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Midnight in the Parlour

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Friday, October 30 th
Close to Midnight, Present Time
Storybrooke, Maine

Coffee. She needs coffee if she’s going to remain alert in the dead of night. Rubbing her bleary, bloodshot eyes, Belle French walks barefoot to the old-fashioned percolator and pours a steaming mugful. Taking a fortifying sip of the thick, black brew, she grimaces, wishing for a spoonful of sugar. Her beverage of choice is spearmint tea, but to stay awake tonight she’ll need caffeine thrumming through her veins.

It’s nearly midnight at the Parlour, and Belle surveys her workmanship with a satisfactory sigh. Dabbing a touch more rouge onto Mrs. Morgan’s wizened cheeks, she whispers a benediction, brushes a kiss across the deceased’s folded hands, and wheels the open casket against the wall. “You don’t look the least bit pale,” Belle promises the dead woman.

While washing and arranging their hair, applying cosmetics, and making them look as natural as possible, she carries on a one-sided conversation with the deceased. There’s no one else to talk to, after all, except maybe the embalmer Ruby. In Belle’s experience, mortuary beauticians don’t exactly collect friends. Not that she’d had any before she became a makeup artist to the dead.

Now begin the long hours of waiting. For what or whom, Belle never knows. Dubbed the Icebox, the refrigeration unit in the Parlour basement is the only one in Storybrooke. Tonight and for the next several evenings, it’s her responsibility to keep a watchful vigil, admitting the dearly departed for storage until it’s time to prepare them for their final rest.

Belle hadn’t planned on becoming a mortuary beautician, rather, it was a role she had fallen into as the dutiful only daughter of Moe French. Five years ago, her father had taken over the Parlour when the withering business at his flower shop coincided with the sudden, inexplicable death of the former funeral director. The enterprising Mr. French had reasoned that since people order sympathy flower arrangements when family and friends die, he might as well rescue his floundering business and fulfill a necessary public service at the same time.

Being surrounded by dead people does not disturb Belle. She’s not superstitious, she doesn’t believe in ghosts, and she isn’t troubled by long stretches of silence. No, staying awake through the dark, long, lonely nights is by far the most challenging part of the job. Thankfully, reading helps her while away the hours of waiting and hinders the impulse to sleep.

Wrapping her hands around her warm mug, Belle settles onto the couch and flips open Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca. But despite her best efforts, it’s not long before she’s dozing off. When she next opens her eyes, the sun is cresting the horizon and her father is shaking her awake, his face a mixture of annoyed resignation and tenderness. Belle always meets the Sandman on the night shift. “It’s a good thing you didn’t miss any calls, Belle,” he scolds, urging her to go home and sleep in a real bed before she’s needed back at the Parlour after dinner.

xoxoxo


Saturday, October 31st
Early Evening

Belle run-walks through the parking lot as she smooths her wavy russet locks into a ponytail. Fastening her hair away from her face with a red hairband, Belle swings open the employee entrance of the Parlour just as dusk settles over Storybrooke.

“You’re late, Belles,” Ruby Lucas-Whale calls out from the embalming room.

Slightly embarrassed at being caught rushing into the peaceful Parlour, Belle huffs and pokes her head around the corner, the heady stench of chemicals causing her nose to wrinkle. “How’d you know it was me?”

“Well, he ain’t goin’ anywhere,” she drawls, motioning towards the body she’s preserving. “And nobody else would bust in here like the world’s on fire.”

“Point taken,” Belle glances at the corpse on the stainless steel table. “Is Mr. Johannsson almost ready for me? He looks so pale.”

“Yes,” Ruby nods. “I’ll bring him over to your station in 10 minutes and you’ll have him blushing like a new groom in no time.”

“Thanks, Rubes. You’re the best there is,” Belle smiles at her co-worker and lone friend.

“I’m the only one there is,” Ruby sighs dramatically. “But I guess that’s what happens when you marry the town coroner, eh?” She winks teasingly. “Gruesome is what we do.”

