Author's Note: A big 'Thank you so much' to everyone who reviewed and enjoyed 'A Fruit By Any Other Name.' This is a continuation of that story, but as I can't commit myself fully to a longer tale, they will both remain one-shots. For now. Though to be honest, I'm pretty tempted to write a ball scene. We'll see.
She was exactly where he knew he'd find her.
She was stirring vigorously, wooden spoon buried in a thick dark batter, and her normally loose hair was pulled back in a high knot accentuating her cheekbones and the slender planes of her neck.
Mal finished her last turn, placed the bowl back on the long wooden counter top of the kitchen's central island, and looked up, catching the boy king watching her.
"You're pretty sneaky for a king, Your Highness." Mal smiled as she stuck a finger into the concoction she'd mixed, and sampled it. Her smile melted into a frown as she looked down at the bowl.
"Something's not right," she muttered, as Ben chuckled and walked more fully into the kitchen.
"What are you working on tonight?"
He raised an eyebrow. "Again?"
"Don't worry, it's not a love spell." She smirked at him, spooning in a pile of sugar into her bowl. "I'm not trying to make every prince fall in love with me."
King Ben hopped up onto the wooden table top beside her workstation, smiling as he picked up a spatula. Mal dropped a handful of chocolate chips to her batter.
"That would be way too much work."
Mal laughed at Ben's unamused look. "Why are you here, Your Royal Kingly-ness. Don't you have important… King things to do?" Mal pulled a cookie sheet from the shelves beneath the island's top and began spooning bits of batter onto it.
Ben chuckled, "Well that would be true, if it wasn't nine o'clock on a school night."
Mal looked up at him in surprise. "Already?"
She'd been cooking for nearly five hours. Evie had been with her earlier, but left… Mal wasn't even sure how long ago to work on her third (or was it fourth?) Winter Ball dress.
Meringues, tarts, and even a peach turnover (no thanks to Evie) sat cooling in the refrigerator. Mal wiped her forehead with the back of her hand.
"Wow, I didn't realize it was so late." She picked up the sheet of raw cookies and walked them over to the oven, placing them gently inside.
Ben smiled, "Yeah, it's nearly curfew."
She returned to her worked station collecting flour and batter covered utensils into a pile.
"So… How are you? I haven't seen you much this week."
Mal smiled, resting her elbows on the tabletop and placing her head on her finger laced hands. "Oh, you know. Super."
Ben frowned at her feigned enthusiasm.
"Are people still giving you trouble?"
Mal sighed, standing straight again and picking a chocolate chip off of the black apron protecting her clothes.
She sighed. "No. Not really. I mean, no one is… mean to me," she emphasized with a look.
"They're probably too scared you'll be mean back," Ben jested.
Mal shrugged, frowning. "I guess."
Ben's smiling face turned serious. "What?"
"It's… nothing. Like, I said, they're not mean. They're just…" Mal's hands turned in front of her as if reaching to catch her thoughts. "Cautious. No, not quite that."
Ben listened, watching her struggle for the words, waiting for her to elaborate.
"It's like… They know who I am and who my mother is and they know what she's done and what I've done differently. I don't think they blame me, but I can still sense it."
She paused, her voice growing small. "Fear."
Ben didn't know how to respond.
"They still fear me. I can see it. I used to relish in it. But now…"
Mal shook her head and picked up a dirty spoon, and traced a finger across the leftover batter.
Ben watched her wordlessly. She was rarely so forthcoming, so open. Since the coronation, he thought she'd seemed happier, better.
Mal continued staring for a long moment at the spoon before standing straighter, as if shaking off the dark cloud above her. "It's bad enough having to take Intermediate Goodness in the afternoons." She joked with a smirk, finally looking at Ben again. "I swear if Fairy Godmother tells me again how evil it is to take candy from a baby, I'm going to give her candy, take it, and then smack her with it."
Ben laughed as Mal mimed swiping the spoon from the fairy and bopping her on the head with it. He could see the darkness, the weight behind her eyes even as she smiled, but he didn't know how to help her.
"Not to mention, Evie." Mal groaned everlasting.
"Oh no. What'd she do this time?" Ben smiled, deciding to forego the worry Mal had pushed away.
"The girl won't shut up about the Winter Ball. It's 'What do you think of this color?' and 'Don't you think Doug will love this fabric?' and even 'Mal, stop moving, I can't get this pin in.'"
Ben laughed loudly as Mal gave him a suffering, put-upon scowl.
"Yesterday she even had me looking up spells for elegant upswept hairdos. The girl is an absolute menace."
Ben only laughed harder.
"But that's nothing compared to the Doug talk. On and on and on. 'When is he going to ask me, Mal? Why hasn't he asked me to the ball, Mal? What if he's taking someone else, Mal?' I swear I'm going to spell myself into him and just ask her myself. Good grief."
"Can you do that?" Ben asked immediately in surprise.
She rolled her eyes, smirking. "Maybe."
Ben smiled awkwardly, imaging Mal's voice coming out of Doug's body. Her smirk on his face.
Mal laughed, "I don't really know if it's possible, but I'm running out of options."
Ben shrugged, and pulled the spoon, still sticky with batter from Mal's fingers.
"He's just shy. He's been that way since we were kids. I'm sure he'll come around."
Mal grimaced, "Not soon enough." She looked thoughtful for a moment. "You've known him since you were kids?"
