A/N: Written for the Winter 2010 Twilight Gift Exchange. Allusions and inspiration from the French fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, and the Grimm Brothers Rose Red and Snow White. Text quoted from The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas, and A Little Budding Rose by Emily Bronte. No copyright infringement to Twilight or other referenced sources is intended.
A/N: Since it's beta appreciation day, I want to say a very special thank you to the lovely SassenachWench for her help and assistance on this story, and to the fantastic folks at Project Team Beta for the excellent work they do. This story was immeasurably improved by their assistance.
Once upon a time, in a very small town, there lived a young girl. She was an ordinary girl, small and shy, but loved dearly by her father, a knight who daily rode off on his white steed to protect the town, and her beautiful mother, a storyteller who taught the girl and the other children of the town each day.
The girl lived with her parents in a small cottage at the edge of the forest, and though the woods were dark and deep, she played among them without fear, always knowing that her father and mother would keep her safe.
And then one day, the unthinkable happened. The girl's mother grew ill. Her strength was gone and she was confined to bed, as the girl's father frantically searched for a cure without success. But this was no dragon he could slay; the roses in her mother's cheeks grew paler with each passing day. The girl stopped playing in the forest, sitting instead by her mother's bedside, listening as her mother wove stories of magic, mystery, and a prince that one day would come for her daughter. The girl soaked up each word, her head nestled against her mother's warm body, until the day her mother grew cool and was taken away.
The girl and her father lived on in the small cottage together, quieter and sadder, and the years passed. She spent her days lost in tales of far away places, and dreamed nightly of the stories her mother had spun, of magical things, the mysteries of the forest, and a prince with golden eyes and flaming hair.
But one day the girl was no longer a girl, but a young woman, and the waking world was no longer magical, the forest merely cold and dreary, and her prince never came.
Bella gave the dinner rapidly cooling on the table one last glance and reached for the telephone.
"Hello?" an anxious voice answered.
"Janine, is my dad there? He told me he wasn't scheduled for the late shift tonight."
"Honey, have you not been watching the news? A pair of those little Boy Scouts who are always going camping up at Bear Rock got themselves lost. Your daddy's out helping look for them."
"Oh, thanks, Janine, I didn't know. Have you heard from him?"
"He checked in about an hour ago. It'll be too dark soon for them to do much more though. I'll tell him you called."
Bella hung up the phone, filled a plate, and walked into the living room. She switched on the television and settled herself on the couch. Sure enough, the scrolling feed across the bottom of the screen announced news of the lost Boy Scouts.
She watched the footage for a few minutes. A short clip of her father from earlier announcing that a search was underway was followed by teary-eyed shots of the parents, then a cut to the weather forecast of the storms rolling in.
"The radar indicates an unusually heavy storm, folks, with a possible accumulation of up to two feet of snow. Looks like we might be getting a really white Christmas this year."
Bella picked at her food, the limp spaghetti losing appeal. Christmas was only a few days away, and she should really decorate the tree tonight, cover the bare branches with some tinsel and shiny balls and try to make the place look festive.
Her father always said he didn't care about those things, but she knew he did. It reminded them both of her mother, who'd loved the holidays and had always made trimming the tree a big family event. He'd brought home the tree yesterday, dragging out the old stand and heaving the small pine into place, where it now stood, slightly forlorn in the corner.
Bella put her plate down, the noodles sitting like a lump in her stomach, and opened the first box of decorations stacked beside the bare branches. Her father might say it was no big deal, but this year, her last year here with him, it was. Next year she'd be at college, and though she would come home for the holidays, it wouldn't be the same. She wanted to do this for them.
She needed to add the lights first and untangling them always took so long. She flipped idly through the channels on the television, leaving it on a game show as she focused on the unruly strands that had writhed and twisted themselves into impossible knots while hiding in the attic. The beeping of a weather alert drew her attention back up to the screen as she finished the third strand. She listened to the mechanical voice read out the warnings.
"Winter Weather Advisory. Rapid accumulations expected. Extreme wind gusts. Travelers advised to stay off the roads."
She scrambled to her feet and went to the window, staring out into the darkness and listening as the wind howled. A peek out the door was met by a flurry of white that swirled around her feet. The storm had set in. She shut the door and returned to the television, a news alert breaking in to show pictures of the reunion of the Boy Scouts and their parents.
Good. Her father should be home soon. She turned up the volume just in time to hear the announcer intone her father's name.
"Chief Charles Swan was separated from the search party as the storm intensified and remains missing."
She dropped the remote and raced to the kitchen, misdialed the number twice with shaky fingers before she managed to connect.
"Janine? Where's my dad?"
