They let her out of her room (her cell is what it feels more like) for showers when it’s convenient for them. The water is never warm or soothing as she was sure it was supposed to be. It could be bitingly cold, eliciting a hiss from between her teeth as she’s pushed inside, or rather lukewarm, still earning shivers when she’s taken out and the dressing gown pulled hastily over her head.
It’s cold all the time. She wraps her arms tightly around herself and breathes hot air into her thighs, shaking, trying not to think about it. At the beginning, when she’d hear voices, she would knock on the door and ask for a blanket. Just a blanket, nothing more. It could have been made of wool or filled with straw (straw? that’s a funny thing for a blanket to be full of, she thinks absentmindedly) for all she cared, she just wanted the shivering to stop.
The food is stiff and hard to get down. She gets a fever and is treated, hurriedly, by a man in a mask. Everyone is faceless. They all blur together, hide themselves, move like shadows. There’s only one person whose face she knows, one person who comes to visit her.
She looks up when Regina opens the hatch to peer in at her. She always looks in before coming in. Perhaps she thinks it’s this time that Belle will have truly gone crazy. However, every time, she’s simply sat upon her bed (if one could even call it a bed), desperate for warmth. Her stomach does a somersault, as it always does, that maybe today will be the day she gets it.
“The doctors say you’re getting better.” Regina’s smile is all teeth and calculation.
Belle’s brow furrows. “Doctors…?” She’s only ever seen Regina. She’s the only person Belle knows.
“Oh, I know it must be lonely down here. Of course I sympathize, but you surely could not have thought you weren’t here for a reason. We’ve been taking the utmost care of you.” Belle doesn’t want to trust this voice but it’s the only voice she’s ever known so she sees no other option. Besides, if the doctors say she’s getting better, it’s the only hope she has.
Regina continues, “And today, I’ve brought good news.” Belle sits up, more alert, can feel the pounding of her heart beneath her breast. “It has been mutually decided that it’s time you start living your life again.”
The blood is roaring in her ears as she scrambles towards the edge of the bed, her breathing labored as she glances quickly towards the door. “Ah, ah, not so fast.” She feels a hand on her shoulder and looks up towards Regina, eyes desperate, hungry for the sunlight and pavement and wind through the trees.
“We need to speak first, it will just take a moment, I promise.” She squeezes Belle’s shoulder and Belle swallows nervously, afraid Regina will change her mind if they take too long, that the door will shut again. “I simply need… reassurance that you remember all we’ve talked about. That you remember… this man.” Regina pulls out a picture that Belle’s seen hundreds of times and she feels her blood go cold as a quiet rage bubbles up inside her.
“Mr. Gold.” Belle speaks hoarsely, her eyes trained on his photo. She once thought if she squinted her eyes, changed the tint of his skin, he looked familiar. Familiar and safe. She had once wanted to know more about him, to see him. “He’s the reason I’m here. He… he lied to me and betrayed me. He shut me out and left me alone.” She recited the words, not fully understanding them but feeling their hurt all the same. Regina had never fully explained it and she had never been sure she wanted to ask, the weight on her heart cruelty enough.
“He’s out there, my dear. He lives, as you know, here in Storybrooke. If you want to leave, you must be prepared. He will lie to you and tell you he’s sorry. You cannot believe any of it. I am simply trying to protect you.”
Belle considers for a moment. She nods. “I don’t think I want anything to do with him.”
With a change of clothes, Belle feels like a person again. She squints in the harsh sunlight as Regina leads her out of the hospital, an arm wrapped tight around her, but she can’t help smiling. The sun is beautiful. Everything is beautiful. She rapidly looks in every direction she can, taking in the people strolling on the sidewalks of Storybrooke, the cars parked on the sides of streets, the big clock tower that ticks as time passes. It’s all so real.
Regina shows her around the town, making sure she is the one who does all the talking. She makes a particular point, Belle notes, not to mention Mr. Gold. Not even where Belle might find him in order to avoid him. She feels fairly acquainted with Storybrooke by the time Regina stops her in front of the inn, where Regina explains she has secured a room for her until she can talk to some people to get a more permanent place of residence. Belle isn’t picky; the first thing she does in her new room is burrow deep beneath the blankets and before she can worry about waking up back in her cell, she’s fast asleep, finally, with warmth.
