I’ll be needin’ ya to move along, you understand-”

“Oh I understand perfectly,” the she-elf assures him coolly, tone sharp enough to cut glass, Sentinel instinct to stand her ground and defend her territory from interlopers well and truly roused . “As I’m sure you’ll understand that we’re not going anywhere.”

“Tauriel c’mon,” Ned sighs, putting his hand on her shoulder, headache redoubling at smell of ozone in the air. “Let’s just go-”

“Guide Ned! Lady Tauriel!”

A voice drowns out the rest of his sentence, and he turns to see Fili and Kili weaving their way toward them, the younger prince in the lead while his brother follows at a more sedate pace. He was the one who’d shouted, and he grins at them when he draws level with their table, apparently oblivious to the tension thick in the air. “There you are! We were hoping to find you; Fili and I wanted to know if you’d like a more complete tour of the kingdom, since I noticed grandfather conveniently forgot to offer you one at the feast last night.”

“Yeah, Erebor’s a big place, wouldn’t want either of you to go exploring and wind up lost,” Fili adds, seizing up the situation before him with a warrior’s trained eye, one hand settling on the sword at his hip. “Is there a problem?”

The poor proprietor looks about ready to have a coronary. “N-No sir, I was just recommendin’ to these two honored guests here that they might be wantin’ to find another establishment to-to visit, what with how important they are, surely they’d be wantin’ better fare then anything I would be able to serve them here-”

“Kicking us out is more like it,” Tauriel cuts in harshly. “Apparently some of the other patrons don’t want us breathing their air.”

Kili looks shocked. “Bolin is this true?”

Bolin wrings his apron in his hands, clearly not wanting to lie outright to a member of the royal family, and Ned would feel sorrier for him but his head really is hurting kind of a lot now, everyone’s emotions running high and slamming against his shields like hammers, making the normally sturdy walls shake under the pressure. “Well your highness, I, well, I-I-”

“Ah come off it Bolin,” one of the rough-looking dwarves from the crowded table calls out, apparently the ringleader. “The prince may be ugly and none too bright, but he ain’t blind. He can see easy as any a us that those two tree-shaggers don’ belong here.”

Tauriel snarls and Fili steps forward, cool blue gaze gone hard at the insult to his brother. “You’d do better to keep a civil tongue in your head,” he growls. “Unless you want me to separate your miserable head from your worthless shoulders.”

The larger dwarf’s smile twists into something very ugly and a few of his companions rise when he does. “I’d like to see you try, princeling.”

“You’re Keleb aren’t you?” Kili speaks up suddenly, looking over the group consideringly. “You all arrived with the Iron Hills contingent yesterday right? You’re cousin Dain’s back-up guards?”

“So what if we are?”

“Oh nothing,” he shrugs. “Just, cousin Gloin is your commander isn’t he? Captain of Dain’s guard? I heard he brought Gimli with him, and it’s been ages since Fili and I have seen our youngest cousin, thought we might stop in and say hello, that’s all.” Appearing utterly unaware of the way the entire group had frozen at the word ‘cousin’, he looks to their leader, brown eyes wide and innocent. “You wouldn’t happen to know where he is right now, would you?”

Keleb is rapidly turning an unhealthy shade of purple under his wiry black beard. “You-You can’t just stand there and threaten us like that!”

“Threat?” the prince returned, blinking at him in apparent confusion. “What threat?”

“Why you bare-chinned little-”

It’s at this point that Ned stops listening, his migraine so bad by this point, pain is lancing through his temples with every thump of his heart, the shouting voices around him have gone blessedly muted as his attention turns inward but he barely notices over the ear-piercing roar of thoughts and emotions battering ceaselessly at his innermost shields, his outer shields having already given way underneath the onslaught, and it hurts so bad he can’t stand it, it hurts to think, hurts to breathe, even the flow of blood in his veins feels like it has been replaced with acid, and someone’s calling his name, their abrupt change from outrage to worry focused directly on him akin to someone taking a battering ram to the inside of his skull and he cries out before he can stop himself, clutching his head in his hands and curling in on himself, trying desperately to block it out, to block everything out, but he can’t remember how, he’s too dizzy and everything is spinning, and-and-and-

His eyes snap open even though he doesn’t remember closing them and he looks up and everyone’s staring at him, Tauriel and the princes with their concern for him practically written across their faces, and the table of burly, rough-neck dwarves beyond them, the one Kili had called Keleb looking back at him with a sneer, disgust and black contempt writhing through his foreign thoughts like maggots and it’s all too much, too much, he can’t take it anymore and his vision whites out for a split second and-

His shields come crashing down.

Everything, absolutely everything, comes pouring out of his mind like a river overflowing it’s banks and as soon as it’s all gone his walls slam back up so fast he’s left reeling, stumbling and shaking his head, vision still fuzzy, blinking to try and clear it, and the headache is still there but it’s manageable again and he’s so thankful he’s shaking with it. He looks up, opens his mouth to tell Tauriel that it’s okay, he’s fine now, but the sight before him makes him freeze in open-mouthed horror.

At least half of the dwarves in the tavern and in the street beside them are either picking themselves back up off the floor or appear to have passed out completely, Fili and Kili leaning heavily on each other as they struggle back to their feet, and Tauriel has her knives sunk deep into the rough-hewn wood of the table, holding onto them with a white-knuckled grip in order to keep herself upright, legs trembling and face ashy white as she tries to regain control of her breathing, and Keleb and his friends are...well most of his friends are down for the count, arms wrapped around their heads and groaning as they try to haul themselves up from the floor, or just lie there and try to regain their bearings, and as for Keleb, the instigator...

Keleb in currently being held immobile in a textbook headlock by a silver-maned Sentinel with intricately braided hair, bared teeth at odds with the neat, well-kept appearance of his clothes, and he’s not the only one; he has at least five other dwarf Sentinels flanking him, encircling the two of them, keeping Keleb and the other dwarf in the center, clearly guarding against the Iron Hills dwarf attempting escape but it doesn’t like he’s in any shape to be going anywhere, what with the way he’s started to go a bit blue in the face with how tightly the other male in gripping him.

The silver-haired dwarf turns to meet Ned’s dumbfounded stare, a small frown of consternation on his face as he peers up at the man, searching him for further signs of distress. “You alright there lad? Everything sorted now?”

“I-I-,” he looks around at the scene he’s caused, meeting Tauriel’s wide green eyes and flinching back at the nameless emotion in them, regarding him like a stranger, like she’s never seen him before. “I-I-I’m-I’m-I-”

He doesn’t know how to explain what happened because he doesn’t know, has no idea what to say to make this right, and with his mind in turmoil, his body makes the choice for him.

He bolts.

Chapter Text

He runs with no thought to destination or direction, the only thought in his mind is to get away. The world is a too bright, multi-colored blur that drives shards of pain directly into his brain and his eyes water until he finally closes them, dodging and weaving blindly through the crowd of onlookers, ignoring their indignant yells or panicked calls after him, flinching away from the lamplight flares of their emotions as if they might burn him if he gets too close. He has to get away from here, from the press and crush of people, the noise and clamor of a crowded marketplace in full swing no longer comforting but suffocating, and his consciousness fights to pull free from its moors, casting itself out from his body in fits and starts, leading him without intentional participation on his part toward someplace less busy, someplace less bright, someplace quiet.

He doesn’t know how long he’s been moving before he stops, collapsing in a pile on a stone walkway in some out of the way part of the kingdom he doesn’t recognize, somewhere deep within the heart of the mountain, surrounded on all sides by dark, oppressive stone, and he curls in on himself, tucking his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them, unable to stop the full-body shivers that wrack his frame. His skin feels stretched too taunt around his bones, pulled thin and pressed painfully against all his awkward, too sharp angles, like he’s fifteen again and growing too fast for his body to keep up, trapped in a form suddenly too long and bony, unfamiliar in every way. His head throbs in time with his heartbeat and he grits his teeth against a sob, tears leaking out under his clenched-shut eyelids despite his best attempts to stop them.

Everything hurts, his whole body, his mind, his spirit itself in twisting painfully back in on itself, coiling itself into knots of pure agony and his whole being cries out for relief, for someone to help him, for his Sentinel, but he’s in too much pain, he can’t focus properly, teeth chattering in his jaw as he fights to keep himself from flying apart. He heart cries out for his Sentinel but he can’t summon the energy to stretch his mind far enough to reach the elf’s mind, too exhausted to focus, and his tries get weaker and weaker, the high, high walls that guard Thranduil’s mind too insurmountable to scale, too far away to even brush his fingers against now, and he struggles to hold on but it’s so hard, he can’t possibly do it alone, he doesn’t know how, and so he starts to fall, his slackened grip finally releasing its death-grip on reality, and he starts to drift down, down, always down, letting the sucking black tide of unconsciousness pull him under, his spirit starts to slip from his body, seeking light and warmth and comfort and-

And someone’s touching him, a firm, unfamiliar hand on his shoulder and an unknown mind pressing itself into his own wounded one, and he would cry out but he’s too tired to resist by now though he tries anyway, instinctively shrinking away from the intrusion even though it doesn’t hurt, even though it actually seems to be helping, radiating calm and peace into all the bereft, aching corners of him, coaxing him out of the shadows and back toward the light, snatches of words, soothing and comforting in tone but in no language he recognizes, murmuring to him, giving him something to focus on, to latch onto and pull himself back up out of the choking miasma that had tried to suffocate him, a lifeline he grasps onto with everything he has left as he slowly, slowly, starts to climb hand-over-hand back into the waking world.

When he first opens his eyes, the scene before him pitches and warps so violently he hurriedly presses them closed once more, thankful his stomach hasn’t decided to stage a revolt but unwilling to push his luck. He has almost forgotten presence at his side until a voice suddenly speaks up from behind his right shoulder. “You alright there now lad?”

He startles so badly he almost rolls right over the edge of the walkway and has to flail a bit to regain his balance before he can gingerly pull himself upright, taking even, measured breathes to try and stave off the return of his migraine, which blessedly doesn’t make a reappearance, before turning to look at the one who had pulled him back, quite literally, from the edge. His savior is a dwarf, which he guesses shouldn’t surprise him, and despite the fact that the man is sitting and the dwarf is standing, Ned barely has to tip his head back at all to look the other male in the face.

Six months ago, back when his life was simple, when he wasn’t yet a Guide, or a King’s Consort, and he certainly didn’t believe in ridiculous, impossible things like fairytales or magic, (or piemakers who can wake the dead), if you had asked him what he thought a mythical dwarf might look like if they were real, he probably would have given a description that fits the dwarf before him almost to a “T”. Older, with a great white beard groomed so that it split into a fork at his belt, with a large nose and wrinkles around his blue eyes that spoke of kindness and the experience that only comes from a life richly lived, as well as lines around his mouth and etched deep into his forehead that hinted at wisdom hard-earned and sorrow often faced, he was dressed simply but well in a deep burgundy ensemble with an understated amount of embroidery, and he wore no braids or beads in the short, sparse white hair on his head or in his beard.

He was smiling at Ned, broadcasting a steady pulse of uncomplicated happinesscontentment that the man was awake and responsive, carefully underscored with lingering concern. “There now, you should be feeling better. Gave me a bit of scare to find you laid out in this part of the kingdom, not many come down this far you know, don’t know it exists or can’t even find it, and very hardly ever any men I should think!” Concern flares a little more obviously through his next words. “Whatever happened to put you in such a state, lad? For a moment I was afraid I was already too late; you were barely hanging on by a thread there for a few moments.”

“I-I’m not sure,” Ned replies honestly. “I haven’t felt right all day. My head’s been killing me and I-uh,” he averts his eyes, embarrassed. “I kind of had a meltdown-um, I might have lost control a little a lot in the market earlier too. My head was throbbing, and there were so many people, and then there was a fight-or there was going to be one and I-I just-”

The dwarf nods in understanding. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. These things are bound to happen early on. When did you first manifest your Gifts? Cannae be more than a few months I’d wager.”

He blinks at the other Guide, surprised. “I. Yeah, it’s only been like, I don’t know, uh, wow, two and a half months?” Had it really only been that long?

“Ah, well there ya are then,” the dwarf nods as though he expected such a response. “Ya can’t think to have a full handle on your new Gifts so quickly, especially while you’re still unbonded. These things take time.”

“How…How could you tell I was unbonded?”

His eyes soften. “A Guide can tell these things laddie.”

“Yeah, I guess they would, wouldn’t they?” He looks back down at his hands, doing nothing to stop the way they nervously twist together in his lap. “It’s not like I haven’t found my Sentinel yet, cause I have, it’s just kind of complicated-”

“Wait,” the dwarf interrupts, a confused furrow to his brow. “Your Sentinel? You’re a Guide?”

“Yes?” Ned lilts the end of the statement to make it a question, confused as well now, growing even more so at the spike of shockalarmworry he senses from the other Guide at his answer. “You couldn’t tell?”

“Lad, when I found you lying here, you were the perfect portrait of a Sentinel on the edge of a zone out,” he explains, and Ned’s eyes widen at the deep shame he can feel emanating from him now, the weight of it pulling his mouth down into a frown above his snowy beard. “I am truly sorry and I beg your pardon; I dinnae know, otherwise I never would have entered your mind without your permission.”

