Disclaimer: This is a not-for-profit work of fiction, I do not claim ownership of the characters or settings in this story.
Notes: This is it! The finale! A last couple-thousand words before this story kicks it and I have to hold my breath and hope I've finished the next one before next Monday... Hope you enjoyed the ride and, as always, thanks to everyone who reviewed. You guys are what make my day.
The next few months felt as if they were the worst of Belle's life. The Dark Castle became a cold and lonely place, her only company within the castle the rather uncooperative Prince in the dungeons. No matter what tactics she tried, be it gentle diplomacy or uncharacteristic threats, he would not reveal the location of Rumpelstiltskin's prison. Belle took to leaving him alone more often than not, only coming down to the dungeons to bring him food and water.
She spent more time in town listening for stories and news in the taverns, but soon even that soured. There was only so much to distract her even in such a busy market town. Melancholy, missing Rumpelstiltskin, Belle counted each day as it passed by in agonising slowness. She had no way of communicating with him, no means of knowing how he fared or if he missed her as much as she missed him.
Belle carried on with her routine but found little joy in it. Even the library had lost its lustre.
She was at the market one afternoon when a snippet of news came her way, gossip in the form of a flower-seller who had recently finished up a big contract in Starrow. A wedding. Snow White's wedding. The flower seller was in the tavern, telling his story to any and all who cared to listen. As soon as Belle heard the words 'Evil Queen' she decided to be one of those who listened.
"… came storming in, all dressed in black," the flower-seller said, waving his mug of ale as he spoke, "you could hear a pin drop in the quiet what followed. A curse, she said, a terrible curse. One to destroy the prince and princess."
"King and queen," someone corrected, "they 'ad their coronation."
"To destroy the king and queen then," the flower-seller repeated, rolling his eyes, "what do the names matter? The old queen wants to curse the new one, that's what's important."
Belle frowned. Regina had appeared at Snow White's wedding to Prince James and had threatened the couple with a curse to destroy them? She was the only one in the tavern who knew of Rumpelstiltskin's meddling, the protection spell that made it impossible for Regina to harm either royal while in this land. This land, Rumpelstiltskin had told her that day. Implying that they would be vulnerable in another land. And 'this land' couldn't just mean Starrow or Regina would have tried something on one of their many visits to their neighbouring kingdoms. It couldn't be as simple as getting them to a land across the sea or Regina would have made some attempt to manipulate them into travel.
This land, an important child, the true love potion for a rainy day. "Oh, you clever, clever bastard," Belle muttered under her breath.
She left the tavern, striding quickly and confidently down the road towards the castle. This, all of this, was his doing. Of course it was. Of course he would have been pulling the strings, playing the long game. He'd as good as told her so, though he had always been careful not to give her any details. She had thought he would, someday, but he'd been captured before that had ever happened.
Belle sighed to herself. But of course she knew he'd been captured on purpose. He'd warned her of that in the moment, in a way, telling her they couldn't do anything to him he didn't want them to, that he was going to walk right into their trap. Presumably that meant that some vital bit of his plan relied on his being captured. Perhaps he'd had a vision, seen it in the future? That skill he never spoke of but that plenty of stories credited him as having.
Belle went straight up to her room to change clothes. She brushed her hair out and pinned it back with ornate gold combs and chose a midnight black silk gown from her wardrobe. It was simple in design, but made opulent by the many tiny glass beads that were embroidered into the fabric at the bodice and hems. A mourning gown. Oddly appropriate for what she was planning. Once dressed she descended to the dungeons, making a brief stop on the way to retrieve Prince Thomas' daily ration of food and water.
The prince was sitting in his cell, staring dully at the wall. He moved when she approached, turning to glare sullenly at her. After so many months he had finally stopped telling her that his friends would rescue him.
Belle slid the food and water through the gaps in the bars. She stood, hands clasped in front of her, and regarded the prince coolly. "I thought you should know," she said finally, "Regina has threatened your friends with some unknown and terrible curse."
"And let me guess, you and Rumpelstiltskin are the only ones who can stop it?" Thomas rolled his eyes. "Tell me another one."
"No," Belle replied calmly, "we can't, actually."
"Then why tell me?"
"I'm going away to Starrow. There's a possibility your friends might capture me and throw me in gaol." A possibility, though Belle didn't know what her chances were exactly. She'd be counting on the choker to get her out of trouble like it had before. "There's a possibility that if I tell them where you are they still wont be able to rescue you. It seemed only fair to warn you that if your noble friends detain me you might die."
Thomas was silent a moment, staring defiantly at her face. "You are a cruel woman," he said finally, slow and deliberate. "I hope they destroy you."
Snow White's palace was as grand as Belle remembered it. Dressed in her peasant's cloak over her black dress, she blended into the slow trickle of people as best she could. Petitioners to the King and Queen, peasants, merchants, even a few nobles, made their way through the main gates, the courtyard, and to the castle's grand hall where the King and Queen presided. Unable to just appear and disappear at will, this was her best bet of an audience with the royal couple. To just appear as any other petitioner would, and make her statements in front of the grand hall. It would give them an audience, unfortunately, but it would also – she hoped – make her appearance in the castle seem less threatening.
She waited patiently in the line that formed, listening to the dull petitions of the people in front of her. Poor farmers pleading for royal aid to save their dying animals, merchants asking for tax exemptions or compensation for goods lost months ago in the battle to usurp Regina, a couple asking that the Queen take their daughter into service as a palace maid, a woman with three toddling children begging for her marriage to be dissolved.
Each one received a fair answer and a solution they seemed happy with.
And then it was Belle's turn.
