A/N: Two bits of news with this update. Good news first: This is the chapter that sent Azying over the 500 page mark! Hot diggitydang!

Now, the not so good news: My family was hit with some pretty devastating news on Monday. Said news may possibly affect the upload schedule again, as there is, undoubtedly, going to be lots of traveling to doctors 1-2 hours away over the course of the next few weeks or months as we find out more information about what's going on. So, I apologize ahead of time if I miss some updates.

"And you're certain of this?"

"Yes, my lady. It's far too coincidental to be anything but a staged death."

Adela closed her eyes, a heavy sigh leaving her mouth as she pinched the bridge of her nose. "But why?" she asked after a moment. "Why would my da' go through all this trouble when he could have just fled the town an' never come back? It just doesn't make sense t' me."

Reaching down, Will started to rub her back in a comforting fashion. "That's what we're tryin' to figure out," he told her with a sigh. He glanced over at Rán, who sat across from them, his arm resting on the table.

"There are so many different ways he could have faked his death—ways that didn't involve the deaths o' innocent people," Adela said, leaning over so she could rest her head against Will's side.

"It seems like he was doin' his best to make it look as accidental as possible." The pair looked over at Bard, who was slowly pacing back and forth with his arms crossed over his chest. "There's a strong chance he never meant for the explosion t' be as big or as deadly as it was. He probably doesn't even know it was that big an' deadly, to be honest."

"We do know that he traveled south for many miles," Rán told them. "He may be making his way to Laketown. From there, he may try to continue further south or make his way east towards Dorwinion."

Bard looked over at Adela. "Do you think there's any—" He was cut off as she let out a sarcastic laugh.

"You know as well as Will an' me that he wouldn't go t' Ned, even if his life depended on it," she said. "Nor would Ned let him anywhere near his bakery."

"Does he have any other family that he may try to seek shelter with, my lady?" Rán questioned.

She shook her head. "No. He has no family left aside from me an' Ned, an' he disowned us both. But…he does have a few 'friends' in Laketown."

"Do you think you'd be able t' write down their names for us, Adela?" Bard asked her, his voice gentle. When she nodded, he gave her a small smile. "Thank you." He knew that, despite how calm and composed she looked right now, she had to be a wreck mentally. Crossing the room, he went to sit at his desk—which Will had made for him—and pulled out a sheet of paper as well as a quill and inkpot. "Rán, Fifika, and Hunil will be goin' with the merchants down t' Laketown," he then said, sliding the writing utensils across the table to Adela, "so they'll be able to visit these 'friends' o' your father's—As well as the Mistress o' Laketown in order to inform her o' the situation."

Will's brows furrowed in confusion. "Wait, when was this decided?" he questioned. Then, realizing that his words could have been mistaken for displeasure, he quickly added, "I mean, any additional guards are greatly appreciated—I just didn't know that any o' the rangers would be going, too."

"Only a few days ago," Rán told him. "Lord Bard thought it would be best if I and at least two others went with the group so that we may provide extra protection in addition to allowing us to better investigate the lands south of Dale."

He nodded in understanding. "Makes sense," he said. "I'm sure your presence will bring more ease t' the merchants as you travel." He offered the ranger a smile; despite it, however, he didn't like the idea of Rán being around Baylee for so long without Bofur around. What if he managed to sway her heart away from the dwarf…?

"Soldiers and rangers…Those merchants will be well protected," Adela said with a small smile. She dipped the quill into the inkpot before moving to write down a few more names. "Means Will won't have t' fret over Baylee travelin' down there anymore."

"Oh, I'm certain he'll still fret," Bard said, glancing over at Will only to find a small pout on his lips. "But how can he not? The raiders are one thing, but Baylee's mischievous streak is an entirely different story. Especially if there are any pigs near the market…"

Rán quietly laughed. "Lady Baylee has told me of some of the antics from her childhood. If she had not been the one to tell me about them, I would not have believed her capable of such mischief."

Bard's brow rose and the corner of his mouth twitched upwards in amusement. "There are still times when she can be quite the mischievous little thing. Though, I'd imagine that she's doing her best t' avoid mischief and the trouble it can bring at the moment…"

"Aye," Adela said, setting the quill down. "She's been quite busy, runnin' the inn. Today alone, she booked somethin' like eleven rooms thanks t' the most recent group o' traders an' merchants…"

"I hope you an' the other employees are making sure she takes breaks," Bard said, his brows furrowing. He then shook his head and sighed. "But back onto the subject at hand." He glanced at Rán. "If you manage t' find Mannus while on the way to or in Laketown, I want him returned to Dale alive and as unharmed as possible. He needs to stand trial for his crimes an' see the damage his little stunt has caused—not just t' buildings, but t' the families o' those who died."

