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[personal profile] seikilos
Title: Walking Out
Fandom: The Hobbit
Genre: Romance
Rating & Warnings: PG
Words: 4338 this chapter; 20 409 overall.
Disclaimer: I don't own The Hobbit.
Summary: Sequel to Out of Step. A few weeks after discovering Thranduil's feelings for him, Bard still does not know whether he wishes to court him. After all, they have rarely spoken outside the meeting room--do they truly know each other?
Author's Notes: And here we are: the next part of the series formerly named The Healing of the Northern Kingdoms and now called Sharing the Path, because I finally found a naming scheme I like.

This follows "Out of Step" directly, so if you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend doing so before continuing here.

A huge thank you to philosothor and bmouse for their respective amazing lore and plot/reading mechanics betas, and to dreamingfifi of RealElvish.net for translating into proper Sindarin what I was aiming for with a certain Elvish name. You three are the best!

I hope everyone enjoys, and Happy Barduil Week! <3

(1)


Bard was well aware he was earning his share of odd looks that morning. He had been noting them from the corner of his eye since he had sat down at the meeting table before the most recent talks between representatives of the three northern kingdoms. They came from all corners: dwarves, elves, and his own councillors alike. But instead of paying those looks any heed, he ignored them and instead bent his jumping mind to the task of reviewing the information that was to be discussed.

When, moments later, he went as tense as a bowstring at the sound of the door opening, only to discover the newcomer was no more fearsome a figure than Balin, those looks became markedly more difficult to avoid.

It was small wonder Bard was on edge today: it was the first he would see Thranduil since he had visited his halls, and he was still no closer to having an answer for him than when he had first departed.

He had thought often, in the weeks that had passed since that day, of how he should respond to Thranduil's declaration. In their correspondence since, Thranduil had not pressed him or given the slightest indication that he had shown his heart so dramatically. Bard was grateful, of course he was, but at the same time, it lent those two days in the Woodland Realm the unreality of a tale.

It could have been tempting to postpone this meeting until he was more sure of his own heart, but of course he would not. It was vital that communication between the realms remained constant and clear. They had all only barely survived when it had not been so. He could not allow his emotions to interfere.

Naturally, it was the very moment that he had been able to quiet his thoughts and focus on his work that the elves arrived. As they flowed silently into the meeting room, Thranduil at their head, the absurdity of mistaking Balin's arrival for theirs became still clearer.

Bard swallowed and attempted to will his heart back into its place. It seemed it was now far more difficult to thrust aside his awareness of Thranduil and his inhuman beauty. He had learned well how to do so in those first days after the Battle of the Five Armies, when he had worked closely with Thranduil to prevent the people of Lake-town's starvation over the winter. He had also sternly told himself then that any longings were foolish ones, and he had moved on.

He met Thranduil's eyes. Thranduil's expression warmed just enough for him alone to notice and Bard's gaze flicked away, then back. Now that he knew his longings were not so foolish, he was quickly forgetting all he had learned.

"I am still thinking," Bard said to him before anything else. He was not so cruel as to allow Thranduil to sit in false hope.

Thranduil bowed, only enough to be an acknowledgement. "Of course."

He went to seat himself at the end of the table along with his council.

Unfortunately, Bard had happened to speak in a lull, for next came a voice that was deep and displeased.

"What are you thinking about?"

Bard looked to the opposite end of the meeting table where King Thorin was glowering at him.

"It is a personal matter," he replied evenly. "It is nothing you need trouble yourself with."

"There are no personal matters when it comes to the stability of our realms," Thorin retorted.

Bard took in a breath, searching for a response to placate him before Thranduil could speak, when, at Thorin's side, Bilbo spoke up.

"Leave him be, you nosy old dwarf!" he told the King Under the Mountain. "Haven't you learned by now that Bard can be trusted above all?"

Bard felt his face heat, though Thorin's response was soon a distraction from his discomfort.

"It is not Bard I mistrust, but the company he keeps."

"As we are all present, shall we begin the meeting?" Bard cut in, for he had seen Thranduil open his mouth and knew from long experience that nothing good would come of allowing him a response.

