It was supposed to be this epic night. Her first ball, it was kind of a big deal. Not the first she had attended, but the first thrown in her name, in her honour, for the love of Princess Emma. The truth was, she loved all this stuff as a child. The frilly dresses and the tiaras, it was fun then. As she grew older, Emma started to change. She still liked to dress up sometimes, but she had learnt more about the world she lived in, the trials of life, the adventures that existed beyond the castle walls, both scary and exciting. There was no room for pouffy dresses and strings of pearls and diamonds when she was learning to ride and fight and shoot a bow. Unfortunately, tonight was a different kettle of fish altogether, tonight was exactly the occasion for dressing up and being a lady.
Emma never could wrap her head around the way her mother did it. Queen Snow could go out all day in buck-skin and fur, shooting a bow and arrow, running around like a child in the woods. By the evening, she would be clean and bright as a new pin in a long flowing gown and jewels, as regal as anybody ever had been or could be. Emma didn’t feel like she could do that, and she certainly didn’t appreciate the fact she was expected to get all dolled up for the men of the surrounding kingdoms to fawn over.
“It’s my sixteenth birthday, shouldn’t I get to choose how I spend it?” she whined as her mother helped fasten the last few buttons at the back of her dress.
“Honey, you did choose how to spend it,” Snow reminded her kindly. “We did all the things you wanted all day long, and now you need to do what’s expected. It’s the price of being royal,” she said moving to stand beside her daughter.
Their reflections in the glass were a sight to behold. Snow could easily pass for Emma’s sister rather than her mother, her beauty not having diminished even a little in all these years. They looked a little alike, but Emma knew she had a lot of her father in her too. Prince David was a handsome man, a kind and generous consort to his queen, and the best father Emma could ever ask for. He and her mother asked so little of her most of the time, but tonight she wished they didn’t need her to do this.
“I feel ridiculous,” she complained, crossing her arms over her chest and then uncrossing them again.
If she must wear a ball gown and go through this whole ordeal, she had wanted something classy. Deep red velvet that swept to the floor and showed off her curves that were already very apparent even at her young age, that would've been great. Her parents had insisted on the more conservative white number that she actually wore, as all sixteen year olds did when they came out in society. This was the first event at which Emma was considered ‘available’.
“It’s like I’m a prize cow at the market,” she huffed.
“My daughter? A prize cow?” her father smiled amusedly at those words as he came into the bedroom and joined his family by the mirror. “A prize worth the winning, I will accept, but as to the rest? Emma, please,” he shook his head, putting his hand to her hair and turning her head until she looked up at him. “You are not to be bought, sold, or bartered. Believe me, we liberated this land from the rule of evil people as we did to ensure freedom for all. Tonight we present you to the men of court, Emma, but they are not at liberty to demand anything. Should you choose a suitor amongst them, then so be it, but if you don’t? Well, that’s okay too.”
“Of course it is,” Snow smiled. “Your father and I know better than anyone what it is to be forced into a relationship that is unwanted. Should you fall in love then we will be thrilled, but it doesn’t have to be tonight. It doesn’t have to be anyone we choose, only someone that your heart chooses.”
Emma smiled at the pretty words and looked again into the glass. It was a relief to know she would not be forced into marriage. She never really expected that kind of behaviour from her parents and yet it was always a worry somewhere in the back of her mind. She had seen it happen to others she knew. Emma couldn’t imagine ever marrying anyone, but certainly she would have to be in love for it to occur. For all that she could be a tomboy sometimes, she would like to know what it was to feel that which her parents already shared - true love.
“We should go,” said the prince then, offering an arm each to his wife and daughter. “Our public awaits.”
Emma took a deep breath and smiled at her parents as she was led out of her chambers and down to the ballroom. She was ready for this now.
“So, this is where you’re hiding,” said Belle as she hovered by the door.
Rumpelstiltskin heard her, of course he did, but didn’t react. His eyes were fixed on the view from the far window, his mind completely elsewhere.
“If I had magic still...” he said so quietly Belle almost didn’t hear.
She felt his pain, she truly did, but couldn’t be sorry for the fact he was no longer the Dark One. Magic had defined him for so very long, overshadowing the love that lived deep within his heart. Without it, he could be a better man, the kind of man that deserved the son that Belle herself had assisted in bringing back to him. It was Baelfire, who’s return had brought Rumpel so much joy, that now caused him pain.
“He would not be brought back by magic, not this time,” said Belle, shaking her head as she appeared at her lover’s side and took his hand in her own. “Bae will come back under his own steam, he just... he needs a chance to be himself, to have a little freedom without the dangers he faced in other lands,” she explained. “You know being cooped up in the castle was driving him crazy. His leaving for a while doesn’t mean he loves you less, Rumpel, it just means he’s a boy who has finally become a man.”
Rumpelstiltskin felt the tug of a smile at his lips as he looked at his darling Belle. She saw the best in every person and every situation. He would say that she could not know Bae’s mind better than himself, but that would be a lie. The two of them had bonded somehow, the way a step-mother and child should, though Baelfire was no child anymore. At twenty three he was indeed a man and Rumpel could well understand him wanting to find his way in his homeland after so long away from it, so long being perpetually fourteen in Neverland, and then confined mostly to the Dark Castle after that.
“I wonder if he would have been happier left alone,” he said in a small voice, so far removed from the high-pitched giggles that The Dark One had been so renowned for. “Though he is three-and-twenty in looks, he has lived a great many lifetimes, as I have,” Rumpel sighed.
