Chapter 1: Day 1
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
The deck below him is rocking at an almost alarming speed, but the bracing which Gold requires to remain on his feet is mostly of a mental kind. He's as prepared as he can possibly be, has spent more than a year of his life and a considerable part of his fortune in getting ready for this very moment.
But now that he's actually here at last, now that he is finally getting the chance he has been craving all this time, the former businessman is all but frozen in a terror of a kind he so often hoped never to experience again. Holding on yet tighter to the railing of the ship, he tries for all he is worth not to let the mounting nausea get to him.
He tenses further when the helicopter transporting Jeff Probst nears the ship. The game Gold both dreads and so fiercely anticipates really is about to start. Instinctively closing his eyes against the violent movement of air and water, he clings to his calmness as best he can.
For just a moment, he mentally steps back in time, to those long-lost evenings which started the events that ultimately led to this precipice. During a few seconds, Gold can almost feel the comfort of his luxurious penthouse and, much more importantly, the presence of his young son as they got settled for their favorite time of the week: Survivor night.
It may have been just a television show then, except that it meant so much more than that. There weren't many things he enjoyed in life, either then or now, but even in those days, the hour in which Neal and he watched the survival show together was the highlight of his week.
Jeff steps out of the helicopter, beginning his narration near immediately. Almost desperately holding onto the past, onto the hopes that it gives him, Gold closes his eyes again to linger on it for just a little longer—looking for strength in the only place where he might find it.
... twenty Americans from all walks of life...
His son and he disagreed about everything back in the day, although it would be several more years before their quarrels got so bad that Neal made his way out of his life for good. For many long years, Gold thought back on their weekly Survivor nights as some of the few good moments they had actually shared. They might have enjoyed the show for whole different reasons, but at least they both liked watching it together.
... the adventure of a lifetime...
Only much, much later, when his hope of reuniting with his boy was all but gone entirely, did it begin to dawn on the former real estate mogul that this might in fact be the key back into his son's life. Perhaps Neal still watched the show which he had obsessed over as a child and, no matter how unlikely this was, Gold might be able to transform himself into the rare type of honest and fair contestant which his son had so strongly admired, at least at one point of his life.
... for the title of Sole Survivor and a million dollar price.
No matter how much he initially revolted—and cowered—at the mere notion, playing the kind of Survivor game which might repair at least some of the trust and affection of the son he lost all those years ago has become the one and only purpose of his life.
The ache of Neal's absence only growing stronger as Gold gets older, eventually the one and only right course seemed to be the very one he has taken in the past year: sell almost all of his belongings and retreat to a private island to prepare for what will doubtlessly be the greatest challenge of his life—physically, mentally and most of all emotionally.
… thirty-nine days, twenty people, one Survivor!
So here he is, as ready as he can be... and at the same time, not ready at all. Gold is confident that he has made any and all possible preparations—and yet that there are countless things he can't foresee until it's too late. He may have come here to show his son that he is not a coward, but he might as well be revealed as one before he has even reached the island where, ideally, he'll be spending the thirty-nine coming days.
To his shock, Gold realizes that he has spent so much time imagining his son's potential pride and approval that he almost missed Jeff's signal of the first—and thankfully predictable—part of the game. Standing on a ship battling the rough waves, surrounded by large quantities of survival-related items, he looks around discreetly, hoping that none of the other contestants are aware of his absent-mindedness.
Thoroughly grateful that he made a mental inventory and priority list of all available items as soon as he and the others stepped aboard the ship, he heads for the nearest supply he knows will be of particular value for his tribe in the thirty-nine coming days... only to be shoved to the ground before he can pick up the cans of beans.
Gold cries out in shock as he falls onto the rough planks of the deck. For just a moment, he thinks the waves have somehow rocked him off his feet... only to be greeted, when he looks up, by the cruel smile of a dark-haired and blue-eyed man. He doesn't need to check the color of the other man's buff to know that he must be on the other team.
"Let me take that for you, old man," his opponent laughs, grasping the cans which Gold himself is still reaching for before hurrying off.
Tears of humiliation and shock spring to his eyes as he struggles to get back on his feet, a challenge indeed between the rough sea and his bad ankle—which, despite a customized brace and many hours of intensive physiotherapy, still isn't as strong as he'd like it to be yet.
Before he can make an absolute fool of himself and lose his nerve without having even set foot on the island where he fully intends to outplay, outlast and outwit all other players for as long as he can, assistance yet more unexpected than the previous attack arrives.
Gold tenses when he feels hands on him again. But unlike the previous pair, these are strangely gentle, helping him to get up again.
"Are you all right?!" inquires a female voice with a distant Australian accent.
"I'm fine," he blurts out instinctively, looking up to see who has come to his aid.
Despite the game, despite everything, he stills when he lays eyes on the woman assisting him. He clearly hasn't seen her before among the crowd of the other contestants, for he surely would have remembered her, with her blue eyes, bright with excitement and kindness—the most stunning eyes he has ever seen.
"I'm glad," she smiles.
"Thank you," he brings out, realizing that she's still holding on to him, keeping him steady.
Time slowing down as if nothing about the others' frantic scurry for supplies were nearly as important as this chance meeting, Gold can't help but be overwhelmed by gratitude when he notices that the color of her buff is the same as his own, indicating that they'll be on the same side for the time being... that there'll be at least a single person he might get along with in his team.
"You were going for the cans?" she asks, gesturing at the now empty crate he was heading for before being forced to the ground.
He nods shortly, following her gaze only to notice that said items are long gone.
"I had the same idea. There is another crate on the back of the boat, but with more cans than I can carry. Maybe you could..."
He nods, understanding her before she has finished speaking—although it's a different matter entirely to comprehend her actions when he realizes that she must have dropped the highly valuable cans in order to help him get back to his feet.
Nodding at her in a way that will hopefully demonstrate his gratefulness, he takes half of the cans—grabbing a few pieces of fruit while he's at it—and heads towards the raft in which their team has already collected a rather impressive amount of supplies.
Reminding himself that they only have two minutes to gather materials before every contestant must move onto the rafts which will help them get to their islands, Gold forces the encounter with the dark-haired man to the back of his mind—at least for now. Good intentions or not, he has very unpleasant plans for the bully, the thick fog of white-hot rage momentarily overcoming him.
He calms down again, however, when the kind woman with the blue eyes gestures at a wooden cage with a live chicken, her expression questioning. He realizes that she's yet smaller than himself, the cage too large for either of them to carry on their own. But together...
"Let's do it," he says, strangely encouraged.
The cage is inconvenient to transport to say the least, and he knows only too well that the potential source of eggs and meat will probably turn out to cost more energy than that it will bring advantages, but most of the items he had singled out in his mind's eye just a few moments ago are already taken by the other players.
Once they have added the cage containing the chicken to the pile on their raft, he instinctively follows her again as they continue their quest to gather as many useful supplies for their tribe as possible before starting the doubtlessly long and exhausting raft trip to the island.
Gold may have been fully intending to spend the next thirty-nine days in the game all along—to get all the way to the end—but that need has become yet stronger now that he has met this incredible woman.
Chapter 2: Day 2
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
Gold abruptly jolts awake, panic overwhelming him for a fraction of a second before he regains awareness of his surroundings. He is mainly in the same state as he was yesterday night, when he tried to go to sleep after the exhausting trek to the island and the attempts to build a shelter on the beach.
Then again, when he carefully flexes his limbs, he finds out that he isn't only hungry, cold, sore and very thirsty, but that he appears to have been bitten by bugs throughout the night as well. Despite the thick but comfortable jeans that hide the brace on his ankle and the marred skin underneath, the insects have managed to get underneath the fabric.
It's hardly anything new. In preparation for this desperate attempt to get his son back into his life, Gold has sought to get used to this by sleeping in a variety of uncomfortable ways on his private island. Besides, long before that, he was way too familiar with cold and hunger to let them bother him now that he can technically escape them at any moment, if he gives up his position in the game.
Still, waking like this is hardly pleasant, and the insects here weren't nearly as aggressive as those on his own island. But the mere thought of Neal is more than enough to make him accept the situation and ignore the physical discomfort to the best of his abilities.
Rather than sitting up and trying to do something about the itching feeling which comes along with wakefulness, Gold half-opens his eyes and takes in the situation around him. It's early, the sun up but its light still dim, and he appears to be the only one awake. His tribe mates are lying here and there on the beach, near their far from completed shelter.
Before he can wonder how he might take advantage of this unobserved state—doubtlessly there's an immunity idol hidden not far away—he notices that there are only eight other people on the beach… that the only one of them he might actually like to see is nowhere in sight.
As if she had heard his thoughts and sensed his accompanying stab of worry, the woman who, for some reason, has been kind to him from the moment she saw him shoved to the ground, emerges from the bushes adjoining the beach.
Belle. A name as lovely as the woman herself, even in a game as cutthroat as this one. Australian-born, now living in Maine. A librarian, thirty-one years old.
She lingers before stepping back onto the sand, surveying their tribe mates in the same fashion as he just did himself. Belatedly realizing that his open eyes are betraying his state of wakefulness, Gold nods at her in acknowledgment of her presence. For some reason, she beams at him and heads his way.
"Mind if I join you?" she whispers, gesturing at the empty sand next to him.
Probably too eagerly, he nods, very much looking forward to having his first private conversation with her—especially since they didn't get a chance to properly talk yesterday after arriving on the island. He sits up and marvels at the ease with which she crouches and settles next to him, in a way only his son once used to do.
"Did you get any sleep?" he asks, the genuine question coming with less difficulty than he had expected after all those years.
"I barely slept at all. What about you?"
"We should have finished the shelter yesterday."
"Yes. But you know what it's like, with ten people who all have their own ideas about how its construction should be accomplished… resulting in no accomplishments at all."
"Exactly. I had expected it would be bad, but the sheer indecision of this tribe…"
He nods in agreement. It didn't come as a surprise to him that no one was willing to take the lead, the others probably knowing as well as he did that the supposed leaders get voted off almost sooner than they can make a first mistake. But to get through some kind of democratic process about each and every choice they have to make… it isn't working at all so far, and he doesn't imagine it'll get better any time soon.
"So much for being Heroes, huh?" Belle sighs.
"Indeed," he mutters, still bewildered by the fact that he somehow got assigned to a team which, according to their tribe flag, solely consists of 'Heroes'. Whatever that means exactly. He certainly isn't one of them; a purposeful misplacement by the production crew, no doubt, which doesn't bode well for his near future. "You know that we can't say anything about that, don't you?"
"I know," she sighs. "No matter how chaotic and pointless things get, the one who makes a point of trying to change that is the one who gets voted off. It plays out exactly like that time and time again, in basically every season. I doubt us so-called Heroes will be an exception to that."
"So do I," he replies, realizing that she, just like him, doubtlessly watched at least once every single episode that has been produced so far in preparation of her own game. It makes her a threat to him, which he realizes only too well, but that changes nothing about his quickly growing fondness for her. "Thank you very much for yesterday, by the way. On the boat. Your help was very much appreciated."
"You're welcome. It was nothing, though."
"I beg to differ, Belle. I think what you did was very admirable."
"I would have done it whether you were on my tribe or not. I saw that guy shove you down… that's no way to treat each other, game or not. If we're the Heroes… well, the other tribe is probably the Villains. It seems to me that he very much belongs there."
Gold nods again, dreading the prospect of competing against people like that, let alone being on the same tribe as them. In real life, he would crush people like that cruel bully, but this obviously isn't anywhere near real life. Even if he did have his power here, he couldn't use it… at least not without alienating yet further the son he's actually trying to reach in the first place.
"At least Gaston is doing well. She laid an egg this morning!"
"Gaston?" he echoes, not understanding.
"The chicken, I mean," she clarifies, some color returning to her pale cheeks. "Since I was chosen to look after the chicken we took from the boat, I… well, I know not to get attached to her since we're probably going to eat her. I don't want to be the one creating an argument and getting voted off because of a chicken. So I named her after my ex fiancé."
"Your ex fiancé?" Gold repeats again, still failing to see the logic in this.
"My ex, yeah. Who isn't a female, unlike the chicken, I now realize. Never mind that. I wanted to give the chicken a name, that only seems right since I'm the one looking after her, but I don't want to get too attached to her. So I gave her the name of the person I dislike the most. I dumped Gaston right before I traveled here. I highly doubt those thirty-nine days will be enough to get it into his thick skull that I'm really not interested in him, but one can hope, right?"
"One can hope," he agrees, inwardly wondering what a fool this Gaston must be not to get along with the kind-hearted and easy-going woman sitting next to him.
"Then again, there's no point yet in wondering when we might eat Gaston… it's not like we have any fire to cook either her or the egg she laid. I did everything I could to try and get a fire started yesterday, but as you could see, I didn't actually succeed. Who knows how long it'll take before we might win fire in a challenge."
Gold lowers his gaze, heat racing to his cheeks.
"You can make fire, even without flint, can't you Gold?" she gasps, looking at him in wholly undeserved admiration rather than anger or contempt. "But you're waiting for the moment when you figure that doing it for the first time will be most appreciated."
"I… I can't deny that," he mutters, lowering his head and wondering with not nearly as much urgency as he should how this is possible, what mistake he made to unknowingly give this away. "It's just that… there isn't all that much I can bring to this tribe, physically speaking. I've watched enough episodes of Survivor to know what happens to most of the contestants over the age of thirty-five in the first week."
"You're hardly old," she says with mesmerizing matter-of-factness and persuasion. "There's a lot you can bring to this tribe; I've already seen you do it. I can tell you know a lot about surviving in the wild, and I think you're very smart and strategic. Given the way you carried all that wood yesterday, I'd say you're stronger than you look. Maybe it will work in your favor that you don't appear to be an obvious physical threat, simply because you'd be perceived as too strong a player to be allowed to stay here."
She looks meaningfully at his ankle, as if the jeans covering the mangled bone and skin weren't there at all—having somehow sensed exactly the cause of the limp he can't entirely conceal, no matter how much he tries.
But rather than seeming to feel any sense of victory that she has figured him out like this, Belle merely smiles at him, as gentle as she has been the whole time. Gold can't help but tentatively smile back. It appears that this game is causing him to behave foolishly as well, if in a whole different way than what he usually sees on the show.
Here he is, on day two of Survivor, chatting to a woman he barely knows at all and who can somehow read him like an open book, giving away such an important part of his strategy. Right now, he can't even bring himself to care.
"Good for you, waiting with that fire. I'd say you can go on for at least half a day more. It won't exactly be comfortable, but we'll survive."
He falters, suddenly indecisive as he looks at her. Her eyes are alert with the excitement of the game, but her skin is unhealthily pale and her stomach grumbles loudly at that precise moment, as if to underscore their condition. It vividly reminds him that they all have had nothing to drink and barely anything to eat since they got here yesterday.
It was his plan indeed to wait half a day more before making the fire which will allow them to finally boil water, making it safe to drink, and prepare the rice and beans they brought from the boat, but looking at Belle, he suddenly doesn't quite know whether he wants to wait that long.
He knows he can deal with the physical impact of such withdrawal of food, water and sleep—better than most, in fact. But now that he is here, talking to someone he genuinely doesn't want to be affected so negatively, against all odds, he realizes that this isn't as straight-forward as he planned after all.
Besides, it might actually be nice to sit next to Belle in front of a warm and cozy fire.
"People are starting to wake," she mutters, gesturing at their other team members, lying some distance from them, but still very much within hearing range. "I'll go back to my spot and pretend I'm just waking up as well."
"Me too," he replies softly, very much aware that their simply being seen talking to each other like this, building a somewhat close in-game relationship already, would be more than enough to get either one of them voted off.
Lying back down and closing his eyes, he thinks back on the fire he could make right now, if he wanted to. Strategically, it would be better to wait in order to maximize the goodwill he will receive for "finally" figuring out how to start a fire without flint, but emotionally speaking…
Pretending to be waking only then, he is greeted by David, getting up a few dozen feet away from him. The other man isn't nearly as pleasant as Belle, but Gold still finds himself liking him despite himself. After the struggle to get back on his particularly useless legs, his decision regarding the fire is made when the younger man offers a hand to help him up.
Bewildered by the apparently genuine altruism bestowed on him so far by his tribe mates in this game, Gold decides to get a fire going as soon as everyone is awake.
Chapter 3: Day 3
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
Any relief Gold may have felt when the second night on the island turned out to be better than the first is gone as he approaches the very first challenge his team will have to carry out. He may feel quite good physically, but there might as well be a stone in his stomach rather than fruit and rice when he realizes what's about to come.
The Heroes gather on their designated mat in front of Jeff, and the memories of the not-entirely uncomfortable shelter which was built yesterday are replaced by an increasingly familiar sense of dread as he studies the parcours which has been built on both the beach and the sea in front of them.
Indeed, even Belle's bright smile when he got the fire started using nothing but natural materials—actually making him feel like… well, like a hero—is forgotten when the opposing tribe arrives, proudly carrying a flag which indeed bears the tribe name "Villains". The dark-haired man who pushed him down on the ship's deck during the very first minute of the game is right in front, smirking unpleasantly as he lays eyes on his older opponent.
Gold keeps his face as neutral as he can, finding some strange sense of comfort in Belle's presence right at his side. Still, even her calmness and warmth don't soothe him when he refocuses his attention on the doubtlessly demanding—and potentially humiliating—obstacle course which they'll obviously have to conquer soon.
"Welcome to your first immunity challenge," Jeff announces.
As if all of this wasn't nerve-wracking enough yet, it turns out that the two tribes will compete for immunity rather than reward. Whereas Gold wouldn't be all that upset if they were to lose a reward, no matter how much it would improve their life in camp on the island, losing an immunity challenge and thus risking to be voted off is not an option, especially not this early in the game.
He listens carefully while the host explains the purpose and rules of the course, slightly more at ease when it turns out to contain aspects that are exactly similar to what he trained for. The challenge itself may be yet bigger than he anticipated, but at least some parts of it require no more than swimming—an activity he has grown to excel at in the past year.
"... I'll give you a minute to strategize," Jeff concludes, signaling that the moment has come for them to decide who is going to participate in which particular part of the challenge.
"I'd like to swim," Gold tells his tribe mates as soon as they have come to stand in a circle.
"Are you sure?" David asks in response, glancing meaningfully at his bad leg. "Wouldn't you rather do the puzzle at the end of the challenge?"
"Actually, I would love to do that puzzle," Belle chimes in, raising her hand.
Gold doesn't even glance at her in response, but he inwardly vows to thank her later, in private. She has doubtlessly picked up on his eagerness to prove himself physically at the first chance he gets, showing his tribe mates what he's worth before they let his age and limp bias their opinion of him for the worse.
"If you're absolutely sure..." David says, clearly torn between the fears of accidentally offending him and agreeing out of politeness to something which could cost them their much-needed victory.
"I am sure," Gold says, willing the younger man to understand.
"So am I," Belle adds.
David nods in acceptance and Gold is pleased to see that no one else challenges his preference, although he strongly suspects that quite a few of the teammates are only keeping their mouth shut out of eagerness to see him fail and have arguments for someone other than themselves to be voted off.
It's agreed as well that Belle will be given the crucial task of doing the puzzle, and the remaining places are distributed among the team members quickly afterwards. Then there's nothing else to do but head for their positions on the obstacle course and wait for Jeff to start the challenge.
"Survivors ready... go!"
David is the first to dive into the water, retrieving a bag of puzzle pieces from beneath its surface before swimming as quickly as possible to the next platform, where the bags are collected. Keeping a close eye on the proceedings within both his own tribe and the other, Gold only feels his nerves increase when they don't gain any distance on the Villains.
Gold is the fifth and last swimmer and by the time it's his turn to retrieve the final bag of puzzle pieces from the depths of the sea, the Villains have about a thirty-second lead on them. Very much aware of his tribe cheering him on with not entirely convinced voices, he dives into the water with more grace than he would have thought himself capable of until a few months ago.
Rather than coming up for air before diving down to untie the bag, he immediately swims to the bottom of the sea, despite knowing that his bag is at the deepest location and thus the most difficult to retrieve. Once, the increasing pressure of the surrounding water would have petrified him, but now he really feels not unlike a fish under its surface.
He has spend so much time practicing for this that it's no effort at all to untie the bag containing the puzzle pieces before swimming diagonally back up. He resurfaces about halfway between the platform he just dove off and the one he's heading for. The cheers of his teammates are stronger now, more convinced, and he swims yet faster at the discovery that he has regained at least some ground on the opponents.
His jeans are awfully heavy in the water, his loose shirt rather restrictive and slowing him down as well, but he reminds himself that he'd be gone at the very first tribal council if his tribe mates were to see how damaged and scrawny his body actually is, even after almost an entire year of personalized and intensive physiotherapy and additional training.
The mere thought of Neal gives him the strength to continue swimming even when his lungs begin to burn and his limbs become heavy. It's almost as encouraging to hear Belle's accented voice in the crowd, seemingly cheering him on even more enthusiastically than anyone else.
David all but single-handedly hauls him out of the water when he reaches the second platform, where the others are already waiting with the currently collected puzzle bags.
Pushing away his stab of jealousy for the younger man's strength, Gold is simply pleased to find that not only has he made up for lost time, but they're actually slightly ahead of the Villains now. He and the four other swimmers remaining on the platform, their task done for this challenge, they watch four other members of the team assemble a wooden boat and get into it after collecting the five bags of puzzle pieces.
By the time the four head back into the ocean to complete the course which is set for them, he is thrilled to see that the Villains aren't gaining on them... and are in fact losing more time by assembling the boat in a considerably more chaotic way than the Heroes just did. Still, he knows very well that it isn't over until it's over... and that the dark-haired female puzzle-solver, standing next to Belle on the end of the course, looks very much like a force to be reckoned with.
The Villains do make up for some of their lateness as they row their way to the puzzle-solver on the next platform, but the Heroes' boat gets to its destination first. Increasingly aware that Belle's fate in the game currently lies almost solely on whether she'll make the puzzle more quickly than her opponent, he finds himself encouraging her considerably more loudly than he otherwise would have done, for appearances' sake.
He doesn't believe all that much in the effect of such an over-the-top display of encouragement, especially now that their energy is so scarce to begin with. But when Belle glances at him for a second or so while opening her bags of puzzle pieces, smiling as she does, he finds himself rather abruptly changing his opinion on the matter.
Indeed, he is barely aware that he is now shouting himself hoarse to cheer her on, in a way that goes beyond his desire to win this challenge. He can't see Belle and her progress nearly as well as he'd like from where he has to stay for the remainder of the challenge, but he can tell that she freezes when she has laid out all the pieces in front of her, as if startled by the complexity of the puzzle.
"Come on Belle, you can do this!" he yells, despite having no such evidence but his conviction that she'd be able to do the puzzle in no time at all if there weren't such pressure on her shoulders.
Her opponent doesn't have such qualms, almost immediately fitting a few pieces together and thus getting ahead of Belle. The latter almost visibly collects herself, briefly closing her eyes and taking a few breaths before returning her attention to her task as if seeing it for the first time.
Gold can almost see the moment when she figures the puzzle out and starts putting it together at lightning speed. Her opponent is the one struggling now, removing pieces rather than adding them, allowing Belle to catch up and get ahead of her within the span of a minute.
Working yet faster as the puzzle starts to come together, she hits the final piece home in hardly any time at all. She waves to get Jeff's attention, needing him to confirm that she did the task correctly for their victory to become official.
Gold is all but holding his breath as the host looks critically over the puzzle, his face mirroring the look of anxiety on her own. It remains that way when Jeff raises his arms to signal that they have indeed won the challenge and joy he hasn't known in a long, long time spreads all the way through him.
"The Heroes win immunity!" the showrunner exclaims, gesturing for both tribes to come over to the last platform.
Smiling for the first time in ages, Gold dives into the water to gather with the rest of the team, swimming almost yet faster than he did during the challenge now that he gets to congratulate Belle. By the time he emerges from the water, far ahead of any of the others of either tribe, she's being heralded like a true hero by the rowers who were still at her side.
He hesitates when approaching her, especially when realizing that he wants to hug her like the other tribe members are currently doing… if only because he's currently soaking wet, never mind the fact that he's an almost globally loathed cripple two decades her senior.
But as soon as she spots him, Belle lets go of their teammate Ruby and rushes towards him instead. Before he can wonder whether she would be fine with an embrace from him, she has thrown her arms around his shoulders and pressed herself against him of her own accord.
Belatedly realizing that she's the first person he's held in his arms for more than fifteen years, that no one but his son has ever hugged him like this in return, Gold can only cling to her for a few seconds, savoring the nearness of someone he somehow actually enjoys being this close to.
"You were amazing," he manages to bring out eventually, mesmerized by her acceptance of him, but very much aware that he'd no doubt spook her by holding her so tightly without saying a word.
"So were you," she simply replies, to his delight not letting go of him, hugging him longer than anyone else.
He is the one to break away eventually, more because he doesn't want to go overboard and make her uncomfortable after all than out of fear that members of either their own or the other tribe will pick up on his growing fondness for her.
She's still beaming at him as she withdraws her arms from him as well. This combining with the realization that they've won and that both of them will spend at least a few more days on the island, euphoria unlike anything he has ever experienced washes over him.
This time, it has nothing whatsoever to do with wealth or power. His son would be proud of him, perhaps even to the extent that he'd consider a reconciliation with his estranged father. But even if that weren't the case, even if Neal never knew about any of this, the fact that he is conquering his fears and has met someone as wonderful as Belle is, to Gold, almost just as good.
Chapter 4: Day 4
Between winning the first immunity challenge and the development of an increasingly adequate shelter, life at the island is not all that unpleasant for Gold. He's still in physical discomfort more often than not, but the emotional efforts aren't nearly as demanding as he feared them to be so far.
All in all, most people on his team are generally not all that difficult to get along with. After his good performance in the immunity challenge and his well-received input at camp, he'd go as far as to think that they don't merely tolerate him among them for the time being, but there's some actual respect and appreciation growing—a feeling which is, unexpectedly, mutual.
Indeed, David is the closest he's had to a male friend all his life, and he gets along rather well with Emma as well. And as if that isn't unlikely in its own right, then there's Belle. He's heard plenty of times that being on the show will change you as a person, has seen people do the most ridiculous things on each and every season, but his relationship with the kind librarian is quickly becoming the most surreal aspect of his entire existence.
It isn't as if he has ever talked to her for longer for fifteen minutes, or has known her longer than a grand total of four days. He has had no other physical contact with her than her gentle hands on his arms right when he met her or the wonderful hug they shared yesterday.
Gold can't explain it, can't begin to comprehend it, but there's something about her which makes him trust her implicitly. Never mind that they are both participating in a contest which, at the end of the day, very heavily relies on betraying trust.
"Is there anyone who would like to go explore the island today?" Belle asks as the entire team is gathered around the still nicely burning fire that morning. "The weather is good, and we might find food to add to our supplies."
"I'd like to go," Gold replies, mostly managing not to sound as eager as he actually feels at the prospect of getting away from camp with Belle.
"Me too," Emma says.
"I'd love to go, but I'd rather continue working on the shelter," David says, gesturing at the ever improving structure behind them. "The roof isn't nearly as good as it should be. It's going to rain sooner or later, and I'd like to stay dry by then."
"I don't see the point of going anywhere," Ashley says from her position, still inside the shelter. "There's a perfectly good beach right here and we've still got plenty of rice and beans."
"There's not nearly enough rice and beans to last us all the way to the merge," Belle says neutrally.
Although there's nothing about her which actually implies the fact, Gold has the strong suspicion that she has to suppress an eyeroll—like himself, for that matter. It's beyond him why someone like Ashley has chosen to come here, as he can't imagine that she didn't know in advance that the show isn't the vacation she clearly would like it to be.
"I suggest that everyone who'd like to go explore the island and look for food does so today," David suggests, ever so diplomatic. "The shelter is mostly done, there's fire and there's no challenge yet. If there's ever a good day to go looking for food, it's now."
Once they have eaten their meager breakfast of coconut and rice, it's decided that Belle, Emma, Ruby and Gold will indeed head out into the jungle beyond the beach to look for additional food supplies. The rest of the men stay behind to continue working on the shelter, and Ashley... well.
Mentally reviewing everything he has been taught about edible plants and roots in preparation for exactly such a chance, he finds himself increasingly distracted by Belle. Emma, machete in hand, and Ruby are making their way through the dense growth quicker than the two less tall people behind them, that for which Gold is grateful.
Distracting or not, it's lovely to be with her like this. Her face is increasingly gaunt, just like his own no doubt, but her expression is bright with excitement as they explore the island like this for the first time. It's as if each and every new flower or insect they spot further increased her mood. Watching the wonder and delight written all over her face is a lot more pleasant than scanning their surroundings for any potential source of food.
"It's amazing, isn't it?" she sighs happily, looking at him. He can't help but be pleased that she hasn't forgotten about him, despite the tropical landscape around them. "Being here, it's like... it's like stepping into a book and experiencing a story for yourself. It's like a dream come true."
"Have you always wanted to be on Survivor?"
It's one of those questions he has had in the back of his head for months, to help him engage in small talk so he can fit in better with the group. But now that he's asking Belle, he finds himself genuinely interested in the answer.
"Not really, no. I didn't even watch the show until recently. I'm more of a reader than a watcher of television shows. But I do love adventure, and in a lot of ways, this is the ultimate adventure. I wanted to get away from my fiancé, and... well, it was a spur of the moment decision. The cash prices don't hurt, either."
"Indeed," he remarks, sensing that there's more to the story. He's curious about what she's not telling him, not yet at least, but he knows better than to push for details.
"What about you?"
"It's a bit of a cliché, I'm afraid. I wouldn't necessarily call it a midlife crisis, but..."
He trails off meaningfully, letting her draw her own conclusions. Like her, he isn't ready to tell the true reason for his stay here yet, and he's grateful when she doesn't ask any more questions regarding this subject either.
"You were quite impressive yesterday," she remarks as they continue their path along the way the two taller women have created. "I've rarely seen anyone swim so fast on this show. You aren't a professional athlete, are you?!"
"I'm not, no, not at all," he responds, chuckling and thoroughly flattered that the thought even occurred to her. "Walking has been a bit of a challenge for quite some time now, so I figured that if I wanted to stand any chance here, I might as well at least be able to move quickly in the water. Speaking of which, thanks for encouraging the others to pick me as a swimmer in our first challenge. I appreciate that very much. And congratulations again with your performance on the puzzle. You were tremendous."
"Wow, thanks," she says, her cheeks coloring a little—just like his own, he realizes. Both receiving and giving compliments isn't nearly as easy as it ought to be. "I'm just relieved I could solve that puzzle. It's not like it was actually hard. I practiced much more difficult ones at home. But actually being there, knowing that the outcome of the challenge entirely depends on you... it was overwhelming. It almost got the better of me."
"I'm glad it didn't. Although I have the feeling that you'd do very well in physical challenges as well."
"I hope so. I'm hardly an athlete, but I did my best to at least get in better shape before coming here. But since I'm already known as a bookworm, even without a single book in sight, I'm happily letting others focus on that for now."
"You're flying under the radar," he concludes.
"For now, yes. Not unlike you."
"Guilty as charged," he murmurs, wondering how on earth he can be so utterly relaxed, especially when discussing tactics so openly with the woman who is potentially—even probably—the most threatening to his game play.
"So, have you always been such a good swimmer?" she asks, her attention now solely on him rather than their surroundings.
"Let's just say that I had some practice."
No matter how much he has grown to trust her, there's no way she can find out about the lengths he went to prepare for this game, at a financial cost which goes beyond anything he could ever earn here, even if he somehow actually wins.
"Good for you. I'd have loved to do the same, but… well, I couldn't really afford to do anything beyond read as much as possible about surviving like this in the library I work at, watch a lot of Survivor and survival-related videos on the Internet, and borrow all kinds of puzzles from friends. So I theoretically know how to build a fire without flint, but I've never actually done it and I couldn't manage it when I tried it here."
"You almost got it right, though," he says, recalling the way she almost got the fire started on the very first day, coming very close to ruining his own strategy in the process. "It takes practice, that's all. It took me quite some time to get it right."
"Yeah, I realized that I had almost succeeded myself when I saw you do it."
"I'm sorry for that," he says, feeling something unfamiliar at the renewed realization that he let her struggle with the fire and was actually grateful when she didn't succeed, so he'd be able to take all the credit for it later on. If this highly unpleasant feeling is guilt, he doesn't ever want to experience it again… never mind that he's only in the first stage of a game which is all about betrayal and deceit. "I… I am. I'll make it up to you. I can help you make fire next time, if you like?"
"I'd love that. I understand why you didn't help me with the fire before. Really, in a game like this, it's nothing. Although I must say that I'd love for you to be on my side from now on."
She glances at him sideways from beneath her unruly curls and he nods eagerly, probably much more so than he should, at the implicit invitation. It has always been his aim to align himself with strong and reliable players, but he'd never thought that he'd be able to do so this soon and easily, let alone with someone he is already so fond of.
The terrain of the jungle becomes increasingly rough when they continue their walk. Emma and Ruby are long out of sight, and the way he and Belle offer each other their hands and support to get past obstacles is somehow as natural as the conversations they've had so far.
"I reckon you can make fire quickly with a flint too?" she asks, his palm still in hers from when she helped him get down a tricky part of the path. "More quickly than you did so on the second day?"
He nods in confirmation, marveling at how easy it turns out to be to touch her like this as well. There's no doubt in his mind that she's the one and only person, here or anywhere else, with whom he can have such a relationship.
"If you don't mind, I'd be very grateful if you taught me to make fire that way, too. After all, if it ever comes to a fire challenge, we'll in all likelihood be allowed to use a flint."
"It'd be my pleasure," he says, not caring that it's a huge potential disadvantage to teach a fellow contestant his own tricks.
"At least my father was a florist and I've worked in his shop half my life, so I do know quite a lot about..."
His thoughts about how fortunate he is, in the sense that he could afford to pour all his time and considerable resources into his preparations for the show, are halted when she stills and points at several stems sprouting from the ground.
He may have studied those exact stems in great detail in the past months, but he would have walked right past them if it hadn't been for Belle, as they are surrounded by a seemingly infinite amount of other plants.
"Ruby, Emma!" she cries out into the jungle. "We've found something to eat."
Before the two women return to help them get the cassava out of the ground, Belle and he have already begun to pull at the stems, so that there can be no doubt that they found the additional food source. It's a triumph in its own right, but Gold is barely aware of what he's doing as he thinks of a way to help her learn to make fire.
Chapter 5: Day 5
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
It's the moment Gold has been waiting for since the minute he reached the island. The Heroes have won their first reward challenge and everybody is off doing their own thing, relaxing a bit to celebrate their victory and the presence of the mostly adequate camp they have built in the past few days.
Although there has been no hint yet of the presence of a hidden immunity idol somewhere on the island, there's no doubt that it's somewhere out there—that it will be found if only it is looked for. Right now, when no one is paying much attention to each other in the aftermath of another demanding challenge, would be the ideal time to go on an idol hunt.
But there's something else he'd like to do, something he promised one day ago. The fact that they just won a firemaking kit—never mind that they already have fire; at least the Villains won't have it—seals his decision for him.
Making certain that no one is watching him, not even Gaston the still uneaten chicken, Gold picks up the flint, a machete and some coconut husk from the kit, shoving them inside the pockets of his jeans. He may be the only man on the island who doesn't spend the majority of his time walking around in his swimming trunks—even refusing to wash in the sea along with the others, which has obviously raised quite a few eyebrows—but at least it allows him to carry small items around unnoticed.
Looking for Belle, he finds her lying on the beach next to Ruby. Both of them are quite some distance away from Ashley, who is also sunbathing, although he has the feeling that Belle isn't primarily there for the sunlight. He doesn't know how to approach them without rousing any suspicion, so it's a relief when she seems to sense him nearing them and gets up of her own accord.
"I'm going to get some water and take a walk," Belle announces, getting little more than a noncommittal sound from Ruby in return.
Gold turns around, wandering over the beach without an apparent destination in mind before heading into the jungle, to a small clearing the two of them discovered during their exploration of the island the previous day. He doesn't need to look behind him to know that Belle is following, having picked up on his meaning without any word being said.
He presents the flint and the coconut husk to her, his quest to find the hidden immunity idol entirely forgotten for now when she beams brightly at him in response.
"That's exactly what I was hoping for when we won that. Thanks for offering to teach me so soon."
"If you want to learn right now, that is. I'm aware you were otherwise occupied when I approached you."
"That's a nice way of saying 'women are always sunbathing on Survivor'," she says, the inquiring way she looks at him belying the sharpness of her words.
"I reckon you and Ruby have every right to take a break. You've both worked hard since the moment we got here. I… well, I can't say the same for Ashley. Still, everyone here is obviously free to do as they please."
"I hate to speak badly of anyone," she says, sitting down at his side. "But I also hate it when people come here without contributing anything at all. I've tried to give Ashley a hint, but… it's not that she doesn't get it, I think she doesn't want to get it."
"And making a point of it will lead to conflict, which increases the risk of being voted off yourself," he concludes.
"Exactly. Then again, it was nice to take a break. I'd rather take a walk over the beach, see more of the island and…"
"Find the hidden immunity idol?" he suggests, surprised by the mischievousness in his own voice, let alone the fact that he's implicitly discussing yet another part of his strategy with her.
"Not at all, why would you even think that?" she laughs, pretending offense. "Of course, if it just happened to be on my path I would probably pick it up, but to actually go looking for it… imagine the backlash!"
"Only if someone were to find out, of course. Which is exactly the point of looking for it on your own, when no one else is aware."
"Precisely. I don't dare look for it outside of camp yet, though. So when Ruby said…"
"You've already looked for it?! At camp? How..."
His question is far too eager, but she obviously dropped her guard as well, telling him this clearly accidentally.
"There's no point in denying it now, I suppose? I did, yes. Yesterday afternoon, when all of you were busy with the cassava."
"But we were at camp at that time."
"Well, you all had your backs towards me."
He already considers Belle the most dangerous of his competitors within this tribe, but this shows him that she's yet more cunning and daring than he already thought. He has been paying close attention to her, both because of the game and of his decidedly more personal interest in her, but he hadn't noticed at all that she was looking for the idol while he—and four others—were mere feet away.
"As I already gave away, I'm pretty certain that the idol is not at camp, unless it's buried very deep. I'd love to go looking for it again this afternoon, but it felt more productive to join Ruby when she said she was going to sunbathe for an hour or so. I'm trying to bond with her, she's nice enough, but…"
"You don't get along as well as you'd like?" he murmurs, expressing what he has experienced himself. Whereas his own trouble to truly connect with people doesn't surprise him at all, it's bewildering indeed that the same apparently goes for her.
"Yeah," she sighs. "I'm not really getting along with any of the women here yet and at this point, I don't think that will change. At least it was nice to rest for a little while and hopefully my skin could absorb some vitamin D from all that sunlight. Besides, I like to think that the two of us get along very well and that this relationship will be mutually beneficial for us both."
"I feel the same way," he says, thoroughly pleased that she appreciates their growing bond as much as he does himself. "I haven't… I haven't really connected with anyone either. Although that's hardly a surprise for me."
"I wouldn't say that. Aren't you getting along with David?"
"He… he likes me well enough, I suppose. He might even respect me. But he gets on much better with Emma and Mary Margaret."
"It's the same for me and Ruby. She's much closer to Archie and Jefferson. I like them too, but… well, you can tell they aren't really interested in actually playing the game, in being strategic. I'm quite certain I scared them off before even saying the word 'alliance'."
"It's their loss, not yours," he tries to console her, increasingly bewildered that someone as kind and lovely as her isn't immediately accepted by everyone she meets. He can sense her ambition to get far in the game as well, but that's hardly a crime; if anything, it's something to be admired for, as far as he's concerned. "They'll come back to you sooner or later. For all their talk of only voting for people who least deserve to be here, I don't see David, Mary Margaret and Emma voting for each other. That leaves the others only so many options if they don't want to be voted off one by one."
Only when her face falls regardless of his speech does Gold realize how keen he was on cheering her up, and how disappointing it is now that he appears not to have succeeded.
"What's… wrong?" he asks, to his consternation genuinely upset by her sadness.
"I… well, I had hoped… I don't have all that many friends in real life. I hardly have people around me at all, actually. People find me… odd. I figured that coming here… actually making an effort to fit in and not talk about books all the time… I hoped, I thought that people would like me more. But it turns out that they don't."
"It's… it's similar for me," he says, the remains of his black heart aching in reaction to her sorrow. "Although I didn't expect to fit in, no matter how hard I tried. I'm… I'm a difficult man to get along with."
"Well, you're doing a great job of proving yourself wrong," she says, reaching for him to rest her hand on his arm briefly. The gesture is casual, no doubt, but to Gold there's a world of meaning in the fact that she's voluntarily touching him like this in the first place. It shows him further how right it feels to be with her like this, to bare his feelings in a way he has never done before—in a way he didn't know he could. "Please recall that I very much like you, and that I'm glad we get along like this. I hope that feeling is mutual."
"It is, yes. It very much is."
"Let's make some fire?" she suggests with a smile, reminding him of the reason they're here in the first place.
"Let's do that, yes," he replies, suppressing the thought that he'd love to stay here with her, doing no more than chatting, for a much longer time.
"I'd love to."
"Do you want to start?"
"Yeah, how about I try to get the fire started first and you give suggestions if it doesn't work?"
He nods in approval, watching how she takes some of the dry twigs lying on the ground around them to build a small pyre. When that's done, she lays some of the coconut husk down on the ground and kneels in front of it, taking the flint in her left hand and the machete in her right. She's doing it exactly as he would himself.
"I always imagine I'm going to cut my fingers off doing this," she mutters while positioning the flint right above the husk. "I've seen contestants get hurt this way."
"You won't," he reassures her, "just make certain your fingers aren't in the way of the machete."
Frowning with concentration, Belle scrapes the machete over the flint. She does so too slowly, her efforts not resulting in a spark, let alone one which could reach and light the flammable husk. Not wanting to give any unwanted advice, he decides to remain quiet until she asks for suggestions, figuring that she'll probably figure this out herself.
Indeed, the second time she tries to get a spark, she moves the tools together more quickly and firmly. Still, nothing happens, but she clearly senses that she's on the right path, scraping the machete yet more forcefully over the flint. This time there is a tiny spark, which elicits a cheer from them, even though it goes out almost immediately.
She tries again, and again. Although the sparks are getting brighter and larger, she still doesn't move the machete in a way that would result in actual fire.
"What am I doing wrong?" she asks after a few minutes.
"You're doing almost everything right. Just try to move the machete over the entire length of the flint, really scraping downwards."
Belle makes another attempt and he moves closer to watch her progress, questioningly reaching for her wrist to improve her movement when there's still no sufficient spark. When she nods in agreement, he rests his fingers there, guiding her to change the angle a little and encourage her to move slightly slower.
"That's it," he comments when the next scrape results in the biggest spark so far.
Still, it's gone before it can light the coconut husks, and so are the ones that follow. The angle in which she holds the machete still isn't entirely optimal, but he can't change it further from where he is currently sitting.
"What is it?" she asks, sensing his hesitation.
"I know how you can get the proper spark, but I'd have to come closer to show you."
