Mr Gold was an early riser.
His house was nothing more than a place to store his goods and to rest. Once roused, he would leave almost as soon as the sun crested the horizon, and more often than not, he would not return until the sky was dark.
His shop was more a home than the large, soulless house. It was the place where all his deals and secrets were gathered, a private treasure trove.
The streets were deserted as he made his way there. It was a moderate walk, and his leg ached each and every day, but in the dawn hours, he liked to bask in the solitude. It was another reason he kept the shop: somewhere that he could be alone, without the constant noise and fuss of the other residents of Storybrooke.
It wasn't an aural noise, but a magical one, a resonance that jarred against his senses. There was the clash of the real and the imaginary, who they had been and who they thought they were now. Sometimes, if he looked carefully, he could see the shimmering outline of their true shapes, and it gave him a headache.
The shop was a refuge away from the madness. Very few people ever disturbed him there, and he cultivated his reputation to ensure it stayed that way.
That was why it came as a surprise when he was assaulted at the entrance.
He was unlocking the front door when he heard the patter of running footsteps, and a moment later, he was slammed up against the door. Something fine and sharp was pressed against his neck, and he knew he was still mortal enough for it to do damage if he struggled.
His assailant pushed against his back in wordless demand, forcing him to open the door and enter. That, he allowed. Better to fight back within his own domain.
The weapon didn't leave his throat as they stepped into the darkened shop, and he made no move to assist her. It was a woman. He could tell that much from the body that had pressed forcefully against his. Small, thin, practically reeking of terror. He folded his hands around his cane, and waited for her to make a move. If she made them enter the backshop, he knew she was done. There were enough tools to subdue her, and enough shackles and cords to bind her. He even considered presenting her to the Sheriff. A show of good faith. The thought made his lips twitch.
She forced him forward again, the point at his throat threatening to break skin. She was breathing heavily, raggedly, and he was a little curious who in Storybrooke could be so desperate that they would attack him of all people.
"If you don't mind me saying so, dear," he murmured, taking his time walking forward. "Don't you think this is a foolish idea?"
The woman didn't reply, urging him onward, one hand on his shoulder. Her fingers were bony and thin and dug through the shoulder of his suit like pincers. The curtain separating the front and back of shop was pulled aside, and he was unsurprised when she pushed him towards it. All the better to hide nefarious deeds.
As soon as they entered, even by the dull light, he could see a dozen objects he could use to strike her down. He shifted his feet, directing himself towards them, but the woman was having none of it and forced him towards the empty table. No matter. His cane would serve, if all else failed.
She pushed him down into the chair, and he moved his cane between his hands for better momentum.
The woman stepped into his line of sight, and even as he raised the cane to strike her weapon away, he saw her face.
The cane dropped from his fingers, rattling on the floor.
She was holding a hypodermic needle like a blade. She was wearing ragged clothing that might have been hospital clothing once. Her feet were leaving bloody footprints on the floor. Her hair was tangled and knotted. But her eyes were clear and blue and fixed on him with shocking familiarity.
She thrust the needle towards his face, baring her teeth, feral.
Gold's world was shaking. She was dead. She had died. There was no coming back from that, no matter what the stories said. And yet, here she was, standing before him, flesh and blood, half-starved.
He placed his hands palm-up on the table, a gesture of peace. His eyes were fixed on her. He couldn't seem to tear them away, even if he wanted to. "Are you hungry?" he asked quietly. It felt like a struggle to even breathe. "There's food."
He saw a flicker in her eyes.
So she understood, at least a little?
He turned one hand, pointed to the refrigerator.
She backed towards it, keeping her eyes on him warily, and crouched down. She flipped the door open. There wasn't much, only some bread and butter, some cold meat, but she fell on it as if she hadn't eaten in days, hunkering over it like an animal. Her eyes remained on him, the needle extended in mute threat.
Gold watched her in silence. His head was spinning. If she was alive, then that meant that the Queen had lied. If the Queen had lied about this, what had become of her? If her clothing was anything to go by, she had been hospitalised, and everyone in town knew that Doctor Whale was safely in Regina's pocket.
He tried to remember to breathe, in and out. The fury could come later, once he understood what the hell was going on. Right now, the woman, the broken, terrified, half-wild creature, in front of him had to be his focus.
"Don't eat so fast," he said quietly, turning his hands palm down. "If you haven't eaten in some time, you may be ill."
She narrowed her eyes, tearing another piece of bread with her teeth. The fridge was already half-empty, and his words proved prophetic less than ten minutes later, when almost all of what she had eaten returned on her. She gave a small, pitiable moan, clutching her stomach.
Gold pushed the chair back.
The look of terror and panic in her face broke his heart.
Belle was always brave, even in the face of fury and humiliation, and now, here she was, cowering like a broken beast.
