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City traffic jams were always worse than any number of empty night highways. Bard rubbed his eyes tiredly and, when his turn came, drove into the huge open doors of the main Company warehouse.

'Hey, Bowman!' came a bellow from the line manager.

Bard blinked and rolled his window all the way down, even though Blain's voice covered the rumble of engines and bustle of the warehouse pretty much effortlessly.

'Dock your old barge and try to make yourself presentable - Boss wants to see you.'

'You know he's actually fond of you, don't you, girl,' Bard murmured, patting the dashboard affectionately. His truck might be long past her prime but she was loved and well-cared for. Then the other half of Blain's phrase caught up with Bard. His thoughts in turmoil, he parked the lorry for unloading, locked the cabin, and crossed the floor to the line manager.

'Himself wants to see me? What for, do you know?'

'He doesn't report to me, that's for sure,' the old man harrumphed, ''t was just one of his fancy boys called down here and requested an audience with your majesty for the Boss. You better hurry up, laddy, making the Snow King wait would do you no good at all.'

Bard nodded and went to the restroom, still hiding his wince. He didn't like the nickname stuff was using for the Company owner but he could do nothing about that. Hell, he could do precious little to make them stop calling him 'majesty'. It was an unforeseen kickback from a corporate fair-party a couple of years back. Bard was stupid enough then to reveal his adolescent hobby of archery, to shoot all the targets true, and then not to skip before they pronounced him the Fair King. His kids were delighted but at work he didn't hear the end of it since.

He washed his hands and face, inspected his reflection in the mirror above the sink, and combed his unruly hair with wet fingers. Sigrid would do that displeased face again at him asking her to give him a haircut - his eldest daughter disapproved his hair shorn within an inch of its life. But he wasn't in any place to care about looking fancy, that Bard felt ever so sharply while walking across the inner yard of the Company complex toward the office skyscraper. He forebode himself looking entirely out of place in the posh environment but he couldn't balk, one just didn't do such a thing when the Bass called. What was it about? Surely not a simple sacking, the high and mighty didn't waste his very costly time at such trivial matters. And Bard was sure he hadn't cock anything up spectacularly enough to warrant his arse being handed to him by the Lasgalen Company owner himself.

Totally at a loss, he went through the revolving doors and approached the reception.

'Bard Llynnion, I was told mister Aranuir wanted to see me?..'

A supermodel behind the desk gave him a professional smile that held nothing genuine in it and indicated with the tilt of her head:

'Take the farthest lift on the left, top button. Have a nice day, sir.'

Bard nodded his thanks to her, even though her attention was already not on him, and went to the bank of lifts. In the farthest left one it was hard to miss the right button - there were only two of them. Barn pressed the top one and grabbed the rail involuntarily - the walls of both the lift and the building from the first floor up turned out to be glass and the sudden appearance of the city panorama was rather jolting. The lift was climbing so swiftly Bard had to swallow forcefully to pop his ears. The view was great though and... uplifting. Bard hid a smile at the pan that made him feel less anxious, turned to the melodic chime, and exited the lift.

The hall was vast and brightly lit by the evening sun flowing through the glass wall. Bard squinted a little, looking across it to the heavy, subtly ornate doors to the Company's inner sanctum - the Boss' office. the big man had not one but two assistants, their tables flanked the room, and Bard wandered briefly if the position facing the glass wall ranked higher.

'Please, proceed to the office, mister Llynnion, you are expected.'

Bard couldn't say which of the two men addressed him - their heads were bent, their eyes on some documents, and their profiles similar as if they were cousins. For all Bard knew, they very well might be. Without a word and not even bothering to nod, he crossed the hall, rapped his knuckles shortly against the wood, and entered the office.

Its owner stood looking at the city, at the opposite to the sun-lit wall, his tall figure draped in early shadow almost artfully.

'Wine?' Bard heard instead of greeting.

'No, thank you, sir.'

He didn't doubt the red in the glass in mr. Aranuir's long fingers cost his two months' wages per bottle at the least but he wasn't tempted.

'Do you believe in fairy-tales, mister Llynnion?'

And with such bizarre questions coming Bard very much wanted to keep his head straight.

'Excuse me, sir?' he said cautiously.

'Fairy-tales,' the man repeated in his deep voice, smoothly lilting while completely devoid of the local accent. "You read them to your children, do you not? Do you believe the tales to be real?'

Protective instinct surged in Bard - what did his kids have to do with this nonsense? He held it back for the moment. Surely, before calling him for whatever reason, his employer had read his file. Still the questions were very strange. He chose his words carefully:

'I believe those stories are archetypical concepts that acted as cautionary tales for children at ages when life was harsh.'

Mr. Aranuir turned slightly at that and glanced at Bard over his shoulder, one dark thick brow arched in amusement.

'That is quite an educated answer.'

"For a lorry driver" stayed unsaid and Bard tried not to jump to any conclusions.

'So you don't believe that Jenny Green Teeth, or Black Agatha, or Robin Goodfellow, or Níðhöggr the Dragon are out there?'

Bard weighed his reply. Wine or not, the Company owner didn't sound drunk at all, and this line of inquiry, however bizarre, had to mean something for him, enough to drag a simple driver all the way up here. Bard very much doubted this was a mere prank played on him by an eccentric mogul. And anyway he disliked lying on general principle.

'I don't know,' he said slowly.

That earned him a full turn and a look straight on, which he met calmly. He just told the truth. Fairy-tales were gathered from the deep dark wells of human memory and the world around was more complex than most people could imagine or simply cared to notice. A cobbler from down their street had fixed Bain's winter boots almost a year ago and they still fit almost as if they grew along with the sprouting boy. Little Tilda had been drawing her nursery teacher always with a pair of blue wings. When he was in a particular fowl mood, Bard himself almost in truth suspected their neighbour lady the next door over to be a goblin, exiled from their underground city because even her kin had failed to live with the like of her.

'Let's put that matter aside for a moment,' mr. Aranuir said, tilting his head to one side for a moment. 'I have an offer for you.' He walked to stand in front of his table, put down his delicate wine glass onto it with a gesture too precise for someone who didn't actually look what he was doing, and clasped his hands behind his back. 'It includes less working hours, shorter distances, and tripled paycheck.'

That didn't add up right, which Bard expressed by raising his eyebrows in a politely silent "where's the catch?". Mr. Aranuir curved his pale lips in a small understanding smile.

