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But I'm Only Human

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The first thing Rumford Gold realized when he opened his eyes, was the rain streaming onto his face, the second was the pounding headache gradually making its presence known. He knew he shouldn't have drunk so much the night before but when drunk patrons just left half full drinks outside the bar it was too much of temptation. Rum's nickname, after all, had been earned, not given.

He struggled up with a sigh into a sitting position taking the time to use the same curses towards his ailing body he did every other morning. It wasn't easy being homeless and being old, add the bum leg and Rum felt near useless.

Homelessness, however, had a way of making one useful and Rum knew sleeping away his hangover was not only stupid, it was dangerous. What little things Rum did possess he could easily lose if he wasn't alert at every moment.

The world wasn't kind to people like him.

As Rum sat blinking into the rain, the city noises began to push harder against his already protesting brain. He groaned at the prospect of finding food, knowing what an ordeal it would be for him. It was usually an ordeal, what with his disabilities and all, but the hangover amplified it tenfold.

“Might as well get up.” He muttered under his breath. While there was no one else to hear his voice, simply knowing it still worked was a small comfort he wouldn’t deny himself.

Rumford stood up, shaking water off of his clothing onto the blanket that covered his meager belongings. He rooted beneath said blanket for his walking stick using it to pull his weight up to full height.

Rum swayed on his feet, his head wasn’t making things any easier. He knew he shouldn’t leave anything behind he wasn’t willing to lose while looking for food, but with the walking stick, carrying things was equally as difficult. Luckily, Rum had one water bottle left, meaning he didn’t also have to find water.

He leaned down to grab the water bottle, wincing as he drew back up. Grabbing the lid with his teeth, he twisted it and drank as fast as he could. Wiping his mouth, he tossed the plastic bottle further under the overhang. No sense in throwing something away that could possibly be useful later.

There were only a few options for food, the shelter a few blocks away run by a young couple, the Nolans, who always seemed to want to "help" him, stopping by the diner and hoping the elderly matron of the estate took pity on him, or simply relying on the kindness of passersby.

None of the options were looking particularly appealing but something would have to be done. And fast, if his body had anything to say about it.

The rain had picked up by this point, proving to be both a blessing and a curse. It was an extreme annoyance, but people were less likely to come rooting through his belongings in a downpour. Rum stood for a moment longer, letting his tangled thoughts unwind in the cool morning air.

"Might as well deal with the Nolans, at least there'll be a roof over my head."

Picking up his coat, Rum shrugged it on over his clothing, or what passed as clothing for him. At least the coat provided another layer against the weather. Storybrooke wasn't known for its wonderful weather. Not exactly a summer vacation spot, or an any time of the year vacation spot, for that matter.

Rum took the tarp he had pilfered from Storybrooke Hardware's dumpster and tied it to the two poles supporting the overpass. At least his belongings would be dry. If they were still there when he got back that is.

With a satisfied grunt, and the knowledge that he had done all he could do, Rum set off down the street towards the Nolan's shelter. Normally, it wasn't too bad of a walk but with the rain and his leg, it proved to be a little more vexing.

It was a good thing there weren't any other Storybrooke inhabitants present on the waterlogged streets. Rum didn't like interacting with other people, he avoided them at all cost. Most people did not look kindly on someone in his situation, and Rum didn't like having to swallow his pride to accept their pity or sympathy offerings.

He turned onto the main road and grimaced. There was a figure at the other end of the street covered by a comically large umbrella. Rum knew exactly who it was, simply from the bright red of the object covering her precious hair.

Regina Mills. Before his son and ex-wife had died, Regina and he had been business partners. They thought alike, unafraid of doing everything it took to succeed, but then the accident had happened and Rum's life had been flipped upside down.

Regina hadn't waited too long before taking over everything they had built together and claiming it for herself. Anytime she accosted Rum in the streets she usually smirked at him before tossing whatever piece of change was loose in her pocket.

It was humiliating.

Luckily for him, or unluckily considering the weather, the Nolans' was halfway between himself and Regina. If he hurried, again, unlikely, though this time due to his head and lameness, he could make it to the relative safety of the shelter before having to deal with the smarmy Ms. Mills.

Rum straightened up even more, if that was even possible, and started walking determinedly towards the shelter. Regina was moving towards him at a slightly slower pace.

Both could see the other coming, and whether Rum liked it or not, contact was inevitable. Regina reached him just as he was placing his hand on the shelter door.

"Wet morning, eh Mr. Gold?" She smirked at him, knowing exactly what it cost him to not only go to the shelter in the first place but to be caught outside of it.

Rum grunted in return, not willing nor wanting to engage in any sort of communication.