'Something tells me he wouldn't care much,' Will thought, though he was sure to keep it to himself. 'Mannus isn't capable of empathy anymore. Maybe he was once upon a time, but he's become nothing but a cruel, greedy shell of a man over the last two decades.'

"Should we find him while we are away, I will do my best to ensure that he is kept alive and well while we return him to Dale," Rán said, giving the king a nod of acknowledgement. "And I shall pass the same message along to the others, should they be the ones to find him."

"Good." Bard leaned back in his seat, sighing as he propped his head up on his first. "Rán, Adela, you're both free t' leave. But Will, I'd like t' talk privately with you a bit longer if that's alright."

Will's brow rose somewhat, but he nodded. "Alright."

After standing, Adela kissed the top of his head. "I'll wait for you out in the courtyard, alright?" she told him. "Or in the kitchens—it all depends on if the Bardlings find me or not."

Both Will and Bard chuckled at her commented. "I won't keep him too long, I promise," Bard smiled. He watched as both the ranger and the woman took their leave of the room, shutting the oaken doors behind them.

"You want t' discuss Mannus with me, don't you?" Will asked, also leaning back in his seat.

"He's the first thing I'd like t' speak with you about, aye," he replied, closing his eyes before rubbing his face. "After we're done talking about him, I'll tell you what the second topic is."

A small pout came to his lips. "Why must you always leave me in suspense like this?"

"T' help keep you focused, you ninny." A teasing smile had come to his lips as he looked across the desk at his friend. It didn't last very long, however, as it was quickly replaced by a grim frown. "You'll find out what the second topic is soon enough. For now, though, we need t' talk about how serious a threat Mannus is t' Baylee."

Will's expression turned serious. "You really think he might try somethin' t' get at her?"

"O' course. I know just as well as you how, ever since Éolynna was killed, Baylee's become the object of his obsession." He sat up a bit straighter now and scooted his chair closer to the desk. "He's not dumb enough t' try t' sneak back into the city t' try anything—even with your da' an' your aunt unable t' put up much o' a fight."

Unconsciously copying him, Will straightened up as well. "You…you think he'd try somethin' while the group's travelin' down to Laketown, then?"

He shook his head. "While they're down in the city. I've no doubt that Mannus knows she plans on accompanying the merchants down t' the city. An' with Laketown's population having tripled in the last two years, it'd be more than easy for him t' get ahold o' her there."

"You know she won't agree t' staying behind."

"I know. Which is why I wanted to let you know that I'm going to write a letter t' Lovisa as well, informing her o' the situation. If anyone in Middle Earth will make sure your sister stays safe, it's her."

Will nodded in understanding. "Good idea. I just hope that Lovisa won't be off on one of her long hunting trips…"

"It's mid-spring—not a good time for hunting anything but young plants." He let out a sigh. "Baylee's not the only one I want t' keep safe, though. I want you t' be careful as well."

His brows furrowed. "Me? Why?"

"There's a chance Mannus had help with his little stunt an', if he did have help, then there's a chance whoever helped him is still in the city. An' if they are, then they're no friend o' yours. You're like my brother, Will, an' over the years, your family's all but become my family. I don't want anythin' t' happen t' any o' you."

"O' course. I'll be sure t' keep an eye out for anythin' strange," he assured Bard. "I'm sure Adela, Wenna, Peter, an' the others will, too." Shaking his head, he let himself slouch backwards a bit. "An' o' course all this had t' start at the beginnin' o' the busy season." His brow rose ever so slightly when he watched the king get to his feet and walk over to one of many bookshelves in the room.

"Good," said Bard. "That means we can get onto the second thing I wanted t' talk t' you about." He sorted through a pile of rolled up parchment for a moment before finding what he was looking for. Walking back to his desk, he unfurled the parchment over the top of his desk. Before it could roll back up onto itself, he used a book to hold down one side and a dog-shaped paperweight to hold down the other side.

Leaning forward once more, Will found himself looking at a map of the south-western portion of the city. He could tell it was one that had been recently drawn; there was a large, empty portion of the area dedicated to Tamás' property. "You…want t' talk about the market gardens?" he questioned, brow rising.

"Not quite." Bard pointed at a spot near the eastern edge of the map. "This is what I wanted to talk to you about."

His brows furrowing, Will stood up so he could get a better look at the spot. "That's…the big three-story house with the fountain in the backyard," he murmured, more to himself than to his friend.

"It is." He watched Will look up at him in confusion.

"Wh-what did you want to discuss about it?"

"You've had your eye on it. That you wanted t' restore it an' make it yours an' Adela's future home."

His cheeks turned a bit red. "Aye, I do…" Despite his bit of embarrassment, he felt his stomach churn as he prayed that he wasn't about to learn that it had been sold.

Crossing his arms over his chest, Bard stood upright as he looked down at the map. "It's a nice property with a beautiful view o' the orchards an' market gardens. Because o' that, it's caught the eye o' a couple other people. I know you've got your heart set on that property, so I wanted t' warn you."