'Your cargo will be of more valuable varieties. And also you will be performing a personal favour for me on a regular basis.' His low deep tone sounded just suggestively enough for Bard's thoughts veer into an utterly improbable direction. And it must've showed in his eyes before he could dismiss such foolishness, because mr. Aranuir nodded lightly. 'Yes. I offer you to become my lover.'

Bard coughed and dropped his gaze. That being a prank would be a much better option, for as it was now it could get him sacked after all. Men of mr. Aranuir's station usually didn't take kindly to being rejected, and Bard's belief in his harassment suit's success was slim - his boss' reputation was close to flawless, the amount of rumors about him - close to absent, and the number of his friends coincided conveniently with the country's list of best, brightest, and richest. And the British Isles weren't big enough in certain cases.

Bard composed his face as best as he could, while feeling the man's stare on him, and looked at his boss again. But before he could open his mouth, mr. Aranuir turned and walked to a door at the back of his office.

'Bear my company for a while longer, mister Llynnion.'

Bard knew an order when he heard one, however politely formulated, and the door led not to a lair with a bed but to a stairwell. So he crossed the office and followed the man up.

They emerged onto the roof, and Bard gaped. He knew there was a helipad up there, but this part of the roof was fenced off and turned into a lush garden, complete with an arbour and rose trellises. Mr. Aranuir looked strangely a part of that piece of nature, despite his custom-made suite and shiny shoes.

'Are you religious, mister Llynnion?'

That wasn't any business of his but Bard didn't think any answer would cost him much at that instance. A refusal to answer, on the other hand, could.

'I'm an agnostic.'

'So you do think there is something up there, you are just not sure what?'

That seemed rhetorical, so he kept quiet, watching the man.

Unlike most tall men Bard knew, his employer never slumped his shoulders; his posture was never less than... regal was the closest word. That, Bard thought, fed a good half of the impression of being haughty - when he looked at people like he was looking now, it was inevitably - and infuriatingly - down his nose, and when he bowed his head, it looked like a menace. His lack of visible emotions fed the other half of the reason he was called the Snow King behind his back. Oh, Bard didn't believe the man to be devoid of any and all feelings - there was too much intensity in the light-blue eyes. It was most likely that mr. Aranuir, like many, thought emotions to be a weakness, to be tightly controlled and showed to no one. Bard himself had been one of that brand before he met his wife. He didn't delude himself that it made him an expert on understanding his employer - not even close to that. It just gave him an insight on how he could handle the man... he hoped.

'What do you know of Twilight, mister Llynnion?'

Bard heard the capital letter clearly and his confusion grew another notch.

'I assume you don't mean that franchise about sparkly vampires?'

'Indeed I don't.' And he didn't smile also, watching Bard calmly, even sharply.

The driver thought some more.

'Then I'm not sure I understand what do you mean, sir.'

If mr. Aranuir was annoyed with the long pauses between his questions and Bard's answers, he didn't show that either. He turned and walked three steps up to the arbour.

'Come. Look.'

Bard came and looked. The city in front of them was painted in gold and scarlet by the setting sun, people far down below were like ants bustling toward their small affairs, important individually and insignificant in whole.

'Neither I referred to this time of day,' mr. Aranuir said softly. When he moved to stand one step to the left and behind, Bard had no idea. 'Even when the sun sets, all that you see remains in Daylight. And I meant this.'

Bard felt a palm on his shoulder and before he could think of doing anything, the world around him dimmed. It was as if sun dropped down from the sky, and dusk settled over instantly, contorting the shapes until nothing looked familiar or even real.

'Look up,' the deep voice flowed over Bard's shoulder.

He complied. The vines on the arbour roof left enough gaps for him to see the dark sky and the stars surrounded by a rainbow halo each as if Bard looked at them through a soapy film. He frowned.

'That's not right.'

Tilda was in love with stars. There was a phase when she was drawing constellations on every available scrap of paper, and she showed them to her father at those rare occasions the weather and city smog allowed to see a sliver of sky. And what Bard was seeing now was not the star map that involuntarily had stuck into his memory.

'It's not right,' he repeated quieter.

'It is - here,' mr. Aranuir said next to him. 'I believe you have seen this, mister Llynnion. On a road, at night, when one human dwelling was left behind and the next one didn't appear on the horizon yet, you have seen these stars.'

'What is it?' Bard whispered.

'It is Gloam. It is Twilight. A place in between, a time of before.'

'Between what and what? Our world and the next? Is that where the dead go to?'

'Some of them, yes. But mostly they pass through here from Daylight to Midnight and wherever they go from there. All of that is our world in its entirety, mister Llynnion. It is simply that some of its denizens are constrained within one of its layers, while some others are able to traverse between them.'

Bard lowered his head finally and looked over his shoulder.

'Like you.'

'Like me,' the man agreed.

Only he didn't look like a man anymore, at least not a human man. Gone was the thousand-euro business suit, transformed into a long garment with leaves embroidered onto the flowing fabrics. There was no stylish haircut anymore, the white hair spilled long over the broad shoulders, and an ear visible to Bard through the silken tresses was pointy. "What are you?" seemed an impolite question, and Bard was half sure he knew the answer and half thought he didn't want to hear it out loud.

'You, as all common Men, were born to Daylight and meant to dwell in it for the entirety of your life. But the borders are not solid and some could penetrate them even if they should not. If you have ever chosen a slip road that seemed to bring you to your destination much faster than it should have...'

Even though it wasn't a question as such, Bard nodded, against his better judgement.

'Then you are familiar with what Twilight feels like,' mr. Aranuir curved his lips in that shade of a smile of his. It didn't look haughty now, and that loosened Bard's tongue somewhat.

'Why do you show me all that?'

'So you would understand why I want you to be my lover,' the creature - Bard gave up and called him an elf in his thoughts - said calmly. 'I have lived a long life. I am not the oldest but I am old. I have lost a lot but not everything yet. There are things that keep me in Daylight - my ward, my responsibilities to people. But the pull of Twilight is strong and I need assistance from someone firmly embedded in Daylight, a virile man to serve me as an anchor.'

'But why me?'

'You have children.'

This time Bard's temper flared.

'What do they have to?..' he gritted through the clenched teeth but the elf interrupted him smoothly:

'They are what keeps you firmly rooted in Daylight, in your life. And they are what might help you understand my need. I assume you know I had a son?'

For some reason those last simple words felt like a kick to Bard's guts. It wasn't a threat, far from it. Mr. Aranuir's face didn't even change much from his usual calm, so Bard didn't know how he knew about the wearing grief, gnawing on the marrow that could otherwise withstand the time itself.

