"If we travel to Mordor through Ithilien, we should turn east soon," said Boromir. "The river will carry us to Osgiliath and Minas Tirith - we should strike out overland before we reach Cair Andros."

"Do you have a goal in mind, Captain?" asked Aragorn archly, and Boromir ignored his tone.

"I do," he replied. "Faramir's men have an outpost hidden beneath a stream that runs down from the Ephel DĂșath."

Aragorn shot Boromir a skeptical glance. "And you think we can approach this undetected? How little faith you must have in your brother's Rangers."

Biting back a sharp response, Boromir said calmly, "I know we will not approach undetected, nor do I mean for us to. How should we request their help if we do not meet them?"

Legolas listened to the Men bicker back and forth, growing more annoyed with them than he liked, and found himself wishing irrationally for their previous tempers. At least then their arguments would come to a head and subside, and Legolas would have peace for a time. These constant petty squabbles were more wearing on his nerves than he would have believed possible, so when in the early evening they brought the boats to the shore, he took the opportunity to escape the irritation, slipping into the trees to scout their surroundings.

"Shall we hide the boats, or leave them to float downriver?" asked Boromir, gazing thoughtfully at the deep gouge left in the earth by Aragorn's boat where he had stumbled bringing it ashore. "We will not return by the river, if we return at all, and while I doubt we can hide the fact that we brought boats in here, if any are following, then pushing them back into the current might throw our pursuers off."

"Who would be following, Boromir?" asked Aragorn wearily. "We have had no sign of Orcs. Do you think Galadriel has sent assassins after us?" his tone chilly with sarcasm.

"Are you certain she will not have?" asked Boromir. "She will know by now that you bear the Ring; will she trust you with it, or will she send after you to seize it?"

Aragorn hesitated, then sighed, bringing his hand to his forehead. "Do as you see fit," he murmured at last. "I care not."

Boromir eyed Aragorn warily. This was not like the Ranger, and after a moment Boromir went to him, cupping Aragorn's chin in his hand and regarding him. Aragorn seemed to almost tremble under his touch, as did a man exhausted after battle, and his gaze was uncertain, angry and haunted, the gaze of an animal that has not yet decided whether to slip away into the shadows or to lunge.

Hoping he hid his sudden alarm, Boromir released him."You are unwell," he said, then with a firm gentleness he steered Aragorn towards the treeline and seated him on a patch of dry ground at the base of one of the tall pines.

Aragorn waved him away irritably and ineffectually. "I am well enough, Captain, you need not play nursemaid."

"Stay here," Boromir said, ignoring Aragorn's tone. "I will deal with the boats, and you will sit quietly and rest for a time."

Aragorn started to protest, but found he lacked the will, and instead watched Boromir as the broad-shouldered Gondorian finished unloading the boats, then weighted them with stones and pushed them back into the current of the river. When he returned, he extended his hand to Aragorn.

"We must move further from shore. I am going to build a small fire and brew some of that tea you like so well," he said. "With luck, Legolas will think to bring us meat for supper - you could use something more substantial than that Elvish waybread, as could I."

Once again Aragorn protested, but his voice was weak and once again Boromir ignored him, leaning down to take his hand and pulling him to his feet. Annoyed but compliant, Aragorn followed Boromir along the path Legolas had taken, coming soon to a small clearing well-hidden from the river, where Boromir settled the Ranger again at the base of a pine. And in truth, Aragorn was grateful for the chance to sit quietly, and to make no decisions, just for a little while. Unthinkingly he raised his hand to the Ring, his fingers touching the soft curve of it, and watched Boromir turn to set about the tasks he'd given himself.

As he walked back to the boats to gather their packs, Boromir tried to shake the feeling of Aragorn's eyes on him. It had been a trying day, so much of Boromir's energies turned towards not sparking the Ranger's anger, but the low flickering of irritability had been almost as difficult to bear as Aragorn's fury. Indeed, Boromir felt almost as weary now as if he had ridden hard for a day and a night, and he knelt a moment by the river, taking deep, slow breaths.

The sound of the water washed over him, and he let his mind drift, feeling the crush of the stones and sand beneath his knees, and the play of the breeze across his skin. "Ah, Aragorn," he whispered. "Who have you become? Who are you becoming? The king I did not know I wished for, or a creature of Shadow who will burn our people to ash?"