"That's fine," she simply says.
"A lot closer."
"As I said, that's fine." She smiles at him, as if there weren't any reason why she shouldn't want to be all but embraced by a man like him. "I can always tell you to back off if you're getting too close, right? Besides, I trust you."
For the first time, he's very much aware that she's wearing no more than a bright yellow bikini whereas he is fully dressed, and that there are a variety of reasons why she shouldn't want him anywhere near herself, let alone like this.
But she smiles again and, moving very slowly to give her plenty of opportunity to tell him to stop, Gold squats down behind her and places his arms around her until his hands are guiding both of hers, angling the flint downwards slightly more.
"On the count of three?" he suggests, not allowing himself to sense how warm she feels, how wonderfully solid as he—for all intents and purposes—embraces her like this from behind.
"Yes. One, two… three."
They move simultaneously, his hands slightly steering hers as she scrapes the machete over the flint again. This time, the sparks lands right on top of the husk before it is diminished, setting it aflame almost immediately.
"Yes!" Belle exclaims, bending forwards to blow air into the fragile flame and pull the husk against the pyre of twigs.
There's little more for him to do than take the tools from her to make more space and beam at her in pride and delight, now that she's started her first fire.
"Best to put it out before someone notices the smoke," she sighs, blowing on the little wisp so hard that it extinguishes right after he hums his agreement. "Let's try again?"
"Let's see if you can do it on your own this time."
"Good idea, yeah," she says, but she moves right back into his arms as she prepares herself to light another fire.
Although it's beyond him why she doesn't seem to care that he's still sitting right behind her, his arms around her and his hands resting on her arms as he seems to be oddly incapable of withdrawing them, Gold is happy to remain right where they are. For just a little while, he's going to bask in that highly unexpected and strangely pleasant physical contact, yet warmer than the tropical sun and even the fire they just created.
Chapter 6: Day 6
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
In his part of the shelter, Gold wakes at the crack of dawn. Like every morning, he keeps his eyes closed for a moment, listening carefully for any sound of human activity around him. Hearing nothing but the sound of the ocean a few dozen feet away, the snores of his fellow contestants, the wind in the palms and the occasional cluck of Gaston the chicken, he lifts his eyelids after all.
Looking around while barely moving his head, he concludes that he's the first to wake. Even Belle, who usually gets up yet earlier than himself, is still asleep, lying peacefully on the other end of the shelter.
Knowing very well that no one is likely to miss him for a while and that he has no other obligations at the moment, he gets up as quietly as he can and sneaks away. After Belle's accidental revelation that the immunity idol probably isn't hidden at camp, he figures that the next most logical place is the well from which they get their unboiled drinking water.
Moving as soundlessly as he can, he critically surveys the area when he reaches that place, looking for anything that might stand out. There isn't a single tree, plant or root that seems particularly worthwhile, so he starts randomly at the tree closest to the well.
Ignoring his rumbling stomach and the hunger-fueled exhaustion and dizziness which he isn't free from any more even right after sleep, Gold begins to systematically check the scenery for any hint that an idol is hidden there. Using a stick as a tool, he prods and pokes in any cavity he finds, focusing on the potential joy that will replace his physical misery, at least for a little while, if he finds the idol which will make his position in the game considerably more secure.
His limbs are protesting within a few minutes, reminding him that even his preparation, no matter how extensive, couldn't have readied him entirely for the physical and mental demands of playing this game for real.
"Is that an idol in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?"
Gold yelps in an entirely undignified way at the sudden sound of a female voice, standing up so quickly that he gets yet dizzier than he already was. As if that weren't bad enough, he can't suppress the instinctive urge to cover with both his hands the particular part of himself that's being referred to.
He may have thought that nothing could be worse than being caught obviously looking for a hidden immunity idol, but he's just been entirely proven wrong once more.
"I'm so sorry," she cries out, rushing to his side.
Only then does he become aware that Belle is the one who startled him… that she's coming towards him rather than getting away—or worse, mocking him—now that he has made such a fool of himself. On top of that, he hadn't been aware of her whereabouts… again.
"I am so, so sorry," she says again, reaching for him with tentative hands. "Would you like me to help you? You don't have to, of course, especially not after what I just said, but you sort of look like you're going to collapse at any moment."
"Yes, please…" he says, gratefully extending his trembling arm to her.
She takes it and helps him sit down on the ground, where most of the dizziness gradually subsides as she lets him rest his head on her shoulder.
"I can't believe I just said that," she whispers, lightly stroking his arm as if she hadn't been kind enough in her response to his overreaction yet. "It was entirely inappropriate. I don't even know why I said it, I just blurted it out. It doesn't make sense anyway, because you clearly don't have anything in your pockets and you look as impeccable as anyone could be on an island like this."
"It's fine, Belle," he says, touched by her worry. "I accept your apology, but please, it's not necessary. I... my response was wholly out of proportion. Your remark was no more than a quip."
"I suppose, but that doesn't make it right. It's especially inappropriate because… well, you always look so composed and neat, even here. I bet you go around wearing tailored three-piece suits in real life, whether you are working or not. I can't imagine you being in a… less than appropriate state in public."
He tenses, wondering how on earth this woman can be so impossibly perceptive.
"What did I say wrong this time?" she cries out, noticing this change in him immediately as well.
"Nothing," he says, wanting to reassure her… to have her continuing to reassure him. "Nothing at all. It's just… you're almost scaringly good at reading people."
"Oh, wow. Thanks, I suppose. Although it's hardly a far-fetched thought. You're so… I don't know. It's the way you carry yourself. You come across as very… very private, I guess. And well-mannered and respectful. It's so lovely to meet a guy who isn't making gross innuendos all the time, and here I go, doing it myself."
"It really is fine, Belle," he says, his mind reeling at the way she refers to him so casually, as if there were any part of him that's actually worthy of such praise. "It's just, what you said… it brought back bad memories."
Gold shivers despite the heat when he finds that his ex-wife's taunts have followed him even here, on a remote island halfway across the world.
"I'm so sorry to hear that," she says, to his inward delight continuing to lightly stroke his arm. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Let's go find the immunity idol together?" he asks, subconsciously leaning further into her.
Just a few days ago, this seemingly paradoxical request would have had him questioning his own sanity. But now that he's getting to know Belle, it makes perfect sense to include her in something that requires that much trust—in an attempt to push away the memory of the woman who so utterly ridiculed and humiliated him.
"You wouldn't mind?"
"No, not at all. I'd really like to, actually."
"Me too," she says, smiling widely as she gets up and offers him a helpful hand. "How long have you been out here this morning? Did you check most of this area?"
"I hadn't been here all that long when you appeared; I only checked about half of it."
"Shall we continue together? If you check the right, I can check the left of where you haven't been yet, and we'll work towards each other."
"That works for me. What happens if someone finds the idol?"
"The one who finds it gets to keep it?"
"That only seems fair," he agrees.
"We'd better start as quickly as possible. The others may wake up soon, if they haven't done so already, and wonder what we are up to. If only I hadn't said something so stupid to you!"
"Let's make the most of the time we still have," he says, for now not dwelling on the ever so contradictory feeling that he's glad that she startled him the way she did, if only because of the way she calmed him down and comforted him afterwards.
"Agreed," she replies, heading to the spot they just decided she would start her search at, and also picking up a twig to poke into tree trunks and holes in the ground.
A short while later, they have covered the ground he previously didn't get around to investigating, meeting in the middle like planned. Their hands—and pockets—are as empty as they were then.
"It seems that it isn't hidden here," she thinks aloud. "Let's assume for the moment that it isn't at camp, either. What would the next most logical place be? Along the shoreline, I think? In several previous seasons, the idol was hidden inside the trunk or roots of an unusual-looking tree at the shoreline, not quite far from camp."
"Yeah, that was in five previous seasons," he recalls. "The immunity idol was only hidden elsewhere twice."
"You're yet more of a geek than I am," she answers happily.
He has no idea what she's talking about, what the words she just said might actually mean. But if her wide smile is anything to go by, it's a generously affectionate compliment indeed.
"Let's go take a look at the shoreline and hope that the others are still asleep?"
"I'll go and make sure," she says, rushing back to camp before he can reply.
Standing there alone, Gold realizes that beyond the hunger and exhaustion, his main focus is the feeling of missing her, now that for a moment, she's no longer conspiring with him. Luckily, she's back just a minute later, the mischievous smile on her face telling him all he needs to know about the rest of their tribe.
"I don't think the tree where we might find the idol could be noticeable from the water," he deduces, "or we would have spotted it by now."
"Yeah, I agree," she replies as they make their way to the shoreline. "Our best odds are if we walk right next to the trees, rather than trying to find the hiding spot from a distance."
"Let's just start here?" he suggests when they reach the juncture of the path—one end leading to camp, another to the beach and the third going parallel along the shore.
He could never have imagined that he would be so relaxed on the island, especially while looking for a hidden immunity idol, but in the almost entire week he has spent here, he has rarely been less tense than now that he is on an idol hunt with Belle. Investigating any remotely interesting-looking spot they notice, they work easily side by side, their collaboration more companionable than anything he has known for a long time.
"Look at those white roots," she says urgently after a while, pointing at the oddly-shaped and equally unusually-colored roots at the same time he spots them himself.
They start prodding their sticks into the small open spaces between the roots with increased vigor. Almost the first time he does so, Gold encounters something that's soft, but doesn't give way like the sand and leaves they've encountered so far.
"I may have found something," he says, wincing as he wriggles his hand into the dark and humid hollow… until his fingers wrap around something unnaturally soft and even.
Withdrawing the hand holding the item, he finds it is a small package covered in cloth. All in all, it looks remarkably like the covered immunity idols he has seen on television as they were about to be revealed.
"Open it!" Belle encourages him excitedly, almost jumping up and down next to him.
Gold does exactly that, smiling brightly himself… especially when he reveals a piece of wood carved in the shape of a skull, surrounded by beads and connected to a twine which will enable the owner to wear it around their neck. On the inside of the cloth are printed the rules for the use of the object, confirming that this is truly a hidden immunity idol—though hidden no more.
"You've got it!" she beams, apparently as excited for his sake as she would have been if she had found the idol herself… which she might very well have.
After all, it was mere luck that he got it instead of her. His sense of joy is considerably diminished by the realization that it is only ever going to protect one person, not both of them.
"This is amazing!" she adds, as if she didn't care that he got the idol instead of herself… as if she trusted him with this advantage in the game as much as she would trust herself.
"What is amazing?" asks a sleepy voice right behind them.
Both of them tense, sharing a look of horror when it turns out that both of them have let their guard down—spectacularly so—and that someone is about to discover their secret at any moment, supposing that they haven't done so already.
"Those white roots!" Belle continues in the same enthusiastic voice, barely missing a beat. "I think they're edible!"
She gestures pointedly at the wholly inedible roots, drawing the new arrival's attention away from the idol and the cloth Gold still holds in his by now shaking hands. As he belatedly realizes that it's David, of all people, who has stumbled onto them, Belle is yet another step ahead of him, snatching the two items out of his hands.
"Do you reckon we can get them out of the ground?" she asks their teammate, who, in his defense, appears to be still half-asleep as he almost immediately starts to tug at the roots.
While he is busy, she goes to stand behind Gold, who is having trouble believing what's happening. Between his actually finding the idol without having a clue to its location, David's general naivety and Belle's increasingly clever tricks, it's hard to decide what's the most surreal.
Then again, when she very, very lightly brushes her hand along his backside and questioningly hooks one finger inside one of the rear pockets of his jeans, he's further reminded that the sometimes almost angelic and ever so kind and generous woman can be yet more cunning than himself.
But beyond that, he marvels at the fact that he doesn't feel threatened at all as she touches him like this, not even when she slips the idol in one pocket and the cloth in its twin, unknowingly touching him more intimately than anyone has done for decades in the process.
"Another day in paradise," David good-naturedly remarks while actually pulling some roots free, right when Belle steps away from the place where the idol is now hidden once more. "Some extra food! I didn't expect that when I went on a walk to get that cramp out of my foot."
"Isn't it marvelous?" Belle remarks, almost bursting into laughter as she locks eyes with Gold.
"Indeed," he mutters dryly, having to suppress the exact same urge.
As the three of them head back to camp, Gold supposes he should try and find a way to let David know the roots aren't actually edible without giving the two of them away. Hopefully—probably—Belle will think of something once again.
For all he can think of is that although it's certainly true that the idol can grant only one person the immunity against being voted out… that person doesn't necessarily have to be him. Somehow, the idol feels yet more valuable now that he realizes he can use it to keep Belle in the game, rather than himself.
Chapter 7: Day 7
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
It's an understatement to say the least to call Gold nervous as he and the rest of the team make their way to their very first tribal council. Since they lost yesterday's immunity challenge, they have to vote off one of their own tribe tonight.
The process of undergoing Jeff's questioning is going to be nerve-wracking and doubtlessly confrontational in its own right, but the fact that someone will be forced to leave the game feels yet worse, since Gold is painfully aware that he is the reason they find themselves here.
He may have been able to prove himself as a valuable tribe member when it comes to swimming and providing food so far, but he can't pretend to anyone on his team that he's any kind of physical asset any longer, now that he painfully went down in a glorified wrestling match against a male of the Villain tribe.
Having his entire body pressed into the mud, head included, for several agonizing moments seemed even worse since the person who beat him was the very same arrogant bully who pushed him down for no reason at all within the very first minute of their arrival. This time, their confrontation very much did take place as a part of the game... right when he had to perform in the decisive duel of the day.
He didn't stand a chance against the younger, taller and stronger man—and here they are, having lost a challenge to the Villains for the very first time, all because of him.
"Try to relax," Belle whispers to him as they hike their way to the tribal council area, the path illuminated by countless torches. If it hadn't been for their current situation, he would have admired the grand decor, if only because he's witnessing it for himself after seeing it so often on television with Neal at his side. "You'll be all right. There's no way that anyone is going to vote for either of us tonight."
She glances meaningfully at Ashley, who is dragging behind like she has in everything since they arrived on the island... for as far as she participated at all. No matter how much Gold would like to think that Belle is right once more, his mind is filled with the humiliation of having been beaten so easily for all of his team—and the other one—to see.
It would be bad enough to be voted off tonight, to have to be the very first one to leave the tribe. He has always known that he very much wouldn't want this to happen, especially because there almost per definition hasn't yet been a moment in which he could have made the choices which might have encouraged Neal to come back into his life.
But more than that, now that he's actually here, it's because of the game itself that he doesn't want to leave so early. Despite everything, he has grown to enjoy the relative peace and quiet of their current life on the island, the camaraderie within the tribe, which has so far been stronger than anything he has ever known.
Although he still doesn't fit in the group nearly as well as he'd like, he has gotten a little closer to David, whose openness and optimism Gold is gradually coming to genuinely admire. He considers the fact that he isn't openly disliked by anyone in his tribe as a victory in its own right.
But the main reason why he doesn't want to be sent home tonight is walking right next to him. He may not have expected it in the slightest beforehand, indeed he can still barely believe it, but he doesn't want to be separated from Belle now that they're getting along so well, and he trusts her like he never has anyone else.
He doesn't know how to characterize their relationship exactly, but he's increasingly certain that she's becoming a friend such as he never had before, someone he can banter with and entrust with his very life. Unspoken promise to his son or not, Gold would be rather willing to fall back into his old tactics of manipulation and intimidation to make certain that he and Belle get to spend more time together on the game.
However, much to both their frustration, there has been no talk of strategy or alliances in the group. At all. Which is unusual to say the least. In any other tribe and on any other season, it would be a certain sign that a person or alliance was being kept in the dark and about to be blindsided by being voted off against all their expectations.
Although his paranoia is rearing its head regardless, he is quite sure that there is no blindside about to happen. He has kept a very careful eye on all his tribe mates and there has been no whispering behind bushes whatsoever; in fact, there was no whispering at all but for the hushed conversations between Belle and himself, in which she informed him that she hasn't noticed any sign of an alliance being formed either.
Unspoken promise to his son or not, Gold knows only too well that his only way forward is to scheme, simply because he isn't the type of person to win each and every immunity challenge—or, yet more unlikely, to get far simply because people like him.
So he started up fully planning to connive in the least backstabbing and petty way he could… only to end up in the one and only tribe in Survivor history where the majority has decided that there is going to be no strategizing at all and the vote to send someone home will be an entirely democratic one.
Unless, of course, he's mistaken after all. Maybe David and Archie were deceiving the others when claiming that Heroes don't connive and lie. Maybe he has been reading them entirely wrong all this time. But the two of them aren't that dishonest, that much like him… or are they?
He's got the immunity idol hidden away in his pocket, of course, but if he played it now, he might as well not use it at all. It's way too early in the game to reap any long-term benefit from it, and using it may be pointless anyhow, since he has no idea whether the others might vote for Belle or for him.
Even if they did play the idol, and for the right one of them, the odds are small that the tribe would change their vote next time. One of them could still be voted off after all—and although it would be a blessing in its own right to get to spend a few more days with her, it feels like such a small reward compared to the thirty-nine days they could have together if the two of them could make their way to the very end of the game.
He and Belle very purposefully didn't try to get anyone else to vote with them, sensing that the tribe truly didn't want to scheme at this point and fearing that trying to do so behind the majority's back would only be putting a target on themselves. But maybe that wasn't the right course of action after all, maybe he should have…
"You're thinking too much," Belle whispers to him as they approach the infamous tribal council set-up.
Changing that is easier said than done and, ironically, she doesn't know that she is the very cause of this fact. He's playing the game for his son, of course, but he couldn't have expected it would bring him to meet someone he'd so quickly grow to like almost as much as the only other person who matters in his life.
She brushes her hand briefly against his in the dark, the gesture strangely soothing… and adding yet more to his concern that he might very well be voted off after all. He's only known her gentle and calming touches for a week, but he dreads to imagine going back to a life without them, without having her to talk to.
Indeed, he's starting to regret agreeing to her suggestion that they don't sit next to one another at tribal council, keeping their bond out of sight as much as possible. If this was to be the last night he could spend in her company, sitting at her side one last time would be a very welcome consolation.
But he sticks to her plan, finding hope in her conviction that they will both be fine. As he settles on one of the wooden stools facing Jeff, he recalls watching scenes exactly like this with his son, who liked the tribal councils more than any other part of the show when he was a child.
"Behind each of you is a torch. Grab it and approach the flame. Dip it in and get fire," Jeff announces, like he does in each and every season. If his son is still watching the show, what a surprise it will be for him to see his father there. "This is part of the ritual of tribal council, because in this game, fire represents life. Once your fire is gone, so are you."
Grateful for the years of practice he's had to keep all and any emotion off his face, thanks to many years of hardly feeling anything at all, Gold steels himself despite his nerves. He trusts his earlier and Belle's current conviction that there's no sign which should worry them whatsoever.
He carefully and neutrally answers the questions Jeff asks him, making certain to keep them in line with the "heroic" approach to the game that the majority of the tribe agreed on. He's yet more attentive while the others respond, his honed instincts still finding no clue that something is amiss.
Either there's truly no plot after all, or each and every one of the Heroes is very good at lying.
They'll know soon enough. Jeff announces that it's time to vote and one by one, they make their way to the other end of the set, where a small wooden booth is set up for contestants to put the piece of paper on which they've written the name of the person they want to vote out.
Belle is the third to go, and Gold the sixth. He is all but feeling the eyes of his team members in his back when he makes his way to the booth, which can only be reached by an unstable rope ladder—as if the game weren't demanding enough yet, and his ankle not aching enough as it is. No need to remind the others again that he is, for all intents and purposes, a cripple participating in a show in which physical strength plays such an important role.
Trying to savor this particular and typical Survivor moment he's experiencing for the first and perhaps the last time, he takes a deep breath before picking up the pen. He writes down Ashley's name, as he knows Belle has done and as they expect—hope—the rest will do, after all their talk of eliminating the person who brings the least to the tribe.
Putting his vote in the urn and setting down the pen, Gold returns to his place with the others. He locks eyes with Belle as he heads back, hoping for the best with a particularly long-denied part of him—a part which craves companionship and friendship.
Chapter 8: Day 8
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
It's been another day spent with strangers at an extremely remote location, with little to do and yet less to eat… another day of Belle's open smiles and quips and kindness. All in all, a very good day.
To Gold's relief, Ashley got unanimously voted off at tribal council the previous night, exactly like he and Belle hoped. They must be one of the very few tribes in Survivor who actually do what they say they will.
It's late in the evening, the sun is down, and the tribe is preparing for another chilly and uncomfortable night. The dry grass they're lying on does little to lessen the hardness of the merciless planks and bamboo underneath.
On the other side of the shelter, David and Mary-Margaret are openly canoodling, taking eager advantage of the fact that this is about the only tribe where potential power couples aren't voted off immediately before they can gain too much control of the game.
That's the very reason why he hasn't asked Belle if they can sleep next to each other, too. It's not as if they would giggle and spoon and kiss like the two lovebirds—but it would probably be very lovely indeed to sleep at her side, to have someone near him whom he entirely trusts and whose warmth he could share at night.
Then again, it's not as if he'd ever have the courage to actually ask her to lie next to him in the shelter—so in that sense, it's only for the best that they can't be seen showing too much closeness.
All that's left for him tonight is to try and fall asleep. He's a chronic insomniac at the best of times, and despite his physical and mental exhaustion, that hasn't changed here. The improvised bed is as uncomfortable as the ones he had in his childhood, and the sounds coming from the couple not unlike those of his father and his almost endless supply of 'lady friends'.
The man in question tenses and all but squeaks when someone speaks directly in his ear, having sneaked up on him without warning.
"It's me, Belle," she whispers, the hand she rests on his arm soothing him immediately once more. "Do you mind if I… can I sleep next to you tonight?"
He falters, wondering whether she can actually read his mind now… and how he's going to accept her offer without seeming too eager. He nods after a few seconds of hesitation, belatedly realizing that she can't see the motion in the dark night… only for her to whisper her thanks and soundlessly slip into the shelter at his side.
"I feel like an old and bitter person saying this, but David and Mary-Margaret are really annoying when they get so touchy-feely," she says, her words so soft that they reach only him—which most definitely can't be said for the couple on the other side of the hut. "No matter how much I enjoy wandering the beach at night, I'd love to have some proper sleep for once."
"Yeah," he mutters dumbly, still bewildered that she would seek his presence during the night.
"Look how clear the sky is. It's going to get cold tonight. But don't worry, I'll get back to my regular place before anyone wakes."
"You… you don't have to."
"What do you mean?"
Words fail him once more as he wonders what he was actually meaning to say, whether it was that there's no risk in their being seen together. That he doesn't want her to go, if only because he enjoys her company so very much.
"I like that you're here," he eventually says, very softly.
"Me too," she whispers. "I wish that we didn't have to pretend we don't get along very well, but I really think it's the best for our gameplay."
"I agree. I don't want to take the risk."
"Me neither; I'm glad you feel the same way. I just don't get David and Mary-Margaret… but then again, I don't get most of the people on this tribe. You'd almost start to think that there isn't one million dollar on the line."
It doesn't escape his attention that Belle refers to the money the winner will receive a lot more passionately than he expected, given that she seems so happy to be here for the sheer experience of living on a tropical island.
"It's bizarre that most people are acting like the good and righteous players, whatever that means in a game like this, will win by default. They'll be in for a treat if we merge with the Villains and have to live in a single camp! We'll be sitting ducks if we continue like this after such a thing."
"It's a long way until that might happen. All we can do is hope that people become a bit more aware of the nature of this game before then."
"Yeah. No point in worrying about it, especially not now." She sighs, relaxing, shifting a little closer to him, their arms touching. "Best to take each moment as it comes and enjoy it if we can."
The 'bed' hasn't gotten any less comfortable, nor the sounds of the couple any less obnoxious, but now that Belle is lying at his side, it's the best sleeping place he's ever had.
"Look at this," she whispers, pointing upwards. Only then does Gold realize that he has never seen a clearer sky or brighter stars, almost as if the whole galaxy were at their feet. "There's Orion. It's strange seeing them again from this side."
"You grew up in Australia," he recalls, linking this reference to her faded but still unmistakable accent, and her brief introduction when they properly met on their second day at the island.
"I did, yeah. I lived there until I was a teenager. Then my mum died, and my father took me to Maine to set up his flower shop and laboratory."
"I'm sorry to hear about your mother."
"Thanks. What about you? Your accent is Scottish, isn't it?"
"It is, yes," he says, suddenly realizing that he must have let his carefully-cultivated, neutral American way of talking slip accidentally back into his working-class accent on the island. He doesn't miss, however, the way she just abruptly changed the subject. "I was born and raised there, in a tiny village on the countryside. I emigrated to New York to build a better life for myself as soon as I turned eighteen."
"Did you? Build a better life, I mean?"
"In some ways," he says, his mind flashing to his son, his ex-wife, his ruined ankle, his loneliness and all his material wealth. "What about you? Did you get a better life when you came to the U.S.?"
"In some ways," she echoes, just as uselessly.
"I had a son," he reveals, wanting despite himself to keep the whispered information going… to learn more about her, and also let her find out more about him. "That was definitely good."
"You had a son?" she asks softly, immediately picking up on his use of the past tense, as he expected she would.
"I haven't seen him in fifteen years," he replies, utterly unprepared for the tears that well in his eyes—and the way Belle carefully embraces him in support.
"I'm very sorry to hear that. Do you suppose there's any chance you might see him again?"
"Maybe," he sniffles, allowing himself to bury his face in the crook of her neck and shoulder when she gently guides it there, with the bright stars above as their only witness.
"I hope you will. I really do."
"I appreciate that, Belle. What about you? I've never heard you talk about children before, but…"
"I don't have any kids, no, and I don't think I'll ever be having them."
"There are other men than Gaston," he carefully says, recalling what she told him about her ex-fiancé. "Women too, of course, if that's what you prefer. Donors, I mean. You might… you know. Later."
"It's not because of that. I'd love to have kids one day, but I can't afford to raise them. As for Gaston, I shouldn't have gotten engaged to him in the first place. He may be rich, but he's insufferable. I only accepted his proposal because it was papa's dy… because it was my father's wish."
"I see," he murmurs, wondering about what she's telling him… and what she's clearly not telling him—and savoring their embrace all the while.
When she begins to caress his back, he tentatively and experimentally does the same, thrilled when she sighs in unmistakable approval and burrows her face into his shoulder. Gold has no idea whatsoever what they are doing, what any of this might mean, except for the fact that he very, very much enjoys it.
"So you were a father at a rather young age," she concludes, her fingers still slowly sliding up and down his back.
"I was, yeah. Let's just say I don't recommend raising a child while trying to get a degree."
"That's what all men say," she mutters, her hands faltering.
"What do you mean?"
"All those poor fathers who complain about their baby, while they are the ones who can leave for their daytime study or job and leave the mother to deal with their children, the household and, if she's particularly lucky, her own job—not to mention the father's food and laundry—while they're gone."
"I raised my son myself, Belle."
"You… you did. Oh, wow. I'm sorry. I didn't realize… Sometimes I talk before thinking, as you doubtlessly noticed already."
"It's fine, it really is. I like your honesty."
"Thanks, I suppose. So… you were—are—a single father?"
"I was, yeah. My wife left with another man before Neal's first birthday."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Don't be. It sounds like she was a bit like your Gaston."
"Good riddance, in that case. Still…"
"Good riddance, yes, but that's speaking only for myself. My boy grew up without his mother. He said it didn't matter, that I was parent enough for two, that he couldn't remember her anyway, but… well, our relationship was obviously lacking enough that he got away as well eventually. I guess I'm a difficult man to love."
"I beg to differ," she murmurs, her hands continuing their soothing, almost tender journey over his back.
No matter how much he suddenly finds himself craving her good opinion, Gold is almost grateful when she doesn't add anything more on the subject. He's convinced that anything she might say in relation to those four words would unavoidably lead to her diluting them.
"Hasn't there been anyone else since your wife left?" she asks instead.
"There was a brief… relationship, a few years later. It was just as catastrophic as my marriage. I'm only glad that my son never met her. What about you?" he inquires, eager to change the subject and find out more about her private life. "Is there anyone back at home that is more to your liking than your former fiancé?"
"No, not at all. But it's for the best, probably. There are things I have to deal with first, before I can commit to a relationship. Although it would be lovely. My father used to say I'm way too critical with men, but a guy who treats me properly and whom I'm actually attracted to shouldn't be too much to ask for."
"Well, if I look back on my own relationships, I have to conclude that it's difficult enough to find, let alone actually be with, a partner who fits either one of those preferences," he admits with some hesitation, "let alone both of them."
"Yeah, I must agree with that. Still, one can hope…"
"Indeed," he murmurs, daring to pull her slightly closer for good measure.
A natural silence falls between them, alerting him to the overall quietness. Even Mary-Margaret and David have finally fallen asleep, it seems. Belle's breath evens out as well after a few minutes, and it's a heady idea that this so very lovely and accepting woman has fallen asleep in his arms.
Chapter 9: Day 9
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
The day started in the best way possible for Gold. He woke up feeling more comfortable than he had for a long time, although he lay on the same unpleasant surface as in the past few days—part of his body, at least. Whereas the majority of his frame was resting on the bamboo and planks, right where he had fallen asleep the previous night, his head turned out to be in no other place than Belle's lap.
Although even in his still sleepy state, it was beyond him why she would let him use her lap as a pillow—let alone support his neck with her own arm—he allowed himself a few blissful minutes to enjoy it, experiencing for a very short while what it must be like to feel this at ease and safe.
Even her purposefully cleared throat, alerting him that David had woken up earlier than usual and was watching them with a knowing smile, didn't ruin his perfect mood.
But then there was the immunity challenge, in which, for the first time, he had to perform the activity he most feared: running. Once again, he was pitted against the cruel man with the dark hair—whom he heard his fellow Villains refer to as Jones—and he lost their duel again, yet more pathetically so than last time: a fact that, among others, resulted in another immunity loss for his tribe.
However, having to go to tribal council again soon—where he might very well be voted off for performing so very poorly once more—is not his main worry at the moment. He knows that he can't run, and shouldn't even try—but in his desperate attempt not to be entirely humiliated by Jones, he exerted his ruined joint far more than he should have.
So here he is, barely able to walk at all, trying to keep away the tears of pain and mortification—and not succeeding at this either. He separated himself from the rest of the tribe as soon as they arrived back at camp. He should be out there, hearing—and influencing—what's being said about the upcoming tribal council, but he doesn't want to be seen by the others in this state.
The tight brace around his ankle only worsening the pain rather than stabilizing the joint, Gold collapses on the sandy beach before he has reached the somewhat reclusive spot he had in mind. Wincing, he pulls up the leg of his jeans and takes off his shoe and sock, those motions alone leaving him in agony. Yet there's nothing for it but to get the brace off as well.
Pulling with shaking hands at the straps and fastenings, he feels a second of relief as he finally removes the restrictive fabric. However, the pain is back almost immediately, his ankle now missing its support. Tears rolling down his cheeks, Gold wonders for the first time what on earth he is doing here, what he is hoping to achieve.
It's a long shot to say the least to expect that Neal will actually watch this season, let alone change his opinion of the father he has been separated from for such a long time. Really, he has been yet more of a fool than he already knew himself to be to come out here and risk everything he has, hoping there'd actually be a point in the resulting discomfort and humiliation.
As if all of this weren't bad enough yet, a shadow falling over him informs him that someone of his tribe has found him like this. He bows his head further, hot tears dripping onto the sand between his legs.
"Let's get you settled somewhere in the shade before you also get a sunburn."
He doesn't know whether it's a blessing or a curse that Belle is the one who found him in this state, and that even now, she apparently still insists on helping him.
"Can you walk?" she asks, her voice full with wholly undeserved concern.
"I don't know," he brings out from behind the lump in his throat, his chin wobbling precariously as he helplessly looks up at her.
She's startled by the look of him, he can tell, as if he were in a yet worse shape than she expected. But rather than being deterred, she squats down next to him in the sand, wiping the unwashed hair out of his eyes.
"What can I do to help?" she asks softly.
He gestures weakly, unable to articulate his thoughts and needs, let alone his complete acceptance in case she shouldn't want to fulfill this request. Somehow, she understands him regardless.
"Come here," she says, sitting down properly while throwing her arms around him, pulling him against her.
Unable to hold back his sobs any longer, he buries his face in her shoulder, clinging to her as the pain and stress get the better of him. His body trembles as he cries like he has never allowed himself to do at any other point in his life, but there's no more holding back now that he has someone who, for some reason, is willing to go through this alongside him.
"That's it, let it all out," she murmurs, stroking his back once more, as if it were only normal for him to lose himself like this—as if she weren't wholly disgusted by this new display of weakness and despair. "Just let it go."
Entirely unfamiliar with the mere notion of being comforted like this, his subconscious takes that as a cue to cry harder yet, until it feels like there's no liquid left in his body. That doesn't mean his body and soul have eventually had enough, for he remains heaving on her shoulder, her loose shirt soaked with his tears and yet more disgusting fluids.
Finally, finally, he goes still after all. He's too embarrassed to face her, or at least that's what he tells himself as he remains right where he is, with her running her hands through his hair.
"Everybody is off at camp, gathering food and getting the fire started. There was talk of the tribal council when I left, but I don't think either of us have to worry. Archie says he's having a very hard time voting people off; apparently it's much harder on his conscience than he thought it would be, and he doesn't want to play the game like this. I think he's going to ask us to vote him out so he can go home instead; I'm quite certain he's genuine."
Just a few hours ago, he would have been pleased to hear this; he has always wondered what someone like Archie, always going on and on about morality and ethics, was doing on in a game like this. But right now, all he cares about is remaining in Belle's tender embrace just a little while longer.
"Try to relax and take your time," she says as if once more, she knew exactly what he was thinking. "I don't think we'll be missed for quite a while."
He takes that as permission to remain this way a little longer, wondering how he can have gotten so far in life without this—this selfless comfort, the warmth and tenderness of another human being supporting him as he again finds himself not knowing how to go on.
"Thank you," he says hoarsely when he withdraws from her at last, if only because he knows only too well that they can't remain like that forever, no matter how much he might want to.
"Feeling a bit better?"
"I am, yes. I... I don't know how I can thank you for your kindness."
"You don't have to. Although it'd be lovely if you could lend me your shoulder to cry on when I'm the one having a bad day here."
"Of course," he says, although he can't see for the life of him how he could ever repay her for this.
After all, even if their roles were reversed, he wouldn't know how to comfort anyone, let alone do so as thoroughly as she just did for him.
"How is your ankle?"
"Still hurts," he sighs, figuring that he won't need any hyperboles—or expletives—to let her know just how much. "Even you can't change that."
"Well, I'm not so certain of that."
He raises a questioning eyebrow, feeling as though at this point, he would be somewhat unsurprised if she turned out to have magical healing abilities as well.
"Let's get you out of the sun first? You can lean on me to reach the shade of the nearest palm tree. Do you think that will work?"
"If you help me up..." he suggests, somewhat reluctant to request yet more of her assistance, but thoroughly grateful for the offer at the same time.
She all but pulls him to his feet without putting any strain on his bad ankle, encouraging him to wrap his arm around her shoulders and lean heavily on her as they painstakingly make their way to a more comfortable spot on the beach. Once they have finally reached it, she helps him sit down with the same wonderful protectiveness she has shown towards him all this time.
"I brought you your can and filled it up for you," she says, handing him the item in question. He nods at her with ever-growing gratitude as he takes it from her, eagerly drinking half of it. "I've got something else as well."
She brings out several flowers and stems which are admittedly pretty, although he doesn't understand why she's showing them to him, or why she has picked them in the first place.
"My father was obsessed with flowers and plants, especially those of a tropical variety. He sold them, but he also did a lot of research on their natural properties in his lab. He was convinced that he would find an application which would change the world. Well, let's just say he never did, but… he did find some things. Including this flower. I read up on his research before coming here, and I was thrilled to actually find it here. It works relatively well against pain."
She looks at him questioningly, her gaze moving back and forth between his ankle and his face, wordlessly asking for his opinion.
"I'd like to try that, yes," he says in answer to her unspoken question. "I trust you."
"I'll have to crush this and wrap it on your skin. Is that all right with you? Obviously, I'll stop if you change your mind or if it feels too unpleasant."
"I trust you entirely," he repeats, wishing he could find a way to tell her how very much that means to him.
"I'm so sorry you are hurt like this," she says, scooting over so she can reach for his mangled ankle.
Knowing she is referring to the old injury rather than the additional damage he did to it today, Gold belatedly realizes that she's not only going to look at the disfigured joint and scarred skin, but also to touch it. And yet, there isn't a single sign of rejection or repulsion on her face.
"Tell me to stop if it gets too uncomfortable," she reminds him.
No matter how much he would like to think that she could never hurt him even a little bit, he knows only too well that it can't be true in these circumstances. It feels like he's doing the race against Jones all over again at first—only this time, it seems to be solely on his bad ankle, and he whimpers his pain through grinding teeth, his nails digging pointlessly into the sand at his side.
But as she whispers soothing words to him and works the oil of the flowers into his skin, gently massaging his ankle all the while, the pain actually starts to retreat. As soon as he feels able to, he opens his eyes to find her taking care of him with tender focus, glancing from her work to his face and back again, constantly checking up on him.
Having such support and kindness bestowed on him brings tears to his eyes all over again. She halts as soon as she sees them, moving to get back to his side. But no matter how much he would like to lose himself in her embrace again, especially now that the pain has decreased significantly, he doesn't want to ask any more of her than she has already offered.
"I'm fine," he says, giving her a watery smile. "Really. I... I have no words for this, Belle. If there's ever... if there's anything I can do for you, anything at all, please let me know and I'll do anything in my power to pay you back for this."
"I really appreciate that, Gold, but I don't want you to feel like you owe me. Us playing this game together, all the way to the end... that's all I'm asking for."
He nods weakly, no tears left in his body, his mind currently incapable of comprehending her giving him so much while asking for so little in return. Frustratingly enough, it also leaves him incapable of properly appreciating the physical side of what she's doing to him, easing his pain as if she truly had magic at her fingertips.
His ankle never stops hurting, that would be one miracle too many, but at least he feels increasingly confident that he'll be able to walk on it again in a not-too-distant future. That prospect is lovely indeed, but all he wants to do for now is commit to his memory as much as he can of her warm and gentle hands, the kindness in her eyes… Yet he feels too overwhelmed to actually appreciate all of this.
She's done far too soon, getting up with a small smile before, thankfully, she comes to sit at his side for just a moment longer.
"Will you be all right for now?" she asks, still concerned.
He nods fiercely, hoping to let her see just how much better he is feeling, though he currently doesn't have the presence of mind to actually tell her so.
"Good, I'm glad. I hate to leave you here, but..."
"You should go back to camp, yes, before the others miss the both of us," he agrees, his voice still rough.
"I'll get you a stick to lean on; it should make it easier for you to get back later on. I'd suggest you wait here a little longer, so we won't return to camp together."
He nods in understanding, watching her pick up a suitable piece of wood and lay it down right next to him.
"Come back soon?" she requests. "I'll miss you at camp."
"I'll miss you, too," he replies, his breath hitching in his throat when she leans over him and presses a kiss to his forehead, causing yet another lump in his throat.
"I'll see you soon," she whispers before rising quickly to get back to the rest of the team.
Blushing like the aloof fool he is and feeling lonelier than ever now that he is bereft of her company—no matter how temporarily—Gold has all but forgotten about his ankle. He's eager to get back to her side as quickly as he can, wholly determined to do anything he can to help her in return for what she just did for him.
Chapter 10: Day 10
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
Having survived the second tribal council and actually managed the hike to and from its location the previous evening and, especially, waking up to Belle massaging his already much less sore ankle, Gold starts the day in high spirits indeed.
After another meager breakfast of coconut and beans, most of the tribe members lie around in the shelter, having little else to do. Considering it a good sign that no one is sneaking off to discuss matters in private and wanting to make up for letting the others down in the previous day's challenge, he gathers the cooking pot and a machete and heads for the beach.
Thoroughly grateful that, despite his worsened limp, he can still walk at all, he gets to the most promising rock he can find and starts prying shell animals and catching crab. With the water at his feet pleasantly cool and the warmth of the sun still bearable, it's quite enjoyable to be out there—though, of course, not as nice as it would be if Belle were to be at his side.
But they can't be seen together any more than necessary, lest the others catch on their still tightening bond. Besides, as he spots her strolling along the beach with Ruby, he knows that she's got better things to do than to spend yet more time letting him bask in her nearness.
Ignoring the silly urge to wave to get her attention, he retreats further behind the rocks when the two women gradually approach him instead, not wanting either of them to see him in case they're talking about strategy and Ruby might be spooked by his presence.
"... isn't going to turn out well for us," he hears Ruby say as they approach the rocks. "We've had two easy votes so far, but it isn't going to stay that way."
Gold inwardly cheers at the discovery that at least one other person on the tribe is bewildered by the "ethical" voting procedures so far—and the knowledge that Belle is right there to steer the conversation in the right direction.
Working as quietly as possible, he smiles when she makes a noncommittal sound, encouraging the taller woman to go on without revealing that she feels exactly the same way just yet. It will in all likelihood give Ruby the impression that she's reached any subsequent conclusions mostly on her own, instead of being goaded into Belle's and his own agenda.
"If we keep voting the way we do, things will get messy. Jefferson is ill, so he might be next to go home, but then what? If everyone keeps voting for who they think least deserves to be here, the results are going to be all over the place very soon. Whether they are saying the truth and actually aren't an alliance or not, Emma, David and Mary-Margaret might as well be telepathically linked. So that's three votes, which doesn't leave much room for the rest of us."
"Yes, I agree. Jefferson has played a totally individual game so far, and so have the rest of us. We're all in the minority if we continue like this."
"Oh come on, Belle, don't think I'm this naive. You, playing individually? You and Gold are practically joined at the hip. Or should I say at the ankle?"
Not realizing that he has stopped working, the man in question just stands there, wondering if this is the beginning of the downfall of Belle and himself in the game.
"Well, we… we talk."
"You do a whole lot more than just talking," Ruby notes. Although Gold can't see her, he is fairly sure that she's rolling her eyes in that characteristical way of hers. "I'm not stupid, Belle."
"I… well, I'm not saying you are."
"I've heard you whisper sweet nothings in each other's ear at night."
"Wait, how do you know…"
"I don't!" Ruby laughs out loud. "Or at least, I didn't until now. You're an open book, Belle. You're like a schoolgirl with a crush!"
"I don't have a bloody crush. I'm here to win a million dollars."
"Well, so am I. I'm not doing any of this for fun, and I'm not going to work in Granny's awful diner in the middle of literal nowhere for the rest of my life. But still…"
"I want that money, Ruby. I need it. So far, Gold is the best way to get me there."
Vaguely realizing that the fact their voices don't grow fainter must mean they have settled themselves on the other side of the rocks, perhaps mere feet away from him, Gold isn't so certain he actually wants to hear this conversation anymore.
It's bad enough that one way or another, the somewhat wolfish woman has figured out that Belle and he are working so closely together—but all this talk of crushes and his ally's yet stronger exclamations regarding the prize money all make him distinctly uncomfortable. Not to mention the fact that she just explicitly referred to him as nothing more than her best shot to get to said money.