'Yes,' he choked out. 'I'm sorry. Children shouldn't die before parents.'

'They should not,' the elf nodded slowly, looking past him.

Bard followed his gaze and his breath caught in his throat again. The city was a sprawl of shadowy lumps, divided by the ribbons of rippling roads, and through it all hills and forests bled like a half-exposed film.

'A lot of what has been still is in Twilight,' mr. Aranuir said very softly.

A tall slender shape was running up the side of one of the far hills. The same long and flowing white hair, the same lank but powerful built - Bard would have recognized the young man even without Sigrid's temporary crush on him some time back. She was devastated by his death, even more untimely than it seemed, as Bard realized now.

'He is... here?' he asked unnecessary.

'He is, for now. He desired to linger. Unlike many mortals, we are able to decide things like that.'

'Like ghosts?'

'Of a kind,' the elf agreed. 'Human souls can manifest in Daylight to an extent but Midnight drains them. Our... spirits can delve deep into Midnight with less harm and we meet them here. My son chose to stay in Twilight, in order be a messenger between me and my wife, his mother.'

'Your... wife?'

Incredulity in Bard's voice earned him the familiar amused arch of one dark brow.

'Whatever you might've imagined, we do not procreate by gemmation.'

'That's not what I meant,' Bard muttered, embarrassed.

'I'm sure,' the elf intoned dryly.

Bard felt his cheeks flush hotter, cursed silently, and forced his thoughts back under control. The blasted creature probably had centuries to polish his taunts, all a mere human could do was to bear with him. And anyway, Bard felt that bone-chilling grief crawling back again. He turned his head and sure - mr. Aranuir was looking at the shade of his son again. Another form, thinner and redheaded, joined the young elf on the top of the hill, and they both turned and made the same gesture - one hand moving from chest outward. With a corner of his eyes Bard saw the pale fingers move in returned gesture.

'Is that?..'

'My ward.'

'But isn't she?..'

'Alive? Indeed. She visits my son as well. They grew up side by side, she misses him.'

'Does she need a lover too, to do this?'

'As she is much younger, she does not need it as such but having one helps. Killian is young and resilient, and he has his brother to secure him as an anchor.'

Bard watched two figures run down the hill, agile and swift, almost flying. The redhead seemed brighter somehow, even dressed in green and brown like an extra from "Robin Hood" play.

'Are they really carrying weapons?' Bard squinted, catching the glimpse before the pair turned and was gone among the city shapes and ghostly hills.

'They are. Twilight isn't a peaceful place, there are... things and creatures here that might be hostile even to us.'

Bard turned to him, but before he asked, the elf shifted slightly toward him and Bard saw a hilt of a slender sword at his hip.

'Let me guess, firearms don't work here?'

'Some do, others don't, blades and arrows work always.'

'Got it.' Bard was silent for a moment. 'So... your wife?'

'I lost her long time ago. My son had not remembered her. She is waiting for me in Midnight.'

Bard grappled for the best way to ask, then just asked:

'My wife, if you?..'

'As far as I know, she isn't here or in Midnight.'

Of course he had checked.

'What does it mean?'

'She passed through, to whatever waits beyond Midnight. I suppose heaven or hell for some believers, reincarnation for others.'

'Valinor for your kind?' Bard just couldn't help himself.

Mr. Aranuir replied with a shade of a smile:

'Perhaps.'

He took his palm from Bard's shoulder and the man screwed his eyes shut, pierced by an orange ray of sun reflected from a skyscraper half a city away from them. When he blinked his tears away, mr. Aranuir, back in his Daylight look of suit and haircut, was walking calmly toward the door from the roof. Bard cast another glance at the city draping itself in normal dusk and hurried to catch up.

Back in the office the air smelt like coffee. With a smooth gesture the elf indicated a side table with a delicate cup on a leaf-shaped saucer.

'Please, have some, mister Llynnion. It will help you reach home safely.'

'What's in it?' Bard asked, sniffing the content of the cup suspiciously.

'A decent roast and plenty of sugar and cream.'

Bard usually had his coffee with just enough sugar to stomach it and all the cream saved for Sigrid, but this stuff was really good. Not that it was such a surprise. A small sweet that was sitting closer to the stem of the leaf-saucer he unwrapped and popped into his mouth sans further questions. Though when the taste of bitter chocolate truffle bloomed onto his tongue, Bard regretted not tucking the thing away to bring it to kids.

'You can be able to buy them these, among other things.'

'Do you read minds too, among other things?' Caught off guard momentarily, Bard couldn't tamp his grumbling down in time.

'Your face is quite enough,' the elf said, apparently unruffled.

Bard drained the cup, put it down, and turned to his employer.

'So. You need a human lover to feed you strength so you don't fade away to the other side. Like a vampire?'

'There are some similarities,' mr. Aranuir conceded with that infuriating curve to his lips. 'Though you will not feel particularly weakened by that after your body accustoms to the energy exchange. Also no blood involved... unless upon your demand and you don't seem the type.'

Bard felt like flushing again at the obviously quizzical look in the blue eyes.

'Why sex?' It came out hoarsely and abrupt, which did nothing to enhance his mood.

But to his luck the elf didn't prolong the taunt.

'Because it is one of the Men's strongest urges and the easiest one to exploit.

'With those who are into it maybe, but I don't... I'm not...'

'Attracted to males?' elf supplied, the corners of his lips curling up yet again.

Bard shook his head shortly, half-nod and half-nay. Any exploration, experiments, and fooling around in that field had been left far behind in his teenage years and hadn't made return visits since then.

He wasn't sure when mr. Aranuir moved toward him, his closeness registered when the elf was already standing one step away and reaching out. The long fingers spread on Bard's chest and, unlike on the roof, this touch he felt as if his shirt and vest didn't exist.

'That won't be a problem,' the deep voice flowed softly, and Bard gasped as a molten-hot surge shot from his chest to his groin. Involuntarily his gaze dropped to the elf's smiling lips, the urge to lean in and taste them spiked and the ebbed as the elf stepped back.

'It will not change you irrevocably,' mr. Aranuir said, 'Will not make you gay... or even bisexual, for that matter. In case you are wary.'

'Good to know,' Bard said, his voice hoarse yet again. 'For how long will this...'

'I estimate two years, perhaps, three.' Mr. Aranuir returned to his desk and took his glass of wine.

Bard glanced at the red liquid swirling in the clear crystal and then back at the man - the elf - again.

'Why so short a time?'

