There was in Henry's book an appendix that served as a compendium of fairy tale characters. It was particularly valuable when Henry ran across a person who appeared in Snow White's story only briefly before spinning off to have his or her own adventures on other pages; when Henry came to a character he didn't recognize, he would mark his place with a finger and turn to the back. The third appendix often raised more questions than it answered, and whoever had written his book understood organization only in the loosest sense of the term, but Henry had a knack for finding lost things, and he liked the parenthetical notes. Even so, it took him half an hour to find Beauty's entry, which the author had listed under "L", not "B".
Beauty's entry read:
Born in Avonlea, daughter of Lord Maurice, himself a vassal of George the Broker King. Her banner is a gold lion wreathed in roses and rampant on a field of crimson. The Lionheart ended the Third Ogre War (cf. Succession War, p. 67; The War of Ogre Aggression, Oakeshotte & Co.) by binding herself to the Dark One (here, the Spinner). Renowned for her courage and skill as a leader, the Lionheart had the gift of tongues and was said to keep a dragon chained at her side.
Here there was a faint note in crooked handwriting: IMPOSSIBLE. The suggested timeline renders this highly unlikely; dragons had all but died out by the 3100s thanks to aggressive hunting. George slaughtered the last of the Black Dragons on the fields of East-at-Dawns four decades before the Third Ogre War, although if the Lionheart was keeping a pet, it would have to be a wyvern, not a true dragon. Anyway, she was no warrior; how would she have captured a dragon???
The text continued:
In 3134 she clashed with the Sorceress of Charn and vanished shortly thereafter. The people of the new world occasionally give her name to bravest rulers (cf. Richard the Lionheart) to do her honor, although she is little remembered outside of the fairy story "The Beauty and the Beast."
The Lionheart is, however, only a legend; and all legends are given to exaggeration.
The last line struck Henry as strange, because of course the Lionheart was a legend. That didn't make her any less real. His book's author didn't do a very good job of being objective; sometimes the author's opinions were nearly violent, and while he took some tales as absolute truth, others he dismissed with a few lines or shuffled off to the back all together. (That was the second appendix; the first appendix was mostly maps. Henry hadn't figured out the fourth appendix yet, since those pages were blank, but he was hoping Emma would have an idea. Emma probably knew all about invisible ink; that was the kind of thing you learned about in prison.)
He wasn't exactly sure who the Lionheart was, but he thought she might be Issy French, the town librarian. Issy was brave—she'd stood up to his mom when his mom tried to explain away the basement rooms in the hospital, the ones that didn't appear on any blueprint—and she was clever—she could speak three languages, and she could read four or five books in one day, and she'd explained algebraic variables to Henry so he'd understood—and sometimes, when she combed out her braid, her hair looked like a lion's mane, fierce around her face.
When he found Avonlea in the first appendix, the miniature ink drawing of the castle that marked the seaside town had roses at the base. The only other place that had roses was the Dark Castle, which the first appendix called something different. Henry decided that the roses marked places important to Beauty, and Moe French sold roses. Issy had to be the Lionheart.
He didn't know who the Beast was, which bothered him, but it didn't seem like the sort of thing he could figure out on his own. The book implied that the Beast—or the Dark One, or the Spinner, or Rumpelstiltskin; it must be confusing, to have that many names—had been the one to craft the Evil Queen's curse. If Henry had made a curse, he wouldn't want people to know he'd had anything to do with it. Rumpelstiltskin probably felt the same way, although for different reasons.
The library was in need of better funding. In point of fact, the library was perpetually in need of, and Belle was tired of the hours she spent wrestling with the budget just to afford lights and books. She did the cleaning herself, but Storybrooke's library was not large, and she had to pay handsomely for interlibrary loan services. Budgeting was one of the very few things she disliked about her job.
She could, of course, approach the town's wealthier citizens in hope of a donation, but unfortunately the town's wealthier citizens were the Mayor and the local pawnbroker. Belle wouldn't approach Regina without very good cause, unless she was desperate or had some idea that she could leave the encounter victorious. She doubted the Mayor would donate anything, although her son used the library's services often and enthusiastically.
There was Mr. Gold, but—
Belle was only four months escaped from the hospital's basement, and while Dr. Hopper had assured her that she was fit to return to work, she'd had to fight to get her old job back. Even her credentials hadn't been enough to convince the City Council that she was qualified to resume her post; Agatha Schwarzwald had tried to smear her name by pointing out that Belle was not only in poor mental health but that her MLS came from online courses. Belle had won that battle through sheer tenacity. She kept turning up in the Council meeting room until the constituents were, quite literally, sick of her face.
And he didn't remember. There was only so much her heart could withstand, and seeing Rumpelstiltskin sewn into the skin of another man—an awful, horrible, beastly man—was more than it could take.
Some days she was sure she was half-mad herself. Memories of two lives were stitched together piecemeal in her head, and she had no proof other than trust in her own resilience. No, better to avoid him altogether than to risk provoking some sleeping dragon lurking in his mind or hers. She wasn't even sure what she could say to him, so far out of her sphere of existence did he seem. And if she wasn't happy, her conditions had improved in the past year. Not so long ago she'd woken every morning with no memory other than that of a while cell. She hadn't known who she was, or where she'd come from; she hadn't known her name. That white room had contained the entire universe, and the entire universe was a poor thing, with one living resident, a bucket, a showerhead, a small bar of soap, a toilet, a bench, and a window too dirty to offer a view. There were three people who visited the universe—the nurse, who brought a tray of food twice a day, and the man who cleaned her cell, and the Mayor, who seemed content to gloat over Belle's continued existence. That was her life; that had always been her life, and until her door swung open one day in May Belle had seen no evidence to suggest that her life would continue any differently until she died or truly did go mad.
She remembered some things—concepts, like light and food, and the basics of how to care for herself, and little more than that. The shower was a weekly luxury. She was given a blanket in winter, and that itself was more variety than she'd learned to expect. Her first weeks in the outside world were overwhelming, a riot of color and noise and technology that didn't make sense, no matter that she had memories of driving a car, of using a computer.
She'd lived with her father for two months, but the day after she paid her father's bills, driven herself to the grocery stores, paid with a credit card, and returned home without the slightest tinge of hesitation or doubt, she'd moved back into her old apartment. The landlord had left it entirely as it had been; her books were still shelved in the same haphazard order, her sheets were still turned back on the bed; the food had been cleaned out of her refrigerator, but that was the only change she'd found.
Of course, she'd only been gone fourteen months—
Funny, how it seemed like longer.
Her landlord was Mr. Gold, of course. Her heart had leapt to her throat when she'd seen her rooms unchanged—good business practices dictated that an apartment not stand empty—but then he'd sent someone around for the rent three days before it was due. It shouldn't make any difference to him that she was tired and frightened and still unsteady in crowds, not when she was nothing to him, not when the second set of memories said that he was nothing to her.
Belle had learned not to mind the second set of memories.
Anyway. The problem with being a librarian (the librarian) in a small town was that she wasn't a many-handed millionaire. Mary Margaret was a godsend; she stopped by once or twice a week to sit at the front desk while Belle ran programs and reshelved what couldn't wait until after-hours. Sometimes Mary Margaret herself would plan events for the younger activity group: hour-long blocks spent molding Play-Doh or reading storybooks. Belle didn't have the money to pay her, which felt wretched, but Mary Margaret never seemed bothered in the least. In fact, she often seemed grateful for the escape.
The library wasn't busy, at least, although she'd been nurturing a growing group of singles and families who turned up in the evenings. The hours were dictated by Belle's availability, so she made herself available as often as possible, eating her meals behind the front desk. Granny started stopping by in the afternoon; she liked murder mysteries, mostly, Sue Grafton and Agatha Christie and Anne Perry at the holidays. Ruby liked thrillers and, Belle suspected, checked out thick Harlequin paperbacks only to keep up appearances. Leroy read poetry. There'd been some chatter about starting a knitting group; Belle had blocked off the meeting room from six to eight on Thursdays in case Sister Astrid ever got around to organizing it.
It was late September when Emma called her about the guns. Belle took one of her rare long lunch hours, leaving a scribbled out to lunch—back at one note taped to the doors before walking down to the police station. The stroll was short. Some days it seemed like every place in Storybrooke was a leisurely fifteen minutes from every other place, and although Belle knew from experience that wasn't so, there was something quite literally magically about the town's compressed distances and hidden turns.
Emma was waiting at her desk with a bag of take-out, probably soup from Granny's.
"You have it?" Belle said.
"Do I ever," Emma said, and grinned as she passed over the paper container of cream-of-tomato.
"And you don't mind me borrowing it? You're sure? I can't guarantee one of the kids won't trip and break something."
"I wouldn't have offered if I minded," Emma said. "And it's no fun with just me and Henry. I bought the damn set to enjoy with him, but laser tag's no fun with two people."
"I thought we could dim the lights and play in the stacks. You're invited, of course! I didn't think—"
"You," Emma said, and pointed her spoon at Belle, "you just want another adult around."
"Caught." Belle picked out another piece of onion and set it on her napkin. "It seems that all the parents are finally figuring out that there's a free service that will take their kids for a couple of hours every Friday night. Last week I had thirteen of them playing some video game I didn't understand. I had to have Ava set it up. We didn't even have enough computers."
"LAN party, yeah, Henry told me about that. Want your onions?"
"No, although it's disgusting that you want anything someone else digs out of their soup," Belle said, but she pushed the napkin across the table obligingly. "Regina's been letting you seen Henry more."
"Sure has," Emma said. "I think we've both kind of halfway called a truce. Blame the kid; it's impossible to say no to him when he turns on the kicked puppy eyes."
Belle snorted. "I don't imagine he has to even go that far. He has you wrapped around his little finger, admit it."
"Yeah, well. Any time he's away from Regina is time well spent in my book. She probably thinks of me as free babysitting." Emma shrugged. "Whatever."
"I doubt she thinks of you as anything that innocuous," Belle said, and her mind called up the image of a woman in black on a lonely road. Her hair was black, and her dress, and the carriage she rode in was black, but her lips were red as rubies, and from them spilled a truth so sweet it sounded like a lie.
"You really don't like her, huh?"
"I don't like to speak ill of anyone," Belle said, which was ridiculous, but she knew better than to publicly set herself against the queen.
(The thought rose unbidden: Yet.)
"Sell me a new one, sister," Emma said.
"You could've brought the toys by yourself instead of making me close up at lunch."
"Nice. Change the subject."
