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He hates this: hunting; Bard’s never felt any pleasure in killing. But his children have to eat, and sometimes fish isn’t enough. They’re harder to catch on this side than they were in town, on his little barge instead of off the peers, and there’s no one else to barter food out of. So he creeps through the woods with his bow at the ready, half hoping for spiders. They aren’t pleasant to eat, but there’s no guilt in killing them. The more benevolent creatures—the foxes, the birds, the deer—he hates to raise a weapon to. But Bard’s always done what he must.

The woods are dying—and he blames the spiders for it—so he can’t afford to miss any cues. When he sees the blur of a white flank through the ash-green leaves, he has to follow. He chases the sound and the eerie light the creature seems to command, until he’s sure he’s close, and he finally gets a clear shot between two withered trunks. It bolts between them and across the dirt path—a dazzling white stag, leaping clear of the foliage, only to land on the other side and be gone in a heartbeat. Bard looses his arrow in the direction it ran and hears the heavy thud of a body hitting the ground. He has no clear view of where it went, but Bard’s always had a good internal compass. He darts after his prey; he needs to find the body before the spiders do.

The stag got further than he’d thought: the creatures of this forest seem to be under different rules, and the stag ran fast as lightning. Bard’s still quiet on his approach; other predators may have smelled the blood. He finds the blare of white between two thick trees he has to climb between, and then he’s in a small, root-covered clearing.

In the center of the gnarled groove there is no stag, but a man, sitting down on his knees with white-blond hair half obscuring him. It tumbles all down his shoulders, his back, brushing right to the ground. He wears a thin, loose robe that gives off a silver-white sheen. His face, when he turns to look at Bard, is strikingly handsome, but marred with a great wound that crawls all along his cheek, the veins barely hidden beneath his fingers as he tries to cover it, one grey eye whiter near the cut. Bard, in that paralyzing second, is speechless.

Then a wave of shame seers through him; somehow, he missed the stag, and it seems he struck a man instead. An elf, actually, when he manages to take in more details—the delicate arch of pointed ears and the ethereal, slender curves. Bard never wants to hurt anyone, let alone an innocent Woodland elf, but to mar such beauty seems a sin almost as great; the Valar will never forgive him. The arrow lies next to the elf, bloodless but broken. They eye one another in silence while Bard struggles to breathe.

It takes great effort to shake himself from the spell, but then Bard’s surging forward, hurrying down to his knees and reaching out, though at the last moment, he doesn’t make contact—he can’t bring himself to lay his dirtied hands on such art. “I’m so sorry,” he blurts instead, face hot. “I did not mean to shoot you—there was a stag that I aimed for, but that does not excuse this—I am so sorry!” Once the words are out, he can’t stop, and babbles on, “Where did you come from? We must find your people; I have no healing skills, but surely—”

He’s cut off with a snort. It’s so surprising, such a rude noise coming from someone so magnificent, that it stops Bard in his tracks. At first, he thinks he’s misheard, but then the elf says just as haughtily, “You could not have shot me, mortal. The reminder of such things simply startled out an old injury.”

Then, straightening with regal posture, the elf lowers his hand, and his face, to Bard’s utter amazement, begins to shift. His creamy skin seems to knit itself right back together, the wound completely gone in a matter of seconds, perfect symmetry left in its place. It takes Bard’s breath away again, both for the magic of it and how undeniably gorgeous the elf’s face becomes, uncovered and up close. Bard knows he’s staring but can’t stop.

The elf remains silent under this scrutiny, but after a moment, almost seems to preen. The attitude is justified—he’s perfection, and clearly knows it, is proud of his fathomless beauty, but it still takes Bard off guard—this attitude isn’t what he expect of a Woodland elf. Granted, this is the first time he’s met one. He shakes his head out again with a sigh of relief nonetheless. “I’m glad. But please, still let me help you back to... wherever you’re from. ...If I may know who you are...?”

The elf very clearly eyes Bard up and down, as though deciding whether he’s even worthy of being given a name. It makes Bard acutely self conscious of how long it’s been since he had a proper bath or a good shave. He keeps up with himself enough to not repulse his children, but he’s still last on his own priority list, and it’s been a long time since anyone looked at him in appraisal.

He’s somewhat surprised when he seems to pass, and the elf announces, “You may call me Thranduil.” There’s a slight lilt to the name, an exotic accent that Bard’s sure he won’t capture the nuances of. When Bard gives no reaction, Thranduil dons a mild frown. “I see you do not recognize it. Then I will tell you, as you have surely guessed, that I am an elf of this realm.”

Why Thranduil thinks Bard should recognize any Elven name, he has no idea. He’s just a simple bargeman turned bowman, and the only ones in his hometown high enough to know of other lands were no friends of his. He can barely name the other lands that surround Laketown, let alone people. He waits for more, but Thranduil doesn’t give it, so he adds, “My name’s Bard. Where, more specifically, may I take you?”

In the same aloof way he first snorted, Thranduil answers, “That is none of your concern,” and waves one hand dismissively.

“But if I can’t help you back...” Then he’ll feel guilty. But he realizes as he says it that Thranduil claims not to be injured at all and likely doesn’t need the help.

Thranduil still seems to consider it. He waits for a moment, then asks, “What would you do if you had harmed me, and I offered you no name or home?”

Bard points through the woods, back towards the path. It’s easy to answer, because he never had more than one option. “I’ve found a keep some ways back where I’ve taken my children. It’s only a few rooms, and mostly hidden, but it seems well made and none of the foul creatures in these woods have bothered us there. I thought it a remnant of some past civilization. Now I wonder if it’s from your ancestors.” Bard knows, at least, that Middle Earth is full of Elven ruins.

But Thranduil confirms none of that. He asks instead, “You took your children to these woods?”

Not the best parenting, Bard will admit. But, he explains, “Let’s just say I wasn’t on the best terms with the leader of my last home. Believe it or not, they’re safer here, so long as we stick to the edge and the trail, and I don’t let them leave that keep without me.”

Thranduil looks reserved but mildly curious. Again, he seems to take his time to think, and Bard allows it, using that time to simply bask in Thranduil’s splendor. Whatever his somewhat-pompous attitude, he’s the most stunning thing Bard’s seen in years. Bard would say his whole life, if not for the memories of holding his newborn children in his arms. He can’t help but think that Thranduil’s birth must’ve brought his parents past tears with joy.

Now he holds a more a handsome beauty. He looks about Bard’s age, but better taken care of, still youthful, and for all Bard knows of elves, he could be centuries old, or only a couple years. Perhaps he’s sired twice as many children as Bard, all as stunning as himself.

Eventually, Thranduil decides, and he rises to his feet with the grace of the stag he replaced. Bard follows, only for Thranduil to slip his silk-soft hand into Bard’s laboured-calloused one and decree, “You may take me there.”

Bard wandered far in his chase, and it takes some time before they reach the place he’s staying. Thranduil walks with careful ease across the rounded stone bridge that crosses the barrier between wild forest and enchanted ruins. Elaborate carvings climb up the other side with pillars shaped like trees, but there’s no door that Bard’s found there, so he guides Thranduil instead around the side. A half-hidden wooden door opens for them when he slips his hand into the right groove. The sunlight’s already streaming in from various nicks in the ceiling, but lit sconces enhance it. Inside is a humble room of cut stone walls, with several doors along the back that open into other chambers. This front room had a long table when they first came, so they’ve turned it into something of a living and dining room. Sigrid’s already sitting at it, and when she looks up to see the two of them, her eyes widen into perfect circles.

