A firm knock at the door startled Bilba awake.
Disoriented, she jerked upright and was feeling for her phone before she remembered that she'd had it disconnected. The bedroom was dark, and cold—they'd shut off the heat as well, to try and save money. The electricity was still on, but they tried not to use it. They'd unplugged everything but the refrigerator.
Bilba's hand slid over the bed beside her. Cold. She'd been alone for a while. Shivering, Bilba put her legs over the edge of the bed and stuck her feet into a pair of house slippers. Her housecoat was hanging on the door, and she put it on over her chemise as she left the bedroom, trying to comb her hair with her fingers and wiping sleep from her eyes.
The flat was as dark and cold as the bedroom, but she could see a light from under the door to the spare room. Bilba ignored it, hurrying for the front door.
It was a police officer, as she'd thought, but one she hadn't seen before. An older man, his face stern and professional. Behind him, the late October air was sweet and fresh, though she couldn't see much of it around the protective blinds.
“Evening, miss,” he said. He was holding a sealed plastic bag, which he now offered to her. “Day's post.”
“Thank you,” said Bilba, and took the bag. Her voice was hoarse, and she cleared her throat. “Thank you, Officer.”
“Any trouble today, miss?” he asked.
“No.” Bilba shook her head. “We're fine.”
“Right then.” He nodded. “Good night, miss.”
The police officer turned and left. Relieved, Bilba closed the door. She was already mentally dictating her letter: Dear Chief Superintendent, Thank you so much for your response. Our new officers are very kind and extremely professional, and I am very grateful for...
Bilba took the bag into the kitchen, where, still preoccupied by the letter she was writing in her head, she switched on the light and sat at the small, hand-carved table they'd bought the previous summer as a flat-warming present for themselves. The letter opener was right where she'd left it the day before, its slender leaf-shaped blade gleaming, just in case the police had left anything for it to do. Bilbo slit open the bag, poured out a pile of already opened envelopes, and began to sort them.
There were eleven letters of support today, one in a rainbow-coloured envelope. That was more than the entire week before, and this cheered her even though she knew perfectly well that for every kind letter in front of her, there were a thousand not-so-kind letters down at the police station being sorted by officers. She wouldn't think about those letters. She would concentrate on these.
Dear Bilba, said the first one she opened, I wanted you to know that I think it's terribly brave what you're doing. I can't say that I would do the same, but I think everyone should have the right to a choice...
Bilba carefully set those letters to one side, and went on with the rest. Three were bills, one of which was the Visa, which she very well knew was past due. There were no offers of employment, sadly, but there was a letter from Granny Ada, urging her again to come out to the country for a while. And bring your friend, she'd written, in her oblique manner. With the letter was a twenty pound note, which Gran had folded into a square of newspaper.
There was a letter from the police, the same one they sent every week as a sort of summary of actions. There were twenty-three letters from media organizations, requesting statements and interviews, offering television appearances, asking for her response to the statements and interviews that others had given. A letter from the Home Office was placed with all the other letters from the Home Office.
At the bottom of the pile, which meant they must have been last into the bag, there were two envelopes with official seals, and these were unopened. One was from the Ereborian Consulate General, and the other bore the device of the Ereborian royal family. These went, as every other letter with an official Ereborian seal had gone, into the carrier she kept under the table, the contents of which she would have delivered to her solicitor at the end of the week.
That left one last letter, which Bilba pulled from the envelope and read without looking at the address.
And again. And again. And again.
“Oh,” Bilba whispered, and then she dropped the letter to the table.
From somewhere outside, there was a rolling slam, as of a van door opening or closing. Then the familiar song blared into the night: Far over the Misty Mountains cold— Someone, Bilba thought it might be the police officer, started yelling, though she couldn't hear what he said.
Bilba took a breath. Then another. Her eyes stung with tears. A single, desperate thought of I can't do this flashed through her mind, from which she immediately recoiled. No, she told herself deliberately, horrified and guilty, I can't think like that. I can't give in now. This will pass. This will pass. It has to pass.
Abruptly, Bilba stood up. Without looking at the last letter again, she went to the counter and plugged in the kettle. The music had cut off. As she waited for the water to boil, Bilba took down two mugs, filled two infusers from the box of tea Cousin Primula had sent last month for her birthday, and got out the milk. Under her breath, she hummed an Icona Pop song.
The blue Hermès mug got water and an infuser. The pink handmade mug with the lopsided handle, with COUSIN BILBA spelled in white dots, got water, an infuser, and milk.
The light was still there, shining out from beneath the spare bedroom door. It was accompanied at long intervals by clicking, as of a mouse. Bilba stood in front of it for several minutes, mugs steaming in her hands. She felt inexplicably nervous, for no good reason that she could see. Finally, after too long a delay for her to dismiss it as an anomaly, Bilba shifted both mugs to one hand, gripping them by the handles, and knocked.
“Are you awake?” she called softly.
There was no answer. The clicking continued.
