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Petticoat of Arms

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Reinhart Gold hated traveling.

Granted, he supposed few people particularly liked the trials and tribulations of travel, but most of the time it was done with a certain level of cheer when the destination was one that was looked forward to.

For Gold, the destination was worse than the travel.

It wasn’t even as though he hadn’t the desire to attend his cousin’s wedding. David was quite possibly the only family member Gold had that he had any desire to know. The only one who Gold had an inkling of affection for.

So no, it wasn’t the fact that he would see his cousin, it was the fact that he would have to attend a wedding and a ball…at court.

Long ago, in another lifetime, Gold had been in line for a crown. His miserable grandfather clung stubbornly to the throne, but Gold had been the oldest remaining heir. He’d never had a particular taste for it, but when his father died, he accepted it as he once accepted most things. With silence.

He did everything he was supposed to. He married a pretty girl who came from a wealthy, well-to-do family. She in turn gave birth to a strapping heir of his own. He was well-learned, he cared about people. He would have been ready when the king died.

But the older he got, the more he saw the hideousness of court. The intrigues, the gossip, the scandals, it never ended. And it wouldn’t end even for a king, not one of such a small kingdom as Avonlea. He saw it even in his wife, and began to slowly realize that she cared less for him, and more for the crown he could one day give her.

But for all of Milah’s lust for the crown, her lust for the flesh was even greater, and she grew careless.

The scandal she brought upon them both when she was caught in a compromising position with Duke Jones could have been overcome, with time, but Gold was done with it. Done with it all.

He didn’t want to be king, after all. He never had. And he even less wanted to be the King of Cuckold. But more than anything, he didn’t want to bring his son into that life. Perhaps it had been selfish, taking Baelfire away from the throne that would have been his birthright, but he wanted his son to have the opportunity to simply live life, not have his life basically lived for him by society pages and money-hungry women and advisors. So, in the end, Gold passed the crown to his cousin, and it had been the right choice.

David had been only twenty years old when their grandfather finally passed, but he had taken control of the kingdom with a firm, but fair hand. He genuinely cared about people; all people, not just the ones with money. In the years since his rule began, the kingdom had prospered. He was loved and respected, and Gold didn’t regret a thing.

But it still wasn’t a pleasant thing, returning to the castle, and to society. He was the Almost-King. The miserable old man who couldn’t even keep a wife. The coward who ran away instead of overcoming the challenges of ruling.

He hadn’t been back in nigh-on five years, though Bae had made a few trips as he’d gotten older. It had been Bae who convinced Gold to come, insisting that his cousin would be heartbroken if he didn’t. And if there was anyone who could win him over more than his cousin, it was his son.

“We can stop in Bakersville for the night, and be in Avonlea by tomorrow evening,” Bae said conversationally.

“I do hope they have a decent inn these days,” Gold groused.

“Of course, and for just a shilling more, old Moira will include a visit from one of her “daughters!””

Gold snapped around to glare at Bae from where he rode a step behind him. “Baelfire Gold, do you mean to tell me you’ve commissioned one of these “visits?””

Bae scoffed. “Oh lower your hackles! It was a jest! But what if I had? I’m nineteen years old, Papa. I’m not a child.”

Gold softened at the reminder that his boy was in fact no boy at all. It was still incredibly hard to believe. “You’re my child, and I didn’t raise you to behave like a rake. Never to mention the dangers of cavorting with hired ladies. You’re a gentleman, and I expect you to act like it.”

“I know, Papa,” Bae said patiently. “You did raise me better, and that’s why I have no desire to pay for company, nor to dishonor a lady. Although it’s hardly unheard of in society. I’m practically an outcast as it is.”

“And I’d rather you stay that way. The so-called gentlemen of society are rarely that. And they all have the pox to show for it.”

Bae cackled. “Lud! It’s going to be a grand time having you at court!”

Gold gave his son a withering look, but it was completely ignored, as Bae’s gaze was fixed on something ahead.

“Papa, look!”

Gold turned to see a young woman standing forlornly on the road, wringing her hands in distress.

At just a glance he could see that she was a lady of standing, judging by her lavish – if travel worn – gown.

The object of her upset was an overturned carriage, having been recklessly run off the road and into a ditch.

Gold urged his horse on faster, and hurried to dismount, fearful that there could be someone still inside.

“Is anyone hurt?” he asked the young woman, barely more than a girl, really, not bothering with formal greetings.

“We’re fine,” another voice spoke firmly, from down in the ditch.

Gold looked down to see a head pop up from behind the carriage, hat tilted at an awkward angle.

“Perhaps we can help,” Bae offered, appearing at his elbow.

A young boy crawled up out of the ditch, brushing his hands off on his trousers. His clothes too, while quite dirty, were that of upper class. Gold thought he was perhaps thirteen or fourteen.

“We can handle it,” the boy spoke, and Gold had to hide a grin behind his hand at the way the boy was deliberately pitching his voice low.

“Your carriage is on its side,” Gold pointed out unnecessarily. “And your horse seems to have vanished.

The boy sighed, staring into the distance where the horse had presumably gone.

“Let’s just let them help, Beaux,” the girl said, voice wobbling in worry.

Gold reached out to lay a hand on the boy’s shoulder, meaning to comfort him, but the boy jerked away, looking up into Gold’s face for the first time, and Gold was met with quite possibly the bluest eyes he’d ever seen.

It was almost unfortunate, really, the rather beautiful features on this lad’s face. Full lips, round cheeks, and enormous sky-blue eyes lined with dark lashes…this Beaux probably knew no end to the teasing from his fellows. It would certainly account for the defiant tilt to his chin.

Another thing that Gold realized as well was that the lad was actually a bit older than he thought at first. Perhaps sixteen or seventeen. It had been his diminutive stature that had thrown Gold, and he not very tall himself.

But Gold had known his share of late-bloomers. He himself hadn’t been much taller at sixteen, and didn’t start growing proper whiskers until he was nearly eighteen.

“My apologies,” Gold said in response to Beaux’s almost violent reaction to his hand on his shoulder. “I assure you, my son and I mean only to help. Have your parents gone to fetch help from Bakersville?”

“No,” the girl said. “We have none.”

Beaux glared at the girl. “My sister and I are traveling alone,” he said to Gold. “She wishes to attend the ball preceding the royal wedding, and I am her chaperone.”

“Of course,” Gold said solemnly. It was clear he would get nowhere if he treated Beaux as anything less than a man. He remembered well not just a couple years before, when Bae was struggling to assert his manhood. He still was, at times. “But this does look like it will take more than one man to lift.”

Beaux sighed again, then seemed to relent. “Very well. Thank you, sirs.”

Gold exchanged a look at Bae, who seemed to be thinking the same thing about the young Master Beaux as he did. They removed their coats and hats, placing them in the outstretched hands of Mary Margaret, and rolled up their sleeves.

The carriage was quality but rather old, which meant it was significantly heavier-built than most modern models Gold knew of.

Though Beaux was small, it was soon apparent that he shouldn’t be underestimated. The lad possessed a strength that far belayed his short stature and waiflike arms. It was hot, tiring work, but between the three of them, they finally got the carriage righted.

“Wonderful!” Mary Margaret cried, clapping her hands. “Thank you, kind sirs!”

Beaux wiped his hands on his pants again, then held his hand out to be shook, a bit begrudgingly. “Yes, you have our thanks Mister…”

Gold took the boy’s hand, managing to avoid looking at it when he felt just how small it was, though the grip was strong and sure.

“Gold,” he replied, not bothering to correct him with Lord Gold, before motioning to Bae. “My son, Baelfire.” Beaux bowed respectfully to them both.

“Now there is only one problem,” Mary Margaret said, handing Gold and Bae back their coats and hats. “Our horse truly seems to have gone, Beaux…”

“No matter,” Beaux said. “You wait here in the carriage, and I’ll see if I cannot fetch it back. Or else perhaps I can procure one in Bakersville.”

“Bakersville is hours away on foot,” Bae said, concern tinting his voice.

“And it’s hardly wise to leave your sister unattended on a road such as this,” Gold pointed out. “It’s getting late, and who knows what ruffians will be about.”

Beaux narrowed his eyes at him. “And just how do we know you’re not a ruffian?”

Gold chuckled. “I suppose you’re right there, lad. But come now, let us be reasonable. My boy and I have two horses without a carriage, and you have a carriage without a horse. And it just so happens, we are all going to the same place.”

Beaux hesitated, biting his lower lip, and looked over at his sister, who shrugged.

“It’s possible your horse wound up there anyway,” Bae pointed out. “Seeking water and food.”

That seemed to settle it for Beaux, and he nodded decisively. “Very well. We would be much obliged.”

“Wonderful,” Gold said. “Bae, help Master Beaux hitch the horses, will you?”

Bae was already leading the horses over, and he and Beaux chatted amiably while they worked to rig the hitch that had been broken by the escape horse.

Left alone with only the young lady for company, Gold nodded politely to her, keeping his hands behind his back. But she didn’t appear half so jumpy as her brother, but Gold supposed it was a stressful responsibly for such a young man to be solely in care of a young woman.

It was clear that fair, good looks ran in the family. Both siblings shared wide eyes, full lips, and cherub-like faces. But where Beaux had a peach-colored complexion, light brown hair, and blue eyes, his sister was blessed with porcelain-like skin, the blackest hair, and bright green eyes.

Beaux would have his hands full fending off suitors for his sister, though it was likely that was the purpose of the trip, to marry the girl off well. In that case, Gold found he quite respected the boy, for trying to care for his sister the best way he could, considering their apparent lack of parental guidance.

“If you don’t think it rude to ask,” Gold began. “What led to the two of you traveling alone, without guardians or at least servants?”

Mary Margaret flushed, and Gold couldn’t be sure if it was because she didn’t want to answer, or if it were merely because she was a young girl being spoken to by a man. “We, erm…our mother and father perished in a fire five years ago, sir. Our uncle was named our guardian but…” her face fell, and it was all Gold needed to begin to understand what happened.

“I see,” he said softly. “You set out alone to be free of him?”

The girl nodded. “He would have married…me off to a horrid, horrid old man. And…and Beaux…he just thought…”

Gold touched her arm briefly. “That’s quite already, dearie. I think I understand. You and your brother are quite brave.”

She chuckled a bit self-consciously. “I’m not that brave…but Be…but Beaux, he’s brave. He’s the bravest person I know.”

Gold looked over where Beaux was smiling at Bae, nodding his thanks once the horses were firmly hitched. Gold rather hoped the two might become friends. He wanted dearly for his son to have companions that weren’t dandies and rakes. And as for the girl…he glanced over at Mary Margaret again. Well, Bae could hardly do worse than to marry such a pretty, and seemingly charming girl.

“We’re ready!” Bae called merrily.

After a bit of argument, it was finally settled that since it was Beaux’s carriage and Gold’s horses, they would sit up front together while Bae and Mary Margaret rode within. Gold was pleased with the arraignment, as it gave Bae and Mary Margaret ample time to get to know one another.

“Shall we?” he said, bowing to Beaux.

Beaux tilted his head up regally, and Gold thought someone should really inform the boy that it looked a bit flirtatious, and therefor he should probably save it for the ladies. “Ready,” he said.

Chapter Text

During the ride, Gold found that Beaux was a man of few words. But so was Gold, so they got on marvelously. Behind them, they could hear Bae and Mary Margaret chatting away.

“Sounds like they’re getting on well,” Gold said to Beaux.

He chuckled. “Mary Margaret gets along with everyone, but you shouldn’t get your hopes up, Mr. Gold. She’s quite in love with someone else, and I’ve yet to deter her.”

Gold’s eyebrows raised. “Oh? Some lad from back home? Is that why you’re going to the ball, to try to temp her with someone else?”

Beaux shot him a skeptical look, as though determining how much information he felt comfortable giving. “The man will be at the ball. If he loves my sister, as he once said he did, then the hope is he’ll marry her. If not, well, at least she’ll know. And she can move on.”

Beaux sounded like he seriously doubted the man was going to be true to Mary Margaret, and Gold felt a pang of sympathy for the girl.

“Still,” he said. “It’s noble of you to try, for her sake.”

Beaux shrugged. “No one should be kept from those they love.”

Gold nodded. “Agreed. But you needn’t fear for her. If the man is foolish enough to deny her, you’ll have no trouble finding a suitable match.”

At that, Beaux fixed Gold with a withering glare. “I’ll not find a match for anyone. My sister will decide her own fate. I’ll not make the decision for her.”

Gold gaped at Beaux, surprised by the sheer vehemence in his icy blue gaze.

“You sister is lucky,” was all Gold could find to say. “To have a brother like you.”

 

It was late once they finally reached Bakersville, and a brief enquiry to the innkeeper revealed that no one had seen an escaped horse come into town. Beaux deflated in disappointment.

“No matter,” Gold said. “Have you any coin? You could always see about purchasing one in the morning.”

Beaux nodded. “I do, and I will. But for now we’d best see about rooms.”

“They’ve only two rooms available,” Bae said, scampering up.

“Hm, very well,” Gold said. “Mary Margaret will take one room, of course. Beaux, would you mind terribly sharing with us?”

“What?” Beaux blanched. “Wh…why wouldn’t I simply share with my sister?”

Gold grimaced and leaned in closer to the boy. “I know it seems silly, but it isn’a proper, lad, even for a brother and sister.” Had no one ever even tried to teach these children proper behavior?

“That’s ridiculous,” Beaux said. “I do not want to leave my sister alone.”

“Our rooms are right next to one another,” Bae said. “And my father is right. There are many people staying here who will be at the ball. You wouldn’t want to stir up ugly gossip.”

“We should listen to them,” Mary Margaret said. “They plainly know what they are talking about.”

“Fine,” Beaux huffed, throwing up his hands. “Is it improper to see my sister settled safely in her room?”

It was, but Gold decided it couldn’t hurt. She had no ladies maids, and he suspected the siblings merely wanted a chance to speak without their erstwhile guardians around.  

“I’ll show you the rooms,” Bae said, turning on his heels.

 

 

Mary Margaret blew out a sigh, collapsing on to the bed. “I feel like I could sleep for week!”

Her sibling sat beside her on the bed, glowering. “As could I, but I highly doubt I’ll get much of it sleeping on a filthy floor when I could just as easier share with you.”

Mary Margaret sat up. “You’re the one who said that we must take extra precaution if we want this to work, Belle. And Mr. Gold was right. It’s not proper for a grown brother and sister to sleep together.”

“And that extra precaution means you mustn’t call me that, even in private.”

Mary Margaret frowned. “Will this be our life then? Will I never get my sister back?”

Belle’s look softened, and she leaned in to rest her head on her sister’s shoulder. “It might be easier if I just remain Beaux forever.”

Mary Margaret chuckled. “Hardly! What will you do when you fall in love, hm? I don’t think a man would accept your suit. And I think most women would find exception on the wedding night.”

Belle laughed. “Who says I must marry at all? I can just become a mountain man somewhere.”

“A mountain man with no beard, who looks like a young boy his entire life? Belle, you can’t be seventeen forever.”

Belle shrugged.

Belle and Mary Margaret French were born to a wealthy, country family. Their brother, William, had been killed in the war when they were still children. And then five years ago, their mother and father were killed in a fire that also took their home and all of their belongings.

Fifteen year old Mary Margaret and twenty-one year old Belle were left with nothing and no one, save a distant uncle who pledged to do his “Christian duty” and foster the girls until he could see them wed.

It was a dismal fate to Belle, who saw marriage as something that should be done for love, and nothing else. Their parents had loved one another fiercely, and that was all she wanted for her and her sister.

But it wasn’t long at all before Belle was anxious for a match, when it became apparent that their uncle Marvin Blanchard had taken them in without an ounce of Christianity. From the moment they stepped through the doors of his dark, frigid manor, he’d fixed them both with a look that made Belle’s skin crawl just to think of it.

It was Mary Margaret he fixated on, who still hadn’t flourished into a woman yet, and looked like a very young girl.

For five long years, it was a constant battle to protect her from their uncle’s advances. Even going so far as to offer herself, just to keep his despicable hands away from her. But he seemed less interested in a woman than he was in a child, and once Mary Margaret blossomed at the age of seventeen, his advances lost their urgency.

He was still disgusting, however. Grabbing at them whenever they let their guard down, showing himself to them to try to “tempt” them, letting himself into their room that they shared, merely to watch them.

And that was to say nothing of when he saw fit to raise the strap.

Belle felt grateful that it was as far as it ever went, but five years of constant abuse had taken its toll regardless.

She pleaded with him for years just to find her a husband. She envisioned a life with a man she didn’t love, but at least wouldn’t hurt her, and she could take Mary Margaret to live with them.

But finally their uncle did make a match, with a fifty-year-old, three-time widower from the next town over.

Keith Nottingham was like their uncle in that he preferred young, or at least youthful women. It was often whispered about in town that he brutalized his wives to death, with never a care. He was a drunkard, and believed to be riddled with disease. He offered their uncle a hefty sum to marry Belle.

It was too much. Keith was worse than their uncle, and Belle couldn’t marry the man, couldn’t subject herself to any more abuse, or her sister to her fate if left with their uncle.

But what could two women do alone? Belle was at the age of majority, which was hardly worth much in a female. She was spinster, too old for a decent match. There was precious little they could do to help themselves, with no property or dowry to their name, and by all rights, their uncle owned them.

There was one hope, and a slim hope it was.

When Mary Margaret was fourteen, before the deaths of their parents, she fell madly in love with a man named James.

Belle had been incredibly unsure of the boy, as it seemed almost like he was running away from something. But he’d been so sweet, and so loving toward her sister that she didn’t have it in her heart to fault him.

But, as young love often did, it didn’t last. And James sorrowfully had to return to whatever responsibilities he’d left behind. Mary Margaret had been heartbroken, of course, but Belle had been proud of the way she handled it, with grace and dignity.

So it had been a shock, for both of them, when three months ago Mary Margaret received a letter. It was short, stating only that he was to be married, but had never forgotten the raven-haired girl he’d loved so very much. He assumed that she must be married already, and if so, he wished her the upmost happiness. It didn’t explicitly say that he wanted to see her, in fact it was worded in a way that suggested he never expected her to read it at all. Almost more like a diary entry than a love letter. But he certainly didn’t sound happy in his match, and bemoaned the gaudy ball he must attend prior to King David’s own wedding.

“We have to go,” Mary Margaret had said, and Belle had been a bit concerned about the somewhat manic look in her eyes. “James doesn’t want to marry this woman, Belle! He still loves me!”

“But that doesn’t mean he’ll break an engagement for you!” Belle had tried to argue, ever the voice of reason. “Sometimes these engagements can be as binding as a legal marriage.”

She’d deflated a bit then, but the determined expression remained. “I have to at least see him. Just see him. And if he can’t take me, then…I’ll know we tried. But think if he does Belle! He can get us away from here! He can take you away from that hideous Keith!”

Belle had bit her lip, considering. “And if he refuses you? What then? Then we’ll have escaped Uncle and I shudder to think of what he’ll do to us then.”

“If he refuses me,” Mary Margaret said, though she didn’t sound convinced of that possibility. “Then I’ll make another match…at the ball.”

“Come now,” Belle rolled her eyes. “You’ll abandon you hopes on James and just wed someone you don’t know nor love?”

She nodded decidedly. “I will. I can find a good man, a kind one. And I’ll marry him, and beg him to see you away from Uncle. You can be free, then, Belle. See the world, just as you’ve always wanted! I’ll be safe, so you won’t have to worry about me.”

Belle’s eyes teared up at her sister’s passionate declaration. It was all she wanted in the world, to leave her provincial life behind and live a life of adventure and exploration…and someday, maybe, find a love like the ones in her books. But it had always felt like such an impossible dream, for as much as she longed for the great wide somewhere, she would never dream of leaving her little sister to fend for herself.

“Well,” she relented at last. “I suppose it isn’t impossible that you could find another man who would sweep you off your feet. I won’t have you settling for less, Mem. But how do you propose we pull it off? Even if we managed to get away from Uncle, he’s bound to send someone after us. Likely Keith. And if you decide to marry James or someone else, you cannot do so without permission from your closest male relative.”

“You don’t think Uncle would give his permission to marry me off to someone at court?”

“I don’t think he’d give you permission to marry anyone that would get you out from under his thumb. That miserable lecher wants me gone, probably so he can have you to himself.”

Mary Margaret blanched. “Then we’re stuck.”

Belle though for a long moment. “Maybe not…” she said slowly. “You need permission from you closest male relative…never to mention the fact that two young women traveling alone would be not only suspicious, but dangerous.”

“Then what on earth do you suggest?”

 

Belle’s suggestion had been met first with laughter, then with wide-eyed refusal. But in the end, it was the best solution either of them had.

If their brother William had still been alive, none of this would be a problem. It would be he who would have been their guardian, and he would have lovingly cared for them, protected them, saw them married to men they loved.

It was a vicious turn of fate that their only brother left two sisters behind. Therefore, the most logical thing to do was to turn one of them into a brother.

It obviously couldn’t be Mary Margaret, as she was the one meant to marry. And besides, she was a dreadful actress, and boasted luscious curves that would have been next to impossible to hide behind even the loosest-fitting men’s clothes.

Belle, however, was lithe and lean, with a smallish bosom that was easily pressed to nothing with some strips of linin. They’d found some of Williams clothing from when he was a boy, and it was just right to fit Belle, while giving enough room to hide her shape…and hide the fact that she was lacking a shape that most notably made a man a man.

Mary Margaret had cried when she had to cut off Belle’s wildly beautiful curls to just above the shoulder, to be pulled into a low plait. But Belle didn’t mind that much. It was less weight that way, and far less work.

Unfortunately, however, that even with strategically placed smudges of dirt, there was no way to hide her feminine face. Never mind her height. She could no more pass as a twenty-six year old man than a horse could, in fact once she looked at herself in the mirror, she was surprised to find she looked no more than twelve.

They decided though, that they could say she was seventeen, and merely a late bloomer. It was young, but old enough to be his sister’s guardian, and to give his blessing to a suitor.

 

“Well, for now at least it would seem we have guardians,” Mary Margaret continued, breaking Belle out of her memories of the past.

“Guardians?” Belle echoed skeptically. “I’m your guardian, Mem. We don’t need any more. The Gold gentlemen were very kind to help us, but in the morning we’ll purchase our own horse and be on our way.”

“Why are you so against them helping?” she asked, arching an eyebrow. “Do you think they have some ulterior motive?”

It was a proven fact that where Mary Margaret was trusting to a fault, Belle had a rather keen sense of what a person was like beneath the front they displayed to world. She liked to believe there was good in everyone, but her uncle and Keith Nottingham disproved that.

“No…” she said after a moment of thought. “Neither sent a single lecherous look toward you, though I believe the elder Gold has a mind to make a match of you and his son.”

“Bae is very sweet,” Mary Margaret admitted. “And handsome, too. But he confided to me in the carriage that he has a sweetheart in Avonlea. He hasn’t told his father yet, so please don’t say anything. He hopes to introduce them at the ball, and allow Mr. Gold to get to know her first.”

“Just as well,” Belle said. The young Mr. Gold was sweet, and Belle found that she was glad there was little chance of a broken heart when Mary Margaret would be unable to return any affections. “I suppose it will be nice, to have friends at the ball, in that case.”

“Oh, yes!” Mary Margaret perked up at the idea. “Bae did promise me a dance! Perhaps he would dance with you t…” they looked at one another then, and dissolved into giggles.

“Hello, sir, may I have this dance?” Belle said in an exaggeratedly deep voice.

“I would be honored, sir,” Mary Margaret intoned in kind, rising to take her sisters hand. They stumbled across the room, both trying to lead the dance.

They collapsed back onto the bed, covering their mouths to stifle their laughing.

“Ugh, it’s going to be a long night,” Belle said, sighing. “I suppose I need to go, however. I’m sure I’ve been in here an improper amount of time.”

She helped Mary Margaret out of her gown, then crossed the hallway to the other room she would share with Mr. Gold and his son. She knocked softly, calling out that it was Beaux, in her usual slightly deeper tone of voice.

The muffled voice on the other side told her to come in, and she opened the door, slipping inside.

The sight that greeted her stopped her cold, and she was glad no one was looking at her, because there was nothing she could do about the heat suffusing her face.

The elder Mr. Gold was just pulling on a clean shirt, affording her complete view of his naked backside before the material fluttered over it.

“You can have the bed with Papa,” Bae said, removing his boots. Belle hoped against all hope that he wasn’t planning on disrobing further. “I don’t mind the floor.”

Belle glanced at the bed with horror as Mr. Gold got into it. “Er…that is, no, you should take it. There isn’t a whole lot of floor space, and I don’t take up much room!”

“Far as that goes, you could fit curled up at the foot of the bed,” Mr. Gold said, chuckling. When Belle didn’t laugh in response, his smile fell. “Meant no disrespect, lad. I’m a diminutive man myself, after all.”

Belle giggled nervously, just narrowly changing it to a deeper chortle in time. “None taken, sir. But truly, I’ll be perfectly comfortable over near the fire!”

“Suit yourself,” Bae said, shrugging, before stripping off his trousers, (Belle was looking determinedly at the fire, so she didn’t know if he changed his shirt or not,) and getting into the bed.

The two men were out like lights, but Belle laid awake, feeling her face burn, and not only from the heat of the fire.

It wasn’t as though she’d never seen a naked male before. She’d had a brother, after all, and boys famously never cared a whit about prancing around in the altogether. And Belle had been a curious child after all, and was known to follow her brother and his friends down to the creek and watch them swim.

She’d been all of six when she’d attempted to swim with them, naked as they, and it had been the very first time anyone had had to tell her that she must remain covered in the presence of men. The boys hadn’t cared, most of them with sisters of their own, so the sight of a naked girl hadn’t phased them, but her mother had found her, and taken her home, explaining as delicately as she could why boys and girls were different.

But those had been boys, not men. And Belle tended to pretend the times her uncle attempted to expose himself to her before she would flee, hadn’t happened.

So there she lay, overly conscious of the half-naked men snoring across the room, and grateful there were two of them, so refusing to share the bed wouldn’t seem strange.

She didn’t think she would soon forget the sight of Mr. Gold’s naked body…and how pleasing she’d found it.

Chapter Text

They awoke at dawn the next morning, eager to be on their way. Gold noticed that Beaux looked a little red-eyed and drowsy, and suspected that he hadn’t been as comfortable on the floor as he’d claimed he would be.

“Bad news,” Bae said, joining them at their table in the tavern, where they were having breakfast, snatching up a sausage. His cheerful tone clashed with his words. “There are no available horses in the entire town. They’ve all been bought or rented for the ball.”

Beaux slumped a bit in his seat. “Just perfect. And our own horse hasn’t shown, I presume?”

Bae shook his head. “There is any number of homes and farms scattered about the area. It could have wound up at any of them. You could waste days trying to track it down.”

“No,” Beaux said. “You’re right, we won’t do that. I suppose we could walk…”

Walk?!” Mary Margaret screeched, before looking around and blushing when several heads turned toward the sound. “That would take days, Beaux! We’d miss the ball! And I don’t even have shoes fit for that kind of walking!”

“Nonsense,” Gold said firmly. “You won’t be walking, dearie. We made our way here together well, didn’t we? We’re all going to the ball, why could we not simply continue as we have?”

Beaux bit his lower lip, considering. Gold knew it wasn’t easy for the boy; he wanted to prove his manhood and ability to care for his family, which was difficult to do, at least in his own eyes, when he was constantly being helped.

“I understand,” Gold said quietly. “But there’s no shame, lad, in accepting help when it’s needed. Indeed it would be the best choice, the most responsible one, for your sister.”

Beaux nodded. “You’re right, of course. I’m being silly.”

“Grand!” Bae enthused. “It’s far more fun with all of us anyway, isn’t it Mary Margaret?” when she nodded happily, he clapped his hands once. “Now then, barring any delays, we should be in Avonlea before nightfall. But only if we get moving…now!” with that he galloped out of the tavern, Mary Margaret giggling as she followed him.

Beaux and Gold exchanged a look of fond indulgence and followed the two out.

 

“Blast! So sorry, Beaux!” Bae exclaimed, having dropped Beaux’s bag as he’d been lifting it into the carriage.

“No matter,” Beaux said, as they both knelt to pick up the spilled items. “There’s nothing that can be broken.”

Bae held out a book that had slipped out, but not before glancing at the cover. “Her Handsome Hero?” he started laughing. “What…er…interesting reading material! Bit of a romantic, eh lad?”

Beaux snatched the book back, scowling. “It has a flowery title, but it’s an adventure story. About a knight, named Gideon.”

“I’ll bet!” Bae howled. “And after the knight slays the dragon, the fair maiden swoons into his arms…and then the real adventure begins!” he had been dramatically swooning himself, laughing all the while, but he waggled his eyebrows at the end.

“It was my mother’s,” Beaux grumbled.

Bae blanched, his laughter drying up in an instant. “Oh, damn…I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have teased…”

“No you shouldn’t have,” Mr. Gold interrupted. “One shouldn’t mock other’s reading preferences when one rarely reads anything himself.”

Bae glowered at his father. “I said I was sorry.”

“It’s no matter,” Beaux said, putting the book away. “I suppose it’s not…seemly for a man to read such material. Any more than it is for a woman to read Plato.”

This last was said with a hint of derision, which told Gold that Beaux didn’t agree with either assessment in the least.

He waited until they were sitting at the front of the carriage and moving steadily down the road before speaking.

“I see no reason anyone cannot read what they wish,” Gold said.

“Is that so?” Beaux asked, looking ahead, clearly not taking him too seriously.

“My wife…she wasn’t, well, she could read, not that you’d ever know it, though. I sometimes tried to encourage her to read, merely so I might have someone to talk to about books, but she had no interest. I thought it a shame, really. She didn’t know what she was missing.”

At this point, Beaux had turned to him in interest. It was hardly a common thing for a husband to want his wife to be educated, and Gold knew it. “What happened to your wife, Mr. Gold?” Beaux asked.

Well, he’d walked right into that one. He grimaced, trying to figure out how to put it delicately. Beaux was only a lad, after all. He didn’t need all the gory details.

“It’s alright, you needn’t tell me if you don’t wish to,” Beaux said.

Gold smiled in thanks, and shrugged one shoulder. “You might as well know, before you hear it from gossip mongers at the ball. She cuckolded me. Ran away with some swashbuckling sailor. Probably a story fit for a book, in truth.”

Beaux eyes widened. “How horrid! She left Bae?!”

Gold glanced down at him, a bit surprised. Reactions when people learned of what happened with his wife ranged from pity at his misfortune of being “saddled” with a child to raise, anger at Milah for being sinful, and scorn toward him for being unable to “control” his wife. The latter was by far the most common.

But no one had ever vocalized to him rightful outrage on behalf of his son. He had to admit it was refreshing.

“Indeed,” he said. “By that point our marriage was more or less in name only, but it hurt that she could just leave him without a care, and he only a wee thing. Never came back, never bothered to enquire after him. Last I heard she was having a grand adventure with her sailor, but that was years ago. I’m not even sure anymore whether she lives or not.”

“I could never leave a child,” Beaux said quietly, and Gold realized it must have been hitting close to home, what with him being an orphaned boy himself.

“Nor could I,” Gold said. “Bae is my world.”

Beaux smiled up at him. “You’re a good father, Mr. Gold.”

No one had ever said that to him before, either. “Thanks, lad. Oh, and, by the by…” he grinned down at him. “Her Handsome Hero is a good book. Gideon’s inner struggle about whether to save the injured offspring of the dragon who destroyed his village is, frankly, quite inspiring.”

Beaux’s eyes widened comically. “You’ve read it?!”

“Of course. Adventure, danger, romance? What is there not to like?”

“You don’t think it…unmanly?”

Gold shook his head. “I shall let you in on a little secret, lad. If you were to quote Gideon’s love ballad to the ladies, they would fall at your feet.”

Beaux blushed. “I hardly want them to fall at my feet. Is that why you read it? To attract ladies?”

Gold shook his head. “I’m far too old for those games, but words are power, Beaux. So much stronger than a sword. Never forget that.”

“I won’t.”

 

“Damn it all!” Beaux cried, and Gold had to fight to keep from laughing at the way his voice went up several octaves.