Emma popped the lid back on her soup cup, slouched back, and kicked her feet up on the desk; Belle, half meanly and half in amusement, thought that the Sheriff sat that way purely for effect. Emma had such a swagger. Belle had to wonder who her parents were, to pass along such a remarkable set of characteristics and yet still have enough poorness of feeling to abandon their daughter on the side of a road.
"You need to get out more, Issy. Ten-hour days, seriously? Do you ever take a day off?"
"I close early on Sundays."
"I like the work," Belle said firmly. "I'm paid to play laser tag, Emma, you can't tell me that qualifies as grueling."
"Come out with us," Emma said. "Ruby's planning another girls' night out on Saturday, and I'm sorry, but I am not going to suffer alone through that another evening of Ashley and Mary Margaret whispering over their drinks while Ruby pretends she isn't a predator."
"You come to the library," Belle said. "We can test out the laser set."
Emma blinked. "Yeah?"
"Bring Henry. It'll be fun. I'll lock up at five, so anytime you want to come by after that..."
"Date," Emma said. "I'll drop the kid off after and we can watch a movie or something."
"I'll bring ice cream."
"You do that. I'll bring beer."
"Sounds perfect. Thanks again for lunch, even if you did lure me out of work with false promises."
"No big," Emma said. "See you later!"
"Not if I see you first!" Belle called.
Thirty seconds later she was back in the sheriff's office.
"Forgot the guns, huh?"
"Oh, shut up," Belle said, but she smiled at Emma as she resettled her purse on her shoulder and hefted the box of toys.
The walk back to work took considerably more time when one was carrying a small fortune's worth of electronics; Belle tripped twice, first on the police station steps and then again outside of the City Hall. The second time was disastrous, and as she saw the pavement rushing at her face, she only had the time to think about how unfortunate it was that grace was not among her virtues.
And then someone caught her.
"Careful, dear," her rescuer said. "There are some in this town who won't take kindly to a stranger falling all over them."
"Oh," Belle said, and then, "But we aren't strangers."
Mr. Gold looked at her askance, but he didn't let go of her arm.
"You're my landlord," Belle said.
She hadn't realized that he was tense until something thunderous left his gaze. "Ah, yeah. The librarian. Shouldn't you be at work?"
"I'm on my way back." He was very close. Close enough that she could feel his breath on her face; close enough that he could almost certainly feel hers. Belle tried to keep her eyes from drifting to his lips and failed utterly. "What are you doing here?"
Too familiar, but he gave no sign of having noticed. "Business. With the mayor. She's a...particular friend of mine." He smirked, the expression inward and private and not at all what she wanted to see.
"Right," Belle said, and pulled her arm out of his grasp. "Then I shouldn't keep you. Thanks for the assistance."
"Watch where you're going next time."
"I didn't ask you to save me," she snapped, and pushed past him. She was angry enough that, had she not still been clutching the cardboard box, her hands would've been shaking visibly. It took every ounce of control she possessed to not surrender to her curiosity and that other, deeper feeling and look back, but she did not.
She missed that he did.
Belle lived in a four-room apartment above Standard Clocks. Mr. Gold owned the building, much as he owned the block, much as he owned the town, but her rent was fair enough provided she paid on time. She'd lived there for six years now, since moving out of her first starter apartment down by the wharf, and while it was small enough that she frequently knocked her elbow against the wall getting out of bed, she liked the location and the view.
Her bedroom and the living room were lined with shelves, the cheap particle board kind that was never entirely free of dust. She had a better quality bookcase crammed in the bathroom—Emma liked to tease her about that—and some packing crates in the kitchen, and even still she had to stack her overflow in with the dishes. She didn't have many of those; three of her four original plates had been lost to fits of clumsiness. There was enough room in the kitchen for a card table and two chairs, and the crates, of course, and a pot of roses at the far left of the narrow windowseat. That had been a housewarming gift from her dad, the second time she'd moved out, a miniature pink rose bush in a cheery blue-and-white striped ceramic pot. He wasn't the best at giving gifts, Dad, since he tended to turn red and start stammering if he'd put any real feeling into picking out the present, and since he had to fight against poorly-concealed embarrassment at what meagre offerings he could afford, but Belle would rather have that flower than any fancy jewelry or vacation.
Her bedroom was smaller still, with only enough room to walk three paces from the single bed to the window. She'd painted it green and put up soft pink curtains, thinking to imitate the flower in the kitchen; the closet doors never quite closed, so she'd taken them down completely and stored them in the basement below the clock shop. The bedroom was for fiction, poetry, fairy tales, and children's literature—all the books she didn't want to explain to visitors.
The living room was a deep maroon color that predated her arrival. Belle had hated it on sight, but she'd grown to appreciate the way the rich color looked in dim lighting, and anyway most of the wall was hidden behind cases.
There was also a fireplace.
She'd positioned her armchair next to it, and a small television in the opposite corner (on the shelf between Astronomy and Mystery [A-L]), and put down a rug for company and nights when she lit the fire. There wasn't space enough for a sofa, and she didn't have many visitors other than Emma and sometimes Henry or Mary Margaret, all of whom were perfectly content to throw themselves down on the floor. Belle did feel odd about telling Mary Margaret to sit on the rug, although it wasn't a sentiment she could explain, and so almost always offered Mary Margaret the armchair, which Mary Margaret almost always refused.
On Saturday Belle locked up the library at four and walked home to eat before Henry and Emma came knocking. She thought, briefly, about bringing the umbrella that she'd stashed behind the circulation desk with her; clouds were gathering to the east, far out to sea; but a little water had never hurt anyway, and her bag was canvas and waterproofed. For dinner she had leftover cucumber bisque and cornbread, which she ate cross-legged on the windowseat with a copy of Foccault's Pendulum propped up against the flowerpot. At half past five she rinsed her dishes, collected her canvas bag, and set out for work, taking care to lock her door behind her. She'd forgotten to do so twice in the past month, and although no terrible consequences had ensued, she'd been startled both times by the idea that someone could have intruded on her sanctuary without her knowledge or permission.
Emma must have been delayed at the station, because she wasn't waiting when Belle returned, but Emma was never more than fifteen minutes late without calling, so Belle let herself back in and went to empty the bookdrop. Someone had left her the gift of five large-print copies of Reader's Digest. Again. The mailing addresses were cut from the covers, her benefactor apparently content to let the generosity of their gift go unrewarded. Some days she felt like posting a sign on the building forbidding donations all together.
She was pulled out of her thoughts by a knock—not Emma's playful tapping, but a series of crisp, firm raps that put her in the mind of business suits and appropriate handshakes. Belle fumbled for the keys, found them half-hidden under a cascade of DVDs, and tripped her way around to the front.
Business suits; appropriate handshake; here was a woman who likely ordered custom calling cards and returned them if her name wasn't printed in the perfect ten-point sans-serif font, the delineation between ink and paper sharp enough to cut. Regina was at the door.
Belle almost dropped the keys and at the last second clenched her hands. She would not reveal even that much weakness, not here, not now, and not to this woman.
"Mayor Mills," she said, and if she'd had the ability to feel pleasure around her deep-rooted panic, she would've been pleased at how cool her voice sounded. "Is there something I can do for you?"
"Mmm, what a lovely offer," the Mayor said, "but no, dear, thank you"—Belle's skin crawled as if someone had upended a jar of spiders over her head—"I'm here to drop off my son. Has Sheriff Swan arrived?"
Belle hadn't noticed Henry, but he was there, to the side of the walk, hunched away from his mother as he pretended to examine the dirt-filled urn next to the bookdrop slot. Belle would've planted mums in it if she'd had the funding.
"Emma's on her way," Belle lied. "Would you like to come in...?" She couldn't quite make herself step away from the entrance; her arm, holding open the door, prevented Regina from entering, but if the Mayor accepted her invitation she would have to—Belle would have to—
"No, thank you. Henry?"
"You'll wait here with Miss French. I don't want you running off to look for that woman on your own. Home by eight-thirty or I'm grounding you again, is that clear?"
"Yes," Henry said. It was painful to watch; he was normally so—so present, and enthusiastic, and undaunted, but under the Mayor's iron gaze Henry positively wilted.
"Well, then." The Mayor looked at her son. Belle wondered if she would stoop to hug him, but instead Regina pressed her hand to his shoulder. "Have fun."
"Thanks, Mom!" Henry chirped, and then he ducked under Belle's arm. He was back almost immediately, having dropped his backpack inside the door. "Can I help empty the bookdrop?"
"Truck's inside, but—Henry!" Belle almost laughed at his enthusiasm and then had to bite her lip; she felt trapped in that doorway, between the familiar comfort within and the bleak winter personified without. "Check the movies for missing discs!"
Regina had crossed her arms, almost like she was trying to wall herself away from her son's brightness. She really was an astonishingly beautiful woman, Belle thought, but no one who looked twice into her bottomless dark eyes could ever think her kind.
"Tell the Sheriff about his curfew. Please," the Mayor said.
"Yes," Belle said.
Something in the Mayor's regard shifted, and now Belle felt herself pinned by the attention. "You can reach me at my cellphone if there's any problem. I'll be out until later in the evening, so make sure Sheriff Swan understands not to drop him home early."
"And pleasure," the Mayor said, and bared her teeth. "I have an appointment in town. At the Pawn Shop."
Belle understood the sudden interest now, but she gave away no sign of hurt. "I'll pass it along. Good evening, Mayor."
That beast's snarl gave way to a satisfied smirk: a cat licking cream or something bloodier from her chops. "Good evening, Miss French."
Belle watched her march to her car and drive away without relief. She couldn't describe the cocktail of emotions the Mayor awakened in her; there was fear, undoubtedly, although Belle had never given much weight to fear; and there was a trembling anxiety that was little more than a base, human panic at the thought of being lock away again; there was pity, too, although less of it than there had been once upon a time; but beneath it all, Belle suspected she harbored an abiding rage.
Emma came rushing up seconds after the Mayor's car disappeared from sight. She was breathing hard and still had her badge clipped to her belt; it was a wonder she could run in those ridiculous tall boots she liked, even flat-soled as they were. "Iz! You okay? I saw her—"
"I'm fine," Belle said. "I'm—perfectly fine."
"Yeah? Sorry, I should've warned you that she was going to drop Henry off. Not nice to inflict her on people without warning."
"No, it isn't, but lucky for you I'm feeling generous." Emma's crestfallen expression brightened a little, and then further when Belle added, "Your son's inside." The familial term was deliberate.
