Moe French isn’t a bad man.
He’s ready to admit he’s a foolish one frequently, and he knows he’s made a lot of mistakes in his time. The most recent of the mistakes put him in hospital, bruised and bloodied, with food for thought.
The Sheriff - sweet girl, too optimistic - wants charges to be pressed, but as he lies in the bed, his ribs set, his face stitched and his head aching, he can’t help remembering Gold’s words. It would be difficult, what with them being beaten into him with a stick.
She was your daughter.
That hurt more than the stick.
No one else remembers her, his little girl, and any other family they had believe any lies he puts down on paper to send across the world. She went away a long time ago, drawn from him by the same poisonous red smile that told him stealing a few trinkets would get him what he wanted.
The next day, when the doctors give him leave to go, he heads to the jail, limping with every step. His ribs are still taped, and he has a sling and a splint. His face is unrecognisable under the bruises.
Sheriff Swan isn’t there, and he’s grateful for that. Some humiliation is better faced without witnesses.
The building is calm and quiet, but the same can’t be said for the man sitting in the cell.
Moe isn’t an imaginative man, but he can practically see a cloud of fury gathering around Mr Gold. No one ever stands up to Gold. No one just locks him up. No one takes the power from him. And yet, now, a girl has, but Moe knows that isn’t what’s making him angry.
He’s wearing the same suit. Moe can even see the splatter of his own blood on the sleeves. It brings him up short, barely across the threshold, and he feels sick to the pit of his stomach. Gold doesn’t look up, or even acknowledge him. His forearms are resting on his knees, and he’s gazing at his hands, loosely linked before him.
“I have to say I’m surprised,” he murmurs. “I didn’t see you as the gloating type, Mr French.”
Moe stays where he is. It feels safer to keep his distance, even with the bars between them. “I’m not hear to gloat,” he says.
Gold looks up and his eyes are hard as nails. “Oh?” He smiles, thin-lipped and showing no teeth. “If you’re here to press charges, then I think you missed the Sheriff. She’s…” He waves one hand dismissively, “Patrolling the streets.” There’s a bitterness to every syllable. “Keeping our honest citizens safe.”
If words were a blade, Mo knows he would be slashed all over.
“Gold.” It’s hard to speak, to admit a crime worse than anything Gold did to him. “It… it’s about what you said.”
Gold looks away. “What I said doesn’t matter,” he says in a low voice. “You’d do better to forget anything that happened.”
“No,” Moe says, forcing the words out. “You said… about a daughter…”
Gold is at the bars, fast as a snake, his hands wrapped around them. “Don’t say anything,” he hisses.
“How did you know about her?”
Outside, there are birds singing and a car rumbles past.
For the first time, Gold’s expression falters. “What?” he says, and for a moment, he’s just a man.
“No one knew I had a daughter,” Moe says. It hurts to speak, but he knows he has to get it out now. Now or never. “Haven’t seen her for years, not since we moved here.” Gold is staring at him, like an animal in a cage. He’s breathing raggedly, and his knuckles are white from gripping the bars. “She got a job. I thought it was a good one. Then she stopped writing, stopped coming home. The Mayor said…”
“The Mayor?” It’s a whisper, but it feels like it should have been screamed.
Moe nods, even though it hurts. “She said she was on secondment. New York. Somewhere important.”
Gold presses his brow against the bars. “The Mayor,” he whispers through gritted teeth. “The Mayor. That bitch.”
“She’s not in New York, is she?” Moe says, afraid now to know. “The Mayor lied, didn’t she?”
Gold looks up at him with his unblinking reptile stare. “Oh yes,” He laughs and it’s a hollow, jarring sound that makes Moe shudder. “Don’t you know, Mr French, no one can ever leave Storybrooke?”
Operation Cobra is well underway.
Henry loves all the covert-ops, and Emma doesn’t have the heart to tell him that it’s not really covert to hide behind a propped-up menu in the diner. The return of the book helped, and he’s smiling again, really, for the first time in days.
Emma doesn’t believe in magic or wishing wells or anything like that, but even she’s at a loss to explain where the new stories in the book came from. There are new pictures, new words, things that definitely weren’t there last time she saw it, and yet they’re all part of the book.
That’s what she’s thinking about when she walks back into the jail, running up the steps.
Something has changed in the two hours she’s been gone.
Gold is still in his cell, but he’s not sitting calm and quiet and vengeful as he has been for the past two days.
She’s not ready to let him go, not yet. He needs time to cool off and she needs time to figure whether city law allows her to press charges against him as a witness to the crime. French was refusing to speak out, which wasn’t a big surprise, but she’s sure she’s allowed to do something, if only the city ledgers will show her the way.
She watches through the glass panel of the door, knowing he hasn’t seen her. He’s pacing, limping from one side of the cell to the other, and is clearly distressed. His coat is in a heap, cast aside, and she sees something white tucked in it. He pauses now and then and tugs at the bars, as if he could tear them apart. When it fails, he prowls across the cell again, pressing his head to the stone, beating at it with his fists, before pacing once more.
She rattles the keys, a little louder than is really necessary, but it gives him notice that she’s returning, and she’s not one to rob a man of his dignity, no matter how much of an asshole he tends to be.
She’s surprised when he doesn’t immediately put on the placid mask he usually adopts around her. There’s fire and fury and terror and rage in his eyes, and he limps to the bars, staring across the room at her. “Sheriff.”
“You okay, Gold? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“You said you would help,” he cuts across her words. It looks as if it pains him to ask, but he still says, “I need you to help me.”
Emma lays the keys down on her desk, staring at him. “What happened, Gold?”
He’s leaning against the bars, holding them as if they’re the only thing keeping him from crumbling. “She’s alive, Emma,” he whispers, so quietly that she’s not even sure she heard right. “She didn’t die. She’s alive.”
And then he’s falling, sagging as if he’s been hit, and she’s in the cell with him, helping him up, helping him sit on the bunk.
“Head between your knees, if you feel faint,” she orders, pushing his head down.
He pushes her hand aside, bracing both his palms on his thighs. She sees they’re trembling, and she wonders just what the hell happened while she was out on patrol. She sits back as he takes deep breaths, and for a moment, he looks fragile, breakable.
The white object in the coat catches her eye, and she frowns.
“Don’t touch that!” The fury and panic in his face stops her hand before she can pick up the cup. “Please…” He’s practically rocking where he sits. “Please, don’t touch that. It’s very fragile.” One hand clumsily snatches the simple china cup and he cradles it in front of him as if it’s his long lost child. “You have to be careful.”
