By Pidgeon Adrian O'Malley

Disclaimer: I own neither the title nor the characters in this story. The plot, however, is mine, so no touchy! :)


It was fine spring morning. The Shire was abuzz with activity, for the fine hobbits had their first chance since winter's thaw to get out and about like they were used to. It had been a long winter, and the summer-loving farming hobbits were glad to saunter out of their holes without a scarf or jacket.

The old hobbit granddads grumbled to themselves – rocking on their porches – about the foolishness of the younger generation in doing so, however. "I feel a cold rain coming up, mark my words!" they muttered to each other, each one in turn nodding sagely. "Ya wouldn't catch me out there too far from my hole! Wouldn't want to be caught out this soon after winter in a storm. Could catch me death." But as the cheerful and joyous younger hobbits paid no heed to their complaining, the old hobbits sat back deeper into their rocking chairs, lit fresh pipes of Old Toby, and commenced staring at the sky.

On this occasion the young and charming (if he did say so himself) future Master of Buckland – Meriadoc Brandybuck – came strolling down the lanes coming from Brandyhall, breathing in a deep breath of the sun's rays and enjoying every second of it. It was a grand day, he thought, just absolutely marvelous.

Up ahead he caught sight of his younger cousin, Pippin Took, walking next to a cart loaded with apples. Well, in all honesty, walking was not the best word for it. He was jogging and fast-walking at the same time, trying to stay next to the driver and engage him in conversation while attempting (and failing, Merry thought) to retain his dignity. The signature smirk of the Brandybuck line flashed across Merry's face as he saw what Pippin was doing every time the driver turned from watching the bouncing young Took, in order to keep his eyes on the road; Pippin was discreetly pocketing a few of the cart-hobbit's apples.

Only just in time Merry wiped the grin off his face as the driver pulled to a stop next to him. Pippin, eyes on the cart (or more precisely, the apples in the cart) nearly bumped into his cousin. The future Thain's green eyes were gleaming and his loose brown curls were bouncing, his face red with the strain of keeping up with the pony-driven cart.

"Why, hello, Merry! Fancy seeing you here! Enjoying yourself, are you?"

Allowing his grin to resurface, Merry nodded politely at the driver. "Indeed. This is the best weather we've had all year. How are you, Mr. Boffin? Are you enjoying this wonderful weather as much as I am?"

The middle-aged and slightly overweight driver tipped his cap to the young Brandybuck. "I shore am, young sir. Mr. Pippin and I was just talking about the beautiful weather we're havin'. Best thing that could've happened to my aching joints, if ya know what I mean. But somethin' tells me we're in for another doozy before too long."

"Oh, I hope not. I was hoping the cold had finally made its conclusive retreat back up North, where it belongs."

Mr. Boffin laughed, hitching up the reins. "I hope so too, young Master. We'll see. Maybe summer's finally come for good. I'll be seeing you boys."

The two waved as the good hobbit drove off. When he rounded the bend and was out of sight, Pippin turned towards Merry conspiratorially, making a bright red apple come out of his shirtsleeve. "Works every time," he grinned, the pronounced Took dimples showing through.

Quicker than his young cousin could blink, Merry snatched the fruit and took a big bite of it. "It sure does, Pip. Don't you ever learn?"

Pippin had the good grace to look annoyed as he reached into his right pocket (the one farthest from Merry), grabbed another apple, and took a quick and messy bite out of the ripe fruit.

Merry leaned away casually, raising an eyebrow, as sprays of juice made their unwelcome advance toward his person. He cleared his throat and took another bite.

The two walked along the mostly deserted pathway, enjoying the other's company, until they came to a fork in the road. Pippin made to go on the one that led to the town, and had assumed that Merry would follow suit. One could always count on Merry for some fun, he thought. But instead Merry tossed his finished apple into the woods and called out "See you around, Pip!" as he walked towards the smaller path leading to the farmlands outside of town.

