Not in Vain by Lucy Hale
Summary: A retelling of Fellowship, from Boromir's POV. With a little slash added in for good measure.
Categories: FPS > Boromir/Merry/Pippin, FPS, FPS > Merry/Pippin, FPS > Pippin/Merry, FPS > Boromir/Merry, FPS > Merry/Boromir Characters: Boromir, Merry, Pippin
Type: None
Warning: None
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 1 Completed: Yes Word count: 26992 Read: 1871 Published: August 18, 2011 Updated: August 18, 2011
Story Notes:
When canon between book and movie differ, I go with movie. I'm sacreligious like that.

1. Chapter 1 by Lucy Hale

Chapter 1 by Lucy Hale
It was not in vain that the young hobbits came with us, if only for Boromir's sake.
-- Gandalf - The Two Towers

"It is too early yet to answer the questions you doubtless have. There are others we must wait for. You shall stay here as the guest of Elrond. Anything you require, simply ask."

It was a generous offer, truly. Boromir had no doubt he was lucky to be invited to a place so few but Elves ever entered.

Yet he wasn't happy. Far from it.

Boromir was not a man made for waiting and biding his time. After riding at a bruising pace for hundreds of miles to answer the summons of Elrond, and the questions in his own mind, he did not like being told to sit by and wait.

It went against his nature and conditioning. To be still and at peace, to wait for the decisions of others, it wasn't in his blood. He was a man of action; born into a land at war, raised by a father who commanded armies. He was a leader of soldiers, a defender of borders. He was used to the blood and pain of the world, not the quiet and peace and lush life of Rivendell.

It was a beautiful place, there was no doubt. But that may have been part of the difficulty Boromir was struggling with. He was himself abrasive and hard. The borders of Gondor, the land that molded him, were worn down. The ground was soaked with blood from thousands of battles. The air smelled of death and war. Of fear and lost hope. Of a hundred evil things that seemed far removed from Rivendell.

But such was his home and the land he loved; it was what he was accustomed to and comfortable in. He wasn't at all sure how to handle himself in the peaceful green of an Elf kingdom.

Such were the thoughts in his mind. He was discontented. Impatient and not at all at peace.

But, despite his basic, blunt nature, Boromir did not argue. He did not speak out against Elrond's wishes, or complain about his situation.

Because as troubled as he was, he could sense even more trouble in those around him. In the grim, solemn face of Elrond, who had seen far more troubles in his thousands of years than Boromir had in his almost forty.

There was tension in the air, and in the land of Elves that was a thing to make note of.

Gandalf the Grey was said to be in Rivendell, and others of importance were on their way. That, plus Boromir's own discontented dreams, led him to believe that something was happening there that was bigger than his complaints.

Bigger than the complaints of Gondor itself? That had yet to be determined. And Boromir highly doubted such a thing was possible.

Still. He would act with all the dignity and pride his people would hope for from their representative. He would bide his time and wait to be summoned to council, and hope that something important was in the making.

In the meantime, though. He was at a loose end. He knew no one, knew nothing of the ways of Elves. He wasn't sure what to do with himself in Rivendell. Everything was quiet, solemn. Everyone was earthy and graceful and...

Well. He wasn't used to the air there.

He spent his time wandering the trees, reflecting on his hardships and wondering what was happening in his land while he was away. Those thoughts led to even more unrest, but they weren't to be escaped.

It was on his second full day at Rivendell, during a rambling walk through the woods, when the first laughter he had heard in...months, probably...reached his ears and pulled him from his thoughts.

So strange was the sound, so foreign to his ears, that he turned and found himself heading towards it.

It rang out again, this time in two voices. High and clear and genuinely happy. These were not elf voices, though. They were more earthy, free from elvish dignity.

There was a muted sound in front of him, like a rock striking a tree. He slowed his steps and perked his ears, listening.

The voices were as high as the laughter. "Were you trying to hit me that time? You should know by now I look nothing like an oak."

"Your head is as thick as one, you addle-brained Took." Another thunk somewhere in the distance, and more breathless laughter. "And now, I think you're the one off on your aim. That tree was nowhere near me."

"I'm simply trying to spare myself the trouble of explaining to your mother why her son has one more hole in his head."

Boromir almost smiled – children. He could see a small, curly-topped head sticking up from the underbrush. No wonder the sound had seemed strange – the children of Gondor did not laugh this freely.

Whose children did, then? That was the next question. Curly-topped heads like those didn't belong to Elves or Dwarves. These were the children of men. But who? If not men of Gondor, than of Rohan. Those were the only groups of men important enough to be summoned to Rivendell. The Rangers would not have children like these.

But why would the men of Rohan not contact him if they knew he was there? Rohan and Gondor were allied.

He moved forward, curious.

"It wouldn't do for the Master Thain to have the aim of a drunken Bramblebush. I should let you practice more—"

A softer thunk and a burst of laughter from the higher voice.

"Alright, Took! This means war!"

Boromir smiled to himself. He missed the sounds of laughter. "Ho there, children!"

He barely got the last word out when two greenish red blurs flew at his face, thunking him in the forehead and over his ear almost at the same time. Boromir stumbled back and lost his footing on a bundle of branches, falling ungracefully on his back.

"Oh!" The higher voice exclaimed loud enough for Boromir to hear, and footsteps came bounding towards him.

And the small figure burst through the underbrush and into sight, just as Boromir had lifted himself up onto his elbows. "Oh! Ho there. You look even less like Merry than an oak."

Boromir blinked up into laughing green eyes. He frowned, bringing a hand up to rub his temple. There was something odd about this child.

The second appeared over the shoulder of the first. "Well. Your aim improves just in time to make a new friend. Sorry about the apples, master...hoy. You're no elf."

Boromir frowned at the two small hands that immediately stretched out to assist him to his feet. "And you're no children."

The second nudged the arm of the first. "Depends on which of us you're talking about."

The first nudged back with a smile, hand still held out. "Right. Up you come."

Boromir eyed the offered assistance dubiously, and sat up on his own. "I'm quite capable of standing, thank you."

Both hands dropped, and the first, slightly shorter...creature...gave a good-natured shrug. "Suit yourself."

Boromir rose to his feet, scraping together some sense of dignity that vanished again when he prodded at the bruise that was no doubt forming on his temple. "You have quite a mean aim, both of..." He trailed off, looking down at his strange companions.

His eyes went wide as the difference in height was brought home to him. "You're halflings!"

The second halfling smiled. "We're not half anythings. We're full hobbits. And you...are you a Ranger?"

Boromir instantly straightened, proud. "I am Boromir, son of Denethor, Steward of Gondor. I am a soldier. I'm no Ranger." He let the contempt show in his voice.

"Aha." The first halfling stuck out his hand again, not at all deterred by the coolness in Boromir's voice. "Peregrin Took, but you can call me Pippin."

Boromir regarded him for a moment, but shook the small hand firmly.

"And this is Meriadoc Brandybuck, but you can call him Bramblebush."

Meriadoc was putting his hand out, but averted the gesture to crouch quickly and grab one of the apples that had fallen at Boromir's feet. "I'll show you who's a Bramblebush."

Pippin took off running, laughing all the way.

But Meriadoc held on to the weapon and turned back to Boromir. "Merry. Sorry about before. You took us by surprise."

"As did you. You're the first halflings I've seen. Or...hobbits, was it?"

"Hobbits, yes."

Boromir studied the small form. Merry. Halfling or no, he could easily be mistaken for a child, a boy maybe nine years old. He had to be less than four feet tall, but wasn't stout like the Dwarves. He and Pippin both seemed normally proportioned men, just smaller. Maybe with rounder cheeks, and mops of curly hair blowing everywhere in the wind. Not too different after all.

He thought about this sighting, though, and what it meant. "This council must be important indeed if Elrond has summoned such distant folk as hobbits."

"Distant? Well, yes, though probably not as far as you think. We simply like to keep to ourselves, and so you men tend to forget we're around. But I don't know anything about any council. We were brought here by our own unique circumstances, no mistake about that."

"Still. Strange summons, and now sightings of a strange race? Pardon, of course -- merely strange because I haven't seen you before, or even heard tale of you except in legend. But still, I don't doubt you're connected in some way."

Merry smiled sunnily. "Of course not. We're much too unimportant to be connected to anything in a place like this. Probably Frodo is, though I wouldn't know anything about it if he was."

"Another hobbit?"

"Aye. He seems to have a knack for attracting attention."

"Merry!" The small form of Pippin came charging back. "You're not playing!"

Merry eyed the other hobbit. "You're a rude young lunkhead. You haven't even asked if our new friend wants to play."

Pippin's wide eyes swung to Boromir. "Yes! Play! Gives you a chance to make up for that first hit, and then you won't hold it against us."

Boromir nearly laughed out loud at the circumstance of anyone asking him to play at something. He came so close he actually smiled at them.

The strangeness of that expression on his face took him aback, though, and steered his thoughts back where they belonged. Which was certainly not on playing games in the trees. He looked from one face to the other, feeling the beginnings of disapproval for the lackadaisical spirits of this new race of creatures. "Whether this council involves you or no, it is a serious and important affair, and should be treated as such. We none of us have time for such foolish things as playing with apples."

Pippin just shook his head, looking slightly exasperated. "Spoken just like a Man. That sentence could have come straight from Strider's mouth."

Merry laughed. "No doubt followed by some stern command to stop talking or get to sleep or pick up our feet or something of the sort."

Boromir bristled at the tone, the lack of respect, the complete disregard of his words. "Are all halflings such flighty creatures?"

Merry looked up at him sharply, eyes wide as if taken aback. "Flighty? Why, no, of course not. Pippin here is the only one."

Pippin barely had time to register that before he was off, chasing the retreating Merry away from Boromir, back to the trees that were their playground.

Boromir listened to the jingle of laughter and shouts that carried on now as if he'd never been there.

He frowned sharply, hoping that these little creatures were right about not being involved in this council.

Whatever reason hobbits kept to themselves, it seemed best if it stayed that way. They cared little for the problems affecting Middle Earth, so it seemed Middle Earth should go right on forgetting about them.

It must have been the air of Rivendell. The high songs of elves, the lush forests, the feeling of peace. It must have been those things together that made him say yes to this quest. Made him actually step forward and volunteer.

Because the moment they were outside of Rivendell, charting their slow way through the forest beyond, Boromir saw clearly that the entire quest was a mistake.

They were setting out to do what couldn't be done – take the Ring of Power to Mordor, to the heart of Sauron's land, to destroy it. Destroy the one thing Sauron would give most to get back.

If that wasn't impossible in itself, Boromir only had to look at the company ahead of him to seal his conviction that they were doomed.

The bearer of the ring was a halfling. One of the silly, small, weak, laughing and trifling halflings.

Granted, Frodo seemed more serious than the two Boromir had met in the woods. But no larger, and no stronger.

Frodo was followed closely by Sam, another halfling. His servant, Boromir thought at times, though he was not treated as such. Still, he was trailing at Frodo's feet in the manner of a servant.

The elf, Legolas. Strong, probably, and a good ally. But only one of a race that couldn't defeat Sauron in the hundreds.

Gimli the dwarf. Again, probably a staunch ally. A little quick-tempered, it seemed, but who among them wasn't? Still, one dwarf to fight off thousands?

Gandalf. He seemed strong, but Boromir never had lost much love towards wizards. They often only granted their attention to men long enough to do harm.

Aragorn. The Ranger, Strider, the man who would try and make Denethor the Last Steward of Gondor. The man who would no doubt try and usurp the throne, claiming nothing but a diluted bloodline.

The one good thing about this suicide mission – if Aragorn was dead, he could bring no harm to Gondor.

And, of course, marching right in front of Boromir. Merry and Pippin themselves. Careless, thoughtless halflings, who had no interest in the quest, no idea what they were marching towards, and most importantly no clue how to handle themselves when it came down to a battle.

Their presence in the group was the one thing Boromir could not understand. Everyone else had their place well enough – even Sam was justified in going along, if only to keep the Ringbearer settled and less nervous.

Merry and Pippin were useless. Absolutely useless. They would use up precious food and supply, and bring nothing to the field of battle to justify that waste.

They would get someone killed before it was all over.

As if in confirmation of his thoughts, the group had been marching less than an hour when the hobbits in front of Boromir broke the silence with casual voice.

Merry started it. "I expect we shall bring up the end of the line the entire length of this journey. As if hundreds of miles of hard road and three small meals a day weren't enough, we get to hold our eyes to this unflattering view."

Boromir frowned at their backs, but couldn't stop his eyes from moving past them, to the rear ends of Sam Gamgee and Bill the pony, which were all that could be seen from where they stood. Of course the halflings were just the right height to get a closer view of the pony than was fitting.

He almost smiled in realization; strange, how he actually had to bite back the urge. As if a smile was his normal response to such trifling creatures.

Also surprising, he heard himself speaking in answer to Merry's comments. "Perhaps one of your friends will want for cheerier company and will send for you, master hobbit."

Merry glanced back, and instantly slowed his pace to close the gap. "Perhaps you could trade places with us and shield us from Sam's new friend."

Pippin moved at that moment around a still-warm pile of reason why walking behind a horse was never a smart thing. He wrinkled his nose in distaste.

Boromir laughed, a sharp sound that surprised all three of them. "If that's to be my purpose on this quest, I should turn around and go home."

Merry frowned instantly. "No, no. You shouldn't bother thinking of purposes and quests."

Pippin scoffed. "Being as we are on a quest, how do you propose to do that?"

Merry waved a hand. "Simple. We stay here in the back of the line, Boromir and you and I, and we will leave the purposes to those whose names shall be sung when we're through."

Pippin turned to him with a frown. "Well, that's not an answer, is it? Why shouldn't songs be written about us?"

Boromir found himself keeping pace with the two hobbits, walking at Merry's left, as the talk went on. He looked over at them as often as he looked at the trees around them.

Merry was laughing. "We should have to write them ourselves, I'm afraid. Who would do it for us? The dwarves will ever after sing of their Gimli the stout, sure with axe and strong of heart."

Pippin laughed. "'Stout' and 'heart' is a clumsy rhyme."

Merry glanced at him. "Did you hear the songs the dwarves sang in Rivendell? It's good enough."

Boromir stifled a chuckle. His eyes instantly left the hobbits, as if attention to the trees and behavior more responsible would make up for his unwitting inability to ignore the hobbits' talk.

Merry continued beside him. "The elves shall sing of Legolas the woodland son, but of course in grander words than I'm sure I could come up with."

"Undoubtedly," was Pippin's automatic response.

"And that comes to the three of us. Our apple-wounded friend Boromir is badly served, because when men pass their tale down in song or story, it's quite certain to be Aragorn they sing about."

Boromir's eyes went back to the hobbits. "You believe so."

"Well. He's at the start of the line. He's been on the quest as long as anyone but us hobbits. He is a friend to elves and a confidant of wizards. He is made for songs."

Pippin smiled. "I should think they'd have to write whole songs just to keep his many names straight. I've called him Strider so long that when someone says Aragorn I have to stop myself looking around for the stranger who's snuck along with us."

Boromir looked ahead, past Sam and at the head of the line. Gandalf was leading, with Frodo close behind. And Aragorn, of course, right at the hobbit's side. He smiled, and it felt bitter to him. "I suppose the Ringbearer will usurp the songs hobbits will write."

Merry sighed. "You see now? Doubtless, he and his trusty helper Sam. Which is a shame. Our names are so much easier to rhyme to. How many words that sound like Baggins are there in the world?"

