Summary: AU. Scared, alone and pregnant, eighteen-year-old Emma Swan stumbles into Storybrooke, to the steps of the Maison Rouge, an old vaudeville theatre. She is quickly welcomed into the family of eccentric oddballs who make the cabaret their home and she learns their stories: Stoical Granny, the manager and her granddaughter Ruby, bartender extraordinaire; conjuror Jefferson and his glamorous assistant, Alice. But she is most intrigued by Gold and Belle, the gruff MC and the wardrobe mistress who melted his frozen heart…
Pairings: Rumbelle, Mad Hatter/Alice, hint of Emma/Bae pre-romance, perhaps more as I go on.
Note: As with all my AU's, this is set in the UK.
Warning: There will be, in later chapters, mentions of past domestic abuse, male and female victims.
The bus had dropped her off at the edge of the town, because the driver had taken pity on her and let her ride to the next stop for free after she'd fallen asleep on the back seat and travelled twenty miles past where her ticket could take her. He'd been a nice guy, chatting to her as they sped through the night. Now, Emma felt horribly alone. And cold. And hungry. And since it had begun to rain, distinctly wet. She needed to find somewhere to sit and warm up, and eat, but it had gone midnight, and she doubted that Storybrooke, the sleepy little town she had alighted in, boasted any all-night fast food places. Emma tugged her thin jacket in a little closer around her and shivered in the autumn air before beginning to walk down the road towards the town. Maybe there'd be somewhere that she could spend the night before she started hitching to God-knows-where in the morning.
All the buildings were dark. Emma wasn't holding out much hope, until a light caught her eyes off the main street. She turned towards it instinctively, like a moth drawn to a flame.
The building was an old, Victorian one, large and foreboding. Moving closer, Emma read the sign in the driveway. The Maison Rouge Theatre, home of traditional burlesque and vaudeville cabaret entertainment. Emma's stomach twisted, and then grumbled with emptiness. Maybe they could help her? Burlesque was just a fancy word for stripping, wasn't it? Emma might not have many practical skills, but she could do that if pushed, which she was. Well, she could do it for the next few months, until she started to show. She pressed her hand over her abdomen unconsciously. Nowhere to go, no prospects, no hope, and a baby. Emma continued up the drive towards the theatre, looking up at the light in an open upstairs window that had attracted her attention. Soft voices could be heard coming from it.
"…I'm still reminded of the time Jeff's rabbits escaped and we had to spend four hours combing the auditorium for them. You'd think that three bright white rabbits would be easy to spot…"
Emma stepped up and tried the door. It was locked. The muted conversation above her seemed to lull.
"Did you hear something?" asked a female voice, the same one that had been talking about the escaped rabbits.
"It's just the wind, Rubes," someone replied. "You're paranoid."
"No, I swear, I heard someone trying to get in the main door."
"Well, Ruby's ears have rarely been wrong before," said another voice. "Quick, grab the shotgun, we've got intruders!"
"Jeff, don't be ridiculous."
At the word 'shotgun', Emma had begun creeping backwards down the drive away from the theatre as quietly as possible. Perhaps there was somewhere else in the town that she could stay for the night.
When the previously locked door opened with an ominous creak, she gave a muted squeak and attempted to hide behind something, but her tired, cold limbs refused to work and she stayed frozen like a rabbit in the headlights, looking at the woman who had opened the door.
She must have been in her seventies, but she had a little glint in her eyes behind her spectacles that belied a mind still young at heart. There was, Emma noted gratefully, no sign of a shotgun.
"Hello," the woman said. "Oh my poor dear, you must be frozen to the bone. Come in, out of the rain. Are you lost, love?"
"I, erm, I…" Emma didn't know what to say. "Yes," she finished feebly. "I saw the light, and then the sign, and I thought…"
"Oh dear, do come inside. It's a draughty old place, but at least it doesn't leak."
Emma stepped into the foyer of the theatre gratefully.
"Now, you come and have a cup of tea and we'll see if we can't get you back on the right track."
"I, erm…" Emma wished that she could think of something more intelligent to say. When she had come up to the door, she had expected anything but this kind, open hospitality. "Thank you," she said quickly, remembering her manners.
"It's no trouble, love. Now, where were you headed?"
"Nowhere," Emma admitted as the woman led her up the ornate central staircase. "I saw the lights and thought you might be able to help, and then I saw the sign, and I thought that maybe…"
The woman stopped halfway up the stairs and turned, her spirited eyes sad.
