It was dark outside, and cold, a shock after the crowded humidity of the club. Belle rubbed her arms, hopping from foot to foot. She wasn't supposed to be here, and the show was over, her excuse done. But she didn't want to leave yet. There was a group of people excitedly waiting by the stage door, and Belle fell in beside them, not worrying too much about meeting the bands, just wanting the warmth of company.
The door swung open finally, and Regina, of Regina and the Huntsmen, strode out, all black leather and tall boots, flanked by two of the three of her huntsmen. Belle had listened politely, but metal wasn't her thing, even if they did have a few songs with lyrics that were hauntingly painful, rather than just bloody and unsettling.
They didn't stop to sign things, but still a group of fans seemed to faint in pleasure at just being kicked out of the way by those pointed boots.
The indie-filk group, Archie and Pongo, came out next, and Belle was pleased to see that they did have some people waiting around specifically for them. They seemed rather underappreciated. Or maybe that was just their aesthetic.
But she hadn't come for them. She hadn't snuck out, desperately silent, so careful, to see any of these bands.
Maybe it was sad that she only owned one CD, one she'd found, dropped on the side of the road, case split open. She could only listen very quietly, late at night, ear pressed against the speaker. But if she could only have one CD, she was glad it was the one she had: Rebel Army – Moonlight.
The liner notes were missing from the case, and Belle only rarely had the chance to read a magazine or listen to the radio. She hadn't known that there were things fans were supposed to know. It had been a bit shocking when the room started chanting, 'Find you! Find you!' She had had no idea what that meant.
Apparently Rebel Army had gotten big with a song called 'I Will Always Find You.' When they finally played it, it was a bit embarrassing. Not as good as any song on her CD, in Belle's opinion. But they played plenty from Moonlight, and other, newer songs, that were just as good. The keyboardist and the drummer seemed to be a couple, or at least they played one for the audience, and then there was the girl playing base in the shadows, who hardly got any attention at all.
She reminded Belle of herself.
When the door swung open again, it was them: Rebel Army. They keyboardist and drummer were mobbed. There was shrieking and throwing things and Belle backed off quickly.
"Jesus. They're never getting out of there."
Belle looked up. A tall girl with long, dark hair had appeared beside her and was pulling out a cigarette and a lighter. Her eyes flicked over to Belle and she smiled and tilted the pack toward her, flicking one out partially. Belle hesitated. "I don't really…"
The girl laughed and tipped it back in. "No problem. This is my treat. Only one a day now. I try to put it off as long as I can. Maybe someday I'll manage to quit."
Belle reached up and plucked the cigarette out of her fingers. "Subtracting one from one a day is quitting." She didn't pull it away, making it clear that the girl could take it back if she wanted to.
But she didn't. Her eyebrows rose slightly and she looked a bit bemused. "That is how the math works, yes."
Belle flushed. She always did this. Why? It just seemed like it should be so easy for these confident people to make a change. Far easier for them than for her. "Sorry. I didn't mean to— please take it back."
The girl grinned and stuck her hands in her pockets. "Naw. You keep it. I'll count it as my one for today."
"I need to quit trying to interfere in people's lives." Belle looked at the cigarette, sighed, and then tucked it into her pocket.
"I spoke to you first."
"That's not an invitation to be a busybody."
The girl grinned. "Don't mind. What'cha doing here? You saw the concert?"
Belle nodded. "Yeah. Didn't want to go home yet."
"Not hanging out because you're thrilled about meeting your favorite band? Or do you not like any of them much?"
Belle shook her head and smiled. "I was thrilled about hearing my favorite band. I love their music. I know people are behind it, but I don't need to meet them. They could be awful human beings, but that doesn't matter, because of the music."
The girl watched her, seeming interested, perhaps pleased. "You a Gina & The Hunt and Dales fan?"
Belle laughed. "No. No. I was here to hear Rebel Army."
The girl grinned. "Favorite song? Not – I Will Always Find You, I hope?"
"Oh, god no! I never heard that one before tonight and it was terrible!" Belle smiled. "I like… I don't know. I just listen to Moonlight over and over. I like the bits – we were made to run, run into one, steal a car and steal away, find you in the findings of my clockwork heart, ticking on and counting down, marking time, marching on, though red has bled you grey."
