AN: The lads are lovely, awkward adolescents here. Not too fussed about a particular age.

"The Pipe"

There was music coming from somewhere. No, it was everywhere. Yes, the music was definitely coming from everywhere and everything. It was the birds and wind and the ponies gaily huffing their sweet, warm breath into the grass as they grazed. It was a good sound. The very best of sounds. It was the song of the foothills of the Blue Mountains, and it was everything that was right with the world. Besides, it had a tune, and you could dance to it.

Perched on a high timber beam above an empty pony stall was an oddly sprightly young dwarf. He was pleasantly swinging a too-large, hand-me-down boot through the air at the end of one gangly leg and chewing contentedly at a sprig of hay as he surveyed the grazing fields from out of the open loft. Occasionally he alternated his innocent oral occupation with another, more clandestine, activity.

Just how he had gotten up there to begin with, he couldn't rightly say. His current roost was a good fifteen feet from the actual loft, where there was a ladder for access and plenty of room to stretch out. Why he had chosen this single, narrow beam for his throne was as much of a mystery as how he had reached it. It was no matter, however. Nothing could dampen his enthusiasm at the moment, because this was a Perfect Day! It was the very best of days! Why, if he wasn't very much mistaken, today was the very best day that there had ever been in the entire existence of days!

He came to be aware that he was grinning rather widely. So very wide, in fact, that after a while he found that his face was beginning to hurt, and he stopped. But that was no good, because it was exceedingly difficult to keep from smiling. Actually, trying not to smile was starting to hurt quite a bit, too.

"You look like you've just swallowed a lemon. What are you doing out here? And why are you making that stupid face?"

Kili started at his brother's unexpected entrance to the stables and hastily folded his hands behind his back. With the horses out to graze and the chores done for the day, the stables were normally deserted during the magical gloaming hours between day and night. His brother's surprise visit at that particular moment was most untimely.

"M'not doing anything," Kili answered with studied innocence. Fili, however, was no stranger to his mendacious, aloof manner and instantly smelled a rat.

"I only ask because you've been missing for the past half-hour." Fili was watching Kili sharply, on the look-out for clues to his current misdeed. Kili pulled one hand out from behind his back and studiously stared at his fingernails. Fingernails were an odd thing. Here was this fleshy, wriggling, many-digited (digited, was that even a word?) appendage, and popped into the ends of each digit, for no practical reason that Kili could conceive of, were these thin, hard, little flat caps! It was altogether strange.

Fili watched with a bemused expression as his brother seemed to forget that he was there in favor of studying his own hand. Something was definitely off, and more so than usual. Fili recognized all the usual symptoms; The overtly angelic expression, the suspicious lack of any obvious occupation... and that smile. Kili was again grinning idiotically, and there were entire worlds of things wrong with that smile.

Fili's eyes narrowed. "Gandalf is getting ready to leave, and he says he won't go without saying goodbye to you. The other reason that Gandalf has not yet departed is that he will not go without his pipe, which he is under the impression that he has misplaced. He came to this conclusion, oh, about a half an hour ago." He met Kili's brazen stare. "That would be about the same time that you, dear brother, so conveniently disappeared. Is that smoke I smell?" Sniffing, he craned his neck above the stall door and squinted up at the cheshire culprit balanced precariously on the beam.

"I don't smoke any smoke! Er, that is, I don't smell any smoke!" Kili squirmed in the rafters, anxiously trying to keep whatever was behind his back hidden from Fili's view. There was a small 'clunk' as something dropped from his hand and hit the straw-covered cobblestone floor below.

Kili's eyes went wide. "Shite," he whispered, his mouth a perfect 'O' of dismay. "Fili, would you be so kind as to fill that bucket with water?"

"What?" Fili blinked.

"That bucket there, fill it with water." said Kili equably, gesturing to a pail that hung from a peg on the wall and swinging his other leg down over the beam. Fili continued to stare at him in confusion as he eased himself down the rest of the way and dropped into the straw bedding below. "In your own time, then." he shrugged, and began to calmly stamp at a few burgeoning flames that had suddenly burst from the straw.

Fili exploded into action, bolting for the bucket and dashing out to the pump outside the stable. "What in the name of Durin have you done?" he yelled, flinging the pail of icy water over Kili, who had abandoned his attempt at playing it cool and was now capering madly in the center of the rapidly rising flames and cursing fit to bring down the house.

"I haven't-" stomp! "Done-" stamp, stamp! "Anything!"

"Then why-" Fili ran out to draw another bucket from the well. He returned and loosed a second icy torrent Kili's way. The flames hissed and shrank back marginally, but showed no signs of surrender. "Are the stables on fire?"