“Oh, well that’s okay,” Ned dismisses easily, not sure why his easy acceptance just causes the friendly dwarf’s frown to deepen. “I kinda needed the help, didn’t I? I just wish I knew what happened. I know it probably doesn’t seem like it, but I’m usually much better at maintaining my shields than this. Maybe it’s the change in environment or something? I never had this kind of problem in Mirkwood, and Elladan said my shields were as strong as they could be-which now that I think about it some more, might not be as good a thing as I thought it was at first-or maybe it’s the crowds? I haven’t been around this many people in such a small space since-since before Rivendell and I’ve never been good with crowds, what with the very high possibility of unwanted physical contact with strangers and oh God I’m babbling I’m going to shut up.” And he does, finally, worrying his bottom lip between his teeth and staring up at the dwarf, who had started to look kind of baffled, and curses this sudden reprisal of one of his worst habits. He’d been doing so well, too.

The other male stared at him for a long moment before shaking his head and laughing, “I’m sorry to say I don’t think I really got more than half of that, but I parsed enough. Judging by your mention of the elves I’d imagine you must be Ned then, Guide-Consort to the Elvenking?” He grins, cheeks dimpling above his beard. “Unless there’s some other Man traveling with the Mirkwood contingent that I’m unaware of.”

“Got it in one,” the man confirms sheepishly, taking the broad, stout hand that’s offered to him as he pulls himself to his feet. “I’m Ned.”

“Balin,” the dwarf-Balin-introduces himself in turn, a considering light entering his merry blue eyes as he looks up at the other Guide now towering over him, though his grin doesn’t waver. “Come with me. I think I know somewhere we can talk that you might find more comfortable.”

-

The mountain kingdom of Erebor was a staggering marvel of innovation, a monument to the skill, determination, and inherent genius of the race of Dwarves when it came to all things that involved the use of one’s hands. The kingdom itself was enormous in size, capable of housing up to three million assorted dwarves, men, and the occasional elf, in significant comfort. It had many entrances and exits, some secret, most not, and many high, thin windows on the upper levels to let in light and fresh air, so that their chosen home need not be utterly lightless or confined. In addition, the entire complex system was ventilated through an extensive series of fresh air shafts which lead from the outside down into all but the very deepest mines in the foot of the mountain, and because of this, the air was neither unbearably stale, nor made overwhelmingly humid by the exhalations of its many occupants, which helped keep the threat of disease spread in too tight quarters at a bare minimum. Overall, the dwarvish kingdom was beautiful, architecturally awe-inspiring, and could easily be classified one of the few great wonders of the world. Its people were justifiably proud of their city and its many claims to notoriety and fame.

But no matter how pretty you make it, an enclosed space is still and enclosed space, and to a man used to the rolling, wild hills of the southern countryside, or, conversely, to the well-controlled, acclimated routine of apartment-shop-morgue, Erebor may not have been hell on Earth, but it was very closely ranked at that level. So when Ned followed Balin up, up, up to the highest rooms and corridors of the mountain, on the same level as the royal suites, and out an arched doorway on an open-air terrace overlooking a sheer drop to the base of the mountain, and the wind whipped the chilly, late autumn air into his face, blowing his hair in disarray and allowing him to take his first real, deep breath of air in what felt like years, Ned couldn’t contain the wide, happy smile that spread across his face at the sensation. He turns his face up into the wind, letting it be numbed by the chill, sliding his eyes closed and just breathing for a while, releasing tension he hadn’t known he’d been carrying in one long, heavy exhale. It was nirvana, or so close as to be nearly the same thing and Ned could happily have spent hours just listening to the quiet stillness of late afternoon on the mountainside.

Eventually though, Balin clears his throat, attracting the attention of the younger Guide. “This is Master Baggins’ garden. I was on my way to meet him here for our weekly luncheon, but I doubt he’ll mind the extra addition.”

“Oh, are you sure?” Ned asks anxiously. “I wouldn’t want to impose-though I have been wanting to meet Guide Baggins. I didn’t see him at the ceremony or the feast.”

“Don’t worry about that,” the old dwarf waves his concerns away, crossing to a table already set with silverware and plates placed off to the side of the door, opposite the vegetable bed. “Bilbo’s been wantin’ to meet you as well, has ever since we got the raven telling us King Thranduil had finally found his Guide. As for not appearing at the feasts, well,” he grins again, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes now as he winks at Ned. “Technically speaking, only the royal family is required to attend the public feasts and ceremonies, and their Guides, if they have them, don’t have to attend them all if they don’t wish too. Aye, we have to at least show up for the more important ones, Durin’s Day for example, but not all of them. Master Baggins hates big, noisy parties filled with people of which he has no previous relation, and personally I just find them rather tiring. Mind, that might just be me gettin’ on in years.”

“Why would you need to go to the feasts?” Ned questions absently as he looks for a place to sit that won’t force him to sit with his knees around his ears before giving up and moving to lean against the wrought iron railing beside Balin’s seat instead. “Are you a Guide to one of the royal family?” Fili and Kili aren’t Gifted. Princess Dis maybe?

“Yes, to King Thrain. I’m technically Guide-Consort to the King, which makes me the Guide Under the Mountain,” Balin remarks idily, ignoring Ned’s incredulous sputtering as he pours himself a cup of tea. “I assumed you knew.”

“No! I mean, no, no I didn’t, uh, sorry if I, um, spoke out of turn or, or anything.” The man runs his fingers through his hair nervously, ducking his head to hide his embarrassed flush. Here was the person who basically amounted to the dwarf king’s partner, and he’d already made a fool of himself in front of him more than once. No wonder the dwarves seemed to have such a low opinion of him.

“It’s quite alright lad, no reason to rest on formality,” the other Guide assures him. “I’ve been with that rock-brained idiot for almost seventy years now, but our bond is still platonic, no matter how much his advisors tend to grumble about it ‘not being traditional’. Frankly, I’ve never been one for tradition myself.”

“And why should you be?” a sudden voice opines out from the doorway. “All that bowing and scraping, can’t stand it personally, means it takes forever to get anywhere, what with people throwing themselves before you like they think it’s flattering to have people tell you how amazing you are every time you so much as lift your fork. Terribly taxing stuff really, I don’t know how you do it Balin, really I don’t.”

“Neither do I somedays Master Baggins,” Balin returns, watching with amusement from the corner of his eye as Ned tries to quit gawping at the new arrival. “Most inconvenient.”

“Agreed,” the-what had Tauriel called him, a-a Hobbit?-confirms magnanimously as he approaches the two of them, arms laden with a huge covered serving platter that looks to made of solid silver, which he places in the center of the small table with a quiet huff of effort.

The Hobbit male couldn’t have been more than three-and-a-half feet tall, if that, the top of his head reaching no higher than Ned’s hip. He had curly honey-colored hair that had been braided with gold and secured behind his large, pointed ears. He had blue eyes, an upturned nose, and the largest feet in proportion to his body that the man had ever seen, and he wore no shoes despite the obvious wealth that practically dripped from his silver woven robes, though other than that and the gold in his hair he wore no jewelry. He was a bit on the chubbier side, and in spite of his relative lack of height there was nothing about him that hinted at an innate smallness, or delicacy.

He claps his hands once in satisfaction at finally being relieved of his heavy burden and turns to look up at Ned with no apparent surprise in his expression, though he does quirk one eyebrow at the man. “Now then, who are you, why are you here, and how do you take your tea?”

Once introductions had been made and food passed around-Ned’s attempts to politely refuse being subsequently ignored and a plate pushed insistently into his hands-they talk for a while about themselves, getting to know one another better, and it was obvious within minutes that Bilbo whole-heartedly approved of Ned, nodding solemnly when the man mentioned his profession, citing it as a perfectly respectable choice of trade, and he really must come with Bilbo to visit the kitchens during his stay and meet the head chef for the main kitchens, Bombur would be absolutely delighted to talk pastries with him, it would be a crime to let him leave without them meeting at least once, and Ned decided then and there that he liked Bilbo very much as well. He was one of the first people in a long time that didn’t smirk or snicker when they found out what he did for a living, excluding Thranduil; even Tauriel had been visibly amused at the idea.

Somehow they come back around to the topic of Ned’s collapse on the walkway, Balin wanting Bilbo’s opinion on the whole affair, and once it was explained, the Hobbit leans back in his chair, a slight frown on his face. “It’s troubling, very troubling indeed. Has such a thing happened before Ned?”

“No, nev-well…sorta? It was a while ago though, back when my Gifts first manifested. It hadn’t happened since I got to Mirkwood and Elladan helped me build my shields. I think maybe all the people just kind of, overwhelmed me I guess? I haven’t even seen this many people in one place in months. It’s bound to be a shock to the system, wouldn’t you think?”

“Perhaps,” Biblo allows, his frown not relaxing. “What’s most strange about it is that Balin’s Guide instincts reacted as if you were a Sentinel in distress rather than another Guide. You said you and Thranduil haven’t bonded yet?”

“Er, no,” he takes a gulp of his tea to hide his flush. “Not yet. We’re..we’re taking it, uh”-long, tapered fingers brushing along his cheeks and over his lips, memorizing his every feature, committing him to memory; the warmth of another body pressed along his front, lips barely brushing his own, close but not close enough; silver irises nearly swallowed by hungry black pupils-“slow. We’re taking it slow.”

“I see,” Bilbo nods. “The two of you weren’t compatible enough to go into bonding heat immediately upon meeting each other then I gather?”

“Huh? Oh, no, yeah, that happened, but Thranduil just, suppressed it, I guess.” He returns the open-mouthed stare Bilbo is giving him with his own confused gray one, and he sees even Balin had almost fumbled his teacup in shock at his words. “What?”

“You can’t-You can’t suppress the bonding heat. It’s something that just, just happens. Perhaps you’re mistaken?”

“I don’t think so. I mean, he, um, there was a, a miscommunication, between us, about a month ago, nothing major, but he, uh, well he let his shields slip a little, and I could feel what was on the other side and, well,” he’s sure he’s gone bright red all the way to his hairline. “It sure felt like heat to me.”

“That’s not-” Bilbo grasps about for words. “Ned that’s not, not healthy. It’s not just an emotional reaction, it’s a physical one, it causes actual changes to your body, yours and your Sentinels, in order to prepare for the bonding process. If Thranduil actually has been denying that, shielding both you and himself from it that could be very dangerous, could have serious repercussions for the both of you.”

“Like what?” Ned asks, wide-eyed; this is the first he’s ever heard of such a thing, though it does make sense now that he's considering it, and worry sparks to life in the back of his mind.

“If it continues on for too long, it could, you…” he glances at Balin, exchanging a look with the elder Guide. “The two of you might not be able to-”

He cuts himself off with a gasp, blue eyes flying wide, pupils shrinking to pinpricks in the span of a second and Ned whips around when he hears Balin give a hoarse shout; the dwarf has his head in his hands, shaking all over and panting hard and the man is just about to asks what’s wrong when he feels it-

Rage likes he’s never known rips through his mind, shredding his walls like tissue paper, and he’s left floundering, struggling to keep his head above water as black, seething hatred gushes through the holes blown in his shields like a burst damn, and every time his head dips below the surface he sees-

-a large, richly furnished stone room, intricate tapestries on the walls, a long stone table strewn with documents and quills and ink bottles-

-a glimpse of Legolas’ face, gone chalk white with horror, an arm stretched out to stop him even as he turns away-

-the smug smirk of the dwarf king, a challenging baring of teeth from a Sentinel of no significant strength or skill with madness brewing in his eyes, sitting well within reach, he could snap his neck with one hand and it would be easy, so easy, how dare he, how dare he, how dare he-

-he will wipe that look off his face, he will make him see the terrible truth of the error of his ways, he will make sure he can never harm him and his ever again, destroy him with teeth and steel and terror and fire and blood-

-he will kill him, he will kill him, he will kill him-

Ned comes back to himself with a shout, slamming up shield after shield and shield, desperate to stop the flood before it takes him under completely, trembling so hard he can barely keep his feet, and he’s aware enough to see Bilbo and Balin are in no better state, both of them holding onto the table for support even as they struggle to their feet. All three Guide’s exchange a grim look, all of them knowing what the other had seen, that their Sentinels were about to do something exceedingly drastic, and they had to get to them in time to stop an interspecies incident. There is no time to waste.

They run.

Chapter Text

Once again Ned finds himself tearing through the labyrinth halls of Erebor at breakneck speed, his much longer legs meaning he outpaces the Hobbit and Dwarf behind him within seconds. He’s employing every bit of training Amdir and Elros have managed to beat into him in the last month, as well as pulling out a few Guide tricks he vaguely remembers Elladan teaching him in their early days on the road to Mirkwood, to dodge people and other obstructions in his path, hurling himself down staircases and around corners, relying more on his Guide senses then his eyes, since his vision and hearing are still tied to Thranduil and his sight is currently dominated by indistinct blurs of color while his ears are assaulted by a white roar of noise that mostly seems to consist of indistinct shouting. He spares a moment to be blessedly thankful that the hasty shields he’d thrown up between Thranduil’s mind and his own are still holding, if only just, otherwise he’d be nearly incapacitated by the influx of disjointed information, and thusly completely unable to follow the link back to its source and stop his Sentinel before he did something astonishingly ill-advised like murder the king of the dwarves in cold-blood. Because heaven knows that would do wonders for interspecies diplomacy.

