Bilba held still, but not frozen stiff, as the camera clicked away. The shoot that morning had been a bit more dynamic, the green screen behind her eventually going to be magicked into some verdant meadow (precisely the sort of scene one wouldn’t find in London in January). The huge whirring fan tousling her hair— a stand-in for the fresh spring breeze— had driven the usually unruffled Bombur utterly ‘round the bend.
The fan had some advantages, however, especially under the glare of studio lights. Lying prone across a rather lovely toile upholstered settee, Bilba thought back fondly on those refreshing currents of air; she hadn’t sweated at all that morning. It was a very different story at the moment, even trussed up in little more than a few delicate scraps of lace and silk.
“My face is melting,” she announced to the room at large, still staring coyly to the right as Ori had instructed. “Melting right off. Puddle-face Baggins, they’ll call me.”
Nearby, she heard Bofur cursing quietly, and Ori paused in his glacially slow shuffle toward her, settling into a squat and lowering his camera with a pensive frown.
“You’ve gone a bit—” He motioned with one hand, spindly fingers fluttering at his own forehead, then glanced over to Bofur with an apologetic shrug. “Shiny. Maybe. Maybe?”
Relaxing, Bilba shifted into a more comfortable, natural pose on the settee, and waited for Bofur to tromp over with his case. She didn’t have to wait long at all.
“I’ve no idea how, but you’re doing this on purpose. Up.” Sitting up, Bilba made room for Bofur to roll out his brushes across the cushions and kneel between her knees. His usual jovial grin was missing, replaced with a tired, but still vaguely amused half-smile. It had been a long day.
Taking her chin gently between his thumb and index finger, Bofur tilted her face under the lights, then back. “Buggering new powder isn’t worth a pinch of piss, for all it’s twice the price. I’ve half a mind to write a strongly worded letter.”
“At least you got off easy this morning.” Smiling, she squeezed her stocking-clad legs together, pressing against his ribs for a moment. “Why can’t there be a lovely spring breeze in a French parlor, too? Surely there are windows I could theoretically open.”
Bofur’s expression lightened a smidgen more, and he plucked up a fat brush and a pot of loose, pale powder. “Bombur’ll flip a table if he hears you say that, love. Turn this way so I don’t get any of this on your lashes.”
Turning as she was bid, Bilba closed her eyes as the powder was dusted lightly over her brow, swept the bridge of her nose, over her chin, and down to her cleavage. Bofur’s hand, broad and slightly rough with calluses, had migrated down to curl against her neck; it was a much more welcome sort of warmth than the studio lights. This close, he always smelled of Imperial Leather soap, tobacco, and spun sugar— today, there was the added tang of lemon, and a richer sweetness she recognised.
“Tell me you have sherbet lemons and I’ll adore you forever,” she said, eyes still closed, and felt Bofur’s lemony chuckle ghosting warm across her face.
“You’ll adore me forever anyway.” Very gently, doubtlessly leaving her makeup completely unmarred, Bofur tweaked the tip of her nose. “You may have sweeties later on, but only if you’re very, very good for the rest of the afternoon, and stop bloody sweating.”
Finally opening her eyes again, Bilba demurely fluttered her ridiculously long false lashes and tossed in a pout for good measure. The rosy gloss he’d chosen was perfect for pouting.
“Stop that, you tart,” Bofur said, chuckling again, and gathered up his kit with practiced ease. “I’m immune to your wily ways.”
“Not nearly,” she shot back, though she did abandon the admittedly silly ingénue routine. It worked for the cameras, apparently, but reality was a different kettle of fish. The notion of flouncing and fluttering her way through life was laughable.
Taking her chin again, barely touching, Bofur gave her another critical study under the lights’ glare, humming thoughtfully. “Lovely,” he said at last, dimples furrowing deep as his grin spread. “As always, my darlin’. Now, let’s get this show on the road.”
In truth, neither of them was entirely immune to the charms of the other, but the flirting had never gone beyond playful banter. There was a mutual understanding, born partially of Bilba’s hesitance to complicate a relationship with someone woven tightly around her happiness in so many other ways (Bofur was by far the best makeup artist she had ever worked with, the only one she wanted to work with if given a choice in the matter, and a dear friend besides).