When she wakes up, there’s a burst of excitement in the pit of her stomach when she realizes it wasn’t all a dream. She had dreamt of getting out so many times before. She nestles deep within the blankets, relishing in how soft they are against her skin. She spends several moments like this, considering for one of them to simply stay in bed all day. Then she remembers the library she and Regina passed the other day and her motivation to explore Storybrooke is back in an instant. She dresses in clothes that are not quite the right fit and isn’t bothered to care in the slightest because she has clothes.
Stepping out into the fresh air and sunlight is a sensation she’s sure she’ll never get tired of. Everyone she walks by is unfamiliar to her but she finds she doesn’t mind—at least they have faces. It’s still lonely, not knowing anyone, but she consoles herself by telling herself that now she has the freedom to know people. She just wasn’t expecting to see him first.
She finds herself on the wrong street; she doesn’t recognize this street from yesterday. Trying to get back to the main road, unsure of how she got off it in the first place, she suddenly finds herself in front of a pawnshop. Mr. Gold’s Pawnshop, to be precise. She feels the breath run out of her and despite all logic screaming at her to keep walking, her feet instead turn towards the building. The bell at the top of the door is happy enough but nothing can calm her nerves right now. Her heart is thundering in her chest and all she wants to do is turn around and leave but instead she delves deeper.
No one comes out to meet her and she’s grateful. She gets her nerves under control enough to take in her surroundings. She peers closely at all the tiny trinkets, fascinated by the fact that each one must have a story attached to it. She picks one up and, in her eagerness to get to the next one, doesn’t notice that it’s not entirely back on the shelf. The clatter startles her and she lets out a noise before quickly clamping her hand over her mouth. Surely someone would come running at that. Looking down at the object, she doesn’t need to think about what to do before she’s turning quickly on her heel to run out of the shop.
She doesn’t notice the figure in the middle of the doorway before she crashes into it, stumbling backwards from the sudden collision. “I’m so sorry –” She immediately mumbles and she tells herself to keep her head down, to get out as soon as she can but she’s looking up before she can stop herself and her words die on her lips when she sees him.
He seems to be at just the loss of words as she is. He visibly blanches and looks as though he would have fallen over if it weren’t for his cane. She sets her jaw firmly at the sight of him. Undoubtedly he thought he would never have to face her again. At least this is what she tells herself.
“Belle…?” He says this name because it’s the only name he knows for her and frankly, the only name he wants to know for her. She flinches at the name, recognizes it instantly, though she’s not sure why. She doesn’t say anything as she begins to tremble under the weight of a torrent of emotions. At her silence, he continues, his voice thick and gruff, each word a great effort, so unlike normal. “It can’t be… you died. I searched for you.” It doesn’t cross his mind that she won’t remember.
“She told me you would lie to me.” And for a moment, a wave of relief washes over him that it really is her and he’s not seeing things. He would know that voice anywhere. Then, however, he registers what she’s said and he’s left speechless. She grits her teeth. “Your damage is done. I’m free. And you can be sure I won’t be coming in here again.” With that said, she brushes past him quickly, sure that he can hear her heart racing as she does.
“Wait.” He calls out because he let her walk away once and he doesn’t intend for it to happen again. He turns around to look at her and he’s left breathless at the sight of her. Her hand’s on the doorknob and she’s pointedly staring it, visibly struggling not to look back at him. “Where…” He croaks and has to clear his throat. “Where have you been?”
“Like you don’t know since you put me there.” Her words are harsh and raw. They hurt because he can’t fight them. Wherever she ended up, clearly not the tower where she had thrown herself to her death, so bitter and resentful, he had driven her there.
“I don’t know where you mean, love.” He so desperately wants to know why they aren’t falling into each other, why he can’t kiss her and tell her how sorry he is over and over.
“Don’t call me that,” she says quickly, her grip on the doorknob slackening. She licks her lips and though she can’t pinpoint why she suddenly wants to cry, she knows she can’t because he would be there to pick up the pieces. “I won’t let you hurt me again.”
“You don’t know how sorry I am. For everything, for wherever you’ve been.” He doesn’t have the courage to stop her this time when she leaves. All he can do is lock himself away in the back room with his self-loathing, sure that he’ll wake up at any moment. He never does.
He bursts into Regina’s office with no decorum. He has no patience for subtly or propriety right now. He is noticeably shaking, his teeth grinding in anger. “What did you do to her?”