They were still six hours from Avonlea when they hit a rut in the road, breaking the axle of one of the wheels, which had likely already been weakened by the previous accident.

“Can it be fixed?” Mary Margaret asked, peeking out the window of the carriage.

“It can,” Bae said, “But I don’t have the tools or material. I think it might need an entire new wheel.”

“So now what do we do?”

“We’re not far from Newton. We can ride the horses there, and bring back what we need to fix it.”

“But Newton’s the other direction,” Beaux pointed out. “It’s at least an hour out of our way.”

“Yes,” Bae said. “We’ll have room at another inn for the night. But fear not, we won’t let our dear girl miss the ball!” he smiled winningly at Mary Margaret, and Gold wondered if perhaps the two were beginning to forget about their respective loves. (And Bae thought he was hiding it from his father!)

“We’ll have to ride two to a horse,” Bae continued. “Mary Margaret, think you can manage without a side saddle?”

Mary Margaret stuck her nose in the air and allowed Bae to lift her onto one of the horses.

Beaux went to ride in front of her, but Bae stopped him. “We need to balance out the weight better, they’re not used to carrying two riders. Do you mind riding with my father?”

Gold thought Beaux looked like he did mind, but he said nothing. Gold sympathized, as it was hardly seemly for a man to have to ride behind another man, but it would have looked a lot worse if he and Bae had to ride together.

Once they were situated with their most important belongs attached to the saddles, they set off at a brisk pace.

Gold glanced down at the hands locked around his midsection, noticing how feminine they were. He imagined a girl out there somewhere would probably rather like that. But for the moment, it was a little difficult for Gold to remember that there was a young man pressed up against him, and not a young woman.

Chapter Text

The ride to Newton was awkward at best. Belle couldn’t stop thinking about how strange it was that Mr. Gold could smell so good to her, after several days of travel. But she had an entire hour to dwell on it, riding pressed against his back as she was, thighs bracketed on either side of his.

She’d been tense the whole ride, trying to make sure he couldn’t feel her distinct lack of…male equipment, wondering if a man would even notice such a thing, and hoping that her chest was bound securely enough. It was killing her having not been able to remove the cloth strip the night before, like wearing a corset to bed.

By the time they reached Newton she was sore and irritable, and prayed that there would be enough rooms for her to rent one for herself.

Her prayers went unanswered, however. Or rather the answer was simply, “sorry, piss luck.” There was only one room available, but the innkeeper and his wife kindly offered to allow Mary Margaret to room with their twelve year old twin daughters, leaving the men to share the one room.

It meant Belle couldn’t even see Mary Margaret off to her room, since she would have company of her own. The giggling twins appeared thrilled to have such a pretty older girl stay over, so Belle knew Mary Margaret would have no shortage of assistance with her stays and hair.

“I spoke to the smithy,” Bae said. “He said he didn’t have a wheel ready he could sell. But a farmer was there, and told me had had several wagons he could take a wheel off of, and would be happy to sell one to me. So I’ll be following him out to his farm a little later.”

“How far do you have to go?” Gold ask, brows furrowing. “It’ll be dark soon.”

“McGrath, the farmer, said it’s a good six miles, but at least it’s in the direction of where we were. He offered to let me stay there the night, and he’ll loan me a wagon to take the wheel out to the carriage. I’ll go fix it in the morning, then bring it back here.”

“I should come with you,” Gold said, tone laced with fatherly concern.

Yes! Belle thought gleefully. Go and let me get some rest tonight!

“I can handle it,” Bae said, waving him off. “Besides, I don’t think farmer McGrath has much room. You’d be better off here.” His tone was casual, but Belle could see the boyish desire to handle manly matters on his own, and she could tell that Gold saw it too.

He glanced a look over toward Belle and Mary Margaret, which Belle read to say you stay and take care of these two.

“Very well,” Gold said at last. “But you be careful, do you understand?”

“Of course, Papa. See you all tomorrow!”

Belle watched enviously as he trotted away, wishing she didn’t have to be in disguise to be as carefree and adventurous as Baelfire.

Belle wished Mary Margaret good night as she went to go join the innkeeper’s family for the evening and they exchanged a long look, as they often did, which could hold entire conversations without a single word.

And they both wished Belle good luck.

Belle and Gold got a quick supper in the tavern, and where Belle would have simply ordered ale, Gold had ordered whiskey for the both of them.

When Belle couldn’t keep from scrunching up her face, Gold chuckled.

“Aye, this stuff could take one’s eyebrows off,” he said. “I’ll see that you get to try some of David’s own whiskey at the ball. I gave it to him myself, and then you’ll know what a real whiskey tastes like!”

“David? King David?” Belle asked in wonder. “Do you know him?”

Gold chuckled again, but Belle liked how she could tell that he wasn’t laughing at her. He had such a nice smile, after all. “Ah, I suppose I haven’a mentioned, have I? David is my cousin, you see.”

“Your cousin?!” Belle exclaimed, then glanced around to be sure she hadn’t drawn undo attention before lowering her voice to a more respectable volume. “But I don’t understand…you didn’t introduce yourself with any title. Shouldn’t you be a…a duke or something?”

“I suppose,” he said, as if he didn’t care in the least. “But I forbid you to start calling me “lord.” Gold is fine, or Reinhart, if you like.”

“Reinhart,” Belle said quietly, feeling like he was offering her a far greater honor by giving her his given name, then by telling her he was related to a king.

“I was…” he glanced around as well, to be sure no one was paying any attention to them. “In line for the crown, you see.”

Belle’s eyes widened further. He didn’t sound a bit like he was being boastful; in fact by the look on his face, it was like he was telling her some embarrassing secret. “What happened?”

“I stepped down,” he said with a shrug. “It just…wasn’t for me. But David has done wonderfully, I think.”

“He has,” Belle agreed, amazed that she didn’t know about Gold already. She could remember when the old king died, and King David took the throne. But she supposed she had been young, and living as far away from Avonlea as she did, tended to stilt what news they received. “But I think you could have done wonderfully, too.”

Gold gave a half smile. “Thanks, lad. But as I said, not for me. Now, I think I’m going to take myself to bed. Are you coming, or did you want to socialize down here for a spell? Yon young lady there has had her eyes set on you, you know.”

Belle flushed, unable to keep herself from looking behind her. Sure enough, there was a young tavern girl who also blushed when she caught Belle looking, and turned away.

“Why don’t you go say hello?” Gold asked, grinning.

“Oh, I…I couldn’t…” Belle stammered, feeling panic well up in her chest.

“Sure you could,” Gold cajoled. “She’s bonny! Your sister is safe for the night, why not have a bit of fun? You’re young!”

“Bit of…fun? What…do you mean? Surely you’re not suggesting I…”

Gold waved a hand at her. “Of course not! But there’s no harm in a bit of flirting, maybe a kiss.”

“N…no…I…I’m tired…”

Gold’s eyes softened. “You’ve not had much experience with women, have you?”

Judging by Gold’s tone, it seemed to be a double question. “No,” Belle said, eyes giving him a double answer.

“No need to act embarrassed, it’s not uncommon for your age. But at the ball, you’ll need to dance, be charming to the ladies. Otherwise you might come off as rude, which may affect the opinions of possible suitors for Mary Margaret. Never to mention, you may just find a girl to court yourself.

“I doubt that,” Belle said, mentally rolling her eyes. “But what are you suggesting?”

“All I’m suggesting is you go speak to that girl, so you can get used to it a bit. Just say hello, give her a compliment, and that debonair smile of yours.”

She had a debonair smile? That was news to her. Belle didn’t know what possessed her, perhaps it was the compliment that Gold had just paid her, but before she knew what she was doing, she was on her feet and approaching the tavern girl.

“H…hello,” she said quietly, feeling Gold’s eyes on the back of her head, and feeling like a great fool.

“Hello,” the girl said, blushing prettily. “My name is Elizabeth.”

“Beaux,” Belle said, bowing, which caused the girl to giggle and blush anew. “You eh…you have a very pretty dress, Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth blinked in surprise, as if that hadn’t been the compliment she’d been expecting. Had Belle done it wrong? Most men complimented Belle’s eyes and lips, with the cruder ones doing so while leering at her cleavage. Elizabeth was indeed pretty, but Belle was simply drawn to the nice colors on her well-made dress.

“Thank you!” Elizabeth said. “I made it myself!”

“Truly?” Belle gasped, genuinely impressed. “You have quite the talent! Are those flowers embroidered into it?”

“Yes!” Elizabeth held out her skirt, beaming. “All along the hem, and the bust here as well, see?”

Belle looked obligingly, without thinking, admiring the expert handiwork along the top of the gown, until it dawned on her that she was looking directly at the girl’s breasts, and her eyes snapped back up to her face, flaring with heat.

But Elizabeth only giggled again, and Belle realized that she’d deliberately drawn Belle’s attention there. Belle herself would have never dreamed of being so forward…but she had to admit it was a rather clever move to make.

“Would you like to go for a walk with me?” Elizabeth asked coyly. “I could show you our new foal in the barn, it was just born yesterday!”

Forgetting her embarrassment, Belle perked up. “I’d like that!”

“Beaux,” Gold said, and Belle jumped, having not known that he’d been right behind her. “It’s getting late, lad. Best let the young lady get back to work, we’ve an early day tomorrow.”

Belle blinked up at him in confusion. Hadn’t he just insisted she flirt with the girl? Why was he calling her away now?

“You’re right, of course,” Belle said, bowing again to Elizabeth.

“Some other time, then,” Elizabeth said, winking at him.

Gold was chuckling as they mounted the stairs to their room.

“What?” Belle asked. “What’s so funny? What did I do wrong?”

“Nothing!” Gold said. “You did very well, too well, in fact! I just didn’t think you were quite ready to be invited out to the barn, is all.”

“But…she just wanted to show me a foal.”

Gold gave her a patient look. “She was going to show you something, alright. But it wasn’t going to be just a foal.”

Belle’s eyes widened. Damn! He was right! No girl would dare invite a man to a secluded place like a barn, alone, if she didn’t have something else in mind. For a moment she’d forgotten that she wasn’t just a girl, making friends with another girl.

“Do you wish I hadn’t stopped you?” Gold asked seriously. “Because I’m sure if you went back…”

“No!” Belle exclaimed. “I mean…no…you’re right. I wasn’t…ready.”

“Fear not, lad. When the right girl comes along, you’ll be ready. And with moves like I saw downstairs just now, you’ll sweep her off her feet.”

 

Belle had to admit she felt a bit more comfortable in Gold’s presence after two days of traveling together. In fact she’d come to quite like him. She wondered how he would be toward her if he knew she was a girl. He probably wouldn’t be nearly as relaxed and open with her. And of course, they wouldn’t be sharing a room…

All comfort fled when she realized, upon entering the room, with its one bed, that they would be alone, just the two of them. All night.

And without Bae, she could make no excuse that would make sense to keep from sleeping in the same bed as him. They were just two men…so it shouldn’t matter.

She didn’t fear Reinhart. She felt confident that even if he did know she was a girl, that she would be safe in his presence.

But it was still so strange, and the possibility of accidental reveal so immediate.

She went about her adulations as best as she could; rolling up her sleeves and washing her face, hands, and arms. It was the most she could accomplish without undressing. She took her time, too, hearing Gold move about, removing his own clothes.

By the time she turned around, he was down to his shirt again, which thankfully covered anything vital.

“Haven’t you anything else to wear, lad?” Gold asked when Belle approached the bed like she was walking to the gallows.

“What?”

“You’ve been wearing that for days, now. It can’t be comfortable. And surely you’re not planning to sleep in those filthy trousers. I have more shirts, if you’d like to borrow one.”

He was being polite, but Belle could tell it was less of a suggestion and more of a request. Her clothes were filthy, and she didn’t blame him for asking her to don something cleaner before sleeping beside him, especially considering he seemed a bit meticulous, always wearing a clean shirt to bed.

“I have the one clean outfit, but it’s for the ball,” she admitted.

“No matter,” he said, going to his bag and returning with a crisp white shirt. “This should fit you fine, if a bit big.”

Belle held the shirt in numb hands while he turned and got into bed. He’d taken a small tool, and sat tinkering with a pocket watch. He wasn’t looking.

Belle turned toward the wall, knowing it wouldn’t matter either way if he happened to see the cloth wrapped around her chest. As fast as she could, she stripped off her dirty shirt and put on the clean one, sighing in relief at how much better it felt. With the shirt on, she stripped off her breeches, and laid them across a chair.

With nothing left to do, and wearing nothing but a long shirt, a bit of constrictive fabric, and a prayer, she climbed into bed beside Gold, making sure the hem of the shirt was pulled firmly down.

Gold put away the pocket watch before turning to blow out the candle. “Good night, Beaux,” he said companionably, before rolling over, facing away from her.

“Good night…Reinhart.”

Chapter Text

Gold awoke that next morning with a curious weight on his arm, and the tell-tale tingling of a limb that’s asleep.

He opened his eyes and looked to the side, only to find that Beaux had drifted closer to him in his sleep, was curled against his side, and had his head on Gold’s arm.

Gold froze, and stared at Beaux for a moment. Asleep as he was, Beaux looked so innocent, and yet…older, which seemed unusual, since to Gold, Bae looked like a child in his sleep.

His face was turned toward Gold, and Gold was struck by just how…well, to be quite frank, beautiful the lad was. Long lashes that fluttered in their sleep against round, rosy cheeks. Dark pink lips parted slightly. A smattering of freckles over flushed skin.

He’d roundly enjoyed watching Beaux’s first attempts at flirtation the night before. They’d been so successful, that Gold had almost been witness to the lad charming a girl right into his bed on his first try.

Perhaps Gold shouldn’t have stopped them. The girl quite obviously knew what she was about, so it wasn’t as though there would have been a broken heart at the end of things, and perhaps it would have been a good education for the lad. But Gold had been struck with a sudden determination that Beaux’s first encounter with the pleasures of the flesh should be with someone Beaux truly cared for, and who cared for him in return. It was no more than anyone deserved, but the instant feeling had been a little surprising to Gold.

Beaux had clearly lived a very sheltered life, with mostly his sister for company, and an uncle who was apparently abusive somehow. Beaux had been clearly nervous to be alone with Gold, and the various possible reasons behind it broke his heart.

The night before, he’d taken up a pocket watch that needed mending, just so he’d have something to look at so Beaux wouldn’t feel uncomfortable dressing. He hadn’t meant to look, but from the corner of his eye he caught sight of what looked to be a bandage around the lad’s chest. Just what did that uncle of theirs do to him?

Gold wanted to find out, and determined then and there that no matter what happened at the ball, whether or not either of them found a match, Beaux and his sister would not be returning to their uncle. He’d foster them himself, if he had to. See them both properly wed.

It was a perfectly natural instinct, what with him being a father. He was already quite fond of Mary Margaret enough to truly hope Bae might become so himself. So why didn’t he quite feel that same way for Beaux? He liked the lad, cared about his well-being, but not the same way he…

He looked at the lad again, sleeping so near him…when something happened that sent him into a cold sweat.

Gold slowly slid his arm out from under Beaux, and got out of bed as quickly and carefully as possible, so not to wake him.

It would be easily explained away as just the usual morning cockstand, that Beaux would relate to easily, but Gold couldn’t stand for him to find out anyway, not when Gold knew that wasn’t the reason.

He dressed quickly, and fled for the safety of the tavern below, absolutely mortified.

What the devil was wrong with him? True, it had quite some time since he’d had…romantic company, or any company at all in his bed, but that was absolutely no excuse for finding himself attracted to a seventeen year old boy, if only for a second.

It certainly wasn’t unheard of. After all, his good friend Jefferson had tastes that ran a bit more to the…masculine. He’d even playfully flirted with Gold a time or two, so it wasn’t all that shocking anymore. To each his own. But never, in all of his life, had Gold ever found himself attracted to a man, not once.

And by God, Beaux was scarcely even a man at all! He was younger than Gold’s own son for Christ’s sake! Gold would feel equally as perverted if he’d started lusting after poor Mary Margaret. And yet, he wasn’t attracted to the girl in the slightest, as pretty as she was.

Gold collapsed onto a chair and ordered a whiskey from the same girl Beaux had flirted with the night before.

He truly was a wretched old man if he’d come to the point of desiring boys. He just wanted this whole ball and wedding to be over with, so he could go home.

 

Belle awoke that morning to find Mr. Gold gone from the room. Heaving a sigh of relief, she bolted the door, praying he hadn’t just stepped out to the privy and would be back too soon, and stripped off the shirt before hurrying to unbind her breasts.

She nearly moaned in pleasure, feeling like she could breathe properly at last. She didn’t take too much time to enjoy it, though, and bathed her entire body quickly, before wrapping herself up again. It was difficult without Mary Margaret’s help, and the ending effect was quite a bit looser than it had been before, but at least it would be more comfortable. Especially if she got trapped in another night sleeping that way. She checked twice, though, to make sure it wasn’t noticeable through her shirt. She pushed her hands against herself, to see if it could be felt, but so long as no one was deliberately squeezing her there, which she couldn’t imagine they would, she was safe.

Mr. Gold never returned, so she descended the stairs to find him already at breakfast. He bid her a good morning, but otherwise was quieter than usual, and seemed to almost be avoiding looking her.

Oh Lord, had something happened in the night? Had her shirt ridden up, and he’d seen? But no, surely he say something, not just carry on like nothing had happened.

No, he must just be worried about his son, that was all. Belle sorely hoped that by night they’d be in Avonlea and could be in separate quarters.

They met Mary Margaret outside, who was chatting companionably with the twins.

“Good morning,” Belle said, bowing to the girls, who giggled and fluttered their lashes.

Aware more now of the way girls saw Belle, she smiled at them, which sent them into a tizzy. Their father saw, and shooed them away, sending Belle a stern look.

Before Mary Margaret could speak, Elizabeth appeared, fluttering her own lashes with far more practiced ease than the twins. “Leaving so soon, my lord?”

Belle was caught aback by being called “my lord,” but figured it was meant more affectionately than respectfully.

“Regretfully,” she said, bowing. “Our carriage should be fixed and back soon.”

“I hope you’ll come through here again,” she said. “Perhaps next time without your father…”

She winked and flitted away then.

“He’s not my father!” Belle felt obliged to call after her, but Elizabeth was already gone.

“Well,” Mary Margaret said, her eyebrows nearly reaching her hairline. “Someone has become quite the ladies’ man!”

“Stop,” Belle said wryly, watching as Gold went off to meet Bae, who was approaching with their repaired carriage. “Mr. Gold just brought up a good point last night is all, though he didn’t mean it the way I took it. If I’m to keep this up, I’ll need to behave like a gentleman at the ball, which means dancing and flirting with girls. I’m trying to get used to it, is all.”

“You’re mighty good at it,” Mary Margaret laughed. “If that tavern girl’s expression was any indication! Just…be careful, okay?”

“What do you mean?”

“I just…I just don’t want you to get any girl’s hopes up, only to hurt her when Beaux suddenly…disappears.”

Belle blinked. “I wouldn’t…surely you know that! I’d never let it get far enough for a girl to actually grow feelings for me!”

Mary Margaret nodded. “I hope not. So how did last night go? With Mr. Gold?”

“Fine, I suppose. He seems a little standoffish this morning though. It worries me that he might suspect something.”

“Maybe he just didn’t sleep well,” Mary Margaret said. “You’re quite the cuddler, you know.”

“I…what?”

She laughed. “Oh come now, you’re like a kitten! Always snuggling in your sleep.

“I…no! That’s you!”

Mary Margaret laughed harder. “It most certainly is not! How many mornings have I awoken on the very edge of my side of the bed, with you half on top of me?! I don’t mind cuddling, but a man might mind being snuggled in bed by another man!”

Belle’s jaw dropped. “Bloody hell, Mary Margaret! You might have said something! He was gone when I woke up. Christ! What if he had to leave because I was hanging all over him?!”

“Quiet!” Mary Margaret hissed, looking over her shoulder at Gold and Bae, who were approaching. “You’ll probably never know if you did, and what’s done is done. I don’t think he suspects, and if he does, I doubt he’ll say anything, because then he’d be the man that slept in a bed with an unmarried girl. He’d be afraid he’d have to marry you himself.”

Belle was brought up short. She’d never thought about the ramifications for both her and Mr. Gold if her secret ever came out, never to mention the embarrassment he might suffer. Things were beginning to get a little more complicated than Belle could have anticipated when she first donned her brother’s clothes.

But Mary Margaret was right. What was done, was done. Belle could only hope she could keep this up until they reached the relative safety of Avonlea.

Chapter Text

Gold had barely been able to bring himself to look at Beaux all morning, but when he noticed the lad looking a little deflated about being ignored, he felt guilty. The boy could hardly suspect Gold’s lecherous thoughts that morning, and that’s all it was surely, a fleeting thought. One best forgotten.

But when he finally looked over at Beaux sitting beside him on the carriage, saw his pouting face, his heart lurched with something that wasn’t nearly fatherly affection.

“We’re nearly there,” he said doggedly, determined to gather control of his traitorous mind. “Any thought where you will stay until the ball?”

The King’s wedding was hardly a small, intimate affair. The first step in the celebration would be a festival in the village, which was doubtlessly already happening and didn’t involve the bridal party at all. It was simply a chance for children or people who wouldn’t be attending the ball to take part in the festivities. There would be loud parties and drinking all into the nights, leading all the way up to the wedding.

Then would come the Grand Ball. A mostly public event, with an open invitation to all the prominent families in the kingdom. Gold didn’t know of the French family, and wondered if Beaux and Mary Margaret had even considered the possibility of not getting in, but it was a moot point now anyway, since Gold was more than in a position to see them granted entry.

Then three days after the ball, David and his bride – Princess Abigail of Phyria, a kingdom which shared Avonlea’s eastern border – would make their vows in the royal church. Following that would be yet more feasts and merriment for a month at least.

But Gold would certainly not be around for that. He intended to get out of Avonlea the moment his cousin said “I do.” But he still had a substantial amount of celebration to endure before all that.

He eyed Beaux critically. Within the castle, the days leading up to the ball were filled with dinners, games, dancing, and general socializing with the guests of the palace. It would be a fine place for Beaux to find an upstanding young woman to court.

Beaux perked up a little, at finally being spoken to, though he had to consider Gold’s question for a moment. “I’d like to try and find James before the ball, if possible, so that he and Mary Margaret might speak beforehand.”

“Do you happen to have his surname? My cousin would probably know him.”

Beaux looked a little nervous at the idea of being helped by the king. “Er, no, I’m afraid not.”

“Well, where do you plan on staying? Do you have family in Avonlea?”

“…No, but that’s alright, truly. I’m sure there will be rooms for us somewhere.”

Gold highly doubted that. The city would be packed to the gills with people from all across the kingdom. Beaux and his sister would probably be lucky to find a corner of a haystack in a barn to lay their heads. “Of course there will be,” he said. “You’ll stay in the castle, with us.”

Beaux gaped. “In the castle?! Oh surely not…His Majesty…”

“Would be happy to have you,” Gold said. “I know for a fact he’s reserved for Bae and I a suite of rooms. And I’m confident there will be ample space for you and your sister as well. I will not take no for an answer, lad.”

Beaux still looked pale, but nodded meekly. “V…very well.”

 

All three of the young people were wide-eyed as they entered the main heart of Avonlea. Even Bae, who’d been several times before.

“Oh, Beaux! Look!” Mary Margaret exclaimed after they had given the horses and carriage over to a castle stable hand to put away. “A market! Could we go?! I’d like a necklace to wear with my gown!”

“I’m not sure about that,” Beaux said, arching a brow. “But it wouldn’t hurt to have a look around.”

“Why don’t you go ahead now?” Gold said, smiling at Beaux’s poorly hidden fascination in the bustling city. “Bae and I will go see my cousin, and I’ll send him after you a little later,” he turned to Mary Margaret pressing a small, jingling bag into her hand. “Buy a necklace, dearie.”

Beaux glowered at him, his face reddening. “Mr. Gold! That’s…you mustn’t…”

“Thank you, Mr. Gold!” Mary Margaret exclaimed, throwing her arms around him.

“And that’s enough for Beaux a new cravat or something nice,” he whispered in her ear. She nodded fervently.

“Mr. Gold,” Beaux said firmly, finding his words at last. “I will not be in your debt! You’ve done a tremendous amount for us already, but I don’t think…”

“It was a gift for the lass,” Gold interrupted him, tilting his nose up. He knew Beaux was going to object when he’d given the lass the money, but that was why he’d given it to her and not him. “Now stop being so proud, and go have some fun.”

Beaux was still frowning, but Mary Margaret, gleefully clutching her gift, lead him off by the arm toward the market, leaving Bae chuckling as he followed Gold toward the castle.

“What’s funny?” Gold asked.

“Nothing,” Bae said. “Your soft spot for those two is sweet. I can quite honestly say I’ve never seen you dote so upon someone who isn’t me. Seems you’re about ready to adopt Beaux, especially. Should I be jealous?” he quirked a grin at his father, to show he wasn’t being serious about the jealous part.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Gold said, gritting his teeth to ward of a blush. “He’s nearly a grown man, he doesn’t need a father.”

“You think I do.”

“Because I am your father. It’s very different, as you’ll someday learn. But they…they need an escape, Bae. If things don’t work out with Mary Margaret’s sweetheart, they can’t go back to their uncle.”

Bae nodded soberly. “Mary Margaret told me a little, in the carriage. He was horrible to them, Papa. Mary Margaret’s only protection from him since their parents died was Beaux. And the man their uncle arranged for her to marry is quite possibly worse than the uncle.”

Gold had thought as much, but hearing it still sent a sick feeling to his gut. “Is it any wonder the lad was hesitant to accept help from us? Probably thought we’d want her the way their uncle did.”

“Would it be a problem? Keeping them away from him, if Mary Margaret doesn’t marry?”

“Possibly. Beaux isn’t quite old enough to act as her guardian. By law, he could come right now and take both them back. Their best hope is for her to marry someone influential before he finds them.”

“But surely David could do something?”

Gold nodded. “Yes, I intend to speak with him about it.”

“If not…” Bae continued, grimacing slightly. “I could do it. Marry her…I mean.”

Gold smiled softly at his son. “And what of your own sweetheart?”

Bae blinked dumbly for a moment. “My…how did you know?!”

Gold chuckled. “You’re my son. I know you better than you know yourself. Did you think I wouldn’t notice you swan in last time you came home from visiting Avonlea, all moony-eyed, with an extra spring in your step? Why didn’t you just tell me?”

Bae looked down. “I don’t know, I suppose I thought you wouldn’t approve, what with her being high-born.”

“Don’t most parents insist upon such a match?”

“Yes, but you hate the royal court. I didn’t think you’d ever want me living here. I thought, well I’d hoped, that I could introduce you, and you’d like her enough to give your blessing.”

Gold reached out and rested his hand on Bae’s shoulder. When did he get so tall? “You don’t need my blessing, son. Or permission. Despite what I may sometimes say, you are a grown man, with a mind all your own.”

Bae smiled, and he looked every bit the little boy he’d been. “But I want it. I want you to like her.”

“If you love her, then I’m sure I will too. Don’t worry about Mary Margaret and Beaux. I won’t let them go back to their uncle. I won’t see you or Mary Margaret forced into a marriage you don’t want.”

“Don’t suppose you fancy her at all? It would make things easier.”

Gold scoffed. “Who, Mary Margaret?! Bae! She’s young enough to be my daughter!  How could you say such a thing?”

“It’s not that uncommon,” Bae said, shrugging. “I can’t say it’d bother me terribly much, not if both you and she were happy. I’m not trying to talk you into marrying Mary Margaret, though I think she’d make a fine companion…I guess what I’m trying to say is I wished you’d find someone. I don’t want you to be alone when I ever do leave home.”

“It’s not your job to worry about me,” Gold said quietly.

Bae chuckled. “If not my job, than whose? At least maybe if you take the siblings home to foster, you’ll have them a few more years until they marry.”

The thought was both pleasant and not. Pleasant, because he liked both Mary Margaret and Beaux and wanted to see them cared for. Unpleasant because he worried his shameful predilections could grow. Not that Beaux would ever be unsafe in his presence. He was nothing like their uncle, after all. But Bae’s suggestion came with the startling hint that it was entirely possible that Bae wasn’t planning on returning home this trip. Not ever.

He chose not to ask for elaboration, however, and besides, they’d reached the castle and were being shown into the king’s study.

“Lords Reinhart and Baelfire Gold,” the butler announced.

“Reinhart!” David exclaimed, rushing to embrace his favorite cousin. “By God, it’s been years!”

“Indeed it has,” Gold said, patting the other man’s back. “My, you went and grew the rest of the way into a man! Lost all of your baby fat and everything!”

David pulled away, giving him a level look. “Hm, yes, the last time I saw you was when I came to visit. That was, what, six years ago? Seven? You haven’t changed a bit!”

“You managed to spend the whole visit without anyone knowing who you were!” Bae snickered. “It was a grand time! What were you calling yourself at the time?”

“I went by James,” David said, shaking his head.

Gold froze. Surely…no, it couldn’t be…could it?

David wouldn’t be stupid enough to fall in love with a teenaged girl only to leave her brokenhearted, not even back then.

No, it had to be a different James. It had to be.

But…didn’t Beaux say that Mary Margaret’s James was to be married?

“So…where is your bride to be?” Gold asked, praying he was wrong. “I must meet her.”

David slumped a little, not looking at all like a man eager to wed. “I apologize. She’s abed with a megrim. All the stress of the wedding plans, I’m sure. You’ll meet her at supper.”

“Do you mind if we bring guests?” Bae asked, getting straight to the point, as usual.

David brightened. “Guests? Are these guests of the feminine variety? Gold, you old dog, did you finally find you someone to settle down with? It’s about time!”

Gold mentally rolled his eyes. “No. Well, one of them is of that particular variety, I suppose. But they’re a pair of siblings we came across on the road here. A seventeen year old boy, and his twenty year old sister. They’re in a predicament, which I mean to speak with you about.”

“Oh, of course,” David said, looking concerned. “And yes, of course, they’re welcome. The suite I’ve assigned you is the one nearest my own, and it has three bedrooms. Plenty of room for you both, and the boy. The young lady may be given a room on the third floor. That’s where all of the unmarried ladies will be staying during the ball. Fully chaperoned by my own staff, of course.”

“The young man will be happy to hear it,” Gold said fondly. “He’s exceedingly protective of his sister.”

“As he should be,” David said, nodding. “I’ll see to it at once. In the meantime, you must come and see the atrium I’ve had built…”

 

“Could you just pick one?” Belle groaned, shifting her feet as her sister debated between two necklaces, and had been for the better part of thirty minutes.

“It’s not easy!” Mary Margaret snapped. “Emerald or sapphire? Which would you choose? Either one would match my dress…”

“Then pick the emerald,” Belle said. “It’ll bring out your eyes.”

A woman passing by, hearing him speak, smiled at him from beneath her lashes.

“You’re right,” Mary Margaret said at last. “Sapphire would look far better on you. Shall I buy it as well? Mr. Gold insisted we buy you a gift too.”

The owner of the stand gave them a puzzled look, and Belle reached out to discreetly pinch her sister’s side where he couldn’t see it.

“Very funny, sister,” Belle said, rolling her eyes and giving the stand owner a look that said, ‘isn’t she ridiculous?’ The man nodded once and proceeded to take Mary Margaret’s money.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered once they’d walked away. “Sometimes I forget. Besides, it wouldn’t hurt to have something nice after this is all over. Lord knows that Uncle will have sold everything we left behind.”

“You can’t forget, Mem,” Belle insisted, feeling a sharp pinch at the reminder that all of her dresses, few as they were, the jewelry left by her mother, and her books were likely all gone by now. “And I don’t need jewels. Not now, and not later. You’ll take the extra money after the necklace and save it, do you hear me?”

“Yes sir,” Mary Margaret groaned, causing Belle to snigger.

“There you two are!” Bae called, trotting up to meet them. “Papa spoke to David, and he said there’s plenty of room. Mary Margaret will get a room on the third floor with all the other unmarried ladies, and Beaux, you can stay in the suite with Papa and myself.”

Belle and Mary Margaret exchanged a look. “Thank you so much, Bae, and extend your thanks to your cousin as well.”