He raised his eyes to the glimmering water, then glanced back towards where he knew Aragorn waited, and he wondered at how weary, how drained the other man seemed. "Is this whence comes your illness," he murmured, "from the war between the Ring and your own heart? And if you took the battlefield, claimed the Ring, what then? Your war over, and ours, and to which end?"

Finally he shook himself slightly and stood. "King or conqueror," he said quietly, "I shall accept or challenge when the time comes, but 'tis of no use to sit here sighing over questions like a poet." With that, he set about erasing the marks of his activities from the shore.

When he finished, he regarded his work. He saw the signs of a short camp, of boats brought to shore, then loaded again and drawn back into the Anduin. "Well, it will not deceive a skilled tracker who looks to find we've left the river," he muttered, "but I've not my brother's skill, and it should pass a quick inspection by one who expects us to keep to the current." He considered how he might improve matters, but could think of nothing, and with a short sigh he muttered, "It shall have to serve," and turned back towards the clearing, careful to erase his steps as he went.

Aragorn had not moved by the time Boromir returned, and with eyes half-closed, he watched the swift, efficient movements of the man who would one day be his Steward as he went about the business of starting the fire and setting the water to heat. Aragorn's nerves felt coiled, ready to strike - had felt so since they had risen that morning, and had grown more tightly wound each time Boromir had questioned or refused him - but there was something satisfying in the way Boromir had turned his actions towards soothing Aragorn.

Or at least, towards seeming to. Aragorn's eyes narrowed as the thought flickered across his mind that this might be no more than a ploy.

Finally, Boromir joined Aragorn by the base of the tree, and once again cupped the other's chin in his hand, scrutinizing him closely, touching his forehead, then his cheeks, pressing the sides of his jaw and his throat, and touching his pulse thoughtfully for a time. Aragorn sat unresisting throughout the examination, which was neither rough nor particularly tender, and fought the impulse to laugh at Boromir's ministrations. The younger man clearly knew what he was about, but Aragorn could see only the grey-eyed child he remembered from some forty years earlier, serious and determined.

At length, Boromir released him. "You do not seem to be ill, exactly," he said, "but you are clearly unwell. How do you feel?"

"Tired," said Aragorn, leaning back and closing his eyes, his hand again coming thoughtlessly to the golden circle suspended on its silver chain. He stroked it absently, its warmth soothing to him, and some of the weariness seemed to leave him. "Though better than I had. I will be fine, little one," he murmured, and Boromir's breath caught. "But I thank you for your care."

Boromir shrugged, watching Aragorn, the words 'little one' ringing in his head like a blow. "You will be no help to any of us if you fall too ill to travel," he said quietly, and Aragorn smiled.

Neither spoke again until the water had boiled, the tea had steeped, and Boromir had handed Aragorn the warm cup.

Taking a cautious sip, Aragorn found the brew very close to how he would have made it himself. "Thank you, Captain," he said. "It is very good."

"I am glad if it meets your approval."

Aragorn glanced at him. "You are solicitous today," he said. "Is there something on your mind?"

Startled, Boromir frowned. "No more than has been," he replied. "Whatever our disagreements, if a comrade is unwell, one does what one can to help. Does one not?"

Raising an eyebrow, Aragorn nodded. "Yes, I suppose one does."

Boromir kept his expression carefully neutral, his gaze lighting only briefly on the place where Aragorn's hand touched the Ring. Boromir could feel it more strongly now than he had since Aragorn had first taken it from Frodo, though he did not know why. Was it their growing proximity to Mordor and to Minas Tirith that had caused its pull to return? the Ringbearer's sudden weakness?

Yet, at the same time that he felt the lure grow stronger, he also found it easier to resist, for though at times he wished for the Ring's destruction, and at times he wished for its use, at no time did he find that he wished to wrest it from the one who now carried it. The crackle of power that surged around Aragorn when he was angered was not lessened by the gentle kindness he showed when appeased, and though Boromir felt no greater trust for him than he had, he recognized strength when he met it. For all Aragorn was weary now, his was the power to rule the Ring, if it was anyone's. His was the power to destroy it, or to wield it. Boromir was certain of that, if of nothing else.