Regina wasn't deterred. "You know," she continued, "Granny's just started offering the most wonderful spin on those pancake breakfasts we used to get before meeting. Now they come with sausage and bacon. Helps one start the day off right."

Rum willed his stomach not to betray his extraordinary hunger, though it started uncomfortably with the mention of his former morning indulgence.

"That sounds lovely, dearie." Rum finally gritted out. "Tell me, have you found any one able to stomach your companionship at any portion of the day since my fall from grace?"

Regina blanched. She glared up, a new steel in her eyes, though Rum knew he had hit a nerve. If Regina was anything, it was predictable.

"Have a good time with the rest of the truly unwanted." She growled, turning to march away, heels clicking on the wet concrete.

Rum chuckled. Regina wasn't anything he wanted to deal with but getting the best of her on a day he already wasn't feeling too excited about was enough to lessen his headache.

He pushed open the door, a blast of very welcome heat assaulting his senses.

An impossibly cheery voice greeting him along with the smell of breakfast. His stomach gave another growl and his head swam before he could focus on the words the shelter owner was speaking to him.

"Good morning Rum! So good of you to join us this morning." The female of the shelter owning couple, Mary Margaret, was the person behind the overtly positive greeting. Along with her husband, David, they fought to keep their doors open every day of the year offering food and a roof for a few hours for anyone who felt they needed it. They didn't offer any judgement, but were renowned for their "wisdom", always given free of charge.

"I believe David's just finishing up with breakfast if you want to head into the dining room," she continued, "I think it's waffles this morning!"

Rum halfheartedly grimaced at the woman before turning away from her. He didn't need a detailed rundown of that morning's menu, he needed coffee, strong coffee.

He walked down the darkened hallway to the room they had placed tables in, in order to utilize it as a "dining room" of sorts. The room wasn't large, but it connected to the kitchen by way of a large window installed into the wall. The window allowed David or Mary Margaret to be working on food, while simultaneously watching interactions between patrons.

Rum pushed open the door, the smell of food even stronger as it gave beneath his hand. He saw the room was fairly crowded this morning, most of the tables occupied.

Rum sighed, it made sense so many of Storybrooke's misfortuned would seek out the comfort of the indoors on such a cold, wet morning, one of the first of the year, but it also meant he'd have to sit with someone during the meal instead of enjoying a solitary breakfast.

His eyes scanned those already seated, trying to figure out where he'd be able to have the least amount of human interaction. Rum didn't have a ton of friends, nor did he feel he needed them. If he bothered to make connections then that meant he would have something to lose.

Rum wasn't going to take that chance. Not again. Not ever.

Rum's scanning had brought his eyes across David scrambling eggs in the kitchen window. David raised his spatula in greeting, Rum merely nodded.

All of the tables had at least three people already sitting at them. Three people too many, in Rum's opinion. Finally, he spotted a table almost immediately to his right, the closest to the door.

A single inhabitant sat with their back to him. Rum couldn't tell if the person was male or female, their features entirely hidden by the tattered black hoodie they had enshrouding their upper body. Whomever it was, they were small, smaller than he was and he was barely average height, on the skinny side.

He, or she, didn't have a plate of food in front of them, nothing to drink either. In fact, as Rum continued staring, they weren't doing anything, just sitting.

The door again opened behind Rum and he felt a hand on his shoulder. He jumped at the contact, falling forward onto his walking stick.

"Oh, I'm sorry Rumford, I didn't mean to startle you!" It was Mary Margaret again. Rum glared at her while he tried to get his bearings again. Mary Margaret glanced over to their right, her eyes sweeping over the still form Rum had just been scrutinizing.

"We found her this morning," she said sounding both heartbroken and curious at the same time, "David and I did, on our way out the door. She had been in our trashcans we think, we found her huddled under the bushes next to our house."

So the form was a girl, Rum thought. It explained the reason the figure was so damn small. Rum still couldn't figure out why Mary Margaret was telling him about her. He just wanted some coffee and food, he couldn't afford to spend time thinking of others.

"Tiny slip of a thing," she continued, oblivious to Rum's growing discomfort, "she didn't seem to be aware of who we were or what we did. We tried explaining to her that we were taking her to a safe place but we haven't been able to even get her to tell us her name." She shrugged, clearly wishing she could crack the shell of the girl. Rum knew better. The streets hardened a person. The longer one was surrounded by struggle, the more one retreated into their own mind. You were your only friend, the only one who would always be there, the only one would could make any changes that mattered.

He grunted at Mary Margaret, not entirely caring for the pity blooming in her eyes, if the girl wasn't in the mood to talk, all the better. At least he'd be able to salvage his breakfast.

He hobbled over to the table, choosing to sit across from the girl rather than invade her space. He pulled the chair away from the table roughly and plopped down, allowing his hurt leg to stick straight out in front of him.