“But for as long as he looked like a boy he was treated as one and behaved as one as well,” said Belle with a knowing look. “Just as you felt you must act like a monster because the world saw one when they looked at you.”
“The world, yes, but not you,” he reminded her, putting a hand to her cheek. “I wonder what would have become of me, and of Bae, without your influence, Belle.”
She smiled at the sweet sentiment, her eyes dipping to the ground in embarrassment.
“I didn’t do so much,” she shrugged. “I only believed in the good in you, and in the love you clearly have for your son. You did all the hard work in retrieving him from Neverland, I just came along for the ride,” she reminded him, leaning into his embrace.
Kissing his lips was familiar and felt good, she hoped it brought him the same joy and comfort as it did her. The way he fought to get Bae back and now poor Rumple felt his son was slipping away again. It wasn’t true. Baelfire didn’t intend to disappear and never come back, he just wanted a little freedom for a while, such he was finding out there in the kingdom, free to do as he wanted. Of course she worried too, for the step-son she was in no way old enough to mother, but she had faith in him, as she always had in Rumpelstiltskin. Bae had taken trips out into the woods before, to travel around into places he had long forgotten or never seen. This was just one more trip of many, but had already been longer than any before, two months already and no sign of him. Still, Belle was sure nothing awful had befallen him. Bae wouldn’t allow himself to get into too much trouble, she was certain. She only hoped she was right about that.
“Are you sure you saw the beast go this way?” asked Robin as he clambered over fallen branches and brambles, chasing after his friend.
“Can’t you hear that noise? It’s got to be just passed those trees!” Baelfire declared, continuing his pursuit.
It was only as he got closer to the clearing that he realised his mistake. Tracking wild animals in the woods still wasn’t his strong suit. He coped pretty well in Neverland, collecting berries from the jungle plants and drinking water from the spring to survive. He hadn’t needed any skills like that when he got home, living in the Dark Castle with his father and Belle. He had been happy enough those first few years, reconnecting with Rumpelstiltskin, getting to know Belle, but things were different now. He had grown from boy to man, and Baelfire craved company as much as adventure. Meeting Robin Hood and his merry men on the edge of the woods hadn’t been a plan, neither had deciding to go live with them for a while, taking a break from the solitude of the castle his father refused to leave now he was effectively powerless. Belle stayed with him and Bae did the same for a long while, but he was older now, and he wanted to see a little of the land he left behind far too long ago. A week or two out ambling thro
ugh forests and discovering towns he had never seen before was fine, but it wasn't enough. Having met Robin and Marian, there was an open invitation for him to stay with him whenever he might want or need to. Bae left the castle intending to spend just a few weeks living the outlaw life, but weeks had turned into months and he was happy to stay yet. Still, tracking the animals of the Enchanted Forest didn't always come so easy and instead of stumbling on the deer he and Robin had been trying to catch, he instead realised he had found a different beast entirely.
“Congratulations, my friend,” said Robin, clapping him on the back the moment he reached his side. “You have discovered a feast indeed... inside of a castle,” he chuckled.
Sure enough, all Baelfire’s careful tracking had achieved as to lead them to the edge of the woods, in view of Snow White’s castle. There seemed to be a party going on, if the fireworks and raucous noise was anything to go by. Every lamp in the place seemed to be lit, light pouring from each and every window.
“I guess the rich are always having a party,” he sighed.
“Not always,” Robin shook his head. “Usually some great event is being celebrated. A marriage, a birth, a coming out party perhaps,” he considered. “I suppose it might be for the princess?”
“Which one?” asked Bae curiously.
“Snow White and the Prince have but one daughter,” said Robin with a frown. “You really have been out of the world too long, Neal,” he told him. “Princess Emma must be at least sixteen by now. I should wager we have stumbled upon her introduction to society, but such a thing is not going to feed our merry band, so let us move on.”
He patted Bae on the shoulder and then set off walking back the way they had come, adjusting the quiver on his shoulder as he did so. Baelfire watched him go but didn’t follow at first. It felt more normal now to be called Neal. It was a name he had chosen years before when he decided to go out in the world and meet new people. Doubtless some might yet remember Baelfire as the son of The Dark One and neither he nor Rumpelstiltskin wanted such a thing to be a burden. To all who met him, Baelfire was simply Neal, a travelling man who had been away from his home for a long time. It accounted for him having no family or connections that he wished to discuss, no fixed abode to speak of, and a lack of general knowledge when it came to the Enchanted Forest and all its people.
Stood staring up at the castle a short walk from where he was, Baelfire frowned in deep thought. Princess Emma. He thought he had heard his father and Belle mention the name, the daughter of Snow White and Prince James, or David, there was a little confusion over the particulars of that man’s past, and Rumpelstiltskin seemed awkward in talking about it. Either way, their daughter Emma had always been spoken of as if she were a little girl. It hadn’t occurred to Bae that she was grown by now, sixteen at least. He wondered vaguely what she looked like, though he couldn’t have said why he should even care.
“Neal!” Robin called from amongst the trees. “Come on, before the men all starve to death!”
“Comin’!” Bae yelled back, though his eyes remained fixed on the castle in the distance a moment longer and a smile curved his lips. “Have a great night, princess,” he said then with a vague nod of a bow before he turned and walked away.