“Oh, Ruby,” Granny sighed.
Ruby didn’t look up. She was busy holding onto the counter and trying to breathe through her mouth and not her nose. Smelling things was just not a good idea right now. It made her wolf lurch right through her and threaten to come out. And god, it wouldn’t be the real full moon until the day after tomorrow. This wasn’t fair.
“Sorry?” Belle stuck her head into the kitchen. “Is everything all right?”
Ruby’s body convulsed, and seemed to turn in two directions at once, toward her and toward escape. Belle frowned, eyes narrowing, and started toward her. Granny swooped in before this got out of hand. She caught Belle around the waist and encouraged her back out into the dining area. “Everything’s under control,” she said. “Wolf things. And no, you can’t help.”
Belle looked at her. “She ran out when I came in.”
Granny would admit nothing. “It’s just that time of the month. Now what can I get you?”
“Oh,” Belle bit her lip slightly. “Actually, I just wanted to ask Ruby if, well… Emma and Mary Margaret want to take me out tonight, a celebration of sorts.”
“Mmm,” Granny said. “A month of no Rumpel relapses.”
Belle’s smile was a little strained. “Something like that. I wanted to see if Ruby would come. But if she’s not well…”
“I’ll come,” Ruby leaned out of the door of the kitchen, still rather pale, her hand cupped around her nose and her mouth, but her eyes straightforward and intense. “I’ll get this sorted out. I promise.”
Granny huffed in exasperation. “Get back in the kitchen, you. You’ll put the guests off their food.”
“Only if you’re really feeling better,” Belle said. “If you’re not, we can postpone, or do it again. I’m sorry I forgot it was so close to wolfstime.”
A hint of Ruby’s usual wide smile showed around her hand. “I’ll be fine. I’ll come.”
Granny rolled her eyes at the girls grinning stupidly at each other and pushed Ruby back into the kitchen, shutting the door firmly and then making sure Belle had left before turning back to Ruby with a suspicious expression.
“You’ll be fine, will you?”
“I was just… surprised,” Ruby retorted, waving her hand to waft kitchen-scented air at her face. “I didn’t expect the wolf to try to bolt until tomorrow. I’ll be fine. Just got to get in control.”
“Hmm,” said Granny. “Just that, indeed?”
Ruby frowned, giving her grandmother a suspicious look. “What else might it be?”
“Heat,” Granny said flatly.
Ruby blanched. “Oh no,” she said. “That’s like some made up stuff for teen werewolf books. That’s not real. Is it?”
“Ask a wolf,” Granny replied. “It’s not unmanageable. But I’d expect to change tonight.”
“Mmm, sometimes five. And I’d use this if you really are planning on going out tonight before the change.” Granny handed Ruby a bottle of Vix.
Ruby cringed and her wolf recoiled even more. It hated menthol. “Why?”
“It will keep the wolf under control, if you don’t do anything stupid.”
“I’m in control! I’m good now! I didn’t even try to eat that deer that got hit by the car last month.” Ruby – the human part – grimaced slightly. The wolf whined.
“Good,” said Granny. “You’ve been practicing. You’re going to need it.”
* * *
Thirty days without Rumpel. Belle swallowed as she let herself back into the library and breathed in the calming scent of books. It was really only a drop in the bucket, to some extent. But it was the first drop, and more would elicit more, until she actually had the strength to turn him away for good.
He was still obeying her last command to leave her be, though he would watch her sometimes with sad lonely eyes. What did I do wrong? They seemed to say. And maybe it was nothing. He had just been who he always was. But she couldn’t stay, not with all those memories clouding up her head: Belle’s miserable past and twenty eight years of imprisonment, Lacey’s sunny childhood and nights spent necking with teenage boyfriends in the backs of cars. And then the most recent memories: Rumpel’s violence, his bruising magicless kisses, his clawlike hands grasping her hips.