Boromir looked over the two of them, suddenly curious to go deeper into the minds of the strange, careless creatures. "Then tell me. If the two of you, who have already said they have nothing to do with this quest, are so sure you're to be forgotten, why take the journey at all?"

Pippin looked up past Merry at Boromir and smiled. "Why, for that very reason."

Merry completed the thought. "To take the journey. Besides, we weren't going to leave Frodo and Sam to it, were we?"

"This is a hard road to volunteer for out of loyalty to a friend," Boromir answered seriously, since it was obvious the two young hobbits had no idea what they were in for.

Pippin shrugged. "It was a hard trip coming this far. And I do believe we won't be seeing our Shire again. But there's so many new things we will get to see."

Merry made a noise of agreement. "A revolutionary idea for a hobbit, but we are just the two lads to start a revolution."

Pippin smiled at that. "I rather like the idea."

"And I myself take comfort in the anonymity of our humble roles as followers. Frodo, and so of course Sam, are already too cross with responsibility and burden. And Aragorn and the others will work so hard to make their verses proper and heroic. Here in the back of the line we can behave as we like. No false demonstration of bravery, no sacrificing nobly and needlessly."

"It is a comforting thought, isn't it?" Pippin turned a smile to Merry, pleased.

Merry smiled back.

A comfortable silence settled again as they walked.

Boromir could see fondness between the two of them. He imagined that at their Shire they would be very much behaved the same. They were undoubtedly close and affectionate as brothers.

Boromir could almost picture afternoons just like the one in Rivendell, in some lovely and green Shire. Wasted by two boys who had nothing better to do than throw apples and laugh.

Such a strange idea. Hobbits indeed had to be opposite of Gondor's people. Hobbits seemed to love their peace and their quiet, and had probably never known anything else. Growing up in Gondor had been quite different.

And if Boromir had grown up in a place like the Shire? Would he be like Frodo, quick to bow and grow solemn under responsibility? Or would he have ended up like the two boys beside him, quick to laugh and smile?

A needless wonder, of course. He would never know, and could hardly be expected to guess. If he had grown up in the Shire he would not be himself.

And if these two smiling hobbits had grown up in Gondor, they would not be themselves.

It surprised Boromir how sharply the idea of that displeased him.

An interesting phenomenon about hobbits: no matter where they lay their bedrolls to sleep or how many bodies lie between them, they always seemed to wake up curled together.

At least, the two Boromir had taken to keeping an eye on did.

Frodo and Sam might have been the same but it was hard to say – Sam practically forced his way to Frodo's side every night to sleep, so there was never a chance to find out.

Merry and Pippin, though. Despite nights where one fell asleep by a rock wall and the other fell asleep in mid-conversation with Sam or Aragorn across the camp site, at the sun's rise they were together, curled to each other in sleep.

Was it a conscious thing, Boromir wondered. Certainly they were together all the waking hours of the journey. In fact, they were never referred to by the others except as part of a pair. They were Merry-and-Pippin, and so close to being one single creature that it could be argued there were only eight members of this fellowship.

He had to admit to feeling something like fondness for the little beings at times.

The journey so far had been easy – hard and long marching, to be sure, but no sign of the mystical black riders that so many of the others lived in fear of, and no hint of their way being blocked or guarded.

The hobbits were surprisingly good travelers, though. Merry's one complaint about the walk and the scant meals when they were first starting out was the beginning and end of the complaints. They kept the pace well. The fellowship didn't seem to be slowed much by the little ones, which was a minor miracle in Boromir's eyes.

He didn't want them there. Nothing was going to change that. He still didn't understand the need for them. And he remained convinced that being ignorant of the Enemy they were facing would hurt more than the hobbits in the long run. It would hurt all the others in the fellowship, who needed to rely on them and could not.

Boromir kept his eyes on them, though. Because, true to Merry's prediction, quite often the three of them walked together, followed or lead by Aragorn, always trailing behind the others.

Also because they seemed to have this odd, innate ability to pull Boromir out of his own thoughts for a while.

Boromir couldn't help it when his thoughts bent more towards Gondor than to this task they were on. He couldn't help but look at this Ring and this quest in regards to what it could mean for his land.

He understood on some level what Gandalf meant when he said it was unsafe to wield the ring. He understood that the council had come to a decision, and the ring had to be destroyed.

But it was hard. Very, very hard. Every step that Boromir took towards that end was one step further from helping his own people. And in more ways than just one. It kept him physically away from the battles on the borders of Gondor. It deprived his men of one more leader, and deprived his father of a dependable chief.

And to destroy the ring – this one thing that could ruin or elevate Sauron beyond their reach. To take it right into the arms of the dark lord, when every instinct in Boromir told him to take it to his father, to use it to good end...

It was hard. He was not a man used to fighting his own instincts, and it felt wrong to him what he was doing now.

He brooded.

But there were his new, strange little companions to get him out of it. To tell pointless stories about some farmer and a pack of dogs, or to share their entire families' blood lines with Boromir as if it was the most fascinating subject in the world.

They talked of trifles. They laughed, though a bit quieter now out of respect for the journey they were on.

And they quite often made Boromir smile along with them. It was something he was not at all used to. He rode into battles with men as solemn and brooding as he himself. He had never spent time with beings who saw a long road as a chance for entertainment.

They were strange creatures, hobbits. That was something else he would never change his mind on. So lively and quick to joke. So accepting of the quirks of Legolas and Gimli, of the erratic actions of Gandalf the wizard, and the quick-change temperaments of Boromir and Aragorn.

They honestly seemed to care nothing for the danger they faced or the long miles ahead. They lived for the next meal, or the end of the next story. They were bright-eyed little children in the bodies of undergrown men.

His opinion of them didn't have much reason to change from his initial impression. And it didn't – he still recognized them as careless and lackadaisical. But he no longer thought it as a curse, or a thing to be disliked.

He suspected it was just what they were, and what their lives had made them into. As much as Boromir's own life had shaped him.

So it happened that as he walked with them, and watched them, and used them to keep his mind off the thousands of troubles in his thoughts that he couldn't control, his feelings for the two hobbits changed.

He began to feel pity. He looked to the road ahead in foreboding. When their first fight came, when the hobbits were finally shown that this journey was no adventure but a death sentence, their sheltered, laughing spirit would collapse.

He didn't look forward to seeing that happen. Not at all.

In fact, it led to a rather odd pronouncement on his behalf.

"I think I shall start teaching you little ones how to use those swords you have strapped to you."

The two hobbits looked at him, surprised: he watched often, but he hardly spoke.

And then Pippin simply shrugged. "It couldn't do us any harm, I suppose. If we find our way back to the Shire someday it will be worth a few drinks to show off some new talents."

Boromir smiled at that. "It will definitely improve your odds of getting back home, at any rate."

"Do you think we will?"

Boromir almost slowed down.

Merry's eyes were on him. Not solemn, but the question was a serious one. Merry wasn't looking for a flippant answer, but the truth as Boromir saw it.

He hesitated. "We will all do what we can to insure it."

Merry kept looking, obviously not accepting that as an answer.

Boromir looked away from the wide, innocent eyes. He sighed, speaking true. "I don't expect to see the shores of Gondor again. But perhaps hobbits are made of stronger or luckier stuff than Men."

There was a silence.

Boromir looked down at them and saw that Merry was holding on to Pippin's hand, squeezing slightly. Only for a few seconds, then it stopped.

The two hobbits carried on with their interrupted conversation, light voices tinkling on about some unimportant bit of Shire talk or another.

Boromir glanced at them once or twice, but couldn't see the signs of concern or fear on either of them.

Either they hadn't taken his word seriously or they somehow thought they were stronger or luckier than men.

Or it could have been that they were just brave enough to hide their fear.

But as fond as he was of them he wasn't willing to give them that much credit quite yet.

He stared out into the darkness, over the quietly still bodies of the sleeping fellowship. There was nothing stirring, nothing causing noise or distraction.

The world seemed so silent on this watch that he could hear the sound of the others' breaths as they slept. Gimli's low, rumbling snores, Sam's snuffling and restless sleep.

And so, when a fresh noise started, when breathing changed, he was instantly aware.

The new sounds came from the single spot marking Merry and Pippin's bedrolls.

Boromir squinted through the darkness and saw movement, a shuffling of the cloaks that served as blankets. And he heard the stronger breathing, the barest whisper of voices.

There was more of a rhythm to it than was normal, and as he watched the moving blanket he realized what it looked like.

He studied the movements, though he felt blood rising to color his cheeks, until they ceased and the blankets grew still again.

He then turned his eyes back out to nothing, and wondered.

He was not the type to let mysteries go by without addressing them. If he wanted to know something, he asked. Men bred in times of war knew better than to waste time around civility and propriety, especially when what they wanted to know could have bearing on the men he served with and how they fought.

So when the hand-holding and the close sleeping and the strange nighttime movements of the two hobbits in his care became curious to him, he simply waited until they were stopped and the others not paying attention, and he asked the nearest one.

His chance came the next night, when it was young Pippin who awoke him for his stint at guard duty.

He was quick to wake up, clearheaded from the moment he opened his eyes. War had trained that into him. And so he smiled at the young hobbit and thanked him quietly. "I take it things have been uneventful so far?"

"Dull and quiet, like all the other nights." Pippin sighed as if it was a burden.

Boromir sat up. "Soon enough you'll be wishing for dull and quiet again, Master Pippin."

Pippin made a face, but didn't argue. He held out a hand and gave a token assistance to Boromir as he stood, then rested his hands on his hips and regarded the bigger Man with feigned dubiousness. "You're awake now? You're not going to fall asleep in some horrible hobbit-eating monster's shadow, are you?"

Boromir chuckled softly. "I shall do my best."

Pippin nodded once and turned, immediately heading towards where Merry lay sleeping.

"A word or two before you retire, Pippin?"

Pippin turned in his tracks and headed back over. "I knew it. You need entertainment to keep from sliding back into sleep. Well, once again it's up to me to save the fellowship from danger."

Boromir sat down close to the slab of rock he had been sleeping against. "Keep this up and you might make it into the songs after all."

Pippin smiled and sat down cross-legged beside Boromir. "What is your word or two, Master Boromir?"

"I'm curious about you hobbits."

"We're curious creatures, from what we've been told recently."

Boromir smiled. "Aye. But something in particular. You and young Merry. I've noticed that the two of you have taken to lying together."

Pippin cocked his head a little, waiting.

Boromir realized the question could be awkward, but, again, he wasn't the kind to stay silent because his words may bother others. "I was curious if you simply stay together for warmth: at times on this journey you have seemed closer to each other than most friends."

Pippin smiled. "You wish to know if Merry and I lie together for more than just sleep? Like hobbit and wife would."

Boromir shrugged. "I suppose. I'm finding the customs of hobbits rather interesting. Is it one of your customs to lie with people of the same gender?" He felt awkward asking it, given how little he knew about any of the races around him. The mysteries about elf origins were unfathomable to him, and God knew he had never seen a female dwarf in his dealings with them. Perhaps there were no female hobbits either.

But Pippin shook his head with a smile, calming some of Boromir's uncertainty. "I certainly wouldn't call it a custom. It's not a practice handed down through generations, though I expect it's done by more than Merry and I."

So, that answered that. They did lie together. His instincts had been right. Boromir studied the youngest hobbit. "Why do it? Do you care that deeply for Merry?"

Pippin laughed quietly. "Well. That's a hard question to answer. I should say yes, because I care for Merry more than anyone else in the world. But that wouldn't be the right answer to what you want to know. I don't look at Merry like any hobbit lass. It's...I suppose the same as any other of the games Merry and I play."

Boromir frowned at that, his brow furrowed. "You look at it as a game?"

Pippin shrugged. "I've got four more years until I come of age. I look at everything as a game." He grinned, as careless as ever.

"And what of four years from now, when you do come of age? What must you do then?"

Pippin made one of his expressive faces. "Once I come of age it is time to become a good, responsible hobbit and find a lass to start a family with."

Boromir glanced over at the still figure of Merry. "You wouldn't wish to go on lying with Merry? Even though you care for him so much?"

Pippin laughed at that. "Why should I do something like that?" His words split with a yawn, and he blinked heavier eyes out at Boromir, still shining their amusement.

Boromir turned back to him, frowning. This would perhaps be one of those things he would have to accept as hobbit custom even if he did not like it himself. Yes, lying with another was done mostly to start a family, to preserve a man's family line. In these times, to make sure there was a new generation to fight when his generation became too old to be of use.

Still. Boromir couldn't imagine lying with someone without love. Doing it to pass the time, to wait until he was old enough to start a family. Maybe it was simply a hobbit behavior, though.

Pippin took his silence as confusion, and so explained further. "You lie with a lass to make a family, but I'm not old enough quite yet to start one of my own. Yet there's no denying that at times the urge is there. Young hobbits who are not of age will look to each other at times like those. It's nothing too complicated, Boromir."

"And what of Frodo? He is the oldest of all of you, I've been told. He has no family, does he? I've heard no mention of a wife or children. He is of age, certainly."

Pippin grinned sleepily. "He's different. He's a Baggins. They are known to be eccentric. Frodo doesn't have to worry about tradition as much as the rest of us."

"Is that what you would start a family for? Tradition?"

Pippin shrugged. "The master of the Tooks has a lofty position in the whole of the Shire. It's important to have a family to pass it down to."

Boromir smiled at that. "You are to become a leader in your Shire, eh? I suppose you should enjoy the few years left to you after all."

"I'm afraid so." Pippin yawned again suddenly. "I hope your curiosity is satisfied for the time being, because I'm afraid I won't be awake very much longer."

Boromir waved him off. "Go to sleep. We have another long day ahead of us tomorrow."

Pippin, to Boromir's surprise, didn't go to search out Merry the way he'd started out doing before their talk. Instead he simply moved the few feet to Boromir's abandoned bedroll and dropped himself down onto it, sighing.

Boromir watched him with a smile. The talk had left him with mixed feelings – was it all hobbits who were so careless with their bodies, and their emotions, or was young Pippin an exception? The hobbits had to be capable of loyalty and love – Merry and Pippin being on this journey spoke of that. It was the one reason for their being on the journey that they gave with absolute conviction – they couldn't leave Frodo to do it himself.

That was loyalty. And loyalty spoke of the ability to love. Pippin admitted to caring deeply for Merry.

It was strange, though, to Boromir. Certainly he had had comrades in arms that he felt great affection for. Some of the men he had gone into battles with had been as close to him as his own brother.

But never would it have occurred to him to lie with one of them as those two hobbits lie together. Despite the urges that all men got at one time or another, he had never turned to one of his comrades. It never even occurred to him.

He sighed to himself quietly, looking over the site where the fellowship lie sleeping.

His eyes stopped on the bedroll where Merry had been lying.

It was empty.

He frowned, looking around instantly. He had neither seen nor heard the young hobbit get up or leave the site. He wasn't in his own bed, though, and not with any of the others.

He sat back against the wall and waited. Hobbits could be quiet creatures when they wanted to, and Merry would no doubt return from a call of nature at any moment.

Silence surrounded him.

Guard duty was a hard thing in the quiet of the land they were marching through.

In Gondor, in the forests surrounding, there was always something to be heard, something to look out for. It wasn't a matter of checking for the presence of the enemy, since at all times the enemy was out there. It was the job of the night guards to make sure the enemy didn't start moving in the night, coming any closer to the sleeping camp.

There were always noises and shadows to be watchful of.