He knows he’s close now, the faint pulses of all-consuming rage seeping past the cracks in his impromptu shields still potent enough to make his head spin and his stomach roll in protest. He shakes his head violently in a vain attempt to dispel the nausea and building headache as he throws himself around yet another corner and spots a set of towering stone doors at the end of the hallway which he immediately races towards, heart pounding with exertion-how long and how far has he run anyway?-as he wraps his hands around the heavy iron rings set into the stone to serve as handles and heaves.

The doors open with far less resistance than he was expecting from their imposing size and he nearly topples backwards from the excessive force but he grips the handles tighter and widens his stance in order to keep his feet and for a moment he just stands there, head hanging as he pants, gasping in shallow lungfuls of air as he desperately tries to get his breath back-

Do not think you can talk to me of dragonfire!

Ned recognizes that voice and his head shoots up, startled at the way the elf hisses the words, unveiled fury evident in his tone, and Thranduil never allows his emotions to show on his face or in his voice, he must be even more enraged then the man had first thought and his eyes dart around the room for a moment, frantically trying to locate his Sentinel-

I know its wrath, and its ruin!

He doesn’t have far to look because there is the Elvenking not fifty feet away, on the opposite side of the table from the door he’s still standing in front of, looming over the still-seated dwarven king, a snarl twisting his fair features into something dark and dangerous, something terrible to behold and yet no less beautiful because of it and Ned has never seen him show such open emotion before, and he takes a few hurried steps forward in the room, meaning to go to the elf and try to calm him down, to get to him before he-

I have faced the great serpents of the north!

There is a single, horrible moment, a single second of collectively held breath, and Ned’s eyes are riveted on Thranduil as the skin of his neck starts to shift and warp, twisting its way up from the base of his throat to just over his left eye and-and-

Burn scars, thick and stringy and gaping, entire chunks of smooth flesh missing from his cheek and jaw, exposing the glowing white shape of teeth and bone beneath, red and shiny and stretched taunt over his skull as if they were wounds that had happened days ago rather than millennia, rending great gauges in unblemished skin and consuming his left eye, leaving it milky and nearly cataract with ruined tissue and it’s the most horrifying thing Ned’s ever seen, his mind can’t process it fast enough, doesn’t understand-can’t. He had just seen him last night and he had been fine, what, what happened-and he’s torn between the conflicting urges warring inside of him, instincts that order him to go to his Sentinel, to lay hands on him, to take the hurt away, and his more practical side, the side which has up until two months ago had ruled most of his life is screaming at him to get away, something wrong, he’s not safe here, there’s a predator in the room-

Thranduil finally notices him in that moment, standing frozen in the open doorway, and their gazes lock, blatant shock in the elf’s eyes at the sight of him but Ned can’t focus on anything other than the grotesquely catastrophic damage marring half his face, sick horror still churning inside of him so strongly that when the elf takes an unconscious step towards him, meaning to reach out, to reassure him that everything was alright, he flinches and takes an unthinking step back.

And he regrets it, he regrets it immediately because the sharp flare of surprise that flickers between their still linked minds at his instinctive retreat is nothing compared to the gut-wrenching pain which follows it, consuming his mind and slashing jagged strips out of the walls he’d constructed between them, dulled, agonized recognition pulsing lifelessly down their weakening bond as Thranduil pulls away from him, deep shame rolling from the elf’s mind into his as he withdraws, a reaction to the destruction he can now see he’d unknowingly wrought, the illusion of his ancient war injury vanishingly in an instant as he steps back, shoulders sloping under the weight of rejection and old pain, features once more set with the appearance of calm but it’s a thin shell over screaming emotions that could crack at any moment and Ned is sorry, so very sorry, oh God he screwed up, and he’s rounding the table before he’s even aware of making the decision to do so, reaching out to the distressed Sentinel, half-formed apologies and explanations burning on his tongue as goes, uncaring of their audience and not even noticing when Balin and Bilbo enter the room behind him, utterly consumed with the need to comfort his Sentinel, to sooth away the lines of stress beside his silver-sheen eyes, to explain-

“THIEVES!” King Thrain roars, slamming his be-ringed fists on the table, sending papers scattering and inkbottles flying to shatter on the floor and making everyone other than the elves in the room jump and snap their attention back to where he stood at the head of the table, face purple with rage. “Liars! Thieves! Falsifiers! I will not stand for such betrayal! For such rampant mutiny!”

“Father please, control yourself,” Prince Thorin implores from his place at his father’s right hand, one arm wrapped protectively around his Guide, tucking the Hobbit’s much smaller form against the bulk of his side, lips thin with exasperation and the first stirrings of anger. “No one here is suggesting a mutiny, and you have not been betrayed. If you would just calm down long enough to see reason-”

“I am calm! I am perfectly in control and I have not taken leave of my senses, oh villainous son of mine,” Thrain all but spits, fairly trembling with anger now, the ostentatious amount of jewels in his beard swinging as he casts his gaze around the room, madness making his eyes glint like a cornered beasts’. “I know what’s happening here, it’s as clear as day! You’re all conspiring against me!”

“Thrain please,” Balin pleads, hovering between Thorin and the king, expression pinched and face pale with obvious pain, worry weaving its tendrils through the peace he’s trying to project around his Sentinel. “You’re overtired, you haven’t been resting properly, we’ve all seen it. Why don’t we call the meeting to an end here, leave this until tomorrow when we all have cooler heads on our shoulders?”

“You should listen to your Guide, Thrain,” Thranduil speaks up then, his tone frigid, and Ned startles to hear his voice so close to his ear, to feel the vibrations of the words passing from the elf’s chest to his, only to realize that at some point his Sentinel must have pulled him close to his side much like Thorin had with Bilbo, an arm around his waist like a steel band to keep him in place. How had he not noticed that? Better yet, how could he have missed the havoc the elf’s proximity is playing with his shields, burning cold-hot rage spilling into his mind from the places they’re connected, making his fists clench and his teeth ache from how hard he’s gritting them together, tension pulling his spine ramrod straight. “We did not come here to fight, merely to talk. I would prefer to find a peaceable solution to this problem if there is yet one to be found, though I must admit I am beginning to have my doubts on this matter.”

And just like that, the last thin veneer of sanity in Thrain’s mind snaps. “You can’t fool me! I know what you all really want!” He screams, spittle spraying from his lips. “You want me to step down, to abdicate! Well I can tell you this now, I won’t do it! Not ever!” He bares his teeth and snarls like a wild thing, all sense of reason gone from his eyes, insanity glowing in the sunken sockets like burning coals.

Balin tries again, taking a step towards the king that makes all the Sentinels assembled in the room, dwarves and elves alike, tense as one, the threat of violence crackling so thick in the confined space they can actually smell it. “Thrain, please don’t-”

Thrain roars something indistinguishable in a guttural language Ned doesn’t understand and backhands his Guide across the face, sending the white-haired dwarf crashing to the floor.

The room goes still and silent as a tomb, absolute shock so prevalent in the air its almost tangible, and nobody moves for a long, prolonged moment, and then everyone explodes into motion at the same time, dwarvish voices rising in cacophonic unison and shouting over one another, Bilbo crying out and fighting his Sentinel’s unyielding grip, wanting to go to his friend, but Thorin is already hauling him away, shoving him back as the dwarf prince draws his sword even as Thrain unsheathes his own, and Ned suddenly finds himself in a similar situation as Thranduil pushes him in Legolas’ direction, drawing his own sword with a sound of metal on metal that rings so clear over the bedlam of the room it’s almost absurd, and he struggles futilely in the elf prince’s iron grip, uncomprehending, watching with wide eyes as one of Thrain’s advisors helps Balin to his feet, and the old dwarf’s cheek is already swelling, blood dripping from his split lip and Thrain struck his Guide, he actually hit him, he laid a hand on his bonded in anger, something no Sentinel in their right mind would ever do, he’s mad, he’s gone mad-

Out of the corner of his eye he sees Thorin and Thranduil advance on Thrain, blades in hand as the dwarven king backs away, hands shaking so bad he can hardly hold his sword at the ready before him, and they’re going to kill him, they’ll kill him, the penalty for a Sentinel hitting his Guide is death and he can’t let them do that, this is insane, what even happened to cause all this, what-

“Wait! Wait!” the man cries, redoubling his efforts to free himself from Legolas, putting up enough of a fight that the blonde elf is having difficulty keeping a hold on him without harming him, thrashing to get away, mind whirring as he tries to think of a way out of this, to save this situation somehow. “Don’t hurt him! You said it yourself, he’s crazy, it’s not his fault, you can’t hold his actions against him, he’s not well-”

“A Sentinel who has lost his mind is a danger to any and all who cross his path,” Thorin cuts him off, blue eyes intent on his father, no pity or love in his eyes, the sword in his hand unwavering as he points it at his king. “A Sentinel who would willingly harm his own Guide is a Sentinel who would kill without thought or remorse. He must be dealt with accordingly.”

“But that’s outrageous!” Ned bursts out, starting to get properly upset now, letting out a yell of frustration when Legolas finally gives up and simply pins the man, back to the elf’s front, chin hooked over the Guide’s shoulder, trapping his arms at his sides, effectively halting his attempts to escape. “He’s your father for God’s sakes, you can’t actually be okay with this! What even happened to cause all of this? What-”

“The gold,” Legolas whispers in his ear, cutting off his building tirade.

“Wha-?”

“Thrain has amassed too much gold.” Legolas continues urgently, watching the stand-off between his father and the dwarf king with narrowed sapphire eyes. “His treasuries are practically overflowing and yet every day he orders more and more miners to abandon their cultivation of more useful materials like iron or copper in order to dig ever deeper into the depths of the Earth in an unceasing search for gold. He tells them to ignore any veins of diamond, silver, or other such precious metals and gems that they may uncover, to leave them and move on. His greed knows no bounds. Recently, he’s even started ordering tunnels be dug underneath already existing tunnels and other structures in the kingdom, which is exceedingly dangerous for the miners, since the likelihood of a cave-in is nearly quadrupled. Many of them refused or quit outright, and they were right to do so. To proceed with such folly would be to court death.”

“But that’s-!”

“Insane? Yes. And there are other possible calamities that could arise from such a relentless pursuit of riches; ancient evils, demons of darkness and fire locked deep beneath the mantle of the Earth, imprisoned at the end of a great war that raged long ago, before my father, before even the Lady Galadriel. If he awakens one of them, it would bring ruin down upon his kingdom. It would not be the first time such as happened because of the greed of the dwarves, but even a Balrog would be preferable to the other foul beasts this much gold in one place threatens to bring down on us.”

“What could possibly be worse than-” Ned’s eyes widen in understanding, recalling Thranduil’s words-“Do not talk to me of dragonfire!”-and the terrible scars he carried carved into his soul. He twists, coming face-to-face with Legolas’ grim stare. “You don’t mean a…a dragon?”

Legolas nods solemnly. “Yes.”

“And what of it?!” Thrain cries from where he’s pressed himself to the wall across from them to increase the distance between himself and the reach of his son and the Elvenking’s swords. “Are the elves really so cowardly that they would forsake themselves and run from a fight with a wyrm? Ha! Well I tell you now, the dwarves of Erebor are made of mightier clout than that! Bring on the great scaled beast! I will not run; let him have my gold if he can take it!” He slashes his weapon through the air before him, as if carving out an imaginary dragon’s heart.

“Does your idiocy truly know no bounds?” Thranduil questions him mildly, tilting his head slightly to one side as though contemplating the stupidity of the dwarf standing before him. “Are you really willing to sacrifice the lives of your people, of your family, the people you claim to love, for a lump of cold rock?” His tone suggests he can’t fathom ever doing such a thing, and Ned curses his heart for the way it skips a beat at the implications of his words because now is really not the time.

Thrain hesitates for a fraction of a second, a speck of clarity returning to his eyes as he looks at his son, then behind him at Balin currently being fussed over by a distraught Bilbo. Distress and regret flicker across his pallid face in the span of a breath, almost too quick to see but Ned catches it. A deperate plan falling into place in his mind, he seizes the moment before he can second-guess himself.

He takes a deep breath and forces himself to focus. “In the land I’m from, there’s a story,” he begins. “More like a legend, or a myth I suppose. Of an ancient king, a dwarven king, benevolent and powerful, beloved by his people, and how he lost everything because of his all-consuming lust for gold.”

He has the attention of everyone in the room now, he can tell that even Thranduil and Thorin are listening, though they don’t take their eyes off their quarry. Thrain’s eyes are riveted on Ned as he listens and so the man makes himself continue, shutting out the unpleasant awareness that comes with all those people focusing on him at once, taking another deep, deep breath and letting it out, letting his eyes slide closed as he continues.

“His name was King Midas, and he was a just king, who loved and protected his people with all his strength, and was loved by them in return. He had no family aside from one daughter, the princess, whom he loved more fiercely than anything else in the world. His kingdom was not rich, but his people were able to grow enough to eat and sell enough to live and so they were happy, and he was happy as well. And all was prosperous in his land for many, many years.

“Then one year there came a winter so harsh and unforgiving, that lasted so long, many of the people in his vast kingdom fell ill, sickening and dying one by one, along with many animals in the forests along with livestock, and by the time the Fell Winter eventually released its icy clutches on the land, much of it was left gray and barren in the wake of it. But the people of the land were tough and hardy, and soon enough they began again to grow crops and tend their farms in preparation for the coming harvest time; still, the kingdom struggled, and many went hungry, and the king was greatly saddened by his people’s suffering, so much so that even his daughter, the person he loved more than life itself, could not draw him out of his despair.”

