Fic: Harmless - Chapter 6
AU: Belle arrives, bruised and bleeding, on the doorstep of a lame spinner and his son. On the run from the war and its causes, her short stop-over becomes something else entirely.
Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Chapter 4 - Chapter 5 - Chapter 6 - Chapter 7 - Chapter 8 - Chapter 9 - Chapter 10 - Chapter 11 - Chapter 12 - Chapter 13 - Chapter 14
Marchie prompted: ‘Morraine comes to visit’
Bae doesn’t understand what has changed between Belle and his father, but Morraine seems to find it hysterically funny.
“I don’t understand why we have to hide,” he grumbles, as she pulls him down behind a bush to watch his father and stepmother, “They’re my family.”
And they are: that’s the incredible thing. In the month that has passed since their wedding, both nothing and everything has changed. There is always warm, wholesome, tasty food on their table, and the house is clean, and papa walks with his head just a little higher, his shoulders back.
Belle stays in the house or near it, never strays beyond Morraine’s house for fear of the soldiers. No one cares about the spinner’s new wife, not really, not when they have a harvest to bring in and are so under-manned with everyone (everyone, all the men and boys and strong girls) sent to war.
But some people are still curious, about the new girl who would marry the coward.
Bae knows what they call his papa, even if he doesn’t say it, even if he doesn’t believe a word. And there’re enough people with loose tongues in this village that he knows they wonder why the pretty girl married him, of all people.
Morraine swats his arm and frowns, “You really don’t see it, Bae?”
“See what? Papa is spinning and Rose is hanging washing. What is there to see?”
Morraine shakes her head, “Look closer,” she takes his head between her hands - warm, soft, gentle hands - and turns his head slowly to look at Belle’s face.
Her eyes dart to his papa every now and then. Not so much that it was noticeable without watching, but dart they did. She smiles every time, a smile he swears he’s never seen on her face before.
“What’m I looking at?” he asks, after a second, and Morraine sounds like she’ll kill him just for being stupid.
“Okay, you’re obviously dumber than mama’s chickens, so I’ll tell you. They’re falling in love.”
Bae blinked, torn between glancing feverishly between his papa and step-mother and just staring blankly at his friend. “They’re only married cause she needs a place to live.” He protests.
“They’re married because they want to be married.” She counters, calmly, “Other wise couldn’t she have been a friend or family member from Longbourne? Why a bride if they didn’t wish to be wed?”
Morraine, Bae has decided, is too clever for her own good.
He can’t tell her that ‘Rose’ is really Belle, and that she is a runaway princess with a price on her head. Morraine wouldn’t tell a soul, but if anyone asks her what she knows papa wants everyone to be able to be honest, and say they know nothing.
Papa is terrified of the soldiers, and having Belle with them is like having a massive sign in red paint on the front door, asking for trouble.
And yet he married her; and yet his eyes spend more time on her than they do on his wheel.
Bae likes Belle a lot, and he’s glad they accepted his idea, glad to have a step-mother and something that feels so much more like a family than whatever he and his papa were before.
But Morraine is grinning, “You’re adorable when you’re confused.”
“Not confused,” he grumbles, “Papa is… papa. Papa doesn’t fall in love!”
“And why not?” she asks, as if she’s a little offended, “Anyone can fall in love, Bae, why should your papa be different?”
“Because he’s… I don’t know!” Bae almost cries, but keeps his voice down so the grown-ups won’t hear him, “He just is. He’s been married, he has me…”
“And now he has Rose,” she nods, smiles, “And he’s falling in love.”
“Well it’s none of my business, anyway,” Bae gets to his feet and slips as fast as he can around the back of the house and toward the trees. He knows Morraine is following, but he needs to yell at her somewhere they won’t be overheard.
“Yes it is, Bae!” Morraine catches his arm, and he tries not to notice how weirdly nice it feels having her there, “You have to help them work it out!”
“You just said he liked her!” he moans, “Now I have to make him?”
“No!” Morraine looks very close to stamping her foot in frustration, “Now you have to make it so they can see it too!”
Morraine pauses, frowning, “I don’t know.” She admits, and Bae grins.
“See? They’re grown ups, they should figure these things out on their own.”