He loved her. He wanted her back. He’d brought her memories back, put her back together again. But he couldn’t erase what she’d seen. And what she’d seen was that he was a liar. He was the worst kind of liar: the one who thought he was telling the truth. He said that she made him better, but he had done worse things out of love for her than he had out of hate for anyone else. It hurt to deny someone who loved you what he thought he needed to be happy. But she was better than that, wasn’t she? She was more than just a sop to stop a baby from crying. She deserved more.
Now she had friends who wanted to spend time with her. She had books and work and peace and quiet. That was more, wasn’t it?
It was just, sometimes, when she was alone, it felt like less.
* * *
“Congratulations, Belle! If this was AA, you’d be getting your red chip!”
Belle smiled, looking confused, but raised her glass to accept Emma’s toast.
Ruby, still trying to deal with the sulking wolf who couldn’t smell anything because of the menthol, wrinkled her nose. “God, Emma, you’re making it sound like an addiction.” She was drinking soda. Her grandmother had seriously managed to ruin her night.
“It seemed kind of like an addiction.” Emma wrinkled her nose. “And I should know. There seemed to be a lot of the, this time it will be different, I can handle it/him, I won’t end up jacking somebody’s car and driving it into the Charles.”
“Oh, please do regale us with all your wonderful tales of delinquent youth,” said Regina flatly. “Especially while you drink like a fish.”
“Hey! I never had an alcohol problem!”
Regina raised an eyebrow.
“Projectile vomiting is not a problem.” Emma winced. “Well, maybe. But it wasn’t an addiction.”
Ruby just sighed. Belle caught her eye and offered a small smile. Ruby smiled back. She wasn’t the only one not amused by the bickering. She found herself reaching up to wipe the menthol off her nose, because she wanted to smell her, to see if she was wearing perfume tonight, or if she just smelled like old books and soap and clean sweat. But she pulled her hand back. That was what Granny had warned her about. The wolf wanted to find its mate, and letting it out could end in her racing around the Rabbit Hole sniffing the patrons inappropriately, and Ruby, really, did not want to try that.
“All right, another round,” said Mary Margaret as she reached the table and set out the drinks. “Root Beer, Long Island, Blue Moon, and um… Black Russian.”
Belle pushed aside her glass full of ice and snagged the second Long Island Iced Tea. Ruby laughed at her. “You like that as much as regular Iced Tea, don’t you?”
Belle gave her a narrow-eyed glance. “There’s no tea in this. The name is a lie.”
“You like it though.”
Belle grinned. “’s tasty. I like the sort of lemony flavor down at the bottom. Up top it’s a little yucky.”
“You would probably be just as happy with the mixers.”
Mary Margaret and Regina were giving each other suspicious looks across the table. Ruby didn’t have to smell their tension to have it make the back of her neck prickle as the hairs on it raised up into the air. Belle had glanced over at Regina, looked a little upset, and buried her attention in her drink, which was totally not the point of this whole event. Ruby sighed. Sometimes she had the worst friends. She flipped the can of Vix out of her pocket and redosed herself to the resentment of the wolf.
Belle gave her a curious look. “Do you have a cold?”
Ruby grinned. “I have a wolf, in a sniffing mood. I kind of want to keep it from getting up in anyone’s business. But I am also bored of sitting here and not drinking.” For a moment, Belle’s face fell, and Ruby quickly reached out a hand and caught her wrist. “Wanna dance?”
The bright smile had to be a yes, and Ruby tugged her off the stool and out towards the floor. It was mostly empty, still a little early, but Ruby couldn’t stay past moonrise, so she had to get her fun in on time.
Once there, where the beats were loud, Ruby stepped in close and spoke into Belle’s ear. “You okay? I don’t know why Emma keeps dragging Regina along to fun places. It’s like she wants to make everyone miserable.”
“It’s fine,” Belle replied, but the relief on her face from being away from that table, which… Ruby glanced back and noticed that the three remaining occupants had settled into an argument, was palpable. “If she really wants to change, she should be allowed to try. Everyone deserves a chance.”