Plopping down in the chair at the reception desk, Belle loses herself in paperwork while she waits for Ruby to release Mr. Johannsson into her care. Suddenly her skin prickles, the sensation of being watched drawing out goosebumps along the nape of her neck.

“Miss French,” taunts a cold, accented voice from behind. Startled, Belle lurches to her feet—though he’s concealed himself in the darkened corner, she’d know that crude snarl anywhere. It’s Killian Jones, the assistant coroner.

“Come out of the shadows,” she demands, whipping around to face him. “You know the routine. Why didn’t you ring the back doorbell?”

Those glassy, blue coal-rimmed eyes seem to look right through her, and she shudders, feeling both invisible and exposed. He utters not a word, but jerks his thumb toward the back of the building. Slowly, he makes his way through the Parlour to the unloading dock. Trembling, Belle follows, grateful to not have his strange eyes on her.

The gurney bearing the cadaver pouch is already inside. Belle’s accepted many a dead body in five years, so she cannot credit the bizarre, twisting sensation in her gut.

“Who….who do you have in there?” she stammers softly, struggling to keep her composure. Jones returns to his part-time occupation of leering at her, so she turns away from his seeking glare to fix her attention on the body bag, wrestling it open with shaking fingers. Watching Belle struggle with the zipper, the assistant coroner arches a black eyebrow and continues to say nothing.

The bastard is relishing her discomfort, which only heightens Belle’s anxiety. Why the hell doesn’t Victor deliver the corpses anymore? At last she peels back enough of the thick black plastic to reveal the face of the person inside.

It’s Mr. Gold, the pawnshop owner.

Horrified, Belle claps her hand over her mouth and races to the restroom like the hounds of hell are on her heels. Through the pounding in her ears, she can hear Jones’ maniacal laugh as he howls, “Good riddance, you bastard!” Belle runs faster, covering her ears to squeeze out the terrible cackling. Somehow, she gains the toilet just in time. Emptying the contents of her stomach, she wretches and heaves until there’s nothing coming up but yellow, acrid bile.

“Belles,” Ruby pushes into the stall where Belle is collapsed on the floor, and thrusts a cup of cold water in front of her face.

Belle shrieks and flails, upsetting the cup’s contents all over the front of Ruby’s blouse.

“I’m so sorry! God, I—I thought you were Jones,” Belle moans, smearing black streaks of mascara over her face. “I don’t even know how I got here.” Belle looks at the commode and down at the tile floor, the mosaic pattern swimming in front of her face.

That revolting creep?” Ruby barks. “I’ve begged Victor to fire him dozens of times. I don’t know why he won’t. Anyway, apology not accepted. It’s my fault for startling you.” She refills the paper cup and presses it into Belle’s shaking hands.

“Mr. Gold is dead,” Belle whispers despondently.

“I know. A car accident. No one else was involved. He rammed into a tree, of all things. What a shame.” Ruby looks at Belle sharply. “You ok?”

“No. I mean yes. I mean no. Yes…I…I we were barely acquainted,” Belle stutters. “But he was kind to me. Most people aren’t, you know. They say ‘There goes that funny girl, that Belle. The spinster freak show that hangs out in a funeral home.’”

“I hang out in a funeral home, too,” Ruby reminds her wryly.

“That’s different, Ruby. You have Victor. Also you don’t care what other people think. I wish I didn’t care, but I do. I’ve always wanted to be brave, to be someone’s hero, but I never had the chance,” Belle criticizes herself. “Now it’s too late.”

“You’re a wonderful person, Belle. Beautiful, kind, talented. You need more proof? Mr. Gold wasn’t kind to anyone. You must have been very special to him.” Ruby offers a sympathetic smile, encouraging Belle to keep talking.

“One time, we ended up in the same booth at Granny’s and drank tea together,” Belle confides. “Just sat quietly and enjoyed each other’s company. I always wanted to ask him out on a date, but I…I couldn’t.” The explanation isn’t exactly a lie, Belle tells herself. More like a half-truth.

