Page 140: A Day at the Beach
A Day at the Beach
Summary: Belle learns that Hardwicke is kind of a terrible date.
Date: Dec 3, 2011
Related Logs: Strategies of Courtesy
Belle Hardwicke 
Coastline — Terrick's Roost
The Cape of Eagles looms out over Ironman's Bay, a vast, blue ocean inlet, that spreads its watery depths out beyond the horizon. The path that leads down to this coast winds down behind the towers for several hundred meters before arriving at the rocky water's edge. Rather than sand, the coast is covered with innumerable smooth and rounded stones about palm-sized. They stretch up and down the coast in all directions with the battered remnants of driftwood scattered about. Above the beach, one every mile or two, are towers with a large bell and mallet atop them which are to be beaten to warn of an incoming invasion.
A small dock is being constructed of thick northern timbers, with mooring space for two large ships, or perhaps a half dozen smaller craft.
2 December 288

Belle is breakfasted and ready when Ser Hardwicke arrives at the Rockcliff the next morning, in the courtyard with a lovely dappled-grey mare, seeing personally to the finer details of her saddle and tack. The handmaid seems rather fond of her horse — older but not yet a nag, still strong and supple, gentle-eyed — and is stroking the steed's velvet muffle, murmuring fondly, when Hardwicke's approach draws her attention. She smiles brightly, lifting a hand to shade her eyes against the sun. "Good morning, Ser Hardwicke!"

Coming from the direction of the castle, Hardwicke is already astride his horse, a rich chestnut mare in her prime. He directs her with an easy, expert hand as they approach Belle and her own horse. "Good morning," he replies, perhaps less brightly, as he draws his horse to a stop. "Well, let's get on, then."

"Oh, no, of course not, Ser Hardwicke, you're right on time," she says solicitously. "And I slept very well, thank you for asking." She mounts lightly, swinging astride without the aid of stirrups — no small feat, considering. Her skirts are voluminous enough that her seat in the saddle — perfectly elegant and at ease — remains modest. She seems to guide her mare more with the shift of her weight and the nudge of her knees, holding the reins so lightly that she might not be employing them at all. "I trust your business with the tanner went well?"

"I feel that you are attempting to make a point," Hardwicke says, a touch of dryness to his voice. "I think you'd be better served just saying it." He watches her with the horse, studying how she mounts and handles the animal. "Well enough," he says. "He appreciates my standards."

Belle smiles, studying him unabashedly as her mare draws up alongside his. "Do you? What point do you feel I was trying to make?" She seems genuinely interested in his interpretation.

"That I'm being rude, probably," Hardwicke says, though he doesn't sound particularly offended by the idea. Once Belle's mare sidles up, his sets off in a westwardly direction towards the coastline.

"Rude is too strong a word, perhaps," Belle says, riding easily at his side. "I'm not sure you go about meaning to offend. But abrupt and unmannerly, certainly. So, now I'm curious — why do you think I would have been better served to say it plain? You took my meaning quite clearly."

"I think most things are better served said plain," Hardwicke says in a lower half-mutter that is nonetheless still audible. "I hate — mincing about words."

"I can tell," Belle replies, her smile warm in her voice. "And yet I believe gentle teasing in good humor is preferable to sullen accusation, at least when the meaning is equally clear in both cases." She offers, after a moment, "Your mare's lovely. What's her name?"

Hardwicke grunts a quiet, noncommittal noise to this point of logic. His horse is easier to talk about. "Delylah," he says, a hint of fondness somewhere in the quiet lowness of his voice.

"Delylah's a lovely name," Belle approves, studying the animal. "This is Dulcinea," she pats the neck of her dappled-grey. "She's been with me quite some time, and knows me very well."

"Thank you," Hardwicke says as they make their way down the road toward the coastline, "I suppose. She's been with me for a while, as well." He glances over at Belle, studying her briefly. "What brings you to the Roost?"

There's much that can be said of Belle, and one of those things is that she's a rather vain creature. She sits up all the straighter and prettier in her saddle for his regard, lifting her chin to give her best profile. Ah, but then, it seems she's self-aware, and she slides a mirthful look at him to see if he noticed her preening. "I'm often here on my lady's business. She's very particular, as I mentioned, about certain things. She doesn't travel well in her advanced years, alas, so I go to fetch anything she needs — and keep an eye out for things she might want." She smiles at him, taking him in as much as she scenery. "And you, Ser? Have you lived here all your life?"

Hardwicke frowns a bit at her preening in a manner untrusting of vanity and vaguely annoyed at the idea that his glance would be taken as such. "I see," he says. Looking back ahead of them, he says, "Most of my life. I was still squire to my uncle when my Lady Terrick was wed. He was of her dowry retinue."