"Great. Sure you're okay?" Emma edged her way inside, and unlike earlier, Belle was perfectly willing to give ground.
"Emma. When I say I'm fine, I mean it."
"Got it—don't doubt the lady in charge or she might put you in time-out."
"Sheriff," Belle said. "If I ever put you in time-out, it's because you deserved it. Now go find Henry. He has to be home by 8:30, which gives you less than three hours."
Emma grinned. "Time-out. Hah. Like you could.
"I couldn't—" Belle smiled sweetly. "But Mary Margaret could."
"Nah, I think we both know there's only room for one evil woman in this town." Emma pulled a complicated face and topped it off by rolling her eyes. "Kid? Kid!"
Henry popped around the corner, carrying a stack of books so tall it hid his face entirely. "Emma!" they heard him say. "Can we play laser tag now?"
"Yeah, I guess," Emma said. "You know, if that's what you want to do or whatever." She was talking over her shoulder as she strode to the desk by the third word. "Belle's on my team!"
"You said we weren't playing teams!" Henry cried. He dropped his books and sprinted after his mother; Belle didn't have the heart to scold him, not for abandoning the job he'd wanted or for running in the library.
When she got home, there was a piece of paper stuck to the door. It was folded in thirds; Belle wiped her hand on the inside of her jacket—possibly the only dry spot on her person after that shower had caught her halfway through her walk—and took it down.
It was from her landlord.
Dear Resident (_____________________________), it began. Belle's name had been written on the line, with more care than the hand's owner normally had for his script. He didn't like to take the risk that someone might misread his contracts.
Dear Resident (_____________________________),
This letter serves as notice that the terms of your lease will be changing the 1st of November, per page five of your original agreement. Your rent will not be impacted; however—
Belle crumpled the letter in her fist.
Later, after it had occurred to her that Rumpelstiltskin couldn't have been rendezvousing with Regina if he'd been otherwise engaged delivering lessor's notices to his tenants, she fished the letter out of the trash and took it with her to the wharf. He might have hired someone to do the work for him, but he'd always been a man concerned with the fine details. And something told her—some scent, perhaps, or some faint residue beneath her fingertips—something told her that he'd come in person...
Belle had never lived away from the sea, save for the time she'd spent in Rumpelstiltskin's castle and the few brief seasons she'd wandered the country after he'd cast her out. In retrospect, her decision to wander seemed foolish, perhaps even arrogant, but she'd been so determined to see the world, to make something of herself, and she hadn't paid attention to where her feet were taking her until it had been too late to turn back. She was glad, though, after everything, for the simple comfort of salt on the wind. In Avonlea, before her father had retreated to safer quarters, she'd been able to hear the gulls calling from her bedroom window.
Dear Resident, her letter said.
She was well. She was not dear, but she was—she was better than well, she was sound of mind (almost certainly) and determined in her course (or nearly so). She was in a land where magic had no sway, and if the Evil Queen still dogged her footsteps, at least the woman hadn't the power to do anything but slash Belle's budget. Her own lack of knowledge needled her, of course; she didn't know how or why the people of her homelands had been stripped of her memories and set down in a place utterly without wonder, but she was weary of her own curiosity and had no more interest in boldness. Better to keep her head down and take what solace she could find.
Belle threw her letter in the ocean.
It bobbed on the crest of a wave, spun beneath the dock and out the other side, and then became too waterlogged to stay afloat; she felt a serene emptiness as she watched it sink. There wasn't any value in memory, not the one set or the other. Maybe she could be somebody new. Maybe she wouldn't be anyone at all.
Agatha Schwarzwald was third on Belle's shit list. She didn't rank as high as Regina, although that was largely a matter of circumstance; Agatha hadn't locked Belle away in the white room and then escaped all justice whatsoever, but she probably would have if given a glimmer of opportunity. She was a mean old woman, spiteful, miserly, and without any redeeming qualities. She also smelled like bacon. Belle had no idea why, but the odor hung around her perpetually. It was sickening rather than appetizing, and made Belle viscerally aware that bacon was little more than strips of cooked flesh.
Belle shut down the vacuum as soon as the door chimed. She was in the back below the stairs, where the children's books were shelved; the carpet there seemed to need twice as much care as the rest of the flooring combined. Someday she'd figure out how the little rats ground their Cheerios into that fine paste that coated even the tables.
Agatha was standing at the circulation desk, her upper lip curled as she read the sign Belle had posted about volunteer opportunities. The Councilwoman was dressed in an unrelieved black suit that made her look like an undertaker, although the quality of the tailoring would put any item of clothing in Regina's closet to shame. Her fingers twitched around the cigarette she was smoking against all ordinances as Belle approached, but she offered no greeting.
"Ms. Schwarzwald," Belle said, and came up short of words.
"Ms. French," Agatha said. "Still begging for help, I see. And how is the volunteer program?"
Belle waited for a sharp retort to jump from her mouth and was surprised at herself when none came. "Struggling," she said instead, and watched detachedly as Agatha's thin mouth drew up in what was intended as a smile.
"I've heard," the woman said. "And you've heard that it's time for your inspection, I suppose? Your...audit, as it were." Her teeth were small and unnaturally white, with the ashy, unreflective patina of bone. "Your records are troubling, girl, very troubling. Not tidy at all. The sign of a disordered mind, I shouldn't wonder."
Belle swallowed. "Where would you like to begin?"
"I would like to begin by seeing with my own eyes where exactly the taxpayers' dollars are going." Agatha dropped her cigarette to the floor and ground it out beneath the heel of one black boot; she didn't trouble herself to pick up the butt. "Well, girl? Are you deaf as well as dumb?"
"No, ma'am," Belle said.
The next hour and a half were among the most torturous experiences of Belle's life, and in her time she'd experienced a fair share of misery. Agatha Schwarzwald wasn't content to be shown the library, the accounting books, the order forms and schedules; she offered criticisms veiled as suggestions at every turn and made more than one overt reference to Belle's mental stability and the waste of money taken from good, honest, hardworking men and women. When Belle let slip that the monthly circulation was less than four hundred items, Agatha lit up a new cigarette, right there in the middle of Belle's office.
"I don't have to tell you that the Council is concerned, Ms. French. The Mayor has been more than generous, letting you run wild with this little project, but frankly I don't see the point. All those kiddies you say you're helping, you may have their parents fooled, but I know what's what." She sat down behind Belle's desk and shoved at the paperwork until it spilled off the sides; unconcerned, she set her purse in the cleared space and tapped a shower of ash to the floor. "We're calling you in for a formal performance review next month. You'll need three current references. One of them had better be from a professional, do we understand each other?"
Belle twisted her fingers together and nodded. She felt like a chastised school girl, trapped on the wrong side of her very own desk, but what could she do? Oh, she hated, but stronger than that—stronger than that was the cold serpent of fear that was twisting its way up her spine and sinking into her heart.
"Good." Agatha took a drag and added abruptly, "I've seen your medical records and read your case notes, Ms. French. You might know that a flatter myself a classicist, and those stories you told...do you remember the tale of Cassandra?"
"Yes," said Belle, whose name was not French in this world or any other.
"Tragic. I've always thought so, at least. Do you remember what happened to her after the siege at Troy? Everyone knows of her peculiar gift, but few people know of her fate."
"I believe she was murdered," Belle said.
"Oh, very good, girl. She was. Captured and raped and taken as a harem slave and only then given the release of death. I've always hated the story; she brought that upon herself. She was helpless. She was weak."
"She was, and so are you," Agatha said. "Don't put on airs, Ms. French."
"Good," Agatha said for a third time. "Your review is on the 23rd at two o'clock. Don't be late, or it'll be upon your head."
"Yes, ma'am," Belle said, and kept her eyes fixed on the ground as Councilwoman Schwarzwald collected her purse, gathered her severity around her like a cloak, and swept from the room.
Belle was sure that this wasn't how—that this wasn't—
She knelt to pick up her paperwork. The manila folder was under her desk, along with a lost paper clip and two bits of chocolate; she shuffled the papers together and flattened them as best she could before returning them to her filing cabinet. After that she returned herself to her chair, folded her hands on the desktop, and let her head drop to rest on her forearms.
She took one shuddering breath and counted to three. When that didn't work, she took another, timing the inhalations to the heartbeat that thundered in her ears.
And then she called Emma's office.
"Storybrooke Sheriff's Department," said the dispatcher, who was a sweetheart if ever there was one. "Is this an emergency?"
"No, Roland, it's Belle. Is Emma around?"
"Ah, hang on—yeah, she's free. Transferring you now."
"Thanks," Belle said, and fought against a sob when she heard Emma's voice.
"Hey, Belle? What's up?"
"Oh—" Belle did not choke. "Oh, you know. How's Henry?"
"Henry's Henry. Are you sure you're okay? Because you sound—"
"Dust," Belle lied. "In my mouth. You know how dirty this place gets. Anyway, the reason I called is—do you know of a lawyer?"
"Nevermind. It was a stupid idea."
Belle heard a clatter and imagined Emma putting her mug of coffee down forcefully; Emma rarely bothered doing anything without force. "Sorry, uh. The only lawyer I know of in town is Mr. Gold, but good luck working with him. Is this about the budget again? Because getting someone to go over the city by-laws might be your ticket out of the whole mess with the Council. Actually, that's a great idea, we could..."
"It's personal," Belle said. "I'd better—I have to go. Thanks."
"Sure thing," Emma said, her tone packed with bewilderment. "Talk to you later?"
"Of course," Belle said, and hung up the phone.
She hadn't realized that Gold was a lawyer by trade, rather than a professional monger, but of course he was the only attorney in town. Of course he was. And if she tried calling elsewhere for assistance, she could be certain that the telephone lines would go down or her computer's battery would refuse to hold a charge or whichever agency she did manage to contact would be flooded with work from another source.
Since the library was little more than a glorified babysitting service, Belle felt only a minor pang of guilt when she locked up early. The town laws and records were housed in what had once been a storage closet; Storybrooke was, for all the vastness it held, still a small town. The charters and lawbooks she had were only copies, but there might be something there that would free her from the upcoming inquisition. She doubted the internet would help; Storybrooke was, legally as in all other ways, a world unto itself.
She studied until late, ignoring Emma's calls and finally turning her personal phone to silent, but the Mayor's rule was ironclad and the will of her minions absolute. The whole situation was ludicrous; she had to laugh a little when she found the clause that Regina had included prohibiting houses along the thoroughfare where her own home sat from being painted any color other than white; the cited reason was that it 'upsetted the aesthetics of the town's center of culture.' Belle had never met a woman who took as much care with her own appearance as the Mayor, and that innate vanity clearly extended not only to buildings but to entire neighborhoods.