Doing a classic double-take, Pippin threw what was left of his apple core towards the retreating hobbit and was rewarded with a grunt as Merry was hit upside the head. "Say, Merry old boy," Pippin called out, "Where are you off to this fine day? Out to do a bit of farm work? Penitential labor required by your father for some mischief done?"

Merry shook his head, smiling as he picked a piece of apple out of his bright golden curls. Boy, is he in a good mood, thought Pippin.

"Nope. I'm off to see Estella."

Pippin smirked with the mischievous look in his eye that came so often when the subject of Merry/Estella came up. "Oh, Estella, now? How is the lass?"

"As fine as ever." Merry sighed, a special shine coming into his deep blue eyes. "Now I really must be off: we're going on a picnic and it wouldn't do for me to be late."

"Just remember, Merry, that your dad expects us back for dinner at Brandyhall at 6:00 sharp. It wouldn't do for you to be late for that, either." Pippin said, walking backwards toward the town and waggling his finger at his cousin.

"No worries!" Merry called, trotting now in anticipation. "See you tonight!"

The two cousins parted ways. Merry came to one of the stables owned by his father a few yards up the path, and was met by the two ponies he had previously arranged to have ready. He mounted one as Gus Hornblower, the old stablehand, winked at his favorite young Brandybuck. "You have a good time there, y'hear, with that Bolger lass. She's quite the looker, if I may say so."

Merry couldn't hide his signature grin even if he tried. "You may indeed, Gus my friend. But she has beauty on the inside; that's where it counts."

Gus nodded sagely, his white hair waving softly in the breeze. "You'd better keep hold of this one, Master Merry. Sounds like a keeper."

Nodding with a knowing look and a devout "She sure is," Merry knuckled his forehead to the old hobbit and kicked his heels into the pony's ribcage, storming the dust around him like a whirlwind.

Estella was busy packing lunch in a large basket. Half a dozen ham sandwiches, a few apples, sausage links, hardboiled eggs, a deep-dish apple pie…was she forgetting anything? Oh, yes, the jug of sweet iced tea! She was just wedging it in the basket when her brother walked in.

He was, of course, Fredegar Bolger – or Fatty, according to his friends. Sauntering up behind his sister, he grabbed her waist and pulled her to the side with one hand while he snatched a slice of ham with the other. She tried to slap his hand away, but he only held her tighter and grabbed another slice, the first hanging out his mouth.

"Really, Freddie! Stop now, or else I'll never get this basket packed for the picnic!"

The portly hobbit conceded and released his sister, laughing. "A picnic, eh? Am I invited?"

Estella turned to make a face at her brother, her auburn curls bouncing around her shoulders. "Of course not, Fred. This is a picnic for a couple; no more, no less."

Fatty's eyes narrowed, and he forgot about the ham in his hand. "Merry Brandybuck, isn't it?"

Estella's eyes lit up. "And who else would I ever go with? He's absolutely wonderful. He's…"

"A troublemaker, that's what," Fatty interrupted her. "Mark my words, Stella; Merry's not good enough for you. He's always getting into some mischief or another with that cousin of his, Pippin. He's not responsible enough to take care of himself, let alone you. Do me a favor, honey, and please just let him go. He's not worth it."

Estella turned back to her basket, eyes sad. She knew Fred was worried about her welfare, but her brother didn't know Merry like she did. "No, Freddie, you're wrong. Merry is a kind and gentle hobbit. He would never hurt me, intentionally or otherwise. He's a bit of a rascal, yes, but not in a mean way – never in a mean way. He is bright, intelligent, funny, and loyal to a fault. Freddie," she said, grasping his hand and turning to look in his eyes, "I love him. And I know that he loves me. Do you understand?"

The sour look faded slightly from Fatty's face, but didn't leave entirely. "Not altogether, Stella. I still don't trust him, and I daresay I never will. In my eyes no hobbit is deserving of you. I wouldn't wish you unhappiness, so I won't wish that you stop seeing him, if that's what you want. But please be careful."

"Aren't I always?" Estella said with a laugh.

"No." Fatty replied, a chuckle escaping his lips.