Regina sits back in her chair, her face a perfect mask. “Whatever are you talking about… Rumpel?”
He doesn’t let himself yell. His voice is even which is entirely more threatening. He knows the use of his real name means she knows exactly what he’s talking about. She’s leading him on and he finds himself gripping his cane tighter. “You told me she died. Not that I believed you, of course; I spent months searching for her.”
“Did she not? Oh, I must have listened to the wrong rumor, then. My mistake.”
“Your mistake?” His words are venomous. “You’ve fed her lies and kept her locked up when she’s done nothing to you. Nothing to you except love me.”
Regina laughs and it’s like nails against a chalkboard to his ears. “Love? You think she loved you? You think that possibly has to do with any of this?”
He continues as if she didn’t speak at all. He has to, lest he get the idea in his mind once more that no one could possibly ever love him. “You’ve been keeping her your prisoner and you’re not going to get away with it. Not this time. I want answers.”
“I’m afraid I’m not in the mood to give any today, so sorry.”
“You think you have the upper hand because you’ve turned her against me but you have no idea what you’ve started. You’ve given her back to me. And I will fight for her.”
“She wants nothing to do with you. I’ve made sure of that.”
Mr. Gold laughs this time and it taunts her. “I’m afraid not even you can stop true love, dearie.” He takes an immense amount of satisfaction from the dumbfounded look on her face as he strides out.
She wraps her fingers around the mug, absorbing the heat that it gives off. She hasn’t taken a single sip; rather she lets the smell of the coffee waft upwards and she inhales slowly. She wants to make every moment last. She drowns out the voices in the diner and sits still, a tiny figure in the very large booth. She’s so engrossed in her own thoughts—namely, the look on Mr. Gold’s face when he first saw her—that she jumps when someone slides into the booth across from her suddenly.
“Didn’t mean to scare you.” Emma puts up her hands as if to say she comes in peace. “I just… wanted to come say hi.” She gives a smile that graces her face clumsily. “I didn’t recognize you and Storybrooke’s a small place and as Sherriff I feel I should.”
Belle ponders for a moment. Regina never showed her a photo of this woman or mentioned any sheriff. “I was just released from the hospital.” She sees no reasons to lie. Well, to give a half-truth.
Emma’s face suddenly falls a little. “Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”
Belle lets a shrug roll off her shoulders but before she can say anything, a waitress is at their table in an instant and pouring coffee for Emma. “That’s a cute shirt.” Ruby pulls back the coffee pot and stands with her hip jutted out. “Is the coffee all right? You’ve barely touched it.”
Belle looks up and gives a smile. She’s just happy to know faces, finally. “Just taking my time.”
“All right. And seriously, you ever need to go shopping or live it up a little, just come find me. You’re cute as a button, it’ll be a snap.” And with that, Ruby’s off behind the counter, leaving Belle a little at a loss for words but smiling nonetheless.
“So what were you in the hospital for?” Emma jumps right to the point, her natural curiosity kicking in at full throttle.
“I was… unwell.” It’s the best way Belle knows how to describe it since she doesn’t even know herself why she was there all this time. Emma’s facial expression makes it pretty clear the answer isn’t to her liking or satisfying in any way. When she asks for Belle’s name, there’s a pause. “Belle. Isabelle.” She blurts out the first name because it’s what he said, and the second because she doesn’t want to give him the satisfaction.
“Right. Well, it was nice to meet you but I—”
“Wait. Before you leave, might I ask you a question?” Belle doesn’t know why she’s doing this. Everything had been so easy in her head for once she got her freedom. One meeting with Mr. Gold and she had become a bundle of nerves.
“Uh, sure, yeah, of course.” Emma settles back in, unsure of how long this might take.
“What do you know about Mr. Gold? You just…it seemed like you know everyone here. Or most everyone. Is he a dangerous man?”
Emma frowns. “He’s not someone you should get tangled up with. Why do you want to know?”
“Oh, just seeing what I remember before I was in the hospital!” It’s not a very good lie and Belle knows it, but she’s out of the booth and through the door, coffee still untouched, before Emma can protest at all.
Regina arrives at her room several days later, explaining to Belle she finally has a permanent home. It’s with her father, which Belle nervous because she doesn’t remember any father. But Regina puts an arm around Belle and tells her that she will always be here if she needs a helping hand. It happens so quickly and Belle’s suddenly meeting a man named Moe French and she can’t bring herself to call him ‘Papa’ and so Moe will have to suffice.