“Yeah,” Emma murmurs, watching him. “I can see that. There’s a chip out of it.”
The sound he makes isn’t a laugh or a sob. It’s something in between, raw and painful, and he brings up his other hand to enclose the cup. “Emma,” he whispers her name like a prayer. “Emma. I need… I have a deal for you. Make us even.”
“To hell with that, Gold,” she says with a roll of her eyes.
He looks at her, pale, shaken and so unlike himself. “You said…”
“I’ll help you, Gold,” she said, “like I said I would, but none of this deal-making crap, okay? I’m the Sheriff. I’m here to help you.” She grasped his shoulder and squeezed it. “Some of us act because it’s the right thing to do.”
He stares at her as if he can’t understand what she’s saying, then he nods, slowly, awkwardly, and looks down at the cup.
“Is this about the girl you knew?” she prompts gently. “You said she’s alive?”
He nods again, and muscles in his face twitch. He’s trying to gather the scattered remnants of his control, she can see that, and she’s ready to let him. He needs to be calm before they can do anything. “I thought she was dead. Not in Storybrooke. Not alive.”
“Couldn’t she be somewhere else?”
Gold looks at her bleakly. “Wouldn’t we all love that?” he whispers. “No. The Mayor, she took her somewhere.”
“You know that sounds more like something Henry would come up with,” she murmurs. “The evil Queen stealing away a girl.”
He smiles a strange, heartbreaking smile that looks out of place on his features. “That’s exactly what it is, Miss Swan,” he said softly.
Normally, the table in Mary Margaret's apartment is stacked with school work that needed to be marked.
Emma's laptop is humming quietly, and she's trawling through books and files, some of them yellow with age. Mary Margaret watches her for a while, as she makes dinner. Emma's focussed, and when she's focussed, it's like the rest of the world is put aside as inconsequential.
Mary Margaret knows not to disturb her. She knows how cranky she gets when someone cuts in when she's working on her grading for school. She probably even gets a wrinkle between her brows like the one Emma currently has.
It's only when the food is ready that she gently disturbs her roommate.
It's amazing what the smell of a good home-cooked meal will do to tame the wild beast.
"Sorry," Emma says self-consciously as she joins Mary Margaret at the table. "I didn't realise I'd taken over the whole room."
Mary Margaret smiles. "Don't worry about it," she said. "I've covered the couch with essays often enough." She glances over at the teetering piles of files. "What are you working on?"
"A missing person case," Emma replies, tearing her bread in half and sprinkling some salt on it. "Have you ever heard of a girl called Isabelle or Izzy French?"
Mary Margaret frowns, shaking her head. "Is she from around here?"
Emma nods, digging into the dish as if she hasn't eaten all day. "Her father didn't report her missing until now. He assumed she was working somewhere else, but new information came up that made him doubt it."
"French... French..." Mary Margaret stares at her. "Moe French? The florist? The one Gold attacked?"
Another nod, this one briefer. "Guess it made him remember what's important," Emma says, skewing a roasted potato and devouring it. "Mm. This is really good."
"I'm amazed you can tell," Mary Margaret murmurs with a smile. "I've seen a vacuum eat slower."
To her amusement, Emma actually blushes and slows down. "Sorry," she says. "It's been a hell of a day. Kind of forgot about food."
"That bad?" Emma hesitates, and that's enough to tell Mary Margaret this is something out of the ordinary. "You don't need to tell me," she assures her. "I've just never seen you do so much homework about something before."
"Old habits," Emma says with a rueful smile. "Looking for people is what I do. Did."
"You miss it, don't you?"
Emma shrugs with a half-smile. "I was good at it. It's satisfying."
"And you think you'll find this girl?"
She nods, her blonde curls bouncing in her certainty. "There's only two people I never found," she said, then cuts herself off as if she's said too much.
She doesn't need to explain and Mary Margaret doesn't need to ask.
"So..." Mary Margaret pours them both a drink. "Do you have somewhere to start?"
"I know she was supposedly given a job by the Mayor," Emma replies. "Her father said she wrote for a while, after she was sent on some secondment or other, but then stopped writing years ago."
"Don't let Henry know," Mary Margaret advises. "He'll say the wicked Queen has struck again."
Emma's lips twitch. "You're the second person who said that," she says. "I know she's a power-crazy bitch, but you guys are giving her way too much credit. Henry just doesn’t want to get along with her and the evil Queen thing is a good excuse."
“I didn’t think kids were meant to fall out with their parents until their teens,” Mary Margaret says with a half-smile.
“Oh, kids can be a world of trouble from the word go,” Emma says. “I was.”
Mary Margaret studies her across the table. She can easily see the stubborn expression, the fierce determination and everything that makes Emma herself, only much younger.
“I can imagine,” she says, keeping her tone serious with effort, “and if Henry’s anything like you, Regina’s in a lot of trouble.”
“Thanks,” Emma says, pulling a face and laughing. “I think.”
Mary Margaret never stops to wonder at how easily they laugh together.
Henry likes the rain.
His mom doesn't like it. She doesn't like getting wet, so when he goes out under an umbrella, she lets him. She complains about his wet clothes later, but she doesn't try and stop him. She knows that only makes him lock himself in his room.
He splashes through the puddles, jumping on the cracks in the sidewalk, all the way to the Sheriff's office.
He's pleased that Emma isn't there when he arrives. He's been wanting to go there for days, ever since his mom came home in a creepy good mood. She told him Mr Gold was getting what was coming to him, and he wondered what Mr Gold was getting.
He shakes out the umbrella, leaving a puddle on the floor, and stands it beside the door.
Mr Gold is still in the cell, sitting under the window. Emma said he was stuck there for the time being, but Henry thinks Mr Gold always has a way out. He's the only person who ever really annoyed Henry's mom.
Henry trots across the floor, the legs of his pants leaving wet streaks on the floor. "My mom told me you were in here," he says. "Are you okay?"
Mr Gold looks at him. He looks tired, all shadows under his eyes. "I'm sure your mother wouldn't care to know."
Henry smiles at him. So many grown-ups don't get that he knows more than they know. "I'm not my mom," he says. He sticks his arms through the bars and hugs them, putting his chin on the crossbar. "Emma says you're stuck here."
"She would know," Mr Gold says. "She has the keys."
Henry watches him. He watched Gold a lot, trying to figure out who he was, and he could never tell. Now, Gold looks tired and thin and kind of sick. "She's looking for your friend," he says.