He smiles smugly, and Morraine seems to have no answer for that.
Her words remain in his mind, though, long after she has gone to help her mama with the housework and Bae has seated himself by the spinning wheel. He helps his father wordlessly, too busy thinking, and not sure at all what he’s thinking about.
Belle and papa are married, and it was his idea. And it has worked: the soldiers haven’t bothered them once in the month since the wedding.
But they’re still married, and while Bae knows not all marriages are done for love, they don’t look and talk to each other like brother and sister either. Bae has no notion at all of the difference between ‘married’ and ‘in love’, but Morraine seems to see one leading to the other.
So he watches them more closely - he doesn’t mean to, but once an idea has lodged in his head it’s hard to shift free - and there is something decidedly… different about them, now.
He watches Belle serve papa first at the table, and smile when he thanks her and pats her hand.
Papa laughs when she curses at her sewing, and throws the half-darned shirt halfway across the room in a temper. “Blasted bloody thing!” she snarls, and if Bae said something like that papa would frown disapprovingly, even if he wouldn’t actually scold him.
When Belle does it, papa just laughs, fetches the sewing from its crumpled heap on the floor, and brings it back to her. They sit together, quietly, as he shows her how to repair a hole in one of Bae’s own tunics without pricking her fingers on the needle.
They are so quiet, in that moment, that Bae feels even the air is different around them than it is for him.
Is this what Morraine meant? These odd, quiet, private little moments that seem to come from nowhere and exclude all but the two of them?
He sees them together, curled around the errant sewing, Belle shaking her head and papa guiding her hands, and he has to run from the house. It is worse than if they were kissing as the older boys and girls do in the village: he feels no one but they - not even he, their son - should see such a moment.
He’s sat at the wheel - he is not as good a spinner as his father, but he is at least proficient - when Morraine finds him.
“You were right,” he says, and he has no idea what emotion it is in his voice, but it sounds dull and heavy even to his own ears, “About papa and Belle.”
“Oh, that,” Morraine nods, takes Bae’s usual seat beside papa’s stool, “I know. What happened?”
“They… they look at each other a lot.”
“Are you alright?” she asks, and what a weird question to ask.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I don’t know…” Morraine smiles, and he likes it when she smiles, “Your papa’s paying more attention to someone else. Are you okay?”
She’s right, of course she’s right, and there’s a part of Bae that truly misses being the only thing in his papa’s world. But then, he brought Belle into their home, and he encouraged her to stay, and the marriage was his idea.
He can’t complain, not now.
And how silly is it to worry about his papa’s attention wavering when there is a war not three towns from their door, and the soldiers could come for them any day now?
He pushes down the jealousy as he pushes down the fear, and the biting, angry voice telling him to run and run and never, ever stop.
Bae is brave: if he is not brave then he is a coward, and there cannot be two in the family.
At least with Belle he doesn’t have to pretend that she is a hero when she is not. He knows enough of her past, now, to know that she is capable of more than most of the men Bae has ever known, let alone the women.
He likes her; he can learn to get used to sharing his only family with her.
If his father is learning to love her, then Bae should learn the same. It just feels so much more difficult, now that she is here to stay for good. Now that she is ‘step-mother’ and not just ‘guest’ or ‘friend’ or ‘runner’.
Morraine is waiting for an answer, and so all Bae does is smile and say, “Papa’s happier now. It’s nice.”
She regards him for a moment, head cocked to one side, “That’s a nice way of looking at it, Bae.”
And it is nice, for a while, for the most part.
For another month, perhaps a few weeks more, they sit in the evenings and Belle tells stories as she weaves her cat’s cradle, and papa sews shirts - Belle doesn’t sew unless she has to; she doesn’t papa’s fingers for it - and Bae sits on the floor by the fire, dozing until he is half asleep and sent to bed.
Until, one day, things change.
The soldiers don’t come to the door - no one thinks they will, not yet, not now - and there are no storms or ogres crashing at the gates.
Instead, a stranger comes to town.
He is almost twice Bae’s height; taller than all but the blacksmith and his sons, and broad, muscled and well-fed. He doesn’t look at anyone as he rides through town, but stops at the one tavern in the middle of the village, starts asking questions.
