Izzy - Isabelle - Belle French knows she’s not mad. Not in the way that most people would take madness to be mad. Her madness is a special kind of madness. It’s the madness that is the knowledge of the truth.
In a world made bland and bare of magic, speaking about spells and curses and the power of the Dark One gets you locked away. Izzy - no, Belle, always Belle, Belle is her name, Belle is the strong and brave one - never tells lies. Never. When she loves, she says so. When she fears, she says so. When she breaks her own heart and walks away, she says so.
They found her, in her little room of cushioned walls, where nothing and no one had changed, day on day, year on year. The woman, the one who called herself Sheriff, then Emma, found her there, opened the door and let her back into a world that wasn’t the world that she remembered.
She sees faces she knows everywhere, but she can’t call them by their true names. They don’t remember their true names, and that hurts to know. She sits and watches the dwarf who once smiled with her and talked of love. He drinks all the time, and she wishes she could help, but with her worlds in a mix-up, it’s impossible to know the right thing to say.
It hurts to lie quietly. She’s Moe French’s daughter now. Moe. Not Sir Maurice. Not a Lord. Not even a Knight. He’s just Moe and he looks after flowers, and Belle tries not to cry every time she sees how the world flips on him and leaves him in the dirt.
He always said she was the most important thing in his life, and now, he doesn’t remember that. He just knows he has his girl back and she can work in the shop, work with flowers she can barely stand to look at, and watch him drink himself quietly into a stupor every night. His life is nothing, and he’s not her father, even though he is.
It hurts and burns and she knows no one would believe her if she spoke about it.
She fears the cushioned walls more than anything. Cushioned and closed and nowhere to go but inwards.
She walks in the world, all the same. Walks it, breathes it, hears all the things it has to say.
The worst day of all, the very worst, the one that made her heart feel like it was tearing in two from top to bottom, was the day she saw him. She loved once, long ago, and still holds it like a candle, cupped between her hands. She saw him, and he saw her, and they looked at once another, and he turned and walked away.
She knows he can’t remember. No one does.
Her words are few, and are saved up for the one who should be a cricket. He listens quietly and impassively, and let’s her spill all her sadness at the world out. It feels like it should be kept secret and safe, but there’s too much of it for one person to contain.
“Tell me about what you miss most from your old life.”
It’s a gently-asked question, and she knows she shouldn’t grieve for what is gone, not when it’s still there, only out of reach. All the same, he hands her the box of tissues and she weeps quietly, and confesses what she knows was and is and always will be true.
She misses him. She misses his foolishness. She misses his nervous smiles. She misses the way he teases. She misses the way he always looks at her, as if she’s completely out of her mind to like him. She misses arguing with him over dinner. She misses everything about him.
The cricket-man nods slowly, asks if he died, and she shakes her head, laughs sadly, and says she knows just where he is. He looks at her, solemn, and says that sometimes, what is needed is closure, by speaking to the one who is no longer hers.
She hears him speak, she knows he speaks something like sense, but only in this world, where his head-magic makes sense of everything. Head-magic doesn’t work when your head is in a different world, with different people all of whom wear the same faces in this town that isn’t a town.
She promises she will consider it, and leaves the little cricket-man at his door.
She only promises to think on it.
She dreads the idea of looking into Rumpelstiltskin’s face and having a stranger look back at her without recognition.
Days pass, day on day, and she frets and paces and walks the shop floor until her feet ache and her nails are bitten to bleeding. It’s made worse when a shipment comes in, and there are roses everywhere. Red, red roses that always bring back a moment of happiness.
Papa tells her to keep one for herself, and that makes the decision for her.
She takes her lunch early and makes her way to the shop where she knows she will find him, the one who still haunts her dreams, and who has been the face she’s missed even more than her father for so many years.
Her heart is racing so fast that just as one beat ends, another starts, and they feel like they’re overlapping in a rapid thrum beneath her breast. She knows she doesn’t look as she did. She wears pants here, and baggy sweaters embroidered with animals with eyes that are too big and dumb expressions. It’s what Izzy would wear. Belle hates it.
It’s hard to feel strong and brave about facing a nightmare when the kitten on your sweater is ugly and cross-eyed.
She knows she doesn’t have time to change, not if she’s to get back to the shop and help Papa sort out the new batches in the afternoon. She knows she doesn’t have the time to be scared. She knows she has to face it all head on. She always tries to be brave, even when her knees are knocking and she’s quaking in her boots.
The door opens with barely a squeak, but a bell jangles above it, making her jump.
The shop reminds her of the Dark Castle, all odds and ends stacked higgledy-piggledy around the shelves and in the cabinets. He never could keep a case organised. Nothing was in any sensible order. He always needed someone to sort it out for him.
Behind the counter, a curtain moves aside, and he’s there, in his human face, and she’s sure she sees surprise, maybe even shock at the sight of her.
“Miss French, isn’t it?” he murmurs, but he stays there, doesn’t move.
Her heart sinks. He’s shocked because he knows she heard about what he did to her papa. It was hard to hear it, but papa said it was because of what he had done to her. The lock-up was his fault, and somehow, Mr Gold, the man who wasn’t Rumpelstiltskin, seemed to know about it. That was why she had hoped he would remember, but when he walked away…
She walks into the shop a little further, holding the rose in front of her like a sword.
“I want to talk to you,” she says quietly. Her voice has a strange, shaky echo, as if she’s shouting into a cave.
He’s still, motionless, and she remembers that look in his eyes. He’s afraid. But he’s Mr Gold, and he has no reason to fear a mental patient, anymore than he had reason to fear a rose-wielding girl who was never a Princess, but who always tried to be brave.
She stops at the counter.
He’s afraid. If he’s afraid, he has a reason, and the only reason he can have is the only reason he ever had. She remembers saying it, calling him coward, telling him all the things she knew of him, the truth of his fear.
If he’s afraid, still afraid, he must must must remember.
She looks at him across the counter. Her tongue darts along her lower lip. If she’s wrong, he’ll think her mad. If she’s right, she doesn’t know what she will do.
She lifts her hand and lays the red rose on the counter. His eyes flick to it, then back to her face, and she sees the colour fading in his cheeks. He recognises it. He knows it. The only thing that could be more clear would be if he had the cup.
His eyes meet hers, and he looks even more afraid than she’s ever seen him.
“How can I help you, Miss French?” His voice is barely a whisper.
She looks at him, quiet and steady. He needs a chance, a chance to be brave, to tell the truth, and she offers it to him. “What’s my name?”
He’s waxen, as if carved from old candles, and he licks his lower lip. “Miss French.”
She lowers her hands by her sides, and wonders if he will ever be brave enough. She nods once, sadly, and turns to walk back to the open door and daylight.
He snaps his fingers and the door slams closed.
She stops, smiling, but doesn’t turn. Not yet. It takes more than a little magic to win her.
“Don’t walk away again, Belle,” he says.
Only then does she turn, and she’s smiling and her eyes are brimming with tears. He’s walking forward and she’s running and they crash midway across the floor, all hands and arms and holding.
“I promised forever,” she whispers into his shoulder. “I promised.”
He tilts her chin up and looks into her face. “Do you mean it, dearie?” he asks in an awed whisper, and there are so many words there he isn’t saying aloud, and so many words she’s hearing that aren’t brave enough to come out.
She smiles through the tears. “I do.”