They mostly keep to themselves; he’s hardly someone she can call a father figure. He’s providing her with a roof over her head and food on the table and for that she’s grateful. She hardly knows why this arrangement was set up, but Regina had done so much for her already that she can’t bring herself to ask why. She can’t figure out Moe, but finds she doesn’t have to when she spends most of her time at the library or diner, becoming fond of the town and its residents.
She’s making tea in the kitchen one day when Moe walks in with an envelope in hand, looking particularly distressed and nervous. While she’s not at her most comfortable around him, her heart goes out to him at the sight. “Moe? Are you quite all right?”
He looks startled. “Just got to give this envelope to Mr. Gold. It’s the last business we’ll ever be doin’ together after last time.”
He waves his hand. “Nothing you need to concern yourself with.” He chooses not to tell Belle that it had everything to do with her. “It’s just not a meeting I’m particularly looking forward to.”
“I can go instead.” The words are out before she can even stop to think if they should be. “I mean…I was just going to go to the library and it’s on the way, and if you’re so uneasy about it, I just figured this saves everyone the trouble. I certainly won’t need to stay any longer than to give him the envelope.” Moe looks thoroughly unconvinced, but Belle isn’t fazed and prepares herself to develop a winning argument.
A handful of minutes later, she’s out the front door, envelope in hand.
The pawnshop stands before her dauntingly. She clutches the envelope in her hand, tells herself over and over again that she has to walk in and give him the envelope. It’s simple as that (but if it were that simple, she could have let Moe do it.) Banishing the anxieties from her mind, she walks up to the stop and crosses the threshold, the ring of the bell echoing in her ears even after the sound has stopped.
It turns out she didn’t need to knock something over this time for him to show. She’s barely into the shop when he emerges from the back room. From the look on his face, he clearly wasn’t expecting her. It’s strange to her, to see him like this, to see alive and animated. All she had ever known of him was a picture and what Regina told her about him, about what he did to her. For a moment she wonders if it’s fair of her, to judge a man like this. But Regina was the one who gave her freedom. Besides, everything must be true when Belle feels such an array of emotions hit her at full force whenever she thinks or sees him.
“Ah.” He doesn’t blanch this time or give off any emotional instability like the last time. He’s composed now, stiff, as if holding himself back. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“I’m only here to give you this.” She holds up the envelope. Her words are clipped. She can’t tell if her annoyance now is because of how drastically his mood has changed towards her. Regardless, she hands him the envelope and then stuffs her hands in her pockets. Just say goodbye and leave, she tells herself.
“This is from Moe French? Why are you giving it to me?” Something flashes across his face but she can’t place it.
“He didn’t seem keen on coming to see you himself. I was going to the library, anyway, you were on the way.”
“The library? You seem to be getting well acquainted with Storybrooke. You always did love to read.” His voice softens and she winces.
She grits her teeth. “What do you know of what I love to do? You know nothing.” She turns to leave with unspoken words on her lips (you’re a coward) but a hand grabs her wrist and his touch his searing. She feels her breath quicken as his fingers press down onto her pulse point, knowing he can feel that quicken as well. She closes her eyes. “Let go of me.”
“I did that once, you know. Let you go. You told me I would regret it forever. You were right. You were always right.”
She turns towards him. Her eyes are brimming with tears but she doesn’t wrench herself away. “You let me go crazy. That’s what they told me. That’s why they kept me in the hospital for years.” She misses the expression on his face of shock and anger. She starts to cry and pound on his chest with both her fists, her voice becoming more and more hysterical. “You refused me! You were a coward, you shunned me, you didn’t let me love you!”
Her words drown in her tears as her fists become weaker against him. He lets out a strangled gasp and instinctively wraps an arm around her, lets her collapse and rest her weight on him. “I regretted it every day, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” He finally says the words he said out loud to no one since he lost her. He can’t push her now, can’t ask her about the hospital even though he’s burning to do so. He squeezes his eyes shut and tightens his arm around her until she’s just sobbing into his chest, hands clutching at the lapels of his suit.
They stand like that and it feels like ages. He promised Regina he would fight for Belle. He has every intention of making good on that promise. He picks up the pieces, just as she feared he would.