A deeper voice responded. Her dad's senior deputy. "Bella, honey, we don't know, and this storm's way worse than they were calling for, caught us all off guard. It's so heavy, the boys can't get back out there. No visibility up in the Park right now. But we'll be out again as soon as we can come daylight, alright? Don't you worry, your dad's a smart one and he's been roaming those woods for years. He knows how to find cover, keep himself safe until we can get to him. Do you want me to try to get someone over to you?"
She declined and hung up the phone, sliding into a small lump on the floor to wait.
Christmas morning dawned clear and bright, the storm that folks would call the Christmas blizzard for years afterwards having finally spent its fury, leaving behind a heavy layer of white to cover the damage. Bella stirred from her place on the couch, throwing off the wool blanket someone had covered her with late the night before when she'd finally succumbed to exhaustion.
It had been three days since her father went missing. Three days of failed attempts by search parties to locate him, hampered by the storm that had continued to rage. Three days of anxious waiting, of her father's men and their families filling her home, the wives fussing and clucking over her, bringing food, and trying to force her to eat.
She could hear a shuffle in the kitchen, low voices, and knew that Deputy Peterson and his wife, Wanda, were awake. Newlyweds with no little ones, they'd insisted on staying with her on Christmas Eve, even after she'd persuaded the others who'd been hanging about, hovering with worry etched on their faces, to go home to their families. They were going to continue the search today, but now they were looking for a body. She'd heard them whispering about it last night. No one thought there was a chance her father had made it through the storm.
Her eyes were red and aching, the sandpaper grit of too little sleep and too many tears. A sparkle in the corner caught her eye, and she noticed the little pine, registering that it was now covered in lights and ornaments. Someone out of the many people who had crowded the house the last few days must have finished decorating it. She felt hollow as she stared at it and what it had been supposed to represent – Christmas with her dad. He was supposed to have been here, to wake her up wearing that ridiculous Santa hat he'd had for years, to drag her downstairs for presents and their special Christmas breakfast.
And now he was gone.
The tears threatened again and she scrubbed her hands over her face, trying to get herself under control as the reality of the last few days crashed into her. Hadn't losing her mother been enough? What would she do without her father?
There was a sharp rap on the door, a single knock that seemed to echo through the house. She clutched the blanket back around her, and staggered to the door, opening it to find only the blinding white of the snow before her.
Until she looked down. Lying curled and motionless on the doorstep, in his uniform and heavy coat, was her father. She dropped to her knees with a gasp, and watched the trail of the exhale of his breath condense in the cold air as she screamed for the Petersons.
Her father was going to be alright. They were keeping him for observation overnight, but the initial examination had shown no physical effects – no frostbite or dehydration. His only deficit seemed to be a loss of memory of what had happened over the last few days.
She'd wanted to stay, but her father and the others had insisted she go home to sleep. She clutched the bundle of his effects they'd given her at the hospital tightly as Wanda Peterson pulled into her driveway.
"Bella, are you sure you don't want one of us here with you again? You need to get some rest tonight. Don't want to worry your daddy by getting sick yourself, now do you?"
"I'll be fine. Thank you, Mrs. Peterson, for everything."
"Alright, then. Merry Christmas."
It was still Christmas? Bella mumbled the sentiment back as she opened the car door, then made her way carefully up the steps to the front porch. Fumbling with her keys until she got the lock open, she turned and waved, watching the car pull away with a honk.
The house was thankfully quiet, and dark except for the lights of the tree. No one had remembered to unplug it when they'd frantically rushed her father to the hospital this morning, but the warm glow was welcoming for the first time. She made her way over to the couch and collapsed, feeling the waves of exhaustion drag her into the depths of true sleep.
He ran ahead of her, dodging nimbly between the trees, his deep laughter echoing back through the forest as they played their game. Catch me if you can.
She never could, but she chased him anyway.
He called her name, and she caught a glimpse of a figure darting to her left. She pivoted, her own moves graceful as she bounded after him, feeling happiness bubble inside her. He was just ahead now, his bright hair drawing her like a moth to a flame. Her prince.
She circled a tree, prepared to find him just the other side, and instead surveyed only the quiet forest. He'd evaded her again.
"Bella." One word, but so beautiful on his lips. She turned to find him at her side, hand extended, golden eyes glowing. She laid her palm in his, letting him draw her in, and tilted her face up to meet his lips as she closed her eyes.
He disappeared, as always, leaving her standing alone in the quiet forest as snow began to fall and billow around her.
Bella sat upright, her heart racing, shaking her head to clear it of the recurring dream she'd had for years. The fairytale prince in the forest her mother told her stories of so long ago, tales woven over those long days as her mother grew weaker, but never too much to open her arms to hold her. She knew now that such things didn't exist, but the dreams always made her happy, despite the ending. The prince always disappeared before she could have her first kiss.
