He just stares at her from afar. Not daring to go near the girl, not trusting himself enough. So the day Mr Gold almost bumps into her he is so surprised that his breath just stops. He was just walking down the street and there she is, chatting happily with Ruby.
She is so near... In a second he wants to crush her tight to his chest, tangle his hand in her curls and pull her face in the right angle to allow him to kiss her hard and deep. He wants to look at her whole and be assured that she is fine and safe and unharmed. He wants to check every inch of her skin and take note on every little mark on her pale beauty and torture Regina again and again for everything he would find. And he just wants to stroke her face with his fingers, lightly, and whisper something soothing in her ear. He wants to drag her away where they could be alone and be buried in her arms, crying like a child. And he wants to just claim her in front of everyone. To shout aloud she belongs to him.
He wants to do all this, and a lot of others things, all at the same time.
This lasts just a moment, then he recompose his features, hoping the girls didn't notice his distress, and reminding himself that she is Isabel French, not his Belle. So he steps aside and clears the way for the girls.
Ruby urges Belle to walk away. No, not Belle, the tall girl says Izzy. Her intentions are crystal clear. The girl doesn't want her fragile friend to be near him, or any other threat, a second longer than necessary. He agrees with her, Belle must be protected, and he takes a mental note to be... not kinder, but less harsh to Ruby and her granny next time... maybe.
But now the girl is going away, again. And he can't stop feeling helpless. Their eyes meet for a brief moment, when she looks at him and nods in greeting. It is just a small, polite gesture, even uncertain. She doesn't recognise him, and why the hell would she? He is nobody for her, just an old man that needs a cane to walk. And he hopes so; he fervently hopes that none of the rumours about him will reach her, ever. Just let me be nobody for her, the less she thinks about me, the better, he says to himself while walking away.
It's been three months since Isabel French, the florist's lost child, was freed from the hospital. It was just the beginning of spring. The first good days, early bees shyly flying around in search of the earliest sprouts. He walked out of his house and found some little blue flowers blossoming in his courtyard. They were just wild flowers, nothing spectacular. But that shade of blue... it was painful to watch. He took a mental note to have them eradicated as soon as possible. He usually wasn't so drastic, in normal conditions he would never have cared so much for some flowers, hardly noticing flowers did exist. But after the "events" of the last month, his little problem with Moe French, that particular shade of blue was really painful and irritating. And with good days of blue skies ahead, he just wanted to be sure he could safely look at the ground in his own damn garden without any other trigger for the memories. As if the memories of her will ever leave him in peace for just a second, and god knows how much he wished for peace... But he recoiled from the thought like it was a blasphemy. He would never trade those memories for a single instant, or even a lifetime, of peace.
He reached the shop and started to think of what he has to do today, checking both his real agenda in front of him and his hidden one, the one that exist just in his head. It should be a quiet day, almost as quiet as the days were before Emma came to town. He had some paperwork to do, but, before, he would drop at Granny's and grab something to eat for breakfast. His fridge was empty as always, but that wasn't the main reason: all the Storybrooke's rumours somehow concentrate themselves around that diner's table. And in his profession he must know what's going on around town.
When he reached the place, he sensed something was really going on. People were buzzing like wasp, and no one turned or stiffened hearing the tap of his cane on the floor. Something huge must have happened, and he must know what. So he reached the counter, when Mary Margaret, who entered the diner just seconds before him, was talking animatedly to Ruby. He ordered a coffee and listened when neither one of the two women paid any attention to him, even if he was standing right near them.
"The girl, have you seen her, it is true?" asked Ruby.
"Yes, poor girl", Mary Margaret said, with a sorrowful expression, "She was in shock. Emma phoned me last night to bring urgently some clothes and shoes at the hospital. The poor thing was covered in a blanket, eyes tightly closed. I think the strong light of the ER were painful for her eyes", she trailed of, sighing.
"Why was she down there?"
"Nobody knows, and Emma is really mad. Seems that no one knew there was a basement in the hospital, not even the doctors".
"And does Emma believe that?", Ruby Asked
"I think she does, and I do, too. I saw the expressions on Doctor Whale's face while he was checking the girl. He was horrified", the schoolteacher stopped for a second, then added in a whisper "You know, I don't like the man much, but he was really shocked. No, I don't think he knew".
"And the girl is all right? I mean..." Ruby trailed off.
"So it seems. Physically she is OK, or so said Doctor Whale to Emma. She is thin, and pale, and with tangled hair. Oh, poor girl, she wouldn't let go Emma's hand" the schoolteacher smile was a little pained, thinking at the scene she saw the previous night. "She was holding Emma's hand so tightly, her chuckles were white and her entire arm was trembling. Emma had to reassure her everything was fine, and that she was going nowhere. She constantly repeated that to the girl, I don't know how many times, before she freed her hand and Emma could go talk with the doctor".
"Who could be so cruel to lock up a girl in the hospital basement for... how long?", Ruby was indignant.
"Years", said the schoolteacher in a sad tone. "She was in that place for years. Emma told me that. There was a nurse guarding her, but she vanished. Emma said the place made her shiver. She said it looked like a dungeon".