And, more importantly than all that nonsense, there was the matter of Bofur being quite cheerfully spoken for already— he and Nori had been together on and off for the better part of a decade, but the past three years living together had settled the pair of them into one of the most adorably comfortable couples Bilba had ever seen. She would never dream of begrudging Bofur a moment of that, and any torch she carried for him was more of a homey hearth fire, with coals banked low and steady.
Speaking of Nori, who was also a charming bloke in Bilba’s estimation, their esteemed technician was currently balanced up on a ladder to tweak one of the large side lamps, fiddling with the damnable lights even as Bofur packed up.
“How’s that,” he called down to his brother, and Ori clicked a few test photos while Bofur retreated out of shot.
Ori was biting his lip, shifting between peering at Bilba through the camera and with his naked eyes, while Bilba moved back into position partly on her stomach, showing off the ruffly bottom of her knickers. The hair piece Bombur had woven in to fill out her curls to subtly opulent volume had begun to itch a bit, but the lacy white babydoll was more comfortable to lounge about in than the bustier from that morning.
“Better,” Ori said, and Bilba focused on cool, refreshing thoughts. “Just a few more, and then we’ll wrap.”
Letting the smooth, milky fabric slide over her hands, Bilba adjusted the babydoll absently on its cushioned hanger, and offered Bifur a wide, toothy smile when he came trotting over.
“These new pieces are gorgeous,” she said. “Very elegant.” Bifur acknowledged the compliment with a pleased glance and sound that was partway between and grunt and a sigh, then vanished as suddenly as he’d arrived, zipping off so quickly that the thick, piebald braid of his hair whipped off his shoulders.
Bilba wasn’t insulted in the least— she hadn’t known Bifur before the car accident that had put that jagged white scar across his scalp, gruesomely parting his salt and pepper hair, but she had worked with him for a number of years since. Bofur claimed his cousin had always been a bit eccentric, as creative types sometimes were, and was simply a bit quieter now. There had been complications early on, Bilba had been told: aphasia had taken intensive therapy to overcome, and the man still suffered from a stutter that made him disinclined to verbosity, a few barely noticeable physical tics, and occasional migraines. But considering everything, both Bofur and Bombur insisted that Bifur’s recovery had been remarkable.
Despite having no frame of reference, Bilba was inclined to agree based solely on her opinion of Bifur: he was an amazing designer, with a flair for stunning, flattering, and impossibly comfortable lingerie, and he had his own peculiar sort of politeness that never bothered her overmuch. She had nothing but glowing praise for him, even if he did occasionally dart off in the middle of conversations.
Doing up the rest of the buttons of her cardigan, more than a little pleased to be wrapped up in mossy green wool and her jeans again after the whole day in various skimpy skivvies, Bilba left the rack of teddies, bustiers, and wispy slips with one final stroke of her fingers across the supple fabrics. One of her jumper pockets was stuffed with sherbet lemons, and she plucked one out as she moved off to gather up her coat and her bag, tossing the crinkly wrapper in a bin on her way by and popping the sweet in her mouth. A few curls of hair had managed to escape her hasty bun already, and she tucked the wayward tendrils behind her ears.
It had been drizzling when she’d come in to the studio that morning, chilly and damp, but anyone who had been outside in the past few hours claimed the weather had cleared up. It was undoubtedly still rather brisk outside, however, and Bilba anticipated being glad for her gloves and her scarf on the walk to the tube. Twiddling a wave at Bofur and Nori as she bundled herself up, Bilba shrugged into her brown peacoat, then wound her long, saffron coloured scarf ‘round her neck, turning her collar up a bit to press the fleecy knit closer.
“Have a good weekend, darlin’,” Bofur called, giving her a jaunty wave in return, while Nori nodded and smiled. Ori was already off to pour over the photos, Bombur was elbow deep brushing out wigs, and Bilba was keen to get going so she could get to the shops and pick up something for supper. Slinging her satchel strap across her chest, Bilba was nearly out the door when a firm hand around her elbow brought her up short, almost making her squawk with the shock of it.
