Thanks to Catching Fireflies for Beta-ing.
"Merry and Pippin in the middle boat were ill at ease,
for Boromir sat muttering to himself,
sometimes biting his nails,
as if some restlessness or doubt consumed him,
sometimes seizing a paddle and driving the boat close behind Aragorn's.
Then Pippin, who sat in the bow looking back,
caught a queer gleam in his eye,
as he peered forward gazing at Frodo."
-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Every time his teeth clamped down on his filthy nails, Boromir felt like he was degrading himself, but he could not stop. Nail-biting was one of his worst habits, one that Denethor had tried to make him cease. After all, it was an extremely undignified thing to do. When Boromir was with his father or in formal company, he would resist the urge to nibble at his fingernails. Occasionally, he had to keep from doing so by sitting on his hands. Only when he could not do that, he bit his nails in public. When he was alone, the son of Denethor would tear at his nails like they were meat. It got worse when he was anxious or upset, he had noticed.
So as he drifted down the Anduin, Boromir bit his nails like there was no tomorrow. His sharp teeth tore at them, and he occasionally spat out the ends of his nails into the bottom of the boat. He sensed that eyes were upon him, and his skin crawled in discomfort. Boromir felt like he did when he was a little boy, and he was caught doing something wrong. But no longer was he a small child: now he was a broad-shouldered Gondorian man, a warrior.
Ah, but what kind of warrior deserves to be so weary in body, but most of all in soul?
Boromir flinched so badly at the sudden voice that he bit his finger. His hands grappled wildly for his gauntlets, and he pulled them back on. Then he grabbed the oars of the boat for something to hold onto. "No warrior deserves this agony," Boromir agreed softly. He kept his metal guard up, despite the reassurance of the voice. He was quite familiar with the voice of the Ring, and knew how tempting it could be.
Especially not you, Boromir son of Denethor. Your mind is troubled. Why do you hide from a friend?
"A friend?" Boromir asked quietly, rowing the Elven-boat down the Anduin steadily. His arm muscles ached, and he could not help but remember how it was back in Gondor, when he ached so. Faramir would smile and ask him if he needed a back-rub. Boromir would insist he was fine, but eventually, he'd relent. His younger brother would rub Boromir's tense muscles with sure fingers until Boromir felt no pain in his body. How he missed Faramir and his kind heart!
Yes, Boromir... I am your friend, the Ring's voice confirmed. A smile crept over Boromir's chapped lips at the thought of a friend in this terrible darkness. That's it, Boromir... said the voice, and Boromir felt all reason and free thoughts draining out of his mind. Do not hide any longer.
The Gondorian leaned forward, looking at the boat in which Frodo the Ringbearer and Aragorn son of Arathorn sat. Suddenly, all he wanted was a glimpse of the Ring. Just one glimpse of that lovely gold would do! Boromir felt as if he needed to see it.
And then the Ring peeked out from behind Frodo's cloak, as if seeking the sight of Boromir's eyes as much as they were seeking the sight of it. Its stunning golden luster penetrated Boromir's heart, and his eyes narrowed in apparent appreciation. The sight of the Ring itself was intoxicating to him. The man drove his boat so close to where Frodo was that if he reached out his arm, he could snatch the Ring.
Go on, Boromir! Take what deserves to be yours! the Ring whispered. Boromir felt his hand reach out-
Suddenly, he heard a small voice. "Boromir!" said the voice insistently. "You have nearly fallen into the Great River!" With a jolt, Boromir reeled in his arm and slowed his vigorous oaring some.
In front of him, in the bow of the boat, he saw Peregrin Took looking at him with concern in his eyes. "Your eyes are troubling, if I may say so, Boromir," Pippin continued. "It was rather strange. You just about dumped us three into the Anduin!"
Boromir felt anger build up in his very veins. How dare that hobbit say he appeared troubling! With a swift motion, Boromir reached out to give the halfling such a smack that he might never again say such lies.
But before his calloused hand could hit Pippin's face, the boat that bore the Ring and its Bearer floated away. It was if a haze was cleared from Boromir's mind; his hand froze, and his grey eyes widened.
"Don't you dare hit my cousin!" another hobbit-voice cried. Boromir turned to see Merry behind him, staring at the man in shock, fear, and disapproval.
Boromir found himself choking on his own words. "I- I assure you, I- no mind to-" he stammered. He nearly took his fingernails into his mouth again. The man felt like he had swallowed a rock, and realized he was close to tears. Feeling rather foolish, he passed a hand over his eyes quickly and roughly. He stared at the hand for a while. The hand he had nearly hit one of the little hobbits with, the hand that had nearly taken the Ring, the hand that was stained with blood, sweat, and tears...
"Begging your pardon," said Pippin nervously, "but you did have a mind to hit me. I could see it in your eyes. You weren't yourself, Boromir, that was what scared me. And you kept whispering something."
The man felt ashamed and guilty. "What did I say, small one?" he asked in a light tone, looking into Pippin's frightened eyes.