The real reason she hadn’t tried to date Mr. Gold is one she will never reveal to another living soul. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to ask him out, to talk to him—it was that she literally couldn’t. Whenever she would try to speak, her voice refused to cooperate. Though she opened her mouth, no sound ever came out. It was as though her vocal cords were frozen in his presence, reminding her of those old black-and-white horror movies filled with silent screams. To compensate for her inexplicable muteness, she had taken to nodding and smiling at his cordial greetings, loving him silently from afar. Thankfully, he had never seemed to take offense, but perhaps he had died thinking she was strange, just like everyone else.

The idea that he may have thought ill of her depresses Belle deeply, and fresh tears well up in her sapphire eyes.

“I’m sorry, sweetie,” Ruby soothes, startling Belle out of her musings and handing her a small box of tissues. “Want me to take over now?”

“No,” she says slowly. Tonight is her last chance to spend time with Mr. Gold, to show him how much she cares—and she’s seizing it. “Ruby, please delay embalming. Just until tomorrow morning,” Belle insists, holding up a hand to stay Ruby’s protests.

She dare not reveal herself completely to her friend, but she wants—no, needs—to be alone with Mr. Gold for one night. One night of pretending that they belong to each other. Is that so much to ask?

Ruby relents. Belle rarely pulls rank, and she can feel her friend’s reluctance and mild suspicious, but Ruby doesn’t argue. “You sure about this?”

Belle assures her that she is.

“Ok. Call me anytime during the night,” Ruby orders. “I mean it, Belles.” The tall, slender brunette stalks out of the restroom, leaving Belle to pull herself together for the long night ahead.

But there will be no work tonight.

Rising to her feet on wobbly legs, Belle smiles slightly at her reflection. “Tonight,” she tells the dewy-eyed girl in the mirror, “is going to be special.”

xoxoxo

Saturday, October 31st
Later that Night

Ushering Ruby and her father out of the Parlour without betraying her eagerness to be alone with Mr. Gold requires all her willpower, but at last they are gone. Belle secures and locks all the doors, switching off all the lights save one with a warm, romantic glow. She wants no prying eyes, wagging tongues, or harsh lighting to interrupt the evening. Pulling her chair up close to where Mr. Gold rests on a narrow holding cot, Belle relishes the opportunity to gaze at his beautiful face.

His sharp, handsome features are unchanged, as is his collar-length hair. Touching him, she is delighted to find his chocolate brown locks warm and silky between her sensitive fingertips. Reverently she caresses his perfect eyebrows and his full lips, firm yet soft despite being ice cold.

But the freshness has stolen from his cheeks. A deathly pallor has claimed his features, once tanned and healthy. Pain has ploughed deep, cruel furrows into his brow, and those sparkling brown eyes, formerly alight with intelligence and mischief, are closed forevermore.

He is still fully dressed in his trademark three-piece suit, including his polished shoes. Belle slips his Italian leather wingtips off his feet and draws a soft blanket around his chilled, rigid form. “Now you’ll be more comfortable,” she assures him conversationally.

And then it dawns on Belle—for the first time ever, she is able to speak to him!  Gnashing her teeth, she laments the cruel irony of the situation. While one wall of communication has crumbled, Mr. Gold’s death has erected yet another. He cannot reply to her comments, laugh at her jokes, or share his heart with her. Breaking down, Belle allows herself a just a few precious minutes to weep for what could have been.

Swiping her tear-spiked lashes, she draws a labored breath and holds it, forcing herself to stop crying. There will be plenty of time to grieve tomorrow, and she refuses to waste these few precious hours when she could be enjoying the man she loves.

“You’re so pale, my darling,” she murmurs, smoothing her hand over the gash on Mr. Gold’s forehead. “Let’s fix that now. We want you to look your best when you reach the Pearly Gates.”

Carting out her supplies, she carefully airbrushes her best-quality makeup on his chiseled face, covers the gash, restores color to his cheeks with her favorite rouge, and erases the pale tint of his lips. Next she fetches her brush, spending several minutes running it through his hair, until every strand is smooth and glistening.

