Belle was ridiculously proud of the gray strands woven throughout her hair, of her rough, calloused hands, and her plain and sturdy clothes, all of which was most unbecoming on a princess but that suited a school teacher just fine.
Her hair was still lush despite the lye she bathed with, the curls impossibly soft and bright (so Rumplestiltskin said, he constantly had his fingers tangled in them). They bounced with every step she took, never seeming to fall out of place or lose their shine no matter the weather. Summers made her tie the thick strands off her neck, but come winter she was always thankful for her thick mane.
She discovered her first flash of silver the day after Baelfire's fifteenth name day. Startled, she'd plucked the hair from her head to examine it closely. It was only one gray, the rest of her hair was still brown, but she grinned all the same. Princesses never got gray hairs, not until they were queens who worried about the kingdom and their husbands and children.
Princesses never got rough hands either, or taught twelve children to read and write day after day (she was going to have to talk to Darren, Clara's husband and Elden's handyman about expanding the school- she was running out of room), but Belle wasn't a princess anymore. She hadn't been in a very long time, and she'd never been so happy.
At twenty seven, Belle had made something of herself. She was a school teacher. A friend. An adopted aunt to Gretchen, Adam, and their new brother Terrance (there had been a population boom after the soldiers had come home). She was a secret the village kept.
Though her father had to know where she was- the men had surely reported back to their king- no one had coming looking for her again. Belle hoped that she would be left to live her life in peace, but she knew it foolish hope. Someday someone would come asking about her. Until then, Elden guarded her closely. She was introduced to strangers as Angel and steered away from anyone in armor.
Rumplestiltskin had been stunned into silence the day he realized he was being protected as well. Though he no longer needed any help walking and could therefore finish all his chores faster than ever, he still found people in his fields day after day. Sometimes they helped him herd the sheep. Sometimes they just kept him company as he worked, eyes watching for anyone that could be trouble. Most of the time the men grumbled good naturedly about their wives, having forgotten what it was like to be married after so long on the battlefields.
Rumplestiltskin had nothing to complain about, and the men had laughed when he'd mentioned it.
"Course not," they'd chuckled. "You found yourself a princess."
"Princess or not, she is of her own mind," he'd pointed out, shooing away a curious lamb who'd wanted to nibble on his cloak. "I'd not have it any other way."
"Smart little thing too," Darren said, grinning. "I can actually read the contracts now before I go off to build things. I make so much coin now. Clara doesn't know what to do with it all."
Noel the blacksmith (who claimed to have lost a hand in battle but that it had grown back just after the ogres mysteriously vanished, apparently Zoso had been very liberal with his healing), tried to wrestle his boot away from a determined ram. "When's the wedding?" he asked. He pulled once again, hard, and went sprawling into the snow. "Ha!" he barked triumphantly, holding up his shoe. "Teach you to steal my stuff you crazy old thing."
Rumplestiltskin chuckled. "Summer," he reminded his friends (and odd as it was, they were his friends and he didn't know what to do with that knowledge). "Belle hates the cold."
"That, and Clara is determined to make her a gown... how did she put it..."
"Fit for a princess?"
"Ah, that's it."
Noel grinned, flashing his missing teeth like a badge of honor. "Well she is a princess, ain't she?" He nudged Rumplestiltskin with an elbow. "What's a princess doing with the likes of you anyhow?"
It was said jokingly (they joked with him, not at him now), and they all cracked up, Rumplestiltskin himself laughing and shoving Noel right back, laughing all the harder when the ram, annoyed that his chew toy was out of reach, butted him on the arse.
"Honestly I don't have a clue, but she says she's here to stay, and arguing with her only causes headaches."
Darren grinned widely. "That's how you know she's a keeper."
Belle's grey streak grew, and by her twenty eighth year, she had a patch of silver strands as wide as her little finger that started at her temple and went to her jaw.
"I look distinguished," she announced to her husband.
Rumplestiltskin had laughed at her, kissing her soundly. "That you do love. That you do."
Bae, now a man at sixteen, inching towards seventeen, had laughed at them. "Mom, you're getting old."
Belle pretended to be offended. "I'm not old! I'm experienced. Now eat your dinner or I'll take it and never cook you another thing as long as I live," she threatened, reaching for her son's plate. Bae hastily moved it out of her reach, shoving what he could into his mouth, chewing so quickly it was a wonder he didn't choke.