He's always known that sheer paranoia was going to kick in sooner or later and that it wasn't going to be pretty, but this is something else entirely. It's one thing to be betrayed by any player he might have been forced to put his trust in, but to be betrayed by Belle…
Forcing himself to breathe, he reminds himself that his instincts have never proven him wrong so far. Those very instincts are still telling him that other than his son, Belle is the only person he's ever met whom he can trust with his life—both inside and outside the game.
"Gold could be the best way to get you to the million dollars, too," Belle adds softly.
He all but cheers with joy as he belatedly realizes what she's doing. Obviously she doesn't have a crush on him, pathetic and old and useless as he is, and she had to deny that much more strongly than her kind self usually would in response to Ruby's meddling. Of course she's going to remind their potential ally of the money… and here she is, trying to reel the sharp woman into their alliance.
At least for now, he refuses to consider the possibility that all this time, Belle has been playing him exactly like she's now doing with Ruby.
"I don't want to work with Gold," the tall woman retorts with such force it makes him flinch. "And neither should you."
"It's our only option," Belle says with a calmness he both admires and dreads. "David, Emma and Mary-Margaret are three. You've doubtlessly already talked to Philip. If the three of us align, that's only, well, three. That's no majority."
"You're forgetting about Jefferson. That would make four, and give us the majority after all."
"Jefferson's head isn't in this anymore; mentally, he's already on the plane home, back to his daughter. It wouldn't surprise me if he gave up his spot in the game before the day is over."
"Fine. You've obviously already thought this through. Still, three is all we need. It might come to a fire-making challenge…"
"It will come to a fire-making challenge if we are tied! Let's say there's a fifty-fifty chance of either alliance winning… are you telling me you like those odds? I bloody don't! That's a fifty percent chance that all three of us are voted out before we even get to the merge!"
"I'm not working with Gold… I don't like those odds. How can you trust him?!"
"How can you not?!" she exclaims, far louder than she probably intended.
Gold winces, sensing that the conversation—and thus the chance of an alliance with Ruby and Philip—is escalating… because of him, apparently. It comes to absolutely no surprise that others don't want to work with him, but to hear Belle defend him so… so passionately…
"He's a creep! He's too quiet, he's too clever…"
"He's not a 'creep' or anything like that. As for the last two things, that's called being introverted, Ruby," Belle hisses. "You might have noticed I am as well."
"Well, what can I say? You're weird too! You spend most of the time entirely lost in thought, whenever you aren't obsessing over books or over Gold, that is! Damn, you'd better be careful, or at least not as painfully naive as this. It wouldn't surprise me if you got a lot more than you bargained for next time you're spooning in the shelter. Don't you see the way he follows you around and looks at you all the time?!"
"He doesn't… he wouldn't… how can you even imply that he would hurt someone, let alone like that?! He's the gentlest person I've ever met. He's the kind of man to ask for a woman's permission even when she's begging him to…"
Oblivious to his own shallow and rapid breaths, Gold's head is spinning at the conversation he can't help but overhear. Any chance of working with Ruby—for either of them—is clearly lost and, even worse, Belle sounds like she's about to cry. And yet, she's talking about him as if he were anything but a cold-hearted and pathetic manipulator.
"As if any woman would ever beg that man to do anything but leave her alone," Ruby mutters, her voice getting a cold, calculating edge. "Unless… oh my God, you've fallen in love with him, haven't you?! Of course! He's like the complete opposite of that Gaston guy you were engaged to, the one you say you dislike so much. Belle, how stupid are you? This is your shot to win one million dollars, and… and did I mention that he's a creep?!"
Gold splutters at this utterly ridiculous notion. Of Belle beingin love with him, that is. If this is the kind of thing she gets into her head, then it's probably for the best that they won't work with Ruby.
"I've never met anyone as respectful as him," she replies, the defiance in her voice when defending him making him light-headed. "I trust him more than anyone else."
"Well, you two deserve each other, I guess," Ruby says icily. "For the record, your working with him and being so close with him makes me seriously doubt your character as well. Don't come crying to me when all of this turns out exactly as I know it will."
"It bloody won't… and I won't."
"Enjoy your creep of a stalkery and obsessive boyfriend," she bites out, before noisily walking off through the surf.
"Damn," Belle mutters.
Gold stands there frozen, not knowing what to do. On the one hand, he's longing to bring any sort of comfort or consolation to her, even though he doesn't quite know how. But on the other, he's got no idea whatsoever what to say to her after the conversation he just accidentally overheard… nor does he know whether she even wants to see him, let alone find out that he heard everything the two women just said about him.
But as he peers around the rocks, he finds her still sitting there, her face buried in her hands. Sliding off the stone, he gets into the water to make his way carefully towards her, having long forgotten the half-filled pot containing their dinner.
Belle looks up in alarm, having clearly not expected anyone to walk in on her, and he raises his arms in a hopefully pacifying gesture. He's horrified to see the tears in her eyes, and he wishes he were a better man so he might know how to make it better.
"I'm sorry," he says, not knowing what else to tell her.
"You were there the whole time and you overheard everything, didn't you?" she concludes, forlorn.
He can only nod in shameful admission.
Rather than to throw him a much-deserved reminder that he's probably a lot of the things Ruby accused him of after all, she slowly walks towards him. To his bewilderment, she tentatively steps into his personal space, extending her arms like a question.
He inclines his head, thrilled that she still seeks out his nearness, especially like this—his eyes closing in delight and gratitude when she wraps her arms around him and rests her head on his shoulder. He has the presence of mind to gently guide her back behind the rocks to where he found himself just a few moments ago, out of sight.
Sitting down with Belle at his side, he marvels at the way she holds on to him, as if he mattered and could somehow make her feel better. Recalling how wonderful it felt when she caressed his back only yesterday, he experimentally runs his hands over her own, thrilled when she sighs happily in response, burrowing further into him.
"I know I screwed up," she croaks after a while. "I lost control of my emotions. I know only too well that you aren't ever supposed to do that out here."
"No, Belle, no. It's not your fault. She was out of line regarding you, and…"
"Thanks for trying to make me feel better, though I don't necessarily agree with you. She was out of line regarding you. I can't believe she said all those things about you… about us. I can't begin to imagine what you might be feeling."
"I'm only glad that nothing seems to have come between us, despite Ruby's efforts," he whispers, shivering when she wraps one of her arms around his neck, pulling herself yet closer against him.
"See, I knew I could trust you," she sighs, sounding a lot less unhappy. "Although it's a blow for us that I've ruined our chance of aligning ourselves with Ruby, and probably Philip as well."
"You didn't ruin anything, dear. You only figured out early on that Ruby wouldn't have gotten you to the end, let alone both of us. It's better to realize that now than later."
"Wow, I like your way of looking at things," she says, appearing more content than anything else right now although, to his unspoken delight, she still maintains their embrace. "Still, Ruby was right in concluding that we've got to align ourselves one way or another in order not to be picked off one by one by David, Emma and Mary-Margaret."
"But if you're correct about Jefferson, we've still got some time."
"I'm fairly sure he's either giving up before the next tribal council, or asking us to vote him out. He talks about his daughter all the time; he clearly misses her very much, and I'm surprised he has gotten out here to begin with, let alone stayed for so long. We could try to work with him, or even get him to vote with us while the others vote for him like they might agree to, but… it usually doesn't work in people's favor to play so dirty, especially that early in the game."
"I agree. Let's assume that he will either leave of his own accord or be voted off, voluntarily or not. That gives us at least another few days."
"It feels too early to really start stirring things up, doesn't it?" she concludes.
"One would have to assume that even David, Emma and Mary-Margaret will reach a point where they have to face that they can't continue playing the game like this, especially not as we approach the merge with the Villains… but that won't be for quite some time."
"So it's best to lie low for now, yes, I agree. Well then. That leaves only the actually embarrassing part of the conversation you just heard to discuss."
"There's obviously nothing to discuss that you may not want to," he says, knowing only too well that her having any feelings of a remotely romantic nature for him cannot possibly be true. It might have disappointed him, had he been the kind of man who actually knows how to respond to such feelings properly, but he clearly is not.
As it is, he's grateful indeed that she's still holding on to him, accepting his careful touch. This nearness and comfort are better than anything Ruby can ever accuse them of.
"I can't believe that I got into a fight with another woman over a man… on Survivor," she murmurs into his shirt. "It's one of those things you don't ever want to do, and then when it comes down to it, you do it after all."
She laughs a little, moving away from him to gesture at the cooking pot her eyes must have fallen on.
"Ah, so that's what you were doing here."
"Well, I could say that I only came to get all that seafood as an excuse to be here right when I knew you and Ruby were going to have a crucial conversation, but…"
She giggles at his very poor attempt at a joke, and it's a thrill indeed to find that he's somehow capable of evoking such a reaction.
"How about we fill that pot entirely before we head back to camp to present this, especially to Emma, David and Mary-Margaret?" she suggests.
"Sounds perfect," he agrees, feeling happier yet when she sits down at his side to help him with the tedious work, and pointedly ignoring what Ruby just said about the two of them.
Chapter 11: Day 11
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
"Do you have a moment?" Belle asks softly as they're collecting firewood.
"Of course," he mutters back, gradually wandering away from the others in the knowledge that she will come after him when the coast is clear.
"The letter we got this morning heavily implied that there's a diving challenge coming up this afternoon," she says once she has joined him, temporarily dumping on the ground the wood they've collected so far. "I have no trouble swimming underwater, but I'm not good at getting into the water properly. You're quite the expert, if what I've seen you do during the past challenges is any indication. Could you help me make better dives before we head to this afternoon's challenge?"
"Of course," he repeats. "Where do you want to practice?"
"Somewhere out of sight… the cliffs north of camp don't look too intimidating."
"See you there in a while, then," he smiles, delighted for this opportunity to spend time with her again.
Picking up their wood and collecting some more, they put a considerable amount of distance between them as they casually bring it to camp, before heading to their designated meeting place in a hopefully equally unsuspicious way.
He arrives at the exact time Belle, for now oblivious to his presence, pulls off her oversized shirt and yanks down her worn denim shorts, revealing the yellow bikini he has grown so familiar with. Standing there and looking at her like that, he's painfully reminded of the lewd behavior Ruby accused him of only the previous day.
But when he clears his throat to announce his presence and heads towards her, maintaining a careful distance, she merely gives him another smile and casually places her clothing on a rock. It seems unlikely that before now, she has been as unaware of her frequent state of undress compared to his always fully-clothed body as he naively was himself, but it doesn't appear to bother her.
"Hey," she greets him softly as he approaches her on the cliff.
"Hey," he dumbly echoes, still marveling at the trust that she, for some reason, places in him… and how easily he finds himself returning it.
"Thanks for doing this. I really appreciate it."
"It's my pleasure. Is there anything in particular you wish to learn?"
"If you could me teach me how to dive without falling onto my stomach in the water, that would be very much appreciated."
"You currently jump into the water first and dive beneath the surface later, don't you?" he asks, awfully aware that he knows exactly what her method is. After all, as Ruby so subtly stated, he watches her yet more often than he does the rest of his team—because he likes to do so.
"I do, yes. It looks ridiculous, and it costs me a few seconds every time. Whereas you… your dives look wonderful, Gold. Very, very graceful."
She smiles at him, some additional color appearing on her cheeks, and he swallows heavily at the apparent discovery that for some reason, she might just like watching him as well.
"Could you perhaps demonstrate once for me? I've never seen you do it from a close distance, at a time when I'm not freaking out about a challenge."
"I… I suppose," he says, happy to proceed for her. "Right now?"
"If you don't mind?"
"Not at all, no," he says while positioning himself at the edge of the cliff.
"Um, at the risk of sounding like I'm trying to get you out of your clothes…" she points out, resting her hand on his shoulder before he can actually dive into the water below, "If you jump like this, people back at camp will start wondering why your clothes are all wet once we return. Our swimming clothes dry a lot quicker than all that fabric you're wearing. It's perfectly fine with me if you'd rather keep your clothes on and not get into the water after all, of course."
"It's… it's no problem," he says, trying to make sense of the conflicting feelings rushing through him now that Belle is basically suggesting for him to undress.
On the one hand, there's a very good reason why he keeps himself covered up at all times, not wanting others—and especially not Belle—to see how scrawny and weak he actually is… not to mention that he prefers to keep them - her - from seeing his scarred ankle. On the other, if there's one person who isn't going to judge him based on his appearance, it's her… and it would be quite lovely to swim without all those layers for once.
"It's not pretty, what's underneath all that," he mutters, lowering his head instinctively, letting his hair shield his face from her eyes.
"Let me decide for myself?" she softly requests, the fingers that brush against his arm influential enough to make him agree to just about anything.
"If that's what you'd like…"
"It is, just as long as you don't mind."
"All right," he says, moving to sit down so he can remove his shoes.
She looks away from him and he's grateful that she does so of her own accord, allowing him to shed his layers without her witnessing the difficulty of the process. After removing the brace around his ankle, he folds his shirt and jeans onto a neat pile, purposefully postponing the moment she will see him like this.
But soon, there's nothing for it but to get back on his feet and clear his throat to indicate that he's decent—or at least, as decent as he can be in the circumstances. His hands are protectively folded in front of him, though he has made certain that his swimming trunks are properly in place.
"That isn't too bad, is it?" she says softly, more like a conclusion than a question. "Just in case… in case it matters to you, I don't see anything which might cause self-consciousness."
"I… thank you, Belle. That's… that's very kind of you."
"Show me how you'd stand before diving?" she asks before the redness rushing to his cheeks can take over completely.
"I think it's easier if you start by sitting down," he says, demonstrating by squatting down before her.
She sits next to him, watching him closely—in a way that makes him forget about the gauntness of his body, his lack of muscle and size only increased by their situation of half-starvation on a remote island.
"Sit like this, and stretch your arms in front of you, your hands folded. Aim your hands towards the spot where you want to hit the water. Let yourself drop down your arms and head first, your feet last, and go in as vertically as possible."
After she has nodded in understanding, he lets himself fall exactly as he just described, moving as slowly as he can for teaching purposes. It once scared him to let himself plunge like this into the water, where he is unable to breathe and move as he is used to.
But unlike so many things that still terrify him, Gold has grown to enjoy the way the water allows him more freedom of movement than land— the way it envelops him entirely, almost intimately, without any judgment whatsoever.
Finding that it's indeed much more pleasant to be in the water when wearing nothing but actual swimming clothes, he remains in the ocean after resurfacing.
"Do you want to try?" he asks.
She nods, positioning herself exactly as he did a minute ago. At his approving sign, she lets herself fall forward the way he instructed her to—only to keep her knees too close to her chest and land on her belly on the water. Wincing in sympathy, he grabs her arm and pulls her to a more shallow level, where she emerges gasping for breath and grimacing in discomfort.
"Are you all right?!" he urges, concern flooding through him.
"I am, yes. At least, my dignity is hurt more than anything else."
"I'm sorry. I should have been up there to prevent that; I should have held on to your feet so you could go into the water with your body straight."
"Yeah, that didn't go according to plan," she concludes, rubbing over her reddened belly, making him wish he could do the same before forcefully expelling that hugely inappropriate thought from his mind. "It's not your fault though. Can we try again, only this time you'd stay on the cliffs with me to hold my feet if necessary?"
"If you're up to it, of course," he agrees, marveling at how brave she is to simply try again, so soon after a fall which probably hurt more than she lets on.
That's how they find themselves climbing up the rocks again, Belle offering him her hand for assistance. She squats down in the same spot as before, looking questioningly at him, but he's oblivious to the gesture. All he can do is stare as she sits down this way, water dripping from her body, her skin glistening wet… and the flimsy string of her bikini top about to come undone.
"Gold? Are you all right?"
It only belatedly dawns on him that she's calling out to him. She looks up at him from over her shoulder, her expression of affection not fading when she finds him gawking at her like some sort of pervert.
"Is something the matter?"
"Your... the string. Of your top," he brings out like the fool he is, all but stuttering. "It's... loose."
"Oh, thanks for mentioning it, I hadn't noticed. This bikini's usually stays in place, but obviously that splash I just made was a bit too much for it. Would you mind tying it again for me?"
He nods numbly, yet more astounded by the trust she's putting in him by requesting him to get anywhere near the last bit of fabric currently covering her chest. As he sits down next to her, he is taken aback once more by how utterly lovely she is, the sweet scent of her skin mixing deliciously with the saltiness of the water they were just in.
"Just undo it, pull it tight and tie it again," she says kindly, seeming more bemused than anything by his reaction. "Please don't feel uncomfortable on my account. I know my virtue is very safe with you."
That's how Gold, who once couldn't even have made tea for his wife without getting scolded, ends up readjusting the string of this incredible woman's bikini top, momentarily leaving her entire back all but bare in his efforts to do so.
"All done," he finally says, his voice oddly hoarse when he withdraws his hands.
Or at least, that's what he intended to do—for rather than distancing himself from her, he finds that he has rested his palm on the warm skin just above her hips. The touch is so light there's barely any contact, but regardless, he's got his hands on her for a fraction of a second.
Then he catches himself, wincing at what he just did. Yet as soon as he has leaned away, Belle moves backwards until he's touching her again after all... or rather, until her back is touching his hands rather than the other way around.
"I like it when you touch me," she says very, very softly, seeming almost afraid of those words.
"I like it as well," he murmurs, not having the slightest idea how they can possibly have come to this moment together.
But the sight of his undeserving hands on her flawless, still pale skin is simply too forbidden. There's something else he'd love to do though, something he might actually allow himself to enjoy.
Noting Belle's happy sigh when he leans slightly closer to her, he questioningly puts his arms around her. When she hums her approval, he wraps them both in this embrace, resting his hands on her arms which she then folds against her chest, giving him the room to envelop her.
He can't help but to bury his nose in her drenched curls, inhaling deeply. Holding the impossibly lovely woman against his chest, the two of them sitting on a cliff above a wide blue sea and beneath an endless azure sky, he's so far out of his depth that he doesn't even begin to wonder what's happening between them, or where they might go from here.
All Gold can do, just this once, is to savor the moment and just be, entirely losing himself in another person for probably the first time in his life, her slick back directly pressed against his equally soaked chest.
"I'd love to stay here with you for a very long time," she says eventually, "but my legs are getting really sore. How about we continue with the diving lesson now and get more... comfortable together at the first opportunity we can get?"
Realizing only then that his own legs are burning and his ankle is screaming in protest, he nods dumbly, once more overwhelmed by the offer she just made, implying something yet lovelier than what they've already shared.
The way she encourages him to guide her body into the best position feeling like little more than a blur, he has his hands on her once more as she dives three more times, each turn considerably better than the last, until she does so as easily as he eventually learned himself.
"Come in here as well?" she suggests, beaming up at him, as she treads water in the sea below.
He does exactly that, also grinning in a way he never has before when he comes up for air right at her side. Although he'd be very happy to stay exactly like that for the rest of his life, just the two of them in this tropical paradise, he recalls sooner rather than later that they've got a game to go back to—a game they both very much want to get ahead in.
"We probably should dry up and head back to camp."
"Yes, I agree. Let's get back onto the rocks; they are nicely warm."
He follows her back onto the low cliff as he did before, easily scaling its sides with her help... only for her to glance back at him and freeze dead in her tracks once they have reached the platform. Bewildered, he follows her gaze, finding that his swimming trunks are hanging low on his hips, revealing the trail of fuzzy hair from his navel downwards and... well, quite a bit of said downwards.
But rather than being disgusted by the highly accidental sight, the way she catches her lower lip between her teeth and practically stares at him with reddening cheeks gives him the strong if unexplainable impression that she likes what she sees.
His own face burning, feeling yet more self-conscious than he ever has in the game so far, he tells himself that there's no way she can actually be enjoying this sight. He quickly pulls up his wet swimming trunks, only for them to immediately sag down his hips again. Realizing he has lost weight, he begins to pull the ties tighter, only for Belle to rest her hand on his, halting his movements.
"Leave it like that for now, if you don't mind?"
"I... I suppose I don't mind, but... why?!"
"I think it's sort of… lovely to see. Very lovely."
He'd almost like to think that the heat and the lack of food have gotten to her after all, but her eyes are alert and alive as they come to rest on his abdomen once more.
"Come lie down with me?" she says, giving the example by getting down on her side, propping her head up on her arm.
Breathlessly, he does the same right opposite her, facing her as he lies down on the pleasantly warm rock. Gold wonders what on earth is coming over him when he finds himself enjoying the way her eyes are roaming over his body—and when she smiles, he can't help but do the same, drinking in the sight of the drops of water running down her gentle curves.
Chapter 12: Day 12
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wondeful beta work.
Thanks to Belle's improved diving skills, among other things, the Heroes have won fishing gear in the most recent reward challenge. Always trying to find ways to increase their food supply, Gold is happy to apply another skill he learned in preparation for the game to this mission. Having caught some small insects to function as bait, he makes his way to the beach, newly-won fishing rod in hand.
Wriggling one of the worms on the tiny hook and throwing it into the ocean, he settles himself on a rock in the shade, hoping that the thoughts in his head won't disturb him like they did while he was getting the hang of fishing on his private island. Staring at the bait in the water for hours at a time, willing any fish to bite it, then became his subconsciousness' favourite occasion to remind him of his failure as a father and a husband... as a person, really.
Strangely, it's unfamiliarly pleasant to sit there like this, getting to spend some time on his own without being surrounded by the likes of David and Emma. He's grown to like and respect both of them considerably more than he could have believed in advance, but they're not... well, they're not like Belle.
Rather than all the mistakes he made in the past, his doomed marriage and the relationship with his son—which he wouldn't really know how to improve even if he were to get a second chance with him—Gold simply thinks of the so very lovely woman he has befriended. Well, he doesn't know whether she would consider him a friend, but he most certainly characterizes her as such.
Although he would never have cared for something as trivial as friendship before coming to this island and getting to know Belle the way he has, it would once have bothered him not to know for certain whether she also thinks of him as a friend. She has never labeled their relationship—and neither has he, for that matter. At least not openly. But just thinking about her bright eyes and radiant smile makes him feel like it isn't necessary at all.
A sudden chuckling sound distracts him from his reverie. Quickly looking up towards the source of the sound, he finds none other than Belle herself sitting only a dozen feet or so from him, leaning comfortably against the trunk of a palm tree.
"What's so funny?" Gold asks, thrilled to see her.
"I'd never seen a smile on the face of a man who has been fishing for more than an hour without actually catching anything before."
Having almost forgotten that he was trying to catch a fish in the first place, all he can do is grin more widely at her, only vaguely wondering how long she has been there, watching him like this.
"You're not going to catch anything there, you know."
"Come over here," she says, gesturing at the other side of the rock.
He does as instructed, sitting in the bright sunlight instead, his legs dangling over the edge once more as he throws the hook with the bait on it back into the water.
"The sun warms the water here, and the fish prefer it for that reason," she explains.
"Are there things you don't know?" he replies, recalling that the survival experts he hired to prepare him for the game didn't teach him this.
"Of course. My father knew a lot more about fishing than I, he..."
"He what?" Gold asks softly, very much aware that once more, she is referring to her father in the past tense.
"He went fishing each and every Saturday. After my mother died, he took me with him and told me all these things. But I... I didn't really listen; I was much more interested in whichever books I had taken with me. If only... if only I had known..."
She trails off, lowering her head, but not before he can spot the tears in her eyes. Gold's heart aches in sympathy, his assumption that she has lost her father all but confirmed.
"You're doing it all wrong," she says good-naturedly a few moments later, indicating the way he is handling the fishing rod. "If I may..."
"Of course," he says, offering the item to her.
But rather than to take it, she sits down next to him, wrapping her arms questioningly around him to rest her hands on top of his, guiding his movements as he did for her while helping her to make fire.
"Like this," she murmurs, urging him to guide the bait gradually into the water. "This way, it looks more like an actual prey."
Almost as soon as she has said it, there's a sharp pull on the rod, that takes him by surprise to the extent that he might have dropped it if it hadn't been for Belle's much more alert reaction. They pull in the fish together, unhooking it and putting it in the water-filled cooking pot.
"That's number one," she notes cheerfully, easily putting another worm on the hook.
They throw it out together and Gold is thoroughly pleased when she makes herself comfortable behind him, her hands on his as she continues to move along with him, although he knows by now how to catch fish properly.
In no time, they have reeled in a second fish, then a third and a fourth. To his delight, Belle always returns to the same position, all but holding him just like he did for her at two particularly pleasant moments of their acquaintanceship.
"This is just as nice as reading a good book," she murmurs against his neck, her fingertips all but caressing his hands.
He makes a sound of agreement, knowing how much of a compliment is implicitly woven into that statement. It's beyond thrilling that he doesn't appear to be the only one of them who would be very happy indeed to stay exactly like this for an extended length of time, if not forever.
Gold is quite convinced that things can't get any better than this, but then she leans yet closer to him, her chest pressing lightly against his back. Becoming thoroughly aware of her soft curves pressing against him, he can feel a heat welling up inside of him that has nothing to do with the sun burning down on them.
As if that wasn't wonderful enough yet, she rests her chin on his shoulder after a while, lightly brushing her nose against his neck. Perspiration begins to drip down his body, but she doesn't seem to care or even notice and despite the warmth, he shivers when her breath brushes against his slick skin.
Although he is fairly certain that friends don't sit together like this, he hasn't the slightest idea what's going on, whether she is trying to tell him something or expecting him to react in a certain way. His only thought is to remain right where he is, with his physical nearness accepted in a way his own wife has never done.
It seems to be a good reaction, for Belle doesn't change her position either, going as far as to nuzzle his neck.
It's a good thing that he's sitting on his backside with his feet dangling over the rock, not squatting down with very little support like he was the day before—otherwise, he might very well have fallen off the cliff.
He may not have a single point of reference for any of this particular aspect of their interactions, but he does know that he very much likes that she's completely pressed against his back... and he is also aware that either of them would immediately be voted off the show by their fellow team mates if they were to be seen together like this.
They are quite far from camp, but if somebody were to walk by on the beach, there's no way that they wouldn't spotted, sitting practically entwined as if they were… well, whatever it is exactly what they may or may not feel for each other.
"Belle?" he inquires after a while, unable to leave his confusion unvoiced any longer.
"I can't help but wonder... why are you risking being seen like this with me?"
She sighs, that sound alone informing him that she is torn on the subject as well.
"Because I really like you," she says after a pause.
"I... I see," he mutters, blown away by the meaning of her matter-of-fact answer... and so much more puzzled at the same time.
"Because I can't stay away from you," she adds after another moment. "Because I don't want to stay away from you."
"I feel the same," he immediately admits, wanting first and foremost to let her know that he enjoys their interaction and nearness as much as she apparently does herself.
"I'm glad. Although that doesn't make it any easier."
"What do you mean, Belle?"
"It's like... well, as you probably understood from our earlier conversations, I'm not exactly surrounded by people I'm close to in real life. And to be on this show, to have an actual shot at winning a million dollars... it's amazing. As you doubtlessly gathered from the conversation you overheard between Ruby and myself, I really want to win that money."
She is quiet for a moment and he holds back the questions her words evoke, knowing she'll continue whenever she is ready.
"I've watched all seasons of this show at least twice, and it's so easy to judge participants for trusting each other in a game where only one person can win and betraying your alliances and allies is such a major part of strategy. And let's not even mention the people who get... very attached to each other. So when I came here myself, I told myself not to get too close to anyone, not to really trust anyone at all. But now that I'm here, now that I've met you... almost from the very first moment I met you..."
She holds onto him yet more tightly, all but burying her face in his hair. Gold closes his eyes in response, not having the slightest clue why she would feel this way about him when there are people in their very team who are so much more deserving of her trust and affection.
"I tell myself that there's nothing in this game worth risking a million dollar over, I tell myself that every single day, every hour, but... I really, really like you. In real life, I can't imagine myself sitting with a guy like this, talking like this… touching the way we do. To me, all of it feels wonderful. Everything about you feels wonderful. And I... well, I want both. The money and your companionship. I tell myself that I can have both, that one goal might actually lead to the other. Does that make sense?"
"It does," he replies, only realizing now that he has gone an entire day without thinking about Neal for the first time since his son was born. Instead, his thoughts have been filled with Belle and their relationship, hopeful and... happy, almost. No matter how much he wants to repair his relationship with Neal, he wants to have a relationship with Belle, too. One doesn't necessarily exclude the other. "It makes a lot of sense to me."
"I hoped it would... I almost expected it would," she says gladly. "So that's my answer. I don't want to take the risk of us being mistaken for a power couple, of me seeming to ride your coattails or anything like that. I don't want to take the risk of trusting you so much I'm all but setting myself up for a blindside, either. And yet... I don't want to deny myself the chance of feeling the way I feel when I'm with you, and..."
She tenses, stopping abruptly. Becoming suddenly alert as well, he sees at that moment that Mary-Margaret and David are strolling across the beach, hand in hand, moving right in their direction.
"I don't think they've seen us yet," Belle says urgently. "I'm getting out of here. David already suspects about us, so Mary-Margaret doubtlessly does as well... no need to strengthen that suspicion."
"Agreed. But I will go. You take those fish and bring them back to camp later; we wouldn't have caught a single one of them if it hadn't been for you. You should take the credit, and you can't sneak off with an entire pot filled with fish."
"I really appreciate that offer, Gold, but I'm faster than you and one of us really has to disappear into the jungle right now."
Just like that, Belle is gone, leaving him feeling bereft—his hands almost dropping the rod now that she isn't holding it any longer. Sighing, he does as she suggested, holding on to their wonderful conversation and nearness in his mind.
Chapter 13: Day 13
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
Gold knew in advance that the most part—if not all—of his time on Survivor would be filled with varying levels of stress and tension, probably even fear. Whereas all of that hasn't been nearly as bad as he anticipated thus far—mostly thanks to Belle—he's currently experiencing sheer terror.
The rain started this morning, falling down without ever seeming to end. It got dark hours earlier than usual, nearly-black clouds gathering on the horizon and the wind picking up as more and more water fell from the sky. The shelter withstood the onslaught of the weather for half a day before it began leaking, and now it offers so little protection against the elements that they might as well not have a roof over their heads at all.
The wetness is making all of the remaining Heroes cold and miserable. The fire went out hours ago, which also made it impossible to prepare a somewhat sufficient dinner. Worse than that, the rain is accompanied by the most powerful thunderstorm Gold has ever experienced.
Ever since he was a child, he has been afraid of the white lightning and especially the roar of thunder that follows it—his father's laughter not helping matters at all when he sought consolation. Decades later, he still preferred to hide himself away in the heart of whichever building he happened to be in when a thunderstorm occurred—preferably crawling deep under the covers of his bed.
Even then, he would be trembling with barely-suppressed fear until the storm passed. But now he's out here, outside, while a tropical thunderstorm rages all around him with violence he didn't even know was possible. His body is shaking more badly than it ever has in his life, and he can't tell whether the drops on his face are rain or tears.
It feels like hours have gone by like this, the seven remaining Heroes miserably seeking shelter together. No one has spoken for a long time and no matter how much Gold wishes he could tell himself that this can't possibly go on for much longer, that the storm has to come to an end soon, he is too exhausted to pretend.
He even feels no point in telling himself that the production crew would evacuate them if the situation on the island got too dangerous; he's quite certain that the weather is so bad that evacuation wouldn't be possible, even if it had to come to this.
Water dripping from his hair, he closes his eyes tightly for a moment, trying to picture somewhere comfortable, somewhere safe. But for the life of him, he can't trick his mind into thinking that he might be at one of his highly luxurious properties... preferably with Belle at his side.
Opening his eyes again after a few seconds, he looks around at the huddling figures around him, wanting to see how she is faring and find out if there's any way he can get closer to her for some much needed reassurance.
By now, he wouldn't even care if the whole tribe were to see them cuddling together. Even being voted off before reaching half of the game would be preferable to spending another minute like this.
However, when he looks around in the shelter, he comes to the most shocking discovery yet: Belle is nowhere to be seen.
His throat tightening in panic and his breath coming in short and shallow, desperate gasps, Gold looks around more carefully this time. But there's no denying it: there are only six figures in the shelter, and none of them have her petite stature and long curls.
He all but jumps, barely able to refrain from screaming out loud in fear, when a hand lands on his shoulder from outside the shelter. Twisting his head to face whatever new threat is looming, he finds a figure standing at his side.
It's raining so hard he can't tell the identity of the person standing one foot away from him, but said person is squeezing his shoulder encouragingly, in that way only Belle has. He can't begin to comprehend what she's doing outside the shelter—or why she then takes his hand and gives it a questioning tug, as if to encourage him to join her in the pouring rain.
It seems like sheer madness to him to stay in the shelter, but yet more so to leave it. He does the latter anyway, trusting her with this as with everything else. The weather is so bad, the condition and mood of the others so low that they don't notice their departure when he follows her into the curtain of water.
He doesn't have a clue where they are going, whether Belle has perhaps been influenced by the elements yet more badly than himself. But he trusts her, now more than ever, even as they struggle through a seemingly endless distance in the jungle.
By the time he spots a flicker of light right ahead of them, Gold fears he might be hallucinating, but as Belle all but pulls him towards it and he can actually feel its very welcoming heat, he knows that she has once more found a way to make their lives on the island considerably less unpleasant.
He's too exhausted to see properly, but it appears that she's guided him to a cave or some sort of overhanging rock, a small dry space that's just big enough to include a fire and two people of modest size. Huddling desperately by the flames to get some warmth back into his freezing body, he notes that much to his relief, she appears to be in better shape than he is.
"Take off your clothes," she says, gesturing at his thoroughly soaked shirt and jeans. She's only wearing her bikini herself, having realized much sooner than he did that any fabric would only make them colder in this horrible weather.
He nods in agreement, but finds that his shaking hands won't obey him as he tries to pull his shirt over his head.
"May I?" she asks, her hands already on the button of his jeans.
He nods, grateful that she's willing to help him get rid of his clothes… and doesn't seem to mind that the cold and misery have made his body yet more useless than usual.
After she has freed him from his shoes and socks, the brace on his ankle, his jeans and his shirt, he's almost surprised that she doesn't go for his swimming trunks as well... and yet more surprised to realize that he would actually have let her take them off, undressing him completely, had she wanted to do so.
Idly, he ponders how typical it is that this is the first time since his childhood that a woman has undressed him, and that it had to be under such circumstances. He wouldn't have had it any other way.
She shoves the dripping pile of his clothes aside and gives him fistfuls of what appears to be leaves. He doesn't grasp her intentions until she also takes a handful of them and rubs them over her skin, getting it as dry as she can, since they don't have any towels or dry cloth of any kind. He follows her example, immediately feeling less cold as he does so.
They fling the leaves away once they are done, leaving the two of them sitting opposite one another in the tiny dry space, the rain sloshing down mere inches away from them and the proximity making their knees touch. Between the heat of the fire and the warmth of Belle, he only seems to realize now just how very cold he was... and, to a large extent, still is.
Without saying a word, she closes the distance between them and throws her arms around him, pulling him against her. Her bikini is still damp, just like his swimming trunks, which were impossible to get dry in such a short time. Still, she's warm and safe and as he instinctively wraps his arms around her in return, he knows that he doesn't ever want to let go again.
She rubs her hands firmly all over his back and arms, bringing some warmth back into them. Tentatively, he does the same for her, becoming more vigorous after her nod of approval.
"I found this place one night, when I went exploring because I couldn't sleep," she explains in response to his unspoken question. "I prepared it in case we'd get to a point when the shelter wouldn't suffice. I wish we could take everyone, but... well, it's obviously only large enough for two, and you're by far the best company I can imagine here."
"Thank you," he rasps, taken aback by the depth of her fondness for him once more. "I admire your resourcefulness."
"Well, a woman has got to do something when the alpha males prefer arguing about building a shelter rather than to actually do it, especially when none of them seems to know much about it in the first place, doesn't she?"
"Indeed. I didn't go beyond managing not to roll my eyes or bash my head against the nearest rock. Obviously your approach was more fruitful."
"Well, it sounds like you're feeling better," she comments, giggling a little.
"I am. There... there are no words to express my gratitude to you, Belle," he answers, finding that the sound of her laughter is warming him up just as much as the fire and her body.
"I help you and you help me," she simply states, aptly summarizing their relationship so far. "We should be able to get far in the game like that."
His intended reply remains stuck on his lips when a new source of discomfort presents itself. Now that he's starting to get warm, his whole body seems plagued by an intense tingling.
"Let's get you more comfortable," she says, immediately picking up on his unease.
Between the two of them, they lay him down on the ground, only for him to start trembling again as soon as he isn't skin to skin with her any longer. However, that is remedied very quickly when she lies down too, questioningly scooting against him, her chest brushing his. He happily lets her get close, sighing in relief once their bodies are pressed against one another again.
She continues rubbing his back and he does the same for her, glad that they can continue this independently of the warmth it offers—that the heat evoked within him can be a source of comfort for her as well.
"It might be hours until this rain stops, if not more," she sighs, resting her head in the crook of his shoulder. "We have to be careful, though. All hell will break loose if the others figure out that we aren't with them in the shelter, let alone that we are spending the night like this."
"They won't notice," he says, momentarily feeling rather bad when he thinks of the people they left in the leaking shelter, much to his surprise. "It's dark, and everyone is too busy trying to deal with their own misery. Except for David and Mary-Margaret, maybe... but you know as well as I that they don't notice anything or anyone else when they're together."
"It's not like there is much we can do anyway, except get back before everyone has recovered enough to realize we spent the night here. Still, I'm glad that we are. Very glad. You're like my personal heater."
"I aim to please you," he mutters good-naturedly, only fully realizing the truth of this statement after he is finished speaking it.
"And don't you manage wonderfully," she mutters, sounding more content than anyone else has ever been regarding him.
He'd very much like to stay exactly like this, lying there in Belle's arms while his body gradually recovers from the cold, for as long as the rain continues. But now that they are more alone than they'll ever find themselves in this part of the game, he probably won't have a better opportunity to ask his most ardent question regarding her.
"Belle, can I ask you something personal?"
"You can, yes. Of course"
"If I may inquire… why do you want to win the money so badly?"
She's silent for a long time and he begins to fear that he has gone too far, that he shouldn't have asked her this. But then she stirs, shifting a little so she can look him in the eye as she talks.
"My father died half a year ago," she says eventually.
"I'm so sorry, Belle," he says, his heart aching at the confirmation that she has lost both her parents. "My deepest condolences."
"Thank you. He had been sick for years and in the end, it was almost a relief when he passed away. His hospital bills were on my name, and there were many of them... too many. And I only found out after he died that he was also deep in debt, because of both his shop and the laboratory... a debt which is now mine. Let's just say that I need to get at least third place in this game to have any chance of something resembling an actual life."
Third place... a hundred thousand dollars. Mere change for a person of his wealth.
"Can we talk about this another time?" she says, tears welling in her eyes.
"Of course. Of course," he hastens to reply, feeling particularly selfish for asking her this merely to satisfy his own curiosity. "I'm sorry to have brought it up, especially on a night like this."
"There's never a good moment to talk about such things. It's just... it's hard."
He nods in agreement and understanding, thinking of his son... and a way to clear her debt, regardless of how much of the price money she might win.
"Try not to worry about it," he whispers as she snuggles against him again.
"That's easy for you to say," she says with some sharpness in her usually mild voice. "I figured out that you're a millionaire before the third day was over."
"Did you now?" he mutters, deciding that this isn't the best time to tell her that technically, he's far too rich to fit that term.
"Yes. Although you can relate enough to poverty for me to tell that you've experienced it for yourself. You're a self-made millionaire, clearly."
"That's very... observant of you," he mumbles, wondering if there are other, much more personal aspects of him that she has picked up on without his knowing. And yet, nothing is more important right now than trying to ease her worries, encourage her to enjoy her time on the island—their time on the island—as much as possible. "Your father obviously can't be brought back, or your mother for that matter. But regarding financial matters... you will be fine."
Her snort informs him that she doesn't believe his words, but she goes quiet when his embrace becomes yet more protective than before.
Chapter 14: Day 14
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
All remaining Heroes are miserable the next morning, none of them having slept or eaten for twenty-four hours. Gold and Belle sneaked in from the back of the shelter before their absence could be missed, but although they have spent the night in a considerably more comfortable way than the others, they are no exception on those two facts.
The fire in their own natural shelter had gone out hours ago because of the lack of dry material to burn, and the situation at camp isn't any better. For Gold, the ache of his grumbling stomach is such a familiar reminder of his younger years that he almost finds comfort in it, knowing that he'll be fine as soon as they get a fire going. But one look around the gaunt and tight faces around the fireplace reminds him that he's the only one in this case.
Belle is sitting opposite him, her head bowed. She may not be able to actually feel his gaze, of course, but this is the first time she doesn't meet his eyes almost as soon as they have landed on her. Only now does he notice that her oversized shirt isn't all that large at all... or at least, it originally wasn't. It seems that rather than wearing a shirt that is too large for her, she has gotten too small for one that once fit her well—a shirt which was never large in the first place.
Taking in just how thin her arms and legs are, how drawn her face, he realizes that she probably wasn't eating properly long before coming here, given what she told him last night. He wonders what reserves her body had before her time here—whether it had any at all—and how much of them are currently depleted.
This should be the point when the strongest person in the group speaks up and finds a way to get food they can safely consume, never mind the lack of fire. But even David looks forlorn, staring miserably at Mary-Margaret, who obviously isn't doing well either.
"We're going to have to find food that doesn't require cooking," Gold says, stating the obvious, if only because no one else seems to be even thinking about how to actually get themselves out of this situation.
He hoped that Belle would finally look up after his remark, if only because she knows very well that he usually wouldn't insert himself into anything resembling a leadership position. In the beginning of the game, or even a few days ago, he couldn't have imagined himself doing so, either.
But she's suffering and he'll do anything in his power to change that, never mind his knowledge that the contestant who mentions a problem and subsequently fails to overcome it might as well volunteer to be sent home at the earliest opportunity.
"No shit, Sherlock," Emma mutters, not glancing up either.
"Since we won't get food simply by wishing for it, I suggest we go and find it. The question is where best to look for it. We've probably gotten all the fish there was from the shallow water, so there isn't much point in trying the rods again. We've gotten some coconuts, tubers and fruits within a one-hour walking distance from camp. The way I see it, we are going to have to try the fishing spears for the first time, or..."
"No, that's too dangerous. We are all so weak we can barely stand," Emma interrupts, her voice stronger than before. "None of us should go into the water until we've had something to eat. I'd hate to see anyone drown, even you, Gold."
"Your touching concern has been noted, Emma," he retorts, his voice lacking all of its usual sharpness when disagreeing with the tough and strong-headed woman whose trust he can't seem to gain, no matter what he does.
"Besides, we've got no fire to cook the fish with, remember? I'm not so desperate yet that I'm going to eat it raw."
"No fishing then," he says, deciding not to waste any energy on debating whether fish can be eaten raw or not. "That leaves going far out of camp in the hope of finding anything on the main land. Anyone has any other ideas?"
Everyone shakes their heads. At least it's a reaction of some sort.
"Any volunteers?" he asks next, raising his own hand. David and Emma do the same.