All this labor will have to be undone and redone tomorrow, when Ruby drains his blood and pumps him full of formaldehyde, but Belle does not care. Mr. Gold is a proud and distinguished gentleman, and she instinctively knows that looking just so tonight will bring him comfort—even from the other side.

As she works Belle chatters to Mr. Gold about nothing and everything, lavishing him with endearments and praise. “You’re so handsome,” she ventures shyly. “I know you don’t think so, but you’re beautiful to me. I always wanted to tell you.” Still scarcely able to believe that she’s actually sitting here speaking to him, she wonders aloud about his hopes, his dreams, and his doubts. Though she’ll never be certain, she believes living a stubbornly solitary existence is his greatest regret.

Via the rumor mill, she recalls learning he has an estranged son named Neal, but he lives halfway around the world and is unlikely to make an appearance at the funeral. “I’m so sorry about your son,” she whispers into the cool and silent room. “What happened between you?”

Imagining what he’d say in response, she nods her head in sympathy. “I think you tried too hard to protect him—from pain, from growing up, even from yourself,” she surmises. “You don’t believe you’re worth loving, Mr. Gold, but you’re wrong. Your son loves you. So do I.”

“Such a perceptive young woman.” The echo of his voice in her head is forlorn. “I tried to protect Neal by collecting money, power, and prestige. As you can see, it didn’t really work out. I died a lonely and bitter old monster.”

“You’re not a monster,” she chides, “nor are you old. You’re mature. Worldly. Wonderful.”

“Little Belle,” phantom Gold replies, “You are too kind to an old monster. If only I had seen what was right there in front of me. If I had known you loved me, I could have been happy. We could have found a way back to Neal together. He would have liked you.”

Blushing in pleasure at the imagined compliments, Belle looks down at Mr. Gold’s vest, spotting a gold pocket watch resting against his ribcage. She snorts, surprised that Killian Jones hadn’t pilfered it. Snapping open the lid, Belle notes the time—11:33 p.m. It’s late, and the shocking, emotional events of the day make her wearier than usual.

Worried about falling asleep and ruining their enchanted evening, she leaves his side just long enough to switch on the coffeemaker. A jolt of caffeine may give her the boost she needs to prolong their makeshift date. Padding back to the cot, she swears she sees his arm move. Belle’s heart leaps into her throat. Grasping his wrist hard, she sighs in defeat when she fails to find a pulse. There’s no use hoping, she scolds herself silently. Any movement is merely rigor mortis.

Midnight approaches and Belle struggles against her body’s instincts, trying to stay awake. But as the clock tolls the witching hour, her eyelids grow heavy. Retrieving another blanket and sideling onto the cot, Belle decides that if she must rest, she’s going to sleep beside Mr. Gold. Needing to feel as much of him as possible, she removes his tie and unfastens enough buttons so that his fine lawn shirt gapes open, exposing his smooth, hairless chest. Stroking his sternum, she hums in pleasure. He feels like chiseled marble coated in soft skin. If she concentrates hard, she can almost feel the steady thump of his heart.

As she curls against his side, the musky, spicy scent of his cologne envelopes her, making Belle feel tranquil and drowsy. Pretending that they’re simply a married couple retiring for the evening, Belle drifts off to sleep.

Sliding deeply into slumber, she opens the door to the strangest, most vivid dream.

xoxoxo


Saturday, October 31st
After Midnight
Belle’s Dream

Reclining on her back in the cool green grass with a book in her hands, Belle soaks up a few more moments of sunshine and literature. She squints at the sundial. It’s past teatime, she realizes, scrambling to her feet. She brushes off her skirts and strolls back to the castle.

Glancing over her attire, she marvels at the handmade lovely blue gown with a Basque waist, white blouse, and white slippers—a far cry from the blue jeans and black sweater she had worn into the Parlour tonight.

But the clothes feel like hers and the massive, imposing citadel looming before her feels like home.