Aragorn's eyes were closed now, his breathing light and even. Boromir watched him as though he were a sleeping lion which might at any moment wake and lunge, but as he watched, he turned his mind to the possibilities before him.

When Legolas returned, he did indeed bring meat, and though it was tough, it was plentiful, and they all felt better having eaten.

And feeling somewhat better, Aragorn's temper revived.

"No, Boromir," he said, "I am not so weak as you seem to suppose, or," and he scowled at the other, "as perhaps you would wish me to be. I shall take my watch and you will do as I bid you."

Frowning, Boromir shook his head. "If you are ill, Aragorn, or fall ill," he began, but Aragorn cut him off.

"Why do you fight me at every turn?" he snapped. "Truly, Captain, if you are this recalcitrant when the Steward commands you it is little wonder he sent you to seek for the Elves, if only to be rid of a difficult son."

An icy chill spread through Boromir's veins and he gritted his teeth against a reply, for there was no reply he could make to that would not set blazing the spark of Aragorn's anger. It seemed the Ringbearer's mood had returned. Finally he murmured, "As you will, Aragorn."

Legolas took a breath. "That is settled, then," he said. "I shall take first watch, Boromir the second, and Aragorn last watch."

"No," said Aragorn. "I shall take second watch. Boromir shall take first, and you third."

"Estel," said Legolas softly, "Boromir's concern is not without cause. Would you not do better to take your rest uninterrupted?"

"Legolas, I have decided," Aragorn said sharply.

Legolas opened his mouth to protest, for he hoped to have the chance to speak with Boromir alone, but the dark look in Aragorn's eyes warned him off. "Very well then," he said at last.

Later, he watched Boromir's silhouette, darker black against the blue-black night, and waited to hear the rhythm of Aragorn's breathing change from wakefulness to sleep. When finally it did, he waited for some time longer, then silently rose and slipped over to where Boromir sat, letting a whisper of movement announce his approach.

Boromir turned at the soft brush of air, catching the familiar scent of the Elf, and saw Legolas in the dimness. He nodded to the other, and Legolas came and sat beside him.

"Sleep eludes you?" asked Boromir quietly.

"I wished to speak with you," Legolas murmured, his ears trained for any sign that Aragorn woke.

"Speak, then," said Boromir, his voice low.

"May I be blunt?" Legolas asked.

"I would prefer it."

With the briefest of smiles, Legolas nodded. "I fear Aragorn thinks to claim the Ring, and I fear you will encourage him. I wish to know if my fears are unfounded."

Startled, Boromir bit back an angry response. What right did the Elf have to question him? But even as he had the thought, he knew that Legolas had every right, just as all in Middle-earth would have had the right, had they known of their peril. Finally, he said, "We know not what lies ahead of us, nor what follows behind. We have no word of allies, nor of the Enemy. I would have us learn what we can from my brother before we choose a path."

Feeling his heart grow cold within him, Legolas could hardly find his voice to speak, and whispered, "There is but one path. The Ring must be destroyed."

"Yes, I agree," Boromir said fervently."I only wonder whether it might aid us first."

"It is a corruption," said Legolas angrily, but Boromir brought a finger to his lips and glanced at their sleeping companion. Legolas subsided, though lightning still shone in his eyes.

Boromir turned to face Legolas fully then, and he took both the Elf's hands in his own. "Legolas," he said softly, "have you never faced a foe too great for your people to defeat?"

And there was a quiet desperation in Boromir's voice that caught Legolas, and he met the grey eyes of his companion, and saw in them a love and a fear so great that it shook him, and he was sent reeling by the sudden understanding of what these mortals faced. What this mortal faced.

Legolas had lived a hundred lifetimes, had seen the world change and grow, cities crumble and new ones rise from their ashes. But this Man before him, with his brief spark of life, which would flare bright as a star and burn out in the barest moment of an Elven summer, he knew only this short span, had only this before him: his land, his people, his family, threatened by a foe against which they had only the determination that is born when hope dies.