"How much does it cost?" He looked up at Bard, a bit of desperation in his eyes. "And when do I need t' have the money ready by?"

"It's no small number, Will."

"I don't care. I want t' know the price."

A heavy sigh left Bard's mouth and he stood upright, running a hand through his hair. "After lookin' over the locator's survey o' the property, Reginald assessed the property to be worth at least seven hundred gold ducats."

Will felt the color drain from his face and he collapsed backwards into his chair, staring at Bard in shock. "Seven hundred?" he repeated, his voice quiet. That would take him years to save up…

"At least." He sighed again and sat down in his seat. "As king, I could order him t' make the price lower—"

"No. You're my friend, Bard, but you've given me an' my family enough special treatment by givin' us such a good spot for the Tankard," he sighed. He rubbed his face in a mixture of frustration and sorrow. "When do I have t' have the money by?" he asked, his hands covering his eyes.

"The end o' Cermië is when Richard's goin' t' start takin' offers."

"That leaves me…two months an', what, two weeks? One week?"

"One an' a half weeks."

"An' who else is interested in it?"

"Archie Wiggins, Fredrick Harper, an' Amaranthe Crispin."

A groan left his mouth; he knew from the price alone that there would be a slim chance of him being able to buy the house. But at the mention of those three names, his slim chance became a minute chance. Archie Wiggins was one of the city's wealthiest merchants, dealing in fabrics and dyes that were hard to come by in the western lands of Middle Earth; Fredrick Harper was a maker of instruments that were both beautifully intricate and beautiful sounding; and Amaranthe Crispin was one of the wealthiest women in Dale, having brought her fortune all the way from Dorwinion.

"I could borrow some money from da'," he murmured. "He knows I'd pay him back over time…I might even be able t' take a loan with Mister Lightfoot…"

Bard gave him a pitying look; he knew Will had been eying that house since he first found it nearly six years ago. "I hate t' say it, Will, but you might just have t' accept that you'll have t' find a home for you an' Adela somewhere else," he told him, his voice gentle.

"There is no other place," Will stated, some stubbornness to his voice. "I've looked at every buildin' in this city—occupied or not—an' that is the only place I could ever envision us living." Shaking his head again, he stood up. "Thanks for tellin' me this, Bard," he said. "I really appreciate it." A small smile managed to come to his face as he looked at the king.

"I'm sorry it couldn't have been better news."

"I just wish there was a little more time…two months isn't very long, especially when things are about t' get real busy."

Bard nodded in understanding, standing as well. "You'll find a way, I'm sure," he said. "You're too determined not to." He came around his desk and, setting his hand on Will's shoulder, gave it a reassuring squeeze.

Will chuckled, though there was little humor in it. "Let's hope that hard work, determination, an' a loan or two can help me out with that."

"They usually do," he assured him. "I'll walk you out. Somethin' tells me my children are tryin' t' kidnap your ladylove in order to have her make them sweet treats."

"Well, that'd certainly bring a new meaning t' 'kidnapping'—actual kids doin' the stealing."

The pair left Bard's office and turned left, heading down a hallway that was decorated with dented, but polished, suits of armor and paintings of his ancestors that were faded and dirtied with age. He hadn't spent much on restoring the decorations to their former glory, having put more thought and care into the rebuilding of the city and its people. He had, however, invested some money into having the interior covered by a fresh layer of whitewash, which left the once dim and dull halls bright and cheery.

Soon enough, they stepped and into the courtyard, where they found Adela playing ring-around-the-rosy with Bain and Sigrid. All three were giggling as they skipped in time with Adela's singing, getting dizzier and dizzier.

Will's head tilted to the side and a small, dreamy smile came to his lips as he watched his love interact with the children. She wore a large smile as she sang and skipped, her gingery curls bouncing about her shoulders. If he hadn't known better, he would have never been able to guess that her mind and heart were weighed down with pain and stress brought on by her father's antics.

Seeing the look on his friend's face, Bard quietly laughed and patted him on the back. "You've certainly got yourself quite the catch, my friend," he said.

Rubbing the side of his neck, Will laughed as well. "An' it's all thanks to you. If you hadn't had me come over t' fix those cabinet doors, we wouldn't be here right now." He laughed when Adela and the children tumbled to the ground, left rather dizzy by their little game; she let herself flop down completely in the grass, her eyes shut as she continued to giggle. "Valar help me, she's perfect…"

'And it's because she's perfect that I need to find a way to buy that house,' he thought. 'Especially after this ordeal, she deserves only the best…'

"Are you sure you don't want me t' take over the front counter, sweetie?"

"Aye, I'm sure, auntie. It's fairly slow today, anyway, so it's not been bad." Baylee gave her aunt a reassuring smile. By all appearances, she looked perfectly fine, but in the pit of her stomach, she had started to feel a strange sense of anxiousness growing. "I'm mostly just sittin' here, polishing goblets an' tankards while I wait t' refill folks' drinks."