Before Bard can introduce himself, Bain and Tilda come bursting out of one of the other rooms, crying, “Da’!” with upheld arms. Tilda reaches him first, and Bard scoops her up into his arms on sheer instinct, kissing her cheek and trying not to show on his face how heavy she’s become. Bain reaches his side and stops abruptly, turning to gape at Thranduil.

Thranduil returns Bain’s gaze for perhaps two seconds, then looks at Bard with an utterly flat expression. Bard clears his throat and explains, “This is Thranduil. He’s a... friend... I found in the forest.” Thranduil lifts one dark brow at the word ‘friend’ but doesn’t contradict it.

Bain and Tilda continue staring unabashedly at him, but Sigrid drops the dress she’d been mending and rises from the wooden chair Bard’s carved for the table. She wipes her hands on her skirt as she approaches, cheeks a little pink, and then she thrusts out her hand and says, “Pleased to meet you.”

Thranduil looks curiously at her hand, as though trying to remember what to do with it, and then seems to recall some memory. He slips his hand into hers, her fingers looking tiny by comparison, and he gives one firm shake that makes her blush double in intensity.

“This is my eldest daughter, Sigrid,” Bard explains, before gesturing at Bain with one hand and hiking Tilda up with the other. “Bain is my middle son, and Tilda is the youngest.”

“But intellectually, I’m older than Bain,” Tilda says, which causes Bard some embarrassment while Bain shouts her name indignantly.

“I’m a hunter like Da’,” Bain boasts after.

To which Tilda says, “But I’m better with a sword!”

“You don’t even have a sword!”

“I have a wooden one,” Tilda insists, which causes Thranduil’s second brow to rise. Bard can’t help but wonder if his opinion of mortals is lowering by the second.

As Bard sets Tilda down—half as punishment for being ridiculous and half because he’s not sure he can support her weight much longer—Sigrid asks, “Were you in the woods all alone? You must be very brave to be out there...”

“Evidently,” Thranduil says, without answering her first question. His deep voice almost sounds amused, and he glances sideways at Bard while he drawls, “It seems we not only have the dark creatures of Dol Guldor to contend with, but the stray arrows of Men as well...”

If his children weren’t around him, Bard would apologize again. Instead, he avoids letting them know he almost killed an elf and makes a shooing gesture towards the two younger ones. “That’s enough. He’s had a trying time; I think we should leave him alone for now.”

Bain wrinkles his nose, but Tilda ignores him and asks, “Do you have a sword?” Thranduil only looks at her blankly. Sigrid’s the one to grab her arm and try to drag her off.

“I was going to have them practice sewing, anyway,” Sigrid says helpfully, shooting an exasperated look at Bard before looking at Thranduil again in the same moonstruck way Bard probably did at first. Bain and Tilda do complain loudly, but they let her herd them back towards the room they came from—their shared bedroom. Sigrid has her own, Bard another, and there’s a small kitchen that didn’t look too far from a pantry when they found it, and washing chambers. None of the rooms they now use as bedrooms had any furniture, only empty crates, like a looted storage room. When the door shuts behind the children, Bard turns to his side.

He doesn’t really know what to say, but he starts by asking, unsure of Thranduil’s stiff reaction, “I’m sorry about them. Are you uncomfortable?”

Uncomfortable might not have been the right word; Thranduil seems sturdy enough to weather anything, but not everyone is used to small children. Nonetheless, Thranduil doesn’t deny it, only says, “I have my own son.”

Surprised, Bard asks, “Where is he now?”

“Away. He is many centuries old.”

Bard knew that was an option. It still seems strange to think of Thranduil old enough for that; he certainly doesn’t look it. He looks at Bard. Bard has more questions but doesn’t know where to start and considers that perhaps he should allow Thranduil to offer answers to strangers at his own pace. So Bard moves forward and inclines his head for Thranduil to follow, guiding him to the makeshift kitchen.

Thranduil stays for dinner, though he looks far too grand to sit at their rickety old table and in Bard’s handmade chairs. His luxurious features seem to reflect great wealth, and yet all Bard can set on the table is over-cooked fish. But Thranduil had offered no comment as Bard cooked it, merely waiting in the corner, doing nothing more than looking distractingly beautiful. There might now be a flicker of disdain in his eyes as he looks down at the lackluster meat, but he makes no comments.

Bain and Tilda devour the fish quite happily. Sigrid takes tiny bites and mostly just steals not-so-subtle glances at Thranduil, and Thranduil cuts his fish into rigidly-sized pieces and eats very slowly. Bard tries not to be as sloppy as his children, even though he’s sure he’s already botched impressing Thranduil. Tilda is the first to break the half-silence of clattering cutlery and asks, “Are you a fairy?”

Thranduil, seated at the end of the table across from Bard, looks at her and lifts both brows. Before Bard can intervene, Bain snorts around a mouthful of food, “Tilda, everyone knows fairies are make-believe. He’s obviously something real, like a dwarf.”

Thranduil’s head whips around, and he shows the most emotion yet: sheer offense and horror. A sudden laugh erupts in Bard’s chest at the comical extreme of Thranduil’s face, but he’s already got food in his mouth and it makes him choke. No one bothers to pay him any attention as he coughs himself out and quickly downs a glass of water. Sigrid sighs over him, “You have it all mixed around, Bain. Dwarves are the short ones.”

“So he is a fairy,” Tilda says smugly, which Thranduil doesn’t protest, evidently finding it a better option than dwarves.

When Bard’s finally able to breathe again, he interjects, “He’s an elf.”

“That’s what I said,” Tilda chimes, making Bard wonder why he thought he’d be able to end the conversation.

“They’re not the same thing,” Sigrid sighs, before launching into a detailed explanation of different races, which Thranduil seems to listen to at first, before returning airily to his plate.

They don’t have enough, not by a long shot, and it’s almost as awkward to bring Thranduil to his room as it was to take Sigrid aside and warn her Thranduil’s much too old for her—not that she seemed to care. There’s nothing in his bedroom but a wooden stool and piles of his things—old clothes, a fishing net he doesn’t dare leave on the barge, and very little else. His bed is merely a mat of large leaves. It’s hardly comfortable, but it’s not all that different than the moth-eaten mattress he had back in Laketown. Sigrid wants to make them proper quilts, but Bard’s yet to catch anything with a useable pelt. He’s sure his children have enough nightmares without lying under the skins of spiders.

Deliberately not looking at Thranduil to hide his embarrassment, Bard mutters, “I know it isn’t much.”

Thranduil sniffs. He must agree. But he only says, “It will do,” and marches right across the room to descend onto Bard’s makeshift bed. Bard shuts the door behind him and can’t decide if Thranduil sounded arrogant or kind. Perhaps his boldness is a good thing; it saves Bard having to explain that he doesn’t even have a couch to offer; they’ll have to share the leaves.