"You thought maybe you could earn a little here. This isn't a strip club, child, and it certainly isn't a brothel. It's a theatre, and we run it as such." She reached out and gave Emma's shoulder a friendly squeeze. "We all know a desperate soul when we see one," she said. "Perhaps we can't help you in the way you'd first thought, but maybe we can help in another way. You're among friends, child. You aren't the first person to have turned up on our doorstep in the dead of night seeking insalubrious employment. So we will help you, as much as we can. Now, let's get you upstairs and warmed up. What's your name?"
"Emma. Emma Swan."
"Well then, Emma Swan, you can call me Granny. Everyone does. How old are you, child?"
"And how far along are you?"
Emma's hand went back to her stomach, shocked. "How did you…"
"I've had three of my own, love, and six grandchildren. Believe me, I know." There was a twinkle in Granny's eyes as they continued to make their way up the staircase and she led the younger girl round into the bar area, the light of which Emma had seen from outside. A group of people – two men, three women – were gathered in one corner on a couple of moth-eaten sofas at one end of the bar by the open window.
"Ruby!" Granny called as they rounded the corner. "Tea! And make it hot! And open a new packet of biscuits as well." She turned back to Emma. "You look as if you could use them, love."
A girl, not all that much older than Emma herself, who had been sitting on the bar, hopped off it to rummage around for the necessary tea-making equipment.
"Everyone, this is Emma," said Granny. "Emma, this is everyone."
"Another stray, Mrs Lucas?" asked one of the men, the older of the two, with greying hair and a tired, worn face. The woman he had his arm around made a soft noise of disapproval without looking up from her book – "Rum, be nice" – but he continued to regard Emma with some degree of suspicion.
"You were a stray yourself, Mr Gold, at one time," Granny said sternly. "Do you have a problem with helping one of our own?"
Emma hung back as Granny tried to shepherd her further towards the others.
"It's all right," the older woman said. "We don't bite. Well, not much. Ignore Gold, we all do."
Gold raised an eyebrow in response.
"My theatre, Mrs Lucas."
"My business, Mr Gold."
The woman curled up next to Gold shook off his hold on her and came over to Emma.
"Pleased to meet you, Emma," she said. "I'm Belle. We'll help you out, don't fret. Here, let me take your jacket."
Belle peeled the sodden garment away from Emma's shoulders and Granny bustled back, wrapping her in a warm blanket and encouraging her to sit down on one of the sofas.
"This is my Ruby," Granny said as the girl bounded back from the bar, holding out a mug of tea and an unopened packet of chocolate biscuits with a grin. She gave a little wave.
"Welcome to Maison Rouge," she said. "You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps. I run the bar," she added by way of explanation. "I was teaching myself how to do all the fancy cocktail shaking stuff, but Granny said I was spilling too much stock and made me give up."
Emma gave a weak smile. She hadn't thought that smiling would be very high on the agenda for a long time to come.
"Belle's our wardrobe mistress," Granny continued, and the little chestnut-haired woman waved from where she was carefully hanging Emma's jacket over the radiator. "Gold's our Master of Ceremonies, amongst other things."
Gold nodded his acknowledgement, never taking his wary eyes off her.
"And this is Jefferson and Alice."
The couple on the other sofa waved enthusiastically. Alice was bright and blonde and bubbly, and Jefferson was, although physically calmer, obviously just as mad.
"Jeff's a magician," Alice said proudly. "I'm his glamorous assistant."
That explained the escapee rabbits, then, Emma thought.
"Drink up," said Ruby, nudging her mug. "It'll be going cold."
Emma obediently took a sip, feeling it warm her from the inside out.
"Anyway, as I was saying," Jefferson began. "It wasn't my fault that Mary Margaret left the cage door open. They've got a spring in their step, my rabbits."
"And don't we know it," Gold muttered. Jefferson shot him a withering look.
Emma was content to stay on her sofa, watching the interplay between the six. Jefferson and Gold seemed to take turns at throwing veiled insults at each other, although neither really meant it, with Alice finding the whole thing hilarious and Granny playing referee. Ruby just observed, occasionally correcting a misremembered anecdote, and Belle seemed for all the world to be lost in her book, but knew exactly what to say at any given moment if her opinion was sought on something.
Finally, warm and slightly dryer, and full of chocolate biscuits, Emma trusted herself to speak to this ragtag group of friends into whose world she had been so unceremoniously pulled.
"So, where are the others?" she asked, wondering at the identity of the many people who had featured in their reminiscences but who did not appear to be present.
"They live elsewhere," Granny said. "They're good friends, but we're the family, the core."
"You actually live here? In the theatre?" Emma asked.