When her eyes finally refused to focus any longer, Belle sat back and rubbed at her face. She'd been thoughtlessly chewing on her cuticles as she read, and now beads of blood gathered at the edge of her fingernail and dropped—one—two—three—onto the town charter.
Bleeding on official documents; she was such a mess. An ache in her shoulders made itself known as she unfolded from her stool, and she offered an apology to her body with a long, luxurious stretch. She felt too tired to sleep, as curious a feeling as that was, and she didn't think she could bear to go home to her empty apartment. In twenty-eight years locked in the Queen's prison, she hadn't once regretted her own company, although she had wished for the presence of others, but Agatha Schwarzwald had stolen that from her. Belle didn't want to be alone.
She went to Granny's, the only reputable establishment in Storybrooke open past ten. Hot chocolate sounded delicious, or maybe a cup of tea or coffee; it was that sort of night. The weather was on the edge of falling into autumn crispness, but the days were still warm, particularly when the afternoon sunshine came hot through the library windows. Nights, like now, were cool enough that she tugged her sweater sleeves down over her fingers.
Belle was weary enough for the walk that normally took her five minutes to drag to nearly twenty. Storybrooke after dark was a completely different town than Storybrooke by daylight, and while her feet dragged, Belle couldn't resist the notion that monsters were lurking behind the shadow of that car or this doorway. Her imagination had been the bane of her teachers, both in this land and Avonlea, and when she needed sleep it tended to run away without permission from the rest of her.
The light from Granny's pooled in great arcs on the street; it seemed warmer than the light from the streetlamps, and friendly, and true with the promise of sanctuary and companionship. Belle could use both of those in her current state. The diner was also nearly empty, which suited her down to the tips of her toes. Ruby was inside, covering the late shift like she had no need for sleep, and Belle caught part of an arm and shoulder in a white coat that might mean Dr. Whale, and then she saw Dr. Hopper, sitting in a booth with a newspaper spread in front of him. He wasn't reading the newspaper. He was watching Ruby.
Belle let her hand fall from the doorknob and turned away.
There were two other restaurants in Storybrooke that stayed open late, the old pub closer to the docks and the trendier bar that was popular for sweethearts. Mrs. Crewe in Standard Clocks sometimes worked late, if her insomnia was impeding her ability to sleep so badly that she'd given up the battle, and Winkle's Convenience closed only for two hours before dawn so the proprietor could clean and restock without having to run off and fill a prescription.
One more store kept irregular hours, and that was Mr. Gold's Pawn Shop. Mr. Gold stayed open for days in a stretch and then closed for one week, or two; if she hadn't known better, Belle would've said that the Pawn Shop was a distraction, something to fill the idle hours of a man who made his living playing with real estate, but she'd turned from that opinion the first time she'd peered through the Pawn Shop's window. It was dusty and dark and filled with marvelous, bloody things, like a dragon's den or a magpie's nest. Belle had lived with all that clutter before, had even been in charge of putting it to some kind of system, but like Rumpelstiltskin, Mr. Gold resisted order.
She went to the Pawn Shop now, on a whim, driven to the familiar when her other havens had soured. The light from the store was not warm, like the light from the diner; it warned, rather than comforted. Belle ignored the warning and let herself inside without allowing a moment for thought. If she stopped to think, her nerves would fail her or her sense would stay her feet, one or the other.
"I'm afraid I was just about to lock—" Gold said, and then looked up.
And then stopped.
"Hello," Belle said.
"Good evening, Miss—"
"Ah, yes, Miss French. Something I can do for you, dear?"
"I need your services," Belle said.
Gold raised his brows. "Oh?"
"As a lawyer. I need you—I need a lawyer," Belle said.
Gold's hands stilled, and he put down the old brown boot he'd been polishing. He was himself less polished than Belle was used to seeing; he'd taken off his jacket, and his shirtsleeves were rolled up to his elbows. He was showing an almost unbearable amount of skin. Belle wished she could ask him why she remembered and he didn't, but it was a pointless question.
"And to what end would an upstanding woman like yourself need legal services?"
"I..." She looked around, searching for her departed initiative like it could be found among the pawned wedding rings and lion's-head bookends in Gold's shop. "I'm having trouble with the Mayor and the City Council," she finally explained. "They're trying to terminate my contract and close the library."
"You believe they aren't in their rights to do so?"
"Yes. Yes. I do. I know you're"—Belle drew in a breath—"friendly with the Mayor, but Sheriff Swan says you're the only attorney in town, and I..." Don't have anywhere else to turn, Belle almost said, but while she would've shown her desperation to Rumpelstiltskin, she couldn't bring herself to do so with Gold. "I could use the assistance."
He braced his hands against the counter and dipped his chin; if she hadn't been stealing little darting glances at him, she would've missed the way he never quite met her eyes, choosing instead to keep his gaze fixed just above her head.
"Friendly with the mayor, am I," he said. His voice was rougher and lacked the sibilant quality Belle remembered, but the cadence wasn't dissimilar and the underlying slyness was precisely the same. "That's an interesting way of putting it, dear. The devil must have told you that."
"A turn of phrase. No, Miss French, I'm sorry to say that my legal services are not currently for sale. However, I do have a file you might find...illuminating. If you'll wait here, it shouldn't take long to locate."
Belle swallowed and nodded and watched voyeuristically as Gold collected his cane and disappeared into the back. She'd never been inside the store before, and now, partly to distract herself and partly because she was still hungry (so hungry, for any scrap about him), she turned to examine the walls.
Her first thought was that he could really use some better lighting. The sills were cluttered enough and the windows grimy enough that even during the day, natural light wouldn't brighten the interior, and what electric lights he had were a haphazard mix of out-of-fashion lamps with stained-glass and bare bulbs. Belle wouldn't have been surprised to learn that he lit actual candles for purposes other than decorative, although that was of course ridiculous; nobody in this world worked by candlelight.
Then her eyes caught on the puppets.
"Oh," Belle said.
There were sitting on the countertop, tucked behind a small chest with beads spilling from the mouth; Belle might not have noticed them if she hadn't seen them before. They were still grim, frightening little things, the enormous eyes and toothy grins enough to earn them top billing in any child's nightmare. After that she found one thing after another from Rumpelstiltskin's castle: the mummified hand, the endless goblet, the watercolor of a field of rampions, the gilt trio of apples, the red shoes sized for a child or a small woman, the miniature case of ornate thimbles, the bolts of silk and wool—those boots he had been polishing, those were Jack's seven-league boots...
"Something the matter, Miss French?"
"Oh!" Belle said again, startled anew. "No, I'm sorry. I was only—only looking."
"Yes, well. I've amassed quite a collection, as you can see. The file," he added, and set it on the counter between them, so she didn't have to take it directly from his hand.
"What is it?"
"Your employment contract," he said; he seemed to relish the way her eyes widened. "Oh yes. The Mayor occasionally engages my services when some legal trivia arises that is beyond her ability to handle. I negotiate divorces, too, you know."
"No," Belle said. "I didn't." And like that, she was back in Storybrooke, where the pawn shop was a dingy secondhand brokering ground only a step removed from the blackmarket, as un-castle-like as possible, and its proprietor was a bent, wicked man who couldn't give a rat's ass about Belle or her problems. "What's the price?"
"The price?" Gold said.
"The price. Your price. Isn't that what you do? Make...bargains?"
"Something like that." He resumed his pose behind the counter, hands outstretched and braced against the glass top. Belle felt a tidal wave of spite roll over her and bit back telling him that he was going to break his stupid counter and cut up his stupid, lovely hands.
"I'll tell you what," he said. "You can owe me a favor."
"No," Belle said, immediately.
"Don't trust me, dear?"
Belle couldn't answer that, and didn't.
"Then why don't you see if you can get your father to pay his bills on time. He owes me...quite a lot of money, and he'll soon be in arrears if he doesn't make good on his debt. I might have to confiscate his truck again," Gold said, and smirked.
"I'll speak to him, but I can't force him to pay if he doesn't have the money."
"Then I suppose you'll owe me that favor." He tapped the folder. "You'll find it helpful. I know that the Mayor misplaced your employee file some months ago."
Regina had, and at the time Belle didn't have the energy or concentration to insist a new contract be drawn up. "There are things I won't do," she said.
"Attentive to the details. I approve. Would you like to write down your terms?"
"No," Belle said, "but I want your word that you won't force me to do something I'm not comfortable doing."
"Provided you use your power of veto judiciously."
"That's acceptable," Belle allowed, and although she knew she should have a written agreement—she couldn't help it. She did trust him. It was instinctual, something so innate to her self that even her confusion and anger and grief couldn't strike it from her soul.
"Then, Miss French, we have a deal. I believe this is yours." He made a solicitous gesture of deference, something that might have been the beginning of a bow.
"Thank you," Belle said.
"You're quite welcome." He watched her take the file with glittering eyes; she couldn't make herself turn her back to him, and she had to twist her arm around to fumble with the doorknob.
"Thank you. I mean—good evening," Belle said, and slipped away.
Now she did go home. She checked the door of her apartment before unlocking it; once she was inside, she flung her keys at the far wall and collapsed to the ground, strings cut, back against the door like her inconsequential mass could keep the world out. She didn't cry; tears were unnecessary. Tears wouldn't break locks or free creatures from their cages.
After her breath had returned and she felt she could open her eyes, Belle took the folder to her kitchen and set it on the table. She couldn't see how it would get her out of this mess, but it was the only bit of paper connected to the whole thing she hadn't read.
"God," she said, more to the flower in the window than herself. "God, this is nuts."
The flower said nothing.
"Maybe I really am crazy," Belle said, and put her head down, and laughed. She fell asleep that way, her check smashed against the file and her hands twitched restlessly as she dreamed. She didn't wake up until later in the morning, when the Sheriff came knocking at her door.
Emma was roaring.
"Iz? Isabelle! You open this door right now or I swear, I will break it down!"
Belle groaned and attempted to hide her head under one arm.
"I am completely serious! I can do it, don't think I won't, I'm the Sheriff and that means nobody can arrest me! ISABELLE FRENCH!"
"Coming," Belle muttered.
"I KNOW YOU'RE HOME, MRS. CREWE SAID SHE SAW YOU COME IN LAST NIGHT—"
"Coming!" Belle hollered back. She stood up and then winced as all the aches of the evening before met the soreness of sleeping at a table.