Wandering through the back entrance of the Great Hall, she spots him immediately—the master of the castle. Seated at a well-worn spinning wheel is a magnificent creature, resplendent in deep brown leather trousers that cling deliciously to his compact thighs, an exquisitely woven silk shirt in a cabernet hue, and leather boots laced all the way up to his knees. Wavy brown hair drapes over his high collar and his skin is a sparkling grayish green. Outlandish and otherworldly though he appears, he reminds her of someone else she knows, but she is too dazzled by his beauty to care. Unfathomable, ancient golden eyes capture young, guileless blue ones, and the adoration in his gaze steals her breath.

“Hello, my lady,” he greets, beckoning her closer with his elegant, clawed hand.

“Husband,” she curtseys playfully, dropping a kiss on the top of his curly head.

“Not a very thorough caretaker, are you?” he teases with a smile. “Lounging in the garden all afternoon with a romance novel and forgetting to take tea with your master.”

They laugh together, enjoying their running joke, but his countenance is strained. She reaches for him, caressing his smooth cheek comfortingly. “What’s troubling you?”

“It’s nothing, sweetheart.” He turns back to his spinning, turning the wheel with studious care.

“Please talk to me,” she insists gently, perching on the little wooden bench next to him.

“You don’t need to be troubled by the sepulchral whims of an old monster,” he scoffs.

“You’re not a monster,” she scolds. ““Nor are you old. You’re mature. Worldly. Wonderful. And mine.” Hadn’t they already had this conversation today?

Shaking her head to clear the cobwebs, she concentrates on other, more pleasant pastimes. Belle begins to unbutton his silk shirt, the material gliding through her eager fingers. Stroking his smooth chest, she relishes the powerful pounding of his heart beneath her palm. Still turning the wheel, he pretends to ignore her advances. She rises from the bench, drawing a whine of protest from his lips, but she resettles herself in his lap and he sighs, relieved. Belle smiles to herself, elated with the confirmation that he is not as unaffected as he seems. The coolness of his leathers contrasts deliciously with the ache of her restless body, and Belle claims his mouth feverishly.

“Belle,” he groans against her throbbing neck, licking and biting his way down her throat to the valley between her breasts. “Your skin is so sweet. Like rosewater and honey. One taste is never enough.”

In answer she tugs gently on his hair, scraping her blunt nails along his scalp as she delves into his ear with the tip of her tongue. “I love you,” she says.

“And I love you, too,” he replies.

Slipping out of his embrace, she pulls him to his feet. “Come to bed now,” she requests huskily, a promise in her eyes. Acquiescing, he follows her up the winding staircase to their bedchamber.

Much later, when they lay wrapped in each other’s arms, she tries again. “Are you ready to talk to me?” Save the crackle of the fire, Belle’s hushed voice is the only sound in the room.

Feeling his body tense, she waits patiently, caressing his collarbone soothingly. At last he speaks, his tone uneasy. “I had a vision today. You were burying me.”

“Burying you?”

“Aye. In a grave,” he clarifies.” You held a cluster of wild roses in your hands.”

“But that’s impossible,” she sputters, bolting up in bed. “You’re the Dark One. Immortal. With all your power, nothing and no one can touch us.”

“Immortal doesn’t mean one can’t be killed, sweetheart,” he reminds her.

“The sight isn’t foolproof, though, is it?” Belle hates the sight. She doesn’t want to be tormented by the possibilities of a bleak future. For her, it’s so much better not to know and to take life one day at a time. “Rumple, no one decides our fate but us.”

“You’re right,” he concedes, easing her back into the circle of his arms. “The future can always change.”

“It will change,” she says confidently, nuzzling his neck. “Forever, remember? I will never bury you. Never. Never bury…never bury…never bury…”

xoxoxo


Sunday, November 1st
Early Morning

Faintly, Belle hears the sound of her name being called. Desperate to put the alarming dream behind her, she strains toward wakefulness. Yet an ominous presence holds her back, pressing on her chest. Her breathing is constricted. She’s motionless and speechless. Opening her eyes slowly, Belle can make out the image of someone hovering over her. Ruby. Belle still cannot move or speak, and concern twists her friend’s features.