“You can thank him yourself,” he said, beaming. “He’s invited you both to supper.”

Supper?” Mary Margaret squealed. “With the king?! Beaux! What will I wear?! I only have the one good gown!”

Bae chuckled. “I know someone who can help with that.”

Chapter Text

“Hm…”

Lady Ruby Lucas tapped her blood red lips thoughtfully. “Well, you’re a bit smaller than me, but I think we could have my saffron dress hemmed, and it’d be just the thing. The color would look better on you than me, anyway.”

Ruby was the granddaughter of Lady Ida Lucas, and was currently working as one of the future queen’s ladies in waiting. Belle thought that she seemed a kindly girl, and also seemed keen on taking Mary Margaret under her wing.

“And what about you, handsome?” Ruby asked, and it took Belle a full minute to realize she’d been addressing her.

“Me?”

Ruby chuckled. It was a deep, womanly sound, not like the giggling of a girl. Belle admired it. “I sure wasn’t talking about this oaf,” she gestured to Bae. “Do you have something to wear to dinner that’s not so…travel worn?”

Belle flushed. “Erm, no, just this, and the suit for the ball.”

And a borrowed shirt from Reinhart, which was still in Belle’s bag, but she didn’t think that needed mentioning.

Ruby tisked. “Baelfire, see to it this man has something sensible to wear, will you? And that means do not let Victor have any say in it. Beaux here is far too good-looking to go prancing about with a powdered face like a dandy.”

“I won’t,” Bae sang. “What about Jefferson?”

Ruby glared at him. “Or Jefferson! I mean it, Bae! Don’t torture this poor thing!”

Bae chuckled, and it made Belle a tad nervous. “You can count on me, Ruby.”

Ruby gave a satisfied nod, and took Mary Margaret by the arm. “Come along, my dear, we’ll get you sorted.”

Mary Margaret shot Belle a helpless look over her shoulder, but Belle only nodded her on. Mary Margaret would have fun, Belle knew, and she couldn’t help the pang of envy.

 

Bae escorted Belle up to the suite of rooms she’d share with him and Mr. Gold. He explained on the way up, to her eternal relief, that it was indeed a suite of three separate bedrooms, though one was quite small. Belle insisted that that was just fine by her, and she inwardly rejoiced at the privacy she’d be ensured. That she’d still be roomed very closely to the Gold men was now more a comfort than anything else.

When they reached the suite, Mr. Gold was in the cozy sitting room with a man dressed in the most peculiar manner Belle thought she’d ever seen.

He wore shiny knee-high boots over skin-tight breeches, a vibrant purple coat with absurdly long tails, a burgundy waistcoat, and a multicolored cravat. Perched on his head was a purple top hat. His face was powdered, with lips painted red, and a beauty mark under his right eye.

“Well, this must be the young Beaux French!” the man exclaimed, his deep, booming voice and impressive height seeming a little at odds with his flamboyant appearance. He came forward quickly to embrace her.

Belle froze, unsure how a gentleman was supposed to react to being hugged by a dandy who smelled like flowers.

“Jefferson Carrol, at your service,” he said, releasing her and removing his hat to sweep into a deep, formal bow.

Jefferson was probably incredibly handsome underneath the makeup and pomp, but as it was, Belle was only puzzled, and not a little fascinated.

“Pleasure to meet you,” Belle said, bowing in return, trying to mimic the courtly manner.

“Oh, he is a delicious young thing, isn’t he?” Jefferson said, grinning widely.

While Belle tried to formulate a response to that, Gold shoved Jefferson aside grumpily. “Ignore him, Beaux. Despite all his ridiculous posturing, he isn’t such a bad sort. Most of the time.”

“Posh!” Jefferson waved a gloved hand. “Rain, you love me and you know it!”

“Jefferson, Papa, and David are all old friends,” Bae explained. “And after David  became king, he made Jefferson his manservant.”

“Shouldn’t think I’d care to have my friend be my servant,” Belle said honestly.

Jefferson chuckled. “Oh I like him. Worry not, it’s actually a prestigious position. Pays well too. A king would only want someone he can trust completely for such a role, after all.”

“That’s true,” Belle allowed. “I suppose a king can’t always know who his true friends are.”

“Oh, David knows,” Jefferson said. “And they’re all standing in this very room. Would you join our ranks, little rabbit? You have an honest face.”

Belle wanted to laugh at that, but managed to refrain. She was, after all, perfectly trustworthy, if not all that honest at present.

“That would be an honor,” she said.

Jefferson smiled in approval. “You never know, we might just find you a position in the palace!”

Belle grinned to keep from having to answer, but she wasn’t sure why Reinhart was scowling at the prospect.

“We need to find Beaux something appropriate for dinner tonight,” Bae said.

Jefferson opened his mouth to speak, but Reinhart cut him off. “You’re not turning this boy into one of your damned peacocks, Jefferson.”

Jefferson scoffed. “It isn’t as though anything of mine would fit him! I mean no offense, of course, Master Beaux. Not that you need to mind, you know what they say about short men, after all.”

“What do they say?” Belle asked, charmed into relaxation by Jefferson’s infectious enthusiasm.

“Jefferson…” Reinhart said in warning.

“Oh, you know!” Jefferson said, then held out his pointer finger and thumb in an L shape, pointing at his thumb with his other hand. “Tall man, short man…” he turned his hand until his pointer was facing to the side, and his thumb was sticking up. “Short man…long man!”

Bae groaned, laughing, and Belle frowned at him, not understanding at all.

“Ask old Rainy here!” Jefferson exclaimed. “He’s walking proof, aren’t you, man?!”

Bae howled even more, and Reinhart cuffed Jefferson over the head. “Shut up, ye wee bugger!”

It finally dawned on Belle then what they meant, and she blushed hotly. Not at Jefferson’s joke, but at his implication of Reinhart, and that he knew it for a fact.

“You’re embarrassing the lad,” Reinhart growled.

“Oh, nonsense!” Jefferson said, patting Belle roughly on the back. “He’s only blushing because he knows it’s true!”

“Don’t you have work to do?”

Jefferson smiled at him. “You’re right of course, you always are. I shall bid you adieu for now, Mr. Beaux. It was outstanding meeting you!”

Belle could only bow in response, but Jefferson was already flitting out, not waiting for an answer. She smiled in bemusement. “He’s…”

“A fool is what he is,” Reinhart grumbled.

“I thought he was nice,” she said. “But not someone I would have expected to be your friend!”

He shrugged. “He and David were close, and it always seemed to be my job to get them both out of trouble. It was like having three sons, not just one.”

Belle smiled fondly.

Reinhart and Bae worked together to find Belle a suitable outfit for dining with the king, and neither batted an eye when she retreated to her room to change. When she looked in the mirror, she scarcely recognized herself. Before, wearing her brother’s clothes, she always thought she looked a bit like him, so it was easy enough to try and wear his very persona, as best as she could with the limited memories she had of him.

But in these clothes, she wasn’t her brother Will, and she wasn’t Belle. She was Beaux, and it was a startling thing to see.

“Very nice!” Bae enthused when she emerged. Reinhart nodded in agreement.

“I can’t believe I’m going to dine with the king!” she said, trying to keep from fidgeting.

“You’ll do fine,” Reinhart said. “David is no different than you or I. I’m sure he’ll just love you and your sister.”

A brisk knock heralded the return of Jefferson. “Bad news I’m afraid, the Lady Abigail is still feeling poorly, so His Majesty has called for a doctor. They’ll be taking supper in her chambers this evening, and he sends his deepest apologies.”

Reinhart waved him off. “Tell him to think nothing on it, I only hope Lady Abigail will recover.”

Jefferson’s expression suggested he didn’t think this Abigail was all that sick to begin with. “Indeed.”

“Well, it’s a shame to waste the night,” Bae said, indicating his own outfit for dinner. “What say we see what some of my friends are doing this evening, Beaux?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Reinhart said. “Your friends are all cads.”

“They aren’t, and I don’t appreciate you saying so!” Bae exclaimed, and Belle was surprised, as it was the first time she’d ever heard him speak against his father in such a way.

“Well go out then, but don’t drag Beaux with you!”

“Why not?” Jefferson asked. “The lad might want a bit of sport.”

“Can I speak for myself?” Belle asked, feeling like she was suddenly a girl again, being talked over.

“Of course, Beaux,” Bae said, shooting his father a quick glare. “If you don’t want to go, of course you don’t have to.”

“W…where were you thinking of going?”

Bae shrugged. “Perhaps to play cards? Have a few drinks? Nothing too scandalous!”

Belle bit her lip, then remembered herself, since Mary Margaret had told her it was too feminine an action. “I don’t know if Mary Margaret…”

“I just saw the young Lady Ruby leading your sister and an army of other young ladies to the music room,” Jefferson said. “She looked as pleased as could be.”

She had no other excuse then, really. And Belle had to admit, she was curious about what men did for fun when the women weren’t around. “Very well,” she said.

“Why don’t you come, Papa?” Bae said, having softened toward him. “You can look after Beaux and I, and see that my friends aren’t the villains you think they are.”

Reinhart looked like he was considering it, and Belle gave him a pleading look. It wasn’t as though she didn’t trust Bae, but she would feel infinitely safer with Reinhart there as well.

“No,” he said at last. “You boys don’t need an old man dragging you down. Go on, and have fun.”

“Come on, Beaux!” Bae exclaimed, jerking his head for her to follow. Reinhart gripped his arm before he could leave the room, however, and Belle could just hear what he whispered in his son’s ear.

“Take care of him, Bae.”

“I will, Papa,” Bae said patiently.

Chapter Text

Gold watched the boys go with a feeling of trepidation.

“You worry too much,” Jefferson said. “They’ll be fine. Bae’s not a child anymore, after all.”

“I know that,” Gold replied testily, before sobering. “He’s been to Avonlea alone plenty of times, I’m not all that worried about him, not any more than a parent always worries about their child at least.”

“Then its Beaux then,” Jefferson observed, and Gold wasn’t liking the raised eyebrow he was giving him, or the subtle gleam in his eyes. “I can see that you’ve taken a shine to the boy.”

Gold turned away to the small table which held a tumbler of whiskey and some glasses, to hide the flush in his cheeks. “He’s just been so sheltered all his life, still knows so very little about the world.”

“Best way for him to learn,” Jefferson shrugged, accepting a glass. “You’re not his father.”

“I know that.”

“But you care about him.”

“I do, and I care about his sister, what of it? I don’t think they’ve had nearly enough people caring about them since their parents died. Why does everyone think it so unusual that I care for someone who isn’t my son?”

“There’s something else,” Jefferson said, sitting across from Gold and crossing one leg over the other. “I’ve known you a long time, old man, and you’re acting strange. What aren’t you telling me?”

“You haven’t seen me in years,” Gold said, trying to change the subject.

Jefferson chuckled. “That doesn’t mean anything. You’re still you. You’re as you as you’ve ever been. Egad, Rainy, you’re still wearing the same old cravat for Pete’s sake! And I don’t find it unusual at all that you care for people. I know fine well you’ve a big heart underneath all that grouchiness. You’ve loved me for my entire life, even when I was naught but a poor orphan apprenticing in a hatter’s shop. This is different. Now tell me, what is it about this Beaux that has you all worked up?”

“Worked up?” Gold asked, his voice too high, and now genuinely concerned that he’d been acting differently. “What do you mean, worked up?”

Jefferson’s mouth quirked on one side. “You think I didn’t see the way you turn red at the mention of him? Or the way your eyes were following him around the room? Fire and brimstone, Rain! Are you in love with the whelp?!”

“Don’t say such a thing!” Gold roared. “I am not in love with him! Do you think me some kind of pervert?!”

Jefferson sat back, a hurt look on his face. “Do you think I’m a pervert?”

Gold rolled his eyes, and sighed in exasperation. “Of course not! Or at least…not for that reason. But Beaux is seventeen! Scarcely more than a child! Younger than Bae!”

Jefferson leaned forward again, feelings mended. “So he’s a bit wet behind the ears, he seems rather mature for his age. And seventeen is a man, after all. It’s not as though you’re lusting after a wee boy in short pants. I would be quite concerned indeed, if that were the case.”

“But as you say, Beaux is a man, and I’ve never, in all my many years, felt even the slightest inclination toward a man. Not once. Even knowing you, and all of your disreputable friends.”

Jefferson shrugged. “And just how many people have you felt inclined toward? Besides Milah.”

Gold frowned. “There were a few girls before her…all female I might add. And Cora after…”

“But other than a passing fancy. I know there was that horrid Cora, though I hardly wish to count her, and a bit of flitting about for a few months after Milah left. So let’s just say, since leaving Avonlea, who have you been inclined toward?”

“Well…”

“It’s as I thought,” Jefferson sighed, slapping his hands to his knees. “You haven’t slept with anyone have you?”

“No,” Gold snapped. “What has that got to do with anything? I’ve been a bit busy raising as son, after all.”

“And when has raising children ever stopped anyone? How do you suppose so many couples end up with a whole gaggle of the things?! You need more company than you can find with your right hand, Rainy. Now…if it were men you’re feeling curious about…” he stood up and crossed to the other sofa to sit beside Gold, placing a hand suggestively on his thigh.

“Ugh!” Gold exclaimed, scooting away. “Christ, man! No!”

Jefferson chuckled. “I thought not. Alas. I’d be quite injured indeed if you had decided to come to my way of thinking, and yet still be immune to my charms. But no, I think it’s not Beaux’s maleness that’s enticing you at all, but his…well…femininity. You can’t deny he’s shockingly pretty for a lad.”

“I did notice,” Gold admitted begrudgingly. “As has every girl we’ve come across.”

“And probably a few men as well, just more discreetly. You’ve been traveling in close quarters with him for a couple of days now. I think you’re just confusing your genuine care for him with your unfamiliar physical reaction to his attractiveness. In short, you need a woman, Gold.”

“I’m not just going to marry someone so I can stop lusting after a boy,” Gold sneered.

“Who said anything about marriage? You need sex Rainy. A pure, simple fuck with a pretty, willing woman.”

Gold glared at him. “And just where do you think I’m going to find this “willing woman?”

“Well, I don’t think you’d have much trouble at all finding a fun romp with someone right here in the castle. But for propriety and time’s sake, I say we find you some company meant for that purpose.”

“A prostitute?” Gold balked. “Have you lost what little sense you had? There is no way in hell I’m hiring a damned prostitute!”

“Well, why not?! I know of a place with the most quality of girls. They’re healthy, well treated, only there because they genuinely want to be. You could at least come, maybe let a few of them flirt with you a bit. Stroke your ego if not something else, and if you decide it’s not for you, then we leave.”

“And just how do you know of this place? Don’t tell me you’ve begun rolling over to the other side of the bed.”

Jefferson shrugged. “They serve…alternative cliental as well. So what do you say, Rainy? What have you to lose?”

“It sounds like a fucking terrible idea,” Gold said. “But if it gets me to stop thinking about Beaux, then I’ll do it.”

 

 

Bae and Belle met with his friends in a small tavern tacked on to the side of a cobbler’s shop. The air inside was thick with cigar smoke, and the scents of ale, beef stew, and sweaty men. Basically, exactly what Belle had imagined when reading about such places where women weren’t typically allowed, unless it was to work – one way or the other. She was practically vibrating with both fear and excitement.

“Meet my friends, Victor, Gaston, LeFou, Killian, and Archibald,” Bae introduced. “Lads, I’d like you to meet my friend, Beaux French.”

The young men all greeted Belle warmly, and bought her a drink. After no time at all, she realized she’d been afraid for nothing. These men weren’t so mysterious at all. They sat around and gossiped, laughed, and spoke crudely about the other sex, just as women did. Before long, Belle really felt like one of them.

“And there I was,” Killian was saying. “Sarah’s enormous tit in my mouth, and Cassandra is complaining I’m not paying her any attention…”

Belle was both horrified and fascinated by his tale, and she strongly suspected it was nothing but. “So?” she prompted when he stalled to take a swig of beer. “What did you do?”

Killian laughed. “I told Cassandra to wait her damned turn, that’s what! I’m talented, but I’m only one man, after all!”

“Nah, you’re just unimaginative,” Victor said. “All it takes is a little arraigning, and any man worth his salt can easily service two women at once!”

Belle blinked, glancing over at Bae who was blushing and grinning gleefully. She both hoped Victor would elaborate, and hoped he wouldn’t, because she was having difficulty envisioning what he meant. But the men only guffawed, and Killian threw a peanut at Victor’s head.

“Shove it up your arse, Vic!” Killian exclaimed. “Come back when more than one woman so much as looks at you at the same time!”

Belle laughed along with them, especially when Archibald elbowed her in a gesture of inclusion. But then the laughter died off, and she tensed when she was suddenly being addressed.  

“What about you, Beaux?” Victor asked her.

“What about me…what?” she asked nervously.

“Any wild conquests under your belt yet?” Gaston asked, grinning. “That face of yours must have them clawing to get in your bed!”

The others laughed, except for her and Bae.

“Oh, leave him alone,” Bae said, chuckling.

“Come on now,” Killian said, leaning over. “You wet your cock yet, boy?”

“Look at him blush!” LeFou crowed. “I think we have ourselves a virgin here, boys!”

“Surely not!” Victor exclaimed. “What are you? Sixteen? Seventeen?”

“Seventeen,” Belle answered quietly.

“A grown man! Lud, I’d already had five by the time I was fifteen!”

“Pansy!” Gaston mocked. “I’d had five by the time I was thirteen.”

“You had not!” Archie said. “The girls wouldn’t have you back then! Now leave Beaux alone, he didn’t come here to be ridiculed.”

“We’re not ridiculing him,” Victor said calmly. “We’re only surprised is all. I propose we help this poor lad.”

“I’m sorry…what?” Belle asked, giving Bae a panicked look.

“Indeed!” Killian agreed. “It should be a crime that a good looking gentleman goes this long without dipping his toe in the water! This is a mistake we must help correct!”

“It’s the only charitable thing to do,” LeFou chuckled.

“He doesn’t need help,” Bae said. “Trust me, Beaux will do just fine when he’s good and ready.”

“Trust you?” Gaston sneered. “What, you wanting him for yourself? Like that flower, Jefferson?”

“Shut up, Gaston!” Bae snapped, flushing.

“Come on,” Victor said, standing. “Let’s see what other entertainment we can find, eh, lads? Quell our quarrels so to speak?”

“Here, here!” Killian exclaimed, rising as well.

“Baelfire…where are we going?” Belle whispered once they’d stepped out into the cold night.

“Don’t worry,” Bae said. “It’s not as bad as you might think at first. I’ve been there but I haven’t…just, stay close to me, okay? I promise it’ll be okay.”

Belle was beginning to doubt that, but followed silently to a dark, three story building. It had no signage, no marking really to be able to tell what it was. But Victor walked through the front door confidently leaving the rest to trail in after him.

Belle stopped at the doorway, wondering if anyone would notice if she just turned tail and ran.

It looked like one of the boudoirs she’d seen pictures of in books, or like a harem she’d once read described. There were numerous sofas and chaises, where half-dressed men and women sat, kissing and groping. In darkened corners, she could make out shapes writhing together, and all around were sounds and smells she’d never experienced before, but somehow knew exactly what they meant.

“Good evening gentlemen,” a mature, attractive woman greeted, dressed in such a respectable manner it seemed at odds with the girls walking about with their breasts exposed.

“Good evening, Corella,” Victor said, kissing her cheek lightly. “You’re looking as beautiful as ever.”

“Flatterer,” Corella said obligingly. “And if it isn’t dear Baelfire! Have you come to sample more than my good wine this time?”

“I would,” Bae said. “But it’s rather late. I think we do need to be getting back…”

“And just who is this?” Corella’s gaze narrowed in on Belle. “Where did you find this delicious morsel, hm?”

Belle took a step back, finding herself partly sheltered by Bae and Archie.

“We’ve brought you fresh meat,” Victor said, as if revealing a secret. “This poor boy is in devastating need of an education.”

“He’s come to the right place!” Corella enthused. “Come along, my sweet thing, I have a couple of darling young girls who will take good care of you.”

“No, thank you,” Belle squeaked, sticking firmly to Bae’s side.

“It’s on us,” Victor said, coming behind her to push her forward.

“Why don’t you all come and sit?” Corella said. “Let the poor dear get comfortable.”

“Come on, let’s just sit,” Bae whispered in her ear. “After a couple more drinks, the others will find women of their own, and they won’t give a flying fuck whether we stay or go. And then we can go, okay?”

“Promise?” Belle asked.

“I swear. Just go along with it for now.”

Belle took a deep breath. “Okay.”

She was given a glass of wine that tasted stronger than any wine she’d ever had, but it was very good. Girls flitted about, greeting the others like old friends. It astounded Belle how they could do that, drape themselves over men, nearly naked – some of them actually completely naked – without a care in the world. If she were reading it in a book, she’d have been fascinated. But sitting among it, painfully aware of her own secret, she was terrified.

She wondered at how close she and Mary Margaret had come to such a fate. Their uncle was a lecher, but he was a far sight better than life in a brothel, Belle thought.

After two – then three – glasses of the wine, Belle began to feel pleasantly fuzzy, and the place didn’t seem so bad after all. A glance at Bae showed he seemed to be feeling much the same, and was even shyly smiling at a women sitting on the other side of him. Even Archie, who’d seemed so tame, had a woman across his lap.

She looked hard at the woman, at the way she threw her head back and laughed, at the way Archie’s hand lingered on her thigh. A sudden thought invaded her mind, of herself sitting in a lap much the same way, with only a thin shift covering her…no…a shirt, a man’s shirt.

And the lap she was imagining didn’t belong to Archie or some faceless man, but Reinhart. He was looking at her with the same timid lust and affection in Archie’s eyes, and his hand was slowly traveling up her thigh…higher…

Belle blinked, coming back to herself, feeling uncomfortable with the way she was throbbing between her legs. Where did that thought come from? True, she was very fond of Mr. Gold…and she did find him handsome…

She shook her head. There was no use even thinking such things. Reinhart had been kind to her, but he saw her as a boy. He probably felt fatherly toward her, a thought which made her feel vaguely ill. Even if the truth came out, he’d be so embarrassed and furious at her for the deception, he’d never look twice at her again.

And that thought filled her with sorrow. She didn’t want Reinhart to hate her. In fact she almost wondered if it would be worth it to remain as a man for the rest of her life, if only it meant she could stay his friend…

“Hello.”

Belle jumped, turning to her other side where a girl was suddenly sitting. She was about Mary Margaret’s age, had bright red curly hair, and when she spoke it was with an accent just like Reinhart’s. She was, thankfully, completely clothed.

“I’m Merida, what’s your name?”

“Be…erm…Beaux,” she said, cursing herself for the near slip. “At your service, madam.”

“Quite the gentleman,” Merida, leaning closer. “We don’t get all that many like you.”

“Th…thank you…” Belle said, leaning away.

“You’re nervous,” she said. “It’s okay, we all get nervous at first. But you needn’t be afraid of me, Beaux. I wouldn’a touch you without your leave.”

“Thank you,” Belle said more sincerely. “Nor I, you.”

Merida’s smile became a bit more genuine. “Do you want to get away from here for bit?” she asked.

Belle started to say no, but when she looked back at Bae, she found him locked in a heated embrace. Blushing furiously, all Belle could think about was that she wanted to leave that moment, before she saw Bae do something she couldn’t quite stomach seeing him do.

So she nodded, and took Merida’s hand, allowing herself to be led upstairs and to a small, clean, sparsely furnished bedroom.

“There, that’s better, aye?”

“Yes,” Belle said, sighing in relief. “I don’t really want to be here.”

“Well, you’re a wee bit too tipsy for me to feel right about letting you loose on your own this late at night. Do you mind staying for just a bit?”

“A bit,” Belle agreed, taking a seat on the bed. It was a small bed, so it didn’t feel strange to have Merida sit close.

“Do you like doing this?” Belle had to ask.

“I canna say it’s what I dreamed of as a lass, can I? But the money is good, and Corella takes care of her girls. We’re free to come and go as we please, no fathers or husbands to answer to. We can leave this life whenever we choose, and take all our earnings. See the world, if we so desire. And all we have to do to earn it is the same thing we’d be expected to do as wives. And once ye get the knack of it, it can quite fun, with the right men.”

Belle was surprised to find that it actually sounded like an enviable way to live. To have that sort of freedom to make money and take it to see the world sounded like heaven. But…Belle knew that it came at a cost she didn’t think she’d be able to pay.

“You’re very brave,” she told Merida honestly.

Merida blinked at her, as though no one had ever said such a thing to her. She leaned in close again.

“Will you no’ let me teach you what it’s like?” she spoke very quietly, and with her deep voice and accent, Belle’s alcohol-muddled brain was able to replace her with an entirely different Scot. “I’ll be so gentle with ye…” she placed her hand lightly on Belle’s thigh, and she instantly thought of her earlier fantasy, and it felt like his hand.

“Yes…” Belle whimpered, and Merida’s hand slid up until…

Merida snatched her hand away like it had been burned, gasping.

“What the devil?” Merida said dazedly.

Belle blinked, feeling immediately stone sober. “Oh…oh God…”

“You…you’re not…”

“I’m so sorry!” Belle exclaimed, standing up. “I didn’t mean to…I mean I didn’t…”

“Shh! Calm down!” Merida said, standing and grabbing Belle’s shoulders. “Someone’ll hear ye!”

Belle nodded, feeling further humiliated by the tears stinging her eyes.

“You’re a lass,” Merida breathed, unnecessarily.

Please don’t tell anyone!” Belle pleaded. “Please!”

Merida scoffed. “Who would I tell? It’s of no matter to me! Is it only that ye wish to be a man? Because I’ve met your sort before. I’ve no’ serviced one before, but you’re such a sweetheart, I don’t think I’d mind it…”

“That isn’t it,” Belle said. “I don’t…I don’t want to live as a man. I’m just trying to get myself and my sister away from our damned uncle, and my bloody fiancé, and to help her find the man she loves.”

“Aw,” Merida’s eyes softened further. “You poor lass. And here ye are in a brothel, being an innocent girl?! Come on, now, let’s get ye out of here.”

“Oh, thank you, Merida!” Belle gushed.

Merida led Belle to her bedroom window, which had a tree just outside, perfect for climbing.

“Get ye on home,” Merida said. “And directly home, do ye understand me? Avonlea is a safe enough place, but with so many visitors, you can never be too sure. And there are plenty of men who would pray on a pretty young thing, boy or girl.”

“I’ll be careful,” Belle promised. “I don’t suppose you could try to nudge my friend out of here too? Baelfire? I think he’s a bit over his head too, plus his father will kill him if he finds out.

“Is his father named Reinhart by chance?”

“Do you know him?” Belle asked, feeling cold. Did Reinhart used to be a patron of this place? The thought of him there, with Merida or any of the other girls “servicing” him, made her irrationally angry.

“Oh, just a guess,” Merida sing-songed. You whispered his name just before I went looking for a fishing pole and found a peach instead.

Belle’s eyes widened, and she turned back to the window and began to climb out.

“Don’t worry,” Merida called after her. “I’ll save your young Baelfire. And lad? I think you’re verra brave, too.”

Chapter Text

From the moment Gold stepped through the doors, he knew he’d made an enormous mistake.

The proprietor of the establishment, a distinguished woman by the name of Corella, greeted Jefferson fondly, but stared at him like he was a prime cut of steak.

“Just relax,” Jefferson said, leading him to a couple of chairs.

“Shall I ring for Gerhardt, darling?” Corella asked Jefferson.

“No thank you, my dear. I’m only here to support my dearest friend, Rain.”

“Let me get you both some refreshment,” she said before sauntering off.

“Must you call me by that ridiculous nickname in public?” Gold demanded.

“Would you rather I use your real name?” Jefferson asked. “I just figured you’d perhaps want a semblance of privacy, is all.

He wasn’t wrong about that. The last thing Gold wanted was for anyone to find out he had been there. Especially Bae.

Especially Beaux.

Gold shook his head, reminded abruptly why he was there. To get Beaux out of his mind.

“Good evening,” a silky voice spoke to him.

He turned to find a woman, naked from the waist up save for an emerald pendant, standing beside him. She had lovely red hair, but a rather unsettling look in her eyes.

He forced his eyes down, though it went roughly against his sense of propriety, at the breasts so deliberately displayed before him. They were lovely breasts; large and round, with dark pink nipples standing proudly toward him, the pendant nestled snugly between them.

He tried to feel even a fraction of desire, but aside from the very objective acknowledgement that she was a handsome woman, he couldn’t ignore the manic look in her eyes, and it left him feeling the exact opposite of aroused.

“No, thank you,” he clipped.

“So, tall, buxom women aren’t for you,” Jefferson said after the woman huffed and stormed away. “You’re better off. Zelena is bit touched, I think. Do you want me to have Gerhardt come and sit for a spell? He’s a gorgeous man, rather feminine features, actually. Maybe see if that does anything after all?”

“No,” Gold said firmly.

“Okay…so how about someone smaller…someone like…her?” he gestured to a petite woman making her way downstairs. She also had red hair, but looked all around more pleasant. Her small, lithe physique definitely called to him more than that looming Zelena had, but for all she couldn’t look less like Beaux, that was immediately who he thought of, and a protective urge swelled up, wanting nothing more than to wrap the girl up in a blanket and get her out of this wretched place, instead of merely bedding her.

She wasn’t coming toward him anyway, she was making her way to a rowdy group of young men, and tapped on the shoulder of one who was in the process of drunkenly pushing a woman off his lap.

“BAELFIRE?!”

“Uh oh,” Jefferson murmured.

“Papa?!” Bae exclaimed as Gold stormed over to him.

“What the devil are you doing here?” Gold demanded furiously.

Bae frowned, squinting at him through unfocused eyes. “Well…what are you doing here…to be asking me that?”

“I thought I was making a massive mistake, but now I’m glad of it. Let’s go.”

Bae snatched back the arm Gold had grabbed. “For God’s sake, Father! I’m nineteen years old! You can’t keep treating me like a child! And you CAN’T make me leave!”

Gold looked around at the drunk and half-naked men present. One of them hadn’t even paused his clumsy thrusting during the altercation, though the woman atop him was glancing over nervously. “Baelfire…where in the bloody hell is Beaux?”

Bae blinked, looking around as well. “He was just here…oh shit! Archie, where’s Beaux?!”

“He went upstairs with a girl an hour ago,” Archie said. “He looked happy about it, so I’m sure he’s fine.”

“More than fine,” one of the other oafs, Gaston if his memory served correctly. “The boy’s finally a man!”

Gold felt a sick, sinking feeling in his stomach. Of course it was fine; nothing at all uncommon about a young man his age taking advantage of such freely given pleasures. It was only natural.

So why did Gold dearly want to hit something?

“I’ll get him,” Gold said, baring his teeth at his son. “Then we’re leaving.”

Bae nodded meekly, but Jefferson grabbed Gold’s shoulder.

“You can’t do that,” he hissed. “You’re going to humiliate the boy.”

Jefferson was right, of course. Beaux would never be able to look him in the face again if he stormed up there and interrupted his loss of virginity. And that thought made him even sadder than the one of what was happening upstairs.

“Pardon me,” a girl spoke; it was that petite redhead.

“I’m not interested,” he snapped.

“No,” she sighed, grabbing his arm and dragging him a step away, her voice quiet. “Beaux left.”

“What? What do you mean, he left?”

“I took him upstairs, but he didn’a want to be here at all, so I helped him climb down the tree outside my window. He asked me to see if I could persuade Mr. Baelfire to go as well.”

“Thank you, lass,” he said, reaching into his pocket and withdrew several shillings, which he pressed into her hands. He dimly hoped it was enough that she could rest for the remainder of the night.

“Thank you!” she exclaimed, skipping away.

“Come on,” he growled at Bae and Jefferson, not waiting for them to catch up as he stalked for the door. “You were supposed to be looking out for him!” he said once they were out of the building.

“I was!” Bae insisted. “I didn’t know he’d try to leave alone!”

“You think taking an innocent boy like that to a brothel was taking care of him?!”

“Beaux isn’t a boy any more than I am, Father! And I didn’t want to take him there! The others insisted. We only meant to sit for a spell, wait for the others to become preoccupied, and then leave!”

