A gust of wind cast Dinmir's shawl about like a flag. The last bite of blueberry muffin almost slipped from her hand as she grasped for the flailing edge, but she shook off the sudden chill and denied the wind a second chance to steal her coveted morsel. Fighting a childish urge to tell the wind "take that", she chose instead to hum a tune and continue her stroll along the paths of Imladris: paths with which she was reacquainting herself after what felt like too long in Lindon.
Returning to Imladris was an unexpected turn of events, but the tailor she was apprenticed to had decided to spend some time in the shadow of the Hithaeglir, and her choices were to relocate as well or to find a new mentor. Aldawë decided that was good enough reason to come along, and so now they both dwelt in Imladris once again, though most of their friends were gone. Most, but she was thankful not all. Farothel and Auros remained, and Curulin and Malril... and Arandil.
Farothel was as adorable as ever; still not too old to have his hair ruffled, if he ever could be. He'd been so excited to see them again, he didn't leave much news for Auros to share. All the poor fellow could do was nod in agreement while every noteworthy incident poured out of Farothel. It came as quite a shock that the little boy who wouldn't go down to the river without Auros was now contesting him for the last slice of cake. What's more, Auros expected him to! She was so surprised she'd almost missed her own chance at it.
Passing Lord Elrond's kitchens along her stroll reminded her of one of Farothel's favorite stories: how he was hauled to those very kitchens last year. Farothel wasn't quite sure what he did, but one day a dish he'd prepared went missing, and the next, one of Lord Elrond's chefs was waving the plate in his face telling him that "for what he's done" he's going to spend a week cooking in his kitchen. The master chefs watched his every move, correcting him when necessary, instructing him when opportunity arose. Farothel loved to talk about it since that incident ended with an apprenticeship, but he didn't seem too curious about how the plate got into their hands. Dinmir, on the other hand, couldn't overlook such details, and she would be lying if she didn't admit the mystery gnawed at her a little bit. Ok, a lot. Perhaps she was still too curious, but that wasn't something likely to change.
As she ambled past the training grounds Auros came to mind. There were no surprises from him after all these years. Of course he'd spent most of his free time honing his swordsmanship. He'd won a couple of tournaments that he'd been reluctant to tell her about. That was likely her own fault. Instead he'd tried to "regale" her with "stories" of the histories he'd read and the subjects he'd studied since she left: mostly things she'd read herself and held no great enthusiasm for, at least not enough to hear it told secondhand.
It took no effort on Dinmir's part to recognize none of those subjects garnered any passion with him, they were merely things he "needed to know." What he did care about was that she had been disinterested in matters of combat in the past; that she was more concerned with him or Aldawë, or even Farothel, getting hurt than with the "why" of it. "Unenthusiastic" was probably too mild to describe how she'd been, and so when she asked what he'd been up to, it was no more to him than a matter of not boring her with things she had no desire to hear about. In her youth she had thought she understood why his martial prowess was so important to him, but time had refined that understanding, and it made Dinmir wish she could unsay a few things. When at last she had pried from Auros the details about the tournaments, she could tell he was proud of those victories, and she found she was much happier hearing even one of those stories than about his entire bookcase.
A clearing came into view, and as she remembered standing amidst the trees receiving an invitation to a snowball fight, her thoughts drifted to Arandil. He's just as funny, when he remembers he's funny. He seems so tense most of the time. If I hadn't just missed winter, I would've thrown another snowball at him and told him to lighten up. Maybe that wouldn't be ladylike, but it'd be fun. Besides, it's Arandil, not some complete stranger. Perhaps Auros knows what's troubling him. Maybe I should ask.
The faint song floating on the wind meant Dinmir drew closer to the musicians' hall. Contemplation of a second muffin had crept into the back of her mind, but that, along with everything she had just been musing over, was driven out by an "Aaaah!" blasted from further up the path. The yell had a musical quality to it, as if someone were startled in the middle of a song. Curiosity and concern pulled her towards the call, and she arrived just in time to see Curulin pleading his case with one of the choral directors.