Anxiously, Bilba clutched the doorknob and turned it. Then she stepped cautiously in, peering timidly around the door.
Tauriel looked up.
She looked...tired. Not haggard, for Tauriel could never look haggard, but tired. Her beautiful hair was uncombed and unwashed, strands of it straggling over her forehead. By the light of the laptop, she was almost ghostly, face gaunt rather than sculpted and cheekbones jutting unnaturally. Her camisole and pyjama bottom were dishevelled, and her arms were thin and wan.
“Hey,” said Bilba. Her stomach clenched, and she didn't know why. “Tea?”
“Thanks,” said Tauriel quietly, and her eyes went back down.
Bilba came in, leaving the door slightly ajar behind her. Tauriel was sitting on the left side of the made bed, atop the bedding, her back against the headboard, so Bilba came round to the right. Handing Tauriel her mug, which was directly placed on the bedside table, Bilbo toed off her slippers and pulled the duvet up to slide under it, careful not to spill her own tea.
This brought the laptop screen directly into Bilba's line of sight, and, as her eyes adjusted and she realized what she was seeing, she froze.
A YouTube video was playing. The setting seemed to be some sort of press conference, and in the blue backdrop hung the huge, gilded device of the Royal Line of Durin. Hangings to either side displayed the personal arms.
Prince Thorin was the speaker.
Bilba couldn't hear what he was saying, as Tauriel's headphones were plugged in, but she neither wanted nor needed to. The ticker at the bottom told her enough: —future Princess Bilba. Prince Thorin asks for the public to respect their privacy and demands an end to ongoing harassment. Rebirther groups call for Queen Arwen to intervene with Bilba Baggins on Prince Thorin's behalf—
Bilba's heart was in her throat. She didn't know where to look. She didn't want to look at Prince Thorin, and she couldn't bear to read any more of the ticker. Helplessly, Bilbo glanced away from the screen, at Tauriel—
Who was looking at her.
“He's still at the hotel, you know,” said Tauriel.
Bilba gaped. A sudden damp heat on her leg reminded her that she was holding a mug of tea; she jerked her hands up, barely managing not to spill more.
Tauriel turned back to the laptop. Her profile in the glare of the mutable light of the video was as cold and distant as the moon. “They've got statements from the rest of the family now. Frerin says the entire kingdom is waiting for you. Princess Dis says Fili and Kili can't wait to see you again.”
“Tauri,” said Bilba. Her voice shook. “Tauri, don't. Please.”
Tauriel's lips pressed hard against each other, making of her mouth a white, bloodless line. Her eyes were still expressionless.
Bilbo reached down and set her own mug on the floor. Then, ignoring the video, she shifted closer to Tauriel, put her arm around Tauriel over her stomach. Bilba lay her head on Tauriel's shoulder and closed her eyes. “Tauri,” she murmured, pleading.
Tauriel didn't respond. The shoulder didn't soften, Tauriel's arm didn't come up to fold her in. The video kept playing.
“Look,” said Bilba, eyes still tightly closed. She pretended her voice wasn't getting watery. “I got a letter from Gran again. She says we should come up. Why don't we do that? We could go for the winter, see how we do. If we like it, we could stay longer, I can transfer, maybe open Bag End—”
The push was not gentle. Tauriel's shoulder hit Bilba's chin and she was shoved bodily back into the headboard, which thumped against the wall. There was an alarming clack of metal—the headphones had ripped out of the port as the laptop was dropped onto the bed.
Tauriel was breathing loudly. She turned her back on the bed and Bilba and stalked to the door, only to then turn on her heel and stalk back. Then turn, and to the door. Then turn, and to the bed. Her eyes, wide and savage, were fixed on the air.
“Tauri,” breathed Bilba.
“Stop it,” said Tauriel sharply.
Bilba's heart was pounding. “Stop what?”
“Stop fucking pretending everything's going to be all right,” shouted Tauriel, and then her hand lashed out and knocked her tea off the table.
There was a tense silence. Bilbo couldn't breathe. Tauriel stood and stared down at her broken mug, as if surprised to see the shards and the puddle on the floor.
Slowly, Bilba became aware that someone was talking: the laptop. There was a voice coming from the speakers, a deep, masculine voice with the slightest hint of an Ereborian Khazad accent.
“—has caused my One great distress. This will not be tolerated. The Crown of Erebor will henceforth take legal action against any individual or organization that attempts to contact or approach Bilba Baggins for any malicious or predatory purpose, under the terms of the Extraordinary Rendition Treaty that exists between Erebor and Gondor. This is in accordance with Bilba Baggins's status as my—”
Bilba slammed the laptop shut.
“Did you hear that?” Tauriel's voice was low and vicious. “As far as the world's concerned, you're already an Ereborian subject. You're Princess Bilba, Queen-to-be. Your glorious prince just got on the telly and threatened to make anyone who bothers his One very, very sorry—”
“I didn't ask for that,” cried Bilba, almost shrieking. “I've never—I didn't know—I never asked for any of this, I didn't ask him to find me, this isn't my fault—”
“But it's happening anyway,” shouted Tauriel. “It's happening, and it's not going away, and I can't do this any more—”
Tauriel's mouth closed, opened, closed. Her expression wavered, weakened. The line of her mouth softened into something much more vulnerable. There was another silence, but this one was as loud as the shouting had been.