Continuing his frenzied dance, Kili answered, "Because you snuck up on me!"

"I did no such thing! I've been calling your name for the past twenty minutes, it's no fault of mine if you're deaf as a post!"

"Either way, if you hadn't've come in, I would never have dropped the damned thing! Now it'll be burned to a crisp and the wizard'll turn me into a muskrat, or a stoat or some foul thing! Ugh!" The stall was almost fully-engulfed now, and Kili was backing out toward the door.

"What did you drop?" Fili demanded, returning with another bucket. "I sincerely hope you're not talking about what I think you're talking about."

Dashing past his brother for the tack room, Kili shook his head in confusion. "I don't even know what you just said, so stop talking and let me think!" He returned carrying an armful of thick, wooly saddle blankets.

"He's finally gone 'round the twist," Fili muttered, and headed out for another bucket.

The only thing that had kept the fire even slightly at bay was he fact that all of the walls in the stable, including the dividers between the pony's stalls, were made of stone. But as the flames danced higher, fueled by the sweetly burning straw that coated the floors, Fili could see that that small blessing wouldn't save them for very much longer. Hungry, scorching tongues already lapped at the crossbeams, and it was only be a matter of time before they made their final leap up into the thatched roof.

Things were obviously taking a serious downhill turn, and Fili's thoughts turned to his brother's safety. Tossing the useless bucket into the fire, he ran to Kili, who was coughing and soot-covered, and beating at the conflagration with a badly singed saddle blanket.

"Kili, it's too much, we've got to get out!" Fili choked, smoke tearing his eyes.

"Can't stop," Kili wheezed. "Thorin'll finally follow through with what he's been threatening to do since I could walk and kill me where I stand!" He cursed as flames snatched at the hem of his coat, and whisked it out of their reach.

"This is serious, Kili!" Grabbing his brother firmly by the arm and coughing madly, Fili began to drag Kili toward the exit only to find it blocked by a towering shape. The smoke was starting to cloud his mind, and his first instinct was blind panic as he realized that they were both trapped inside the fully-engulfed building that would become their tomb. Kili sagged woozily against his side, and Fili shoved desperately at the gray wall of shadow while doing his best to stay upright and support his fading brother. The shadow gave away before him, allowing the boys to spill out into the velvety night. Fili gratefully gulped at the sweet, fresh air as he stumbled into the courtyard.

Kili stumbled to his knees and doubled over coughing. The world spun in surreal shades of gray; gray stone, gray smoke, and some pasty, gray scrap of billowing fabric that insisted on attacking his face. Kili batted it feebly away, yet it kept returning.

The fresh air had done wonders to clear Fili's mind. He laid a hand on his brother's shoulder and looked up, directly into the stern lines of Gandalf, the Gray Wizard's disapproving visage.

"I have come for my goodbye." said Gandalf dourly. His robe whipped around him and battered at Kili like a windstorm. "It seems that we may all count ourselves lucky that we have avoided a farewell of a more permanent sort." Fili gaped, and Gandalf favored him with a withering look before sweeping past them into the inferno.

"Gandalf!" Fili called in alarm as fire tore at the wizard's robe, but his cry went unheeded. Gandalf raised his staff as he stepped into the flames and intoned words that Fili could not understand in a deep, authoritative voice. The flames danced lower. Soon, only the soot-streaked trails upon the walls showed any hint of their destructive power.

With a final sharp word and a downward slash of his twisted staff, a sparkling wall of water rose from between the cobbles. It gushed to the ceiling, extinguishing the remaining embers and charred beams, and quenching the thirsty thatch. In less time than it had taken to start, the fire was out.

Gandalf rounded on the two culprits, the sleeves of his robe hanging in sodden, limp swags. His eyes blazed, and he seemed to grow larger before their eyes.

Kili was still on the ground. He had taken more smoke into his lungs than either of the others, and his body shook with the force of his wracking coughs. Gandalf continued his show of making the walls appear to shrink and spin around the two dwarves, which was all very impressive, but unfortunately the effect was lost on poor Kili, who was unable to even look up due to the severity of his fit.

"KILI OF THE LINE OF DURIN, oh, for the love of Illuvitar, what's the use..." Gandalf trailed off, giving up the whole spiel as a bad job. His terrible expression softened as Kili looked up tearfully with guilty, bloodshot eyes. The wizard placed a gentle hand on the young dwarf's thin shoulder until his coughs and shaking subsided. It was a long while before he stilled.

Fili had remained crouched at Kili's side holding his hand during this time. When his brother was breathing easily once more, he rose, glaring. "You really are an idiot sometimes! What were you thinking? Kili, you almost died in there!" he yelled, seeming to forget that he had almost perished in the flames as well. Looking at Kili's singed hair and raw, burnt hands made Fili's stomach lurch. The thought of what might have been hit him over and over.