This was all he had. No Grey Havens to fly to, no long golden summer in which to heal and rebuild. If Gondor fell, Sauron's defeat would be ashes in Boromir's heart, and the world would be for him naught but a grave. All this Legolas knew from the sound of Boromir's voice, the steel and the honey of it, the soft silver pleading in his fathomless mortal eyes.

"You heard Aragorn say what Gandalf told him," Boromir said. "He could end the war in the space of a breath, and do you doubt that he would still have strength enough to destroy it? Have faith in him, Legolas," he said, drawing Legolas' hands to his lips and pressing a warm kiss to the cool fingers he held. "Elrond esteems him highly, and so should we."

And Legolas knew it could be true. Though the wise cautioned against using the Ring, they also knew that corruption of any kind does not happen all in a day. And Isildur had not been too cowed by the presence of the Ring to strike when the opportunity came to him. If Aragorn claimed the Ring and lacked the strength to destroy it, surely there would be one who had the strength to destroy Aragorn, though Legolas shied away from the thought.

And the Enemy pressed ever closer. If Gondor fell....

Legolas shook his head, gripping Boromir's hands. "I - I do esteem him, Boromir," he murmured, "but - "

"The Enemy's armies are stronger than ours, more vicious, more cruel," Boromir said. "And we know not whether Minas Tirith stands or has fallen," and the break in his voice when he spoke was unfeigned. "We cannot move until we know where we stand. Please, do nothing rash, my friend," he said, "and together we will discover what must be done."

Finally Legolas nodded, not looking at Boromir, and reclaiming his hands he stood and made his silent way back to his blankets. Boromir watched him go, rubbing the pain from his hands where Legolas had gripped them. It was true: the Elves, or at least this one, were stronger than they looked. He watched as Legolas lay down again, his back to Boromir, and Boromir cast his gaze around their campsite. In the moonlight that shone through the tall pines he saw the glitter of gold where Aragorn lay, and above it, the glitter of Aragorn's eyes, watching him in the dark. He felt the blood leave his face, and his breath stilled. It was certain that the Ranger had heard their conversation, and Boromir could not break away from Aragorn's regard. After a moment, though, Aragorn closed his eyes, and Boromir returned to his watch, fear settling around his heart like a snake.

Some hours later, he rose quietly and knelt beside Aragorn, and spoke softly.

"'Tis your watch, Aragorn," he murmured, and Aragorn woke, and sat up, running a hand across his face.

"Thank you, Captain," he said softly. "Any disturbances?"

"None," said Boromir, biting his tongue on the 'sir' that had tried to slip out. "Legolas was wakeful," he amended, realizing that Aragorn might see his omission of that as a lie, "but otherwise, none."

Aragorn nodded. "Very well then," he said, rising. "I relieve you. Take some rest."

"Yes, Aragorn," he murmured, and moved to his own blankets, missing the bemused look that Aragorn shot him.

Aragorn had learned to read well the hearts and minds of others, and often it had been only that which had kept him from the Enemy's traps. Now, regarding Boromir, he found himself questioning his instincts for the first time in many years. The strange conversation in the night between the Elf and the Man, and this sometime subservience at war with the Gondorian's pride and will, combined to leave Aragorn wondering what lay within Boromir's heart. Legolas had said he should make a friend of Boromir, and that Boromir would not deny him if he did, yet, though Aragorn knew they were not friends, there was something of obedience creeping into Boromir's manner, concern, and even respect, albeit grudging.

And that soft conversation beneath the stars, while they believed he slept.... He could end the war in the space of a breath, and do you doubt that he would still have strength enough to destroy it? Have faith in him....

Did Boromir have faith at last? did he have so great a faith that he believed Aragorn could claim the Ring and -

Aragorn shook his head sharply. That was the Ring's deceit, to make him believe Boromir had accepted him. Aragorn drew a silent shuddering breath and turned his gaze outward to the night, his fingers slipping unconsciously to the smooth curve of gold. There was much to do, and he could not risk trusting the Gondorian for no more than a cup of tea and a murmured acquiescence.

And whispered words in the dark. Aragorn's gaze fell on Legolas then, and though the Elf's eyes were open, they held the far-away gaze of dreams. The Elf and the Man, and which did Aragorn trust?