Belle tilts her head, evaluating this frown and that glower, puzzling over him. "You do take everything so very seriously, don't you?" she wonders. "Have you always been so?"

"I suppose." Smirking just a touch, Hardwicke asks her, "Does it bother you, Mistress?"

"No," Belle replies laughing again. "Do you wish it would?"

"I don't put on a manner just to bother people," Hardwicke replies. "I don't put on a manner at all."

"That's not what I asked," Belle points out, a wry dimple to the left of her mouth. "Furthermore, I would argue that you certainly didn't spring from the womb a curmudgeon. We learn such things in time."

"I certainly was never told I was a sunny child," Hardwicke says, and though his voice continues in dryness, there is a certain edge of humor in it.

"Hah!" Belle laughs, nodding. "That I will certainly believe. What was it like, growing up in the Middleton hold?" She lifts her eyebrows, curious. "Did you have brothers and sisters? Was your father also a knight?"

Hardwicke shrugs his broad shoulders. "Like growing up anywhere else." He snorts a dry, unvoiced laugh. "No," he says. "My father is a weaponsmith. I was his only child."

"Oh," says Belle, eyebrows knitting upwards. "That sounds as though it must have been a bit lonely, actually. Were there other children your age? Friends, at least?"

"There are always children," Hardwicke says with another indifferent shift of his shoulders.

"Again, not quite what I was getting at," Belle points out, albeit gently. "A lonely, somber little boy in his father's smithy," she muses, glancing at him again. "Where was your mother?"

"Dead," Hardwicke says flatly. "Birthing me." He glances over and, relenting somewhat, says, "I had friends enough for a child."

Belle nods, considering this as well. "Did you blame yourself?" she wonders. "Did your father?"

"You are full of questions, aren't you," Hardwicke says a bit flatly, his voice no longer containing that edge of humor.

If she's meant to look chastened, she fails at it. Though she does look, quite out of her usual mode, less than merry. Even serious, if gently so. "That sounds quite like a yes — on one point, if not both."

"It sounds like an overly intimate question is what it sounds like," Hardwicke says, voice falling to a quieter mutter. Louder, he asks, "Any dead family you'd like to discuss?"

"I lost my family in the war," Belle replies softly, smiling even then — though it's a fragile thing, that smile, close-lipped and melancholy. And fond — the pain of loss only matching, not diminishing, the poignant joy of memory. "My husband and our child, among them. I don't mind discussing it, if it's something you want to hear."

Hardwicke looks back to her, gaze studying and quiet, his expression thoughtful, if a little awkwardly so as he finds himself without the right words. "I'm sure he fought honorably," he finally lands on.

"I'm sure he did, as well," Belle replies, eyes on the road wending down to that pale strip of sand by the sea. "He took up arms to defend our way of life — all our men did. Very few of them came back." She silent a moment, then adds, "I think what's most sad is their sacrifice was in vain. With our numbers so diminished, my people scattered to the winds. We no longer really exist."

For a few minutes, Hardwicke is quiet, considering her words. The road splits and narrows to the winding path down to the coastline. "You exist," he finally points out. "I'm sure that's what he was fighting for above all."

She smiles at that, too… though it doesn't quite reach her eyes. There is an unmistakable weight to her grief. "Probably," she agrees. "He wasn't born a Traveler. We picked him up in Highgarden when I was — oh, ten and three, maybe. I might have been ten and four." She shrugs. "Anyway, yes. Jory would have fought for me and our child, not the menagerie. So… at least his shade can smile a little."

"Well." Again, Hardwicke falls silent as his words fail. His mare picks her way down the path with deft footfalls. "Where are you from, then?"

"I was born on the road between Crakehall and Old Oak, on the way to Highgarden," says Belle, smiling with less melancholy as she relates that bit of the tale. "In a carnival wagon," she adds, dimpling merrily. "A lavender one with deep purple trim and climbing vines painted on the sides. And inside, the ceiling was painted dark, dark blue with tiny stars."

"Somehow," Hardwicke says in a low, rumbling voice, "I doubt you can remember what it looked like the day you were born."

It's Belle's turn to snort dryly, now. "How very clever of you," she says with a faint smirk. "Yet I lived most of my life in that same conveyance, so I do — in fact — remember it fairly well."

"That's me," Hardwicke agrees blandly. "'Very clever.'" The path spills out into the coastline, and Delylah's hooves click lightly against the weathered stones. Her rider takes a moment to look out at the water, studying the familiar sight. "So," he says, faintly baffled. "Carnival folk."

Grinning ear to ear, Belle affirms, "Carnival folk. The Magnificent Traveling Menagerie of Grandmaester Defenestratus: The Greatest and Most Glorious Spectacle in All the World." She also looks over the water, her grin wistful about the edges as the delivers this highly unlikely title. "My mother was a Sargenya, of The Flying Sargenyas."

