Disclaimer: Sondheim is brilliant and I am not. Disney is…I don't know what Disney is anymore, but as I am not employed by Disney, I really shouldn't be spending my time on this. But I am. Take that, sanity.
Author's note: I am nothing, if not stubborn. To illustrate this point, the scene with Belle and her visitor below was a scene I was working on over five-effing years ago…on my honeymoon. You may now laugh. But it appears as though my stubbornness has produced a story that refuses to die, despite my best efforts to do it in, and the damn thing keeps growing. And so, without further ado, I bring you the conclusion of "Kingdom Come, Part One."
"Sometimes the things you most wish for…are not to be touched."
-The Witch, "Into the Woods"
That same night…
The Grand Floridian Resort and Spa offers some of the most luxurious accommodations on Walt Disney World property.
As the CEO of the Walt Disney Company, Nicholas Misner had the resort's Grand Suite saved for him every time he visited central Florida. Five floors up from the pedestrian traffic and other plebian pursuits the hotel offered, the massive room offered a panoply of amenities, almost none of which he ever intended to use. He openly ridiculed the presence of the upright piano every time he booked the room, and he simply ignored the kitchen area altogether, save for the wet bar. No, what he enjoyed about the Grand Suite was the stellar view: stretching around the five balconies of the room, he could see the Seven Seas Lagoon, Cinderella's Castle, Space Mountain, the Contemporary, the Polynesian, and, when the haze wasn't oppressive, Spaceship Earth in the distance. And for all intents and purposes, it was all his, and enjoyed the visual reminder of what his kingdom encompassed.
He also enjoyed the privacy the suite offered.
Misner lay in the master suite's bed, his hands folded underneath his head as he watched Ella brush her hair in the vanity's mirror against the opposite wall. She watched him watching her; she smiled, but kept silent. He knew well enough by now that she wouldn't way a word until she had counted a full 100 strokes with her brush.
Soon enough, Ella slipped her brush back into the intricately stitched handbag she always brought with her when she went out for the night. Looking at Misner's reflection rather than the man himself, she asked, "How did your meeting with David go?"
He paused a moment before answering, "About as well as could be expected. How was your little chat with the mice?"
Lips pursed, she tartly responded, "Worse than yours, I'm sure." She sighed, her face losing its edge and her voice softening. "Are you sure you have to leave tomorrow?"
"The week is booked. I'm going to be teleconferencing on the plane as it is."
"When will you be back?"
"Soon as I can."
Ella nodded. While she continued to address the mirror, her gaze slipped from Misner's reflection to the counter in front of her. "Who do you go home to?"
She looked back up into the mirror, unimpressed.
"A discreet someone, then," he corrected.
"Like me," she affirmed quietly.
"You'd really like to know?"
"You won't believe me."
He paused, seeming to weigh the answer before him. "Ella, you have no counterpart in LA or anywhere else. There was a time when that was not the case, but that was before you. You've made me a monogamous man."
She raised her eyebrows at him.
"Monogamous in my infidelity," he corrected with a crooked smile.
Ella shared in the self-satisfied grin. "I've spoiled you."
"You have," Misner said, his voice refreshingly earnest. "I don't need to bother with anyone else. You're the best I've found."
"And cruelly eager. Repression agrees with you."
"You enjoy it."
Ella stood slowly, walking over to the side of the bed where Misner lay, watching him follow each step. Behind her, the light from the vanity cast her body into shadow, haloed by the pale yellow camisole and slip she still wore.
She sat down next to him, tucking her left leg underneath her body. Bracing herself with her arm, she hovered close over his body. "How cruel would you like me to be?" she whispered. Despite her words, her eyes betrayed her delight.
He gladly played into it. "Evil."
"I might kill you."
"Good point. Not evil then. And not cruel either. Powerful."
"You know I'm not that strong."
"That's not what I mean. Powerful. In power. In command."
She backed away a bit. "We're not talking about the same things anymore, are we?"
"Soon enough. I'm talking about the future."
"What do you mean?"
Misner sat up, reaching for Ella's face and cupping her chin in his right hand. "Animasia. You. Us. The whole goddamn world, Ella, that's what I mean."
Sitting back, she waited for him to continue.
"Ella, you've always known what you wanted. You've always known what everyone in Animasia wanted. You're the reason why they've made it this far. You have foresight, you have persistence, you have this incredible aura to you that's been kept away from the spotlight too long."
She coquettishly batted her eyes. "What spotlight? I'm at Entourage events everyday-"
"That's just for show. You know that. You're called a princess and you should be a queen. Jesus, Ella, you're a goddess…"
"Nicholas, what are you talking about?"
"Who's in charge of Animasia right now?"
"Mickey." Her face shifted into a pout. "If you can call what he does leadership."