'Because, unlike the monsters from cautionary tales, I do not intend to leave a depleted husk for your children to bury,' mr. Aranuir raised his glass and took a sip but Bard had enough time to notice an icy flash in his eyes. He was very right about plenty emotions behind the cold facade.

'And then what?'

'And then you will retain your position and your payment, unless you find something more to your liking, that is, and I will interview new candidates.'

'And if I refuse?'

'Then I will tell Galion to call for the next candidate today and you will return to tour your beloved roads at the current pay rate.'

'And tell tales about your roof garden?' Bard put out a feeler.

'By all means,' the elf gestured smoothly with the glass. 'Rumor mills will work with or without your input, it is in all social creatures' nature. And I've been around long enough to learn to deal with it.'

There was not a hint of threat in the deep rich voice and the calmness of the blue eyes was more eloquent than any words could be.

'When do you need my answer?' Bard asked softly.

'Preferably by dusk tomorrow. If you refuse, I will need cushion time to fine someone else to take your place.'

'I'll let you know then.' For some reason Bard felt awkward suddenly. He smoothed the hem of his shirt and started when his mobile buzzed in his pocket.

'My private number,' mr. Aranuir said.

'Aye, thanks. Buy then.'

'Have a good evening, master Llynnion,' the elf said oddly ceremoniously.

With his hand on the door handle Bard turned to him.

'You can lie, can't you?'

Amusement seemed to reach the ice-blue eyes this time.

'Would you believe me if I say that I cannot?'

'Avery Aranuir isn't your real name, isn't it?'

'It is not,' the elf smiled.

With a chuckle Bard pushed the door and then closed it behind him.

The assistants raised their gazes at him silently. Probably, some effect of Twilight still lingered in Bard because he almost-saw the two creatures for what they were - not humans but of the similar kind to their master in the office. They looked both more alike, because of the delicate bone stricture and sharp features, and more distinct as individuals. And their absolute stillness looked eery.

'Good evening, gentlemen,' Bard nodded to them and walked to the lift with dignity, vowing not to look around on his way home. He really didn't need to see more than there was in his allotted slice of this blessed world.

Chapter Text

Tilda barreled into him almost before Bard stepped over the threshold of his apartment.

'Da, where have you been?!'

'Father, I was worried!' Sigrid appeared from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dish towel. 'Is everything fine?'

'Aye,' Bard hugged his girls and shrugged his jacket off. 'Just a meeting after the run.'

'Come eat,' Sigrid tugged at his arm. 'You must be hungry by now.'

He laughed and detoured to wash his hands first.

'Truth be said, 'm starving.'

When he entered their small kitchen, Bain glanced up from the sink, elbows-deep in soap suds, and grinned at his father.

'Hi, Da.'

'Goodness me, did you grow an inch since I saw you in the morning?!'

The boy laughed and put a washed plate onto the rack. With a chuckle Bard ruffled his curls and sat at the table.

'What's on the menu, chiefs?'

'Macaroni and cheese,' his eldest two said in unison and grinned at each other.

'Grand! Bring it on then!'

'I'll make tea for you, Da!' Tilda volunteered but Bard tugged her to him and sat her in his lap, taking a fork with his other hand.

'Let Sigrid handle tea, she's closer to the kettle. The next cup will be on you though.' There was too little space for four people there, especially with one eager ten-year-old and one gangly teenager not yet fully accustomed to his sprouting limbs. They didn't need any more crockery shuttered and tantrums thrown.

Sigrid put a plate heaped high before him.

'There's plenty more if you want.'

'Is that so?' Bard feigned surprise. 'Hasn't Bain eaten his thirds yet?'

'Oh come on, Da!' the boy laughed, rinsing cutlery, 'I don't eat that much.'

'You do,' the girls said, in unison too.

'Just as you should,' their father remarked with a smile at their laughter. 'I did at your age. Felt hungry around the clock.'

Bain grumbled something indignant, too low for them to hear over the running water, and Bard couldn't help but notice how deep his boy's voice was already. He also saw very well the frayed cuffs of Sigrid's house dress, the way Bain's wrists started sticking out from yet another shirt, and he recognized the color of the chainmail-looking top Tilda was wearing over her blouse as knitted by his oldest daughter from strips of his old worn-down sweatshirt.

They weren't utterly destitute but money had been tight ever since his wife's illness had drained most of their savings. And in the current economy it was a constant struggle to make the ends meet, even with all the social benefits and tax credits. It had long become a sad habit when Sigrid put a couple of pastries to go with his black tea and Bard ate one pastry and quartered the other, sharing it with his family. Avery Aranuir chose quite well whom to offer a hefty raise. Flames of stubborn anger and helpless despair twined in Bard, and Tilda, always keenly aware of her Da's mood, leaned tighter into him.

'Will you help me with my puzzle?'

'Sure. Thank you, my lovelies,' Bard drunk the last drops of his tea and stood up, hefting his youngest up in his arms. 'Any homework needs helping with?'

'I'm good,' Bain shook his curls, as unruly as his father's.

'I've done everything at school,' Tilda piped up.

"Thank heavens for the extended school day."

'Go get the puzzle,' he told Tilda.

'I'll help,' Bain went with her and Bard turned to his eldest child.

'Have you put some thought to my question, darling?'

'What question would that be?' Sigrid busied herself with the dish and the cup from his meal but Bard reached out to her and gently spun the girl to face him.

'That one about what you want for your birthday,' he said softly.

Sigrid shook her head, not meeting his eyes.

'I've told you, I have everything I need.'

'That's not what I ask...'

'Father, leave it be,' she did look up at him, voice soft and gaze imploring. 'I'm fine as I am. I'll pass my tests soon and then I'll need some new clothing to go to job interviews. I'll ask you then, I promise.'

Bard cupped her face in his palms, his heart swelling in his chest.

'You look more like your mother with each passing day.'

'I miss her too, Da,' Sigrid smiled at him, stroking his fingers gently.

He hugged her close to him, careful with her neatly tucked-in plates.

'Love you, my little lake fish.'

'Love you back,' Sigrid giggled into his shirt at her childhood nickname.

Still in the half-embrace, they ambled to the big room to watch Bain walk backward while dragging a large carton with the partially assembled puzzle from under Tilda's bed in the other room. Tilda followed him with the box and settled her latest treasure in the middle of the free space on the floor. Her classmates gave her that puzzle as a birthday present and she loved it as much as the previous one with a star chart on it. This one sported a photo of a cheetah chasing a gazelle through the blooming savanna, and the carton was now holding the assembled borders, gazelle's antlers, and a part with the tip of cheetah’s swinging tail. There was plenty of sandy hide, spotty fur, and background of myriad shades of green left to put together.