"Never heard of it," Hardwicke says. Whether or not it's true.

That doesn't seem to phase her, alas. Like so many other things, it makes her laugh. "Well, my dear Ser, you missed quite a thing. There was nothing like the Menagerie in its day. Absolutely nothing." Belle sighs, shutting her eyes and breathing in the ocean. "I wouldn't have traded it for all the world. I was, I think, the only child ever born who learned to fly before she could walk."

"I'm sure it was grand," Hardwicke says politely. It is possible he hates fun. "Although I have a hard time believing you actually flew."

She glances at him mirthfully, raising an eyebrow. "Said as only a man who's never flown can."

"People," Hardwicke says logically, "don't fly."

"Of course they do," Belle opines. "Flying is nothing more than falling with style. It's the landing you need to look out for."

Hardwicke grunts out a quiet, noncommittal response to this outlandish idea.

Belle studies him sidelong a while, then asks, inexplicably, "Why do mice have such tiny balls?" She reaches into her saddlebag and offers across a skin. "Wine?" Hopefully, these two questions are completely unrelated.

"Why — what?" Hardwicke squints at her, entirely baffled until the offer. Wine is less confusing. He does peer at it a moment, then smirks at her. "Untested wine from a Nayland retainer?"

"Ser, you wound me," Belle sighs, uncorking the skin and taking two generous swallows. Once more, the wine is offered. "Are you really so important that I'd have to kill you?"

"I doubt that," Hardwicke says on a dry note, but he takes the taste-tested wine and takes a swig. "Depends on who you ask, I guess."

Belle frowns prettily. "It would put a bit of a crimp in the whole 'getting to know you' process."

"Assuming there is a process," Hardwicke counters before another healthy swig of wine, "and this isn't just some elaborate Nayland trap." He nudges his horse closer to hold the skin back out to her.

"I thought you were a poor target for a spy," counters Belle, lips teasingly quirked as she accepts the wine back again. "Or is that just something you say to all the girls?"

"Well." Hardwicke has little argument for his own contradiction. He huffs a quiet breath through his nose. "You have strange ideas about me."

"Do I?" Belle asks, taking a more delicate sip of wine now that she's drinking for pleasure and not to disprove malicious intent. "What ideas are those?"

"That I'm riding around with a number of women," Hardwicke replies.

"That's the only one?" Belle asks, raising her eyebrows with a wide grin. "I'm sure half of the ideas I have about you are positively bizarre. "Besides, you originally declared yourself a poor target for spying back in the shop — so really, my ideas probably revolve more around your antipathy toward people who are friendly in queues."

"I certainly wouldn't know what your ideas are," Hardwicke says, grumbling lower as he finds himself flung further out of his depth in the conversational waters.

Subtly and by increments, Belle guides her horse closer to Hardwicke's, to a distance that could be mistaken for — horrors! — companionable. "You never did answer my question," she notes, after a moment. "About mice."

"I have absolutely no idea what that question meant," Hardwicke says flatly.

"Well, you could go literal — which is rather what I'd expect… if you were inclined to answer, which I would never advise anyone to expect of you. You're terribly taciturn." Belle Beckett, ladies and lords: Dame Obvious, 288. "And the obvious answer would be, of course, that mice have tiny balls because they are, themselves, tiny. Poor little mice weighted down by elephantine testicles wouldn't last long in a world of owls and serpents."

Hardwicke looks over at her with a blatantly baffled expression as she continues. After a few moments of boggling, he says, "Well, if you already know the answer, why ask?"

"Because I wanted to know if you knew the answer and — more importantly — if you knew the best answer. There's often more than one to a question." At least one of them's entertained. It's possible Belle's having enough fun for them both. "Would you like to know the best answer?"

"I think you'd like to tell me, which seems good enough," Hardwicke says, shaking his head and still a bit baffled as his mare strides easily along the coast.

She grins at his resignation. "Mice have tiny balls," she begins, pausing to adopt an expression of elementary innocence, "…because so few of them know how to dance."

Hardwicke opens his mouth. He shuts it. He squints at the coastline ahead of them. "I don't get it."

Belle gasps, then bursts into peals of laughter. "You dreadful liar!" she cries. "Not only will you not laugh, but deny the jest entirely?" She looks positively intrigued. "I wonder what terrible harm you fear will come to you?"

"I'm not lying!" Hardwicke argues immediately in a gruffly sullen tone. "Clearly it's not a very good joke, if I can't even tell what it's trying to—" He stops again. The light clicks. "Oh," he says, and then he snorts.