"Exactly. He's a friggin' mascot. He has no right to be in charge of your future. He's an old fart who doesn't get what would be good for Animasia. You know what Animasia needs, Ella, you've known that forever."
"Little good that did."
"It did everything. Because you persisted- you're here. Animasia is finally part of the world. Because of you. And that sort of accomplishment should be rewarded."
"You should be in charge of Animasia."
She looked at him cautiously. "Nicholas, how much did you have to drink tonight?"
He waved her off. "Not nearly enough."
"One doesn't simply become the leader of Animasia-"
"Have you tried?"
"I'm not going to be a part of anything violent-"
"Ella, there are far more creative ways of getting a hold of power than bloody coups. I don't want to hurt the bastard, I just want to put him in his place. So you can take his."
Ella was quiet for a long time, staring at the sheets. "It sounds…promising," she finally said, still not looking at him.
"No 'buts.' Just an 'and.'"
"You are certainly driven, my dear."
When she spoke next, she looked straight at him and spoke with a determined resolution he found inordinately attractive. "I will assume responsibility for Animasia, and you will uphold your end of our original bargain."
He smirked. "I've been trying."
"Oh, don't call me 'ma'am.'" She gracefully flopped down onto the bed, somehow not mussing a single hair as her head hit the pillow. "'Ma'am' makes me sound so old. Though…I suppose I am a bit…matured."
"Ella, if you're what passes for 'mature' these days, just take me to the old folks home now."
She smiled. "Tell me that again."
Misner continued to enumerate Ella's many attributes as the lights switched off. Exposition soon became unnecessary.
Elisa stood at the foot of the Eyrie, gritting her teeth.
She'd tried to run to Mickey's house, she tried to reach the Palace where the members of the New Kingdom were probably assembling, she even tried a mad dash to the Town Hall to raise the alarm that would sound throughout Animasia, discretion be damned- she'd rather deal with a panicked, informed populace than an panicked, ignorant one. But no matter what direction she chose, no matter how fast she ran, no matter how much she willed herself to her desired destination, she kept ending up in front of the glass doors of the Eyrie. Unless the magic of Animasia itself had begun to unravel, Puck's hand was all over her futile travels.
Stupid, manic fairy.
With no other direction possible, Elisa sucked in her breath then resolutely strode forward into the lobby of the skyscraper. She didn't even have to bother with the elevator; as soon as she crossed the threshold, the entryway dissolved into the garden-like, bucolic Atrium a hundred stories up.
Xanatos was already there, his back turned toward her as he surveyed the city below. Seeing her reflection appear in the window, he turned with his most welcoming mien. "Ah, Detective-"
"Can it, Xanatos," Elisa barked, already drawing her cuffs and hating the fact that another member of her own Kingdom was about to be linked to the terror of the Exiles. "You're under arrest for-"
"-colluding with a known Exile, impeding a criminal investigation and risking Animasian safety. Or I will be, if you continue this arrest."
"Don't be clever."
"That's against my nature."
Elisa continued to advance, but Xanatos never seemed any closer. Slowing down, then stopping, Elisa realized that the same magic that had guided her here was now preventing her from fulfilling her duty. She swore. Loudly.
"I apologize for the rather drastic steps Puck is taking at the moment, but I need your attention, and I doubt I would have it if you were spewing Miranda at me. I promise you that if you don't agree with what I'm about to say, I will go quietly with you."
Seeing that she had no other choice, Elisa waited for Xanatos to continue.
"Thank you, Detective. And now that I have your attention, may I ask you how you're planning to finance this little venture you're involved with?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"The New Kingdom."
The dread that she'd been carrying punched her from inside and she felt queasy tendrils slipping down her limbs from the pit of her stomach. It was bad enough that Puck had announced his knowledge of this one vital secret; now Xanatos confirmed the incursion. "Never heard of it," she said.
Xanatos regarded her with a faint look of disappointment. "Games aren't going to help anyone at this point, Elisa. I'm being honest with you: you know Puck is here and that he's in my employ. You will be free to act upon that as you see fit in a few minutes. I'd like you to be honest with me now: how do you plan to finance the emergence of the New Kingdom?"
She didn't want to play along, but the arguments were getting too circular for her taste. "Since you seem to know so much about this 'New Kingdom' thing, you probably already know how it's going to work."
"I'm glad you're starting to give me some credit. And the plan that you have is naïve at best. Do you think that the company, that this company, is willingly going to parcel you off a couple acres of land to set up a renegade state?"
His words hit a raw nerve. "That's not what we're doing."
"That's exactly what you're doing. You've just never heard it phrased that way. How does Mickey think he can get a room full of bureaucrats to ignore every federal and state law regarding commercial property and hand over some of the most valuable real estate on the planet to a bunch of creatures no regulating body has concluded even properly exists?"