In spite of such a beginning, everyone soon settled and the business of re-greening the former Desolation was well discussed. Thranduil seemed to be on his best behaviour, though whether that was intended to impress him, done without thought, or was merely due to Thranduil being in a good mood, Bard could not tell. No matter the cause, it was a far easier meeting than he had expected, particularly with the good news each realm had to report of their own share of the project. It appeared there was reason to be optimistic, even this early in the season.

Nevertheless, when the day's meeting had concluded, Bard found himself well and truly drained. He was able to meet Thranduil's gaze in parting, but once the elves had left, he slumped forward and rubbed at his face.

Shortly thereafter, he felt a hand clamp onto his shoulder. "You look like a man in sore need of a drink."

A small smile touched his lips as he looked up at one of his chief councillors. "Thank you, Hilda, but I need only some fresh air."

"Suit yourself," Hilda replied and stepped back. "But if you change your mind, you know where we'll be."

She departed side-by-side with Lady Dís; laughter from both was carried back to him before the door closed behind them.

Bare moments later, another voice spoke up. "So, how long have you known about Thranduil's feelings for you?"

Bard's eyebrows lifted as the King Under the Mountain's consort climbed with difficulty into the Human-sized chair beside him. (He knew better than to offer aid or to retrieve the specially-made Hobbit-sized chair from farther down the table.)

"What makes you believe King Thranduil thinks of me as anything but a fellow leader?" he asked Bilbo once the other had settled himself.

Bilbo gave him the look he reserved for the obstinately obtuse. It tended to see great use at the meeting table. "Bard, I have use of my eyes. Anyone who cared to look could see he's been pining for you for months now."

If Bard had not already been seated, he would have needed to find a chair immediately. ". . . Months, you say."

"Oh yes. The better part of a year, in fact."

Bard took in a long breath to steady his pounding heart. It did not work. "Forgive me for saying so, Bilbo, but you must be mistaken."

Once again, he was treated to the same look. "I do happen to know what a king in love looks like. It's generally much easier to tell from the outside, granted, so I'm not surprised you've only just noticed."

Bard had not one idea what to say to that. Bilbo went on.

"I won't ask what you've said to each other, but if you need someone to talk with who has experience with proud and stubborn kings, I'd be happy to be of service." He smiled. "There aren't many of us around. I've been told it isn't an enviable position."

Even with an aching head and tangled thoughts, Bard could not help but faintly return his smile. "Thank you for your offer. It is a kind one."

Bilbo shook his head. Softer, he said, "Good luck, Bard."

Then he hopped down from the chair and left the room.

In the wake of that revelation, it took Bard some time before he could bring himself to move from his place. The idea of Thranduil longing after him for perhaps a year—longing, and not merely fancying him for a matter of weeks—was one his thoughts could only touch briefly before skimming away. It was far too large to approach head-on; he would need to ease toward the idea from the side were he to make any sense of it . . . and were he to keep a level head.

But not now. All at once, he gathered up his papers and stood, then departed with a long stride.

His notes were left in his study, and gladly. They would keep till the next day, when he could look at them with a fresh mind. In the meantime, he had a different sort of meeting awaiting him.

He had barely set foot outside his hall before a loud and cheerful voice called, "There you are! I'd begun to wonder if you'd lost your way."

Setting aside his cares was an easy task once he set eyes on who had hailed him: Kíli, who was standing hand in hand with the the former Captain of the Elvenking's guard, Tauriel. It was difficult to remain in poor humour in the company of that young couple.

"You've mistaken me for your uncle," he replied as he drew near. "But I apologise for making you wait."

He bowed once he came to a stop in front of Tauriel. He could not be remiss in showing his respect to the one who had saved the lives of all three of his children. She returned it, then shared her beautiful smile with him.

"There's no need for apologies," Kíli said; when Bard turned his attention back to him, he flopped a hand. "I've become well used to the all-consuming nature of paperwork."

"Even if you do none of it yourself," Tauriel teased.

"I do . . . some of it," Kíli protested. "When it's important."

"Then you must be entrusted with very little of importance indeed."

Bard stood back and let the couple continue their mock argument. Nearly three years on and they still behaved as if they were newlyweds—it made him smile to watch. Theirs had been a hard-won love and they deserved every happiness.