"It's one of my favorite jokes," Belle insists on the quality of her jests. "I was told it, in fact, by the court jester of the Night's Watch. Did you know even jesters are occasionally compelled to take the black? I'm surprised it doesn't happen more often, actually. Seldom is anyone so loathed as he who tells the truth cleverly." She sighs. "Poor Aloysius. Absolutely awful what happened to him."

"It's about mice and balls," Hardwicke argues, as if this is all the evidence required to refute the joke's quality. "Someone from every path has taken the black at some point."

"It drove Aloysius mad," Belle says, looking rueful, as one might for dreadful things befallen distant acquaintances. "He used to go out with the patrols to keep up their spirits — and one night, they were set upon by wildlings… savage cannibals who killed and ate the whole lot. Except for Aloy. They cut off his hand but, after one bite, let him go."

Hardwicke goes quiet for several moments, gaze set ahead of him. "They are a wild people," he finally says, voice a bit quieter, as he shakes his head.

Belle shrugs. "After that, though, none of the night-watch jesters were ever harmed." She tilts her head, consideringly. "I suppose they tasted funny."

Hardwicke snorts out a gruff, indelicate laugh. "Maybe they did."

"Ah-hah!" Belle claps her hands. "He laughs! It can be done. Most encouraging!" She beams at him and offers over the wine again. "Will you take a meal with me, sweet Hardwicke? I took the liberty of bringing a bit of bread and meat and cheese — a light luncheon for the seaside."

Glancing over at her, Hardwicke's brow furrows. "You are rather bold in your desire to spend time alone with a man you don't know."

"Are we not alone at the moment? And yet you'd no such objection to riding." Belle chuckles and shakes her head. "I'm not a maid with a delicate reputation, for whom rumors on the wind might mean the end of her prospects. Are you intimating that I have cause for worry? Certainly you're only indulging my whims in the spirit of chivalry and at my absolute insistence. That, I think, is a distant shore from where I might need to worry about your passions imposing on my virtue."

"I'm not intimating that," Hardwicke says in a low rumble of disagreement and a slight lift of his chin. "If you wish to take a luncheon, we may take a luncheon."

"Then what is the root of your objection, I wonder?" Belle asks, scanning for a nice, even stretch of sand where picnicking might occur. "Is my company unpleasant?"

"I—" Hardwicke shifts his seating in his saddle, scowling. "No," he says, despite the implications of the expression. "I would not say that."

Belle vaults lightly from the saddle without even bothering to rein Dulcinea to a halt, taking the mare's reins and leading her to a particularly large, smooth patch of stone further from store. "What would you say, then?" she asks, curious.

Her light dismount actually has his brows twitching upwards in the briefest hint of the impressed. He is not so fancy, though he draws Delylah to a halt with barely a touch, and dismounts with the fluid familiarity of an expert. "You are a — lively woman," he decides upon.

Laughing again, Belle takes a blanket from her saddlebags and turns her back to the breeze, flipping it out like a banner to spread on the ground. "I suppose I'd rather be known as lively than the possible alternatives," she says agreeably. "And what else?"

"Vain, apparently," Hardwicke says without much tact. He watches her turn out the blanket as he strokes a hand down his mare's neck.

"I object, Ser!" cries Belle, combing wild strands of windswept gold from her face with her fingers. "What woman spending time with an attractive man doesn't have some eye to her vanity? Flimsy evidence upon which to judge one's character." She tsks, producing crusty bread and summer sausage, two wedge of cheese, one pale yellow and one blue-veined. A pot of hot mustard and one of honey. It's a light repast, but certainly savory and flavorful. Clearly some thought went into its assembly.

Hardwicke narrows his gaze on her, a scowl creasing his features. "If you say so," he says. He watches the repast she sets out, not quite suspicious, but a bit — warily discomforted. Nevertheless, he moves forward to the edge of the blanket.

Belle kicks off her dainty boots and rolls off her stockings, settling down barefoot before producing a knife from — somewhere on her person. She flips it in the air, catching it to offer it over, hilt-first. "Surely you'll feel more secure if the Nayland retainer is unarmed." She winks.

"Can't really admit that without implying that you could make me feel threatened," Hardwicke points out, eyeing the knife without taking it.

"Ah, but I do," Belle laments. "On a number of levels. Though to threaten your physical safety would, because of our difference in size, require surprise and stealth. I would really rather you not be so on guard. Besides, if the lady's provided the repast, the gentleman should serve, don't you think?"

"If you really mean to slit my throat when I'm not looking, I have little reason to think you don't have another knife stashed away somewhere to do it with." But, ever (grudgingly) obliging, Hardwicke takes the proffered knife. "I'm not a gentleman," he does point out as he seats himself on the blanket and begins to serve up the meal with deft, simple movements of the knife.