Mr Gold looks at him, as if he's said something wrong.
"Don't worry!" Henry says quickly. "I won't tell my mom. That's why Emma isn't doing anything in the office. She knows mom watches here." He grins. "I saw her at home. There's so much stuff. She's good at finding people."
"So she is looking." Mr Gold closes his eyes. "Good."
"She said she'd help," Henry says patiently. "She told you she would. She doesn't tell lies."
"No," says Mr Gold, "I imagine she doesn't."
"She's a hero," Henry says proudly.
Mr Gold opens his eyes and looks at Henry. "And your mother's the Evil Queen, I hear."
Henry shrugs. Everyone knows about his stories. His mom sends him to therapy because of them, and everyone knows it.
Mr Gold sits up, looking at him. "And Mary Margaret is Snow White."
"It's obvious," Henry replies.
Mr Gold puts his head to one side. He almost looks like a bird. "And who am I?"
Henry stares at him thoughtfully. "I can't figure you out," he says. "But I think you know. That's why my mom hates you so much."
Mr Gold laughs, a strange, quiet noise. "That fits," he says, leaning closer to the boy. "Do you really believe that your book is right?"
Henry rocks his feet and his chin bounces on the cross-bar of the bars. "You like to make deals, right?" he asks.
"Famous for it, my boy," Mr Gold says. He's watching Henry just like a cat watches a mouse.
Henry grins at him. "I'll make a deal with you."
Mr Gold leans forward, his arms on his knees. "To make a deal, you have to have something I want," he says.
"I do," Henry says. "I told you I saw the stuff at Emma's. There were pictures."
Mr Gold doesn't move. He looks like a human turned into a statue.
"She was your happy-ever-after, wasn't she?" Henry says, rocking on his feet again. "The lady Emma's looking for."
"What do you want?" Mr Gold's lips barely move. His hands are twitching.
"You know," Henry says, smiling. "I want to know who you are."
Mr Gold stares at him. "Only a few days ago, your mother was standing where you are now, asking the same question."
Henry looks at him. He untangles his arms from the bars and unfastens his coat, groping around in the inside pocket for a carefully sealed envelope. He looks at it, then offers it through the bars to Mr Gold.
"That's not how a deal works," Mr Gold says. He's staring at the envelope like he's starving and it's a three-course dinner. "You don't give the item until you get paid. Didn't your mother teach you anything?"
"I'm not my mom," Henry says, giving the envelope an inviting shake. "You don't need to tell me anything. But I want to give you these anyway. I just figured I would ask in a way you'd understand."
Mr Gold reaches out. His hand is shaking when he takes the envelope.
"It's okay," Henry says. "Emma's good at finding people. She'll find her."
Mr Gold doesn't look at him. He opens the envelope as if he's afraid of what he'll find inside.
Henry knows enough not to look, so he sits down on the couch and plays with the zipper of his coat. He hears the paper moving. Mr Gold makes a small sound, as if he bumped his arm or stubbed his toe. Henry smiles, knowing he did the right thing.
"Henry?" Emma's standing by the door, a bag under her arm.
"Hey, Emma," he says happily. "I came by to see if you were busy."
She smiles. Her smiles been getting happier every time she sees him. That's the way his mom never smiles at him, and it makes him feel all warm down to his toes. "Give me five minutes," she says. "I need to make an inventory of some fresh clothes for Mr Gold, then I'm all yours."
“Okay!” he says brightly, swinging his feet.
She heads to her desk, her back to the cells, as she sorts through the bag.
Mr Gold isn’t making a sound. It’s like he’s holding his breath or something. Henry glances sideways at him, and sees Mr Gold has the three photographs spread in his lap, and he’s staring at them.
“She’s pretty,” Henry says conversationally. “I like her smile. She looks nice.”
Mr Gold nods. He’s moving like an old man, like he’s tired. “She was.”
“I bet she still is,” Henry says. “Mary Margaret is.”
Mr Gold gathers up the photographs suddenly, hiding them away under his coat, and looks up.
“What are you guys talking about?” Emma asks.
Henry smiles at her. “I was just trying to find out who Mr Gold is,” he says. “He’s really hard to guess.”
“I’ll go out on a limb,” Emma says, “and say he’s not Prince Charming.”
Mr Gold almost laughs, but it’s short and cut off, like he doesn’t want to make the sound. “Compliments all around today,” he says. He gets up stiffly. “Thank you for fetching my things, Miss Swan.”
She nods, handing him the bundle through the bars. “You’ll be out of here soon enough, Gold,” she says. “Give me a day or two. I can trust you not to do something stupid if I let you out?”
“He won’t,” Henry answers, when Mr Gold doesn’t say anything. “He wants you to find his friend, and he knows you won’t do that if he does something stupid.”
“Henry,” Emma says sternly.
He beams at her. “It’s true.”
Mr Gold looks up from his fresh clothes. “True,” he says quietly. “Find her.”
Emma and Mr Gold look at each other. Henry’s pretty sure they’re doing some weird grown-up thing when they talk with their eyes, then Emma turns and heads back towards the door. “C’mon, Henry.”
He hops up, and only gets a step before Mr Gold reaches through the bars and grabs his wrist.
“Gold!” Emma exclaims.
“It’s okay,” Henry says, waving her away. He leans closer to the bars.
“My name,” whispers Mr Gold, “is Rumpelstiltskin.”
Regina stares blindly at the mirror.
Secretly, she always wondered if he had something up his sleeve, all those years ago. After all, he was too helpful with the curse, telling her what needed to be done. Why, if not to be able to infuriate her in this world as much as that?
It’s the girl, she supposes.
He always was a bit soft when it came to the matter of his lost housemaid. It was hardly as if she made him fall in love with the little strumpet, and then toss her out. He did that all by himself. It was woman’s intuition that served her well, and she remembers his face when she told him the sweet little lies about the girl’s demise. It still warms her on the chilly Maine evenings.
Why she kept her hidden, she never really knew, but just as she snared her in the other world, she found her in this world as well. One prison exchanged for another is fair. A safeguard, she thinks. Some part of her knew he would be treacherous, and so she kept the one thing he could ever truly desire.
Of all the people in Storybrooke, Mr Gold is the one who she wishes the most grief on, after dear, sweet Mary Margaret Blanchard, with her whiter-than-white innocence.
Regina slips her feet from her shoes, drawing her legs up onto the couch. There’s a glass of cider close at hand, and she’s both terrified and elated. It feels good to have her enemy unmasked and know that there’s no more pretence needed. No need for civility. Loathing is completely permissible.