She glanced at the clock over the mantle, the numbers showing that she had, in fact, slept through the night. She headed into the kitchen and called the hospital. The nurse on duty assured her that her father was fine, still sleeping, and that she should wait a few more hours before attempting to drive over to see him.
She busied herself with cleaning to pass the time, straightening the kitchen, then gathering the laundry she hadn't looked at in days and separating loads. She unhooked her father's name badge from the front of the uniform he'd been wearing when he disappeared that they'd given her at the hospital, and began her usual search of his pockets for sticks of gum, scraps of paper, and the usual odds and ends he often stuck there. Her fingers encountered something soft, and she carefully drew out a rosebud, limp and tattered. Even in its wilted state, the deep red tint of the petals was beautiful. She ran her finger over the smoothness. How had her father found a rose in the middle of that storm?
She sat it to the side to ask him about later.
Her father was released from the hospital the next day, though restricted from work through the beginning of the new year for a few final tests related to his memory loss. Bella tried not to fuss over him, but the memory of his cold skin beneath her hand as she'd touched his inert form on the doorstep lingered in her mind.
She spent the week looking through the college applications she'd been considering for months now, weighing the costs and distance of each with what she knew realistically her father could afford. The state university system had solid though not outstanding schools, and several campuses only a few hours away. Many of her classmates would go there as well, and she felt certain that her grades would gain her admittance. She began the process of filling out the applications, typing away at the various essays on topics like success and teamwork that held little interest for her.
Her father found her at her task on the new year's eve, seated at the kitchen table reviewing something she'd written for the school nearest them. He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down next to her, flipping through the pile.
"Staying close to home, huh?" he asked.
She lifted a shoulder. "They're good schools. Mrs. Marrion thinks I'll get accepted, and probably some financial aid too."
Her dad took a sip of his coffee, then sat the cup down. "Bella, you know your mother and I started a college fund for you, but when she got sick-"
Bella touched his hand. "Dad, I know. And it's alright. I think maybe this is best for me; I'm not sure I'm ready to be so far away yet."
He nodded and looked away. "Are you going out with your friends tonight? That Stanley girl having her party? Is her mother going to be there?"
Jessica Stanley's mother had been letting her throw a New Year's Eve party since they were in seventh grade, although the party had proportionally decreased in adult supervision and increased in adult beverages as they'd grown older. Bella shook her head.
"She's having it, but . . . I think I just want to stay here tonight."
"Bella, you don't have to stay home because of me. I'm fine," he protested.
She bit her lip to try to keep in the tears that hovered just below the surface when she thought of those three long days he'd been gone. "I know I don't have to, Dad. I want to. I thought maybe we could play Scrabble and watch the countdown on television, like we did when I was little? Maybe have an apple juice toast at midnight?"
Her father smiled. "Sure, kiddo. Whatever you want."
Bella lifted her glass of apple juice high in the air as she chanted the countdown to midnight, watching with her dad as the fireworks exploded onscreen. She kissed his cheek as he hugged her, whispering in her ear how much he loved her and how she'd always be his little girl. The tears she'd been holding back started to fall freely.
She pulled away, smiling to let her father know she was alright before ducking towards the bathroom for something to dry her eyes. As she passed the front door, a sharp rap sounded.
Bella gave one more furtive wipe at her cheeks and opened the door, expecting to find one of her father's deputies standing there. Instead the stoop was empty save for two large baskets piled with cut roses. Fully in bloom, perfectly formed, dark red roses. Just like the bud she'd found in her father's pocket that she'd forgotten to ask about.
"Dad?" she called, as she lifted first one basket and then the other, pulling them into the hallway. "Do you have a secret admirer I should know about?"
He appeared in the doorway, still wearing the ridiculous party hat she'd insisted on, and for a moment she thought he might pass out, he turned so pale.
"Where did you get those?" he demanded.
"They were on the doorstep, but whoever left them must have taken off fast – I didn't see anyone when I opened the door. Hey, roses from a knock and run are better than some things people like to leave on the police chief's doorstep, right?"
He remained silent as she pulled the containers into the kitchen, so she continued. "I wouldn't have thought you could get this many roses in the dead of winter, and such a beautiful shade. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it. Except for that rosebud in your pocket."
He followed her, sinking down into one of the chairs at the kitchen table. "What are you talking about, Bella?"
She frowned, puzzled, and ducked out of the kitchen into the laundry room to retrieve the now brittle bud. "This. You had it in your uniform pocket."
He took the flower from her gingerly, then suddenly pinched too tightly. She watched as the dried petals crumbled to dust beneath his fingers. He stood up abruptly.