Still somewhat disgruntled, Bard blows out the thin sconce on one wall and comes to settle down beside Thranduil. He politely keeps his distance, though the lack of blankets always leaves him cold and Thranduil has a long body that surely must provide an inordinate amount of heat. Not to mention the pleasantness of companionship. Only a thin beam of moonlight remains, falling from a tiny, diamond-shaped window near the ceiling. Bard deliberately faces away from Thranduil; as much as he’d like the inspiration for good dreams, he doesn’t want to do anything to disrupt Thranduil’s time here.

For all he knows, Thranduil has nowhere else, and this awkward meeting is only their beginning.

Bard wakes to an empty bed, which would be nothing new if not for the pleasant reminder carried through his dreams. The thought of Thranduil is what tugs him up. He couldn’t blame anyone for finding Bard’s messy cot too uncomfortable to spend even one night on, but he wants to make sure that Thranduil at least didn’t leave the door open on his way out.

In the main room, the door’s still closed, and all three of Bard’s children sit at the table, Thranduil leaning over to scoop what looks like a salad out of a large wooden bowl and onto their respective plates. It takes Bard a second of rubbing his eyes and fighting a yawn to realize he isn’t still dreaming.

“He cooks amazing, Da’,” Sigrid tells him around a mouthful of leaves, while Bard comes to join them, just in time for Thranduil to dole out his portion. Bard’s too dazed with other things to point out that salad doesn’t require cooking.

Although that salad, on closer inspection, contains a plethora of things—a variety of leaves, chopped fruits, and what looks like roasted nuts. As Thranduil settles into the seat across from Bards, he drawls, “I have not had to prepare meals for myself for some time, but clearly I have retained the skill.” Bard takes his first forkful and finds he has to agree.

While Bain and Tilda scarf down their salad with surprising tenacity, Sigrid asks, “How long will you be staying with us?”

“A long time, obviously,” Tilda answers before Thranduil can. “He can’t go out in the woods again—it’s dangerous, and he doesn’t even have a bow like Da’.”

Thranduil looks at her with mild amusement in his eyes. Clearly, he thinks he’s quite capable of defending himself without any visible weapon. Yet he says, “This is the right place for me.” Bard’s somewhat surprised by how firm he sounds about it.

None of the children question Thranduil’s statement. They eat on in relative silence, both Sigrid and now Bard stealing furtive looks at their guest, who eats as elegantly as he does everything. When Bain’s cleared his plate, he says, “There’s no meat in this—can I come hunting next time?”

“No,” Bard answers immediately, though he’s not sure if the question was addressed to him or Thranduil. “It’s too dangerous, and we’d have to go too far; the deer here are very fast—”

“You will not hunt deer,” Thranduil jumps in. Bard looks up at him, first in surprise, then almost a challenge—his children have to eat, though yesterday’s stag would’ve been the first for him to catch—but Thranduil returns that challenging stare with a fierceness Bard’s not sure he dares to question.

Ultimately, Bard loses the stare off.

Thranduil stays another night, then disappears for a time, leaving Bard bizarrely disappointed to be serving breakfast to his children alone again. It was nice, even for that short period, to have two adults in the home again. Especially one Bard was so attracted to. But perhaps it’s for the best, not to have an unattainable attraction in the way.

When their stores run low, he takes his children with him down to where the barge is, and they all go fishing, saving up as many as possible, though their makeshift pantry isn’t cold enough to let them keep for long. When they return, Sigrid prepares supper, Bain and Tilda play with their wooden dolls, and Bard sets to working on the newest chair he’s been carving.

They’ve finished dinner by the time the front door opens again. Bard instantly jumps to his feet, reaching for the chair to use as a club if he has to, but it’s only Thranduil that slips inside. He carries a hefty stack of fabric in his arms, which he sets on the table to begin sorting. He passes Sigrid what looks like a set of robes, and Bain and Tilda come over in awe to receive their own smaller sets. There’s one left for Bard, and then a stack of blankets that Thranduil again divides between them. While Bain and Tilda fight over their new things, Bard asks, “Where did you get these?” Running his fingers over them, they’re as soft as Thranduil’s hair looks, which isn’t an easy feat. Clearly, each article is worth more than everything Bard owned back in Laketown.

Thranduil flippantly responds, “Do not concern yourself with that.” Bard already has. But fighting with Thranduil has proved pointless before; he can tell that he’ll never learn what Thranduil doesn’t wish to divulge.

So he gratefully accepts them and says, “Thank you.” Thranduil simply nods.

Now the children actually want to go to bed. It bothers Bard to think of how uncomfortable they’ve been, though he knows he did everything he could. Sigrid looks like she wants to give Thranduil a hug, but she manages to restrain herself and instead gives Thranduil something of a curtsey, murmuring, “Thank you so much!” before running off in embarrassment to her room.

Bain and Tilda leave while they’re still arguing, so Bard has to raise his voice slightly over them to call, “Don’t you two have something to say?”

Bain immediately chirps, “Thanks,” and Tilda says right over him, “Thanks, Thrandy!” Then they’re both off, their door closed behind them before either Bard or Thranduil can correct the nickname.

Thranduil looks as though his eyebrows are going to disappear into his hairline. Bard just shakes his head and sighs, “Sorry.”

Under his breath, Thranduil murmurs, “And here I thought my little leaf was troublesome.” Bard’s not sure if that comment was meant for him, so he doesn’t answer.

With a subtle shake of his head, Thranduil turns and gathers the remaining cloth, heading off for Bard’s room. The blanket’s long enough that Thranduil can first drape it across their cot, then fold it over to cover them, but that part he waits for Bard, sitting expectantly atop their newly cozy bed.

The last two nights they spent together weren’t easy, but this is harder, seeing Thranduil sit there, in all his regal beauty, waiting for Bard to join him. It’s like something out of a sensual, romantic fantasy, the kind of which Bard hasn’t bothered to entertain in years. He slips out of his boots and coat with an unfamiliar slowness, both wanting to run into the bed and wondering if it’s a good idea at all. Thranduil was extraordinary when all Bard knew of him was his body and grace, but now that Bard’s seen how good Thranduil is with his children, it’s a whole other story.

It’s good not to be the only adult in their lives. It’s good to have someone to lie with. He climbs down beside Thranduil and wonders, with the narrowness the fold of the blanket now dictates, how he’s ever going to keep enough distance between them. Bard deliberately lies facing away again. Thranduil wraps the blanket over them, his long arm brushing over Bard’s shoulders as he carefully rearranges their bunk. Bard can just barely feel Thranduil’s breath on the back of his neck.

As Bard tries to focus on anything but how intimate this has become, Thranduil murmurs, “You are very interesting, Bard. ...For a mortal.”

Another night, and Bard wakes near the end of it, feeling blearily fortunate to find Thranduil still with him. Bard’s rolled over in his sleep, and the first thing he sees is the morning light dancing lightly over Thranduil’s sharp cheek, his wistful hair, his deep eyes. He’s already awake, looking at Bard with an odd sort of wonderment that Bard can’t place. Bard’s busy fighting his own urge to finish off the extremely nice dream he was having by shuffling forward and sealing their lips together. It’s been too long since he kissed anyone. And he’s never known anyone so... tempting.

