The King, Faramir has discovered, is violently ticklish beneath his ribs.
This is a weakness that Faramir can use to his advantage, for it leaves Aragorn winded and limp, unable to fight Faramir off when he pins Aragorn down and wrestles him into submission. Faramir's fingers are long and he can put his hands and mouth in places that make Aragorn tremble and moan. Not even Arwen can bring her husband to such helpless surrender.
Though he knows that Aragorn has lived more than twice his own lifetime, Faramir fancies that this is his own private secret; he pretends to himself that no one has ever been able to make Aragorn choke with laughter in just this way. When it happens, it brings him great joy, though he tries not to torment Aragorn very often, lest it become an annoyance.
Then one day as the two of them are lying happy and sated in Faramir's rooms in Minas Tirith -- the chambers saved for the exclusive use of the Steward of Gondor when he rides to the White City -- Aragorn says something that changes everything:
"No one has ever enjoyed tickling me so much, except your brother."
Abruptly, Faramir finds his throat closing over and his eyes prickling with tears.
Aragorn had been smiling but he grows silent, stroking Faramir's hair, with the fond nostalgia of his expression turning to regret. "Did he tickle you so, when you were children?" he asks Faramir, who can only nod, afraid to speak.
He misses Boromir with a pain that is physical, lodged in his chest and behind his eyes. And he also knows that he will never share this simple pleasure with Aragorn again without thinking of his brother -- of the life Boromir has lost, and the life Faramir has gained in his absence.
Aragorn wraps both arms around him, rocking him gently until he bows his head against the King's chest. Faramir wonders whether Aragorn ever held Boromir so, for he doubts that his brother suffered such moments of passionate grief.
Indeed, Faramir did not allow himself to feel them, either, while his father yet lived and his city needed defending. At no time since his mother's death, when his tutors told him that he must accept her loss with the dignity befitting the Steward's son, has he felt strong enough to mourn.
"I miss him, too," Aragorn says softly.
Remorse pushes at Faramir. He has no wish to add to the King's burdens, particularly not where Boromir is concerned. Yet it is Aragorn who has summoned his brother's memory. Perhaps he, too, needs to purge himself of regret.
"Everything I have now is mine only because he is not here," Faramir murmurs. Keeping his head down, he adds, "Even you."
Aragorn hugs Faramir tighter to his chest, clearing his throat before he speaks. "No. Faramir, that is not true. I would have loved you regardless."
With a resigned smile, Faramir lifts his head. He has wondered about this before, not often, and not with any bitterness toward either the King or his brother, the two Men he has loved most in his life. Yet certain truths seem unavoidable.
"You cannot say that," he answers Aragorn. "If he had lived, you would have had him. He would have been your Steward, not myself. And...I would have loved you, because you are my King, and because you are the finest man I have ever known...yet how can I know how I would have felt, seeing him at your side, and you at his?"
Aragorn's eyes fill with tears. "Please, Faramir..."
"No." Shaking his head, the Steward refuses to heed the King's plea for his silence. "Do not tell me not to say such things. I have the life for which he was intended, and he is gone. I can no more deny him this than I can deny my own memories."
"I'm sorry," whispers Aragorn, his voice shaking. "I'm so sorry I could not save him."
Suddenly aware of how much pain his words have caused, Faramir leans close once again, stroking Aragorn's face. "You must not think I blame you for that!"
Yet Aragorn flinches and bites his lip. Watching, feeling the tremors wracking the King's body, Faramir understands for the first time that Aragorn speaks not out of sympathy but from the depths of his own guilt. Aragorn has tried to tell Faramir before that he holds himself responsible for Boromir's obligations -- he rode into Minas Tirith wearing Boromir's vambraces -- but Faramir had not understood until now that Aragorn thinks he should have been able to prevent Boromir's death.
"I have heard of his last hours from others besides you," murmurs Faramir soothingly. "I know what the Ring did to him, and that he gave his life to protect the hobbits. It was his choice, and his sacrifice to make."
"Yet I saved you, and Eowyn, and Merry. I should have saved him!"
"How could you have saved him? Not unless you could have flown, or worked miracles! Eowyn and Merry and I were not as gravely injured as he was."
Then Faramir ducks his head again, struggling with his greatest fear, which has haunted him since he learned how his brother died. Finally he gives it voice:
"Perhaps...after all that had happened...perhaps he could not believe that he deserved to be spared. And so the Horn of Gondor could not summon aid to him, and he could not be saved...not even by you."
Aragorn cannot speak for a moment, staring up at Faramir. Then he closes his eyes and covers his face with his hand, taking in a deep, shuddering breath.
Faramir slides to Aragorn's side and pulls the King to him, burrowing his face beneath Aragorn's chin, aware that the gesture may seem childish or weak but quite unable to prevent himself from doing so. He remembers clinging to Boromir so when, as a child, he held himself responsible for their mother's death, even though Faramir's teachers had assured him that his birth had not brought on her illness.
"You've thought it too," he breathes to Aragorn. "That my brother died because he did not believe he was meant to live."
Aragorn nods, still unable to form words. He wraps his arms tightly around Faramir and hides his face against his shoulder.
It is wrong, thinks Faramir, that he should take comfort from uncovering this pain. He should wish the King free from sorrow rather than his partner in grief. Yet he feels as though a burden that has weighed upon him since he first learned of Boromir's fate has shifted, shared now, like the burden of Gondor's safety.
"He died with a plea to save his city," Aragorn whispers. "He died sending me to Minas Tirith in his stead. It is not you but I who took the role for which he was intended. He had spoken of coming with me to the White Tower, yet I did not come until he was no longer at my side..."
The King's tears spill over Faramir's chest, hot as blood.
Faramir knows his duty, his own legacy from his brother: Gondor and her King are in the Steward's care, so he must take action in the King's name. "There should be a memorial to Boromir," he declares abruptly. "In the city. In the Tower, if you wish."
"Yes," replies Aragorn in a voice thick with emotion. "I...I will...will have Gimli..."
"Shh," whispers Faramir, unable to bear the anguish in Aragorn's voice. "Later."
"I'm sorry," Aragorn whispers again, brushing his lips over Faramir's skin. "Your own suffering must be more than enough to bear."
"Do not be sorry! Not for this. Not for me. If you had not known him, there would be no one with whom I could remember. My uncle and the princes remember the Captain of the White Tower, but they do not remember my brother."
"I remember, Faramir." The King lifts his head, his words like an oath. "I always will."
Then Aragorn squeezes his eyes shut and kisses Faramir's neck. The lips tickle, as does the beard, and Faramir twists, instinctively moving his hands to Aragorn's sides to retaliate before he catches himself in the gesture.
Aragorn's head pulls back, red-rimmed eyes meeting Faramir's, and they gaze at each other uncertainly. Minutes pass before Aragorn speaks, his voice ragged from weeping but no less certain for it.
"He would want you to be happy. He loved you so much...he spoke of you to everyone...you must never believe that he would begrudge you anything. Nor that he would think you unworthy. He would want you to remember him in joy."
Slowly Faramir nods. "And you as well, I am sure."
Impulsively he bends to press a kiss beneath Aragorn's ribs, hearing Aragorn's breath hitch as he squirms. Faramir rests his face there with Aragorn's hand on his cheek, thinking of his brother and the debt they owe him. He tries to imagine Boromir in his place, happy in Aragorn's arms, and hopes Boromir died in the warmth of such a memory, knowing that he was loved by his brother and his King.
"I do this," he says solemnly, "in honor of Boromir." And he tickles Aragorn until they are both laughing through their tears.