Emma had a hand on her pistol—that was a comfort thing, for her—and almost smacked Belle on the forehead as she drew back her hand to pound on the wall again. "Iz! Jesus, are you okay?"
"I'm fine, I fell asleep in the kitchen. Would you really break down my door?" she asked, interested in spite of herself.
"Damn right I would," Emma said. "What the hell is going on with you? You call me last night and then I find out that you're actually trying to hire Gold, how the hell do you think—and Henry says you haven't been going to your appointments with Hopper—"
"Could we have this conversation inside?" Belle interrupted. The walk-up to her floor was a narrow flight of stairs that funneled noise like a loudspeaker.
"Yeah, sure," Emma said, and pushed inside without actually ceasing her tirade. "You can't skip therapy like that, I'm a basketcase and even I know that you need to be getting professional help!"
"Thanks for the vote of confidence."
"No, don't do that. You don't get to be cute about this!"
"No," Belle said, "you don't do that! You can't shove your way in here and tell me how to run my life!"
"The hell I can't!"
"The hell you can!" Belle snapped. "For your information I had a perfectly, exquisitely valid reason for trying to hire Mr. Gold!"
"And what was that?"
"None of your business!"
"Fine!" Emma said. "See if I care!" She turned on her heel, intent on storming out the door, when her boot caught on Belle's keys and she tripped. Her expression was one of complete indignation as she toppled to the floor.
"Oh, I see how it is," Emma grumbled. "Throwing me out and then yukking it up? I'm onto you, French."
"Shut up," Belle said, but it came out sounding more like "sh-sh-shup" through her cackling. Emma rolled her eyes and blew a hank of hair out of her face.
"See if I ever loan you clothes again."
"You never loan me clothes, even when I ask!" Belle managed.
"Yeah, well, like they'd fit you anyway. You're a midget."
"You're a giantess!"
"Henry would like that," Emma said, flopping on her back.
"He's still in the fairy tale phase?"
"You have no idea." She groaned; Belle nudged her with a toe, and Emma swatted at Belle's ankle. "Hey, now that you're done trying to kill me, maybe we can eat breakfast and talk about this like rational adults?"
Belle heaved a sigh. "You just want me to cook for you."
"Guilty as charged," Emma said, and had the nerve to look completely unapologetic.
Belle had to clear aside a stack of books (Bradley's I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Klein's All in the Blue Unclouded Weather, Anderson's Tirra Lirra by the River, and Christie's The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side) to make room for Emma in the kitchen. Emma started the coffee maker before taking her seat.
"You can't not go to therapy, Iz," she said.
"With tact like that, it's small wonder you're so successful as a sheriff." Belle busied herself with the refrigerator; she had enough eggs for omelets, but Emma refused to eat eggs any way but plain with a little salt. Belle huffed and took out her last bit of bacon, too.
"Got any potatoes?"
"No," Belle said. "If you want potatoes, you can fry them yourself." Emma grunted in displeasure, but Belle was still half asleep and would not be bullied into more work than necessary just because her friend wanted hash browns.
"You know, if this town had a McDonald's—"
"You'd die of malnutrition in weeks. Over easy or scrambled?"
"Over easy," Emma said. "I'm serious. Regina may have skipped out on the charges by passing the blame along to the hospital admin, but just because we couldn't pin the responsibility on her doesn't mean what she put you through was any less terrible. You have post-traumatic stress...probably!"
"You read my file!"
"I...okay, I read your file. Only a little!"
"What? Archie shouldn't have left me alone in the same room as the filing cabinet. Anyway, I just peeked."
"Hey hey, you picked up Mary Margaret's diary that one time—"
"It was an accident!" Belle cried. "I thought it was a book!"
"Yeah, okay. A handwritten book?"
"Publishers aren't obligated to use—"
"Fine, you didn't mean to." Emma opened her mouth, shut it, frowned, and then said, "And I'm sorry, all right? I was worried about you."
"I forgive you. I don't mind, really." Because I haven't told Dr. Hopper anything particularly useful, or even true, Belle didn't add. She pressed that thought to the back of her mind.
"Oh, come on, you mind a little—I would."
"I mind a little," Belle corrected, "but I forgive you anyway. And I made you eggs."
"Sister, I owe you," Emma a said, and took her plate. "A smiley face? Really?" Belle had indeed arranged the bacon below the set of egg yolks so Emma's breakfast resembled a lopsided, cartoonish grin.
"You did mention you wanted to chaperone the lock-in next month, didn't you?" Belle said sweetly.
"Shit," Emma said.
"Fantastic. I'll make sure your name is on the list." Belle took of bite of her own eggs (over-hard, as runny yolks were disgusting).
"On the condition that you'll steer clear of Gold and Regina and, and—whatever other evil jackasses this town is harboring."
"I'll speak with whomever I choose."
"Iz, just work with me here, okay? I don't need you getting cornered by the Mayor again."
"Emma," Belle said, putting down her bacon and fisting her hands in her lap. "Listen to yourself. Would you listen to the advice you're giving me? I don't need you to tell me that Regina's a rotten apple—"
"I know you don't, but apparently someone does need to warn you about Mr. Gold. He is absolutely no good, and he'll talk you out of the shirt on your back if you don't pay attention—"
"Emma," Belle said again, the warning in her voice as clear as a chime.
"Tell me you'll keep it in mind, at least."
"I'll take it under consideration. No promises."
"And you'll call me if you have any trouble."
"And I'll call you if I have any trouble," Belle parroted obediently.
"Good. Then yes, fine, I'll chaperone your stupid lock-in. Please tell me we're playing laser tag."
"We're playing laser tag."
"Thank god," Emma said, and apparently in renewed spirits, started to chew her eggs again. "Wanna come hang out with me and Henry? Regina has some kind of super secret meeting, so she said I could have him for the whole day."
"I should work—"
"Take the day off."
"Really, I need to—"
"It's Sunday," Emma said. "Sunday is a day of rest."
"Oh, in that case. I didn't realize you and Henry were planning on resting instead of charging around the park, play-fighting with sticks, but if you're going to be resting..."
"That's a yes?"
"If you don't mind waiting while I shower." Belle sniffed and made a mock face of disgust, contorting her mouth and displaying the bits of bacon still stuck to her teeth. Emma snorted and nearly spit up her coffee.
"We," Belle said, "are such wonderful role models."
"Pillars of the community," Emma agreed. "Everything adult women should be. You know what this town needs? An amusement park."
"A roller coaster and carousel, at very least."
"Yeah, I could see it. Actually, in Storybrooke it'd be more like something out of a horror movie—you know, the creepy abandoned rides."
"Serial killer clowns lurking around every corner..."
"That's a lot of clowns," Emma said. "Hey, you go shower, I'll do the dishes."
"Thanks," Belle said, grateful, and took herself down the hall to the bathroom. All humor aside, she did still smell like stale sweat. She intended to be quick—Emma, when left alone, invariably started trying to fix appliances that weren't really broken—but when she realized she'd forgotten to put on her shower cap, she decided Emma wouldn't mind if she took the time to wash her hair. Belle's hair was one of her few concessions to impracticality; a shorter haircut would probably suit her better. Maybe not something as short as Mary Margaret's, but a shoulder-length style would be so much easier on her drains...after she turned off the water, she rubbed the condensation away from the mirror and tucked her hair up around her neck.
"Did you get sucked down the pipes?" Emma shouted.
"Out in a minute!" Belle shouted back, and then, "Don't touch the electric kettle!"
Shorter hair. Ridiculous. Belle sighed and started to work combing out the tangles. If she braided it wet, it shouldn't frizz too much around her face; she liked her long hair, but abhorred spending time on it. The last time she'd used her hair dryer she'd been distracted by the small volume of Siken hiding under the vanity. The smell of hair starting to burn had been the thing to drag her attention back.
Emma had managed to keep her fingers off the electronics, and they made their way to Emma's yellow Beetle together, jostling on the stairs for the lead. (Emma won, but only by tugging on the bottom of Belle's braid.) When the collapsed into the car together, both breathless, Belle almost opened her mouth and shared what she hadn't with Dr. Hopper: a story that sounded fantastic and absurd, full of castles and knights and magic...
She caught her tongue between her teeth and used the bite of pain to keep herself from speaking. The last time she'd trusted, her trust had been returned to her without a thought for her courage, and look—she'd ended up locked in a dungeon, caught between this world and the last.
"Henry's gonna be excited," Emma was saying. "He's always begging me to invite you along. It's great to see him so often, but man, that kid has got a mind of his own."
"Purely coincidental, no idea how he inherited that trait," Belle said automatically. "You're certain you don't mind me tagging along? I don't want to intrude."
"Have you ever known me to willingly spend time with someone I didn't like? Don't answer that. No, seriously, the kid and I both love having you around. You, uh. You know that, right?" Emma kept her eyes fixed on the road, but she gave a suspicious little twitch toward the passenger side; Belle couldn't tell if Emma was aborting a hug or flinching from a discussion about sentiment.
"I do," Belle said. "Thank you."
"Aw, no, don't—don't thank me. You're doing me a favor, hanging around the town pariah. Hey, is that a snow cone stand?"
"Yes. I believe it's the same one you visit at least once a week after lunch."
"Oh." Emma smoothed a hand over her hair. "Yep, sure enough."
Belle rolled her eyes at the three socks and bundled a-shirt strewn across the passenger-side floor—clearly the detritus of Emma's last trip to the laundromat. They didn't often take Emma's car, since both of them preferred to walk and the town was small enough to allow it, but the Mayor's house was in a gated neighborhood a few minutes outside of the main hub. Like Emma, the slugbug was a contradictory but fascinating amassment of qualities, and Belle suspected the car was more home to Emma than her Boston apartment ever had been. In addition to the laundry remnants, it had collected a number of knickknacks (a Red Sox bobblehead in the rear window, a box of matches from a Singer Salvage behind the driver's seat, a baseball bat from either Henry's pick-up games or Emma's previous trade in the back), trophies (a clipped article from a newspaper in Portland about a fugitive found with a bailbondsperson's help, an astrolabe Belle recognized from Rumpelstiltskin's castle), and garbage (a ball of aluminum foil that had leaked ketchup onto the carpet, an array of used zip ties, a coffee mug so stained that the brown tidemarks seemed part of the ceramic).
"We should clean your car," she said.