The siblings gave each other a tight hug and Fatty took his leave, unobtrusively swiping another slice of the juicy ham.

"Oh, you," laughed Estella, playfully shooing him out of the kitchen.

She took another few minutes to sort the victuals in the basket. The window was open and she heard the soft flutters of hummingbird's wings and the trills of bluebirds flying from branch to branch in her apple orchard. It was a grand day, she thought, just absolutely marvelous. Humming a sweet melody that just seemed to come to her on the back of the summer breeze, Estella swept up the basket and the jug of tea in one hand and turned…straight into Merry Brandybuck!

He held out his hands to catch her as she stumbled in fright, his initial impish grin at catching her unawares in her own kitchen immediately having abandoned him for a look of barely-concealed laughter as she hit him flippantly over and over again with her free hand.

"Whoa now, desist, I beg mercy! I'm not the enemy around here, Stella, and I would appreciate not being made an invalid before I have a chance to finish our date this fine day!"

Estella hit him once more on the shoulder, unable to stop a broad smile creeping across her face. "Don't you dare do that again, Meriadoc Brandybuck! You nearly frightened me to death! Whatever would you do if I fainted dead away and all this food that I've been preparing for the last hour fell and was destroyed? Answer me that!"

Assuming a frown of sorrow, Merry shrugged and murmured, "Try to save what was left of the food, I suppose."

He laughed as Estella thrust the basket into his hands with a "humph" and, with the rapid societal recovery that no doubt came from his Took side, he threw a protective arm around the hobbit lass and whispered, "Forgive me, Stella; no amount of your delicious victuals could ever compensate for your own unique presence. I would go hungry for a month to save you from fainting dead away."

Looking up into his striking blue eyes, Estella smiled. "Only a month?"

With his arm around her and her arm around his waist, their eyes holding fast, she felt a wonderful warmth come over her. She stood on her tiptoes with the intention of pressing her lips to his, when a sound came from the kitchen doorway.

A throat clearing.

Both love-struck hobbits instantly broke their gaze and their heads snapped up to see Fredegar Bolger, arms crossed over his chest, with a gaze aimed at Merry that could very possibly curdle dairy.

With only a moment's pause Estella smiled and tossed her head, making her curls bounce. "Well Freddie, we're on our way! Don't expect us back before 4:30 or so. I love you," she said as she kissed his cheek, "and I hope you have a great day!" Her exuberance, exaggerated for Fatty's benefit, faded a bit when she saw that her brother's glare towards Merry had not faded in the slightest.

"Could you leave us for a second, Stel?" said Fred. It was not a question.

With a shrug towards Merry that she hoped showed him that she couldn't do anything else, Estella walked outside.

For all his Brandybuck confidence and bluster, Merry had no idea what to say when he was left to face his old pal Fatty. It didn't matter, anyway, though, since Fatty pretty much knew exactly what he wanted to say.

"Merry, I want you to listen, and I want you to listen good this time. I know you – I know how you are. I've been your friend for years, and I've played with you and talked with you and by now I know how you think. You might think that you're the future Master of Buckland and everything is yours and you can get anything you want, but let me tell you – not here. Not now. Estella is my sister – mine! – and you don't mean nearly enough to me if it means losing her. You've always been the strong, tough, obnoxious guy who would cross any line and fight any fight, and when we were kids I liked you because of that. I wished I could be that way. But this time it's about Stel, and I would rather die than allow you to make her unhappy. She isn't just another challenge, Merry. She's my sister. Don't you ever dare take advantage of the love she has for you."

Stunned by the outburst, Merry dropped his head. "There's something you don't understand, Fatty."

"And what's that?"

The young hobbit raised his eyes – bright with unshed tears – to meet Fredegar's calculating ones. "I love her."

Fatty was silent.