Demelza didn't seem entirely convinced, but she nodded in understanding. "Alright. If things start pickin' up and you need some help out here, I'll be in the kitchen."

"Don't worry about Baylee, Mrs. Harrison," Rosalyn chirped as she came over, setting down a platter with four tankards on it. "Mundie and I have been keepin' an eye on her an' making sure she doesn't get overwhelmed."

A quiet laugh left Demelza's mouth as her brow rose. "Thank you, Rosalyn. I appreciate it." She adjusted the crutches under her arms before hobbling off towards the kitchen.

Once her aunt was out of sight, Baylee allowed herself to slouch slightly and sigh in relief. "Thanks for that, Rosie," she said, grabbing the first tankard. "Two ales, a beer, an' a cider, right?"

"Mhm. And it was no trouble." Resting her arms on the countertop, she leaned forward slightly. "Ever since your uncle gave her the go-ahead t' walk with crutches, it seems like she's been in here every hour to check on you."

Baylee nodded in agreement. "It's because she's worried about me havin' t' run everything without papa's help," she explained, pulling the tap forward on the barrel of beer. She knew, however, that her aunt was also worried that she may somehow mess up the guestbook and the ledger thanks to her meager reading skills, but she wouldn't say such a thing out loud. "It's a big responsibility that was just sort o' thrust upon me out o' nowhere."

"Not like it's been a terribly hard job so far," Rosalyn chuckled, her brow rising. "The worst part is having t' assign everyone rooms on those few days when it was really busy." She tucked a stray curl behind her ear. "Other than that, things have just kept running as usual."

"Until the end o' the day when everyone's gone home or t' bed and I'm up, figurin' out the math for the day's earnings." She closed the tap and returned the beer to the platter before picking up the two mugs she recognized as having belonged to the ale drinkers; she had to stand on her tiptoes in order to reach the ale tap. "An', at the end o' the week, I'll have t' figure out everyone's earnings from that amount as well as make the budget for supplies for the comin' week…"

"Alright, alright!" she laughed. "Please, spare me all the mathematics talk—you know I'm hopeless with numbers." Shaking her head, she turned to look at the door in time to see a pair of patrons returning from their time in the market. "I'm glad you're the one runnin' this place an' not me. I'd probably run it into the ground…"

Laughing quietly, Baylee glanced over her shoulder at her. "Oh, just wait 'til Will takes over for me. If you think me just mentionin' what the numbers are for is bad, he'll actually be tellin' you the numbers an' bein' a stickler for them, too."

Her brows furrowed. "Really? He doesn't seem like the sort t' be a stickler for numbers."

"He's a woodworker—the majority o' their craft involves numbers." Placing the two ale tankards down, she plucked up the final mug. "If he didn't love cuttin' an' shaping wood so much, he could've easily been a banker."

"I can not see your brother as a banker," Rosalyn said, a skeptical brow raised while she watched Baylee fill the final mug. "He's just too…too…"

"Rough around the edges?"

"I was trying t' think o' a nicer way of putting it, but aye."

"That's because he is—almost everyone born an' raised in Laketown is rough around the edges." She closed the tap and returned the tankard to the tray. "By the way, when you go on break, can you do me a favor, please?"

Picking up the platter, she tilted her head slightly. "Hm? What would that be?"

"Could you check on Wenna an' Prim in the washin' room an' see if they got Fili an' Dwalin's clothes washed? I don't want them havin' damp clothes when they leave tomorrow."

"Aye, I can do that," she chuckled. "Anythin' else?"

Baylee shook her head. "No, that should be it. Thank you, though. I appreciate it."

"It's the least I can do for the lass who can't come out from behind her counter," she teased. She laughed when Baylee blew a raspberry at her and headed off to deliver the drinks.

"I can too come out from behind here," she murmured to herself, still chuckling. "I just don't have a need t' do such yet." Sitting down on a stool, she plucked up the goblet she had been polishing before Demelza interrupted her and started to work on it once again.

'Tomorrow, Fili and Dwalin leave for Erebor,' she thought with a sigh, 'and three days after that, we'll be leaving for Laketown. I'll have to have auntie or Will cover me for a little while at some point during that time so I can get myself some supplies for the trip…I also need to ask uncle to make me a list of everything he needs if he hasn't already.'

Her brows furrowed slightly as she realized something. 'Is that what I'm nervous about? This trip? Surely that has to be it—With papa being as injured as he is, auntie still healing, and Will having to run the inn mostly on his own. He doesn't know the routines or customers as well as I do anymore…' She sighed softly. 'But he'll do fine. He's a quick learner and he's really good with math. And it's not like he'll have to take this on permanently. Just for a month or so.'