He might do it. Once he starts thinking of it, he can’t stop, and he’s just about to lean closer when the door bangs open. Bard jerks up, just in time to see the door slap the wall and rebound off, Tilda rushing forward with tears in her eyes. “I cut myself!” she wails, holding out her hand and toppling right onto their cot, sobbing uncontrollably. “I-I just wanted to help with breakfast and stupid Bain distracted me and I—I—”

Before Bard can do anything, Thranduil is beside her. He gently takes her little hand in his far larger one, the other petting back her hair. “Shhh,” he tells her, in a voice that would soothe any trouble away. “It will be well.” Tilda hiccups back a sob and looks up at him with shining eyes. She doesn’t look like she believes him.

But Thranduil looks down at her hand, and Bard and Tilda follow the movement. A shallow red gash lies across her palm, making Bard’s heart jump into his throat, terrified she’s cut a vein, though he knows she would be covered in blood then. Thranduil simply strokes over the cut with his thumb, and Tilda shivers, the skin around the wound turning nearly iridescent as it glows.

Before their very eyes, Tilda’s flesh pulls back together, slow but steady, the incision growing lighter and lighter as Thranduil strokes it. He murmurs something unrecognizable, perhaps in Elvish, and soon Tilda’s hand is as flawless as Thranduil’s face became the day Bard first met him.

When it’s completely healed, Thranduil ducks to place a chaste kiss to Tilda’s forehead, brushing her messy bangs aside. She looks up at him in utter awe, then gushes, “You are a fairy!” and lunges right into his arms.

Thranduil tenderly returns the hug and pets her back, though Bard can see that Tilda’s already recovered—she’s stronger than most give her credit for and incredibly resilient. As soon as Bard’s panic came, it recedes, replaced instead by a different tightness in his chest. The joy in Tilda’s face and the support on Thranduil’s makes his heart swell.

When Tilda finally lets go, Thranduil rises to his feet. Though he’s just come from bed, he looks as though he’s showered and dawned new robes and combed his hair several dozen times. He takes Tilda’s hand and guides her back into their living area, where Bain and Sigrid likely need some reassurance of their own.

Bard goes out to hunt again, feeling far better now that he can leave someone with the children, though he knows they won’t be happy with what he’s returned with. He’s begrudgingly resolved to hunt only what Thranduil allows. He’s both startled and impressed with himself when he finds and manages to slay a warg.

The meat will be tough, but he imagines chewing it will be far easier than a fight with Thranduil. He drags the carcass back across the bridge but doesn’t want to take it inside until he’s dissembled what he can eat and thrown away the rest; it lets off a foul odor. He plans to do it himself, but still wants to check in first.

He finds his four housemates sitting on the floor, Bain and Tilda acting out some sketch with their dolls—Bain’s a Man and Tilda’s an orc, because his beloved children can never seem to do anything “normal”—and Thranduil behind Sigrid, carefully braiding her hair. The top part he’s done already looks far superior to any of the tattered things Bard’s tried to give her, or the messiness of her reaching back to do it herself. They all look up at him as he enters, Bain first asking, “Did you catch anything, Da’? Do you need help?”

“I want to help too,” Tilda jumps in, looking distressed at the mere idea of Bain getting to do something rugged without her. Bard shakes his head.

“I’ve already caught dinner. I just wanted to check on things.”

“I will help you prepare it,” Thranduil smoothly drawls, as though it’s already been decided, but Bard shakes his head again.

“No, you finish. Sigrid will never forgive me if I ruin her chance at getting a proper Elven braid.”

Sigrid tries to stifle a grin, obviously agreeing. Bard hopes there will be many more chances, but to his surprise, Thranduil concedes and continues.

Bard leaves again to deal with his catch. Bain and Tilda come scrambling after him, not nearly as bothered by blood and guts as they should be.

Bard and Thranduil sit together on the edge of the bridge, while the children are asleep and the stars are out. Soon, it’ll be too cold to sit still outside, and Bard wants to enjoy the sights while he can, or at least, while he has someone to enjoy it with. What would be a waste of time on his own is now a moment, something pure and oddly, inexplicably special. It takes him a moment to realize that part of that is simply being alone without the little ones outside of their cramped bedroom. They’ve become co-parents over time’s gradual crawl.

They say nothing for the most part. Both crane their necks back to eye the stars, and Bard does his best to keep his gaze there instead of on the haze of moonlight sweeping over Thranduil’s chiseled features. His eyes are lit under the glow of the heavens like they never are when looking down at the earth. When Bard can’t take it anymore, needs some excuse to look at the beauty before him instead of those so far away, he murmurs, “It’s a lovely place, isn’t it?” At least, this specific area, this bridge and across it, where the foul beasts of the woods don’t dare come.

Thranduil nods and lingers on the stars. After a few seconds, he relinquishes that view and glances away at the ruins towering up amongst the strange mix of cliff and forest. “It was far more so, once.”

Bard believes it. That’s the nature of ruins, but something in Thranduil’s voice sounds more personal than that: genuine knowledge rather than an intellectual guess. So Bard asks, “Are you from here? This keep we’ve found, I mean.”

Thranduil doesn’t answer. He looks at the stars again, and Bard doesn’t want to disturb that peace by forcing the question.

So he asks instead, “Do you miss your son?”

This Thranduil answers, but quietly, almost in a whisper: “Yes.”

Bard already knew that. But it sounds like a guilty admission from Thranduil, so Bard doesn’t press that either. Maybe this night just isn’t for questions. He tries for compliments. “You’re good with the little ones.”

Finally, Thranduil lightens. He smiles wryly and says, “My little leaf would laugh to hear that.”

Bard sincerely hopes he gets to meet this ‘little leaf’ someday.

In the meantime, he lays his hand over Thranduil’s. Thranduil glances down at it but doesn’t pull away. The contact is warm, soft, and a thrill that Bard hasn’t enjoyed in far too long. If he didn’t know better, he’d say the corners of Thranduil’s lips were tugging into a wider smile.

The moment doesn’t really pass. It lingers on as a pleasant addition to their time together. Thranduil looks back to the stars again, and Bard joins him.

Lying together like this is one of the most peaceful experiences Bard’s ever had. He feels a sense of safeness with Thranduil beside him that he never did alone, though he’s never seen Thranduil fight. It doesn’t make sense, but Thranduil is security. It goes beyond the reputation of elves for being good. It’s something personal in the way Thranduil speaks of his son and looks at Bard’s children, one loving father to another. It’s something more so in the way it feels when Thranduil sits across from him at dinner, walks beside him in the woods, lies so close to his body at night. Bard can feel Thranduil’s warmth and basks in that. It makes him infinitely glad he came here.

He’s halfway to sleep when he hears Thranduil whisper, “Bard.

He murmurs sleepily, “What?” His answer is a hand on his shoulder, gently pulling him backwards—Bard allows himself to be rolled around, until he’s lying dangerously close, facing Thranduil, Thranduil’s hand sliding from his back to his neck, over to his cheek. Thranduil cups his face, thumb gently stroking beneath Bard’s eyes. Bard feels like his heart’s going to stop. He half thinks he’s fallen asleep, and this is his fortunate dream.