"Yeah, sure. I've known almost everyone since preschool. Well, aside from some of the Sherwood kids."
"Hmm…" Mal said thoughtfully. "Well then you should talk to him," she said pleasantly, taking the spoon from his grasp and placing it with the others onto a dirty pan. "I swear Evie is going to give herself a heart attack otherwise."
Ben laughed, wiping his sticky fingers on a towel Mal handed him, as she walked away to put the utensil laden pan in the large sink against the wall.
"And you'd save me a thousand migraines," Mal added under breath as she returned, pausing before Ben.
"I'll see what I can do," he told her smiling, leaning forward to brush a few crumbs of flour off of Mal's cheek.
She warmed at the touch, and his hand lingered on her face, brushing invisible hair behind her ear. Mal took in his gaze, the way his eyes flickered to her lips, her half-formed comment about kingly duties stoppered as she pursed them.
He leaned closer to her, reaching his other hand towards her shoulder. His palm slid warmly onto her neck, gently nudging her closer.
She took a step closer, her nose nearly touching his as she looked up into the pale green of his eyes.
A screeching siren went off.
Mal tore herself away from Ben's grasp, flushed and alarmed.
"Mal! The oven!" Ben pointed towards the brick oven she'd shut the cookies in. Black smoke was streaming from the door's seal.
Mal ran over to the oven, releasing a cloud of foul smelling black cloud as she opened it. She grabbed a rag off the table, pulled the smoldering remains of her cookies from the oven, and dropped the pan on the wooden tabletop.
Mal groaned at the charred lumps and went back to the oven to turn it off
"So much for dessert tonight…" Ben started to joke, but Mal silenced him with a look.
She pulled the tie from her hair off in frustration, throwing it off into the kitchen corner angrily. Mal ran her fingers through the thick mass and crossed her arms, scowling down at the cookies.
Ben hopped off the tabletop and approached her, as she sighed and again ran an annoyed hand through her hair.
"Hey. Hey, it's not a big deal," Ben told her, catching her fingers, and pulling her towards him. "You can try again tomorrow."
Mal stiffened, and then shrugged. "Yeah. Whatever."
Ben looked at the black smudges lining the side of her face where she'd run her fingers into her hair.
She was still frowning, and Ben resisted the urge to kiss her anyway.
But the moment had been lost.
He smiled at her, pointing to the side of his own face, "Uh, you've got some stuff… right here." He drew an invisible circle around his cheek with a finger.
Mal merely raised an eyebrow, giving him a look that said, quite clearly, So?
Ben chuckled and leaned in to place a quick, chaste kiss on her forehead, right where her eyebrows scrunched together.
"But you're still really beautiful."
Mal scoffed and pushed him away, fighting the urge to smile. She headed back to the center of the island and began collecting the bowls and ingredients together.
"Is that all it takes to win over a princess these days?"
Ben hopped back up onto the table top beside her.
"Usually. Flowers help though."
He meant it as a joke, but Mal frowned again, as she turned towards the refrigerator and returned the milk, eggs, and butter to their shelves.
"But that's sort of boring." He continued, watching as Mal paused closing the refrigerator door. "There's this other girl I like." Mal turned towards him, and Ben leaned back, his arms supporting him on the tabletop. "And she's definitely not a princess." She walked back to the island, arms crossed, listening. "She's far more interesting."
Mal was really smiling now as Ben continued, "Intelligent, beautiful, artistic…" He paused, Mal was standing before him, the black fabric of her apron just inches from his knees. He leaned towards her again, dropping his voice, "But she's a mess in the kitchen."
Ben watched as the warm smile on Mal's face morphed into shock, her jaw dropping.
"You. Jerk!" She shoved him, as he laughed loudly hopping up from the bench. She grabbed a bowl full of flour from her workstation and threw a handful at him.
"Get out! Get out of my kitchen!"
Ben was still laughing, dodging fistfuls of white powder, as she chased him to the door. He threw it open and escaped out into the night, holding his crown as he ran.
"Good riddance," she yelled at his retreating form.
She closed the door, heaving a heavy sigh against it, but her wide smile came back.
Mal walked back to the island looking at the splatters of flour all over the floor. Though she realized she had all of it to clean, the mess only made her smile wider.
It was only a minute later, as she was collecting the last few bowls on the counter, a broom in one hand, that Ben stuck his head back into the kitchen.
"By the way, do you want to go to the Snow Ball with me?"
Startled, Mal dropped the bowls onto the counter with a tinny clank.
"I realized I hadn't actually asked yet."
Mal pushed back her hair, her expression full of surprise, as she unknowingly added a streak of white to her magenta mane.
Ben smiled so brightly, Mal flushed.
His gaze turned questioning as he eyed the broom in her hand.
"I thought only witches rode brooms."
Mal's flush turned to fury.
"I SAID OUT." She yelled, grabbing the nearest bowl and flinging it at the now closed door, Ben's laughter still ringing through the wide room.
Mal's small shriek turned into a groan.
With jerky movements, she began sweeping up the piles of flour around her work station.
She followed the mess all the way to the door and opened it, glancing around to make sure the dunce had actually gone. The night was crisp and beautiful, and thankfully clear of annoying kings.
Mal shut the door, looked at the swept up pile of flour at her feet, and started to laugh.