The ache in his heart answered him: neither. Neither. A sudden wave of loneliness washed over him, such as he had not felt since the Shire, and he closed his eyes against it, his throat tightening. And then as if in mockery, a soft breeze swept past him, bearing on it the scent of roses and starlight, and for a moment Aragorn felt the longed-for touch of the Evenstar on his face, easing his heart, but only for a breath. Then that was gone as well, worse than if he had not felt it, and angrily he put thoughts of Arwen and of friendship aside. It was his watch; he had not the leisure for grief. With a last glance at his sleeping companions, he turned his eyes to the dark.

North Ithilien

The morning sun was growing warm as Haldir and Orophin prowled the riverbank.

"They scarcely thought to hide their camp," said Haldir, puzzled. "Do they think themselves so far from danger?"

Orophin shook his head. "I think not," he replied. "Look here, where they took the boats back to the current. They were weighted, but not with the weight of Men. The marks are too shallow."

"You think they have struck out into the forest?"

"And tried to throw off pursuit by making it seem as if they have stayed on the river." Orophin smiled. "A fairly good job they made of it, too, for Men, though I might have expected better from a Ranger raised by Elves."

"Perhaps they were rushed," said Haldir.

"Perhaps. Come, we shall find them soon."

All morning Boromir had felt Aragorn's anger flickering around the man like a fire barely contained by that cool exterior, but the sun was high before that anger was loosed. Boromir did not know what had provoked it, only that Legolas and Aragorn had been speaking quietly as they walked, in Elvish of which Boromir could catch only a few words, and then suddenly their voices were raised and they were facing each other across a space of inches, Aragorn's fist gripping the Elf's soft tunic, Legolas' hand on the hilt of his long knife.

Startled, Boromir rounded on them. "Aragorn, Legolas!" he snapped. "What is this about? Now is not the time!"

In the shadows, unseen by the trio, a tall figure in green and brown put fingers to lips for the cry that would summon the others, the voice of the hawk saying strangers were in Ithilien.

Releasing Legolas, Aragorn turned furious eyes on Boromir. "And you," he snarled, striding forward. "You would take it for yourself, or think to use me - me! - as a tool for your own ends! Oh, yes, I heard you," he said coldly, the rasp of drawn steel as shocking to Boromir as a blow, and then Anduril's tip was pressed against his throat.

"Down," Aragorn growled, and the cry of a hawk cut the air as Boromir sank to his knees.

The hawk shrilled twice in quick succession, then once more, and Herion looked towards it. One more cry and he knew, it was Eradan, warning them of strangers, and of trouble. Swift as a shadow, he slipped through the trees towards the sound, and though he could not see them, he knew his two companions did as well. He moved quickly, his nerves alight, steeling himself for whatever they might find.

Boromir kept his eyes on Aragorn's, heart racing, and he did not speak.

"He will be dead if you do, Legolas," Aragorn said, watching Boromir, and past Aragorn's shoulder Boromir saw that Legolas had notched an arrow to the string of his bow and had trained it on the Ringbearer. "My hand is all that keeps Anduril from slipping forward through his neck," he went on conversationally. "Would you have both our deaths? Put it down, my friend."

Legolas hesitated, then lowered the weapon.

"Come around where I can see you," said Aragorn, his eyes never leaving Boromir's.

"Estel," Legolas began softly, but Aragorn pressed the blade against Boromir's throat.

"Do it."

Silently, Legolas came to stand beside Boromir.

Aragorn smiled, the smile not reaching his eyes. "'He could end the war in the space of a breath,' you said. And so I could." Thoughtfully, he twisted the blade slightly, digging into Boromir's flesh, but not yet deeply enough to cut. Boromir refused to close his eyes against the man who faced him, though the coldness of Aragorn's regard had set his heart in ice, and some part of him wondered whether, if he died here, Faramir and their father would ever know what had become of him. The glitter of the Ring in the sunlight seemed an almost comforting warmth compared to that fierce and angry gaze.

Haldir had notched an arrow to the string of his bow and drawn it back as soon as Aragorn had drawn Anduril, but Orophin had stayed his hand and now the Steward's son was one slip of that blade away from death.

"He has not claimed it - I see it on the chain 'round his neck."

"He threatens his comrades, brother. It has taken him. Why did you stop me?"