Thranduil leans slightly forward, tilting his head so that his nose lies alongside Bard’s, his breath ghosting over Bard’s lips. Their mouths press together, and it feels too intensely good to be any dream. He can feel it. Can taste it. Thranduil’s scent is a strange mix of masculinity and floral undertones, intensified at this proximity. All he can hear is his own blood pounding in his ears. He doesn’t need Thranduil’s hand holding him in; Bard presses into it.

But he parts his lips only to gasp a moment later. Thranduil’s hand descends, running down his chest to part his new robes, fingers curling to lightly rake through the dark curls. Thranduil’s other hand squirms between them to rest like a pillow, catching Bard’s face again. Thranduil reaches beneath the blanket to draw away Bard’s sash, to run straight down his stomach, dipping between his legs—Thranduil’s long fingers wrap around his cock.

Bard is so overwhelmed he fears passing out. He never thought Thranduil would be the one to start this, lowering to mortal level, past that; this isn’t the slow start Bard pictures but a full plunge into entwinement. Thranduil gently pets Bard’s cheek and places a series of feather-light kisses along his lips, his chin, all over his face, and Bard just shudders and grasps at sanity while Thranduil strokes him, dry and maddeningly slow. Thranduil’s grip flows right from base to tip, pumping in alternating spirals, occasionally stopping for his thumb and forefinger to peel back Bard’s foreskin. The blanket still covers them, hides everything, and Thranduil is still horribly clothed, but as much as Bard wants Thranduil completely naked, he doesn’t have the wherewithal to make it happen. It’s easily the best handjob he’s ever had, and he’s afraid he’ll come in minutes, shamefully fast, but also worried he’ll take too long and annoy Thranduil, willing himself to make it last as he is. His head’s a mess, and Thranduil seems to enjoy doing that to him; Thranduil delivers one masterful technique after another, leaving Bard wrecked and breathless.

“I... should...” Bard mutters between kisses, meaning he should reciprocate, do something, even though he doubts himself coordinated right now to not make a complete fool of himself. But Thranduil kisses him to quiet him and simply keeps going, until Bard’s gasping moans and half-incoherent pleas into Thranduil’s mouth. He didn’t know he could feel this good. Thranduil’s hands on him might be all he ever wanted. Maybe everything was worth the struggle just for this; the most beautiful creature he’s ever seen giving him such exquisite pleasure, with only so little—Bard’s imagination works overtime to picture more, Thranduil bare and writhing beneath him, running greedy hands through Thranduil’s hair and biting harsh grooves into his frail skin, thrusting between his smooth thighs...

Thranduil strays from Bard’s lips to kiss along his cheek, work up to his ear, and there Thranduil purrs like a command, “Come.”

So Bard does. He explodes in Thranduil’s hand and turns to bury his roar into his pillow of old clothes. Thranduil mouths at the rounded shell of his ear and pumps him out. Bard can feel where his release has splattered Thranduil’s hand, but Thranduil is in motion and seems in no danger of stopping.

Until it’s over. Bard has nothing left, and he’s panting hard, still half turned away, even though it makes it hard to breathe—he’s scarlet red and covered in a thin sheen of sweat that now seems a nuisance. He’ll need to bathe in the river tomorrow. He feels so spent, so heavy, yet weightless and tingling with pleasure, that he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He needs a moment just to exist.

Thranduil gently withdraws his hand. Bard’s limp cock is left in the mess of his opened robes. Thranduil brings his hand to his mouth and languidly drags his tongue across his palm, cleaning up Bard’s seed. Bard’s entranced all over again, his cock giving a little twitch, even though he came so hard he’s sure there’s nothing left. Thranduil licks up the remains like a cat with cream, yet manages to somehow look as grand as ever. He’s wildly perfect.

When Thranduil is finished, he settles down so close to Bard that their skin’s touching in several places. Thranduil’s eyes flutter closed, leaving Bard staring at his flawless face for only a few more seconds. Bard has no energy left, only desire and blissful satiation. They fall asleep tightly knit together, one of Bard’s feet absently stroking Thranduil’s ankle to the end. It’s just as soft as the rest of him.

It gets colder as the winter comes: their first in the forest. Bard knows it’ll strike hard, but he doubts it could be as bad as Laketown; they froze there all year round. Every winter, he’d fear one of his children would slip on the icy docs and plunge into the frigid water. If they didn’t drown, sickness from the cold would kill them. He hated to leave on that little barge every time.

Now they’re still cold, but it seems less so within the ruins, and Thranduil retrieves for them thick fabrics to bundle the children in. He tells Bard, “It was not always winter here,” as he shows Tilda how to drape a proper shawl.

Tilda wrinkles her nose and says, “Well of course it’s not always winter—sometimes it’s summer and things.” Bard knows that’s not what Thranduil meant, but neither of them correct her. Sigrid is teaching Bain how to knit in the corner.

He complains, “Why can’t you just do all the knitting?”

And she tells him, “Because I have other interests, Bain, and how am I to study and rule if I’m busy keeping your head from freezing over?”

Thranduil looks over at the word “rule,” and Tilda takes his distraction as a chance to bolt off. “Laketown,” Bard tells him. “She’d dreamed of following in her father’s footsteps in terms of causing political unrest, but she’d wanted to force a democracy instead of my general trouble.”

Thranduil nods like he understands. He couldn’t possibly know Bard’s pride in Sigrid or the disappointment that her dreams will never happen. It’s likely none of theirs will. They never had much, and now they have less—six little rooms in the middle of the woods and badly carved furniture and nothing else. It seems unfair, now, that Bard has Thranduil, although perhaps someday they’ll find elves of their own.

The thought almost makes him laugh aloud. Thranduil walks over to fuss about Bain’s scarf—he doesn’t keep it on as tightly as he should. At least, Bard thought so. It seems Thranduil agrees with him, or at least doesn’t want a sick child that he’ll inevitably be the one to have to heal.

As Tilda joins them to wrap bits of their wool around her orc doll like stringy clothing, Bard announces to all of them, “I’ll have to return to Laketown soon.”

“What?” Bain asks, looking around in surprise, though Sigrid gives no reaction, likely having guessed what he meant.

“Not permanently. There are some supplies I still need.”

Thranduil looks at him for a moment, tightlipped. Bard looks at him back but can’t decipher the problem. Then Thranduil says, “Do not go,” and returns to fussing with the children’s scarves.

Bard waits, perplexed, but Thranduil doesn’t elaborate, so he says, “I have to. There are some things I just can’t get—”

“I will retrieve everything you need,” Thranduil says simply, and something in his tone suggests that that’s that: conversation over.

Thranduil, for someone who seems so haughty sometimes, is very giving. They lie in a sweaty heap after amazing sex, the likes of which Bard thinks belong more in a fairy tale than his own life—no one has a right to be so gorgeous and that good. Thranduil’s skin is burning, and Bard lies full against it in his naked state, feeling not the least bit cold.

To be fair, Thranduil isn’t truly sweating. His breathing was a little harder than usual directly after, but now it’s leveling out again, and overall he seems to have the stamina of a man half Bard’s age. Bard’s a mess. His hair’s a rat’s nest, glued to his forehead, and his chest’s rising and falling so prominently that he thinks his heart might burst out of his flesh. He still can’t believe that someone so wondrous would lie with him.