Gold rummaged all this information in his head. So Regina had someone locked up in the hospital basement all this time. Well, nothing to be surprised of. But he wondered who could have pissed off the Evil Queen to that point. And he was still musing the possibilities when Archie hopper entered, all the blood drained from his face as he reached the counter.
"Ruby, please, be kind and give me a coffee, a really strong one", he said, not realising he was talking to the girl using her fist name for the first time in history.
"Of course", said the girl looking at him with a worried expression. She took a mug a poured in coffee. Archie added a lot of sugar and sipped a little bit of the dark drink before turning and facing Mary Margaret. "Emma told me she will phone you if she need something, and also", he added, looking to Ruby, "could you ask you grandmother to make something, a sup and light sandwiches, and bring them to the police station?"
"For the girl?" Ruby asked
"Yes", Archie said, in a sad whisper, "for that poor soul. Now she is sleeping in the sheriff's office. It is better if she eat something once she wakes up".
"She is no more at the hospital?" Inquired Mary Margaret
"No, I think it would be better for her to stay away from the hospital. And Emma agreed to take her to her office. Everything would be better than that damn place", Hopper cursed, then stopped short and said to the women, blushing slightly, "I apologise for the rude language, it's not proper in front of ladies".
Ruby smiled tenderly to the man. And Gold registered it was the first time she saw her smiling with innocence to a man, not flirting.
"And please, Ruby", said Archie, turning to face the girl and becoming completely red at the sight of her smile, "make a lot of coffee for me, in a thermos. I'll go back to the sheriff's station in a little while, as soon as Mr French arrives, do we could talk".
Gold flinched a little, perplexed at the mention of the florist. Why the hell the florist need to go to Emma's office, and with Doctor Hopper? The two women were thinking the same and Mary Margaret was the first one to voice their thought. "Moe French? The florist? Why do you need him?"
Archie, and sighed, massaging his temples. "I am too tired. I usually never let something like this escape. But I guess Emma wouldn't mind too much, given the fact that the two of you will be in her office in a little while, too. I talked to the girl all night. It was difficult for her, and her voice was cracked and rough. I'd bet she hasn't said a word in years." Archie was overwhelmed, remembering the night, and he slowly shook his head, "but little by little, she answered some questions, seeming to start remembering something. She couldn't remember who she was, or where she was. Why she was in that", Archie stopped at loss of words to describe the place she was secluded, and spat out the next words with disgust, "in that awful place. Maybe she will recoil some memories, after the drugs worn off. But I don't know. She just remembered she lived in a town with just her dad, and that her dad smelled of roses".
Three people were leaning towards the doctor while he paused to take down a big gulp of coffee. Mary Margaret was worried and horrified, Ruby seemed deeply concerned and Gold found himself getting unexpectedly anxious, drinking down every bit of information he could get, and trying to think who the hell could be that girl to have pissed off Regina so much. The little mermaid she once mentioned, maybe? He mused.
Archie restarted his tale, "Emma searched thought the old files she was studying, you know, the unsolved cases. And she found what she was looking for. A little girl that went missed years ago. And I honestly didn't remembered her before the sheriff mentioned her name, and that is absurd because in a town like this that one it was such a big case. It happened ten years ago. She was barely fifteen and she vanished out of thin air. And now I remember all the facts, all the newspaper articles, but during the time I talked with the girl none of this came to my mind. And we talked all night long. It's absurd. I wasn't sure at the beginning, I thought Emma was wrong... but then I took a look at the picture Emma was holding. And there she was: she is indeed older, and thinner, with unkempt hair and borrowed clothes. But she is really the same girl portrayed in the photo. Isabel French, Moe French's daughter, was there, in front of me, after all this years. And I suddenly remembered her. The same blue eyes she had when she was just a little kid, but they weren't smiling any more.
Nobody noticed Gold as he stumbled away and exited from the shop. He didn't notice if Doctor Hopper, Ruby or Mary Margaret has finally realised he was near them, and that he heard every word they spoke. He staggered out, away from the counter, almost loosing balance on his bad leg, unable to walk straight, the grip of his hand on the cane too tight. He heard the door slamming shut behind him, but he didn't care.
He couldn't breathe, and he didn't know if he was damn able to breathe ever again, in this life or another. He must recompose himself, think everything through before he could catch a glimpse of her, before knowing if she is really alive or if, in some of Regina's ways, in one of her twisted plot, this is another trick: a different kind of punishment, just for him, because he remembers and has still enough power to stand against her if he wished so. Even if it's a different kind of power, he could challenge her, and she knows.
He walked home, gasping for breath, limping heavily, not knowing if the pain in his aching leg is more or less crushing than the pain he could feel in his heart and in the pitch of his stomach.
The next thing Gold remembers from that day was he reaching home were he stood, in front of his house, not knowing what to do next. Then something gleamed in the corner of his eyes. The little blue flowers that blossomed this very morning in his courtyard. He reached down and took one of the flowers in his hand. A particular kind of blue, a shade he will never forget and he thought he will never see again. He put the flower near his lips, kissing its petals and inhaling his delicate scent. He realised he could breathe again when he sighed her name, "Belle".