She took a deep breath, turning just in time to catch hold of the box Bifur was pressing into her arms. It was glossy silver cardboard, with the letters “GG” embossed on the lid in fluid, twisting script. It stood for “Garnished & Gilded” but Bilba had rarely heard it called anything but “Gigi’s” by the public and even the media, and simply “Gandalf’s” by those involved in the company.
Bilba took the box, which was about the size of an A4 sheet of paper and as thick as four fingers, then raised her brows at Bifur. “What’s this, then?”
Beginning to open it before she even asked, Bilba found familiar silk and lace neatly folded inside— the white babydoll, with its gossamer fine flyaway and intricate black embroidery around the edges of the soft, unpadded cups. Even the panties were there, high-cut briefs with the lush rows of frilly lace across the bottom that she not-so-secretly thought was utterly delightful. And this particular set, just like every bit of lingerie she wore to photo shoots and publicity events, had been painstakingly tailored by Bifur to fit her every curve.
One of the very best perks of this job was the bespoke knickers, to be perfectly honest, and even the regular GG line was absolutely top quality. The nicest undies from Victoria's Secret couldn't hope to compare.
“F-f-for you to keep,” Bifur said, his voice forever gravelly, but now very warm as well. He turned his head slightly, jaw flexing in a way she knew would help stave off the worst of the stuttering for a sentence or two, then looked to her again. “And don't argue like you do. You know we c-can— can't sell altered pieces. You wearing it is a b-better fate than being shut up in a cupboard. I make 'em to be worn.”
“Bifur, I—” Closing the lid again, willing to bet that the man had tucked the ultra sheer stockings inside as well, Bilba swallowed back all the perfectly legitimate arguments she knew Bifur wouldn't even pretend to acknowledge. “Just... thank you. This is too much, you know.”
Scoffing, Bifur shook his head and gave her elbow a friendly squeeze.
It wasn't until she was out of Studio Ri and standing on the pavement (it had, indeed, stopped raining, but the air had a bitter edge), that Bilba realized Bifur's kindness had condemned her to spending the tube ride home carrying a very recognizable lingerie box just slightly too large to fit inside her satchel. There would probably be at least a few posters of the holiday campaign still lingering about, with her baps on full display in tasteful red satin, or pushed up to her throat in that spangled gold corset and garter set. Toting about this bloody box would simply make it easier for potential gawkers to put two and two together.
“Bugger,” she snarled quietly, pulling on her gloves with more force than strictly necessary. “Taxi!”
There was still the shopping to do— it had been a terribly busy week trying to get the first leg of the spring campaign ready for publication, and her cupboards were shamefully bare. Unwilling to spend another evening munching on pickles and tinned soup, Bilba tamped down her reservations and had the cabbie drop her off at the Tesco just down the street from her flat.
The very first thing she did when she got inside was to grab a trolley, even if she would've only needed a basket, and put both the box and her satchel inside it. And if she grabbed a completely unnecessary bag of crisps on the way by, tossing them in to obscure the box as much as possible, that was her business.
She made it almost completely through her list— just a few basic essentials, some fresh fruit and greens, and chicken for tomorrow— before she noticed the first sign that she'd been recognized. Just some teenage girls loitering around the yoghurt, but Bilba saw one of them freeze in a double take, elbowing another of her friends before the lot of them started whispering. Snatching up a tub of vanilla with probiotics, Bilba wheeled out of the aisle as quickly as possible without breaking into a run.
Getting the hell out of the store was worse; even when she tried to go through the self-checkout, there was still the one magazine turned backwards in its display, with her tousled head and arched back plastered across it in full-colour.
Oh for god's sake.
“Excuse me, miss? It's just— I mean, are you—” The uncertain, masculine voice behind her made Bilba turn her head before she thought better of it. There stood a young man in his Tesco uniform, looking nearly as red in the cheeks as his crimson shirt. “Oh my god, it's you!”
Oh for god's sake.