"They are Men," Orophin replied. "Their ways are not ours. And if you slay him now, the Steward's son dies as well."

"Then the Steward's son dies. Orophin, it is the ruling Ring!"

"He has not claimed it. There may be time."

"There is no time."

And then there was a swift movement and Men in the distance between Haldir and his prey.

"Hold, stranger," and out of the trees stepped four men in the forest-colored garb of Rangers, long bows with slender and wicked bolts trained on Aragorn and Legolas. "Strike and you will be dead before his body falls."

Aragorn met the Ranger's eyes, and Herion almost fell back under the fury and power that blazed around the man. "You take a terrible chance with the life of your Captain," Aragorn said, a cruel smile playing about his lips. "Or is it of so little importance that you would threaten the one who holds it in his hands?"

Herion's eyes flickered to the horn that Boromir bore. This could be none other. "Stranger, take your weapon from his throat," he said, his own anger and fear turning his voice to a snarl."If this is the Steward's son, I can assure you that the Steward would rather he die on his knees at the blade of brigand than that I release you," he said, willing his voice to ice to cover the lie.

Aragorn laughed and the sound was like a knife. "Boromir," he said, "is this true?"

"It is," Boromir said softly, not himself sure what the truth of it was. "Aragorn, believe him." Then in a strong voice he said, "I am Boromir son of Denethor, and your Captain-general. Come and face me, Ranger, and see."

Keeping his weapon trained on Aragorn, Herion circled the two men until he faced Boromir.

Boromir smiled faintly. "Herion," he said. "Well met."

"My lord," said Herion quietly. "Welcome home."

"Thank you," Boromir replied.

"So, Ranger," said Aragorn. "Will you and your men lower your weapons, or shall I kill your Captain?"

"Herion," said Boromir, and Herion nodded abruptly.

"I await your command, my lord," he said.

Boromir turned to Aragorn, who regarded him with surprise, and something like amusement. "Aragorn," he said, "you may kill me, and they will take you, and what you carry, and you will die for what you have done, or you may release me and place yourself under my protection."

Aragorn raised an eyebrow. "And what protection would you provide me," he asked, "who have had my blade at your throat twice now, and who covet what I carry for yourself?"

"You have my word as Gondor's Captain-general, and as Captain of the Tower Guard, and as heir to the Steward of Gondor," said Boromir, "you will not be harmed, nor will any wrest from you your burden."

Aragorn's eyes narrowed as he considered. Finally he murmured, "Swear to me by the White City."

Unhesitatingly, Boromir answered, "I so swear."

Another moment, and Aragorn withdrew, and slipped Anduril back into its sheath.

Haldir grimaced. "Had you but let me strike when I could -"

"Then the Ruling Ring would be in the hands of those Southern Rangers," said Orophin mildly.

With a dismissive snort, Haldir went on angrily, "And now we must either murder them all and seize it, proving we are no more fit to serve our lady than the lowest criminal, or once again follow and wait, and wait."

Orophin shrugged. "Then we follow," he said, "and wait, and wait."

Boromir stood and turned to Herion. "This man is under my protection," he said, though he knew Herion had heard. "He is not to be harmed, nor our companion. And I thank you," he finished with a smile.

"As you will, my lord," said Herion, and then with an uncertain glance at his men, he said, "But my lord, until Captain Faramir returns from Minas Tirith, I -" and he hesitated, then said, "I must insist that your companions be disarmed, and," and again he hesitated until Boromir urged him with a nod to continue, "that they be bound as well." Frowning, he said in a rush, "Captain, he had his blade at your throat - I cannot allow him to go armed in these lands until and unless he is proven not a threat."

Boromir nodded thoughtfully, and after a moment said, "Disarm them, but they are not to be bound."

Aragorn scowled. "Thank you, Captain," he said, his tone cold, "but I think I will keep my blade."

Turning to him Boromir said sharply, "You will disarm, Aragorn, or you will be disarmed." With a frustrated shake of his head he said, "It is a reasonable request, given the circumstances under which these Rangers came upon us. Comply. Please."

A pause, and then Aragorn was unbuckling his sword belt, saying angrily, "I will comply, Captain, but you shall regret asking it of me."

Boromir had no doubt it was a promise Aragorn would keep.