"A mistake, I'm sure. Someone just got confused with the delivery - I'll check and see who they were meant to go to tomorrow. I'm going to bed now, back to work tomorrow."
He stepped forward and gave her a soft kiss on her forehead, then walked away.
Bella stared at the baskets, more confused than ever. A mistake? Their town was so small it was unlikely someone had mixed up the houses. And there was only one florist in town, run by a senior citizen who didn't make midnight deliveries. She wondered what her father was hiding. Could it be possible he was seeing someone?
She dismissed the idea. In all the years since her mother was gone, she'd never seen him look at another woman in more than a friendly manner, and she knew he still went to her mother's grave every Sunday morning like clockwork. Her mother had joked once that Swans mated for life, and Bella suspected that was true for her father.
Perhaps he was merely embarrassed that someone had decided to pursue him. He was a handsome man still, respected in the community. And she would be leaving soon, making him even more eligible, she supposed.
But red roses? Such an odd gesture for her father. Anyone who knew him would know that he wasn't exactly a flowers kind of guy. Fishing lures perhaps, but not flowers.
Bella sighed and stared at the large baskets. There must be several dozen roses there, lying jumbled together. They needed to be in water or they'd all be drooping by morning. She began to rummage beneath the sink for old vases and cups, and started to count out the flowers to arrange them in dozens. Nearly an hour later, she surveyed the room. There were roses everywhere. Three hundred and fifty eight to be exact, just shy of thirty dozen. She laughed softly to herself. Her dad better watch out. Someone was really after him.
The sounds of banging downstairs pulled her from sleep the next morning, and she jolted upright. She'd meant to set the alarm to make her father breakfast for his first day back. She hurried downstairs to find him dumping vase after vase of roses into a trash bag.
"Dad? What are you doing? I was trying to keep them from dying."
He froze for a moment, then turned to her. "They shouldn't be here, Bella."
She frowned, then gave a small shrug, picking up one of the cups and dumping the flowers into the bag. She must have been right that the flowers were from someone he knew, and he'd been embarrassed by the attention.
They worked silently for a few moments before she cleared her throat. "Dad, if, you know, if you were interested in . . . dating-"
"I'm not interested in dating anyone, Bella." He cut her off before she could go further, and the discussion ended. The tension remained during breakfast, but he kissed her forehead as always before grabbing the lunch she'd packed and heading out the door.
She watched as the car turned down the driveway, snapping on the radio as she piled the dishes in the sink.
"Alright, start your countdown, shoppers! Only three hundred and fifty-eight shopping days until next Christmas!"
The announcer's voice echoed as she stared at the trash bag now sitting by the door. Three hundred and fifty-eight roses delivered just after midnight on New Year's. Three hundred and fifty-eight days from New Year's until Christmas. Couldn't be a coincidence, could it?
She knelt down beside the trash bag and gently opened it, pulling out a single rose. The petals were still intact, the deep crimson almost luminescent even under the harsh fluorescents of the kitchen. They were truly beautiful, and she knew they must mean something to her father even if he wasn't yet ready to talk about it.
She closed the bag, and carried the one flower up to her bedroom, pressing it carefully between the pages of a favorite novel.
The weeks that followed were a whirlwind as her final semester of high school began and the deadlines for college applications drew nearer. She was surprised during her Calculus class to be summoned to the guidance office via the intercom, and even more surprised to find her father sitting across the desk from Mrs. Marrion.
"Bella, why didn't you tell me you were interested in going out of state? With your excellent grades and SATs, you'll be very competitive." The guidance counselor fanned out a host of brochures adorned with photos of green lawns and stately buildings.
Bella looked at her father, then her feet. "Mrs. Marrion, I know those are great schools, they're just-"
"Mrs. Marrion, would you tell Bella about the financial aid options you were sharing with me?" her father interrupted.
"Oh yes, of course. I hadn't really mentioned this because you seemed so set on going to a state school, but several of these private universities have excellent grant and loan aid packages that could make the cost competitive for you, Bella." Mrs. Marrion smiled from across the desk. "I'm sorry we haven't talked this all through before – I really thought you were simply interested in being close to home."
Bella sat frozen, trapped between the twin beams of encouragement from her father and the guidance counselor. A large part of the appeal of the small school just a few hours away was its proximity. The thought of being so far from the comfort and familiarity of home made her heart ache and her stomach queasy.
But then she remembered the bushels of roses her dad had been so embarrassed by. Maybe if she showed him she could be fine on her own, he'd feel able to move on as well. He deserved that, after so many years caring for her.
She tried a tentative smile as she reached for the brochure from a larger university several hours to the south, where the cover depicted students basking in warm sunlight and studiously reading books as they lounged on wide lawns together.
"I guess it won't hurt to apply."