Disclaimer and author's note: Nothing is mine. Except Estella's personality, I suppose. Thanks to everyone who reviewed, it makes me happy, especially since this story was idle for a year.
I'm looking for a beta reader, so if anyone is feeling up to it, please email me! But I need someone who's willing to be a hardass and be tough on me.

Chapter 5: The Departure

Merry spent several hours pouring over maps, thinking bitterly on the fact that his fellow hobbits could never even imagine a place like Gondor, with its monumental, gleaming cities made of stone; or Rohan, with its magnificent horses and temple-like stables to house them. No, they could not imagine, nor would they want to. They were so content with their small worlds that they cared nothing for anything outside of it--indeed, they were afraid, and Saruman had heightened that fear.

He hadn't realized how angry he was about it until Estella had brought it out of him in Sam and Rosie's kitchen. He hadn't felt like such an outsider at first, though. When they'd first returned to the Shire, they'd been heroes--they could do no wrong in everyone's eyes. But eventually, the novelty of their foreign finery had worn thin, the stories of their adventures had grown old, and the status conferred on them by both disappeared.

Merry angrily slammed his book shut. When had he stopped being a hero? And when had it started mattering?

For a long time, he stared at the flames jumping and crackling in the fireplace, and at some point (though in the future he wouldn't be able to recall when or how he'd arrived at it), he decided that the only thing to do was to leave. Get out of the Shire for a bit and clear his mind. It would be good for him.

It didn't take long to pack (though he made sure to include his finest clothes). He put enough food in his bag to last about two weeks--surely enough time to get his bearings again and start to enjoy himself in his home. As he walked out the door, it occurred to him that Pippin would wonder where he was, so he quickly scribbled a short note, left it on the kitchen table, and went to saddle Daisy.

Before very long, he had set out on his adventure. Evening was just beginning to fall, and he knew he wouldn't be able to travel very far. He just had to get far enough so that no one would be able to come after him. As he crossed Brandywine Bridge, the sun finally set, and the sounds of the night started to fill the quiet of dusk. Merry felt his anger begin to dissipitate as he listened to the crickets and frogs singing. This was the Shire that he'd always loved--the sound of the Brandywine burbling faintly, birds twittering softly as they roosted for the night. An owl glided overhead on silent wings and a solitary bat flew out of a hollow tree, snapping up a moth as it went.

It was soon too dark to see, and when Daisy stumbled on a root growing across the road, he stopped and dismounted. There was a small clearing just a bit into the trees and he picked his way towards it, tying Daisy to a tree when he got there. Enough brush littered the ground nearby to build a small fire and he soon had it merrily burning, with a skillet full of potatoes frying over it.

He leaned back and stared through the branches at the stars twinkling in the sky. It had been a long time since he'd felt this peaceful.

Slow hoof beats on the road caught his attention and he sat up, hoping it wasn't Pippin. He couldn't explain to him what was wrong. Pippin loved the Shire as much as he ever had, if not more, and he would never understand why Merry was dissatisfied with it.

A pony and rider came into view and dismounted upon drawing close. Merry cursed inwardly as the figure made his way towards the fire but held his tongue in case it was only a fellow traveler. When the figure stepped into the light cast by the fire, however, he gasped and jumped to his feet. "Estella!" he exclaimed, sputtering. "What--what are you doing here?!"

She tied up her pony and stood opposite him on the other side of the fire. "I followed you," she said simply. "I was going to apologize for being…a bit rude to you." Casting her eye about his camp, Estella remarked, "You look like you're setting off on quite a journey."

"What I'm doing is no business of yours!" he snapped.

"I suppose not," she replied. "But I'm asking all the same."

Merry tried to calm himself and took a deep breath before saying, "Estella, you'd best get back. It's late and even this road isn't always safe."

"Where are you going?" she asked bluntly.

"Nowhere important," he shot back.

They glared at each other for a moment before Estella said, "Rohan? Gondor?" Merry gaped for a second at her pronouncement and she almost smiled, adding, "Pippin was quite drunk. He spoke about those lands. Said both of you missed them sometimes."

"What if I am?" Merry asked waspishly. "It doesn't concern you."

Estella averted her eyes from his at last, and he felt a twinge of guilt, though he wasn't sure for what. "Well," she began, "then may I stay here for the night? It's a long way back, as you said, and there were clouds off to the west. They'll soon cover the moon."

Merry sighed, knowing he could not refuse her after the way he'd already treated her that day. "Yes, of course you can. I don't want to be responsible for you breaking your neck." He pulled the skillet off the fire and handed her a plate, saying, "Here, you might as well share this with me."

"Thank you," Estella murmured, accepting half of the potatoes.

They spent the remainder of the night in relative silence, speaking occasionally in awkward tones about such important topics as the weather (unseasonably warm), the level of water in the Brandywine (a bit low), and some common acquaintances (all quite well) before going to sleep. Merry gave Estella one of his blankets, which she spread out next to the fire. He did the same on the opposite side and settled on it, closing his eyes. He expected to lay awake for a long time, but he fell asleep almost immediately, lulled by the crackling of the fire and Estella's gentle breathing.


The following day dawned grey and cloudy and Merry started a fire to keep warm as much as to cook breakfast. As he was kneeling next to it, Estella suddenly dumped a pile of wood in front of him, and he started, unaware she'd been gathering it. "Are you going to tell me where you're going or not?" she questioned once more.