They’re more cleverly worded, by papa’s account, but they’re like the ones the soldiers were asking. He’s looking for a dark-haired, blue-eyed young woman.
He says she’s probably very skinny, as if he doesn’t know for sure.
Bae thinks Papa’s right to insist - the night after he overheard the stranger, when they sit around the fire as a family - that Belle stay inside at all times, far away from windows and doors. He could be a bounty hunter, in search of the lost princess, and although she is always so calm, so steady, when the words are spoken Bae can see her hand tremble.
He doesn’t miss the little glance between them, when papa reaches out and takes her shaking fingers in his. She breathes deeply for a moment, and then smiles, a small and hesitant thing.
Papa never comforted anyone but him, before they came. And his papa’s comforts never settled Bae’s stomach, or stopped his blood from running hot and cold with worry and fear.
How could he let himself feel bad about their being married, if the change is so good?
And so, the next morning, Bae himself goes into the village, under the pretence of food shopping. They grow almost all of what they eat, buy the rest from the few neighbours who will still sell to papa, but the story holds well the few times he is asked.
He wanders, hoping to catch a glimpse of the stranger. Papa was in the dark, in the tavern, hidden in a corner, and had not seen his face. Belle needs to know what he looks like: needs to know if they’ve ever met.
But Bae has been walking around, meandering between stalls and standing - affecting a lost and confused face, the face of a child without his father, a face Bae knows too well how to pull - on corners and in doorways, for hours before he sees anything useful
The stranger is walking through the crowds, glancing left and right, never pausing on a face and yet never ceasing his searching.
Bae knows he should not approach him: anonymity is all his family has as protection.
But he needs to see him, properly, needs information more than he needs to run. And so, while he knows papa will scold him, he runs forward anyway and collides with the stranger side-on, as if he is a foolish child who didn’t look where he was going.
Bae always looks where he’s going, always.
“Woah,” the man grunts, but he helps Bae up, “What happened there?”
“Sorry, sir,” Bae lowers his head, respectfully: this man is gentry, or at least in the army, and even if he weren’t he is an adult. He’s less likely to remember a small boy who bowed his head in respect than one who stared at his face. “I should’ve looked where I was going.”
“Don’t worry about it, young man,” the stranger sounds as if he’s smiling, and Bae chances a glance at his face. He is handsome, he supposes, looks like a knight or a prince. There is no mud on his face, no bruises or cuts. He is not a peasant.
He feels a curl of fear in his stomach: someone powerful is looking for Belle, someone who can smile at a stranger even now. Someone brave.
This is so much worse than another soldier looking for her, or perhaps a beggar who had known her on the run, another runner or an ally. If he can smile and help and live with his face clean, if he does not fear his own shadow as everyone else does, then their problems have just increased tenfold.
“Thank you, sir,” Bae nods. He waits to be dismissed, but the stranger regards him thoughtfully, brow furrowed.
“Do you have a name, boy?” he asks, and Bae hears his father in his ears, warning that names have power and that one must keep them safe, keep them secret, keep silent if needs be.
Bae doesn’t like to lie any more than he likes to cower or hide.
But this isn’t about Bae, or even about papa. This is about Belle, about a woman who he himself promised to help and protect. If she wishes to hide and wait for the storm to pass, then Bae is in no position to lead the thunder to her door.
“My name is Spindleshanks,” he lies, and the false name falls flat from his tongue, but at least it’s better than having this man track him down and find Belle, “And I’m eleven years old.
“Well, it’s good to meet you, Spindleshanks,” the man nods, “I am Sir Gaston.”
He gives his name freely, willingly, and Bae is chilled to the bone. Confidence, in Bae’s life, has often gone hand-in-hand with knives and people taken in the night.
“A real knight?” he feigns fearful admiration, the kind he might have felt before the war if approached by such a figure, before he learnt what they could truly do. Other boys in the village yearn to fight and die in battle, but while he doesn’t wish to hide as papa does, Bae has never been one of them. Bloodshed and sharp swords no longer hold their appeal, now that they exist outside of the old stories. “That’s amazing!”
Sir Gaston laughs, “It’s more work than it sounds, trust me. Perhaps you one day, hm? If this war ever ends and you’re able to get some true training.”