“To not be a monster?” Ruby murmured and let her hands settle on Belle’s waist. She couldn’t help feeling like a monster, especially today, with the wolf lunging and snapping inside of her. But Belle was the one who had never, ever believed she deserved punishment when, for all the sins she had committed, she only wanted to be good. Of course, the cruelest things she had done to Belle had been all the fault of her human side. The wolf wanted to rend and tear and howl, but the wolf had never wanted to hurt Belle.
Belle’s eyes were crazy blue as they looked up at her, sympathetic and sort of hurt inside, in a way that made Ruby want to wrap her up in a fierce hug and never let her go. “To have friends as well.”
“Yeah,” Ruby said, restraining herself. She caught up Belle’s hands and spun her, to an amused shriek. “You’re mine, you know?”
Ruby laughed and nodded, because she shouldn’t sound so worried. Constancy wasn’t something she had much experience with though. “Mmm, more than that. My wolf likes you, and Granny likes you, and we don’t abandon people we like. So, think pack. You’re pack. You always have us.”
Belle was the one who hugged her, fierce and grateful, and Ruby slid a hand up her back and the other cupped the back of her head. “Thank you,” Belle murmured into her shoulder. “It’s been thirty days without him, and it’s better, I know it’s better. But it’s like people don’t realize that I can get lonely. But I do.”
“Yeah, well,” Ruby leaned in slightly and smelled her hair. Her wolf lurched, and goddammit, she really needed something stronger than Vix. Like a clothespeg. “Books are great when you’re calm, but I doubt they do much when you want to howl.”
“Is that why you howl? Because you’re lonely?”
“I’m a lone wolf,” Ruby said, smiling a little into Belle’s intense gaze. “I’m the only wolf out there. There’s no one to hear my howls. But I howl anyway. If that’s not loneliness, what is?”
But she grinned when she said it, and turned, twisting Belle’s hands in front of her to pull her into the music. “No more sad talk! Dancing!”
And they danced.
Mary Margaret came out to join them, and they made a circle, keeping out interlopers, the dancing turning goofy and enthusiastic by song.
“Oh,” Belle, sweaty and panting, leaned into Ruby, who suddenly couldn’t breathe with the cloud of her scent surrounding her. Shit, she thought to herself. She had been sloppy with the Vix, had sweated it off, and the wolf leaned in, Ruby bent toward her neck, taking a stiff, controlled breath.
“God, you smell good,” came out on the other end of the breath. Belle looked up at her, still too winded to speak. Mary Margaret gave her a look like she had lost her head. Ruby’s face would have flushed if it hadn’t already been red with exertion. “Water,” she half whimpered. “I need water.” And she bolted from the dance floor.
“What’s going on with you and Belle?” Mary Margaret asked as she came up behind where Ruby was pressing her half empty glass to her face.
“What? Nothing. She’s my friend.”
“Who smells delicious?”
God, she didn’t need this now. Trying to hold down the wolf was taking all her focus, and Snow was trying to make her talk about feelings. “It’s wolfstime. Leave me the fuck alone.”
Mary Margaret started at the defensiveness in her tone. “Sorry. I’m not trying to pry. Just, you know, I’d be fine with it if you two started going out.”
Ruby glared at her. Her face was still hot, heart pounding. The wolf had pricked up his ears at the words, rose onto its haunches in excitement, and begged to howl. Please, shut up, she told it. “What part of the both of us being straight don’t you understand?”
Mary Margaret held up her hands in surrender. “I always thought of you as the straight but not narrow type.”
“That doesn’t mean what you think it means,” Ruby snapped. She turned back to the bar to shake her glass at the bartender, looking for a refill. “Ruby. Ruby was the one who was bicurious. And curiosity, satisfied. That was all.”
Snow grimaced. “I actually thought that about Red.”
Ruby spun and stared at her. “What? Why? What part about the murdering my boyfriend read as straight but not narrow to you? That wasn’t even a concept back there.”
Mary Margaret made a face. “Let’s just let this go, okay? If you’re not into that, then don’t worry about it. But it would be nice if someone could take her out, and show her that there can be fun in relationships. Not just star-crossed self-sacrifice.”