After that, there's no more to say and no reason to linger. The three of them get up wearily, David kissing the top of Mary-Margaret's head. Gold wishes he could do the same with Belle, but the others are looking at him and she, for that matter, is not.
Inwardly wishing her goodbye, he joins David and Emma as they collect their water bottles and the two machetes before walking out of camp. Before he has made ten steps, Gold is swaying on his feet, light-headed with hunger and exhaustion. The other two aren't faring any better.
He tells himself that he survived in somewhat similar situations when he didn't have anything to live for... and that he very much does now. Thinking of Belle clears his mind a little, makes his steps slightly wider and firmer.
"Should we split up?" Emma asks after a few minutes. "We'll cover more ground that way."
"None of us should be alone in the state we are in," David decides as Gold nods in agreement. "Besides, three pairs of eyes see more than one."
That's how they painstakingly trek through the jungle, having to stop frequently so at least one of them can lean against a tree for support. They don't talk. In any other situation, Gold would have gratefully taken this opportunity. Now that Archie and Jefferson have both been voted off as expected, there are only seven of them remaining: David, Emma and Mary-Margaret, Philip and Ruby, and Belle and himself.
Given that relations have not improved between the last two alliances, it seems nothing but logical for him to try to get David and his allies to vote against Ruby and Philip. Being separated from them would be the ideal opportunity to do so, but all he can think about is finding food to make Belle feel better.
It seems like ages have gone by when they finally chance upon two coconuts, on the ground beneath an otherwise empty tree. After minimal consideration, they decide that it's too little to suffice for everyone, but that the three of them will be able to get a lot further if they eat the fruits themselves. After a brief break to share the food between them, they continue their quest.
It's probably sheer luck that they eventually end up finding some trees still carrying fruit after the previous day's heavy storm. All of it is out of reach, as if it hadn't been hard enough to find in the first place, but they manage to pick it after all when Gold, being the lightest of the three, climbs on David and Emma's shoulders.
They find some cassava on the way back and it's only through sheer and grim determination that they make it to camp, barely able to walk at all, let alone in a straight line. But they've got enough food to get them through the day, and hopefully to the moment when they'll be able to light a fire again and cook the little rice and beans they have left.
As they finally arrive, Gold fears for a moment that he's yet more gone than he thought, mentally and physically: indeed, he can only spot three people sitting around what was once their fire, rather than four. However, when they straighten themselves, their eyes zeroing in on the food they've brought, he sees that they are indeed only three—and the only person he cares about isn't among them.
"Where is Belle?" he all but growls, looking frantically around for her.
"Fishing," Ruby says vaguely, clearly having no attention for anything but the food.
His insides clenching at the thought of a terrifyingly weakened Belle sitting on her own right above merciless rocks, he braces himself to get to their usual fishing spot as quickly as possible, in the hopes of finding her there—only to be stopped by David's large hand on his arm.
"Take these," the younger man says, offering him a coconut, a banana and a mango—the only properly ripened fruit they found—much to Gold's surprise. "You—and Belle—earned them. We probably wouldn't have gotten all of this if it hadn't been for you."
Nodding in gratitude at David, he vows to thank the other man for his generosity later. Right now, however, all he can think about is Belle. He's grateful that the others are entirely focused on Emma, who is distributing most of the food, but doesn't even care all that much what would happen if he were to be seen rushing to Belle with some of the best items they found.
After a few frantic minutes, he finds her indeed where he expected to. Calling out her name, his worry becoming yet stronger at her lack of reaction, he races towards her, his already overexerted ankle aching in protest. Dropping the food and his can of water on the rocks as soon as he gets there, he rushes to her side, finding her slumped on the edge of the cliff.
"Belle!" he cries out, crashing down on his knees next to her. "Oh, Belle."
At least, she tilts her head towards him, her eyes opening—but the way she looks almost right through him isn't comforting at all.
"I've got water and food for you, dearest," he says quickly, the affectionate word slipping out almost unnoticed.
Taking the fishing rod from her limp hands, he puts it out of the way, absently noting that there is no fish in sight. With a strength he didn't know he had despite his preparation—especially two weeks into the game—he places one of his arms around her shoulders and the other beneath her knees. Lifting her up, he carries her away from the edge of the rocks, putting her down at a safe distance from the drop in the sea.
"Let's try to drink some water," he encourages her, opening his can and bringing it to her mouth.
When he finds that she isn't going to drink of her own accord, he tilts her head backwards as carefully as he can and brings the canteen towards her lips.
"Small sips," he tells her, encouraging her to drink the last of his boiled water.
To his relief, she at least swallows it without choking and without further coaxing. Yet better, her eyes have become brighter and more alert when they finally focus on him afterwards.
"You're doing so well. Let's try some coconut milk too, all right?"
Using the machete he still had with him when he rushed towards her, Gold chops off the top of the fruit. Delighted that she reaches for it with her own hands when he offers it to her, he continues to support her head as they hold it together and she greedily drinks the more nutritious liquid.
But before she's halfway, she lowers the coconut again and offers it to him with a weak smile, much to his bewilderment. For just a moment, he can barely believe what he's seeing, barely comprehend that a human being can be so utterly selfless… let alone towards him.
"No, Belle, no," he hurriedly says. "That's all for you. Take it, please. I've already had some earlier today, when we were looking for more food."
She nods in understanding and drinks the rest without protest, to his relief. As soon as she's done, he begins to cut the remains of the coconut into pieces, getting into the solid but also edible part of it. He breaks it into small pieces, bringing them directly to her mouth.
He keeps a close eye on her the whole time, beyond delighted that she seems to get better with each bite and sip she takes. Some color is returning to her cheeks and she sits straighter, her eyes lively again as she visibly recovers.
"Thank you so much. I'm feeling better already," she whispers as he hands her another bit of coconut. "I can't describe how grateful I am that you…"
He hushes her softly, wanting her to spare her energy and, at the same time, already knowing exactly what she means. As soon as he is finished with the coconut, he goes to sit behind her. She immediately leans against him, her back to his chest, and he lightly wraps his arms around her, keeping her steady.
"I'm so very glad you're feeling better," he whispers, tears welling in his eyes, much to his bewilderment. "I… I wouldn't know what to do if you had to be evacuated from the game, let alone if you actually got hurt and..."
"I was so afraid you wouldn't come back," she says when he trails off, staring into those ever-so-blue eyes of hers that seem like endless depths of acceptance and kindness. "That you'd gotten hurt, or…"
There are tears in her eyes as well and he tenderly wipes them away, shivering when she does the same for him. She was as worried for him as he was for her, but here they are, relatively safe and sound—and together—once more.
"Look what David gave you," he says, managing to reach for the banana and the mango without letting go of her. "Perhaps you can save the banana for a little while, but you might as well eat the mango now, before it goes bad."
If it weren't for the current situation, it would have been comical to see her eyes widen in reaction to this food, the likes of which they haven't had since they got here.
"I'm not eating that on my own."
"David wants you to have it," he protests.
"But you were probably the one who got it, and thus you should have it."
"No, no. All three of us got this together."
"That's… that's good to hear. But still… I want you to have some as well, Gold. You've been out there all day, while I…"
"Did more than anyone else in your position," he gently objects, gesturing at the fishing rod.
"How about you take one bite for every two I take?" she suggests.
"I'll take one bite for every four of yours," he mockingly negotiates, her light answering smile informing him that she's already recovered enough to be able to spare a few bits of food.
"One bite for three," she offers.
"You've got yourself a deal," he agrees, those words like an awful reminder of his regular life—but so very different at the same time, now that they are spoken in this context.
They savor the fruit as they pass it between them, Belle becoming more and more like her usual lively self with each bite. He finds his energy and mood spiking as well, being used to getting so little nutrition that each relative excess has an equally large impact on his body by now.
After some good-natured arguing, it's decided that she will get the last of the flesh off the mango's core—only for her to extend her hand to him, her digits glistening with fruit juice.
"I just took three bites… so the fourth is yours," she says, bringing her fingers to his lips questioningly. "Although I'd rather you didn't actually eat my fingers, but..."
He knows exactly what she means, and although there are probably many reasons why he shouldn't do so, right now it only seems right to gently grasp her wrist in his hand, holding it steady. Keeping his eyes on her the whole time to make certain that she remains at ease with what he is doing, Gold licks her fingers clean one by one, the juice the sweetest he has ever tasted by far as he samples it directly off her skin.
Chapter 15: Day 15
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
The Heroes have lost another immunity challenge, but as the sun is shining once more and life at camp has returned to normal, Gold is in rather good spirits regardless. At least until he notices Belle shrinking away from the rest of the group, looking miserable, just like she did during the challenge… in which she performed considerably less well than usual.
Afraid that she hasn't recovered as well as he thought from the past few days' lack of food, he follows her as soon as the others start busying themselves with whatever it is they like to do around camp when there aren't actually any constructive tasks at hand.
Heading back to the beach, he finds Belle at the treeline. To his horror, she's lying down, curled up on herself—looking yet worse than she did yesterday, when she hadn't had anything to eat for about thirty hours.
"What's wrong?" he cries, rushing to her side once more.
"Nothing," she brings out, hastily sitting up when she notices him. Her skin is yet paler than the day before, but her eyes aren't as glassy as they were then.
"This doesn't look like 'nothing'," he replies, hands fluttering uselessly as he sits down beside her. "Please, I'll drop the subject if you don't want to talk about it, of course, but… you look like you need help, and I'd only be too happy if I could do anything to assist you."
"I appreciate that, Gold. Very much," she says, wincing in pain even as she speaks. He notes how her hand is resting protectively on her belly, as if it were hurting. "But this is sort of normal."
"Normal how?" he asks, not understanding; surely she can't frequently be in this sort of pain in real life!
"It's a bit embarrassing, but if you really want to know… I'm having my period."
"Your what?" he asks, only more confused.
"My… time of the month?" she tries again, looking at him as if her previous explanation ought to have cleared everything up.
"Your… Oh, I see," he mutters, although he doesn't really understand at all.
"You don't know much about women, do you?" she asks softly, her voice gentle despite the discovery that he's completely clueless when it comes to her gender… when it comes to her, in many ways.
"I don't, no," he says, lowering his head. "I've heard of this, but… I don't really know what it means."
"I'll spare you the biology lesson. Let's just say that it's useful if you want to conceive a child in that particular month, but if you don't… it's a bloody nuisance, and it hurts. At least they're giving us tampons."
He briefly follows her gaze to her denim shorts, feeling puzzled again and figuring that it's for the best that he doesn't understand… except for the part about her suffering.
"Those flowers you used, to soothe the hurt in my ankle," he tries, thrilled at the prospect of being able to help her. "They might lower this pain as well. I can get them for you if you…"
"I really appreciate that offer, Gold, very much so, but it won't be of any use against this."
"Oh," is all he can say, his shoulders sagging as he looks miserably at Belle—right when she grimaces once more and her hand flies back to her stomach. "I'm sorry. I wish I…"
"There's something else that would help, if you don't mind."
"Of course," he says, realizing that he would do anything in his power to make her feel better before she has even told him what she needs.
He nods enthusiastically in response. Holding her is something he can easily do… something he also very much enjoys, although he doesn't see how it could possibly ease her discomfort.
Gold marvels at how easy it is for him to take her in his arms, cradling her protectively against him as she rests her head in the crook between his neck and shoulder. Before coming onto the show, he loathed the prospect of having to express the physical affection that is strongly approved of in a game like this—but as he got to know Belle, he has found that even holding her this tightly is far from unpleasant.
Then again, of course, she's the only one he can imagine being so close to… the only one he wants to hold like this.
"That's better," she mutters, all but crawling into him. "Would you mind if I borrowed your hand for a while as well?"
"What do you need my hand for?!"
"Warmth," she says, her answer only confusing him further, especially as she questioningly guides the limb in question underneath her shirt to rest it on her by now almost concave belly. "Is this all right?"
He nods in agreement, although he still doesn't see how this could be helping her. It's not as if he had got some sort of magic reaching her through his hand, after all. But she is already looking more relaxed, so he isn't going to question it.
"How much longer is it supposed to hurt?" he asks, wishing to understand more of at least another aspect of her apparently regular ailment. "Like an hour, or a day? Or like… a week?!"
"You impossibly wicked, but simultaneously rather naive and strangely sweet man," she sighs, sounding rather happy with that probably very apt assessment.
"You don't get described like that every day, I suppose."
"Not quite, not… but I rather like it."
"I'm glad. To answer your question… it usually hurts two or three days, and quite badly for half or so of that time. Being here, though… I've got no idea. It started yesterday, and I can only hope it'll be over after today."
"Will you tell me if there's anything else I can do to help?" he asks, suddenly realizing that both her average performance in this morning's challenge and her poor condition yesterday may have been caused by this.
"Yeah, although I don't think there is. But you're doing so much already, Gold. If only Gaston had ever cuddled me like this…"
"Well, we can always get Gaston the chicken for you," he quips, although he isn't all that fond of the idea. "She's warmer than I'll ever be."
"Nah, I'd much rather have you," she says, nuzzling yet closer to him for emphasis.
More delighted than he could ever express, Gold closes his eyes in gratitude, brushing his face against her neck in return. He's utterly content to sit together like this, now that she's apparently doing better… until he feels a sudden wetness against his shoulder.
Looking back at her in horror, he finds that she's crying, her eyes red and puffy, tears running down her overly pale cheeks.
"Belle, do you need a doctor?!"
He'd hate for her to be so hurt so badly that she might need to be taken out of the game, but her health is of course paramount… and he's already determined to pay off her father's debts, so she doesn't need to win the game for that purpose anymore.
"No, no. It's not because of…" She gestures helplessly at her face. "It's not because of the pain. This is one of those moments… Sometimes it just hits, you know? Being here, at first it was wonderful. It is the kind of adventure I've always dreamed of having; it allowed me to think of something that wasn't my parents and my finances. But at the same time, there's so little to do other than the challenges and tribal council, when you barely have any energy and no one is plotting."
"It gives you an awful lot of time to think," he concludes, describing one of the many fears he had himself before coming to this island.
"Exactly. And then there's the hunger, the discomfort that's just as endless… the fact of being an outsider, even here. It's so much less difficult than it could have been, all thanks to you, but…"
"I tell myself that it will get better," he says, trying to reassure her. "There'll be no more avoiding the plotting once we've merged with the Villains. The rewards will get better too… and we'll have to win something good to eat sooner or later. In the meantime… it's beyond me how you can find comfort in my presence, but I'm more than happy to try to cheer you up. Just being with you… it makes me feel better, too."
Only now that he is telling her this does he realize that the regret, shame and deep loneliness that wholly overwhelm him whenever he thinks of his son haven't been plaguing him nearly as much as before, now that he has gotten to know Belle and begun spending so much time with her.
"That's wonderful. I can only hope that it will works for the both of us… but regardless, it's so good to know that it does for you, at the very least."
Without warning, her face twists with pain and her hand flies to his, pressing it more tightly against her belly.
"Bloody cramps," she mutters, pressing herself yet deeper into his accommodating arms.
It's utterly ridiculous, but being this close to her in all senses of the word, it's almost as if he could feel her discomfort himself. Even a few days ago, he would have been certain that he wouldn't want to be so entwined with another person that he could actually all but experience their pain, but by now he wouldn't want it any other way.
"Try to relax, dearest," he mutters in her hair, unaware at first that he has begun to rock her gently. "You are so strong and brave. You'll get through this. It's just a matter of time."
"You always say such nice things," she mutters, tightening the hold of her arms around his neck.
"No one has ever told me that before," he replies, if only to keep her attention away from the pain as much as he possibly can.
"Well, if you keep this up, you're going to get swarmed with women as soon as you get off this island."
"I highly doubt that," he mutters, recalling far too vividly how dramatically his two attempts at a romantic relationship ended.
Even if it were true, there is only one woman he's actually interested in—and she's right here, miraculously, in his arms. Unwilling to alarm her with his growing awareness that he doesn't want to be separated from her when either of them has to leave the island, he doesn't mention that.
"I don't at all, but just in case half the country isn't smitten with you by the time this gets broadcasted… well, I might have to be selfish and keep you all to myself."
"I… I don't object to that," he mumbles, "at all."
"I'm going to hold you to that," she whispers back.
Warmth blossoming inside him like it never has before, Gold figures that perhaps, somehow, he isn't the only one who wishes for them to remain together long after the competition is over.
Chapter 16: Day 16
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
It's amazing how his mood can change in this game. In the past two decades or so, it was generally rather low—which was still a vast improvement on the sheer misery of the first half of his life so far. But here on the island, with Belle…
In the past few days, they have been in equally low spirits because of the lack of food and extreme surplus of rain—a state of mind which then turned into pain for her and worry about her for him. But now it's a sunny and bright new day, Belle is feeling a lot better and a modest breakfast of rice did them both good.
So good, in fact, that they can't wait to finally try the fishing spears they won along with the rods last week. Not only because they might catch themselves some much-needed protein, but also because… well, it might be fun.
"Fun" isn't a word that used to be included in his lexicon and he wasn't aware he had allowed Belle to put it there, but now that he finds himself craving leisure time in her company and sharing new experiences with her, it has become his favorite aspect of his days on the island by far.
"Ready to go?" he asks after they have armed themselves with snorkels and flippers.
"I am!" she exclaims, giving him two thumbs up as they both head into the water.
Belle may have never been snorkeling before, let alone spearfishing, both of which he learned in preparation for the game. But it is still she who leads the way as she all but runs into the sea, as radiant and excited as he's seen her on the island so far, now that she's feeling better and the weather has greatly improved.
When they've waded deep enough into the water, they put on their snorkeling masks and lower themselves into a swimming position. Their spears at the ready, he lets the cooking pot in which they'll collect the fish float behind them. Although they've come with the intention of catching their dinner, he can immediately tell that she is wholly focused on the sea life surrounding them.
Although there is fish practically swimming against them, she looks with wide eyes at the coral in the bright white sand beneath those, that contrasts beautifully with the clear blue water all around and the countless, spectacularly colored little animals.
During his training with the survival expert he worked with for half a year, Gold has seen dozens of scenes like this. But now that he's out here, now that he's with her, he notices for the first time how beautiful it all actually is… how wonderful to swim through the warm water with Belle at his side.
Rather than to focus immediately on catching fish, they spend a while swimming this way and that, occasionally diving down to take a better look at coral or animals below the surface of the ocean. Instead of getting somewhat used to the sights, she appears to grow yet more excited and impressed with each new discovery.
Becoming fully aware of the beauty of this underwater world for the very first time, Gold can't help but realize that the sights on his own island are yet more spectacular... and wonder whether she would go there with him if he asked.
Two weeks ago, he came out here expecting to be driven to absolute frustration within mere hours of having to spend every day and night with nine strangers. He figured that he could only hope he'd be able to get rid of them before he actually dropped his mask of politeness out of sheer frustration. Whereas there are, to his surprise, several people here who don't annoy him all that much.
Belle, obviously, is in a different category altogether... a category he didn't know could apply to him until very recently. Even if they were to be able to go to the very end of the game together, spending just as much if not more time alone than they already do, he feels increasingly convinced that he still wouldn't be willing to be separated from her then—quite the opposite.
She taps on his arm to alert him to the presence of a particularly impressively-colored fish, which had escaped his attention during his musings. But even as he admires it, he can't help but notice that nothing out here can be remotely as spectacular as Belle herself, from her radiant smile to her petite stature as she easily moves through the water.
However, after two weeks on the island, their energy reserves are far from what they used to be and soon afterwards, she raises her fishing spear to get to work. He follows her example, easily stabbing through several medium-sized fish.
Belle is having trouble catching her first fish like this, but as he watches her from the corner of his eye, he's quite certain that more than anything else, she's being hindered by reluctance to kill the very animals she just admired. It's the soft side of her that he admires him so much—amazed to meet someone who can be as cunning and ambitious as himself, and yet have so much patience and kindness for the whole world and anything in it.
Still, between the two of them, they have the cooking pot filled with fish in no time. They reluctantly return to the beach, dragging it behind them in the water, to bring their spoils to the camp—hopefully tilting the others' opinions in their favor. They'll need every bit of goodwill they can get, now more than ever, since their tribe has run out of easy targets to vote against.
"Do you think we should try to talk to David, Emma and Mary-Margaret?" she asks as they approach camp.
"I don't know," Gold sighs, his spirits sinking at the reminder that either of them might be voted off any day now, effectively ending their time together on the island—and, in all likelihood, any time they'll spend together at all.
"It's such a dilemma, isn't it? David and Mary-Margaret still insist on voting as is 'right' rather than to form alliances with other players beside the three of them, but they probably won't like it if someone should point out that they effectively are an alliance themselves, if the three of them keep voting together like they've been doing all along.
In an attempt to align ourselves with them, we could make ourselves targets by being the first to openly 'start conniving', an idea they seem to loathe so much, despite doing it themselves. But if we don't try to align ourselves..."
"We might as well be sitting ducks," he concludes, too chagrined by this fact to properly enjoy the realization that they're practically finishing each other's sentences now. "Because the chance is theoretically fifty per cent that they'll vote for you or me, and fifty percent it'll be for Ruby or Philip."
"Is there any way you could talk to David one on one?" she asks, lowering her voice as they reach camp. "The two of you get on relatively well, and…"
"… I'm just saying that we should be a bit more pragmatic."
Gold and Belle freeze simultaneously when they hear Emma's voice coming from camp, right behind the trees they're currently approaching. Eyes locking, they almost synchronously move back, edging away from the point where they'd appear in sight, but remaining within earshot.
"But…" Mary-Margaret objects.
"No, seriously, I mean it," Emma continues. "I wholly agree with the votes we placed so far and the choice of the people who went home, but things aren't going to remain that way. Everyone who is still here actually wants to be and, the way I see it, they all deserve to be here."
"That's exactly my point!" Mary-Margaret cuts in. "How can we choose? We can't! Not without… How can we ever come to a just decision for ourselves, let alone one that all three of us support?"
"That's exactly what Emma is trying to say," David says gently, ever so patient. "It would be the best thing for all of us to make up our minds individually, and only after we have heard everything that everyone has to say at tribal council."
"But if we vote that way, if we don't combine our votes, there's a risk that we won't all choose the same person and that one of us will get voted off, because I can assure you that Ruby and Philip are voting together… and so are Belle and Gold. If Ruby didn't dislike Belle, the four of them might very well be forming an alliance as well… if they aren't already planning to do so, despite their differences."
"It might be best for us to do the same thing, to protect ourselves," David concludes.
"But we're the Heroes!" Mary-Margaret insists, sounding outraged.
"Well, only according to some casting people," Emma merely replies. "What did they base themselves on anyway, dividing us like this? What makes someone a Hero or a Villain? I mean, look at Gold. And Belle, for that matter."
"Still, that doesn't mean we don't have to do the right thing!"
"It depends on what seems worse to you: doing something that is not entirely right so we can advance in the game, thus preventing supposedly less deserving players from moving forward as well, or being voted off with the moral high ground firmly under your feet."
"So what you are saying is…?" Mary-Margaret asks.
"If we want to stay in this game, all of us together, the best course of action is to align ourselves with either Philip and Ruby or Gold and Belle, and vote the other two off."
"But… that's what Villains do. Don't you agree, David?!"
"I… I don't know, Mary-Margaret. I mean, you're right, but…"
"Imagine what will happen if we don't do this," Emma inserts. "If we don't vote in a united way, Belle and Gold may get to the merge. Heroes don't let people like them win."
Both of the eavesdroppers in question are barely breathing, looking at each other with wide eyes.
"I agree with the first part of what you said," David says thoughtfully, "but are you really sure that Ruby and Philip are the ones we should go with, rather than Gold and Belle?"
"They're decent people," Mary-Margaret immediately offers.
"But aren't Gold and Belle? They were not the ones who came up asking us to vote with them against the remaining duo… Ruby and Philip were. Gold and Belle contribute a lot more to camp, and haven't actually done anything to warrant distrust, like trying to scheme with us. Doesn't that make them the good guys… or at least, less bad guys… people we want to take with us?"
"I… I don't know," Mary-Margaret mumbles, sounding gob-smacked.
Gold and Belle look meaningfully at each other, sensing that they have made the right choice by purposefully not trying to align with the three others so far.
"Ruby and Philip are bigger threats to us than Gold and Belle," Emma adds carefully. "They're much stronger physically, and they play a better social game. They have no allegiance to us so far… they might very well flip as soon as the merge is upon us."
"So might Gold and Belle!"
"I don't think so," Emma says, suddenly sounding rather thoughtful. "Have you seen that handsome guy on the Villain tribe? The one who's called Jones? The way he looks at Gold… those two hate each other. I don't know what their history is, but they've got one... and it isn't good. Much as I may hate to say it, I think Gold and Belle are less likely to betray us than Ruby and Philip."
"Besides, they won't flip on us if we bind them to us first, and offer them better perspectives of going to the end," David adds. "Unlike Ruby and Philip, we haven't refused to work with them yet. That gives us an opportunity to build a strong bond with them."
"But that's Gold you're talking about!" Mary-Margaret protests again. "There's something about that man… he's so secretive and creepy! The way he follows Belle wherever she goes… he's got to be at least twenty-five years older than her, it's disgusting!"
To his bewilderment, Belle is all but fuming at his side, looking like she's ready to charge at the three of them and confront Mary-Margaret for his sake. Then again, she obviously cannot like hearing the implication that their relationship is something it is very much not, either.
"Well, I think Belle is weird, too," Emma says casually. "If you ask me, she likes to have Gold act like a lovesick schoolboy around her… it's gross. Then again, obsessed with books as she is, I highly doubt she knows anything about the real world and real life."
Never mind not interrupting this moment now that the three so-called Heroes are getting exactly where the two of them want them to go… without any scheming or manipulation whatsoever. Now it is Gold who feels ready to tell Emma in no uncertain terms what he thinks of her for talking about Belle like this... only to be stopped by the woman in question, who rests a calming hand on his arm and shakes her head.
"It's not worth it," she whispers, telling him exactly what he wanted to say to her mere seconds ago, when their roles were reversed.
"So… we're getting into Gold's bed right along with Belle?" Mary-Margaret asks, sounding displeased but resigned.
"I fear it's either that or one of us will risk being voted off if these two find a way to work with Ruby and Philip after all," Emma replies thoughtfully.
"Food for thought," David concludes. "Don't forget, we don't have to decide right now. The next tribal council will only be tomorrow, and if we finally win a challenge again, it'll be at least a few more days until we have to vote someone off. But just to be sure… I've had a few conversations with Gold and he's been very reasonable so far, so I could have a chat with him again soon, just to see where his head is at."
"That sounds like a good idea," Emma agrees.
"Yeah," Mary-Margaret sighs, not objecting again.
Looking at each other with their mouths hanging open in shock and disbelief, Belle and Gold retreat hastily but as quietly as possible, as the conversation on the other side ceases and the three continue whatever they were doing around camp.
"Can you believe that?!" Belle tells him giddily after they've gotten back to the beach where they have just been fishing, still in a whisper. "First they slander us, then they decide the heroic thing to do is work with us if it can save their own skins?!"
"It appears to be so, yes," he agrees, still reeling with everything they just heard.
"Do you reckon it was a set-up? I mean, it was awfully convenient we just happened to hear all that… and it would be the perfect way to lull us into a false sense of security."
"Do you really think they're that clever and resourceful?" he asks, finding himself winking playfully at her.
"Of course not. We couldn't fake that, let alone them. Still… Let's keep our eyes and ears open."
"Of course. And it seems like I've got a potentially very fruitful conversation with David coming up. That man is too honest for his own good. If he tries to lie to me, I'll know."
"No matter how wonderful that sounds, better not to have it too soon, lest it might dawn on them that we were in awfully close vicinity to them just a minute ago!"
"Let's go swimming for a while longer?"
"I'd love to," he beams, finding that this day can get yet better after all.
Chapter 17: Day 17
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
In all the euphoria of the previous day, Gold had almost forgotten that he'd overheard more than the strategic considerations of their soon-to-be new allies. But once the sheer joy of swimming with Belle and finding out that David, Emma and Mary-Margaret want to work with the two of them rather than Ruby and Philip subsides, he recalls only too well what else the two women said about their relationship.
He supposes it's technically true that he and Belle are in bed together; in fact, they all are, quite literally, as the floor of the shelter on which they sleep is little more than a single flat surface. As for the rest of what was said… well, he really, really likes her, and somehow she seems to feel the same about him; love of the romantic kind has nothing to do with it.
"I'm nineteen years older than you," he blurts out to Belle as they head towards today's challenge, slightly behind the rest of the group. Only once he has done so does he realize that Mary-Margaret's overheard remark regarding their age difference has bothered him yet more than he thought.
It's not as if it mattered, because he and Belle aren't together in this sense anyway… and yet he has brought it up, and there's no way he can undo that now.
"I know," she simply says. "We've all told each other our ages in the beginning, so I don't get why Mary-Margaret thinks the difference between us is twenty-five years. Still, it doesn't matter in any way."
Now that they're talking like this, he feels all the more pathetic… after all, even if it weren't for those six years, he's still an awful lot older than her. And again, it's not as if it mattered, because they're not in that kind of relationship, and they obviously won't ever be.
"Indeed," he agrees, not understanding the sense of inner disappointment that accompanies this word.
"It's wonderful to hear you feel the same," she says, smiling almost shyly at him, as if—well, as if there were more to their relationship than the knowledge that it won't ever turn romantic or… physical.
It's almost a relief when they reach the location of the challenge and Jeff explains its goal… at least until he finds himself being told in no uncertain terms that it's against the rules to wear anything other than swimming clothes for the entire duration of this game.
Catching Belle's gaze, as concerned as his own, he tries to come to terms with the fact that he's going to have to rush over an unstable balance beam to a pit of mud, get as much of said mud on him as possible, and race back over the beam to the starting point, where one of his tribe mates will have to scrape the mud off his barely covered body in an attempt to gain more weight in their bucket than the other team.
As if that weren't bad enough yet, Jones is smirking at him from mere feet away… and there's no way he can take off his jeans, let alone his shoes and socks, while standing here like this, without a surface to sit down in sight.
To his relief and deep gratitude, Belle casually offers him her arm, giving him support to remove most of his clothes while the rest look on. He may be covered in mud from head to toe in a few minutes' time, but for now, he feels more naked than ever before.
Having been spoiled, in a way, by her easy acceptance of him, it's yet more humiliating than he feared to have to show himself to the others in such a state of undress. Jones—and most of the Villains—are snickering openly at the sight of his narrow chest, whereas his fellow Heroes are looking in shock at his ankle and the brace he at least gets to keep wearing, having never seen either the contraption or the thickly scarred skin it only partially covers before.
It feels like an awful reminder to what was almost his very first moment in the game, when Jones pushed him down and he couldn't manage to get up again, as afraid and humiliated as he'd ever been in his life. But just like that day, Belle is rescuing him now, saving him with a gentle and encouraging smile.
He squares his shoulders and straightens himself, still holding on to her. The Heroes quickly look away and the Villains cease their laughter, no doubt losing interest now that he no longer appears as weak and pathetic as before.
"Do you want to know what you are playing for?!" Jeff exclaims, exactly like he always does.
The agreeing cheer around him is almost deafening and even Gold himself is momentarily distracted when Jeff pulls aside the sheet that was previously covering the reward, revealing more hamburgers than any tribe could eat.
"Worth playing for?"
Even Gold can't help but yell in agreement to that also overtly unnecessary statement. He's never cared much for hamburgers, but he's hungry and, more importantly, he knows that Belle is very fond of them.
Now that they are all ready for the challenge and the reward has been presented, it doesn't take long for him to find some entirely different things to worry about. He's chosen as one of the three who will go first, bringing back as much mud as possible while only using their body, and he has to focus entirely on the task at hand as he positions himself on the starting mat, right next to the bucket he will have to help fill.
The balance beam is not as much of a challenge as he feared and jumping into the mud isn't exactly difficult either, although the pit is rather slippery. Smearing and piling as much of it on his body as he can, he finds a small comfort in seeming, in a way, to be yet more covered than he usually is in his regular life.
That relief is entirely gone when he gets back over the balancing beam, right after Mary-Margaret. She heads straight for David with an almost giddy expression on her face; she clearly can't wait for her paramour to get his hands all over her in order to move the mud from her body into the bucket.
Emma and Belle are the two contestants who are potentially going to have to get as much of the mud off him as possible. It seemed obvious to choose the latter for this unpleasant task, trusting her to make it as unembarrassing as possible for the two of them, but he subconsciously pauses as he heads towards her.
All of a sudden, it seems less bad to have Emma's matter-of-fact and uncaring hands all over him. She wouldn't feel obligated to touch more of him than she's comfortable with, especially not out of some undeserved sense of loyalty.
But before his subconsciousness has halted him enough for others to notice, Belle is waving him forward, and he gravitates towards her after all. Seeing the knowing look in her eyes as she starts getting mud off his arms, he finds himself very glad indeed that she is the one doing this for him in th end, her hands as careful and gentle as always now that they are in contact with this previously uncharted part of his body.
"Just tell me if there's any place you don't want me to touch," she says softly as he lowers his head to get the mud out of his hair.
"Just tell me where you don't want to touch me," he tells her.
She has already all but made him forget that he usually doesn't want to be touched by anyone at all, even for the most casual of contacts, her hands on him so kind and harmless that he's finally able to let go of all those times when physical contact with another human being only ever meant more pain and humiliation.
As she tentatively begins pushing the mud down his belly, he expects his body to all but shut down on itself in memory of the previous two people who touched him there. But even as she slides her hands towards the edge of his swimming trunks, all he can think of is how lovely it is that there isn't even a hint of repulsion on her face.
"This isn't exactly a punishment," she says, gauging his expression as she reaches for his legs.
Breathlessly, he sees—and feels—the way she slides the mud into the bucket beneath him, unable to believe what she's saying. He has reached the point where he knows she wouldn't actually lie to him, but…
"Come on, hurry it up!" Emma yells from right next to them. "Belle, I'm glad I'm not in your shoes, but you can go at least a few inches higher before you might touch him where you really don't want to—if not more."
"Only if you're comfortable with that," Belle whispers, her palms lingering above his thighs. "Just know that I am."
He nods, bewildered when tears appear to be welling in his eyes as she accepts him in yet another way. His legs starting to quiver as she repeatedly runs her hands down them, he makes a yet bigger mess of his mud-streaked face by quickly wiping the uninvited liquid away.
His ex-wife couldn't even look at this particular part of him without making a snide remark about all his inadequacies, and although the context is obviously entirely different, he is beyond grateful that Belle's face remains neutral the whole time.
Gold is also very glad not to find himself overcome with the urge to step away from her hands or push them off. Especially when he nods his consent for her to remove the mud from his hips and even his backside, her touch considerably lighter than on any other part of his body.
When she gestures to indicate that she's removed all the mud she could in such a short timespan, he hops back onto the mat. It's her turn to race over the balancing beam and jump into the pit of mud now. She's back only a minute later, covered in the thick dark stuff.
"You can touch me anywhere," she says, smiling an encouraging smile, as if she were asking him a favor rather than doing him one. "Just get as much mud off me as you can."
He does, rather satisfied when he manages to remove whole chunks from her long hair without getting his hands stuck in it. Her arms and back are also a relatively easy matter... but then he reaches her chest.
"I trust you," she whispers.
Still, he lingers, the mere notion of getting anywhere near her breasts utterly forbidden. Although she isn't allowed to get mud off herself, she is allowed to touch him. Before he knows it, her hands are on his, encouraging him to shove the mud down her cleavage.
Despite the adrenaline rush of the challenge, Gold is very much aware that a woman is actively persuading him to touch her breasts. Unusual circumstances or not, he would never have thought there'd ever be a moment like this in his life—not to mention the fact that she is hardly any woman.
The nerve-wrecking novelty of all this isn't over yet by the time the upper half of her body is done. Her lower legs don't require much more finesse than the way he usually interacts with her, but that's hardly the challenging part.
At least knowing that she'll tell him as soon as he does anything she doesn't approve of, he moves his hands up to about mid-thigh, only pushing the mud down when she nods. There are several more inches of the thick substance on her upper thighs, and he supposes he could get it off the outer side of her body, but there's no way she wouldn't object to him actually sliding his hands any higher up between her thighs, and…
"Come on, Gold, there's at least half a pound of mud there," David bellows.
"It's fine," she says, smiling a little at him through the mud on her face, as if she were endeared by his hesitation rather than upset that he should be thinking about this in the first place.
That's how he finds himself touching a woman's inner thighs for the very first time in his life… and he isn't even sending her running for the hills, ongoing challenge or not. Gold doesn't allow himself to linger on the softness of her skin there… or, as he keeps glancing back at her face, the fact that she doesn't even flinch when, due to the sudden trembling of his arms, his right hand accidentally slips half an inch higher than intended.
"Your turn again," she says, hopping back onto the mat next to him.
Belatedly realizing that the challenge is still on and he has to go back into the mud, he does just that, hoping that no one but her has noticed the mishap. He's back at her side before he knows it and this time, it's less strange to have her hands all over him… and it feels less odd to touch her like that in return, as well.
Indeed, by the third and last time she gets the mud off him—and the other way around—he is marveling at the way they can touch each other like this without any discomfort or reluctance. He's almost sad when Jeff announces that the fifteen minutes of the challenge are over.
The buckets of mud the Heroes and Villains have gathered are weighed one by one… and it turns out that they've finally won a challenge again. No matter how much he's looking forward to eating as many hamburgers as he wants along with his tribe mates, that can't possibly be as lovely as the way Belle throws her arms around his neck and hugs him tight, both of them still covered in slick mud from head to toe.
Chapter 18: Day 18
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
Despite his clear intentions not to overeat himself, by the time the Heroes have feasted on their reward, Gold has eaten two or three more hamburgers than he should have in retrospect. Although his belly is aching exactly as he knew it would, he and Belle aren't in nearly as much discomfort as the others.
Once the rather undignified meal is finally over, after the sun has set already, Gold would be very happy indeed to get closer to Belle and perhaps lean against her, now that the others are too busy with the contents of their bloated stomachs to pay them any attention. Only when she points at the sea and their still muddy bodies does it occur to him that there's something yet more enjoyable that they could do.
Making sure to remain unnoticed, they make their way down to the beach, out of sight of camp. Being covered in mud and too happy with the food, Gold hasn't bothered putting his clothes back on so far. It's yet another thing he could never have imagined, even a few days ago.
He is, in fact, quite happy that he's only wearing swimwear; the evening is still pleasantly warm, and he won't have to remove his clothing once more in order to wash himself. He marvels at the way the sea and the beach are brightly lit by the moon and stars above them, bathing their world in an almost fairytale-like glow.
"I can only hope we manage to get this stuff off our skin," Belle remarks as they leisurely head into the water, exerting themselves as little as possible. "Still, it was totally worth it to have those hamburgers while they were still hot. That must have been the best meal I've ever had."
It may hardly have been the most accomplished dinner he's ever tasted, but he has never enjoyed any dish more he did those hamburgers. It's the first regular food he has had in more than two weeks and, beyond that, it was such a delight to eat it in the company of Belle and one or two other people that, despite himself, he's getting along rather well with.
"I have to say I'm a little worried it'll be difficult to get ourselves clean again," she continues. "We don't even have soap, mind you."
"All the more reason to win a spa or resort reward," he quips.
"It's going to take at least one more week before we can even play for such high stakes."
"Yes, best to get that mud off before then."
"Don't worry, I'll like you regardless of the mud," she says, jokingly bumping his arm with her fist.
"Likewise," he mutters, almost grateful for the mud that even his face is still covered with as he feels heat rushing towards it, luckily camouflaged by the other unwanted color.
"Here goes nothing," Belle says, already changing the subject.
She rubs her wet arm, barely getting any of the mud off. He tries as well, to no more avail.
"So much for an easy solution," he notes, not entirely displeased at the prospect of spending a lot of time with her in the water until they both find themselves somewhat clean again.
"Let's try with sand. We might as well sit again."
They do as she suggests, the warm water lapping gently at their torsos. For a long while, Gold just sits there with his eyes closed, savoring the moment.
"It can be so wonderful out here," Belle sighs, equally content and still.
Then she winces, splashing water into her hair. His own head feels uncomfortable, with the mud still coating it, and he dreads to think what it must be like with her long curls.
"Let me help you with that?"
The offer is already made before he can think of giving himself permission to put it into words, making him feel both grateful and shocked when she makes a sound of approval and turns her back on him, arching it to dip her hair into the water in front of him.
Swallowing heavily, he can't look away in time to avoid seeing the graceful arc of her body… avoid noticing how utterly breathtaking she is, sitting here like this in the moonlight. She's right at his side, within his reach, and she's asking him to assist her… to touch her.
"Let's just let it soak for a little while?" he suggests.
"It's probably the only way, yes. Can I..."
She leans back, letting herself move backwards into the water until her head is resting on his thigh. Her face mere inches above the surface, she looks up at him questioningly. He can only nod in agreement, too overcome by yet another sign of her trust and affection for him to actually say anything.
Belle shifts again almost immediately, raising an arm to push back her hair, part of which is still sticking to her face rather than soaking in the water. Wanting her to be comfortable—and, if he's entirely honest, longing to touch her himself—he wordlessly offers to do it for her.
As she lowers her arm again, he very carefully pulls her sticky hair loose from her face, trying—successfully, to his delight—to rub the mud off the areas of flesh that have been in the water long enough. Encouraged by her content sigh, he continues carefully. It seems like a great contradiction that his undeserving and suddenly rather clumsy hands should return her flawless and still remarkably pale skin to its clean splendor, but here they are.
"This is better than any spa," she sighs happily.
He has never been to anything remotely resembling a spa in his life, but indeed, he can barely imagine anything more pleasant than this. Still, if there should be any way to get one of the players to a place where they could take a proper bath or shower, he is going to make sure she is the one to get this chance, tactics be damned.
"I've never actually seen you bathe," she notes as he contemplates how on earth he is going to go about this. He has never washed a woman's hair, let alone that of a woman he wants to please… without any soap at his disposal, or clear water for that matter. "I know you do, because you don't smell any worse than the rest of us, but…"
"I bathe very early in the morning… when everyone else is sleeping."
"I'm usually not asleep in the early morning."
"I only go into the water to wash myself when you also are," he admits, the awfully familiar sensation of patheticness creeping back into him.
"Why?" she asks softly. "Please tell me there's nothing about me that gives you the impression that you'd have something to be afraid of if I were to see you bathing?"
"There isn't; it's not that," he reassures her, although he can't really recall what he is afraid of, now that they're talking like this. "It's just… I'm not much to look at. I have several physical weaknesses. I don't want others to see that."
"I'm still an 'other' to you? Do you really mean that?"
"No, of course not. I'm sorry, Belle, I didn't mean it like that. It's just… you remember how everyone but you reacted when they saw me like this for the first time. I'm… I expected that. I'm used to that… I don't care about that. But if you were to ever look at me in such a way… that would hurt me."
"What makes you think I would ever look at you with anything but affection and appreciation?"
He doesn't know what to say to that, can't even process those incredibly generous, comforting and oddly flattering words… especially when she tilts her head where it's lying in his lap, tentatively pressing her lips against his hipbone.