Here, there was nothing. There was dark and silence and the sounds of his companions breathing in their sleep, but that was it.

He knew what he had told Pippin was true – the time would come he would long for this uneventful quiet. But until then there was no arguing that the hobbit was right. It was dull and long.

The minutes ticked by, and still no silent, small body appeared to slide onto the abandoned bedroll.

Boromir let enough time pass for anyone to have answered nature's call and found their way back, and then he stood.

Legolas was to take up the shift after him, but if Boromir understood the habits of elves he could be almost certain that Legolas had not even gone to sleep.

Sure enough, the elf lay there with eyes open, looking up into the trees. Unfocused, but aware.

Boromir crouched beside him. "Legolas."

Legolas' eyes blinked once and met his. "Do you tire early?" the soft voice asked.

Boromir nodded towards the empty bedroll. "I think I need to go in search of lost hobbit. I don't want to leave the camp unprotected."

Legolas sat up, nodding. "Would you like me to search for Merry? I can find him easier in the darkness than a man."

It was true, Boromir knew, so he stifled the urge to snap back. "No. I'd like to find him myself."

Legolas nodded without further argument.

Boromir glanced at where Pippin lay. Pippin must have gone to sleep fast, because he was unaware of anything going on around him. Boromir had no doubt Pippin would have been the first out into the trees if he thought Merry was in the slightest danger of getting lost.

Legolas' quiet voice sang out before Boromir could stand up. "I didn't think it was quite your nature to get involved in other people's lives."

Boromir turned back to him, brow furrowed.

Legolas regarded him, looking innocent.

"I'd like to have a few words with him, yes. I'm not getting involved in anything."

But he was lying, and probably both of them knew it.

Because for Merry to have gotten up and left the site without Boromir seeing, it would have had to be when Boromir and Pippin were still talking. That meant Merry must have heard the matter they were talking about, and maybe his long absence was related.

No, it wasn't in Boromir's nature to get involved, especially in personal situations between almost strangers. But he had a desire to know what Merry had heard, and what he might have gotten upset at.

Strange, flighty, careless creatures, yes, but Boromir would be damned if he wasn't starting to get attached to the two of them.

He rose and went into the trees by Merry's bedroll.

It took him less time than he thought to track down the wayward hobbit. He found Merry not very far away at all, sitting amid rock and roots and looking down at the flow of a tiny, almost dried-up creek.

Boromir approached him. He cleared his throat slightly, smiling. "Ho there, children."

The greeting had become something of a joke between them going back to their first meeting. It was especially useful in getting the two of them to stop joking and take his sword-play lessons seriously.

Merry glanced back, unsurprised to see him.

Boromir slowed down, his smile vanishing when he saw Merry's face.

He was as serious as Boromir had ever seen either of his two hobbits. There was nothing of a smile or a joke on him anywhere.

Boromir reached his side and crouched down, glancing at the creek. He wasn't quite sure how to ask what he wanted.

Merry was the one to break the brief silence. "We're not children, you know." He spoke quietly.

Boromir turned back to him, unsmiling. He could detect that Merry wasn't trying to joke. "I know," he said simply.

Merry looked past him back at the feeble stream of water in the darkness. "I've been of age for almost four years now," he said, even quieter.

Boromir frowned at him, furrowing his brow. "What—"

Merry got to his feet suddenly. "Good night, Boromir." He shot the man a brief look, round-eyed and...almost sad.

Boromir watched him go, and frowned at the creek for a moment before straightening up.

Something significant had just been said to him. He had that feeling. Merry's words were more than just an attempt at correcting Boromir's view of his age. There was something more meaningful there.

And Boromir had missed it.

Worse, he had seen sadness in the eyes of one of his hobbits. He had been right to think he wouldn't like the sight at all.

It became habit to work on sword fighting with the hobbits almost every day when they stopped for their afternoon meal.

The lessons weren't taken too seriously, it seemed, except by those involved. Often Frodo and Sam would sit and watch and call out little jokes and try and distract their two younger friends. Aragorn would also watch, usually with a half-smile on his face as if he was amused, but at least he would occasionally call out a word of assistance.

Merry and Pippin took the lessons as seriously as they took anything – not very. But despite their big grins and their lighthearted words, they learned what Boromir taught. Even when the lessons dissolved into playtime, with the two hobbits playfully challenging each other to duels, they would interrupt the laughter to correct their grips on the handles, or their footing, to be more accurate.

So, not entirely flightly. There were things the creatures took seriously, but it seemed habit, at least with these two in particular, not to let it show.

Boromir had to admit to not knowing much about the others in the Fellowship. He knew that Sam and Frodo behaved nothing like Merry and Pippin. They seemed, as Merry had once put it, bowed down by responsibility. Maybe it was the ring, or the seriousness of the task ahead, but with every passing day Frodo seemed a hint more grave. And Sam was a bit more anxious about him.

When the company walked, it was mostly in silence. When they talked, Legolas and Gimli had taken to trading barbs with each other, though there seemed to be less heat in it as days went on. Gandalf and Aragorn would huddle together and talk about serious matters, about the road ahead. As if it did any good to constantly remind themselves what was coming.

Boromir kept to himself, and to his young wards. As a result, he was still uncertain about most of the others. Of course, he wasn't any more certain about Merry and Pippin. He would not make his mind up about any one of them until he had been into danger with them at least once.

He got his chance to find out, for the first time, during one of their sword fighting lessons. The fellowship had stationed themselves on various rocks, going through their lunch slowly as if to stall the time when the long march would begin again.

His hobbits, as much as they talked of laziness and hunger and sloth, rose to the lessons now without complaint, holding off their meals until they had a bit of practice in.

This practice dissolved into playtime fast, with an accidental touch of Boromir's sword to Pippin's hand.

Boromir jerked back in alarm, his movements instant. He had hurt one of his hobbits. "I'm sorry," he blurted at once.

Pippin raised his hand to his mouth and sucked gingerly at the wound, and glared up at him fiercely.

But Boromir detected that ever-present light of laughter in his eyes. His alarm lessened.

Pippin attacked at the first hint of a smile on Boromir's face, kicking at his legs and laughing through his feigned ferocity.

Merry, of course, was quick to join in, and the next thing Boromir knew, he was flat on his back with two squirming bodies wrestling to hold him down.

"For the Shire!" Pippin cried out victoriously.

Boromir quickly conceded. Laughter bubbled out of him, unbidden and free. More free than he could remember laughing in some time. Maybe ever.

Aragorn appeared as shadow behind the hobbits, tugging at their shoulders. "Gentlemen, that's enough!" His hands gripped the two smaller bodies.

Boromir watched the instant looks the two shot each other, the instant communication, and the turning of two bodies as one. And then Aragorn was down there on the ground, flat on his back. Air burst out of him sounding like laughter.

And Boromir was surprised to find himself resenting it.

These were his hobbits. Aragorn had his own two to watch out for.

But Merry and Pippin showed no interest in playing. They knocked him out of their way, and the two beaming, breathless faces turned once again to Boromir, sharing smiles.

Boromir wasn't sure, but from the way it felt on his face, his smile must have been as big as theirs.

The happy moment was just that, though – a moment.

Next thing he knew Aragorn was on his feet and grave again, and all eyes were on an approaching dark cloud in the sky.

"It's just a wisp of cloud," came the low growl of Gimli's voice.

Boromir shook his head. He didn't know anything of the magic and witchcraft that some of those in this company knew, but that was no cloud. "It's moving fast, against the wind."

Legolas was in front of all of them, and his sharp eyes made some connection suddenly, for his voice rang out sharply. "Crebain from Dunland!"

It meant nothing to Boromir, but Aragorn answered immediately with one shouted command. "Hide!"

It was trouble. It was danger, upon them finally.

Boromir didn't think. He turned to find his two small friends. "Merry! Pippin! Take cover!"

They were baffled, but as the company split apart and dove into hiding places, Boromir gave them no time to think about it. He took them both by the arm and dove for the thick underbrush of the bushes surrounding the rocks.

Not a moment too soon. An instant after they were all still and under cover, the dark flock was upon them.

Birds, black and large, swooped over their small area, circling and cawing to each other.

Boromir was half on top of Pippin's legs, and he could feel the slight nervous shaking and quick breathing in Pippin's body.

He reached out carefully, and without thought, to rest a hand on Pippin's knee.

Merry lay sprawled on his back beside his friend, and as they stared in wonder and fear at the circling nest of birds, their two small hands were in each other's grasp.

So natural for those two. So instinctive to turn to each other. To touch, to comfort, to be free and open with their emotions.

Boromir thought about Merry.

Most of their emotions, anyway.

He felt a warmth on his hand, and his eyes flickered up to see Pippin's free hand clutching at his.

Boromir stared for a moment, then slowly let his hand turn on its back. His fingers caught Pippin's, and the young hobbit squeezed tightly.

He squeezed back, enough to be firm.

When the birds were gone, circling at last out of sight of their small hill, Gandalf emerged noisily.

The others followed his lead.

The wizard was grave, even more than usual. "Spies of Saruman."

Boromir frowned, his eyes going to the departing cloud as he absently brushed the dirt from his clothes.

"The passage South is being watched." Gandalf turned his eyes from the path they had been following, the relatively easy hike that was planned for the next few days. "We must take the pass of Caradhras."

Boromir jerked his eyes to the wizard. He couldn't be serious.

But he was. Gandalf was staring right at the cold, impenetrable mountain range in the distance.

But surely...

There was no way. Even if the men could survive, these tiny and soft hobbits wouldn't last a day.

He opened his mouth to speak in protest, turning back to Gandalf.

But he looked to them first, and found their eyes already on him.

Merry was serious. He had looked at the mountain, no doubt, and knew what they had in store for them.

Pippin was just curious.

He met their eyes, and then their gazes moved again, Merry's back to the mountain, and Pippin to Gandalf.

But his heart did a silent stop and start when he realized...

They had looked to him first. They had looked to him at all. In this company, with their wizard friend, with Aragorn, whom they had come to depend on before meeting Boromir, with the elf and dwarf who knew so much more of this land...

Still they had looked to him.

His protest died silently, buried under new thoughts, and their hike began again on its new course.

Those new thoughts had time in the silence to run around themselves.

Odd that the realization should strike him so hard. The one thing Boromir was used to was being looked at as a leader. In times of trouble his men had always looked to him for aid.

But these weren't his men, and this wasn't yet a battle. Boromir, though he would never admit it aloud, was completely out of his depth here. This quest was bigger than him. This land was strange to him, the evil was one he didn't know how to fight.

Yet. Those two small, helpless hobbits had turned to him. Why?

Because they had spent most of their time together? Because he perhaps held on to his air of authority and somehow projected a certainty he didn't really have?

Or was there some other reason? Was it something besides wanting guidance or leadership?

Boromir wasn't sure – would never be sure – how the minds of hobbits worked. They were so different from men. But one thing he knew: the two of them, and Sam and Frodo as well, always turned to each other first. Whether things were good or bad, whether they were happy or afraid, they always turned to each other.

He had seen it a hundred times so far on the brief journey. To almost every announcement, every communication, there was a look. Sometimes quick, sometimes longer. Always at least a brief glance. Like they had to be sure that no matter what was going on, the other was right there to share it with them.

Could it be that...

Maybe they were friends now – Boromir and his little ones. Maybe the two hobbits had taken his instruction and his watchful eye as friendship.

Maybe they looked to him to make sure he was there, sharing this with them.

He couldn't quite believe it was like that, though. Not yet. Not after so brief a time. Friendships were made, if not instantly in a field of battle, over long periods of time. Trust had to be established, and then common belief, and then affection could come from that.

But, again. Hobbits didn't think the way men thought. Hobbits were more open with their affection; maybe they were more free in giving it.

He wasn't sure. Honestly, he shouldn't have been devoting time to thinking about it. There were so many other more important things happening. There was the ring, the quest.

The ring.

His eyes, as they walked, went from his hobbits to the two who walked in front of them. Sam and Frodo. Frodo, with that burden around his neck. That huge, important, burden.

His thoughts bent on the ring, and Boromir felt the little ones by his side slipping slowly, for now, out of his mind.

The supper that night was solemn and quiet. They were eating at the very foot of the mountain, ready to begin what was going to be a difficult, if not impossible, assent. Everyone felt the heaviness of it settle on them.

Even Merry and Pippin spoke quietly when they spoke, and whatever jokes may have passed between them were quiet and without laughter.

Boromir spent the first part of the meal on his feet, scouting the path ahead, wondering how they thought the hobbits would ever make the trip.

It was the soft, low voice of one of his little ones that brought him to the fire. "You know the path won't change, as hard as you stare. Unless you have some magic you've kept secret from us."

He looked down and saw Merry at his side, looking up at him.

He smiled slightly, and hoped it looked less grim than it felt. "I only wish I had the ability to make this new course easier."

"Well. I have, if you haven't."

"Do you?" He raised his eyebrows and met Merry's eyes.

Merry smiled slightly and nodded back over his shoulder. "I have a lovely plate of sausages waiting for you. It's no magic, maybe, but the path will be easier with food in your stomach."

Boromir's smile grew slightly. It grew in sincerity as well. His eyes went back to the mountain, though. "I don't think it will make much difference one way or another, master hobbit."

A slightly smaller hand circled his, drawing his eyes again. "But you'll pretend it will, just to make me happy."

Boromir chuckled and let Merry tug him back.

Sitting alone on one side of the glowing fire, Pippin grinned as they approached. His voice was quiet, respectful of the tension in the air, but his tone was happy. "I was starting to think we'd lost you to brooding."

Boromir sat, and Merry set down on his other side. "Not yet."

"Good. Strider does that more than enough for the whole race of men." Pippin moved in a little, wiggling until he was close and pressed to Boromir's side. "You shouldn't leave us to sit alone again. We've gotten used to having a big, warm body beside us."

Boromir took the plate Merry silently handed to him. "And should I be quiet and still, as suits a furnace?"

"No, not at all. In fact, we were talking about it earlier, and we're both agreed that now that we've finally heard the proud Boromir give in to laughter once or twice, we should do all we can to make it happen again and again. We rather enjoy the sound of it."

Boromir, obediently, laughed quietly.

Pippin beamed. "You see? Isn't that nice?"

Boromir glanced over at Merry.

Merry nodded down at his plate, motioning for him to eat. There was affection in his eyes.

On his other side, Pippin sat smiling and happy that he had made Boromir laugh one more time.

And Boromir finally understood in his head what was happening with them. Hobbits may or may not have formed the same types of bonds of friendship as men did...but what was going on now, between them, felt awfully close.

There it was.

Abandoned, looking lost in the snow. Glowing deep against the backdrop of white.

Boromir stood for a moment, just looking.

And his body, acting before he consciously wished it too, bent and reached for the chain that held the ring.

It was as simple as that. The ring of power, in his command.

The ring of power. The future of all of Middle Earth. Hanging from a thin chain from his cold and flawed human fingers.

Aragon's voice marred the silence that had overtaken the world. Boromir thought the man spoke his name, but he couldn't be sure. It was distant and muffled.

Boromir thought of Gondor. Thought of endless battles won and lost. Endless bodies piled and burned, endless friends and comrades laid out on snow that gleamed less white than this.

And the ring of power, this thing in his hand, could make it all vanish.

Strange. A strange fate that they should suffer so much fear and doubt...over so small a thing. Such a little thing...


It wasn't until he hear Aragorn that Boromir realized his thoughts were words being spoken out loud. He shut his mouth and his eyes focused, with difficulty, beyond the ring.