Ned only has vague recollections of his mother telling him this story, sitting at his bedside and running a cool hand over his fevered brow, trying to lull him to sleep with the cadence of the tale and her familiar voice. He remembers the gist well enough and so he grabs it and runs, coming up with bits and pieces on the spot to fill in the cracks in his knowledge, to mold the old wives tale to suit his purposes. As he talks, he infuses his words with as much calm and peace as he can muster, radiating soothing energy as best he can, trying to dispel the lingering coppery tang of unshed blood still in the air. He relies on the words to distract his audience as he carefully unwinds a thin tether of his consciousness and sends it slipping past the yawning gaps in Thrain’s defenses.

“One day, near the end of summer but before the harvest had begun, King Midas decided to go walking along the river that bordered his kingdom, wanting to be alone with his concerns so as not to worry his daughter further. As he walked, he came upon an odd sight: a large fish with gleaming golden scales had washed up on the bank of the river, and it flopped alone in a shallow puddle on the bank, obviously trying to return to the water. Feeling pity for the poor creature, the kind king scooped up the fish and threw it back into the river without a moment’s pause. And just as King Midas turned to continue on his walk, there was a great flash of light, and suddenly there was a man standing in his path.

“He was a strange looking sort of man, with a robe made of shining iridescent fish scales, and long gray hair tangled with rushes and cattails.

“Blessings upon you o’ great king of dwarves!” the strange man called with a voice like the tumble of water over stones. “To show my gratitude to the one who saved me from the terrible fate of dying on this riverbank, I shall grant you one wish! Anything you like, you need simply ask for it, and I will give it to you. But I must warn you: once I have granted your wish, I cannot take it back, no matter what happens.”

Not wanting to waste this valuable opportunity, the dwarf king thought long and hard about what his wish should be before he finally spoke to the man. “O’ honorable spirit of this river, here is my wish, if you would be so generous as to grant it: I wish that I had the gift of magic, that for ever after, anything I touch with my bare hand shall turn to gold in the blink of an eye!”

“Remember, I cannot be take back a wish once it is granted. Are you sure this is the favor you would ask of me?”

“Oh yes, river spirit, I am certain.”

And so the river spirit granted his wish.”

The tip of Thrain’s sword is nearly dragging the ground, slack in his hand as he listens to the man’s story, transfixed, not because of Ned’s superb story-telling skills, but because of the enchantment the Guide twines around his words, shifting the dwarf’s attention elsewhere as he feels around in the Sentinel’s mind, trying to find-There!

“Once the river spirit had disappeared after granting King Midas’ wish, the venerable dwarf king stooped to pick up a plain river rock lying at his feet, only to watch in wonder as it turned to solid gold in his hand. He hurried home to share the news of this great gift he had received, and his people rejoiced at their good fortune and praised their king for his cleverness. So the kingdom flourished, gold traded for seed and stock, for food to last them through the winter, and the best medicine in the lands was now available to all in the kingdom who wished it.

And so the king, his daughter, and his people, were very happy for a very long time.”

Thrain and Balin’s bond has been worn frighteningly thin, choked and clogged by the insanity that bleeds from Thrain’s spirit into it, turning it murky and ash-black-gray with disease and disuse. Still, Balin’s shields do their best to keep out the intrusion that is Ned’s searching perusal, though they shake like laves in a windstorm and rattle like old bones, threatening to crash down at the lightest pressure and the man’s heart aches to see the evidence of how hard Balin has fought all these years to keep the sickness infecting his Sentinel’s mind at bay, gouges torn and ripped from the fabric of his walls until it’s all he can do to keep them standing. Ned’s resolve hardens at the sight, and he gathers his strength, knowing he only has one shot at this, and he has to get it right the first time.

“But as time passed, a sickness began to take root in the king’s heart, and suddenly it wasn’t enough that he and his people were happy, no, he wanted more. He didn’t want contentment; he wanted opulence, importance, recognition, and gold, always gold, more and more and more of it. His desire for gold could not be satisfied, no matter how much of it he had, and he would wander the halls of his mountain kingdom, turning each and every thing he can across into gold at a touch, until all his furnishings, cutlery, doors, floors, and even the ceiling were made of radiant, shining gold.

And it wasn’t that Midas had suddenly become a bad king, oh no, it was just that he had convinced himself that he was doing all of this for his people, not for himself, that he might make their lives better and more fulfilling that they had been before, and to this end he had seemed to become willfully blind to the unhappiness such oppressive wealth had bred amongst his citizens, most of whom were only simple farmers after all, those who had no need nor want of such luxury.

"The people of the kingdom pleaded with the princess, King Midas’ beloved daughter, to try and talk some sense into her father, and to this the princess agreed.”

Ned gently takes hold of the neglected bond languishing between the two dwarves’ minds, cradling it delicately as he bends the strength of his will to his task, pouring wave after wave of power in the link, watching anxiously as it ever so slowly begins to strengthen and grow, taking on life and color once more after too long, turning its proverbial face up to the sun as the man shone light into the farthest corners of their bond, brushing away any trace of darkness he found therein.

“The princess went to her father, who sat alone upon his golden throne in his golden palace in his shining, golden mountain, and begged him to see what his selfishness was doing to his people and his lands, bidding him to look out over his kingdom and see how his people suffered not for want of food or money, but for lack of occupation, diversion, those things that had occupied most of their time and taken most of their energy, but had been no less enjoyed or loved for it, hoping that he might see and comprehend the error of his ways and be healed of his sickness.

But it was not to be.

King Midas laughed away his daughter’s concerns, telling her not to be worried, that he was her father and her king and he knew what was best for his people. Still he could see that his daughter was upset and so he went to her and drew her into a warm embrace.

“I love you, my daughter, more than anything else in the world, and no matter what happens I can promise you that will never change.”

As he stepped back from his daughter he reached out without thinking and laid his unshod palm affectionately upon her cheek.”

There is a collective gasp of realization from those assembled around him but Ned pays them no mind, too preoccupied to notice anything outside of the healing bond in the grasp of his mind’s eye.

“His beautiful, beloved daughter turned to solid gold at his touch, still and as perfectly sculpted as a statue. And just as lifeless.”

The renewed bond hums with life between his palms and he rouses himself to look up at Thrain, blinking the blurred film of trance from his eyes and studies the dwarf king closely, sees recognition, sanity, and a growing horror dawning in Thrain’s dark eyes as he stares back at Ned as if compelled.

“Realizing what he’d done, King Midas howled his grief and anger into the stillness of his shining, golden mountain, and ran straight to the river. He paced the river’s banks for hours and hours, days and days, bellowing for the river spirit to appear and undo the destruction he’d caused, beseeching him in the breaths between sobs to take this curse he’d willfully inflicted on himself away, to bring his daughter back to him.

But it was to no avail. The river spirit never appeared.

For an action, once taken, can never be reversed. Not even with magic.”

Ned’s throat rasps and clicks dryly as he finishes his story, wearied inside and out as he sways unsupported on his feet-when had Legolas let go of him?-waiting for the dwarf king’s reaction, knowing he’s done all he can. Everything else is up to Thrain.

Thrain looks back at him blankly, then around at his advisors, his allies, his son, and then finally at his Guide, the light of lucidity bright in his face as Ned has never seen it before, understanding a guilt in the contortion of his mouth, seeing clearly for the first time the damage he’d caused in the grip of his insanity. He looks down at the sword still clenched in the loose shackle of his fist, and then again at Ned, locking eyes with him as he speaks, though his words are meant for all of them.

“The Man and his Elf are right. I have been a fool, and a mad one at that. A dwarf, a Sentinel, who would lash out at those closest to him and do harm to his Guide, no matter the circumstances which led to the deed, is not one whom any should deign to call ‘King’.” He reaches up and removes the angular gold and silver crown adorning his graying head, regarding it for a prolonged moment, lips thin and eyes dimmed in contemplation.

His sword and crown hit the stone floor before his son’s feet with a clamorous finality.

“I hereby abdicate my right to the throne of Erebor. From this moment onward, I am no longer King Under the Mountain.”

With that he turns, and walks away without another word, leaving only stunned silence behind him as he goes.

And Ned’s world goes dark.

Chapter Text

Two weeks pass with startling speed to find Ned perched in the apple tree in the garden outside his kitchen, back in Mirkwood and staring morosely out at the sea of stars scattered across the inky backdrop of the sky before him, unable to summon up the awe that usually accompanies such a sight, even three months after his arrival in Middle-Earth. Three months and it feels like a lifetime. Three months and he’s somehow managed to royally screw up his most successful attempt at a relationship to date, all because of one stupid mistake. A mistake that is all his own.

A mistake which he can’t even apologize for since Thranduil has been going out of his way to avoid Ned since that day in the grand council chamber of Erebor; has hardly spoken to him or even looked his way in over fourteen days. It’s driving him absolutely insane but he has no idea how to fix it. It would take a much braver (stupider) man than he to face the Elvenking head on without being certain of the outcome of such a confrontation. It wasn’t like he could just march up to the elf and force him to accept his apology, because the problem was that even though he was sorry, Thranduil already knew that, and was avoiding him anyway. He just didn’t know what to do or say that could possibly repair the damage he’d done, save going back in time and doing it all over again. Which obviously he couldn’t do because that was impossible and ridiculous (and because he’d already asked Tauriel and she’d assured him several times that it couldn’t be done). So that left him effectively out of options.

He sighs and draws his legs up onto the wide branch he’s currently situated on, back braced by the trunk of the tree as he wraps his arms around his knees and rests his cheek against them, still staring out at the multitude of distant, twinkling stars as if he thinks they may have the answers. They remain predictably, if frustratingly, silent.

Awareness skitters down his spine, alerting him to the fact that he is no longer alone and he jerks his head up so fast he almost tips sideways out of the tree and has to grip hard to the bark as he stares with open-mouthed incredulity at the figure looking up at him from the tree branch just below his own.

Thranduil blinks back at him placidly, seemingly unaffected though there is a hint of hesitation in his eyes that Ned has never seen before. “I do not wish to disturb you, but would you mind if I joined you?”

“Uh, no,” he answers carefully once he’s mostly recovered from his shock. “No not all, come on up.”

“Thank you,” the elf returns calmly, reaching up to grab the branch Ned is resting on and swing himself onto it, so absurdly graceful that the man can’t help but watch in wide-eyed fascination mixed with a healthy dose of envy at the unnatural fluidity of the movement, despite his discomfiture.

They sit in uncomfortable silence for a few minutes, long enough that the piemaker had just started to relax, thinking maybe the Sentinel really had just come out to star-gaze and not to talk when the silence is abruptly broken. “I am sorry,” the elf intones, sincerity clear in his voice though he keeps his gaze fixed firmly on the horizon. “I frightened you, and instead of accepting that and making amends for it I chose to ignore it in the hopes that it would cease to exist if it went unacknowledged long enough. But that was childish and unfair of me.” Now Thranduil turns to look at him, silver eyes catching the light of the stars and making them shine. “And for that I apologize. You have done nothing wrong, and your reaction was well warranted. I should not have withdrawn from you as I did. Will you forgive me?”

Ned is just so profoundly thankful that he didn’t have to be the one to broach the topic that words start tumbling out of him before he can think to second-guess himself. “No, no, no that’s not-I mean yes! Yes of course I forgive you, what I mean is, there’s nothing to forgive, not on your part anyway, not really, trust me, I am the reigning king of avoiding sticky emotional entanglements like the plague so really I don’t blame you for that at all, I’m just happy you’re not angry with me. And I should be the one saying sorry! Cause I am, ya know. Sorry, that is. For behaving the way I did. There’s no excuse for it.” His tone is flatly serious by the end, a warning that he will accept no argument on this from the elf king’s corner. They were both in the wrong, they both apologized, now they’ve made up, and that was all there was to it. End of discussion, case closed.

Mercifully, Thranduil doesn’t try to argue the point further. He merely inclines his head in acceptance and returns his attention to the stars, the earlier tension between them eased considerably. Not gone, never gone, not with who and what they were and would someday be to each other, but lightened enough that Ned no longer feels suffocated by it.

Feeling unaccountably emboldened by the new understanding between them, the man dares to adjust his position to scoot a little closer to his Sentinel, sitting so that they’re sharing the branch side-by-side, barely an inch of space between them. Heat lightening sparks all along the places they’re bodies are almost but not quite touching, but the piemaker manfully ignores it and tries to think up something to keep the conversation flowing between them. “Who’s Yavanna?” he blurts at last, wincing internally at the way his slight twang breaks up the word. “Tauriel mentioned her before and I know Elladan and Elrohir did the same on our way here, but truth be told, once they started talking about all the different needlessly complicated names for the various gods I kind of glazed over. She’s one of the Valor right?”

“The Valar,” Thranduil corrects mildly, not a hint of derision in his voice but Ned flushes with embarrassment anyway, repeating the word to himself mentally so he won’t forget it again-Val-are, Val-are, not ‘Valor’, pie for brains-“Are not gods, as such, though the comparison is an apt one. They are more like watchful spirits, influencing the lives of those in this land in many subtle and overt ways, and Yavanna is one of them, yes. She is the protector of the forests and creator of all that grows and flourishes in the fields and valleys of Middle-Earth. She is also called ‘Kementari’ or ‘Queen of All’ in the old tongue. Hobbits in particular revere her quite highly, holding her in esteem far above the other Valar and they give her other names, such as ‘Mother Earth’ and ‘the Green Lady’.”