The girl had stilled, eyes intense. Belle found herself trapped, embarrassed and unable to look away.
"Moonlight," the girl said softly. "I didn't think anyone remembered that album anymore."
Belle looked down. "I… I haven't heard many of their other ones. But that one… it's special."
The girl gave her a smile. "It's my favorite too." Her eyes flicked away. "I can't listen to it anymore though. It… reminds me of things I don't want to recall."
"That's why I like it," Belle said. "It's not— happy."
"I'm pretty sure some critic proclaimed the album after Moonlight as 'finally, a relief from the unrelenting gothic-emo stylings of teen girls obsessed with wolves.'"
Belle stiffened. "That's not fair. I hate the category 'emo' anyway. It's like saying that it's only okay to have sexy or positive feelings. Anything that deals with loss is childish. But Moonlight was all about loss, lost love, dreams, control."
"Do you know anything about the album?"
Belle blinked at her. "I… I've listened to it lots. But I don't really follow things."
The girl's lips quirked down in something that might have been pain. "Rebel Army used to have a guitarist. He died when his coked up girlfriend stuck a needle in his arm. Moonlight was the first album made entirely without him."
"Oh," Belle said, feeling a little sick to her stomach. This was why she didn't try to find out about things. The music was pure on its own. It could mean a hundred different things. It could mean something different to someone different. It could change meaning as the listener had new experiences to contextualize it with. Having an origin story was a fixed point, a fixed interpretation that trapped it, killed it. "I don't… care."
The girl's eyebrows shot up. "You don't care?"
"It doesn't matter to the music. Maybe – maybe that song about the wolf is about dealing with addiction after doing something unforgivable like that, but it's also about facing everything that's wrong with you, facing regret and pain and weakness, and knowing that you will never get rid of them, but that you can't stop. It's about animal joy, about letting go, and letting yourself feel. It can be about your smoking and my dad and someone else's depression. It doesn't just have to be about that one incident. It's a song. It's free of that. You can't own it."
The girl stared at her for a long moment and then gave a nod. "I hope you're right."
Belle felt her cheeks heat up in embarrassment.
"Maybe I've been trapped in that one interpretation, and that's why it's so hard to listen to it."
"You don't have to agree with me."
"I know." The girl grinned. "But I do. I'm… Ruby. I don't think you ever told me your name."
"Oh! Belle," Belle said.
"There's an afterparty," Ruby said, "at the house where Rebel Army is staying. I was going to go. Do you want to come along?"
"I—" She should go home. But… it wasn't as if the punishment was going to be any lighter if she went back now or in a few hours. "Do you really want me? I'm not… a fun person. I haven't been to many parties."
Ruby grinned. "I like talking to you. Yes, I want you to come."
Belle bit her lip, then she nodded. "Okay."
x x x
Somehow Rebel Army had managed to escape their fans and had retreated to a house with a group of people who all seemed to know them. Belle was a little panicky at being included in this group, but Ruby, who waved to the keyboardist and the drummer like they were friends, kept a hand on her back, guiding her and looking after her.
They didn't join the main circle in the living room where a joint was being passed around, but took two cups of beer out onto the back porch and sat with their legs hanging through the railings.
"If you want to smoke up…" Ruby offered. "I don't anymore. But you could."
Belle made a face. "I never really saw the attraction."
"No?" Ruby gave her a considering look.
"I hate not being able to make decisions. It's hard enough when I'm hormonal and my emotions are all out of balance. I like to choose, when I can. I'm… maybe a bit of a control freak."
Ruby laughed and tapped their beers together. "Opposites!"
"I'm not saying that my way is better."
"Of course not." Ruby grinned. "But maybe you can teach me how nice control is, and I can let you see what it's like to let loose for a bit."
"I don't get a lot of chances to let loose. I had to sneak out to come here."
Ruby looked surprised. "How old are you?"
"You have to sneak out?"
Belle flinched. "I work as a live in nanny. I don't get evenings off."
"Oh. That sucks."
"It's a job, a work visa."
"Can't find something better?"
