In Emma’s extensive experience, phone calls in the middle of the night were never good news. Therefore she figured she was not required to be polite. Or, really, awake.
But the voice that replied brought her sharply out of sleep, that meandering accent grabbing her attention even before the words penetrated. “I’m calling in that favor.”
Emma sat up in the darkness, automatically lowering her voice even though Mary Margaret slept like the proverbial dead. “Right now? It’s…” She glanced over at the red-glowing alarm clock. “…Two-forty-seven. In the morning.” And while the Sheriff might be expected to be on call at any time, she seriously doubted that whatever Mr. Gold wanted was in any way official.
“Right now.” His tone was devoid of its usual edge of ironic amusement--in fact, he sounded strained. “You remember my little retreat in the woods? Meet me there.”
“I--” The click of disconnection interrupted her, and Emma squeezed her eyes shut and resisted the urge to throw her cellphone across the room. Toasters are cheaper, she reminded herself, and sighed, and slid out of bed.
She could be dressed and on the road in two minutes, but she detoured long enough to make coffee--partly out of an urge to spite Gold, and partly because there was no way she was going to drive out into the woods on a mere three hours of sleep.
The cabin wasn’t far, relatively speaking--few things in Storybrooke were, at least compared to Boston--but the drive gave Emma enough time to wonder just why the hell she was doing this. It was one thing to promise Gold a favor, and she’d done that before she knew just how shady a character he was; it was quite another to run out into the darkness to deliver without the slightest idea what was going on.
It’s not like he gave you time to argue, she told herself, squinting a little as her car’s headlights cut the night. And you haven’t agreed to anything yet. You can still refuse when you get there.
If she could…
She didn’t see any other vehicle at the cabin, but there was a light on inside it. Emma climbed out and looked around, hand hovering over her gun, but nothing leaped out of the darkness and she rolled her eyes.
“This isn’t Boston,” she muttered to herself. “The boogeyman is not lurking in the bushes.”
The door of the cabin opened, Gold’s slender figure a cutout against the dim light. “Come in, Sheriff, and make it quick.”
Still dead serious. Emma strode over to the door and squeezed past him, since he refused to move out of her way.
She hadn’t had much chance to examine the place the last time. It was sparsely furnished, but clean and comfortable, with the same high-quality stuff Gold had at home; Emma wondered how often he came out for a bit of camping, or whatever. He didn’t strike her as the hunting-fishing-hiking type, particularly with that cane--
Behind her, Gold shut the door. “Thank you for coming,” he said, and Emma turned to look at him. The irony was back, but he looked seriously stressed, the lines in his face tight-drawn. He was as impeccably dressed as always, but he looked like he hadn’t slept.
“Yeah. What’s going on?” she asked, folding her arms. “What’s the emergency?”
His lips twitched, and he limped over to the nearest window to look out. “As I said, I’m calling in my favor.”
“I haven’t agreed to do anything,” Emma pointed out uneasily. A promise was a promise, but if he had something illegal in mind--which he probably did, she admitted unhappily. “If this has to do with your arraignment--”
“Relax, Sheriff. Or, I should say, Ms. Swan. I’m not asking for anything that will impinge on your official duties.” He shot her one of those indulgent looks, though it didn’t work so well when he was so tense.
Emma refrained from another eye-roll. Gold’s talent for knowing what one was thinking was irritating. “Good thing I didn’t bring the squad car, then.”
She was joking, but his murmur of “Indeed,” had her raising her brows. He was back to peering out the window, but his voice carried back over his shoulder. “I am expecting delivery of a…package. I require you to keep it safe for me.”
Is that all? But it couldn’t be, not with him. “Stolen goods?” Emma asked dryly.
He let out an amused breath. “In one sense of the word.” As she watched, he stiffened, and a second later she heard the purr of an engine and the crunch of tires on the unpaved road.
The engine shut off, and there were voices outside--two, both male, Emma calculated automatically. Gold opened the door, glancing back at her. “Stay here,” he said. “Please.”