"Well," Pippin said, his brow furrowed. "I don't exactly know, but it sounded like this:" -here Pip took a breath- "Ash nazg, ash nazg, ash nazg, ash naz-"
There was a sudden shout from Frodo's boat. Aragorn, who had been oaring the Elvish craft, spun around, panic in his eyes. "Peregrin!" he said sternly. "There is no place, save Mordor, for the Black Speech!"
Beside Aragorn, Frodo's eyes were wide, and he turned too, to look at Boromir's boat. The man kept his head down and focused on rowing.
"But- I didn't-" Pippin stuttered, shrinking at the sight of the Ranger. He, too, hung his head. "I mean... I apologize, Aragorn. I didn't know what it meant."
"And it is good you do not!" Aragorn said, but with less anger in his voice. He sighed. "It translates to 'one Ring' in Westron. I do not know where you have picked up the tongue of Mordor, and I do not wish to... but keep it to yourself." The heir of Isildur turned back around. Frodo stared at the middle boat for a few seconds, particularly focusing on Boromir. Boromir set his jaw and furiously rowed the boat. Frodo looked away.
When the little Ringbearer's eyes were not on him, Boromir exhaled nervously. "I hope you realize, small ones," he said to his boat-companions, "that I would never hurt you. I do not know what came over me, or why I was whispering that. I am sorry to have unsettled you. You have my apologies." He bowed his head to the two hobbits as he rowed. "Pippin, I did not intend to get you into trouble either, or hit you. Forgive me."
Pippin still looked frightened as he said, "I do, Lord Boromir." The Gondorian startled at the use of his title, for Pippin had not used it since they had first met. It made Boromir ill in mind to think that the bond between him and the kind little Shire-ling was breaking.
"I thank you," said Boromir. He felt like shouting at someone, namely himself. His mind felt muddled and corrupted, and most of all weak. With shame, he felt tears in his eyes.
The Gondorian took a shuddering gasp of a breath, and, feeling Pippin's curious eyes on him, tore off his gauntlets, exposing his tired, light-skinned hands. There was almost, he noticed with a bit of embarrassment, no fingernail left to bite. There was question in Pippin's eyes, but he did not voice it, and Boromir did not answer. Instead, the man dipped him bare hands into the Anduin, cupping them to collect water. When he had a good handful of it, Boromir raised his hands and dumped the water over his head.
It was extremely cold, and Boromir shivered as the icy liquid trickled down his scalp, down his forehead, and down his shirt. Some water made its way into his mouth, and he swallowed it. A trail of cold went down his throat, and he shuddered at the feel of it. Wiping his hands off on his pants, Boromir pulled his gauntlets back on. He began to oar the boat again.
"What was the purpose of that, Boromir?" asked Merry from behind him. "To give yourself pneumonia?"
"No," Boromir said simply. "I merely wished to cleanse my mind. Have you ever dunked your head underwater, or been woken with a jug of ice water to your head? It clears a man's mind."
"I haven't, Boromir," said Merry earnestly. "Is your mind cleared?" There was concern in his eyes, and Boromir felt a pang in his chest. Was Merry concerned for his own self and the rest of the Fellowship? Did he think Boromir a danger? The guilty man felt his mouth droop down in hurt. But after all, he had just nearly hit Pippin across the face- and with a closed fist. And it was not his own will that made him do so...
"I suppose it is, Meriadoc," said Boromir, attempting a smile. He knew his face must look a bit twisted; sad eyes and a smile never match.
"Oh, that's good," said Merry, relieved. "When you were muttering to yourself, I was saying to Pippin how you looked a bit ill. I know from experience how terrible it is to be water-sick, and I didn't wish that on you." Evidently not worrying about Boromir's odd face, he smiled back at the man.
Boromir felt a rush of relief. So the two young hobbits didn't hate him! They didn't think he was a danger to the Fellowship! He felt like dancing, only he had no knowledge of such foolish things. It was fighting, commanding, and sparring, as soon as he was able. As most of the children of Minas Tirith ran around the city, playing games, the Steward's eldest son would be lifting a sword for morning practice. Boromir shook his head once to rid himself of unpleasant thoughts.
"Thank you, Merry," he said, another smile on his face as he saw the hobbit's grin. "Did I ever tell you of how I would get water-sick on this very river, when I was younger, on a boat with my father, the Steward?"
"No!" Merry and Pippin chorused from the front and back of the boat. Boromir laughed.
"Well, one day, Denethor and I were drifting down the Anduin..." he started. As he told of his experience (a short tale that involved a river-boat, an extremely water-sick teenage Steward-son, an absence of anything to vomit in, and an angry Steward with vomit all over his new black robes) the halflings were laughing, and Boromir chortled as he talked.
But in the back of his mind, Boromir saw only one thing: a small golden ring, around a simple chain on a halfling's neck.
Boromir ended his recounting of his water-sickness abruptly as his boat drifted too close to Aragorn and Frodo's. The Ring was whispering into his mind: The waters of the Anduin clear your mind, true, Boromir son of Denethor. But do you know what clears your mind most of all? I shall tell you: myself.