“And that worked famously I see. Only you were the distracted one. Good Lord, Baelfire, what happened to that woman you’re supposedly in love with?!”

“I…I am in love with her!”

“And this is how you prove it?! By fornicating with prostitutes?! I did not raise you like that!”

“I didn’t fornicate with anyone! We kissed, is all. I had too much to drink. I made a mistake! But what were you doing there?! I know you didn’t get dragged anywhere you didn’t want to be, no matter how persuasive Jefferson can be. You were there after the very thing you’re accusing me of doing!”

“Well, I made a mistake too.”

“Why were you there, Papa? If you wanted a woman, you could find one without needing to pay for it. I just can’t see you as being the type that’s okay with encounters such as that.”

Gold sighed. “Never you mind. I said I made a mistake, and I did.”

“Can we all just agree that mistakes were made all around?” Jefferson piped up. “Because we have a young man possibly lost in a strange place, late at night.”

“Oh God, if anything happens to him I’ll never forgive myself,” Bae groaned.

“He’ll be fine,” Gold said, needing to balance out his son’s worries with reason, though his own worries were threatening to overwhelm him. “As you said, Beaux isn’t a child, and he can take care of himself. We’ll find him.”

 

Belle’s trek back to the castle was long, but uneventful. No one gave a young boy walking down the street a second look, whereas a girl would have had all sorts of attention.

She felt guilty about leaving Bae behind, and dreaded having to tell Reinhart that she’d returned without him, but she just hadn’t been able to bring herself to go back inside, especially with the possibility of finding Bae in a compromising position. It would have been like seeing Mary Margaret that way.

“You’re out mighty late.”

Belle nearly jumped out of her skin, turning to find Ruby perched on a swing hung from a tree branch. She chuckled at herself for being startled.

“That’s the pot calling the kettle black,” Belle said.

Ruby shrugged. “Us girls were having a grand time, but then Lady Abigail needed me, which rather put a damper on my fun. They were all asleep when I returned, but I wasn’t tired yet. I decided to have a bit of alone time out here. It’s just about the only time one can be alone in a castle.”

“Would you like me to leave?” Belle asked, gesturing to the castle.

“No, want to sit?” she scooted over on the oversized swing, leaving just enough room for Belle to sit beside her.

“Your sister is the greatest, by the way,” Ruby said once Belle had lifted herself up on the swing. “We became fast friends.”

“That’s wonderful,” Belle said. “She needs more friends, ones that can help her become a lady.”

“She’s already pretty ladylike in my opinion. She thinks the world of you, you know.”

Belle smiled softly. “We’re all each other has had for a long time.”

Ruby didn’t seem to know what else to say, so she changed the subject. “Where’s Bae?” she asked.

Belle grimaced. “I left. He uh…stayed.”

“Uh oh, where did that idiot’s friends take you? Please don’t tell me it was the brothel.”

Belle looked up at her, raising one eyebrow, and Ruby threw her head back to groan. “What pigs! All of them! I take it it wasn’t quite to your fancy?”

Belle chuckled. “Not hardly. But a very kind girl who worked there helped me escape.”

“I bet that’s the one and only time that’s ever happened to her!” Ruby said.

“I’m not so sure, she seemed pretty ready with the tree to climb down, and since she said she’s free to come and go as she pleases, it leads me to believe I may not have been the first one to sneak away without…er…”

“Sampling the goods?”

Belle scrunched her nose, laughing. “Making a purchase?”

“Signing her dance card?!”

They all but fell into each other, laughing. Ruby kicked her feet, sending the swing swaying to a fro.

“My feet don’t even reach the ground!” Belle exclaimed.

“I don’t mind,” Ruby said. “Will you put your name on my dance card, Beaux? At the ball?”

Belle smiled. She liked Ruby, she seemed like such a genuine person, and the fact that she was so fond of Mary Margaret automatically endeared her to Belle. “I’d love to,” she told her honestly. “I’ll be the first one!”

Ruby grinned, her teeth bright white in the dark. “I’d like that.”

Before Belle could even hope to react, Ruby’s lips were on hers.

She froze, feeling odd, but curious. She’d never been kissed before, by anyone, and though this was hardly what she hoped for in a first kiss, it wasn’t bad.

But then she pulled back, and saw the soft look on Ruby’s face, and her sister’s words came back to haunt her; be careful with girls’ emotions.

“Ruby…I…”

“No, I’m sorry,” Ruby said, looking away shyly. “That was far too forward. What must you think of me?”

“I don’t think anything of you…no! I don’t mean it like that! I mean…I don’t think anything bad of you…I mean…you did nothing wrong…I’m the one…”

Belle was silenced by a long finger on her lips. “Hush,” Ruby said, chuckling. “Let’s just forget it, okay? And have that dance at the ball?”

She should have said no, better to hurt Ruby now than risk hurting her worse later, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it, especially knowing it could affect Mary Margaret’s friendship with her.

“Absolutely,” she said instead, mentally kicking herself.

Beaming, Ruby hopped off the swing and darted inside, leaving Belle to bury her face in hands and mumble, “what have I done?”

 

When she finally entered the suite, she was surprised, to say the least, to find Reinhart, Bae, and Jefferson all frantically pacing the sitting room.

“Beaux!” they exclaimed at once, rushing toward her.

“What?!” she asked in confusion, her mind immediately rushing to Mary Margaret. “Is everything okay?”

“We were worried sick,” Reinhart hissed, grabbing her tightly by the shoulders. “We thought you must have gotten lost, or hurt. You’re not familiar with Avonlea!”

“I was fine,” Belle droned, and pulled away, feeling a bit overwhelmed by the look on his face, considering the strange, drunken fantasies she’d had at the brothel. “I didn’t care for the brothel so I left, what of it?”

“I’m so sorry I let them drag us there,” Bae said, looking for the world like a kicked puppy.

“You didn’t look sorry before,” Belle snipped.

Bae sighed. “I know, I made a mistake, I’ve already been lectured by my father.”

“Well, everyone is now safe and accounted for,” Jefferson said. “And I don’t have to go inform Miss Mary Margaret that we’d misplaced her brother. With that I bid you all, goodnight!”

“Goodnight, Jefferson,” Belle said as he left, a little unsettled by the look he gave her, then Reinhart, then her again.

“I think that’s enough dramatics for me for one night,” Bae said, yawning. “Do you forgive me, Beaux?”

Belle smiled and shook her head, finding it very difficult to stay mad at him for long. “Of course. Goodnight Bae.”

That left Reinhart, and he didn’t look as settled as the other two men.

“Are you angry?” she asked him.

His looked softened. “No, of course not. You did nothing wrong. I’m a little frustrated with my son, but that’s naught to do with you. Did you get lost coming back? I’m surprised we beat you.”

“I may not have taken the quickest route,” Belle said, shrugging. “And then I met Ruby out in the garden.”

Reinhart’s eyes narrowed. “Alone? Beaux, we’ve talked about this…”

“Nothing happened,” she rolled her eyes. “Ruby is a respectable lady.”

He hummed. “Then she should have known better, but so should you. If someone had come upon you, they may have gotten the wrong idea.”

Belle huffed and flopped down into a chair, pleased with the way she was able to sit with her legs sprawled out. “It’s Ruby who may have gotten the wrong idea. I told her I’d dance with her at the ball, but I didn’t…mean what she thinks I did.”

Reinhart crossed his arms. “What makes you think that? Did she do something?”

Belle flushed. “She…erm…kissed me.”

Reinhart chuckled, though his smile looked melancholy. “Ruby is a beautiful woman, Beaux, and a good once besides. A lady of good standing. If she’s set her sights on you, you could hardly make a better match.”

“But I don’t love her.”

“You could grow to love her.”

“She doesn’t want me,” she said. “Believe me.”

He gave her a stern look. “And what makes you say that?”

Belle bit her lip, not bothering to stop herself from it. She wished she could tell him, wished she could unload all of her troubles. Let someone else carry them for a change. But then the affection plain in his eyes would go away, and she couldn’t bear that.

“Why were you at the brothel?” she asked suddenly.

Reinhart blinked dumbly. “I…was looking for you of course, you and that wayward boy of mine.”

Belle tilted her head to one side, narrowing her eyes. “Mmhmm, and just how did you know we’d be there of all places?”

He grew red and flustered, and Belle thought it was adorable. “I…bugger. That idiot Jefferson talked me into it.”

Suddenly Belle didn’t find it that humorous anymore, and she frowned. “Did you, um…have a good time?”

He finally sat, across from her on the other sofa. “God no. I took one look at one of those Amazonian besoms with her tits directly in my face, and felt more appalled than anything.”

Belle turned her face to try to hide her smile in reaction to his coarse words. “Have you ever been to one before? As um…a patron?”

He shook his head. “I’ve been to a few, yes. Especially in my younger years, but only to drink and socialize. And not in a very long time.”

“Ah. Well, it wasn’t what I thought it would be, having read about them in books. The girl I spoke with was quite intelligent, and very brave. She was there because she wanted to be.”

“Unfortunately they’re not all like that,” he said. “So many young girls,” he gave her a look. “And young men, are forced into such a life.”

“I thought about that, about how near it had been that Mem and I could have been left with no other choice. As much as I hate to say it, I almost have to thank my uncle for it.”

“You don’t owe him any thanks. Just because he was the lesser of two evils, doesn’t make it right that he mistreated you.”

Reinhart got up to pour two small glasses of whiskey, handing one to her. She took a sip, feeling the warmth suffuse her body. “Wow, you’re right, this is much better!”

“I told you,” he said, chuckling. “So what are you going to do about Ruby?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. The last thing I want to do is hurt her.”

“What is it you don’t like? Is it just that you’re scared?”

“I’m not scared!” Belle snapped automatically.

“There’s no shame in it,” Reinhart said gently. “Believe me, all men are, before their first time. No matter what they say.”

“…They are?” Belle had always been under the impression that men were never scared or nervous when it came to sex.

“Of course! It’s a terrifying thing, for both parties. You worry you won’t do it right, that you’ll disappoint the girl, that you’ll finish too early and embarrass yourself, or perhaps worst of all, you’ll hurt her.”

“At least we don’t have to worry about the pain.”

“No, that’s very true. But it’s still quite a heavy responsibility to bear, isn’t it?”

Belle nodded. “I suppose that’s why…hired women are so popular. You needn’t worry about that.”

Reinhart chuckled humorlessly. “More like you can take your pleasure without worrying about feelings. That’s why I don’t care for the practice. I can’t quite…remove feelings…entirely from the process.”

This was a surprise to Belle as well, as she’d thought men cared for nothing but getting their physical release. “Why don’t men talk to women more about this? It could help with a lot of worries!”

“It’s simply not done. Even after Milah and I were married, we never actually discussed anything. I tried to ask her a few times…how to…well, make her happy. But she wouldn’t have it.”

Belle waved her glass, almost spilling it. “Well that’s the problem! If people just communicated they’d have a lot fewer problems!”

The whiskey was strong, and it was quickly bringing her back to that pleasant, fuzzy place she’d been in at the brothel. “May I ask a question?”

Reinhart looked a little hesitant. “Of course. I’m sure you must have questions…”

“Why did Bae’s friends call Jefferson names? They called him strange things like flower, and fairy. And it angered Bae. Jefferson is so nice, though he dresses a little eccentrically. Is that why they said that?”

Reinhart winced. “Well, more or less. It’s not a very well-kept secret, you see, that Jefferson…he eh, prefers the company of other men.”

Belle’s eyes widened slightly. “Oh. Well that…doesn’t seem like a good reason to call him a flower. Although I think he likes flowers.”

Reinhart laughed. “That he does.”

“And it doesn’t bother you? Are you…”

He shook his head. “No, I’m not…” he grimaced. “And no, it doesn’t bother me. As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone, why should I care who someone else loves?”

Belle grinned warmly. “I agree. May I ask another question?”

Reinhart nodded.

Belle never would have the courage to ask, even while posing as a male, had it not been for the tongue-loosening effects of the whiskey. “How does that work? Two men, I mean? Or two women, for that matter?”

Reinhart flushed scarlet then. “Well there…” he cleared his throat. “Surely you know, there are things you can do…besides, well, the traditional way.”

“No,” Belle gasped, leaning forward, rapt. “What do you mean?”

“Well there…” he cleared his throat again, straightening. “You need to know, preferably before you ever decide to lay with anyone. You can use your hands, Beaux, similar to the way you do for yourself. And your mouth. And in the case of two men…well…”

Belle shook her head, not knowing where he was going, but utterly enthralled. Mouths? Did he mean to be applied intimately?

“Well…come now, boy, have you truly never heard of buggery?”

“I…I know the word bugger…”

Reinhart laughed. “Through the arse, lad!”

Her hands flew to her mouth, and she almost hit herself in the face with the empty whiskey glass. “Truly?!”

“It doesn’t sound terribly appealing to me, personally, but yes. In fact, I’ve heard speak that even some women enjoy it. But that is not to be done unless you had her permission!”

“Of course not,” Belle said, sinking back into her chair. Perhaps it was just the whiskey, but she wondered dimly if she were perhaps one of those women.

They were quiet for a time, while Reinhart finished his drink. “Did you have any other questions?”

She had a few more, but they mostly revolved around a certain aspect of the male anatomy that he didn’t know she didn’t own. “No,” she said. “Not now, at least.”

“Well, please feel free to come to me if you have any,” he said. “I remember what it was like to be your age, and to have all of those questions. And I didn’t have a father either.”

“Thank you, but…” she flushed, her next words leaving her mouth quite without her permission. “I hardly see you as a father.”

Reinhart cleared his throat again, rising. “Yes, well, it’s very late. And we have a big couple of days coming up.”

“Goodnight Reinhart.”

“Goodnight, Beaux.”

Chapter Text

Gold let himself into his bedroom following his conversation with Beaux, and immediately went to his wash basin to splash cold water in his face.

What had he been thinking? Having that kind of discussion with Beaux? Jefferson would be shaking his head if he knew.

He’d truly had only meant to help the lad, answer some questions he knew from experience that an untried youth such a Beaux would have.

But Beaux had been so frank and free with his questions, and the way he’d teased Gold about attending the brothel, the way he’d tilted his head and looked up at him with those enormous eyes, the way he’d sat up and crossed his legs at the ankles…

Gold shook his head roughly. Perhaps he didn’t need a woman, perhaps he needed goddamned church.

His cock was throbbing, and he grabbed at himself through his trousers, disgusted to find that he was fully aroused.

Perhaps he should just give in…Beaux had been very curious about the ways of men with other men…

He unbuttoned his flies, taking himself into his hand.

No, he wouldn’t compromise the boy, but he could imagine it. He could imagine going into his room right now, and he’d be dressed in that shirt Gold had given him. He could imagine lifting the shirt, reaching under…

Gold stilled his hand, shaking his head again to clear it. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t picture himself taking Beaux’s cock. He hadn’t been lying before. He truly found no appeal in having sex the way Jefferson did.

So what in hell was wrong with him?! He didn’t want a woman, but he didn’t want a man either.

What he wanted was Beaux. Just Beaux. Beaux’s eyes, and mouth, his spirit and curiosity. His loyalty to family, his stubbornness, his intelligence.

It was a hopeless situation, but at least Gold’s arousal had waned.

 

“Rise and shine!” Jefferson crowed, opening the curtains in Belle’s room. “You have breakfast with the Golds, your sister, and Lady Ruby. Time to get dressed!”

Belle groaned and rolled over. It had been the first good night’s sleep she’d had in days, and she was reluctant to let it go.

“Aren’t you the king’s man servant?” she groused.

“That I am, but he’s already up and about for the day, so I’ve come to see what good I can do here. I do hope you’ll let me do something about that hair.”

“What’s wrong with my hair?”

“Besides it being a rat’s nest? Nothing at all. Now up!”

She sat up, but then froze, remembering that she didn’t have her breasts bound. “You needn’t help me,” she said quickly. “I can manage, I’m sure you have better things to do.”

“Plenty! But first we need to make you presentable, now up! Up, up, up!”

Belle got out of bed, keeping her shoulders hunched.

“I had a bath brought up, it’s in the sitting room.”

She blanched. “Oh! I’m fine! I don’t need…”

“Rain and Bae are downstairs,” Jefferson said, voice suddenly soft. “Go on, I’ll just be laying your clothes out.”

Confused, but desperate for an actual bath, she went out into the sitting room, where a copper tub sat behind a dressing screen, filled nearly to the brim with steaming water.

Once she was submerged, eyes half-closed in bliss, Jefferson appeared, pushing aside the screen, armed with a brush and comb.

She flinched back, her arms moving to cover her chest automatically.

“Relax,” he said, pulling up a stool and otherwise not looking at her. “I’ve no more interest in your body than you have in mine.”

Belle wondered if he thought she meant she was afraid of his predilections, and she didn’t want him to think that. “It’s not that…it’s just…”

He looked at her, then, eyes gentle. “I can’t very well call a ladies maid or your sister in here can I? And if we’re going to have you looking like a gentleman by breakfast, you need help.”

Her heart sank. “What…what do you mean?”

“I mean, it’s a shame you have to keep such pretty breasts squished down.”

She gasped, and covered her chest again, having not realized she’d lowered her arms. “Jefferson! I…”

He laughed and sat behind the tub to begin combing out her short curls. “Calm down. Your secret is safe with me. I think I understand why you’ve done it. I will say, though, that you need to tell Reinhart.”

“I can’t!” she exclaimed. “He’s going to be furious! Never to mention embarrassed.”

“He’ll be embarrassed, true, but I don’t think furious. In fact, I daresay he’d be relieved.”

“Relieved? Why on earth would he be…”

“Jefferson! Have you seen my cufflink? One is missing,” Reinhart said, barging into the sitting room.

Belle yelped and sank deeper into the water, and Jefferson muttered a quiet damn.

“Did you look on the floor by the dresser? You’re forever dropping them.”

Reinhart seemed to notice them for the first time; ‘Beaux’ in the bath, and Jefferson brushing her hair.

He turned red right to the root of his hair, but then he turned a dark look to Jefferson before disappearing to his room. “It’s not here!” he called.

Jefferson sighed, and Belle could practically hear him rolling his eyes. “Just a moment,” he said to her, pouring a little extra oil into the water to better murk it up and conceal her.

He disappeared into Reinhart’s room, and Reinhart appeared a moment later, scanning the floor.

Belle caught sight of something sparkling under a chair, and she carefully lifted an arm out of the tub to point. “I think I see it.”

Reinhart looked over at her, and her mouth went dry at the look on his face. A strange movement caught her attention from the corner of her eye and she looked down, finding that his tight-fitting breeches weren’t fitting just right.

Her eyes widened, as did his, and he dropped to fetch his cufflink, before making a hasty retreat.

“What happened?” Jefferson asked, reappearing once Reinhart had left.

“Nothing,” Belle squeaked, her mind and heart racing. “He just found his cufflink.”

Jefferson gave her a long, unreadable look, then sat behind her once more, dragging the brush through her hair.

“How did you know?” she asked him. No one had brushed her hair since Mary Margaret had the night before they fled their uncle’s house, three weeks before, and she hadn’t realized she’d missed the sensation. It had grown a little, now just brushing her shoulders. As unfashionable as it would be for a woman, Belle rather thought she might like to keep it short.

“I think the better question is how have you been able to fool Reinhart and so many others? I’ve known my share of effeminate men, but you could be covered in horse shit and still be the most beautiful girl in a hundred mile radius.”

Belle warmed at the compliment. “I’m glad I have. Fooled them I mean. I’m Mem’s only hope of being able to marry her love, if he accepts her.”

“Rainy mentioned that,” he said. “Did you say his name is James? I don’t know of anyone at court named James. Well, not no one, there’s a seventy year old count named James, and several stable lads under the age of twelve named James. But I don’t think your sister’s James is any one of those.”

“I don’t understand,” Belle said. “He sent her a letter, and said he’d be here. Do you think he deceived her?”

“I hope not, little one. But there are any number of visitors in the castle, I’m sure I haven’t met them all. And if it doesn’t work out, you can trust Reinhart, Beaux. He cares about you. He won’t let you and your sister go back to your former situation.”

“He cares about a boy,” Belle said, absurd tears stinging her eyes.

“He cares about you. Beaux, or whoever you are. Don’t underestimate him, please.”

Belle turned her head to look up at Jefferson’s warm eyes. “I won’t.”

“Now come on, little one, stand up. I’ll close my eyes.”

 

Gold had nearly bitten a hole into his tongue by the time he reached the kitchens, where they were to have breakfast.

He hadn’t paid very much attention to Beaux at his bath when he first walked in, though he couldn’t help but feel a disturbing sense of possessiveness at the sight of Jefferson tending him. It was foolish, of course, it was Jefferson’s job, so Gold went about searching for his cufflink, trying not to hear the little splashes from the next room or think about the nude body within.

He found the damned thing, thanks to Beaux, but once he’d taken a full look at him, one slender arm sliding out of the water, his arousal was instantaneous, never mind that a head and an arm and the barest hint of slender shoulders were all he could see.

The worst part was Beaux had noticed, and now Gold didn’t know how he was ever supposed to look the lad in the eye again.

He greeted Mary Margaret, Ruby, and Ruby’s grandmother before having a seat beside Bae, who looked a little glum.

“Something the matter?” he asked him.

“I can’t find her,” Bae said. “Emma. That’s…that’s the girl I told you about. No one seems to know where she is, or if she’s even attending the ball. I’d hoped to speak to her beforehand.”

“I’m sure she’s around,” Gold said. “Lord knows there are a lot of people here. I haven’t even seen hide nor hair of my cousin, and we’re sitting in his home!”

Bae scoffed. “Sounds like he has his hands full with his betrothed.”

“Careful,” Gold warned, glancing over at the women to be sure they weren’t paying attention. “That’s your future queen.”

“But he doesn’t love her,” Bae said. “Surely you know that.”

“Aye, I do. But as I’ve told you, royals don’t always get to choose who they spend their lives with. The choice is as political as anything else.”

“That doesn’t seem fair.”

“No, son, it’s not. But it’s the way it is.”

Bae grimaced. “I don’t blame you for stepping down.”

Gold huffed a small chuckle. “That wasn’t the reason, but aye, it’s a good one.”

“Good morning,” Beaux greeted, entering the kitchen.

“Beaux!” Mary Margaret exclaimed, jumping up to hug him.

“Are you okay?” Gold heard Beaux ask her quietly, and he smiled warmly at the display of concern.

“I’m wonderful!” Mary Margaret exclaimed. “Ruby has shown me all over the castle!”

Ruby was shooting Beaux coy looks, that the lad was all but ignoring. Gold wondered just how long Beaux would be able to resist the lovely young woman.

Brother and sister chatted animatedly all through breakfast, and it was the first time Beaux had truly looked his age to Gold. It drove home ever more just how much sorrow and fear had hardened the otherwise sweet person Beaux was.

After breakfast, Mary Margaret informed Beaux that she and Ruby would be spending the day picnicking with the other young ladies, and Beaux looked visibly disappointed.

Gold had intended to keep his distance, but the deflated expression was hard to ignore. And Bae was so preoccupied with his own problems, he couldn’t resist.

“Beaux?” he said, hoping against hope that he wouldn’t see disgust in the lad’s eyes.

“Yes, Reinhart?” he asked, looking just as bright and open as always.

“I just…well it occurred to me that you haven’t gotten the chance to see much of the castle at all. Would you like a tour?”

To his surprise, Beaux beamed. “I’d love to!”

 

They set out directly after breakfast, and toured the gardens, viewed the art on the many hallway walls, and even visited the dungeons.

“Does King David actually keep prisoners down here?” Beaux asked, voice barely more than a whisper in the gloom.

“Only the wee lads he skins for their pelts.”

Beaux rolled his eyes over to him, and Gold winked. “That one was a quip.”

“Yes, I figured,” he deadpanned.

Gold chuckled. “I think the last prisoner kept here was when my grandfather ruled. He was a thief, trying to steal a jewel to buy medicine for his pregnant wife.”

Beaux gaped. “And your grandfather locked him up? How horrible!”

“I managed to have him released,” Gold said, shrugging. “And made sure his wife had the medicine she needed.”

Beaux smiled. “See? You would have made a good king.”

“And I’d have been in the exact situation my cousin is in now.”

“And what position is that?”

“Being married to someone he doesn’t love.”

Beaux looked away. “You don’t think he can grow to love her?”

“I’ve yet to even meet the girl! I’m beginning to wonder if she exists!”

“Mary Margaret said that she has Ruby and her other ladies in waiting hopping, all of the time. Ruby said she’d been excited to be offered the position attending the queen, but now she’s not so sure.”

Gold sighed. “I’ll try talking to him, not that I think there’s much either he nor I can do. Now, there’s just one more thing I want to show you.”

Beaux grinned. “Lead the way!”

 

Belle followed Reinhart happily. She loved when it was just the two of them, when he didn’t seem quite so guarded.

She was still confused about their encounter while she was in the bath, but for all she knew, his physical reaction was just something that happened to men. Or perhaps she’d imagined it altogether.

“I was saving this for last,” he was saying, leading the way to a pair of large double doors.

He pushed them both open, and Belle’s mouth dropped open as well.

It was a massive library, with shelves that reached all the way to the ceiling, reachable only by multiple ladders and ledges. It was bright and warm, and the smell of antique pages filled her senses. There were more books than Belle could count. It was like a dream.

“This is the biggest, most amazing library I’ve ever seen in my life!” she exclaimed, barely remembered to keep her voice from rising too many octaves. “It’s…it’s like a dream!”

“I thought you’d like it,” Reinhart said, watching her. “This was always my favorite room in the castle. Come look,” he motioned her over to a tiny alcove that held a bench built into the wall, overflowing with cushions and pillows. “This is the best spot. The light from that window is perfect nearly all day. When Bae was just a tiny thing I’d read to him in here, and play hide and seek with him, David and Jefferson when they were still young enough to enjoy it.

“What does Jefferson call you Rainy?” she asked the question she’d been wanting to ever since she’d heard Jefferson say it, grinning all the while.

Gold rolled his eyes heavenward. “He and David called me that as children. I would have hoped they’d have grown out of it.”

“I like it! So, think his majesty will object to my using his library?” Belle asked, grinning.

Reinhart chuckled. “For all that he’s an intelligent man, David isn’t much for leisurely reading. I’d say it’s all yours.”

Belle giggled, and slapped a hand to her mouth in horror, but Reinhart only smiled.

“Er…thank you, for showing me,” she said, examining the nearest shelf, needing a bit of distance from him.

“You’re welcome, lad. I’d best go, I’d like to see if I can’t hunt my wayward cousin down.”

It was so strange to hear someone talk about the King that way, and she had to bite down another giggle. What was wrong with her? She didn’t giggle this much before she was a boy!

“But perhaps…” he continued, looking unsure.

“Perhaps?” Belle prompted.

“Well, I’m sure Mary Margaret will be busy the rest of the day, and she and the ladies might just end up in the village for the festival.”

Belle tensed. “Is that safe?”

He waved a hand. “They’ll be strictly chaperoned, you needn’t worry. But I was just wondering if you’d like to go. Perhaps indulge in a bit of fun that doesn’t end at a brothel!”

Belle had to struggle not to appear overeager. “Do you mean…with you?”

“Well…er, yes. If you don’t think it too embarrassing to go about with an old man as a chum.”

Belle shook her head. “You aren’t old! And I’d…that sounds fun.”

He nodded, placing his hands behind his back. “Good. I’ll find you at about four o’ clock,” he looked around, then grinned at her. “Might I be safe in assuming you’ll still be here?”

Belle grinned back. “Definitely a safe bet. See you later, then…Rainy.”

Gold leveled her with a wry look before turning on his heel and leaving.

Once he was gone she sat down with a plop on the bench in the alcove. These past years since her parents died, she’d cared for nothing and no one but Mary Margaret.

She stood in her uncle’s path, accepting vicious words, slaps, and touches just to keep them from her. She disregarded her own future for the most part to take care of the only true family she had left.

So thoughts of love and marriage had been distant thoughts, narrowed only to the possibility of a fortuitous match, or avoiding Keith Nottingham at all costs.

She’d come to Avonlea to try and help Mary Margaret find the man she loved, to make her happy, to hopefully make them both safe.

It never occurred to her that she’d fall in love herself.

Chapter Text

“There you are,” Gold said, entering the king’s private chambers. “I was beginning to wonder if you’d fallen down a privy somewhere.”

“I’m so sorry, Rain,” David said, running a hand through his short-cropped hair, mussing it even further. “Between preparing for the ball, a few disputes between farmers, and Abigail’s illness, I’ve scarcely had a moment to sit, never mind a moment to fall down a privy.”

“How is Princess Abigail faring?”

“Much better, she should actually be along shortly. We were going to have tea before going to meet with the priest.”

Gold sat in a plush chair by the fire, fixing his younger cousin with a stern look. “And are you ready? For the wedding?”

“Of course!” David said, too quickly, too loudly. “Why wouldn’t I be?!”

“Perhaps because you don’t care for the girl?”

David frowned, switching his weight from one foot to the other, the same way he did as a boy when he was in trouble. He finally sat on the chair across from Gold, leaning forward on his elbows.

“Abigail is a good woman. She’ll make a good queen.”

Gold raised one eyebrow. “Oh? And a wife? Will she be a good one of those?”

David chuckled. “I’ve never had one, how should I know?”

“Damn it all, man!” Gold erupted at last. “Are you trying to make the same mistake I did?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I married Milah because she was the proper match. She was of good breeding, good standing, pretty. She would have been a fine queen. But she despised me, and I was never in love with her, even though I tried my damnedest to be fond of her. If I had taken the crown, she would have played the happy wife for the rest of her days, no one would have ever known. But we would have been miserable for the rest of our lives. Is that what you want?”

“Of course not!” David snapped. “But that’s just it, you didn’t take the crown! I did! I have responsibilities to my kingdom. Abigail is the daughter of King Midas. Once we’re wed the kingdoms will be united and I’ll have access to an army that could save our lives in the event of war.”

“We’re not at war.”

“Oh, and I suppose we know for a fact we never will be, hm? Not to mention the funds that can purchase new irrigation systems for every farm in the kingdom. I have no choice, Rain.”

Gold rolled his eyes. “You always have a choice, David. You’re a good king, better than I could ever have been. But do you know our grandfather was a good king too?”

David’s head snapped up. “What are you talking about? He was a monster.”

“Hardly. During his rule, the coffers were always full, trade between kingdoms was prosperous…”

“He imprisoned children for stealing food,” David said levelly. “He beat his servants if they didn’t do everything just so. He kept dozens of mistresses and had countless bastards…”

“I didn’t say he was a good person, far from it, but he wasn’t a bad leader, especially in the beginning, or so I’ve heard. And I’m not trying to suggest that you could ever become anything like him, but George took a bride when he took the crown. A bitter thing that made his personal life miserable. Ask any servant here old enough to remember.”

“You seriously think an unhappy marriage made George become what he did?”

“I know it wasn’t the only thing, but if you think a man’s happiness in his marriage doesn’t impact his entire life, you’re a fool.”

David growled. “So what do you suggest I do? It isn’t like I can call off the engagement now.”

“Does Abigail even want this? I have a hard time believing a woman anxious to become queen would be faking an illness.”

David was silent for a long moment, until Gold’s staring finally broke through. “No, I haven’t asked her.”

“Then don’t you think perhaps you should? I doubt she’s all that power-hungry. She’s in line for her own crown after all.”

He sighed. “I can talk to her, for all the good it will do at this point.”

“And if you could choose for yourself, what would you choose?

David stood up, moving to stand by the fire, leaning against the mantle. “It doesn’t matter.”

“I think it matters. There is someone, isn’t there?”

“There was,” he sighed. “But that was long ago. Lord knows she’s probably married with a family of her own by now.”

Gold grimaced, his suspicions seeming to be correct. But he didn’t dare say anything until he knew for sure. And he was certain that Mary Margaret didn’t know her man’s true identity. He needed to speak with her.

“And what if she didn’t? What if you saw again?”

David held out his hands with a look of helplessness. “I don’t know.”

Abigail entered the room then, causing the men to jump to their feet to greet her. She was accompanied by an older woman for a chaperone, and seemed the picture of health.

