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Respect and loyalty came easily, but many long months passed before they were able to stand side by side as companions, not as the Steward of Gondor and the King.

"Please call me Aragorn," the older man had asked, though Faramir almost demurred until he heard the rest of the request: " your brother did." Much later, Aragorn admitted that the Ring had called him by that name as well, chosen of all the names by which he had gone before. Faramir assured him that the Ring's summons did not identify a man's true name, yet the King laughed sadly and said, "But it is mine."

It was dangerous, Faramir knew, to think of the King as his friend rather than his liege. Eowyn always greeted Aragorn as "My Lord" no matter how many times he gently teased her about it, unwilling to understand that she needed that distance from a man she had once loved. And at times Faramir thought that he felt something similar, for the love of a man for a King ran deeper than the love for a friend or comrade-at-arms.

Still, he thought Aragorn might be lonely -- more than he was himself, for the soldiers of Gondor treated a Steward very differently once they had a King. He received their confidences, their sympathies, while their ruler was revered, but at a distance.

So when he walked with Aragorn through the gardens at sunset, Faramir did not speak most of the words that filled his thoughts. Though he longed to hear more about Boromir's mission -- his downfall, his death -- from the one who had been closest to him, he saw that it pained Aragorn greatly to speak of him, and did not press the subject.

They talked of Gondor, of the history and legends that Faramir had always loved, and over time Aragorn spoke of the parents he barely remembered, of life among the Elves, of the quest for which he now knew he had been destined.

"Did the Ring speak to you?" Aragorn asked him one evening.

"Indeed it did," confessed Faramir, hoping that he would be spared further inquiries. Power did not tempt him, then or earlier. He had seen what it did to his father, understanding that it brought neither peace nor strength nor love. Having the world at its knees offered no appeal to him.

That might have confused the Ring, for Faramir never heard its call until he saw it on its chain at Frodo's throat. Then his thoughts were not of saving Gondor or defending Middle-earth, but of the brother he had lost, the father he was losing, and his desperate wish to be worthy of them. Indeed, there was only one power in the thing that tempted him. The might of the Ring had brought back Sauron; perhaps it could have brought back Boromir as well.

"Did you ever..." Faramir started to ask, before recalling that it was the King to whom he spoke. He changed the question. "Do you think that there are Men who are immune to the call of the Ring?"

"None whom I have met," Aragorn replied with some reluctance. "Its power is subtle. Your brother believed in good faith that the Ring could protect Gondor from the enemy. Only at the last did he understand that it would use him for its own ends." His head lowered. "He was so strong...I did not want to see what was happening to him."

"Then Samwise Gamgee spoke truly." Faramir's arms were growing chilled. He looked toward the dark eastern horizon. "The Ring made him break his oath."

"He was no oathbreaker!" Whirling, the King turned on Faramir, and for a moment the familiar face was as cold as Isildur's carven features on the Argonath. Then it melted as his eyebrows drew together and his jaw sagged. "I could not reach him in time to save him. His death is on my hands."

Faramir looked from the King's shadowed eyes to his clenched fists -- the hands which had brought Faramir back from the darkness that had claimed his brother. "You must not blame yourself," he said quietly. "My life was in your hands, as well."

The King remained still, regarding his Steward carefully. Then one of his hands extended, fingers shaking very slightly. Faramir reached out and clasped them.

"For most of my life," said Aragorn, "I had no wish to be King. Even when I learned that Elrond would only permit me to wed his daughter if I took the crown, I shunned it."

"And I had no wish to be Steward," Faramir nodded. Aragorn's palm was warm against his own, the clasp firm. "This was to be my brother's role, and I was content."

"Yet here we are, the most notorious men in Gondor." One of Aragorn's too-rare smiles burst across his face, brightening the shadows of dusk. Faramir returned it, wondering whether Boromir had seen Aragorn smile like that...whether he had made Aragorn smile like that, as Boromir had done with nearly everyone he met. "We cannot guess at what could have been. I am glad you are here."

"As am I." It took all of Faramir's will to keep his eyes on those of the King, who stood so close, looking so vulnerable, as if he could be touched, held, claimed. A ghostly chill passed through him as he wondered whether his brother had witnessed this, too -- his brother who had known Aragorn only as a Ranger, not a King, before the world changed.

Want flared in Faramir, an unexpected hunger that forced him to pull his fingers from Aragorn's before the King noticed how he was trembling and sweating. It was nothing like the pull of the Ring, and yet he felt the same unspeakable temptation flicker to life in him.

It mattered not to Faramir that heads in Gondor ducked in respect when he passed, that soldiers obeyed his orders and farmers his plans for rationing, that he carried his father's staff and his grandfather's sword; but to have his King standing so before him -- his brother's friend, beloved of his wife -- left him shaken and dizzy with power.

"The Ring could not have offered me this," he said suddenly, then wished, at the astonishment in Aragorn's eyes, to take the words back. But the King was not angry with him; he nodded suddenly, and, taking Faramir by the elbow, began to lead him from the gardens.

"That is why it is rightfully yours," Aragorn murmured, guiding him toward the White Tower which rose dizzyingly overhead. "And, perhaps, mine. I am glad you understand."

Faramir was not certain that he did, or ever would, understand; but he let Aragorn bring him inside before the fire, and warm him with a smile.