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Berry Picking  by Lily Dragonquill

Author notes:
Thank you, Dreamflower for your mindful and swift beta.

Berry Picking

Esmeralda glanced out of her window where Paladin and the Brandybuckbrothers were talking. She couldn't hear them, but she could watch without being seen, even though Saradoc was repeatedly looking over his shoulder, worry in his eyes.

She avoided those eyes and scowled. What had possessed him anyhow? He couldn't just kiss her, not like that! Not that bluntly! It wasn't his nature either. She had known him all his life and though he could be quite direct at times, this was more like Merimac. And if Merimac had kissed her she would have boxed his ears and kicked him all the way back home. Why she hadn't slapped Saradoc was beyond her. She assumed it was the surprise, after all, this was Saradoc she was speaking of and…

Esmeralda sighed and shook her head to keep her thoughts from going in circles.

It should have raised her suspicion when Saradoc claimed he wanted to accompany her to the berry bushes, especially since Paladin and Merimac wanted to engage in some archery contest. Saradoc wasn't usually one to wave aside a competition. Looking back she was the greatest fool of all to assume he was in for some mundane activity. Saradoc was a tween and 'mundane' wasn't something tweens were particularly fond of.

When he started wondering whether she had any suitors she should have minded him more carefully at the least. Instead she told him that, yes, of course she had. Father was guarding her every step, however. He needn't have. Esmeralda wasn't particularly fond of any of the lads. They lacked that certain something and though she didn't know exactly what that was, she knew she would recognise it when she saw it.

Saradoc had smiled coyly at her words, and had she wondered? Did she stop him? No, Esmeralda Took had to encourage him!

"Don't say you have fixed your eye on one?" she had said. "Who is she? What is she like?"

Esmeralda plumped down on the bed. She should have realised when he started complimenting the mysterious girl's beauty, wits, and whatnot. It wouldn't have been that bad if Saradoc had just kissed her cheek as he had doubtlessly intended to. But she just had to turn her head that very moment, hadn't she? Saradoc Brandybuck of all hobbits in the Shire! What did he think he was doing? He was her friend. She knew him inside out, but he certainly wasn't somebody she would ever have intended to kiss. After all, he was only twenty-seven and though he was mature for his age he was - well, young.

It wouldn't be that much of a problem if he were thirty-seven and she going on forty-two. But, as it was, he was a tween, and tweens were erratic. Saradoc, surely, had forgotten about the kiss already. For him, it probably was nothing more than a joke, and perhaps she should laugh about it as well.

Esmeralda managed a smile and when she looked out of the window she realised the lads were no longer there. She nodded to herself as if in agreement. Yes, she would laugh and not make a fuss about a tween's whim. She was above such things.


Esmeralda never spoke about the kiss, not even to Saradoc who did not raise the topic either. She all but forgot about it until three years later the Brandybucks visited Whitwell again to discuss her brother's upcoming wedding over a mug of ale and some Old Toby.

It was only by chance that Esmeralda overheard their conversation. On her way to the pantry she caught her name being spoken in the parlour and pricked her ears.

"Yes, yes," Paladin nodded vigorously. "Esmeralda was, and is, father's little darling. While she's been pampered in her younger years, father's kept a strict eye on her ever since she," Paladin chuckled insolently, "shaped up."

It took all Esmeralda's willpower not to stomp into the room and give them all an earful. Clenching her fists she braced herself and sneaked a short glance through the narrow gap between door and frame.

A cloud of smoke floated above the hobbits' heads. In the flickering light of three candles it seemed as if thunder would bolt from it any moment. Sitting hunched over their mugs they seemed to Esmeralda almost like old gaffers reflecting upon their lives. All but Merimac, that was. He obviously enjoyed their topic immensely, his face almost splitting because of his huge grin.

"And what's worse," Paladin went on. "I supported him wholeheartedly. Poor Esme! I hunted down every lad smitten with her looks, and then father was after him as well. If Eglantine's father had…"

"You didn't hunt me," Saradoc announced matter-of-factly and Merimac quickly took a mouthful of ale as if to keep himself from breaking into laughter.

Paladin, meanwhile, waved a hand at his cousin. "You were no danger. Esme knows what she wants and I doubt a tween's on her list."

At this complete silence ensued. Esmeralda felt her skin tingle in nervous anticipation and unconsciously tightened her grip on the doorframe. Oh, to see the expression on Saradoc's face! She knew that one of his looks could silence even Merimac, who was never shy to answer back. This time, however, there was more to it. Even with his back to her Saradoc radiated an air of dignity, pride, and something else she could not quite discern. Yet she knew that the face Paladin was gaping at was that of the future Master of Buckland.

"You kissed her?" Paladin mumbled at length as if intimidated by the younger one's sudden authority.

"It's disgusting, isn't it?" Merimac blurted out. Immediately all suspense vanished and the world started moving again. "If he had shown at least a bit of taste…"

"You knew?!" Paladin interrupted and Merimac looked stricken.