Uncertain of how much time has passed, Belle at last returns to herself. Awareness that she is draped over Mr. Gold’s dead body with her head nestled against his bare chest causes her to blush furiously. She hides her face in his stiff neck.

“Still dark,” Belle mumbles groggily, when she garners enough courage to look at Ruby’s horrified expression. “What time is it?”

“Almost 5,” her friend answers. “Belle, all you all right?”

“I’m not ready. Just a little while longer, please?” Her voice is a whimper.

“No, Belles. No more. You were talking in your sleep. You kept saying the words ‘Never bury, Never bury,’ over and over again. You scared the hell out of me. Stop this insanity now before you drive yourself crazy!” Ruby drags her off the cot and away from Mr. Gold, hauling her into a fierce hug.

“I’m not crazy!” Belle snaps, pushing Ruby away and wrapping her arms around herself.

“I shouldn’t have said that,” Ruby admits. “Of course you’re not crazy.”

“It’s just…I can’t believe he’s gone,” Belle protests. “I feel like he’s not really dead. Last night he moved and--”

“Rigor mortis,” Ruby cuts her off sternly. “Honey, I know you cared for him, but he has no pulse, no heartbeat, no nothing. And no matter how long you talk to him, sleep next to him, or hold him, he’s not coming back.”

“Rubes.” The word is a plea for understanding.

“This,” Ruby waves her arm over Gold’s lifeless body, “is not Mr. Gold.” Ruby softens her tone and her gaze. “It’s an empty shell. He’s not really here, Belle. You have to bury him. Let him go.”

Ruby opens her arms and Belle rushes into her embrace. Fisting her hands in Ruby’s crimson sweater, Belle digs holes into the knit with her nails. “I know,” she sobs. “Oh, God, I know.” The floodgates burst open, and Belle sobs out her anguish until her eyes are puffy. Distress mingled with the hammering in her skull forces her to rush to the bathroom and vomit for the second time in two days.

Wiping her mouth on her sleeve, she returns to Ruby, who is still standing next to Mr. Gold’s body, waiting for the go-ahead to start. Woodenly, Belle grants permission for the embalming process to begin, walks into her father’s empty office, and closes the door.

xoxoxo

Sunday, November 1st
Nightfall

Staring at the gaping mouth of Mr. Gold’s grave makes her queasy with grief, but Belle cannot look away from that casket now nestled six feet underground. This morning, Ruby had completed the embalming and Belle had done the best work of her life preparing Mr. Gold for eternal rest.

A small band of mourners had paid their respects in the gloaming, climbed into their cars, and driven back to their lives. Though Ruby and her father had tried to take her home and tuck her into bed, Belle wasn’t ready to leave Mr. Gold just yet.

She still isn’t ready.

Now night has fallen black and moonless over the churchyard, and the rustle of leaves and the distant hoot of an owl are her only companions. In her arms is a bouquet of wild red roses, and Belle drops them carefully over the edge of the grave on top of the coffin, a final testimony of her love.

A twig snaps and Belle freezes, glancing wildly around the cemetery.

“Miss French.” Killian Jones steps out from behind a crumbling mausoleum, fog swirling around his legs.

“What is it, Jones?” she snaps irritably. “Can you not allow a person to mourn in peace?”

“All these tears for a coward? he laughs derisively. His eyes are vacant and he reeks of cheap rum. “I found something you should see,” he invites, for once coming quickly to the point.

“You’re drunk,” she retorts, turning her back. Snaking an arm out in front of her, Jones thrusts a crumpled piece of paper under Belle’s nose.

It is a small square of fine linen stationery, torn, dirty, and damp. But there is a message on the paper, faint yet legible. Grudgingly, Belle snatches the paper from Jones’ grasp and reads the words aloud:

To Whom It May Concern:
I have a condition called Catalepsy.
Under NO circumstances should an autopsy be performed.
Please defer interment until signs of decomposition set in.
Sincerely,
R. Gold

Whirling around to face him, Belle stares at Jones with naked hatred as rain begins to fall. There’s triumph in those evil eyes as the drumbeat of rainwater soaks the scrap of evidence in her hands.