Movement in the corner of her eye made her look over at the entrance to the inn only to find Will and Adela walking in. Her brows rose in surprise; while she had expected to see Adela relatively soon after being summon by Bard, she hadn't expected her to return with Will. As they approached the bar, she smiled.

"How did things with Bard go? What did he even want?" she asked, sliding off the stool. Setting the goblet and cloth aside once more, she moved to get the pair a bit of cider.

"They went…relatively well," Will answered with a sigh. "Rán an' the rangers discovered what more than likely happened t' Mannus."

Her brows furrowed and she looked over her shoulder. "What do you mean?"

"He somehow managed t' fake his death," Adela said. She sat down on one of the stools and, resting her elbow on the countertop, plopped her chin in her palm. "We're not quite sure how he did it, but he managed t' trigger the explosion while bein' safe an' sound down in the cellar that, evidently, has been connected t' a tunnel the leads outside o' the city. How I didn't know this, I'll never know."

Will set his hand on her shoulder. "Mannus had it hidden behind a set of shelves, remember," he gently reminded her. "It's not your fault you didn't know."

She sighed. "I had been down there thousands of times, though—surely I would have noticed at some point or another?" When Baylee set the mug of cider down in front of her, she thanked her before lifting it and taking a drink.

"Aye, but how many times had you gone that far back in the cellar? I'm guessin' not very often." He, too, thanked his sister for the cider and, after also sitting, took a long drink.

"Wait, wait—the Hen's cellar is connected t' a tunnel?" Baylee repeated, her brow rising. "An' Mannus used that t' escape, unseen, from the city?"

The pair nodded in unison, but it was Adela who spoke. "Aye, that's what it's looking like. The rangers found relatively fresh horse tracks an' poo at the entrance t' the tunnel."

"But…how did they even find the tunnel?" Picking up the goblet and cloth, she yet again returned to polishing. "Were they sortin' through the wreckage? Wouldn't that be too dangerous?"

Turning in his seat so he could rest his arm on the counter top, Will shook his head. "No. They discovered the tunnel's exit outside the city walls." Then, snorting, he quietly added, "Evidently, Aizik found it when they went t' relieve themself."

"It was Rán who discovered that it led t' the Hen, though," Adela sighed. "Rán's got Fifika an' Aizik explorin' the rest o' the tunnel right now t' see if it leads t' any other cellars, since it can compromise the safety o' the city."

"It's been eight years an' no one found it until now—you would think it's a fairly secure tunnel, then," Baylee said. "I mean, other than Mannus, it took someone goin' for a wee accidentally stumbling upon it t' discover it."

"You would think, but you know how quickly word spreads in this city, 'Lee," Will told her. He took another drink of his cider before resting the mug against his thigh. "I have no doubts that, by this time tomorrow, the majority o' the city will know about the tunnel. Valar help us, half the city might already know about it!"

She nodded in acquiesce, quietly chuckling. "That is true." Her brow rose very slightly; she could tell that there was something else bothering Will, but he was doing his best to not let it show. 'Adela can't see it, but I know my brother better than her when it comes to these sorts of things. I'll have to get him alone at some point and ask him what's wrong.'

Tucking a lock of hair behind her ear, she set the now-fully polished goblet back on the shelf below the counter. "By the way, uncle gave auntie the go-ahead t' hobble around out here," she told them. "She's in the kitchen right now, but she was out here not too long ago, making sure I was able t' handle things on my own an' didn't need her t' take over."

Adela's brow rose somewhat. "Well, that's silly. Why would you need her t' take over?"

"Because auntie has missed being around people after being cooped up for a few weeks," Will laughed. "I'm fairly certain uncle only gave her permission t' come out is because she was goin' stir crazy in the private quarters an', with da' injured now, she was probably pestering him."

Baylee giggled and nodded. "That's pretty much what happened, actually." She sat down on the stool once more, brushing some stray strands of hair from her face.

"How is da' doing today, by the way?"

"He's doing…well enough." She sighed, her hand unconsciously rising to toy with her necklace.

"But…?" Adela questioned, her brow rising.

She sighed. "Uncle says papa's arm isn't lookin' good. He's using his best medicines an' treatin' it as best he can, but he says if it doesn't improve soon, he'll…" Her words drifted into silence.

Will shook his head, a heavy sigh leaving his mouth. "That's not really the sort o' news I wanted t' hear…but if it's what needs t' be done, then it needs t' be done. It's better than lettin' it stay on him an' rot his blood." He glanced over at Adela when she reached over and set her hand over his; there was a small, but reassuring, smile on her lips.

"He'll be fine," she said. "Your da' is a strong man. Even if the arm has t' go, I have no doubt's that, as soon as it's fully healed, he'll be over in Erebor, gettin' himself some sort o' dwarven prosthetic with a bunch o' interchangeable tools he can use with it."

At that, both Will and Baylee laughed. "Aye, he probably would," the latter agreed. "Papa's a bit odd like that."