Frodo stood there, eyes huge and round, focused on...not Boromir, but the ring.

And Aragorn stood, almost expressionless. His voice was firm, but quiet. "Give the ring to Frodo."

He made to move, to hand the ring over.

But his body didn't obey. The voice of Aragorn trailed off, and the strange white noise of the world filled his ears. And under it, under everything, even his own heartbeat, came a whisper. Low and unintelligible, a voice was calling to him.

Calling for Gondor, for the end to war, the victory of a good race that had known nothing but hard times.

Boromir blinked, then blinked again hard, and shook his head slightly.

The whisper vanished so fast that he was instantly half-sure he imagined it. The muteness of the world went away, and his eyes focused again on the scared, wary eyes of a hobbit that wasn't in his heart.

Boromir smiled, though he didn't feel like it. He had felt something too strange to dismiss. And though the ring felt heavy and firm in his grasp, like it was meant for him and him alone, he stumbled through the snow to obey Aragorn's words. "As you wish. I care not." Too light a tone, too light of words. But he couldn't reveal his true thoughts.

Frodo snatched the ring from him the moment it was close enough.

Boromir smiled down at him to distract himself from a light flash of pain and...wrongness...that came when the ring left his hand.

Frodo. Just a little hobbit, scared and overshadowed by the world. But so unlike the two Boromir now counted as his friends. So serious and lost to duty.

Boromir ruffled the hobbit's hair and glanced only briefly at Aragorn. He turned to trudge through the snow, to get to his own hobbits, his own place in line. Where he belonged.

The blizzard hit sudden and fierce, as fierce as any winter ever come to Gondor.

The snows piled around them heavily, sticking to the ground and becoming drifts, and then piles, and then whole paths were buried under it.

Boromir kept his eyes closely on Merry and Pippin. They were struggling already; he himself was struggling, so why shouldn't they be? But they kept going, dragging their legs, without complaint, through snow that came up to their knees.

It kept getting deeper. Driving against their faces, their bodies. The snow pushed against their feet and the wind sliced into their bodies, and every step was a fight against nature to move forward.

The hobbits were overcome fast. They started to stumble, to go more slowly. The fight began to show in their faces, uncomplaining but showing every ounce of exhaustion in their eyes.

For Boromir could read them now, as well as he could ever read any of his own men.

Merry stumbled and fell suddenly, and was lost in white.

Pippin reached out for him with a small, uncontrollable cry through lips that looked blue and numb, and nearly fell himself.

Boromir grabbed him. "Wait," he called out to be heard over the blast of wind.

Pippin obeyed, but his eyes stayed on the snow.

Boromir went to his knees and reached out, finding the cold mass with his hands. He grabbed Merry and tugged him up, rising at the same time.

Merry found his feet again and scrambled to wipe snow from his face. His skin was unhealthily pale, his teeth chattering.

Pippin reached for him and squeezed his arm.

Boromir found himself doing the same thing on his other side. "Are you alright?"

Merry just nodded. He was obviously miserable, but trying not to show it.

"Hurry! We can't lag now!" Aragorn's shout barely reached them, though he was less then ten feet ahead.

"They need a rest!" Boromir shouted back, brushing snow out of Merry's collar and hair.

"There's no time!"

Boromir looked up to glare, but Aragorn had already turned and kept his march going. He cursed under his breath.

Merry caught his hand. "We can go on," he said. His words were almost illegible through chattering and a face almost frozen by cold. His fingers were ice, colder than the snow itself.

Boromir looked down at him, silently cursing the blasting snow coming between them. He turned his eyes to Pippin, and saw the slightly smaller of the hobbits was no better off.

He reached back and grabbed the edge of his cloak. "Hold this!" He pushed the cloth into Merry's cold hand, and found the other end to give to Pippin. And then he dropped to one knee and wrapped his arms around the two hobbits at the waist, one on each side, and stood up with them in his grasp firmly.

They understood what the fabric in their hands was for, and each wrapped their end of the cloak around themselves, shielding their bodies and, effectively, Boromir's.

He started walking carefully, now burdened not only by snow and wind, but by this load in his arms that was too precious to be casual about.

Merry buried his fist into Boromir's shirt and tried to speak. "Y-you can't c-c-carry us—"

Boromir stopped his stuttering protest. He could speak lowly with the two of them pressed so close to him. "It's my honor," he replied sincerely.

Merry met his eyes.

Boromir smiled, though his own face was growing numb with cold. He glanced at Pippin, meeting those wide, scared eyes. "Not to mention my duty as the furnace of hobbits."

Pippin smiled as best he could, burrowing closer to Boromir's chest.

Boromir struggled ahead. He was used to the heavy armaments of war, the burdens of long travels. He could carry his friends without a thought or a regret. And he would.

He forged ahead, catching slowly up to the rest of the fellowship.

At one point Aragorn looked back and met his eyes, and something like surprise registered when he saw their new traveling arrangements. He nodded once, sharply, and turned around again.

Boromir wondered if that had been a sign of approval. If so, it had been hard won and reluctantly rewarded.

He noticed that so far Sam and Frodo had been using the trail left by Gandalf and Legolas to walk through. But the snows piled higher around them, and soon they began to stumble themselves.

When Aragorn lifted them and began struggling as Boromir was, Pippin breathed out a snort, warm against Boromir's neck. "In the songs they'll say it was Strider's idea."

Boromir laughed breathlessly, hugging Pippin closer to him unconsciously.

He tried not to feel smug when they at last made it back to the site of their last meal.

He didn't feel smug, really. Didn't feel anything for being right about the mountain being a lost cause. He was too cold and tired to feel much of anything.

Anything but defeat, anyway. Defeat was heavy in the air. The mountain, Saruman, Sauron, they had all conspired to close the path through Caradhras to them.

And now there was a day's travel wasted, and nine company members exhausted and frozen. For nothing.

He didn't bother listening to Gandalf and his summary of the new path ahead – the path leading to Moria. He didn't listen to Aragorn or Frodo's quiet, sullen words.

He laid out his bedroll and hoped they would realize he wasn't going to be the first on guard duty that night, and he instantly and completely fell into a cold and weary sleep.

He woke briefly, his eyes opening into the darkness suddenly. Had something woken him?

Not much time could have passed. Gandalf still spoke with Gimli about Moria. Aragorn had put Frodo and Sam to bed, though, and now sat in silence keeping the fire small but glowing.

Something was different, though. Something else...

He realized fast. He was warm. He had fallen asleep shivering to the bone, and was now warm and almost comfortable if not for the aching in his legs and arms.

He looked down at himself, and saw the two nestled against him, sharing their warmth.

His sleep-clouded brain identified them immediately, and he smiled. One hand reached up and dropped to rest in the curls of Merry's head, snug against his chest.

Merry didn't move, obviously deep asleep. But the lighter curls of Pippin's head rustled, and rose. Pippin's bright eyes blinked heavily in the dim light coming from the fire. "Are you cold?" he whispered.

Boromir smiled. "Not anymore."

Pippin returned the smile sleepily. "Good." And his head dropped again, snuggling into Boromir and falling still.

"You're taking care of us."

The voice was almost accusing.

Boromir turned and squinted through unending darkness. "Merry?"

A dark figure moved almost unnoticeably through Moria's blackness and came to rest beside him. "I couldn't sleep."

It was Merry's voice alright, although inches away Boromir still couldn't see. He wished Gandalf would leave his staff glowing while they slept, though he knew they had to stay as invisible as possible.

There was a pause, and Boromir cleared his throat quietly. "You don't want me to take care of you?"

Merry's voice was thoughtful. "I'm not sure. You have been since the day we left Rivendell, and it bothered me then in a way it doesn't now."

"Did it?"

"Very much. But you were different then. You watched over us, and started those lessons, but you seemed unhappy about it. I know you see us as a burden on this mission. I would agree with you, too, that we can be of little help. But you should know that at the very least we can make it on our own. If we're to offer no aid in times of need, we can at least not be a distraction to those of you that can help."

Boromir smiled at the words. "You read my mind, though you probably don't know it."

"I suspected."

"At first, that's how I thought you would be. A burden. Understand, my life has been one field of battle, and I am used to thinking of people only in terms of how they affect that battle. And I saw that you two would affect it in no good ways."

Merry was silent beside him. Tense.

Boromir nudged with his arm gently until he found Merry. "I thought wrong. I believe that now. And you must have sensed my resentment before, so you didn't like me watching over you. But it isn't there any longer."

"I know." Merry spoke in a whisper. The deep, black silence of Moria amplified sound, and even whispers sounded too loud. "I'm glad."

"So am I." Boromir looked out at nothing. He spoke again almost freely. "I'm glad to consider you my companions on this journey." He wondered if it was the anonymity of the darkness making it so easy to speak his true thoughts.

Merry shifted a little closer, brushing against him. "I wasn't sure if you would think of us as friends. Aragorn, I know, has grown affectionate towards Frodo, yet I doubt he would call him friend."

"But Aragorn is bowed down by his mission. At least, so spoke a friend of mine once upon a time."

Merry laughed gently. "It's true. They are too lost under their own importance to think of friendship or...or other things."

"Other things?"

Merry hesitated. "I have...I've wondered sometimes what it would feel like to be taken care of by someone."

Boromir understood that. He understood it deeply and more fiercely than Merry probably knew. "You take care of your friends. You came on this journey merely helping Frodo to escape some unknown danger. You help Pippin out all the time. I suppose you grew up helping him."

"Pip...Pip is younger than me. He's always needed looking after."

"And now? He can take care of himself now."

"Maybe. But I don't know how to stop."

Boromir smiled sadly. "We have more in common than I ever would have thought, master hobbit."

"So. It's like I thought. Even though you no longer resent it, you take care of us because you can do nothing else."

"No." Boromir frowned, thoughtful. "That isn't entirely true. If I were operating solely on a sense of duty I would be guarding Frodo like a shadow. I would be even worse than Aragorn towards your friend. But I don't feel that urge. And I wonder that I don't, because I'm the same as you – I can't seem to shut off the need to protect."

"That need has just restricted itself to Pip and I."

"It seems that way."

"I..." Merry moved slightly, turning towards Boromir though there was no chance of seeing each other. "I don't quite know how to respond to that. I'm not sure I'm entirely comfortable with it."

"So that is your answer."


"You said you often wondered what it would feel like to be taken care of. Now you know."

"No." Merry sighed quietly. "No, I'm not certain of how I feel about anything right now."

Boromir lowered his voice further, wondering about this hobbit who seemed prone to serious moments and resentful of every minute of it. "Can I ask? What is there between you and Pippin?"

Merry was quiet for a long time. So long that Boromir assumed he wasn't going to answer.

But he did, eventually, though his voice was tighter and less open. "Pip is my cousin. He is my best friend in the entire world. I can't imagine what I would do without him there by my side. But between us? There is nothing between us in the way you mean. We lie together when he has a need, though I understand that symbolizes more to you than it does to us."

"To both of you? Or just to Pip?"

Merry made a slightly strangled noise. "Pip is young. He has years before he needs to think about the kinds of things you want to speak about. If he takes it less seriously than we do, it's well within his right."

Boromir nodded sadly, though he knew Merry couldn't see it. So Merry did take it seriously, and Pip did not.

He remembered Merry's soft comment in the woods at the start of their journey. About how he had been of age for four years.

He put that together in his mind, suddenly, with Pippin's words earlier that one night, the words Merry must have heard. When Pippin told Boromir that there was no earthly reason for him to sleep with Merry after he was of age. That then it was time to get serious and find a mate to start a family. Pip had even laughed at the idea that he would continue their trysts.

Yet here was Merry, four years into the age where he was to be serious. He was four years along that time Pip thought it was ridiculous to still sleep with a male for pleasure. And there he was, sticking beside Pip. Offering himself to the boy who was just satisfying urges.

It was sad to Boromir. Sad to think that Merry would give himself up like that, to a person he obviously loved. And to get nothing in return but the overheard sound of laughter from his love at the thought they would ever be more than they were.

And Pip had no idea. That was the worst of all.

Boromir understood Merry. He understood what it was like to hide feelings in order to protect those around him. He knew in an instant why Merry would choose not to talk to Pip about his feelings.

He didn't understand Pip. How could someone be as close to another as these two seemed to be, and still not see such pain in them? Such love, such real feelings?

How could Pip not see? Even though Merry tried to hide it...Boromir himself could see it, and he was almost a stranger. How could Pip be so blind, and so uncaring?

"He's young." Merry's voice seemed to both answer Boromir's thoughts and continue his own. "He isn't supposed to understand the things we do. I wouldn't want him to. He should have these years. He should have time to be happy, to be a child."

Boromir frowned. Merry sounded wistful. Sad with his own pain, yes, but...wistful. As if he were speaking about things he never had himself.

Like Boromir, when he spoke of how the children of Gondor should have peace. Should have this thing that everyone deserved, but he himself had never known.

He reached out, blind in the dark but finding Merry quickly and touching him with gentle fingers. "You are not all you appear to be, master hobbit." His words were light, but his tone was not. "I think there are times when you are even more grave than Frodo."

Merry tensed against him, then moved abruptly out of his reach. "Believe me, Boromir. We hobbits don't always have to leave the Shire to find out there are bad things in the world. You may think us simple and uncaring, but the same woes fall on us that fall on any race. It's in our nature to not dwell. To not think, and not show those woes. There's no point in holding on to misery when happiness is better. And so I think we won't talk like this anymore tonight."

Boromir spoke quickly, before Merry had a chance to make his escape back to his bed. "So, to sleep and forget all your troubles until the next talk?"

"That's the idea." Merry's voice was suddenly as light as it ever was, laughing and carefree.

Boromir spoke sadly. "If only it really worked that way, eh?"

There was no answer. The world fell into still silence for a long moment, and then the sound of light footsteps took Merry away from his side for the night.

The light of the world outside Moria was a deceitful thing. Overpowering, it seemed, after days in the darkness. And yet everything was so much darker suddenly for them, for those left in the company.

They were leaving behind one who would see the light no more.

Boromir had only known Gandalf from this adventure. He hadn't been too fond of the wizard at first. In all honesty, he had never really grown fond of him. He hadn't had much in the way of time. He trusted the old man's judgment, and he willingly followed where Gandalf led, but he couldn't say he felt more than a vague sense of loss at the wizard's death.

They were a company, a fellowship. The loss of one member was a blow to all. But Boromir was far too hardened to death to give himself over to any kind of grief. Not for Gandalf, who would remain in his mind distant and lofty and removed.

But, there were those there who knew Gandalf as more than that. In fact, the whole of the company was taking the loss hard to heart.

Legolas. Boromir assumed the elf was having trouble understanding what had happened. He was an elf, and had not, most likely, experienced death so closely. Boromir knew Legolas had been nothing like a friend to Gandalf, but Legolas had a great deal of respect and affection for a being that had lived as long as Gandalf, and had seen and accomplished so much.

Gimli reacted openly and deeply, not bothering to hide his tears even while they were making their way out of the gates of Moria. But that was his nature. Gimli had yet to hide or disguise one single emotion in the time Boromir knew him. Whether it was the nature of all dwarves to be so open, or just Gimli, Boromir didn't know. It didn't really matter.

Aragorn, Boromir knew, had been friends with Gandalf for many long years. Though he did not display his grief, it was there and it ran deep.

Frodo -- all the hobbits -- had known Gandalf from his frequent trips to the Shire. They had looked up to him. Frodo alone had called him a friend, but they all felt his loss.