Emma scoffed. "Yeah, that sounds like a fun way to spend the day. The worst part is that Henry'll probably clean with you; he's as much of a neat freak as you are." She considered. "Well, maybe not quite as much, but still, I swear. You should see his comic books—he keeps them in plastic sleeves. And they're alphabetized."
"The horror," Belle said, dryly.
Henry was waiting for them outside of his mother's house, to Belle's relief. He was wearing his navy peacoat and had not only his knapsack but a nylon diamond kite in tow. The twin blue and yellow tails were looped around his neck so many times that Belle thought he might choke if he tripped.
He yanked open the rear door and nearly clobbered himself in the face. "Emma! Emma, look what I found!"
"It's a kite," Emma said.
"Yep! Miss Blanchard found a bunch of old toys in her attic and she let everyone pick something and I got to go third because she pulled my name out of the hat. Paige picked a flower."
"Paige?" Belle asked.
"Hi, Issy," Henry said, climbing into the car after a brief struggle with the kite. "She's a girl in my class."
Crush, Emma mouthed.
"It's one of those flowers that squirts water in your face. She said she thought her dad would think it's funny."
Belle twisted in her seat. "Who's her father?"
"Jefferson," Emma answered. "Strange guy, keeps to himself."
"He doesn't have a library card," Belle said, which was the sort of thing she knew. "You should ask her to the activity group, Henry."
"Oh yeah," Henry said. "I bet she'd like that. Emma, are we going to the park?"
"We sure are, kiddo," Emma said. "Thought we could go to Granny's for lunch and then maybe back to my place for a movie."
Storybrooke's best park was located just to the south of downtown, along a stretch of shoreline that sat at the bottom curve of a crescent bay. Emma helped Henry and his kite out of the car and set to work detangling; Belle watched them, amused and touched at how wholly absorbed they were in each other. In the bluest moon imaginable she sometimes had abstract thoughts about being a mother, but there was only one person she'd want to father her children, and she couldn't see that working in any universe, not even if the spiderweb that held them all captive came apart.
She sat down on a park bench a few yards away from where Emma and Henry were now trying to attach the string to the kite; there appeared to be some disagreement about the best kind of knot to use, and the discussion was getting heated. Henry finally glanced away and realized that Belle had wandered off. He waved at her, but she smiled and shook her head. Henry conferred with Emma before turning and running at her full-tilt, his short legs making unpredictably quick work of the sandy knoll.
"Issy, don't you want to go kite-flying?"
"You go ahead," Belle said. "I'm going to sit here and enjoy the sunshine. Maybe take off my shoes." She suited action to word by kicking off her sneakers without untying the laces. "Don't let Emma fool you into thinking she knows what she's doing, alright? I don't think she's ever flown a kite before."
"I think you're right," Henry said. "Good thing she has me around to show her how to do it." He dropped his knapsack next to Belle and pulled out the thick, folio-sized book with the leather cover that Belle had seen him studying more than once. This, she surmised, was his book of fairy tales.
He clutched it to his chest and hesitated before offering it to her. "Here," he said, "you can read this. You can't tell my mom about it, though, okay?"
"I would never," Belle said solemnly. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Henry said, equally but not comically serious; he turned on his heel and raced back to Emma, who had somehow gotten the kite string tangled around a piece of driftwood.
Belle dug her toes into the sand, wiggled them until she'd made comfortable little grooves, and opened Henry's book. It had more text and fewer illustrations than she'd expected, although what illustrations there were had been beautifully drawn in a style distinct from what she usually found in fairy tale collections. It took her only a few minutes to discern that many of the stories had different endings from the traditional versions, or different beginnings, or sometimes different characters all together; and only a few minutes past that to realize that the book didn't tell the gross approximations of her own homeland that were popular in this world as fiction, but the actual events. And the faces in the pictures were so familiar...
It took her some time to find The Beauty and the Beast, because she kept coming across people she knew. So that was why that dwarf in the pub had seemed so heartsick; and here was why Mary Margaret had been dressed in furs and carrying a bow when Belle had first met her; and now she found an explanation of the slumbering man with the long beard and the plate mail she'd found out beyond the Lantern Wastes.
Her own history had no pictures. Belle located it in the back, one of the last chapters before the appendices, and found it started as all stories started. What surprised her was that it wasn't written in broad strokes of stock characters and thinly-veiled moral fables; it was, instead, exact.
Beauty often explored the castle, when she was not cleaning or cooking or bringing the Beast straw; since he had little use for cleaning and little need for food and could summon straw from the cellar for only the price of a few drops of blood, she had much time to use as she would. Exploration was, alongside the library and the Beast's stories, her chief pleasure.
She found the rose garden after the last frost of the winter had thawed. A hundred thousand buds were just beginning to unfurl, and while a few ambitious blossoms were spread open, most were little knots of petals, bright spots of red or pink or black or yellow or white or blue (imagine—blue roses!) that decorated the riot of verdant leaves.
The garden was in an open courtyard beyond the tower where the Beast's personal suite was housed, and had been tended recently—and by hand, Beauty thought. She was learning, slowly, to tell the difference between what magic wrought and was was the product of mere work and will. There were no fountains or benches, as there were in the more ornate gardens on the grounds, although the grass was worn in one spot beside a very deep red rose, as if someone sat there on the ground often. The red rose captivated her for ages; the center furl was a crimson so dark it was nearly black, but then lightened as it spread outward to a scarlet she'd only ever seen at sunset...
The Beast found her there some hours later; she had moved to sit in front of a rose so soft a lavender it seemed white at first glance. "Did you get lost, dearie?" he said, although he was more somber at the sight of her in the rose garden than was his usual wont.
"Oh," Beauty said. "I'm sorry, I just—I've never seen roses before, outside of a storybook. They're lovely." 'Lovely' struck her an inadequate description, but she suspected that in all the books in all the world there was not a word for this garden.
"And why is that?" the Beast said. "They're just flowers."
"No, they aren't!" She found herself upset with him, although she did not understand why that thoughtless remark would anger her. "Only sorcerers can grow roses, and these are..."
The Beast, as he often did, looked at her strangely. "That's a myth, although one I've not heard before. They've gone out of style—too old-fashioned, would be my guess—but a man can grow roses as well as a sorcerer." He reached down and pinched a flower from its bush before Belle could stop him; at her distress, he lifted one shoulder and dropped it. "It'll grow back soon enough, dearie, never fear."
He spent a moment starting at the rose he'd plucked; it was white, but the white of linen rather than snow.
"Should I not come here?" Beauty asked.
"Oh no," said the Beast. "You are free to come here, dearie, as often as you like. More than welcome. Consider this an invitation."
She remembered how sweet that garden had smelled, the scent so thick that it clung to her skirts...
"Iz? Issy! Are you okay?"
Emma was shouting again.
"Iz! Iz, look at me!"
She dragged her eyes away from the page reluctantly; Emma was frantic, her eyes wide and her mouth tight, and Belle hoped she hadn't worried her friend—
"I'm sorry," Belle said.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, why...?"
"You're crying," Emma said.
Belle lifted her hand and touched three fingers to her face. "So I am," she said. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean—"
"Oh Christ," Emma said. "Don't be sorry. I leave you alone for five minutes and I find you crying over a book, I swear."
"Don't swear, Emma," Henry said, and Belle realized he was peering from out from behind Emma's back. "I didn't mean to make you cry, Iz!"
"Honestly, I promise I'm not having a breakdown. This is a wonderful book, though, Henry, thank you. It's really very...lovely."
Henry came around and set his hands in front of hers, where she had the book open on her knees. "It's special," he said.
"It is," Belle said. "Make sure you take good care of it."
"I do. See, Emma?"
"Whatever you say, kid," Emma said.
"Now," Belle said, and wiped the last of the tears from her cheeks. "I know someone mentioned lunch at Granny's, but I think I'd rather have ice cream first."
"Ice cream!" Henry said.
"Fantastic. Crying and now sugar," Emma said, but she looked more concerned than affronted.
Belle made time that week to visit her father; she had, after all, her end of a bargain to uphold. She loved him dearly, but there was a distance between them that Belle had come to view as natural. Turning that thought over too frequently made her invariably sad, but the sadness was a gentle, slow mourning rather than the cacophony that other thoughts awoke in her.
After she'd been carted away, Maurice had sold his home and moved into the spare room in the back of Game of Thorns. (She'd been surprised to learn that he hadn't changed the name, which had been Belle's idea and which he had always hated. She'd taken it from one of her favorite novels.) Belle suspected the move had been precipitated by a need for funds. Her father was in one sense a peerless businessman, gregarious and fair, with an eye for marketing and a creativity that was matched only by his work ethic, but he was also bad with money. Without Belle's head for numbers, he'd quickly fallen into debt, and Belle didn't need her father to tell her who it was who held his loans. She'd recently taken over his books again, and hoped to soon present him with a check large enough that he could move out of the shop all together.
He emerged from behind an enormous rubber tree plant at the jingle of the shop bell, his face creasing in pleasure when he saw her. "Hello, sweetheart," he said, and opened his arms for a hug.
"Papa," she said, a habit that even the proximity of the Mayor couldn't break. He smelled like potting soil and greenery, earthy and comforting.
"What's brought you to the florist's?" he said, after he'd released her.
Belle hopped up on the counter like a girl—she had memories, however false, of doing exactly this when she had been a girl, and Maurice had always scolded her, but never had he actually tried to chase her away. "Can't a woman visit her dad?"
"A woman can," he said. "And my daughter does, but you've got that look on your face—"
"What look?" Belle said, peeved.
"That look," he said. "The look you get when you're about to tell me I can't hand out carnations at the senior center for free."
"Well you can't, not if you want to turn a profit," Belle said.
"The old ladies like 'em. The gents, too. Never saw harm in making someone's gran smile." He presented her with a carnation, and she threw up her hands. "Go on," he said.
"Oh, fine." Belle took the flower from him and tucked it behind her ear. "I can't be mad at you when you're right."
"Quiet," she said. "I do have something to tell you. Mr. Gold says—"
"You've been talking to him?"
"I have. He had some paperwork I needed, and when I stopped by his store he asked me to talk to you about your finances. I know you have enough money—" She paused when she saw how pale he'd gone. Her father's skin was normally a ruddy red; he practically glowed with good humor. Now he looked on the verge of fainting.
"He's dangerous, Belle," her father said. "You stay away from him."
"Why," Belle said, "why is it that people today seem so determined to tell me how to run my life? I am thirty years old, I think I can make my own decisions!"