He lowered himself onto the floor, close to her, kneeling clumsily on his lame leg. He showed her his hands, bare and empty. "I won't hurt you," he said as gently as he could, through a voice tight with rage and grief. "I want to help you."
The needle was still pointing at him, trembling wildly.
He remembered confronting an injured horse once, badly injured and terrified. It felt the same. The key was to make himself harmless and unthreatening, not something that came easily to him. He spread his hands and he broke eye contact for the first time, lowering his head in submission, showing that she was still in control.
She gave a small, sharp sob, and he heard the needle clatter on the floor. It rolled into his line of sight, but he didn't touch it, didn't take it. If she felt she needed it, she could reclaim it. By leaving it, he was showing her it was her choice.
There was silence only broken by the gasping ragged breaths of the woman. He didn't move. He didn't know if she did until she edged a little closer to him. She didn't pick up the needle again. He could feel his eyes on her and slowly lifted his head.
She didn't look like he remembered, and yet, she did. He thought his memory of her had changed over time, become more idealised, more a dream of the woman lost, but he was wrong. The eyes were still as blue, the lips still full, the expression still her, but now, her eyes were bloodshot, her lips dry and cracked and striped with blood, her whole frame vibrating with unspoken terror. It was Belle, Belle broken and starved and wretched, the same woman he loved, yet not the same at all.
He extended a hand in front of him, palm up, a wordless offer, a gesture of kindness.
She stared at it, her own hands trembling, shivering in front of her chest like captive birds with their wings clipped.
"I promise I won't hurt you," he said softly. Not again. Not more than he already had.
It felt like the whole world was holding its breath with him, and it was an eternity before her fingers uncurled and she tentatively placed her small hand in his. Her hand was ice-cold, and he could see the nails were bitten to the quick and bleeding.
He closed his fingers around hers gently, bringing his other hand over to enclose it, warm it, and he offered what he hoped was a comforting smile.
Blue eyes stared at him, still full of suspicion.
"Here," he said. He released her hand to shed his jacket, which he held out to her. She looked at it in confusion. "You're cold. Please. It'll warm you." When she didn't move, he leaned forward, forcing down his rage and dismay when she flinched from him, and wrapped the coat around her, drawing it closed. "There. Better."
Her small hands peeped out between the lapels, pulling it closer around her, and her head dipped in something that might have been a nod of gratitude.
Gold sat back, gazing at her. The shop was cold and dark, and there was little he could use to tend the wounds he could see. Her feet were bare and bloody, and her arms looked scratched, as if she had been running wild in the woods.
"How would you feel, dear," he asked softly, "about coming to my home?"
She was on her feet, backing away, in a heartbeat.
He raised his hands, level with his chest, palms open. "It's safe there," he said gently. "I can tend your wounds, and we can get you something to eat. Something warm to wear. The shop is too cold and dark for you. You need to be somewhere warm."
She clung to his coat, staring at him.
He picked up the needle, her only weapon, and struggled to his feet. Without his cane, it took a moment to walk towards her. He laid the needle across his palm and held it out to her. "You don't need to be unarmed, dear," he said softly. "If I do anything you disapprove of, you have my permission to do whatever you must."
For a breathless moment, she didn't move, then she reached out and carefully took the needle and put it into one of the pockets.
He nodded. "I'll call us a taxi," he said quietly. "You can sit, if you like."
She searched his face, then limped over to the table and sat, pulling her legs up onto the seat and wrapping herself entirely in his jacket.
He leaned against the wall and limped through to the front of the shop, reaching for the telephone. He didn't intend to call a taxi at all, because the Storybrooke taxi service was notoriously full of gossips. Instead, he dialled a number of someone who owed him a minor favour. Those types were much more discreet.
When he made his way back through to the backshop, Belle looked at him with such resignation that he wished he could use magic to soothe her mind. She lowered her chin to rest on her knees and didn't move until someone rattled at the front door.
"That's our ride, dear," Gold murmured, bending to retrieve his cane.
She fell into step behind him, and he caught a glimpse of her reflection, her head down, her shoulders hunched. She looked, he thought, as if she was expecting betrayal, possibly even expecting the police. When he opened the door and a plain car and bearded old man looked at them, he saw the astonishment on her face.
She was silent for the duration of the drive, huddling in the back seat of the car. Their driver, Reginald Fisher, asked no questions, though Gold knew the old man was glancing at him out of the corner of his eyes, and was dying to know what was going on. Quite a fitting term, he mused, dying to know. That was why the man knew better than to ask.
The streets were still blessedly quiet when they reached his house, and he opened the door to let Belle out. She stood on the pavement, silent and still, and he leaned down to murmur his appreciation to their driver. A deal concluded, he said, and Fisher looked like a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
He didn't look back, not even to check that she was following him, as he went to the door. The house was as quiet as ever, and he paused in the hall long enough to see the silhouette cast through the doorframe as she entered behind him.