The girl was staring down at the plastic checkered tablecloth completely silent. Rum had a spectacular view of the top of her sweatshirt covered head. It mattered not, he thought, reaching down to massage the ache out of his knee, he had no intention of striking up a conversation.

The girl hadn't moved when Rum had sat and still didn't move as he continued to merely sit, trying to gather enough strength to walk across the room and make a plate of food. He didn't know what caused her to finally shift but he heard a soft rustle and looked up.

Across the table from him, hidden in part by the hood and in part by the lanky chestnut hair, her face was finally bared to him. Rum started as his brown eyes met eyes as blue as the sky they rarely saw in the rainy Maine town, or at least, he was pretty sure they were blue. The shadows of her clothing didn't help illuminate them at all.

As he openly stared at the girl he realized he had judged too quickly. This was no girl sitting across from him, this was a woman.

A woman just as broken as he was.

Chapter Text

The girl, no woman, he chided himself, allowed Rum a couple more seconds of staring before once more ducking her head. The tablecloth must have held the secrets of the universe for how intently she was staring at it.

Rum turned away, dragging his leg to the floor with a whack. He wasn’t about to sit here all day pondering the inner thoughts of another person, he was hungry.

Shrugging his meager coat off his thin shoulders, he draped it over the back of his chair, saving his seat. Not that anyone would dream of coming anywhere near him, but it was better to be safe than sorry. He rose from the chair, wincing at the twist of pain shooting through his leg, and grabbed his walking stick eyes focused intently on the pots of coffee sitting on the table across the room.

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Belle continued staring at the table cloth, counting her breaths.

One.

Two.

Three.

By seven, the man who had sat across from her was across the room and eight was finally a full breath. She didn’t blame the man for sitting down, there wasn’t a lot of room open, but she was relieved when he left all the same.

She didn’t like this place. It was too bright, too loud, the smells and conversations pressing against her like her body was pressing against itself.

Her body felt like a separate entity. It was her but it wasn’t Belle, not since that night. Her hand moved of it’s own volition settling against her stomach. It was still flat. Nothing had changed.

Everything had changed.

It didn’t matter. All that mattered was getting far away from here. Belle looked up again, scanning the room. There were windows alongside the far wall, but jumping out a window didn’t exactly scream subtle and she quickly discounted that as an option. The kitchen was directly in front of her, but again, involved jumping through windows. The only door to the room, the one she came through, was behind her and hopefully, no one would be paying enough attention to her to notice if she just left.

She could just leave. She’d done it before and she could do it again. Her life was one big leaving.

The couple that had brought her to this place, this shelter they ran, were both floating through the room, striking up conversations with various guests. Belle would make sure not to be here by the time they’d got to her. She looked down again, thankful for the roof as she was giving it up. The glance towards the windows had confirmed that the storm everyone had been mumbling about was indeed upon them and she didn’t relish the thought of fighting the rain.

She couldn’t stay.

She glanced up and saw the man from earlier making his way back towards the table, laden down with a cup of coffee and an overstuffed plate.

It was now or never.

No one even noticed the door swinging shut.

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Rum’s stomach made it’s presence known more fiercely as he made his way closer to the spread David and Mary Margaret had provided. They seem to have taken pity on their guests on account of the storm; there was plenty of variety.

Rum first grabbed a worn cup filling it to the brim with coffee then bringing it to his mouth, inhaling a swig. The liquid was scalding but the pain of his tongue and throat distracted from the pain in his head.

With the coffee already working on his overtasked brain, he turned his attention to the food spread out in front of him. Grabbing a plate off the stack he began layering food on top of food. First the eggs, slightly runny but warm, then sausage, bacon, pancakes and hash browns. He was already here, might as well take advantage of the situation. Glancing down, he regarded his abundant choosings, nothing else was going to fit on the plate.

Satisfied, he turned away from the table reminding himself he could always go back for more. If he could work up the courage that is. He knew the food was free at the shelter, knew the money it ran on came from generous donations, but still couldn’t bring himself to ever go for seconds.

He didn’t deserve seconds.

Rum took a tentative step, the walking stick making carrying the cup and plate of food near impossible. It was doable, but just barely. One foot in front of the other and he inched his way across the dining room floor, his leg burning just a little more with each step. It didn’t matter, really, it was worth it.

He finally got through the maze of tables and chairs to the corner he had vacated mere minutes ago. He’d gained more than a couple stares, stubbornly limping his way through the hoard, but no one would dare actually approach him to offer assistance.

Not that he would take any if it were offered.