"So what the hell are you doing with Trinity?"
"I'm merely playing by the long-established rules, Detective. I am not doing anything extraordinary: I have a product to sell, one which Lexington was kind enough to dumb down for mass appeal. I have followed all the proper channels in securing loans, registering patents and turning a profit. Trinity is succeeding specifically because there's nothing new being offered, just a mere variation on a theme. I'm not trying to forge a breakaway nation."
"Stop calling it that!"
"That's what the government will call it. Which isn't to say I disagree with what you're trying to accomplish. You just need a better way to go about it."
"And you have that better way?"
"Why else would I have brought you here? Animasia needs an ambassador."
"You're volunteering for the job, then?"
"Hardly. You are."
She crossed her arms. "Really."
"You're the best candidate I can think of. You're a Toon, but most people don't know who you are, so they won't have any preconceived notion about you. Since you appear human, other humans will take you seriously, and your heritage is multi-ethnic, so you have an automatic in with minority groups. You're extremely attractive, so all the old white men you'll have to deal with will be more willing to hear you out, but you're also intelligent and competent, so all the plain-faced women you meet won't automatically hate you." He paused. "Your choice in a mate is unconventional, but ultimately I think we can chalk that up in the 'diversity' column."
Elisa stared at Xanatos for a dumbfounded second as her life had just been parceled away into convenient sound bites. "And in your skewed worldview, what would I be doing as your ambassador?"
"Not my ambassador. Animasia's."
"Supposing I don't can your ass after this, why?"
"Because we don't have enough cash for a lobbyist. And 'ambassador' sounds so much more benign."
It had been intended for a weak joke. Elisa simply construed it as the last straw. "David Xanatos, you are under arrest for-"
"I'm not done." He pressed an intercom on the wall. "Owen," he summoned.
A door on the wall slid open and Owen Burnett appeared, carrying an attaché case. And Elisa, despite her fury at her being held against her will while one of the greatest threats Animasia had ever faced casually strolled into the room, couldn't help but wonder what was in the case. "What's that?"
"Proof that our Chief Executive Officer is a bastard and a liar," Xanatos replied. Owen held out the case for Xanatos to open; he quickly drew out several papers for her to look at. "This is a copy of the original contract I signed- that we all signed- before Integration. Nicholas Misner presented me with a forged copy this evening that only a fool would have signed. I disputed it, of course, but I don't know how many of our compatriots would have done the same."
"Why were you looking at your contract?" Elisa asked, curiosity getting the better of her.
"Misner believes that the Excalibur belongs to the Disney Company, as per the fake contract stipulates."
"Trinity's," Xanatos corrected, "with the patent going to Lexington. I'm not worried about the forgery- that's easy enough to prove in my favor. What concerns me is how easily Misner thinks we can be duped. What concerns me even more is I think he is correct. The majority of Animasia wouldn't have a clue what to do if they were confronted with something like this, and I know that had to be intentional on the part of our 'instructors.'"
She was getting drawn in, and she had to stop. "As fascinating as this all is, what does any of this have to do with the fact that you have Public Enemy Number One working for you?"
"Excuse me, Mr. Xanatos," Owen interrupted, setting the attaché case down on the ground, "but I have a prior appointment that I need to attend to."
Xanatos glanced at his assistant, then nodded.
"You're just going to let him go!" Elisa exploded as Owen turned and left.
"I trust him," Xanatos said with finality.
"I don't. I can't."
"You'll learn to. I did. I didn't when he first reappeared after the Night of Dissension. He had to work very hard to regain my trust. I had no interest in being duped again."
"He could still be playing you. You know how much he likes to mess around with people."
"The Puck does like his games," Xanatos allowed. "But it's only games that he specialized in, not tyranny and domination. You're familiar enough with the binding magic of Animasia: Yensid's spell should still be in place if Puck was guilty of the crimes listed in the incantation. There are no other Exiles free."
"That you know of."
"Do you really think Maleficent and Jafar would be subdued in announcing their return to Animasia?"
Elisa knew the answer to that.
"Exactly. I am comfortable keeping Puck's whereabouts hidden until the time is right. And now I'm asking you to do the same."
His audacity was stunning. "You've got to be kidding."
He didn't seem to hear her. "Trinity is poised to bring about a revolution in the automotive industry. And there are ideas floating around in Lex's brain that will undoubtedly revolutionize various other industries in the time to come. I can market those ideas with a great deal of panache, but not if I'm stuck behind a desk worrying about spreadsheets and 401Ks. Owen, ironically, handles the mundane with great finesse. I need him if Trinity is to become all that I think it can become. And you, as an ardent supporter of the New Kingdom, need Trinity to succeed."