"That's an understatement," Will snorted, lifting his brow. "Knowin' our da', he'd try t' make his own prosthetic first, though. I'm not sure how he'd go about it, given he'd have only one hand, but da's stubborn like that."

Baylee nodded in agreement. "You're not wrong," she chuckled. "A wee bit off topic, but I was wondering if you'd be willing t' watch the inn for a few hours the day after tomorrow? I need t' go buy myself some supplies for the trip an' I'm not sure if I want auntie watching over things." She said the latter half of the sentence in a quieter tone, not wanting her voice to travel.

"Of course I can," he replied, a knowing look on his face. "What time do you think you'll be headin' out?"

"I'm not quite sure yet—more than likely morning, though." She let out a quiet sigh. "Hopefully, it won't take me too long. There isn't much I have t' get, thankfully, but I know everyone's goin' t' want t' ask about how papa's doing."

"Can you blame them, though?" Adela gave her a pitying smile. "He got hurt while helpin' save three others from a burnin' an' collapsing building. People are goin' t' be treating him like a hero for a little while."

At that, Will snorted. "Then it's a good thing he's back in the family area o' the inn," he stated. "Da' hates bein' treated special for things like that."

Baylee nodded in agreement. "He's never liked it. He's fine with people bein' thankful, but he wishes they wouldn't make such a big fuss about it."

Adela's brow rose. "Really? Most people would be soakin' up the attention brought on by bein' a hero," she chuckled. She glanced over at the kitchen, able to see past the open doors. "Hm. I should probably get back t' the kitchen an' start helping…Galiene's puttin' me in charge o' making the pastry crust for tonight's dinner."

"Ooh, are we having potpies, then?" he asked, grinning.

Despite her brother's happy expression and tone, Baylee noticed that the joy didn't quite reach his eyes. "There'll be beef and plain vegetable potpies," she answered. "Galiene, no doubt, already has auntie choppin' a heap o' vegetables."

Adela nodded in understanding, but paused when a bit of a thoughtful look came to her. "You know…I think today will be the first time I've worked with her in the kitchen," she said. "Is there anything I should expect with her around?"

"Not really, no," Baylee answered. "She can get a wee bit talkative, though, an' she does have a tendency t' move her hands as she talks—while holdin' a sharp knife."

"I'll be sure t' keep an eye out, then," she chuckled. "Or borrow some armor from someone." Picking up her cider, she stood up.

Will snorted and shook his head. "I'll be in there in a little bit t' steal a bite t' eat before I head over to the shop," he told his lover. His cheeks flushed just a little bit when Adela gave him a peck on the lips before heading off. "Valar help me, how I love that woman," he sighed, a dreamy smile on his lips.

Baylee's brow rose in amusement. "Aye, the two o' you make for a very cute couple," she lightly teased. Then, breathing a small sigh, she leaned back slightly. "So…what's botherin' you?"

Looking at her, he frowned in confusion. "Why would anythin' be bothering me?"

She gave him a knowing look. "Because I'm your big sister an' your twin. I can usually tell when something's botherin' you—just like you can usually tell when something's botherin' me."

"That's true," he sighed, his voice betraying the defeat he felt. He slouched forward, resting his elbows on the bar and propping his head up on his palm. "Bard told me some bad news."

"What sort o' bad news?"

"Bad news about the house I've been wantin' t' get for me an' Adela."

She winced, almost afraid to ask now. "I'm almost afraid t' ask, but what is it…?"

He glanced over at her. "Do you promise not t' tell Adela? I don't want her worrying."

"Pinky promise." Reaching over, she held her pinky out to him, which made a small smile come to his lips as he grabbed hold of it with his own pinky.

Before speaking, he took a drink from his mug. "Bard told me that there are three others lookin' into possibly purchasin' the big house I want for me an' Adela…but if that wasn't bad enough, he told me how much it got assessed for."

"Uh-oh," she murmured, her brows furrowing. "How much?"

"Seven hundred gold ducats."

Her eyes widened and her jaw fell slack as she stared at him in shock. After a few seconds, she shook her head and regained her composure. "D-did I hear you right, Will? Seven hundred?"

"Aye, you did."

"B-but that's so much! With how much work that place needs, you'd think it'd be more like two or three hundred—but seven hundred?!"

"It's a big house in a good location," he sighed. "I have no doubts, though, that the assessor took into account the three people who're also interested in the place, an' priced it a bit higher than what it's really worth."

Her brows furrowed. "Who're the other three?"

"Archie Wiggins, Fredrick Harper, an' Amaranthe Crispin."

She cringed. "Y-yeah, I can see how they'd be drivin' the price up." Sighing, she closed her eyes for a moment. "How long do you have until it goes up for sale?"

"It goes up at the end o' Cermië."

"That's…not very long."