She stepped forward until she stood in front of the royal couple below the dais on which they sat, and removed the hood of her cloak. There was a ripple of movement throughout the hall, gasps and murmurs as the people there realised who she was. Prince James' jaw clenched tight. Snow White's hand strayed towards her side, then stopped when she remembered she was in court clothes and not carrying any weapons.
Belle stood straight, looking only at the royal couple. "Your Majesties," she greeted them with a slight curtsy, a gesture of politeness she was certain the likes of Regina never gave.
"Enchantress," Prince James replied, a hint of suspicion in his voice, "what do you want?"
"I heard of Regina's threat," Belle replied, getting right down to the point. "I came to offer my condolences, and some advice."
Another set of murmurs chased their way around the hall, this time louder. Snow White stood, a smile (professional, reassuring, in control) on her face. "Perhaps in private," she said. "We're just about done for the day here anyway. Charming?"
Prince James stood, hand on the hilt of his sword. "The guard's office is close by," he said, his eyes not leaving Belle, "we can talk there."
The royal couple left the dais, headed for a door nearby. Belle followed them, noticing coolly that several guards left their positions about the room to flank her. Just in case she were to try something stupid.
The guard's office was small, square, and sparsely furnished. There was a desk, a chair, a book shelf full of scrolls and ledgers, and a rack of spare weapons in one corner. Prince James stood in front of that, blocking her from accessing any of the weapons. Not that she would want to. Belle's practical knowledge of weaponry was the same as any noble-born girl. She could identify the names and uses of the weapons, but wouldn't have the first clue how to wield any of them herself. Snow White took up a position in front of the desk, leaving Belle to stand in front of the door with the guards standing just outside, ready to catch her if she tried anything funny.
"So," Snow White said firmly, "you wanted to offer advice. What is it?"
"Have you been to see Rumpelstiltskin yet?" Belle asked simply. "About Regina's threat? Because if you haven't yet, you should."
The way Snow White and Prince James glanced at one another made her think they hadn't. "Why?" the prince asked, clearly playing her for more information, "what would the Dark One know about what Regina's planning?"
"You'll have heard stories that say he can see the future," Belle replied, turning to examine the book shelf. She ran a finger down the spine of one of the ledgers, a gesture calculated to look idle and disinterested, as if her heart wasn't pounding. She'd never done anything like this before. Never on her own. "They're true." She looked back at the couple over her shoulder. "Something as big as she's planning, he'll have seen it."
"Don't you know what it is?" Snow White pressed, a frown on her pretty, rosy-cheeked face.
"No." She didn't. She could guess. But she couldn't be certain. Not when she didn't have all of the facts.
"So you want us to go talk to Rumpelstiltskin," Price James summarised, "to find out what he knows about Regina. How do we know this isn't a trap? That you're not planning on following us and breaking him out?"
"Do you think I can turn invisible?" Belle asked, shifting to look at the prince. "I can't. Do you think it would have been so easy to catch him if he didn't want to be caught?" Belle swallowed, forcing the sudden tightness of her throat down. "There's a reason he's in that cell. It's probably because you'd never accept help from him any other way."
"We don't need his help," Prince James insisted.
"Maybe not. But you need information, and he has it." Belle hesitated. "That's all I came to say."
"Can't you tell us?" Snow White asked. "You're his… companion. Surely he would have told you if it was that important."
Belle smiled sadly, remembering a hundred deals and a hundred frustrated ponderings of how much easier life would be if he just told her what he had planned. In those instances it never mattered, she knew him well enough to guess, and her guesses were almost always right. But this time, just this once she wished he'd told her the whole thing, that he hadn't just hinted and trusted that she'd work it out. "I never needed to know."
"Well, thankyou… We'll think about it."
Belle nodded, taking that as her cue to leave. She turned, intending to go, to find her way was still blocked by the guards. After a small hesitation she decided that the risk was worth it, and walked forward anyway. One of the guards grabbed her arm to stop her. Belle felt the choker respond even as she heard Snow White cry out for the guard to stop.
A moment later she stood in the great hall in the Dark Castle. She stayed there awhile, standing by the long table and looking at the roses that had begun to wilt around the room. Finally she moved, and undid the clasp that kept her cloak around her shoulders. She draped the plain brown fabric over the back of a chair, leaving it to hang there listlessly, and wandered through into the kitchen.
She was there one afternoon, sitting in one of the chairs with a pot of tea beside her and a book cracked open in her lap, when she saw the storm. Unnatural, rolling, purplish clouds enveloped the horizon, moving far too fast to be anything other than magical in origin. This was it, whatever 'it' was. The thing Regina had been planning, that Rumpelstiltskin had manipulated her into doing. Something that would likely take them from 'this land' and into another. Belle stood, the book dropping from her lap, and walked towards the window. Her heart felt as if it were gripped in a vice, something telling her that things were about to change. Drastically.
"Rumpelstiltskin," she breathed, a small prayer, and closed her eyes as the cloud washed over the Dark Castle.
Lacey Gold woke up uncomfortably tangled in the blankets of her bed, a beam of sunlight streaming down right into her eyes. She rolled over to escape the intruding sunbeam only to find her nose tickled by her husband's hair. She scrunched her nose, wondering if it was even worth the trouble to suggest a haircut. Their anniversary was coming up soon, she remembered, perhaps she could guilt him into it then.
Giving up on sleep, even though she normally slept much later than this, Lacey sat up in the bed and stretched. Monday greeted her with all of its sunny overbright cheerfulness.
She needed caffeine, perhaps with a shot of whiskey, and then it would be time to start the day.