Note: For and the I gave hobbit het a try. Happy holidays, honey – I hope I managed okay! 🙂 Many thanks to for the encouragement.

Estella Bolger had not really noticed Meriadoc Brandybuck before his sudden departure and surprising return. Sure, he had been around, one of their circle, the one comprised of the tween children of prominent Shire families. When Meriadoc and his cousin Peregrin had left, following the slightly peculiar Frodo Baggins, Estella and her friends had noticed that things were quieter, but soon life in the Shire began to change, and other things had become more important.

But then they had returned, ridden into town, tall warriors whose eyes had seen worse even than Sharkey, and Estella had had troubles recognizing the carefree boys she had grown up with. Other than a lot of the Shire inhabitants, however, who were all too happy to put aside all memories of the shadows that had loomed over the Shire, Estella had not been surprised when Merry and Pippin did not immediately return to normal. There were things in the world that could not be forgotten, that much Estella knew. She understood that they needed time to learn to live with what they had seen and that this was easier to do in Crickhollow than in their fathers' halls. Therefore, while most other people returned to their lives and conveniently forgot about the "Heroes of the Shire", except at parties, where Merry and Pippin were welcome guests of honour.

There, much to Estella's amusement, the same venerable matrons that loved to gossip to their hearts' content about the strange new ways of the young Misters Brandybuck and Took were busy pushing their marriagable daughters onto them. The two heroes hardly managed to catch their breath in between dances and forced conversations, and while Pippin didn't seem to mind too much, Estella noticed that Merry appeared to wish himself far away more often than not.

When Merry asked her about it later, Estella was never quite able to recall what made her walk over to him at one of those parties despite not really having exchanged more than two words with him since his return. Maybe she felt sorry for him, because there was something in the set of his right shoulder as he danced with Loretta Proudfoot that told her that his discomfort was not only boredom but real physical pain. In any case she approached him after the dance and smiled at him, experiencing a moment of confusion as his eyes came to rest on her, bright and clear and unsettlingly high up.

However, she gathered her wits quickly and asked him whether he wanted to step out for a moment, adding with a grin: "And I promise I'm not trying to get you to marry me – I still remember that you used to pull my hair all the time when we were younger!"

At this Merry had laughed out loud and visibly relaxed, giving Estella the impression that this was not something he had done a lot recently. "I only did that because I was too shy to ask you for a kiss, 'Stella," he said, and Estella couldn't bring herself to tell him that she hated it when people shortened her name. Instead she felt herself blush and covered it by punching him gently in his good arm with a laugh before letting him lead her outside. Before the night was out, she realised with surprise that she hoped he would try again to kiss her.

He did not try it that night, but some time after their wedding he confessed that he had decided that very night that, when he felt ready to fulfill his duties as heir to the Master, he wanted no one but her at his side. Laughing with disbelief, Estella stood on her tiptoes and kissed her husband right on the nose, her heart full and warm.

Estella Bolger might not have noticed Meriadoc Brandybuck before – but she definitely noticed him after.

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