'Come on, Da!' Tilda waved at him, sitting by the carton with the box lid in her hand. 'Find me the gazelle's tail, would you? It must have that white streak, the tuft, see?'

Sigrid stroked her sister's head in passing and went to their room to study for her upcoming tests. Bain sat with his father and younger sibling for some time but with no heart for puzzles he grew bored quickly and went to boot up their laptop. Bard glanced at the flickering screen and made a mental note for later. As for now he had a tale tuft to mind.

 

He returned to the room with a cup of tea, navigating carefully in the darkness relieved only by a night lamp by his sofa and a street light outside. His children were curled in their respective beds - well, Tilda was curled, Sigrid stretched out, and Bain sprawled like a scarecrow on his sofa in the big room, his gangly limbs sticking out every which way and head half buried under his pillow. Bard glanced at him with an affectionate smile and went to wake the laptop. If he agreed, he thought while the old thing hummed to life, he would be able to buy a new tablet for his son. And the most spectacular puzzle for Tilda. And new clothes for Sigrid, or better yet, some fabric so Mrs. Took could make a dress just for her... The system finally booted, Bard opened a browser and typed the fake name of his employer. A page in Wikipedia held probably the same amount of truth - close to none - provided that Bard did really believe in what he'd seen on the Company building roof top. He scrolled through several news articles gushing about Mr. Aranuir's accomplishments in various fields, clicked a video, and fumbled for headphones.

His boss, impeccable as ever in his steel-blue suit, was delivering a speech about the launch of a new construction for the good of the city. Bard knew the site, it was close to the Company complex and the works on the energy facility were almost finished. He drove by the spot often enough but with his working hours he had missed the spiel then, so he caught up on it with a new angle of interest. Mr. Aranuir stood behind a semi-transparent plastic lectern bristling with microphones, his hands loosely at his sides, his posture regal as per usual and his face an epitome of "composed". Yet with all that, with his obvious distance from everyone around him verging on haughtiness, he found just the right words and the voice to deliver them so the crowd of press and on-lookers was mesmerized. He didn't joke in an attempt to bond with people, he stood there very much high and mighty, but he made them - and Bard - feel that yes, the facility was essential to city well-being, that people's efforts were valued highly, that he would do all in his power to see the project through. Mr. Aranuir's voice rung true and uplifting, and when applause sounded in his headphones, Bard let out a breath he didn't realize he was holding. That man - that elf, truly? - was undoubtedly a leader. In days of yore, with simple words he could inspire armies; and he most likely did - if, again, Bard was to believe in what he saw... And he kind of did. Or wanted to.

On the video the press was invited to ask questions. Mr. Aranuir answered them as calmly as he seemingly did everything else. Bard watched him rather than listened for the words until the next phrase made him rear back a little and click earlier at the timeline to watch again. A young woman in a smart suit smiled up at Mr. Aranuir dazzlingly:

'What is that ring you always wear? Do you ever take it off?'

Mr. Aranuir raised one dark brow slightly and Bard imagined all too vividly how a temperature could fall in there from such a look. But instead of giving a due rebuff for the highly inappropriate inquiry, Mr. Aranuir lifted his left hand and glanced at the ring of white gold on his index finger.

'My late wife gave it to me,' he said simply. 'No, I do not.'

There was not a hint at rehearsed acting behind those words, nothing dramatic at all. Still the young woman wilted and slunk back into the crowd, her face pale and lips compressed into a tight embarrassed line. Bard paused the playback at a close-up of Avery's face. If the elf did play that, it was the best performance the world had ever seen. But on the roof, looking at the ghost of his son, he was the same, with his grief palpable to the point of tactile sensation... Bard rubbed at his eyelids tiredly. His mind was still confused but his soul wanted to believe, wanted to see more of those hidden miracles, to have such a majestic creature to reveal more secrets to him. Was it the very magic that lured the mortals under the fairy hills? Did it make Men want to believe unreservedly? Was it at all safe? Bard shook his head, dislodging the headphones in the process. He could do nothing to prove it either way. That was a question of trusting his boss or walking away on him and losing his place by Avery’s side. Bard stilled at that thought then exhaled a silent chuckle – he was already thinking about it as his place. The sneaky bastard known as Mr. Aranuir was looking at the driver from the laptop screen like a predator in his element - calm and utterly self-assured. Bard rearranged the headphones and clicked “play” again.

'What about environmental threats?' asked the next journalist. 'Possible emissions into the atmosphere?..'

The arching of one brow made a repeat appearance.

'I do believe you realize my Company’s office building is literally next door,' Mr. Aranuir said very politely. 'Do you think I'd be willing to build something that would spoil my air?'

Bard smothered a chuckle: with a slightest stress on "my" the elf deadpanned all the residual tension out of people. They laughed lightly; and though he didn't looked like he smiled, just a hint at an upturn of his pale lips made Mr. Aranuir a person with a dry - quite British - sense of humor instead of a haughty prick.

'Da?..'

Bard turned and tugged the headphones off, looking at bleary-eyed Bain who lifted his head from under his pillow.

'Yes, son?'

'Don't log in to m' Skype,' the boy mumbled. 'S'me things there are not meant for parent's eyes.'

'I'll keep that in mind,' Bard laughed softly. 'Go back to sleep.'

With an incomprehensible mutter the boy tugged his blanket over his head and was breathing evenly in a moment. Still smiling, Bard turned back to the laptop and switched to the Google tab again to specify his search. Those few rumors about Mr. Aranuir that circulated around looked so outrageously fake they weren't even funny much. The man was intensely private and prone to no known vices. It seemed that his socializing always had a farther agenda than just keeping his name in the public eye. Tabloids showed him at the most significant high society events, usually alone but sometimes with some lady, never the same twice and in all variety of colours and sizes, though somewhat within the "acceptable" age and appearance demands for his position. There were, inevitably, several threads of "Is he gay?" among the search results, but as far as Bard could see they dwindled within the first couple of pages page on "Even if he is, so what?" attitude and usually with Avery's son mentioned along the way.

In a new tab Bard typed the young man's name - equally fake, he supposed. The story of Aryon's death had been quite loud those years ago. The prince to Lasgalen Company was killed by a sniper that was never found. Bard remembered Sigrid crying herself to sleep for several nights on end and then taking magazine clippings with the handsome youth's photo off the fridge. Aryon's face looked at him from the screen. The very same light hair and blue eyes as his father's, but his gaze was softer and his lips were ready to curve in a smile or maybe even a wry grin. In his mind Bard gave the boy long silken tresses and pointy ears and he sighed when the image matched that shade he saw in Twilight.