"You could always inspect my person," Belle says, reasonably and with a hoydenish smirk. She obviously knows, by now, that such offers will not be taken up, so it's clearly a gentle tease. "Especially since you're not a gentleman." She watches him work with the knife, musing, "And yet, to me you seem a very gentle man."

"That's not necessary," Hardwicke says, his scowl deepening as his gaze distinctly does not lift to her. It focuses on the food, dammit. "You hardly know me."

"Very little is necessary that doesn't directly stem from our need to go on living. Eating, breathing, self-defence, procreation — these are necessary." Belle tilts her head down low, attempting to get a look at his averted eyes. "What a boring world it would be if we limited ourselves so. No art, no music, no laughter. You seem to me a gentle man. It's a simple enough observation. Barely a compliment."

"But not searching through your skirts for weapons," Hardwicke insists stubbornly. He serves her first, slicing bread, cheese, and meat for her before continuing for himself. "I wasn't trying to argue against — enjoyment." He says the words awkwardly, though, like someone self-aware that he — may have a habit of doing so.

"Thank you, Ser," says Belle, lovely mannered and gracious as she's served. She makes precise stacks of meat and cheese and bread, some with mustard, some with honey. The blue-veined cheese, notably, has honey drizzled atop it. "I wear my knives, in the spirit of full disclosure, in my bodice. So any seeking beneath my skirts would likely avail you little." She takes a delicate bite of sausage and hot mustard. "For finding weapons, at any rate. What is it, Ser Hardwicke, that you enjoy? Since we've established that you've not objection to fun, in principle."

"Would it avail me of something else?" Hardwicke asks with bland humor before he can think better of it, though he clears his throat and looks back to slicing up his meat and cheese. "I enjoy my work," he says stiffly.

"Ah, that depends on far too many factors for me to predict, at this point," Belle replies blithely, leaning forward to offer him a bit of bread with the blue-veined cheese and honey. "Try this."

Hardwicke eyes the bit of bread, then reaches to take it carefully from her. "Aren't you supposed to say no?" he asks before he pops it into his mouth.

The cheese is sharply tangy and the honey, sweet — it's a very pleasing, if contrary, combination. "To what?" Belle asks, chuckling.

"To—" Hardwicke swallows down the cheese. "Nevermind," he mutters. With belated courtesy, he asks, "What do — you enjoy?"

"Games. Riddles. Enigmas," Belle says, slowly leaning in closer. "Riding fast and climbing high. Dancing. And flying, of course."

Hardwicke smirks at her, though his body is held with a kind of tension very aware of her and her proximity. "Your horse is getting a little old for riding fast," he tells her.

"Alas," Belle agrees, casting a glance at sweet Dulcinea — though not relinquishing the ground she's gained in Hardwicke's proximity. "She was never meant for fast riding, though. More for a steady gait." She studies his face with a warm smile, then brushes the pad of her thumb over his bottom lip. "A bit of honey," she explains, before suckling said bit from her thumb.

He doesn't let her get that far: before she can pull her hand back entirely, he's reaching for her wrist to still her. Hardwicke's dark eyes are steady in their study of her, his posture tense. "What do you want from me?" he asks, his voice low and humorless.

Belle lowers her lashes to gaze at his hand on her wrist, then lifts her eyes to his. "I haven't decided yet," she says, her voice a sweet whisper. A smile touches her lips once again. "This will do for a start."

As his manner bristles, his grip on her wrist tightens, albeit briefly and not hard enough to necessarily hurt. "Don't mock me," Hardwicke tells her.

Contrary as ever, the tightening of his grip and his bristling only draw her closer, until they're breathing the same small space of air. "I'm not mocking you," she whispers.

"You're doing something," Hardwicke says, his voice a low scrape of sound. The hand at her wrist turns its purpose from keeping her away to drawing her closer as the other slides into her hair with sudden purpose. And then, pulling her warmth to the solidity of his body, he moves to kiss her.

She makes a sweet, soft sound as their mouths meet, both triumph and surrender, her free hand sliding from his chest, over his shoulder, and up to cup his jaw. Her head tilts to give him more of her, lips parting, her tongue tracing his bottom lip as though inspecting for any honey she might have missed. Whether it's the taste of honey or of him, it pleases her enough that she gently employs her teeth after, a playful nibble.

The one hand twists through her golden hair as his fingers curve along the base of her skull, tipping her head into the heat of his mouth, rougher and less delicate than her more playful ministrations. The other drops its grip on her wrist to drop to her skirts. His removed, suspicious manner has flipped to something bold and direct.