A tree offered Dinmir cover as the tragedy befalling Curulin played out before her. Her heart raced. Concern she would be discovered lingered with her. There was nothing she could do as she watched in dismay. She hadn't seen whatever happened. What could Curulin possibly have done? He's been wanting to join the choir since before Aldawë and I left. There's no way he would risk getting in trouble when even the thought of auditioning makes him nervous.
"It wasn't me! I mean it was, but ---"
The director dismissed Curulin's appeals. "I don't see anyone out here but you. If you want to belt out notes, you can do it in there. We needed one more for a quartet and you'll do quite nicely. The recital is next month. You're going to have a lot of work ahead of you, but don't worry, we'll make sure you're prepared." Amidst his protests Curulin was ushered inside. The director glanced around as if looking for something, and as he too disappeared through the doorway, Dinmir caught the hint of a smirk.
Peace returned as the door closed. Not long after, Dinmir heard the muffled sound of four voices singing, one of them belonging to Curulin. Just as she thought it safe to breathe a sigh of relief and resume her journey, Auros jumped down from a tree with an enormous grin. Strolling her way, he began to hum a tune; the same tune fighting its way through the walls of the musicians' hall. Auros. Humming. She pressed herself closer to the tree. The humming ceased as he passed her.
"You can come out, Dinmir." One would think what just happened to Curulin might warrant some concern, but Auros might as well have been asking her to pass the potatoes at dinner.
Dinmir jumped out from behind the tree. "How do you do that?"
"I pay attention. What brings you this way?"
Dinmir fought the urge to cross her arms. "I was going for a stroll before we all get together tonight. I was minding my own business ---"
"Eating a blueberry muffin."
"How do you ---" She wiped her mouth.
"No, you don't have blueberry on your face."
"Well I'm glad you would warn me."
"You were saying?"
"I was walking along the path --- eating a blueberry muffin --- when I saw Curulin dragged into the musician's hall and you jumping out of a tree with a smile bigger than the moon! Since when are you such a scoundrel, pulling pranks on your friends? Have Aldawë and I been gone so long that you're no longer the Auros we knew?"
Auros didn't turn around. "I have no idea what you're referring to." His voice sounded more guiltless than he had a right to.
"You were gloating! You're glad he was taken inside! You set up one of your friends and you're proud of it!"
That accusation made Auros turn around, a grin etched across his face; though a grin that was still very much the Auros she remembered. "I suppose it sounds bad when you say it like that."
Dinmir clasped her hands, resisting every urge to put them on her hips. "I can't believe you can smile about it. I thought I knew you better! I'm beginning to think it was you that got Farothel hauled to the kitchens of Lord Elrond for a week! You know how much cooking he had to do because of that? Your own cousin! How was he supposed to make a good impression with the master chefs when they all think he's a troublemaker? He's lucky they made him cook rather than scrub pots! If he hadn't shown such promise, he would've never got that apprenticeship!"
Auros' grin turned sinister.
Dinmir gawked at what had to be a strange creature that stood before her in Auros' likeness. "I'm surprised at you! Never did I think you were so... so... devious! What --- what about Maikalkar and the stonemasons? Are the stories as simple as they appear, or was there some deeper mischief? Did you have some greater scheme that was foiled? What would you have done if he hadn't shown so much pro...mise..."
The grin faded from Auros as Dinmir put the pieces together. With her admonishment no longer amusing him, he had no reason not to go on his way. She had to catch up before he could get too far ahead.
"This was all just to get them apprenticeships? Why go through all this?"
Auros kept facing forward. His bearing exuded nonchalance, but a moment of hesitation showed he was choosing his words. "If I were to acknowledge culpability in any of these occurrences you speak of, I'd say they needed a nudge."
"But... a prank? Won't they be mad?"
Auros' stride slowed. "A prank." The words came out as if he were measuring them. "I'm no good at pranks. I don't have Aldawë's or Arandil's temperaments. Someone might take it more seriously than it's meant. Or worse, we could end up trading pranks back and forth until one of us goes too far. I don't want to be mad at my friends, and I don't want them to be mad at me, not for something as foolish as a joke." A grin formed. "Not when there are much better reasons to be mad at me."