“Princess Abigail,” Gold said, bowing deeply. “An honor to finally meet you.”

“Ah, Reinhart Gold, David has told me so much about you,” Abigail said, offering her hand, which Gold took and kissed the air above it.

She was a handsome woman; fair and delicate, with hair so pale yellow that it needed no powder, a prim nose, and large blue eyes.

But she had a stoic air about her, like a disinterest in everything around her. He wondered if it was just the way she was, or if that was the way princesses were supposed to be these days.

“I’m pleased to hear that you’re feeling better,” Gold said solicitously.

“Quite,” she said, but offered nothing more.

With the conversation skidding to an abrupt stop, David cleared his throat. “Erm, Cousin, won’t you join Abigail and myself for supper tonight? It seems Bae has other matters to attend to, but you’re welcome to invite your young friends. I’ve yet to meet them.”

“Ah, well I understand that Miss French has been spirited away by your Lady Ruby,” he nodded to Abigail, whose cheek twitched like she was trying not to scowl. “And I fear that I have already promised the young Mr. French that I’d accompany him to the village this evening so that he may see what festivities are held there.”

David smiled fondly. “I do so miss the days of being able to romp about the village! You must take the boy to the wishing well! Do you remember that harvest festival when you took Jefferson and me? You gave us each a shilling and told us to make a wish.”

Gold nodded. “I remember. You wished for good marks on the test your tutor had just given you, and Jefferson wished for a kiss.”

David threw back his head, laughing. “And we both got our wishes! Although I daresay Jefferson wasn’t altogether impressed when the lovely young Alice surprised him later under the Lover’s Tree. I believe he’d been rather hoping you’d meet him there!”

“David!” Abigail scolded, her maid stifling a scandalized gasp. “That’s not seemly!”

David only shrugged, turning back to Gold. “What did you wish for that night? Do you remember?”

Gold shook his head, remembering quite well the wish he’d made that night. He remembered taking a ten-year-old David and fifteen-year-old Jefferson to the harvest festival to escape his wife’s scorn. He had wished the time alone with Baelfire would keep her from leaving them. “I wished that you two mucklebrains would cease bedeviling me! My wish didn’a come true!”

David laughed again, looking to his bride to see if she shared his mirth, his own face falling when she so clearly did not.

“Well, have fun, Rain,” David said, clearing his throat again.

Gold nodded, bowing to Abigail before taking his leave, glad to leave the uncomfortable environment. He hoped he’d at least planted a seed of doubt in his cousin, because it was even clearer to him now than before that the two were all wrong for each other.

 

Just as he’d expected, Beaux was still in the library after 4 o’clock, nestled in the alcove, his nose in a book. Gold smiled at the picture he made, almost loath to interrupt him.

“Shall I give you time to finish?” he asked, seeing that the lad was nearly at the end of a substantially thick tome.

Beaux looked up quickly with a startled gasp, but then his face melted into a serene smile. “Oh, no, I’m ready!”

Gold blinked, a little taken aback by Beaux’s soft voice. He knew the lad tended to pitch his voice deeper than was natural, especially when trying to assert his adulthood, but Gold had never heard it sound quite like that before.

Beaux raced to replace his book on the shelf, leaving it sticking slightly out, so he could find it again later. When he came up beside Gold again, smiling expectantly, Gold had the sudden, ridiculous urge to offer his arm, but he shook that off immediately. “Shall we?” he asked instead.

“Let’s go!” Beaux said excitedly, his voice back to normal.

 

Belle and Reinhart walked side-by-side, or occasionally in front and behind, due to the crowded streets. There was so much to look at, Belle could hardly decide what to settle on first.

Here there were little girls dancing with ribbons around a pole, there a man making a sword disappear into his mouth.

Everywhere was music, and laughing, and the air smelled of sugary confections, spices, roasting meat, and beer.

Reinhart followed her silently, but indulgently, stopping when she did to observe a performer, hands behind his back. When she stared a little too intently at a stand selling honey cakes, he bought her one without a word, along with a mug of frothy beer that has a delightfully fruity after-taste.

The only damper came in the odd looks they were getting. For a horrifying moment, Belle wondered if people could tell what she was, or possibly worse, that they couldn’t tell, but could tell the way she felt about Reinhart.

But after a while she realized no one was looking at her at all, but at Reinhart.

When an older man walked by, snorting and making a discreet but rude gesture with his hands, Belle knew she had to ask.

“Why are people looking at you like that?”

To all appearances, it would seem that Reinhart didn’t notice or care about the looks, but though she hadn’t known him long, Belle knew enough to see he definitely noticed, if the rigid way he held himself was any indication.

“I told you,” he said simply. “I’m known as the coward of Avonlea, for allowing my wife to desert me, and for deserting the crown in turn.”

“How ridiculous!” she exclaimed. “Why should they even care, so long as they have a good king now?”

Reinhart chuckled, though it was without humor. “Memories are long here, lad. It’ll be some time before I’m allowed to live it down, if ever. No one will dare be rude to my face, but they’ll look, and they’ll whisper. I’m a man who made cowardly decisions, therefor I am a coward.”

“You’re not a coward,” she said, and he looked at her in surprise at her vehemence. “And even if you were, who the fuck are they to cast stones?” she spoke loud enough for people to hear, and a woman gasped and covered her child’s ears.

Reinhart smiled, and this time it was genuine. “You’ve a point there, lad.”

A slight commotion caught her attention, and she gravitated over to where a group of men were huddled in an alleyway, making a raucous. At first she held back, automatically feeling out of place, but then she gleefully remembered that a man would be perfectly allowed to do whatever it was these other men were doing.

“What are they doing?” she asked aloud.

Without much more advantage than she did as far as height, he had to rise up on his toes to see. “It looks like a card game.”

She frowned. That was a bit anticlimactic. “A card game? Why are they making such a fuss then?”

Right on cue, the men all heaved a collective groan/laugh combination.

“It looks like Follow the Lady, or some such game,” Reinhart said. “And most likely it’s led by a swindler. You bet your money on a game that can’t be won, thought there will never be a shortage of fools who will try.”

Belle elbowed her way through the crowd, followed closely by Reinhart. There was a skinny, greasy-looking man with a set of playing cards laid out face-down on the top of a barrel.

After a few moments of watching, Belle could see that it wasn’t quite as simple as Follow the Lady. There was more strategy involved, though to all appearances it seemed completely based on luck.

The rules were simple; to play, you bet your money, then you must choose five cards from the selection, and they must add up to the amount of money you put down. Queens, Kings, Aces, and Jacks stood for twenty, thirty, fifty, and a hundred respectively. You were to show everyone each card you draw, but between every drawing, the man shuffled them around to keep the crowd from being able to memorize where they all were.

If you were under but close, within a penny or so, you were given back that lower amount, but no more. If you went over the amount, you lose all the money. But, theoretically, if you get the exact same number, you get back double what you bid.

So far, it seemed no one had won.

Belle watched the man’s hands very closely. His sleeves were rolled up, so no one could accuse him of hiding cards. All of the cards were bent slightly to make it easier to shuffle, but appeared identical. The man seemingly would have no reason to have them marked or memorized, but Belle immediately picked up on a very specific pattern in which he moved them. The men drawing cards invariably chose from either the middle, or from the cards closest to them. Few were taking cards from the side closest the greasy man, or from beside where he had his hands resting on the barrel. Belle wondered if that was an unconscious act that the greasy man was somehow aware of.

After four failed games, and four angry men stalking away, Belle got it in her mind to try.

“What are you doing?” Reinhart asked, putting a hand on her shoulder as she went to step forward.

“I’m going to play,” she said simply. “I’ve a little money, but don’t worry, I’m not stupid enough to bet it all.”

“You shouldn’t bet any of it,” he said. “It’s a scam, Beaux. He’s made it so you can’t win.”

Belle hummed. “I don’t think so. There’s a way, and I think I know it.”

Reinhart sighed, but released her shoulder. “That’s what they all say.”

Belle approached the barrel, hearing a few sniggers from the crowd, and they all pressed closer, viciously anxious to see the cocky young boy get had.

She laid a crown down on the barrel, feeling horrendously irresponsible, yet rebelliously confident. It was a heady feeling, but she wondered if she’d be willing to be so foolhardy with her money if she didn’t have the protection of Reinhart to fall back on.

“Five card, mu’ add up to sixty,” the greasy man said in a bored tone.

Belle studied the cards briefly before making her first choice. A ten of hearts. The greasy man shuffled the cards, but Belle watched carefully. When she drew again, it was a 4 of clubs. Another shuffle, another draw; 9 of spades.

The men were murmuring and chuckling. All these low numbers were making it harder and harder to reach sixty.

“7 o’ diamonds,” the greasy man said, smirking, once she’d made her fourth choice. “Once more, laddie.”

She watched intently as he shuffled. She needed a King to make it exact, but a Queen would be close enough for her to get at least some of her money back.

Once he finished shuffling, she considered carefully, eyeing the card he pulled to his left, almost hidden behind his hand. She wanted to look at Reinhart, to see if he had an opinion, but didn’t dare take her eyes off the smarmy man, and also didn’t want any help.

Her mind made up, she reached for the card on the left, wrinkling her nose in distaste when it meant she had to lean close enough to smell his fetid breath.

The men gathered erupted into a surprised cheer as Belle held her King of Hearts up triumphantly.

The greasy man gaped, then sputtered indignantly. “Why y’ wee cunt! Ye was cheatn’!”

“I did no such thing!” Belle exclaimed. “I played your game, by your rules. And I won! Now I’d like my money, please.”

Grumbling all the while, he placed her shilling in her outturned hand before moving to pack up his cards.

“Pardon,” she said, still holding out her hand. “I drew the correct number exactly, you owe me a shilling.”

“I ain’t giving ye nothin’!” he snapped. “Go suck yer mama’s tit, boy!”

Belle felt more than saw Reinhart come up behind her, and she could only imagine the look on his face that inspired the answering expression on the greasy man’s. “You owe my friend money,” he said lowly, his voice no more than a growl, making the hair on the back of Belle’s neck rise. “I suggest you pay him.”

The greasy man bared his teeth, but reached into his pocket to withdraw a shilling, tossing it up.

Reinhart caught it before Belle could, and she turned to see him examine it briefly before handing it to her.

As the crowd dispersed, everyone patted her back, and congratulated her for finally giving the old crook a taste of his own medicine. They even elbowed Reinhart companionably for his part in the man’s embarrassment. Reinhart scowled, but Belle could see that he was secretly pleased.

For her part, Belle was left a little dazed by the barely controlled anger she’d heard in Reinhart’s voice when he addressed the greasy man. It wasn’t frightening, and she’d been on the receiving end of a man’s anger enough times one would think it would have been. But no, she knew Reinhart would never hurt her, but the danger he had exuded for that one second had sent chills running through her body, chills that settled curiously low in her belly.

As they walked away from the main crowd, toward the woods, Reinhart smiled at her.

“That was well, done, lad, well done! However did you know?”

Belle preened, inordinately pleased by his approval. “Well, I didn’t know for absolute sure, but he had a pattern. He knew which cards were which, and kept always the ones the player needed close to him.

“Amazing,” he said sincerely. “I don’t think I could have ever seen that.”

Belle shrugged, blushing from his praise.

“I didn’t frighten you, did I?” he asked, looking down at her. It was like he’d read her mind from before, or perhaps mistook the look on her face as one of fear.

“Of course not,” Belle said. “It was…nice, having someone…well, defend me for once.”

Reinhart looked sad, though she hadn’t meant for that to come out. “How long have you lived with your uncle, Beaux?”

“Since I was…well, it’s been six years,” she bit her lip, realizing she had almost revealed her true age, which would have led to all sorts of questions.

“You were just a boy,” he said, almost to himself. “You mentioned your uncle mistreating you, and Bae said that Mary Margaret insinuated he’d been…well…inappropriate with her. If you’d rather not talk of it, then we won’t. But did he ever hurt you, Beaux?”

Belle spoke, but chose her words carefully, so not to slip up again. “Well, it was as Mem said. Uncle…to be quite frank, desired her. More so when she was younger. I mostly just made him angry. Angriest when I stood between him and Mem.”

Reinhart grimaced, and Belle saw his fists clench. “And this supposed fiancé of hers? Was there ever a formal contract?”

“Yes,” Belle admitted quietly. “Will that make matters difficult…for Mary Margaret?”

“Possibly,” Reinhart said. “Courts do tend to side with male relatives, in these cases. If she marries quickly, and…if you’ll excuse my indelicacy, consummates the marriage, there’s nothing they can do about it, except sue for grievance pay. Which is likely.”

“What if…she doesn’t marry?”

“Then the courts may press her, or worse.”

“Worse?”

Reinhart stared at him. “I only tell you this, lad, so you’ll know what’s possible. If your uncle arrives to take you home, he may allow Nottingham to…compromise her. And then she’ll have no choice.

“But she can’t marry him!” Belle exclaimed, tears stinging her eyes. “He’s a horrid man! He’ll…he’ll break her…”

Her heart cried out to tell him, tell him that it wasn’t the name Mary Margaret on that contract, but Belle French. That while she was desperately afraid of allowing her sister to go back into their uncle’s home, alone, she was perhaps even more afraid of what would happen to her should her uncle decide to let Nottingham “compromise” her as Reinhart said.

“But you needn’t worry,” Reinhart said soothingly. “I won’t let anything happen to you. Either of you.”

“And what if there’s nothing you can do?”

He put an arm around her shoulder, and they continued on down the forest path. “We’ll think of something.”

Chapter Text

Gold was enormously sorry that he’d made Beaux so upset when he’d been having so much fun. But he needed as much information about their uncle and this Nottingham as he could get, so as best to help the siblings.

To try and cheer him, he ran down the path, calling for Beaux to follow. Beaux laughed and made chase, and they came to a small stone well, nestled in the shrubbery and all overgrown with vines, just like something out of a child’s storybook.

“What’s this?” Beaux asked, still a little strained around the eyes, but seeming willing to move past it in pursuit of more merriment.

“It’s a wishing well,” he said mysteriously, the same way he had all those years ago. “I took Jefferson and David here once when they were boys. I took Bae once as well, but he was such a wee thing, he probably doesn’t remember.”

Beaux chuckled. “So you take all your boys here?”

Gold wasn’t very comfortable with the way Beaux clumped himself in with the boys that were his family, so he shrugged non-committedly.

“My cousin only mentioned that it was a place one has to see when visiting Avonlea.”

Beaux smirked and sidled up to the well. “Sooo…how does it work?”

“Simple, you throw a coin in, and you make a wish.”

He turned to him. “What is it about this well that makes it a wishing well, then? Why not the well in the middle of town?”

“It is said,” Gold began, talking the way his aunties did when they told him tales a lad. “That before Avonlea was here, there was a small village instead which name has been lost to history. But there was a man and woman, who loved one another so deeply, it was said that they shared True Love, a love so pure and rare that it only comes along once every generation. But the lands were at war, and when the man was called away, the woman wept, and as she drew water from this very well…” to illustrate, Gold began drawing up the bucket. “she wished and wished that he would come home safely. When a single tear dropped into the water as she made her heart’s wish, the man appeared, saying the war was over and he was home to stay. He kissed her then, and it was True Loves Kiss, which sent a pulse of light through the land. They were never parted again, and their bodies were buried side by side beneath a great oak, over nearer to town.”

Beaux rolled his eyes, though he’d been smiling all the while. “Not a terribly imaginative story, is it?”

Gold chuckled. “No, I suppose not.”

“But I liked the way you told it, anyway. Did this True Love couple have names?”

“Lost to history with the name of the village, supposedly. Well? Aren’t you going to make a wish? It’s said that the woman’s tear gave this well magical properties, and any wish you make here will come true.”

“Is it true? Did the wishes you and the boys make come true?”

Gold sighed. “Well, the boys’ did. Sometimes, I think the well must be practical, if it knows that what you’re wishing for isn’t what you need. Such as with Jefferson. He wished for a kiss, it just didn’t come from who he wanted it from, because the well knew fine well I wasn’t about to kiss the little whelp.”

Beaux threw back his head, laughing, and Gold had to swallow and look away when the sight of the lad’s delicate neck did strange things to him. “Poor Jefferson,” he said. “Well, alright, I suppose I’m game. Have you a coin?”

“Me?” Gold asked, in mock affront. “I am not the one who just won money gambling!”

Beaux grinned cheekily and pulled out a farthing, closing his eyes and flicking the coin in.

“What did you wish for?” Gold asked.

Beaux eyed him. “If I tell you, it won’t come true!”

“That’s for wishes on stars, lad.”

He hummed. “Well, I think better safe than sorry, anyway. Your turn!”

Gold narrowed his eyes playfully at him, but dutifully tossed in a coin of his own. He had almost wished that he didn’t have feelings for Beaux, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it, even though he didn’t actually believe in the power of the well. Instead, he simply wished for love, safety, and happiness for all of those he held dear; Baelfire, David, Jefferson, and not least of all – a pair of siblings who’d managed to firmly lodge themselves irrevocably in his heart.

 

Belle had been so charmed by Reinhart’s story-telling prowess. He had a gift, really, for making such a tedious little fairytale sound like an epic just with his eyes and tone of voice. She loved seeing him being playful, which lifted the years off his face, making her realize for the first time that he wasn’t as old as she’d originally thought. While she’d thought him closer to fifty, a shy enquiry after they left the well revealed he was only just forty.

She’d made a wish as instructed, and her first thought would of course be to wish for the safety of her and her sister. But she knew that would take a lot more than wishing, so she decided to be frivolous and wish instead that Reinhart knew who she was – and didn’t mind. In the back of her mind were more explicit, more…scandalous wishes, but she didn’t even have the nerve to think them outright.

They walked back along the forest path in companionable silence, the only people they met being couples fleeing to the privacy of the woods for some alone time. It made her all the more aware that she was alone with Reinhart, which, for a man, wasn’t scandalous. (Barring the thoughts running through her mind.) But she wasn’t a man, and it was hard to ignore the fact when he was so close and immediate.

Not that it mattered, of course. As long as Reinhart thought she was a boy, he would see her the same way he saw Jefferson, as a friend at best…as a son at worst.

She heard music and voices first, and a soft golden glow at the far end of the path eventually opened up to wide clearing, at the center of which was a tall, beautiful tree. The spiraling branches stretched as wide as a house end-to-end, and lanterns hung from each one, giving it an ethereal look.

Young men and woman danced and frolicked beneath the branches, like so many tree sprites, and in the shadows they embraced amorously.

Belle opened her mouth to ask if this was the tree Reinhart had mentioned in his story, and what its significance here was, when she caught sight of her sister, twirling about in the middle of it all, with flowers in her hair.

“Mem!” she exclaimed, darting forward.

“Beaux!” Reinhart called after. “Wait!”

Mary Margaret stopped dancing, eyes widening when she saw Belle. “Beaux!” she said. “You’re here!”

“What are you doing?” Belle said, smiling at Mary Margaret’s flushed cheeks. “Someone’s had a bit of cider, hm?”

Mary Margaret shrugged nonchalantly, which made her list slightly to the side. Belle knew that her sister was quite a lightweight. She didn’t protest when Belle took the cup from her hand, and one sip proved that the spiced drink was quite strong. She sipped again, feeling it warm her insides.

“Beaux!” this time it was Ruby, who also appeared a little intoxicated, though she sobered somewhat when her eyes alit on who was behind her. “Oh…hello, erm, Lord Gold.”

Reinhart waved a hand at her, dismissing the “lord” business. “It seems you’ve evaded your chaperones,” he said, without a hint of surprise.

Mary Margaret and Ruby glanced around at the other ladies they were with, all of who looked exceedingly guilty.

“We haven’t done anything,” Ruby said defensively.

Reinhart lifted a brow. “You’re all dancing around under the Lover’s Tree. Did you even think to explain to Mary Margaret what that is?”

“Of course!” Mary Margaret said. “Whomever you’re with under the tree, you must kiss!”

Belle looked up. “Like a giant mistletoe? That makes no sense, we’re all under the tree. Does that mean I have to kiss my sister?”

“There’s a bit more to it,” Reinhart said, chuckling, but trailing off when one of the other ladies shoved a cup into his hand before dragging him into the fray of dancing young people, causing him to balk and for Belle to scowl.

“Are you being careful?” Belle asked Mary Margaret worriedly, barely taking her eyes of Reinhart.

Mary Margaret rolled her eyes. “Oh, relax! I’m not here to kiss any boys. I just wanted to have a spot of fun! Do you remember fun, Beaux? When we did things just for fun?”

“Of course,” Belle groused, feeling a bit guilty. She so often fretted about her baby sister, trying to keep her safe, that she often forgot that she was just a young woman who deserved to have some frivolous joy in her life.

“Come on,” Ruby said, grabbing Belle’s arm and yanking her into the strange, flowing dance.

It wasn’t like a ballroom dance; everyone simply twirled and moved how they desired, switching partners, moving only to the beat of a flute and a drum.

Occasionally a couple would break off, moving closer to the trunk of the tree and kiss. Sometimes the men would hold a woman extra close, almost pleadingly, but laugh merrily when she sent him on his way. There was no fighting or arguing, no bruised male feelings or jealous girls, so Belle tried to ignore Reinhart and focus on the dance, accepting more cider as she went.

She and Mary Margaret ended up together, and her sister’s cackling laugh was enough for Belle to understand that this was the process of how one finds someone to kiss beneath the tree.

Belle blew a kiss to her sister as she hopped on, automatically scanning the crowd for Reinhart. He’d stopped dancing, and was standing a little to the side, watching her with a soft look in his eye.

How she wanted to go up to him, and pull him back into the dance, to give him that little nod she saw the other girls giving and to kiss him there in front of everyone.

But then Ruby was before her, and she was giving her that little nod, making Belle freeze.

“I um…I better…” she stammered, hooking a thumb over her shoulder.

“It’s bad luck to leave Lover’s Tree without a kiss!” Ruby said coyly, but Belle caught her looking nervously around at the others, at the way the other girls were giggling behind their hands and watching on gleefully, and Belle realized that denying Ruby now would humiliate her.

She glanced over her shoulder at Reinhart, who was watching them with an unreadable look on his face, then over at Mary Margaret who was watching with eyes as round as saucers.

Well, she’d done it once before, and didn’t mind it. But last time, she wasn’t being watched by her sister, and the person she actually had feelings for.

Belle took Ruby’s hands and leaned up, kissing her chastely on the mouth. That wasn’t quite enough for Ruby, who grabbed her head to angle it and deepened the kiss, making the other girls whoop and cheer.

Belle pulled back, wide-eyed, but Ruby simply grinned saucily and scampered away.

When Belle turned around again, Mary Margaret was standing near Reinhart, mouth agape, but Reinhart had his eyes averted, and Belle thought he looked almost…angry.

“Erm, I think I’m ready to go,” she said waveringly as she made her way back to them.

“Aye,” Reinhart clipped, turning to go.

“Wait, Lord Gold!” one of the other girls called, giggling. “It’s bad luck to leave without a kiss!” that caused the other girls to erupt into merry gasps, and the one who’d spoken, a beautiful brunette, staring at him becomingly as she approached.

Belle clenched her fists, quite honestly ready to punch the girl. And how would THAT look for a gentleman?!

Reinhart got a rather panicked look about him, and seemed ready to simply flee when Mary Margaret, looking from Belle to Reinhart, to the girl and back again, hopped up on her toes and just barely brushed her mouth against his. “There! Now both of us are safe from ill luck!”

Reinhart smiled warmly at her, then chuckled at the scowl the other girl was sending Mary Margaret over her shoulder as she stalked away.

Belle laughed too, silently thanking her sister with her eyes, before beckoning. “Come on, Mem, let’s head back.”

Mary Margaret deflated. “Do I have to? We were going to go swimming at the lake!”

“Swimming? Mary Margaret it’s nearly midnight! And in what, your shift? What if there are men about?”

“We’ll be in a large group. Ruby said it’s what’s done during every celebration. Please, Beaux?”

Beaux glanced at Reinhart, who shrugged. For all that he was protective, he seemed to have an understanding for young people being young while they can.

She sighed, feeling both nervous for her sister, and envious that she couldn’t go too. But really…even if Belle wasn’t posing as a man, it was high time for Mary Margaret to start doing things, and taking risks, and living life without her big sister’s protection, before she had to enter life as a married woman.

“Go on,” Belle said. “Promise me you’ll be careful, hm?”

Mary Margaret promised and darted off to rejoin her friends. Ruby blew Belle a kiss, but then grabbed Mary Margaret’s hand firmly, as if assuring Belle that she’d look after her.

Belle nodded at Ruby, and she and Reinhart turned to leave the festivities.

Reinhart was being quiet again, but this time it wasn’t comfortable. He’d obviously not been happy about her and Ruby’s kiss…but why? Did he just think it improper?

There were times…instances, where Belle could almost believe Reinhart had feelings for her, too. But that was almost worse than him not having feelings for her because she was a boy. Because if he did, and he found out that Belle was a woman, would he be disappointed? Disgusted?

“I had fun tonight,” she said, trying to lift him out of his mood.

It seemed to work, because he looked over at her, his expression lightening. “Aye, me too, lad. Haven’t had fun like that since…well…since I was a lad myself, I suppose. You got yourself quite a kiss back there, are you sure you don’t fancy Ruby?”

“I don’t,” Belle said firmly. “Not in the way she wants me to. I just didn’t want to embarrass her, by refusing her kiss.”

“Well, then, you may need to talk to her. Ruby is a good lass, been a friend of Bae’s for a long time. She doesn’t deserve to be hurt.”

Belle looked down, feeling wretched about it. “I know, you’re right. The last thing I want is to hurt her. What do I say?”

He shrugged one shoulder. “The truth is always best, in my experience.”

The truth, Belle thought grimly, looking up at the profile of his face, particularly at the lips her sister had gotten closer to than she ever would. The truth would certainly work, but it was easier said than done.

Chapter Text

Gold parted with Beaux at the stairs, unable to bring himself to follow him to the comfortable privacy of their shared suite in that moment.

He knew the lad could sense his unease, and figured he was probably very confused. But Gold was, quite honestly, tired, and didn’t have the energy to ease the boy’s fears.

His hopes of solitude were dashed when he found someone else in David’s study, but it was only Jefferson, sitting on one of the overstuffed sofas, having a dram.

Face scrubbed of powders and cosmetics, a shadow of a beard across his jaw, hair hanging in wavy wisps across his forehead, Jefferson looked more like Jefferson to Gold than he had in a very long time, and suddenly the other man’s presence wasn’t unwelcome.

“Did you just get back?” Jefferson asked tiredly.

“Yes,” Gold said, gratefully accepting the offer of a drink.

“Did Beaux have a good time?”

“I believe he did, yes. He managed to out-con a conman, then got himself a rather impressive kiss ‘neath the Lover’s Tree.”

Jefferson’s brow raised in interest. “Oh? So you finally succumbed to your passions, is that it?”

Gold glared at the younger man. “No, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t joke about it.”

Jefferson sobered immediately. “Apologies. You’re right, ‘tis no laughing matter.”

Gold sighed, sitting back against the back of the sofa, taking a large sip of whiskey. “The lad denies any affection for young Lady Lucas, but I don’t see as he’s being honest. Even I’m not entirely immune to Ruby’s beauty and vivacious personality, and I’ve known the lass since she was a wean.”

“Hardly means you wish to sleep with her, does it?” Jefferson said. “Perhaps Beaux feels the same way.”

“He certainly didn’t mind kissing her tonight.”

Jefferson winced. “That doesn’t sound fun for you. You really love him, don’t you?”

Gold scrubbed his face with one hand, suddenly feeling very tired, and very old. “I don’t know what I feel, Jefferson. Or what I should do.”

“Well, I think the best course of action would be to simply talk to Beaux. Tell him what you think you’re feeling.”

“Are you mad? It would terrify the poor boy! He’s already been abused by his uncle. To learn that the man who has promised to protect him is lusting after him would be horrible.”

“Did you ever stop to think that perhaps Beaux would return your feelings?”

Gold scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous. I realize there are plenty of men like you in the world, but really how likely would it be?”

Jefferson huffed an almost-laugh. “Stranger things have happened, Rainy old boy.”

He shook his head. “No. He’s young and inexperienced, and had his childhood ripped away by a brute of a relative. Even if the impossible happened and he accepted my…advances, how will I ever know that it was out of genuine desire and not simple gratitude?”

At that, Jefferson glowered at him. “I think you do Beaux a disservice. Perhaps he’s a trifle naïve, but he isn’t a helpless child, Rain. In the very short time I’ve known Beaux, I’ve seen him to be sure, determined, and very brave. I would eat my favorite hat if a person like Beaux would reduce himself to be a man’s plaything out of gratitude.”

Gold winced. “You’re right,” he said glumly. “Beaux is much too noble and sincere for that. No, what more likely would happen he’d run me through with a sword, or perhaps hit me over the head with a book.”

Jefferson chuckled, then leaned over to refill Gold’s glass. “You’re probably right about that.”

“I’m still not even sure if what I feel for Beaux is love,” Gold said, running a hand through his already-mussed hair. “I care very much for him, true. And there are times when I feel desire for him. But then the few times I’ve actually allowed myself to really think about it, it feels wrong.”

“I know how that feels.”

“You do?” Gold asked, surprised. “You always seemed to know exactly who you were.”

“Hardly,” Jefferson scoffed. “Trust me, there was a time when the feelings aroused in me by men instead of women filled me with more shame and horror than I could handle. There was a time, a brief time, mind you, that I seriously considered ending my own life just to stop what was happening to me.”

Gold gasped. “What? When?”

“Oh, when I was young. It was only a moment…but then I met someone who…helped me make sense of things. I met you.”

“Me? Christ, Jefferson, I found you when you were ten years old!”

“Already old enough to start realizing that unlike my fellows, the female body held no interest bar objective admiration. A street-rat learns these things early, I’m afraid.”

Gold’s heart thudded painfully at the thought of what Jefferson’s life was like before he brought him to the castle to work. Jefferson seldom talked about it, but Gold knew it hadn’t been an easy life. And yet he’d always been such a bright, cheerful lad, who became fiercely loyal to young David when charged with being the little boy’s companion. A job Jefferson had taken very seriously, and had never quit.

“I’m sorry you ever felt that way,” Gold said quietly.

Jefferson shrugged one shoulder. “I’m far past it now. I’ve a good life, thanks to you and Davie. I have no regrets. What I want now is to just see the both of you happy, with people you love.”

“You deserve that too, Jefferson.”

Jefferson smiled crookedly. “Thanks, old man. I quite agree. You’ll have to forgive me for getting my hopes up for a moment there, when you started to sway toward the lad.”

Gold chuckled and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Jefferson. Even if I did, I’m not the one you need.”

“I suppose you’re right. But still…”

Gold was taken quite by surprise when Jefferson leaned over very suddenly, and he wasn’t sure what was happening until Jefferson’s lips were on his, warm and soft. He didn’t move, whether out of sheer shock or unwillingness to hurt Jefferson by pushing him away he didn’t know, but before he could decide Jefferson was back on his side of the sofa, smirking.

“Hm, yes, I do suppose you’re right. I had to know for sure though. Forgive me?”

Gold gaped at him for a moment before narrowing his eyes and nodding. “Forgiven, but I swear if David hears about this…”

Jefferson laughed, and Gold was pleased to see that there was no strain in it, no lingering hurt. In fact, he seemed much lighter that Gold remembered him ever being, as if some kind of lingering question had finally been put to rest. “What else am I going to talk about whilst helping him dress for the ball?”

Gold drained the rest of his whiskey, and it was quite a large sip, before rising. He’d had more kisses that night than he had in a decade, too bad none of them were from who he actually wanted to kiss.

“I think I’m going to bed before you decide to take any more liberties.”

“I wouldn’t dare” Jefferson promised, humor still dancing in his eyes. “But…Reinhart?”

Gold paused at the door and turned. He didn’t think he’d ever heard Jefferson use his actual name.

Jefferson still sat on the sofa, eyes wide and sincere. “Talk to Beaux. Please.”

He didn’t respond, feeling more unsettled by Jefferson’s passionate plea than he had by the kiss. He wanted to go back in and ask what Jefferson knew that he didn’t, but he was afraid of the answer.

