It was a strange time in the Shire; the time before wizards came a knocking on the doors of respectable hobbits. Little hobbit children played in the newly-sprouted peach fuzz grass – the type liable to tickle your toes and make you giggle. Laughter and cheer sung through the marketplaces, and hobbits could leave fresh berry pies to cool on the sill without fear of foul play. It was a peaceful time, calm if you will. The calm before the storm, and Bilbo Baggins had just reached his 30th birthday. He was still a child in most hobbit's eyes, fresh as the spring grass and sweet as the breeze that blew over the hill.

At that time, dwarves and dragons were little more than stories to Bilbo, and a knife was something used to spread butter on bread. It was a good time. And like most such times, it was one not likely to last.

For that was the summer of the brandy brigade.

_()_

"Up for another round then, eh Bilbo?" Holman asked over the din and clamor of happy hobbits. Two years Bilbo's younger, Holman Greenhand as a stiff sort of lad, more fond of the company of his plants than of other hobbits. But good strong ale had loosed his tongue that day, and much to Bilbo's surprise, he laughed and sang with the loudest.

"I'll get another cuppa, if you're offering." Falco Chubb-Baggins raised his mug in salute. "Cheers!"

The atmosphere of the Took's Tavern was even more boisterous than usual. Hobbits danced on tables in abundance, and the air was hot and muggy with Mirabella Took's famous seedcakes. Afternoon sunlight dripped through the windows like warm honey.

"You sure you don't want anything?" Holman double-checked, his pale cheeks flushed. Bilbo waved him away. "Go treat yourself."

The gardener beamed and left their table with a jaunt in his step.

Across from Bilbo, his portly cousin Falco sat with an entire seedcake to himself, Gilly Burrows sat perched to his right, intent on her studies.

"Composing a mighty song for us, are you Gilly?" Falco nudged the girl none to gently. She immediately covered the thick paper, sticking out her tongue. Tiny handwriting was still visible beneath her fingers, criss-crossing the paper like lines of ants.

"Yes, a ballad for Falco Chubb-Baggins and his interminable love for Missus Took's seedcakes." Gilly poked her friend's prolific belly. "A masterpiece of literature."

Falco had the grace to look hurt, and Bilbo laughed. "Come now, all of us have a special place in our hearts for Mirabella's cakes."

"Aye, but Falco has a special place in his stomach." Gilly jested.

The two were like siblings the way they bickered, and somewhat in appearance. Falco with his eager stomach, laughing eyes, and quick smile, Gilly shared his dark curly hair, but she had an eager wit instead of stomach, and a slim build. It was an unlikely friendship, and for that it was all the sweeter. Bilbo had met them through Holman, as his gardener had learnt his letters from the same old hobbit who taught Gilly.

"You're one to talk, you eat about as much as one of Holman's plants," Falco was saying. He pinched Gilly's arm, and she responded by stealing a good portion of Falco's seedcake. Squabbling ensued.

Deciding to change the subject, Bilbo interceded, "Have you heard of the party old Uncle Hildibrand is having? He's turning seventy-one, and he'll be handing out the invitations on the morrow." He smiled. "I should very much like to do that when I reach a ripe age, throw a party to go down in hobbit history."

"Sure you will," Falco encouraged.

"One for the books of the Mathom-house. And you'll invite us, won't you?" Gilly said with a grin.

"Of course," Bilbo said. "Though I shant want you to be late, and you ought t'bring plenty of food."

"Enough to feed the whole Shire!" Falco promised, placing a stubby hand over his heart. Food was no laughing matter for a Chubb-Baggins.

"Half a moment," Nose twitching, Gilly looked through the crowds of hobbits, trying to spot Holman's distinctive ginger hair. It was longer than most, due to the fact Holman was more concerned with pruning his garden than himself. The joke was he had a family of mice living there, which, knowing Holman, probably wouldn't bother him in the slightest.

"He should be back by now. Holman, that is." Gilly's eyes, blue as robin's eggs, searched up and down the bar. "It doesn't take this long to fetch drinks."

"Worried about him, are you?" Bilbo wheedled, a knowing smile on his face. Falco giggled.

"Only because he promised to fetch me a pasty," Gilly shot back, but not even the pub's muggy atmosphere could hide the blush dotting her freckled cheeks.

"'Elax," Falco said through a bite of seedcake. "He'll be back quick as bread rises."

"That's not very fa-" Gilly began, but she was cut off by shouts. Loud and shrill, like a mother who has just lost her child.

"The brandy, the brandy is gone!"