"Because a successful Trinity can give you cash and connections, both of which you'll need if you want to see this dream of yours happen. Hell, it needs to happens if Toons are ever going to be taken seriously. We weren't exactly greeted as equals at the auto show." He smirked. "Then we got to show off the Excalibur, and I don't think I'll ever again see so many grown men cry.
"Elisa, Animasia needs you to bridge our worlds, as it were, even if no one realizes that yet. We can't simply remain a curiosity for ticket holders while Congress dithers around trying not to do anything about us. We have to be proactive in engaging humanity before something occurs that could irrevocably damage any future relationship with them."
"Like what?" Elisa asked, trying to shake off the ominous tone Xanatos had slipped into.
"Aren't you supposed to think of worst case scenarios? Genie could snap his fingers and enslave humanity to do his bidding. Yensid, by default, is even more powerful than that. Merlin could whisk Wart away to England and demand that Queen Elizabeth abdicate the throne, since the once and future king has returned. Bambi, Todd and Pocahontas could team up and wage guerrilla warfare every hunting season. Fortunately, no one here thinks that way-"
"-but that doesn't take into account accidents. Genie might not be in any hurry to have an army of slaves, but what if he zaps some four-year-old into a unicorn because she told him that she always wanted to be a unicorn? He doesn't always show the best judgment. And then what happens to the rest of us in the backlash? What happens when the humans realize what we are actually capable of?
"And that's where you come in: making the denizens of Animasia look as normal as possible. Getting as much exposure as possible to minimize our otherness. Getting Congress to realize our value and potential as allies and citizens, and in the process, getting government support to fund the New Kingdom. Because I can assure you that the Walt Disney Company under Nicholas Misner wants none of that. I am asking you to do this because you are one of the most pragmatic individuals here. You know that I'm telling the truth, and despite whatever reservations you might have, I know you will act in the best interests of Animasia."
It bothered Elisa to no end that this was the most sensible thing she heard discussed since Animasia's emergence.
It bothered her even more that she agreed with Xanatos.
All the meetings with the other members of the New Kingdom had never been like this; they were always focused on what it would be like and what we can accomplish when. Even if they hadn't intended to, the meetings had turned into wishing rather than practical aims and goals. But if she could kick start this thing…
But if Puck were the lynchpin in all of this…
Every thought, breath, heartbeat froze when Elisa heard the voice of the sudden newcomer behind her.
Xanatos covered as quickly as if he had been expecting the gargoyle…which, perhaps he had. "Goliath! Good to see you. I was regaling the detective here with Nick Misner's latest act of depravity, and I had just expressed my desire to do something about his hold over Animasia."
In the window's reflection, Elisa could see that Goliath was still across the room. Glaring at Xanatos, she angrily hissed, "You said I'd be free to act-"
"I'm not doing anything to stop you," Xanatos said calmly.
She heard the gentle swish of Goliath's wings approaching. She would tell Goliath all that Xanatos had told her.
And then Goliath would promptly throttle Xanatos. As would any free member of Animasia once they discovered Puck's involvement. Working with an Exile? Madness. Treacherous. There were absolutes to be obeyed. The Exiles were not to be shown any mercy if they somehow escaped their prison. She was responsible for leading the charge against any hint of an incursion. And she was just going to overlook the fact that Puck was rambling about Animasia- and possibly the world- scott free? Her own ambivalence about the matter was not a resounding endorsement of the Puck's character.
But damn it all to hell, they needed Xanatos. If Xanatos were incarcerated, they would lose one of the better minds Animasia possessed, and the only one who had come forward to help the cause of the New Kingdom. They needed someone who was working outside of Animasia and wasn't intimidated by Misner and his cronies, someone who could cultivate relationships in other companies and other sectors that didn't have a thing to do with entertainment. They needed his mind for planning, his obvious knack for strategy, his ability to understand the potential of darkness without being evil himself.
…who shouldn't be free unless the parameters of the spell weren't met…
…unless Yensid had really screwed up…
…but none of the other Exiles had escaped…
Goliath approached her and she couldn't bring herself to look at him. "I thought we were meeting in the Great Hall- are you all right? You're pale."
"She was pretty angry when she heard what I had to say," Xanatos said.
She heard his voice turn to a cautionary rumble. "Elisa can answer for herself." Then more gently, directed at her: "Are you all right?"
She nodded, looking up at her mate. She saw his concern for her, his shoulders hunched so slightly with tension, waiting for her answer.
Was the good of Animasia worth his trust in her?
"I'm fine," she heard herself tell him. "Misner is apparently in the market for forgeries these days."
It wasn't a lie. She wasn't lying to him. She was just…editing the evening's conversation.
For the good of Animasia.
Xanatos began filling in Goliath on his interview with Misner; Goliath's frown deepened with every sentence. When Xanatos finished, Goliath looked at her, and she knew exactly what he was planning; she simply knew him that well. She nodded in agreement.