And he went out. She was tempted to defy him, just because he annoyed her, but the deep tension in him held her back. Whatever’s going on, it’s obviously important to him. Wait and see before you make a move.
It was only a couple of minutes before he returned, just ahead of a burly man in a dark suit, and Emma flinched as she realized that the man was carrying the front end of a body bag. The back end was supported by another as like the first one to be his brother, and before she could think of anything to say Gold had directed them to lay their burden down on the long sofa in the middle of the room.
A body? He wants me to hide a body for him?
Gold handed one man a thick envelope, and without a word they both left, closing the door behind them. A moment later the engine started up and faded away, but Emma scarcely noticed.
“If you think I’m going to conceal a corpse for you--”
Gold waved an impatient hand at her, eyes fixed on the bag as he drew closer. “Hush, Ms. Swan. This is nothing so nefarious.”
Slowly he bent and drew back the long zipper. Emma braced herself for--anything, really, but the form revealed as the plastic fell back was, well, fresh. Brown hair, white skin; Emma’s hand hovered at her nose, but there was no smell of decomposition.
She took a step closer as Gold straightened. It was a young woman, maybe Mary Margaret’s age, with wide cheekbones and long eyes, but her hair was tangled and her face far too thin. She was wearing what looked like hospital scrubs, and her wrists bore bruises. Emma felt her jaw tightening at the signs of abuse.
Gold’s hand shook a little as he brushed strands of hair from the girl’s face, and Emma realized abruptly that the woman was breathing. Unconscious, not dead.
“What’s going on?” she asked softly. “If you want me to hide her, Gold, I need more information.”
His breath hissed between his teeth, and he sat clumsily on the edge of the sofa, fingers wrapped whitely around the head of his cane. “You asked me if she was stolen goods.” He lifted the girl’s arm with one gentle hand, unfolding it and revealing the needle marks running up the inside. “I took her from those who did this to her. Is that truly stealing, Sheriff?”
Emma had never been slow. “How crazy is she, Gold? Is she violent?”
He shook his head, hair concealing his expression. “Never violent, never.” The emphasis held some old pain that made Emma want to shiver. “As for ‘crazy’, I can’t truly say. Certainly she wasn’t mad when they put her away.”
Ah. It wasn’t a plausible story, except Emma had heard its like before; it was astonishing how easy it could be to get rid of someone inconvenient by putting them in for “psychiatric evaluation”. “Who put her away?”
“Her father.” Gold raised the limp hand he still held to his cheek, a move that left Emma torn between unease and sympathy. “And our good Mayor.” His voice went cold. “She should have guessed I would have people following her.”
Emma knew that Gold never told the whole truth, that he skewed words as easily as he smiled to serve his own purposes. But Regina was just the sort to do something like that, and if Regina had put this girl away, then Emma was going to thwart her, never mind that she would be doing exactly what Gold wanted. She was well aware of the differences between legal and ethical and right.
This one’s the latter.
“Mary Margaret has a--” she began, but Gold held up a hand.
“The less I know, in this case, the better,” he said bleakly. “If all goes well, the Mayor won’t suspect that she’s been fooled, but I cannot depend on it, and the first place she will look will be me.”
Emma let her lips curl into a smile. “Plausible deniability, right.” She put her hands on her hips and regarded the sleeping woman. “I don’t know how long I can hide her, though.”
Gold was still holding the girl’s hand, and Emma wondered just what relationship he had had with her. The age difference was considerable, for one thing. But if I have her, I can protect her from him too, she told herself. If I need to.
“A week should be sufficient,” he said, his eyes fixed on the sleeping face. “After that, I will have someplace safe for her to go.”
Emma frowned. “I thought…I thought people didn’t leave Storybrooke.” It was a dangerous thing to say, but he didn’t look up.
“Well, there’s leaving, and then there’s leaving.” He shrugged. “This is hardly my only bolthole, Sheriff Swan.”
Emma tossed up her hands. “All right. Let me get her into the car.”
Gold folded back more of the body bag. “I can carry her.”
Emma snorted. “No, I don’t think you can.” She pulled her keys from her pocket and grabbed his hand, dropping them into it despite his flinch and his glare. “Go open the passenger side and put the seat back.”