He mutters into the dark, “I’m so glad I found you.”

“As am I,” Thranduil concedes, which somehow still surprises Bard, “though I wish the circumstances had been different. If my first impression of you had not been you hunting me, we may have done this far sooner.”

“I wasn’t hunting you,” Bard corrects, thinking of the stag, though when he looks to Thranduil’s eyes, something halts him from continuing the statement. It’s one of those moments where he thinks Thranduil is trying to silently tell him something, though Bard doesn’t have that skill the way elves seem to; he can only speak with words. He thinks of that first day, hearing the body fall but not finding it, seeing the arrow broken, seeing Thranduil there where the stag should’ve been, glimmering the same sort of white light.

The idea creeps into Bard, impossible though it seems, but perhaps no more so than an enchanted keep to block away the monsters or those monsters themselves. Slowly, half expecting to be mocked for such foolishness, Bard asks, “Were you that stag?”

“Yes,” Thranduil answers so easily, as though it was obvious all along. Bard’s awestruck all over again. He feels like a fool.

“I didn’t know you could do that.”

“Not all can. It is a very ancient magic, but I have the luxury of remembering that and holding the power to command it, and in times of need, we manage.”

Thranduil’s power, Bard thinks, is much more than he lets on. This is stunning enough. Numbly, Bard mutters, “I haven’t killed any. If I had shot you, you would’ve been the first.”

Thranduil nods. He must’ve known, Bard thinks, one way or another, or surely he wouldn’t have come here, wouldn’t have touched Bard. Bard’s now insanely glad he listened when Thranduil first told him to alter his hunts. He asks slowly, “Just the deer...?”

“There are others,” Thranduil says vaguely. “But some animals in these woods are just what they seem, and the ones that are not, your arrows would not stay.”

Bard’s grateful for that. His next question is just, “Why?”

Thranduil pauses, perhaps deciding whether or not to answer—he’s generally secretive with the details of his life before meeting Bard. But eventually, he explains, “These woods were not always so, but they have grown dark, and it is not always safe to only have two legs on which to flee, and the necromancer always comes after things in the forms of elves.” He stops there. Bard’s heard, he thinks, once or twice in the fairy tales of childhood, of a necromancer in the woods.

He gets the impression that there’s a lot going on that he doesn’t understand. Maybe he never will. The woes of elves seem to go on for centuries, and Bard, and perhaps even his children, will come and go in a blink of their eye. Thranduil reaches out a hand to pet Bard’s cheek and murmur, “It is alright,” as though he’s heard Bard’s thoughts. Or perhaps just saw it on his face. “We are safe here, when we are just here, small as we are, and for this, I would fight.” Again, it’s all just generalities.

Bard has more questions. But Thranduil’s leaning forward to kiss him again, and Bard meets it. Thranduil’s thumb falls to pet through his stubble—Bard will have to shave again in the morning; Thranduil doesn’t like when it gets too long. Thranduil is completely hairless there and in many other places. Thranduil kisses him until Bard’s forgotten his questions, and then Thranduil surges forward and rolls on top of him; Bard’s knocked onto his back. Thranduil’s weight bears down on him with a familiar warmth, softness, Thranduil’s hair cascading down around him, Bard’s body bucking up to drag them together. He moans into Thranduil’s mouth, hard again in an instant.

It’s been too long inside. Bain and Tilda get more restless every day and want to leave, though Sigrid tells them they’re being foolish and neither Bard nor Thranduil will let them past the bridge. At lunch, Tilda says, “But I’m a smaller target, so I’d be hard to hit.”

Thranduil tells her, “The creatures of the forest will target you with teeth, not arrows, and they do not care what your stature is.”

“That’s why you’ll give me a fairy sword,” Tilda says with complete confidence, leveling a stare at Thranduil that seems to throw Thranduil for a loop. He stares at her right back, but Bard gets the distinct impression that Thranduil isn’t used to others challenging him as much as Bard’s children do and doesn’t realize what he’s gotten into.

“I can protect her,” Bain offers.

Sigrid says, “You can’t even knit a scarf.”

Flushing red, Bain bursts, “Those are completely different skills!”

“You don’t have the concentration,” Sigrid says, and Bain looks at Bard as though for help, but Bard’s busy monitoring the Thranduil-Tilda stare off.

Finally, Tilda drops her gaze and begrudgingly looks back at her fish-filled plate, muttering angrily under her breath, “Someday, I’ll get that fairy sword.”

Sigrid lets out a dramatic sigh, but no one bothers to deny such a sword’s existence. Thranduil returns to eating.

When Tilda finishes her food—the first of them—she pushes her plate towards the center of the table and tries, this time aiming her plea at Bard, “But there are good animals that manage in the forest. I see deer looking around all the time.”

Bard lifts a brow and glances at Thranduil, though Thranduil continues eating and gives nothing away on his face. Perhaps those are simply dear, or perhaps they’re other elves checking up on their comrade. Tilda offers, back to Thranduil, “I promise I won’t hunt any of them.”

“You most certainly will not,” Thranduil says, though Bard’s sure that if he couldn’t slay an Elven deer, Tilda certainly couldn’t.

Bain opens his mouth to start, “Da’—”

But Bard’s had enough and sighs, “We will have to leave someday, I admit that. ...But there’s no use going anywhere in this snow and cold, so sit tight until spring at least.”

That seems to quiet the children, who always seem to have better hopes for the future than him, but Thranduil’s expression has changed. It’s more stoic than it was a moment ago, perhaps almost sad. He’s strangely quiet through the rest of dinner, even when Bain starts pestering for a fairy bow.

Hunting with Thranduil is a strange affair. Thranduil brings no weapons on him, but he moves with exquisite speed and can turn any stick into a deadly staff. Watching him move is like watching a dancer, and Bard thinks now he might’ve been lucky to catch Thranduil in stag form, coming freshly free of a transformation—in armour and armed, Thranduil would likely be unstoppable.

But monsters also avoid him, and today they return unsuccessful. They don’t stray far when it’s the two of them out together, when only Sigrid is left to watch Tilda and Bain. Not that they could get far in the snow. It comes now past Bard’s boots, nearly to his knees, though Thranduil can sometimes walk atop it as though completely weightless. When Bard comments on this, Thranduil says flippantly, “You should see my son—I often think he could tread upon water if he wished.” Bard could almost believe it.

As they return across the bridge, slow for Bard having to wade, he asks, “What do you miss the most of those old days you speak of?”

Thranduil answers instantly, “Wine.”

Bard laughs, and at the same time, wishes he had any such things to offer—they’ve drunk nothing but water since coming here. They stop at the end of the bridge, where Bard takes a moment to sweep the snow of a low pillar and sit on it, trying to shake off what he can of himself. While he pries ice out of his boots, he says, “I used to ferry wine barrels.”

“I knew there was a reason I liked you.”

Finished, Bard drops his foot again. He still wants to take a minute; climbing through the woods in this weather is a trying feat. Thranduil stands and waits for him, looking utterly unhindered. It strikes Bard, not for the first time, that Thranduil deserves better.

And he announces that, sighing, “You deserve someone at least with a working kitchen.”