“Catalepsy? A catatonic coma?” Belle shudders violently, hysterical with disbelief. “He wasn’t dead. He was unconscious. You killed him you sick, sadistic bastard.” She grips Jones’ shoulders, biting into his flesh with a strength she didn’t know she possessed. “Where did you find this? Where!”

“Left breast pocket at the scene of the crash.” Jones shrugs nonchalantly, taking advantage of Belle’s proximity and the slickening grass to pull her flush against him and whisper into her ear. “Just doing my job as a coroner.”

“You’re the assistant coroner,” she hisses, pushing on his chest. “And a murderer!”

“Technicality, love,” he replies calmly, spreading his hands in a gesture of blamelessness. “I didn’t kill him. I just didn’t tell anyone he wasn’t dead. The old bastard had an episode. Conveniently, he blacked out and wrapped his car around a tree. No pulse, no heartbeat, and no breathing means no witnesses and no questions.”

Belle tries hard to recall any sign or signal that Mr. Gold had been alive while in her care at the Parlour. Other than the random jerk of his arm that Ruby had attributed as rigor mortis, there’s nothing save the wishful desires of her own shattered heart.

“Oh, I’ll be a witness,” Belle threatens, scrabbling for her mobile phone as the rain falls harder, drenching the ground. “And Sheriff Swan’s going to have plenty of questions when I tell her what you’ve done.”

“No, I don’t think you’ll be making any calls tonight,” he replies. Grabbing her painfully, he covers her mouth with his large, wet hand and flings her cell phone into the copse of trees at the cemetery’s edge.

“You’ve always wanted to be a hero,” he jeers into her white, panicked face. “Perhaps you could have rescued him if you hadn’t embalmed him. Actually, Miss French, the real killer is you.” Insane laughter erupts from his mouth, and Belle struggles fruitlessly against his tightening hold.

“Now there’s nothing more to do but get rid of you,” he says. “Easy as a walk in the park.”

Trying to yell for help through the pressure of his hand, she succeeds only in producing a muffled groan.

”Smee!” Jones shouts into the hole in the ground, “crack the casket open.”

He’s going to kill me, too, Belle realizes, as Jones gives her a mighty, painful shove. Belle careens over the precipice into the open casket, Mr. Gold’s now truly dead body softening her landing. “Oh, my love,” she wails, “I’m so desperately sorry.”

Before she can recover from her fall, the casket lid closes with a firm click. Releasing a ghastly scream, Belle stuffs her ears against the sound of shovelfuls of earth being piled on top of the coffin in steady, rhythmic thumps.

She cries, kicks, and flails as her mind races to find a solution. But the oxygen in the tomb won’t last more than 15 minutes. It won’t be long until she asphyxiates and she would rather die quietly in Mr. Gold’s arms than struggle until her dying breath. “If I must die, at least I die with you, my love.” Praying silently, she brushes a kiss across his lips, allowing the comfort of his closeness and the pitter-patter of the rain to lull her into unconsciousness.

xoxoxo

The Dark Castle
32 Years Earlier
The Enchanted Forest

Belle’s eyes fly open, her pulse pounding furiously. Breathless, she can neither move nor speak, but she resists the urge to thrash. Straining will only prolong the sensation of paralysis. Gradually, though, her limbs loosen and she becomes aware of her surroundings.

She’s not clawing at the insides of a coffin, nor are her fingernails buried in dirt and scraped by gravel. Her fingers are grasping for purchase in soft sheets. The hard, cold ground has given way to her enormous, soft feather mattress. It’s the dead of night, the room’s only light coming from a steadily burning fire.

Rumplestiltskin is perched on the side of the bed, his taut features illuminated by the flickering flames. “Sweetheart, you were having a nightmare.”

“Rumple,” she gasps, lurching up so fast she smacks her head on the walnut headboard. Barely registering the pain, she flings herself into his arms. “You’re alive. You’re all right. I love you. I love you so much. I was in this terrible place, Rumple. I was with you, but without you. You looked different. You were so pale. So pale and I thought you were dead.” Broken, she sobs her relief against the cool, soft leather of his vest.