A soft gasp, a moan — both wholly approving for this rough and direct creature who's suddenly sprung up in the gentleman's stead. She purrs at the twisting of his hand in her hair, laughter bubbling to her lips again as she speaks between kisses. "I told you — " she breathes, and kisses him. "I keep my knives — " And kisses him. "In my bodice…"

Hardwicke drags his mouth down the pale line of her neck, marking her skin with his lips. "I'm not looking for your knives," he rumbles against her, his voice vibrating against the column of her throat. His hand slides up her leg and hikes up her skirt, his palm rough-worn with calluses where it passes; there is little ambiguity as to his intent.

Belle nips his bottom lip again — sharply, this time. Part play, part rebuke. One hand grips his wrist, staying his hand from going further. The other sits firmly on his chest as she draws back — with a certain reluctance — from his lips. "Let's go for a swim."

Baffled and breathless, Hardwicke looks just a little blank at the sudden suggestion. His hands stay where she holds them. "What?"

"A swim," Belle murmurs, brushing his lips with her smile. "The water should be nice and cold."

Hardwicke actually laughs, though it is mostly a huff of breath that carries little voice. "Why in hell would I want to go swimming?" he asks, his hand slipping out from her skirts to settle warm and flat at the small of her back.

There's a smile for that shift of his hand and she nuzzles the side of his throat, trailing soft, suckling kisses from beneath his earlobe to the juncture of his shoulder. "Because it's fun," she replies, another smile felt against his skin.

Something of a groan rumbles in his chest at the trail of kisses moving down his neck. "This is fun," Hardwicke counters, hands firming at her hips to try and pull her into his lap.

Belle comes to his lap easily enough, with yet more laughter, though it's soft and sultry, utterly absent of mockery. "I cannot argue that," she whispers, teeth testing the edge of his ear. "But I must know — who are you, and what have you done with Ser Hardwicke?"

He snorts, just a quiet breath against her skin. "I told you," Hardwicke says, an edge of grouch to his voice. "You don't know me enough to say who's me and who's not."

"Then who are you," Belle revises amiably, kissing across his jaw to his other ear, "and what have you done with the man who rode out with me this morning?"

His palm splays at her back, strong and secure, before Hardwicke flips her rather suddenly onto the blanket. He braces his weight over her, his dark eyes intent. "Maybe I'll have an answer when you answer my question from earlier and tell me what you want."

There's a yelp and more delighted laughter as Belle finds herself suddenly on her back, gazing up into the dark eyes above her. She bites her bottom lip softly, searching his face as she considers her answer. "To know you," she says finally, with soft, simple honesty. "What touches you deeply, what hurts you most, what frightens you… what makes you laugh, if you can carry a tune, if you're a dog or cat person — " she laughs at that, smiling, then lowers her lashes and adds, "What to whisper in your ear to make you instantly hot and hard… I want many, many things."

"Including tidbits to take back to your most honorable lady?" Hardwicke wonders, voice dry and only half-joking. "I have a hard time believing you're that intrigued." Despite himself, he shivers very slightly at the last.

She draws a leg up along his side, hooking it over his, caressing. "Why?" she wonders, gazing at him through her lashes, fingers lifting to comb back a lock of dark hair.

Hardwicke's head dips a bare inch into the touch of her fingers before he catches himself. "Because I'm not very — welcoming." In direct contrast to his words, he slides one down the skirted leg hiked against him, pressing in closer to her warmth.

"There's nothing intriguing about welcoming people," Belle laughs softly, tracing the backs of her fingers down his cheek. Her breath catches softly as her presses against her, eyes lidding for a moment as she shivers in turn. "Reserved, taciturn men, however — seething with passion beneath?" She arches slowly beneath him and drags her nails down his arms. "I find that a little fascinating."

"Really," Hardwicke drawls, close and controlled. "I got the impression that it made you want to take a swim." The hand at her leg slides upward, drawn by the arch of her body to press against her lifted ribs.

Breathlessly, shivering as his hand slides upward, Belle replies, "So we don't wind up doing something I'll later regret." Despite her flushed and heated state, her smile takes a rueful tilt. "No hunter values a quarry so easily taken."

"You have been the hunter here, Mistress," Hardwicke murmurs into her ear before dropping his mouth to press to the hollow underneath.

Belle groans softly, tilting her head to give him more of her ear and throat. "Sometimes," she whispers, fingers threading into his hair, "those roles do become deliciously blurred. Perhaps I was tracking a more dangerous creature than I thought."

Hardwicke takes in a slow breath, and the exhale is warm against her skin. Then, with particular effort, he pulls away from her, extricating himself from the twine and tangle of limbs to roll off next to her on the blanket, sitting. He scrubs a hand roughly through his dark hair and exhales again.