Her hands were in her pockets and she was waiting, watching.
"Take a seat, dear," he murmured. "I'll fetch the first aid box."
It gave him a moment alone in the kitchen, and he propped his cane against the counter, bracing his hands against the polished marble. They were shaking, and for the first time in many years, he felt what it was to be afraid. Afraid that he would go back into the other room, and she would be gone again. Even more afraid that he would go back, and she would still be there, Belle but not.
He heard the sound of a piano key being pressed, and it brought him back to himself.
She was there, she was injured, and he was fannying about in the kitchen like a frightened schoolboy.
He drew a breath and reached for the kettle, filling it and putting it on to boil. The first aid box, never used, was removed from the cabinet under the sink. By the time he returned to the living room, he could see that Belle had wandered all around the room, leaving a trail of bloody footprints on the floor. She was standing at the window, fingertips pressed to the glass.
"Would you like to sit?" he asked quietly, approaching her. It took some time, as he was carrying a basin of warm water and the first aid box. A towel was draped over one shoulder. "I can tend your feet."
She looked at him blankly for a moment, then sat down carefully on one of the chairs. He knelt at her feet, and remembered a scene almost wholly inverted: a girl in a golden dress with a broken cup, instead of a man with a basin.
"This may sting a little," he warned as he motioned for her to place her feet in the basin of warm, antiseptic-laced water. She winced, but barely whimpered as she lowered one foot, then the other into the basin.
Gold removed his watch, placing it on the coffee table, then reached into the water to gently wash the dirt and blood from her swollen, injured feet. It struck him, then, that he had never once seen Belle's feet, not without the little buckled shoes she liked so much. They were as small and dainty as he expected, but he could feel grit and splinters and dirt embedded in the soles.
Once or twice, she flinched when his fingers brushed a torn piece of flesh. Finally, he lifted one foot from the water. He draped the towel across the footstool and laid her foot down, then withdrew tweezers from the first aid box.
She pulled her foot back, staring at him.
"Splinters, dear," he said. "They have to come out or they will fester."
She bit her lower lip, but set her foot back down. He had a deft hand. Years of alchemy ensured it, and he was as careful as could be. Fresh blood trickled here and there, when he tugged free an especially large thorn or shard. He heard her breath catch time and again, and he didn't have to raise his head to know that there were tears running down her face.
He worked patiently, until her foot was clear, then bound it with soft, white bandages and dressings. The second foot received the same treatment, and by the time he was done, his shirt sleeves were stained and bloody and beyond salvation.
Only then, as he wiped his hands, did he look up at her. There were salt tracks on her cheeks, and her lip was bitten through. It must have hurt much more than they both expected.
He gently laid his hands over her bandaged feet. "You were very brave," he said as steadily as he could. "I'm sorry it hurt so much."
Her lips trembled in what might have been a smile, and he felt a pain low in his chest.
He looked down, anywhere but her face, as he pushed himself back to his feet. "Would you like some tea? Something light to eat?" It seemed so trite to be offering such things, when she was clearly hurt and traumatised. He watched the shadow of her nod on the bloodied floor, and with aching steps, he made his way back to the kitchen, the basin trembling between his hands.
He remembered a time when he had torn apart his treasures because of her. In fury and grief, he had smashed everything around him, all that he had gathered and built over decades, except the one, lonely cup that was the one thing he still had to remind him of her.
Now, she was back in his life, in his new castle, less dark, but just as vast and imposing, and he wanted to smash everything to pieces, all the irrelevant and pointless objects. It all meant nothing, not when she was right there. He wanted to break something, tear it apart, scream profanities at the world.
But he couldn't, because she was there.
He put the kettle on to boil again, then washed the blood and dirt from his hands. He rinsed out the basin, watching the scarlet liquid swirl away, splinters and dirt caught in the eddies. He scooped clean water in his hands and dashed it on his face, and prayed his head would stop spinning. He didn't know who he prayed to, but he was sure the thought counted.
He wasn't sure if it was guilt or fear that made him linger in the kitchen. No man ever took so long to make such a simple sandwich.
By the time he returned to the livingroom, she was curled up on the chair, her bandaged feet tucked up inside his coat. Her head was pillowed on her arm, and she was gazing into nothing.
He placed the tray down, and offered her another towel, this one hot and damp, for her sore and dirty hands. She took it gingerly, rubbing her hands together, holding it close, as if to ward away the cold. How long she had been cold, he dreaded to think. She must have been running for days.
"Here," he said, sitting down opposite her. He poured the tea, as he remembered her liking it, adding more sugar than was truly necessary, and offered it to her. "It's warm. It should help."