He reached the table and leaned down to place the cup and balanced plate safely on the table before plopping back into the chair, making sure to give his injured leg plenty of space to stretch out. The pain swooped in threatening to overcome him, leaving him possibly open to ridicule, or worse. Rum began counting his breaths, something he'd done since he'd found himself in his situation, something about the clearing of his mind was comforting.

One.

Two.

Three.

By the time he got to ten, he was able to open his eyes again. Luckily, the room wasn't spinning much anymore. Rum reached over and grasped the cup of coffee sitting on the table, steam from its welcomed heat curling up towards the ceiling. Pulling the cup towards his mouth he took a sip, reveling at the simple feeling of something warm in his mouth.

With the coffee warming his insides, Rum shifted in his chair, finally listening to the cries of his stomach and pulled the plate of food towards him. His mouth watered as he regarded the spread he had collected. With a shrug, he grabbed his fork and dug in, not paying any heed to any sort of decorum. The time for table manners had long passed.

Quiet minutes passed, Rum chewing and siping in relative silence. It was almost peaceful, and yet, there was a nudge at the back of his mind that told him he was missing something. He wasn't entirely sure what that was, but it was present nevertheless.

He glanced around him, seeking out anything that might be out of place. He saw the usual patrons, and Mary Margaret and David floating around. Nothing seemed wrong. He glanced back down at his plate, over half the food was gone. His eyes flicked up. The girl. No, woman, his mind corrected.

She was gone.

Rum blinked. That was interesting. Well, not interesting to him per say, but definitely interesting. He turned back to his food, it was already getting cold. Granted, that wasn’t incredibly important for a man in his position, but Rum wasn’t about to waste any more time thinking about the woman. He munched his breakfast feeling the headache’s vicelike grip loosen ever so slightly.

Footsteps alert Rum to the presence of someone almost directly besides him. Grumbling slightly, he once more turned away from his breakfast to see David standing next to his chair.

David looked down, gesturing like he was going to place a hand on Rum but wisely thinking better of it.

“What happened to your table partner?” He inquired, sounding way too cheerful for whatever time of the morning it was.

“To whom are you referring, dearie?” Came Rum’s quick response. It didn’t matter to him where she had wandered off to, there were plenty of rooms in the shelter worth visiting.

“The girl, uh, woman, the one Mary Margaret and I found!” David exhaled, sounding like he always did, a little out of breath. “The one hiding in our bushes. We wanted to keep an eye on her. She didn’t look like she’d been on the streets much and we don’t want anything to happen to her, especially in this storm.”

Rum’s eyes flickered to the dusty windows across the room at his words. Sure enough, the rain that had been a bother earlier had escalated into something more pressing. If he listened hard enough through the chatter, he could make out the distant rumble of thunder. He tuned back in to what David was saying.

“...only supposed to get worse. I think Mary Margaret mentioned it’ll last all weekend. I hope the weatherman is being generous with that prediction.” He smiled. “Maybe she jaunted off to the bathroom. I’ll have M take a look.” With another jerking motion intended to be a pat on the arm, David started off towards his wife, a “Have as much food as you like!” thrown casually over his shoulder. Rum shuddered, there was nothing casual about it. David meant well but not many people in Rum's situation were able to be anything close to casual.

He turned back to his plate, his stomach churning from the combination of his hangover, the caffeine, and David's words. The woman hadn't said two words to him. She hadn't even said one! Why should he be worried about where she'd wandered off. He took another bite of pancake. He shouldn't.

Rum continued to steadily eat at his breakfast, casting his eyes around the room watching to see if Mary Margaret had ever returned from checking the bathroom.

As he finished up the last couple bites of his meal, he finally saw Mary Margaret peek her head back into the dining room, catching David's eye and motioning for him to join her. David excused himself from his conversation and crossed the room, the door swinging behind them as they moved into the hallway.

Rum looked down at his now empty plate. He had two options, he could put the woman out of his mind, get more food and enjoy the luxury of the roof, or he could take his dish to the wash bin and happen to need to use the restroom. He stared down at the plate his eyes memorizing every scratch in the plastic.

He wanted to know what had happened to the woman. He wasn't even sure why. All he knew is that she was tiny and there was a storm and something in her eyes had intrigued him. Rum didn't have much to be intrigued by nowadays.

Without making a conscious decision, he found himself rising from the table and gathering his dishes. As luck would have it, the wash bin was on the table directly next to his, against the wall. He deposited the plate and cup in their proper receptacles quickly wanting to make sure he "bumped into" Mary Margaret and David.

He crossed the space to the door much more quickly now that his belly was full and the pounding in his head had receded a little. He pushed open the door slightly, listening intently as he tried to figure out just where the shelter owners were standing.

They were both still right outside the door. Rum could hear their soft voices from his position inside the dining room. Not paying any mind to how his behaviour looked to the other guests in the dining room, he scooted as close to the door as he could without actually walking through it.