"Of course," said Jefferson. "We roost in the eaves like little birds."
"What he means," Ruby said, rolling her eyes on seeing Emma's worried expression, "is that the attics are converted into rooms. We live up there." She pointed to the ceiling. "Above the auditorium. There's no living room, though, so if we want to sit up and chat about the old times, we usurp the bar."
"Speaking of," Gold said as Belle gave a tremendous yawn, "I think we ought to be going up. Night all."
He reached round Belle and put a bookmark in between her pages. She smiled up at him before standing and giving a sleepy wave to the gathered party. "G'night."
Gold fished around under the sofa and pulled out a cane, which he leaned on to stand. "God, I hate these stairs," he muttered. "See you tomorrow."
His dark eyes gave Emma a final onceover, and the pair left them, disappearing round the corner of the bar and out of sight. Emma wondered at the notion 'opposites attract'. Belle, young and welcoming, and Gold, middle-aged and soured by life.
Ruby looked at her watch.
"It is late," she admitted. "We should probably all think about going to bed."
Granny nodded, and Jefferson and Alice left them with a reluctant goodnight. Alice came over and gave Emma a hug for good measure.
"Granny and Ruby'll see you right," she said. "Don't you fret."
Emma watched them round the corner, leaving her with just Granny and Ruby for company. She had to admit, she felt more comfortable with just the two of them, so open and unassuming.
"Come on," Ruby said brightly. "You can bunk with me. Ashley and Mary Margaret did when they first came too. Advantage of having a sofa in your room." She nodded round the corner of the bar. "The stairs are up here."
She led Emma round and through a door marked 'STAFF ONLY', with Granny making up the rear. The door opened onto a steep, narrow staircase that wound its way round into the attics of the theatre.
"The kitchen's through here," Ruby said, indicating the first door on the landing. "And the bathroom's at the other end of the corridor. Granny's in that room there, Belle and Gold are opposite her. Alice and Jeff are round the corner and up the stairs again. We're in here. Mind your head."
She pushed open the door opposite the kitchen and Emma stepped into a veritable treasure trove. The room was small, mainly being taken up with a double bed and a squashy sofa, but it was decorated beautifully, swathes of fabric draped from the rafters and posters of the theatre's previous productions from its heyday pasted over the sloped ceiling. The little room was illuminated with fairy lights. Once she'd finished gawping at the decor, Emma opened the backpack that contained all her worldly goods and gave a sigh when she saw that it was not, as it had been advertised, completely waterproof, and the few spare clothes that she had with her were completely soaked through.
"Here you go." Ruby had dived under the bed and pulled out a pair of pyjamas. "They'll drown you, you skinny thing, but they'll do."
Emma just nodded her thanks, her voice caught in her throat. She didn't know what to say. Granny and Ruby were being so nice, and they knew absolutely nothing about her. She could be a crack addict with the police after her, they could be harbouring a fugitive, but they didn't seem to care. They had recognised that she needed help, desperately, and unlike so many others, they had reached out to her instead of pushing her further away. They hadn't asked her what had happened, how she had ended up in her sorry state. They didn't focus on the past, only the present.
"Here's a blanket," Granny said, shaking one out over the sofa. "It can get chilly up here during the night, so I've got a few more."
Ruby grabbed her own pyjamas and toothbrush.
"Right, I'm going to nab the bathroom before Belle gets in there, she takes years."
The other girl skipped nimbly out of the room and Granny smiled.
"Goodnight, Emma. Sleep well."
As she changed into the pyjamas, Emma didn't know if she'd be able to sleep at all. She felt queasy, a mixture of too many biscuits on an empty stomach, pregnancy nausea and guilt. She didn't know how she'd ever be able to repay Granny and Ruby for their kindness. She curled up under the blanket on the sofa. Theoretically, she should have been terrified. She was in an old theatre with six strangers she'd known for all of two hours, who were disarmingly kind and welcoming. Emma had a few visions of secret cannibalistic societies and wondered if she'd wake up to find herself being eaten alive. Maybe they were a family of mad scientists who were going to use her for terrible experiments. What if… What if… What if…
But despite all the logical arguments for wariness, Emma – tired, coming down off her adrenaline rush and sick of fighting everything and everyone – hadn't felt as safe as she did now for a long time. She thought about what Granny had said.
We all know a desperate soul when we see one. You're amongst friends.
Maybe it was simply a case of knowing a kindred spirit. If they had all been in Emma's position, or a similar one, they would know how she felt, they would want to help her to avoid her falling into the same trap…
Emma fell asleep before she could finish the thought.
To Be Continued