The front door opens and closes.
“Henry? Is that you?”
He peeks around the door, damp and bedraggled, and she can see the traces of a hot chocolate moustache. “Hi mom.”
She wants to be frustrated at his disobedience, but by now, it’s so frequent that if he actually obeyed her, she knows the shock might bowl her over. “Is it still raining out?”
He nods. “Is it okay if I have a bath? My pants are wet.”
She sighs, sitting up. “You can,” she says, “if you tell me where you were.”
Henry sidles into the room. His pants are wet, right to the knee. He probably was jumping in puddles again. “I went to see Mr Gold,” he says, shuffling his feet. “I wanted to know why he hurt Mr French.”
“He hurt Mr French because he’s not a nice man, Henry,” she says sternly. “All he thinks about is how to get money out of other people. Ask anyone in town. He doesn’t have anyone who thinks well of him. You should leave him alone. No good will come of knowing him.”
He looks at her, and for a moment, he looks worried. “Would he hurt you?”
She laughs. “He couldn’t hurt me,” she says.
“Because you don’t owe him, right?” Henry says and she looks at him sharply. “He says everyone owes him.”
“Not me,” she murmurs. “My days of dealing with scum like that are done.”
“That’s good,” he says, looking pleased. “He’s weird.”
She smiles. “Yes, he is,” she says. “He always has been, and I expect he always will be.” She rises and approaches her son, bending to kiss the top of his head. “Go have a bath. You must be freezing.”
She watches his rush up the stairs, all arms and legs. She sometimes wonders if she did the right thing in asking for a child. Sometimes, she just misses having someone there, someone who will love her without question. That’s what families were meant to be. Her father always loved her, even when she was at her worst. Surely, a child should do the same.
Sidney is a patient man.
Looking for a real story in Storybrooke, you have to be.
He does wonder at the lack of major incidents. There are occasional car crashes, sometimes a John Doe wakes up, but mostly, Storybrooke is the most boring little town he’s ever worked in.
Now, though, one of the town’s key players - and a regular pain in the Mayor’s ass - has been arrested on a charge of assault, after damn near beating a local florist to death in his private cabin and… well, that’s the kind of thing that gives Sidney a warm, fuzzy feeling.
He’s been hanging around in the café that’s halfway between Gold’s place and the jail, because there are rumours that Little Miss Sheriff plans to release Gold, and Sidney is always the first on the scene to get a photograph for the cover of the Mirror and plenty of dirt to stack on top of it. He’s halfway through his fourth coffee when he sees Gold passing.
More than a week in the cells and he looks like he’s ready for to be hung high. His suit is creased and his hair lank. He even has stubble on his face. But then, Sidney sees the eyes and knows that no sane man would ever cross him.
Sometimes, Sidney wonders about his own sanity.
He leaves a handful of dollars and hurries after Gold, cramming his hat onto his head.
“Not interested, Glass.”
Sidney strides alongside him, almost overtakes him. “Just a few words, Gold,” he says, “for the journal.”
Gold stops dead, resting both hands on top of his cane. His expression is mild, and his mouth is turned up at the sides, but it sure as hell isn’t a smile. “Mr Glass, you know where I’ve spent the last few days. You suspect I may be slightly out of sorts. And you still think it’s a good idea to harass me?”
Glass flashes a winning smile. “Your side of the story,” he says, “that’s all I’m looking for.”
Gold looks him up and down contemptuously. “My side?”
“You beat up an upstanding pillar of the community, Gold. Don’t you have anything to say in your defence?”
Gold gazes at him, and Glass feels uncomfortably like he’s being watched by a snake about to strike. “My defence?” he murmurs. He takes a step closer, and Sidney takes an automatic step back. He feels stupid for doing it, but nothing on God’s green earth would compel him to step forward again. “He had it coming.” The lips turn up again, thin and knowing. “Is that quote enough, Mr Glass?”
Sidney fumbles with his notepad and pen.
Gold leans forward. “He. Had. It. Coming.” His eyes fix Sidney’s and he keeps smiling that thin, dark little smile. “I wouldn’t want to be misquoted. It would… reflect badly on me.”
“Hey!” Sidney protests half-heartedly, “This is a free and honest press.”
“How much does Regina pay you to say that?”
Sidney stares at him. It’s the first time in his memory that Gold - in public - has voiced such opinions. He wonders if Regina knows that Gold isn’t making a big effort to hide their private enmity anymore. “Uh.”
“Eloquent,” Gold says with a mild little laugh. “With headlines like that, I wonder at the sales figures.” He shakes his head. “You should look for your stories elsewhere, Mr Glass. No one is interested in your little rag.”
Anger surges through Sidney. “What about an expose on the corruption of figures of so-called standing in this town?” he suggests maliciously.
Gold sidesteps around him without so much as a backward glance. “You should speak to your dear Mistress about that,” he says. “I’m sure if you looked closer to home, you would find a world of wonderful stories.”
“I wasn’t talking about her, Gold.”
Gold’s laugh floats back. “I’m well aware of that, Mr Glass. Irony. You may want to look it up.”
Glass slaps his notebook shut. “I’ll bring you down, Gold, if it’s the last thing I do.”
Gold pauses, turns. The light is behind him, leaving him a faceless shadow, but somehow, the glitter of his eyes is still visible. “Many have tried,” he murmurs. “And it will take a lot more than you, Sidney.”
“You’ll see!” Glass waves a finger. It’s hardly threatening on a good day, but at Gold, it’s like waving an icicle at a furnace.
Gold laughs again and Sidney gets chills down his spine. “Be careful what you wish for, Mr Glass.”
Ruby likes working in the diner.
Not that she would admit it, but she loves seeing people and trying to guess their stories. Like Mary Margaret and David. Totally doing it. Then you have Doctor H and Jo. They're as bad as an old married couple, with Doctor H lecturing Jo about his cholesterol intake over a fried breakfast.
Some people are more interesting than others.
Ruby is real interested in their new Sheriff.
She remembers the first day Emma showed up, all impatience and fresh blood, just for a week.
Now, she's as much part of the town as anyone, even if she doesn't have a past with them. She always tries to act like she doesn't care, but Ruby sees the way she looks at Henry. She's not real mom material, but she is a good mother.
Emma comes in at least three times a week. Ruby gets the feeling she's not real good at cooking, since she always goes for the waffles with syrup, even when Henry doesn't sneak in to see her. Sometimes, she brings files with her to work on them.