Kili tucked himself into a pathetic ball over his bent knees as if he could hide himself away. "M'sorry," he sniveled, from somewhere under his hair. His apology brought on another barrage of gagging coughs and Fili gave up on his resentment.

"Cough it up, lad, your lungs need to clear," Gandalf sighed, and patted Kili on the back with some exasperation. The young dwarf nodded gratefully between gasps.

The smoke had finally cleared by the time Kili had gathered enough clean air into his lungs to breathe properly again. Fili helped him to his feet, and together with Gandalf, they surveyed the damage.

The walls of the stable were blackened with soot. Bridles and saddles, and the many other various articles of tack that had hung throughout had been hopelessly singed or lost to the flames. The wooden stall door was brittle and charred beyond recognition. Water dripped from the thatched roof and timbers onto the barren floor below, and not a lick of straw was left on them. The beam above Brassy's stall, where Kili had so innocently lounged only moments before, was scorched but still structurally solid.

Gandalf looked at the two boys with pity. "I trust that you're both alright?"

Kili nodded grimly and rubbed at a seared patch on the arm of his coat. "For now. I expect Thorin'll have my hide soon enough."

Fili snorted. "And you deserve it!" Fili was glaring resentfully at his forlorn brother, but Gandalf detected a slight tremor in his words.

"Well, there's no use crying over spilt milk, or burned stables," the wizard advised them sagely, hoping to avoid an unproductive row between the siblings. "If you want to live to see tomorrow, we'd best get started."

Kili looked at him questioningly, a small sprig of hope blossoming in his dark eyes. "Get started?"

"With the cleanup, of course!"

It wasn't a cleanup so much as a war that they waged against the scene of the crime. All of the sooty evidence of Kili's misdeed was diligently scrubbed from the walls; Fili snuck into Bofur's woodshop and stole two planers, and the blackened outer layer of the ceiling trusses were roughly sanded and scraped until their natural color was once again revealed. The singed bridles and items of tack were whisked away and stashed out of sight, an accusation of negligence being preferable to one of arson. Gandalf whipped up a cleansing little breeze and directed it through the stables from end to end, clearing the air of the telling smell of creosote and drying the damp thatch before it could mildew. Fresh straw was thrown down in the stalls, and two hours of hard labor found them exhausted, but satisfied with the overall result.

"That won't pass muster," kili observed, shaking his head at Brassy's burnt stall door. It was the only remaining evidence.

"It'll have to go. It's burnt too deeply to save by planing." Fili agreed.

Kili was already concocting his story. "We'll take it down. Brassy saw a snake and kicked the door down in his panic. Yes, that's exactly what happened. Shattered the boards, he did, a new one will have to be made."

Fili was doubtful. "A snake in the stables? Really? I don't think Uncle Thorin is going to buy that."

"No, he won't." Kili agreed. "He'll smell a rat, but he won't be able to peg it. We've cleaned up too well, and if the problem's not staring him in the face, then he won't want to know. Don't you see? That's the beauty of the lie! It's so incredibly inane that he'll ignore it because he'll know finding out the truth will only bring him another headache to deal with!"

The wizard listened as the boys spun out their dastardly scheme to outfox their uncle. Gandalf was conflicted; Part of him felt marginally guilty for his role in the coverup, but there was another, larger part that was shamelessly diverted by the whole affair. Thorin was too much in the habit of remaining within his own head, and Gandalf could see that the chaos often created by the two innocents before him did the austere Dwarf King more good than harm. It shook him out of his resentful stewing and forced him to face life head on. Fili and Kili were forces of nature; powerful currents in the stream of life that sucked you into their flow, whether you wanted to be there or not. They were also a good lesson in humility for a powerful man who was used to having his own way in most matters. The fact that the boys tried to please him, and never defied him outright on purpose or out of spite seemed to challenge his narrow, black and white understanding of the world. They were a gray area; a maddening, unknown quantity that couldn't be easily compartmentalized and shoved into a tidy, convenient box. For Thorin, they were a light in the darkness; a fresh breeze on a close, still night. They were a thousand other cliches that could never come close to describing the spark of life that they carried with them into the darkened shell of his existence.

So the wizard thought it relatively important that he keep the lads from being skinned alive for this latest subversion. It was the reason he had aided them in their coverup. Surely the world was a better place for having a Fili and Kili in it.

Having removed and disposed of the charred door, the trio once again stepped back and surveyed the stable in the guttering torchlight. It would do. Fili was understandably miffed with his brother for nearly killing himself, and went down to the field to bring in the horses for the night without another word.