She took it carefully, cradling as if it were something precious, holding it close between her two little hands.
"Slowly," he added. "You don't want to be ill again."
She sipped daintily, and for a moment, it was almost like being back where they started. Until he looked at the broken and bloody nails, the bandages, the way her skin stretched taut over the bones of her face and hands. Almost back, but never.
He pushed the plate towards her, watching as she picked it up carefully. She looked smaller, much more fragile, and that wasn't simply because of the weight that had dropped from her already tiny frame.
"Better?" he asked quietly.
Her lips twitched again, not quite a smile, and she nibbled at the sandwich.
He folded his hands together in the hopes it would stop them trembling. It didn't. He watched a little colour returning to her cheeks, barely there, but better than the chalky pallor that made her look so weak.
"May I ask you a question?" It was rare for him to offer that much of a courtesy. Blue eyes fixed on him, still wary. "Do you have a name? Something I can call you?" Her eyes flicked down, and she stared at the teacup, then shook her head. His fingers tightened together and he heard the knuckles crack. They had even taken that from her? Regina would burn. "Do you know who you are?"
The way she worried her lower lip and avoided his eyes was more than answer enough.
"Do you have somewhere to stay?" he asked, knowing the answer before she even raised her eyes to him and shook her head. His heart was drumming violently against his ribs. This was fear, pure fear, as he had not known it for decades. "Would..." He wet his lips with the tip of his tongue. "Would you like to stay here?" He could see the doubt, the suspicion, the fear in her eyes. "Only as my guest, dear. Nothing more."
She was silent, motionless, and looked down at her tea. When she looked up again, he could see the question in her eyes: Why? What's in it for you? What do you want from me?
He offered a brief smile. It was all he could muster around the terror gathered about him. The fear that she might leave, the dread she might stay. "My house is large and empty," he said quietly. "You're alone and hurt. Stay a while, gather your strength, and when you're ready, you can leave." She stared him down, as if awaiting the real reason. He looked down at his hands and confessed quietly, "I think I may be lonely."
She was still for a while, then he heard her sip the tea, and raised his eyes. She was gazing at him, thoughtfully, steadily. In that way, she hadn't changed. The directness of her gaze had always taken his breath away. Most people barely dared to look at him.
She inclined her head. It wasn't a nod, nowhere near as extravagant, but it was assent.
He forced his fingers apart, for fear of snapping them like twigs. "Good," he said. "I'll arrange a room, if you like."
That flicker of a not-quite-smile flitted across her lips again.
"First," he said, rising, stiff-legged, "I should fetch you some clothing." She looked down at his jacket, touching bloodstains she had left on the sleeve. He caught the glimpse of dismay and waved it away at once. "Don't worry, dear. It's only a suit. I have a dozen more like it."
He left her there, wrapped in his jacket, eating and drinking, and made his way painstakingly up the stairs. He returned a short while later and paused on the landing. She had removed his jacket and hobbled to the piano. He could see her fingers trailing across the keys, though never pressing, playing a silent symphony.
He made his way down the stairs carefully. "Do you play?" he asked quietly.
She looked around at him, then lifted her shoulders in a small shrug. One thin finger pressed a key down, then another, and another, the chord hanging in the air.
Gold approached her, setting the bag he was carrying in the windowseat and opening it. "I don't know if they will be to your tastes," he said apologetically. He didn't know why had bought them, years before. They were her size, of course they were. Just as there were clothes that would have fitted Bae, the day he left. Each in their own room. Each neatly shelved. Each untouched for decades.
She slipped from the piano stool and approached, looking at the bag. He opened it for her, to save her damaged fingers. The dresses were simple, pretty and floral, and the kind of things he imagined she would have liked. She touched the fabric, and he saw the tremulous hint of a smile cross her lips again. She raised her eyes to him, questioning.
"Sometimes, people donate to the shop," he lied.
If she disbelieved him, it didn't show.
She drew one of the dresses out, patterned with sunflowers, and held it against her rag-clad body. When she looked up, there was a brightness in her eyes that had been lacking. He couldn't help but smile.
He showed her to the downstairs bathroom, and returned to the kitchen to at least pretend to clear up the dishes. He was making a mistake. A huge mistake. Taking her into his home the first time had been folly enough, but now, with all that was behind them, with all she couldn't remember, with God knew where she had been, it was utter madness.
He was still scrubbing the same plate, blindly staring at the running water, when he heard the shuffling footfalls.
He turned, and his breath caught. She had found the combs and tamed her hair a little. The dress, though a little large, suited her as he knew it would. She performed an awkward twirl, ruined by her bandaged feet, but the skirt swirled around her. She looked delighted.
"Lovely," he said, around his heart which had somehow moved to his throat.