“The Green Lady?” Ned repeats absently, beginning to list slightly to one side, eyelids drooping as the soporific effect of the elf’s lilting cadence starts to take hold. “I like that. Sounds like a dream I had once when I was a kid. What does she look like?”

“None can say for certain. The Valar take many forms and few ever settle on one for longer than a century or two. Some say she has skin dark as rich soil, or shining golden as though lit from within by the brilliance of the spring sun. They say she has long, dark hair, woven with the stalks and shoots of still-budding plants, that grow from her crown and cover her in a regalia of living beauty, yet there are also tales that tell of…”

Exhausted from several sleepless nights in a row spent pacing his room worrying about how he was supposed to mend the bridge with his recalcitrant Sentinel, it isn’t long before the soft-edged, low-pitched words send him the rest of the way to sleep.

-

He wakes just as the sun first starts to peek over the horizon, stiff-necked but feeling better rested then he has in what feels like years and he closes his eyes and wraps himself tighter in his body-heat warmed blanket, meaning to try and sleep for a few more hours before Elros comes to get him for his sparring lesson, only to sit bolt upright in surprise when the fabric-covered surface beneath his cheek, which his sleep-addled mind had mistaken for his pillow, moved seemingly of its own accord.

“The dawn woke you I presume?”

Amusement weaves around and through the familiar voice and Ned has to blink several times in order to clear the last vestiges of drowsiness from his mind before he can fully process the meaning behind the unvoiced laughter looking back at him from behind bright silver eyes. When the dots finally connect-outside, tree, Thranduil, talk, sleep? Oh God-he blushes bright red all the way to his hairline and drop his face into his hands with a defeated groan of mortified dismay. “Oh God I fell asleep on you didn’t I? Who does that, besides me, obviously. I am so sorry about that. Why didn’t you wake me up?”

“It was not as if it was an imposition, and the view of the forest is quite beautiful when viewed from precisely this spot,” Thranduil answers him as blithely as if this is a common occurrence, as if people just come up and fall asleep on his shoulder while he’s sitting in a tree a hundred feet off the ground all the time. “You were tired and I had no pressing matters that required my immediate attention. I assure you, I was not without entertainment. Your dreams were suitably diverting.”

Ned head shoots up. “You were watching my dreams?” Forget mortified, horrified is much closer to what he’s feeling at this exact moment.

“Not all of them, flashes of color and sound only, and not intentionally. We were in direct contact all night and it appears you tend to project rather loudly in your sleep.”

The Guide groaned aloud again at that and let his head fall into his hands once more. “Kill me now.” Noticing something for the first time, he looks back up at the elf curiously, plucking at the pile of deep burgundy silk pooled in his lap. “Isn’t this yours? I don’t remember you wearing it when you came outside.”

“Galion came searching for me when I didn’t return in what he deemed to be an excusable amount of time,” that same air of playfulness is still hovering around the elvenking and his pale lips twitch upward the barest amount. “I asked that he fetch it for me. I did not wish for you to grow too cold.”

“Oh.” He looks down at his hands, anxiously bunching the doubtlessly expensive fabric in his lap. “Thank you. You didn’t have to, but…thank you.” He glances up through his fringe to see the elf’s eyes still on him and he offers him a shy, if sincere, smile in response. “So, um. I should probably get going. Amdir’ll be visibly disappointed in my general direction if I’m late to training.”

“Ah,” the elf nods with false solemnity, and the smile he gives Ned in return is infinitesimally small but it’s there. “Well we cannot have that.”

“It’s a much more effective scolding then you’d think! And he doesn’t even have to say a word to do it!” he insists, not even bothering to hide the wide grin on his face as he braces himself to jump down from the tree, then an idea strikes him and he pauses at the last second, grin slipping. “Hey Thranduil…are you free tonight? I know it’s not our usual dinner date night but I just thought of something.”

The Sentinel observes him carefully, head tilted slightly to one side as he contemplates, allowing a brief flash of surprise and curiosity to color the area around him when he replies, “Nothing I cannot reschedule. What did you have in mind?”

Excitement starts to bubble in his chest but he squashes it firmly, not wanting to get his hopes up before he’s even finished refining the details of his plan. “Can you meet me in my kitchen a little after dinner time? I’ll need some time to get ready.”

“May I ask for what?”

He shakes his head, not wanting to too much away in case it doesn’t work. “Please just be there?”

He agrees.

-

The man spends the better portion of the day getting ready, begging off his archery lesson early-Amdir’s latest teaching endeavor to try and get across the finer points of hand-eye coordination; Ned is predictably abysmal at it, he much prefers a sword-and holing himself up in his little kitchen for hours, from midday all the way through till dusk, the savory-sweet smells produced by his diligent work quickly permeating the kingdom and drawing a sizable crowd of off-duty members of the guard who mill at the entrance of the hallway leading down to the kitchen, craning their necks and sniffing the air hopefully, all of them too wary (too smart) to approach their king’s consort directly.

The crowd grows ever larger and more persistent as the day wears on until sometime just before sunset Tauriel comes stalking up to them along the pathway that leads from the barracks, yelling about how if they have time to stand around like children waiting for their mother to finish baking cookies so they can chance swiping them from the windowsill, then that must mean they also have time for extra shifts on the night-watch. The wood elves scatter, chastened, Tauriel moves on, satisfied, and the man continues on with his endeavor, none the wiser.

Finally, everything is done and in place and he rushes wildly around his cooking space, gathering up dirtied dishes, wiping down tables, double and triple-checking to make sure the fire in the oven has been banked properly, and then furiously scrubbing his hands and forearms as free of accumulated dough and filling particles as he can, knowing he stinks to high heaven of wet flour but completely unable to do anything about it. It’s a hazard of his particular line of work and all he can do now is pray Thranduil won’t care after all is said and done.

The elf Sentinel reaches the foot of the staircase just as Ned finishes shoving all the besmirched pots and pans mostly out of sight to be cleaned later, turning to find the Guide standing before the center counter in the middle of the room, hands behind his back and bouncing on the balls of his feet nervously, much like child waiting for a teacher to mete out punishment. He quirks a dark brow at the man but says nothing about the dirty crockery he can clearly see poking out from under the table, an omission of which the piemaker looks desperately grateful.

“So, um, I guess you’re probably wondering why I wanted you to come down here tonight,” he stammers, raking one hand through his hair, messing it up and smoothing it back into place in the same breath and blatantly ignoring the fact that he’s so nervous he’s almost ninety-percent sure he just said ‘yer’ instead of ‘you’re’. He takes a deep breath and tries to convince himself to calm down.

“Does it involve pie?” Thranduil questions with that patented there-but-not-there smirk that alternately makes Ned want to punch him in the arm and melt into a puddle of pure sexual frustration on the floor.

One side of his mouth pulls up into a grin despite himself and he relaxes just barely but it’s enough, some of the panicked energy leaving him at the remark. “It does. It does involve pie, thank you for noticing. Anything else?”

“It involves a lot of pie?” the elf guesses, playing along, tilting his head to indicate the four different pastries cooling in their tins on the table in front of them, each with a perfectly sized slice cut from the round and placed before the respective pies.

“Sorta,” the piemaker allows honestly, the rest of his anxiety bleeding away in the face of the elf king’s teasing. “It can involve a lot of pie, if you want, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. They’re for you, the pies, so if you want to eat a whole one I guess you can but I wouldn’t advise it. That much sugar at once time can’t be good for anyone, not even you.”

The tiniest of frowns pulls the elf’s mouth down at the corners, causing his brows to draw together in what on anyone else might be called confusion. “Ned, you must know I will not be able to taste them. There is no doubt in my mind that they are the epitome of delectable but I do not think I would be the best judge of-”

“No, see, that’s the point: you can’t taste them, and I’m sure you can’t smell them either which, let me tell you, is no mean feat, since I’m sure the air in here is so saturated with sugar and cinnamon if I stuck out my tongue I could catch some of it easy as catching snowflakes in wintertime, but, again, not the point,” he reminds himself, shaking his head and forcing his thoughts back on track. “What I mean is, yes you can’t taste them, but you could. That’s why I wanted you to come down here; so that we could try binding your sense of taste and maybe smell to-to me. And since I made the pie that technically counts right? Trust me, I reek of all things pie right now, so if there was ever a time to try, it would be now.”

Thranduil is silent for a long stretch of time, and just as Ned is considering working himself into a frenzy of worry that he’d missed the mark or over-stepped his bounds somehow, the tension pulling the elf’s shoulders taunt eases and he gives the Guide a true smile, small as it is, that makes the man’s stupid heart skip a beat like the filthy traitor it is. “It is worth a try. I admit I have not been able to think up an idea for those senses in particular so this will do nicely.” He surveys the selection of pies contemplatively. “Which one do you suggest I try first?”

Ned grins so wide he’s half afraid his face will split in half with the sheer force of it. “Apple! Definitely the apple.”

-

An hour later and Ned’s initial giddiness has long since worn off. Thranduil has tried a forkful of every single pie multiple times, and yet nothing at all has happened. No matter how they went about it, large bites, small bites, smelling the pie before, smelling it after, eating quickly, or eating slowly to try and savor it, both taste and smell had remained frustratingly elusive. Ned is slumped on the counter opposite the elvenking, watching dully as he eats his fifth forkful of apple pie, the rest of the slices having long since been sacrificed in the systematic pursuit of results.

Thranduil swallows and shakes his head minutely. Still nothing. The piemaker sighs and lets his forehead make contact with the wooden countertop with a hollow thump. “Damn. And here I thought it was such a good plan too.”

“It is a good idea, and it contains much potential,” Thranduils assures him, setting his fork aside absently. “Perhaps we can try again another day. For what it is worth, what little taste I have left at my disposal has confirmed my earlier assertions: you are a fantastic piemaker.”

“Thanks,” Ned mumbles sulkily, heaving himself to his feet and grabbing one of the spare forks scattered randomly about the table and scoops up his own heaping forkful of apple pie. “At least it didn’t all go to waste. There’s nothing worse than a pie no one enjoys.”

He shoves the bite into his mouth, for once uncaring of his intimidatingly high-born audience, and a muffled sound of simple pleasure escapes him as flavor instantly floods his taste-buds, too preoccupied with finishing his bite so he can talk to recognize the way Thranduil has gone very, very still across the table. “Well at least I haven’t lost my touch. It would be a shame if it turned out the only reason this didn’t work was because my baking skills had become subpar in the last few mon-” He turns back to Thranduil and immediately freezes at the look in the Sentinel’s eyes, all the air in his lungs leaving him in a rush.

The elf’s normally uncanny silver eyes have gone slate gray, a thin ring of color around blown black pupils and at Ned’s sharp exhale of breath at the sight, those eyes flick up from where they’d been riveted on his mouth to lock with his own, the intent in them clear even before his Sentinel reaches over the table toward him.

Ned could back away. He could break eye contact, take a step back, turn his face away, say ‘no’, ‘I don’t want this’, and there is not a single shred of doubt in his mind that Thranduil would listen and promptly comply with his refusal. There are no shades of gray here.

So Ned doesn’t do any of those things.

He lets the elf wrap one broad, long-fingered hand around the nape of his neck, holding him steady as Thranduil leans in, lets himself be coaxed into meeting him in the middle, lets his eyes slide closed, lets himself be lead to lean in that last bare centimeter so there lips can finally, finally, touch and-

And no matter what Olive and Emerson might choose to believe, and no matter how many times they tease him about his lack of experience with intimate relationships, Ned is twenty-nine years old, and he does have experience, thank you very much, not a lot, but he does have it.

He’s had his fair share of awkward first kisses, bumping noses over and over until you figure out which way to turn your head, not knowing when to stop to breathe, knocking foreheads and teeth and all those things. No matter who it is you’re doing it with, your first kiss with someone new is never going to live up to your expectations, and that’s fine, because in time, you’ll learn how to do it properly, and figuring that out together with your significant other is half the fun anyway. No matter how perfect Thranduil appeared and acted, Ned had pretty much already resigned himself to fumbling around with him as much as any other person he’d ever kissed for the first time. He didn’t mind.

But he was wrong. The moment their lips touch honest-to-God electricity crackles down his spine, flaring out and setting every nerve ending he has alight, stuttering his heartbeat before kicking it back up in double-time, making every single inch of skin he has so sensitized he starts trembling from nothing more than the feel of the hand on his nape and the lips pressed feather-light against his own. He lets out a single, shuddering breath, the smell of his sudden arousal turning the air in the room thick and sultry, and that’s when the dam finally breaks.

Slick heat and the shivery taste of a brewing winter thunderstorm on the back of his tongue are all he knows now, reaching up to wind his arms around Thranduil’s neck, the satin touch of long silver-sheet hair sliding over his exposed forearms from where he’d rolled his sleeves up, the feel of Thranduil’s other hand coming up to join the first, fingers sliding into his hair, tugging and scratching at the sensitive hair at the back of his neck, making him shiver and groan into the elf’s mouth, and the rumbling noise his Sentinel makes in response that makes another fierce wave of heat blaze up from his core, and the urgency in the slip-wet-lick-slide of their mouths increases, urging the both of them to a fever pitch of pure lust, and the walls between their minds are cracking, splintering under the force of their combined desire, it’s only a matter of time, seconds at most before it all comes crashing down-

The sound of metal being struck hard against stone, one of the empty pie tins unthinkingly swept to the floor in their all-consuming need to be closer to each other, has them separating at once, ripping themselves away from each other with a suddenness that’s very nearly painful, and they’re left staring at each other over the last physical barrier that still exists between the two of them, panting almost in synch, chest heaving, both of their mouths kiss-bruised swollen and red, each with the taste of the other still imprinted on their palates.