After all, if a tycoon wanted a simple driver as a lover, why would he create such an elaborate scheme to trick a man into thinking of elves, other layers of reality, and such? It wouldn't be much use as insurance - a clever man would just file a harassment suit without mentioning any of the weird stuff. And again, Bard didn't think any of such suits would've seen the light of day, not with the money Aranuir had in his long strong fingers. Bard frowned and absently rubbed at the spot on his chest his boss had touched. If Avery could do that for real, could kindle such flame, palpable and physical... But that happened after Bard drunk that coffee, with god knew what in it...

He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his fingertips to his temples that started to throb. He needed to sleep on all that. His love always told him he was a better thinker in the morning.

That night he dreamed of walking in a forest hand in hand with his wife. The forest felt old, ancient even, with trees tall and thick, and teaming with wild life. His love laughed and teased him tenderly, though he wasn't clear about what. And he learned that she couldn't see something large and white that he was glimpsing here and there between the trees, not a menace but a presence that made him wary...

 

Tilda's small hand shook him awake and Bard bit back a curse. He overslept for the first time in many years.

Chapter Text

Blain tut-tutted at him disapprovingly, when Bard rushed in past his post almost at a run, shirt collar askew, hair wind-whipped, and chin unshaven.

'You chose a wrong day to be late, laddy. The briefing has started fifteen minutes ago.'

'What briefing?' Bard felt a sliver of ice lodge itself in his guts. He couldn't remember getting any notice but with the state of his mind yesterday evening...

'Several of you got bumped up the ranks,' the line manager tapped his pen against his clipboard. 'All three Huggins brothers, though blast me if I have an idea why those oafs. Now Dernhelm I do understand, she's a fine lass. And then there's you, if they still want to have you now.'

Bard wanted to groan.

'Where's that briefing?'

The old man pointed toward the nearest office wing with his pen.

'Third floor, fifth door on the right side.'


When Bard forced his way through the door from the stairway, he did groan: the three massive figures of the Huggins brothers were in the process of filing out of the briefing room, following a slight fair-haired young woman.

'Oh come on, Éowyn,' one of the brothers rumbled. 'The road is not a place for a girl! It's dangerous!'

The woman flipped him a bird over her shoulder.

'Yeah, you heard what she-boss has just said,' another big man added, 'Our cargo will be more valuable now, with higher risks of being highjacked. Why are you doing getting into that?'

'Are you aiming to proof something or what?' the third brother put his voice in.

They weren't actual triplets, but Bard couldn't tell Tom from Bert from Bill for the life of him. And they didn't exactly strike an urge to befriend them.

The "Dernhelm lass" turned on one heel of her heavy boots and put her fists on her hips.

'I face all the same dangers just walking the city streets! And damn if I let it stop me from doing what I want! Suck it up, you three, and get over it already!'

'You need protection,' one big man said stubbornly and the other two rumbled their agreement.

Éowyn smiled sweetly up at them.

'I can take care of myself, thank you very much. Hi, Bard.'

He nodded to her and to the Huggins, pushing his way past their bulks.

'Lads, she has a black belt in judo,' he said in small voice. 'Lay off, will you?'

'Wait, wha'? She does?' You do? Bard, how'd you know?'

'Saw me winning it when his son got his orange belt.'

That was before Bain had to drop out because they couldn't afford it anymore. With a gloomy frown Bard marched toward the briefing room, Éowyn's sunny voice chiming behind him:

'Well, as they say, the bigger the troll, the louder the fall.'


'You're late,' said a young woman who was gathering papers on the table in the briefing room.

'My apologies,' Bard offered and winced a little - his tone didn't sound particularly friendly this morning.

The woman raised her head and looked at him. She was probably about thirty, her chestnut hair in a stylish bob, her cheekbones sharp and high, her body lean and wiry. Bard thought he might have seen her somewhere around the Company, but then she pivoted on her toes to slide a paper toward him, and he recognized her way to move.

'Miss?..' came out too close to a whisper.

'Varna Tavaril, Head of Logistics Security Department,' the upward-slanted green-amber eyes of Mr. Aranuir's ward looked at Bard intently. "Read it, sign it, follow it. It might save your life.'

Bard forced his stare off of her and down at the papers.

'The Company holds its employee’s safety above any cargo of any cost,' the elf woman said in a softer tone. 'Money can be made but life cannot be restored. Keep that in mind on route, Mr. Llynnion.'

The addition to the contract said many words in Officialese but pretty much about the same. In case of a possible attack Bard was to give over his lorry without resistance, then to call in as soon as he'd be able to, and, he suspected, file a ton of paperwork about the incident. Since it didn't differ from what he would've done before, he put his signature on the dotted line. His life was first to his family and no cargo was worth leaving his children orphans.

'Welcome to the third level of clearance, mister Llynnion,' Ms. Tavaril said with a slight upturn of his thin lips, adding his paper to the pile.

Bard frowned, but before he could ask anything, the she-elf strolled past him and out of the room.

What the heck was that all about? Gloomily pattering down the stairs, Bard rubbed his stubbly jaw. Was the damn elf so sure in the decision he was supposed to make?

Bard glanced up and down the stairway, found it empty, dug his mobile from his pocket, and scrolled to the newest saved number.

'I didn't say yes yet!' he hissed as the line picked up, not bothering with niceties.

'Indeed you didn't,' sure enough, Mr. Aranuir sounded as unfazed as ever. 'Still, why don't you have a respite of shorter routes today? Tomorrow you are free to say to your peers that the conditions are not to your liking, but tonight you’ll be home for dinner.'

'Don't push me,' Bard cautioned.

'I don't,' Mr. Aranuir's voice turned palpably cold. 'I offer you a sample of what you may have, in order to compare it to your life now. The choice is always yours. Have a nice day, mister Llynnion.'

The elf hung up and Bard exhaled forcefully, his emotions thoroughly mixed. He could only expect Mr. Aranuir to become more invasive; rich people were so, all too often they considered others their property. Rich elves were, apparently, no different in that regard. That was a serious "contra" - Bard was no one's man, his loyalties were with his family only. Speaking of which, he did need his paycheck. One day of the raise wouldn't make much difference, still Bard wasn't willing to lose that on fines.


The line manager nodded at him, sent two drivers on their way, and handed Bard a sheet of paper with his task.