Thranduil, for all Bard knows, must have had many someones in his time. He’s likely single now—even if he were polyamorous, surely he would say something of it? He’s mentioned no other partners. He’s silent for a time, during which Bard waits, even though he’s ready to move again—he feels as though something important is coming.

Sure enough, Thranduil quietly says, “I had not thought it all worth it, but now I am not so sure.”

Worth what, what ‘it all’ is, why Thranduil’s mind has changed, Bard has no idea, and asks for all of it, “What do you mean?” He doesn’t really expect Thranduil to answer.

Thranduil reaches out a hand. Bard slips his own into it, and Thranduil gently tugs him off towards their door.

First they check with the children, and Thranduil stops to give Sigrid advice on the dress she’s making for Tilda’s orc doll while Bard changes into dryer robes. He needs to start on dinner, but Thranduil comes to him and takes his hand again, and Bard allows himself to be guided back outside.

He’s brought along the curving walls, just before the bridge, and Thranduil stops to place his hand against the elaborate carvings.

He speaks a few hushed words in another tongue, and his hand glows, the wall following, great incisions of light shooting up from Thranduil’s palm to trace along the markings. Bard stands, silent and in awe, while the outline of two giant doors is drawn before him. When it’s settled, Thranduil throws them open.

They swing easily inward. A towering hall lies beyond them, untouched by the snow, by dust, by anything. Thranduil steps inside, and more drawn by him than any conscious command, Bard follows.

It’s a palace. It must be. The ceilings are impossibly high, swallowed in darkness, the glow of the outside not enough to light it. When Thranduil spreads his arms, lights wink on, little orbs like stars hanging from the ceilings, fire lit in sconces on the walls, everything formed with complete precision. It’s nothing like anything Bard’s ever seen before, but rather like something from a storybook. He takes a few steps in a slow circle, inspired and overwhelmed. He tries to take it all in, even just this first entrance when he’s sure there must be far more, and behind him, Thranduil drawls, “The darkness is coming, and I am weary of fighting. To do so again would mean to lose many of my people. I did not wish for that, and so I commanded them to scatter, to take what forms they would, and find peace where they may, no longer the shining targets that the darkness always seeks. ...But a man with three children trying to survive in this place is too easy a target to last.”

Bard turns back to look at him. It’s the most Thranduil’s ever spoken of the past, and reveals more than Bard can digest at once. Thranduil continues carefully, “I had not counted on the aide of Men. I admit, I did not think much of mortals. ...But I see now that I was wrong. You, and your daughter, in her time, could take your people to fight if necessary—for they do not have the luxury of mine to flee with their skins.”

Bard’s mouth might be hanging open. He doesn’t know what to say. Hoarsely, he latches onto one thing and repeats, “Commanded?”

Thranduil’s lips twitch into a smirk. “You look not only upon an elf,” Thranduil purrs, “but their king.” While Bard’s mind thins with shock, Thranduil gestures around him. “And this is my castle. You had found only the perimeter guard’s keep, for the rest I had locked until a day which I had not dared to hope would come.”

A king. It makes sense to him, in some ways—the attitude, the power, the way Thranduil could leave and return with whatever Bard wished. But why a king would stay with him, he has no idea. He looks at Thranduil, trying to see his companion in a new light, but it’s too late, the image already carved into him. He already had the highest opinion of Thranduil, already valued him tremendously. Thranduil stands proudly before Bard. Even without a crown, he couldn’t look any more like royalty.

Yet his face falters into a frown as he adds, “As soon as I have gathered my messengers anew, I will send word to the Master of Laketown that you and your children are to be treated well, lest they invoke my wrath. And there will come a time, I am sure, when he will be in charge no longer.”

All at once, the majesty of the place seeps out of Bard’s body. He becomes cold again and feels suddenly alone—he hadn’t thought, at first, of what this meant to them. Of course, if Thranduil means to return this realm to its glory, there will be no room in it for one raggedy mortal with three more mouths to feed. He still finds himself asking, almost hollow, “I am to leave?”

Thranduil’s given no chance to answer. Bain comes poking around the corner of the doors, Tilda hot at his heels, and the two of them go from a dead run to a full stop. Sigrid catches up to them, looking ready to drag them both back by their ears, but that falls away too at the sight of the castle.

“Oh, cool,” Tilda squeals, before bolting inside, Bain right after.

As they pass by him, Thranduil scolds, “Do not run so quickly in these halls!” And he follows after them at a nearly idle pace.

Bard stands where he is, torn and tired. Sigrid comes to stand beside him and murmurs, voice captivated, “Maybe he is a fairy.”

They spend the night in Thranduil’s quarters—three times the size of the house Bard used to have in Laketown. The bed itself comes up to his waist and feels like lying in a cloud. His children have each been given rooms next door. The palace is eerily quiet but perfectly clean, and these chambers are deep inside—it feels far safer than the keep did. It’s a thousand times better. And Bard gets to lie in that bed and watch as Thranduil sheds his silver robes, admiring himself in the full-length mirror of the dresser. He looks no worse for his time in Bard’s arms. When he turns to Bard, completely bare in the light of the fireplace, face framed by his white-gold hair and posture easy, Bard’s breath is taken away. He can’t help but wonder how long this dream can last.

Thranduil slips into the bed like water, graceful even beyond what Bard can comprehend. “I will show you my crown tomorrow,” he promises, and he tucks one dark strand behind Bard’s ear. He bathed Bard himself, clothed Bard again in robes, and suggested he not wear those robes when they retired to bed; these blankets are warm enough. Bard wraps his body around Thranduil’s even though the heat is excruciating.

Thranduil makes him weak. He crumbles for this, loses sight of everything else, opens his mouth wide against Thranduil’s jaw and bites in a feral mark that fades as soon as it’s come. Thranduil shivers in his arms and lets him kiss everywhere, licking crudely and scraping with blunt teeth, shaking hands running to trace every part—Bard memorizes the slope of Thranduil’s chest, the little buds of his dark nipples, the slender curve of his waist, the strong juts of his hips. Thranduil guides their lips together, and from then on, Bard can’t leave Thranduil’s mouth. His arrow might not have struck true, but he caught Thranduil nonetheless. He’s grateful every moment for it. He brings himself to completion just from touching, stroking, feeling Thranduil against him. He admires Thranduil still through it, and spends the night tirelessly touching every single part of his handsome lover.

They stand together at the door while the elves stream in around them, one by one rising from the form of a deer, an elk, a hound, even a little, green-yellow bird that slinks into a honey-haired boy with a radiant smile. Some stop to look at Bard’s younger children, who run from one to the other with wide eyes and a myriad of questions. An older elf hobbles past Thranduil with a courteous bow, and Thranduil lands a fond pat on his shoulder. A fox becomes a beautiful red-haired woman that bows low to Thranduil and tells him, “All that have left have been informed.”

Thranduil answers, “Thank you, Tauriel,” and she moves on, Sigrid and Tilda looking admiringly after her. Bain’s busy asking another about his bow.