Rocking her and rubbing her head tenderly, he soothes the injured spot and strokes curls which are damp and unruly from the strain of the nightmare. Still holding her gently, he moves back slightly to look into her bright blue eyes, his green-grey face a mask of confused concern. Belle’s beautiful sapphire orbs are ringed with shadows of unutterable sadness.

“Of course I’m alive, my precious one. I’m immortal, remember? Anyway, you’ll not be rid of me so easily. You already pledged me forever—twice.” He laughs teasingly, trying to cajole a smile out of his beloved wife, both to make her forget her anguish and to relieve his own misgivings. He has an urgent matter to discuss with her. He dreads it, but he cannot put it off. In their wedding vows he promised Belle complete honesty. He cannot stop the events he has put in motion, but he will not fail her trust.

She meets his fatigued eyes with a mixture of hope and resignation. “Rumple, we’re going to find Baelfire.” Smiling softly, she brings his hand to her face, drawing his knuckles across the apple of her cheek. “Where are we going? When?”

A third voice joins the conversation. “To a charming hamlet called Storybrooke.” Regina. The evil queen strikes a pose in the stone archway—tall, regal, and cold as ice. “My, my, isn’t this cozy?”

“How dare you waltz into my wife’s bedchamber in the middle of the night?” Rumple hisses, enraged. “Our meeting is not until morning!”

“It’s not my fault your wards are so flimsy,” Regina says with mock innocence, dangling the curse before him. “Besides, I couldn’t wait.” She claps her hands gleefully like a small child.

Rumplestiltskin grits his teeth. He needs to buy more time or Regina will be able to manipulate too many details to her satisfaction, Belle’s fate among them. “Your curse is not quite ready, dearie,” he hedges, cussing himself for leaving the scroll unattended in his haste to get to Belle.

“Close enough.” Fingering the scroll, Regina sweeps her long black train behind her and stalks toward the bed with a predatory glare. “I’ll add the finishing touches. After all, I did learn from the master.”

Frightened and hazy from her terrible, realistic dream…or was it a vision?...Belle clings to Rumple throughout the argument. Numbly, Belle watches the queen glide to her vanity table and make herself comfortable in the velvet chair.

Inclining her head toward the mirror, Regina meets Belle’s eyes in the glass and gives her a glacial smile. “Kitty cat got your tongue? Oh yes, I’ve been watching," she says, noting Belle's shocked expression. "You really should learn to keep these mirrors covered, dear.”

“I’m not afraid of you!” Belle lifts her chin in defiance, even as she fists nervous hands in Rumple’s shirt.

“But you should be.” Regina snaps her fingers, producing an elegant, bejeweled box. “I’m the one with the power now. Soon, I’ll control your occupation, your friends, even who you speak to.”

“You won’t get away with this,” Rumple spits venomously. “If you harm one hair on Belle’s head I will kill you.”

“Really?” Regina asks, drawing a plump, glowing red heart from the box. When she squeezes it for emphasis, Belle clutches her chest and moans. Somehow, Regina has taken possession of Belle’s heart.

“How did you get her heart!” Rumple explodes as a fireball blazes to life in his open palm.

“Rumple, your services are no longer required,” Regina says, unconcerned with his threat. “Now it’s your turn to make some sacrifices. Unless you want to see what happens when I take this heart and grind it into dust.”

“No!” Rumple surrenders, throwing the flaming ball into the fireplace and cradling Belle tightly. “I believe you.”

Regina returns her attention to Belle. “I don’t want you to think I’m entirely cruel, dear. You’ll still get to see your beloved and I’ve made allowances for your talents.”

“What do you mean, my talents?” Belle narrows her eyes.

“I know how much you love being a caretaker,” Regina answers. “In your new role, there will be plenty of people for you to care for. Bring your pot of rouge, dear. The Parlour is dark and cold…and all the faces are pale.”

 

The End