"She wasn't in the bathroom..." Mary Margaret's concerned tone stated.

"I didn't see her in the sickroom or the laundry room." David replied, indicating he'd done more than simply meet up with Mary Margaret.

"Did you check the computer lab?" Mary Margaret posed. Rum snorted, the computer lab was merely one of their extra rooms in which they'd stuck a table with a laptop on. Supposedly one could look for work on it, but Rum knew it was used for other things.

"Yeah, it was locked..." David's voice trailed off, "She must have just...left."

Rum felt his stomach turn at the words. The tiny woman was somewhere outside the shelter, in this weather. Rum knew he wasn't the largest of guys, but he'd be far better off than a petite woman. He shifted his gaze back into the dining room, casting a glance over the gathered patrons. No one present had any reason to talk to Rum, he usually kept to himself, but he found himself wondering if anyone had seen the woman leave.

He pressed back against the door. He couldn’t hear either of the Nolans voices and assumed they’d wandered off to check some other room in the shelter. It didn’t matter, he’d heard enough.

Pushing open the door, he stepped into the hallway. Sure enough, it was deserted. Rum turned starting down the hallway towards the front door, his thoughts scattering more with every step. Where had the woman gone. Where had she come from and why on earth would she leave a place like the shelter in this storm.

He paused, halfway down the hallway. This shouldn’t matter. Why was the thought of some woman battling the storm bugging him so much? He shook his head. She had gone who knows where. No point in spending any more time fretting about it. He only hoped the twinge in his stomach would go away.

He walked the rest of the way to the door, preparing to push out into the gale when David’s voice stopped him.

“Leaving so soon, Rum?” He inquired. “You know you’re welcome to hang out in the dining room while we clean up!”

“Thank you and Mrs. Nolan for breakfast.” Came Rum’s terse reply as he pushed the door open, leaning his slight weight against it to counteract the wind.

Bloody hell, he thought, as he stepped fully outside. The rain was biting in the way Maine specialized in, and the wind was causing it to fall sideways. Within a minute of being outside, his clothing and skin were completely drenched. He knew standing in the rain wasn’t the best course of action, so he turned to his right and started back towards his belongings.

Five steps away from the Nolans’ shelter, the twinge in his stomach returned. He shivered. It was definitely cold. The woman had been wearing a sweatshirt. That would help her. If it wasn’t already drenched.

He sighed. He’d been through this. He had no idea where she’d run off to. Storybrooke wasn’t a large town but there were plenty of places for the likes of him to hide, even in inclement weather.

He walked a few more steps, struggling to find traction against the wet cement with his walking stick and well worn sneakers.

David, or Mary Margaret, had mentioned they’d found the woman hiding under their bushes. That wasn’t the safest place to be on the streets, let alone in a storm. She had no reason to return there. But she didn’t have anywhere else to go. Or maybe she did.

Rum felt like yelling right there in the middle of the sidewalk. The Nolans owned a small home a mere street away from the shelter. It would take but minutes to casually walk by, even in this rain.

Rum looked towards the direction of his overpass, at least there he’d have some semblance of a roof. He closed his eyes and all he saw were sad blue orbs. He muttered a curse under his breath and turned towards the Nolans’.

Chapter Text

Belle took two steps away from the shelter and felt her resolve to leave nearly crumble. The wind and the rain were ice cold and fell with enough force to sting. She drew the hood of her bedraggled sweatshirt up over her head, tying the string to hold it in place.

It was pointless to stand and debate a decision already made. Belle could think, but she'd might as well be moving at the same time. She wasn't from Storybrooke, not originally, and it had been many months since she last stepped foot inside its boundaries.

Much had changed. Much hadn't changed at all. One thing in specific had remained the same after all the years, Belle had no place to go.

Storybrooke, 3 months ago
"Who is this man?" Emma Swan, Storybrooke's sheriff, wondered to herself out loud. The man's body had been found in the woods outside town, reported by some hikers. Unfortunately, no missing persons had been reported and the man carried no identification.

Storybrooke was a small enough town though that getting someone to recognize him shouldn't be a problem. She grabbed her cellphone, making a call to the morgue to come pick up the body. She sent a text to her assistant Graham describing the man hoping he could do some preliminary digging on his name.

In the meantime, she'd just have to wonder.

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Rumford made it another two steps before almost falling flat on his face, again. This blasted rain was making it damn near impossible to walk. Walking with cane, food and coffee was easier than fighting the rivulets of water destroying his traction.

He grit his teeth slipping once more on the wet concrete. Why was he doing this in the first place? That woman meant nothing to him, he could turn around and seek out some modicum of peace until the rain stopped. He grumbled again as the rain seemed to fall even harder on his head.