Belle rolls up to sit in one uncannily seamless movement, resting her chin on his shoulder from behind and sliding her arms around him. There is silence for a few moments, the only sounds that of the crashing surf and gulls. "Does this mean we're swimming after all, then?" she asks, ducking her head against the nape of his neck — where he can feel her smile.

"You are welcome to the water," Hardwicke replies, voice a bit dull. "I never saw the appeal of splashing around in it." Beneath the twine of her arms, his body is solid and hard with unrelieved tension.

She leans out along his side, resting her weight on one hand and seeking to gently turn his gaze to hers with the other. "Buoyancy," Belle says, simply, "is soothing to both the body and spirit. Now tell me," she prompts gently, "other than the fact that we'd both prefer to fuck each other sore, what's the matter?"

"Nothing," Hardwicke says flatly as he follows the urge of her hand to look at her. "Why do you ask so many questions?"

"Why do you dislike questions so?" counters Belle — with a question. Obviously. She shakes her head. "There are lots of reasons to ask questions. In this case, it's because there is something that's obviously not nothing, and it matters to me."

"How can it matter to you," Hardwicke says with a sudden snap. "I dislike your questions that — assume some intimacy that doesn't exist."

"No, you dislike all questions, because you're afraid of the intimacy answering them might engender." Belle's voice is crisp as a blade, though it remains quiet and even. "That is quite different."

For several moments, Hardwicke is silent, the muscles in his jaw twitching and then clenching. Finally, he says, "I'm surprised you even bothered to ask, then, if you are so sure of the answer already." He stands. "I thank you for the luncheon, Mistress, and the pleasure of your company," he says in a similarly bladed voice, though his is bogged with the stiffness of uncomfortable formality. "But now I must return to my duties. I am sure you have many of your own."

Belle's own temper flares. "Oh, no man is ever quite such a bastard as when he's been struck close to home," she observes, springing to her feet. Her hair is a wild mess, her lips swollen with kisses, eyes fiery and chest heaving. It's… really not a bad look for her. She gives his chest a good, solid shove. "Stranger take you, Hardwicke, I like you — these things are feelings, they don't have a rhyme or reason. Wretched as you attempt to be — and you are very good at it sometimes — something about you appeals to me. What is so strange about that? This is how life happens."

"/Stop/ that," Hardwicke snaps when she shoves him, his solid weight little moved by the smaller woman. "You are being ridiculous, woman. I have known you for all of a day. Now get your things so I can accompany you back to town." He turns quickly to retrieve Delylah.

"Oh, fuck off," snaps Belle in return. "I can accompany myself. Begone. And remember the next time you're interested in nothing more than a tumble, there are whores for that. You needn't have wasted your morning."

Hardwicke watches her a moment in silence, his frustration dark and boiling behind his eyes. "No," he finally says. "You will not ride unescorted." With that, he takes a hold of Delylah's reins and waits with a stubborn set to his shoulders.

Equally stubborn, it seems, Belle snorts. "I'm going swimming," she states. "You can go to all seven hells. Consecutively." With that, she begins to unlace her bodice.

"Belle—" Hardwicke begins to say before he clamps his jaw and turns his head to scowl in a direction that does not include her and her impending nudity.

"That's Mistress Beckett to you, Ser Hardwicke," Belle corrects. She sheds her bodice and skirt and corset, down to her chemise and pantaloons (should be be inclined to look) — but the Full Monty isn't in the offing. Thus nevertheless-scandalously attired, she marches her way down to the water's edge and out into the waves.

"Mistress Beckett," Hardwicke corrects with irritation. He stands there, frustrated and embarrassed, and finally calls out to her, "I'm sorry!" He kind of ruins the apology by turning back to his horse and mounting her, though.

She comes up from the water, gasping at the cold, just in time to hear the shouted apology. Such as it is. She wipes streaming sea water from her eyes, then comes marching back out, shivering from head to toe, the thin white cotton of her ersatz swimming habit well-nigh transparent and clinging to every line and curve of her. "Really?" she asks, the heat of her ire doing nothing to calm the chattering of her teeth. "Really. Now that I'm going to c-catch a consumption and DIE, you're sorry." There's a faint quaver in her voice that might just be laughter — though she doesn't seem a whit less irate.

"Well you shouldn't have been stupid enough to go in the water, then," Hardwicke says, regaining ground of irritation as he tries to not look at her from his high-up perch on his horse.

Belle squints at him. "Do you even know what you're sorry for, or are you just sorry for purposes of masturbating your chivalry by escorting me back?"

"If I agree with whatever you want me to say, will you put your clothes back on before you do die of a consumption?" Hardwicke asks her.

"Absolutely not. And if I even s-suspect you're so patronizing me, I'll — I'll run naked through the woods and pelt passers by with late-autumn ground fruit." Certainly she's bound to come to more harm that way than a little unescorted ride. She does, nevertheless, pull her skirt and bodice back on.

