Disclaimer: All characters and events contained herein are the property of J.R.R. Tolkien, or based upon the writings of the same. Some passages of the following story are direct or edited quotes from said writings. I just like to play, with no profit or assumption of ownership.

Author's note: This fic was written in honour of several of my dear friends.

For Tim, Helen, and Kathy, who have been my channels of gentle strength these past months.

For Gentle Hobbit, whose kind words of understanding were a light in the deep dark of my personal shadows.

For my dearest Merry, who fits that name much better than she knows.

Gentle Strength

The mist hung low over the mountains of Mordor, pale and cold in the grey light that anticipates the dawn. The breeze blew cool about the two hobbits standing upon the tallest tower of Minas Tirith, gazing out to the land where they had struggled together through the darkness. One seemed lost in thought; his eyes pale as if any moment they could spill over with a flood of tears. The other, more stockily built, regarded him thoughtfully.

"Are you alright, Mr. Frodo?" he asked.

Frodo turned to him with a smile that was both happy and sorrowful. "I am fine, Sam. I was just thinking..."

His voice trailed off as he looked back at the mountains, and Sam allowed the silence to hang for a few moments before gently repeating his question. Frodo took a deep breath, and when his eyes returned to Sam, he was glad to see that his master looked more focused and present.

"Can I ask you something, Sam?"

"Anything, Mr. Frodo."

"Do you remember Mount Doom?"

Sam shook his head, chuckling. "Do you expect me to forget?"

Frodo too laughed softly before he continued. "If it had not been for Sméagol, I would not have been able to give up the Ring. Sam... if he had not been there, what would you have done?"

Sam sighed. "Mr. Frodo, I don't think you can ever know with 'What if's'."

"Humour me," Frodo murmured, looking Sam firmly in the eye. "Would you have killed me, Sam?"

"No!" whispered Sam, his eyes filling with pain and tears. "How could you think that?"

"I don't," replied Frodo, reaching out and taking Sam's hand. He fell silent, and Sam, running his thumb gently over the soft, healing skin of Frodo's fingers, felt the tender gap where Frodo's missing finger was.

"I think," he said at length, "I would have taken the Ring from you and destroyed it myself."

"Sam, I was not in my mind. I should have killed you."

"Not if I had jumped first," Sam said simply.

The tears finally spilled from Frodo's eyes, leaving tracks on his cheeks that glistened gently in the soft cool light. "I could not have made it without you," he whispered. "Do you remember, Samwise the Stout-hearted? Frodo of the Nine Fingers would never be heard of in any tale, but for Samwise."

For a long moment the two hobbits stood, hands held, looking into one another's eyes with an understanding that no other two beings had ever known or would ever know, the understanding that comes with pain and trial, and the forging of the deepest kind of friendship and love there will ever be.

A noise from the stairwell startled them out of their moment, and both turned to see two more hobbits reach the top of the steps. Merry bore in his arms two grey cloaks like the one he himself wore, and Pippin, following him, bore the fourth, and carried four pipes in his hands.

"Aragorn told us we were leaving today," said Pippin, smiling, "and we thought you two might be up here. We can't have the two of you getting morose on our last day with the Fellowship, so we have come to make sure you keep your spirits up."

"And to make sure you don't get cold," added Merry, pulling a cloak around Frodo's shoulders and wrapping it close around him. The chill of the morning seemed to disappear as the folds of cloth wrapped around him with gentle warmth that seemed woven into the very fabric. Merry took Frodo's pipe from Pippin and lit it before handing it to his cousin, while Pippin tended to Sam in much the same way.

"Thank you," whispered Frodo. Within those two words was contained a deeper meaning: that Frodo loved and cherished them, that their practical and kind actions were of the deepest comfort and aid to him, and that their unfailing devotion to helping him with the quest, or distracting him, or caring for his wounds, could not be given a value in any terms of the world. Merry and Pippin understood this all.

"Will you be glad to go home?" Merry asked, breaking the silence that had again settled about them.

"Oh, yes," said Frodo. "I have enjoyed our time here, but I miss Bilbo, and the Shire, and everything we set out to protect. I will be glad to be back."

"I wonder," murmured Sam. "Will it be the same, do you think? We are not the same, and will the Shire be what it once was? I long for it, but my heart speaks of something more, deep down, something that I can't quite grasp."

A funny look had come over Pippin. "The grey rain cloud of this world rolls back," he whispered, gazing at something that was not there, "and then you see it: White shores and beyond that, a green and living land."

"Pip?" Merry shook his head in confusion. "Where did that come from?"

Pippin shook his head slightly and shrugged, catching Merry's eye. "Oh, it's just something Gandalf aid."

"It is a land of peace," whispered Frodo, though he knew not from whence his words came. "A land of quiet, and of healing, and of bright white light. There is joy there, and there is rest."

"There is quiet and rest in the Shire," Merry pointed out, "or at least, there is for me."

"Yes," said Frodo, laughing suddenly, "and I do not want for quiet and rest while you are with me. You are the light in my darkness, the gentle strength that has carried me through the darkest of times. You are my family, and no more could I wish for until my work here is done."

The white gem that hung upon Frodo's neck flashed with a sudden light, and all four hobbits turned to see the sun rising above the mountains of Mordor, chasing away the lingering shadows with her healing rays of gold. The hobbits stood transfigured, silver cloaks gently rippling in the soft breeze, faces shining with light, and in each eye a vision of white shores and rolling hills of soft green grass glimmering in the golden light of day.