He shook his head. "No…no it's not." He went quiet for a while, his eyes shut as he took the last drink of his cider. "I'm going t' count how much money I've got squirreled away tonight," he stated after a few minutes. "Then I'll talk with da' about findin' a way to either make or borrow the rest…"

"If you end up borrowing money, though, it could take you years t' pay it back."

"If that's what it takes t' get this house, 'Lee, then I'll do it." His eyes opened again and Baylee could see that they were filled with determination. "That place means so much to the two o' us. I can't let it go t' someone else."

Baylee let out a quiet sigh; she was normally a very optimistic person, but even she knew that there was very little chance of her brother being able to raise that much money in such a short amount of time. Especially when his competitors for the house were some of the richest people in Dale…

Bringing herself from her thoughts, she lightly shook her head. "Do you want a refill on your cider, Will?" she asked.

Will, who had also been lost in thought while staring into his empty mug, looked up, his eyes slightly wide. "Hm? What was that, 'Lee?"

"I asked if you wanted some more cider."

Sighing, he shook his head and pushed the mug away from him. "I better not. I told the lads I'd be coming over after the talk with Bard." He gave her a small smile, but as before, it didn't quite reach his eyes. "As such, I should probably grab that quick bite an' head over there now. I've been trying to get as much done as I can before you leave so my friends won't have too much to finish up for me."

"Don't wear yourself out, lad," she said, frowning slightly. "I know woodworkin' is your passion, but you've been workin' real hard these past couple o' months. Don't let yourself get burnt out on it an' don't work so fast you end up hurtin' yourself."

His brow rose in amusement and, this time, the humor did reach his eyes. "You're one t' talk, 'Lee," he chuckled, standing up. "You're constantly overworkin' yourself."

She pursed her lips in a pout. "I am not."

"Then why have you been so exhausted lately, hmm? An' don't say it's because o' your nightmares—I know you haven't had one in the last week or so."

Standing on her tiptoes, she leaned over the counter and poked him in the chest. "An' just how do you know that, William Braddock?"

He snorted as he looked down at her. "Every morning this week, you've woken up well-rested. That's something you haven't done very often these past few months."

Her cheeks turned a bit pink and, crossing her arms over her chest, she feigned a sigh of disappointment. "You always were a lucky guesser." She went cross-eyed when Will reached over and poked the end of her nose.

"And you were always a silly sister," he chuckled. "But for real—I have to get going. I'll see you sometime around dinner, alright?"

"Alright, alright…just promise me you won't work yourself too hard, alright? We can't have you, auntie, and papa all bein' injured in some fashion."

"I won't, I won't." He grinned as, when he reached over and tousled her hair, she scrunched her face up.

She batted his hand away and started trying to smooth out her hair. "Arsemunch," she mumbled under her breath, watching him head for the kitchen.

"One hundred twelve, one hundred thirteen…one hundred thirteen ducats, fifty gold, twenty-seven silver, and three copper…" Will let out a heavy sigh, shaking his head as he looked over the stacks of coin that surrounded him on the floor. "That barely puts a dent in the amount I need."

Closing his eyes, he leaned backwards against the side of his bed and let out a heavy sigh. 'If I get the gold exchanged,' he thought, 'that'd bump me up to one hundred eighteen ducats. Then I'd need to exchange the silver, which would leave me with two gold, seven silver, and three copper. I would still need five hundred eighty-two ducats…But, at least it's a start.'

Raising his hand, he rubbed his face in frustration. 'I won't be able to make much during the time Baylee's gone…so I'll definitely have to ask dad about what I should do.' His brows furrowed. 'Will he even be well enough to discuss something like this, though? If uncle has to remove his arm like Baylee suspects, he's going to be on some strong herbs for who-knows-how long. Maybe I should consult Mister Lightf—'

"That's an odd place t' have fallen asleep."

He swore in surprise and opened his eyes only to find Baylee standing a couple of feet away from him. "B-Baylee, when did you get in here?"

"About a minute ago," she chuckled, her brow rising. "I was waitin' t' see if you were asleep or just in deep thought."

Sighing, he rubbed the back of his neck. "Deep in thought, is all. I realized there may not be a chance for me t' talk money with da' soon."

"Because o' the possibility o' him losing his arm?"

He nodded. "Aye. If that happens, you know uncle is going t' be givin' him his strongest herbs t' keep that pain at bay."

Carefully stepping over the little wall of coins Will had built around himself, Baylee moved to sit on the edge of his bed. "I hope it doesn't come down t' that."

"Me, too. We've gone eight years without any o' us gettin' seriously hurt an' now da' and auntie both get themselves bad injuries." He pointed a finger up at her, shaking it warningly. "Don't you dare follow in their footsteps while you're gone, young lady, or I'll have t' have some very stern words with you upon your return."