Rumplestiltskin watched them with a smile. Belle was barely eleven years older than Baelfire, and that had caused a few raised eyebrows when they married, but no remarks were ever heard (Rumplestiltskin was optimistic enough to bet very few were even made). Everyone knew, could see that she was a fantastic mother. Besides, as long as they loved each other, made each other happy, it didn't matter how young they were- or weren't in his case.
No matter the bloodline, no matter the age, Belle was Baelfire's mother and he was her son. She was happy as a spinner's wife and no one could argue that.
A knock on the door interrupted the peaceful chaos. Belle paused her assault long enough for Bae to shove the rest of his dinner in his mouth. Rumplestiltskin opened the door on a chuckle, expecting to see Darren or Clara, the only two he knew to come knocking so late (or Gretchen, who was thirteen and unsuccessfully denying a crush on Bae that wasn't entirely unrequited).
"Can I help you?" he asked, surprised, for it was neither.
It was a short, stout man. His face was withdrawn and aged, his eyes far older than his years, bloodshot and sad. He was older than Rumplestiltskin, but looked like he'd lived a hundred lifetimes, making him seem ancient.
There was a crash behind him as Belle stood, knocking into the edge of the table, sending the dishes rattling. She backed away from the door, back against the wall, eyes wide.
Alarmed, Rumplestiltskin turned to her. "What is it love?"
The word was nearly sobbed out, and Rumplestiltskin knew in an instant. He wasn't quick enough to deny entrance, but he crossed the room quickly and stopped a king in his path.
"You're not welcome here," he growled.
A flash of a spark appeared in King Maurice's eyes, his hands balled into fists, but he wasn't an imposing picture and Rumplestiltskin was far too angry to be afraid. How dare he come here. How dare he invade his home- Belle's home.
"Mind your tongue you commoner. I'm a king."
(A brave man stands before him, ready to fight for his loved ones.)
"A king very far from his borders," Rumplestiltskin pointed out with gritted teeth. "And nary a soul in sight to come to your aid, so if I were you, I'd watch myself."
Tension built and was heightened by a thin, high pitched wail. Belle froze, her face going pale.
"Bae, get your sister and go to Clara's. Now."
No argument, no hesitation. Bae disappeared into the room nearest the fireplace, the one Darren had painstakingly built before winter had hit, appearing with a squirming bundle. He stopped, eyeing the king, the way out behind him.
"Move," he ordered, voice harsh. He knew who this man was, and he would not let him hurt his mother. He would get his sister out, then come back to help his family face this man.
"A child?" Maurice asked, staring at the full head of hair peeking out from the blanket. He knew those curls.
(She had children, one by blood the other by love.)
"Yes," Belle said, answering the question he hadn't asked. Her voice was steady but she clung to her husband, eyes never leaving the man before her.
Maurice licked his lips, eyes darting between his daughter and hers, then to the man at her side. "Let me see her."
"Don't you touch her," Rumplestiltskin snarled. Bae backed up, clutching the baby protectively.
"She's my granddaughter!"
"She's my sister and you won't lay a hand on her."
Belle spread her hand on Rumplestiltskin's back, taking a careful step forward, facing her father, drawing the attention away from her children. "What do you want?"
Maurice couldn't find his voice for a moment, shocked as Belle stepped further into the light. The differences in her were astounding. Her face wasn't soft anymore. Her curls weren't as big. Her eyes weren't bright and wide, they were older, more calculating. He could see her hands, one tightly clutching the commoner's, the other across her middle, fisting and unfisting. The nails were dirty, the knuckles chapped. She didn't look like a princess.
She looked like the very person he'd tried to keep her from becoming.
(She looked happy.)
"I came to take you home," he told her. Couldn't she see that? Why else would he have come?
Those blue eyes sparked and he was relieved to see that she still argued, still breathed fire, even as he was singed. "I am home."
"You don't belong here. For god's sake Belle, you're a princess and look at you, dirty and tired. You look like a farmer's whore!"
The commoner looked like an angry jungle cat, muscles bunched, ready to spring. "Mind your tongue when you speak to my wife."