Now he was teasing her about how she reacted. Dinmir chose to ignore it, though maybe she deserved it. Maybe. She should've gathered more evidence first, but this was Auros, and he was being so... not Auros, or so she had thought. "What if they find out?"
"If, like you, they determine I've pulled a prank on them? They'll probably find a prank for me, but they'll forgive me. In the best case, they'll think it backfired, giving them the chance they really wanted... and they still might find a prank for me. Either way it'll keep me on my toes." Auros took a resigned breath. "Anyway, it's their own skill that got them what they wanted. I just... facilitated an opportunity." He looked at Dinmir from the side of his eye. "If I were acknowledging any culpability, of course."
"Of course." She couldn't help but be amazed Auros could make such a nondenial with a straight face. Silence fell as they continued down the path to wherever it was Auros was going. She hadn't thought much about it as she caught up with him, and since they were taking the paths she'd intended anyway, that gave her more time to puzzle about Curulin's predicament. Not predicament, opportunity. "He didn't seem too angry."
"The choral director. He smirked as he went back inside. In fact, he never actually said Curulin was in trouble."
"Hmm." Auros was making a point not to look at her.
"Come to think of it, from Farothel's description, the chefs didn't really seem to say anything about him being in trouble either. 'For what you've done' can be taken different ways, depending on how they said it. They could just as well have been rewarding him."
"If I'd seen the prank on Maikalkar, would I have seen the same thing?"
"See, there you go again assuming I had anything to do with it."
Dinmir studied Auros again. "You didn't really get him in any trouble, did you? There was no one to get him in trouble with."
"What are you implying?"
Dinmir's eyes narrowed as she glared at Auros. "I think you know full well what I'm implying."
As hard as Auros tried to look and sound bored, when he turned to Dinmir she could see the amused half-smile that was fighting to assert itself. "Dinmir, if I'm not admitting involvement in these happenstances you've noticed, surely you don't expect me to admit to any accomplices."
She turned her head to hide the smirk. Come to think of it, Auros never actually called it a prank, he let my mind run wild with my own assumptions. So much for "no surprises from Auros".
Dinmir's mood had been cooling since their encounter at the musician's hall, and it was a long walk through Imladris, so as the most recent mysteries were resolved, everything she'd been musing about prior began to reassert itself. Auros must have noticed her pensiveness as her last thoughts slid into place.
"Is something wrong?"
"No, not really. Actually, is all well with Arandil?"
"Why wouldn't it be?"
The ground in front of Dinmir became very interesting to her. "I can't help but notice the dour expression he seems to be wearing every time I see him, like he's trying to be more you than you."
The comparison earned a chuckle from Auros. "I suppose that's one way of putting it."
"And it's such a shame."
"Thanks." Another chuckle from Auros.
"I don't mean it like that and you know it. It's just, he didn't used to be so dour, and it almost seems like he's not really, at least not in his heart. It just takes him a while to relax and be himself: that charming, amusing fellow I remember."
She could feel Auros studying her without even looking in her direction. It made a ripple of annoyance rise up, and that found its way into her voice. "And amusing. I said both." Not that it should matter. "Anyway, he seems a bit off, and I can only think of a few reasons that may be the case. He doesn't have his eye on some fair maiden, does he?" Dinmir tugged on her sleeve.
"I can't talk about it."
"I won't ask you to talk about it then, but maybe I could help."
Dinmir had never heard Auros laugh so hard. The ripple of annoyance became a wave crashing upon the shore. The scowl came of its own accord. "I'll have you know I could be quite helpful. I could... put in a good word for him." The wave dissolved into disappointment, and that caught her by surprise.
Auros was grinning wider than he had any right to, but for some reason he was also doing everything he could to stop.
A new wave crested, crescendoing in the form of a huff. "And you should be putting in a good word for him too! She's bound to have a brother or something!"
"Sometimes you have such amazing insight. It's always the details you miss that catch me by surprise." As soon as he said it, the smile vanished.
Her curiosity and annoyance increased with that disappearance. "What's that supposed to mean?"
A hardened expression fixed itself on Auros. "I won't speak of it anymore."
