Will stepped out into the early morning air. The night had been one he wanted to forget. Images emblazoned into his memories forever would haunt him for some time until he could let them go, of his mother weeping, his father’s jaundiced, lifeless face staring up at the ceiling, his brother’s distance in the corner while he handled the actual work of helping to move his father’s still body from the house he had built; there would be no going back now.

The house had felt heavy and stagnant, and even with the windows open, it would take days for the miasma of a dying man to clear out. Will could take it no longer and had made his promises to return shortly to his mother.

As he started walking down the path that led to Combe, he found that he could not contain the speed of his step and picked it up to a jog. As exhausted as he was, it felt good to stretch his legs and have warm blood pumping to them. When he had cleared the town, his pace picked up until he was at a dead run. The wind howled in his ears and he paced his breathing until his lungs didn’t burn with the effort of it.

The air felt fresh and clean outside. Winter still lingered, but there was something about this time of year that promised spring would come soon, in the dewiness of dawn or the syrupy sunsets that came later and later each day. It felt like a fitting end to a miserable life and a miserable man who made those around him just as miserable. They could start anew now.

He felt free and wild, like some curse had finally been lifted. He was no longer the son of Sawyer. He was just Thom. He was just Will, himself. He had started to realize that for himself when he had gone away from Bree last year, but now it had crystallized and felt complete and real.

His heart pounded fiercely in his chest, and the burning in his legs faded as the rush of the run kicked in, making him feel alive. For the first time in weeks, he felt like he could think and process the things swirling in his head without distraction and with only his rhythmic breathing to keep him company. 

The thought of his mother withering and diminishing now that his father was gone was heartbreaking. She had been so kind and generous once until he had stolen that from her. Maybe she could find that kindness again and shake off the weariness they all had felt. She had seemed almost hopeful when he told her about the orphanage. She needed someone to care for. With his brother and him both gone, this was what she needed, he was sure of it.

But even if she were to find work, it would not be enough for her to make a decent wage for herself and keep the house, at least, not at first. He had promised her she would not be destitute. Ted, with his usual excuses, was in no position to take her in. It was up to him. When he had explained Miss Joselle’s offer to his mother, she all but begged him to take it. It was more coin than he could make doing any amount of odd job he might be able to find in Bree or the surrounding area. And it was safe.

And Aiva would be there. That thought made him smile. His feelings for her were complicated, but their friendship meant the world to him. The respect he had for her won out over every other instinct he might have had that might have jeopardized that friendship. Naturally, he was crushed when he learned she would be leaving. He had taken for granted that she would always be there. But it was not safe for her to stay there, and he couldn’t protect her. He hated himself for not being there to defend her, but it was a cold fact. It was the right thing for her to do, and he realized now that going with them was the right thing for him to do as well.

The alternative was too grim to fathom. His mother living destitute, poor, sick, and on her own in the Alley, or even worse, him saddled with caring for her and unable to work, making the both of them poor, sick, and destitute. The thought of that made a pit form in his stomach and only strengthened his resolve.

His legs picked up speed as he rounded back to return home, sprinting across open fields, stirring up small animals in the grass and brush. The hobbits of Staddle, out for their early morning chores stood and marveled at the Man sprinting through their small settlement, shocked when he leaped off the small fishing dock and into the chilled waters of Little Staddlemere.

He floated there for a moment but found he could not hold his breath for long from his exertion. He surfaced, swimming to the shore to haul himself out and sit on the pier. The water seemed to wash away everything and his head felt clearer than it had since he returned to Bree months ago.

He would not let the worst happen. He would go to Gondor with the ships. He would be a good son. He would make his mother proud. He would make Aiva proud.

Now he just had to figure out how to tell her that he would be paid to go.