The next to do more than the respectful bow of most is another stag, though smaller than Thranduil was, more golden in its coat. It becomes a young man, or at least, younger than Bard, with yellow hair and piercing eyes, and chiseled, handsome features not that different than Thranduil. He stops directly before his king, and Thranduil, to Bard’s surprise, opens his arms. The younger elf is enveloped in a tender, yet slightly awkward hug, that seems to surprise him as much as Bard. Thranduil murmurs quietly over his shoulder, “I have missed you, my leaf.”

It clicks into place. As they detangle, the other elf rests his hands on Thranduil’s broader shoulders and replies, “I have missed you too, Ada.”

Thranduil breaks the private moment to half-turn to Bard. He says, “This is my son, Legolas. I had sent him to visit Imladris, but it seems he did not heed my advice.” Legolas flushes slightly at that but doesn’t protest, instead glancing past them before quickly looking away again. Bard looks over his shoulder to see Tauriel watching them, then turning away just as fast. Friendship with less-than-royalty, it seems, is not exclusive to Thranduil.

Sigrid must not care for it much either, because she pushes through them to say with an air of diplomacy but a voice of clear excitement, “This is my father, Bard of Laketown, and I’m his eldest daughter, Sigrid.” She takes both of Legolas’ hands at once to shake, and he looks down at them as curiously as his father first did. Thranduil’s lips quirk at the side in a smile. He and Bard have to step back as she guides Legolas deeper inside, already asking what it’s like to be a prince, and, even more curiously, to be a golden stag.

They hold a banquet in a grand chamber with many long tables and better chairs than Bard could carve. The kitchen staff must’ve picked right up where they left off, because one course after another is delivered to the head table where they sit, wine copiously poured by various servants. Thranduil spends some time speaking with the heads of his guard—the woman named Tauriel and a man named Feren, both of which Bain and Tilda stare at enviously. Legolas sits on the other side of Thranduil from Bard and gently puts his father’s hand down every time it tries to reach for a wine glass after the second refill. Bard is grateful for it, because they have much to discuss after, even though he realizes Thranduil has much time to make up for wine-wise.

Thranduil is still surprisingly warm company, given how easily he fits back into the role of king. A crown of glossy branches and snow-white leaves now sits on his head, twisting back around his ears, befitting the master of these woods. It’s equally impressive that Bain and Tilda aren’t too out of place at the head table. They’re too busy reveling in new idols to start a mess. Sigrid forsook Bard’s side to sit next to Legolas, though he pays her no more than polite interest, and now she’s leaning across the table to talk with one of the younger guards that she introduced to him as Meludir. When she’s finished, Bard half expects her to have a dozen spouses and a nice little army with which to take over and reform her hometown. It’ll be significantly easier with Thranduil’s likely support.

When Legolas brings up the subject of dwarves, having met—to Thranduil’s apparent horror—several on his travels, Thranduil insists on more wine. Bard becomes the one to stop him. Thranduil retaliates by nudging his foot under the table. Then Bard lays his over Thranduil’s, and they become entwined to the knee, staring one another down, until Bain tugs at his sleeve and whispers, “Da’, it’s rude to kiss at the table.” So Bard blushingly relinquishes the tug-o-war and lets Thranduil remedy the tragedy of his son talking with dwarves via far too much wine.

When the banquet’s over, after many toasts and announcements and general pleasantries, the elves retire to their quarters as though they never left. Thranduil had chosen well for Bard’s children, and they get to keep the ones they were given. Thranduil has his butler, Galion, guide them back, which Bard doesn’t question—Thranduil still seems sober enough that Bard plans to linger as long as his host.

Legolas is the last to leave. He comes to his father to bid, “Good night, Ada.”

He looks intensely shocked when Thranduil places a chaste kiss on his forehead and returns, “Good night, my leaf.” Bard can’t help but wonder if the time spent with Bard’s children renewed some paternal instincts in Thranduil that had fallen by the wayside, but Legolas looks pleased for it and hurries off. Then Thranduil sweeps towards the balcony outside the hall, and Bard moves to join him.

Even with the veil of darkness, with the mist that pervades the woods, it’s a lovely view from where they stand. An elegant railing holds in the half-circle dais, several stories above the ground. A canopy of trees stretches as far as the eye can see, black velvet butterflies dancing from branch to branch in glistening clouds. The stars play over everything. Bard says for both of them, “This is too wondrous a place to surrender to your enemies. I am glad you decided to stand and fight for it.”

Thranduil nods in acknowledgement, but when he looks aside at Bard, he’s frowning. “Then why do you seem sad?”

Bard starts at the question. He hadn’t meant to and had, in fact, felt good throughout most of dinner—he hasn’t eaten that well in his entire life. He had an amazing time and looks forward to their night.

But the more time ticks on, he fears it might be their last, and he admits, “I do not wish to leave.”

Thranduil answers simply, “So you shall not.”

Bard lets out a little chuckle. He shakes his head and wishes that this were one thing Thranduil could simply command. “It isn’t that easy. You’re a great elf king. And you said you would need me to lead my people, if this necromancer you speak of rises again. How am I to do that from here? It would take—”

“A single night,” Thranduil snorts, “When you arrive in my raiment with me at your side. You face a fool who none in your ruined hobble like at all, let alone respect. No, your cause will be an easy one. ...And I did not mean for you to lead the dregs of Laketown, but the army of Dale.”

“Dale’s dead,” Bard reminds him, wondering now if Thranduil’s knowledge of the past outweighs his understanding of the now.

Thranduil casually waves his hand. “For now. But events are in motion that may cause that to change, and when it does, you will ride with me to change it for the better. Until then, I am indeed a king that is accustomed to getting what he wishes. And while I hope to see many lifetimes yet, I wish to spend at least one with you.”

Bard doesn’t know what to say. He looks back out to the forest, momentarily overwhelmed. The Master, he thinks will indeed be easy to overthrow with the slightest bit of authority, and Sigrid deserves to inherit Dale more than Laketown. But what really shakes Bard to his core is the thought of spending his frail mortal life by Thranduil’s side. Thranduil interrupts his thoughts by laying a hand over his and squeezing lightly.

When Bard turns, Thranduil is already moving to meet him. Their mouths come together, Bard’s hand coming to Thranduil’s waist and hair, Thranduil’s arms already enveloping him. They pull together, tight, and the kiss becomes so much deeper than Bard expected. He’s fallen in too deep and knows that he can’t leave. Thranduil tastes so right on his tongue.

They kiss for some time, each time Bard tries to stop, Thranduil’s beauty pulling him back, and he licks all the remnants of wine out of Thranduil’s mouth while Thranduil devours him with equal fervor, until Bard is nearly shivering with want. Then he tugs Thranduil towards the door, and as the two of them leave, hand in hand, Thranduil muses, “Now, as I have my blacksmiths back... shall I have them forge a ‘fairy’ sword for our little girl?”

Bard grins so wide and answers, “So long as the edges are dulled. And you will have to make Bain a bow, then.”

“And I will teach Sigrid,” Thranduil continues, “what it truly means to lead a people.”

“And what will you give me?”

Smirking and leaning over to bite at Bard’s cheek, Thranduil purrs, “A true animal in bed.”

Bard laughs, and soon they’re in Thranduil’s chambers, what’s to become their chambers, and they tumble to the bed together, Bard dragging Thranduil into his arms to share another night of wondrous dreams.