He truly was a coward.

 

Belle was feeling too restless to sleep, and didn’t wish to disturb Bae, so when Reinhart left her at the stairwell, she went up and to the library instead of the suite.

To her surprise, Baelfire himself was already in the library, thumbing aimlessly through a book on the medicinal properties of urine, of all things.

“Interesting read?” Belle asked, speaking quietly, but Bae startled all the same, dropping the book.

“Oh! Beaux! Sorry, I didn’t see you there,” he frowned at the book. “Er, not really. It’s rather disturbing. Do doctors really use human piss in medicine?”

Belle chuckled and shrugged. “I think I’d rather not know, personally. Are you alright? It’s very late.”

 Bae shrugged as well. “I’m fine. Where have you been? Did you and my father go somewhere?”

“We went down to the village so I could see the festival.”

Bae smiled wistfully. “Ah, yes. I’ve had some very memorable times at festivals here in Avonlea. I bet he didn’t show you the Lover’s Tree, though.”

“He did actually! He even danced!”

Bae’s eyes widened comically. “You’re lying.”

“He did!” Belle insisted, chuckling. “Can’t say he really wanted to, nor did he have much desire for a kiss. My sister saved him from being pounced on by an interested party by offering a kiss herself.”

Bae shook his head. “What I wouldn’t give to have seen all that! Maybe there’s hope yet for the old man. Would it bother you terribly if he had any interest in your sister?”

Belle froze, smile falling as her heart sank. “My…my sister? Do you think Reinhart has…has interest in Mary Margaret?” when Mem had kissed Reinhart, Belle knew that she’d meant nothing by it. And she thought that Reinhart’s smile was just that of indulgence and gratitude from being saved from a far more amorous encounter, but could she have been wrong?

“Oh, you needn’t worry, I didn’t mean it quite like that,” Bae said, waving his hand. “My Papa isn’t like that. He doesn’t have designs or anything on Mem. I only say that because well…he’s so fond of you both, and you must understand that my father’s affections aren’t given willy nilly. It takes a very special person to get under that thick skin he’s wrapped around himself. I just want him to be happy. Despite my being there, I know he’s been lonely.”

Belle nodded thoughtfully. “I can see that, too. But Mary Margaret still has her heart set on James.”

Bae looked up. “Have you found him, then?”

She shook her head. “No, no sign of him. I know it’s weighing on her, which is part of what made me let her go out gallivanting tonight. What of you? Have you found your sweetheart?”

Bae’s expression and shoulders drooped. “Aye, I have.”

“Well?” Belle asked expectantly. “What happened?!”

“She was at the festival. But when I tried to talk to her…something was…I don’t know, different. The last time I saw her, she was so open, so earnest. We made plans…promises. But now it’s like she’s suddenly put up this wall. I think…I think she doesn’t love me anymore.”

Belle frowned, placing a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t believe that love can just turn off and on like that. If she ever loved you at all, she loves you still. Perhaps something else is the matter. Perhaps her father has given her hand to someone else. You know what they say about the early worm…”

Bae glared at her, clearly not caring for her logic, so she tried again.

“What is her name?”

Bae smiled dreamily, and he looked so like his father in that moment that it wrenched her heart. “Emma.”

“And do you love this Emma?”

He nodded solemnly. “I do. I love her so much.”

Belle smiled. “Then you need to talk to her again. Get her alone, but keep your heart and mind open. Listen to what she says, don’t judge or get angry. Maybe she only needs to see that you’re a man, who is ready to take care of her like one.”

Bae sighed, but he looked lighter. “Thank you, Beaux. You sound like you know a lot about this sort of thing. Papa intimated that you’re, well…”

She chuckled. “Inexperienced?”

Bae smiled sheepishly. “I suppose. I think we may have underestimated you. Have you ever been in love, Beaux?”

She bit her lip, turning away and picking up a random book examining the cover. “If you’d asked me before this trip, I would have said no. But now…”

“Ah,” he said. “I see. It wouldn’t happen to be a tall, beautiful minx named Ruby, would it?”

Belle sighed, looking up at the ceiling as if guidance was waiting up there for her. “No. I am quite fond of her, and I’m terribly afraid that I have misled her. But no, I seem to have fallen for someone I…can’t have.”

Bae blinked. “Truly? Who?”

She grimaced, realizing then that she’d said far too much. But she was still slightly tipsy from all the beer and cider she’d had that evening, and her mouth was running away from her. “It doesn’t matter. He’ll never…” she gasped then, her hands clapping to her mouth, but she glanced at Bae, hoping maybe he hadn’t noticed…”

He?”

He’d noticed.

“No! I meant she…I misspoke…I’m sorry…”

“Beaux, Beaux…” Bae said, touching her arm. “Calm down! It’s okay. You needn’t be afraid, not with me.”

She was still shaking her head, stepping away. “No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m tired…I should…”

“Please, don’t go,” Bae pleaded gently. “Surely you must know by now that I wouldn’t betray you. While I do not…erm, understand, I will not judge you, nor reveal you to anyone. Lud, I’ve known Jefferson my entire life, and he…wait, is it Jefferson?”

Belle chuckled, though her heart was hammering. “No.”

“Um…it isn’t…me, surely?”

She sighed, and stopped trying to back away. “You’re perfectly handsome fellow, Bae, but rest assured, my affections for you are purely brotherly.”

He looked relieved. “Ah, good. Then who else have you…” he trailed off, and his eyes widened. “Oh…”

“Oh?” she asked, verging on panic.

“You mean…Papa?

She shook her head frantically, tears beginning to sting her eyes. “I…I…I have to go…”

“Beaux, please. My father cares very deeply for you, but he…he isn’t…”

“I know! Don’t you see? It doesn’t matter. When all of this is over, when Mem is safely married, I’m leaving anyway.”

“Leaving?”

She crossed her arms, trying to reign in her emotions, wondering when she’d even made the decision that until that point had only hovered in her subconscious. “Leaving. I’m getting away from here. As far away from…all of this…as I can.”

“You wouldn’t leave Mary Margaret,” Bae said sternly. “Safely married or no. Now, Papa is not going to let you fall back into the hands of your uncle, no matter what.”

“I know,” she whispered. “But it isn’t his responsibility. We aren’t his responsibility.”

Bae smiled and shook his head. “Try telling him that.”

“You won’t, will you?” she asked fearfully. “Tell him, I mean?”

“No,” Bae said. “I won’t. But you know he wouldn’t be angry with you, don’t you?”

She winced. “I’m not so sure about that.”

Bae took a step toward her, and wrapped his big arms around her, hugging tight.

“We’re quite the lot, aren’t we?” she asked, patting his back in what she hoped was a masculine manner. Mem with James, you with Emma and me…”

He laughed. “Yeah, I’ll say. But maybe we’ll all be okay.”

She squeezed him and pulled back. “I know for sure you will be, Bae. So long as you talk to Emma.”

“I will, I promise,” he droned. “I think you’ll make a hell of a father someday, Beaux. Whether you…er…I mean…”

She laughed. “I appreciate you saying so, Bae. But I think I can say with confidence that I’ll never be a father.”

He shrugged. “Fine then, I’ll just remember to hunt you down occasionally to complain about my love life and get your advice. I think Papa tires of it sometimes."

“Deal,” Belle said, grinning. “I think I really am going to turn in now. Goodnight, Bae.”

“Goodnight, Beaux. And thank you again.”

She hesitated at the door, biting her lip. She should just tell him. Maybe if Bae handled it well, it would mean Reinhart would too.

But she kept remembering what Reinhart had said, about the difficulty surrounding Mary Margaret’s supposed engagement. It was Belle the one trapped in an engagement, and she realized more now than ever that her only hope of being safe from Keith was either marry someone else, or flee.

Perhaps in time Reinhart would be able to forgive her deception and begin to see her as a woman, but that would take time Belle simply didn’t have.

And in the end, she was just too much of a coward to risk it.

Chapter Text

Belle awoke the morning of the ball feeling antsy and unsettled. Not even when their parents died did she feel so unsure about her future. She was less and less confident that James would be at the ball, and she could only hope that Mary Margaret was prepared for that possibility. If he wasn’t, and Mary Margaret didn’t make another match, then Belle would have to trust Reinhart to take her in and protect her from their uncle. For her part, Belle’s only chance was to get away. To escape Keith Nottingham, along with Reinhart’s scorn once he inevitably learned the truth.

While she trusted Bae, she thought it was only a matter of time before he let on to Reinhart about “Beaux’s” feelings for him. He just didn’t seem the type to be able to hide anything, especially from his astute father. Hopefully Belle would be in the next kingdom before everything went to hell.

She felt slightly guilty to have Jefferson pulled away from his own hectic schedule to help her dress, but after he’d insisted on adding flair and frills to her brother’s  quality, but otherwise plain suit, she’d quite frankly needed the help to make heads or tails of it all, and there was quite literally no one else able to assist her.

It should have been embarrassing or at least awkward to allow a man she wasn’t married to see her in the altogether, but Jefferson was so matter-of-fact about it, it didn’t bother her. Although she did blush and swat at him when he complimented her “nice, round arse.”

He even helped her wrap her breasts with a nicer, softer fabric he’d produced.

“If you insist on suffocating these lovely things, might as well be with a decent material,” he said.

“Have you not seen a corset?” Belle asked. “They manage to suffocate your breasts and your stomach. At least I’m halfway free here.”

He harrumphed. “Well, in any case, look here;” he wrapped the fabric around her, and she could see that he was gathering in the front with ties.

“For your information, I have seen a corset, and this will be easier to put on and remove by yourself.”

“Much easier!” she exclaimed, tying the strings herself.

He stood back, nodding at the finished product. “I daresay that I’m a genius. Perhaps I ought to make more of these and sell them. Do you think women would like a smaller, more comfortable alternative to the corset?”

Belle chuckled. “If you can come up with one designed to emphasize the bosom instead of hiding it, I believe you just might have something.”

Bae showed up after she was well and decent, and she became wholly interested in a book whilst he walked about in only his smallclothes. He was clearly as nervous and unsettled as she, though for vastly different reasons. She longed to comfort him somehow, but she didn’t dare until he put on some damn clothes.

Jefferson grumbled as he oiled her curls as straight as they would go, and pulled them back into a club at the base of her neck with a jaunty blue ribbon. He produced a pair of white kid gloves, but she firmly rejected the offer of powder and rouge. She wanted to avoid femininity, thankyouverymuch.  

She didn’t see Reinhart, however, much to her disappointment…or perhaps relief, but she couldn’t keep waiting; the hour of the ball was fast approaching.

She waited at the bottom of the staircase leading to the third floor, smiling at the giggling ladies who fluttered their fans at her as they passed. Bowing and winking and otherwise being charming to ladies was becoming a bit of a habit, and she wondered wryly if she would ever accidentally do it once she was dressing as a woman again, and what people would think.

A part of her wondered if perhaps she could just keep on as she was.

She could travel around, as she’d always wanted. No need to stay around any one place long enough for anyone to suspect her, or wonder why she was seeming to refuse to grow from boy to man.

And she’d never have to think about what could have been with a certain older would-be prince.

Finally, Mary Margaret and Ruby appeared arm-in-arm, also giggling as they skipped down the stairs, and thoughts of exploring the world as a man were replaced with that old pang of envy at seeing them in their beautiful gowns. Pretend as she might, at the end of the day she was still just a girl who had always dreamed of attending a royal ball.

“Ladies,” she said in her most courtly manner, bowing deeply. Remembering dimly Reinhart’s advice to pay compliments, she quite literally pulled a page from her hero Gideon’s book. “The princess is going to be quite cross with you both,” she quoted, and when they looked at her in confusion, she continued; “For outshining her beauty by far!”

Ruby flushed the approximate color of her name, and Mary Margaret rolled her eyes.

“Please,” her sister groaned, doubtless recognizing the quote.

Undaunted, she held out both arms. “May I escort you both?”

Ruby almost knocked Mary Margaret down in her hurry to Belle’s side, and Mary Margaret gave them both a narrow look before taking Belle’s other arm.

The herald announced them, and they descended the long staircase leading into a lavishly decorated ballroom, with a high vaulted ceiling painted with little cherubs.

Women and men were already twirling around one another like the figurines in a music box, while music floated through the air like a dream. Along the sides of the room, people chatted and flirted and drank punch, or retreated to dark corners for a tad more privacy.

In a bit of an anticlimax, their entrance went largely unnoticed, unlike in her books where the heroine enters the ball and everyone stops and turns to stare.

But then, she was no heroine, was she?

“This is wonderful!” Mary Margaret gushed, eyes alight like a child. “Look at them all! Oh, I can’t wait to see the king and princess!”

“Me either,” Belle agreed, more curious than anything. “I can’t believe we’ve been in the king’s castle for days and have yet to so much as see him.”

“Drat, would you two excuse me?” Ruby said. “My grandmother is motioning for me. It probably means her majesty needs me again,” she looked at Belle. “You’re still saving me that dance, right?”

Belle bowed slightly. “Of course.”

Once Ruby had flitted out of sight, Belle found herself faced with a very angry-looking little sister.

“What in the world are you doing?”

Belle took a step back. “What? What did I do?”

“Oh, you know fine well what you’re doing, don’t pretend you don’t. Do you not know that you’re making Ruby fall for you?”

“I’m a little confused by everything you just said,” Belle said honestly. “Do I know or not know?”

“Oh hush!” the music was picking up then, and a giggling girl tugged on Mary Margaret’s arm. “Come on,” she said, pulling Belle into the dance.

It was a steady, traditional dance that she knew well. Only one problem; she’d learned the girl’s part.

“Other way,” Mary Margaret hissed.

“I’m sorry! This is harder than it looks!”

“Ruby likes you,” Mary Margaret said once the dance directed them to join hands. “Or rather, she thinks she likes a charming boy named Beaux. She’s a really good person, she doesn’t deserve to be hurt!”

“I know, I know! I don’t want to hurt her,” Belle said. “I like her too. Not like…that…of course. But what am I supposed to do? I’ve already promised her the dance. To back out now would hurt her feelings.”

“Well, you don’t have to keep being so courtly. I’ve always known you were a hopeless flirt, but now it’s really going to get you into trouble, and not just with Ruby.”

Belle frowned, but she couldn’t ask for elaboration for a moment while they switched partners. Once they were together again, she continued. “Hopeless flirt? And what do you mean, not just with Ruby?”

Mary Margaret’s eyebrows lowered into a flat line. “Do you honestly think I haven’t noticed the way you look at Mr. Gold?”

Reinhart?” she squeaked before clearing her throat to remind herself to pitch it lower.

“Oh Reinhart now, is it? God’s teeth, Beaux. You’ve absolutely lost your mind. I saw your face at the Lover’s Tree, when Ana was going to kiss him.”

“Will you keep your voice down?” she hissed and looked around before continuing. “Like it even matters!”

Mary Margaret’s look softened, and she led them off the dancefloor into a quieter corner. “So you admit it, then? You have feelings for him?”

Belle bit her lower lip and averted her eyes.

“Wow, I must admit, I’d worried it might happen with the son, but not the father.”

“He isn’t that much older,” Belle groused. “And he’s kind, and smart, and he listens to me, values my opinion, like I’m…”

“A man?”

“Like I matter.”

Mary Margaret sighed. “So what are we going to do? Are you going to reveal yourself to him?”

“What?! I…I can’t!”

“Why not? You certainly can’t keep going on like this!”

Belle scowled. “It’s…it’s not important right now. Let’s …just focus on finding James.”

Mary Margaret deflated visibly. “He’s not here and you know it. Ruby knows everyone, and she’s heard of no one named James who fits that description,” she chuckled a bit dryly. “Although, she said he does sound an awful lot like King David.”

Belle huffed out a barking laugh. “Wouldn’t that be something?”

“Ah, there you are.”

They turned around to find Reinhart standing behind them, hands behind his back. “Mary Margaret, you look lovely,” he said kindly before turning to Belle, who gulped. He looked absolutely resplendent in his fine suit, with his long hair combed back away from his face, and a statement cane resting casually in his hand. She stared just a moment too long at that hand, noticing for the first time how long and graceful his fingers were. “And you’re looking very handsome yourself, Beaux,” he said to her.

“Th…thank you, Rain.”

Mary Margaret gave her a look that said she was going to ask about that little nickname later.

Reinhart cleared his throat a bit awkwardly. “Mary Margaret? Might I trouble you for a dance?”

Mary Margaret smiled and handed him her dance card, before taking his arm and letting him lead her back to the dance floor.

Now that pang of envy was an out-and-out cannon fire. She knew without a doubt that her sister would never, ever do anything to betray her, but for the first time she began to worry that Mary Margaret might just begin to see in Reinhart what Belle saw. But she didn’t have long to glower, as Ruby had appeared, ready for her dance.

She took Ruby’s small hand in hers, and had to concentrate carefully to copy the man’s role of the dance.

“You needn’t look so nervous,” Ruby said. “You’re doing wonderfully.”

Belle smiled self-consciously, and glanced over at Reinhart and Mary Margaret. Why did she look upset?

“And don’t worry about her,” Ruby said, following Belle’s look. “I think Lord Gold is only angling to wed her to Bae, but he’d be wasting his time. Bae’s madly in love already.”

“I’d heard,” Belle said distractedly.

They continued to dance, and Belle found she was starting to enjoy it. The man’s part was a bit less strenuous, so she was able to just smile and have fun.

When the dance was over, she and Ruby grinned at one another, but when she looked to find Mary Margaret, she was still on the dancefloor with Reinhart, but they were no longer dancing, and they seemed to be having a serious discussion.

“Would you like to go outside?” Ruby asked shyly. “To the garden?”

“Erm, my sister might miss me,” she hedged.

“She won’t. I could show you the rose garden, it’s beautiful this time of year.”

Belle was reminded firmly of the tavern girl, and balked. “Ruby, you don’t know what you’re asking…”

Ruby rolled her eyes, then placed a hand on the side of Belle’s face, leaning closer. “Yes I do. Come on, let’s just have a bit of fun.”

Belle shook her head. “No…Ruby…listen…you don’t know…”

“But I thought…” Ruby said quietly, her face falling. “I thought surely…after last night…”

“Ruby,” Belle pleaded. “You’re…you’re a wonderful girl. I just…oh damn it, I’m not a man!”

Ruby blinked. “Not a…oh, Beaux, surely it isn’t that I’m older than you? It’s only two years! And you’re much more mature than most of the…”

Belle growled, grabbing Ruby’s hand and dragging her halfway behind a potted plant. “No! Listen, Ruby! I’m not a man…I, I’m not a boy.”

Ruby’s eyes widened. “What are you saying, Beaux?”

“My name isn’t Beaux. It’s…”

“I’M CALLING YOU OUT!”

Despite the volume, the shout was almost drowned out by the music. As it was, they were near enough to hear and turned to see Bae facing off with an imposingly huge older gentleman. Behind him stood a beautiful blonde looking like she was wishing she were anywhere but there.

“Let me guess,” Belle sighed. “That’s Emma?”

“Indeed,” Ruby confirmed wryly.

Belle couldn’t hear all of the words, but she heard enough, coupled with Bae’s rapidly paling face and Emma’s apparent embarrassment. She thought she knew why Emma had acted strangely toward Bae the night before.

Belle took a step in their direction, wanting to help Bae in any way she could, even if it was just to stand as a second for a duel, when the trumpets blared announcing the arrival of the king and princess.

She looked around to find Reinhart, to see if he’d noticed what was happening with his son, and found him and Mary Margaret standing side-by-side, staring at the staircase, and Mary Margaret’s face as pale as Bae’s.

Confused, Belle turned around and looked to the top of the staircase, where a handsome young man and an equally handsome young woman were slowly descending.

She’d only met him once, many years ago, but even still, she understood Mary Margaret’s face at once.

 “Oh no…” Belle whispered. “James…”

“What? Oh…you’re joking…” Ruby said, her eyes widening.

Mary Margaret spun on her heel and ran out. Belle took off after her, but she had to run right past the argument between Bae and Emma’s father, which was getting heated, and Belle was knocked right into the refreshment table, red wine soaking her clothes.

“Christ! Beaux, I’m so sorry!” Bae cried, looking literally close to tears. “I was just…”

“Never mind,” Belle said. “Why don’t you and Mr.…”

“Swan,” Emma’s father said gruffly. “My apologies, lad.”

Belle nodded. “Why don’t you and Mr. Swan take your discussions outside?” she looked over at Emma. “Bae is a fool, but a good man. Give him a chance?”

Emma smiled softly, and followed her men out of the ball.

“Let me help you,” Ruby said. “I can take you…”

“No! I got it!” Belle snapped, pulling the wet clothing away from her skin. Ruby looked injured, but Belle couldn’t help it at the moment. She needed to get to her sister before something else went wrong. Distracted as she was, she nearly ran straight into two men just entering the ball, but skirted around them, not taking note of them beside a sour stench coming from one of them that almost gave her pause, but she shook her head and continued on, intent on Mary Margaret.

Chapter Text

Belle ran out into the abandoned hall, but there was no sign of Mary Margaret.

“Beaux?” it was Reinhart, coming after her.

Belle sighed, raising her arms in a helpless gesture before letting them fall against her sides again with a wet slap. “King David is James, Rain. I don’t know how but…”

“I know,” he said. “That was what I was trying to tell her, but she wouldn’t believe me until she saw for herself. Come, let me help you get cleaned up then we can look for her.”

Belle shook her head. “No, you need to find Bae. He’s having a…situation with Emma Swan and her father.”

Reinhart groaned, rolling his eyes toward the ceiling. “Of course. I’ll go make sure he isn’t getting himself killed, but other than that, the boy is going to need to handle this on his own,” he pointed a stern finger at her. “I want you to go straight up and change, you’re going to catch a chill running about drenched like that. Borrow another shirt from me if you need to.”

“Yes sir,” Belle gave a teasing salute before running up the stairs.

Once she was inside the suite, she stripped off her freezing clothes, looking for a shirt to put on while her mind raced with thoughts of what to do now. Unfortunately, none of hers were clean, not even the borrowed one, so she crossed the sitting room to Reinhart’s room. She found one, but muttered a few choice curses when she realized the wine had soaked straight through to her wrap, and Jefferson had absconded with her other one, declaring it fit only for the rag bin.

Her only choice was to rinse it out. It would be ever more soaked than it already was, but at least the purple wouldn’t stain Reinhart’s shirt.

Surely neither she nor Mary Margaret would be able to stay in Avonlea now. His Majesty hadn’t seemed to notice Mary Margaret but if he did, and he recognized her, it could only spell trouble. Clearly he hadn’t forgotten her, if that letter was any indication, but there was no way she could even think about coming between him and the princess. And Belle feared that her sister was just blind in love enough that she could possibly be persuaded into becoming a mistress, and damned if Belle was letting that happen.

She removed her wrap and put Reinhart’s shirt on before going back out to the sitting room, where the copper tub sat, still filled from that morning.

She dipped the wrap in, scrubbing it with the bar of soap, swearing all the while. When the door suddenly opened, she startled, dropping the wrap and soap into the tub, splashing her entire front with tepid water. Gritting her teeth in frustration, she spun around, expecting Jefferson and ready to spew out an imaginative curse or two, but her heart stopped at finding Reinhart instead.

“What happened?” she asked nervously, painfully aware of her state of undress.

“He got the blasted girl pregnant!” Reinhart bellowed, gesturing wildly and blessedly not paying any attention to her. “I can’t believe he could have been so foolish!”

Belle had suspected as much, but sighed anyway. “But he loves her, doesn’t he? Can’t they simply be wed?”

“Oh, they’ll be wed alright, but her father is demanding an outrageous sum as a grievance payment.”

“That’s silly, it takes two to make a baby, and as foolish as he is, you and I both know Bae would never lay a hand on a woman who wasn’t perfectly willing.”

“No,” Reinhart allowed. “He wouldn’t. But apparently Mr. Swan had planned to give her hand to a rich duke. However, I think that’s the least of our problems just now. What’s to be done about Mary Margaret?”

Belle nodded. “I need to find her. She must be devastated.”

“Ruby’s gone after her. Perhaps let her comfort her for a time. Hope is not lost, lad. I could see at the ball how much young Ruby fancies you…perhaps…”

“I don’t love Ruby,” Belle interrupted firmly, a bit tired of having to say it. “And I never will.”

She stood up from the tub, crossing her arms over her chest, and the look he gave her was almost desperate.

“But why? She’s beautiful, smart, and she has the money and standing to help you and your sister. I can think of worse fates, then marrying a girl you may not love, but most certainly get on well with.”

Belle gave a growl of her own and dropped her clenched fists to her sides. “I can’t!”

Reinhart took a step closer to her. “Why?”

~

All at once, Gold realized how close he was to Beaux. The lad was looking up at him with those too-large eyes, hair hanging in limp curls around his flushed face, seeming to plead with him to understand…something.

And something broke in Gold then. He was already going to hell…so he might as well go without regrets.

With a half-strangled cry, he covered Beaux’s mouth with his own, feeling the younger man tense up, before he simply gasped softly and melted into the kiss.

Gold grabbed his shoulders roughly, pulling him closer, sliding his tongue out to lightly trace around Beaux’s deliciously full mouth.

But then Beaux was pulling away, and there were tears in his eyes, and Gold felt like he wanted to die.

“Reinhart…I…”

Christ,” Gold hissed, releasing the poor lad, and to his shame felt tears stinging the corners of his eyes. “Beaux I…I’m so sorry…I don’t know why…I’m not…surely you must know I don’t…”

Beaux was shaking his head, taking a step back, toward the fireplace. “No…you don’t understand. I have to tell you something…I’ve been dishonest….”

Gold was so busy feeling completely wretched, that for a long moment his brain couldn’t catch up to what he was seeing.

The way Beaux was standing, angled toward the fire, it made the damp shirt he was wearing – Gold’s shirt – nearly transparent, and Gold could see everything…every curve…every…

“Beaux?” he whispered, blinking dumbly.

Beaux looked up, following his gaze to his own chest, and gasped before his head snapped up again. “I…”

Reinhart stepped toward Beaux again, almost as if in a trance. He reached out, half expecting his old eyes to be playing tricks on him, but the softness of a breast filled his hand, and he pulled it back again as if burned.

“What in the bloody hell?”

~

Belle didn’t know what to say, how to explain. So she didn’t.

She pulled at the neck of the shirt, shrugging her shoulders until it fell to the floor. Reinhart’s eyes dropped along with his mouth, and it seemed like everything finally fully clicked in his brain.

~

The boy that Gold had felt guilty for lusting after all this time was no boy at all…but a girl…

No, not a girl. For God’s sake…this was a woman.

At first it felt like Beaux had just magically disappeared, replaced with this stunning siren standing before him. But it was Beaux. That was his face…his eyes…

Gold wasn’t entirely sure how to feel. He was at once confused, aroused, embarrassed, very aroused, and also undeniably relieved.

He wanted to take this…this woman and throttle her for putting him through all this torment, and at the same time he wanted to take her against the wall…hard and desperately.

But who even was she? She obviously wasn’t a boy named Beaux. Was Mary Margaret even his – her – sister? Why could she have just told him? Did she truly not find him worthy of that trust before she had no choice?

He needed answers, but more overwhelmingly than that, he needed time. So like the coward he was known for, he turned around, and fled.

~

“Reinhart!” she cried, hastily pulling the shirt back on and following him into the hall. She wanted to call for him to come back, let her explain, but the words stuck in her throat.

“Beaux?” Jefferson said, appearing from the other side of the hall and hurrying over to her. “What the devil are you doing? That shirt is practically transparent!”

She stamped her foot and roughly brushed a few stray tears from her face. “Reinhart…he…he knows.”

“Hardly a surprise, you walking about in that getup. And the daft man ran? Lud, I’ve little taste at all for women but you’re well on your way to giving me a right firm one.”

“He’s upset,” she said, ignoring his exaggerated leering. “And I don’t blame him.”

Jefferson sighed. “Well, we’ll have to deal with him later. There’s trouble down in the throne room. Some men arrived at the ball and started making a scene. They’re in with the King now, claiming they’ve tracked some runaway women to here.”

“Oh God…” she groaned, wondering what else could possibly go wrong! “They found us!”

“Get dressed,” Jefferson commanded. “We need to get your sister and you two out of here.”

She threw back on her stained trousers and jacket, not bothering with the binding, and gathered her things as fast as she could. She needed to find Mary Margaret and fast.

More tears threatened to fall at the knowledge that now she may never get the chance to explain herself to Reinhart, but there was nothing for it.

When they reached the main foyer, Ruby came rushing out like the hounds of hell were at her heels.

“Ruby!” Belle exclaimed, forgetting to monitor her vocal pitch. “Where’s Mary Margaret?!”

“The throne room!” Ruby cried. “His Majesty sent for you both. Two lords, Blanchard and Nottingham are here, causing a riotous fuss, disturbing the whole ball! They’re searching for Blanchard’s two nieces…”

Fuck!” Belle cursed. “Nottingham’s here too?”

“Is he the one betrothed to your sister?” Jefferson asked.

Belle gave him a meaningful look. “Not exactly.”

Jefferson’s eyes widened. “Oh…”

“Beaux, you have to come!” Ruby insisted, pulling her hand.

“He can’t!” Jefferson snapped, grabbing her other hand.

“What’s going on?” Bae arrived then, Emma trailing behind him, their hands clasped. Well, at least one thing seemed settled. Bae frowned and tilted his head to one side at the sight of the strange game of tug o’ war happening.

“My uncle is here,” Belle said, snatching both her hands away. “King David’s called us in to meet with him. He thinks there’s been a mistake, but I have to get my sister out of here.”

“Where’s my father?!” Bae demanded. “He won’t let your uncle take you.”

“He…he can’t help right now. But I have to go!”

She turned and ran, hearing the others all follow. She made it to the throne room just as Mary Margaret was being escorted in the other side.

“Beaux!” Mary Margaret cried.

“Snow?!” David exclaimed.

“Snow?” Jefferson murmured in question.

“It was a nickname,” Ruby explained.

“What in God’s name is going on here?!” Belle’s uncle demanded.

David looked positively green around the gills, exchanging a look with a perplexed princess. “Sir, I’m very sorry…I’m afraid you must…”

Those are my nieces,” Blanchard said, pointing toward Belle and Mary Margaret, who were now standing together, hands linked. “I intend to take them home this moment. I have a legally binding betrothal contract between Lord Nottingham and…”

“You clearly have made a mistake!” Bae declared, his voice starting off hesitant but growing in sureness. “You’re asking after your nieces, but this is plainly and young man and woman!”

Nottingham laughed. “Man?” he looked over at her, taking in her attire. “Belle, what in the world have you been doing?”

Bae turned and looked at Belle, his wide brown eyes confused. “Beaux?”

Nottingham stormed over and took Belle roughly by the arm. “Beaux? Are you quite serious?”

Fists clenched, David descended the steps. His guards stepped forward as well, but they all looked rather dazed by the proceedings “Sir, you will unhand that…good heavens, is that you, Belle?”

Belle ripped her arm away from Keith, and faced Bae, Ruby, and Jefferson.

“Who the hell are you?” Bae demanded.

“My name is Belle French. I…I’m Mary Margaret’s older sister. I only dressed as a man to get us away from these monsters!”

Ruby’s face paled, and she took several steps back. “Oh good Lord…”

“I’m so sorry, Ruby,” Belle implored. “I never meant for any of this to happen.”

“And she is my betrothed,” Keith said, taking her arm again.

“Your majesty,” Bae said, coming forward. “Please, you cannot let these men take them!”

But David was looking at the contract Blanchard had provided. “It’s a legal contract, Baelfire, I don’t know what I can do.”

“But they aren’t married yet!” Jefferson said.

“And it isn’t like Belle signed it!” Mary Margaret snapped.

“You’re the king!” Bae insisted.

“But this contract was formed in Phyrgia…that’s King Midas’s land…Abigail,” he turned to the princess, who had been watching on with interest. “Is there anything you can do?”

Abigail’s mouth gaped. “I…I don’t know…my father never…”

“Regardless of contract,” Blanchard said. “These are my nieces, and they are under my care. I am their only living male relative and guardian. You wouldn’t dare stand in the way of a man’s claim on his family, would you?”