And felt like such a heel.
"Xanatos, would you come with us to a…gathering this evening?" Goliath asked. "There are others who would be interested in what you have told us."
He looked appropriately surprised and intrigued. Elisa wanted to kick him. "When do we leave?" Xanatos asked.
"All right. I think I can fit it into my schedule," he said amiably.
"Then let's go."
There was nothing more Elisa could say as Goliath took her side, Xanatos keeping a respectful distance behind them. She threw one last glare back at Xanatos, hoping she could send as much meaning as possible in it: Don't make me regret this.
Xanatos nodded, his face solemn, and continued walking in silence.
"Where have you been?"
Belle hadn't crossed the threshold to the cottage before Gaston barreled over to her, swept her into his arms and fiercely embraced her. "I was about to call a patrol and start looking for you. Do you have any idea how late it is?"
She didn't. Nor did she particularly care. But there was an agitated pitch to Gaston's words, a timbre she'd never heard him use before, and that was enough to brush away her tumbling thoughts and place her firmly, presently into the entryway of her cottage. The grandfather clock in the sitting room read a quarter to eleven. Epcot closed at nine. Her canceled reading engagement was supposed to have started at seven. No wonder he was bothered.
"I'm sorry, Gaston. I lost track of time. I didn't even know you were waiting for me."
"What were you doing out so late, Belle?"
"Taking a walk." She inwardly winced at the déjà vu their conversation induced.
"It's going on midnight! Did something happen at the park?"
"No. I never made into the park. Alder never let me out."
"That son of a bitch."
"Yes. So, I was angry and I didn't want to be stuck in here…" She looked around the walls of the cottage. "…so I came back to Animasia and walked around the kingdoms, trying to clear my head."
"You were out walking that whole time?"
"Well…" It was better if she just told him. There certainly wasn't anything to hide. "I…I actually ran into Beast."
"Oh," Gaston replied, sounding concerned. "Did you talk to him?"
"We…" She sighed, trying to find the right term for whatever had passed in the woods. "We had a big argument."
"You don't have to sound so happy."
"I'm not happy."
She looked at his face, reading his features. "You're relieved."
"I'm just glad he didn't hurt you."
She groaned, her shoulders sagging. "How many times do we have to go through this? He's not going to hurt me, and he never would have if it hadn't been for the Exiles-" She saw his jaw set, and his eyes, cast in the shadow of a flickering lamp, suddenly darkened. In that second, he looked like…Gaston, but not herGaston. She took a step back from him.
The look instantly vanished. "What?"
"You…" She wasn't sure what she'd seen. Fearing that her eyes were playing tricks, she let it drop. Then she saw the open portfolio on the table. "What's that?" she asked, looking at the binder.
"Before you get mad-"
"That's not a good way to start a conversation." Without waiting for him to continue, she walked over to the table and began flipping through pages. "Fabric swatches?"
"For the...bridesmaids' dresses, I suppose. There's more."
Then she turned to the cover. " 'Property of The Walt Disney Company. Proposal for Toon Reality Show.' Gaston!" she hollered, slamming the binder shut.
Throwing his arms up defensively, Gaston began, "It's not what it looks like."
"Then what is it?"
"…all right, it's exactly what it looks like. But look, I was trying to make you happy."
"By making me look like an idiot?"
"Don't be dramatic, Belle-"
"I told Alder you'd never make a decision like this without letting me know. I told him that you'd never do something like this to me."
"I wasn't doing this to you, I was doing this for you. I thought you'd be happy to get out of here. You keep letting those schmucks get away with putting you down and I'm sick of it. No one hurts my girl and gets away with it."
"So you just agreed to do what they want us to do?"
"Who said we have to do what they want? I told them we'd film the show-"
"You agreed that you'd do the show. I never agreed to that."
"What do you want me to do, Belle? Whatever I do, it's not the right thing."
"This shouldn't have been that hard for you. You know how I felt about this. You should have known how I was going to react."
"By tearing my head off?"
"If that's what it takes. Do you really want the world to see us like this? Do you really want everything we say to be entertainment fodder for millions of strangers?"
"It already is. It's not that bad."
"Please ignore your ego for a moment. I don't want the attention. I don't want the media all over us. I don't want all the publicity-"
"Well, you're the smart one. Shouldn't your holier-than-thou bookworm brains figured a way out of this since you haven't been doing anything for a month? "
Silence careened into the room. "Get out," Belle whispered.
"I don't want to talk to you right now. I really don't want to have this conversation with you right now."
Gaston nodded slowly, drawing a breath so deep he seemed to still the air. "So you'll talk things out with your hairy ex and you can't stand to be around your fiancé. That's great, Belle." His boots echoing throughout the cottage like tympanis, he slammed the door behind him.