Silence reigns for a prolonged moment. Ned is the first to break eye contact, glancing to the side and coughing uncomfortably into his shoulder. “S-So u-um, that. That happened.”

“Yes,” Thranduil confirms easily enough and a fresh bolt of want washes through the Guide at how utterly wrecked his Sentinel sounds, voice gone deep and hoarse with primal hunger.

“Did, um, did, uh”-complete sentences Ned c’mon, you are not the heroine of a gothic novel goddamnit-“Did it work?”

The elf stares at him, uncomprehending. “What?”

“The um,”-deep, deep breath in, let it out, hanging onto his last shred of composure by his fingertips-“The experiment. With the pies. Did it work?”

“Oh,” Thranduil draws himself upright, back straight, drawing his shoulders back, visibly trying to regain his usually effortless poise and mostly failing. “Yes. Yes it worked I can. Taste now. And smell. Your plan was a success. I congratulate you.”

“Yeah no problem any-” ‘anytime’ is what he almost says but that would be a spectacularly bad idea so he bites his tongue to stop the word from coming out instead. “No problem.”

“Right. Well, ah, I suppose I will bid you good night, Ned.”

“Yeah. Yeah good night.”

Thranduil inclines his head toward him, not exactly a bow, but close, and begins to turn away, heading back toward the staircase that leads up to his rooms and he almost looks completely back to normal, head high, posture flawless, not a hair out of place to hint at what had just taken place-what else had almost taken place-except for his eyes. His eyes haven’t changed a bit, still the color of a storm at sea, a vortex of fathomless dark waters around a black whirlpool of desire and outright want and right then is when Ned decides ‘oh, to hell with this’ and rounds the counter.

“Thranduil?” He calls just before the elf reaches the bottom of the stairs, making him pause. He scoops up the last bite of the apple pie slice and holds it out to the other male, striving to keep his voice blank and his emotions in check. He’s ridiculously proud to notice that the offered hand barely shakes despite his nerves. “Do you want the last bit? So you can, uh, experience it for real this time, with, um, with nothing else getting in the way.”

The elf hesitates for a fraction of a second, obviously not trusting himself, before nodding and stepping back toward the man, stretching out his hand to take the fork, not wanting to get too close.

Just before one pale hand closes around the handle of the fork just above his own, Ned snatches it away and pops the sugary morsel into his own mouth instead, chewing and swallowing quickly. Thranduil is understandably confused, about to ask what he’s doing, the Guide can read the intent in his mind. He summons every ounce of courage he has ever possessed in his entire life, as well as some he just pulls out on the spot, and reaches out to the elvenking, tangling his fingers in the loose fabric of his outer robe and pressing himself in close, aligning the entire lengths of their bodies in the span of a breath.

“Well?” he asks, and through some miracle his voice doesn’t so much as waver as he tilts his head back just enough to look his stunned Sentinel in the eye, licking his sore lips more out of nerves then invitation, then does it again when Thranduil’s darkened gaze falls irrevocably to his lips as though compelled. “You want it or not?”

Chapter Text

Till the end of his days Ned will never be able to tell anyone, not even himself, how in the hell they made it up the winding staircase to the Elvenking’s rooms without killing themselves since he knows for a fact their mouths only ever separated when they absolutely had to do that troublesome ‘breathing’ thing, and their hands never left one another as far as he can remember, both of them too afraid to let go for fear that the other would disappear. Although to be fair, his memory gets pretty hazy around the time Thranduil kisses him the second time and the man was a bit, to put it lightly, distracted at the time, and looking back on it he honestly thinks that even if Thranduil had suddenly demonstrated a hitherto unknown talent for teleportation the most reaction that would have garnered was for him to rip himself away long enough to compliment the elf on his expediency before returning to his previous occupation of mauling every part of his Sentinel he could reach.

Because that’s what it resembles more than anything else; neither of them have it in them anymore to be gentle, to take things slow. There will be a time for such things later but that time is not now. The instant Thranduil had dipped his head to seal his mouth over Ned’s once more they had both been lost, the chains had shattered, the dams had overflowed, and there’s absolutely nothing in the world that can stop this now that it’s already begun, least of all the two of them.

Everything is a blur of hands and lips and tongues and teeth for an unaccountable amount of time, both of them grabbing and pulling at each other with frenzied desperation, the last faint afterimages of the shields built between them so thin and porous neither can clearly tell where one of them ends and the other begins, and at this point, neither of them have any inclination to untangle from one another long enough to figure it out.

Ned barely even notices when the backs of his knees hit the bed, being toppled onto it onto jars him to lucidity long enough to realize that his Sentinel-his Sentinel, his, his own, his and no one else’s, hishishishishishis-is wearing far, far too many clothes for this particular occasion and he attacks the clasps that hold the elf’s robes closed with a vigor that would doubtlessly embarrass him if he were in any state to feel anything of then the all-consuming desirewantlovelust that’s turned the part of his brain that deals with higher reasoning to gibbering mush.

Not to say Thranduil isn’t just as eager for the man to be free of the flagrantly unnecessary amount of fabric hiding his body from the elf’s hungry molten silver eyes, and he forgoes undoing the bindings on his Guide’s-his, his, forever and for always, imgur ui apahadh, never apart, never again-tunic and breeches entirely and settles for impatiently ripping them apart at the seams so that they can be carelessly tossed aside as quickly as possible. The low, unintentional sound of arousal the man makes at this casual display of strength only encourages him to move all the faster, wanting to feel, wanting to lick, wanting to taste and hear and see and smell and touch, touch, touch, touch, touch-

As soon as Thranduil’s hands make contact with his bared skin, making the man arch and let out a whimpering moan of relief because finally, yes, more, please, his memory gets foggy again, lost to physical sensation and the first careful brushes of their minds as they start to intertwine, for a while he is only aware of his own body and it’s reactions as if he is an outside spectator, and although he can still process everything, can feel the way his muscles twist and strain as he writhes and thrash and arches under his Sentinel’s ministrations, can hear himself making the most humiliating noises, moaning and whining and mewling as his grasp on spoken words becomes more and more tenuous, it is all so very distant, so far away from himself, from where his spirit floats unfettered, that he can’t quite grasp onto it for more than a few seconds at a time, brief snatches of heat and ecstasy that slip through his fingers near instantaneously. He feels as though he’s waiting for something, something important, but he’s not quite sure what-

Everything snaps back into place so fast, bringing him so abruptly back to the present, that for a moment he’s too disoriented to know exactly what’s going on, doesn’t remember how he got on his knees, he’s sure he was on his back a moment ago, but then he feels it, heat and pressure like he’s never known before sliding deep into his core and his back bows of its own accord, head thrown back as he gasps, clamping his fingers viselike over the curve of his Sentinel’s shoulders as the elf slowly eases him down, down, down, until there’s nowhere left for him to go and then he stills, arms wrapped tight around Ned as the man pants and trembles, his body struggling to adjust. He holds as still as he can, muscles pulled taunt and rigid as he viciously fight down every instinct he has that howls for him to move. He won’t move, can’t, not when it might cause his Guide, his bonded, the one he cares for most above all things, even the slightest amount of pain. So he waits.

Ned takes shuddering breath after shuddering breath, his whole body shaking as he tries to center himself. It doesn’t even hurt, not really, the bonding heat pretty much guarantees that he’s much too high on endorphins to feel anything other than mind-numbing pleasure at the moment, but the thing is-the thing is-he’s never-never done this before, not really, not all the way, not even with a woman and certainly never with a man because before coming here he’d never really considered-

But that’s not the point. The point is he’s so overwhelmed, so full of love and happiness and gratitude that it’s all he can do to hold on to control even by a thread, because he loves the elf in his arms, loves him so much he thinks he might combust with it and he doesn’t know how to handle that, not really, not at all, he’s never experienced something this intense before, had secretly thought such things to be impossible and he’s just so happy and thankful that he’s found all of this and he’s just-he’s so-he can’t describe it and he doesn’t even realize he’s started crying until Thranduil makes a soft rumbling noise of distress and rubs one smooth, pale cheek against Ned’s rougher one, comfortworryloveconcern spilling into the Guide’s mind where they’re halfway linked and he can’t take this, he can’t, something has to give before he really does burst from the emotional buildup blocking his throat and making his racing heartbeat stutter alarmingly.

And for lack of an idea of what else to do, he makes a split second decision and reaches up to push the waterfall of gleaming platinum hair back behind one pointed ear and leans forward to trace the tip of it with his tongue, something he’d been wanting to do for weeks now, the action making Thranduil’s hips buck upwards in surprise, making them both groan so Ned does it again and again, tangling his fingers in the elf’s thick mass of pale hair and taking the back-hook curve of it into his mouth, wrapping it in wet, scalding heat and skimming his teeth lightly over the very tip of it and that’s it, the last hair-thin links of both of their restraint are gone and-

And then they’re moving together, fast and slick and hard and filthy, kissing messily, panting harshly into each others’ mouths as they roll their hips in synch and it’s good, so good, surely it can’t get any better than-

Ned’s vision all but whites out as the next thrust hits something deep inside of him that makes him see stars, keening and writhing and scrabbling at Thranduil’s shoulders and back, gouging deep red lines in the pale flesh that just makes the elf snarl and up the pace to near punishing heights, hitting that spot directly every time he slams his hips up, nipping and sucking and outright biting at the smooth column of his Guide’s throat, bared for him, all for him, and Ned muffles his cries into the junction of his Sentinel’s neck and shoulder, gripping with his teeth and with his nails so hard he’s sure he draws blood as the flames in his blood spiral ever higher and higher until his body can’t hold it all anymore, skin stretched to snapping over the angles of his bones and the walls between them burn away like they were never there at all, their consciousness flooding into one another in an unstoppable tidal wave of informationemotionsensation so powerful neither of them could hope to stand under the onslaught and so instead they let the water pull them under as they both tumble over the edge together.

-

When Ned next opens his eyes, his mouth drops open in blatant shock at the sight that greets him. Far from being what he had expected-namely awakening cocooned under the voluminous mounds of fabric on the massive bed in his bonded’s chambers-instead he finds himself standing in the middle of his mother’s cheerful yellow kitchen in the house he grew up in for the first nine years of his life. And he isn’t alone.

“Good morning Ned,” the scruffy man sitting at the small two-person table against the wall greets amicably, lifting his chipped white coffee mug in salute. “Fancy seeing you here.”

“Me? You’re the one sitting in my mother’s kitchen,” the man points out bluntly, taking a few tentative steps toward the table and the man seated at it. “Do I know you?”

“Yes, though I doubt you remember it. What’s say we fix that, shall we?” And before Ned has time to do more than blink, the man abruptly stands and leans over the table to tap the younger man in the center of his forehead with two fingers.

Memory slams into his mind with all the force of a fist to the face and he reels back, scrambling to put some distance between himself and the man-Eru-which is no easy task in the small space so he ends up with the opposite wall at his back, pressing himself flat against it defensively. “You! Y-You’re the one who sent me here-there-to Middle-Earth! Who are you? Where are we? What do you want?”

“I have many names, but you may call me Eru for convenience sake, as you’ve already pointed out we’re in your mother’s kitchen, or someplace enough like it that the differences don’t really matter, and as for what I want,” he pauses to lean back in the chair, balancing it on the back legs and taking a drink from his mug before continuing. “That’s going to be something of a longer discussion.”

“What do you mean by-” He recalls something the twins said, one of the many stories they’d shared on the road to Mirkwood, about the music of the Ainur and the creation of the world. He blanches. “Eru Illuvatar? You-You’re Illuvatar? You’re God?”

“Again, similar enough that the differences don’t matter.” The man-being-watches the man over the rim of his mug, assessing. “Do I frighten you?”

“A little,” he admits honestly before he remembers who-what-it is he’s talking to and he backpedals frantically. “Not that you yourself are scary! In any way, unless you want me to be scared of you in which case wow, yeah, a little terrified not gonna lie, but mostly I’m just-I wouldn’t have thought-You’re so-” He makes a helpless all-encompassing gesture in Eru’s general direction and fervently prays he’s not going to be smote into a pile of ash on the spot.

“Didn’t think I’d look so much like a downtrodden vagabond?” Mercifully, the being just throws back his head and laughs, seemingly more amused by his babbling then upset by it. “Truth be told this isn’t my preferred form, but it is the one you in particular are most familiar with, so I winged it. I figured it’d be better to at least attempt to put you at ease for the conversation we’re about to have.”

“Conversation?” Ned parrots in confusion, not completely cognizant of the fact that he’s approaching the table once more, instinctively stopping just out of reach. “What do you mean?”

“About why I sent you here of course,” Eru responds flippantly, taking another long drought from his mug. “Don’t tell me you aren’t even a little curious.”

“Curious is one way to put it,” Ned allows cautiously, unsure of his footing. “Confused is more accurate.”