And, in fitting with his habits since the start of the journey, it was the Shire folk who Boromir kept his eyes on. Even when Gimli gave in to his tired emotions and Boromir was there to catch him and keep him on his feet, and to keep him from running headlong back into Moria, his eyes were on the hobbits.

Frodo seemed in shock. He kept walking once the others had stopped, on slow, aimless feet that seemed to have no path in mind. Sam for once wasn't watching his master, but was finally giving time to his own feelings. He had sagged to the ground, and was holding his head as he sobbed his grief.

Boromir looked to Merry and Pippin, and knew his thoughts wouldn't leave them again. His heart broke in his chest when he saw them.

Pip. Poor young, foolish Pip was devastated. He had fallen to the ground, weeping and pitiful. Scared, no doubt. Lost. Guilty, and for that Boromir almost wished Gandalf were still alive just so Boromir could tear into him himself.

With Pip, holding on to him as he cried, was Merry. His own face was almost blank. His eyes were wide with leftover fear and shock, but that was all he displayed. He was giving all his attention to Pip, grasping his arm and letting him cry.

Boromir's thoughts went quickly to the last day. To the blunders that led to the attack by the orcs. To the reaction of his own little ones to their first real battle.

He could still see easily enough the spear of the cave troll pinning Frodo to the wall, dealing what they all had mistakenly thought was a death blow.

He could see and hear in his mind, as clear as any other thoughts, as his two little ones were faced with the apparent death of one of their friends.

He had not known before what sort of stuff hobbits were made of. He had thought them a hindrance, a weak, small and insignificant race. But now he could not see how he ever could have believed it.

He watched through his own little battles as Merry and Pippin showed no fear, no hesitation. They had gripped their swords and thrown themselves in a rage onto the huge and overpowering beast that had hurt their friend. They held on when others could not have, they hacked with their small swords. They were thrown, one by one, to the ground, before the cave troll fell.

But they had revealed what they were truly made of, and Boromir understood finally why Gandalf had been so quick to want the small hobbits on this journey.

This was a strong race. Brave and loyal and devoted as any other being Boromir had ever met. His own smiling, joyful Merry and Pip were as courageous as he could have ever wanted in his own men in Gondor, and more so.

There was nothing weak about them. And it cut Boromir to now have to watch them grieve.

"Legolas." Aragorn's sharp voice broke the muffled, thick silence. "Get them up."

Boromir's eyes snapped over to the man, the supposed heir of kings.

Aragorn was serious. He was sheathing his sword and facing the path that they were set to take.

Anger lit inside Boromir. "Give them a moment, for pity's sake."

Aragorn's eyes flickered to him. Despair was in them, but also a certain coldness. "By nightfall these hills will be swarming with orcs. We must reach the woods of Lothlorien. Come, Boromir. Legolas, Gimli. Get them up."

Boromir swallowed his next protest.

Aragorn, he realized, was doing what had to be done. Filling in the empty space Gandalf's death had created. Pushing them now that the wizard wasn't there to do it himself.

While Aragorn left his side to deal with Frodo, Boromir turned back to Merry and Pip. He moved to them, shaking his head silently at Legolas, who had been trying to rouse them.

Legolas met his eyes, brow furrowed, but stepped back and went to join Gimli, leaving Boromir to his hobbits.


Merry's glassy eyes blinked and focused up at him.

Boromir crouched beside them. "We have to keep moving," he said gently.

Merry looked around briefly, then nodded. He tightened his grip on Pippin's arm, bending close to him. "Come on, Pip."

Pippin's eyes shut tightly, and he shook his head. At the same time, though, he pushed himself up until he was sitting, and he let Merry help pull him to his feet.

"Let's go!"

Boromir's jaw tightened, but he simply glanced back at Aragorn and held up a hand. "We will take a moment. We'll catch up."

Aragorn, one hand safely on Frodo's shoulder, frowned at him.

Boromir's eyes went to Frodo, and he was tempted to take back the words and push the hobbits into moving faster. He should have been sticking by Frodo anyway. By the ring. By...

He shook the thought away. "Go!" He didn't wait for Aragorn's response, but turned back to the little ones.

Pippin was swiping at his cheeks with a dirty sleeve. He swayed a little, but stayed on his feet.

Merry met Boromir's eyes. "We'll keep up. We're ready."

Boromir knew that Merry would never have said it if he had any doubt Pippin was too upset to travel. So he took Merry's word and rose to his feet. "Then come along. We have a long way to travel yet today."

"We have a long way to travel every day," Merry retorted without heat as they started moving after the rest of the company. "But we never seem to get anywhere."

"If Aragorn is right about this Elf forest we go to, at the very least we will be able to sleep safely tonight."

Merry smiled, the barest hint of an expression. "Maybe that's getting somewhere after all."

Pippin kept moving, stumbling along on suddenly uncertain feet. He didn't say anything at all.

Boromir watched Aragorn walk away, melting into the dark mists of Lothlorien.

His hands were fists, his eyes still wet and clouded, but he sat straight and proud until Aragorn was no longer in sight.

Once he was alone again, he breathed out and slumped against the trunk of the tree he sat beside.

His thoughts were turning in this place, turning fast and unpleasantly and he didn't like it.

"Ho there, children." A quiet voice rang out minutes later.

He opened his eyes and focused on Merry's smiling face. He looked away instantly, not even managing a smile for the greeting. "What are you doing up?"

Merry moved closer slowly, as if sensing that Boromir wasn't open to his company. "No one is sleeping. The talk keeps bending to Gandalf."

"And where is your other half?"

"Content to lie there and listen and drive himself further into misery." Merry shook his head and ambled up to the tree. "It worries me. He has never been wont to invite unhappiness."

Boromir didn't answer, looking beyond the hobbit into the trees. He could feel Merry's eyes on him, but he didn't move.

Merry spoke again a moment later. "Maybe it's this place we're in; everyone seems to be settling into their unhappiness. Strange, since this place is so beautiful. There is something sad about it, though, isn't there?"

"I would really rather have some time to myself. If you don't mind."

"I do mind, actually. My friends are suddenly acting far out of character, and I mind very much."

Boromir turned to him, frowning. "Out of character? Tell me, Merry. What do you know of my character?"

Merry opened his mouth to answer, then shut it again slowly. He regarded Boromir with shadowed eyes.

Boromir nodded once, sharply. "Nothing. You know nothing about me, nothing about the people I come from. And yet here you are thinking you can determine when I'm behaving out of character. You have a nerve, master hobbit."

Merry sat. Ignoring all the hints he was being given to go away, he actually sat down beside Boromir. "Then you have been out of character this entire trip, and now are righting yourself. Is that what you mean to say?"

"It's truer than you're prepared to believe, if your tone of voice is any judge. I have been behaving differently, and I mean not to anymore. I mean to be the man I was intended to be when I was sent out here by my people. Not blinded by silly hobbits or their games, not to be distracted by you who would call me friend though you don't know me. I have a task, a mission, and it is my job to do that, and nothing but that."

Merry smiled, though nothing like humor was in his eyes. "So you blame us for your transformation."

"Of course I do."

Merry nodded, but made no move to rise.

Boromir glared down at him, then pursed his lips and stared back into the trees.

"You became angry very suddenly, Boromir son of Denethor." Merry spoke differently suddenly, more clipped. Formal. "Is there something in the air here that doesn't agree with you?"

Boromir's eyes went automatically to the spot where he had last seen Aragorn, fading into the trees as silently and as haughtily as any elf. "You could say that."

"I did say that," came the automatic response.

Boromir turned to Merry, frowning.

Merry smiled and held up a hand. "Forgive my flippant tone. I am a hobbit, you see. It is in the spirit of my race to not reveal those things that bother us. To speak lightly though we are in pain. We're a small people, you see, the smallest race in Middle Earth. And we must survive the only way we know how. We're too vulnerable as it is to go showing our weaknesses to the Big Folk."

Boromir blinked in surprise, studying him. This was an interpretation of the light spirit of hobbits that he had not yet heard.

Merry regarded him, still as distant and formal as any stranger. "Tell me something of you, Boromir. Who are the people you come from?"

"I could tell you many things about my people, but I don't think it would pass as friendly conversation."

"I asked because I was interested, not because I'm looking for an idle distraction."

Boromir met his eyes, then turned away. "I am a soldier of Gondor," he said quietly, and he could hear the pride in his voice. "Do you know anything of Gondor?"

"Only what I have been told by you."

"Then let me tell you more, lest you hear from someone else and get the wrong idea. I'll tell you what I know of Gondor. I learned how to fight the moment I was old enough, because the people of Gondor do nothing but fight in these long years. Our lands lie between the awakening borders of Mordor and the dying lands of Isengard. We are, in fact, all that lies between Mordor and the rest of the lands of Middle Earth. We have been placed in the position of warriors. Ever since any of the oldest of my people can remember, we have done battle with orcs and goblins, with men corrupted by the Enemy. With all manners of evil." He glanced down at Merry.

Merry was watching him, but he averted his eyes at Boromir's gaze. His face was pensive.

Boromir was glad. At least he was being taken seriously, for now. "The children of my lands go to school to learn to fight. The boys are led into battles far too young, and the girls are sent to learn trades, to keep the city alive while the men are gone. Many of our boys do not survive their first battles. Those that do become hardened soldiers fast, before they're ever of an age to settle and start families." He thought Merry would appreciate that, since hobbits seemed to take coming of age as an important thing.

He sighed and looked out at the trees, feeling the echoed cries of a thousand battles around him. "We fight all our lives, master hobbit. We return to the city to start families so there will be little boys and girls to keep the war going. There isn't much in the way of happiness in my people, Merry. There isn't much laughter, there isn't much joy. We live our lives as a parody of other men's, but we take no joy in it. What happiness we get is from warfare. From defeating a particularly dangerous foe, from rising against stacked odds to be victorious. From living to see the sun rise again."

Merry moved in closer to him slightly, until his arm brushed Boromir's. He didn't speak, and didn't look at him, but he made his presence that much more known.

Boromir frowned, leaning his head against the tree. "I have seen things you could not imagine. I have seen boys going into war, too young to have known life, and far too young to understand death. I have seen those boys jump in front of arrows to save their comrades. I have seen men, old by our standards, volunteer for the worst of missions, the most certain forms of suicide, because they believe they have already lived longer than they should have. I have seen women cut their hair to hide their sex and don unfamiliar, hard and heavy armor to take an ill or injured husband's place in battle.

"Those are my people, master hobbit. We fight, and that is the most I can tell you. We fight because we are in the position to. We fight to insure that the other lands of Middle Earth don't see the orcs, or the evil men. We fight to keep the lands beyond ours safe. Your Shire, this forest, all the lands we have crossed. We fight all our lives to keep them what they are."

Merry was looking at him by then, his eyes wide and sorrowful.

Boromir returned his gaze for a long moment. "I am one of those soldiers, and that is all. So when I say that the laughter and smiles of the last few weeks are out of character for me, than you may well believe it. I allowed myself to be distracted by your lives, your ways. I have given up thought to you and Pip far more than I have thought of the lands I've left behind, or the dangers we have yet to face."

Merry spoke quietly, almost a whisper. "And now?"

Boromir straightened, his eyes going back to that shadowed place where he had seen Aragorn last. "And now, now that I'm traveling among those other lands, I find that Gondor is forgotten. The people who are giving their lives even at this very minute to warfare are ignored by the people whose lands they protect. I find that the elves of these lofty forests are dismissive, even contemptuous, of men. We are called proud and ambitious, we are thought to be flawed and ignorant by these cold creatures. I find that the dwarves are too distracted by their own lands, their own profits, to spare a thought to us. And I find that other men care no more than that. I find that the one man who should be leading the battle in Gondor, the one man who should know and respect the way we live, is too busy trying be something he is not to see the good in what he truly is."

He swallowed, looking away from the trees, looking back at Merry because he was all that could serve as distraction. "We are not trusted, not admired, not even remembered. And it is a hard thing for me to learn. When I return home, when this quest is over, it will be hard to remember why we should give our lives to save those who hate us or ignore us." He sighed, his eyes drifting back to the darkness of the trees. "It is hard to know why I shouldn't be given that ring, the cause of this whole mess, and take it back to the good people who are dying over it. No one will tell me why it cannot be that way, why I shouldn't take it and wield it to defeat the evil, except that they think we are too weak to use it." He shook his head, laughing slightly in contempt. "Weak. They think my people are weak."

"It is not only your people, I think. Even Gandalf thought himself too weak to use the ring. Even Elrond." Merry spoke hesitantly.

Boromir shook his head. "I am to trust their word on anything? When I hear what they say of my people, how can I listen to what they have to say on anything else?"

There was a pause. A light weight rested on Boromir's arm suddenly. "I don't know."

Boromir looked down at Merry's hand, then sighed. "But perhaps you understand now why I am angry so suddenly."

"No." Merry's voice was sad. "As you say, your people are far different than mine. It isn't in me yet to understand how you must feel. But I have heard your words, and I know in my heart that your anger is genuine and justified, even if I can't feel it for myself."

Boromir looked down at him, feeling something like gratitude at this whole-hearted acceptance. "I..." He hesitated. "I would not want you to feel it. When I first met you I was contemptuous of the spirit of you hobbits. But now I see as you do – I can't understand it, but it is genuine and justified, given your lives in your own land. It even brings me happiness of late to see it. It shows me that despite the cold spirit that greets me and the name of Gondor everywhere else, maybe there is something worth protecting out there."

"Then we are doing some good on this quest after all. I'm glad."

Boromir knew that he meant it, and it warmed him despite himself. Merry was sincere – if his whole duty in being on such a long and difficult quest was to raise Boromir's spirits, he would be glad to do it.

It amazed him. Yet it didn't overshadow all the darkness in his mind. "I don't quite know what to do anymore," he confessed quietly.

Merry smiled faintly up at him. "You should rest. Whatever it is you feel now, it will be there to be felt again in the morning."

Boromir sighed. "I don't think sleep is going to come to me here. I close my eyes and see her in my head, and hear her voice. It amplifies those feelings too much to sleep."

Merry nodded. "Then you should listen to her. She had a nice voice, if you ask me, and perhaps if you listen to it instead of fighting it, it will lull you into dreams."

Boromir smiled at that. "You're an optimistic little creature, Meriadoc."

"I am, more often than not. You will try it, though." Merry straightened out and patted his own small lap. "You will use me for a pillow, and lay for a few moments and see if what I say may be true."

Boromir laughed.

Merry glared up at him with feigned offense, his eyes bright. "There are things hobbits are good for, you know. We make excellent pillows. You shouldn't refuse an offer to find out for yourself."

"Then I won't." Boromir hesitated, but arranged himself on his back slowly, resting his head in Merry's lap.

"And now, you will close your eyes and listen to that voice, and let it put you to sleep. Don't think about what she says, if it worries you. Just listen."

Boromir obeyed hesitantly. He slid his eyes shut and let his thoughts drift.

And there were the probing, all-seeing eyes of Galadriel. There was her low voice speaking of Gondor, of hope, of victory, of all those things Boromir and all his people had long ago lost all sight of.

He tried to do as his pillow commanded. Tried to not answer the words with the arguments, the awful certainty, that was in his mind. He relaxed himself and listened to the gentle song of hope.

Sleep came faster than he would have thought possible.

When he awoke, the light eyes of an elf were on him.

Boromir blinked slowly and looked around, seeing Legolas standing in the trees, watching him.

He sat up slowly, stretching himself. He felt rested – better rested than he had for days. Weeks, maybe.