Belle didn't let herself think about their exchange. She simply poured water from the kitchen pitcher into an awaiting teapot, then slammed the kettle into glowing embers of the kitchen hearth. Sparks flew and crackled around her and she didn't notice them. Then she turned, walked slowly over to the corner of the cottage where her bookshelves stood, and very gently, brought her forehead down to rest on the spines of the volumes that lay at eye level. The cool bits of leather and cloth tempered the heat she felt flushing her face. She had often sought solace in the pages of books, but it was a cruel irony that they were currently her only means of physical comfort as well. The embers snapped occasionally, and all she let herself think about was if she would have an imprint of the Bard's good name embedded backwards across her forehead.
"He's not the most sensitive brute, is he?"
The mere noise startled her, but it was the voice that induced the fear.
Belle turned, knowing who she'd find.
Puck the Trickster stood in her kitchen, smiling benevolently at her. "Not quite the reaction I was hoping for, but I can't say as I blame you."
Anger devoured any fear that lingered. Fury rollicked through her; her patience, her resilience, her compassion were gone. She wanted to hurt him.
Very, very badly.
"Out of all the people in Animasia, I know you would be the least likely to greet me with any affection…"
He kept talking; she didn't care to hear. One lingering sense of logic darted her eyes to the parlor's fireplace and the stoker resting just a yard away.
"…so I just had to make a house call, you see…"
She lunged for the stoker, grabbed it in both hands and slammed it into the bricks around the fireplace.
The result was exactly what she hoped for: Puck keeled over mid-sentence as the iron-saturated sound waves knelled across the room. She held her weapon loosely, needing the resonance to continue. When he didn't move, she gave the fireplace another crack, then slowly walked over to his prostrate form, keeping the sharp end pointed at him.
As she approached, his eyes remained unfocused, pointed towards the ceiling but not looking at it. Some sense seeped back into her; how could she go for help? If she left, he might revive and vanish. Or if he didn't revive…she suddenly realized that was an "if" she had never wanted to use, even on an Exile.
"That," Puck said groggily, scaring Belle back a foot, "was the most intelligent act I've witnessed this year. Possibly ever. Fortunately," he continued, magically wresting the stoker away from Belle and sending it hurtling out an open window (that Belle knew hadn't been open before), "only human-grade iron is truly ruinous for the fey folk. But major points for trying, kiddo."
Suddenly weaponless and with a mounting conscience, Belle backed away until her spine ran into the cupboards in the kitchen. Puck collected himself from the floor and dusted himself off. "I would even put that in the karmanic category: we hurt you, you hurt us. One down, four to go. Lucky for them, they're still in Exile."
"Back to finish what you started?" Belle asked quietly, finding her voice. She was no longer certain if she was scared; she just wanted him gone.
"No!" Puck exclaimed. "I never wanted you hurt."
She stared at him.
"I didn't," he repeated. "And I found out too late to stop those who did. The Night of Dissension was supposed to be a big practical joke. And I fell for it." He paused, looking at her. She realized that she'd never heard so much sincerity in his voice. Even in the days when she could have considered him a friend, there was always something going on in the background of his tone, some game or some secret never divulged. Now, there was nothing hidden. "You have to realize, Belle, that you and Beast were the only bright spot amid a frustratingly pedantic assortment of cookie-cutter princes and princesses. Whether you realized it or not, the two of you defied nearly every convention this place had. Not to mention, your relationship was kind of kinky."
The desire to throttle him again briefly flared.
"Why would I have wanted to break up the best Animasia had to offer?"
She didn't even know why she asked, but she found a sentence escaping her: "What about Goliath and Elisa?"
"Bo-ring. One track minds, both of them: honor, protection, sacrifice, blah blah blah. You'd never guess we came from the same kingdom. But you two…you had spitfire. You had something real. You still do, as just evidenced, but Beast…well, I've seen stuffed trophies that have a more optimistic view of life."
"I wonder why that would be."
"Well, that's why I'm here. To make amends."
"Amends?" she echoed quietly. Then she giggled, high-pitched and mirthless. "Amends? Can you undo that night? Can you take back the last three years?"
Looking down at the wedding binder, Puck asked, "Why would I want to do that if you're going to be happily married to Mr. Neanderthal?"
No answer came.
"Uh-huh. I have tried with Beast. Now, if I were to attempt a one-on-one with him, like I am with you, I have no doubt that he would rip me apart, magic be damned. He would find a way. I've been more subtle, trying to coax him out of those shadows he seems to keep as company lately. You would have been wandering solo this evening if I hadn't planted the thought in him that tonight really was a fine evening for a stroll." He sighed. "He completely wasted the material: a moonlit night, two lost lovers meeting by chance under the cloak of a springtime forest with more words than their hearts can hold…and nothing.