"If I quit I'll be deported. My one offer of naturalization by marriage would have been worse than this situation. It's really not that bad. Children are exhausting, but never boring."
"Huh," Ruby huffed out a laugh. "Not my thing."
"I don't think I'll ever want my own now. Other people's are enough."
"So, no evenings off, so no boyfriend either? Girlfriend?"
Belle shook her head. "Don't really have time."
"I hope you're getting paid well."
"Mmm." She was getting paid, quite well. Not that she got to see it. Her dad's plantation was going under, and she sent the cheques to him. It wasn't helping, just letting him get deeper and deeper in debt, but he wouldn't sell it.
Ruby was looking at her again. It was a little unsettling. In the half-light her eyes were very dark, her lips pressed together, worrying. She seemed pretty, though it was hard to be certain, but she held herself casually, not like the attractive girls who knew they were attractive and wanted to make sure everyone noticed.
Ruby set down her cup. She reached out and put a hand on Belle's leg. That was all. She didn't move, didn't try anything further. Belle stared at the long-fingered hand, then looked up. Ruby's eyes darted away. Belle very carefully set down her own cup.
"Can I, um, kiss you?" Ruby's words were half mumbled, and utterly artless. Belle felt herself start to smile involuntarily.
"If you want to."
Ruby blinked, eyebrows raising, a smile spreading wide on her face as she relaxed. "I wouldn't have asked if I didn't."
And then she leaned in.
Their lips met, soft and chaste, Ruby's hand coming up to cup her cheek. She smelled like smoky bars and sweat and unwashed clothes. Oddly enough, it wasn't unattractive. Belle relaxed, a slow burn starting low in her stomach, Ruby's tongue darting delicately over her lower lip. The kisses were warm in the cool air, easy, unhurried. It was almost as it Ruby knew that she didn't have much experience with this, and was letting her ease into it. But when they broke, Belle could hear Ruby's breath coming rougher, and her hands were spots of heat on her body.
"Wanna take this upstairs?" Ruby murmured into her ear.
Belle swallowed the sudden lump in her throat. Was this how it worked? Was this really going to happen?
Then, suddenly, she felt cold. Ruby had pulled back and was looking uncomfortable. "If you don't, that's fine. I'm fine with whatever. I'm really, totally horny." Ruby jerked back, looking appalled at the word that had come out of her mouth. "Fine! I meant fine."
Belle laughed at her face.
"Oh god." Ruby pressed her hands to her flushing cheeks. "Not cool."
"Really not cool," Belle replied. "But sure. Um. Upstairs is good."
Ruby looked astonished, but grabbed her hand and tugged her back in. There was a wolf-whistle as they went through the kitchen. "Go for it, Red!"
"Shut your face, Snow!" Ruby retorted – to the Rebel Army keyboardist. Belle tried not to gape.
Upstairs turned out to be a slope-ceilinged closet under the eaves, a single mattress stuffed inside. It was unmade, sheets all askew, a bursting duffel on the floor next to it, papers, headphones, a small stereo, a stack of CDs. But it was private.
You couldn't stand up in the room, so without making a decision, Belle found herself sitting on the edge of the mattress. Ruby was on her knees, turning on a beat up desk lamp whose cord snaked under the door and shutting them in and the noise from downstairs out. The lamp made strange shadows across the walls.
Ruby looked at her, awkward again. "I, um…"
Belle sat on her panic and started, very deliberately, taking off her jacket and shoes.
She heard the click of the CD slot of the stereo and then the familiar low synth-organ strains. She looked up. Ruby offered her a smile, struggling with the laces on her boots. Belle couldn't help but grin back. She moved in, starting on Ruby's other boot, and they got them off. Then Ruby shucked her jeans and crawled onto the mattress in underwear and a zip sweatshirt. Belle tipped her head up, stealing a kiss, only letting out a small oof as Ruby ended up draped on top of her. They shifted until they were both on their sides, pressed together, legs entwined, still kissing, music swirling up around them.