"I'm not trying to do anything but keep my girl safe. I haven't told you, Iz, but the last time I couldn't make my payment on time he took me out to his cabin and beat me. Just about broke my arm," her father said, and held out his hand so Belle could see the scars the climbed past his wrist and disappeared under his cuff.
"He did what?"
"Stay away from him," Maurice said. "Please, Iz."
"All right, Papa," she agreed, but her mind was far away, racing ahead of itself. If only she had answers, if only she could understand what magic had crept inside Storybrooke's residents and veiled their eyes—but no, she was making excuses for him again. He had hurt her family.
"No," Belle said. "No. I won't promise that, but I can promise he won't come near you again. Do you hear me? He won't come near you again."
Her father looked at her, and then he shut his eyes. "You're not right in the head, Iz. Getting mixed up with Gold, and that woman from the Council—"
"Schwarzwald," Maurice said. "Stopped by the other day and bought...let's see...crocuses, I think. Seemed far too delicate for how severe she was, but who'm I to judge a customer's tastes?" He shrugged philosophically. "She said you'd invited her to stop by, but I have to tell you, I didn't like the look of her."
Belle's vision blurred and then refocused; her father's store suddenly seemed hyperreal, every line crystalline and too sharp.
"I have to go," she said. "I love you."
"Love you too," Maurice said, gruff but happy that she'd told him something she hadn't in too long. "Don't do anything rash."
"Me?" Belle said. "Never."
She didn't remember the walk home, although she was nearly run down two separate times by drivers who had never had so much as a parking ticket. To top off the evening, there was another note on her door.
Dear Resident (_____________________________),
Per a previous communication dated (__/__/__), you are required to agree to the new terms of your lease by no later than the first of the following month. Please sign the enclosed document and—
Belle snarled. She seized the letter with both hands and yanked, tearing it from the door and down the middle, and then tearing it in half again, and again, and once more, and then opened her hands and let the shreds flutter to the ground. When that didn't satisfy the deep, rolling pit of rage that slept behind her heart, she bolted down the corridor and back outside in the open air.
It started to storm as she crossed Guilder Avenue; by the time she passed the town's welcome sign, her feet were sloshing in her shoes, her clothes were soaked through, and her hair was sticking to her neck in wet clumps. She couldn't see much beyond the striping on the road's shoulder, but anger drove her onward, anger made her insensate and desperate to move.
She had started to shiver when she saw the headlights; the rain wasn't as pounding but the lightning was more ferocious than it had been. Whoever was driving in this weather was almost as much of a fool as she was.
Cold and tired and folded inside herself as she was, it took her even longer to realize that the car had pulled up next to her—in the wrong lane, nonetheless, so the driver could roll down his window and speak to her.
"You look like you need—" Mr. Gold said; the rest of his words were swallowed by the crack of thunder.
"Get away from me!" Belle shouted.
"Get in the car!" he shouted back. She'd never heard him shout in this world, and only once in the old one.
His teeth flashed, and he put the car in gear, creeping down the road to keep pace with her as she hurtled down the road. "You'll catch your death out here, let me give you a ride!"
"Go to hell!"
"Whatever you say, dear," he snapped. He seemed as angry as she was, although it was hard to make out his face beyond the brief flashes the lightning afforded as he withdrew and swerved back into the proper lane. Good, Belle thought savagely, but then she realized he'd only pulled away to turn the car; it was now blocking the entire road, her path included, and the next idiot driver to come speeding 'round the bend would wreck him.
"Get in the car," he said.
"You think your father wants you to catch your death by the side of the road?"
"Like you care about my father!" She tried to pick her way around the car's front, but the shoulder fell away abruptly past the reach of her foot.
"Ah!" Gold said. "Then you're trying to please the Mayor by ridding her of one of her more persistent problems?"
Belle, trapped, furious, felt her mouth fall open.
And then she said, "Fine."
She clutched herself and shivered viciously while he backed up and swung around to give her easier entrance. The car's interior was cozy, the heater running at full blast; Belle extended her hands until she was nearly cupping the vents and glared when Gold reached over to adjust the temperature.
He seemed to know that she had no desire for conversation; Belle hoped he'd also managed to sense precisely how revolted she felt by his presence. She kept her gaze fixed straight ahead and concentrated on keeping herself from hiccuping. She was at first disturbed that he knew where she lived without directions, and then, for a flicker in time, surprised at herself for being concerned before she remembered her anger; and at last she hated herself for forgetting that this man was not who she'd thought he was.
Belle was clawing at the door before he put the car in park. She heard him sigh as she groped for the lock. "Have you read the file, Miss French?"
"I don't want anything of yours," Belle bit out, and then her fingers found the correct button and she was out, she was free and slamming the car door behind her and rushing for her building like a rabbit for its warren.
The next morning she called and made an appointment with Dr. Hopper. He handled all his own scheduling and seemed flustered when she identified herself.
"Ms. French! Well, I have to admit it's a surprise to hear from you, but I can't say this isn't encouraging. What can I do for you?"
"I'd like to make an appointment, please," Belle said. There was a fleck of egg stuck to her green formica countertop, and she scrapped idly at it with a fingernail while Dr. Hopper searched for his calendar.
"Ah, here we are—how soon? If it's an emergency I can see you this afternoon, but otherwise...perhaps in the evening, two days out?"
"If you don't mind me saying so, I'm glad you've chosen to resume speaking with me. Not, ah, not that there's any reason you should—but I was concerned. In a professional capacity!"
"I understand, Dr. Hopper, and no, I appreciate that."
"Have the nightmares resumed?"
"Occasionally," Belle admitted.
"I'm sorry to hear that. Hopefully we can work together to give you some peace of mind."
"Thanks," Belle said. "See you Friday?"
"You're on my schedule, Ms. French."
Belle didn't know if it was her impending appointment with Dr. Hopper or merely a distraction from the preparation she knew she should be doing for the injunction with the City Council, but she found her mind wandering to those first few, frantic days after she'd wandered out of the hospital's basement, too thin and with matted hair and the dead-eyed stare of a soldier home from the war. She'd never discovered what charitable soul had opened the door to her cell; it had seemed to swing wide of its own accord, waiting for Belle to make her decision. Stay or go. Known or unknown. She'd wasted a precious handful of moments gathering her courage and her wits and then she'd stepped outside, and when she hadn't been stopped she'd taken another step, and then another, until she was stumbling up the stairs and through the access door and into daylight.
Emma called every day to check on her, which made her feel appreciated but also stifled. There'd been some of kind of vandalism at Granny's restaurant that had kept the Sheriff busy. Emma wasn't worried—she seemed convinced that the culprits were bored teenagers acting out their claustrophobia—but Granny was demanding an arrest, and there were certain of Storybrooke's citizens even Emma knew better than to offend.
Belle occupied herself instead with cleaning the library from A to Z. She polished the shelves, swept the cobwebs from the ceilings, waxed the floors, and disassembled the four public access computers to blow the dust from their component parts. By the end of the week her knees were bruised and her hands were chapped, but the library was gleaming and Belle felt prepared to point to that, at least, as one aspect of her job she could perform competently. She'd even scrubbed the toilets and poured vinegar down the drains in the restrooms; there had been an odd moment where she was sure she'd heard the vibrato bass rumble of some enormous animal coming up through the pipes, but that clearly was her imagination. The story of the week for the children's group had been Where the Wild Things Are; beasts were clearly much on her mind.
Once she conquered the dirt, she turned to the collection. The library's open stacks were a patchwork of old, much-used books from the institution's younger days—before her incarceration, Belle had worked under Martin Mogget, the first and only other librarian to reside in Storybrooke, an absent-minded but delightful man who was far more concerned with how many books he could pack into the building than their condition, and who had as a result shopped at flea markets and estate sales for their materials—and the newer volumes of many and wildly divergent genres Belle had purchased with her meagre budget and, sometimes, with her personal funds. She'd tried to introduce an A/V section, which other than the children's groups was the runaway success of her tenure.
She repaired bindings and glued or stitched loose pages and even managed to track down most of the patrons with fines over the ten-dollar limit, although Jack Larrie had attempted a lie so outrageous, a sordid tale that involved at least three mistresses and his mother's wicked new husband, who of course bore a personal grudge against him, Jack, that Belle had waived his charges entirely. She didn't believe a word of it, but he was wildly entertaining and she appreciated a good story.
She also concentrated on not being angry. This she accomplished through a succession of techniques that included, in turn, three daily cups of herbal tea, meditation, jogging, aromatherapy, boxing, and, when all else failed, more cleaning. She feel into bed exhausted every night, too tired to read and almost too tired to dream.
The morning of her appointment with Dr. Hopper she spent helping an older man sort through the town's map collection and putting together an ad campaign advertising library services and calling for volunteers. If she couldn't have another staff person, maybe some of the older children would want community service hours over their winter break. (Belle hoped to fob reshelving off on someone.) Ad campaigns in Storybrooke were poor affairs, maybe a week's worth of ads in the Mirror and a notice on the bulletin boards at the Town Hall and Granny's, but Belle ran off some full- and half-sheet flyers and tacked them to streetlights around town. Mrs. Crewe even let her post one in the window of Standard Clocks; there was that.
The therapy session itself was anticlimactic. Belle cried, a little, and managed to tell Dr. Hopper what her nightmares actually constituted. He listened, and jotted notes on his legal pad (but not frequently enough to make her uncomfortable), and offered advice in his calm, memorable voice. He asked Belle if she'd tried journaling, and when she said no, he went to his desk and rummaged around until he found a brown volume the size of a trade paperback with creamy, lined pages. "For you," he said. "No, no, it's a gift."
"Thank you," Belle said.
He asked her if she'd been having panic attacks, and said that while he was glad she hadn't been, some kind of release was not only acceptable but healthy. He offered her a prescription if she was having trouble sleeping through the night, but warned her to not abuse the medication. He was in all ways thorough, gentle, and exacting, and at the end of fifty minutes Belle emerged from his cavernous office feeling as if her wounds had been lanced. Emma was right.
And speaking of—Regina was waiting in the reception area, scowling at her phone as Henry fidgeted at her side. "Miss French," she said, standing when Belle entered; she towered, especially so in her stiletto shoes, and more than that one of the few people who had ever made Belle feel small. "I'm glad I caught you. I have some bad news; your hearing with the Council had been moved to Monday."
"I—pardon?" Belle said. Monday was four days away; she'd thought she had weeks more, time to speak with Dr. Hopper about appearing as a character witness, time to finish combing through the archives, plenty of time that was now stolen from her.