That brings Bae up short: a man in armour who wishes the war to end?
“Maybe.” He nods, keeps his false smile in place, and then lies once again. His tongue will turn black if he keeps this up, “My mama is missing me, have you seen her?”
“Perhaps, what does she look like?”
Bae has an idea, “She’s kinda short, dark hair, blue eyes. Skinny.”
Sir Gaston frowns, thinks, “I’m looking for someone who matches that description,” he says, “But this is your mother?”
Bae shrugs, “Mama has never left the village, so far as I know. Except to go with papa and me to Longbourne sometimes. But then she is scared by the crowds.”
If Belle is known by this man to be his mother, and her resemblance to the lost princess no more than that, then perhaps hiding will be less vital. Bae is exceptionally proud of himself for this idea, and resolves to tell Belle as soon as he gets back.
“Oh, right,” Sir Gaston frowns, “Perhaps she is not who I seek, then.”
“Why?” Bae frowns, a picture of confusion, “Who’re you looking for, sir?”
“An old friend of mine, boy,” his eyes shine, but he still doesn’t look evil. He doesn’t seem as bloodthirsty as the soldiers Bae has seen and run from, but perhaps knights are just better at hiding it, “Something awful happened to her, and I need to find her as soon as possible.”
“Oh, well, mama’s never met a knight, she would have told me.” Bae says, “But if I see your friend, I’ll tell her you’re looking for her!” this last, at least, is the truth: when Bae returns home, this story will be the first thing he tells his step-mother.
“Thank you, boy,” Sir Gaston looks genuinely grateful, and Bae turns away. His whole body freezes when he feels a hand on his arm, stopping him, “If it helps,”the knight adds, as Bae turns back to face him, “Her name is Belle. But I doubt she uses it anymore.”
He looks so genuinely sad, that for a moment Bae is tempted to tell him at least part of the truth. But his papa always warns about tricksters who lie with their whole body, not just their words, and Bae won’t be fooled by sad eyes and stooped shoulders.
“Thank you, sir.” He says, and practically runs away, unable to keep his feet from pounding on the soft earth of the road as he tears home.
He bursts into their little house breathing hard, and immediately Belle’s arms are around him, “Bae?” she asks, worry wrapped around even just the syllable of his name, “Bae, what happened, are you alright?”
He clings to her a moment, like the child he’s almost grown out of but not quite, and is tempted to hold onto her and sob into her shoulder in fear.
But Belle is brave, and he can be too, and if he cannot be strong and protect her then he is worthless to his family. So he holds himself together, and breathes deeply, and lets go of his step-mother with a shake of his head. “I met a knight.”
She goes still all over, and he wonders once again who this man is to her. He knew her name; he used his own. There is more here than a bounty hunter. “Oh?”
“He was at the market: the stranger papa saw last night.” He explains, as the pair of them cross to the dining table. Belle pours two cups of chamomile tea - he can see her trying to act normal for him, sees the tension in her body - and takes a seat across from him.
“And why did you speak to him, Bae?”
“I ah… I wanted to know more.” He admits, and he hopes she’s not angry with him. He’s never seen Belle so much as cross, but he’s sure it’s a fearsome sight.
“That was a very silly thing to do, Bae,” she shakes her head, and somehow her disappointment is worse than her anger could have been, “You might have lead him right to our door.”
“I told him my name was Spindleshanks.” He explains, a little defensively, because he’s nearly fourteen and as tall as she is and he’s not a stupid child, not anymore, “And that you were my birth mother. To make him think - even if you meet him - that you’re not the girl he’s looking for.”
She stares at him as he explains his encounter in a bit more detail, and when he’s done she takes a long drink of her tea and looks at her hands, knotted in front of her.
“He said his name was Gaston?”
“Yes.” Bae nods, “Definitely.”
“Tall, broad, dark hair?” she presses, “Dark brown eyes?”
“Yep, that’s him,” he nods again, tries to smile, but the terror in her eyes, the trembling smile on her lips, as if all hope is lost and they’re drowning in the ocean he’s never seen, scares him even more. “Why, who is he?”
She gulps, and he realises with a start that she’s trying not to cry, “He was the love of my life, once upon a time.”
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