“ENOUGH!” Belle screamed. “Stop talking about Mary Margaret and I like we’re objects that can be claimed!” she glared hard at her uncle. “I will go with you.”

“What?!” Jefferson shouted.

“Belle, no!” Mary Margaret cried.

But Belle ignored them. “I will go with you, on one condition…you leave my sister here, in Avonlea, and you stay away from her…from this kingdom…forever.”

Blanchard narrowed his eyes at her. “And you’ll marry Nottingham? Without complaint?”

Belle had to swallow around a lump of bile in her throat, but she nodded. “Yes.”

Blanchard hesitated a long beat, sending Mary Margaret a lecherous look. “Fine,” he said. “Let’s go.”

“Beaux…” Bae cried, chasing after her. “Er…Belle…you can’t do this!”

“Take care of Mary Margaret for me,” she said urgently. “And tell your father…just…tell him I’m sorry.”

“Where are my advisors?!” David exclaimed helplessly.

“Belle, please!” Mary Margaret cried. “It isn’t worth it!”

Belle smiled at her. “You were always worth it, baby sister.”

And then they were gone.

Chapter Text

Gold took himself to the gardens, hoping perhaps the fresh air would clear his spinning head, but the scent of roses only reminded him what Beaux had smelled like when he’d been close…

“Fuck,” Gold hissed. He hadn’t even asked her real name.

His problem was clear. He was in love with her, he’s already come to terms with that, but he was just so confused by the fact that he plainly didn’t know her. What else had she lied about? What if she wasn’t really the person he’d fallen for? He didn’t know anything, and if he could have been so easily fooled...

And there it was. He swore he’d never be taken for a fool again after Milah…

But Beaux wasn’t Milah. Gold truly didn’t believe that he…she…had set out to make a fool of him. She hadn’t even wanted his help, initially. She was just trying to take care of herself and her sister.

So many things made sense now, and he just couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen it sooner.

Well, hiding from her wasn’t going to help a thing. They needed to have a good, long talk, and he needed to kiss her again as well. His body was still aching, deeply regretting having turned away from what had been so openly, sweetly, offered, as images of her perfect body flashed through his mind.

He was just about to turn and go back when his son appeared. He winced, having forgotten all about Bae’s predicament. Damn it all he was going to be a grandfather! And here he was chasing after a girl who’d been parading as a boy and…was she even really seventeen?! He thought not…God, he hoped not.

“Papa!” Bae cried, and Gold’s heart lurched at the panicked edge to his boy’s voice.

“Bae?” he said. “What is it, son?”

“Where were you?!” Bae screamed angrily. “She’s gone! They took her!”

“Who?!” Gold demanded. “Your Emma?”

Bae growled, and if Gold hadn’t been so worried, he would have been amused by how like him his son looked. “No! Beaux! He’s…she…he’s a she…”

“Yes, I know,” Gold interrupted. “But…wait, what the hell do you mean, taken?!”

“Her uncle! He came to claim them, with Beaux’s betrothed. Beaux, not Mary Margaret! She agreed to go with them and marry Keith Nottingham in exchange for leaving Mary Margaret behind!”

Gold felt like he was going to be sick. “The “lecherous beast” is Beaux’s betrothed?! And she went with him?!”

“You weren’t there!” Bae accused, practically vibrating in anger and panic. “You could have helped her, but you were out here…sulking!”

“Why didn’t David stop them? What the bloody use is it to be a damned king if you don’t do anything?!

“I suppose they had a contract formed in Midas’s lands, but Papa, we have to do something!”

Gold huffed. “Well of course we will. Do you know where they’ve gone?”

“David sent a sentry out to trail them.”

“Come on.”

 

“I’m sorry, Rain,” David said. “I didn’t know what to do! Nothing like this has ever happened!” he looked wretched, and though Gold had no heart at the moment to console him, he understood that the young king had rarely been asked to settle problems without his infernal advisors and solicitors around. He’d never been properly prepared. But that was an issue Gold could address with him later.

“Is there anything you can do?” Mary Margaret demanded, her face red and swollen from crying.

“Well, for now, I’m going to go and take her back,” Gold said. “We’ll worry about the legalities later.”

“The solution is simple,” Jefferson said, stroking his chin. “All they have is a betrothal contract. Marry the girl yourself, and boom! Their silly contract is null and void. All you’ll have is a lasting feud and, let’s face it, it won’t be your first or your last.”

“I can’t just marry her,” Gold blustered. “After what’s happened, what makes you think she’d even have me?”

Mary Margaret scoffed. “What makes you think she wouldn’t?”

David looked over at Mary Margaret, eyes strained with regret. “I may be king, but I still have rules I must abide by. I can’t just wave a magic scepter and release you from their hold. Your uncle is still your legal guardian, until I can have my solicitors overturn it. And at that point, you’ll need a new guardian.”

“Why can’t she just have a husband?” Abigail asked. “Wouldn’t that be faster?”

David frowned. “Well…yes…but I’ll not have her rush into a marriage of convenience.”

Abigail rolled her eyes. “So you’ll what? Make her your ward? David, be serious. I know fine well this is the same girl you’ve been pining after for as long as I’ve known you.”

Both David and Mary Margaret flushed. “Abigail! You must know I haven’t…”

Mary Margaret spoke at the same time. “I didn’t even know he was the king!”

Abigail rolled her eyes. “Well, I’ve called for my driver to take me home, so I can explain things to Daddy, in case they make it that far.”

“Thank you, Abigail,” David said sincerely.

“We may not have time for that,” Gold said. “In the meantime, I have to go after Beaux now.”

“I’m coming too,” Jefferson said with a nod, removing his gloves. “Think you can manage the rest of the ball without me, Davie?”

David groaned. “Oh Lord, the ball…yes, yes, go on.”

“I’m coming, Papa,” Bae said.

“And me!” Ruby declared. “Beaux may not be the man I thought he was…but…well…I sure don’t want to see him marry that lout.”

Mary Margaret made to follow them as well, but Gold held out a hand to still her. “You should stay here, dearie.”

“What? No! I’m helping you find my sister!”

He shook his head. “We can’t risk you getting mixed up into the mess if Nottingham or Blanchard try something. Beaux would never forgive me if anything were to happen to you.”

Mary Margaret sighed, her shoulders slumping. “Her name is…”

“I know,” Gold held up his hand again. “But please, I didn’t ask her when I had the chance. Please, let me ask her her name.”

Mary Margaret nodded before leaning up on tiptoes to kiss his cheek. “Bring her home?”

“I promise, lass.”

They made to leave, but Bae hesitated when he noticed Emma was following.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m coming with you,” she said simply.

“N…no, you can’t! First of all your father is still here, ready to string me up. Second…your condition…”

She scoffed. “I’m not infirm, Baelfire. I may not know what all is happening here, and I DO expect the full story later, but it seems like your friend is in trouble, and I want to help. Besides, I want to stay with you.”

Gold glanced over at his son. “I like her.”

Bae smiled and gave a half shrug, and the five of them rushed for the stables.

“She loves you, you know,” Bae said quietly, as they prepared their horses. “She admitted it to me last night, only I didn’t know she was a girl at the time. I felt so sorry for her, thinking you could never return her feelings. But I was wrong, wasn’t I?”

“Aye,” Gold said, not looking at him. “You were.”

“Even before…you knew?”

Gold chuckled mirthlessly. “I was as surprised as you, my boy. But aye…I would have loved our Beaux…either way.”

Bae shrugged. “Ah, well. In the interest of future siblings, I suppose it’s for the best that she’s a woman after all.”

Gold warmed at the sudden idea of wee ones running about that resembled Bae, but with vibrant blue eyes, but forced his mind to take things a step at a time. “If she’ll forgive me for leaving when she was trying to tell me the truth.”

“Take it from me,” Emma put in. “Show her you mean business, and she’ll forgive you. Now, I hope you gentlemen wouldn’t mind telling me this tale on the way. Because it sounds like a very good story.”

Chapter Text

Belle was silent in the carriage, staring blankly out the window, feeling wretched and rather sorry for herself.

Keith sat beside her, close enough that their entire sides pressed against each other from knee to shoulder, and his hand rested on his thigh, a mere breath from hers. She didn’t look at it except through her peripheral vision, just waiting for him to dare place it on her leg. She fantasized vividly about the way she would bend his fingers in half if he tried.

She wrinkled her nose and tried to breathe through her mouth as much as she could. He smelled of beer, ham grease, and piss, and it made her want to gag.

Even after several days in the saddle, Reinhart had never smelled badly to her. He always seemed to smell of horses, leather, and a subtle musky scent that seemed to just be him. It made her want to bury her nose against him, instead of recoil. With Bae and his friends, even if the general smell of unwashed man was prominent, it didn’t offend the way Keith did.

She dimly hoped that Reinhart would come for her. Perhaps even now he was rallying a rescue party.

But she knew, rationally, how improbable that was.

She closed her eyes against the memory of him, just before he turned away from her in their chambers.

Belle hadn’t precisely meant to offer her body when she removed the shirt. She simply hadn’t been able to vocalize the words, “I’m a woman, Rain,” and figured that seeing was believing anyway. But there had been a moment, just a moment, when his pupils dilated dramatically, and his face flushed, and he looked at her like he could devour her…and by God, in that moment, she’d have gladly let him.

But then that moment passed, and his heated look was replaced by one of accusation and mortification, and then he was gone.

Even if he had overcome his pique, and had been willing to speak with her, the fact of the matter was she belonged – by law – to her uncle. And very soon, she would belong to Keith Nottingham.

Reinhart had told her…told Beaux…that the law was on her uncle’s side in the matter of Mary Margaret’s supposed betrothal to Keith. Only it was Belle who was the one stuck, and unless she did something drastic, like murder Keith or…possibly even harder than that…get married to someone else first, there was precious little anyone could do.

Belle took a deep breath with her face angled toward the window. She smelt rain. It made her smile.

It didn’t matter, in the end. When their parents died, Belle made a promise to them, and to herself, that she would take care of her baby sister. And she was fulfilling that promise.

Mary Margaret would be safe. She may not marry her beloved “James,” but Belle was absolutely confident that whatever Reinhart felt toward her, he would still take care of Mary Margaret. Perhaps he’d take her on as a ward, or perhaps she could stay at the castle and work with Ruby – although that brought back the issue with her past with the King. (The King!) But either way, Belle had successfully gotten her out of the clutches of their disgusting uncle. And that was all that mattered.

It didn’t seem like long at all, before they were coming upon a very old looking church, in the middle of practically nowhere.

Panic seized in her breast. She’d been expecting a longer wait. More time to prepare herself, or maybe come up with a plan of escape.

“Not long now, pet,” Keith crooned in her ear, making her shudder. “In just a few short hours, I’ll have you laid out on our marriage bed, and I’ll make you scream like th’ girl you are.”

Uncle Blanchard shook his head. “No need to be crass, Nottingham. However I do hope you plan on bedding the girl immediately. I don’t want any question as to the validity of this marriage.”

Keith smirked. “That mean you want to watch?”

Blanchard narrowed his eyes. “I think not. I have no desire to see you rut. But I want to see the sheets. And there’d better be blood.”

Keith looked at her, and she wanted to crawl out of her skin. “Oh, there will be.”

Blanchard turned his smarmy eyes on Belle. “I still cannot believe you managed to fool those people into believing you a man. How did you do that?”

Keith scoffed. “Didn’t you see some o’ those so-called men at that ball? Wi’ makeup and powder? E’en the king’s man was trussed up like a fairy. No wonder they was fooled, not a one o’ them’s a real man.”

“That fairy you speak of has more manliness in his beauty mark than you have in your entire damned body,” Belle snapped, unable to help herself.

The strike came before she could so much as flinch, and she covered her cheek with her hand, feeling it burn.

“’At’ll teach you to talk back, bitch!” Keith seethed

“A good wife must learn to be silent,” Blanchard said patiently. “You’ll do well to learn that, girl.”

Keith dragged her out of the carriage, and up the pathway to the church. She bit her lower lip, tasting blood, but she absolutely refused to cry in front of these monsters.

Blanchard and Nottingham hadn’t traveled alone. A collection of Keith’s friends and lackies had tagged along, and now they all swarmed about them, large and intimidating.

“What’s this?” a stocky old minister appeared at the door, his eyes watery and his nose a bright red. Belle could smell whiskey fumes even from four feet away.

“We’re ‘ere for a wedding,” Keith said, yanking Belle’s arm when she stumbled, as if she’d been trying to get away.

“Indeed?” the minister said warily, eyeing Belle.

“It is a matter of urgency, Father,” Blanchard said calmly. “My niece you see…” he cleared his throat. “If I may be quite blunt, she has gotten herself with child. I only mean to see matters set to right.”

The minister nodded, not looking terribly convinced, but like he didn’t know what else he could do. “Quite right, quite right,” he said. “I’ll need a moment to prepare, and I assume you will as well?”

“I want her in the dress,” Keith said to Blanchard. “No way’s am I marryin’ her in this getup.”

“Fine,” Blanchard said. “Father, if you’d be kind as to show us where we may refresh ourselves?” he glanced up at one of Keith’s lackies. “You be sure no one else comes through this door. Got it?”

The minister blanched. “Erm, the ladies of the church will be arriving soon, to clean. And of course I’m sure they’d be happy to assist your…erm…” he looked at Belle dubiously. “Niece?”

Blanchard waved a hand impatiently. “Fine! Let the ladies in,” he said to the lackey. “But not a soul else. Understood?”

The man nodded dumbly, and Belle wondered if he could even speak.

“Go clean yourself up,” Blanchard said to Keith before grabbed Belle’s arm. “You come with me. And I swear, if you make any trouble girl, I’ll go back for that sister of yours, and I won’t be letting her go again.”

Belle glared at him, but said nothing, and followed him into the church.

Chapter Text

They met the sentry on the road, who told them that Blanchard and Nottingham had taken Beaux directly to a church just outside of Avonlea.

“There’re men posted at all th’ doors,” the young soldier reported breathlessly. “But there’s women a’comin’ in n’ out. None dressed like chaps, though, n’ none so wee as erm…Mistress Beaux.”

Gold patted the soldier on the back and sent him along back to the castle. He protested at first, stating that His Majesty had instructed him to assist, but if there were any chance of them having to do something less than legal – such as murder – then it would be best for the boy to not get involved…or be witness.

They ran hard, and the entire way Gold was close to succumbing to panic, furious with himself for not being there when she needed him most. What kind of way was that to prove himself to her as a worthy husband and provider?

He decided then and there that if he didn’t make it in time, he’d kill Nottingham himself, damn the consequences. Better that Beaux be a young widow than trapped in such a marriage.

They reached the churchyard, and could see the guards from a distance. Gold didn’t miss that each one that he could see was at least twice his own size.

“How many men were they traveling with?” Gold asked the group at large.

“Eight,” Jefferson said. “No way are they letting any of us in.”

“But they’re letting the women in,” Ruby said, gesturing to a small group of elderly ladies making their way cautiously past the guard.

“They’re there to clean the church, most likely,” Emma said. “It’s the same at my parents’ church. They’re wives of the deacons. Blanchard probably wouldn’t have gotten the minister’s cooperation if they had barred out the ladies.”

“Perhaps Blanchard is having them assist in the wedding,” Gold suggested, mentally going over the odds of successfully breaking Beaux out of the church with only two pistols and three swords against eight armed men…not counting Nottingham and Blanchard themselves. Gold was a canny fighter, though it had been many, many years since he’d so much as raised fists to anyone. He felt like he could do it now, for Beaux’s sake, but it would be senseless to run in recklessly and get himself killed. Where would Beaux be then?

“So what is the plan?” Jefferson asked.

“I can go,” Ruby said decisively.

“Blanchard and Nottingham might recognize you,” Bae said, shaking his head.

“Then I’ll go,” Emma said. “I doubt they noticed me in the throne room. I stayed in the back.”

Bae looked at her. “You’d risk yourself to go in and save a woman you don’t even know?”

“She’s important to you, isn’t she?” she gave a glance over at Gold. “And if I’m understanding this whole situation correctly, I suspect she may be family soon.”

“You can’t go alone,” Gold said.

“What other choice do we have?” Jefferson asked. “They’ll never let a man in, even if they didn’t recognize you.” When Gold’s face scrunched up and turned slightly red, Jefferson had to cover his mouth to keep from howling too loudly. “Oh no. No, no, no, you can’t be serious!”

“What?” Bae asked impatiently. “Serious about what?”

“Do you think you could quickly let out the Lady Lucas’s gown a bit?” Gold asked through his teeth, looking like he was walking to the pillory.

“I’m sorry, what now?” Ruby asked, brows raised. “Are you…wait, truly?!”

“We have no other options, and we’re out of time!” Gold snapped.

Jefferson shrugged. “Well, it worked for young Beaux. Ruby, would you mind terribly?”

 

 

Luckily due to Ruby’s considerable height, and Gold’s relatively compact stature, her gown wasn’t all that far off from being able to fit Gold. All Jefferson had to do was let the seams out on the sides to accommodate Gold’s broad shoulders and general lack of corset.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Bae groaned, his face pressed to his hands.

“Shut up and pass me the petticoat,” Gold snapped from behind a copse of bushes where Jefferson was helping him to dress.

Ruby had already changed into Gold’s breeches, shirt, and jacket, and she was twisting about, admiring her own range of motion. “Wow, Beaux was really on to something here. This is great! I may get a pair of breeches myself when this is all over!”

“There,” Jefferson said, stepping back out of the bushes. “It’s the best I can do. I’m not a miracle worker, after all.”

“Well? Let’s see it!” Bae exclaimed.

Everyone held their breath until at last, Reinhart Gold emerged from the bushes, draped in golden lace and silk.

Jefferson had tied Gold’s shoulder-length hair into a matronly chignon, and a length of lace from the bottom of Ruby’s petticoat served as a cap.

“Bloody hell,” Bae murmured, while Emma and Ruby hid their mouths behind their hands.

“I changed my mind,” Gold hissed, “This will never work!”

“It’ll work!” Jefferson insisted. “You won’t be garnering many suitors, but I happen to think you make a right handsome woman!”

At that everyone dissolved into laughter, while Gold simply glowered.

“Enough,” Emma said. “I don’t think he looks so bad. But his face is too plain, he needs some rouge or something!”

With no cosmetics at hand, Emma and Ruby went to work with berries and flower petals to add a touch of pink to Gold’s cheeks and lips.

“Thank goodness you shaved this morning,” Ruby said. “Although I think it’s not terribly uncommon for a woman your age to grow a few whiskers.”

Gold narrowed his eyes at her.

“Wait, it’s missing something,” Bae said, appraising him. “I got it!” without preamble, he untied his cravat, before reaching for Jefferson’s. After wadding them into balls, his shoved them down the front of Gold’s bodice, filling in the space where Ruby’s generous bosom should have been.

“Wait, stop, they’re uneven!” Ruby said, stepping forward to make quick adjustments.

Gold made a face, slightly unnerved by the sight of a woman fondling his would-be breasts. He would need to think of this later on, and be sure he was always taking more care in the way he touched a woman’s chest…if he ever got that chance

Emma tore a strip of lace from the hem of her own gown, and arranged it across the top to hide his distinct lack of décolletage.  

“I think you’re ready,” Jefferson said. “Knock ‘em dead, beautiful.”

“Jefferson, I swear I’ll kill you.”

“In all seriousness, though,” Bae said, taking his father’s shoulders. “Be careful, aye?”

Gold nodded and turned to go. “I will, son.”

“And look after my fiancé, aye…Mama?”

Gold took Emma’s arm with one hand, and shot his son a crude gesture with the other.

 

“Easy,” Emma murmured once they reached the door. “Just keep your head down. And for goodness’ sake, stop fussing with your bodice.”

“One of them is sliding down!” he hissed under his breath, firmly lifting the errant cravat back into place.

“Who are you?” the guard asked once they reached him.

“Sorry we’re late,” Emma said charmingly. “My mother here was feeling a bit poorly this morning. But she’s better now. Is there something amiss? I’ve never seen you here before.”

He arched an eyebrow at her. “You’re here to help with the wedding?”

“Oh yes, I’d heard there was to be a wedding here today! We cannot wait to meet the bride to be!”

The guard tilted his head to try and see Gold better. “Are you feeling well, there, missus?”

“Yes, quite,” Gold said, pitching it as high as he could.

“Just a cold,” Emma said, smiling politely.

The guard turned to let them pass. “Go on, the bride is upstairs. Be quick about it, the ceremony is happening presently,” he gave Gold a smile and wink, which made Gold shudder. “Mayhap I’ll see you later on then?”

“Mayhap,” Gold squeaked nervously, darting past him.

He had to force himself not to run up the stairs and drag Emma along with him. He kept his steps small and his head down, and he wondered how women breathed in these constricting gowns. And he without even stays!

They quietly let themselves into the room upstairs, and Gold’s hope that she would be alone with the women was dashed when he saw that she was alone with a man who could only be her uncle standing beside her.

“Wear the damned dress,” he was saying. “You look positively ridiculous in those rags.”

“I said I’d marry him without complaint,” Beaux said, arms crossed, legs braced far apart, and chin tilted up defiantly. “I said nothing of wearing a hideous dress that smells like the prostitute it likely came from.”

Blanchard growled. “I swear if it wasn’t for the money Nottingham is paying for you, I’d have shot you ages ago. I’ll be happy when you’re his problem and not mine. Perhaps once he’s beat you into submission, you’ll be more pleasant company.”

“He can try,” Beaux said primly, nose in the air. Christ but Gold wanted her!

Blanchard caught sight of Gold and Emma in the corner and glowered. “Who are you?!”

“We’re here to help the bride dress,” Emma said, nodding at Beaux when she arched a brow at her.

“Good, perhaps you can do something with her,” he sneered. “But make it quick.”

Gold looked up to find Beaux staring at him hard. When their eyes met, hers flew open wide, but she schooled her features quickly.

He went to fetch the dress off a rack, wrinkling his nose at both the offending rust color, and the even more offending stench. “We’ll take care of her,” he warbled. “You…run along.”

From behind him he thought he heard Beaux snort at the sound of his voice. He didn’t dare look at her in that moment, confident he would just start to laugh.

“Oh no,” Blanchard said. “I’m not letting her out of my sight until she’s legally wed.”

Emma looked around. “There’s no dressing screen.”

Blanchard smirked. “Nothing I haven’t seen.”

One glance at Beaux’s stricken face was all Gold needed to have him across the room in two steps, punching Blanchard square in the jaw, sending him tumbling over a footstool where he struck his head on the floor.

“Wow,” Emma said calmly. “Impressive, Mr. Gold.”

“Reinhart!” Beaux exclaimed, rushing to him. “What the devil are you doing?!”

“Saving you of course,” he said. “You can’t have thought I’d just stand by while your uncle and betrothed take you away from me?”

“Then you know everything,” she said, looking down. “They have a contract, Rain.”

“Hang their bloody contract,” he growled, taking her arms in his hands. “I’m taking you home, lad, now.”

Belle chuckled through gathering tears. “I’m not a lad, Rain, and you know that. And I have no home.”

He smirked. “You’re my lad, and if you let me, I’d like to give you a home.”

“W…where?”

He leaned down, to press his forehead to hers. “With me, you daft woman. I’d like to ask you to marry me, but first I’d like you to tell me your name.”

“It’s Belle,” she said, beaming, voice softer than he’d ever heard it. “My name is Belle, and I’m 26 years old.”

His eyes widened. “You’re older! Thank God,” at this point, it wouldn’t have truly mattered to him, but he was relieved nonetheless.

“I’d like to kiss you,” she said, smirking. “but I’d hate to ruin your lip rouge.”

Gold shot her a playful glare before sealing his lips to hers.

“I love you, Belle,” he whispered, pulling away slightly.

“I love you, Rainy,” she whispered back.

“You know, I think I rather like that nickname when it comes from your lips.”

“As touching and…slightly weird as this is,” Emma interrupted. “I think we need to get out of here before Uncle Evil here wakes up.”

“They’re just going to come after us,” Belle said miserably. “I promised to marry Keith if they left Mary Margaret alone.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” Gold said, wrapping an arm around her.

She cut her eyes up to him. “You haven’t properly asked.”

Smiling, he got down to one knee, nearly falling when he got tangled up in his skirts. “Bugger,” he muttered, spreading his skirts daintily about him. “Belle French,” he said, taking her hand. “Will you be my wife?”

Belle bit her lower lip. “Yes!”

He stood up again to kiss her. “How in hell did I ever believe you were a man?” he asked in wonder. “There’s nothing bloody manly about you at all.”

She shrugged. “You saw what you thought you should see. Meanwhile, I think you make a very pretty lady.”

“Lud, you are in love,” Emma groaned. “Now, come on! Let’s see if we can kidnap a minister and get you two wed already!”

Chapter Text

They found the minister and managed to lead him out without Nottingham seeing. Reinhart had been more inclined to find the weasel first and end him, but Belle used her rather considerable sway she held over him to convince him not to risk bloodying himself before the ceremony.

The minister was confused to say the least, but he was fairly well into his cups, and had evidently already been trying to come up with a good reason not to perform the marriage between Nottingham and Belle when he saw how miserable she looked anyway. For all that he was a drunkard and not a terribly good minister, he seemed a right decent man.

“What’s this?” he asked, blinking in bafflement at the sight of Belle clutching Reinhart’s hand. “Is this your mother?”

Belle chuckled and glanced over at Reinhart, who was blushing profusely. “Nay, ye old’ fool,” he grumbled, and Belle felt a curious tingle run up her spine at the way his accent had thickened in anxiousness. “We need ye to wed us, and fast.”

“Wed you?” the minister asked, looking from one to the other. “But you’re…then are you not…” he looked at Belle. “I thought…oh. Do I not recall someone being with child?”

Reinhart fixed Belle with a distressed expression, but she placed a hand comfortingly on his arm. “That was a falsity, sir. There is no child. I’m erm…I’m a maiden. I want only the chance to marry the person I love.”

The minister’s eyes glazed over in a pleasant haze. “Aw, I love love. How marvelous! Do only tell me where your selected groom is, my dear.”

Belle cleared her throat and Reinhart groaned and rolled his eyes. “I’m right here ye daft man! Now will ye marry us or no? Emma, dearie, will ye either do something useful or else quiet down?”

Emma had been standing behind them the entire time, cackling in delight. In the end she took pity and waved them on before taking the minister’s arm and leading him out the back door of the church. They all glanced around nervously, but there was no sign of Nottingham’s dogs.

Belle broke into a run when she caught sight of Jefferson, Bae, and Ruby waiting for them beneath the shelter of a group of trees a small distance from the church. Jefferson swept her up into a great bear hug, followed immediately by Bae.

“I’m so sorry for the deception,” she said, her voice muffled by Bae’s shoulder.

“We understand why you did it,” he said. “I’m just happy you’re okay,” he pushed her back suddenly, gasping and staring at her with a startled expression. “By God! I took you to a brothel! Y…you went upstairs with a woman!”

“It was a learning experience,” Belle said, shrugging one shoulder.

“You think you have problems?” Ruby said, hands braced on trouser-clad hips. “I kissed her!”

“And you liked it, didn’t you?” Jefferson asked.

Ruby rocked her head from side to side in a non-committal gesture, opening her arms to hug Belle herself.

“Sorry I led you on,” Belle said. “I mean, if I were to choose a girl, it would be you.”

“I don’t need to hear all of this,” the minister said, wincing and staring in slight horror at the two women – dressed as men – speaking of kisses and such between them. “Are you all the witnesses?” Everyone nodded. “What about them?”

Belle looked over toward the tree, her question about the guards answered. Several men sat tied to the tree trunk, bruised and gagged and furious.

“Cousins,” Jefferson replied airily.

The minister, drunk as he was, still narrowed his eyes at Jefferson, though he didn’t seem inclined to worry too much about the brutes. “Suits me, although I’m not at all sure who the men are here and who the women!”

“Just get on w’ it,” Reinhart snapped, his expression softening when Belle nudged him.

The minister cleared his throat, hiccupped, then cleared his throat again. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to join this…er…” he waved back and forth between Belle and Reinhart. “Man…and…woman? In holy matrimony. If any soul objects to this union, speak now or forever…”

“Stop right there!” Keith roared, storming out of the church. “That bitch is mine!”

Jefferson held up a finger to the minister. “One moment, sir.”

He and Bae stalked after Keith, grabbing him between them and wrestling him to the ground.

“Too bad you’re such a disgusting creature,” Jefferson said. “Because you’re quite handsome,” he leaned down to kiss Keith on the lips, who reared back as best as he could, squawking in outrage.

“Get offa me!” he shouted, face red. Bae struck him on the side of his head with a sizable rock while he was sufficiently distracted, dazing him but not knocking him unconscious.

“Blech,” Jefferson said, grimacing and wiping his mouth. “The things I do for love.”

Bae was raising the rock for a second blow, but Reinhart held up a hand to stop him, taking a step away from Belle.

“Rain…” Belle said in slight exasperation. “He isn’t worth it.”

“A moment,” Reinhart said, not taking his eye’s from Nottingham as he knelt to look him in the eye, gown and all.

“Who th’ bloody hell are you?” Keith asked, turning his head to spit blood into the grass.

“I’m the man who is going to make sure you never so much as come within sight of Belle, ever again.”

Keith reared his head back. “Man? Man?” he guffawed, caused Reinhart to have to move backward to avoid getting hit with bloody spittle. “Are you fuckin’ serious?! Yer a freak like her!” he leaned over to look at Belle over Reinhart’s shoulder. “You really want this fairy ‘twix yer legs?! ‘Pose you do. ‘Pose you’ll be th’ one swiving him!”

“Enough,” Reinhart said calmly, standing and raising his fist.

“Wait,” Belle said, touching his sleeve. “Allow me,” she held out a hand for Bae’s rock, which was eagerly handed over. “Oh Keith,” she said mildly. “You’re only jealous that you could never be man enough to fill Reinhart’s petticoat.”

Reinhart chuckled. “Or perhaps it’s more that you’re jealous that her bollocks are bigger than yours.”

Keith had just enough time to go puce in outrage before the strike came, and he slumped into the dirt. Belle thought she heard a bit of muffled chuckling coming from the bound men by the tree.

“Now then,” Belle said, dropping the rock. “Shall we?”

Reinhart kissed her lightly, and she warmed at the expression of pride in his brown eyes. “Yes, love. I need to be married to you now.”

The minister stood staring mutely, then reached into his robe for a flask, took a swig, and cleared his throat.

“Anyway,” he said. “I believe we may begin. Since no one is…erm…left to object. Miss…er…Mr…do you take this…um…dear Christ, give me strength. Do you take one another to be your husband and wife?”

Belle grinned up at Reinhart, who was giving her an amused, but loving, look in return.

“I do,” they replied in unison.

“Grand!”  he waved at them, finishing quickly. “By the power invested in me by our Lord God, I now pronounce you husband and wife. Of sorts. You may kiss your bride, but I’m not entirely certain which is which now.”

Reinhart went to kiss her, but she pulled back just slightly. When he furrowed his brow in question, she grabbed him by the neck and shoulder, pulled him across her front in a dip with a flurry of lace, and kissed him hard.

The others rose up a cheer, and the minister threw up his hands in surrender.

“Now come on,” Belle said, releasing him after a time. “I can’t quite take you seriously in that dress, so I mean to get you out of it!”

“Your wish is my command,” Reinhart said, smirking. “Lad.”

“Erm, sir?” Bae said, taking Emma’s hand. “Do you think you’d mind terribly much performing one more wedding?”

The minister looked over at them. “Well, at least I can tell for sure which of you is the bride and groom, step on up!”

Bae looked over at Reinhart and Belle. “Papa? Stand with me?”

“Gladly,” Reinhart said, squeezing Belle’s arm.

The second wedding was far less eventful than the first, though just as unusual and memorable. Belle could scarcely take her eyes off her husband’s face, captivated by the quiet pride that shone while he watched his son be married.

“Well?” Reinhart said to Belle once Bae and Emma were kissed passionately. “You’ve managed to acquire yourself a husband, a son, and a daughter in one fell swoop. How do you feel?”

“Wonderful,” Belle said, beaming. “What of you? You’ve a new wife, new daughter, and somewhere, a pesky little sister. Just where is Mem?”