“Either way, the answer is relatively simple, though somehow I doubt you’ll be of the same opinion once we’ve finished speaking. Simply put, I sent you here because I had no other choice.”

“I-I don’t-” He frowns. “Sir, I’m not sure I understand.”

The other being quirks a wry grin at his admittance. “No, I wouldn’t expect you do.” The smile fades and the being sighs wearily, leaning his elbows on the small tables and resting his chin on his folded hands, leveling Ned with a considering stare. “The facts are these: I’m afraid to say there was a bit of a mix-up when the worlds were created, things got a bit more chaotic then expected you see, and somehow, your destiny ended up inexorably tangled with the destiny of this land and with the fate of the Elvenking, even though you were born into another world entirely. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure how it happened myself, but by the time I noticed, it was already too late to try and separate the threads that interwove you together; the best I could do was find a way to contain the situation until you were ready.”

“‘Contain’? Contain what?”

“Your abilities,” Eru answers shortly. The being sighs again, rubbing his forehead tiredly as he searches for the best way to explain. “You must understand me when I tell you this Ned: none of this was ever supposed to happen the way it did. You were never meant to come here, to meet these people, and do the things you’ve done. Everything’s changed now because of it. If everything had proceeded as planned, you would have married your childhood sweetheart and Thranduil would have continued on in perpetuity, unaware that anything at all was ever missing from his life in the first place. But since neither of those things was an option anymore, the best I could think of to do was to stifle your fledgling bond before it could grow too strong that severing it would risk irrevocably damaging you or your Intended.”

“How?” Ned wasn’t sure it was possible to go into shock while inside what he was almost ninety-eight percent sure was his own head, but judging from the way his extremities had started to tingle and grow cold, he was beginning to think the answer might be ‘yes’. He grits his teeth and forces the words out between suddenly nerveless lips, his tongue feeling heavy and thick in his mouth, numb. “How did you ‘stifle’ it? Thranduil thought I died when I was four.”

“And if he hadn’t, can you imagine the consequences of such a bond at so young an age, without even taking into account the vast differences in your relative locations to each other? Ned you are the single most powerful Guide Middle-Earth has ever seen! Can you imagine what that would have meant for you in your own land? If the two of you had remained linked, you would only have grown steadily stronger as the years went by until it would have been impossible for you to hide it any longer. You were born Gifted in a world where no such thing had ever occurred outside of myth and legend! You would have been more than famous, constantly in the public eye, and how long, exactly, do you think your secret would have remained a secret in an environment like that?”-He ignores Ned’s full-body flinch and plows on grimly, knowing he has to hammer the point home, to make him understand-“You would have treated as either a god or an abomination. Is that what you would have wanted? What kind of life would that have been?”

“Mine,” the man responds softly as he belatedly recognizes the chill settling into his body for what it is; not shock, but slow-building anger. “It would have been mine. My life, the only one I would have ever known. You had no right…No right to change it-to change all of it!”

“I was correcting it,” Eru intones, unconcerned with the piemaker’s rising ire. “The best way I knew how. You would never have survived such a life, and neither would your young Sentinel. It would have driven him mad, to know you were suffering, to sense it every minute of the day, but never able to find you, to get to you and help you.”

“We would have been fine,” Ned dismisses with a sharp swipe of his hand through the air, agitation making his movements jerky.

“How can you know that?”

“Because-”

“Tell me, child, how could you possibly know better than me?”

“We would have been-”

“Because I’ve seen it, you know, I’ve seen firsthand what happens to the both of you in the course of such a life, I visited that world often while trying to craft the best solution for your problem, and let me tell you, the things I saw do not bear repeating. So tell me, how could you possible know better?”

“Because-!”

“Because what?”

“Because we wouldn’t have been alone!” Ned explodes, frustration reaching its peak. “We wouldn’t have been alone, we would have had each other, and even if that would have meant us being hurt, even if it meant suffering, at the very least we would have had each other.”

His rage extinguishes itself as quickly as it had kindled, leaving the man wrung out and exhausted, defeated. “We wouldn’t have been alone,” he repeats in a whisper, mostly to himself this time gaze locked unseeingly on the mint-and-white checkerboard tile, his minds’ eye filled with the memories of rows and row of empty beds in a drafty boys dormitory, of the pitying smiles of his school testing proctors, of his simple, sparse apartment above the Pie Hole, of a pat on the head and a promise that rang hollow the moment it was spoken. “That would have been enough. It would have been.”

Ned looks up to find Eru regarding him quietly, appearing immeasurably old in that moment, deep lines of exhaustion etched around dark, sunken eyes as he returns the piemaker’s stare levelly. “Perhaps,” he allows eventually, voice quiet and weighted as the undisturbed silence of a tomb. “Perhaps that is true. But it is neither here nor there. Kaiidth, my boy. What is, is.”

The man gapes incredulously at the ancient being. “Did you…Did you just quote Star Trek at me?”

Laughter dances in the depths of mischievous brown eyes, a smirk playing around the edges of a grizzled mouth. “And if I did?” He takes another gulp of coffee, though reason says he should have long since drained the cup. “Would you think less of me for it? Or would you rather I chose something more pithy? Such as ‘the needs of the many outweigh the need of the one’? How’s that, better?”

“That’s terrible,” Ned tells him flatly, crossing his arms over his chest with a huff. “That’s terrible. You’re terrible.”

“So I’ve been told.” Illuvatar grins and downs the last of his coffee before slamming the mug down and standing up from the table, metal chair legs skidding over the linoleum as he pats at the numerous pockets sewn into his frayed, ragged coat, the same one he’d been wearing when he’d come into the Pie Hole that night. “Now then, now that we have that settled, I’m sorry to say there’s one more thing I’m going to have to ask of you my boy.”

“Oh asking now is it? You mean you’re not just going to come in and callously uproot my life without bothering to get my say in the matter like the last time?”

“No, no more of that, this time it’s all on you,” the being assures him with a grin before letting it fade again, the merriment still twinkling in his eyes disappearing as fast as it had come to be replaced with deathly seriousness. “You have two options Ned, just two. Whichever one you decide on is the one you’re committing to, and I mean forever. There will be no going back from this.”

Ned straightens, pulling the long sleeves of his favorite black sweater down over his hands in a nervous gesture he hadn’t used in months, only just at that moment realizing he wasn’t dressed in his now-familiar outfit of tunic, breeches, and boots, but instead the sweater, jeans, and Converse combo he’d been wearing when he first appeared in Middle-Earth. “What do you mean? What options are you talking about?”

“There’s a war coming Ned,” Eru informs him gravely, holding the young man’s eyes to make sure he understands the true scope of what he’s about to tell him. “A great war, one that will define Middle-Earth and all its inhabitants for the rest of its days, unto the ending of the world. A shadow grows in the East, a sleepless malice that will rise up and thrive in the dark days to come. An ancient evil that, at the outcome of the final battle, will either triumph, or be subdued once and for all. This war will change the vary landscape of the world; kingdoms will be razed to the ground, entire scores of people will be wiped out, and no matter who emerges victorious the fate of all Middle-Earth will be forever changed by the events in coming months. No one will be spared; not Mirkwood, not Erebor, not even Rivendell will be able to fully escape the taint of evil that will sweep over the land like a plague. This war will be the deciding battle in a conflict that has raged for ages upon ages, since the birth of the world itself, and even I do not yet know what the outcome of this clash of wills will be. Do you understand why I’m telling you this?”

The Guide had started shivering somewhere around ‘Mirkwood will not be spared’, and he’s wrapped his arms around his chest, tucking his hands up under his arms and ducking his head, curling up one shoulder as though waiting for a blow, regressing back to self-protective gestures he hasn’t had cause to use in months in an effort to stop himself from breaking down completely. “N-n-n-n-” his throat closes up and he settles for shaking his head mutely, indicating no, he doesn’t understand.

“I’m telling you this so you can be sure to have all the facts before you make your final decision. Because I am giving you an out. Your options are these: either choose to stay by your Sentinel side, to stand with him and his people and all the friends and allies you’ve gained in your stay here, to face united whatever may come. Or, choose to go back to the Pie Hole, to your home, to the people who have loved you for so many years, who have stood at your back and helped you to face down countless fears you had convinced yourself you could never conquer on your own, to Olive and Emerson, agree to forget all that transpired here and I will make it so that it never happened at all.”

“But-But-” Ned was shaking terribly now, teeth chattering together so hard he can hardly get the words out, rising panic tasting like bile in the back of his throat. “But Thranduil. He needs me, you said-”

“I said I would make it as though none of this ever happened and I shall. Just as you would not remember him, he would not remember you. I have caught you here, suspended you in a time just before your Bond was completed. If you chose to leave he would wake up alone in his chambers just as he has every night for the last two thousand years, and he would have no memory of what had occurred in the preceding months, none of them would, not Tauriel or Legolas, or the twins, no one. It would be as though none of it had ever happened. Because, if you choose it, it never will have.”

“But why,” he begs. “Why bring me here at all if you were just planning to take it all away?”

“Because you’re right, I did not ask you. I plucked you out of your safe, comfortable, monotonous life and threw you into a world of light and sound and foreign color with danger lurking around every corner, and I never stopped to ask you if it was what you wanted. But I will not bind you to a life you did not have a hand in picking for yourself, so tell me now, which one do you choose: new love, or old loyalty? The decision lies solely with you.”

“That’s not a choice,” Ned spits, anger overriding the mounting terror and making his stomach pitch and roll with helpless rage. “That’s an ultimatum.”

“Nevertheless, the decision is yours and yours alone. Make your choice my boy, and choose wisely.”

Later, decades down the road, when he looks back on this pivotal moment in his life, and his heart aches with old pain and his eyes fill with unshed tears for what might have been, he’ll wish for a lot of things to have been different, but mostly he’ll wish that he’d put up more a fight, that he’d taken more time to decide, to really think it over. But the truth is, he knew his choice before the graying, rough-voiced old man had even finished speaking.

He glares at the being before him, vision blurred by tears and a defiant twist to his mouth when he opens it and declares:

“I choose-”

Chapter Text

The Pie Hole looks exactly the same as Ned remembered, yet it also seems somehow different in some imperceptible way.

Had it always been so…garish? None of the colors even matched themselves, clashing oddly with one another in a way that he is having a hard time believing he never noticed before. It was cheerful, there was no doubt about that, bright and happy and welcoming, though certainly not ‘homey’; nothing like the cool, serene cream-azure-gold architecture of Rivendell. Nor was it anything like the warm, familiar wood tones of the halls of Mirkwood with its open-aired warmth and echoing, comforting darkened archways.

In some small way, it does remind him a bit of his brief stay in Erebor, with its ostentatious coloring and unavoidable sensory overload. Just a little bit too overdone, just a little bit trying too hard. He wonders how he had managed to forget such details in such a relatively short amount of time. Has it really only been three months since he last stood in the entryway of his own restaurant? It feels more like a lifetime.

His musings are abruptly cut short by the sound of frantic movement from the stairway across the room, the sound of something heavy moving fast over smooth tiled floor; unclipped claws scrabbling for traction on linoleum. Then a gold-ocher blur slams into his legs amid a flurry of ecstatic barking and whining, the dog’s whole body wriggling with joy as he stretches up to put his front paws on the piemakers’s stomach, too overjoyed at the knowledge that his boy-his boy, his boy!-is home to care about or remember the dangers associated with direct contact, though it hardly matters; as far as Digby is concerned, he could keel over dead this very second and he would be able to go happily and without any regrets.

His boy is less enthused about this very real possibility however, reflexively throwing his arms in the air to keep from inadvertently touching the overexcited retriever with his bare hands and ineffectually trying to bat the jumping dog away with the inside of his forearms-safe, for the cloth that covers them. “Digby no! Digby stop! Digby, down boy, down! I’m happy to see you too but you know you have to be caref-”

“Ned?”

The shocked gasp comes from behind him, the man having been forced to stumble in dizzying circles in an effort to keep out of contact with Digby, and he turns back around quickly, hands still held over his head and gray eyes wide with surprise, no doubt looking like a complete fool but frankly, all three of them are too otherwise distracted to care at this exact moment. “Olive?” he asks dumbly, too off-balance to think before he speaks. “What are you doing here?”

Her knee-jerk reaction to such an obvious question rips an automatic response from her throat. “I live here.” She takes a single, tentative step toward him and, unaccountably flustered, he lets his arms fall to his sides, unnerved by the roiling emotions he can sense warping the air around his friend. “I was asleep but Digby started barking and scratching at the door, seemed like he really wanted out, and then he just took off down here. I thought maybe there was a burglar but-” She gasps as it finally sinks in, eyes starting to swim with the beginnings of tears. “Ned? You’re really here? You’re alive?”

“Of course I’m alive Ol-”

The last syllable of her name is punched out of him along with all the air in his lungs when she suddenly throws herself at him without warning, small and fast and Sentinel strong-three months is a long time, there’s no doubt he’s in much better shape then he’s ever been in his entire life but at the end of the day he’s only a Guide after all-and toppling the both of them to the floor, ending up with her perched in his lap, arms wrapped around his middle and him sprawled out and tangled with everything within reach, having not had time to orient his limbs before she’d tackled him. He groans in discomfort, opening his mouth to chide her for nearly giving him a concussion only to choke on the words when he registers the tremors that wrack her tiny frame, making her shudder against him while she muffles her sobs in his shoulder, the fabric there soon growing damp as she cries.