There was something about this woman. Something had flashed in her eyes when she'd looked at them, briefly, but it was there. Something he saw reflected in his own eyes on the rare occasion he was accosted with his own reflection.

Burden.

This woman was carrying something that was literally dragging her down, something beyond mere "baggage". Everyone carried something in their past that weighed them down in one way or another but this woman's eyes had shown so much more than that.

Even if he couldn't help her, he could give her some place out of the rain. Making sure she was dry was suddenly extremely important.

Rum gritted his teeth as the falling sleet seemed to turn even colder against his skin. The rags he called clothing did little to stop the onslaught of the weather but at least they were a layer of protection. Somewhat.

Using his hand to attempt to shield some part of his face, he peered down the street. Understandably, the road was deserted. All the better, Rum wouldn't have to worry about darting out of a car's way. Not that he could really dart, but it'd be one less thing to think about.

Finally, peaking over the next rise, Rum could see the reddish thatched roof of the Nolan's cottage. If the woman hadn't come back to this place, Rum didn't have any idea where she could've gone.

Putting one foot in front of the other, he struggled forward again, the light rise of the hill causes rivulets of water to slide between him. Another step and Rum's foot almost slipped out from under him...again.

He muttered under his breath, cursing everything from the rain itself to the shoes covering his feet. He cautiously placed his cane on the ground a little behind himself, trying hard to compensate for the increasing slope of the ground. Only a couple more steps and he’d be able to see into the Nolan’s front yard and hopefully, find the woman. Find her, and get both of them out of the damn rain.

Slightly panting, Rum crested the small hill feeling an odd rush of endorphins. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually exerted himself outside the pursuit of alcohol or food. He almost felt euphoric, as if he'd run a marathon, besides the cane and ruined knee of course.

He drew himself out of the odd daydream his caffeine addled brain had thrown up and scanned his eyes through the bushes surrounding the Nolans' cottage.

This bloody fucking rain.

Shaking his sodden hair out of his eyes only succeeded in helping his sight for a total of two seconds before the deluge managed to drag more lanky stands back down his face. It was high time to find this mysterious woman.

The large hedges surrounding the two sides of the property were rather large and dense. If the woman had wedged herself under one of them she'd not only be covered in scratches but unable to be seen. The bushes that created a "fence" across the front of the ground were much more likely. The bushes were full, but stood a mere foot to a foot and a half off the ground. For such a wee woman, that would be the place to fit.

His eyes cased the bushes closest to him a feeling of disappointment sneaking up inside him when he couldn't find any indicator of a person hiding. He'd have to get closer. Gritting his teeth, he slipped down the sidewalk until he practically tripped into the Nolans' grass.

At least he was close enough to finish his investigation. The two bushes directly in front of him were definitely woman free. The other four, reaching across the front of the yard, would require him to bend down to look. On a good day, his knee would have had a lot to say about this, but today, after spending the entire morning in the cold and the rain, on top of the drinking last night, it was physically impossible.

Rum drug a hand over his face, trying in vain to whisk away any water from his eyes. The rain was coming down even harder now. He had to find this woman soon.

He straightened up before his brain could remind him that this was a completely pointless endeavor and there were plenty of other homeless people on the street who didn't have anywhere to go in the storm. The wind was picking up as he struggled through the increasingly muddy grass, soon it would be downright freezing. Rum was glad it wasn't likely to snow during this time of year.

A few more steps brought him to the middle of the bushes, the Nolans' gate banging slightly in the wind. From this vantage point he could see under all of the remaining bushes, save for a smallish one right at the end.

All of the bushes had ground under them, no woman in sight. Rum sighed, guiltily relieved that he could go back to his overpass and try and sleep out the storm and his lingering hangover symptoms. He could feel his brain laughing at him for traipsing out in this weather looking for a perfect stranger.

Rum had ignored his biggest rule since he'd found himself on the streets: look after himself.

He turned away from the cottage, the rain coming down the hardest it had all morning and the sky had turned nearly black. It was going to be insane to climb up even the slight hill to get back to his overpass, but it was all he could do. He'd put one foot onto the concrete that was his eternal enemy when he heard the slightest noise over the pounding of the rain.

Great. Now he was hearing things. He un-stuck his foot from the mud with a slight squelching sound. He’d probably heard a bird or something. Two more steps and the annoying little noise sounded again. If it was a bird, it sounded absolutely pitiful, probably on its way to being dead, especially in this weather. Another strong gust of wind forced Rum’s jacket nearly off his shoulders.

A shudder wracked his body. He had to get out of this. Both feet had made it to the concrete when the noise made its loudest appearance yet. Even with the wind and the rain pounding in his face the fact that the noise was so loud made him realize he had been wrong. The noise wasn’t some bird, or other animal, trapped in a bush, the noise was a sob.