Ruby glanced over to where Belle was finishing her Long Island and Emma and Regina were coming to join her, looking slightly rumpled. “You’re right,” she said. “She deserves that.”
“So do you.”
* * *
Belle was pretty certain she was drunk. Actually, she was super, super drunk. Because she remembered being drunk before and she could identify the symptoms. Her tongue was thick and she kept tripping over any alveolar sounds. She felt light headed and a bit wobbly.
Ruby and Mary Margaret were coming back from the bar. Mary Margaret was looking slightly guilty. Ruby just looked exhausted. Belle moved to meet them. Her head spun and she almost tripped. Ruby caught her. Belle grinned up at her.
“Thank you.” Then she reached out and took the cup of water from her and chugged it. “Thank you again.”
Ruby laughed. “I’m going to have to head out,” she said. “Moonrise is coming soon.”
The words hit like a club to the gut. She leaned forward and caught Ruby’s arms. “You’re leaving me here with them?”
“Snow,” Ruby turned to her. “You’ll get her home, right? Don’t leave her alone.”
“I’ve got to go.”
Belle hung on her arm. “Let me walk you out.”
She saw Ruby shoot Mary Margaret a fierce glare, but she put an arm around Belle’s shoulders and they headed for the door. Outside the air was cool and Belle felt a little less drunk, a little refreshed.
“Thank you for coming,” Belle said, looking up at Ruby who was watching her with a bit of an odd expression on her face. It wasn’t quite affectionate, or quite nervous, or quite pained, but maybe a bit of all three. It was close to moonrise, she guessed. “Even though you couldn’t have fun.”
“I had fun. I don’t need to drink to have fun, or, you know, to smell things.”
“You’re really drunk, aren’t you?” Ruby looked worried. “Tell Snow to take you home, okay? No more drinking. I’m cutting you off.”
“I’m fine.” Belle leaned in and pressed her head against Ruby’s shoulder. Ruby’s hands tightened on her arms, and seemed to strain to not press too hard. “I wanted to tell you…” She nuzzled in deeper. “I can’t howl back, but if you howl tonight, I’ll hear you. You can howl to me.”
Ruby was warm and smelt good, and Belle could feel her heart begin to quicken its beat, her breath coming shorter.
“Belle,” her voice was strained. “I have to go. I really have to go.”
Belle stepped away and nodded. “Thank you for being my friend.”
Ruby cast her a weak grin. “I’ll always be your friend. Always.”
And then she fled.
Belle sighed and turned to go back inside.
* * *
When the moonlight hit her, Ruby’s body bent, and shifted, and god, it felt good. The wolf rubbed its poor abused nose into the leafmould and then ran.
The running felt the same as always, stretching her legs, getting in tune with herself. But then the ruby-wolf found itself back on the outskirts of the forest, looking back into town. Ruby pulled it back, no. No, you don’t belong in town. You’ll scare people. The wolf whined. It wanted to find its mate. It panted. It shifted its tail to the side, lowered itself to its front elbows, and waved its rear end.
The ruby-wolf froze. She bared her teeth, she growled deeply. A shadowed figure stepped out into the clearing.
“I see you’re having a hard time tonight.”
The ruby-wolf tensed, readying to pounce, to bite and rend and tear. Ruby fought for control.
“Ready for it to be even harder?” The figure lifted his hand. Was that a gun?
He pulled the trigger and a needle shot from the muzzle. Ruby didn’t wait, she leapt. The needle embedded itself in her skin as she snapped at the figure’s throat, but found herself biting nothing. He was gone.
The needle stung, and Ruby felt dizzy. The wolf felt angry. It raked at the needle until it came out and fell into the leaves.
The wolf threw its head back and howled.
* * *
Snow had politely waited until Belle opened the door and stepped inside the library, but Belle didn’t need a babysitter. She was drunk. Lacey had been drunk a lot. She knew what to do. She kicked off her shoes and padded over to the sink. Water. That was the important thing.
She filled a tumbler and drank it down, then filled it again.
She brought it over to the window and opened it to get some more cool air on her face. She sank into her chair and drank half the glass.