Soon enough, however, Tauriel recalled his existence and blushed a faint pink. "Forgive our manners, Bard. You must be wishing to return home."

He shook his head. "Simply standing outside is a relief after being shut away for hours, especially when I have such good company. Shall we visit the market? I see you have already seen some of it today," he added with a glance at the new, Human-fletched arrows in Tauriel's quiver.

The days Kíli was present at meetings of the three kingdoms, Tauriel would not attend with him, but would travel throughout Lake-town. While Thranduil's anger seemed to have cooled, judging from those few times Bard had brought up the subject of Tauriel's banishment, she understandably did not wish to provoke him with her presence.

Kíli and Tauriel shared a look; Kíli answered.

"Tomorrow. It's been too long since we visited your young ones—we'd rather see them first."

Bard smiled and started in the direction of home. "Now that decision, I cannot argue with."

*


As usual, he was thoroughly ignored by his children when the three of them arrived. They sought out embraces from Tauriel (having worn down her shyness long ago) and gentle forehead-knocks from Kíli before he was at last deigned worthy of attention. A heavy sigh and roll of the eyes earned a giggle from Tilda and smiles from the rest, and then he was well-loved by his children to make up for their neglect.

Tauriel and Kíli had been adopted by his children as a favoured aunt and uncle almost immediately after the Battle of the Five Armies. When they had both recovered sufficiently from their wounds and had come to see how the children had fared, Tilda had fastened on and Bain and Sigrid had been soon to follow. For them, now, there was no escape, and fortunately, neither seemed the least inclined to try.

"Tauriel, I've almost learned the new knife trick." Tilda released him and drew out the blunted practice knife Kíli had forged for her three years past.

"She also almost finished a lamp yesterday," Bain put in; Tilda showed her tongue.

"Children, be kind," Bard said, amused instead of chiding.

Tauriel bent down with a fond smile. "I would be happy to see it. Shall we clear away a space?"

Tilda had improved greatly since the last time even Bard had seen her, and so Tauriel's praise was both free and unfeigned. After that, Bain wanted to demonstrate his archery to both their guests, but it had grown dark, and so with a promise to watch before they returned to Erebor the following day, they instead sat down to the dinner the children had prepared.

The meal was a merry affair, as it always was, and after, they all returned to the main room. There, stories new and old were shared by all as Kíli sat on Tauriel's lap and smoked his pipe and Tilda cuddled against Tauriel's side.

When Tilda's head began to nod, Kíli hopped down so that Tauriel could carry Tilda to bed. The first time his youngest had fallen asleep upon Tauriel, Bard had apologised and had stepped in to gather Tilda into his arms. Tauriel had stopped him. She had cited her Elven strength as reason why she should be the one to take Tilda to bed; indeed she had lifted Tilda with far more ease than Bard could have, even were he a younger man. But the look upon Tauriel's face as she carried Tilda upstairs suggested that she had been making an excuse, not providing a reason. He had not stepped forward again after that.

Once Tilda was abed, he and Bain and Sigrid quietly finished their conversation with Kíli and Tauriel on the doorstep, then said their goodbyes. Bard watched the couple depart for their lodgings hand in hand, smiling faintly before stepping inside and closing the door.

His smile did not last. As Bain and Sigrid went to prepare for bed, he sat on the bench before the dying fire and at last returned his thoughts to what had become a well-worn path. But now, with a greater awareness of Thranduil's true feelings, that path had at once become far more treacherous.

He had tried several times over the past weeks to picture himself and Thranduil together as a courting couple and had failed every time. He had the pattern of a relationship between an elf and a mortal before him, albeit one much deeper than what he had assumed Thranduil wanted, but it had been no help. Even before Bilbo's talk, when he had tried to set Thranduil in the place of Tauriel and himself as Kíli, his mind had shied from the image. Now, the task had become still more daunting.

And yet he could not stop trying. He liked Thranduil, in spite of Thranduil's tendency toward superiority, and he was most certainly attracted to him. Surely that should have made his decision easier.

"Da?"

Bard looked up to see Sigrid standing in the doorway, still dressed in her day clothes but with her hair braided for sleep. "Yes, darling?"

"Aren't you coming to bed?"

"In a while."