Merry sighed. Despite the fact that he'd slept through the night, he felt as though he'd spent hours lying awake, and so he answered wearily, "I'm going to Gondor, to see my friend, Lady Éowyn."

Estella nodded and remained silent for awhile. Finally, she hesitantly met his eyes and said, "I'd like to go with you."

"No," Merry said flatly.

Her eyes narrowed determinedly and she said, "You berate me for my lack of understanding, yet you refuse to help me understand! Don't be so quick to assume that everyone in the Shire wishes to stay there, ignorant of the outside world, for their entire lives!" She took a step closer to him and continued, "Ever since the day the four of you returned, I have wanted to see more of this world. My parents didn't want me talking to you because of it."

Surprised, Merry interjected, "That's why I wasn't to associate with you?"

"That and who else knows why. The point is, Merry, I want to know what's out there, and you can show me. Please. I…I want to know."

Merry hung his head and began slowly, "Estella…"

"I will follow you anyway if you say no," she interrupted fiercely.

Merry threw his hands up and said, "Fine! But you don't care for me all that much and it will bet at least a ten day journey spent entirely in my company."

"How do you know so much of my feelings?" Estella retorted.

For just a second, Merry gaped, unable to find anything to say. "I don't," he replied, a flush creeping up his face. He was glad Estella knew nothing of his feelings at that moment, which he himself was having trouble fathoming. For some reason, he was almost glad he'd given in and told her she could come and even gladder that she hadn't agreed with his assessment of her opinion of him. Again he found himself thinking of her eyes, and how warm they were, even now, when he was making a complete fool of himself by blushing like tweenager talking to a lass for the first time.

To his surprise, she smiled, though thankfully she made no mention of his red face. Instead, she simply said, "Thank you."

"You're welcome," he mumbled. Clearing his throat, he remarked, "We'd best get going, we're not even to Bree yet."

She nodded and they quickly packed away their things, doused the fire, and set off.

The day passed uneventfully. Around noon, they passed through Bree and bought more food, but otherwise they kept moving and made good time. By late afternoon, however, the clouds were growing darker and a brisk wind had started blowing.

Estella squinted towards the west and commented, "It's going to rain."

Nodding, Merry agreed, "Looks like it. I'd hoped it wouldn't."

"Well, it may hold off until we find shelter." Estella pointed to a rocky outcrop rising from the plain in the distance. "What about that?"

Merry paled. "No, not there."

She looked at him strangely. "But it may be the only shelter for miles. Why not?"

"I can't sleep there," he said flatly. "I have memories of that place and they aren't pleasant. We'll have to find somewhere else."

The first raindrops began to fall and Estella looked longingly at the promontory. She remained silent, however, and they rode on.

The wind grew steadily stronger and colder, and the rain fell harder and harder until it had become a torrential downpour. Estella shivered, soaked to the bone, and Merry looked away guiltily. They were riding past the rocky outcrop and he could make out the ancient ruins on the top of it. It was true, Weathertop would make a good shelter, but he wasn't sure he could face another night there. But Estella was right, there wasn't any other shelter for miles, and… He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, again noticing her shivering, which she was trying to hide. No, they couldn't go on. Besides, the ponies couldn't stand much more in this weather.

"Estella," he called over the pounding of the rain. "Let's stop. There are a couple alcoves on the other side of Weathertop."

"Are you sure?" she asked, though there was a flash of hope in her eyes.

"I'm sure," he replied, reining Daisy towards Weathertop. Suddenly, he realized how cold he was, and it seemed like forever until they reached a sheltered niche.

They tied up the ponies near a patch of grass and got out their blankets, which were still mostly dry. It was out of the question to build a fire and the two hobbits simply huddled under the overhang, attempting to stay out of the rain. Estella was still shivering convulsively and her teeth were chattering. After a moment, Merry realized he should do something for her, and before he had a chance to talk himself out of it, he scooted over towards her, draped his blanket over her shoulders, and put his arms around her, drawing her towards what little warmth his body offered. For a brief second, she stiffened, but then leaned into him. "Thanks," she mumbled.

"No problem," he replied. He was surprised that he didn't feel uncomfortable with Estella Bolger in what amounted to an embrace. And oddly, Weathertop wasn't unnerving him as much as he'd expected.

"What happened to you here?" Estella asked him unexpectedly.

"Well…it's hard to explain."

"Try me."

And so he did. But he found himself saying more than he'd meant to, speaking of his entire journey; his fears along the way, everything. When he was done, it occurred to him that he'd revealed things about himself that almost no one else knew, and he felt his face grow hot. He hardly knew Estella (though in the course of the day he'd realized he'd like to know her better). No doubt she would think him a fool--and cowardly.

To his surprise, however, she moved closer to him and said softly, "I had no idea what you endured. Somehow I thought…well, I don't know what I thought." She laughed a little and added, "I hate to sound fawning, but you were very…brave."

"Brave?" That was the last thing he'd expected her to say. "No, I wasn't brave. Lady Éowyn was brave, and Aragorn, and Frodo, and Pippin. I only did what I had to do to stay alive."

He felt Estella shrug and heard her yawn. "If you say so. I wouldn't know anything about bravery."

There was a comfortable silence for awhile until Merry realized he should make some response, and so he murmured, "That isn't true."

Estella didn't reply, however, because she had fallen fast asleep. Merry found himself smiling as he, too, closed his eyes. It was funny--he'd never thought he'd come back to Weathertop, and here he was with Estella Bolger nestled at his side, sleeping. Odd. Perhaps he might even be able to get some rest himself….