The woman.

Rush slipped as he pivoted too quickly on the glassy surface nearly losing his balance. The sobs were coming more quickly now and definitely human. The smallest bush on the end only had a mere foot or so between the bottom of its branches and the wet mud, but if there was one distinguishing fact Rum could remember about the woman, it was that she was tiny.

The bush was in danger of being uprooted by the wind by the time Rum had made it through the mud to take a closer look. He planted his cane into the muddy ground as deeply as he dared and bend over at the waist desperately trying not to lose his balance.

Sure enough, as he bent, he could see the smallest shoe stuck under the bush. He’d found her. He didn’t have time to stop and think about how happy that made him. But now that he’d found her, he didn’t have any way to get her attention or get her out of the bush without startling her. Homeless people were often prodded at simply for fun by cruel people. The last thing Rum wanted to do was making the poor thing thing she was being hurt or kidnapped.

“Miss?!” He yelled, trying to make his voice carry above the weather. “Miss, are you alright? Can you come out?”

Silence greeted his questions.

“I’m not going to hurt you! This isn’t the best place to be during this storm!”

Again, nothing. His brain laughed at him, he’d been out in this, probably getting sick for nothing. She wouldn’t even respond to him. He took a steadying breath, ready to do the very thing he knew wasn’t the smartest, reach a hand into her sanctuary. He’d pushed the first jutting branch aside when the whole bush seemed to explode and a figure sprinted away from him towards the woods.

“No! Wait!” Rum yelled. He struggled upright again. This was pointless. The woman didn’t want any help, she didn’t want to be found. Contrary to the Nolans’ beliefs, she didn’t even look like someone who was fresh to the streets, she was merely clean. Or as clean as someone in their situation could be.

He peered off in the direction the woman had taken off in. The woods surrounding this part of town were thick and uninhabited, not your average camping grounds. She wouldn’t get very far before she’d be tripped up by thick mud, or errant branches, or some wild animal or another.

Rum shivered again. It was getting colder by the minute. If he had to guess by the hypothetical sun, he’d place the time around midday, maybe early afternoon. Judging by the fact that he’d gotten up and gone to the shelter so late it was reasonable to assume that a couple hours had gone by.

He glanced up at the woods again. If trekking to the Nolans in this weather wasn’t the smartest idea, following the woman into the woods was downright idiotic. He had a hard enough time walking with his cane on dry, flat ground, going into a forest during a rainstorm meant he’d more than likely come out with more parts of his body injured.

He heaved a sigh into the heavy rain, he’d have to let her go. For now. Maybe when it wasn’t raining he could try and see her again. Or there was always the possibility of running into her at the shelter. Something inside him told him she was important.

-----------------------------

As soon as that man from the shelter had stepped off the sidewalk into the grass Belle had been aware of him. He had a cane for crying out loud, he wasn’t exactly subtle.

Leaving the shelter had been absolutely necessary yet Belle had regretted her decision with every drop of rain that hit her head. It was nearly freezing as the winds just got more and more vicious. She’d ran haphazardly away from the Nolans shelter only trying to run away from town when she’d spotted the cottage she’d tried to break into this morning. There hadn’t been a car in the driveway or movement inside so Belle had chanced it to try and gain some food.

She was so hungry.

When the man had walked into the kitchen right as she’d been about to break the window, she’d done the only thing she could at the time and dove under the nearest bush. Even with her quick thinking it hadn’t been enough and he’d found her, pulled her inside, and then dragged her down to the shelter for breakfast.

Now, with the increasing wind and rain, she’d have to find some kind of shelter somewhere until the storm subsided. Surveying the cottage, it was empty now, she contemplated breaking in for real this time. She’d have a roof over her head for as long as the Nolans were gone. Her sweatshirt and threadbare jeans were already soaked through, the thin tshirt underneath completely clinging to her skin and her sneakers had taken on water long ago. A warm shower and a dryer would do wonders right now.

She took one step towards the door of the cottage, a cheerful red in color, before she stopped a small sob escaping her throat. She couldn’t break into these peoples’ home. Even if she didn’t want to take advantage of her hospitality they were good people, trying to help people like her. She didn’t want to saddle them with unnecessary home repairs.

Tears began tracking down Belle’s face, mixing with the cascading rain water from the sky. It was hopeless. She’d spent her life on the streets since she was thirteen but she’d never before felt so alone and so in need of a home.

She gulped in watery air, trying desperately to stop crying. Her hormones were all over the place from...well, it was better if she didn’t dwell on anything that wasn’t set in stone. She glanced over at the bushes lining the property. She might as well hide under one of them until she had any sort of plan, it wasn’t smart to just keep walking around.