“I didn’t know where you were! I just came down one morning and you were gone! Emerson 'n I tried everything, searched everywhere, even organized a search party but there was nothing! Even my nose couldn’t track you, no matter how hard I tried, I just kept going in circles around the kitchen and it nearly drove me crazy! We had to report you missing and I didn’t know what had happened to you, if you were even okay and I-I-I-” She dissolves into wordless heaving sobs after that, too overcome to continue.

Guilt is a leaden weight in his stomach, and he doesn’t know what to do, still doesn’t know how to deal with other people’s tears, barely knows how to handle his own, and certainly not Olive’s, who he’s only seen cry maybe twice in the entire time they’ve known each other; both times over either him or Emerson. Over him when he’d been hospitalized with pneumonia two winters ago after running and hiding for hours in flooded drainage ditches from disgruntled jewel thieves in the middle of the worst blizzard their state had ever seen, and over Emerson that time he’d broken his arm in a final, desperate attempt to get free of his restraints before the building they were in burnt down around their ears.

God knows they’d put this woman through hell over the years and he doesn’t know what to do or what to say so he just wraps his arms carefully around her, nearly engulfing her much smaller body with his bulk as he does so. “I know Olive. I’m sorry I made you worry. I’m sorry.”

They stay there, curled up together on the cold, checkered tile floor in the cold, night-dark store with Digby keeping close at hand to lend them his warmth for a long, long time.

-

“So,” Olive clears her throat officiously some time later, after she’s dried her tears, made a pot of coffee and poured them each a cup. They sit opposite each other at one of the booths, the blonde only having consented to letting him go after he began fidgeting so badly she couldn't stay comfortable anymore. He felt bad about it, but despite everything he still wasn’t anything close to a tactile person, not really, and besides, the foreign thoughts and feelings of a Sentinel that wasn’t his own constantly pressing into his skin through every place they were connected so soon after Bonding had made his brain itch and his skin crawl with Wrongess, no matter who or how familiar the Sentinel was. “Are you gonna tell me what happened or do I have to beat it outta ya?”

“I’ll tell you,” he assures her hastily, because he honestly can’t tell if she’s bluffing or not and from experience he's knows it’s best not to push his luck. “I’m not sure you’ll believe me about most of it, but I’ll try and explain as best I can.” He takes a deep breath, steeling himself for what he knows is to come. “First of all, do you notice anything different about me?”

She quirks a golden brow at him, hazel eyes appearing deeply unimpressed as she observes him over the rim of her steaming mug. “Is this going to be a Twenty Questions sort of thing where I have to try and guess what you’ve been doing this whole time because if so I’m really not in the mood for it Ned. Out with it.”

“No, it’s not, I mean-Can’t you just-Do you notice anything different about me, yes or no,” he tries again, not knowing how else to go about it. “Try hard. Please Olive.”

She sighs and sets her mug down sharply enough that he flinches but does as he asks, running her gaze over his frame assessingly. “Well you obviously haven’t been skipping any meals, no starving on the streets or catching your death from exposure for you, that’s for sure, even looks like you’ve been hitting the gym somewhere cause I coulda sworn that shirt fit looser last time I saw you wear it. Your hair’s getting kinda long, little past due for a trim but other than that I-” She cuts herself off, sitting forward in her seat and narrowing her eyes at him, tilting her head back to scent the air, finally noticing something off.

“Wait. Wait yeah, there is something now that you mention it. You wearing some kind of new cologne honey cause if so I have to say it’s definitely working for you, you smell just like-” Her eyes widen, making them shine more green then brown in the florescent lighting of the dim restaurant. “A Guide,” she breathes, recognition dawning. “You smell just like a Guide.”

“That’s because I am one. A Guide, that is.” His shoulders slump in relief that she caught on so quickly, since he’d had no idea how he was just going to tell her if she didn’t guess for herself. “I came online that night I disappeared.”

“Seriously?” Her eyes are still huge in her fine-boned face, incredulity coloring her voice. “You’re a Guide? At your age?”

“Yeah, and I know it’s really rare, but that’s kind of why I had to leave so suddenly. You see, my Sentinel, he-”

“Your Sentinel?” she parrots, eyes going deep-forest brown and hard. “You found your Sentinel?”

“Yes, which is why-”

“Your Sentinel is the reason you just vanished off the face of the Earth? Why you couldn’t call, or text, or hell, write a letter? Why we haven’t had contact with you for three stinkin’ months?”

Yes, and that’s because-”

“And I suppose this mysterious Sentinel is also the explanation for why you look like an active crime scene?”

His hands instinctively fly up to his throat, shielding the rapidly purpling marks he no doubt has scattered over the entirety of his neck and collarbone from her disapproving glare, face aflame with embarrassment and eyes fixed on the formica table in from of him as he toys with his still full cup of coffee sheepishly. “Um, yes, we kinda-we, uh, we, we did the-um last night we-we-we finally bon-”

“I’m going to kill him,” the woman cuts him off, voice flat, face utterly serious.

“You-you what?! Wait, no, Olive what are you talking abou-”

“I’m going to kill him,” she reiterates calmly, rising from her seat in a too-fluid motion, smooth as a serpent, to stand at his elbow. “Nobody abuses a member of my tribe and gets away with it Ned, nobody, I don’t care who they are. I’ll gut him like a fish and string him up by his innards and hang him from a flagpole in the street as a warning if I have to, but don’t you worry sweetie, he is not going to get away with this.”

“Wha-” all the things he’s told her so far start to click together in his brain and he wants to kick himself for not realizing how it all would sound to her considering the less then ideal circumstances. “No, no you have it all wrong. He’s not like that, not at all, you know a Sentinel would never put their hands on-”

“He doesn’t have to beat you to abuse you Ned,” she points out icily, not an ounce of pity in her voice. She softens when she flicks her gaze to his though, reaching out to lay a steadying palm on his cheek. “Oh Ned I'm so sorry. We’ll get this all straightened out, don’t you worry, I won’t ever let him hurt you again.”

“No, Olive, look, you’re not listening to me; I haven’t been abused, this isn’t Stockholm Syndrome, if you’d just-”

“I know you want to think that, God knows I want to believe it to, that no Sentinel would ever do such a thing to his Guide, but statistics don’t lie, and maybe you think he did it out of love or just misplaced jealousy but that doesn’t make up for not letting you talk to your friends, your family, for months at a time, not even to let us know you’re okay, doesn’t excuse him putting his marks on you, like a collar of ownership, so that no one ever forgets, including you, who you really belong to-”

“No! No, stop it, you can’t, please, you’re not-” He takes a deep breath in through his nose and lets it out through his mouth, forcing himself to calm down through sheer force of will, packing all his frustration up into a little box and tying it up with a neat bow to be put aside and dealt with later. “Will you please just sit down and listen to me? Let me explain and then, if you still want to neuter him, we can talk.”

She eyes him warily for a moment, searching his face for something she must find because instead of arguing further she simply nods once and returns to her seat, crossing her arms over her chest and leaning back into the cushioned seat behind her to watch him with narrowed cat-slit eyes. “Alright. I’m listening. Talk.”

And so he does. He tells her everything; from meeting Eru, to waking up in that field outside of Rivendell, all the way up until earlier that night when he and Thranduil had finally consummated their bond-which he skates over-though otherwise he spares her no details.

He’s not sure how long she lets him talk uninterrupted, only that it’s long enough for his voice to go hoarse and his untouched coffee to turn to sludge, the slowly lightening blue of the sky outside the parted blinds the only way to chart the passage of time, along with the ever-evolving expression on her face which slowly changes from tight-lipped recalcitrance to open-mouthed shock. Eventually, he runs out of words and he lets his voice gradually peter off to leave only ringing silence behind to fill the void it leaves. He shifts uncomfortably under her slack-jawed stare, throat dry as a bone but strangely unwilling to break the spell he seemed to have inadvertently woven around them with his tale. He can’t imagine what she’ll say.

Finally, after what feels like an eternity, she slumps back into the cushion at her back, wide, shifting-color eyes still locked with his as she looks for some kind of hint of a lie, shaking her head in mute wonder when she doesn’t find even a trace of one. “Let me get this straight: you met God? You? The man who doesn’t believe in anything? Doesn’t seem fair.”

He nearly slams his forehead into the table. Of all the things she could have, should have asked- “That’s what you choose to focus on? Not the fact that I went to a magical world where things like dragons and elves and possibly unicorns exist, but the fact that I met the Middle-Earth equivalent of the Almighty? I think you may need to get your priorities in order Olive.”

She shrugs, unrepentant. “You gotta admit, it’s a pretty amazing thing to have happen to you. Meeting God I mean. What was He like? Was He holy?”

Ned snorts. “Only if you mean the holes in his pants because seriously, those things had seen better days.”

“Huh. Well I guess if you’re God, you have pretty free reign of what you’re fashion taste gets to be. He could do worse than hobo-chic, let me tell you, the things people are willing to put on their bodies in the name of ‘couture’. Don’t get me started.”

“So this doesn’t bother you?”

She blinks at him, uncomprehending. “What doesn’t?”

“The traveling to another dimesion thing? The dining with dignitaries thing? Accidentally staging a coup-de-tat and overthrowing the ruling King Under the Mountain? The fact that I all but married the King of the elves, for God’s sakes? None of this sounds remotely insane to you?”

She shrugs again. “Well yeah, I mean, but it’s you, and I know you wouldn’t lie to me about something like that. Why shouldn’t I believe you?”

“Because it’s nuts!” he bursts out, gesticulating wildly in order to get his point across, not understanding how she can be so blasé about it all. “You’re supposed to question things like this Olive! You can’t just accept things like this at face value!”

She levels him with a look. “Did all of that stuff really happen?”

“Wha-Well...yeah.”

“Swear on the Pie Hole?”

“Swear on Digby.”

“Dang,” she shakes her head. “Then yeah of course I believe you.” She frowns. “Though there is one thing I still don’t understand.”

He groans into the tabletop, having given into the urge to rest his head on it in an attempt to stave off his mounting headache. “What?”

“If you went there, then how did you get back here?”

“I made a choice,” is his muffled reply.

“A choice?”

“Yeah. Eru came to me in a dream last night and said that I had to choose between Thranduil and Middle-Earth, or you guys and the Pie Hole.”

“And you chose him.”

He sits up and looks at her, startled. “Yeah.”

She smiles at him, sad but not surprised. “You came to say goodbye?”

It’s not really a question but he nods anyway. “Yeah,” he whispers around the swell of sudden, choking emotion in his throat.

“How long do you have?”

He turns to look out at the slowly pinking sky through the slats in the blinds. “Until the sun rises.”

She bites her lip and turns her head quickly away to look out the window with him, doing nothing to stem the fresh wave of tears that begin to roll silently down her face at the quiet apology in his voice. “Okay…Okay.”

They talk for another hour about everything and nothing; about how Emerson and his business are doing (well, though not as well as it could be what with him gone), about how upset the regular frequenters of the Pie Hole had been when he vanished (very), and how she been keeping the shop running mostly on her own though she did have to hire a new waitress in order to deal with her increased workload (her name is Charlotte but she likes to be called ‘Chuck’). They don’t say goodbye, not really. They don’t say ‘I’ll miss you’, ‘I love you’, ‘you were like the sister/brother I never had’, but they don’t need to. They both know those things already.

Finally, the time comes when neither of them can ignore the thin shafts of sunlight starting to shine timidly into the room, slowly brightening their surroundings as the new day dawned. By unspoken agreement they stand and walk to the door, as though he’s simply stopped by for an everyday kind of visit and it was time for him to go.

He presses the rounded rectangle curve of his phone into her palm, closing her thin fingers around it carefully as though it’s something very precious that might shatter under too much force. “Keep that. It’s got a few pictures on it that you might want to look at. Arwen and Elrond and the twins. Even got a shot of Legolas and Tauriel hanging around the kitchen off-duty as well. I wish you could meet them, I think they would like you. You and Tauriel would get along like a house on fire.”

She grins up at him, both of them content to ignore the way the tears hadn’t really stopped flowing since he confirmed that he was leaving, about how they’ll probably-definitely-only get worse once he’s gone and not there to see her break down. That’s another thing they both already know without having to say it. “Maybe it’s for the best. She sounds like a spitfire, that’s for sure. I bet we would’ve raised tons of hell.”

“No doubt.”

He musters up a grin for her and turns to put his hand on the doorknob, at a loss for what else to do since Eru had never actually specified how exactly he would be returning to Middle-Earth, only that he would be. He just prays it won’t be as bad as the last time.

“Hey.”

He looks back over his shoulder at her soft call, only to blink in confusion when she holds up his phone, her smile genuine, if a little shaky around the edges. “One for the road?”

He smiles softly at her in understanding, heart aching with the knowledge that he’ll never see her-his first and best friend in the whole world-ever again. He owes her more than he could ever possibly express in words, so he settles for reaching out and running a thin, careful tendril over the walls around her mind, a wordless expression of love, gratitude, sorrow, and all the things that exist in between.

The last thing he hears is the automated lens of the phone’s camera clicking, and the last thing she sees is the crooked curve of his smile before he disappears, evaporating like morning dew in spring, leaving nothing more than a swirl of dust motes that dance through the sunlight in his wake, almost as though he was never there at all.

The end.