A slight snuffle caught his attention, and he looked down to see Merry, fast asleep where he had been sitting. His head was tilted at too sharp an angle to rest on the tree behind him. He would hurt when he woke up.

Boromir ignored Legolas for the time being, putting his hands on Merry and gently, carefully tugging him away from the tree and turning him to lie on the ground.

Merry didn't even stir, just mumbled something through sleep-thickened lips and fell silent again.

Boromir looked down at him for a long moment.

He was amazed at the amount of sheer affection in his heart for the little hobbit. Merry had listened to the words Boromir had long been holding tight within him, had felt genuinely bad for the things he hadn't understood before, and had settled Boromir's spirit so that, despite himself, he had been smiling and laughing again. And then he had given himself as pillow to let Boromir sleep.

Odd that he would do all those things for Boromir, who had been trying so hard to send him away so he could brood alone.

"How do you feel?" came the whisper-soft voice of Legolas suddenly.

Boromir took his eyes from Merry and turned to the elf. He rose to his feet, less stiff than he would have thought, and moved to the trees where Legolas stood. "Rested. You?"

Legolas nodded and gazed around him. "I spent the last hours walking through these trees. It's filled my spirit more than a thousand days of rest." His light eyes went back to Boromir, and studied him carefully. "You make an unusual pair," he said, nodding back towards where Merry lay.

Boromir glanced back, smiling again unconsciously at the sight of the little body. "Not so unusual, except maybe that Pippin is not there as well."

"Unusual indeed, that the two young hobbits should find a caretaker in Boromir of Gondor."

Boromir turned back to him, frowning. Legolas wasn't speaking in contempt, just curiosity.

Boromir smiled finally. "No more than an elf fighting for the protection of a dwarf."

Legolas nodded his agreement. "Times like these call for strange alliances. I confess I should not mind setting Gimli among my true friends. How do you wish to see these hobbits when our quest is over?"

Boromir frowned, confused. "What do you mean by that? I would already call them friend without hesitation."

"And yet. There are more to those two than simple friendship. And more in what you would ask of them, perhaps."

Boromir met Legolas' eyes. "You elves," he said suddenly, shaking his head. "No matter how little there is to see in a situation, you at least have to act like you see everything."

Legolas smiled. "Gimli would agree with you. I only say what I think. I might see more without the clouds of closeness when it comes to others. Or maybe my interpretations are influenced by my own opinions. There is no certainty, that's why my words never serve as counsel. Just question."

"So what is it that you think you see with those two hobbits? I should be surprised if you see anything. All eyes are better served on Frodo."

"I admit to keeping watch on Frodo most often. But there has been time enough to watch over all the fellowship. I have seen, for instance, that the bonds between all these young hobbits are strong. Stronger than anyone could well guess, given what little we know of this race. I have known elves who are linked together, and have been for a thousand years, who did not look to each other as reflexively as these hobbits do. Their links to each other are strong. For all four of them, in fact. I have felt it almost to the point of being able to see, in full color, the bonds around the four of them. It is a strong bond, and even stronger for Sam and Frodo, and for Merry and Pippin, to each other."

Boromir smiled at that. "They are loyal. To a fault, perhaps."

"Perhaps. It is odd, therefore, for me to look over every now and then and see that almost visible bond between young Pip and Merry growing to include a third party." His gaze buried itself into Boromir, searching.

Boromir hesitated. "I don't know what you're looking for, Legolas. I don't know what answer you'd have me give. If I am to be included in their bond, I am all the better for it. I would only wish to give the same kind of loyalty I know I should get from them."

Legolas nodded, and his expression was approving. "Then I won't mention it again. You seem aware of the things I would speak of, and you don't ask for my counsel."

"Counsel from an elf? Even I know better than to ask that."

Legolas smiled. "Then I will tell you only what I came here to say – they are preparing a breakfast for the company. If you would wake your ward and join us?"

Boromir returned the smile. "We'll be along in a few moments."

Legolas lifted a hand and laid it in farewell on Boromir's arm, then turned and drifted into the trees, not a sound to mark his path.

Boromir turned and made his way to Merry. He crouched, smiling, and whispered a word softly. "Food."

Merry blinked instantly, turning over onto his back. "What? What's..." He saw Boromir and smiled instantly. "Oh. Good morning."

Boromir returned the smile broadly. "Good morning to you, my pillow. They're preparing breakfast."

Merry got to his feet fast. "Well then. We shouldn't waste time here, should we?"

Boromir grinned and followed the quiet, rapid footsteps of a hungry hobbit.

The boats of the Lothlorien elves were quite the presents. They cut through the water smoothly, no matter how many supplies were stacked inside. They were light enough for any two of the smallest of the company to carry easily, and yet strong enough for Boromir to have no doubt in their safety.

He was content to travel like this – cutting easily through the river, with Merry in front of him and Pippin behind. The going was easy, almost pleasant. Despite his misgivings about the path ahead, and the time approaching when he would have to choose once and for all his country or this quest, his spirit was almost light.

They camped at night along the river, and found no sign of enemy or danger from any direction.

The first night they stopped late, and camped close to the water. As Gimli and Aragorn set up the fire, and Legolas walked the trees to scout any sign of trouble, Boromir went to the boats to grab packs of food, and watch his hobbits bide time by the water.

"I almost like this place," Merry announced as he crouched on a rock overlooking the water. "It reminds me of fall nights in Buckland."

Pippin was smiling again. His irrepressible spirits had risen before they left Lothlorien, and though he had dark moments of remembering Moria, he recovered his smiles fast. "Of sneaking down the water's edge to make sure we didn't leave footprints. Some bit of stolen crops or laundry or some other mischief in our hands."

Boromir grabbed the food he had been sent for and smiled at the two hobbits before setting back out for the camp site.

He lay the packs down, nodding at Aragorn. "The little ones seem to be enjoying the water. Should I stay with them, for safety?"

Aragorn regarded him, then glanced to his side. Frodo and Sam sat, both pressing into the fire.

"The other little ones." Boromir was instantly stiff. He didn't have to have it any more clearly stated that Aragorn did not trust him with Frodo.

Frodo looked up at him and smiled. "Not this one, that's for sure. I've been staring at water enough to make me almost want to go thirsty to avoid it."

"Same for me, and no mistake." Sam leaned in towards the fire, his brow knit in its almost constant furrow. "Let them enjoy as much as they want. I'll be right here by the warm fire."

Boromir smiled to himself faintly. There were small similarities between these two and the two he had come to call friends. But not many. He decided not to wait for Aragorn's approval. "I'll keep my eye on them. We're within calling range." He met Aragorn's eyes for a moment and turned away from the fire.

Merry was standing on his rock perch when he came into view again. He held a rock or nut or something equally small, and was tossing it into the air and catching it as he looked out at the water.

"—to know what we were up to that day. You can bet she asked Rosie all about it." Pippin sat on the edge of one of the boats, chatting merrily, if quietly.

Merry turned a smile to him. "And, of course, since we are both standing here alive and well, we were right to give her those mushrooms. It served well to keep her mouth shut about what she saw."

Boromir felt the tension caused by Aragorn draining from him again, and he approached the pair quietly.

Funny how they struck him at times. They could be just another face, another friend, another member of the company to him at one moment, and then...

Then, with no visible change, he found himself looking on them in what could be called adoration. Their bright eyes, their smiles, their voices, stories, mannerisms. At times they struck him as being absolutely precious, and he felt glad to be in their trust more than the others of the company.

He wanted them safe. He wanted to take care of them, as Merry had guessed well enough. Almost as if they were children, but not in the same way at all. He didn't think of them as children, not anymore. He wasn't sure exactly what he thought of them. The closest description he could think of was listening to Legolas talk about his woodland home, or watching Gimli guard over his gift from the lady Galadriel. They were to be protected, because – and this was entirely possible – they were the most pure things he had ever come to know.

He looked at Merry, standing on his rock, almost glowing in the last few glints of sunlight through the trees. Smiling without the care that seemed at times to be overtaking him.

And young Pip, laughing and carefree. Though Pip wasn't as deep in Boromir's heart as Merry. Not when Boromir had come to identify some of himself in Merry, and to grow that much more fond of him because of those similarities. Still, Pip was inside him much deeper than most ever got. Much more than the others sitting back at the fire.

He cleared his throat after a moment. "Your Mr. Gamgee seems to think the two of you are a little cracked for wanting to look on the river any longer than necessary."

Pip laughed in his high voice. "Sam hardly needs a reason to think we're cracked. He has for years now."

Merry grinned at Boromir. "There's quite an interesting story behind that, though. Did Pip tell you yet about our first real meeting with Master Samwise?"

Pippin started laughing instantly.

Boromir moved into the open, smiling. "I don't believe so."

Merry tossed his rock one last time, then, with a flick of his wrist, he sent it skipping over the river to get lost in the current.

Pippin started on the story with relish. "Well. We had seen old Sam around, of course, him being the son of Bilbo's gardener, and Frodo being our relation and friend and all. But we had never had cause to really have words with him. That is, until...when was it, Merry? Which of Frodo's birthdays?"

There was no answer.

Pip waved the question away. "It doesn't matter. Frodo wasn't of age yet, and Merry and I were just lads. Sam...I believe Sam is only slightly older than Merry, though to know him you'd believe he was the oldest hobbit here."

Boromir's eyes went to Merry again as Pip talked.

His smile faded as he caught sight of the still form.

Merry had grown tense, so tense it showed all over him. His eyes were still on the water, and his hand was still half in the air, as if he had just thrown that stone from his hand a moment ago. It was perhaps just the dimming light, but all color seemed to be gone from his face. He looked suddenly horrified.

Boromir frowned, looking to the water. If something were there, he would have said something. But...

He thought, suddenly and instantly, that maybe he understood.

Pippin was going on merrily. "—and out comes Samwise Gamgee, red in the face and blasting out that someone was going to pay for the damage to the flowers. Little did he know that Merry had already rigged the door to the hole, and—"

"Pip." Boromir spoke softly.

Pip focused on him. "What?"

"Maybe we should continue this story by the fire. I don't like being out here now that the sun's set."

Pip lit up. "That's a great idea. The story is so much more fun to tell when Sam is right there listening." He shot to his feet. "Come on!"

"We'll catch up." Boromir waved him off with a smile and turned back to Merry.

Still the hobbit stood there, looking unaware that anything was going on around him.

Boromir approached the flat boulder Merry stood on, noting absently that perched up there Merry was almost as tall as Boromir himself.

He reached out with light fingers and touched Merry's arm, bringing it down slowly from its frozen pose. "Merry."

Merry blinked over at him. He swallowed.

Boromir nodded towards the river. "You can drop your guard, I think. There aren't any monsters waiting to come out and grab any of us."

Merry started, going even more pale. He turned to the water again. "I..."

Boromir nodded. "This whole time, you've blamed yourself as much as Pip has, haven't you?"

Merry didn't answer.

"When I said you could be as grave as Frodo, I was right. You have held this guilt inside you and not even let on."

"Pip was..."

"You blame yourself. Honestly?"

Merry shrugged, looking down at the hand that had thrown the rock. "If I hadn't thrown the rocks, that creature in the water wouldn't have awakened. We would have left Moria and found some other path to take."

"Pip threw the stones too."

"No. I started it. He does as I do."

Boromir smiled. "I find more and more things the two of us share every day. You would take on guilt for Gandalf's death, yet you've spent hours in quiet conversation removing that guilt from Pip's shoulders."

Merry turned to him, his eyes bright.

Boromir reached out, resting a hand on his arm. "But if you think the cause of Gandalf's death was as simple as a few stones in the water, then you also have to blame Pip for the noise in Balin's tomb. Another random circumstance that led to things no one could have foreseen."

Merry frowned.

"Of course, if that truly is the case, you must also place blame on Gandalf himself. If he had not lingered us so long outside the gate, you would not have grown restless and picked up those stones. And blame Aragorn, who seemed to know there was something wrong in the water, but said nothing until it was too late. And Frodo, who chose the path."

Merry's jaw tightened and he looked away, back towards the water.

Boromir followed his gaze, watching the flow and churn of the currents. "The words you've been speaking to Pip haven't been wrong. Placing blame and assigning guilt is pointless. In this case, Gandalf being who he was, it might even be foolish. To think that a man like him could be taken down as result of some accident? It's folly. For Pip or for you. Or for me, since I'm the type who could find guilt for myself somewhere if I thought on it hard enough. Maybe I didn't try hard enough to convince them to go to Gondor, to Minis Tirith."

Merry frowned, turning back to him.

Boromir shrugged. "You see? It's a loop of endless thinking that gets us nowhere. I know that through years of experience. I also know," he added, squeezing Merry's arm gently, "that knowing guilt is pointless doesn't make guilt go away. Dismissing it as accident doesn't make a person feel better. I know that, too. I wouldn't try to take that away from you, Merry, though I would like to see the sadness leave you." He smiled again slowly. "It looks unnatural on you. On Pip, as well. Guilt sits wrong on the shoulders of hobbits."

Merry returned the smile, but it seemed brittle. "I'm sure it will pass as quick as it did for Pip. We do feel things, though we dislike showing them."

Boromir met his eyes. "Strange. Pippin was rather open about showing his own feelings. Your Frodo and Sam, they don't seem like they keep much hidden."

Merry studied him.

Boromir squeezed his arm again firmly. "Maybe you're too quick to credit your behavior to hobbit nature. You shouldn't be – I fully understand how you feel. Better than you would know."

"You do?" Merry's voice was soft, masking any doubt that might have been apparent otherwise.

Boromir nodded, lowering his voice. "I am a captain of men in a losing army, Merry. I can't remember a time when I wasn't hiding away my own feelings to spare others from them. I am so used to helping other men, and getting no help in return, that it has become reflex for me."

Merry regarded him sadly. "And what do you hide from us, Boromir?"

"I could ask you that same thing."

There was silence for a moment. The world around them was growing steadily darker. The barest hints of light reflected from Merry's eyes, off Merry's face. Close to Boromir now, thanks to the help of a well-placed rock. Close and searching.

Boromir would have, in those moments, done anything at all he could have thought up to make the look on Merry's face change, to bring a smile back.

Unfortunately, he could think of nothing. His thoughts were confused and strange, and any instincts he had were muddied up by feelings he couldn't quite interpret.

He wondered. The secrets buried in his own closet were easy enough for someone to guess if they knew his life. But Merry? What was there in this young hobbit's mind to make him understand so well the way Boromir was? This young member of such a happy and carefree race of beings. What did he hide with his smiles?

If Merry were anything like Boromir, he wouldn't answer if asked. Not if his hurts went deep.

Still. Boromir wanted to know. He felt that it was important, vital, to know. If only for the sake of this young hobbit who wanted and tried so hard to be happy, and kept falling into shadows and frowns.

He resolved to speak to Pip alone one of these days.

He got his chance sooner than he would have thought. Gimli, early the next day as they all ate a slow breakfast in hopes of stalling the day's monotonous travel, had cornered Merry and Frodo and was regaling the two of them with some long, drawn out, over-enthusiastic tale of his people.

Hobbits, of course, were the perfect audience. They even more than the other races of Middle Earth seemed to love tales and songs. Frodo was fascinated. Merry was grinning and drawn in.

Legolas sat apart from them, listening in obvious amusement. The humor in his eyes for the dwarf was much more affectionate now than it had been. Noticeably more since Lothlorien; since Gimli had made such a favorable impression on, and been so impressed by, Galadriel.