His lips pursed angrily, but after another moment he pushed to his feet and limped out. Emma rolled her eyes again--men!--and bent to lift the unconscious woman into a fireman’s carry.
She had the sour smell of someone who hadn’t bathed in a while, but she was warm with life, and Emma carried her heavily out, wondering for the nth time just how her life had gotten so weird.
Gold was waiting at the car, and helped her lower the girl into the seat. She had to be drugged, Emma figured, because anyone else would have woken up by now.
“What’s her name?” Emma puffed as she straightened.
Gold stared down at the woman, and Emma saw his lips move over some unvocalized word before he actually spoke. “Arabella. Arabella French.”
Emma blinked, opened her mouth, and then closed it again. Ooookay. That explains a few things. “I take it you’re not going to tell her father she’s alive, either.”
Gold’s expression went abruptly ugly. “No.”
“Serves him right if he put her away without cause.” Her agreement seemed to startle him, and Emma plucked her keys from his grip. “So do I call you when she wakes up, or are we winging it here?”
“I’ll contact you when it’s safe.” Gold’s face relaxed back towards a smile. “For the moment, I think it’s best if I remain quite annoyed with you for arresting me.”
“Works for me.” Emma rounded the front of the car and slid into the driver’s seat, then reached across to grab the passenger seatbelt and fasten it. “Close the door, would you?”
That strange tension was back, and for a moment Emma thought he was going to change his mind, but then Gold shut the door carefully and stepped back. Emma turned on the engine and backed away enough to turn around, then drove back through the dark woods, wondering what the hell she’d gotten herself into this time.
Mary Margaret leaned over the loft railing, eyes bright. “She’s awake!”
Emma set down her coffee mug, Saturday morning sleepiness dissipating. “Really? Okay, I’ll be right up.”
The little sewing room off of the loft got sun from a small window, but it wasn’t obvious from the outside of the building that the room existed. Emma thought the odds were poor that Regina would break in and start searching, but she couldn’t put it past the woman, and Mary Margaret had already covered the door with a mirror when she’d moved in, tickled with the idea of a secret room. It wouldn’t stand up to a thorough search, but Emma figured it was the best she could do. As she climbed the stairs to the loft, she reflected on the benefits of a tolerant--and compassionate--housemate.
Arabella was sitting up against the pillows Mary Margaret had piled on the old daybed, her pale skin recovering some color. She’d slept for over twenty-four hours since Gold had summoned Emma, and the latter had started to worry, but the eyes that lifted to her own when she entered the little room were clear, if confused. Arabella’s hands were wrapped around a glass; Mary Margaret had thoughtfully left a pitcher of water on the sewing table.
“Um, hi,” Emma said, giving the girl what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “How are you feeling?” Blast, what if she is crazy after all? How are we going to keep an insane person hidden?
“I…I’m not sure,” Arabella replied, sounding bewildered. Her voice was hoarse. “Am I dead?”
“What? No!” Emma sat down in the wooden chair Mary Margaret kept next to the sewing machine. “No. You’re, uh, safe.”
“Am I really?” Arabella looked around. “I only remember the…cell.”
Emma hid her flinch. “Well. That’s over now.” She waved half-heartedly at the door. “You’re free to walk out of here, though it would probably be better if you didn’t actually leave the building for a while. Are you hungry?”
One corner of the wide mouth tilted up in a wry smile. “I’m not sure I can even stand,” Arabella admitted. She took a sip of water.
Emma started to relax. The girl sounded sane, at least. “I can give you a hand if you need the bathroom,” she offered.
“That would be nice,” Arabella agreed. “What’s your name?”
“Oh. Emma. Emma Swan.” She held out a hand, and Arabella took it gingerly. “Nice to meet you.”
“I’m Belle,” was the reply, and her smile grew wider. “Nice to meet you too.”
