Mr. Gold wasn’t ticklish by nature, but a little fluttering near his neck was irritating enough to rouse him from the deepest sleep he’d had in weeks. He shifted in bed, swatting at his neck, but the small, answering voice that squeaked “Oof!” was more striking than a bucket of ice water thrown over him. Mr. Gold flew up in bed, eyes wide and heart hammering only to see his little love tumble down his chest and fall end over end on the top of the bed sheets, landing by his knee.
“Belle!” he choked, scrambling forward to push the sheets out of the way. “Belle- are you alright, love?”
Belle rolled over, her hair a nest of matted brown curls and her makeshift dress unsightly wrinkled. She stumbled for a moment not unlike a miniature drunkard, leaning against his knee with a puff of air. “Oh, I’m woozy,” she murmured, putting her hand to her head before looking up at him. “That was a tumble, Rum...”
“Why were you up here?” he asked softly, putting his hand out and letting her step up into his palm where she plopped down. He cupped his hand so she could rest her back against his fingers, careful to not jostle her too much. “You shouldn’t- you shouldn’t do that, Belle, I could’ve rolled over and hurt you- or threw you off by accident-”
Belle blushed bright red, her feet curling as she looked down at her hands twisting in her dress, bashfully confessing, “I just wanted to be close to you.”
The knot that formed in his throat was so tight that Mr. Gold could hardly breathe. Staring at the little thing in his palm, it felt as though all that time ago, all those years wasted were melting away. It was the same feeling he’d had when she’d fallen from the curtains, the sunshine washing out the darkness and leaving nothing but something pure hearted and warm and accepting in place. How was it someone so small could bend one of the most powerful men in the world?
And looking into her face, she seemed to anticipate him to rebuke her all over again and that more than anything turned his heart so painfully he had to force himself calm. He was positively humming with the energy, the need to tell her everything he owed her. Instead, he whispered, “Perhaps it would be best if you let me know next time,” he tried to smile, though it felt weak and watery. “Don’t want you getting tangled up in my hair, now do we?”
Wriggling in his palm until she could sit up on her knees, Belle pushed her hair behind her ears and nodded. “I promise.”
“Ah- what were you even doing?” he asked, rubbing his neck. He was so unused to physical contact, his skin still tingled.
Belle pursed her lips to suppress a self indulgent smile, looking down at her hands shyly. “You... well, your cheek is scruffy,” the words came out in a babbling rush. “You never- you didn’t look like this before, and I just- I was curious, you see, you look so different but you’re still you, and I was just, I didn’t know since you look so human now if I could-oh, dear,” Belle took a deep breath, flailing her hands at her sides. “I just wanted to kiss your cheek-” she looked up, biting her lip, trying to duck her head while meeting his eyes, “Please... please don’t be upset.”
The idea that she feared his wrath over a kiss on the cheek was devastating, but not undeserved and he bore it with solemnity. Considering how he’d treated her their last few moments together, he felt it false to try to deny that he would be upset. Instead, he found himself a hesitant smile buried somewhere behind the empty space of his heart that she had left when she’d gone, and pressed his finger to his lips and held it out.
Belle stared at him for a moment before her eyes lit like flickering candles, and she smiled his favorite dimpled smile, leaned up and kissed his finger in return.
For a moment they sat in companionable silence, Mr. Gold’s eyes falling down to the buttons on his nightshirt, Belle rocking back on her heels in his palm until she sat with her legs crossed. It was warm and quiet and comfortable, with neither of them wanting anything in particular besides to remain as close as they could. The moment was broken when Belle reached forward and patted the heel of Mr. Gold’s hand, asking, “Rum?”
His eyes flew up to meet her sweet little face. “Yes, my love?”
With a sheepish wince, she said, “I’m hungry.”
“Of course-” with a careful movement, he deposited her on his shoulder, and didn’t move until he felt her definite little tug of his hair to let him know she was seated. He then threw off the covers, gathered his cane and slipped his feet into his slippers. He was careful in his trip down the stairs, mindful of the little girl on his shoulder as he leaned on his cane.
“Your leg? Is it hurt?” Belle asked, and her sweet voice was so close to his ear, he could almost hear her as she once was.
“An old injury,” Mr. Gold waved a hand, turning down the stairs slowly. “More tedious than anything, I promise.”
A quiet moment passed before Belle asked in a soft murmur, “What happened?”
Mr. Gold reached the kitchen before he found the words to say, and the dignity with which to say them. “From my time at war, dearie, long before we ever met,” he lifted his hand to his shoulder and Belle hopped down into his palm and let him set her on the island counter. He watched her step carefully, tripping on the cold granite top before she turned to look up at him, wringing her hands in front of her. He ducked his face away, walking to the refrigerator. “The first war against the ogres.”
“Was... was this when you still had your son?”
Mr. Gold paused, swallowing hard as he pulled out eggs and butter. “Yes. He was a baby at the time.”
Belle loped across the counter, squeezing her way between the salt and pepper shakers until she stood near his elbow, climbing up atop the coffee cannister. “What was his name?” she asked, and Gold could hear her forced brightness, the false cheer she pushed into her voice.
He loved her for it more than he could ever say.
And he owed her this story, they both knew it. Glancing up at her, he frowned for a moment and took a step away so that he lit the pilot light farthest from her spot atop the coffee, taking a skillet down from the rack and heating it. He knew he owed her this story, and the look on her face, gentle and curious and knowing all at the same time, she knew it too. He bid his time while putting toast in the toaster and turning the coffee pot on. Before he could answer, Belle crossed her ankles and folded her hands in her lap. “You don’t have to tell me.”