'Since when does Company have levels of clearance?' Bard asked him, calculating his route mentally - up North and back, eight hours max, home to dinner indeed. "Damn that word!"

'Since it exists,' the old man shrugged.

'Why didn't I know it?'

Blain huffed, glancing up at him.

'Because you didn't have the clearance, obviously!'

Bard chuckled despite himself then looked at the old man and stayed his gaze as a thought dawned slowly. Blain was quite short and stocky but his body was of the normal proportions. His small height seemed to be just that and not a medical condition. Could he be?..

'What?' Blain knitted his white brows together. 'Is there something in my beard?'

He was proud of his beard, always perfectly groomed so it forked in the end, so long he could tuck it in his belt. Though Bard never really noticed before that Blain didn't have mustaches to go with this beard.

'No, no,' he shook his head. 'Blain... How old are you?'

The line manager peered up at him.

'Why, one hundred and sixty eight last June. Don't you remember? You lads chipped in and sent me on a weekend to that wonderful spa with salt caverns. The world of good it did for my bones... Oh, Bard, you should see your face now!' Blain hollered, his face pruned with laugh lines. 'I'm pulling yer leg, laddy!'

'I know,' Bard let out a short laughter, if slightly uneven. 'You don't look a day older than one hundred and ten.'

'That's the spirit,' Blain chuckled, shoving him toward his lorry. 'Now off with you, time's a-wasting.'

A dwarf, Bard mentally shook his head, while crossing the floor. I'm most likely getting my route sheets from a dwarf. And someone is messing with my girl.

'Oi, you!!'

'Eh? Oh, heya, mister Bard!' a young man grinned as he turned from the door of Bard's lorry. 'She's a beauty, she is!'

'And what are you doing?..'

'Nothin', nothin', all's done already! I'm that quick with my hands, with work, I mean, girls are a completely different matter, you know? And don't listen what they tell you about me and cards, lies, all lies!'

Bard blinked under the onslaught of words in the lilting Irish brogue and the mischievous open grin.

'Killian!' the line manager bellowed across the floor. 'Stop harassing my drivers and get your lazy ass over here! You've got two more lorries to mark for the road and they ain't gonna be waiting forever!'

'Spoil sport!' the young man grumbled but then immediately beamed at Bard again. 'Have a good run, mister Bard!'

'Hey,' the driver called after him and met the questioning warm hazel eyes when Killian turned. 'What's with the marking?'

'A requirement,' the young man waved his can of paint spray, 'goes with yer new position. It's mandatory, you see, the Boss insists.' Bard just heard that capital "B" when Killian pointed to the ceiling gravely.

'Um, thanks then.'

'Yer welcome,' the grin was so infectious Bard felt his own lips stretch in a smile. 'If ya need yer babe refreshed, just yell for Kili, I'm always around here. Unless I'm with my darlin’ or wagering with the lads, ya know... Coming, I'm coming!' he yelled back at another cross call.

Bard nodded at the salute with the spray can and watched the young man swagger away. Mr. Aranuir had mentioned his ward's lover was named Killian... Could that be him? If so and if Ms. Tavaril was taking some of his energy, there was plenty left in the guy, for sure. On these thoughts Bard felt that the level of oddness for this morning just reached the mark "quite enough for now, thank you". Then he turned to his lorry and found that level jumped up yet another notch. His girl belonged to him, not to the Company, though by requirements she wore the Lasgalen name on board of the trailer. Added to that she currently spotted the Company logo on the door - the white stag's head with elaborately curved antlers. Last night, while researching his employer, Bard saw pictures of Mr. Aranuir with those antlers photoshopped to his blond head and honestly he found the result to be less on funny side and more on eerie one. And where was the logic in that - if their cargo was more expensive, why would they mark lorries in a special way that just showed it?

'Bard, you’re waiting for the red carpet and trumpets or something? Sorry, lad, not on the budget. Crank up your barge already!'

'Stop calling her that!' he grumbled back at Blain and hauled himself up to the cabin. At least the paint on the door had dried already so when the line manager gave his door a usual parting slap, Bard knew the stag's head wouldn't smudge.

'Stay to the straight roads, Bard, do you hear me?'

Now that was out of the usual routine, but then again, considering recent events...

'I will, Blain, I will.'

The GPS navigator notified Bard about repair works on the route he had in mind, so he had to plot another course, a few miles longer but safer from the timing point of view. And down straight enough roads.


A girl was walking along the road with her thumb out. Bard couldn't tell why he pulled over, despite all rules, especially the new once. It was just that the girl looked so skinny in her shorts and tank-top, so young and vulnerable. And the road was pretty busy so there was a very little chance that the slip of a girl could be bait for a gang of robbers. That Bard told himself quite reasonably, stepping on the breaks. The hitcher turned to his lorry with a shy smile but before Bard could ask the usual "where are you heading?', the girl took a second glance and jumped back from the road, practically entangling herself into the bush fence.

'What's wrong?' he called out to her, but the girl just flapped her arms and shook her head frantically, waving him away. With a shrug Bard geared up and pulled away from the side of the road.

When he looked at his rear-view mirror, it seemed to be fogged over. The sun was high up in the sky, but the mirror showed twilight and in that dusk the hitcher girl's eyes reflected his tail-lights like cat’s. Bard felt a shudder run all over him as the delayed reaction hit his nerves. He grabbed his thermos then forced his hand to release the grip - the last thing he needed right now was more caffeine. What that that thing? And why did she - it? - acted like that? Had the elf put his brand or something on Bard, invisible to normal - to Daylight - people? Bard drove very carefully but his thought run feverishly. The hitcher didn't see him, not really, the cab was too high and Bard barely managed to open the door. The door, though, the girl looked at the door. Which had a paint job done, the freshly outlined white stag, the Company emblem... Bard gripped the wheel and cursed. There was a brand, not on him but on his lorry. "So what of it?" his voice of reason echoed in his thoughts, sounding very much like Sigrid's soft tone. "Who knew what that creature could've done to you? And what if the Company monitors your first high-security run closely, that emblem might've saved you more than once!"

'Avery would give me a fat check anyway, if he wants my ass so much,' Bard muttered what he would've never said to his girl. "Maybe so, but if he would, why he bothered with giving it to you legally?" Which was a valid point. And he was talking to himself now. Bard gave up and took a gulp of coffee.

All too soon his thermos was empty and his stomach begun to roil. Bard endured it the discomfort for another half an hour and was rewarded with a cheerfully painted sign of a diner he knew on this route.

'Heya, darlin',' a short curvy woman in her mid-forties smiled at him, when Bard folded his legs under the plastic table top, and reached for his thermos. 'The usual?'