The littlest bush on the end butted up to the large hedges that framed the sides of the property so Belle wiggled her way underneath, the bush’s leaves protesting her presence. The dirt underneath had already turned into mud and the tears returned in full force as her wet clothes simply became sodden under the weight of the filth.

It wasn’t fair. Belle hadn’t asked for this. She hadn’t asked for her mother to die, or her father to drink himself to death, or for the foster system to be so damn cruel. She wasn’t supposed to end up on the streets, hiding in the mud, alone. She’d had plans for her life. She covered her head with her hood allowing the sobs to escape once more. There was no one there to hear her cry.

She’d been perfectly happy allowing herself a little wallowing when that man had shown up. The one that had sat across from her at the shelter. What on earth was he doing here? Maybe he was looking for the Nolans… but if he’d come from the shelter, he’d have known they were there.

He started calling out for a “miss”. A woman? Oh gods was he looking for her?! Why would this man be looking for her? She hadn’t even made eye contact with him this morning. His calls were getting louder. She couldn’t let him find her.

Wiggling slightly, she buried herself more into the bush, a sob escaping her when an errant branch pushed into her back. She began to move more slowly not wanting to cause her poor sweatshirt any more damage. It was all she had left.

The man’s voice had stopped. Belle was almost disappointed it had. It was soothing with its slight Scottish brogue. It had been so long since she’d simply spoken to another human being. Spoken to like she was a real person, not simply a means to facilitate charity. Homelessness meant people either looked at her like an imposition or like a way to show off how “good” they were. Both were exhausting.

When would someone simply see her?

The thought made another soft sob break free and the man’s shoes squelched nearer to her. When his voice rang out again, more softly this time, it was much closer to her spot in the dirt.

He’d found her.

Belle laid as still as she could manage praying to anything that could hear her that this man would just go away when she felt something nudge against her shoe. Okay. That was it, time to go. She pushed herself up, nearly uprooting the Nolans’ bush and sprinted off in the direction of the woods. Perhaps she could find herself a nice cave and be far away from anyone trying to touch her. No one touched her. Not since that night and no one ever would again.

She’d been running for at least five minutes haphazardly changing directions and trying to move deeper into the cover of the woods. She finally came across a small clearing dotted with a couple young trees when she knew exactly where she was.

Belle sank to the ground in disbelief memories resurfacing from places she didn’t know they existed and nearly knocking her out. No. How had she ended up here? How was this dark place so close to the little cottage? Her sobs returned at full force followed quickly by anger.

“Ms…” Emma Swan looked down at the notes in her hand, “French. Um...I have some bad news, I’m afraid.”

Belle looked down at her feet knowing what was coming and attempting to hide the relief she worried would flood through her.

“We found a body in the woods,” the sheriff continued. “We’re still doing testing but we’re pretty sure it’s the body of Gaston LeFou, who our records indicate lived at this address and was seeing you.” She’d paused at this point, looking up at Belle and seeming to wait for some kind of outburst.

Belle had merely fallen silent.

Emma looked uncomfortable before proceeding with formalities, “You’ll need to come down to the morgue for identification after his body is moved.”

Belle finally made eye contact with the blonde, finding her voice at last. “Um...where is he now? Couldn’t I just I.D. him where you found him and be done?” Her voice shook as she uttered the words that, on the surface, marked her as not only shallow and uncaring, but a little reckless. She didn’t care. She needed to see, needed to know where he had died. “I want to see, where…” Her voice trailed off.

The sheriff looked uncomfortable, as if what Belle was asking was far too much.

“Please.” Belle choked out.

Emma ran her eyes up and down her figure as if searching for something before nodding slowly. “Okay. We’ll leave now.”

Twenty minutes later they’d been standing in a small forest clearing, Gaston covered but visible completely thrown over a boulder. Belle had collapsed as soon as she’d seen him.

It was finally over.

Shaking off the blanket of horror and memory she ran as fast as she could manage in her deteriorating sneakers across the muddy, rocky ground. Entering the actual forest again she was whipped by low hanging branches, dodged larger rocks and logs and splashed across a trickle of a stream before being completely tripped up by an overgrown root. She flew into the ground barely thinking to throw a hand across her face before she was skidding into the forest floor.

She stifled a cry as the rough elements of nature pulled at her clothes and skin. The water had luckily softened the ground but Belle still gasped for breath, the wind having been knocked out of her.

She clutched at her stomach as she rolled onto her back. These clothes were already filthy beyond hope. What was a little more mud? And besides, from this point she could simply watch the rain fall on to her self. While it was raining she could pretend she wasn’t still actually upset and crying.

It was just the rain.