“Safe back at the castle, and likely to be very cross when she learns what she’s missed.”

Belle grinned “Come, I long to see her. Shall we go, husband?”

He grinned back. “Lead on, my Lady Wife. I shall follow.”

Chapter Text

They made their way immediately back to the castle, not even pausing long enough for Reinhart and Ruby to swap their clothes back.

The castle was quiet as the servants moved stealthily about, cleaning the messes made by the ball and subsequent departure of the ball guests. David was in his study with Mary Margaret, and all he did was blink twice at Reinhart before speaking.

“At this point, nothing surprises me. Nice dress, Rain.”

Reinhart nodded cordially. “Thank you.”

But Reinhart’s attire wasn’t the only surprise.

Abigail had indeed returned to her father, but she wasn’t coming back. She and David had, at long last, a serious discussion, and they realized that they were both in love with other people. She with a knight in her father’s army, and he with none other than Mary Margaret.

They decided that as rulers of their respective kingdoms, there was no reason they shouldn’t be allowed to choose the people they would spend the rest of their lives with. Assuredly there would be scandal, but it could be overcome. In time.

“We won’t marry right away,” Mary Margaret said, beaming as she draped herself around David’s arm. “We’ll give the kingdom a little time to get used to the break in David’s engagement.”

“And here all this time, I thought I was the cautious one and you the impulsive one,” Belle said, chuckling, as she stepped forward to embrace her sister. “And yet I’m the one suddenly married, and you the one taking the appropriate time.”

Mary Margaret narrowed her eyes at her. “Let us not get started on the fact that I wasn’t at my big sister’s wedding.”

Belle shrugged, grinning sheepishly. “We shall have to make up for it at yours!”

 

Since there had been a wedding planned in a few days’ time, a honeymoon suite had already been prepared for David and Abigail. David was more than happy to offer it to at least one set of newlyweds instead, particularly the pair most in need of immediate consummation.

Bae left with Emma to settle things with her father, armed with a bottle of David’s best whiskey, so it wasn’t likely that the two of them would pass a romantic time this night.

But Reinhart celebrated with Jefferson and David in the library while Ruby and Mary Margaret helped Belle prepare for her new husband.

“Is it not silly?” Belle asked, submitting to Ruby’s attentions to her hair. “Dolling myself up when we’re just going to…erm…” she blushed, shooting a nervous glance over her shoulder. “Go to bed?”

“Not silly at all,” Ruby’s Granny insisted, entering the chamber with a delicate pile of silk in her arms. “For the Lord’s sake, has that man ever seen you look like a lady?”

Ruby gave her grandmother a look. “No, Granny, we explained all of this.”

Granny harrumphed. She didn’t approve of Belle’s “shenanigans” one bit, especially considering that she’d been well aware of her granddaughter’s blooming affections for Beaux. But she’d accepted it all in stride, and was only all the more determined to make a true lady of Belle. “Ruby, go to the kitchens and fetch some of that sweet wine his Majesty keeps on hand, hm?”

Ruby finished pinning half of Belle’s curls on top of her head, so that the rest fell gracefully around her face, and went to do her grandmother’s bidding.

“Now,” Granny said firmly once Ruby was gone. “I suppose I can address this with you both, Mary Margaret being betrothed and all.”

“Address what?” Mary Margaret squeaked nervously.

“Mrs. Lucas,” Belle said. “I don’t think…”

“Tut tut!” Granny hushed her. “You two wild little hellcats have been without a mother for far too long. You remind me both of Ruby. How much do you know of relations between a man and his wife?”

The sisters exchanged a look. Belle knew that Mary Margaret was fairly well and truly clueless, but Belle had been reading anything and everything she could get her hands on since the age of five, and had long-since managed to come across highly educational material.

And then there was that trip to the brothel.

“You’d be surprised what you can learn, while posing as a man,” Belle said honestly.

Instead of the disapproval Belle expected, Granny gave a look that said, “true enough.” “In that case, I suppose you might be as ready as you can be. Nothing I, nor anyone else can say can truly prepare a young lady as much as the act itself. Just know that you needn’t be afraid, child. I’ve known Reinhart since he was but a boy, and he hasn’t a cruel bone in his body.”

Belle smiled warmly. “I know that.”

“Although…” she cast an arched eyebrow to the discarded boy’s clothing draped over a chair. “I wouldn’t have ever expected him to be at all like Jefferson…”

Belle threw back her head, laughing. “Don’t worry, Granny. I think he was as alarmed as you.”

Granny harrumphed again, and went about straightening the room.

“Are you nervous?” Mary Margaret asked, leaning over to apply the barest amount of cosmetics to her face.

“Yes,” she said, more able to be honest with her sister than anyone. “But not about tonight…that…I’m not really afraid of. What I’m afraid of is…what if Rain and I aren’t really suited for each other? What if he gets to know me as Belle and realizes he prefers Beaux? What if I’m not who he thinks I am?”

Mary Margaret chuckled. “Belle, I know you, I know you better than anyone in the entire world. I was there when you tried to swim naked with the boys. I was there when you broke your leg trying to save a cat from a tree. I was there when you got into a fistfight with that boy from Limier for pulling my pigtails. And I’ve been with you all these weeks, I’ve watched you with Reinhart, and Bae, and Lud! I’ve watched you try to flirt with girls! Reinhart already knows Belle, because he knows Beaux. In these past weeks, I’ve seen you be more…you, since we were children! You are Beaux, you silly girl.”

Belle grinned, and Mary Margaret reached out to catch a tear rolling down her sister’s face. “Thank you, Mem,” Belle whispered. “Do you…do you think Mama and Papa would approve of the men we’ve chosen?”

“Love, we’ve chosen a king and a prince – never mind that Reinhart renounced the title. I should think so.”

Belle raised her eyebrows, having already forgotten the rather prominent positions both of their men held.

“Are we ready?” Ruby asked, entering the chamber with a jug of wine.

“Almost,” Granny said, holding out the silk dress she’d carried in. In was a beautiful ivory chemise, almost golden, with lace panels across the top and bottom, meaning it was designed to entice instead of conceal. “This was bought for Abigail, but she’d rejected it for something a bit more demure. I thought perhaps you might like it, there being no time to have anything new made.”

“It beautiful,” Belle whispered, lightly touching the fabric and shivering in both awe at the expensive material, and anticipation of who she would be wearing it for.

They helped her to put it on, and she blushed hotly when she looked in the mirror and saw just exactly how much it didn’t hide. A matching dressing gown went over it, to keep the final result a bit of a surprise.

“I feel like I’m still in disguise,” she chuckled nervously. “Like I’ve already forgotten how to be a girl.”

“You don’t need to remember how to be a girl,” Ruby said before a saucy grin spread across her face. “It’s Gold’s job to teach you to be a woman.”

“That’s enough out of you,” Granny said, barely managing to keep the amused look off her face. “Let’s go, the both of you. Reinhart will be up any moment, and none of us will want to be within a hundred feet of this room when he is.”

“Speak for yourself,” Ruby muttered while Mary Margaret hugged her sister.

Granny tutted and left, and Ruby grinned at Belle, shrugging one shoulder. “It’s really too bad, you know? You were an awfully nice young man.”

“You’ll find one even better than me,” Belle said, standing on tiptoe to press a quick kiss to her lips.

Ruby beamed and skipped out, leaving Mary Margaret looking a little wide-eyed. “This really has been an adventure,” she said a bit dazedly.

Belle giggled. “The best kind!”

Mary Margaret shook her head as if to clear it, and headed for the door. “Goodnight, Big Sister, and I expect a full, educational report tomorrow.”

“Goodnight, Mem,” Belle said, before winking and adding; “But make it the day after tomorrow, hm?”

Mary Margaret blushed and fled the room, leaving Belle alone to await her husband.

 

Surely he was having a heart attack.

That was the only reasonable explanation for his racing heart, sweaty brow, and legs that simply wouldn’t stop twitching.

“Calm down, man,” Jefferson said, pressing another glass of whiskey into his shaking hand. “You’re the only one here who’s actually had a wedding night. Surely it can’t be all that bad?”

“My first wasn’t all that spectacular,” Gold grunted, not wishing to think long on that night. He pulled fussily at his jacket, having had gone straight to his chambers to change out of that infernal gown.

“Was it very stressful then?” David asked worriedly. “Bedding a virgin?”

Gold knew that David’s experience was rather limited, but still a far sight further along than his had been.

“You’ll have to ask Milah,” he said with a roll of his eyes. “I was the quivering virgin, not she.”

Jefferson shrugged. “My first was with someone extremely experienced. That made it all the better.”

“Perhaps it should have, but Milah was roundly disappointed in my lack of finesse, and made it known.”

“I always hated her,” Jefferson said with a snort. “And why are we discussing that harpy? Belle is not Milah.”

“Exactly!” Gold said, rising to pace before the fire. “Belle is everything Milah wasn’t, and nothing she was. And I’m petrified that I’m going to disappoint her!”

“Oh, come now, the girl adores you,” Jefferson said. “And it’s quite clear to anyone with eyes that she wants you. And despite her lack of practical experience, she’s no innocent, wilting flower. Just talk to her, and let her talk.”

Gold blinked. “That’s what he said…what she said…I mean…” he sighed, sitting back down. “When she was Beaux, I mean. We were talking and well…oh Christ,” he buried his suddenly burning face in his hands. “I thought to talk to her man-to-man, thinking that since she didn’t have a suitable male role model, that as a young man, she would have questions.”

Jefferson stared at him. “You gave your future wife a man-to-man about sex?”

“I didn’t know she was my future wife! I didn’t know she was a girl!”

David was half out of his chair, laughing. “Well, it was probably very illuminating! Did she ask questions?”

Gold moaned. “Yes, and I answered them frankly, although it started to get a little awkward…” he trailed off, face blazing, unwilling to admit even in the light of his marriage to her how devastatingly attracted he’d been to her, even thinking her a young man. “But mostly we talked about how men and women never seem to communicate about matters in the bedroom. And how it seemed like things would be easier if they did.”

“You see?” Jefferson said. “She was practically painting a sign for you. Talk to her, go slow. Everything will be just fine.”

Gold sighed again, leaning his head against the backrest of the chair.

“Talking, hm?” David said thoughtfully. “You suppose that will work for Mary Margaret as well?”

“I expect so,” Gold said, looking up and fixing David with a firm glare. “But you’ll tread with care, do you understand? And I’d best not hear of any talking going on before you wed the girl. You may be my cousin, and my king, but Mary Margaret is now my wee sister, so don’t think I won’t take you to task if you make any wrong steps with her.”

“I wouldn’t!” David said, holding up his hands defensively, and looking appropriately scared, no matter that he was a king.

“How sweet!”

The men all turned to see Mary Margaret herself grinning widely at them, Ruby at her side. She skipped over to Gold, draping her arms around his shoulders from behind and kissing him fondly on the cheek. “I love you too, Big Brother!”

Gold made a show of grimacing, but he cast her a warm look regardless.

“Your bride awaits,” Ruby said.

Gold blanched, and it took Jefferson nudging him with his boot to get him on his feet.

“Have fun!” Jefferson sang, and Gold could hear them all laughing merrily as he left the library.

Chapter Text

Gold’s nerves increased as he mounted the stairs to their private honeymoon suite, which was thankfully set away from the main living quarters, all the way up in the west wing. The maids who passed him on the way, giving him knowing winks and saucy grins were no help.

Though Milah had been his first, she wasn’t his only. In the first few years after her betrayal, and before he denounced his title, he went about with several different women, as if he could get even with Milah in a way. He wasn’t reckless, and was careful to end things before feelings could get involved, but it wasn’t long before he could see that he was living a life he didn’t want his son to be influenced by, and that was when he made the decision to get away, and start all over.

Since then he’d been celibate, and although it hadn’t been that difficult, he’d been so long without the touch of a woman, he was terrified that he’d move too fast, or be too desperate, and disappoint Belle or worse…frighten her.

What if she was already in there, scared and regretting her decision to marry him? In truth, they barely knew each other. In the scant few weeks since they met, Gold had been under the belief that she was a young boy. And even though she was a fair few years older than he used to believe, she was still young. Fourteen years younger, to be exact. And even if she was a little older than the usual marriageable age, she was so, so beautiful, and so, so wonderful, she’d have no problem finding a match anywhere.

Someone younger, more handsome. Someone without a grown son and the reputation of a coward.

…Someone who perhaps would be horrified if he ever learned about her time posing as a boy. Someone who would try to restrict her reading, curb her sharp tongue, discourage that wondrous, wide-eyed curiosity…

He shuddered. The thought of Belle with a man who would in any way try to change or inhibit the wonderfully unique, if unorthodox person she was was…well, it was unthinkable. The thought of Belle with anyone else period was unthinkable.

Gold may not be perfect, but one thing he knew he could do for Belle was simply let her be who she was, and by God, he was going to do just that.

If that meant being wed to a foul-mouthed, headstrong woman who sometimes went about dressed as a man because she found men’s clothing to be more comfortable, who’s complaining?

Feeling a trifle more confident, he reached their chamber at last. He hesitated, wondering if he should knock or not. It was his room too…but he didn’t want to startle her.

He settled for opening the door slowly, rapping on it as he went. He peeked inside, but didn’t immediately see her, so he came fully in, removing his coat and draping it over a chair.

A fire blazed cheerfully, and he gravitated toward the warmth after the chill of the hall. He looked around, still not spotting his bride, and fearing for a heart-stopping moment that she’d gone.

“Hello,” she spoke quietly, almost a whisper, but he still jumped.

He turned to find her emerging from the bedroom, and his jaw unhinged from his face to land somewhere near his feet.

She was swathed in pale gold silk that seemed to be almost dripping down her body like water. A dressing gown was around her shoulders, but it was open, affording him a generous view of the fact that the nightgown beneath left almost nothing to the imagination.

He’d seen her naked once, scarcely a day before, and Lord, what a sight it had been. But he’d been so overcome by shock and confusion, he hadn’t taken the time to appreciate it. And he’d already kicked himself multiple times for it.

He hardly deserved a second chance to bask her in beauty, but it was a chance he was going to grab onto with both hands. Figuratively, and very soon…literally.

Her hair was piled on her head in a feminine style, with soft curls dropping down to frame her face. A hint of blush had been added to cheeks and lips. Unnecessary, but succeeding in drawing attention to how plump and utterly kissable those lips were.

“Say something?” she chuckled, crossing her arms in front of her self-consciously.

He couldn’t have that, even if it did push her breasts up enticingly. He stepped over to her, taking her wrists gently and lowering them to their sides. “You’re the most beautiful, most incredible woman,” he whispered, making sure he put a hint of emphasis on woman.

His hands moved slowly from her wrists to her waist, drawing her gently closer. She melted into him, but he still felt a hint of tenseness, so slight he may have missed it had he not been looking out for it.

“Talk to me,” he said, touching the side of her face.

She smiled at that, and he knew she remembered their conversation, as he’d hoped. “Be honest,” she said conversationally, and he found he adored her soft, throaty voice without the near comical deepness she had forced as Beaux. “When did you fall in love with me?”

He pulled back, but only because he was laughing. He kept a firm hold on her hips, and they swayed together, giggling. “Are you sure you want the answer to that?”

She beamed at him. “I do!”

“I think it…” he sighed, shaking his head. “I think it was when we talked about your book, Her Handsome Hero. When you called me a good father.”

“You’re a wonderful father.”

He kissed her, could hardly keep from it. “Not that I could have admitted it to myself, then. I’ve had a hell of a time, my dear.”

She chuckled, wrapping her arms around him and leaning her head against his shoulder. “I know. I’m sorry for deceiving you. Did it take you until you saw me naked to finally admit it to yourself?”

He squeezed her, warming at that particular memory but still cursing himself for fleeing. “Erm…no. I’d already come to terms with the fact that I was in love with a man. I just didn’t know how to go about it, since I still didn’t have the same inclinations as Jefferson.”

“Well, thanks to you, I know how it would have worked…”

He pulled back, arching a brow. “So you do. You’ve such scandalous knowledge for a woman.”

“And it truly doesn’t…bother you?” she asked. “The things I’ve done?”

“Of course not. You did those things to save yourself and your sister. You’re the bravest person I know, Belle. Man or woman.”

Her eyes watered at the that, but she bit her lip thoughtfully, (and this time, he didn’t mind the way that action made his breeches feel tight,) before looking down. “And now? I suppose as long as I’m a proper woman from now on…”

He placed the tip of his finger under her chin, lifting her face. “Is that what you’re thinking? That I’ll insist that you play the perfect wife?”

Belle shrugged one shoulder. “Won’t you? I know you aren’t like most men…you actually like women to read. And that…I think that was when I started to fall in love with you, too. But you’re still a Lord, a prince, really, no matter what you say. You have a reputation, and I…I’m afraid I won’t live up to expectations. I was never a good lady, Rain. I speak my mind, I don’t shield my skin from the sun, I run outside barefoot…” as she spoke, her voice became firmer, her eyes flashing.

Gold grinned widely, tightening his hold on her waist. “You curse,” he continued for her. “You gamble, you make lewd jokes, and after a brief stint of actually wearing petticoats myself, I have a strong suspicion that you’ve grown rather fond of trousers and I may possibly see you traipsing about in them again…” he kissed her, relishing in the freedom to do so. “My God…I would have you no other way.”

He would have said more, but his lips were otherwise very occupied, and he groaned at the way she kissed with abandon, her tongue darting out inexpertly to meet his.

“I love you,” she whispered, threading her fingers through his hair.

“And I love you, too,” he said, pulling away, with effort. “Just know that, regardless of your situation with your uncle, nothing need happen tonight. We can always just say we consummated the marriage.”

She chuckled. “Now, where is the fun in that?”

Gold wondered briefly if a man could be injured by such an extreme erection, but decided at this point he didn’t much care. He picked her up, cradling her gently in his arms, and carried her to the bed, where he sat with her across his lap.

“Do you have questions?” he asked, hearing how rough his voice was becoming.

She shivered, but he didn’t think it was from fear. “Erm…I’ve read about it…in books. But I…I’m still not entirely sure what it is I’m supposed to do. Most of the novels I read feature women being rather, well…reluctant, until the man convinces her. Is it supposed to be that way?”

Reinhart wrinkled his nose. “I should say not. I’d not lay a finger on you unless you were completely willing, husband or no. Simply do what feels right and good to you. I’ll get pleasure from you finding pleasure.”

Belle gave a look that was decidedly perplexed. “Do you mean that?”

He grinned, kissing her nose. “Oh, I do.”

“But…don’t I need to…do something?” she leaned back to look down at his lap, at the bulge she could obviously feel.

He chuckled nervously. “Trust me, just being here with me is enough.”

“But I can do what feels good, that’s what you said.”

“Yes, you can’t do anything wrong, Belle, I promise.”

She smiled demurely. “Well, I think it would feel good to me…to touch you.”

Reinhart gulped. “I eh…I’d like that, love. But I um…I’d hate for this to end before it begins.”

She blinked once before her eyes widened in understanding. “Oh! You mean…end. I see. Men can’t do it again?”

“Well…no…I mean, yes, but…it usually takes a while. Women…typically…can…well, many times…”

Belle chuckled, and he bit back a groan when the motion caused her to brush against his cock, which was begging pitifully for attention. “Oh, I know that.”

He raised his brows. “Oh?”

He found himself completely in love with the way she turned red from her hairline on down to the tops of her breasts. “I may be a virgin, Rain,” she said firmly, despite her blushes. “But I know fine well what an orgasm is. I have hands, after all.”

And oh. And there he’d gone and thought he couldn’t get any more aroused. Silly him.

He started to speak, but stopped and cleared his throat when it came out in an embarrassing squeak. “Why don’t you erm…show me. What it is you do with those hands.”

Her eyes flew open wide and her blush darkened even further. “Really?”

He smirked, emboldened by her shyness. It was like one of them needed to be the confident one at all times, and they somehow knew instinctively when to step forward the moment the other stepped back. And what was more, they felt comfort in knowing neither had to be the sure one in every moment.

“Show me what you like,” he said softly. “So I might give it a try myself.”

Belle blinked in adorable confusion. “But don’t you just…just want to…you know.”

Gold chuckled and shook his head. “Oh no, lad, I have every intention of making this last as long as possible. I desire nothing more than to see what you look like in the throes of pleasure many times before I take my own.”

“Oh,” she said softly, looking down.

He was just about to assure her she didn’t have to of course; the last thing he wanted was for her to feel uncomfortable, but then she was tangling her fingers in the length of her nightgown, inching it upward, and he lost all power of speech.

It was a challenge keeping his hands to himself as more and more of her curving legs were bared to him. Christ, if he’d gotten a good look at them weeks ago, he’d never mistaken her for a boy. No boy could have legs like that.

She stopped when her hem was at her plump thighs, and though he ached for more, he bit his tongue and simply watched as her delicate hand disappeared beneath the hem between her legs.

“I’ve never dreamed of anyone watching me do this,” she said quietly.

“Only if you want to,” he assured her.

She looked up at him then, smirking, and he was able to see the moment her own fingers reached her center; the sudden slackening of features…parting of lips…darkening of eyes.

Well, he just had to kiss her then, and he did. And while he was at that, he slowly maneuvered them both until she was lying flat on the bed, and he half-beside her, half above her.

He pulled back, gratified to see her hand still moving steadily between her thighs, and placed a hand gently on her flank, right where her hem rested. “May I?”

Belle nodded, watching him intently as he pushed her nightgown further up, revealing ever more milky skin and a beautifully dark thatch of hair and a small hand disappearing into it.

“Rain…” she whimpered, moving her hand more quickly.

“Let me…” he breathed, gently touching the back of her hand. When she moved it quickly away, he took that as permission and replaced her fingers with his own, groaning at the first sensation of her wet heat.

~

Belle hadn’t imagined that having another person’s fingers touching her would feel quite so different than her own, but oh, she was wrong.

The moment his thick, callused finger touched her most sensitive skin, she was lost, her heart surely about to beat right out of her chest.

He touched her gently, delicately. As if he was afraid of hurting her if he pressed too hard. But she was too far gone to show even a modicum of restraint, and she reached down, pulling at his hand at the same time she bore down on it, increasing the pressure the way she needed it to be.

He took the hint, and began to rub harder, with more purpose.

“May I see ye?” he asked, his voice rough and his accent becoming ever more pronounced.

She didn’t know exactly what it was he wanted to see, she was right here after all, but she nodded excitedly, willing to give him everything and anything he wanted if he just kept touching her.

Her heart leapt into her throat when he suddenly pushed her legs farther apart, and she realized she was completely exposed to him. And oh, that was what he meant.

Even Belle didn’t completely know what she looked like down there, only by touch. But she didn’t think it could possibly warrant the utterly captivated expression on his face.

“So beautiful,” he said earnestly, before switching to a more mischievous expression and looking up at her. “My lad.”

Belle chuckled, fascinated that one could actually laugh in the marriage bed. Why didn’t older women ever mention this part of lovemaking?!

“I shouldn’t like it as much as I do when you call me that,” she said.

“But you do,” he said assuredly.

“I do.”

“I wonder if you would like this…”

She lifted her head to look at him as he began to scoot farther down the bed. “Like what?”

Instead of answering, Belle had just half a second to be surprised that his face was moving closer to that part of her body before the first touch of his lips against her sent her bucking almost completely off the mattress. If she thought his fingers were pleasurable, it was nothing compared to his lips…and…oh God…his tongue.

The next few moments were a blur of pure sensation, so much that it threatened to overwhelm her completely. She was aware of nothing save the feeling of his hair gripped firmly in her hand, and the feelings he was pulling from her with his mouth.

She must have cried out, because she felt the vibrations in her throat, but it was answered by vibrations down below, when he moaned in response.

It began with waves of heat, before light burst beneath her closed eyelids and she fell for what felt like miles.

She’d claimed to have already known what an orgasm was, but Belle then believed she was rather mistaken.

She had no idea how long she lay there, panting and coming back to reality, but Reinhart was there, kissing her brow and running damp fingers along her arm.

“Oh,” was all she managed to say. Very eloquent, Belle.

Reinhart chuckled, kissing her neck. “All right?” he asked.

“I don’t think I can move.”

“That’s okay. I can wait.”

That got her attention. Goodness! She’d just experienced the most extreme pleasure of his life, and they had yet to even shed their clothes!

She raised up, her energy surging back to life, and grabbed his lapels, yanking him to her and kissing him for all she was worth.

He tasted different…like her…and it served only to enflame her further.

“Want you,” she whimpered. In truth, she was well and truly satisfied, and didn’t think she was capable of another orgasm, despite what they’d discussed only a moment before. But she wanted him to feel that same pleasure so badly it almost hurt.

She started pulling at his clothes, growing frustrated when she couldn’t get any of them off of him. Finally he just sat back and tore at his jacket and shirt, and she was left to stare hungrily at the expanse of skin she’d only been treated briefly to before, when he’d thought it perfectly acceptable to change it front of her, she being a mere boy.

Thinking to reciprocate, she sat up and slipped of her dressing gown. His face slackened when she did that, and his hands fumbled on the fastening of his trousers.

Knowing she was blushing, Belle reached out and unfastened his trousers herself, her knuckles brushing against him; hard and straining.

Reinhart flinched when she touched him, and groaned, but didn’t try and stop her as she revealed that part of him to her for the first time.

She sat back as he stood to finish stripping his pants off, and she unabashedly stared in wonder. In all the times she’d seen the male form before, she’d found the sight of their dangling bits rather absurd and funny. So it was a start to find she didn’t find Reinhart funny in the least, and certainly not absurd.

His cock jutted out from his body as if straining toward her, and she felt a slight tremor of trepidation, not having expected it to be so…well, then again, maybe she should have expected. Giggling, and remembering Jefferson’s remarks when they’d first met, she held up her hand with her pointer finger and thumb extended in a “gun” gesture.

Reinhart furrowed his brow at her a moment before his eyes widened comically and he flushed a darker red than she’d ever seen on a person before. That just sent her to giggling all the more, and she fell back on the bed, holding her sides.

“Oh, funny is it?” he said in mock sternness, but she could hear the smile in his voice. “I’ll show ye funny.”

He was on top of her in a flash, his hands darting right up her nightgown to grab her hips. She thought he was aiming for seduction now, but the fact was his fingers were pinching her sides and she was awfully ticklish.

Belle howled with laughter, rolling to try and escape once Reinhart realized what he’d done and only doubled his efforts, digging his fingertips into her belly.

She got away once, sitting up and trying to scoot backwards on the bed, but he only used the opportunity to yank her nightgown over her head, and she didn’t spare a moment to worry about modesty because he was pulling her back to him by her ankles, ruthlessly tickling and laughing with such unadulterated joy that tears might have come to her eyes had they not already been streaming.

“Uncle!” she cried.

Reinhart grimaced, and she was quick to modify her statement. “No more!”

His grimace morphed to a downright villainous smirk and he grabbed her wrists, pinning them above her head. “Do ye surrender?”

And just like that, the air around them changed from merriment to something much sharper and more intense. Belle found her eyes drawn inexorably to his mouth, scarcely an inch from her own. She could feel his breath, hot on her face, smelling of whiskey and honey cakes.

“I surrender,” she whispered, meaning it with all of her heart.

He lowered his face, but he didn’t kiss her lips, instead he fastened his mouth around one of her nipples, sucking hard. Belle gasped and bucked upward toward him, whimpering softly.

“May I?” he breathed, while switching to the other breast to give it equal attention. “Will you let me, Belle?”

“Please,” she said, letting her legs fall apart so that he could settle between them.

She braced for pain, but he didn’t just drive forward like she expected him to. Instead he touched her first, like he did before, only this time she felt a finger slip inside, then a second one when the first went in easily.

He moved his fingers in and out, nothing she hadn’t done herself during moments of especially bold self-exploration, and it was soothing, a reminder of what it felt like to have something there.

When her muscles began to relax again, he removed his fingers, and she watched intently as he sucked the moisture off of them. When he reached back down again, it wasn’t his fingers that she felt, but something considerably larger.

She tried not to tense, but it was difficult, so he stilled, and lowered his mouth to hers.

He kissed her deeply, thoroughly, and she was so caught up in the intensity of the kiss that she almost missed when he entered her for the first time. She moaned, but instead of wanting to pull away, she wanted closer, so she wrapped her arms around his neck, and sudden sense of instinct made her wrap her legs around his hips.

The movement made him groan, and his hips snapped forward. There was a sharp pain, and for a heart-stopping moment she thought she couldn’t handle it, but Reinhart slowed down immediately, pressing sweet kisses to her hair, forehead, cheek, and lips. Belle took several deep breaths, and found that the pain was lessening quickly, and she wriggled beneath him, feeling restless.

“Okay?” he breathed into her hair. “Should I…stop?”

“No,” she whimpered, feeling the pain begin to transform curiously into pleasure. “Don’t stop.”

 

Gold stilled above her, breath coming in sharp gasps. He’d felt Belle’s body draw up in pain, although the precious girl didn’t make a sound. Every cell in his body was screaming at him to plow into her as fast and as hard as he could, but he held on, biting his tongue almost to the point of making himself bleed.

She was so soft, so beautiful, smelled so wonderful. Never in his life had he wanted anyone like he wanted Belle. But more than he wanted her, he wanted her to feel good. He wanted this experience to be one she looked back on fondly. For her own sake, but also, if he was perfectly honest with himself, so that she would be eager to repeat the act.

All of this ran disjointedly through his head while he was trying to keep himself from moving, or spilling himself like an overeager boy.

But then she was moving, and every single motion sent jolts of unbelievable pleasure running through him. He asked if she was okay, needed to hear her say that she was before he would even think of continuing.

Thankfully she answered clearly, without hesitation, and he saw her mouth drop open slightly, just the way she had when he’d brought her to pleasure before.

He tried to keep up an even rhythm, but she was wiggling about, inexpertly trying to copy his rocking motion, and somehow it enflamed him far more than the more experienced women he’d been with before could have even hoped to.

He was approaching his climax too quickly, and he bit his tongue again, trying to fend it off. He wouldn’t have thought it likely that he would be able to bring Belle to that precipice again this way, but she was gasping and whimpering and undulating her hips with abandon, eyes closed tight.

Gold snaked his hand down between them, pinching her rather ruthlessly, but unable to control himself.

She broke with a sharp scream, and later on he would realize that the convulsive pulsing of her around his cock, the way she gripped at him so strongly that he almost couldn’t move, meant that he had never actually brought a woman to orgasm before while his cock was inside her. He knew then that he would dedicate his life to making sure his wife came every single time.

His own moment was more intense than anything he’d ever felt in his life, and he thought he may have actually blacked out for just a moment, because when he came to himself he was lying atop her, gasping for breath.

When he attempted to roll off of her, certain he was crushing her, Belle only tightened her arms and legs about him, and he stilled, relaxing his head into the softness of her breasts.

“Are you all right?” he asked hoarsely, wondering if he’d been screaming without realizing it.

“I…” she began, and he knew she’d been screaming, but she seemed to be realizing it herself, because she cleared her throat. “I’m amazing.”

It took a herculean effort, as his muscles had turned to liquid, but he raised himself up on his elbows to look into her face, comforted to find her expression satisfied and drowsy. “I love you…lad.”

Belle smirked, running her hand through his hair. “I love you, too, Rainy. And I’m so happy you found me. Do you think you still would have wanted me, had I been a woman from the start?”

Gold chuckled. “Oh I know I would have. The only difference is, I may have tried to get you into my bed days ago.”

“And you most likely would have succeeded.”

He rested his head again, thinking fondly that he’d never be satisfied with a pillow again after finding the comfort of Belle’s soft breasts to lay upon. They were quiet for some down, and he was near sleep when she spoke again.

“I’d like to see Merida again. Tell her that everything turned out well. Would you take me back to the brothel?”

Gold’s eyes snapped open, and he furrowed his brow. But then after a second thought, he relaxed. “Very well, but you’ll dress as a man, and we’ll purchase time with Merida. I’d like to get the gentlemen of Avonlea really talking once they see me retreat to a room with a man and a prostitute.”

“So soon after your wedding, as well! Agreed. May we drink in the tavern?”

“Of course. It’d hardly be a night out otherwise, would it? Perhaps a game or two of cards, as well.”