"I'm not really sure what point you'd be making if you did." Hardwicke sighs and dismounts from his horse to approach her.

"Neither am I," mutters Belle, bedraggled and cold and sullen — NOT her best look — as she attempts (and fails) to lace her bodice with trembling hands and stiff fingers.

Sighing, Hardwicke closes the final distance between them. "Let me," he says quieter, reaching for her laces.

She wrestles a few more moments, pridefully, with the futility of the task… then drops her hands to her sides, lashes lowered, not looking at him as he assists.

His hands, though large and callused, are surprisingly deft, and it doesn't take long for Hardwicke to lace and secure the bodice. "You're mad," he tells her. "I can't believe you tried to get me to go in there."

"I didn't r-realize it would be so cold," mutters miserable Belle. "The sea is, apparently, much c-colder than other bodies of water."

"Well. Welcome to the Cape of Eagles." Hardwicke finishes with her laces and, after another look at her miserable expression, pulls her in close with a sort of half-exasperated sigh to wrap his arms around her and rub a brisk hand against her back to warm her.

She certainly doesn't object to the added warmth, but neither does she nestle. In fact, after a short while silently shivering in his arms, she notes, "I have no idea what to make of your solicitude."

"Make of it that you're cold and I'm warm," Hardwicke says in a voice stubbornly unintimate.

And with that, she shoves him away. "Shouldn't you be gone?" Belle asks, stooping to gather the remnants of her picnic and return them to her saddlebags.

"Shouldn't you be dry?" Hardwicke counters, taking a step back with her shove, but still watching her.

"Shouldn't you not care?" She works briskly, finally lifting the blanket and snapping it to the wind, ridding it of most crumbs and other debris before wrapping it around herself.

"Belle —" Hardwicke takes a breath and follows her. "Mistress Beckett," he says. "I have acted in a manner —" He struggles for the words, then finally says, "I acted an ass. I'm sorry."

Big blue eyes examine him dolefully from beneath the makeshift cowl of the erstwhile picnic blanket. "Yes, you did," she gruffs, clearly not really wanting to forgive him. She nudges a stone with her toe. "It's — fine. You're forgiven. I — suppose I deserved it. I should learn that sometimes no means no. And — you've definitely made that clear. So. My apologies." She dips a little curtsy.

"You are rather insistent," Hardwicke agrees, but his voice has eased from its roughness of earlier. "I am not — in the habit of sharing so much. And I usually find it — difficult to express myself."

Belle shrugs her slender shoulders, nodding slightly. Her lashes are lowered again, examining the stones.

"But I did not react — honorably," Hardwicke continues. Then, for lack of better apology, he says, "You're — very beautiful." Even all wet cat.

Well, really — what woman doesn't that work on? Especially when delivered with such awkward, patent sincerity. She folds her arms as though to guard herself from any warmth or tenderness that might evoke, but it does get him her eyes. "You," she says, still looking a little wilted, "are not entirely without qualities to recommend you."

"Well." Hardwicke yet again looks at a bit of a loss for a response. "Maybe." He glances back at the horses. "Are you ready to return, Mistress Beckett?"

"I already told you I'm not going with you." REALLY? Really. "I don't need you to escort me or defend me. That's not why I asked you to come, and it's not the spirit in which I intend to return."

Looking supremely frustrated by her continued stubbornness on this point, Hardwicke nevertheless reins it in with a slow inhale and exhale. "As you wish," he says. "Perhaps we will see each other again."

"No, we won't," Belle says, sitting to roll on her stockings. "Those are the polite things people say when they intend the opposite."

"Well, I'd like to see you again," Hardwicke says, quieter and discomforted as he pulls his gaze away from her.

Belle stares at him a moment, frozen in the act of rolling her other stocking on, then huffs. "Oh, honestly." She laughs, shaking her head. "Then ask me, you lummox."

Hardwicke snorts quietly. "It was easier when you were telling me." He scrubs a hand over his face and then through his hair. "If you'd like, Mistress Beckett," he says, loud and distinct, "I'd enjoy your company on some — future date."

She considers him a moment, then nods and pulls on her boots. "That'll do, Hardwicke," she approves, standing and leaning up to place a kiss on his cheek. "That'll do."

He scowls just a touch at the kiss, but there's no real heat in it. "All right, then," Hardwicke says. "If you don't want an escort, I'll be off." He tips his head stiffly. "Mistress," he says, then turns to his horse.

They do say that the woman who doesn't change her mind, doesn't have one. And Belle? She's got one, for certain. Thus, without comment or explanation, she swings lightly up onto Dulcinea's back — and rides with him back to Terrick's Roost.