Rather than leave, however, Sigrid joined him upon the bench. She leaned against him as Tilda had with Tauriel; he pulled her close with an arm around her waist.

"How was your meeting today?" she asked once they were settled.

"It went well. Better than I had been hoping, if I'm honest."

"And what of the Elvenking?"

He sighed. His children were the only ones with whom he had shared the truth of matters between himself and Thranduil. He was not in the habit of lying to them to spare himself embarrassment, and any changes he made to his life would affect them as well.

"I told him I had not yet decided," he replied. "We spoke no more of it after that."

"You should tell him no and be done. You've been so troubled for weeks now." She lifted her head from where it rested upon his shoulder. "Surely he'll understand."

. . . It seemed he had not been concealing his thoughts as well as he had hoped. "I don't know if I want to say no."

"Then say yes."

He chuckled quietly. "I don't know if I want to say yes, either."

Sigrid frowned. "Then what has you trapped?"

He didn't immediately answer. His daughter had cut to the core of his hesitations, and she deserved the best answer he could give.

". . . I do not know him well enough to be able to say yes or no," he said finally.

Sigrid's frown did not lift. "You've known him for three years. And Tauriel and Kíli barely knew each other before they began courting."

"As odd as it might sound for me to say this about them, they're both young. Sometimes romance is more difficult when you're old."

Sigrid gave him a single-armed hug. "Da, you're not old."

He laughed again, as softly as before. "Such a dutiful daughter you are."

But—he had found the trailing end of his snarled thoughts. He gave it a pull. "I know Thranduil only as a king, not as a person, and he knows me no better. I cannot court a king."

"Then you should get to know him as a person," Sigrid concluded for him, "and decide after."

Bard breathed out. As he did, he felt himself relax for the first time in weeks. He kissed the side of Sigrid's head. "What I have done to be gifted with such a wise daughter, I could not possibly say."

Sigrid looked at him, her expression at once serious. "You've done plenty, Da." A moment more and then she hugged him, with both arms this time, and stood. "Don't stay up too late."

"I won't," he promised. "Good night, love."

"Good night, Da."

He watched the embers in the fireplace for some time longer, but, mindful of his promise, he soon went to prepare for bed. Sleep came quickly, and was restful at last.

*


Morning found him in a far brighter mood than any he had seen in too long. He took extra time making breakfast for his children and it looked to him that their hearts were lighter as well. Sigrid, it seemed, had not been the only one to notice his preoccupation.

There was only the briefest of meetings to be conducted that morning, intended to finish what was left from the previous day. Then it would be time to bid farewell to the delegations from Erebor and the Woodland Realm, and breathe a sigh of relief that war had been averted once more (or so he hoped).

Bard walked the wooden pathways from his home to his hall with a loose stride, whistling. When he passed Ulmhild's food stall, the apple she tossed him and the coin he flipped crossed in midair and both of them neatly made their catches. He nodded to her as he bit into to his purchase and she grinned back.

Even the final meeting could have been far more painful. Bard kept matters moving along briskly, and in the end, they actually finished a few minutes ahead of what had been planned.

The company of the Dwarves were the first to depart. Bard exchanged solemn farewells with King Thorin, Lady Dís, and Lord Balin, shook Bilbo's hand, gave a bow to Tauriel, and shared a headknock with Kíli that fell just short of making his head ache. He sent his best wishes with them for Fíli—left to steward Erebor in their absence—and smiled as he watched their departure. Kíli and Tauriel would be travelling with their family for only a short distance, for they were to visit Lake-town's market and his children both before continuing the rest of the way to Erebor.

After the first group had left his sight, Bard did not turn to face the remaining envoy immediately. It was not until he took in and let out a breath, allowing his shoulders to drop, that he moved from his place.

He found Thranduil's eyes upon him once he did. That did not come as a surprise, and no longer were Thranduil's reasons for watching him a mystery. In spite of himself, his stomach jumped.

When he met Thranduil's gaze, he tilted his chin slightly to the left. Thranduil immediately turned to his council.

"Begin your journey. I will rejoin you later."

Without question, the delegation and the guards did as they were bidden. Bard did not wait until they were out of earshot (for they were elves and that would take far too long) before asking Thranduil, "Would you join me in my study?"

