Although the rest of the apartment was cool enough, the bathroom was sweltering.
Neal frowned at the tendrils of vapor that escaped from beneath the door. He knocked a few times, stopping when there was no answer. Now more worried than puzzled, he twisted the knob and hurried through the steamy room to turn off the hot water. "Dad!" he called out, trying to push down the sudden spike of panic.
The discarded coat on the couch had been a curiosity. His memories of childhood included watching his father meticulously fold every article of clothing, no matter the occasion or time of day. Their house, small and poor as it was, had been organized to its last inch. Even now, in the mansion where he lived by himself, crammed with furniture in every room, his father carried in his head a detailed inventory of every item and its assigned place. Neal couldn't think of his father misplacing a draft for a contract, or so much as forgetting to charge his ancient cell phone before bed.
Added the fact that, ever since their reunion, his father treated anything that related to Neal as gold, Neal could think of nothing short of cataclysm pushing the man into such carelessness.
"Dad!" he shouted again, more loudly.
The guilty twinge in his chest said he shouldn't have called his father to watch over his apartment over the weekend, leaving him alone while Neal was on assignment outside the state. But the two of them had been pulling at flimsy excuses to see each other for the last year, and his father had all but jumped at the opportunity.
How had Neal forgotten that Dr. Whale lived in Storybrooke? That, though not the most beloved citizen, there was a whole town to keep an eye on his father should the worst happen?
With a shudder, Neal recalled the Sheriff's call to tell him that his father was in the hospital. He still had no idea how Emma had tracked him down, since he had cut all contact with his father for years, but the news had him returning to his childhood home despite himself. The two weeks he had stayed in Storybrooke, watching over his father, had not erased the past, but it had given them peace.
It couldn't be over so quickly!
The whirring of a door - the bedroom door, Neal realized - had him turning on his heel in that direction. He almost ran into the slight figure trying to tiptoe her way to the front door.
Gaping, Neal stared at her, registering the sheet she was wrapped in and just as quickly lifting his eyes to her face. Her cheeks flamed red, but she did meet his eyes with an apologetic look. "Um. Hi, Neal."
The next door neighbor. She had moved into the apartment next to his a few months ago, but unlike the other tenants she made a point of introducing herself. A bright-eyed girl with a smile that went on forever; had their schedules allowed for more than brief encounters in the elevator, perhaps they would have become friends. As it was, the only time they had done more than exchange brief greetings, she had been trying to juggle five paper bags brimming with groceries and, just as he was leaving for his job, managed to trip on the carpet.
There had been a tray of chocolate cookies at his doorstep that evening. To make up for making him late for work, her note said. How sweet, Neal had thought back then.
Sweetness didn't explain her unexpected presence.
The power of speech returned to him. "Belle?" His brain, however, still refused to work properly. "What are you doing here?"
Her blush intensified. "Um...."
"I'll handle this, sweetheart," said his father's voice from inside the room.
There was an easy conclusion to jump into. In fact, it was the only possible conclusion under the circumstances. Neal was torn between relief - his father's heart was obviously working fine - and surprise - Belle? And his dad? When had that happened?
"I'll... er... show myself out," Belle said, hurrying past him.
Neal followed her, manners instilled so deeply that he realized he meant to open the door for her only when he had already done it.
An amused look flashed through Belle's face. "You're just like your dad," she told him, then bit her lip as she veered instead to the couch and slipped her hand under his father's coat, retrieving a few items that explained why she had attempted her escape wrapped in a sheet. Her cheeks were high in color again, but she still walked toward him with her head held high. "I'm so sorry," she told him. "I got... well... distracted." Neal made a distressed noise, and Belle had mercy on him, laughing awkwardly. "Right. Just... Tell Adrian I'm coming by later, okay? You guys need to talk now."
She slipped past him with quick steps, and Neal only closed his door when he made sure Belle had gotten into her own apartment without further witnesses.
"I assume you have questions," his father said from behind him.
Having missed his approach, Neal startled at the sound. "Christ, dad!" he said, a little louder than he intended. He had a right to be upset, Neal thought; he had gotten quite the scare before he found Belle. The stricken expression on his father's face made him realize that he was assuming the worst. "You weren't answering when I called. I thought you were in trouble!"
His father obviously had not considered that. "Oh, Neal. I'm so sorry. I just... we got carried away... ah." He cut himself off at that, something for which Neal thanked his lucky stars. "I'm sorry," he repeated with more feeling.
Neal sighed. "Yeah, well. So am I." He winced at his own words. "I didn't mean it like that," he hurried to explain. "I mean, you... Belle." He shook his head, still trying to understand. "I'm a little shell-shocked," he admitted.
It was the truth. Belle? And his dad? His thoughts kept circling around those two questions. He had known the women his father usually attracted, and he had caught a glimpse of a few of Belle's dates. It had never crossed his mind that the two of them would... would...
Thankfully his father cut in with a chuckle. "I know the feeling," he told Neal, the corners of his mouth lifted in a smile Neal couldn't remember seeing. "Belle is not what I expected." His voice softened, and his eyes brightened in such a way that Neal knew he was thinking of something very nice. "And I'm glad."
Neal still had no idea how this had come to be, or how (or even whether) it had a future. But his father looked content, and after having thought he had lost him, Neal had to smile. "I'm glad too, Papa. But a little more warning in the future, please?"
His father boomed in laughter, and Neal quickly followed suit.