"I have something much more concrete for you."
"And what's that?"
"A present." He held out his hand and a pendant dropped down, suspended on a gold chain. As it slowed its swinging, Belle saw a perfectly formed cloisonné rosebud, its petals a mosaic of reds tipped in gold.
"A necklace," she stated flatly.
"A ticket. A one-way trip out of matrimonially ever after and public appearance hell. If you slip this on, you will become human. And don't worry; old Puck wouldn't pull the fish-out-of-water scam on you. The second you make your decision, the moment this chain drapes around your neck, you will be set for life: a full scholarship to the college of your choice, a bank account with 100 grand, licenses of every shade, a certified passport and birth certificate, and a handful of credit cards for good measure…although you might want to steer clear of these. People called the Exiles evil, but we never charged 27% APR."
Had he come to her that night alone in New York, she would have reached out for it. At the very least she would have considered what was put before her.
She said the only words she knew to give: "Please leave."
Puck nodded. "I understand. I understand so well that I am going to leave this in your nightstand drawer, should you change your mind. Oh, I almost forgot. The caveat?"
"The decision is final. You wouldn't be able to change back into an Animasian."
"I'd be mortal."
He began to float away. Before he left, he turned back. "For what it's worth, I am sorry for all that you've been through. Since you asked…if it were in my power…I would undo all of it. "
And he was gone.
The window closed and the fire stoker appeared, serenely standing by the fireplace.
Belle remained standing, stock still against the cabinets. She couldn't get her legs to move towards the chair, and she doubted they would be able to carry her that far. Her mind, earlier so full of tumult, could only process one simple goal:
She had to tell someone what had just happened.
Mickey! Puck just came to see me!
Great Scott! What did he want?
He wanted to apologize for what happened with Beast.
…what happened with Beast?
And they'd take him away.
The walls have ears.
No matter how quietly she spoke, no matter how secluded a spot, word would get out. And the scandal would not be that Puck the Exile had escaped; Yensid could surely handle that little imp. No, the story that would be spun was The Beast colluded with the Exiles, and Belle had been his sole unfortunate victim. Why, the girl was so terrified of him, no wonder she left the castle! He must have threatened her if she ever spoke out against him, the poor dear. There would be accusations, a trial, the verdict decided before he ever appeared before the jury. And he would accept all of it. The lies, the malice, banishment because he felt he deserved it. She saw him being led away, bound in shackles but resolute in his fate, even relieved that he would be finally and appropriately punished.
She saw him looking at her for one last time.
He gave her the smallest of smiles as he was led out.
"You're safe now," he told her…
What was safe with an Exile loose?
Except…Puck hadn't hurt her.
the fire that seared across her face
his talons digging through her
In more ways than he knew.
with hands that held her sacred
Because of the Exiles.
One of whom was free.
She had to tell someone.
Boot falls entered from the front door. If Gaston wanted to, he could be silent. He was giving her the heads up that he was on his way in. Given the last visitor, the gesture seemed downright courtly.
Gaston would know what to do. He was good at making decisions, good at seizing the moment and acting upon it. Even if she didn't always like what he decided to do. But he always acted, rather than standing in a corner afraid to make decisions.
She watched him enter the kitchen, his face etched in contrition. "That was the dumbest thing I've ever said."
What had he said? She couldn't remember. She knew they fought earlier, but it seemed so far away now, and trivial. Somehow, she found the words to reply: "Gaston…we live forever. I'm sure you'll come up with a way to top yourself."
She knew she didn't sound normal. It must have showed, because the contrition on his face changed to concern. "Belle?"
"I had a visitor while you were gone," she said.
He did a double take between the clock and her. "Who?"
His reaction was the last one she expected to see. She expected shock, anger, more concern for her well-being, something other than a mirror to her own stupor. And then she realized something that scared her more than anything else that had happened that night.
Gaston was afraid.
"What did he want?" he asked. He said it low, as if he was expecting someone to listen in. Maybe there was.
"He wanted to apologize. For the Night of Dissension."
"Did he say anything else?"
She thought about his parting words to undo the past and of the pendant that, if she were to go to her bed stand right now and open the drawer, she was sure to find. "Mostly nonsense. He is Puck."
"That was it?"
The change over him was instant. In one long stride he had gathered her up into his arms, surrounding her with his might. She didn't want him to let go. She didn't want to stop feeling so protected. She wanted to stay in this moment, where she was certain of his love for her and his willingness to do whatever he needed to protect her. "Thank God you're all right."
"I am. But we need to go tell Mickey what happened."
She loosened her hold around him. "No?"
"It's past midnight."
If there was an obvious connection, she didn't see it. "So?"