His mouth falling open in bewilderment and his mind utterly unable to take in what's happening—what she's doing—his breath quickens when she repeats the action, her lips lingering a little longer. By the time she moves to do it again, he's in such an inner turmoil that he can't let this continue without the risk of losing his mind.
"How about I try to get the mud out of your hair?" he suggests, loathing the way she abruptly moves away from him more than he welcomes the end of their highly confusing togetherness. "I think it has been soaking long enough."
"Good idea," she says, although she doesn't look all that pleased with the prospect. "Gold, if I can ask… did I go too far? Did I make you uncomfortable?"
"No, no, it's nothing of the sort," he quickly reassures her, although he can't put into words or even thoughts what does make this so difficult. "It's just… a lot to take in."
"Yes," is all she says, keeping a respectable distance this time as she lowers her head towards him in the water, encouraging him to wash her hair.
He does so to the best of his abilities, pleased to succeed in getting the entirety of the mud out despite the lack of soap. Still, he's mostly focused on how wonderful it feels to carefully run his hands through her long curls, even as he inwardly continues to struggle with the question of what Belle intended when she basically kissed his body.
He can only decide that she must have meant to reassure him in the most persuasive way she could. After all, that's far more likely than the notion that she kissed him simply because she wanted to.
"Would you mind washing some more of me?" she asks as she sits up again, her drenched hair almost shining in the bright moonlight.
He can only nod in eager acceptance, enjoying the connection and comfort that these improvised ablutions include.
Her back still towards him, he picks up a handful of sand from the shallow bottom of the ocean right behind him, rubbing it carefully over her skin to clean the mud away. He can't imagine how this could feel pleasant, especially when he is the one touching her so intimately, but she sighs in unmistakable delight.
"It's strange," she muses, leaning back against him once more, something he cannot disapprove of for the life of him, no matter how alarming it is. "I've been doing this every day since I got here, but it never felt remotely as nice as it does when you do it."
"I… I can't explain that," he brings out.
"Of course you can't," she sighs, sounding strangely resigned.
Still, that doesn't prevent the sudden wish to do this with her each and every day—at least—for as long as they're both still in the game from welling up inside of him.
When she pushes her hair away from her back, he takes that as an invitation to continue his work there, now that her arms are clean. He is very careful not to accidentally get anywhere near the string which holds her bikini top in place, recalling only too well what happened the last time his attention was brought to it—although that leaves the question of how he's going to remove the mud coating her skin there.
"Take it off for now?" she suggests, with an edge to her voice that he can't identify.
He meant to object, but there's no other way to get her clean—it's not as if she could reach this place herself, after all. He reminds himself that it's not as if it made any difference; the strings themselves barely cover her back at all, and it's not as if this required him to look at the parts of her which it does cover.
"If you are certain."
That's how Gold ends up slowly but surely pulling the knots of her bikini top loose, swallowing heavily as he removes the fabric and hands it to her.
"I won't peek," he assures her as he scoops up more wet sand to get her entire back clean, his breath quickening.
"I know you won't," she replies, again with an undertone of something he can't make sense of.
He is both relieved and strangely disappointed when washing her back takes him little time, she cleans the front of her torso herself and the two of them consequently put her top back in place, his hands trembling slightly as he secures the knots again.
She turns to face him, extending her legs to him in an unspoken question. Gold nods again, amazed and disbelieved alike when he finds himself carefully running his sand-covered palms over the long limbs. Her smile tells him that she wouldn't mind at all if he got higher and higher, until he's once more all but caressing her inner thighs.
Her eyes flutter closed and she catches her lower lip between her teeth for reasons he can't begin to comprehend, her smile never fading. It's mostly with disappointment that this moment is over that he finally withdraws his hands from her warmth and softness. He looks away while she takes care of the last arrangements herself, in the places he'll obviously never get to approach.
"Let me do the same for you?" she offers.
Comforted by the knowledge that she's got this entirely in her own hands and won't do anything she doesn't actually want, he nods, probably more eagerly than he should.
Reminding himself that she seems to like this just as much as he does, Gold finds it shockingly easy to simply relax and enjoy the ministrations she lavishes on him. Beside her washing his hair and ever-so-tenderly rubbing the mud off his skin, he savors how her tenderness grows yet stronger when she reaches his bad ankle, removing the brace and handling it with even more care than the rest of him.
His lids only lifting when she withdraws her hands, he belatedly realizes that he had closed his eyes—and that she is now finished with her work. As she pointedly averts her gaze, he completes the washing right where she clearly won't ever touch him. For one foolish second, he wishes she would, for her affection and gentleness might even extend to this particular aspect of his person.
He clears his throat loudly once he is done, more to banish that highly uncalled-for thought than to grab her attention again. Luckily, one look of her ever-so-bright eyes and one smile are more than enough to remind him that the relationship they do have is miraculous and wonderful in its own right.
"We should probably go back," she sighs, gesturing in the direction of the camp.
"Let's stay in the water a bit longer?" he suggests, wanting to hang on to this utterly unfamiliar feeling of being lovingly cared for, if only for a few more minutes. "After my talk with David last night, I really think we're safe for the time being."
At this point they've been away for so long that the others must have missed them already, no matter how unwell they might feel… which makes it all the more tempting to stay out here with Belle a little more, undisturbed by their tribe mates or their perception of them.
"I'd love to stay for a while as well. Let's look at the stars?" she adds, heading deeper into the water when he nods in agreement, floating onto her back.
He follows her example, admiring the endless sky above their heads. For the first time, it occurs to him just how beautiful it is… and when he spots a shooting star, both of them pointing up to it at the same time, he figures that it might not be ridiculous to make a wish.
Please don't let the end of this game for us also mean the end of our knowing each other… and being together.
Should his wish be granted or not, it feels like a very good sign when she questioningly slips her hand into his as they continue to float on their backs in the calm water.
Chapter 19: Day 19
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
"Tree mail!" David announces as he returns to camp, accompanied by Mary-Margaret who, bizarrely, appears to be wearing two bows and two quivers.
Gold looks up from where he was cleaning the cooking pot after this morning's breakfast, catching Belle's gaze as she rises from where she was lounging in the shelter, for the lack of anything else to do with the limited energy they have. Even with Belle, there's only so many times he can walk up and down the beach and head into the jungle before it isn't worth the effort anymore.
"What does it say?" Emma asks, referring to the letter from the production crew that the two went to fetch—the only means of communication they all have with the outside world as long as they're on their island.
Without having to read the message, he can see clearly from the presence of the bows that it can only announce another challenge. It was to be expected that there would be at least one more until the merge, but it was so tempting to think that he and Belle had made it safely to this key point of the game.
After all, both Ruby and Philip have been voted out like the two of them hoped… but this only leaves them with David, Emma and Mary-Margaret, who are still as close as they have been almost from the very beginning. It's beyond Gold how the no-nonsense and tough Emma can stand these self-righteous lovebirds, but he supposes that the alternative—getting close to he and Belle—doesn't seem ideal to her either.
He has grown quite fond of Emma, but he is glad that she has no interest whatsoever in aligning with the two of them, which gives he and Belle a lot more opportunities to spend some quiet time together. On the other hand, this can only mean one thing: if they have to vote again, one of them will be targeted.
In other words, if they lose the next immunity challenge, the odds are very much against them. Being on the outs in such a small group, even the immunity idol he has managed to hold on to until now only gives them a fifty percent chance of both of them getting further in the game.
"It would have been too good to be true to have the merge with all five of us," Belle whispers to him as they follow Emma, who approaches David and Mary-Margaret.
"One can dream, though," he sighs.
"Did you practice shooting arrows?" she asks, gesturing at the bows which Mary-Margaret is still holding.
"No. I had no idea we'd get a challenge with bows. They only did that in the first few seasons. If I had known…"
"It's very old school, isn't it?" she replies, distancing himself from him again as they reach the others.
Once they are all gathered, David reads the letter out loud. There really is no need for it though, for there are so few of them left that they could easily have stood around him and read it in silence.
As they suspected, there will indeed be another challenge, in which immunity will once more be at stake. They are instructed to improvise a few targets and figure out how to use the bows, as this will obviously improve their chances—although, of course, the Villains are going to do exactly the same.
Well, at least he gets the opportunity to master this new skill to such a degree as to possibly avoid making a total fool of himself in the actual task.
"I guess we'll have something to do this morning, then!" Mary-Margaret chirps, ever so optimistic.
It seems only natural that David, Emma and she go to carve a target in a nearby palm tree while he and Belle use some bamboo and palm leaves to build a structure to put behind it, so that they won't be sending arrows flying over half the island.
No matter how wonderful it is that the two of them find each other so easily without interference from the others, no matter how happy he is to work with her like this, it clearly highlights the line that divides the remaining Heroes… a line the two of them are on the wrong side of.
The practice area is set up soon enough, and Mary-Margaret is the first to take a shot… hitting the target right in the middle, much to the delight and surprise of everyone around her. Especially when immediately afterwards, she does it again… and again.
"How on earth do you manage that?" David asks, sounding utterly awed.
"Let's just say I had some practice, back in the day," she replies.
"Maybe some others could try as well before…" Belle starts, but her suggestion is overpowered by the cheering from the other three as Mary-Margaret shoots another arrow straight into the middle of the target, still standing at the best spot to hit it.
The woman at his side sighs, lowering the bow she's also holding. He knows only too well what it feels like to be ignored like this, and he aches as the expression on her face lets him know him that she's very much used to it. Through sheer willpower—and some luck—he has forged a life for himself where people know better than not to pay attention to him when he wants it… but he can all too clearly recall how much he longed for someone to pick his side and help him, back in the day.
Of course, in his regular life he could have all of them begging for Belle's forgiveness if she wanted them to, but he doesn't forget for a moment that social connection is very much an aspect of the game they are playing… and that he doesn't actually want to treat the other three like that, no matter how obnoxious and self-absorbed they so often tend to be.
He places his hand on her elbow in support, and she looks at him questioningly. No matter how much he would like to step in on her behalf, it's better yet to see her smile at him and almost visibly gather herself before speaking up again—thanking him for something he hasn't actually done.
"I'd like to give it a go as well," she calls, louder than before.
She is heard this time and although Mary-Margaret doesn't seem all that pleased to give up her spot, no matter how temporarily, she does so without protest. Gold watches in anticipation as Belle readies the bow, handing her an arrow before she has to reach for it herself.
She takes a stance and aims carefully, and her arrow hits the edge of the target a fraction of a second after she released it. Of course, it's not as impressive as what Mary-Margaret just did, but this is all he has eyes for all the same.
"Well done!" he exclaims, handing her another arrow before she has to give up her place again.
Her next attempts get her closer to the middle of the target, somewhere between her first try and Mary-Margaret's. He beams at her in reaction, not caring that it's almost frighteningly easy to smile with her around.
They each take turns afterwards, and he clearly hasn't paid enough attention to Belle's technique—or Mary-Margaret's, for that matter—because his arrow misses the target entirely. Since David and Emma haven't done as well as the first two either, it's decided that they will be teaching the other three. It comes as a surprise to no one that Mary-Margaret prefers to coach David and Emma, and Belle would love to do the same with Gold.
They draw two circles in the sand, each slightly away from the point right in front of the target, which allows them all to practice at the same time without getting in each other's way. It's a small miracle in its own right that the two small groups are at least still aware enough of each other that they don't shoot when a member of the other alliance goes near the target to pick some arrows from the ground.
"Would you mind if I tried again a few more times?" Belle asks, looking as excited as he's ever seen her.
"Of course not," he says, as he'd much rather watch her have a wonderful time than confront her with his own inaptitude. "Just enjoy yourself."
"I am, yes," she laughs, hitting the target again—although not quite in the middle. Not yet, anyway. "I've always wanted to do this!"
"Shoot arrows at a palm tree on a deserted island?" he teases, cheering when she gets closer to the centre of target than ever before.
"I'm a heroic princess saving my kingdom, can't you see?"
"Now that you mention it, I do," he smiles, marveling at her almost gleeful delight.
"It's just… I've always dreamed of being a hero, of going out in the world and doing something. Making a difference. I felt that I never really could… and even now, I'm on a television show, rather than having a real adventure. But still, doing this… it makes me feel like I'm living my own story, rather than reading about those of others."
"You'll always be so much more than a mere spectator to other people's' lives," he murmurs, shocked that she would think this of herself. "So much more."
"Thanks," she says, looking up at him in a way that leaves him breathless. "That's very nice of you to say."
They stare at one another, his body apparently forgetting how to inhale, and he wonders how it's possible for any human being to be so entirely drawn to another—let alone for him.
"I was going to teach you," she says, stepping away from him a little and handing him the bow.
It seems like a good idea, if only to distract him from the almost invisible, utterly unexplainable pull she seems to have on him. But when the arrows he shoots go yet wider off the mark than before, when she covers both of his hands with her own to guide them, his body starts to behave even more strangely… and so do the arrows he attempts to send flying into the target.
His breath heavy, he can think of nothing but Belle and how amazingly warm and soft she feels when she goes to stand right behind him, improving his stance. In fact, his eyes are closed when she instructs him to let go of the arrow… only for it to hit the target after all.
Utterly in awe of this new development, he keeps his eyes shut, not focusing on the actual archery lesson at all. All he does is allow himself to bask in her nearness, finding bliss of a kind he didn't know possible as he lets her guide him entirely, handing as much control to her as he can.
"Well, that is quite an improvement," she says, causing him to reluctantly open his eyes… and find that he, under Belle's complete guidance, has actually shot a few arrows in the middle of the target.
"Indeed," he rasps, knowing she has no idea that he had his eyes closed in sheer enjoyment of her nearness the whole time… and she shouldn't ever know, for that matter. He can't even make sense of the way she makes him feel for himself, let alone dare to wonder what she might think of it. "I should probably… try this on my own. You probably won't be allowed to help me like this in the actual challenge."
"I don't think so either. It's a pity, though, don't you think?"
Seeing her look at him as if she were hoping for… something, all he can think of doing is raising the bow again and placing another arrow, this time without her close help.
"Let's try to make sure that both of us get to stay here for at least a little longer," he says, doing his best not to wonder about what's happening to him… at least for as long as he has to focus on the challenge.
Chapter 20: Day 20
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
It should have been perfect. It had been perfect. He and Belle were entirely on course to reach the second part of the game together. They'd won the past two immunity challenges, making certain that they wouldn't have to go to tribal council and vote off another Hero… which would in all likelihood have resulted in either of them having to go home.
But they hadn't lost… they'd won, and the merge was already announced. They'd go into the individual part of the game together with David, Emma and Mary-Margaret. The last three were still as tight as ever, just as tight as Belle and himself, although Emma had spent quite some time alone in the past few days. It had been such a comfort to know the two of them would continue to trust each other entirely, giving them a massive advantage in a stage of the game where a whole new level of paranoia would doubtlessly be unleashed upon them.
There were six Villains as opposed to five Heroes, putting them at an apparent disadvantage—or so it would have seemed. But persuading even one Villain to come over to their side would have been enough. This was exactly what Belle and especially he had planned for… to play the game of trust and alliances—or of deceit and backstabbing, depending on one's point of view—and play it hard.
Of course, this is Survivor. There's always another twist, always something to dash your hopes. Gold had expected just about anything… except being sent to tribal council one last time before the merge, despite having won the challenge. Tribal council, where either he or Belle have an unpleasantly high chance of being voted off.
"Do you reckon we should talk to David?" she suggests as soon as the two of them have withdrawn from the rest of the Heroes. With so few of them left, at this point in the game, there's no more denying where allegiances lie.
Her face is paler and gaunter than an hour ago—like his own, no doubt—and they sit down next to one another on the waterside with some difficulty. The energy and optimism which was evoked as soon as the word 'merge' was said has been turned in the complete opposite direction.
"I reckon we should, since he's most likely to listen," he sighs, "but…"
"Yeah, I know. He might listen, but he won't like what we have to say."
"Of course. Asking him to vote for Emma or Mary-Margaret instead of us… there's no way he'd actually do that."
"Then again, Emma has kind of separated herself from the two of them, especially yesterday… maybe she's starting to realize how close Mary-Margaret and David are. Still, she would have come to us if she'd wanted to go against them. And it's not… well, it's not as if we aren't close."
He glances at Belle from beneath his hair. He'd wholly agree with that, except for the fact that they aren't close in the same way as Mary-Margaret and David. They might… well, he does wake up almost every glorious morning with Belle in his arms, just like with the other two. But that's where the physical similarities end in their relationships.
After all, he and Belle don't touch the way the actual couple does. Well, they hold hands, but it's different from the way David and Mary-Margaret do it—isn't it? They don't cuddle and giggle, and they most certainly don't kiss. Which is… well, the way it is, and the way it will always be. There's no point in wondering whether he'd like to have that sort of relationship with Belle, for she obviously wouldn't want to be with him in that way even if he were to feel like that about her.
"Or maybe… maybe we could talk to Emma instead," Belle thinks out loud. "Neither of us get along with her very well, but… I think she respects at least you. And I think she'll see that… well, from the way it looks now, she's always going to be third, whether she goes with us or them. But we have an idol, and we don't have a… romantic link."
She looks intently at him, as if expecting him to react in a particular way to what she just said.
"You're suggesting that we try to pull Emma to our side by telling her of the only advantage we have at this point?" he asks questioningly.
"Exactly," she replies after a few seconds, although her face falls a little. "Let's face it: there's no way that Mary-Margaret and David are going to vote for each other. That leaves Emma. You heard what she said to them just a few days ago; she is in favor of a… stronger game play. The way David and Mary-Margaret are reluctant to act… but not us."
"I know. I thought of that myself, but… Emma loathes me. And… well, I hate to say it, but you overheard the same conversation as I. She isn't fond of you either."
"That has never stopped anyone in this game from working with each other before."
"This team hasn't exactly been conservative in terms of game play so far, I'm afraid."
"You've got a point," she sighs. "Still, doing nothing is obviously not an option. Not anymore."
"All right, let's think this through. Which one of us should talk to Emma?"
"I think we should both go," he answers. "She isn't fond of either of us, but it could be good for her to know that we're on exactly the same page with regards to this."
"Yes, I agree. What do we tell her? That she's got the best odds of getting to the end if she goes with us rather than Mary-Margaret and David? Also because we've got an idol?"
"It probably wouldn't hurt either to remind her that there'll be more Villains than Heroes after the merge and that the two of us, together with Emma, have a better chance of persuading one of them to increase our numbers than David, and especially Mary-Margaret."
"We should go for that, yes," she agrees. "I wish we had more, but I agree that it seems like the best course of action."
"Then let's go see if we can manage to talk to her alone. We might as well get it over with."
He figures that they'll know soon enough whether Emma will agree to their plan, or at least consider it. He has learned to know her as someone who cuts straight to the chase, which is convenient in this case. If their approach doesn't work, Belle and he will have a few hours to come up with a plan B, in which they'll have to figure out who to play the idol for… and decide whether they should play it at all, or whether it wouldn't be smarter for the one going forward to keep it to improve their odds later in the game.
Or perhaps, it would be better yet to use that time to simply enjoy the last few moments he might ever spend in the company of the person he has become so attached to that he can barely imagine going back to a life without her.
"That's true," she says, standing up and offering him her hand. How he's going to miss her casual support, should their looming goodbye be two hours or two weeks from now. "But still, for a little while, can we just…"
She embraces him, her arms going around him tightly, as if she fears that he will be taken away from her otherwise. She relaxes her grasp almost immediately, a somewhat embarrassed look on her face, as if thinks that she held him too enthusiastically. If he had to face such a situation before meeting her, somehow, he instinctively would have made sure not to end up with her arms around him in the first place—but now he wants this hug at least as much as she appears to do.
Putting his arms around her as well, he holds on to her with all the strength he has, the notion that this might be the last time he has the chance to do so too terrible to consider. Instead, he buries his face in her hair—as unwashed as his—breathing her in deeply so he'll remember her as vividly as he can, if this turns out to be the last time they get to hold each other.
"Gold," she says in a small voice, still clinging to him, "just in case one of us gets voted off tonight, is there any way… is there any way we might meet again after the game? To spend more time together, and perhaps get to know each other better?"
"Yes… yes," he rasps, squeezing her yet harder. "Yes, Belle, I… I would love that."
He hadn't dared hope that she might like to meet him again once all of this is over—in fact, he was much too afraid of the answer to ask for it himself. Of course, there's always a chance—a pretty big one, he's convinced—that she won't like him nearly as much in real life as she somehow does here… especially when she finds out who he really is and what kind of a reputation he has.
"Me too," she says, her words all but caressing his skin, with her mouth so close to his neck.
Sternly suppressing the idea of what it might be like if he were to feel more than just her words like this, he simply marvels at the revelation that she'd like to spend time with him outside of the game.
"How will we find each other, though?" she asks, still hugging him as if her life depended on it, for which he's very grateful—for the saying almost seems literally true, as far as he's concerned. "How good are you at learning addresses and phone numbers by heart?"
How frustrating it is to have met someone as utterly lovely as Belle, only for them to lack even a pen—or paper, for that matter—to write down their contact information… and in his current state of exhaustion and malnutrition, he doesn't trust himself to remember it either.
Then again, there is a much easier way for them to reconnect, namely if she were to contact him rather than the other way around. However, that would end her interest in him very soon, for it would require him to reveal his identity to her.
"How about you? Perhaps your name is less common than Belle French? Something tells me that 'Gold' is not your first name, and although the word itself is common enough, the only person with that last name is that real estate billionaire who apparently never shows his face in public and who is like the worst guy in the world, if the papers are to be believed."
Despite still being in the paradise of her arms, he tenses, horrified to find out that she hasn't only heard of him, but she also knows, to at least quite some extent, about the rumors which have been spread about him by jealous competitors and spiteful former clients.
"Wait, are you telling me…"
He obviously hasn't told her anything, not verbally at least, but once more, she reads his body as if it were his mind.
"That's you," she whispers, letting go of him.
He lowers his head in utter defeat, knowing that this is it—the ending of their relationship yet more abrupt than he'd feared. Of course, if the two of them had met again after the game, there would have been no more escaping his real-world reputation. But at least he had hoped that their time on the island wouldn't be tainted by that.
"I'm so sorry, Belle. I… I probably should have told you sooner, but I couldn't. I didn't want to risk…"
"No, Gold, please, you don't have to… you don't have to do this. You don't have to explain yourself, not now. It's true that I would have been a lot more reluctant to get to know you like this if I had heard of who you were in advance, but… I don't think you're the monster people say you are. I've spent so much time with you here, for almost three weeks now… if you were truly as bad and dark as they say, I would have noticed."
He doesn't realize that he's crying at her sheer acceptance of him, even now that she knows who he truly is, until she reaches for him. With a breathless nod, his eyes flutter closed, yet more tears falling as she wipes them away ever so tenderly.
"I can't guarantee that I'll like what happens when we get to know each other outside of this game," she says, embracing him as freely as she did before, to his indescribable relief. "But as long as we're in this together, we go on exactly like we were, as far as I'm concerned. And anything beyond that… right now, I'd really like that too, and I can't really see that changing."
"Thank you, Belle," he brings out, wishing he could lose himself in her, so he can always hold on to her kindness and affection. "I can't tell you how much that means to me. I'd love to go forward with you, and I'll do my very best to be someone you can be proud of."
She lets go of him eventually, but she smiles up at him and slides her hand in his once more.
"Let's go talk to Emma," she says, reminding him of how they got to the topic of his real identity in the first place, "and try to make sure that we can stay here a lot longer."
Words failing him, he can only nod in gratitude and follow her when she playfully pulls him back in the direction of their camp.
Chapter 21: Day 21
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
No matter how nerve-wrecking and awful it is that night to be at tribal council, where Belle and himself are at risk of being voted off, Gold can't deny that there are a few silver linings to this situation. Their conversation with Emma went a lot better than he could have hoped and, yet more importantly, the woman he cares about more than anyone or anything in this game is still as pleasant towards him as she has been all this time, despite knowing who he really is now.
That greatly increases the chance that they'll get on as well in real life as they do here but, allergic to uncertainties as he is, Gold would quite prefer to spend as much time as he can with her right here, where no outside factors may come to drive them apart after all.
And of course, he hasn't forgotten the reason he got here in the first place, no matter how much Belle distracts him from the guilt and regret which overwhelm him as soon as he thinks of Neal. He wants to go far in the game for his son's sake yet more than Belle's, so he can hopefully win a way back into his life by showing him he can actually be a good person who makes the right decisions.
Gold listens yet more carefully than usual when the Heroes answer the questions Jeff puts to them before the vote—apparently still as painfully honestly as before. Emma has always been difficult to read, even for him, but as she speaks of going forward and thinking ahead as her primal concerns at this point in the game, he dares to be tentatively hopeful.
Of course, she doesn't directly tell them who she is actually voting for, and her replies can technically be referring to anyone sitting there with her. Although he hides it as well as he can, that makes him more nervous than he has been at any point in the past two decades or so.
Glancing at Mary-Margaret, the contestant he and Belle suggested that Emma vote for along with them, doesn't reveal much either. She looks neither relaxed nor particularly worried, which could mean… well, anything.
Gold isn't aware that he has subconsciously reached out for Belle. Only when she accepts his hand where it brushes against hers, out of sight of the others, does he realize what his body has done without his permission. But as she squeezes it encouragingly, not looking away from Emma for only a fraction of a second, he is very glad that this has happened.
By then, it is finally time to vote and he grows tenser yet when the Heroes proceed one by one, the whole thing seeming to take even longer than usual now that so much is depending on it. At least it's a comfort when at her return, Belle takes his hand in hers once more.
Then the moment of truth arrives and Jeff, doubtlessly picking up on their tension—or at least wanting to increase it for the audience's sake—draws it out yet longer, silently looking at the five Heroes in front of him.
"If you've got a hidden immunity idol and you want to play it, now would be the time to do so," he announces, like he has done at almost all tribal councils so far.
With his free hand, Gold reaches for the idol which is carefully hidden in his pocket. He and Belle have decided not to play it, since there is no point: Emma has either lied or been honest with them regarding the person she is voting for and the one David and Mary-Margaret have decided on… or she has lied about one of those two topics and been honest on the other.
There's no way of knowing the truth of it until the votes are actually revealed, and it's too late to play the idol for either Belle or himself. But it stands to reason that if Emma has been honest, she has been about everything… and if she's lied, it was about everything as well.
All in all, the odds are too high that they'll be playing the idol in vain, so they've decided to hold on to it… and his last action in the game of Survivor if he is voted off right now will be to hand the item to Belle, so it'll hopefully further her own game as she proceeds without him. It's the least he can do for her… and, unfortunately, the only thing he can help her with if he has to leave right now.
"The first vote…" Jeff announces, taking the first piece of paper out of the urn, "is for Gold."
Gold nods in acknowledgment; it was very much to be expected that at least two votes would come their way… he can only hope there aren't three of them, since that would be enough to send him home.
"The second vote… is for Mary-Margaret."
That isn't surprising for anyone either, as Mary-Margaret and David doubtlessly expected two votes from Belle and him for either of them.
"The third vote… is for Gold."
Belle is all but squeezing his hand into pulp, and he fears he is doing the same to hers as the tension rises and rises. He looks around, expecting all faces around them to reveal nothing but nervousness… only to see that David and even Mary-Margaret are looking rather calm.
"The fourth vote… is for Mary-Margaret."
Gold forces himself to breathe. So far, things have played out exactly as Emma suggested they would, with all votes coming for Mary-Margaret and himself. Of course, none of this will matter until the final and all-deciding vote has been announced… and it could still go either way, depending on whom Emma, being the swing vote, actually wants to proceed with in the game.
"The fifth and final vote is for…"
Gold lowers his head, almost unable to bear this any longer. He tells himself that at least Belle will make it to the merge and who knows how much further, that it's for the best that he is at risk of being voted off rather than her. After all, she wants to play the game yet more than he does… and Neal might appreciate his supporting another contestant like this.
Knowing that all of this might be over in a few seconds, he takes the idol and brings it to his other hand, so that he and Belle end up holding it together. That way, she'll be able to take it as soon as he is voted out and there'll be no discussion on its rightful owner.
He looks back up abruptly, finding Belle staring at the piece of paper with the other woman's name on it with as much surprise as himself. Emma said that this was going to happen, but to find that she's actually voted with them rather than against him…
Emma herself looks guilty and uneasy… but Mary-Margaret doesn't appear to be surprised at all. If anything, she seems relieved, despite having just been voted off from a position which had been safe all this time.
"You knew," Emma says, looking from Mary-Margaret to David and back again. "David, did you tell her?"
"Of course," Mary-Margaret says calmly. "We made this decision together. It's for the best."
"Mary-Margaret, the tribe has spoken," Jeff announces. "Time for you to go."
Gold is barely conscious of Mary-Margaret saying her goodbyes to all of them, kissing David before she picks up her torch and approaches Jeff. All of his attention is on Belle and how the two of them are still together, his arm around her, holding on to her now that he still can.
Together, they watch how Jeff snuffs out Mary-Margaret's torch and she leaves the tribal council area with a wave and a glance back at David. Emma and the latter quickly head out in the other direction as well, leaving Gold and Belle to follow them at some distance.
"Well, I did not entirely expect that. And for Mary-Margaret to know in advance…" Belle says as they begin the hike back to the camp they will be spending one last night in.
"Yes. I can't think of what must have been said for her to agree to this."
"All I can see is that she felt that this game doesn't suit her, that realities and alliances here aren't as black and white as she would like them to be. I mean, look at us. Or Emma, for that matter. Are we Villain-like, simply because we actually want to play this game?"
"We can ask David… it'll probably be good for us to understand. And to try to support him. Best to give him some time, though."
"I agree. And for now… well, we can celebrate our both still being here."
Before he can verbally return that sentiment, Belle has all but thrown herself into his arms. He gratefully returns her embrace, beyond pleased that he'll get to spend more time with her on the island.
"I'm so glad we both get to stay," she says, her voice muffled by his shirt.
"Me too," he replies, closing his eyes in an attempt to drive away the awareness that they were only a single vote away from not having this anymore.
"I've got something I want to give back to you," she says, stepping just far enough away to take the immunity idol from the pocket of her shorts and hand it back to him. He hadn't realized at the time, but it must have ended up in her hand in the commotion that followed the vote.
"No, dearest, you don't have anything to return to me."
Now that she aims to give it back to him, he can see how much better it is for her to simply have the idol herself, as an ultimate display of the trust he has in her. By the rules of Survivor, the item is now actually hers as he gave it to her, no matter how accidentally—and the knowledge that she'd want him to have it back anyhow only strengthens his belief that she should remain its rightful owner.
"Keep it," he insists, wondering how he can possibly feel so free and light while giving this advantage in the game away to her.
"I really appreciate that offer, Gold, but I think you should have it," she replies calmly, once again even more selfless than he tries to be himself… and much more easily so. "You are the one who found it, and I think you should keep it because of that. Still, I very much appreciate the gesture."
"It's yours," she repeats, taking his hand to place the idol in his open palm, wrapping his fingers around it protectively.
Bizarrely, he can't help but feel as if it were his very heart she is returning to him like this… something she has rightfully gained and he is very happy for her to have, trusting her entirely with it—only for her to trust him so much in return that she wants him, as its original possessor, to have it after all.
"All right," he says, putting it back in his pocket. "But please, Belle… know that it's yours if you should ever need it."
"I know," she smiles, linking her arm to his as they make their way back to camp.
Chapter 22: Day 22
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
Gold is at turns nervous and excited as he makes his way off the boat along with Belle, David and Emma. It's the night of the merge, in which the former tribes of Heroes and Villains will become one to play the rest of the game individually while living together in a single camp, on a new island.
The Villains are already gathered around the merge feast that is laid out for them, seizing the four Heroes up as they make their way in their direction. There are two empty seats remaining on each side of the table; a clear sign that the Villains want to split them up as quickly as possible.
It's a disadvantage to say the least to come into the merge with only four Heroes against six Villains, but this is exactly what at least Gold and Belle have prepared for. They agreed in advance to split up, downplay their closeness as much as possible, and get to know their new fellow tribe mates as extensively as they can.
He has never missed Belle's warmth and kindness more than as when he heads towards a dark-haired woman with cold and equally dark eyes. His body feels twice as heavy as it actually is when he approaches her, but he'd rather sit next to anyone but Jones, who follows his every move with cruel eyes.
"We meet at last," she says, offering him her hand. "Regina."
"Gold," he replies, returning her firm handshake.
"This is Sidney," she adds, introducing him to the man sitting on the other side of him, who almost literally veers up when Regina looks at him.
"A pleasure." Gold can only hope he is sounding more sincere than he feels as he shakes the other man's hand too. He should be entirely focused on this, just like he so very easily manages to be in his regular life, but he can't help but glance back at Belle.
She looks slightly uneasy, surrounded by two women who are both a good head taller than her and quite literally look down on her in a rather unfriendly manner. If only he could rush to her side and let everyone know outright that they will have him to answer to if they dare to make Belle uncomfortable, or…
"My, my, it seems someone has a crush," Regina chuckles, following his gaze.
Gold briefly closes his eyes in frustration at her picking up on his connection with Belle so embarrassingly quickly—never mind that she entirely miscategorized the nature of their relationship.
"We all form… personal attachments when being in such an environment," he says, quickly picking himself back up to glance meaningfully at Sidney.
"Touché, Gold. Touché."
He inwardly heaves a sigh of relief at having correctly estimated the relationship between Regina and Sidney, who is doubtlessly her main ally—if only because he is so blinded by his personal feelings for her.
"I can already tell that we'll get along. You should have been with us from the very beginning; I don't know how you managed with these so-called Heroes all this time."
"Ah well, let us not talk of these things now. Let's celebrate! You probably really need it, having spent so much time in such a… losing tribe."
"We do what we have to do to get where we want to be."
"Now that's something I can drink to."
The plates and the glasses are in place, but no food has been served yet. There are several bottles of wine, however—something which hasn't escaped the attention of most people around the table. Many of them are already drinking heartily—and Jones is taking large sips straight from the bottle.
Gold picks one up as well, pouring generous amounts for Regina, Sidney and himself.
"To new friends," Regina toasts, clinking her glass to Sidney's and his own.
"To new friends," he echoes, watching in glee as both of the others happily swallow a large sip of wine.
No matter how much he could use some liquid encouragement right now, if only to compensate for Belle's relative absence, he only pretends to drink. He has learned the hard way that alcohol does nothing to permanently soothe his sorrows or brighten his spirits, and after three weeks of barely eating and drinking any of the most basic of substances, he dreads to think what alcohol on an empty stomach might do to a person in this state…
One glance at Jones, who appears to be drunk before any food has even been served, confirms his suspicions. Making certain that Belle isn't anywhere near him, he returns his attention to Regina, whose glass is empty already.
Back when he was watching it with Neal, he always wondered about Survivor contestants who drank and ate themselves into a stupor on the show. He and Belle agreed without really needing to even talk about it that they would abstain… his unspoken intent being to share a bottle of proper wine with her as soon as they're out of this game.
Either way, it's time to set a good example for his son, if only for tactical purposes; no reason to give away any information or miss any vital clues in an inebriated haze… or to have a horrible hangover for whatever unpleasant task or challenge has no doubt been planned for them the next day.
Pretending to drink happily, he pours Sidney and Regina another glass, throwing the contents of his own in the sand beneath his chair when no one is looking. It's a lot more difficult to contain himself when plate after plate of food is served at the table, each dish looking even more delicious than the last.
It was once only normal for him to have his own chef cook, who prepared all of his favorite meals at the highest standards whenever he wished for it… just like he spent a considerable part of his life having barely anything to eat at all, much like he has done here on the island so far. His shift from no food to whatever food he pleased was a gradual one, however, and this decadent feast is anything but. Now, it's a novelty to even be holding cutlery again.
"Why, Gold, you're looking absolutely famished," Regina crows, sounding more amused by that observation than anything else.
At her remark, it occurs to him how… well, how well all the Villains look, having obviously had a much less harsh time in the game than the Heroes so far. It seems fair enough, since they have won more immunity and reward challenges than their opponents—after only two or three lost challenges, the vicious circle became very hard to break.
And yet here they are, four Heroes for whom physically at least, the rest of the game can only be easier after all what they've been through already… especially when compared to these seemingly pampered Villains.
Still, he doesn't want to think right now, doesn't want to do anything but enjoy this quantity and quality of food that he's gone without for so long… while strongly suppressing the thought of what Belle might look like if she were to eat properly again.
Reminding himself to take his time, that his stomach will barely be able to keep this meal down after having lived on so little food for so long, Gold eats one careful bite after another. The process tests his willpower like nothing has in a long time, but it gets easier when his body quickly responds to the nourishment, its much-needed energy enabling him to savor the exquisite taste of each and every small mouthful.
He only looks up from his plate once, namely when he encounters several pieces of pineapple on it. Knowing how much Belle loves the exotic fruit, he looks back at her to ensure that she got to have at least some of it as well. Catching his gaze almost immediately, she beams and points at her own dinner, where the fruit in question is indeed very present.
Wonderfully sated by the food, he can't help but feel grateful that many, if not all potential future alliance members are too far gone by the time he has finished eating to even think about strategy, let alone discuss it.
Glancing towards his side, he finds that Regina has rested her head on the table in front of her, her hand on her stomach as she groans in discomfort. Jones is passed out, and the two women at Belle's side are in the same shape as his own neighbor—if not worse, if the two empty bottles right in front of the one with the black and white hair are any indication.
Gold can't help but chuckle out loud, whether anyone notices or not, as he realizes that for all intents and purposes, he and Belle are the only two left at this point who are still entirely aware—at a table of ten. Helping herself to another serving, she raises her empty glass to him in a silent salute.
Seeing one contestant after another remove themselves from the table—as far as they're still able to—only to simply lie down and fall asleep right there on the sand, he finds there is something he'd much rather do than have this generous dinner with an entire table separating Belle from him.
Filling up his plate and making certain that Regina is indeed snoring, he stands up and approaches his lovely friend. She beams up at him, needing no words to understand his meaning. Just in case, they quietly make their way just out of the others' earshot together.
They sit down in the sand near the waterline, their shoulders touching. Even more than the food, it's being in her close proximity again that makes him feel renewed… just as long as he keeps at bay the knowledge that he's going to have to go through much longer periods of time while pretending not to be as fond of her as he actually is.
"I can't believe how good this food tastes," Belle enthuses, taking another mouthful of steamed vegetables.
"Me neither," he sighs, not allowing himself to consider that he will very seldom get to enjoy such food in the near future, either.
"I wanted to ask you everything about the conversations you just had and to tell you about mine, but…"
"This might be the last somewhat peaceful time we have together for a long while," he concludes.
"Yes, exactly. Would it be so bad to simply enjoy this moment?" she asks, gesturing at the endless sea in front of them, the bright moonlight reflected magnificently in its calm surface.
"Not bad at all," he murmurs, although he, frankly, finds himself utterly distracted from his game play by her once more; after all, even winning couldn't possibly be as glorious as spending some quiet time with her like this.
Giggling, she gathers sand in front of them into a pile and puts her plate on top of it, encouraging him to do the same. Belatedly, he realizes that he has forgotten to take his fork. But that hardly seems to matter, for she has one herself… but rather than to offer it to him, she uses it to pierce a piece of chicken from their combined plate and bring it to his mouth.
However, she immediately withdraws and he realizes that being the fool that he is, he was so enchanted with the gesture that he didn't think to actually open his mouth in time to enable her to offer him the food that way.
"I… this is a ridiculous idea," she says, lowering the fork again. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have…"
"No, no, I'm sorry, I hadn't… I didn't realize…" he stammers. "I'd like it very much, if you wouldn't mind…"
He doesn't know what to say next, can't quite describe the way she offered, for all intents and purposes, to feed him… he only knows that he really wants her to. Luckily, Belle understands him once more, even as he struggles to make sense of his own thoughts and feelings.
Smiling again, she offers him a bite after all. He thought that the food couldn't possibly taste any better than it did, but when she is the one putting it in his mouth, it turns out that it can. It seems only right that while he's chewing, he takes the fork to stab a particularly large chunk of pineapple and offer it to her.
That's how they slowly share the rest of the meal—their private, improvised dinner by the sea far better than any merge feast could ever be.
Chapter 23: Day 23
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
Gold wakes up, somehow feeling both comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. For once, he isn't already feeling hungry and exhausted… but it is very cold, and his back is killing him yet more than usual. He groans as he stretches himself, trying to ease the tension in his body.
There's a sudden movement near his head, causing his eyes to burst open. Then he finds himself looking right into Belle's face, her hand still hovering near his cheeks. Recalling that they had their own private merge feast on the beach, he realizes that they must have fallen asleep right there on the sand… and that she, for some reason, was caressing his face as he slept.
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have…"
"No, it's fine, I…"
He is still half drowsy, Belle was just touching his face but now thinks he doesn't want her to, when he really does even though he can't explain it, and… This time, his body is quicker than his mind and before he can tell himself that it's probably a very bad idea to simply return the gesture in order to convince her of his approval, she has already accepted his touch with an eager nod.
That's how Gold finds himself very, very carefully running his fingers over her cheek, watching in awe as her eyes flutter closed and her breath hitches.
"That feels wonderful," she sighs happily.
"Yeah," he agrees throatily, his mind having come to a complete stop at this point.
"No matter how much I like the way we usually wake up, I quite enjoy this as well."
He hasn't really figured out yet how they have spent the night, only that it wasn't in the same way they used to huddle in the shelter for warmth and closeness.
His cheeks flush at the mere memory of it, suddenly seeming all the more forbidden now that he is touching her like this… going as far as to, somehow, draw a fluttery moan from her, which really doesn't appear to be caused by disgust or shock. Disbelief and confusion taking over once more, he abruptly withdraws his hand, terrified that he'll unknowingly cross some sort of boundary which will damage their relationship forever.
"The others aren't awake yet," she says softly, still lying on her side next to him, looking at him with those big, gorgeous eyes of hers. "I just checked. We don't have to…"
For once, he doesn't all but finish her sentence, or she his. All he can do is stay right as he is, his hand lying limply in the cold space between them, torn between offering her as much of himself as she'd like to take and staying as far away from her as he can, lest he accidentally do something to ruin the wonderful bond which has grown between them.
"Did you have a productive merge feast last night?" she asks, changing the topic to a much safer one, to his relief.
"I think I'm on to something. Regina, the woman I was sitting next to, seems quite eager to jump off the Villain bandwagon… or at least, she expressed interest in working with me. And she… well, she figured out very quickly that the two of us are a bit of a package deal."
He winces, recalling how very soon and easily she found out about his main weakness.
"What did she say?"
"She caught me looking at you in the very beginning, and she insinuated that we… that I have a… crush on you."
"Well, is she far off…?" Belle asks carefully.
"I… I suppose," he replies, not quite knowing what to say as he finds himself avoiding her gaze.
He wouldn't know how exactly to characterize the very close friendship which has grown between them, but maybe… well, maybe the trust and affection they share constitutes a great part of the kind of loving romantic relationship he has hoped for for the greater part of his life.
"She tried to… well, she didn't explicitly state that she wants to work with us, but she said I should have been with them all along. We didn't talk all that much, but I think there's definitely potential there."