As it was, Pippin found his way to Boromir, sitting down with a sleepy smile. "It appears we have another long day of sitting in boats ahead of us."

Boromir nodded and handed over the food waiting for the young hobbit. "Enjoy it. There won't be peaceful days ahead."

Pippin made a face. "You and Strider. You'd say that about anything if you could. 'Fancy a bit of sausage, Boromir?' 'Enjoy it, foolish hobbit. There might be no sausages come tomorrow.'"

Boromir laughed out loud at the hobbit's deep intonation in mockery of his voice. "We're not as bad as all that."

"At times. I already know something's troubling you this morning. I know I need only sit here and wait and you'll make my day a little bleaker."

Boromir looked at him, smiling.

Pippin smiled, too, but his eyebrows were raised. He was waiting.

Boromir gave him what he was waiting for a moment later. "Something does concern me."

Pip grinned in victory. "And they say I'm foolish. I can read you men easily."

Boromir glanced at the tree where Gimli sat, thrilling his willing audience. "I'm concerned about Merry."

There was the smallest pause, and another burst of high, twinkling laughter rose from Pip. "I'm not as talented as I thought at reading you. I never would have guessed that would come from you. Why in the world would you worry about Merry?"

Boromir hesitated, watching Merry laugh quietly and twist a smile at Frodo as Gimli went on, waving his arms grandly.

Pippin spoke again, still amused. "You haven't gotten over your first impression of us, have you? Still thinking of us as children, because we're smaller? Boromir, believe me when I tell you, Merry will handle anything that lies ahead of us far better than anyone I've ever known. Merry is stronger than you give him credit for."

Boromir turned to Pip, lowering his voice. Aragorn and Sam were hovering nearby, packing things up in preparation for the day's journey. "You think a lot of Merry, I know. He takes good care of you."

Pip met his eyes, thinking it over. "Well. I suppose he always has. Ever since I was too young to realize."

"Then...I suppose the times have come that you have taken care of him as well?"

Pip smiled at that, waving his hand negatively. "You haven't heard me. Merry's quite the strongest hobbit there is, I think. He doesn't need to be taken care of."

Boromir nodded to himself. He was glad of that response. Knowing now how Merry stifled his own emotions, he had hoped Pip just didn't realize what his cousin had buried. He would have been dismayed to learn Pip realized, but didn't care enough to help. That would have surprised him, but he could imagine how a young, happy thing like Pip could be easily spoiled and selfish.

He was glad that wasn't the case here.

So now he had to make Pip see what Merry had hidden so well. "That would be surprising indeed."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because, Pip, everyone needs help every now and then. Even Gandalf, who was stronger than all of us, couldn't have set out on this quest without help. Even Elrond had to ask help from the other races of Middle Earth."

Pip studied him, brow furrowed. "And with all those big things going on, you're worried about my Merry?'

Boromir nodded. "He grows more troubled every day. I'm a stranger to him, or I would try to heal his pain myself."

Pip's eyes swung automatically to Merry.

Boromir followed his gaze.

Merry was smiling. His eyes were shining, his mouth half-open and curved up. He was huddled beside Frodo, who was asking Gimli something or other about his story.

He certainly didn't look troubled. He didn't show anything but the enthusiasm of the moment.

Pip turned back with a smile. "I think you're imagining darkness on the one place it can't be found. I should know if something were troubling Merry. He is closer than my sisters to me. Closer than anyone. If he were in trouble..."

"Tell me, master Pip. Has he ever been in trouble before?"

Pip frowned, looking annoyed at Boromir's refusal to believe him.

A thump sounded beside the fire, and Sam huffed a little as he sat by the loaded pack. "I think I may just be tired enough to appreciate riding in a boat instead of walking today."

Boromir smiled faintly.

Sam noticed Pip's unusually solemn face. "Something bothering you, Mr. Pippin?"

Pip answered fast. "Sam, is there something wrong with Merry?"

Boromir glanced at Sam, not expecting too much in response. He well knew that Sam had only had eyes for Frodo on the whole of this trip.

Sam cocked his head, surprised, but thought about it dutifully. "I haven't noticed anything as such, Mr. Pippin."

Pip relaxed a little.

"Then again, I'd be surprised if I did, if you get my meaning."

Pip stared at him past Boromir. "No. I don't. What do you mean?"

Sam shrugged, looking a little uncomfortable. "Well. It's just that... I've known Mr. Merry a good many years now. Not as many as you, and not as close, but... I can full well say I've never heard a single complaint from him about anything important. And not just in a gentleman way – I mean not one word about anything bad, 'less it involved you, Mr. Pippin, or someone else he cared about."

"Well. What does that mean? Merry's not had a hard life. Why should he complain about anything?" Pip was stiff, a little belligerent at the idea that Sam may know more about Merry than he did.

"I wouldn't go so far as to say that," Sam replied slowly.

Pip was almost glaring by then. "What's that mean?"

Sam's eyes went to Boromir, then back to Pip. He shrugged.

Pip blew out his breath. "Boromir has been as good a friend to us as any hobbit. You can speak in front of him."

Boromir repressed the warmth he felt at those words, turning back to Sam.

Sam frowned. "Now, Mr. Pippin. I'm not about to go telling anyone's secrets, not even to you much less to a man I don't hardly know."

"Then you do know something?" Pip's voice was getting higher in outrage. "Something's wrong with Merry and you know about it and I don't?"

Sam held up a hand. "I don't know anything about it. And anyway it was a long time ago. All I know is there was some hard times, and Mr. Merry was caught up in it. Now I can remember a time or two when I might've asked something about it, having a little too much ale in me. And he didn't ever say a word to no one. If he did..."


"Well, I suspect if anyone in the whole world knows, it'd be Mr. Frodo. But now don't you go bothering him about it. He's got enough on his mind as it is, and whatever this thing was happened a long time ago and shouldn't be brought back up now."

Boromir put a hand on Pip's arm. The young hobbit was practically seething.

Sam rose and shook off his tiredness. "I expect we'll be going soon. I'll just go collect Mr. Frodo's things."

Pip frowned after him. "But—"

Boromir held him there, solemn. "Pip."

Pip's eyes, wide and openly showing their shock and worry, turned to him. "I didn't know."

Boromir nodded. "He wouldn't want you to, even now."


"Pip. Listen to me." Boromir faced him, lowering his voice, ignoring the preparations of the others around him. "I see these things that you don't because I know what to look for. I myself have been most of my life just like Merry. I hid everything I felt, for whatever good I thought it would do. And I have never known what it's like to have someone care enough for me that they look past the mask I put on, and see what's really there."

His eyes went unconsciously back to Merry. Merry, who hadn't listened to his dismissal in Lothlorien, who had tried different approaches until he made Boromir speak about what was really bothering him.

He amended his words quietly. "I haven't known it until recently. But in hiding things I was not helping myself. Merry doesn't realize, but he is doing himself no good. If he's not careful it will harden him, as it did me. And for that to happen to him..." He shook his head, intently meeting Pip's gaze. Praying the hobbit understood. "For my own part, there were always matters bigger than me to worry about. No one I knew could have donated the time to give me and my troubles, and I wouldn't have wanted them to. But for such a thing to happen to someone like would be a waste. Merry should be happy."

Pip nodded slowly, biting his lip. His eyes went to Merry again, then down to the ground.

Boromir sighed, releasing his hold on Pip's arm.

Perhaps Merry would be okay after all.

Perhaps things weren't as simple as he was hoping.

The two hobbits sat beside each other in the boat that day, and Boromir stayed quiet and watchful. He nodded now and then to Pip whenever the hobbit looked his way; he tried to be encouraging.

But the two barely spoke. There was no great revelation of troubles, no attempt to get that revelation. There wasn't even the usual rambling Shire talk.

What there was, to Boromir's eye, was a pair of uncomfortable young hobbits who were suddenly more like strangers than the best friends they were.

When Pip did meet Boromir's eyes, his expression was pensive.

Boromir wasn't pleased. Maybe he had been wrong to think that Pippin could handle a responsibility like that.

Maybe there was just too much to worry about, too many large things happening around them, for Boromir to be worrying about it.

His eyes drifted easily to the boat alongside his. He found himself, as the silence in his own boat grew longer, looking to Frodo. To the ring.

It made his mind spin of late to think of it. To the point where he wasn't sure if he was using Merry and Pip to distract himself from the ring, or if the ring served to distract him from his suddenly troubled friends.

He knew only that when he was focused on his hobbits, none of the larger things mattered.

But when he focused on the ring, it was getting easier and easier to lose track of the fellowship around him, to remember the dark land Gondor was becoming. To imagine all the things that could be gained by taking the ring to his father, or wielding it himself.

It filled his mind that day, in the boat, traveling their slow course.

The little hobbits and their little problems faded from his care.

"I think," Merry announced as they settled their boats onto the shore for a much-needed meal, "I shall earn my food today and collect wood for the fire. I begin to feel guilty with nothing to do all day but sit in a boat and be more weight for Boromir to steer."

Boromir turned his eyes from Frodo to Merry, shaking away the slight cloud that had overtaken his vision. "It's my honor to steer you, master hobbit. Besides, you and Pippin together hardly create enough weight to be a burden."

Merry looked at him with feigned indignance.

Boromir smiled, all thoughts of Frodo leaving his mind.

Merry smiled back after a moment, eyes as sunny as ever. "However, since hobbits are not solitary creatures, I wonder if anyone should like to go with me." His yes, instantly and hopefully, went to Pippin.

There was a pause. Boromir glanced at the youngest hobbit and frowned to see him standing there, rummaging through his pack as though he hadn't heard his cousin speak.

"I will go, if my company is acceptable," Boromir stated firmly.

He saw Pip's eyes come up and land on him before he himself turned back to Merry.

Merry looked to him and smiled, but that sunny light was gone from his gaze. "Of course. I could hope for no one better."

"Oh, stop the pronouncements and go get the wood. Some of us are hungry."

Merry smiled at that, looking at Gimli over Boromir's shoulder. "I would make some comment about dwarves and patience, but my own stomach seems to agree with you."

"Then come, Merry." Boromir went to him and placed a hand upon his shoulder.

As they left the sight of the rest of the fellowship, Boromir glanced back to see Pip's eyes on them, staring. And he heard the light sound of Pip's voice hurriedly to the others, though he didn't catch the words.

He heard also, as they went further, the barely audible sound of light footsteps following their moves. So Pip had made his excuse and come after them. Good.

And yet he wasn't coming to them, merely following at a distance. Boromir smiled to himself grimly. If Pip was going to play at this like a child, then Boromir was going to help him understand that it was no game.

He spoke to Merry suddenly, pitching his voice loud enough for their shadow to hear. "I am wondering, Merry. Did you and Pip have some disagreement that I was not aware of?"

Merry tensed under his hand. "We've hardly had time to talk at all, much less argue."

"Indeed. If today's travels have been any measure, you haven't talked about anything. Is something the matter?"

Merry sighed, his eyes going inward as he stopped in his tracks and half-heartedly looked around for twigs for a fire. "Not on my part. I think...I think Pip is still lost in his guilt over Moria. I've talked to him, but..." He turned back to Boromir suddenly, earnest. "You know of battles and death and guilt. What am I doing wrong? Tell me what I should say to get my Pip back. Is there anything to be done?"

Boromir heard the tiniest sound of a rustled branch behind them. He resisted the urge to turn and look, not wanting to alert Merry to their company. Honest words were needed here.

He answered slowly. "From what I can tell, Merry...there is one thing you can do. One thing that might make this better."

Merry was eager, instantly grabbing his arm. "What? Tell me."

Boromir crouched down beside him, meeting his eyes levelly. "You can stop focusing on Pip and start helping your own self."

Merry frowned, his brow furrowing. "What does that mean?"

"It means...Merry, you can't forever give all of yourself to other people. I know how much you care for Pip. I do. But if you leave nothing of yourself for you to hold on to..." He sighed. "You would turn into me, a hardened and bitter thing with no hope left at all."

Merry shook his head instantly, his hand moving lightly up and down Boromir's arm in a soothing gesture. "I have never met a man as warm as you. I don't know how you can think yourself hard, but you aren't that way at all."

Boromir smiled faintly. "And what do you know of my character, master hobbit?" he echoed day-old words quietly, without anger.

Merry met his eyes confidently. "I know that you have watched over two small and silly creatures like us without complaint. I know that you would face danger to save any one of us in this odd fellowship. I have heard the love in your voice when you speak of your land and your people. I have heard you laugh and seen you smile, and there is nothing hard about it."

Pip's presence left Boromir's mind. He searched Merry's expression in amazement, seeing the sincerity easily enough. "You believe that."

"I know it. I know your mind turns towards dark thoughts, but this is affecting us all in different ways. You can no more control your reactions than Frodo can. I wish I could help you in some way, but I'm too small and unimportant to know what to do, or be able to do it if I did know."

Boromir smiled. It was his turn for reassurance. "Small you may be, but you have become as dear to me as any friend I have ever had. Count that as unimportant if you like."

Merry's eyes were shining again, that sunny look returning slowly.

Boromir swallowed, gazing at Merry, wondering at the odd feelings stirring in him. "You said the other day that you wondered what it felt like to be taken care of. I have wondered that often myself, though I did not confess it at the time."

Merry nodded, meeting his eyes. "I am not surprised to hear it. We are alike in many ways, as you yourself said."

"I wonder..." Boromir reached out and touched Merry's arm, enjoying the comfort of the touch. Amazed he was at the amount of affection in his heart for the little hobbit. "It is a shame that you and I are of such different races."

Merry moved in closer, seeming to enjoy the touch as much as Boromir. "Why is that?" he asked, his voice quiet.

Boromir smiled. "It would be quite convenient, wouldn't it, for you and I to take care of each other? And then we would both know the answer to our question."

Merry's cheeks tinted a light pink. "Do you think I could not care for you such as you are now? Or is it you who could not care for a hobbit?"

Boromir spoke instantly. "No. No, I think I already do, more than is healthy for me. And would be an odd thing, wouldn't it? For you and I to take care of each other in that way."

"In that way," Merry repeated quietly, his voice faint.

Boromir reached out with a hand that acted without his approval, and moved his fingertips lightly over Merry's rounded cheek.

Merry held his breath for a moment, leaning into the touch. "I have wondered something else at times, do you know? I wonder what it would feel like to kiss someone and know that that person may come to love me."

Boromir caught his breath. If he were still the man he was on the trip to Rivendell, he would have laughed and pushed the creature away, off-put by the whole conversation.

Yet now all he could do was lean closer and drop his voice as Merry did. "He never gave you that, did he?"

They both knew who the he was. "No. He cares for me as much as he cares for anyone. But I heard him laugh to you that night, and I know. He could never love me as I want." Merry searched his eyes, a question on his face.

Boromir knew the answer, and wondered at himself that he would speak it out loud. "I think I could very easily come to love you, Merry." His words fell quietly, and his stomach churned with sudden, fierce nervousness.

He was a soldier of Gondor. He was meant to fight and die, to protect his land and his people. He was not meant to be standing in some woodland clearing, professing his affection for a hobbit.

But. There it was.

Merry blinked, and his eyes were suddenly brighter than ever. He smiled faintly. "I believe I could very happily take care of you, for as long as you wished me to."

Boromir swallowed. His stomach continued its nervous churning, his heart beat loudly in his chest. He returned Merry's small smile, taking in the wide eyes and adored face of his own little hobbit. "Then maybe I could answer another question of yours."

Merry cocked his head a little, brow knitting into a light furrow.