"What do you think? He's my brother. All he knows, he knows from me."

That explains everything, Esmeralda thought and was glad when Saradoc slapped the back of his brother's head to silence the obvious pride which accompanied the words.

"You kissed my sister?!" Paladin repeated in disbelief.

Saradoc simply shrugged. "I would do it again if she wouldn't run away."

Paladin snorted and then broke into a howling laugh. He slapped Merimac's back so hard that the latter spilled half of his ale and almost fell across the table. "A fine teacher you are to me! Tell me, how many lasses had run away screaming before you approached Saradoc?"

"I don't think there were any at all back then," Saradoc helped out when Merimac couldn't find his voice to answer.

Esmeralda covered her mouth with her hand to keep herself from snickering, as Merimac mumbled some incoherent words before he leaned back in his chair and pouted like a lad whose favourite toy had been taken away.

Yet, Merimac's prideful armour was not the only one which had sustained a chink. Saradoc fell silent as well and it needed Paladin's cheerful encouragement to have him admit that he had grown increasingly fond of her ever since they had visited Buckland on his twenty-fifth birthday.

Esmeralda remembered well how his manner towards her changed ever so slightly back then. At first she had thought it only a passing thing but as the time went by she accepted it as normal, until he kissed her on that fateful afternoon among the berry bushes.

She stepped back into the darkness and shook her head. Seeing him now, crushed but somehow accepting that his passion and wish were not enough, Esmeralda feared she did him wrong when she only saw the tween in him and not the hobbit he was about to become.

"I should like you as a brother-in-law," she heard Paladin announce after a while. "A bit of your calm would do her temper no end of good. Besides, I can't see why she should reject a respectable hobbit like you. Father has chased away far worse."

"Respectable!" Merimac muttered before he sank further into his chair. "Indeed! But no-one asks me anyway."

Esmeralda didn't wait for a reply but hurried to the pantry. She had a lot of thinking to do.


Esmeralda felt the green eyes upon her but she did not look up from her task though she couldn't help to smile. Saradoc had only reluctantly agreed to come with her and now he seemed almost embarrassed to once again sit between the berry bushes with her at his side. No longer the proud Master-to-be Esmeralda had so longed to see last night, but once again a tween who, though he kept himself busy with plucking red currants, was unable to take his eyes from her.

She realised his gaze wandered repeatedly to the long ringlets that fell over her shoulder. Unlike her usual preference she wore her hair loose today with only a few strands fastened to the back of her head. For a Took her hair was light, with not a shimmer of auburn in it. Saradoc seemed fascinated by the way her curls shimmered in the afternoon sun.

Esmeralda felt a blush rise to her cheeks at this silent compliment and quickly turned away from him. It was stupid to be flattered just because she knew how much he hoped she would be. Actually it was quite tweenish of her, and yet she couldn't help it.

"Do you think I have a temper?" she asked unexpectedly.

Saradoc frowned, then smiled but did not answer. Esmeralda watched him curiously. The light breeze got entangled in his hair and blew the neatly combed curls into his thoughtful face.

"You can be quite spirited," he finally agreed, "but in a charming way."

Stunned at this open reply Esmeralda stared at him, before she shook her head and smiled fondly. "You really carry your heart on your sleeve don't you?"

"What do you mean?"

Esmeralda shrugged. "Instead of kissing me again you keep watching and flattering me. But then, you've never been straightforward on serious matters, which probably is the reason why you surprised me so. Saradoc Brandybuck, generally considerate, was suddenly acting on impulse."

Well," Saradoc fidgeted, immediately knowing what she was talking about. "Merimac's a bad influence, you know."

His cheeks coloured and he gasped when Esmeralda leaned forward to kiss them. "Just because Paladin thinks tweens are not on my list it doesn't mean that I'm not willing to try."

"You heard that?" Saradoc asked and blushed even darker.

"Only the important bits," Esmeralda declared. "And they showed me that age probably isn't that significant." She sneaked a sideways glance at him and heaved a heavy breath before continuing. "So, if you kissed me again I might even give you a chance."

Saradoc looked at her with furrowed brow but whatever he searched her face for he didn't seem to find it. Esmeralda swallowed suddenly feeling insecure and incredibly foolish. Yet she did not back away when he slowly leaned forward, but closed her eyes. The smell of berries and grass tickled her nose, followed by the strong odour of Forelithe's heat, pipe-weed, and a scent that reminded her of fields in summer.

His kiss was just as tentative as last time, his lips a mere whisper on hers. Esmeralda shivered slightly and for a moment was, again, tempted to draw back, fearing for their friendship. An earnest kiss would change it forever. But she lingered, feeling strangely assured by her brother's words the previous night.

Saradoc seemed as unsure as she, for he looked at her full of concern when he finally broke away. Esmeralda smiled as if to assure them both, and when Saradoc offered an answering smile she felt her worries melt away. She was not sure whether Saradoc had that certain something but she was determined to find out.




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