She blinked, a bit taken aback by his sudden sternness, but she soon let out a laugh and lightly batted his hand away. "You have no idea how much like papa you looked an' sounded just now," she told him. "But don't worry. I have no plans t' do anything that would warrant me gettin' injured." A small sigh then left her mouth as she flopped backwards, her arms outspread and her eyes closed. "Even if I did, though, Rán won't be lettin' that happen."

"I did hear that he'd be goin' with you lot down t' Laketown." Bringing his knees up, he rested his arms on them. "That's goin' t' be awkward, I'm sure, given your current situation."

"It will be, but I've already decided that I'll break the news t' him when we're in Laketown. After all, I would have spent far more time with him than with Bofur by that point."

"I would have thought that you had spent more time with him durin' all those lunches he requested you share with him a week or two ago." He chuckled, glancing over his shoulder when Baylee blew a raspberry. "I'm so glad I don't have t' worry about chosin' between two different women. I don't know how I'd deal with that—I wouldn't want t' break either of their hearts."

"Well, it's not any easier when it comes to males." She sighed, opening her eyes to stare up at the ceiling. "To be honest, I never, ever expected t' be in this sort o' situation. I'm not exactly the kind o' lass that catches people's attentions."

He quietly laughed. "To be honest, I think Bofur had fallen for you the moment he first heard you laugh. As for Rán…? Not sure. But he certainly did seem smitten right away, didn't he?"

"He did. Which is even odder."

"Maybe he has a thing for freckles?" he joked. "You've a plethora o' them, after all."

She pursed her lips and used her leg to lightly bump his shoulder. "You're not funny."

"You're my big sister—you're not supposed t' find me funny." He snorted when he felt a pillow smack against the top of his head. "Alright, alright, I'll stop," he chuckled. Shaking his head, he glanced up and over his shoulder at her. "Any particular reason you came in here, by the way? Or did you just want t' see if I was sleepin' on my floor, surrounded by money like a dragon?"

Pushing herself upright, Baylee let out a soft sigh. "No. I came in here because I needed t' give you something."

His brow rose. "Give me something?" he repeated. "What in the world would you have that you need t' give—" He was suddenly cut off as Baylee pulled a coin purse from the pocket of her dress. "Baylee. No."

"It's your early birthday present," she told him, voice firm. She dropped it down onto his lap. "You can't not accept a birthday present from your big sister."

"Aye, I can an' I will!" Picking it up, he felt that it was quite heavy with coin—far more than he expected his sister to have. "'Lee, these are your savings—"

"Which means that I'm free t' do as I please with them. What I please t' do with them happens t' be givin' them t' you. An' it's not like I gave you every bit o' coin I have saved up. I kept some for myself."

He closed his eyes, letting out a small sigh that was both frustrated and defeated. "How much is in here?"

"The equivalent o' one hundred two ducats."

His eyes shot open and, just as he was about to scold her, she pointed a stern finger and waved it at him.

"Don't you dare try t' tell me I'm crazy, William Braddock," she warned him. "Aye, it's a lot, but that's because I don't use it. I've had some o' those coins literally since we first opened the inn. At least this way, they'll be put t' good use an' not just sittin' in my trunk." A soft sigh then left her mouth and her expression softened a bit. "Will, I know how much you want t' be able t' get that house an' fix it up for the two o' you an', after havin' t' hide your love for so long an' everything's that's gone on recently with Mannus…you two deserve t' have the house o' your dreams. Even if it still needs a wee bit o' elbow grease an' love put into it."

Will's brows remained furrowed as he listened to his sister. Looking down at the coin purse, he let out another sigh; he could feel his eyes beginning to sting. He knew his sister was generous, but he didn't think she'd ever be this generous and to him of all people! "You know I'm not goin' t' let you get away with this, aye? I'm goin' t' repay you in some form someday."

"So long as that money gets put t' good use, that's fine with me," she said with a small smile. "For now, though, it's time for me t' go t' bed." She tucked a bit of hair behind her ear before moving to slide off the bed. Before she could step over the line of coins, however, Will reached up and grabbed her wrist, stopping her.

"Thank you, Baylee," he said, looking up at her. "You have no idea how much this means t' me."

"O' course I know how much it means t' you," she chuckled, her brow rising, "otherwise I wouldn't have done it." Reaching over, she tousled his hair. "You should get some sleep, too, lad. In a week or so, you won't be able t' sleep in like you can now."

He quietly laughed. "Aye, that's true…I just hope no one expects me t' start makin' bread first thing in the morning. Or at all, for that matter."

"If I come back from Laketown an' hear you nearly smoked out the inn because you attempted t' make bread an' forgot about it while it was bakin', I'm not goin' t' let you live that down."

"Then it's a damn good thing that that's not happening," he snorted. He watched his sister step over the coins as she made her way to the door. "G'night, 'Lee. Sleep well."

She smiled at him from over her shoulder. "I hope you sleep well, too, Will."