"Good. That's very good. What about that man sitting on the other side of you?"
"His name is Sidney. The way it seems to me, he's entirely in her pocket. I think he's in love with her… and she takes advantage of that as much as she can."
For just a moment, he wonders about that relationship. From only the short interaction he has witnessed between them so far, it seemed perfectly clear that Sidney's feelings for Regina are completely one-sided, that he's being played… but what about him and Belle? It would make so much more sense if there was something like that at play in their relationship as well, something that would make her agree to have him hold her tightly at night and accept him for who he is, wholly and unconditionally.
But surely not even Belle could maintain such an act so convincingly for so long… or could she?
One more glance in her warm eyes persuades him once more that neither of them is being played… and that just in case he is so much under his spell that he doesn't notice he's being manipulated, she's doing so with such warmth and gentleness that he can only beg her to continue for as long as she likes.
"Sounds like you had more luck than me," she sighs, so open and honest that all his doubts are swept aside. "I mean, I found out more than I expected, but Mal and Cruella were a bit…"
"Cruella?" he asks, chuckling at the name despite herself.
"Yes, the woman with the… unusually colored hair. Both she and Mal insisted at first that their Villain tribe is one big happy family, but once they had had a few glasses of wine… they're both pissed at Regina. Apparently, she flipped on them twice and they voted off Ursula, the contestant the two of them were closest with."
"Here we were, hoping to find some cracks in the Villain tribe… it sounds like we've landed on an entire canyon!"
"So thanks to you, we know that Regina probably wants to work with us, and I found out that at least two of the Villains are dying to to get rid of her. I'm quite certain that Cruella and Mal were too drunk to lie, so…"
"We've found our way in," Gold concludes, pleased that they have come so far this quickly… although he can't help but feel that once again, this is going almost too easily. "What about Cruella and Mal, though? Any chance that we could collaborate with them, in case we can't work out a plan with Regina?"
"Cruella, absolutely not. But Mal… I actually quite like her. In fact, I can't really tell what she's doing in the Villain tribe. She seems more sad than anything else, and lonely too, even here. It sounded to me like she has played a quite independent game so far, and she'd like to continue to do so. So we might be able to help each other out further down the line."
"That's a good thing to keep in mind."
They smile broadly at each other, marveling at the progress they have already made in this new tribe… and the fact that it seems they will be able to forge a path for themselves towards the end of the game.
"People are starting to stir," Gold says, movement catching his attention from the corner of his eye.
"Yes. I'm going to go over to the rest, pretend just to have just woken up as well."
"Me too. Any plans for today, other than to find out as much about the Villains as we can and give away as little about ourselves as possible?"
"Sounds perfect to me. And… well, it's probably silly, but… be careful with Jones, all right? I don't like the way he looks at you."
"I will be wary, Belle, thank you. I know his type only too well, and I won't let him catch me off guard again… I know how to handle him. You be careful too."
More than the knowledge that he doesn't have to be afraid of Jones as long as he doesn't let him take him aback anymore, Gold is comforted by the fact that she cares for him… that, for the first time in his life, there's someone who unconditionally has got his back.
"Since this might be the last time we get to talk privately for a while… good luck today."
"You too," she says, smiling brightly at him before quickly making her way to the others, only lying down once she has made certain that no one but him can actually see her doing so.
As soon as she is still, he does the same. He knows only too well that once more, there are ten of them now, which will make it much more difficult to get an unnoticed moment together with Belle—especially since finally, paranoia will no doubt be rife from now on.
By the time everyone is more or less awake, they find a note saying that they'll have to hike to their new camp location, and a map which depicts a very large and ominous-looking mangrove forest between them and said place. To make matters yet more unpleasant, there's no sign of anything to eat but the remains of yesterday night's feast.
It's going to be a long, long day.
Chapter 24: Day 24
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
Every bone and muscle in Gold's body is aching when he awakens that morning. Once more, he's lying on the sand, but this time Belle isn't anywhere near him to make his waking any less unpleasant… or at least, that's what he initially thinks.
"Hey," comes her sweet voice from right above him.
"Hey," he replies hoarsely, smiling up at her despite his discomfort as soon as he has opened his eyes and spotted her.
"It's early and everyone's sleeping," she whispers, sitting down next to him. "I figure it's a perfect opportunity to look for an immunity idol which may or may not be hidden somewhere near this new camp without being disturbed. You were still sleeping, but I wanted to at least ask whether you wanted to come with me."
"Of course I want to come," he says, the prospect of spending time with her yet better than the possibility of further strengthening their position in the game by finding a second immunity idol.
As he moves to sit up, however, that doesn't seem quite so self-evident anymore. Finding himself barely able to move at all, he would fall back onto the ground if it wasn't for Belle, who quickly scoots closer to him and helps him rest his head in her lap.
No matter how wonderful it is to end up lying like that, he groans in pain, the memories of the previous day flooding back to him. After a miserable breakfast, it took them almost all day to reach their new camp location. The hike was yet more awful than it had seemed on the map. It was easily the worst day of the game for just about everybody, but especially Gold, who had more trouble than anyone else maneuvering through the mud and water between the dense mangrove trees.
By the time they finally arrived at the camp where they'll be staying for the remainder of the game, it was almost dark already and of course there was nothing prepared for them, except for a wooden box with only the barest of supplies.
"How do you feel?" he asks, hoping that she is faring much better than himself.
"Not great. My legs are aching and I've got a few nasty blisters. But I slept surprisingly well, which helped a lot."
"Still, you're awake awfully early."
"The same as usual, really."
"Which is very early," Gold notes, having wondered about this before.
"Well, I'm used to it. I get up around this time every day."
"But you're a librarian… I don't know all that many librarians who open so early it requires getting up at five. And I can't imagine you like reading so much that you do it in the small hours of the morning every single day of the week."
"Yeah, well… I've got two jobs. Being a librarian is the only one I actually like doing, so I tend not to mention the other."
"What else do you do?" he asks softly, realization dawning as he recalls her financial situation.
"I clean; I'm working more hours as a maid than a librarian, actually. I've got to pay the bills somehow, haven't I? At least I get to see a private library from quite close every once in a while."
"Let's go find that idol," he says, more determined to help her get to as much prize money as she can than ever before.
However, she stops him again before he can stand up despite the pain, apologetic but determined.
"Gold, I really appreciate your enthusiasm, but I'm afraid you'll ruin your ankle if you go out just now… if you manage to walk at all, that is."
After his nod of agreement, she removes his sock, shoe and brace as easily as he would have—and causing even less unavoidable discomfort. She begins to knead and stretch his aching ankle as if she'd helped him like this all her life, limiting the pain almost immediately.
Groaning in relief this time, Gold lets himself fall backwards into the sand, thoroughly grateful for her assistance and dismissing the question of whether she'd consider doing this for him each and every day, rather than cleaning, once they're back in their normal lives.
"I already looked yesterday for the purple flower which eased your pain last time," she says while continuing to work her magic. "I haven't seen it on this island so far."
"You've already helped me so very much, Belle. It hadn't even occurred to me… please don't bother yourself on my account."
"I don't want to see you hurt," she simply says, all but caressing his ankle. "I want to do whatever I can to make you feel better."
"I… that means the world to me. Please know… no matter how many miraculous salves you manage to make, nothing is more important to me than the fact that your mere presence, your helping me like this."
She beams at him as if those words made her truly happy, making him feel better yet.
"If you go around saying things like that to me, I will only want to help you more."
Never mind merely paying off her father's debts. Never mind asking her to work as his physical therapist or whatever after this game, so she doesn't have to be a maid anymore. Never mind ensuring that she wins at least a hundred thousand dollars of prize money. Regardless of all those things, he's going to make certain she is very, very comfortable for the rest of her life.
"Besides," she continues, "we've got plenty of time. I don't think anyone will be up for hours."
Jones has somehow managed to smuggle not one but two bottles of wine from the beach where they enjoyed the merge feast to the new location of their camp. He shared with the rest of the contestants after being found out, which resulted in said contestants currently being yet more oblivious to their surroundings than yesterday morning.
So although Gold's entire body is hurting and the point where they will have achieved either the building of a sufficient shelter or the gathering of enough food—let alone both—isn't anywhere in sight yet, he is quite pleased regardless. Here he is, after all—another day on a beautiful island, with lovely Belle at his side, as eager for mischief as he is.
"It's much better, thank you," he signals eventually, getting the feeling that she would go on yet longer if he didn't stop her. It's not as if he wanted her to stop, but he doesn't want her to feel obliged to continue despite having grown weary of her self-appointed task after all,.
"You want to try to get up?"
He nods in confirmation, finding that even with a still sore ankle, getting back on his feet is less challenging than in his regular life, when he doesn't have Belle at his side.
"Any idea where you want to start searching for the idol?" he asks.
"Let's start at camp, now that everyone is passed out?"
He nods and together, they get to the centre of the camp, which is… well, no camp at all. They can only hope that the weather will remain as pleasant as it has been in the past few days so they can sleep on the beach without shelter, for almost no one has agreed with anyone about anything so far—let alone something as important as a shelter.
Careful not to get too close to their fellow tribe members, all still sleeping or passed out, they check each and every inch of the box of supplies and the sand, bushes and trees all around the clearing where their tribe flag is located, without finding anything at all.
Needing no words to confirm this fact, they head for the well next, checking every hole or stone where the item might be hidden and poking any area of sand which looks like it has been remotely disturbed. Each of them work on one side of the path leading from camp to the well and once more, Gold marvels at how easily they manage to collaborate… and wishes that their partnership wouldn't have to be over as soon as the game ends for one of them.
They don't find the hidden immunity idol either on the path leading to the well or in said structure, which rules out the most obvious places. As they head back to camp to make certain that no one is aware of their search before deciding where to go next, Belle freezes without warning, almost causing him to bump into her.
"Look up there!" she says, gesturing at a palm tree they had almost walked by without noticing anything.
From this direction, however, it's clear that there's something out of place, something tied against the trunk of the tree—something that could very well be an idol, wrapped in the exact same type of cloth as the one they found before.
"We should get a long branch or something of that kind to try to get it out of there," Belle says excitedly.
"That may take quite some time," he replies as he estimates the distance between the ground and the package, knowing that they are going to have to move yet faster now that they almost have the idol. "You should be able to reach it if you stand on my shoulders."
"Are you sure…"
His face must show his determination, for she comes to stand next to him rather than looking for an adequate tool of sorts.
Thinking quickly, Gold goes to stand with his back against the tree trunk, folding his hands in front of his stomach like an improvised step. He used to presume he'd be too small and too weak to help any other person climb like this, but with Belle… it's yet another just perfect aspect of their relationship.
Holding on to his shoulders, she kicks off her shoes and steps onto his hands with her bare feet, pulling herself up against the tree trunk.
"Careful," he says, unable not to give her this superfluous warning, despite knowing that there's no point in doing so.
Holding on to the tree trunk, Belle steps onto his shoulders. It's like she barely weighs anything at all and before he knows it, she lowers herself again, getting back the same way she came. Probably due to excitement more than anything else, she wobbles slightly as she jumps the last three feet back to the ground, the small package in her hands.
Although he looks around quickly to reassure himself that no one is witnessing this, Gold's hands have instinctively flown to her sides to keep her steady, and remain there as she eagerly parts the cloth.
"Yes!" she exclaims when she indeed reveals an idol, identical to the one he's carrying with him at this very moment, and the rules that accompany it. "We did it! We found two hidden immunity idols without a single clue—go us!"
"Indeed. Although you found this one… I had nothing to do with it."
"So shall I… shall I keep it, then?"
"Of course," he says, somewhat confused but also touched that it would occur to her to credit him for this in the first place, going as far as not to claim ownership of the item immediately.
"Thanks," she says, her smile worth more to him than any immunity idol as she shoves the latter in one of the pockets of her denim shorts. "But I consider this as belonging to both of us."
"That works for me," he replies, knowing that the exact same thing goes for the idol he found at their previous camp.
"So… we should probably go back to 'sleep'."
"That's for the best," he agrees, despite thinking he'd much rather celebrate this new success with her than pretend he hardly knows her for another indefinite amount of time.
"We'll talk again soon," she breathes, lowering her voice as they head back to camp.
"Soon," he promises, that prospect just enough to allow him to distance himself from her once again.
Chapter 25: Day 25
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
He didn't think it'd ever come to this, but Gold actually misses his time on the Hero tribe. Beside his ability to spend a lot more time with Belle without raising suspicion, at least the Heroes got something done every once in a while, no matter how infrequently. Now that the last four of them are mixed with the six remaining Villains, that's… well, different.
The Heroes are the only ones actually working on the shelter, although progress gets slower and slower as they try to keep an eye on the Villains, who are looking almost openly for the hidden immunity idol. At least his body isn't hurting nearly as much as it did yesterday.
"I think Regina has found a clue to the idol's location," Gold mutters to Belle while they're gathering palm leaves for the roof of the structure.
"She'll probably get suspicious if she keeps searching without finding anything," she says softly as they dump two armfuls of leaves at the camp site.
"And even if she doesn't, Jones probably will," he replies, noting how the other man follows Regina's every move—openly searching right where she is, much to her chagrin.
"Do you think we should…"
"Create a fake idol," they conclude simultaneously.
"And probably sooner rather than later," she mutters, glancing at the Villains as they cover ground.
"Yes. Luckily, I've already made some preparations weeks ago, just in case."
The look on her face makes him feel ridiculously proud when he takes from his pocket the piece of wood he carved to resemble the skull on both their idols.
"It looks almost exactly like the real thing," she whispers, lovingly running her fingers over the smoothened material. "Which makes it better yet that I've also taken some measures."
She digs into her pockets as well, retrieving a string onto which a dozen beads or so are threaded. They aren't the same that are used on the actual idols, but close enough; the odds are slim that any person who might find this fake version will recall the details of the item previously at stake in their tribe, for as far as they've ever seen the idols used in this season in the first place.
"Where did you even get these?" he asks, since unlike him, she couldn't have simply created them from materials found on the island.
"I cut them loose from the decorations of that crate with fishing gear we got."
"I didn't even see them," he chuckles, marveling at her resourcefulness once more.
"Obviously not, because I had already got them," she smirks.
Making certain that no one is paying them any attention, they use a piece of twine they have been supplied with for the construction of the shelter to make a necklace of sorts, to which they attach the wooden skull and the beads. To make the deception more convincing, they wrap it in the cloth in which they found their own idols.
"Where do you think we should plant it?" he asks. "Somewhere not too difficult to find, but not too easy either… and obviously somewhere we can place it without being caught."
"Wouldn't it be nice if we put it where Jones is most likely to find it?" Belle suggests, gesturing for him to come sit next to her.
Hiding the fake idol along with its much more genuine twin, Gold joins her as she continues to weave palm leaves for the roof of their shelter. The work barely requires any attention and allows them to keep an eye on the other contestants—especially Jones' trajectory, as he trails behind Regina in an attempt to find the idol without possessing the clue which she appears to have.
Gold can barely prevent himself from laughing out loud as Regina keeps searching in the specific spot where Belle found her idol yesterday, without once looking up to where it would still have been if she had been quicker. It's especially difficult to contain himself when also seeing the mirth on Belle's face.
"How about we hide it under a stone or something like that, at the root of the tree where the idol was? Regina has been there already, but Jones hasn't," she suggests, her eyes still on the two idol hunters. "We can get there from behind without being seen; there's a clearing close to it which we can use."
"Sounds perfect. Would you mind putting it there? You're quicker than I am."
"Works for me," she says, getting up casually. "I'll be right back!"
He continues his work, glad for the distraction. Being caught looking at Belle is the last thing he wants right now; he has already found out the hard way that it's apparently painfully obvious he can't keep his eyes off the one and only true friend he's ever had.
Luckily, she's back at his side only a minute or so later, her smile telling him everything he needs to know. They continue to work together in silence, still having to suppress the urge to burst out laughing whenever their gazes meet.
Just when Gold is beginning to wonder how long it might take Jones—or anyone—to find the idol, a yell of triumph is heard from the direction where they just planted said item. A moment later, Jones himself emerges from the trees, wearing the immunity idol around his neck.
"Just how stupid is he?!" Belle mutters under her breath as the man launches into a speech which appears to be wholly dedicated to his superiority as both a contestant and a person.
"Very," Gold murmurs, "look at Regina's face."
They both note the highly interesting combination of anger, envy and nervousness which she all but radiates for a moment, before shifting her mask of cool disinterest back into place. They look away just in time before those cold, calculating eyes are on them instead.
"I'm going to… gather some more palm leaves," Gold whispers to Belle. "Let's see if Regina takes the bait."
Getting away from camp and, more importantly, the potentially suspicious gazes of their fellow contestants under the guise of gathering more supplies, he isn't surprised when Regina walks up to him mere minutes later.
"So Jones has the idol," she says without preamble. "We can't vote him out easily, but now that he's got so much power in this game, we have to get rid of him. He already has people eating out of his hands as it is, and he's a yet bigger threat now that he also owns that immunity."
"What do you propose?" Gold says, making sure to balance his apparent interest in the collaboration she is doubtlessly going to propose—not too much, and not too little.
"An alliance," she says, lowering her voice, if only slightly. "I assume that all of you Heroes continue to work together?"
"If those prospects are the best for me, you assume correctly," he replies, equally careful not to give too much of their strategy away, just in case Regina is bluffing or their plan falls through before it comes to fruition.
"Whatever. If the four of you vote together, I can join you, and so will Sidney if I tell him to, even as Jones thinks we're still with him. That makes six of us, and he won't be able to recruit more than three lackeys no matter what. We don't have the numbers to vote him out safely… not yet, anyway. It will only be a matter of time… just as long as the six of us work together."
"Excellent suggestion," he replies, happily letting her think that the whole thing was her idea. He doubts this impromptu coalition will exist long enough to get to the end goal Regina describes, but at least it's a very good start to get rid of Jones.
Yet more importantly, if the plan works out, it will keep Belle and himself safe for at least a few votes, whether one of them should manage to win individual immunity or not.
"Then we have a deal?" Regina asks, offering him her hand.
"We do indeed," he says as he shakes it. "I'll talk to David, Emma and Belle. Can you do the same with Sidney?"
"I definitely will," she replies, holding on to his hand a little longer than strictly necessary. "It's a pleasure doing business with you, Gold."
"The pleasure is all mine," he says, missing Belle's warmth and kindness more than ever as he looks into her speculative eyes—and figuring that Neal won't mind too much that he's lying about this.
At least Regina also understands that they shouldn't stay out here for too long, increasing the risk of Jones finding out what they're up to with each minute they spend scheming in the bushes. With a curt nod, she returns to camp. After gathering another armful of palm leaves, Gold does the same.
Dragging his booty, he gratefully sits next to Belle again, continuing their work on the roof of the shelter.
"Any new developments here?" Gold asks softly, glancing at Jones where he is leisurely strolling down the beach, blatantly ignoring the people working on the shelter where he'll doubtlessly want to sleep as soon as it's finished—despite being, in fact, the only Villain who hasn't joined the Heroes in their efforts at this point.
"Nothing since you left. How did it go with Regina?"
"It couldn't have been better. She wants to work with the four of us, and she can bring Sidney in as well. Together, we can get rid of whoever associates with Jones until he has so few allies left that we can easily split the vote between him and someone else to flush out his idol, without risking one of us getting sent home instead."
"If the alliance lasts that long, that is," she replies, immediately recognizing the main flaw of this plan.
"That's my concern as well. But at least that puts us on the right side of the votes for a while."
"And that's what matters most in the end," she agrees. "Still, I hope it works."
"Me too," he utters, noticing that she doesn't look at Jones at all when she says so, as if her main motivation in joining the alliance was also to spend as much time on the island with him as she can. He know that isn't entirely true, but it's tempting to pretend, to say the least.
Chapter 26: Day 26
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
Gold enjoys the relative peacefulness at camp after the reward challenge. The temporary team he was assigned to may not have won, but he hardly cares that unlike the contestants on the other one, he hasn't obtained his luxury item. It seems that access to their personal things has a soothing effect on even the Villains.
He's rather grateful for that—simply because almost everyone has withdrawn from camp, the successful team as well as the others. With very few eyes to keep track of him, he eagerly goes after Belle. No doubt the book she won interests her more than him, but she might let him sit with her for a while as she reads. It would be a lovely contrast indeed to the past few days, in which they didn't get the chance to talk much and shared none of the physical comfort he has grown so very fond of.
Smiling as soon as he spots her, sitting on the beach in the distance, he quickly makes his way to her. She seems so engrossed in her book that he doesn't want to distract her any more than necessary, and it seems only normal for him to go sit behind her so she can lean back into a more comfortable position against him.
Without giving it a second thought, Gold quietly approaches her and sits down right behind her, wrapping his arms around her in greeting—only for her to yelp and scramble away, almost dropping her book in the process.
"I'm sorry!" he cries out, immediately moving back as it belatedly dawns on him that he just basically sneaked up on her and grabbed her without her permission or even her knowledge. No matter how good his intentions were, he realizes now how wrong that behaviour is. "I'm so sorry, I shouldn't have…"
"Oh, it's you," she gasps, visibly relaxing when she recognizes him. "I thought… well, I figured only Jones would approach me like that."
"I'm so very sorry," he repeats, lowering his head in misery.
"It's all right. I don't mind being held by you… quite the opposite. A little warning would be nice next time, though. As soon as I start reading a good book, I fail to notice anything around me. I'd really like it if you came to sit with me, but I'll understand if you don't want to after…"
"No, no, I do. I do," he quickly reassures her, relieved that she still approves of his presence… and horrified that she seems to fear Jones so much. "Did he… did he try something with you? Jones, I mean?"
"He didn't, no, luckily. I mean, it's not that I know he would if he got the chance, but… well, let's just say I don't trust him. I stay away from him as much as I can. Let's just hope we'll be able to get him out of the game soon."
"Indeed," he agrees, glad that their plan of an alliance with Regina and Sidney seems to cheer her up.
Not wanting to risk alarming her again, he sits down a feet or so away, thrilled when she immediately seeks his nearness of her own accord.
"Hold me?" she asks as she leans back against him.
He nods eagerly, tentatively wrapping his arms around her after all and sighing contentedly when she relaxes in his embrace.
"I missed this," she breathes, closing her book in favor of getting closer to him.
"Me too," he whispers, barely able to believe that she seems to have longed for him as much as he did for her… so much, in fact, that she even puts her book away.
"What are you reading?" he inquires, curious as to the book she had gotten so lost in.
"Sense and Sensibility," she replies happily. "It's my favorite. I knew it'd be good to read again after so many days, but I hadn't thought it would distract me this much."
"Why don't you carry on reading?" he asks, not wanting to keep her away from this pleasant distraction now that she finally has the chance to enjoy it again.
"I'd love to just sit like this for a little while, if you don't mind?"
"Of course not," he replies, feeling ridiculously flattered that she would choose him over her favorite book, no matter how temporarily… especially when she pulls his arms tighter around her and rests her hands on top of his.
"I'm sorry you didn't win your luxury item," she mutters, resting her face against his neck.
"I don't really care. It looks like you wanted yours a lot more than I did. I… I had all but forgotten about it, actually."
"If I can ask, which item did you choose to take with you on the island?"
"A spinning wheel," he says after a moment's hesitation, not actually reluctant to tell her about the unusual object, but still somewhat nervous about what she might think of such a choice. "A small one."
"A spinning wheel? Why?"
"I spin quite a lot in my normal life. It's… it gives me something to do. I like watching the wheel, it makes me forget."
"What do you want to forget?" she asks, her voice very soft as she tilts her head to look him in the eye.
"Everything," he whispers, idly realizing that the endless depths of her eyes offer yet more oblivion than his wheel… and of a much sweeter kind.
"Gold, can I just ask… why are you here? Why are you pushing yourself like this on this show? It's obviously not for the money or the adventure itself. Physically, you're at a greater disadvantage than anyone else here, and yet… there you are, surviving better and playing harder than all of the others."
For a moment, he thinks he can't explain; not because he doesn't trust her with this secret, far from it, but because he isn't prepared for the prospect of saying these things to someone who might actually understand. But then she very, very tentatively brings her palm to the side of his face, cupping it tenderly. He can't help but lean into her touch, his eyes fluttering closed—knowing that he wants to tell her, even if it is very likely to result in him breaking down in her arms.
"My son, Neal—I haven't seen him in fifteen years. It's my own fault. He disagreed with my decisions, the way I lived my life. I didn't listen to him, and he ran away when he was only a teenager," he whispers. Although his eyes are closed, he can feel that Belle is listening to him intently, caressing his cheek lightly in support. "I found him, but he left again, and again… until I realized that he truly didn't want to come back to me… that he never wanted to see me again."
He pauses for a moment, finding it a lot less difficult to tell her than he had thought. In fact, despite the circumstances, he finds himself actually enjoying her nearness and ministrations.
"I tried to be a better person for his sake. I overhauled my entire company for his sake, but… well, I don't even know whether I am now close enough to the man he wants me to be, because I can't find him anymore. I've reached out for him without response so often. I… I am only fairly certain that he isn't actually dead because he sends me a card every year for my birthday. There's no name on it, no message whatsoever, but… I just know it's him."
Belle pulls him closer towards her and he is only too happy to accede to the unspoken question, shuddering when he finds shelter in the safety of her arms once more.
"I just can't go on like this, living without the person who matters most to me by far," he continues, whispering against the warm skin of her neck. "Neal and I used to watch Survivor when he was just a boy, when he still… still accepted me as his father. Even at a young age, he had strong ideas about right and wrong, and that translated to the way he viewed the show. As I grew older, I realized that the best way to prove him that I'm not a coward, that I can actually be a good man, was to participate in this contest in the way I know he would want me to."
"So you're putting yourself through all this in the hope that your son will see you, approve of your game play and come back into your life?" she asks, her hands carding blissfully through his hair at this point.
"Exactly," he mutters, only realizing just how pathetic this actually is now that she's the very first person other than himself to formulate it this way.
"I obviously don't know the man you were before coming here, nor do I know your son. But it seems to me that… the way you are here, the way I know you… I think you are very brave, Gold. And I believe that your son will see that too."
The tears he managed to hold back all this time finally won't be stopped any longer at those far too generous and optimistic words—words he can't help but cling to just as he holds on to her, as though thinking that her hope might also become his by sheer osmosis.
Still, losing himself to the despair of his grief isn't as overwhelming and utterly exhausting as usual now that he's with Belle, her sweet words of comfort reaching him through the thick haze of loneliness and fear. He just lies there in her arms, more at ease than he has been in a long time, increasingly aware that she has grown to be almost as important to him as Neal in the few weeks that he has had the privilege to know her.
The awareness that there's someone other than his son that he wants to make happy, someone who, unlike Neal, is right here right now, encourages him to try and cheer her up as well, or at the very least make her comfortable.
"Shall I read for you?" he asks hoarsely after she has brushed the tears off his face with an affection that almost causes him to start crying all over again.
"If you don't mind…"
"I'd love to," he reassures her. If he can't be Neal's father, being her companion is almost as good; just reading to her for the rest of his life sounds like a very agreeable fate to him.
After the way she comforted him, it's better yet to reverse their positions so she can settle herself against his chest while he wraps his arms around her, taking the book from her and looking at its pages from over her shoulder. He takes great care with the clearly beloved novel, its pages yellowed and much used.
"Where would you like me to start?" he asks, noticing that she's put a dried leaf between the pages as a bookmarker, almost halfway already.
"At the very beginning," she says, closing her eyes as she snuggles against his chest.
Chapter 27: Day 27
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
The past few days have been relatively quiet, his new alliance coming through, but Gold is relieved when they receive the message that today's reward challenge will be presented to them in the form of the Survivor Auction. It won't be physically challenging and, almost as good, with a little help it may distract Jones from… well, from being himself.
As if it weren't challenging enough to have to stay away from Belle whenever they find themselves in sight of the others, it's yet more exhausting to keep an eye on the other man whenever he is near, making certain that he leaves the two of them alone—and won't try to eat more than his own share of their resources.
All contestants have been instructed not to discuss their bids in the auction, but it still progresses exactly as Gold expected. When Jeff puts in one object after another, some of them only to be uncovered after the players have bid—and paid—for them, the tasty dishes and small comfort items are sold for ridiculously high amounts of the money they just have been given.
When seeing the show on television, he and Neal had such fun watching contestants offer hundreds of dollars for a slice of pizza or a single hamburger. It was a good lesson for his son; this particular aspect of the game proved perfect to teach him what money was worth.
However, the value of the five hundred dollars he's currently holding in his hands isn't determined yet, for it wholly depends on what the other contestants will have left by the time Jeff gets to the one and only price he has his eye on: an advantage in the next immunity challenge.
The alliance of the four Heroes plus Regina and Sidney may have come through so far, but then again there's only been one vote, and Gold wants to be as safe as he can… That means finding himself with the immunity necklace around his neck—which must start with his gaining the clue that has been sold in each and every Survivor season so far. It's exactly the kind of power he needs to get to the end.
The other contestants are bidding and outbidding happily for the first items of the auction: fries, pizza and a shower—all to be claimed right there and then. Gold is pleased to see that many are participating, decreasing the odds that he'll have fierce competition when trying to buy the clue for the next immunity challenge.
In fact, it's going so well that he almost has to chuckle when Jones blows most of his money on a mystery item which turns out to be a plate of larvae—a local delicacy. However, Gold sobers when he realizes that Belle hasn't bid on anything yet. Knowing her and the way she always plays, she must be highly interested in the item which will get her closest to the end of the game… just like him.
But when she wins the bid of a drink of iced tea for fifty dollars, that fear is relieved. She doesn't even look at him as she returns to the other contestants after retrieving the large glass, but he knows that she just gave him the all-clear to bid on the advantage in the game which will no doubt be auctioned off soon.
Still, even as his focus increases further in anticipation, he can't help but memorize the fact that Belle apparently likes iced tea so much… and hamburgers, if her next investment—two hundred dollars this time—is any indication.
It's probably a good thing that they aren't allowed to give any the food and drinks that can be bought, for he has the suspicion that Belle's kind heart would tempt her to share her purchases with him. But even besides his desire to avoid this so as not to raise suspicion, he wants her to have as much for herself as possible; he'd much rather be hungry himself than to know it is the case for her.
Despite his intention to stay focused, he gets rather restless as he watches the people around him, almost all of them happily enjoying one type of food or another. His tactic has always been to play this part of the game exactly as he is doing now, but surrounded by the smell of delicious victuals, he finds it more difficult to withstand their attraction than he anticipated.
As if that wasn't bad enough yet, his mind conjures a wonderful image of Belle and himself all on their own in the comfort of his private island, sharing a meal of iced tea and hamburgers. Suddenly, he longs so much for that fantasy to become reality that it almost hurts, but of course there's no reason to think that wish may ever come true.
He shouldn't even be thinking about it, for it is already a blessing to say the least that she would want to spend time with him after the game, let alone in such an intimate fashion. All of which he especially shouldn't be distracted by right now, w hen the chance to improve his odds in the game is about to be presented to him.
"The next item can make a huge difference for you in the next immunity challenge," Jeff announces, bringing Gold some much-needed focus for the developments in the here and now.
The next auctioned item will in all likelihood be the one he covets—but it wouldn't be the first time that a contestant bade too early, before the item was fully announced, ending in bitter disappointment more often than not. Besides, although his mind isn't nearly as sharp as it can be whenever he hasn't been starving on a remote island for over three weeks, he is quite certain that no other contestant still has all their money—meaning he can outbid them all even if he isn't the first to make an offer.
Still, as soon as Jeff has revealed the rolled piece of paper on which the advantage is described, Gold doesn't want to take any risks. It's almost always the last item to be sold anyway, and it's not as if a few hundred dollars more or less even mattered to him, whether he actually gets to keep them or not.
"Five hundred dollars," he bids, raising his hand to signal his interest in the clue.
Glancing around, he is relieved to see that no one else has responded, and that the advantage in the next immunity challenge will indeed be his. Jeff accepts his bid and beckons him over, where he happily pays for and receives the clue. He's told to open it only when he's alone, which is exactly what he was hoping for.
Gold heads back to his spot on the benches next to the other contestants, keeping his face a neutral mask lest the others become yet more aware of how pleased he is with his purchase. He sits down again, fully expecting the auction to be over now, as it would be on most seasons… only for Jeff to retrieve another item from behind the wooden counter he's standing at.
The people at his side gasp and begin to mutter among themselves once they can clearly see that he is holding a bundle of papers. No doubt about it, this must be the moment when the contestants will receive the much-desired letters from their loved ones back at home.
Gold tenses for a moment, not having expected this twist, then relaxes. It's not as if it mattered, for of course no one would have sent him anything. So he listens without a second thought when Jeff reveals who has written to each of them, if only to get a better understanding of the personal lives of the people on his tribe.
He can't help but glance at Belle when Jeff tells her that she has received one letter, namely from her fiancé. The way she all but rolls her eyes in response saddens him a little, because the oaf clearly hasn't accepted her breaking their engagement after all, and also because no one has written to her but a man whose attentions she clearly doesn't want.
At the same time, he can't help but be shamefully relieved that she appears to be as lonely as he is, if only because it might strengthen the bond between them yet more than it already has. Still, there's no time to consider that, not when Jeff has shown their letter to every contestant but him… and there's still one left on the pile.
"Now this is something truly special," Jeff says, holding up the letter on which envelope Gold's name is clearly and unmistakably written. "For the first time in the history of Survivor, we were approached by someone who has been out of the life of one of our contestants, someone who wishes to get back to a loved one through this very show and who reached out to us to achieve that."
Gold falters, his mouth falling open in surprise, and there's nothing he can do to mask his reaction. Surely he can't be talking about…
"Gold, I have a very special letter for you here. It's from your son, Neal."
Oblivious to the fact that every other contestant is staring at him—Belle in delight that his son has written to him, all the rest bewildered by the fact that he is a father—he can only see Jeff's eyes, bright with the upcoming drama now that it has been revealed that the one contestant who doubtlessly most wants to buy his letter is the very one who doesn't have any money left to bid with.
"This is how it's going to go. Like before, you can bid on the item, which in this case is a single letter. The one who bids the most will receive theirs… all others will be burned."
Gold has known how to mask his emotions for almost as long as he can remember—the duration of this game, and many years before it. It has become such second nature for him to conceal what he's truly feeling inside—for as far as he can still truly feel anything at all—that he wasn't entirely certain he would still be able to express himself, should he want to.
But right now, when it dawns on him that he won't be able to buy and read the letter Neal sent him, all the emotions he has been holding back all this time overwhelm him at the same time. Tears welling in his eyes as his world comes crashing down on him, he can only stare helplessly while the first people place their bids, all eager to get their letters except for Belle.
Unable to watch any longer, he buries his face in his hair as sobs wrack his weakened body. He's hit by the horrible realization that this is exactly the reason why Neal left and never returned—because, according to his son, he always chooses power over love.
And here he is, playing the toughest game there is to prove Neal that he can be a good man, only to make the same mistake all over again: acquiring a clue which will give him more power, rather than a letter from the person for whom he's actually doing all of this.
His tears falling in the hot sand beneath him as the bidding continues around him, Gold can see that despite his best efforts, despite his sheer despair, he hasn't learned anything… and that he is never, ever going to get his son back. As if that weren't already beyond awful, he won't even be able to buy the last message that his son will no doubt ever send him, as his interest in him will surely dwindle to nothing when he watches his father's performance on the show once it gets broadcasted.
When he looks up again, his vision clouded with tears, it is just in time to see Jeff toss the unsold letters into the fire, the message his son has sent him burning to ashes while the clue he was so pleased with mere minutes ago falls from his limp fingers.
Chapter 28: Day 28
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
Gold can't bring himself to get up in the morning, having no strength to drag himself out of the shelter he also barely managed to get himself into the previous day after watching the destruction of Neal's letter.
If the auction had ended the way he was convinced it would, right after he bought the clue, he would currently be plotting to keep their alliance from premature self-destruction, focusing on making sure the people he wants voted off will have no chance of escaping this fate.
But he can't, the game having lost all its meaning now that he hasn't been able to get Neal's letter—and much, much worse, that he ruined the chance he actually would have had to persuade his son of the improvements of his character.
He can't even bring himself to face Belle, not wanting her to see him like this… not wanting a confirmation to his suspicion that her comfort, which meant the world to him just the day before, won't be enough to make him feel even a little less miserable.
The others have another meager breakfast of rice and coconut, but he can't bring himself to eat, just like the mere thought of dinner last night made him nauseous. All he can do is lie there in the shelter, staring up at the ceiling with unseeing eyes, wondering if there's still any point in continuing this game… in living at all.
"… can't go on like this."
Belatedly realizing that someone is talking to him, he focuses on that person only so he can tell them in no uncertain terms to leave him alone. But when he shifts his gaze and finds himself looking at Belle, her face drawn with obvious worry for him, he can't bring himself to do so.
"Come on," she says, offering him her hand to help him out of the shelter. "I've got something to show you… something I think you'll like very much."
Had she been anyone else, he would have snapped at her that there is obviously nothing that could interest him; not now, not ever… not anymore. But because she's Belle, he holds back and even allows her to guide him out.
"I'm sorry I couldn't get this to you yesterday," she says softly as she leads him away from camp, as if there was still something she expected him to care about. "But I'm afraid I created quite an uproar at the end of the auction, and…"
He falls down in the sand as soon as she lets go of his arm, finding that he's too weak to continue without her support—even though he wants to, if only for a short while, for her sake.
"Well, the others can't see us here, so I suppose this place is as good as any. I want to give you this."
She offers him the valuable clue to the next immunity challenge he bought before he knew he could have had his son's letter instead. He must have dropped it yesterday at some point, and although he distantly appreciates that she picked it up for him—he vaguely notices that the seal is unbroken—he can't bring himself to care about it any longer.
But at the same time, she hands him another item… one so utterly unexpected that he can only stare at it, rather than to take it from her.
"This can't be," he whispers, staring at the letter—the one carrying his name—with utter disbelief. "How…"
"I know this means very much to you. At the auction, I still had quite some money left, but I obviously didn't want Gaston's letter… so I got yours instead. Of course, I couldn't ask for that without everyone else noticing… so rather than to tell them I bought your letter because you're the best friend I ever had, I said I'm going to use it in exchange for a favor in the game."
"I'd give you anything," he swears, very aware of how dangerous that statement is.
At the same time, part of him strangely wants to be at her mercy, to be tied to her in such a way rather than not at all.
"I'm not actually going to extort anything from you in exchange for your son's letter!" she cries out, horrified. "I'm giving it to you, of course."
She does exactly that at once, but he can only stare at the offered paper in utter disbelief.
"You would have done the same for me, I know you would," she says softly, taking his hand to fold his fingers around the sheet, urging him to take it.
He actually would have, he knows that, but that doesn't make it any easier to comprehend that she has done something so huge for him, without wanting anything in return.
"But… why?" he brings out hoarsely.
"I want you to be happy," she replies softly. "Does that really seem so unlikely to you?"
There are tears in his eyes once more when he looks at her, but this time, they are born of disbelief and relief.
"I'll leave you in peace to read it," she says, standing up. "We can talk later, if you like."
"No, please," he quickly says, the prospect of reading his son's letter without her almost as bad as not having it at all. "Stay?"
"If you'd like me to, yes."
He nods vigorously, grateful when she settles at his side again. His fingers shaking, he opens the letter reverently, his heart swelling with happiness when he sees that it is hand-written and contains more pages than he could ever have hoped.
Dearest papa, the letter begins. Those two words alone are enough to bring a whole new wave of tears to his eyes, for it's been so long since his son addressed him that way, and he was so convinced it would never happen again.
He blinks furiously, wanting to continue reading, but between the trembling of his fingers and the liquid in his eyes, there's no denying that he's in no physical shape to actually find out what the letter says.
"Would you like me to read it to you?" Belle suggests, reaching questioningly for the sheets of paper.
Nodding in relief this time, he hands the letter to her, trusting her yet more than himself with the so very valuable message. Still, he finds that reading is not the only challenge, for hearing his son's words spoken in her sweet voice turns out to be just too wonderful to take it all in. Telling himself that she probably won't mind reading it again, he simply focuses on the passages his mind manages to grasp.
"… would have preferred to talk to you again in person after so long, but I don't want to wait any longer than I already have, so here I am, writing to you. I'm still watching Survivor and when the teaser trailer of the new season referred a 'businessman who wants to show he can be a better person', I couldn't help but think of you. I just had to know whether it was actually you and that's why I…"
Crying even harder now than when he thought this very letter had been burned, Gold blindly burrows into Belle's welcoming embrace, needing something to cling to as Neal's message seems almost too good to be true.
"… still angry with you for the choices you made all those years ago. But I've started to believe that you're truly making an effort to be a better father, a better man. I know how much it must terrify you to actually go on Survivor, and I take back what I called you when I left, because a coward wouldn't do what you're currently doing and…"
Overcome with emotion, he is barely able to take in his son's words anymore as she continues to read them, especially as he instinctively presses his face yet more closely against her neck.
"… realize now that I was wrong to stay angry with you for so long and not give you a second chance before. Maybe… maybe I didn't want to see that you were trying to be better, because it might have shown me that it hadn't been the right thing to just leave you all those years ago, without ever giving you the opportunity to…"
He tries to keep quiet, if only to hear Belle's voice better, but there's no holding back the loud sobs that escape him.
"… I never stopped loving you, papa…"
He can't consciously process the words he never expected to hear from Neal any longer, but Belle's tone tells him that the letter remains as tentatively positive as it began. At one point, she stops reading, both her arms coming around him—one hand caressing his back, the other twining protectively in his hair.
"Thank you," he rasps, not knowing how to put words on his gratitude for what she had done for him. "Thank you so much, Belle."
"You're very welcome. I'm glad this seemed to turn out so well."
"Yes," he can only reply, barely able to believe what his son has written to him.
"You will probably get to talk to him as soon as the game is over," she enthuses while removing her hand from his back to show him the letter, as if his joy made her almost as happy as himself.
By now, his tears have dried just enough to allow him to read his son's words for himself. Still, liquid wells in his eyes once more when she points out the ending.
I intend to see you very, very soon… probably sooner than you think. Lots of love until then.
Your loving son, Neal.
He buries his face in her hair once he has seen his son's signature and still so very familiar handwriting, hope of the like he has never known before welling up inside of him. That strange feeling increases yet further as Belle continues to hold him, her embrace making him feel as secure and optimistic as Neal's words.
Chapter 29: Day 29
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
When the remaining contestants arrive at the location of the next reward challenge and Jeff announces that they'll each get help from people very dear to them, Gold wonders for a moment whether his son might actually show up. Until a day ago, it would have seemed utterly insane to even think that Neal might appear to compete alongside him against the other players and their loved ones, but after his incredible letter, even Gold is starting to believe in the impossible.
Still, he reminds himself that there's no way that Neal could be here even if he wanted to. The question of how he's meant to compete in this challenge without a partner—after all, it's not like he's close to any other person than his son—is momentarily forgotten when Belle's loved one is introduced.
She's told him enough about Gaston for him to know what kind of a person he is, but the true oafishness of her former fiancé only dawns on him when the ridiculously tall and broad man strolls towards her. Clearly expecting her to be very glad to see him, he spreads his arms to embrace her, laughing her rejection away like a meaningless thing when she steps away to avoid any physical contact.
