Disclaimer: The Shire and everything else in Middle-earth belongs to Tolkien, I just get to visit from time to time.
Merry sat on his pony at the foot of the Brandywine Bridge, staring across rather blankly, a slight frown creasing his forehead. Pippin was almost halfway across before he realized his companion hadn't crossed with him. Shaking his head sadly, the younger hobbit turned his pony and returned to his friend's side.
"It's nearly noon, Merry. Why don't we take a little rest and eat our lunch here?" Pippin dismounted and started rummaging through his saddlebags as he spoke. He seemed, to the casual observer, to be quite intent on his task, but he kept a close eye on Merry as he pulled seedcakes and a wedge of cheese out of his bag.
"What?" Merry's eyes pulled back into focus slowly. "I'm sorry, Pip, I must have wandered off for a moment. Yes, this will do nicely for lunch." He led the two ponies off to the side of the road, hobbled them and attached their nosebags while Pippin set up the food, but he was still uncommonly quiet.
Pippin waited patiently, hoping that Merry might be more forthcoming about whatever was bothering him once they started to eat, but to no avail. His cousin silently munched a small amount of food, eyes once again staring into the distance unseeingly.
With nothing else to do, Pippin surveyed their surroundings, remembering that rainy evening, nearly two years ago now, when they had come home from their travels, only to find the Shire overtaken by thugs and ruffians.
The dismal brick buildings put up by the ruffians had been torn down almost as soon as the Battle of Bywater was over, but the gates on the bridge itself had been allowed to remain. Pippin had thought that he would hate the sight of those gates, always a reminder of the evil things that had befallen the Shire, but he'd found instead that they served another purpose altogether for him.
"You know, Merry," he mused thoughtfully, nibbling on a piece of cheese, "I always think of Gondor when I cross the Bridge here. Do you know why?"
Merry looked at him with a perplexed frown before shaking his head. "Why, Pippin?" he asked, sounding as though he were caught halfway between curiosity and reluctance to hear anything about the War.
"Well, I think of Minas Tirith and Osgiliath, and all the broken bridges cutting them off, one from the other. Osgiliath must have been a beautiful city once, but it'd been attacked and ransacked so many times over that there's almost nothing left of it beyond ruins and rubble. Do you remember the story Boromir told us, about having to destroy the last bridge across the Anduin, in order to stop the orcs from crossing, and how he and Faramir barely survived? I think about that when I come here."
He paused for a moment, taking a long drink of water and giving his words a few minutes to settle in Merry's mind.
"Our bridges are all still standing, Merry," he said after a few minutes. "The Shire bears scars, as do we, but it's healing nicely, and will continue to do so, until those scars are barely noticeable and no one sees them any more. The hobbits of the Shire have known suffering and hardship, but they are still here as well. It could have been so much worse. We could have returned to find the Brandywine Bridge in ruins and our people scattered and hiding with no place left to call home. Every day we need to remember how blessed we are to still have our home. We did what we had to do, Merry and we accomplished great things. We saved the Shire."
"But we couldn't save Frodo," Merry muttered, so quietly Pippin could barely hear him.
"Frodo made his own choices, Merry, my lad. He didn't need us to save him, he saved himself." Pippin forced himself to speak briskly, ruthlessly forcing down the tears that sprang to his eyes at the memory, still fresh and raw, of Frodo boarding an elven ship and sailing away, cutting himself off from them forever. "He always did want to go off traveling with Bilbo, and now he has. And now," Pippin added, picking himself up and repacking his saddlebags, "it's time for us to be off as well, if we ever want to get home. I, for one, would like to see the lights of Crickhollow this evening, and not have to spend another night sleeping on tree roots and rocks."
So saying, he unhobbled his pony and mounted. Ready to go, he looked down at his cousin, still seated in the grass at the side of the road. "Are you coming, Merry?" he asked calmly.
Merry looked up at him unblinkingly for a long moment, before a small smile crept its way across his face. "Aye, you daft Took, of course I'm coming. Without me, you'd never make it as far as Crickhollow. You'd end up spending the night in a ditch, wondering how you'd got there." Standing up, he dusted himself off, mounted his pony, and spurred it to a brisk walk.
Hiding the surge of relief that swept through him at Merry's words, Pippin put on an indignant look. "Trust a Brandybuck to think he's the only one to know his way about Buckland. You'll have to go a little faster than that if you want to show me the way home." As soon as they were across the Bridge, he shot a challenging look in Merry's direction and spurred his pony to a gallop. With a surprised laugh, Merry urged his own pony into a gallop, and the race was on, neither hobbit looking back at the Bridge and its gates, but rather ahead to a small, snug house with a warm fire in the grate and a cup of tea shared with a good friend.