When Bilba spoke, her voice trembled. “You don't mean that.”
Tauriel's gaze was agonized. Her lips parted in just that tender way they always did when she was apologizing, but what she said was, “I think I do.”
Bilba didn't know what was happening. There was a numbness to her arms and legs that made everything seem unreal. It felt as if she was having a waking nightmare. “No.” She was shaking her head. “No.”
“Yes.” Tauriel's voice was firmer than before.
What was happening? Only an hour ago she'd woken from her nap, and then she'd gotten the post, and then she'd made tea, and... “But we were fine.”
“Bilba,” said Tauriel, and what should have been sympathy sounded like nothing more or less than pity.
“No.” Bilba hated the desperation in her own voice, hated it and didn't know how to stop it. “No. You said you didn't care. You said I should get to choose. You said—”
“Bilba, they're sending death threats to my mother.” Tauriel's voice broke. “My mother, Bilba!”
At least she's alive to get death threats, a nasty little spite said in Bilbo's head, but she swallowed it down.
Tauriel dragged her fingers through her hair and held the back of her neck. “They went to the centre, Bilba, they lied and said they were friends and they got into the ward and put a camera in my mother's face. They asked her if she knew I was a lesbian. They asked her if she knew I was living with a university student. They told her I was sleeping with underaged girls! Do you hear me? They told my mother that I was some sort of gay rapist! They put that on the internet!”
Bilba had not used the internet for anything in nearly a month, not since someone, a former classmate or perhaps even one of her cousins, had sold some tabloid access to Bilba's Facebook. She had simply assumed that if there was anything that needed her attention, Tauriel would tell her.
“I didn't care when the threats were to me,” said Tauriel, “and I didn't care when they doxxed us. I've put up with getting sacked, the harassment, the media. With my exes selling their photos. I've put up with the extremists telling me I'm going to spend eternity in the Void for perverting the Will of Eru. I've put up with your destined prince getting on international fucking TV and swearing how much he loves you, and he's so handsome, he's so manly, who cares if he's twenty bloody years older than you, and everyone saying how you're just confused, you're not really gay, it's just that I've indoctrinated you somehow, I'm the evil lesbian. Bilba, I've tried. I love you, and I tried for you. But I've had enough.”
Tauriel's face was wretched. She looked a completely different person from the one Bilba had always known. There were shadows under Tauriel's eyes, and her red hair was dry and thin. When had she lost so much weight?
“I can't do it any more.” Resignation blunted every edge of her; by her body language, Tauriel was a woman defeated. “I've had enough.”
Yet another silence, but this one hushed and heartsick. Tauriel would not look at her, and Bilba's throat was thick with tears. She didn't know what to say, or do, to fix this—she didn't know how to stop this from happening, what words could make this untrue. She held her knees to her chest and stared down at the duvet, stained with tea. The bedding they had bought together when they'd first moved in, but the bed itself had been Tauriel's, a vestige of her life before I was we. Before she'd said, Wouldn't you like to live with me? and Bilba had screamed, Yes! Now it would be her bed again.
Useless. Everything they had done, everything they had endured. The years they had spent together. The plans they had made. Useless.
“I'll move out,” said Tauriel wearily. “I know you love this flat.”
Love, thought Bilba. “We'll both be moving out. They're evicting us.”
Tauriel startled. “Evicting?”
“We had the notice today.” Bilba bit her lip. “We've caused a public disturbance and brought undesirable attention to the property. They've given us thirty days. They apologize for any inconvenience.”
Tauriel's mouth worked. For the briefest moment, she looked as if she would laugh.
“Well,” she said, with that familiar, haughtily amused tone that Bilba loved with her whole heart.
“Don't leave me,” someone said, and it should not have surprised Bilba that she would be so weak. “Please don't leave me.”
“Bilba,” Tauriel said gently, and there it was again, that pity, that condescension so effortless that Bilba wondered how long it had been there.
“You promised.” It wasn't fair, it was childish and petty, but Bilba couldn't stop herself. “You promised to stay. You said you'd never leave me. You said you loved me.”
Tauriel's eyes narrowed. She said, in the iciest, most biting voice Bilba had ever heard from her, “It's not as if I'm your bloody soul-mate.”
Bilba's mouth opened. The blood drained from her face in such a rush that she was ill.
Tauriel only looked at her. If she regretted her words, it didn't show. Her eyes said it all: I am too tired to care.
Bilba's hands and feet were cold. She didn't know what to say. She didn't know what to do. This was happening, this was real, and she was drowning in finality. In the end, it hadn't been enough. Just like everyone had said.
“I thought we were happy,” she whispered, voice so very, very small.
“We were,” she said.