Gold bares his teeth, subconsciously preparing to step in in case the brute doesn't respect Belle's wish for him to leave her alone. Luckily, the other man stops trying to get his arms around her, although his smug, patronizing smile doesn't falter for one second.
Strangely, he can't help but be somewhat relieved that her former fiancé is indeed every inch the thick-skulled oaf he expected him to be. After all, if Gaston actually turned out to be intelligent and well-mannered, there may be a possibility of her not calling off the engagement and…
Before he can fully process that thought, let alone the reason why it would bother him if Belle were to marry Gaston after all, the arrival of the last loved one is announced. That is odd to say the least, because everyone but him has already been paired up with a family member or close friend, and it's not as if he had a loved one to help him compete in this challenge.
As Jeff begins to introduce the person who is going to play alongside him after all, he can only stare at the person who just appeared from behind a nearby dune. He hasn't seen Neal in such a long time, not since he was a teenager, and he has no idea what his son actually looks like now.
But as a man walks towards him, there's something about his eyes and smile which makes Gold falter in recognition, his heart overflowing with hope and love even as he tells himself that this can't be.
Yet although the man coming towards him is considerably older than the last time he saw him, his posture taller and his hair shorter, he knows who he is immediately, especially when his face lights up with a smile.
"Neal," he brings out, running forward before he has even fully processed that his boy is somehow here, moving in his direction.
"Papa!" his son calls, breaking into a run as well.
It seems to take an eternity to cross the limited distance between them, but then Neal—who is a lot taller than him now, he finds—pulls him into a tight embrace. Utterly unable to take in what is happening, Gold can only cling to him for all he is worth, his boy's embrace feeling completely new and yet so very familiar.
"I can't believe you're here," he rasps, trying to make sense of what's going on. "I got your letter, but… how…"
"I wasn't planning to come at first, if only because I didn't know whether you would want me to. So much time has passed, and I couldn't be sure… I figured it might be better if we met again during a more… normal occasion, after the show. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to see you as soon as possible. We have been apart for so long, and I… well, I didn't want to waste another day."
"What made you come back?" he asks, looking up at his son's face properly for the first time in as long as he can remember, the tears he finds in Neal's eyes only increasing his own. "After all this time, what made you come back?"
His boy may have explained as much in the letter that Gold re-read countless times since Belle gave it to him, but he wants—needs—to hear him say it, to have the confirmation that all of this isn't too good to be true.
"Because it's the right thing to do," Neal says, pulling him back against him. "I know now how much you have tried to become a good man… and I think you've succeeded."
"I am… I have no words for how much that means to me, my boy, how happy I am to hear you say that. I do whatever I can to make you proud of me."
"I know how…"
"Let's go to the challenge," Jeff interrupts insistently, harshly reminding Gold that he is in fact still on the game. No matter how important that was before, all he currently wants is to spend time with his son, now that playing the game isn't necessary to try and get him back into his life any longer.
"Come on papa, let's do this. There'll be plenty of time to talk later," Neal says cheerfully, guiding his father back to the spot where the others are still gathered. "I've wanted to be on Survivor since I was a kid… well, here I am. You already made one of my dreams come true. Let's win this challenge!"
He nods weakly, following him blindly.
"You've grown so big and strong," he rambles, the challenge the last thing he's thinking about as he struggles to tell his son everything he has wanted to say in the past fifteen years, now that he finally has the chance. "I've spent so long wondering what you might look like now, and it's so good to see you again and…"
"Relax, papa," Neal says, placing on his shoulder a hand that is just as comforting as Belle's. "We will catch up later. I promise."
Gold nods in understanding and gratitude. Still, the fact that he's standing right next to his son after all those years makes it impossible for him to listen to Jeff when the latter explains the challenge to all of them… even when it's revealed that the winner and their loved one will get to spend the rest of the day and night on a luxury yacht.
No matter how much he wants to enjoy more time with Neal than the duration of this challenge, he can't actually focus on winning it, no matter how hard he tries. Vaguely aware that he's got to do something with water, a balance beam and fire, he can only stare in disbelief at his son as the latter works with him.
It doesn't escape his attention that Neal is doing a very good job… that they might actually have won, if it wasn't for Gold himself. But he keeps being distracted, especially when his boy smiles reassuringly at him whenever he stumbles or loses half of his water again. However, the fact that Neal is encouraging and supporting him makes it yet more difficult to focus on the task at hand rather than the discovery that his son has grown to accept him like this.
Then again, even if it hadn't been for his boy, he probably would have been distracted by Belle and her former fiancé as they compete right next to them. He can't help but be intrigued by their interactions, wonder how close the two of them still are at this point… and, once more, experience that strange sense of relief when he vaguely notices that she's busy yelling at Gaston more often than not.
The challenge is over far sooner than Gold would like and of course he and his son haven't come anywhere close to winning it, meaning that Neal will have to leave soon, rather than getting to stay so that the two of them can spend a lot more time together.
But instead of focusing on this frustration—and especially the fact that it is Jones, of all people, who did win the challenge along with his brother—he gratefully lets his boy embrace him for as long as he still can.
"Let's look at the bright side," Neal jokes, despite the tears which are welling in his eyes again. "At least you'll smell a lot better when we speak again next time."
Rather embarrassed by the belated realization that he hasn't been able to wash properly for more than three weeks, Gold chuckles regardless when his son laughs playfully at him before hugging him again.
"Because the more the merrier," Jeff announces when Jones is called forward to claim his reward, "you get to choose two other contestants and their loved ones to join you on the yacht."
Bile rises in Gold's throat at the discovery that he might just be able to stay with Neal a little longer after all, but that chance is up to Jones. No matter how much he loathes the man, he can't help but want to beg him to take the two of them, even when he actually looks at them first, his lip curled in cruel amusement.
Then Jones stares down the line of hopeful participants for a long time, pretending to think very hard on the question at hand. Still, Gold is quite certain that he has already made up his mind, his decision no doubt inspired by his own amusement rather than any other concern, let alone strategy.
"I'm going to take Emma," he announces at last, leering at her in a way that makes Gold grateful that the friend she's got with her looks as tough as the chosen contestant herself.
As Emma and her friend make their way to Jones' side, the latter once more takes an awful lot of time to announce his next choice, his gaze lingering frustratingly on Gold and his son—before moving to the people right next to them.
"And I'm also picking Belle and her fiancé," he says, his eyes quickly shifting back.
Gold had thought that nothing could possibly be worse than the prospect of being separated from Neal again, but the fact that Jones is going to take Belle with him on a yacht while he has to stay here makes him feel actually sick. There's no doubt that he has only made this second choice to spite the two of them.
"I'm not going anywhere, papa," his son says, making him feel slightly better as he pulls him tightly in his arms one last time. "Not anymore."
They remain standing like that while Jones and his brother, along with Emma and her friend, make their way to the boat which has approached the beach to take them to the yacht. Gaston is also heading that way, but Belle lingers, looking back at Gold and questioningly stepping towards him.
"Babe, what the hell are you doing?!" Gaston bellows, only to be entirely ignored by his former fiancée.
Oblivious to his son's amused surprise, he happily lets go of Neal with one arm in order to wrap it around Belle when she steps towards him. Managing to ignore their imminent goodbye for a few seconds, Gold closes his eyes and basks in this very moment, as he's being held by the two people who mean the world to him.
"Be careful," he whispers to her, wishing he could keep the two of them right where they are, right here at his side.
"I don't have to be," she says, pulling herself flush against him as if she wanted nothing more than to stay here with his son and him, either. "Because I'm not going."
"No matter how much I'd like to sleep in a proper bed and have some nice food, I'd much rather stay here with you than have to go with those two."
Gold can only stare at her in disbelief when she lets go of him to announce her decision not to claim the reward she has been granted… and when Gaston tells her in no uncertain terms that he is going, since her response to all his "efforts" is so "completely ungrateful".
Although it's a huge relief that Belle is still at his side after all, the upcoming separation from his son isn't going to be any easier for it. As the other contestants begin to say goodbye to their loved ones, Gold knows that he and Neal won't be able to remain together for much longer either.
"I love you, Neal," Gold says as he embraces his son again. Belle lets go of him to enable him to do so, but her hand remains on his back, caressing it reassuringly. He holds back his awareness that this might well be the one and only time the three of them are together like this, like an ideal family—for the imminent separation would become entirely unbearable in that case.
"I love you, papa," his son replies, saying the one thing Gold especially didn't expect to hear from him ever again, and causing him to all but sob against his shoulder.
All the other loved ones are now back on the boat which must have brought them here before the contestants themselves arrived. There's no more delaying the inevitable, and Neal carefully entangles himself from his father's embrace.
"I'll be waiting for you as soon as you get off the island. But try not to think of that too much… focus on getting as far as possible in this game, okay?"
Gold nods weakly in agreement, the prospect of being apart from his son now because he is in the game made slightly more agreeable by the implication of Neal's pride in him.
"Goodbye, papa," says the latter, letting go of him to head to the boat. "We'll see each other again very soon, I promise!"
"Goodbye, son," Gold all but whimpers, heading into the sea so he can remain close to his boy for as long as possible, even as the boat starts to navigate away from them.
Only when Belle comes after him and wraps an ever-so-comforting arm around him does he figure that he can indeed manage until the next time he sees his son. Together, they gaze at the retreating boat, staring on even after it has long faded out of sight.
Chapter 30: Day 30
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
Having barely been able to sleep last night in the unusually quiet shelter, Gold gets the fire going again and starts making breakfast as soon as the sun begins to rise. Belle will probably wake soon, and this is the least he can do for her after the way she gave up her reward yesterday.
Now that he's slightly recovering from the shock that his son has forgiven him, that he's seen him and he would like to come back into his life, he's also starting to marvel at the other miracle that happened yesterday: the implication that Belle would rather be with him than her former fiancé and Jones.
"Good morning," she says softly, right when the water in the pot is beginning to boil.
"Good morning," he replies fondly as she gets out of the shelter to sit down by the fire next to him. "Any others awake yet?"
"No, just us. How about breakfast for two?"
"I'd love that," he answers, figuring that they won't have to eat all together as usual, now that three of them aren't here anyway.
He takes two small handfuls of rice and carefully puts the food into the water, watching it like a hawk while it boils. They sit in companionable silence as their meal gets ready, then he carefully drains the water, scooping its contents onto large leaves.
"Let's go away from camp so we can talk in peace," she suggests.
He follows Belle to the sea, where they sit down in the sand to watch the sunrise and eat their rice, using shells as cutlery.
"Thank you," she says as he hands her leaf to her. "That's very nice of you."
"It's nothing," he insists, having found that making breakfast for her is a delight.
"Well, be careful what you say. I could very easily get used to this."
So could I, he thinks, but he can't actually tell her that. It's barely been a day since Gaston forced his attentions on her; Gold may not believe that he's nearly as good a person as she thinks, but he isn't going to make the same mistake.
"How are you holding up?" she asks once their breakfast has been eaten, far too soon.
"Quite well, thank you. Your being here really helps."
She doubtlessly knows as well as he does that a contestant refusing a reward is unheard of in Survivor history.
"I'm glad to be here. Being holed up on a ship with Gaston and Jones… I dread to even picture it. Besides, I'd much rather be with you, no matter where."
"That's… I can't tell you how glad I am to hear that," he replies, deciding that he's going to arrange a private holiday on a yacht for her as soon as the game is over.
"I'm very happy you got to meet your son again, especially so soon," she says after a pause. "I didn't really get to talk to him, of course, but he comes across as a good man."
"He is, very much so. Much better than I'll ever be."
"I wouldn't necessarily agree with that," she says, resting her palm on his arm.
It's beyond him why she has such faith in him, but he can't help but savor it.
"What will you do, now that you've seen him again? You said before that getting him back was the only reason you were playing, so now that you've achieved that, I can't help but wonder… are you going to quit the game, or will you stay anyhow?"
She is looking at him anxiously. Before knowing her, he would have felt certain that another contestant's concern for his continued participation would have been entirely driven by strategic reasons, quite far from altruism. But the genuine concern in her eyes only further underscores that she wouldn't miss him as an ally; she'd miss him as a friend.
"I'm going to keep playing," he replies, her worry taking away the last doubt he had on this subject. The beaming smile she flashes in response is almost enough to make him momentarily forget about Neal.
"That's wonderful. I'm very glad you're going to continue."
"Speaking of which…" he says, only now recalling the piece of paper with an advantage for the next immunity challenge that he still has in his possession, also partly thanks to her. "I still got the clue for the challenge yesterday afternoon."
He takes it from a pocket of his jeans, showing her the still unbroken seal.
"I'll leave you to it, then," she says, quickly standing up.
"Belle, no, I didn't mean… The way I see it, this belongs to you as much as me."
"You're saying that you want to share the clue with me?"
"Of course," he says, not understanding her surprise after everything she has done for him throughout the game.
"I'd appreciate that very much," she replies, smiling at him as she sits down at his side again.
"Shall we?" he suggests, gesturing at the piece of rolled-up paper.
She nods in confirmation and together, they break the seal and open the tiny roll to read what's written on the inside.
"It's a map," Belle almost immediately says, scrutinizing the labyrinth-like structure that's drawn on the paper.
"The next challenge must be about some sort of maze," he muses, studying its complex lines and turns.
"Yes, a maze in which we must get to certain points," she adds, pointing at marked spots on the map.
"No doubt we will have to retrieve items which are placed at those locations, and get out as quickly as possible."
"While being blindfolded, probably."
"Which would have been not quite unlike looking for a needle in a haystack…"
"… if it hadn't been for this," she finishes triumphantly, gesturing at the map. "Really, Gold, thank you so much for sharing this with me. It gives us a much better chance of winning immunity in the next challenge."
"It's no matter," he says, her smile meaning more to him than any clue or immunity necklace. "After all you've done… acquiring Neal's letter alone… this is the least I can do in return. Really."
"Thank you," she breathes, wrapping one arm around his neck and pressing herself against him—and, to his delight, remaining in this position.
He closes his eyes, finding peacefulness of a kind he has never known before in her nearness as they sit there together on the beach.
"There's one more thing we have to discuss," she says, breaking the silence. "As I told you before, when I got Neal's letter, I couldn't let the others know I was going to give it to you simply because I wanted to. I said I'd want something in return. How about, if necessary, I claim that I traded the letter for the clue?"
"Excellent idea," he says, immediately handing her the piece of paper in question.
"It's just a ploy!" she cries out, as if offended by the notion of even touching it. "I don't want to actually have it."
"You more than deserve it. Besides, it'll be more realistic—your not actually having the clue might raise questions."
"I… well, thanks! Again," she says, almost reverently taking hold of the paper with one hand—while he also holds on to it just a little longer. "I hope it's obvious that I consider that this belongs to you, even if you let me have it. You can look at it whenever you like."
"How are we doing alliance-wise, by the way?" he carefully asks, only realizing that he hasn't even given any thought to strategy and tactics since he found out about his son's letter three days ago now that they're discussing this essential aspect of the game again.
"It seems to be still going as well as it has since we aligned with Regina and Sidney. Now that Cruella has been voted off, there's only one Villain left who doesn't belong to our alliance."
"Jones," he spits out the name, recalling this only too well.
"Unless he wins immunity, we should be able to finally get rid of him at the next tribal council."
"And thanks to this, the odds that he does not are greatly improved," Gold says, pointing at the paper with the drawing of the maze.
"Exactly. Of course, there's always the chance that Regina and thus Sidney may flip on us… they will, of course, at some point, but there are barely any Villains left. Even now, they don't have the numbers to vote any of us Heroes out, even if they team up with Jones."
"That's… that's…" Gold shakes his head in bewilderment, fully realizing that they've managed to vote off three Villains in a row and that all four of the Heroes who made it to the merge are still in the game. "We're almost there… we're getting close to the end, and our prospects are better than ever before."
"Amazing, isn't it?" she exclaims, beaming at him. "Of course, getting to such a point means you actually have to be yet more careful. Winning this game is never easy, especially when you're beginning to think that it might actually happen after all. Still, I think we can allow ourselves a few minutes of optimism, don't you?"
"I very much believe so," he says, smiling back at her broadly.
He no longer cares about victory in the game as such, but the prospect of making it all the way to the finale together with Belle, and thus getting to spend yet more than another week with her… that's worth celebrating indeed.
"Great," she says, further tightening her hold on him.
His smile widening again, Gold finds that he enjoys competing at her side even more now that he has met Neal again and he and Belle are in such a relatively comfortable position in the game. Still, there's much work to be done yet… although that is hardly a chore either, their heads touching as they happily pore over the map to prepare optimally for the next immunity challenge.
Chapter 31: Day 31
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
Strategy-wise, the previous night was by far Gold's worst during his tenure in the game. Although it didn't really come as a surprise that Regina and Sidney betrayed their alliance, it was as unexpected as catastrophic that Emma was somehow persuaded to do the same—resulting in their main ally, David, being voted out.
After this, the most important thing he should have done with the reward challenge he had won earlier that day was to make a tactic decision when choosing the second contestant who would get to enjoy it alongside him.
Yet as he looked at the five other remaining players, aware that there was only one he could take with him for a helicopter trip to a spa resort, he knew there was but one person he could possibly choose, even if it must cost him the game. Going by Belle's smile when he called out her name, she felt exactly the same way, much to his relief and delight.
They happily agreed not to talk about the game for the duration of their trip, taking full advantage of their being truly alone together for the first time in a month—indeed, for the first time ever… and getting to spend the remainder of the afternoon, the evening, the night and the coming morning in circumstances that couldn't differ more from their harsh life at camp.
Having never been on a helicopter before, she is all but jumping up and down in her seat as the pilot flies them over a gorgeous landscape of lush islands and almost impossibly blue water. She is holding his hand, expressing her marvel at everything that particularly captures her attention. Although Gold himself is also admiring the nature below, it's the woman at his side who captures the most of his interest and awe.
She helps him out of the helicopter when they land after an hour or so. Looking around at the luxurious resort they've arrived in, Belle's mouth all but falling open before a lavishness of a kind she's clearly never seen before, he is quite certain that they've only just got started with this wonderful reward.
Still, it doesn't feel all that relaxing any longer when they are shown where they will spend their time. That happens to be a wooden structure built on poles in the sea, dozens of feet away from similar small houses, which features what can only be a narrow massage table... and only one bed.
"This is amazing," she marvels after the employee who has guided them here announces that a masseuse will arrive in two hours' time, giving them the opportunity to clean themselves up and eat some refreshments before getting to the next part of the reward.
He nods carefully in response, wondering how she can be so optimistic when noticing that they'll be living in such close quarters together. Of course, it's not as if they hadn't done the same thing on the island, but this is… different.
"Do you want to shower or bathe first?" she asks, gesturing at the dedicated area in one corner of the room. The large and luxurious bath and related facilities are a stark contrast indeed to the circumstances in which they've been living for a month now.
"What do you prefer?" he replies, his gaze lingering on the one and only bed in their room for a second before shifting back to her.
"Would you mind going first? I'd like to do some looking around here, perhaps swim a bit, before I get clean."
"Of course," he says weakly, his concern at their finding themselves together like this further increasing when it dawns on him that showering will require… well, nudity, when there's nothing but semi-transparent glass separating the bathing area from the rest of the room.
"Shall I stay outside until you tell me you're finished?"
He nods in gratitude, not understanding why the concept of being seen by her without any clothes on and the mere notion that she's also going to be entirely undressed right here both suddenly seem so alarming.
Not wanting to keep her waiting, he quickly heads towards the bath. Torn between the discomfort of being in a state of complete undress in an unfamiliar place which doesn't even have a lock—with Belle right outside—and the desire to finally be able to clean himself properly, he hesitates a few seconds before taking all of his clothes off and getting into the shower.
He sighs in delight when the mere opening of a tap has warm, clean water pouring down his body, washing away the grime of living in primal conditions on a remote island for a month. Letting the spray hit his face, he smiles as the water cascades over him, almost seeming to cleanse him of something more than dirt—as if his fear and loneliness were disappearing down the drain as well.
There are unfamiliar bottles within reach, their labels written in a language he can't read. After quite liking the scent of the first one he tries, he quickly washes himself with its contents. When he is done, he savors the stream of hot water for a few more seconds before turning it off again.
He towels himself off with the same urgency, his lip curling up in distaste when he looks at his clothing. There's no way he wants to put on these smelly garments again… except they are the only such items he has here.
Looking around the room, he is glad to spot two pristine bathrobes hanging on the wall. He puts one on and leaves his dirty clothes in a corner, figuring that they might as well use the bathtub to wash their garments once they have both used it.
It seems only natural to head for the small mirror before finishing up, his jaw tightening when he takes a look at his own face for the first time in a month. His face is yet gaunter than he imagined, but at least he doesn't look as wild as he could have, since the contestants are granted access to razors and sunscreen each morning.
Still, he has no idea how Belle can even want to look at him, let alone… But at least he can straighten his damp hair a little, in an attempt to look more… Belatedly, he realizes what he's doing, that he's primping in a ridiculous attempt to—well, he doesn't even know what he is trying to achieve exactly, only that there's no point whatsoever.
Ensuring that his bathrobe is securely tied around his waist and he is leaving the facilities more or less in the way he found them, he exits the room to alert her that she can go in if she likes. He finds her swimming in the water surrounding the hut, beaming up at him as soon as he steps outside.
There turns out to be a ladder leading from the water to the platform the hut is built on. When she climbs it, water gushing from her bikini-clad body, there's a jolt from deep inside of him of something he can't identify. He looks away abruptly, words failing him as he weakly gestures towards the structure to let her know he's done with his shower.
He sits down on one of the lounging chairs outside, staring off into the distance as he pointedly doesn't think of Belle showering mere yards away from him. Someone must have brought them drinks and a plate of food at one point, but he doesn't notice until she reemerges, dressed in a bathrobe identical to his own and a towel wrapped around her hair.
She sits in the chair next to his as he pours them both a glass of orange juice. They clink their glasses together in a silent toast, and there's another strange jolt when she practically moans in delight at her first sip of fresh liquid.
He busies himself with the fruit which have also been served to them. Their taste is delicious, and so is the knowledge that they didn't actually have to find and prepare them themselves. Still, they aren't nearly as lovely as her sheer presence, her eyes brighter and her smile wider than he has ever seen them.
A tiny woman approaches them far too soon, bursting through their bubble of bliss. But when Belle veers up in excitement, he knows better than to show his disappointment, only too aware that she can't possibly enjoy his company as much as he savors hers.
"I've never had a massage before," she says, standing up to greet the woman who must be their masseuse. "I can't wait to try it! Would you mind if I went first?"
"Of course not," he replies, delighted by her excitement after all, if only because he can give up this particular part of his reward to her without raising awareness to… well, whatever it is exactly that causes him to feel uncomfortable to say the least when touched by people who aren't petite, incredibly kind and all-around wonderful Australians. "You go first and second."
"You're giving your massage to me?" she asks, those far too perceptive eyes solely focused on him once more.
"I am, yes."
"I really appreciate it, but I can't accept, Gold. You won this, and…"
"It's fine, really. I wouldn't want the massage even if I couldn't give it to you."
"You don't want it?" she asks, suddenly seeming much more interested in that than the actual thing, to his concern.
"I don't like being… touched by people," he says, shrugging, yet all but squirming under her intent gaze. This is more uncomfortable than all the times when he recently had to pretend not to be displeased by the casual physical contact that so many people, his tribe mades included, like to initiate in order not to alienate himself.
"But…" He closes his eyes, awaiting the confusion, denial and disbelief this statement is usually met with. "I touched you. A lot. Are you saying that you were only… indulging me? That all this time, you really didn't want me to do that?"
She sounds so concerned, almost hurt at the prospect of having unknowingly made him ill at ease, that it's almost worse than any dismissal of his feelings.
"No, Belle, no," he quickly tries to reassure her. "I don't mind at all when you touch me… quite the opposite."
Her eyes go wide, very wide, and it dawns on him that he has somehow managed to make this even worse than it already was.
"But why… how…"
"Because I know you," he admits softly. "Because I like you… very much."
To prevent a total disaster, or an even worse one, he probably shouldn't have said those last two words—or the entire sentence, really—but right now he wants her to understand, to know that he's the opposite of disturbed whenever she's near him. Or at least not in the way she seems to fear.
"Oh, that's good. I mean, well, I'm sorry to hear that you don't enjoy this kind of thing, but at least I'm glad that you don't mind when I… Well."
She clears her throat, turning back to the masseuse who has been standing there all this time, but whom he had entirely forgotten about. Still, he mostly has attention for the way Belle looks from the woman to him and back again.
"Would you like getting a massage from me?" she asks quietly. "I don't actually know how, but I can try to learn a few basic things."
"Yes," he rasps immediately, his usual instinct for self-preservation—or rather preservation of his close friendship with Belle, in this case—momentarily forgotten at the prospect of being massaged by her… but only briefly. Very briefly. "No! I mean, no, I don't want that."
"Well, it's your choice, of course," she replies, looking rather stung at his quick if not very consistent dismissal of her very generous offer. "I'll be glad to take your massage if you really don't mind."
"I'm sorry, Belle, I didn't mean to… I would like to be massaged by you, but… how can you possibly want to offer that to me?!"
"I just do," she simply says, not quite looking at him. "Is that really so strange?"
He has nothing to say to that and he just watches in bewilderment as she engages in a conversation with the masseuse, gesturing at him and herself. He doesn't even know what language the local woman speaks, but Belle obviously does, and can even communicate with her.
Before he can fully comprehend what's happening, Belle has lain down on the massage table and bared her back—she's apparently wearing just as little underneath her robe as himself—and the masseuse is gesturing to show him how to knead and stroke her shoulders, neck and back, before she disappears as quietly as she arrived.
That's how Gold finds himself bending over a practically naked Belle, his hands all over her bare, almost glowing skin. He falters now that the masseuse isn't there to guide him any longer, now that she's implicitly inviting him to actually touch her. He's torn between ending this as quickly as possible and dragging it out as long as he possibly can.
"Just how many languages do you speak?" is the first thing he can think of saying.
"Only English, although I try to pick up interesting words and phrases from other languages whenever I stumble across them. As for this… well, I couldn't not learn a few basics when knowing we were going to come here, could I?"
It's probably due to her warmth and her flawless skin that he can't think of any answer to that… warm and flawless skin that he is reaching for. When she looks up at him, the question in her eyes is not why he is laying his hands on her like this, but why he is not actually massaging her like he was just taught to.
Breathless, he continues, wondering more and more with each passing second how she can possibly enjoy this as much as she evidently does—each bit of applied pressure and every inch of caressed skin leaving her sighing in incomprehensible but undeniable enjoyment.
He can't get over the fact that she is lying there like that, utterly relaxed and happy, actually moaning when he experimentally touches her a bit more firmly, like the masseuse told him to. Belle is by far the strongest person he knows, but he doesn't want to take any chance whatsoever of hurting her accidentally.
Still, she seems to like his less tentative touch very, very much, so he increases the firmness of his ministrations again, all but whimpering at the sounds he draws from her while doing so. Perspiration is breaking out all over him, slicking up his previously impeccably-cleaned body—especially his palms, right where they touch her.
"That was amazing," she sighs when he instinctively withdraws his hands as soon as he notices this. He gratefully makes use of her accepting assumption that he indeed intended to end the massage this way, and so soon. "Thank you so much for doing that for me."
"It's my pleasure," he responds, realizing far too late how poorly-chosen those words are, if only because they're so shockingly true.
"Would you like me to massage you as well?"
"That really isn't necessary," he says stiffly, ignoring the way she looks up at him over her bare shoulder, her expression strangely hopeful.
"I'd very much like to."
He swallows heavily, terrified of what might happen if she were to touch him like he just touched her, but wanting her to do exactly that so very much at the same time. It's beyond frustrating that he can't even put his finger on the reason why he is so keen for her to bestow such attentions on him, why it's so important that her sheer acceptance and fondness of him also extends to his sorely lacking physical form.
"I'd like that as well," he finally says, the heat that rises within him only confusing him further.
"Wonderful," she beams at him, as if there was truly nothing she'd rather do than give him a massage. "Why don't we swap places so you can make yourself comfortable?"
He quickly averts his eyes when she casually hops off the massage table and pulls her robe back into place. He lies there on his stomach as soon as she has vacated the place and tentatively begins to bare his back to her, reminding himself that she's seen him like this several times before. As he awkwardly unties his robe and shoves it down his body, he makes very certain that his lower half remains covered.
"Shall we?" she inquires as she comes to stand right next to the table, with a strange edge to her voice that makes him wary and inexplicably eager at the same time.
Gold nods, not trusting his voice—especially when he can't hold back a gasp though she does nothing more than to rest her palms on his upper arms, her hands warm and so very, very soft. This is going to be sheer torture… and he doesn't ever want it to end.
Chapter 32: Day 32
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
Gradually awakening, caught in the lovely twilight between dream and reality, Gold feels better than he ever has during his ever-increasing life span. His stomach is still nicely full, he's pleasantly warm and feels more comfortable than he has been in forever.
Sighing in utter contentment, his eyes still shut, he cuddles closer to the source of his happiness, who is equally part of his real life and his dream world. She's right next to him, her back against his chest.
The sigh turns into a groan at their increased physical contact. She's all warmth and gentle curves, even after a month spent on an island under circumstances which are primitive to say the least, and they fit against one another as if they were made to be together like this.
He buries his face in her hair, breathing in deeply, smiling sleepily at her wonderful scent as he tightens his hold—especially when she puts her hand on his to increase the contact. He's vaguely aware that one of his legs is between hers, and that it feels as wonderful as the rest of their embrace.
Gold isn't quite sure how long they stay like that, but he gradually becomes aware that his dream is extremely realistic. Everything feels almost too real, from the warmth in his body to the mattress beneath him and…
His happiness is rudely disturbed when he finally becomes aware that he isn't dreaming at all. He jolts fully awake, his heart hammering in his chest, as the events of the previous evening rush back to him with terrifying clarity.
After he thoroughly enjoyed Belle's massage—much more than he should have—they ate a very lovely dinner together, and had their longest conversation so far while watching a gorgeous sunset. Determined to make the best of the rare ability to sleep in a bed again, he was horrified to find that their washed clothes weren't dry yet, and that she insisted that their bathrobes were no suitable nightwear.
He can't quite recall how she talked him into it, but right now he is experiencing the evidence of how they did go to sleep: with her cuddling against his side as he lay on his back, not expecting to get any rest whatsoever—if only because he didn't want to miss a single second of being with her like this.
The way they positioned themselves at first may have been somewhat innocent—well, except for the part where her breasts pressed none too softly against his side—but during their sleep, their bodies seem to have reverted to the way they've spent quite a few nights of the game so far.
Spooning was something he could somewhat justify to himself when both of them were clothed, but to actually be touching like this when none of them is wearing a stitch of clothing and his lower arm, wrapped around her torso, is squeezed against the swell of her breasts… that's something else entirely.
At least it's a blessing in disguise that his already low libido has been vanquished entirely by the lack of nutrition and sleep he endured during the course of the game. He dreads to think of what it might have been like if his treacherous body had chosen to react to stimulants for once.
With her softness and warmth, her long chestnut curls brushing his face and her gentle curves flush against his hard angles, Belle is a stimulant to say the least.
Still, she's his friend and she doesn't deserve any of these perverted thoughts… nor should she be confronted with their boundary-crossing closeness for one more second. Deciding that she would have gone running for the hills if she were awake, he figures that he can make this somewhat right again, that she doesn't have to know what his ever so weak body and subconscious got up to in his sleep.
But as soon as he very, very carefully begins his attempt to remove his arm from beneath her hand without waking her, she shifts a little and tightens her hold on him. He tenses as he finds out that she was awake after all, that she knows what position they are in… and that for some reason, she hasn't put an end to it yet.
"Let's stay like this for a little while longer?" she asks softly.
"If you don't mind it…" he brings out, the objections he had meant to offer lost on his tongue as she accepts yet another part of their ever-developing relationship so much more generously than he deserves.
"I don't, not at all. In fact, I've… well, I don't think I've ever felt more comfortable in my life than I do with you right now."
"I… me neither," he murmurs, a lump appearing in his throat at the combined realization that she apparently likes being like this with him—very much so—and that he enjoys it at least equally, now that he has been reassured that she is actually more than comfortable with this nearness.
Relaxing a little, he tries to… well, he can't decide whether he should savor this intimate embrace for as long as it lasts or try to find out how she can possibly accept any of this. After all, the most embarrassing part of him is pressed snugly against her utterly lovely backside and even though it doesn't betray the way their closeness affects him, surely she can't be pleased to…
There's a sudden knock on the door of their cabin and both of them sigh in unmistakeable disappointment at the abrupt interruption. Knowing only too well that there's no way he will ever experience anything remotely like this again, he masks his loss to the best of his abilities as she already shifts away from him.
"I should get that; it might be important," she said, getting back into her bathrobe as he pointedly turns away to give her privacy.
She returns a mere moment later, carrying a tray filled with a large quantity and variety of food which looks as tempting as the wonderful dinner they had last night.
"Breakfast in bed?" she suggests, her eyes sparkling with mischief as she puts it between their pillows.
Enamored with the prospect despite himself, Gold nods in agreement. Entirely bewildered by these developments, he's too late to look away when she sits down on the edge of the bed and shrugs out of her robe again. Her back may be towards him, but…
His throat goes dry when he sees her like this, seemingly entirely at ease with being in such a state of undress in his presence, even when he can see her. And see her he does; he can't help but drink in the sight of her, her thick curls cascading down her pale back, the curve of the side of her breasts… at least the pooling fabric of her robe prevents him from taking in yet more that he shouldn't.
"This is going to be the best breakfast ever," she enthuses, lying down on her front on a pillow as she leans towards him, pulling the sheet which is still covering most of him over her lower half before reaching for a slice of pineapple.
She beams at him, as if there weren't anything unusual about these circumstances other than the generosity of the food provided for them this morning. Still, there's an almost mischievous twinkle in her eyes that informs him that she knows perfectly well what she's doing… which makes it even stranger that she should do it in the first place.
Still, he relaxes a little, almost despite himself, at the discovery that she seems to be aware—at least to some extent—of the impact her display may have on him. Forcing himself to focus on the admittedly delicious and nourishing breakfast in front of them rather than the stunning woman sitting so close to him that their—still ever so bare—sides are almost touching, he feels very relieved indeed to find that it somewhat works.
They eat in companionable silence, and despite his vaguely wondering why it feels so exciting and yet so very safe to be with Belle this way, he manages to enjoy the meal and her presence for their own sake rather than the increasingly inane and inappropriate scenarios his brain keeps supplying him with.
"Would it be weird for us to take a bath… together?"
Granted, his mind hadn't come up with that unwanted suggestion yet, but for a moment he truly thinks she has only spoken in his fantasy rather than in reality. But when he looks up at her, he finds her gazing at him questioningly, a hint of color on her cheeks.
"I mean, I was just thinking, this bath is here and we might as well use it. Not necessarily together, of course, but I thought that it would be quite enjoyable. We can put swimming clothes on, if you prefer, and obviously I won't ever mention this again if the idea makes you remotely uncomfortable, but I can't help but wonder… it felt so very nice to sleep together like we did… well, I mean, we didn't sleep together, but the way we lay in each other's arms last night, that got me thinking that perhaps it would be very nice if we could have a bath together—but I very much understand if you don't want to…"
He can only stare at her as she rambles, almost without breathing it seems, her face becoming more flushed with each word. Only when she stops abruptly and lowers her head, going as far as to shield her face with her hair, does it occur to him that he probably should have said something a long time ago already.
But how can he answer anything, anything at all, to an offer that's so incredibly enticing and yet so utterly forbidden at the same time?
"I shouldn't have said anything," she goes on, her voice barely audible as she pulls the pillow she's still leaning on more firmly against her chest. "If you want, we can pretend I've never asked you to…"
For some reason, she truly, actually wants this—to take a bath with a man who should be happy for the mere chance to see her from afar and silently admire her sheer loveliness from a safe distance, preferably without her ever knowing of his doubtlessly unwanted feelings for her.
"I'd like to," he blurts out, taking any awkwardness that might result from this impulsive decision for granted if it can allow him to ease her current embarrassment—if only because she was the only one of them who had the courage to voice this admittedly very tempting suggestion.
"You do?" she asks, looking back up at him with hope and delight written all over his face.
"Let's do it right now," he adds, willing to strengthen his agreement.
"Shall I go in first, to get the water running? I, uh… well, the bath is only a few yards away. Do you mind if I don't bother with the bathrobe?"
He shakes his head, quickly averting his eyes as she's already on her way before he can tell her he won't peek. The water starts running a few seconds later, and when he carefully looks up after a little while more, she's leaning back in the bath, waving at him.
"The water feels wonderful. Come over here to see which temperature you like?"
Gold intends to do just that, but when he sits up and feels the sheet sliding down his body, he recalls that it isn't as easy as that—if only because there's no way she could possibly be pleased by the sight he offers.
"I won't look," she says quickly, turning her back to him and covering her eyes for good measure at the first sign of his unease.
"Thank you," he breathes, getting up after all once he's certain that she won't have to witness the state of his body.
The brace for his ankle long abandoned and currently out of reach, he struggles to cover the short distance to the bathtub, only to presented with another challenge.
One benefit of going without any showering and bathing facilities for so long is that he didn't have to think about actually getting into them. Only when he's standing right next to the tub does he realizes that it's half full of water already and that of course, it doesn't have the adjustments which have been implemented at his own home to make the whole installation a lot more convenient for him.
"Would you like a hand?" she asks, tentatively extending one of her arms towards him without turning to look in his direction.
"That would be very appreciated, yes," he says before he can start feeling yet more ridiculous than he already does at the mere prospect of being as foolish as to get into a bath with Belle.
Indeed, he can barely decide where to settle himself. The opposite end of the tub, obviously, but that still seems far too close to her and… but when he takes her hand in his, leaning on her as little as possible as he gets into the tub, she all but guides him right there.
It's not as if he had anywhere else to sit, and as he carefully pulls his knees to his chest, grateful for the nicely protective layer of soap covering the entire surface of the water, he feels not nearly as vulnerable yet paradoxically threatening to her as he expected.
He clears his throat to indicate that he is as decent as he is going to be, relaxing further when Belle leans against the edge on her side with a broad smile on her face.
"I can't believe how amazing this is," she sighs happily, slowly running her hands through the water around then.
Only then does Gold realize how very warm the water is, how lovely it feels against his much-neglected skin. Still, none of that can compare to being here with her, being so wholly accepted by her in this way as well.
"It is," he murmurs in response, looking straight at her while stating the fact despite himself.
She looks up at that very moment, meeting his gaze, the smile on her face almost knowing. Still, he can't allow himself to believe even for a moment that she's both aware and approving of his fondness and affection for her, which are increasing even now.
"At the risk of ruining all this… would you mind washing my hair?"
The notion of running his slick hands all through her soaked curls, her bare back towards him as she leans into him just like she did when he washed her hair with sea water… It feels like ages ago, even if it can't have been more than three weeks, the experience already surreal when they were at least wearing some clothes and there was an actual hygienic necessity for their actions.
And yet, he is lathering up her glorious curls a mere minute later, telling himself that the moans of obvious enjoyment she lets out as he carefully massages her scalp have nothing to do with him personally. Still, he can't entirely believe that she'd sound like this regardless of who might be washing her hair, if only because he knows by now that she wouldn't let anyone like Jones handle such a task.
Which begs the question of why she's letting him do this—why she, in fact, hopefully requested it of him.
He takes his sweet time, telling himself that it might be more than another week until the game is over and she can bathe properly again. Still, as he runs his hands through her hair and rinses it carefully, he makes very, very certain never to peek over her shoulder at her uncovered chest as she indeed leans back into him.
Gold doesn't quite know how it happened, but before he knows it she's returning the favor, washing his hair in a way that's so much more tender and so much… more than anything he may ever have deserved—something he didn't know he needed until right now.
His eyes are closed as he leans against her as well, unable to hold back his sounds of enjoyment—just like her when their roles were reversed. As always, her touch is soothing and yet utterly thrilling, yet more now that there is almost nothing left to separate their skins.
He can tell that she's drawing this out as well, seeming to do little more than caress his already rinsed hair for several minutes. Still, it seems far too soon that she withdraws from him … and that is why he accepts her next request, which is even more shocking than anything they've done together in the past day—and considerably so.
No longer reminding himself of how he should and shouldn't react or wondering why on earth she's willing to do this in the first place, Gold manages to simply be in the moment when Belle approaches him as he leans back against the edge of the tub, casually covering her front with one of her arms.
Closing his eyes because of sensory overload rather than decency, he all but whimpers in a way that leaves no doubt whatsoever about what all this means to him when she settles herself between his spread legs. He can't even bring himself to wonder just how little distance there is left between their lower bodies, simply letting her recline against his chest.
Belle all but curls up against him, wrapping both her arms around his neck as if wanting to be yet nearer to him. Barely able to believe that any of this is truly happening, he tentatively embraces her in return and rests his entwined hands on her hip as she places her head on his shoulder.
His eyes still closed as her breath whispers against his damp skin, he wishes they could simply stay here like this for a much longer time—preferably for the rest of their lives, whatever the nature of their relationship might be exactly at this point.
Chapter 33: Day 33
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
After a day of complete bliss with Belle at the resort, the two of them are back in the game itself and have to do their very best to get at least a few more days together—whether they can be happy in the rising tensions at camp or not.
Here they are, back at tribal council, where yet another one of the six remaining players will be voted out. The time they spent together at the resort makes him only more eager to stay with her for as long as possible, but there's no denying that they're still the minority alliance and one of them might well be voted out before this council is over.
Still, they've obviously done all they can to ensure that the person voted off won't be one of them, though that was more difficult than ever. Jones is obviously never going to work with them, Regina has openly said that she considers them both as a threat to her own victory, and Sidney still does whatever she wants him to.
That leaves Emma, which didn't seem hopeful at first, since she flipped on them during the previous tribal council. Still, during a conversation between the three of them in which the usually stoic woman was as open and emotional as he'd ever expected to see her, she admitted that the alliance she had betrayed them for had let her down as well.
Apparently, Regina and Jones had told her that their alliance was looking to get rid of him rather than David—purposefully misleading her in order to get her main ally voted out. After all, she would never have actually voted for David—but by targeting Gold, she unwillingly ensured that her friend was removed instead of Jones, whom Belle, David and Gold were targeting.
In revenge for David, Emma said that she will vote with them at least once, but they have nothing but her word for it—and their hopes for the best. He feels as vulnerable as he has ever been, his immunity idol in hand once more to give to Belle if he is the one to be voted out—just like she is holding hers if the contrary should happen. With two immunity idols for only one member of their alliance left, said player will be able to get to the final tribal council.
Still, even if none of them gets voted out, they won't be able to get rid of Jones. Emma refuses to vote for him and, as Belle reminded him, the best they can hope for is a draw of three votes against three. This will lead to a fire challenge in which the loser will have to leave—the problem being that Jones is very good at making fire, and Regina even more… whereas Sidney has been satisfied to spend the entire game watching her perform this particular task.