“Yes, I do,” Mr. Gold sighed, opening the eggs and cracking two into the skillet. “We had a deal once, didn’t we?”
“You said you’d had nothing more to tell. I shouldn’t ask that of you,” Belle said, pausing to stare at her knees. “It’s just I know you did have more.”
Mr. Gold smiled, watching the eggs cook slowly. “You always did know more than what was good for you.”
“Or good for you.”
A laugh broke from his chest before he could stop it, somewhere deep inside that had gathered dust. “Yes, alright,” he nodded, bracing both hands against the edge of the counter, leaning on his good leg to look at his little love who smiled so smugly, happy with herself. Or perhaps happy with both of them. He met her eyes and took a deep breath, “Baelfire. Bae,” he lamented, letting his eyes drift to the eggs. He plucked a spatula from the drawer and scrambled the eggs in the pan. “Sweet boy,” he murmured, and why had he thought telling Belle of his son would crumble the world about his ears? No, the words came freely. There was pain, oh yes, pain, but her patience and kindness was greater, wrapping around him against the hurt of the words, even small as she was. “Trusting and determined, too brave to have anything to do with me,” he lifted the spatula, pointing at Belle with a sad smile. “You would have liked him, I think.”
Belle drew up her knees to her chest, resting her chin on top and wrapping her arms around her shins. She smiled in return, tilting her head up at him. “I think so too. What was he like?”
Mr. Gold paused, his hand hovering over the stove switch at the question. What was he like? He was... he was Baelfire. He was Bae, his boy. But the more he thought about it, the harder his heart seemed to grow in the stark realization that he had no idea how to answer the question. Swallowing thickly, Mr. Gold couldn’t look at Belle. He couldn’t tell her when it was all too hard to admit to his own mind that he was forgetting his boy’s face or what he had been like. He could recall holding him as a babe, sitting him on his knee as he spun, helping him walk for the first time and teaching him how to be gentle with their humble flock-but Baelfire himself...
Mr. Gold blinked hard, too afraid to admit that he could not remember what his boy had been like, or if he simply never knew at all.
The toast sprang up and Mr. Gold put the food on the plate, nodding to the table. “Come now, you need to eat.”
“Do I?” Belle smiled up at him, uncrossing her legs and hopping down onto the counter, loping up to his awaiting hand. With a lofty air as she held onto his thumb, she twirled her hands teasingly and asked, “Are you going to serve me my meals and launder my clothing?”
“Not with that attitude, I won’t,” he replied tartly. Belle giggled at him, kissing his thumb before she slipped out of his palm onto the table top. He retrieved the butter dish and some orange juice, remembering Belle’s fondness for it so many years ago. He made a wide circuit through the dining room and plucked the paper off the front step, nearly dropping the carton when he saw the headline.
Belle was attempting to tear a piece of the crust off the toast when she noticed his pause. “Rum?” she asked, tilting her head. “Is everything alright?”
Instead of replying, Mr. Gold set the glass and carton of juice down, then spread the paper out on the table beside the breakfast plate and took his seat, leaning his cane against the table. Belle hopped over to stand on the crease of the news as she read aloud, “‘Storybrooke General Crisis over. Missing Mental Patient,’” Belle made an indignant sound at the back of her throat, turning on her heel to face him as he poured some juice, clearly ruffled. “I’m not mental!”
“Do you know if they have any files on you, Belle?” Mr. Gold asked calmly, rising up to fetch himself some coffee. He thought again and retrieved the blueberries from the refrigerator as well, warming down to his toes when Belle smiled at seeing them as he sat back down. “Did you receive treatment? Therapy?”
“Oh, no,” Belle shook her head, stepping over as Mr. Gold opened the container. She hopped up onto the side and lifted a blueberry out (it took both her arms, but wasn’t overwhelming. “No, I never saw anyone except a nurse and one woman who came by to check up on me.”
Mr. Gold narrowed his eyes as he buttered the toast, but remained as impassive as he could. “What woman?”
Belle stopped, mid-bite into the blueberry. When she sat up, her mouth, neck, and hands were completely stained dark blue. She gulped and hesitated. “Well, I... I don’t know her here.”
“But... back home?” Mr. Gold prompted, looking at her closely. She was always better at reading him than he her, but in that moment he could taste her reluctance in the air.
“The woman on the road,” Belle finally said after a long pause. She looked up hesitantly, twisting her dress between her hands. “The one I met- the one who said those things to me...”
It was only after a long breath out that Mr. Gold realized he was holding the butter knife so tightly that his hand was trembling. He set it down, wiping his hands on his napkin slowly and methodically, attempting to line up his thoughts. Regina, of course it was Regina. She’d known Belle was in the mental ward, she had known all along and for some reason that gave Mr. Gold an assuring and frightening sense of calm.
Belle was staring at him, her bright blue eyes watching and seeing every little expression on his face. “You know her,” she said without question.
He only hesitated a moment this time before nodding once. “Yes, dear,” he answered, “But we’ll talk about that later.” They continued to eat their breakfast, him offering her the first bite of everything on his plate. She ate obediently without question, trusting him to keep his word (this time, his mind whispered). Only a few bites filled her up quick enough, and left her completely covered in juice and crumbs, butter and blueberry stains. Mr. Gold couldn’t help but laugh at her pout as she surveyed herself. “You’re going to need a bath,” he finally said, offering her his napkin.
Belle attempted rubbing at her face, but to no avail, huffing. “Well, a bath would be nice,” she admitted, holding up tresses of her hair. “And a comb of some sort.”
Mr. Gold thought for a moment before smiling slightly. “I think I have something that will work.”