An hour later Arabella was fed on the toast and juice Mary Margaret brought up, wearing clean pajamas after a stint in the bathroom, and tucked back into bed to sleep. The girl had no reserves, Emma judged, and probably her system was still full of whatever drug they’d used to get her out. But her color lingered, and cleanliness and natural sleep did a lot for her.
Emma sat at the kitchen table with her reheated coffee and thought hard. Mary Margaret--gone grocery shopping at the moment--had been as interested and agreeable as Emma had hoped, cooing sympathetically over Arabella’s bruises and agreeing at once to keep her safe, though Emma hadn’t told her the whole story. Now, in the quiet, Emma tried to fit Arabella into Henry’s fairy tale pattern.
Beauty and the Beast was the obvious choice, though no matter how Emma stretched it she couldn’t make Mr. Gold into a Beast. Not exactly attractive, sure; morally ambiguous to the limits of patience, definitely. But he didn’t fit.
“Maybe she’s Rapunzel,” Emma grumbled into her mug. “Except her hair’s not long enough, I guess.” But then, Mr. Gold wasn’t a Prince either. She tried to think of a fairy tale that involved a fair maiden held captive by--whatever the closest analog to Mr. Gold was--but without success.
Well, the easiest thing to do was ask the kid, he had the whole book just about memorized even if he didn’t have his copy any longer, but finding alone time with him was a problem.
Emma shrugged and reached for a piece of toast. Take it as it comes. The main thing was to keep Arabella safe.
A week later Arabella had recovered enough to insist on taking over some of the housekeeping, though she still moved slowly. And, much to Emma’s relief, she showed no signs of insanity. In fact, she was doing remarkably well for someone who had spent what amounted to all of her previous life in an insane-asylum nightmare, but Emma put it down to general Storybrooke weirdness and left it at that, since there was no point in worrying.
She was a sweet girl with a gentle mien and a sly sense of humor, and she and Mary Margaret got along like a house afire. She’d agreed not to leave the apartment, and in fact showed no desire to do so; she was still weak, though her bruises and needlemarks were healing.
And, up to that point, she had asked very few questions.
Now, however, she sat down next to Emma on the living room couch and folded her hands in her lap. Emma put down the paper--last Tuesday’s, it had been a busy week--and raised her brows. “Yes?”
“How did you get me out of there?” Arabella asked bluntly.
There was no need for her to clarify the there. Emma sighed, wondering how to explain. “I didn’t. I don’t even know where you were held, or that you were being held.” She looked at the young woman whom, she realized, she was really starting to like. “Bringing you here was a favor to, ah, someone I know.”
“Not a friend,” Arabella deduced, expression wary. “Who?”
Gold hadn’t said what to tell her, but if he was going to turn up to take Arabella away, Emma decided that the girl was going to have all the information first. And if she says no, then here she stays, whether he likes it or not. The favor was to hide her, not to pass her back like a parcel.
“His name’s Mr. Gold,” Emma began, and saw no flicker of recognition on Arabella’s face. “He’s…kind of a power in Storybrooke. I don’t know how he got you out, but everyone thinks you’re dead now.” She picked up the paper and opened it to the obituary section. There was even a photo at the top of the page, Mr. French and the Mayor at a graveside service.
Arabella took the paper and studied it, brow wrinkling. “Father,” she murmured, then looked back to Emma. “I don’t understand.”
“Join the club.” Emma shrugged. “Gold told me that your father and the Mayor were responsible for having you put away. I don’t know if that’s true--”
Arabella shuddered. “It is. She…she came to see me, sometimes.”
Emma swallowed a surge of bile. “Oh.”
Arabella set the paper down gingerly, as if it might turn and bite her. “Go on.”
Emma blew out her breath. “Well, I owed Gold a favor and he called it in. Not that I wouldn’t have helped if he had explained,” she added hastily. “He said he’d contact me--probably soon. But, I just want to say, you don’t have to do anything he says. If you want to stay, you can stay. You’re free now, Arabella.”
“Belle,” the young woman corrected gently. “I think…I need to lie down for a while.”
“Sure.” Emma watched as Arabella rose, feeling stupid. Did I say the right things? Does she really know she has a choice?