"Top-up, Sheriff?" Ruby asks, approaching the booth Emma currently occupies.
Emma looks up from a map. She looks more tired than usual. "No, thanks. I'm good for now."
"Whatcha working on?" Ruby asks, looking at the map with interest.
Emma rubs her eyes. "Missing person," she says. "Just trying to figure where it would be possible to hide out without anyone seeing. They need to survive, so they have to be somewhere they can get food and drink and shelter, but I don't know much of the area around here yet."
"There are a lot of old places out in the woods," Ruby says, pointing out a few spots on the map. She knows them well. They're a good place to get out from under Granny's nose for a bit of me-time. Or us-time, depending on her mood. "Cabins and things."
"Could be," Emma murmurs, swirling the remains of the coffee in her cup.
"Or they could be like David," Ruby suggests. "He was missing for months, and no one figured to check the John Doe in the hospital."
Emma looks up at her, wide-eyed. "Ruby, you're a genius."
Ruby laughs. "You couldn't say that while grandma is around? She won't believe me, if I tell her you said it."
Emma gulps down the last of her cold coffee and scoots out from the table. "Can you put a the bill on my tab?" she asks. "I have someplace I gotta be."
Ruby raises a hand in a playful salute. "You got it, Sheriff."
"I don't know what you think you'll find, Miss Swan."
The blonde stops short and turns to face Doctor Whale. He gets the feeling she's never liked him, even if he can't figure out why. "It's Sheriff, Doctor Whale," she says, "and in the course of a missing-person inquiry, I have to follow every lead."
"All you'll find here are patients and staff," Whale insists. "All accounted for. We don't have any unidentified patients at the moment either."
Blue eyes study him. "You're going to open every door in this place for me," she says, stepping towards him. "You're going to show me there are no skeletons in the closets or boogeymen under the bed. Got it?"
"I'm a busy..."
"I said 'got it?', Doctor Whale," she repeats. "And don't forget who you're talking to."
He eyes her. Sometimes, she reminds him of Regina in her attitude of taking no crap from anyone. "Got it," he murmurs. "I need to make some calls."
She catches his arm in an iron grip. "No calls, Doctor," she says. "There are some things that the Mayor doesn't need to be distracted by." She inclines her head and smiles sharply. "Shall we start?"
His heart sinks. The Mayor always likes to know if there's anything untoward in the hospital, and he knows he'll get it in the neck if he helps the Sheriff, but her grip tells him that if he even tries to get free, he'll need treatment in his own ER.
He doesn't know what she's looking for as she marches him through the hospital. She demands his keycard, checks each room, every ward, every face of every patient. Even the closets don't escape her scrutiny, and he protests every step of the way. It's as if she doesn't hear a thing he says.
On the ground floor, they finally hit one of the doors that lead to the basement level. He tries to tell her there's nothing down there but maintenance pipes and cleaning supplies, but she looks at him, holds out a hand and he reluctantly hands over his passcard.
"What's the code?" she asks, when the card isn't enough.
"I don't know." He lies because he knows Regina'll skin him alive.
She looks at him, brows raised sceptically. "This is your hospital and you don't know how to get into the basement? I find that hard to believe, Whale." She pins him up against the door. "Now listen to me. I want into that basement and I want in now. You're giving me the impression that you're keeping something from me and I don't like that. You're getting in the way in my investigation and I don't like that either. Do you want to be arrested for obstruction?"
"I don't know!" he protests.
She smiles at him, and she almost looks friendly. "I can tell you're lying," she says. "Trust me when I say I'll be more than willing to lock you up if you don't cooperate, and that's nothing compared to what I can do to your reputation and your professional standing."
He stares at her, then reluctantly punches in the code. The Mayor's going to kill him.
She pushes him through the door in front of her. "Thank you."
He stumbles down the steps, the dim strip lighting dull compared to the glare of the sunlight in the main halls of the hospital. The nurse at the desk looks up in surprise, setting down her sudoku puzzle. She looks uncertainly at Emma.
"The Sheriff is conducting a search of the hospital," he says, meeting her eyes. He sees her hand move.
"Ah, ah," Swan says. She leans over the counter and lifts the phone from the receiver. "No speed-dialling out." She shoves the receiver into her belt and looks at Whale. "Now, show me what you have around here. Both of you."
Whale shoots a look at the nurse as she falls into step with them, pulled into the Sheriff’s wake. He doesn't know what's down here. He only knows he's not meant to ask questions, and the Mayor will keep his bank account in the black.
He’s relieved that the first doors they reach are just storage, as he said. The Sheriff’s grip remains firm, and she pushes him on. He knows that she’s the type to pull the hospital down brick by brick to get to the bottom of what’s being hidden there.
There’s a different kind of door ahead, with a heavy lock and a hatch.
“Storage, huh?” She looks at the nurse. “Open it.”
The nurse protests, “The Mayor…”
“The Mayor has no jurisdiction in a hospital,” the Sheriff snaps. “Now, open it.”
The nurse unlocks the door and reluctantly steps back. The pressure on Whale’s arm loosens and he shies back as the Sheriff pulls the heavy door open. It’s a door that was designed to keep something in.
“God damn it,” the Sheriff whispers and walks into the room.
“What the hell has Regina been doing?” Whale demands in an undertone.
The nurse looks at him with careful blankness. “Enough for you to know she isn’t going to be happy about this.”
The Sheriff emerges. She’s white in the face and she looks furious. For once, Whale knows he’s looking into the face of something far more terrifying than Regina could ever be. “Get me her clothes and her shoes,” she says, her voice steady and low. Her hands are in fists by her sides.
“Then get me a goddamn blanket,” the Sheriff snarls. “She’s leaving with me right now, and I will not have her freezing once I get her outside because you’ve got some bullshit orders from the Mayor.”
The nurse stares at her, then flees down the corridor.
“Did you know about this?” Swan asks. “Did you know she was illegally imprisoning people in your hospital?”
Whale feels sick. “No.”
Swan glares at him. “A little honesty at last,” she says and he wishes the ground would swallow him up. The nurse returns and the Sheriff snatches the robe she has brought, and the hospital-issue slippers. “Now get the hell out of here.”
He’s still lurking in the halls upstairs ten minutes later when she emerges. She’s not alone. A slight, frail girl is by her side. She’s worryingly pale, and her eyes are half-closed against the daylight.
Other patients and visitors slow to stare, but a glare from the Sheriff drives them back. She has an arm around the girl and leads her on towards the door, and out into the day.