That doesn't mean that they're happy to let their entire game play depend on a single fire-making challenge, but it's the best they've got—for as far as Emma is true to her word to vote alongside them, that is.
It seems to take yet longer than usual for Jeff to ask his questions and the six of them to answer them one by one. Although once more, this may well be the last minutes he gets to spend with Belle, they appear to last much longer than sixty seconds each, if only because he is daring to hope that they can get yet further than this.
No longer bothered by who might see or not, since even Jones has figured out just how close they are in the past two weeks or so, the two of them are openly holding hands. There's no point in hiding anymore, but that doesn't make the snickers and innuendoes any more bearable. After all, he doesn't need to hear the others' reactions to know it's strange to say the least that she would seek him out and accept his company the way she does.
Still, his trust that she only has altruistic reasons for doing so has only increased throughout the game, no matter how impossible something like this may have seemed to him beforehand. So after they have voted one by one once more, Jones still carrying the fake immunity idol proudly around his neck, they await the result in almost paralyzing tension.
"The first vote…" Jeff announces, taking his time as he reaches into the urn, as if they weren't nervous enough already, "is for Belle."
She nods in acceptance and he squeezes her hand. He'd much rather have Jones' and Regina's alliance voting for him rather than Belle, for he knows how much more the game means to her, but at the same time, this is encouraging: Emma has been honest about this, which hopefully also means that she'll vote along with them as she promised.
"The second vote… is for Sidney."
Regina barely shows any reaction, but the way her shoulders tense ever so slightly informs him that she's both surprised and displeased by this. It indicates that Emma has indeed not betrayed their plans to the alliance which has deceived her in the previous vote: another good sign.
"The second vote… is for Belle."
That's no surprise at all. All that matters is the last vote, Emma's: the swing vote. Still, Jeff ceremoniously and slowly reveals the third vote—for Sidney—the fourth—for Belle—and the fifth —Sidney again, as though anyone could be surprised to see that the remaining votes are targeting the same two players and that the difference between them will either be minor or non-existent.
"The sixth and final vote…"
Belatedly realizing that he must be squeezing her hand tightly enough to hurt, Gold loosens his grasp right when Jeff is about to inform them that Belle has been voted out—only for her to grip his own fingers at least equally hard.
"... is for Sidney."
Oblivious to the murderous look in Regina's eyes when she looks at Emma in realization, both Gold and Belle let out a shuddering sigh at the revelation that the latter hasn't been voted out… at least not yet. As Jeff then starts to explain, she and Sidney will now participate in a fire-making challenge: the one who first manages to start a fire and burn the rope suspended above it will be able to stay in the game for at least a few more days.
Since he taught her, Belle has lit countless fires and he is convinced that her odds to beat Sidney in this challenge and break the tie of the votes are theoretically very good. Still, the mere memory of sitting behind her, his arms wrapped around her, is enough to make the prospect of losing her at this point almost unbearable, no matter how small that chance might be.
Belle and Sidney make their way to the fire-making stations which are already present at the other side of the tribal council, but not before Gold impulsively pulls her tightly against his chest for a few too short seconds, wishing her the best of luck.
Her hands are visibly shaking, and so are his own, when she and her opponent seat themselves behind the stations and await Jeff's starting signal.
"Survivors, ready… for immunity… go!"
Belle confidently reaches for the coconut husk and small twigs to build a small pyre and place some easily inflammable material underneath, whereas Sidney looks like he doesn't even know how to do any of this in the first place.
Still, she falters when she rasps the machete over the flint, creating sparks, but none of which are large and long-lived enough to set the husk aflame. Sidney, in the meantime, openly glances at her station numerous times so as to copy her approach… and quite successfully so.
Gold is all but grinding his teeth as he watches her opponent play the game like this, very much aware that this kind of cheating is allowed. Indeed, it's something he personally wouldn't have been reluctant to do before… well, before getting to know her, really.
"Come on, Belle," he whispers under his breath, barely aware that he's doing so.
Her hands only shake harder and perspiration begins to bead at her temples when she catches on to what Sidney is doing. Gold's relief is perhaps greater yet than her own when the next strike of the machete has the flint producing a large enough spark to set fire to the husk, which in turn quickly sets the twigs aflame.
Her pyre is built better than Sidney's and she's soon got larger twigs burning up, the flames almost—but not quite—reaching the rope which it has to burn. Once more, her opponent is rapidly catching up—and copying her again.
"Come on, come on," he all but chants under his breath, oblivious to the fact that his voice is getting increasingly loud.
As Sidney hasn't built his pile of larger twigs nearly as stably as she has, his fire collapses in on itself within seconds. However, it's still burning and he quickly adds new wood to it. The flames of Belle's fire are now reaching the rope, but he knows from experience that it can take quite a while to burn through such material… That's time she doesn't have if Sidney manages to get a larger fire going while she's waiting, as he's already copying her once more.
It seems as if time were slowing down around Belle as she keeps adding wood to the fire which is now setting the rope aflame. Still, though blackened, it remains in one piece for another few agonizing and seemingly endless seconds… until it breaks in two after all, both its endings still burning.
Belle cheers, and so does he, especially when Jeff confirms her win and thus her continued presence in the game. Before doing anything else, her fire still burning, she rushes towards Gold and all but sends him flying off his feet as she throws herself at him.
Managing to keep both of them in an upright position, if only barely so, he gratefully clings to her, not wanting to let go of her ever again.
Chapter 34: Day 34
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
No matter how badly Gold wants to hold on to the one and only close friend he's ever had, the only one he can't imagine his life without any longer, the very end of the game is getting nearer and nearer, as it looks like they might just both reach it. Even worse, they're still in a competition, and there are instances where they have to play against one another rather than work together.
Still, knowing how much this game and an ever-likelier victory mean to Belle, he wouldn't want it any other way—not even now that they are participating in one of the toughest challenges yet. This close to the final tribal council, the stakes are higher than ever, which all of the remaining contestants are very, very aware of.
All five of them are currently clinging to brightly colored poles, which must be at least ten feet tall and one foot in width. Their arms awkwardly locked against the unforgiving wood as the yet more merciless sun burns down on them, they have to remain there for as long as they can, the final player winning immunity for the next tribal council—which will give this person a statistical chance of twenty percent to win the title of sole Survivor and the million dollars that comes along with it.
Gold has barely been up there for a minute, but his weakened limbs are already aching in protest. He doesn't allow himself to look downwards, not wanting confirmation of just how high it is up here. It'd be very unpleasant to say the least if he were to fall, which seems increasingly likely as his entire body begins to tremble in protest.
It's both a blessing and a curse that she is right beside him, or at least as close as she can be during the challenge. Before the beginning of the game which has changed his life irrevocably—even if he finally isn't reunited with Neal, like he's quite hopeful will actually happen after all this—he couldn't have imagined himself feeling more than indifferent acceptance for any human being other than his son.
But now that he has gotten to know Belle, he has found out just how much he can be both soothed and encouraged by another person—yet more so with each day he gets to spend with her. Sometimes, he can't help but wonder what it might be like if he were able to still have a place in her life after the game has ended, but he can't let himself rely on that, or even consider it for that matter—life has brought him more than enough disappointments, after all.
He's gotten somewhat used to being calmed by her presence and instinctively, he knew that he'd probably be upset if she was in any sort of discomfort. He had already found proof of that relatively early in the game, whenever she was having a particularly bad day. In comforting her, he found consolation as well, feeling better in the simple knowledge that she was too.
Still, he realizes that the past two weeks or so have been relatively easy on them, despite the usual hardships of surviving on an uninhabited island in both the physical and social sense of the word. Now that she is doing her very best to hold on in a challenge which isn't made for people of such limited stature as the two of them, her struggle written all over his face, he too aches in a way that has nothing to do with his own exertion.
"You can do this," he says, just loud enough for her to hear.
She had her face pressed against the wood in an attempt to get as little discomfort as possible, but she looks up at the sound of his voice. Miraculously, his encouragement brings a small smile to her face, as if he could somehow help her forget about the circumstances, no matter how painful they are right now.
"So can you," she replies, which in turn makes him feel stronger than he actually is.
Although they still have two immunity idols between the two of them, it would significantly increase their odds of getting both of them to the final three if they could hold on to one of the precious items by one of them winning immunity in this challenge as well. The mere sight of Belle holding on as if her life depended on it reminds him of how much winning the game means to her.
It gives him the strength to hang on, his bare feet unpleasantly located right on one of the few narrow edges of the otherwise smooth pole. More importantly than the selfish desire to spend some more time with her, he wants her to achieve her goals, to be as happy as she can… a happiness that he, less altruistically, can't help but want to be part of.
"Let's see if we can make this a little more interesting," Jeff announces.
Only then does Gold see that the host has walked into the open circle around which the poles are placed, carrying a currently covered tray which doubtlessly contains one treat or another, meant to try and tempt them to forsake their shot at immunity in exchange for food. Still, there are only five of them left; there isn't anywhere left to hide, and there's no way that anyone at this point would actually give up their chance of immunity for a mere…
But before Jeff has even revealed what they will receive if they step down that instant, Jones is already back on the ground, his fake immunity idol still around his neck. He pulls away the sheet that covers the tray, revealing his price as he seizes it.
Jeff himself appears surprised that the tactic actually works at this point in the game—that even now, a player can be confident enough to give up immunity in exchange for a beer and some crisps.
No matter how much every inch of his physical being is pleading for Gold to get down as well, small reward or not, it's the last thing he wants to do. Far beyond trying to impress his son or win victory for himself, he's going to stay up there if only to keep encouraging Belle.
"You're doing so well," he murmurs to her.
This time, she doesn't look up to acknowledge his words, doubtlessly too exhausted to do so—but the ever so small nod of her head tells him that his statement has been heard and appreciated.
Gathering some energy to check how their competitors are doing, he sees that Regina is struggling as well. Stoic as ever, there's nothing that hints at the discomfort which even Emma must be feeling at this point. To his bewilderment, she is looking at Jones, seeming rather amused by his antics as the poor excuse for a man all but leers at her, beer in hand.
Although it's beyond him what anyone, let alone a formidable woman like Emma, could see in a man like Jones, Gold has been aware of the camaraderie growing between them. But he was still oblivious to just how much they appear to be involved with each other, probably because he would much rather pay attention to Belle than the two of them… an oversight he won't make again.
"How are you holding up?" she asks, her voice muffled by her arms.
"As well as can be expected," he brings out, right when he's starting to lose feeling in just about all his limbs.
Regina is lowering herself further and further towards the ground as her strength begins to give out, which is a much-needed boost of confidence. Still, there's no sign that Emma has been fatigued even a little.
"Regina is out," he mutters to Belle before pressing his face against the unforgiving wood again as well, that particular position offering slightly—very slightly—less discomfort.
"What about Emma?"
"She hasn't moved an inch."
Belle huffs in frustration, her arms visibly trembling by now. But she's still in this, something that he won"t be able to say of himself for much longer.
"I can't keep this up," he gasps, wishing he could hold on simply to talk her through this, to give her a shot against Emma—for as far as she may need his assistance anyway.
She looks back up at him at those words, her eyes pleading for something… something he can't identify.
"Come on, Gold. You can do this. You've proven over and over again during your time here that there's nothing you can't accomplish, and…"
But even the prospect of disappointing Belle, if only a little, by not living up to her wholly undeserved and yet so very welcome faith in him, isn't enough to will his body to hang on any longer.
Almost falling after all, he only barely manages to climb back down. Basically sliding along the length of the pole, he collapses while still three feet high or so, his limbs failing him entirely. He lands roughly in the sand, trying to limit the sound so as not to distract or distress her.
"Come on, dearest," he whispers under his breath, not openly encouraging her out of respect for Emma… although the same can't be said about Jones. It takes the last of his strength, but as he glares at the other man as menacingly as he once regarded just about anyone, he manages to shut him up.
He was probably too biased to predict Belle's odds in this challenge properly, genuinely thinking that she might beat her final opponent. Still, she's starting to slide down as well. Emma is beginning to shift too, clearly struggling as well now, but it remains clear that she's got much more strength left than Belle.
It's obvious that the person he most wants to win has no energy left whatsoever, despite having given it her all. He winces in sympathy when she makes her way downward with yet more difficulty than he did.
Struggling back on his hands and knees, Gold crawls his way to her pole, not caring how ridiculous he must look. All he can think of is to support her to the best of his abilities as she half-climbs, half-topples back to the ground.
He breaks her fall when her limbs give out, shielding her body with his own. She is drained to the extent that she seems incapable of any movement; she's fought to win even harder than he thought.
"I've got you. You can relax now… I've got you."
Willing her to open her eyes and give some sign of life, he is oblivious to Emma getting down with considerable difficulty before accepting the immunity necklace from Jeff. The reward doesn't seem to matter all that much anymore now that Belle is shaking in his arms, her eyes still closed and her breathing shallow.
"You're all right, Belle. You've done wonderful. Try to relax."
He tenderly wipes her damp hair from her face and cradles her in his arms in a more comfortable position, reminding himself that there is a doctor right here if she might need. He's thoroughly relieved when her breathing becomes deeper and more even, her eyes finally fluttering open.
"This is at least almost as good as winning immunity," she murmurs weakly while snuggling closer to him, "and better than any snack."
Chapter 35: Day 35
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
"I want Jones out."
Gold and Belle look at one another in confusion at the sudden remark, only to find Regina all but propelling herself in the rather limited space between them as they hike to the tribal council, where the semi-finalists of the game will be revealed after the second-last person has been voted out.
"So do we," the two of them reply softly in unison, a single glance between them enough to agree that they are willing to include Regina in their plan.
Jones will be voted out tonight regardless; although Emma won immunity in yesterday's challenge, the two of them still have the immunity idols they found weeks ago. They'd hoped to save them for the next tribal council, guaranteeing both of them a spot in the finale, but neither of them did well enough in the immunity challenge to accomplish that.
They agreed on playing both their idols tonight, so close to the finale at this point that they don't want to risk proceeding with one left—though it will mean losing their best and, at this point, their only leverage in the game, leaving one of them defenseless at the next tribal council even if the other should win immunity.
"He's got an idol, but I think he wants to avoid playing it tonight and save it for the next tribal council… or be the first player who won't have needed to use his idol at all to get to the finale." She scowls in disapproval, clearly frustrated that she isn't about to pull this off herself. "Still, this is the last chance we've got to actually vote him out. But if he does play his idol…"
"Which will only be a problem, of course, if the idol in question is genuine," Gold says, after a short nod from Belle informs him that she agrees to disclose this information.
"You planted a fake one," Regina concludes, looking like she doesn't know whether to be chagrined or impressed that they've arranged this and kept quiet about it for so long.
"We may have."
"So one of you has a real one," she deduces, just like they knew she would.
Both of them make a noncommittal gesture, almost bursting out in laughter when they see that their movement is almost identical. Despite the circumstances, Gold can't help but marvel at the discovery that even physically, they're subconsciously copying each other at this point.
"The two of you are voting for Jones, aren't you?" she asks quietly, keeping a careful eye on the man in question as he walks a few dozen yards ahead of them, trying to wrap his arm around Emma and very likely aware that the three people behind him are scheming for his demise.
"We are," Gold confirms.
A part of him trusts Regina more than Emma, if only because she's more predictable. This would be the ideal time for a set-up though—for her to goad Belle and himself into not playing any immunity idols they may have by falsely informing them that her vote will not go to either of them.
Still, the disgust in Regina's voice is clear when she refers to Jones, and it very much makes sense for her to want him out. She doesn't know that both of them have immunity idols and, despite his arrogance, Jones is admittedly a larger physical threat than either Belle or himself.
And if Emma is as pleased with his advances as she increasingly appears to be, the two physically strongest people in the game will soon align for as far as they haven't already, leaving Regina the odd one out. Of course the best course of action for her then is to team up with the couple against whom she has the best chance of winning immunity in a challenge.
"The three of us could go all the way to the finale," Regina baits them, oblivious to the fact that both of them will survive this round with or without her help. "I can save your asses tonight. If I vote with you, I want you to promise me that you won't oppose me at the next tribal council."
"We will vote with you," Belle says, but doesn't offer the other woman her hand.
Rather than distancing herself from the two of them so they can discuss her offer privately—or, of course, to prevent them from doing exactly that—Regina remains right at their side while they make their way to the tribal council area, and places herself right behind them as they light their torches and sit down once more.
Gold and Belle don't have to remind each other to listen yet more carefully than usual when Jeff asks his questions to the five remaining players, their fellow contestants' replies—and their own—more important than ever now that they've got this whole process to decide whether to play their immunity idols.
Even Jones seems to grow gradually more subdued than usual, going as far as to fidget with the talisman around his neck—still unaware that it's a fake.
"He's nervous," Belle mouths at him.
He nods, knowing she has also concluded that he wasn't on edge before… so there must have been something about Regina's answers that made him doubt whatever she had told him before. This, in turn, makes it more likely that she was telling the truth when she stated she would truly be voting with them.
Gold smirks a little, not feeling sorry at all at the other man's dilemma. Now he's finally presented with the huge disadvantage of everyone knowing that you have an idol: on the one hand, you expect no one to vote for you for that very reason, but on the other, they may do it anyway because you think they won't, leading you to choose not to play said idol and get sent home with the item in your pocket.
Or a fake one, in this case.
He schools his expression, very much aware that the smallest hint of mirth from him might blow up in their faces.
By the time Jeff announces that it's time to vote, he is mostly convinced that Regina is indeed going to target Jones rather than one of them. A mere look between Belle and himself informs him that she feels the same way and agrees with him on how to proceed.
When the moment comes and passes in which they have to announce their idols if they want to play them, Gold finds himself wondering how it's possible to communicate so deeply with someone without using words—and whether it's something he might get to experience again once all of this is over—rather than thinking about the events at hand.
Still, his mind is very much back in the game when Jones stands up and hands his idol over to Jeff with a smug grin, informing everyone that he is playing this chance at immunity and thus, all votes cast against him will not count… or so he thinks.
"This is not a real immunity idol," Jeff says, casually throwing it into the fire before Jones can even open his mouth to object.
As the other man heads back to his seat, flabbergasted, Gold can see the realization dawning on his face—very slowly, that is. Glancing at his side, he sees that Belle is keeping a straight face, but clearly having so much trouble doing so that he can't help but want to laugh as well.
At least he keeps quiet, managing to wipe the smirk off his face entirely when Jeff begins to read the votes—yet more slowly than before, if at all possible. After all, he and Belle aren't safe yet. This is the moment when they'll find out whether the two of them can make it to the finale, allowing them to spend as much time as possible in the game—and thus together.
After a first vote for Jones —the handwriting of which Gold recognizes as Belle's—the next one is for her. He briefly closes his eyes, wishing he could have been targeted instead, and not just because he has already achieved what he came here to do.
As expected, there's another vote for Jones and another one for Belle. The only vote that wasn't set in stone in advance is Regina's, as she will be the one to cast the swing vote this time.
It seems to take an eternity for Jeff to remove the last piece of paper from the urn containing the votes, and yet longer for him to read the name to them.
"The sixteenth person voted off, and the sixth member of our jury…"
Gold and Belle gasp in unison when the name on the final piece of voting paper is revealed. Having glimpsed Jones' name before they even heard Jeff say it, they embrace each other in delight when it's confirmed that they've survived yet another tribal council and that the two of them will in all likelihood make it to the finale together.
His face buried in Belle's hair and her head pressed against his chest, they are oblivious to Jones as he angrily makes his way towards Jeff to have his torch snuffed out and be sent out of the game. Not all that long ago, Gold would have been very pleased indeed to get the better of a man who often referred to him as an "old cripple", whether he was outside of earshot or not.
But rather than finding joy in his opponent's demise, he doesn't even notice the frustration and humiliation on the other man's face. Gold is far too caught up in Belle's embrace; thanks to her, he has learned by now that there are more important things in life than winning in the way that was once so very important to him.
Chapter 36: Day 36
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
Enjoying life together on the island yet more than before now that Jones is no longer there to surround them with his mockery, Gold and Belle feel so secure in the game that they no longer care if the other remaining contestants know just how very close the two of them are.
It was a delight to say the least that they could simply get away from camp when the scrambling between Regina and Emma began, both of them trying to persuade the two to take them to the finale rather than their opponent. He once would have loved to play the game when the stakes are this high, but now he couldn't find more pleasure than in slowly strolling along the beach with Belle, as they're currently doing.
The knowledge that thanks to their two immunity idols, they both have an all but guaranteed spot in the finale is, however, bittersweet. Spending as much time with her in the game as he possibly could once seemed like the greatest gift he could dream of… but now that their Survivor adventure is coming to an end in a few days' time anyway, that time span appears far too short.
"Let's go for a swim?" she suggests, gesturing at the crystal blue water and its gentle waves.
"Excellent suggestion," he replies, grateful that she's offering to remain alone with him rather than to return to the others at camp.
It's a lovely reminder that she somehow enjoys their outings together as much as he does. Before, it was unpleasantly easy to tell himself that she only indulged him in order to stay away from Jones, whom she loathed about as much as he did, but now that the other man is finally gone, even the most pessimistic parts of himself can no longer deny that she likes this.
The ease he feels when taking off his shirt and jeans in her company leaves another bittersweet impression. It's wonderful beyond words that he can feel this safe with another person, be accepted so wholly… but at the same time, he knows he'll never meet anyone with whom he'll feel such a connection again.
They put down the machete and the two coconuts they found on their trip. She casually kneels down at his feet to take off the brace around his ankle and pull his jeans down past his feet, helping him keep his balance as she does so. She's already only clad in her swimming wear, and he quickly averts his gaze when realizing that he can look straight down her bikini top from his current position.
Carefully placing his jeans and brace aside, she gets up and offers him her hand. He can only take it as they wade into the warm water together, although he doesn't do so with nearly as much enthusiasm as before.
It's probably for the best that one way or another, the game will be over for them within a week, whisking the two of them back to more normal lives. After all, his relationship with Belle is… well, on the one hand, it's still as incredible and delightful as always—but on the other, in the past few days it has gotten less easy.
Like right now, for example—her gaze almost tangible as she looks at him. But when he questioningly meets her eyes, she quickly glances away, withdrawing her hand from his as well.
It was only a matter of time, of course, he is starting to realize. She's everything that he is not; young, brave, kind and… well, as he's increasingly aware, stunningly beautiful. It's a miracle she has put up with him for so long in the first place.
Still, she grins broadly at him after diving into an oncoming wave and turning back to face him, beckoning him to do the same. He does, and when he emerges again, she's playfully splashing at him, prompting him to return the favor immediately.
Both laughing so hard they barely can stand, they all but collapse back into the water, where they happily float on their backs in the gentle sea. His eyes closed and the smile not entirely vanished from his face, Gold is happy to simply glide over the surface.
His eyes burst open at Belle's sudden exclamation, unaware of how much time has passed. There's a sudden thrashing sound coming from her direction and he turns around as quickly as he can, yelling out in panic when he sees that she's half-submerged, clearly struggling, redness coloring the water around her.
"Belle!" he screams, swimming in her direction as quickly as he can.
Horrified that she got into danger and he didn't realize until it might well be too late, blind panic overwhelms him as he sees a familiarly-shaped fin in the blur of water and movement of which she is the center.
He has never felt more useless than right now, having kept daydreaming while a shark was swimming up to them… a shark which has obviously attacked Belle. In his distraction, he had floated further away from her than he thought, making the current distance between them shockingly large.
It should have gotten me.
Gold hasn't the slightest idea what to do as he gets to the site of what might as well be mortal combat. He is solely driven by the urge to protect Belle, to do whatever he can for her, no matter the consequences for himself.
To his increasing horror, the motions begin to cease before he reaches her, signaling the end of the struggle. If only he could be quicker, if only they weren't all alone, out here in the water…
"Belle!" he calls out again frantically as he reaches the still-spreading blood.
She emerges from the depths, seemingly of her own accord, and he rushes to take her arm and help her get to a more shallow level. The shark must still be out there somewhere, but all he can think of is getting Belle to safety.
She goes still once the water only reaches their middle, bending over to catch her breath.
"We've got to keep going," he rasps, putting his arm around her waist to drag her back to the beach, if necessary. All the while, he looks anxiously around for any sign of the shark, not feeling relieved at all when he doesn't spot any.
Still, at least Belle is still breathing and standing, and he cannot see any blood on her skin. But that doesn't mean anything, as the water may very well have washed it away—perhaps it is speeding up the bleeding even now.
She lets him help her toward the beach, but halts again when they're still knee-deep in the water, all but collapsing there. Sensing that they're as secure as they can be, he kneels down next to her, running his hands over her arms, back and stomach to check for injuries… without finding any.
"I'm fine," she brings out, still coughing and trying to catch her breath. "It didn't bite me."
"But how can you be fine?! It was a shark. There was blood… lots of it."
He looks around in anguish, still not seeing any sign of the lethal fish, but increasingly aware of the redness in the water surrounding them… which might attract other unpleasant predators.
"It isn't mine," she says, straightening herself.
Pulling up something that appears to have been floating on her other side, she matter-of-factly shows it to him—something so unexpected it takes Gold a few long seconds to realize what he's looking at.
"Belle," he says weakly, "did you… did you catch a shark? With your bare hands?!"
"It would appear I did."
She smiles at him, but it clearly strains her to do so, shaking on her legs as she is. Before he can think better of it, he rushes towards her and envelops her in his embrace. It seems like too little too late, but she holds on to him with all the strength that just helped her survive a shark attack seemingly unscratched, as if this helpless gesture of comfort actually meant something to her.
Closing his eyes tightly in gratitude for not having had to see her get hurt—or even die—right in front of him, he tells himself over and over again that she's still here, that she's safe, and she just proved yet more amazing than he already knew her to be.
"It was already wounded, possibly dying, before it got to me," she murmurs into his embrace, her face pressing against his neck in a way that shouldn't impact him the way it does—especially when her breath whispers against his damp skin. "It was bleeding. I didn't even see it until I could sense it swimming right next to me. It probably would have left me alone if I hadn't been startled by it. It lunged for me, but I managed to catch its tail and hold it at bay."
She withdraws from his embrace and he reminds himself that she is fine, that she has proven once again that she doesn't need his support, that she's perfectly capable of… well, of defeating a shark, of all things, while he can do little more than helplessly watch on.
"We probably should put it out of its misery," she says, reaching for the shark again.
It barely does more than twitch when she picks it up and shows it to him, revealing a large wound along its flank that indicates that it might have been in a fight with a stronger predator, or else hurt by the propellers of a boat.
"Indeed," he agrees, still marveling at the fact that she managed to get out of this in one piece and, as if that weren't miraculous enough, actually catch the shark.
He shakes in head in admiration as she heads back to the beach to pick up the machete and lays the shark in the sand, unceremoniously cutting off its head with one blow.
"I have to say this wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I went for a swim with you."
"Is there anything you can't do?!"
"Well, I am Australian."
"Indeed," he murmurs, although he's quite certain that only one person in the whole wide world can be as incredible as she is. "Are you certain you are all right, though? We could have a doctor check on you, just in case, or…"
"I'm fine. Although I dare not predict what might happen if the adrenaline wears off. Right now… well, all I can think of is trying to eat that shark, to be honest. We wouldn't be the first Survivor contestants to attempt it, so…"
"It would be a pity to let it go to waste," he agrees. "You should bring it to camp, show Emma and Regina. It should work in your favor; you're a true Survivor if there ever was one."
"Well, actually… I'd much rather eat it without Emma and Regina; only with you."
"That's… that's your decision to make."
He would very much share the meat on the shark with her alone if he were the one to have caught it, but he obviously isn't. Granted, the food would be a very welcome addition to their breakfast, which was yet more meager than usual now that the end of their game—and the rations—is drawing near.
"Let's prepare and eat it here," she says, placing a questioning hand on his arm. "The wind is blowing towards the sea and we're quite some distance from camp; the smoke of the fire won't reach it and be seen by the others."
He nods, feeling even more bewildered and utterly in awe at her touch, lethal only a few moments before, yet so very tender now that it's directed at him.
Gold may barely understand their relationship, even less now than before. But as they work to get a fire started and filet the shark together as if they had done so all their lives, their interactions no longer feel as complicated as they did just an hour or so ago.
By the time they're ready to enjoy their impromptu meal, sitting next to one another on the beach, it almost feels like the earlier days of their togetherness. Whatever may happen next, both inside and outside of the game, Gold enjoys this quiet feast with his friend, confidant and ally as if it didn't have to be one of the last ones.
Chapter 37: Day 37
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
After the tribal council in which both Belle and himself reached the finale as planned, Gold purposefully distances himself from her and Regina, the only other remaining player. It has been shockingly easy in the past month or so to live in the moment, to deal with things that were never further away than a week or so at most.
But now that the game has almost come to an end, he finds himself overthinking everything and anything, just like he used to do before coming to the island to play Survivor—especially with regards to Belle.
He figures she'd like some time alone to celebrate reaching her goal of getting to the final three, especially after having already spent so much time with him in the past month. He toys with the immunity idol he's still holding—the crucial object that, however, they didn't even need to get this far.
As if catching a shark wasn't amazing enough, Belle also won immunity yesterday in the most demanding challenge so far, her combination of swimming, climbing and puzzling skills more persuasive than Emma's, Regina's or his own.
No matter how pleased he is for her, he can't help but wish he could have played his idol for her. It was… well, almost electrifying when she slipped hers around his neck to indicate that she was playing it on his account, insisting he use her idol rather than his own.
He was only too happy to oblige. It was doubtlessly only in his imagination, but her touch seemed protective to him—almost possessive, in a way he liked very, very much.
As he walks down the beach, the stars and moon illuminating his path along the shore, he fingers the idol that has become useless, now that nobody will get voted out of the game again. He wonders if it would be strange to give his own to Belle after all, for a solely sentimental purpose. She would keep it, he is certain of that, and perhaps, once in a while, be reminded of their time in the game together… of him.
"Hey," a sudden voice calls from right behind him.
Startled, he turns around, relaxing immediately when he sees that Belle has approached him.
"Hey," he greets her softly in return.
"Would you mind if I walked with you? I can totally understand if you want to be alone for a while, but perhaps…"
"I don't mind at all," he answers, any vocalization of the fact that he can't imagine any circumstances in which he'd rather be on his own than with her lost as he takes in the sight of her.
The white light of the moon and stars giving her an almost ethereal appearance, she looks nothing less than a goddess, the immunity necklace which symbolizes her capabilities still hanging around her neck.
"I hope you weren't bothered that I played my idol for you," she continues as she moves alongside him, the two of them quickly falling into the same rhythm as they've done so many times before, as if they were meant to walk side by side.
"Of course not. I very much appreciate it. It means a lot to me. I'd just hoped… well, I had hoped that I would be able to play mine for you as well."
"That's lovely to hear. You still can, though. Not that it will make any difference in the game, since we're both in the final three anyway, but… well, you can play it for me as well, if you like."
"I do," he whispers, the notion of Belle carrying any belonging of his suddenly very appealing indeed.
"Well then, let's do it," she replies, beaming at him before she turns her back towards him.
Suddenly rather breathless, he takes the idol, slowly and carefully putting the string around her neck. Finding that her hair is blocking its trajectory, he reverently pulls the thick chestnut curls out of the way, only just noticing how lascivious they appear… how soft, too.
Gold can't prevent himself from looking over her shoulder, taking in the sight of the idol as it rests on her chest, over the now-worn shirt she's wearing.
"It doesn't look quite right," she murmurs, her attention obviously focused on the same image as his.
"You… I'm not asking you to wear it, of course," he quickly offers, belatedly realizing how foolish he was to think that she might actually like to carry his idol like this in the first place.
"No, that's not what I meant! I love to have your idol like this, but… well, now that this is the only one left, I feel like it should belong to both of us."
"I'm very happy to give it to you, Belle."
"I know. That's also why I really want you to have a part of it, too. I was thinking… we already made a fake idol once, maybe we can split this one so each of us has half? That way, we will both get to keep it."
"I… that would be lovely, yes," he replies, this prospect even more alluring.
"Shall we see what we can do?"
They sit down together in the sand, critically eyeing the components of which the item is made.
"The wooden skull and the beads are almost like two different parts. We can untie them to separate them entirely."
"Good idea, let's do that."
The light from the constellations above them just bright enough to work by, they carry out their plan, effectively creating two mini-versions of the item. Given the length of the string around it, they manage to pull it into two different pieces which, in turn, are just long enough to function as a necklace. In no time, they are each holding an improvised idol.
"Would you mind if I kept the skull? I love the way it's carved."
"Of course not. You can take whichever part you like."
"Would you like me to put this on you?" she asks, gesturing at the circle of beads that remained after they took the carved skull from between them.
He nods, turning his back on her to give her maximal access, like she just did for him. However, the string is a lot shorter now and she has some trouble getting it over his head, needing quite some time and effort to get the necklace in place.
Gold loves every second of it, his eyes fluttering closed when she gets the string past his ears, touching them gently as she does so, and carefully ensures that the necklace doesn't get caught in his hair. Then again, he's grateful when she's done, for it is becoming increasingly difficult to conceal the joy he's feeling at having her touch him like this.
Still, their impromptu ceremony is far from over yet, since he also has to get her idol around her neck again. Her hair only feels more wonderful now that he has to touch yet more of it to get the item back in place, her content sighs as he does so informing him that she doesn't object to his touches—and, coincidentally, making him enjoy the process much more than he should.
When he's done, he can't help but feel pleased that she leans back against him as they sit in the sand, resting her head on his shoulder. She slips the idol underneath her shirt and he marvels at the knowledge that a part of him, the memory of him, will always be near her heart.
He puts the idol underneath his clothing as well, relishing the feel of it against his skin. He'd love to have so much more than this as a physical reminder of their relationship here, but at least it's something. Gold knows only too well that they aren't like their idols, two halves of a whole, no matter how much he might begin to wish they were.
"Do you feel like heading back to camp?" she asks, turning her head a little as she addresses him, her curls caressing his face.
"No," he says softly, for if it weren't for his son, he wouldn't want to return anywhere—simply to remain on the island with her for the rest of his life. "You?"
"Me neither. Maybe we can just stay here? Just the two of us. We can sleep on the beach, if you like. The weather is pleasant enough."
"That sounds wonderful," he murmurs, questioningly putting his arms around her.
He may tell himself for all he is worth that he shouldn't get too attached to any of this, especially the utterly heavenly feeling of being so close to her. But now that she's all but in his embrace already, all he can do is happily pull her against him for as far as she isn't already leaning all her weight back, hugging her from behind.
With unmistakable delight, she snuggles further into him, and his eyes flutter closed at their nearness. It's hardly the first time they are together like this, but it's still as mesmerizing and wonderful as ever; he's convinced that he'll never get remotely used to this, even if he should have years—decades—rather than mere days of being with her to look forward to.
Still, it only occurs to him now, with striking clarity which seems to come out of nowhere, that her face is so close he'd be able to kiss her if he were to turn his head. The idea is so forbidden, so shocking, that he can't decide whether he'd actually like to do that or not… just that he won't be able to stop thinking about it for a considerable time.
Chapter 38: Day 38
Many thanks to Inkfire for the wonderful beta work.
After dinner, Gold and Belle are left at the shelter together when Regina walks off. He is quite certain she's going to practice her speech for the final tribal council tomorrow night, in which the contestants voted off after the merge will choose Belle, Regina or himself as the winner of Survivor.
A month ago, he would have done the same thing—although he wouldn't have been so obvious about it. But now that he's here, now that he has gotten to know Belle, he has learned that there are far more pleasant and important ways to spend his time.
"I can't believe this is our last evening here," she says, shifting closer towards him now that Regina is gone.
"Neither can I," he responds, not knowing what else to say.
The strange tension that has grown between them in the past few days is still very much there, to the extent that it's almost getting uncomfortable to touch her or even be near her. Of course, that wouldn't have surprised him a month ago, but now that he has actually learned how very enjoyable it can be to interact with a woman as tactile as Belle, he misses the easy wonderfulness of their togetherness yet more than he thought he would.
"Do you have any idea what you're going to do when you're back home?" she asks softly.
"Not really. Spending as much time with Neal as he'll let me, of course. Other than that… I'm officially retired, so I suppose I could do anything, or nothing. Or something in between. I don't know yet. That thought was quite terrifying at first, but now… I'm actually quite looking forward to simply finding out what may come on my path and what I might do next."
"It sounds lovely," she says, looking at him so intently that he almost begins to squirm. "But there's nothing… specific you'd like to do after all this? There isn't someone you'd like to…"
He falters, just like her, wondering what he can tell her and what he very much shouldn't. Weeks ago, they easily agreed to meet again after the game's ending, to continue their friendship back in the normal world and their daily lives. By now, he isn't so certain any longer, both for her own sake and for his. It always seemed difficult to imagine that she would want to keep spending time with him once all of this was said and done—but at this point especially, as their relationship is getting so strangely strained, he can't really imagine it.
"I suppose not," he says carefully, looking at her closely to gauge her reaction.
He may have found in the past that communicating with her was easier than with anyone else he knew, but right now he has no idea what she's thinking as she says those two words. For the life of him, he can't decide whether she appears disappointed or relieved by his reply.
"What about you?" he asks, feeling like he is treading on thin ice. "What are your plans after the game… any people you'd like to spend time with?"
"I'm going to pick up the pieces of my life before I left. At least I know now that I can pay off my father's debts. I might even be able to quit my cleaning job. It's… well, it's wonderful, and much more than I expected to actually manage. I really wanted to, as you have noticed, but obviously I'm not the only highly-driven individual here."
Inwardly, Gold disagrees with that; having spent a month with her and the other contestants, he is absolutely convinced that she is by far the most Survivor-worthy player in the game, and that there's no one else who deserves to win.
"After that… well, as you know, I don't have that many people in my life. In a way, I hope to start over, just like you."
He still has no idea whether that means she'd like to keep meeting with him, whether he should even want to.
"Still, maybe it's better not to think about it too much while we're still here. I mean, look at this," she exclaims, gesturing at the sun as it starts to set, the sky alight with a myriad of beautiful colors… which are, he can't help but think, not as stunning as Belle's smile while she takes in the sight. "I'm definitely going to miss how beautiful this all is."
"Indeed," he murmurs, his gaze solely on her as he tells himself that, if life without her indeed turns out to be as unpleasant as he fears=, he can always invite her to his private island somewhere down the line.
Not wanting to let such wishful thinking get the better of him while he's still with her, he vows not to bring any of it up and risk ruining their last few days—their last few hours—together.
They watch the sun set behind the horizon, kept warm by the fire at their side, to which he adds a piece of wood every once in a while. If Neal were to be here as well, Gold figures that this is exactly how he would love to spend the rest of his life, enjoying himself in this quiet paradise with his son and Belle right next to him.
"Would you like to sleep on the beach again?" she asks once there is no more light except for the flames.
They did so as well last night, both falling asleep and awakening in the sand with several feet of space between them. It's such a contrast to the way they used to cuddle together until a week ago—a contrast that he very much wishes wouldn't exist, but he obviously isn't going to initiate any sort of physical contact if she doesn't make the move first.
"I do, yes," he says in response, glad that at least, she still appears to want to sleep at his side in the first place.
"Me too," she replies, immediately shifting closer to him.
But rather than lying down beside him like he expected her to, Belle sits next to him, slowly wrapping her arms around his neck. Mostly elated that she's reaching out to him like this once more, he closes his eyes happily.
"Is this all right?" she asks softly as she leans yet closer, resting her chest against his back.
"Yes," he replies, glad that he still has the presence of mind to let her know just how much he enjoys this. "Very much so."
Belle makes a noncommittal sound, but considering this becomes quite difficult indeed when she presses her face lightly against his neck. It's not the first time they've embraced each other like this, but it does feel like it for some reason he can't put his finger on.
Her breath is hot on his skin and her curves are pressed none too lightly against him as she tightens her hold. That must not be so different from before either, but only now does he really feel her, becoming almost nervously aware of her nearness.
There's sweat breaking out all over him and his breath quickens inexplicably, which is unnerving to say the least—but all he wants is for her to stay right where she is. In fact, as she appears to nuzzle his neck, it dawns on him that he'd like her to do more than this… far more.
"I'm going to miss this," she murmurs, her mouth almost right next to his ear.
"So will I," he says hoarsely, struggling to make sense of what she's doing and why it makes him react like this.
Gold can't hold back a groan when she begins to stroke his sides lightly through the fabric of his worn shirt, startled by the sound and viciousness of his own response. But rather than being disturbed by it, she seems rather encouraged, going as far as to slip her fingers underneath the garment.
He doesn't know what's happening, cannot for the life of him figure out why Belle is doing this, whether this is what friends do… what lovers do? All he is aware of is that he enjoys her touches very, very much, and he doesn't ever want her to stop.
Her fingers are on his abdomen now, caressing him, circling around his belly button. His muscles are clenching beneath her palm and he's panting, all but whimpering as unexpected heat rushes through him.
"Oh, Belle," he sighs, utterly enchanted, although it's still beyond him why she's even doing this.
"Do you like this?" she whispers, sounding almost shy. It's almost a relief that he apparently isn't the only one out of his depth here.
"Yes," he rasps, groaning lowly when her fingers follow the trail of hair leading downwards from his belly button.
"Me too," she murmurs, the words all but vibrating against his throat. "Very, very much."
Still, the meaning of her words is lost on him as she, rather than closing her mouth after she is finished speaking, opens it further and presses it tentatively against his throat—her tongue darting out to taste his skin while her hand goes further downwards, toying with the button of his jeans.
He tenses at this development, instinctively pulling her hand away as he belatedly realizes that this is not what friends do. No matter how much he enjoyed her ministrations, all he can think of is how he'll inadvertently ruin their relationship entirely if he lets them go through with this.
After all, his track record is very poor to say the least and besides, she'll come to her senses soon enough and realize that she can't possibly want to do any of this with him.
"I'm so sorry," she cries out, scooting away from him as if she suddenly could no longer stand to be near him. "I shouldn't have…"
"It's all right," he says, reaching for her with a trembling hand; he didn't mean to cause anything like this. "I… I shouldn't have…"
"No, please… I know that you don't…"
"I don't what?" he asks urgently as she falters, lowering her gaze and letting her hair fall in front of her face like a curtain as she bows her head.
"Nothing. You don't have to… please. Let's just forget about this?"
"If that's what you want," he says after a few seconds, increasingly confused by what's happening between them.
"I'd really appreciate that. Let's just… pretend this never happened."
"If that's what you want, let's do exactly that."
"But what do you want?"
"I… I want whatever you want."
"Well, in that case… it's really best if we forget about this, Gold."
"All right," he repeats, although not with nearly as much conviction as before.
"It's getting late, I'm going to sleep," she announces, lying down in the still-warm sand before he can point out that it's not even fully dark yet.
By then, there's nothing for him to do but lie down as well and wait for sleep to come. For the first time, he doesn't almost immediately find repose at her side, the events which just took place repeating themselves over and over in his head as he wonders what he should have done… what he still might do.
But Gold can't think of a single word or action to let her know that he thoroughly enjoyed what she did, but that she shouldn't want to pursue this dangerous path with him. As Belle tosses and turns a few yards away, he can't find any way to cross the gap that now appears to be growing between them.