It was clear that Ruby did know this album really well. The kiss turned wet and open as the melody opened up, and snare hits were punctuated with nips to her lower lip. Belle fisted her hair with one hand and ground into her, walking the baseline up her back in brief, rhythmic finger-strikes. A hand slid up under her skirt, cupping her thigh, kneading into her ass, and Belle felt a shaky moan emerge from her chest. She felt Ruby smile against her mouth and then break the kiss, moving to lick and suck at her neck. She found the zip at the back of her dress and tugged the tab, hinting before actually opening it. Belle hissed, "yes," and scrabbled for purchase on her sweatshirt. Zips came down, Belle squirmed, getting the dress the rest of the way off. Ruby's sweatshirt was tossed to the side, and Belle grabbed the hem of her – oddly familiar – t-shirt and pulled it off over her head. Ruby laughed, dropping down on all fours over her. "You want me naked that badly?"
The light from the desk lamp showed off the smooth, svelte curves of her body, red bra vibrant against her skin. "No, this is good," Belle managed. "I could just look at this… forever."
Ruby's grin spread wide. "I'm luckier, since you didn't wear a bra."
Belle flushed. It wasn't like she needed a bra with that dress, but she'd forgotten, and felt suddenly exposed, her nipples pricking up at the cooler air and at Ruby's eyes roaming over them. And then Ruby bent her head and her wet, warm mouth was on one and Belle bucked up into her.
She knew she ought to be doing something back, but all she could manage was to hold on. Ruby had her underwear down, fingers parting her. She gasped, fingers tight in her hair. Ruby gave a groan into her skin, fingers swirling in her wetness. And then with a crash of drums and base, she thrust two fingers into her.
Fuck, it hurt, it burned. She cried out.
Ruby stiffened, jerking back, but her fingers stayed deep inside. "Are you okay?"
Belle tried to blink away the tears that had emerged. "Fine. Really."
"That sounded like it hurt."
Belle tried to shrug. "Maybe. But don't– don't move yet. It's…"
"Baby," Ruby murmured, then leaned in and pressed a kiss against her cheek.
Belle sighed, bringing her back up to kiss her mouth. Slowly, gently, Ruby started to move her fingers. They kept kissing, open wet deep kisses. Ruby's thumb rubbed circles around her clit. It still hurt, but her mouth was too distracting to care. And then she crooked her fingers, brushing a deep, sensitive spot, and Belle gasped, arching up. "More."
Ruby's fingers moved quicker, still working over her clit, the kisses turning rough and desperate. Belle's hips bucked into her hand. And then Ruby bit down on her lower lip and Belle came. She let out a scream into Ruby's mouth, and felt a wave of warmth and pleasure wash over her. She slumped down, arms looped around Ruby, holding her steady on top of her.
"You all right?" Ruby whispered into her ear.
"Really, really all right," Belle managed, stroking up and down her back.
"I'm sorry. I didn't know. I wouldn't have—"
"Shh," Belle cut her off. She struggled a little and managed to push Ruby off of her and climb on top. She settled onto her hips and found the front clasp on her bra. "I'm fine. Better than fine. I'm brilliant. And I'm not done with you yet."
Ruby grinned, wide and bright. "Awesome."
x x x
Red looked down at the girl passed out beside her and stroked her hair. She really didn't want to move. The sex had lasted for hours.
There was a soft knock at the door. It opened. Snow peeked in. "Hey. We need to get rolling if we're going to make Chicago by eight."
Red nodded. "I'll be down in a few minutes."
She slid out of bed and started stuffing things in her pack. She picked up a CD, looked at it, then looked at Belle. She found a sharpie and held the cap in her mouth and wrote on the insert. Then, very carefully, she tucked it into Belle's hand. The girl blinked a few times and made a sound.
"I've got to go," Red whispered. "Sleep in as long as you like."
Belle snuggled back into the pillow, and Red was very jealous of it. She leaned in and brushed a light kiss against her ear. She grabbed the duffel and padded out of the tiny room.
Charming greeted her with coffee and a grin. "Look who banged a groupie."
"Shut-up," Red growled, taking the coffee. "Not a groupie. I'm pretty sure she has no idea who I am."
"Really?" Snow blinked at her. "How could she not?"
Red shrugged. "She only listens to the CDs. The lighting at the concert was shit. I lied about my name."