Kili looked up at the wizard, and Gandalf was pleased to see that his befuddled, bloodshot brown eyes were once again sharp and clear.

"Thank you for helping us, Gandalf. And I'm sorry that I wasn't there to see you off. It was unforgivably rude of me to go off without a goodbye." He hesitated, wanting to say more, and Gandalf could see that he was afraid of the reaction that his next confession might bring. The wizard took pity, and decided to help him along.

"I don't suppose that you've seen my pipe? Only, I seem to have misplaced it sometime before all of this commotion." He looked at the troubled young dwarf askance and raised a dubious eyebrow.

Kili blanched, then hung his head. The wizard's wooden pipe, which he had nicked from one of the many hidden pockets and folds of his robe during supper, had of course been burned to ash after he had dropped it from the beam into the dry straw and incited the fire.

"I- I took your pipe. You didn't misplace it." he admitted miserably.

Gandalf sighed. "That was a gift from Saruman the White, too. Well, I always thought that there seemed to be something unlucky about it, and this just goes to show. We're better off now it's gone, I suppose." He fixed Kili with a stern stare. "Especially you, who had no business out here smoking my leaf to begin with."

Kili blinked ashamedly at the cobblestones. Truth was, once the world had turned on its head and the fire had broken out, the powerful effect of the leaf had only served to magnify his every horrible thought and fear. He was sorry that he had ever touched the damned thing, and gave a light shudder. He snatched Gandalf's hand and said, very sincerely, "I'm so very sorry, Gandalf! I'll never do such a thing again, I promise!"

"What, smoke, torch stables, or nick things from unsuspecting wizards?" Gandalf chuckled.

"Any of it! I'll never do anything I'm not supposed to do, not ever again! I wont move from the spot without a direct order from Uncle, I'll just sit and wait, and if he doesn't remember to give me an order, then I'll just do nothing at all until he does!"

Gandalf's eyes twinkled at the unlikely image of a stoic Kili, calmly waiting in his chambers every morning to receive his orders of the day.

"Just please," Kili continued, "Don't turn me into anything... unpleasant." he finished softly, hiding once again behind his hair.

Gandalf roared. "My dear boy, I hope that you don't think that I went to all this trouble of cleaning so that I might have the pleasure of turning you into a bat, or- or-!" He was laughing hard enough that Kili felt a spring of hope that he would not, after all, be spending the rest of his days as something that slithered.

"You're not mad?"

Gandalf clapped him on the back hard enough that he stumbled. "No, lad, perhaps at first there was a certain understandable amount of annoyance. But now that you're both safe and you've come clean, I can say that I bear you no grudge."

Fili returned just then leading the horses, who were sniffing suspiciously at the air. Hopefully Thorin's nose was not so keen.

Giving Kili an encouraging nudge, Gandalf said, "I think, however, that you may want to spend a bit more time making it up to your brother. Not only have you made him an unwilling accomplice in the matter, but you have him more shaken than I have ever seen."

Kili was still rather stung at being called an idiot, and replied harshly, "I certainly didn't ask him out here. It's his own fault if he was frightened by the fire."

"I don't think," said the wizard patiently, "that it was for his own safety that he feared."

"Oh." Kili was once again ashamed. It sometimes seemed that everything he said or did brought about that same result.

Gandalf was preparing to take his leave. "My dear Kili, I thank you for what has been a most entertaining close to the evening, but there has been more than enough excitement to tire this old man, and I still have a journey ahead of me. Good night, and, useless as these words may be, try to stay out of trouble."

They embraced their goodbyes, and Gandalf paused to do the same with Fili before going to search out Shadowfax in the meadow.

Pluck and Surly were returned to their stalls, and Brassy was given temporary berth in an unused storage stall. Kili shuffled his feet, waiting for Fili to speak, even if it were only to yell at him again, but his brother started off for the hall as soon as the last door closed without a backwards glance.

"Fili, wait up!" Kili trotted after him to begin what was to become a week's worth of begging for forgiveness.

Thorin was indeed suspicious of Brassy's missing door and the lame explanation for its absence, and Kili was given a month of added chores on general principle. His nephew's quiet acceptance of the punishment was all the proof that Thorin needed to be assured that it had been merited, although he would never come to learn the reason why.

It was an odd pattern of misdeed, subterfuge and forgiveness, and one that they were all too familiar with, but it suited them well, and it would not be the last time that they performed this peculiar family ritual.

In retrospect, Kili thought, sentenced to the scullery to scrub out what seemed like his thousandth crummy dishpan, it had definitely not been the most perfect of days, after all.