Whale knows he should call the Mayor and let her know what’s going on, but for the first time in his life, he wants nothing whatsoever to do with her.
The garden is small, modest and neat. All the same, Isabelle doesn't want to leave it. She's sitting on the back porch, just looking at the grass, the trees, the bird darting to and from the bird house. Everything is fresh and vibrant and alive.
"It's getting cold." Her rescuer is standing in the doorway. "Don't you want to come in?"
Isabelle shakes her head. Not when it's the first time she's seen the sky in years.
"How about I get us something to eat?"
Isabelle says nothing, just watching, just breathing. The door closes behind her, closing her out instead of closing her in. The wind is picking up, shrilling around her, and her hair is blowing around her face. Her eyes are hot and wet and she lets them be. Inside, they were dry. Now, they can be wet and it doesn't matter.
Only when it's too dark to see does she let her rescuer guide her back inside. The house is everything her jail wasn't, warm and soft and bright and welcoming. She sits and a mug of hot chocolate is pressed into her hands. It still feels unreal, tastes unreal.
"Dinner'll be ready soon," her rescuer says. She's washing her hands. "And I called some people who want to see you."
Isabelle wonder who could want to see her. The only faces she's seen for years are the nurses and Her. Maybe she still has a family or friends or someone who remembers her before she was just Patient X.
She drinks the chocolate in little sips so as not to waste any. She remembers the taste of chocolate, but she doesn't remember it being so bitter and so sweet. The cream is thick and if it wasn't so good, she knows the richness would be too much.
"Are you hungry?"
Isabelle watches the cream dissolve. She remembers being hungry and she remembers learning to ignore it. The food in her dark little hole was never enough, and she wonders what real food will taste like. Maybe it will be too rich, like the chocolate, but she knows that won't stop her eating it.
Someone rattles at the door. She half expects a hatch to open and dark eyes to peer in. They did, often. But here, there's no hatch, and when her rescuer goes to the door, the door opens at her touch. The locks are on the inside here.
Isabelle hears a tap-tap-tap and looks.
There's a man, a cane, and he's looking at her.
She looks at the chocolate again. She doesn't like to be looked at, but you get used to it, all eyes peering at you, like you're an animal in a cage.
The tap-tap-tap comes closer.
There's something in the way he says it. Not Isabelle or Izzy. Just Belle. No one called her that, not in this place. She thinks. Somewhere else, someone called her that. She can feel it at the edge of her memory, but she can't place it, can't grasp it. It's like a shadow.
He kneels in front of her, and takes the cup. She doesn't resist. It's a pretty cup, but it's whole. There's something there that should be missing. There's always a chip out of a cup in her mind, just like there's a chip out of her. She's not mad, but she's not whole, and that's an important difference.
His hands clasp her limp fingers and they're warm and the fingertips are a little bit rough. No one has held her hand in years. She had almost forgotten what it felt like.
"Are you... how are you?" he asks. His voice shakes. That must be emotion, she thinks. He must know her and remember her, and that's why his voice shakes.
"She's not a big talker," her rescuer murmurs. "Give her some time, Gold."
He nods, but his hands hold hers as if he's afraid that she'll vanish if he lets go. "I thought you were dead," he says and his voice breaks. "She told me you were dead. I didn't know you were here. I didn't know she had you."
She looks at their hands, his clasping hers, and he's bowing over them, pressing kisses to her knuckles. His breath is hot and she feels wetness on her skin. She is still looking at him when he lifts his face and she sees his eyes.
She doesn't know his face, not really, but she does, and she looks deep and hard. She knows there's something there, something that makes her think of gold and spinning wheels and a red rose and sadness.
His lips move, a trembling smile. "Belle."
She surprises herself when she moves her hand from under his to touch his cheek. It's softer than she expects. She expects roughness, like scales or spikes or something that isn't human skin.
She hears the door open again. So many openings and closings. How do people manage it?
"There she is."
Isabelle is on her feet at the voice. She knows it and it makes her skin crawl. She sees the dark eyes, the dark hair, the lips like blood and poison. She stumbles back, away, anywhere. The woman is in the doorway and she has men and it's a trap and a prison again and the walls are closing.
She backs away, away, into the furthest, smallest corner, and her heart is tight and hurting and she wants to scream. To have air and have it stolen is a crime, a terrible, terrible crime.
The man is suddenly in front of her, and he has a gun and it's pointing at Her. "Walk away, Regina," he says, calm and quiet. "Or I will put a bullet in your brain."
Red lips sneer. "I don't deal with you anymore, remember."
Isabelle is trembling and even more when her Rescuer steps in front of Her, and in front of the gun. "Drop it, Gold," she says. She's calm too, and Isabelle wonders how they can be calm, when She is there and there are guns and noise and chaos.
"Stand aside, Miss Swan. This isn't your business."
"You know." The Rescuer puts her hands on her hips. She looks fierce and strong and Isabelle wishes she could be that way too. "I'm starting to wonder if everyone in this town is crazy. I have the badge and if that’s not enough, this is my goddamn home."
"You don't know what she did," the man says. The gun swings to the two big men with Her. "Not a step closer!"
"What I did?" She laughs, all red lips and darkness.
"For God's sake!" The Rescuer turns on her. "You're not helping."
"I'm here to make sure a mentally-ill escapee from a hospital is put back where she belongs." The dark eyes look at Isabelle, cold and hard. "She's a danger to herself and to others."
“A basement cell doesn’t count as hospital,” the Rescuer says coldly.
The man snarls at her words. His gun swings back to Her and he takes a limping step forward. "You won't get near her again, you bitch," he hisses. Near her. Isabelle stares at him. He wants to keep her safe. The gun is for her. The anger is for her. His warm hands and his trembling smile are for her. She doesn't know why, but she knows he is showing his heart all strong and warm and there.
She moves forward. It feels like she's watching from a long way away. "No," she whispers and touches his shoulder and it hurts like her throat is full of rusty clockwork. "Don't."
He looks at her, surprise all over his familiar unfamiliar face.
She slips her hand down his arm to his elbow and draws it down. "No killing. Not worth it."
There's calm for a moment, with the gun gone and his anger forgotten and She is confused.
Then it's gone.
"Take her." It's Her again.
"No offence, Madam Mayor," the Rescuer says to Her, "but you can take her out of here over my cold, dead body."
"No offence, Sheriff, but this isn't your jurisdiction." Dark eyes flash and gleam with malice and Isabelle clings onto the man's arm, wrapping her arms around it. He feels safe and his arm is warm against her chest and her face buried in his shoulder.