"I won't lie and say I always have," Merry continued, absently twisting the picnic basket that he was still holding in his hands, "but I do. When we were kids she was just a scrawny girl with her curls stuck in braids – your kid sis that was always tagging along. I barely gave her any thought at all. And then one day she grew up; or I did, one or the other. Maybe we both did. And all those jokes we made about her – that her freckles would never find her a husband – were suddenly not funny anymore. I loved her freckles. I loved her. And to be completely honest, pal, I was just as surprised as you were when I found out that she loved me too."

Fatty was still silent, though he looked uncomfortable.

"Don't you see, Fatty? I would never do anything to hurt her."

Fatty broke his piercing gaze, and with only a brief pause, strode out of the room.

It wasn't until then that Merry realized that he had been sweating. He ran his hand through his blonde curls and let a breath blow out from between his lips. Then, his head held high, he went out the front door to meet Estella.

She was sitting on a bench by a tree in the front yard, her fingers combing the fur of one of her pet dogs. Her smile was radiant, Merry thought, as she saw him coming closer.

"So, how was your little heart-to-heart with poor Freddie?"

"I tell you what," Merry said, his Brandybuck charm returning, "your brother scares the living daylight out of me. How you two are related, I'll never know."

She laughed, and stood as she took the basket from the hands of the future Master of Buckland, not noticing that they were shaking.

"He just wants what's best for me," she said, walking towards the two ponies that Merry had brought from the stables for their ride out into the woods. "After Ma and Papa passed on two years back…he just, well, decided to become the father that I didn't have anymore. You can't really blame him for that."

"No, I suppose not," Merry said as he helped her up onto the pony. "If I had a little sis I'd like to hope that I'd do the same. But anyhow, let's just enjoy the day, shall we? A day as nice as this should never go to waste, especially after a winter like we just had."

The two shared a smile and urged their ponies into a trot. Neither noticed as grey clouds drifted towards the west, and the air became thicker.

Any insecurities Merry felt about Fatty and his protectiveness over his sister vanished during the ride. Both Merry and Estella loved the shaded woods, and they urged their ponies farther and farther down their own secret trail that made its winding way through the forest. They had found it, almost by accident, when Estella's pony had once spooked on a ride and Merry had run her down to save her. Now they used it whenever they wanted to get away together; a place where nobody else could find them.

Estella chattered on about the different goings-on in her knitting group – apparently Susie Bracegirdle had a not-so-slight crush on Hugo Boffin (the apple grower's son), who in turn was interested in Susie's sister, Margie. But to poor Hugo's consternation Margie had eyes only for the flighty and ever-unpredictable heir to the Thainship, Pippin Took. When he heard this Merry chuckled; he could not see Pippin settling down with any lass – especially not any time soon.

Eventually they made it to a nice open grove where they often had picnics, though this was the first time they went out there since winter began. It was a little over four miles away from the Bolger home, which was in turn on the very borders of Buckland. After helping Estella off her pony and helping her set up the blanket and the food, Merry plopped himself down and solemnly stared at the food.

"Aren't you going to help yourself, Merry? You know that I'm not feeding you, you big dope."

"It just seems too beautiful to eat, Stella. You are a masterpiece in the kitchen, my love. An artist! I hardly know where to start."

Estella grabbed a large red apple and threw it at him, which he plucked out of the air before it had a chance of ramming into his face.

"Start there, and then we'll see what I can cram into your belly! And remember…pie is only for those nice little hobbits that finish all their lunch!"

The two set upon the meal, in no rush to finish, and savored every bite. Merry told Estella about goings-on at Brandyhall, and she laughed as he described the antics of Pippin trying to steal some apples off of poor Mr. Boffin. They both knew that he would find some way to sneak a few extra coins into the apple drover's pockets in recompense for the abducted fruit – that was just the way Pippin worked. A bit of mischief was always set to right. Estella believed that Merry taught him that, but the first time she had asked him he just smiled and changed the subject away from his reputation. She smiled at the memory and kept listening as Merry's deep voice flowed over her in waves, making the spring breeze seem more still.