The wave hadn't built intensity, but it hadn't melted back into the ocean yet either. "I suppose I shouldn't ask Arandil, if he's sworn you to secrecy." When Auros said nothing, Dinmir knew she wasn't going to wriggle more information out of him. Never mind that he's said practically nothing. In the silence her mind, of its own accord, drifted to Arandil's amusing, charming antics.
Auros looked up at the sky, seeming to weigh something in his mind before speaking. "We have a little more time before we're all supposed to be getting together. Was there anything you needed to do first, or would you like to help me with a task?"
"I suppose I'm about as ready for tonight as I can be." Dinmir got a mischievous urge, one she couldn't keep from showing on her face. "Facilitating another opportunity?"
Auros grinned back. "Something like that."
"This one's got to be good."
"Just you wait."
Dinmir had to admit to herself that, after coming to understand what Auros was doing, she was actually excited to be in on one of his "pranks". I wonder who it's going to be this time. Malril? Arandil? Maybe someone else altogether? What does he have planned? A more sensible thought attempted to combat her musings. I hope this isn't how he spends all of his free days.
As Farothel's home came into sight Dinmir spotted Arandil sitting in a chair on the porch. The moment he saw her, that dour expression settled in.
Auros waved. "Arandil! Just in time."
"Just in time? I'm here early to let you know Curulin ran into some sort of misunderstanding near the musician's hall and he's going to be very late."
"And Malril is busy with family. I suppose we're going to have to settle for five." A grin Auros couldn't hold back took over. "I imagine next time we see Curulin, he'll be singing a different tune."
Dinmir shook her head. If only Arandil knew... She caught herself preening her hair before she forced her hands back down. Bah. You could've given me some warning, Sir Knight! She put on her best smile. "Good day, Arandil."
Arandil reflected her smile back as he rose to meet them. "Good day, Dinmir. I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"
"Not at all. We were just discussing recent pastimes."
The grin pushing its way through the one Arandil had put on meant he'd slipped closer to ease and was about to make some jest or teasing remark. "Is that so? I can't imagine Auros had much to talk about. All he does lately is combat and blacksmithing. Pots and pans, halberds and helmets."
Auros scowled. "I'll have you know I've also been playing the lute."
Arandil gave a low, flourishing bow. "Oh, my apologies. So we'll add lutes and lyrics to the list."
"Auros has been singing?!" Dinmir's eyes widened.
"I have not been singing."
"Oh, you haven't been? Then we should take you!" After Auros had had so much fun at her expense, Dinmir relished the chance to tease him a little.
Auros stood straighter but he couldn't deny Dinmir's teasing amused him. "Well, now that I'm surrounded, I think it's time for a tactical retreat. You two go ahead. Perhaps Dinmir can tell you how her apprenticeship is going. You know, Arandil, she made that shawl she's wearing. Farothel is already inside. If you get bored, he has my lute. You know Dinmir, Arandil is much better with a lute than I am. Just don't let Farothel forget about the cobbler this time. He needs to keep his skills sharp!"
Flecks of uncertainty flashed in Arandil's eyes as he glanced at Dinmir, then back at Auros. "Where are you going?"
Auros had one of those "I'm not telling" grins of his. "To figure out how to put in a good word. Don't worry. I'll be back with Aldawë."
There went Auros teasing again. He was twenty paces down the path before Dinmir realized she'd almost forgotten why she'd come this far with him in the first place. "What about that task you wanted my help with?"
"You are helping." Off he went.
Dinmir wanted to huff, but with Arandil standing right next to her now she fought the urge. Well now I'm curious as to how exactly I'm helping. She glanced over to Arandil. He is rather charming, isn't he?
Dinmir felt her cheeks tinge pink, so she put on her best smile over her embarrassment. "Well, with Auros trotting off who-knows-where, that leaves you to escort me inside."
Arandil drew himself up and put on a serious face, but not the dour expression he bore before. This one was playfully chivalrous. "I suppose it does at that." He offered Dinmir his arm. "Shall we? Your shawl does look lovely, by the way."
Dinmir took his arm. "Thank you and gladly. Perhaps Farothel will let you borrow Auros' lute. I'd love to hear you play."