He's trembling and she is too but she thinks it must be for different reasons. He doesn't seem like he would be scared of anything, but he only trembled when she touched him.
The Rescuer stands between them and Her. She has her feet wide apart and her hands on her hips and she looks like a warrior. "Wrongful imprisonment without just cause," she says. "I checked the hospital files and there's nothing in there about her."
"Discretion can be necessary. She needs to be looked after properly."
"She will be." The man's hand is empty, no more gun, and his fingers are resting on Isabelle’s arm, stroking gently, helping her be brave. He's calm and steady and yet, still trembling.
The red lips laugh. "By you?"
"By us." Isabelle knows that voice. She lifts her head. Papa. Papa is at the door. Papa is standing there. He nods to her, and tries to smile. "She's my daughter, Madame Mayor. You don't need to worry about her anymore."
"Seems like you and your boys aren't needed here anymore," the Rescuer says.
Red lips purse, tight and angry, then She turns and stalks out.
Isabelle's legs shake beneath her and she falls down to sit, leaning against the wall. She feels the tears rising like a wave and rides it out, her body shaking. The world spins and she's free and she's not going back, and the man who makes her think of gold and roses and sadness is rocking her and murmuring her name over and over again.
Sometimes, people can be a surprise.
Gold certainly is.
Doctor Hopper sits behind his desk silently, hands folded in his lap, watching the debate going on in front of him. It’s the first time he’s ever seen Mr Gold emotional, and given how many years he’s known the man, it’s something of a shock.
“You can’t be serious, Gold!”
“Oh, I’m deadly serious, Miss Swan.” Gold’s sitting on the couch beside the quiet, expressionless girl, who has barely said a word since they came in. Her father is sitting uncomfortably on another chair, turning his cap over and over in his hands. “Do you think he can keep her out of Regina’s claws?”
Emma paces from one side of the office to the other. “You just beat her father up, Gold!” she exclaims, turning on him. “And now, you just expect me to be okay with letting her into your what? Protective custody?”
The girl looks from one to the other from beneath her lashes. Hopper wonders about her mental state, and just how deep her trauma goes. But she’s sitting beside Gold, and she seems unafraid of him, which is interesting in itself. The only other person in town with that attitude is the one currently stalking around like an offended cat.
Gold taps his cane on the floor. “I’m not asking you to just abandon her,” he murmurs. “I understand your concerns, but in this town, can you think of anyone who would have better resources and knowledge to keep the Mayor from getting to her again?”
“You think she would?” Emma demands, leaning on the back of the couch with both hands.
Gold shrugs. “You think she wouldn’t?”
“Mr French,” Hopper says quietly. Four pairs of eyes look at him. “Isabelle will need a lot of support to get through this. I know you’ve been having some problems recently, and that your work keeps you out a lot. Do you think you would be able to be there for her as much as she may need?”
Moe stares at him, as if he’s been asked the sixty-four thousand dollar question.
“We’re going against the Mayor’s wishes, French,” Gold says quietly. “Think about it. If you think I’m bad, imagine what she’ll do.”
French shivers, and Hopper sighs inwardly. As sweet a reunion as this is for him, it’s almost reassuring to see that Gold still compels such fear.
“I don’t think she’ll be as obvious as to strike directly at him,” Emma says. “She knows we’ll be keeping Isabelle safe. I’m sure she’d be okay in the house for a few hours on her own.”
The girl, Isabelle, starts trembling and shakes her head. “Not alone,” she whispers. Her voice is barely recognisable as human, raw and hoarse from months of disuse. “Please.”
The expression that crosses Gold’s face makes Hopper come up short. He watches the most formidable man in Storybrooke put aside his cane and gently take the girl’s trembling hands between his.
“Not alone,” he murmurs. He lifts his eyes to Emma. “She can help in my shop during the day, and my house is more than big enough for one other person. Surely that would be much more practical than forcing Mr French out of business.”
Emma eyes him suspiciously, and Hopper wonders if she’s seeing what he’s already spotted.
“Izzy, sweetie,” French says, looking at his daughter, “you know I want to help you as much as I can.” She nods. One of her fingers is tracing patterns on the back of Gold’s hand. “Do you want to come home?”
Blue eyes which are bloodshot and reddened rise. Hopper has no doubts the nightmares have already started, a whole different league from anything she might have had during her long incarceration. “Safe?” she whispers.
French looks down at his cap and that’s answer enough for a girl who has little use for words. He’s not got the best reputation in town, a wheeler-dealer with no skill when it came to wheeling or dealing. His only saving grace is that he’s good with flowers, but even that sometimes fails him. Everyone heard about the daffodil fiasco of 2003.
Hopper leans forward on the desk. “Isabelle.”
She looks towards him nervously. No wonder, really, if the medical profession conspired against her to keep her locked up.
“This is your choice, you know,” he says. “No one is going to force you to go anywhere you don’t want to go. If you want to go home, we’ll arrange something to make sure you’re not alone. If you think it would be safer to go with Mr Gold, you can do that.”
She looks at him for a long time, then looks at her father. His head is bowed. Hopper can see the guilt weighing on him that he didn’t ask sooner where she was, what she was doing, why he didn’t hear from her.
When she looks at Gold, it’s another story. For want of a better word, he looks illuminated and when the girl’s eyes reach his face, he smiles. The doctor doesn’t have to be highly-trained to know that it feels better to see a warm, genuinely happy smile than a guilty bowed head, and even before the girl speaks, he can guess her choice.
“I’ll go with him,” she whispers, offering a small smile.
Something in those words makes Gold gasp so explosively that Isabelle jumps.
“You’re sure?” Emma says, still leaning on the back of the couch.
Isabelle nods. She catches Gold’s hand between hers and squeezes it, and Hopper is struck by the realisation that for all his smiles and obvious happiness, he has never seen Mr Gold look more vulnerable in his life.
Gold is lost.
He’s leading Isabelle - Belle - through his house. The wooden stairs are warm, the evening sunlight still shining on them. He remembers a time and a place like this, but so unlike this. She’s holding his hand, like a child. Safe. That’s what she believes of him and he only hopes he can live up to her trust and expectation.
“This is your room,” he says. Again. He said that once before, and remembers the very room with the bleak stone walls and the last time he saw her, when they were both then and there. This room is different. He never needed it before, but now it will hold the first guest he’s ever had in his home.