They sat talking for hours, not knowing or caring how long they had been gone. Some hobbits would make out or spend an entire day in the other's embrace, but Merry and Estella preferred to talk with each other. Both were surprised constantly by the other's intelligence, and the sounds of the other's voice quickly became associated with the glorious sounds of the morning birds.

Merry sat with his back to a tree, Estella wrapped in his arms. He loved her so much. One day, he thought, I would give anything to marry her. I would want my children to be hers. I would do anything to be hers alone.

Little did he know that Estella was thinking the same thing.

The food had long since disappeared, except from some apples in the bottom of the basket. Talk had died down, and the two had slowly dozed off beneath the aspen tree.

Merry awoke to the feeling that something wasn't right. He glanced over to his side, where Estella was sleeping peacefully. Then he looked up, surprised to see that the sky had darkened. Clouds had gathered above them – dark clouds, heavy with rain. The air had grown thick and cold, and the ponies were pawing the earth. He tapped Estella on the shoulder.

"Stel, I think we'd better be going."

Opening her eyes, Estella saw the violent change in the weather and sat up, blinking. "I think you might be right," she said.

Quickly they gathered up the picnic supplies and lashed them to Merry's pony. He assisted Estella up on her own, and jumped on his just as the first raindrops began to fall. Without a word they kicked their heels into their ponies' ribcages, darting forward into the quickly darkening woods.

And that's when the skies opened up.

The darkness came upon them like a shadow, the rain pouring down in torrents. In minutes Merry could hardly see the path in front of them, forcing them to slow down to a trot. He reached out to grab Estella's hand from where she rode next to him. Their eyes met, and Merry gave her a grin full of confidence he didn't feel. "Some spring date, eh?" he yelled over the rain, and she mustered a smile.

Merry flicked the water out of his face with a toss of his hair, and peered deeper into the forest. It was another four miles to the warmth of the Bolger house, and he was already wishing he was there. It could not be helped, though, he thought realistically.

Then, suddenly, a flash of lighting pierced the darkness, striking a large oak tree to their right. Estella's pony reared up in terror. Immediately Merry dashed off his own animal, throwing himself in front of the frightened beast in an effort to calm her. A blast of thunder shook the skies, and the pony's eyes rolled as she thrashed her hooves. Merry's own pony was prancing about nervously. Distracted by Estella's mount and trying not to be hit by a flailing hoof, Merry's sixth sense was aroused by a feeling of danger. Something was not right.

The harsh clap of thunder hadn't stopped. It had extended for far too long, and the sound had changed. No longer was it the loud clangor of a thunderbolt – it sounded like the snapping of kindling, only a million times intensified. He looked up.

The tree was falling.

Shaken by the lightning strike, the massive oak – already long dead – succumbed to the force of gravity. Merry watched as it leaned towards them, almost in slow motion.

Then, all of a sudden, it wasn't in slow motion any more.

"Go! Run!" he screamed at the top of his lungs, slapping the quivering pony on the rump. Estella, still trying to hang on to her mount, turned and saw at the last minute what Merry was shouting for.

"Merry!" she shrieked, her voice suddenly raw with fear.

Once he saw Estella's mare lurch forward, Merry began running as fast as he could towards the direction she went. But he was out of time. The ancient oak plummeted to the earth, and Merry had nowhere to go.

He vaguely heard Estella's scream as the trunk of the tree hit him across the right shoulder, spinning him violently to the left. He hit the mud-covered ground with a thud, and was unprepared when, a half second later, the trunk landed across his unprotected chest. A partially severed branch stub buried itself deep in his left shoulder, but he could not gather enough air in his lungs to scream at the blinding pain. Blackness drifted in his vision, and he wondered for the first time if this is what it meant to die.

To Be Continued…

I hope you enjoyed this, though if you didn't, that's fine too. I write for my own pleasure, so I have power beyond belief. :)

I love reviews, though (especially constructive criticism), so don't be afraid to let me know what you think!

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Let me know!

This is my first lengthy-ish fan fiction (check out my short little onceler about Thorin Oakenshield), so I really want to know how I sort out!

Thanks and God bless!