Boromir leaned in, making his intention known.

Merry breathed in, but didn't pull away. He slid his eyes shut and met the touch of Boromir's lips hesitantly.

Boromir felt himself letting go of tension he hadn't realized he held. He sank to his knees from his unsteady crouch, placing him slightly lower than Merry, who immediately bowed his head to keep their lips in contact.

The touch was light, but the feelings it stirred were heavy and solid. Boromir felt as if some strange power had overtaken him, filling him with warmth and a kind of joy that was far too good to be lasting.

His hand curved to slide over Merry's cheek, to touch soft skin. He changed angle slightly and refit his lips to Merry's firmly.

He felt Merry's arms moving over his shoulders, holding him where he was. Merry made a faint noise against his mouth, and pressed against Boromir down the whole length of him, as if he wanted to melt right into him until they were a single body.

It was more than welcome. Boromir folded his arms now around Merry, holding him tightly and risking deepening their kiss. His lips parted and his tongue experimentally tasted Merry's lips.

Merry made a louder noise this time, parting his lips eagerly and letting Boromir enter.

It was warm and welcoming, affectionate and sincere. And Boromir felt a little more of the hard, firm man he had been molded into slipping away, and a little more of the smiling and loved person he was becoming overtaking him.

It wasn't to last, though.

Merry pulled away, breathing hard. His eyes were still shut, and his arms stayed locked around Boromir, but he bit his lip, looking not at all happy. "Boromir..."

Boromir felt the sheer rush of the last minute start to drain from him. He sat back, letting his arms fall from around Merry. "I'm sorry, if you didn't wish that." He spoke quietly.

Merry's eyes opened, and Boromir was shocked at how clearly he could read the need there. The affection Merry felt was obvious, the thrill that matched Boromir's own. And over it all was need so strong it seemed almost desperate. "I...I wished it. More than you could know." He swallowed, casting his eyes down. "But."

Boromir nodded, swallowing. "I know. There could be no more than this."

Merry sniffed suddenly, and a bit of the wet brightness in his eyes escaped and slid down his cheek. "It wouldn't be fair to you. It couldn't be. So much of me already belongs to another, and...I wouldn't want you to ever be with someone who couldn't give you all of them. It's not fair."

Boromir nodded again. No, not fair. Not for either of them. Not fair that Boromir should find this understanding, accepting form of love from someone obviously not meant for him. "I will be happy," he said slowly, not at all sure he spoke truth, "with whatever you can give. Even if this is the beginning and end of it."

Merry blinked out more wetness, obviously conflicted. "If nothing else, you have answered my question. I know how it be kissed with love. And...and I don't think it should ever be possible for me to stop caring for you. Do you...I'm sorry I can't do as I hoped. I would care for you, Boromir, take care of you. Truly I would. But you should have more."

Boromir dropped his eyes, sighing to himself. And so he would go on being a soldier, being hard and strong, and the smiling man he felt himself becoming would last for this little while and then fade away.

It was his role in life. He had always accepted that, and he accepted it now. Though it was harder, now that he knew what that other life would feel like.

He spoke finally, and winced at how bitter he sounded. "Your Pippin doesn't know how lucky he is."

Merry didn't answer. He raised a hand to echo Boromir's earlier touch, letting his fingers glide over Boromir's rough cheek.

Boromir smiled into the touch. "I think if I didn't care for him so much I would start to resent the hold he has on you."

"It's not as you think," Merry answered quietly. "It isn't that he doesn't love me. He does, in his way. He is more devoted to me than he is to anyone. He will not settle with me, it's true. I think I should lose him, if no other time than four years from now, when he does as he thinks is right and finds a lass to marry."

"And what will become of you then?" Boromir asked.

Merry smiled, looking as bitter as Boromir sounded. "Then I will be alone. I wish it was in me to ask you to wait for me, but that is a cruel dismissal of a man who should not live a single day as someone's second-best."

"And yet I think I would, if you asked. There has been no one in my life before like you, and no reason to think there will be anyone else in the next four years."

"I hope you're wrong."

"And I hope your Pip somehow sees what he's so blind to now. I hope that you don't give your love forever to not have it returned. You would grow tired of it eventually, and he would lose all he has of you."

"It's possible, I suppose. Not likely."

Boromir nodded. He knew. He could see in Merry's eyes his love for his cousin, and knew that kind of pure devotion wouldn't fade.

Merry cleared his throat suddenly, stepping back and breaking the strange, soft spell around them. "If we don't get to our task we'll have a hungry dwarf to contend with."

Boromir smiled, obeying the silent wish to return to normal. "Perhaps we'd best separate. I find I get less accomplished when there are hobbits around to distract me."

Merry smiled, and that carefree air was over him again. "We do tend to get underfoot. It's why we mostly avoid you Big Folk."

Boromir saw through that smile easily now, but he returned it with a fake one of his own. 'Then I shall see you back at the camp in a few minutes."

Merry nodded and instantly set off, whistling quietly to himself as if he didn't have a care in the world.

Boromir watched him go, and cast his gaze to the ground for any fallen twigs or leaves to serve as tinder.

He moved mechanically. At least he was used to doing what had to be done even when his thoughts were elsewhere.

He remembered Pippin, and it made him freeze for just a moment.

How long had Pip stayed within sight of them? Had he seen and heard everything?

It would be awkward if he had. But most likely it would be for the best. He would know, at last, how Merry truly felt, and he would answer it one way or another.

If Boromir were selfish, he would wish for Pip to inform his cousin that his love wouldn't be returned, and to sever their closeness. If it happened soon enough, Merry would maybe accept a lesser place at Boromir's side.

But he wasn't selfish, not entirely. What he wanted most was what he had wanted for most of this quest – he wanted his little hobbits to be happy, and to be safe.

He soon gathered an armful of sticks, ambling through the trees lost in his thoughts.

And then he heard footsteps, and then he saw Frodo. Alone, drifting through the woods lost in his own heavy thoughts.

And Boromir gratefully let go of thoughts of his hobbits, and let the ring around Frodo's neck claim his mind once more.

As it went with all battles, the attack seemed sudden and instant. One moment he sat there, in his misery in the grass of the woods, surrounded by quiet. The next minute there were shouts in the trees and sounds of battle and the harsh voices of orcs in the air.

He jumped to his feet instantly, drawing his sword.

He was a failure, perhaps. He had lost his mind to the ring, had become what Aragorn had always thought he would. He had attacked his own ally, sent poor Frodo running scared. He was weak, and he at last understood what all the warnings had been for. Too late.

But he was still who he was. Weak or strong, he was Boromir, son of Denethor, and he would fight.

He went tearing through the trees, sword drawn and practically humming for blood in his hand. The sounds of battle went on further in the trees, yet he hesitated. Should he return to the campsite first and see if there was any of the fellowship still there to report their situation?

The decision was made in the form of light, high voices shouting in the trees.

His hobbits. He turned towards their voices and ran.

They were shouting. Foolish, stupid as children. How could they possibly not know better than to...

"It's working!" Pip's breathless voice became intelligible suddenly.

"I know it's working. Run!" His Merry.

So they shouted deliberately? To draw the enemy to themselves?

To draw the enemy away from something else.


Boromir tightened his grasp on the hilt of his sword. His hobbits were going to kill themselves out of loyalty to their friend.

But not if he had anything to do with it.

He finally overtook them when they stopped, about to be overtaken on all sides by orcs.

He ran full-tilt into the fray, stopping between their small bodies and the approaching orcs.

The battle was upon him instantly, and he became a soldier once more.

He saw the enemy that seemed to lead these orcs. He recognized that the creatures were not of a race he had ever seen before. He saw their size and strength, and didn't care. He sliced at the orcs and the new enemies alike.

But there were too many. Countless numbers were closing in, and countless more were appearing every moment.

He backed up closer to them. "Run! Go!" He half-turned to go with them, grabbing the horn that ever stayed hung at his side. For the first time since leaving the walls of his city, he lifted the horn and sounded its call.

The orcs hesitated at the deep, loud blast of the horn of Gondor, but the hesitation only lasted a moment.

He backtracked, desperately trying to stay between the enemy and his little ones. Impossible when the enemy came from all sides.

Seconds were an eternity at war, and after the next few eternities he became aware of orcs falling around him, untouched by his sword. He watched one get struck a hard blow in the head with a stone, and he smiled grimly.

His hobbits had retained their aim.

He lost himself to the fight, striking and slicing at every dark figure that came his way.

And then. A sudden, unpredicted force in his chest. Instant numbness all over his body.

His arm lowered, the sword suddenly useless as his body ceased to obey his commands. His eyes dropped down, and he noted the length of black-feathered arrow that passed into his flesh.

He stumbled. The ground seemed eager to meet him, and he hit one knee before catching himself.

His eyes came up and there were his two hobbits. Shock coated their features, and they ignored, for a moment, the enemies around them to stare at Boromir.

They were hardly helpless, these hobbits, but against so many they would be lost.

He would not give in to a single arrow and allow that to happen.

He struck out the moment his body would listen to his orders. And the battle continued as orcs approached, believing him weak, and fell to his sword.

Another blow, like a solid punch to his chest, forced him to his knees before he could register what happened.

He didn't have to look to know there was a second arrow. He did have to look to see his two hobbits, to see the horror in their eyes, to strengthen him so he would not give in to a darkness that called to him.

He met Merry's eyes for a moment, gaining there the strength he needed.

With a hoarse battle cry he raised to his feet and hacked at the swarming bodies of the enemy. His arm was slower, his steps clumsier, yet he was still Boromir, and he still fought.

In the midst of the fight something made him turn his head, and he watched the approaching body of one of the large, strange new enemies. The creature was fitting an arrow with black feathers into his bow, his eyes unwavering on Boromir.

His fate was made clear to him, and he could do nothing but wait for it to find him.

Another blow, seconds later, and he was driven back to his knees.

There would be no fourth. There would be no finding of strength, no rising to his feet.

There would be no more fighting for Boromir.

He turned his head to them, the two hobbits, and saw them as if across a great distance.

He saw, though it was blurred, the fierce pain rise on Merry's face. He saw his sweet little hobbit grab for his sword. Pip followed him an instant later, and the two charged the orcs.

Merry sliced one well-placed blow that took a hand off at the wrist, but there wasn't a chance for a second.

The orcs were not fighting them, Boromir saw through his hazy vision. They were after them. Too many arms for the hobbits to fight reached for them and grabbed them. They were lifted into orc arms.

Boromir watched them beat and kick violently at their captor's bodies. But such little fists wouldn't make an impact.

He heard their screams, their shouts of his name, their anger and pain. Not weakness, not cries for help. They were voicing their own battle cries even as they got carried from the field of the fight.

They were out of his sight in an instant, and his head had no more strength to stay up. He sagged, bowing in against himself as the endless bodies of orcs and other creatures tromped past him as if he were already dead, following the trail of those who had taken his friends.

One pair of feet stopped in front of him, holding there until all others had gone by.

Boromir raised his eyes with difficulty, and saw the creature who had fired the arrows that had killed him, loading one last into his bow.

He was looking his death in the eyes.

He was Boromir, son of Denethor. He was the leader of soldiers, the son of the Steward of Gondor. And he would lift his chin and show no fear. He would meet his death with pride.

The bowman was averted, though. A blurred form attacked him, and his arrow fired harmlessly into the ground.

Aragorn, a faint thought identified the form.

But death was still on him, and he had not escaped it even with Aragorn's aid.

He fell, hitting the ground heavily. The numbness spread through his body, becoming a deep ache that was still not like the pain he would have expected.

Later – it could have been moments, could have been hours – Aragorn's face appeared against the sky, bending over Boromir with sorrow in his eyes.

Boromir fought against the haze threatening to swallow him. He swallowed and gasped out air and spoke with all the urgency he could still feel. "They took the little ones."

There was still life in him to fight and he tried then, struggling to sit up.

"Stay still." Aragorn held him down gently and looked him over, unable to hide the grimness in his reaction.

Boromir blinked to clear the haze, knowing there were things just as important as the two captured hobbits, though not as urgent in Boromir's own heart. "Frodo..." He got out, grabbing at Aragorn. "Where is Frodo?"

Aragorn met his eyes. His voice was low. "I let Frodo go."

Boromir nodded faintly. "Then you did as I could not. I tried to take the ring from him." He got out the confession bitterly. Aragorn let Frodo go. Maybe Aragorn was as strong as those around them had held that he was.

For the sake of Gondor, for the sake of his hobbits, Boromir hoped it was true.

Aragorn didn't seem surprised at the confession. "The ring is beyond our reach now."

Boromir swallowed, feeling the iron of blood in his mouth. "Forgive me," he gasped out. "I did not see..." His eyes slid shut, and he forced them open again. The darkness that was overtaking him showed him many visions – Merry and Pippin fighting their captors. Frodo's eyes, scared and helpless, scared of Boromir as evil overtook him. The fall of Gandalf. The silent strength of Aragorn, holding them all together in ways Boromir had not seen before.

He swallowed again, and the taste of blood was stronger. "I failed you all."

But Aragorn's eyes did not show the scorn they had showed previously. There was no sign of the contempt he had now and then shown towards Boromir, or Boromir's people.

Boromir wondered hazily if those things had been a result of the ring on Aragorn's mind.

Aragorn spoke with conviction and sincerity. "No. You fought bravely. You have kept your honor."

It was approval, and though hard won, this time it was not reluctantly offered.

Strange, the thoughts that run through a dying man's head. Boromir had time to wonder, and almost be amused at the thought, what Aragorn would say if Boromir told him he fought to protect the lives of two little hobbits that he had half fallen in love with during this quest.

But then Aragorn's hand was on the arrow that jutted from his chest, and Boromir felt a wash of pain wipe away his thoughts. He gasped out. "Leave it! It is over." He met Aragorn's eyes, focusing with difficulty. "The world of men will fall," he managed, throwing Aragorn's own beliefs back at him, challenging him to do something about it. "And all will come to darkness, and my city to ruin."

Aragorn met his fevered gaze, and a conviction seemed to harden him, tightening up his jaw. He reached out and grasped Boromir's hand, though Boromir could hardly feel it. "I do not know what strength is in my blood, but I swear to you..." His voice was thick with conviction Boromir could hear through the fading darkness of the world. "I will not let the white city fall, nor our people fail."

"Our people." Boromir repeated the words, and let go. "Our people." Content to die now, now that he had seen the heir of Isildur and knew him to be set to the cause of Gondor.

He would let go now.

He reached out blindly for his sword. It was not right for a soldier of Gondor to die without his sword in his hand.

Aragorn saw what he was after and a moment later the cool hilt of the sword was set into Boromir's grip.

Boromir looked up at him, and the world around Aragorn faded. Aragorn himself was fading. "I would have followed you, my brother. My captain." He breathed the words out, pride in his eyes. For his city, his people. Even himself. And for Aragorn, for the quiet strength of a man who may yet rise up to lead Gondor to victory. If only Boromir could have lived to see it. "My king," he spoke last, and felt a little more of him let go at the granting of the title.

Aragorn's eyes washed with tears, with grief that Boromir knew he would deal with silently and stoically. Emotions he would hide from others, to protect them.

The realization hit him, and almost seemed funny. Boromir would have smiled, but those days had past him. He had felt the joys of life, and was lucky to have done so. But now he was a soldier again, and soon he would not even be that.

He shut his eyes, and cast a prayer for his comrades, for those two dear hobbits who had changed him so much.

And then he knew no more.
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