"I would be glad to."

They caught more than a few eyes as they moved through his halls: Thranduil drew attention effortlessly and all knew he was meant to have departed by now. Bard ignored the looks they were receiving and continued on without pause until they reached his study.

It was the first time he had invited Thranduil inside, and he could not help but wonder what the Elvenking thought of what he saw. The contrast with Thranduil's own halls was so great as to be nearly amusing. Here, everything was not ancient and beautiful but no more than three years recent, with the exception of a handful of singed books that had been salvaged from the ruins of Old Lake-town. Everything was constructed with the utmost practicality. Bard's "throne" was a wooden chair behind a desk covered in a disorder of paper; the old Master's heavily carved chair had burned, and good riddance to it. The only decoration of either desk or chair was in the form of a cushion Tilda had sewn from the fabric of an outgrown dress, for those days when being too long seated made his back ache.

Bard did not cross the room to sit but remained standing once he had closed the door behind them. Thranduil's gaze finished taking in his surroundings before coming to rest on him. The other remained silent, his head tilted the barest amount to one side.

"I've reached a decision," Bard said, and when he had sent those words out into the air, his heart began to drum against his ribs.

"I thought you might have," Thranduil murmured. The intimacy of his tone was not calming. "You seem far less burdened than the day before."

. . . Had he truly become so simple to read? He pushed the thought aside.

"And my decision is . . . that I cannot make a decision as matters stand now."

He had thought that would capture Thranduil's attention, and he had been right. Thranduil's brows drew together; the line between them was deep.

"I do not understand your meaning."

"We do not know each other," he answered, aware that to respond in this manner would surely draw Thranduil in further. "I cannot decide whether to begin a courtship with someone I do not know."

Thranduil's frown grew. "You are making little sense. What is it that has led you to believe we are not sufficiently acquainted?"

It was the question for which he had hoped. He lifted his chin slightly, beyond what was necessary to converse with someone so tall. "Tell me, Thranduil" —and he noted the flicker of eyelashes that accompanied the use of Thranduil's name— "what do I like to do when I am not working?"

Thranduil's response was swift. "You enjoy spending time with your children."

"That is a fair answer," he acknowledged, "but anyone in Lake-town could have given it. Name something else."

Again, Thranduil spoke promptly: "You enjoy practicing your skills with the bow."

"Another answer easily found when speaking with Bard the Bowman," he replied. "But while I do take some enjoyment from a well-aimed arrow, I practice archery above all to survive, as I have since I was a boy."

He waited. Thranduil remained silent.

When his gaze fell away, Bard went on. "I could no more answer that question about you than you can about me. I could make guesses, but that is all they would be—I would not be able to speak with any certainty.

"We know each other as leaders, and that is a start. But I cannot court someone's policies. I would—" Here, he faltered. He forced himself onward. "I would know your heart before I offer mine."

Thranduil's gaze lifted, but his voice was low when he spoke.

"What do you suggest?"

Bard breathed out. He had not been certain Thranduil would consent to listen to the end of his speech—although he supposed it would have made his choice simpler had he not.

"There is another way that we speak about courting in Lake-town," he said. "We call it 'walking out.' I would invite you to walk out with me when you are next in Lake-town. Visit the city with me and converse with me about matters unrelated to our realms. If, after a time, we discover that we like each other when we are not seated at a meeting table, then . . . perhaps we could begin walking out in a more traditional manner."

Thranduil did not respond at once. Bard watched his gaze go distant as he presumably considered the suggestion. He fought not to wipe his hands on his breeches as he waited.

"Very well," Thranduil said after a time. "Your words are wise and your proposal fair. I accept your conditions."

Relief relaxed his mouth into a smile. "In that case, I look forward to walking out with you."

Thranduil did not smile in return, but he inclined his head. "My people will be waiting for me. I doubt they will have gone far without me."

"Then I should keep you no longer." He opened the door for Thranduil. "Safe travels."

"Farewell," Thranduil said and departed.

Bard could not quite keep in a breath, though he knew Thranduil would hear. This second, far more private meeting had gone better than he had hoped. Now he would need to use the little time he had bought to discover precisely what walking out with the Elvenking would mean.
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