"It's back from the battle on the plains. From that Night. There were some nasty spells being cast. Yensid cast some kind of counter spell using their spells against them. It's like…when human kids get shots at the doctor's, Elaine talked about them once…"
"Vaccines?" Belle offered.
"That's right. It was like that. Yensid's spell didn't do anything that night, but it prevented any future attack spells from being cast after midnight. So even if all the other Exiles were roaming free right now, they couldn't do anything."
"But shouldn't everyone be prepared if they do attack whenever the limits of the spell run out?"
"They will be, because the security detail has warning charms and gadgets to let them know if any evil magic is being cast. We learned a lot after the Night of Dissension and we're prepared for an attack."
"Why didn't I know about any of that?"
"Well, a lot of it was done right after, and you weren't exactly available at the time."
Belle leaned into him again, resting her head against his chest. "I suppose I wasn't."
"Tomorrow morning, I'll go talk to Mickey and tell him what happened."
"We'll both go."
"Belle, I don't want you to have to worry about this anymore. I'll take care of it."
"Then don't tell Mickey what Puck was apologizing for."
"Isn't that missing the point?"
"The point is that there's an escaped Exile who's randomly visiting Animasians. That should be enough to concern him."
"All right," he reluctantly allowed.
They remained together, their words spent. After some time, Belle quietly said, "Please don't go."
Gaston looked down at her. "You want me to stay?"
"That was the idea," she gave him a small grin. "There's a spare room across from mine."
"It would be an honor."
She led him to the foot of the staircase, holding his hand. "And after you see Mickey, you can tell Mr. Brian Alder that we expect to have an 8 PM slot."
"Are you sure?" he asked cautiously.
Nodding, Belle replied, "I want the rest of the world to see how good you really are."
And with that, Gaston swept her off her feet and carried her up the stairs and to her room, sanctuary in the dark of night.
Despite the brightness of the risen half-moon, Mickey's thoughts remained buried in the shadows.
He seemed to feel discouraged a lot lately.
As Minnie closed the door to their house behind them, Mickey leaned on the porch railing, pondering the inevitable.
The New Kingdom was going to fail.
All that they were trying to accomplish was based on the notion that more, many more people would be involved by now, disgusted with their treatment by the company.
That wasn't happening.
He felt time slipping away, that something would happen before they could establish any roots for the New Kingdom to truly take hold. And they'd be left with an Animasia that withered away, atrophied by the influence of the outside world, mined for its glory to people who had no care for its ultimate worth.
"It's not as bad as you think."
Mickey shook his head, quietly marveling at Minnie's powers of perception. "Yeah. It's probably worse."
A voice rang down from the garden path. "Mickey! Mickey!"
Even in the darkness, the voice was unmistakable. "Ella?" Mickey asked incredulously.
She was running, barely stopping to open the gate as she hurried up the pathway. "Mickey! Oh, I'm so sorry about this afternoon! I was so rude!
"I just…I didn't know-"
"Ella, are you okay?"
"It's Misner! He wants to get rid of you, Mickey!"
"He told me. He wants you to stop leading Animasia."
While Mickey reeled, Minnie was troubled by something else entirely. "Why would he tell you that, Ella?"
"He trusts me."
"He trusts you so much that he thinks you'd betray Mickey?"
"But I'm not! I'm here telling you what he told me. He…" Ella hung her head, bought her hands up to her chest and started knitting her fingers together. "I began talking to him at Entourage events. He came to know how unhappy I was before Integration. I probably confided in him more than I should have about our life here. He assumed that I would be…amenable to a change in leadership. Mickey, I didn't know what he was planning."
"So what did you tell him?" Minnie asked sharply.
"I went along with it, of course. Who knows what he would have done to me if I had refused? Besides, don't you want me to know what's going on so that I can tell you when he might act upon his decision?"
Minnie didn't reply. Mickey, meanwhile, seemed to have collected himself. Looking up at Ella, he began, "Ella…thanks. I know we haven't gotten along lately, but this really means the world to me that you told us what was going on." He paused. "You're in this for the long haul? And you're okay with that?"
Slowly, Ella nodded. "I think…I think I have a lot to make up for. And this would be the best way to do it."
"Okay." He paused again, considering. "We were on our way somewhere. Did you want to come along?"
"Mickey!" Minnie whispered, unabashedly aghast.
Before he could answer her, another visitor came careening towards the house. Donald ran full tilt, skidding past the garden gate. He leaned on the fence, panting heavily.
"Donald! What's wrong?"
"The door…there's a new door," Donald sputtered out as he gasped for breath. "By the Town Hall…there's a new door…there's another Kingdom, Mickey…there's a new one."
Mickey stood, quietly gaping at his friend as he felt the eyes of both Minnie and Ella trail onto him, waiting for his next words.
In five minutes time, the world had become much more complicated.