_()_

The Brandy Brigade, it was soon called. A rather ostentatious name for the stealing of a solitary brandy barrel, Bilbo thought, but he was not one to get in the way of Mirabella Took and her customer's brandy.

And the single barrel wasn't the half of it. Heavens no. The real intrigue lay with the fiddle. It had been of dwarven make, beautifully crafted, and left in the barrel's stead, lying on the dank floor of the Took's Tavern wine cellar.

"It's crazy, folk leaving instruments in my basement. I have enough din passing off as music in my pub already," Mirabella had said, her nose pinched in indignation.

The tale of the Brandy Brigade swept through the Shire. Nothing of interest had happened as of late, and the gossip was welcome. Soon it seemed that hobbits seldom spoke of anything else, even when young Rory Brandybuck cut his mother's hair with a pair of garden shears. The dwarven fiddle had been put on proud display, attracting a good deal of curious hobbits to Took's Tavern.

"What do you make of it?" Bilbo asked Holman one dusty afternoon. The gardener trimmed his plants contentedly while Bilbo sat on his favorite lawn chair, taking long drags from his pipe.

"Make of it, sir?" Sweat dribbled down Holman's nape, and he squinted up at his master through drenching sunlight.

Bilbo waved his hand generally. "This whole thing. The fiddle and the rest of it."

"Can't properly say. Took's brandy is the best brandy of Brandywine, but she charges a decent price and serves generous." Holman tenderly lifted a leafling from the soil. He seemed to think he had said all there was. And he much preferred the talk of plants. "Look at the roots, Bilbo, all strong-like."

"Bah, Holman. Stick your leafling. I'll tell you what I think the fiddle was, someone's idea of a joke. Uncle Hildibrand used to play all sorts of instruments, and I'll be damned if he wasn't involved.

"It was only a single barrel." Holman grumbled. "And it's more than paid for itself with all the attention it brought. Mirabella has more customers now than her cakes have seeds. No one even would have given a flying fig if this hadn't had something to do with food. "

Holman had a point.

_()_

Granted, dwarves are not over fond of brandy (they prefer a nice ale), nor is it often that they come near the Shire. But as said earlier, it was a strange time, and unlikely suspects were made likely given the right circumstances.

For Fili and Kili, the right circumstance was the dire need to get Thorin a present. Why? Because after an unfortunate hunting incident, they needed to do something to make up for the great and terrible Thorin Beard Travesty.

"Do you think they found the fiddle?" Kili asked his brother, nerves frayed.

By contrast, Fili was completely at ease. He casually slid his knife along a fallen tree branch, producing a cream curlicue that fluttered to join the rest on the forest floor. Blowing on the whittled wood lightly, Fili examined the handiwork. "You left it right in the open, brother. If they don't find it, hobbits are simpler than the stories say."

"But, do you think the fiddle is enough payment for entire barrel?"

Fili looked up at his brother, irate. "That fiddle was made by the master dwarven craftsman of old. Do some thinking for yourself – I should say it was more than enough."

Kili fidgeted. His brother's words were no salve for his conscious. They had stolen a barrel of brandy. An entire barrel. Thorin didn't even like brandy very much. They should have lingered in the Shire longer to find suitable compensation, instead of grabbing the first thing they thought of in the middle of the night. The brandy barrel was laughable now, as it sat in the daylight.

Birds twittered in the trees, bright and beautiful, their thick songs intertwining like Ori's knitted wools. Shire birds. It was strange, to be in a place so unfamiliar. Pockets of sunlight littered the forest floor around them like dropped coins. A younger dwarf might have appreciated the whimsical feel of the place, but it only served to put Kili ill at ease. A thief's conscious never rests.

"Well." Fili finally set down his whittling. "Thorin hasn't had anything in the way of a strong spirit for longer than I can count. The cleansing should do him well, he may even forget about…" Fili trailed off nervously.

"…his beard." Kili finished, gulping.

They both knew that wasn't true, and neither looked forward to confronting their Uncle with such poor amends.

TBC

Author's Note: The characters in this story, like Falco, Holman, even Mirabella and Hildibrand, are all canon characters taken from the Lord of the Ring appendices (the family charts). Not a lot is said about who Bilbo's friends may have been when he was younger, so I picked Holman – who is indeed Bilbo's gardener – and Falco, who is Bilbo's younger cousin. The only character I own is Gilly Burrows. She was entirely my creation, because I wanted to include a female character and there weren't any listed in the appendices of the proper age. As always, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed. Chapter two is in process - Complete