Red ducked her head. "I mean, I gave her my real name, my old name. She didn't bat an eye."
Snow gave her the sympathetic look that always made Red feel exhausted. "You like her?"
Red shrugged. "We're gone now. It doesn't matter."
"You could give her your number."
"I know that."
Snow punched her arm lightly. "I had such hope for you this time."
Red looked away. "I'm not hung up on guilt anymore," she said. "I'm open."
Snow gave her a sappy smile.
It was just annoying enough to want to slam a door on it. "But I don't think it's great to start a relationship by lying to a girl and then taking her virginity without asking first."
Snow dropped her mug. Charming spun and gaped at her.
Red grinned and took a sip of her coffee. "'S okay. I made it up to her, in orgasms."
x x x
Belle woke up slowly. Something hard and sharp was poking her in the arm. Ruby was gone, but she thought she remembered her voice and a touch on her arm, saying goodbye before she left.
The object was a CD. Belle sat up, realized she was naked and alone in a stranger's house, and scrambled to find her dress and jacket. Ruby's things were gone. Only the desk lamp sat abandoned in the room under the eaves. Everyone seemed to be gone. The Rebel Army van was no longer in the driveway.
Belle started the long walk back to her employer's mansion. It was almost ten. He was going to kill her.
But… she couldn't say she wished she had left right after the show. Or that she hadn't gone at all. Or even that she'd left after the first round. She wasn't going to forget any of that.
As she walked, a little awkwardly, she felt the CD bump against her side and reached in to pull it out.
Rebel Army – Vengeance, it read. The corner of the leaflet was emblazoned with the mark Pre-Release Copy: Not Labeled for Sale. Belle almost dropped it. How had she gotten this? Belle opened the case carefully. On the inside of the liner notes booklet – a patterned white background, glistening sliver in the corners – a note had been written.
I thought you might like this. It might not be as good as Moonlight, but I wrote a bunch of the songs on this one too. Maybe you'll like them.
Thank you for your company last night. Loved it. Wish I didn't have to go and could have a lie-in with you and fuck you all day.
Sorry for not telling you who I was.
—Ruby a.k.a. Red, from Rebel Army (I'm the one who plays base, JSYK. ;) ) "
"Oh God." Belle covered her face. There was no one to be embarrassed in front of and yet…. She'd lost her virginity to the bassist in her favorite band and hadn't noticed. And she was the one who had written most of Moonlight! Belle was the worst fan ever.
And yet, for some reason, she couldn't stop smiling all the way up the mile-long driveway.
x x x
"He's furious," Ms. Potts said.
Belle froze, her stomach turning over.
"He ripped up your room, trying to figure out where you'd gone." Ms. Potts gave her a sidelong glance. "Should have known you'd be off to shag your boyfriend."
"I– I went to a concert."
"Sure you did, honey. Let the band run a train on you too?"
Belle gaped. "No! Don't be… crude."
"You don't get home at ten thirty in the morning from a concert. Not with hickies like that." Ms. Potts eyes narrowed. "I don't care what you do. Go out and screw the town for all I care. But he's going to beat you. He'll lock you up at night too. You won't have a glimpse at the world outside this house, not after he gets home today."
Belle swallowed hard. She had done so much to be good, to not get in trouble. She thought once he trusted her he'd relax some of the rules. But now…
She went upstairs and checked on little Emma and little Alex playing in their rooms. Baby Henry was asleep in his crib. They were sweet kids, but Mr. Gold shouldn't be allowed to collect them like he did. He had collected her too, as vulnerable as a child. What could she do about it? She couldn't go home. She was never going home.
Belle slumped down in the corner of Emma's room, clenching the CD case in her hands like it was some sort of talisman. But it wasn't. It was just another sign of her stupid decision, her mistake.
Belle opened the CD again. On the inside flap were a few more words and a phone number, the handwriting a bit hesitant this time.
"If you're looking for a new job, my Gran runs a diner a couple of towns over. She's got an opening for a manager. Figure you could probably handle that. Pay's shit, but the tips are in cash. And if I know my Gran, she won't let you get deported, even if the feds show up. Here's her number. If you call her, she might give you mine. :)"
Maybe it wasn't a mistake after all.