She releases his fingers to look around, her footsteps so soft that she might not even be there. It’s simple, with the most basic of furnishings, but she smiles as if he’s just given her the keys to a palace. “Thank you.”
He makes an abortive, dismissive gesture with one hand, then closes it over his other hand on the cane. He hopes she didn’t notice how much his hands are shaking. He doesn’t think they’ve stopped since he reached her.
She sits on the edge of the bed, touching the patchwork quilt. He doesn’t know why he bought it, but now, he’s glad that he did. Blue eyes look up at him, as bright and knowing as they ever were. “Why?”
“Why what, dearie?” he asks softly.
“Why did you want me here?”
He has to close his eyes against the memories, the voice, the face and the question all too much at once. His eyes fly open when her hand covers both of his, and she’s standing right in front of him, gazing at him.
“I think you were lonely,” she whispers.
She always was so frank. Henry was right when he guessed she hadn’t changed.
Gold manages a small smile. “Get some rest, dearie,” he says. “Leave the door open if you like. If you need anything, I’m in the room at the end of the hall.”
Her hand lingers on his for a moment, and then she steps back. He wonders if it makes him a coward or a gallant that he practically flees from the room rather than gathering her in his arms and kissing her.
He barely sleeps a wink that night. His own door is ajar, and he’s sure he hears the faintest of sobs from the other room, but he can’t - won’t - intrude on her. She’s spent too long being watched already. So he watches the ceiling, his hands resting over his heart, and pretends that everything is as it should be.
With the morning, he hardly dares believe it wasn’t all some cruel dream.
He walks down the hall, and his stomach twists on itself when he sees the bed neatly-made and empty, as if no one was ever there. He rushes down the stairs as quickly as his leg allows and is almost out the door when he smells coffee in the kitchen.
She’s there, as if she always has been, in an oversized pair of pyjamas and dressing gown, and she’s trying to make pancakes.
She turns and sees him, and he feels his face doing that idiotic smile again.
“Good morning,” he says.
She waves a spatula. “Breakfast?” she offers.
“That’s very kind of you.”
She shrugs with a small, bashful smile that he remembers well, and prods at the batter in the pan. He wonders if her cookery in the real world is quite as experimental as it was in the castle. He remembers that it was never the same meal twice, even if she tried to follow the same recipe.
It is just as he remembers, but he still eats it, washing it down as politely as he can with sugar-thick coffee.
“What’s today?” she asks, curled up in the chair on the opposite side of the table.
He gazes at her, caught in the sunlight, pale and tired, but more beautiful than she could ever imagine. He wonders if it would be so terrible just to sit with her there, all day. But he’s still Mr Gold, and he still has a business to run.
“The shop,” he says. “There’s an upstairs room with a view of the town, and plenty of books, if you would like to read.”
Her face lights up and she nods eagerly, his little bookworm. It’ll be a long time before she can speak freely again, whether from the damage to her voice or from the trauma of what Regina did to her, but he’s ready and willing to wait. As long as she’s happy, he’s happy.
It becomes the routine.
They breakfast together, then go to the shop. At first, Belle settles in the upper shop, reading and watching the world go by, but only at first. She’s far too curious to stay in a safe and quiet place.
By and by, he notices that some of the displays are suddenly cleaner, more neatly organised. The windows are washed and polished. He even can tell the original colour of the wood of the counter for the first time since he entered the shop. Belle doesn’t say anything, but when he catches his reflection in the surface of the mirror that he thought was just a picture frame, he’s sure he hears her giggle.
Sometimes, they go out in town, but more often than not, when the shop is closed, they walk in the woods.
She loves the trees, and the feel of the sun and wind on her skin. She doesn’t have to ask. If the sun is shining and the day has been quiet, he’ll close the shop and take her where no one but him can see her dance in the long grass, twirling and barefoot, her skirts flying.
All the same, when night comes, he can still hear her weeping alone in her bed. He knows she wouldn’t push him away if he went to her and held her. But this isn’t to do with what he wants. Every night, before they part, he always reminds her that he is only down the hall, and she always smiles and nods, then cries into her pillow when she thinks he’s asleep.
Doctor Hopper warned him about the nightmares, and that she would need support, but Gold knows that you can’t offer help to someone who doesn’t want it. She’s not ready to ask yet, but when she is, he knows he’ll be there.
The change comes when she finds the cup.
After it was stolen, he treated it with much more caution, putting it in a box in his wardrobe. Belle should never have seen it, but she cleans and tidies, and when he forgets, she takes his suits and shirts to his room.
She’s so distressed when he finds her, scrabbling on the floor of the wardrobe, and it takes time to calm her enough to understand.
“It’s chipped,” she whispers, looking up at him and holding out the cup. There’s no gold dress, no grand hall, no terrifying monster, only a man, a woman, a cup and a wardrobe that smells of mothballs.
He kneels, clumsily, and wraps his hands around hers and the cup. “It was always chipped,” he says softly. She stares at him in confusion and then at the cup, as if she’s seeing it for the first time. “You’d hardly notice it.”
She looks up at him suddenly, and her eyes shine. “It’s just a cup,” she says, and it’s his turn to draw a breath. It isn’t possible that she can remember, and yet those words, his words.
“Just a cup,” he agrees, releasing her hands.
The cup accompanies them downstairs. She seems fascinated by it, and he hasn’t the heart to take it from her. When she makes them a cup of tea later, she insists on using it and gives it to him, full of warm, sweet tea. She’s smiling as she does.
He wonders if she has any idea how much it breaks his heart to see her with the cup, but to have no idea of why it’s so important.
He excuses himself early, but she surprises him again, kissing his cheek softly before he retires. He thinks it would be so much easier to simply let her go and stay with Miss Swan, rather than torture himself with a past that is just that. Even if the curse were to be broken, he never had a happy ending then, and there’s no certainty that Belle would stay now.
He hears her ascend the stairs some time later, in the dark, quiet as a mouse. He can’t sleep and he’s not surprised at all. Then and now overlap, and he stares blindly at the ceiling, thinking this could be the cruellest part of the curse: to be so near and yet unable to get closer.
His door creaks open a crack and he props himself up on his arms.
Belle’s face is visible in the dim moonlight from the hall.
He tries to say her name, but it catches in his throat.
Her kitten-feet carry across the floor to his heavy iron bedstead. She sits on the edge and looks at him for a long time. He can’t think of anything to say, whether to encourage or discourage her. One small hand touches his hand and then she smiles and tugs at the blanket.
“Move over, Rumpelstiltskin,” she whispers, “my feet are getting cold.”