There was no answer as Arabella climbed the stairs to the loft.
She hadn’t emerged from her room by suppertime, and Mary Margaret reported that she was apparently asleep. Emma set aside a portion of spaghetti for Arabella for later, and tried not to brood.
The knock on the door as they were washing dishes was not entirely a surprise. When Emma opened the door to reveal Mr. Gold, Mary Margaret scooped up her coat. “I’ll just go for a walk,” she said hastily, and slipped past him and out.
“Wonderfully discreet girl,” Gold said, walking into the apartment at Emma’s sardonic wave. His little smile was back, but Emma could all but smell the tension coming off of him.
“Yes, she is.” Emma shut the door. “I take it you’re here to see Arabella.”
“If she’ll allow it.” The smile was gone, and those harsh lines were back. “I don’t doubt you’ve filled her in, in my absence.”
“I told her what I know.” Emma didn’t relax. “And I’m telling you, if she doesn’t want to go with you then she won’t. You asked me to keep her safe, and--”
“--You’ll keep her safe even from me, if need be?” His lips twitched. “Don’t worry, Ms. Swan. I am prepared to bow to Belle’s wishes…no matter what they may be.”
“Belle? That’s what she calls herself.” Emma couldn’t help thinking of her by the name Gold had given, though the young woman preferred the nickname.
“Does she now,” he said softly, eyes kindling.
The whole thing was unnerving. Emma exhaled. “Look, I’ll go up and see if she’s awake. You stay here.”
She started for the stairs, but his “Wait!” had her halting. Gold reached a hand into his coat pocket and came out with a china cup. “Give her this and ask her if she’ll see me.”
His fingers seemed reluctant to release it when Emma lifted it from his palm. She eyed the cup dubiously; it was cracked, and missing a piece from the rim. “Okay.”
Emma’s soft rap on the mirror-door was answered with permission, and she found Arabella sitting up on the daybed, book in her hand but closed. Emma didn’t think she’d been reading.
“Mr. Gold’s here. He wants to see you.” Emma hesitated. “You don’t have to say yes.”
“But he has answers, doesn’t he?” Arabella turned a tremulous smile on Emma.
“He’s…twisty. They may not be the whole truth.”
Arabella shrugged. “Where else can I start?”
“Got me.” Emma held out the cup. “Anyway, he asked me to give you this. Do you want to come down, or should I send him up?”
Arabella’s gaze fixed on the damaged piece of china, as if it were something rare and precious, and her hands were trembling when she took it. “S-send him up.”
Emma frowned. “Okay. But I’ll be outside. If you need anything, you just shout.”
She didn’t bother to go back down the stairs; Gold was waiting at the bottom, and when Emma beckoned he came up quickly for a man with a limp. “She’ll see you,” Emma told him. “Be good.”
He spared a sniff at her words, but his eyes were fixed on the open door. Emma followed his rapid steps, unwilling to leave him alone with Arabella until she had a better understanding of the situation, and almost collided with him when he halted in the doorway.
She couldn’t see his face, but the eyes Arabella lifted to him were filled with tears. The cup was cradled in her hands, but she set it aside and held out her arms to him.
In an instant he was kneeling beside the daybed, head bowed until it pressed into Arabella’s skirt, hands gripping the fabric. His voice was too muffled for Emma to make out the words.
Arabella bent over him, kissing his head, her own voice quivering. “I forgive you,” she said, her arms going around his shoulders. His shaking shoulders, Emma noticed.
I don’t think I need to see this. Emma swung the mirror-door most of the way closed and backed off, feeling a smile curving her lips and her assumptions rearranging themselves.
Just to be on the safe side, she found one of Mary Margaret’s books of crossword puzzles and a pen, and took a chair on the other side of the loft. She’d promised to stay within shouting distance, after all. But I get the feeling Arabella won’t need me.
Like so many of the mysteries in Storybrooke, she didn’t know the way this one was going to turn out. But it looked like it was going to be a happy ending. For once.
She opened the book to a blank puzzle, and grinned to herself. Seven letters, the opposite of cowardice. Hmm…