It had been a good night, really. At least while Ruby was there. Being the fourth wheel in a three-way family argument was never really fun, and Belle had told Snow she was ready to go soon after. Snow had patted her on the shoulder and looked sympathetic in an entirely non-comforting way. But Snow didn’t get her, couldn’t get her. She had a true love who she was with. She knew he loved her and she loved him. It was like an open connection, streaming both ways, feeling safe and happy and linked to someone. Had she ever really known what it was like to be lonely?
Ruby understood. Belle stared out at the dark diner across the street, looking up over it, out towards the woods. Was she lonely tonight?
She heard a howl.
It was a long, lonesome howl that pulled her straight up to her feet. Ruby. And maybe she was still drunk, maybe she was confused and desperate and needy, but that was the saddest howl she had ever heard.
Without thinking Belle found herself moving quickly down the stairs and out the door. She was barefoot, and hardly noticed. She ran down the street, ran towards the woods. She found herself in the outskirts, leaves and twigs underfoot, pushing branches out of her face.
Was she all right? Belle looked up at the moon. Waxing gibbous, it seemed, not full yet at all. And yet…
In the shadows she saw a darker shadow, a moving shadow. “Ruby?” she whispered, not sure if she should panic. And then the thing changed – a human figure, thank god. It was Ruby, still dressed for clubbing. She stood from her crouch, wobbling slightly and stepped toward Belle. Belle bit her lip. There was something odd about the way she was moving. And it was moonlight. How had she been able to change back?
Ruby stumbled slightly and reached out, catching herself on Belle’s arm, and Belle felt the touch of claws biting into her skin. Astonished and a little frightened, she looked into Ruby’s eyes and saw the wolf there and not the girl. Big eyes, sharp teeth, strong hands, long claws. Belle’s heart started to beat quickly, rising up into her throat. She’d read this story a thousand times, wolf in sheep’s clothing, this world’s version of little red riding hood. “The better to eat you with,” she murmured, and Ruby’s head turned slightly, a bemused expression crossing her face. “Ruby, come on. Ruby, wake up in there.”
Wolf-ruby whined and ducked her head. She nuzzled against Belle’s shoulder.
“Oh,” Belle murmured. “Oh. Okay. You’re not going to eat me all up, are you?” This strange Wolf-ruby was more like a puppy, affectionate, needy, not quite aware of its strength.
She reached up and stroked the back of Ruby’s head. Ruby’s chest rumbled in pleasure. Belle buried her fingers into her hair, or was it fur? It was almost hard to tell. And then Belle felt a long, slightly rough tongue licking her neck. Belle’s fingers tightened in her hair.
“Ruby!” she gasped. And her hips bucked into the wolf’s. She felt dizzy and hot and needy, and it felt good.
And she knew she was drunk and she knew this was a bad idea, and she also knew that there wasn’t really a choice here. Go home alone? Leave Ruby alone? The excitement that had been rising in her all evening now boiled in her gut. She clenched her thighs together, and just wanted it, wanted more.
The wolf was mouthing her neck, licking and sucking, using its teeth to scrape across her skin. Belle gripped her shoulders tightly, pressing into her, her breath coming fast and short. She raked her nails down Ruby’s back and felt it bristle, ripple under her, thick fur coming out lush and soft. Wolf-ruby growled and pushed, and Belle toppled. They fell in a heap into leaves and pine needles. Belle hooked her legs around Ruby’s hips, grinding up into her, and Ruby leaned in, hot breath, long rough tongue, sharp teeth, and bit.
They struggled together on the forest floor. Belle wasn’t sure what she was kissing or nipping most of the time, sometimes skin, sometimes fur. Claws shredded her clothes. Hands – paws – spread her legs, pinning her down. Ruby, wild haired and human, loomed over her, and then she licked her lips, tongue long and thin and glistening, teeth glinting in the moonlight.
Belle, dizzy and aching, and feeling hardly half-human herself, just gasped. She clawed the earth and tried to buck up toward her. “God, Ruby. Finish this!”
And Ruby smiled, and did.
* * *