(He defended quickly, that love was deep. He was a good husband, better than any king could have chosen.)
The babe wailed again. Belle pulled her husband along to stand with her as she took her daughter, eyes still on him, watching him like he was a dangerous animal. "Hush now, it's alright," she murmured to her. "Quiet now Evangeline, shhh..."
Maurice watched her, scarcely believing it. She seemed so at ease, comforting her child, lulling her back into sleep quickly. She could have had governesses to do that for her. That unsightly gray streak never would have ruined her hair, her hands could have stayed soft. She could still have it all if she returned. They could start again. She could bring her child, have her trained to be a proper princess like her mom never was.
(Her mother was wonderful and strong willed and God willing she'd be just like her.)
"You should go," Belle told him, gently rocking her daughter.
"Belle I came here for you-"
"I've been here almost six years Your Highness. If you'd really wanted to find me you would have been here years ago."
Maurice fumbled. "The men said The Dark One-"
"The Dark One brought me home," Belle said, eyes ablaze. "Here. This is my home, with my husband, my children. Not locked away in some palace, forced into a marriage with a man who would rather hit me than let me speak."
An old, tired argument. Maurice felt comfortable with the script, the words forming without thought. "You had to marry him, Belle."
"Why?" she'd ask, and did. He didn't have to explain. He was her father. He was the king. He knew best. But Belle continued, and she wasn't a princess anymore, wasn't his daughter. She was a mother, a wife, and she was defending herself, fighting for the life she'd found.
(She'd made something of herself here. She was more than any princess could ever hope to be, just look at her.)
"Because of the war? Because of your desire to keep that bloodbath going so you could have more power?"
He must have had a shocked look on his face because Belle nodded like it was answer enough. "You wanted to keep the war going but we were out of warriors. Gaston promised you an army, so you promised him me." She shook her head, passing her daughter to her husband, partly so she could cross her arms, partly to keep him still.
"Even after what he did, what he made me do... you still wanted that army." There were no tears as she met his gaze, only sadness, disappointment. "You stopped being my father then, and I stopped being a princess. We have no ties to each other Your Highness. I had no desire to ever see you again. I even ran through two kingdoms and yet here you stand, in my home. Clearly you need me more than I ever needed you."
(She never needed him, not really.)
Evangeline whimpered, snuggling closer to her father, the only sound in the silence.
"So I ask again, Your Majesty. Why. Are. You. Here."
And he couldn't answer.
He had no army at his command anymore, no council to order, no war to fight. His kingdom had fallen, his people demanding the return of their princess, who'd treated them fairly, ruled them with a gentle, kind air. But she'd run away from him, and Snow White- a queen with a husband and a baby- had offered shelter to anyone fleeing from Sion.
He was a king without a kingdom, a general without an army, and now he was a father without a daughter.
(He was a tired old fool.)
But he could still do one thing for his daughter, for her family that would never be his.
"I'm sorry. Truly, I am." He wasn't exactly sure what he was sorry for, but knew he was sorry that she didn't want to see him, sorry that he couldn't blame her, and sorry, so sorry, for everything he should have done but didn't.
(But he was sorry and it wasn't enough.)
King Maurice left the small cottage alone, tired, and old, but somewhere, deep within the depths of his heart, something rejoiced. Belle was happy and safe. She was happier without him, and that made his soul shatter, but he rode away on his tired horse knowing it had been his own actions to drive her away.
(She's safe and loved.)
Maybe one day he would be allowed to see his granddaughter, that mass of brown curls named Evangeline, but for the first time in a long time (he should have done this years ago), Maurice respected his daughter's wishes, and let her live her life out the way she wanted, with her own decisions to guide her. To live happily. So he left her to do so, left so she could live her life the way he should have let her live in the first place- in peace.
A/N: *flings papers into the air* FINISHED! Whoo! Thank you to everyone who read, favorited, and especially those who reviewed. Also, did you spot the very very very slight Beauty and The Beast reference? No? I'll tell you. Beast's real name is Adam. Tiny little nod there, but I couldn't resist. Hope you liked it. I know you guys wanted fluff- which is why I made sure the first part was there- but Maurice had to see for himself that Belle was better off without him. And no he has and will never bother her again. Probably. Adios! :D