"I'm sorry for the inconvenience, but I'm afraid it was unavoidable."
Henry waved at her, a dangerous display of support, but Belle was so stunned she didn't return it. "That's..."
"Yes?" the Queen said.
Belle felt something rising in her, something that had been long buried and now unfurled in her heart like a flower reaching for the sun. "That's unacceptable," she said.
If she hadn't been looking Regina straight in the eye, she would've missed the way the woman froze before rolling into her usually silky control. "Do you believe you can dictate the actions of the ruling body of this town, Miss French?"
"They aren't the ruling body of this town," Belle said. "You are. The Council does whatever you say. And furthermore, according to your own statues, you have to provide me with written notice no less than one week in advance before changing the time of an official hearing. I'm going out with my father on Monday."
"Your father?" Regina's voice was rising out of its typical throaty register into high incredulity. "Your father has your power of attorney. He signed your admission papers to the mental ward after your little break with reality."
"You're lying," Belle said, utterly, blissfully fearless. "He didn't, but I understand why you'd want people to think he did when you're—" Her breath hitched; Regina had sold that story and sold it hard, and while Belle didn't believe her father would lock her away against her will, there were others in town who would.
"You think you can defy me?" Regina said. She took a step closer, trying to use her height to intimidate, but Belle laughed at her.
"Yes," she said. "I do. I think there's a reason you locked me up. I think I frighten you, for what I mean and for who I am, and I think that at the end of the day you're just a lonely, bitter woman desperate to control the entire world. Well, guess what?" Belle took a step closer and now it was Regina who flinched. "You can't control me."
Regina's lips drew back in a brute expression of rage, but Belle laughed at her again; and the Queen whirled around, snatched her son's hand, and began to drag him from the office.
"Madam Mayor, Henry's appointment—" Dr. Hopper said.
"We're canceling," Regina snarled. "Henry, come with me. Henry!"
Henry pulled free and threw himself at Belle; she caught him and squeezed him tight around the shoulders. When he pulled away, he tugged her down to his level, cupped his hands, and whispered in her ear until Regina caught his shoulder and dragged him out the door. Belle stared after him, astonished. Henry grinned and gave her a thumb's-up before Regina gave a final tug and he disappeared.
"That was certainly unusual," Dr. Hopper said mildly, and Belle felt a rush of happy shame that he'd witnessed the confrontation. "The Mayor is usually religious about bringing Henry to his appointments. How are you...?"
"I'm fine," Belle said, and then, caught in a rush of elation, wrapped her arms around Dr. Hopper and passed along Henry's hug. "I'm better than fine!"
"Well," Dr. Hopper said, taking off his glasses and polishing them on the hem of his jacket. "Good. That's very good. Where are you going?"
"I have something to do!" Belle said, and she danced out the door, giddy with revelation and already digging for her phone. Of course, because she needed it it was nowhere to be found; she finally had to stop and prop her canvas bag on a newspaper stand to extract it from under too many books and papers. Emma was second on her speed-dial.
"Hey, Iz, what's up?"
"Emma," Belle said, dodging a cluster of pedestrians and ducking below a banner Sister Astrid was stringing up in front of the Post Office. "Emma, you have to tell me about Henry's fairy tales!"
"You said he was obsessed with fairy tales, with that book he showed me. What did you mean?"
Emma groaned. "Tell me he didn't say anything about Operation Cobra to you."
"Nothing, never mind, it isn't important. Uh, fairy tales. He thinks—it's just a fantasy, Dr. Hopper says it's normal—but he thinks we're all characters from his book."
Belle whooped, scaring a nearby flock of pigeons into the empty street. Henry knew. Henry knew, and here was her real, tangible proof, here was evidence that she no longer had to doubt her two lives.
"Iz? What's up?"
"Just happy," Belle said, letting herself through the street-level door that led to her apartment. "Could you do me a favor?"
"Sure, you name it."
"Next time you see Henry, tell him thanks?"
"I swear, you two will be inventing your own secret code soon."
"And what's Operation Cobra again?"
Emma laughed. "Point. Sure, I'll pass it along. Lunch tomorrow?"
"Sunday? There's something I have to do."
"You've got it," Emma said. "Talk to you later."
There was a third note taped to Belle's door; this one was handwritten and, while still opaque, far more personal than the other two.
Please see me regarding the update to your lease detailed in the previous letters, copies of which are available at my shop should you no longer possess them. While the basic terms of our agreement have not changed, there are some minor details including extermination services, payment due dates, and maintenance procedures which necessitate a new contract. I require your signature by no later than the 31st of October.
Belle folded the note and put it in her pocket, and then left before she'd hardly arrived. She'd been planning to do this tomorrow, when she felt less raw and had recaptured some of her sense, but the note seemed like a sign. She stepped into the world feeling entirely like herself and with Henry's whisper caught and held in her mind:
You did the brave thing.
She wasn't truly sure what she would find at Gold's house; but she know she had to go. He lived on the outskirts of town, at the end of a road she'd never travelled. Belle didn't know if she was hoping to find him restored (but if he was Rumpelstiltskin, why hadn't he found her in the dungeon?), if she was hoping to merely find some remnant of who he had been (and wouldn't that complicate matters, if she knew him and he didn't remember her), or if she simply wanted closure on a chapter of her life long finished. The walk took her a quarter of an hour, during which she tried to reason her expectations into something more manageable. Reason did nothing to cure the hope singing through her veins.
Mr. Gold's home was coral, with dramatically steepled roofs that somehow suggested towers. It was set away from the other houses on the lane, as if his neighbors were afraid to build too close lest they one day return home to find their houses had been consumed whole in some unlikely deal. In Belle's experience distance did nothing to lessen the effects of Rumpelstiltskin's personality.
This, she told herself, was absurd, and childish to boot. She marched up the front walk anyway, and rapped three times on his door. What did she think would happen? Did she think that he would take one look at her and know, that he would have explanations for all his ridiculous, moronic behavior, that he would open his arms and she could fall into them? Pointless. Like something in one of the Harlequin paperbacks the library stocked on spinners and bored, lonely housewives checked out by the bagful.
She knocked again. Nobody answered.
Thwarted, Belle whirled around and started circling the house for a low, unguarded window. She should've thought to check his shop first, but now she was here and if she had to break down the door and wait for him in the dark she would. Maybe she'd startle him; he needed a good startling every once in a while.
Then she was back around to the first thought, that this whole idea was ridiculous. He didn't know anything. He'd probably shoot her and call the police, or beat her bloody like he had her father. That was her problem—she always rushed into conflict headlong, reckless to the point of stupidity despite what she thought was a more than generous helping of common sense—
And then she stepped around the corner, into Gold's backyard, and was assaulted by the scent of roses.
His backyard was laid out in the same neat lines as the garden she recalled from elsewhere, and like that other place, the flowers had been given reign to grow as they would. The more exotic colors were missing—no sunset roses here, no silver roses that sparkled when they were dusted with dew, but there was beauty here, and care. The climbers covered the entire back of the house, and had started working their way under the eaves; they'd been trimmed and shaped and bullied into growing around the windows and door, but otherwise mingled freely, scarlet and pale cream and a yellow that almost faded against the coral house until you moved a step to the right and caught the color against the verdigris leaves.
The bushes ringed the lawn to the edge of the woods; these had been planted with no thought to plan or pattern. There were very small roses that reminded Belle of her little flowerpot at home, and roses with enormous round blossoms larger than her closed fist, and roses that started as one color in the center and were a different color entirely by the outer curve of the petals. When Belle parted the leaves of a bush with wicked thorns and velvety flowers a much darker red than blood, she saw that one of the stems had been pinched away. The red roses were planted as part of a trio, with a white bush that displayed only four blooms and a much larger plant that blossomed a delicate lavender.
"Each one has a name, you know," said someone from behind her.
Belle realized she'd stopped breathing, and she forced herself to inhale before letting herself ask, "What's the lavender?"
"Blue Moon," he said.
"And the red?"
"Black Magic," said Rumpelstiltskin.
She turned, then, to look at him in the fading sunlight; he was wearing a charcoal suit with a cerulean shirt and a paisley tie. He seemed entirely human.
"You know," she said.
"And you...knew that I would know?"
"I suspected," he corrected her, "that you might, eventually, discover the truth. Wherever the Queen held you—it took you outside of the curse. For a time."
Belle nodded and began to pick her way across the lawn to him. He had one hand on his cane and the other tucked in his pocket, and was feigning nonchalance with an ease that spoke of centuries of practice, but Belle read his eyes and knew that it was testament to the hold she had on him that he was facing her, like this, no deceit or show of power.
She halted close enough to touch him and stared hard into his face, and the next question tore out of her. "Why didn't you try to find me?"
His gaze snapped away. "Regina told me you were dead. She said—she said that you—"
"That my father," Belle started.
"And...after? When I'd left the hospital?"
He did look at her, then; his eyes were brown rather than gilt, but the difference was only superficial. "Well, dearest. It seemed to me that you should be free to make your own choice."
"Oh," Belle said, and blinked, and touched the fingers of her right hand to her lips.
"You threw me out and you harmed my father," Belle said.
He sighed. "Not charges I can deny."
"I still haven't forgiven you for that. You don't get another chance after this one, do you understand?"
"Not at all," he said.
"And you're going to answer all my questions," she added. "I have a lot of questions, I hope you have enough tea to last while you provide many thorough explanations."
"You'd better kiss me now, Rumpelstiltskin," Belle told him. "I'm not going to wait around forever."
"With an invitation like that," he said, one corner of his mouth curling up crookedly. Belle, who couldn't wait any longer, flung herself at him; and he opened his arms and caught her, bad knee and all.
A week before, a new map had appeared in the first appendix of Henry's book, and after he returned home from his latest session with Dr. Hopper he hurried to his room to look at it. The map changed on an hourly basis; roads lengthened or vanished, new locations appeared where there had been forest before, and place names changed and then changed back with no rhyme or warning. There were a few markers that stayed constant—Granny's Inn, and the Storybrooke Library, and the Abbey—but Henry took the map's mutable nature as proof that the curse was weakening.
Today there was only one change on the map. Henry didn't notice it at first, but as he traced Main Street with his finger from the far right border of the page, through downtown, and over the crease where the book's pages joined, he saw that the house all alone at the edge of the woods was called something new. Yesterday the small, fine ink drawing of a two-story home with high peaks had been labeled Mr. Gold's Residence.
Now, it bore a different name: Dragon's Den.