'Sure, Rose. How are you today?'

'Same old, same old,' she flattered her heavily mascara'd lashes at him and sashayed toward the kitchen. 'Special pancakes for a regular!'

A deep rumble sounded from behind the divider and a bear of a man leaned into the window frame. Bard grinned at the diner owner and waved back at the salute with a wooden spatula. Beorn was as good with food as he was big.

'Mommy, I wanna pancakes too!' a tiny voice piped out and Bard turned his head on his parental reflex.

A couple of tired-looking women was practically inhaling their coffee, while a child between them was waving a bright-yellow plastic shovel. One of the women flagged Rose, placed their order, and dove back into her topped off mug, while the other woman tried to calm down the child, cranky from hunger. Bard didn't begrudge Rose that the first stack of pancakes she brought to the table of the trio.

'What's that?' now a woman raised her voice after the departing waitress. 'What do you think you're doing, serving it with such a knoll of butter to mi' bairn?!'

'It's not butter, darlin',' Rose drawled, 'tis the best honey you've ever tasted.'

'Honey in bear!' the child whined.

Bard could relate - he had been confused too when on his first visit to the newly-discovered diner he got a chunk of thick honey with his order. As most city people, he was used to the liquid stuff in bear-shaped bottles, not to such a solid cube that slowly melted on the hot pancakes and smelled breathtakingly of summer air over sunlit meadows. Beorn kept his own hives and Bard could attest to the "best ever tasted" part. Beorn also packed and sold it, and when Bard could afford it, he bought some, and then he and Sigrid had to watch it or else Bain would eat it in one sitting.

Rose brought his plate, he nodded his thanks, dug in, and smiled at the change of tune at the table with the trio as the wails turned into enthusiastic chomping. The pancakes were delicious too - not as amazing as at Tom&Goldberry's place, but very good - and Bard allowed himself to relax just for a little and relish his food.

'...There are lilies though, which is good, because it is negotiable. Honeysuckle would've been much worse, yes, yes, it would indeed!' Cracked muttering flowed into Bard's perception little by little, until he lifted his head to find the source of the nonsense.

While he was enjoyed his brunch, the next table over got occupied by two customers. One of them, a ragged looking man in mid-forties, Bard knew as a fellow wheelman. They weren't friends as such, the driver had been working for the Company but quit about six months ago - something about tending for his ailing younger brother, Bard vaguely recalled. The other man at the table was the chatterer. He was an old fellow in a pristine enough linen suit, with a walking stick and a canopy hat, and - Bard blinked - a small hedgehog sitting on his shoulder. The man beamed at passing Rose and refused coffee or food even though the driver offered to pay for it in a soft voice.

'No need, no need for that, young man, though thank you kindly, but there's no need, I had a quite filing early breakfast, yes, quite nice.'

The driver gave a small shrug, finished his own meal and coffee then rose to his feet.

'We're good to go as soon as I'm back from the loo.'

'Very well, very well, you shall find me here, right here,' the old man smiled amiably up at him, scratching the hedgehog under the chin. 'Beg your pardon for my pestering but if you aren't kin on eating it, may I have it if you please?'

Bard glanced askance, found the old man addressing him now, followed his gesture, and saw a quartered strawberry tucked behind his pile of pancakes.

'Sure.' He pushed the berry onto a napkin and handed it to the man. His wife loved fresh strawberries and since her death Bard couldn't make himself eat a single one.

'It's for Sebastian here, you see,' the old man murmured apologetically, feeding a piece of berry to the hedgehog. 'He was ill, poor darling. He's all better now but he still needs good nourishment, vitamins, you know. Thank you kindly, dear sir, much appreciated,' he doffed his hat toward Bard. 'Mister Brown's the name, mister Brown I am called.'

Bard nodded and chewed on silently. It wasn't polite of him but since yesterday he felt disinclined to give his name to strangers. Especially to weird ones. Avery's influence, no doubt. Bard pondered if the elf would ever tell his real name...

'Ready to go?'

'Yes, oh yes, quite ready, quite so,' mister Brown scrambled to his feet, leaning on his cane, which was topped, Bard saw, with a silver rabbit head, its long ears pressed back and serving as the handle.

The driver glanced around, noticed Bard, and nodded to him:

'Bard.'

'Boromir,' Bard nodded back. 'How's your brother?'

'Better now. Thanks.'

The man left, trailed by the chattering old man with the hedgehog on his shoulder, and a couple of moments later Bard saw a lorry with a white tree on its door rumble by the windows. Rose brought Bard his refilled thermos, took his money, and then it was time for him to be on his way again.


Despite his wariness, the rest of the day went smoothly enough: he delivered his cargo, got it examined meticulously and then unloaded, and set his course back, with a short stop to eat lunch Sigrid had packed for him. And he also did quite a lot of thinking. It was slightly scary - not the shift of his world but the ease Bard accepted it with. He had laughed indulgently when his wife cut fairies from paper to play with little Sigrid, and he teased his love when she was telling him she had seen someone in the streets who looked like a changeling or an orc. Now he pondered how much she had really been able to see, whether those had been her innocent fantasies or she had been walking the edge of Twilight. And why didn't he have even a slightest doubt he had really seen another layer of the Universe? By all movie rules he ought to be panicking now. He ought to put his sanity in doubt or suspect the elf... his boss of hypnotizing or drugging him. And Bard just... didn't.

His wife's laughter echoed in his thoughts.

'Bard, dear, admit - you do believe there are still fairy tales alive out there!'

'I'm a down to earth man, my love. I know there is any number of things out there that we may just not know about. I'll believe in them when I see them.'

'You're so much down to earth, you're like those men who see stars in daylight from the bottom of a well,' she teased him.

'Well, what can I say, I didn't believe in love at first sight much and then I met you.'

They were sitting at a bench by the playground, watching Sigrid build sand castles, Bard's hand on his wife's belly, heavy with their son.

Bard smiled, rubbed his wedding ring fondly, and shifted gears to stop at the first city traffic light. An elf's bed - and a male elf's at that - would hardly be her preferable version for him to learn that fairy tales were real. Although if she would've seen Avery... Bard chuckled and shook his head, imagining all too vividly his love's awed face and an immediate mischievous sparkle in her eyes... Gods, he missed her so much! He didn't have anyone since her death, and if his body flamed so at a single Avery's touch... Bard exhaled long and slow and took his turn toward the Company complex. He knew he had made his decision already. He had a bit of time yet till the rest of his ride to face it.