It was nice, Gold admitted, to have someone who genuinely cared about him in his corner. That’s not to say there hadn’t been others, of course, who pretended to care about him and take an interest in his day-to-day life. But those brief moments were always immediately followed by some request or another—an extension on rent, a loan or a discount on some pretty bauble in his shop. And in those moments, when the world once again yanked the rug out from under him, Gold would snarl and sneer, and that was the end of it. Whatever desperate soul had been willing to try and fool the beast of Storybrooke would hightail it out of his shop and once again, Gold would be left alone. It stayed that way for years, until the day the hatter walked into his shop and turned everything upside down.
Everyone knew about Jefferson Madden, the eccentric tailor who’d made quite a name for himself in the fashion industry. And while the man was no doubt at least a little crazy, Gold found himself intruded anyway. There were no favors for him to garner, no request for money or more time for rent—yet like all the others, he took an interest. Genuine interest. He’d bring tea and pastries, wave at him from across the street and had even once invited himself over because Gold hadn’t answered his phone and he’d been concerned.
Gold wasn’t used to that, unsure how to reciprocate the friendship that Jefferson so easily offered, but he tried. The waves were returned—albeit a good bit less enthusiastically, the pastries were eaten—even the ones so sweet Gold could feel his tongue shriveling up, and the concern was a mutual thing. Somehow the tailor had become quite important to him and while Gold wasn’t ready to open up to everyone, Jefferson made the idea less laughable. So despite every block the friendship should have hit, Gold could now admit that it was just that, a friendship. And it was nice to have someone who cared. Very nice.
Even if he occasionally wanted to strangle the tailor with his own silk scarf.
“Absolutely not,” Gold reiterated for the third time. Ignoring Jefferson’s best impression of puppy eyes, he once again looked down at the ledger in front of him. “You are a grown man. You don’t need me to coddle you like a child.”
Jefferson pulled a face, spinning around in his chair before standing up and leveling Gold with a pleading look. “It wouldn’t be coddling! It’d be looking out for your best friend whose well being is a paramount concern of yours. The world these days—its not the same! A guy can’t just go out lookin’ for a good time without a wing man.”
“If you’re so concerned about your well being, don’t go. I fail to see why I need to suffer through this as well.” Gold scowled down at the papers in front of him, double checking that he’d read the numbers right. He had, which meant Keith Nottingham was late with rent. Again. For the third month in a row.
“What, and miss out on the chance of meeting my true love? The woman I could spend the rest of my life with? Happiness is a fleeting thing, Goldie. You gotta grab it with both hands and hold on like your very life depends on it!” Jefferson flopped back down into his chair with a drawn-out sigh, once again pinning him with a pleading gaze. “Just thirty minutes, okay? Promise me you’ll hang around no matter what for thirty minutes and I’ll never ask you to play wing man again.”
Gold pinched the bridge of his nose and exhaled slowly. “So you want me to come to Granny’s at seven to make sure your blind date isn’t a psychopath, but I only have to stay for thirty minutes?”
“No matter what,” Jefferson added quickly, practically squirming in his seat.
“No matter what,” Gold echoed wearily, running a hand through his hair. It wouldn’t be so bad, really. He could bring a book to read and help the allotted time pass by quickly, then make his exit without a fuss. Besides, it was for his friend, and friends did this kind of stuff for each other. “Okay. Thirty minutes.”
Jefferson leapt out of his chair and whooped, beaming. “Thanks Gold! I promise you won’t regret this!”
Gold didn’t know if the universe was simply on his side for once or if Jefferson and his blind date had exceptionally good timing. To be entirely honest, he didn’t much care. Granny’s was all but empty, a single booth occupying some high schoolers that seemed about done anyway. Perfect.
Jefferson strolled in with his usual top hat firmly in place, curly brown hair a mess underneath it. Despite his nervousness from earlier, the tailor seemed to be handling himself quite well, talking to Ruby in an excited but hushed whisper. Gold shook his head and looked down at the paperback on his lap, getting ready to open it up when the bell above the door gave a merry little ring.
Two women walked in—one of which Gold vaguely remembered seeing once, her bright green eyes looking around with apparent interest. She managed to spin a full circle before giggling and pressing slightly into the arm of the other woman, who Gold had absolutely no trouble identifying. Belle French was a vision dressed in a lacey navy dress and scarlet red heels, and suddenly, his book didn’t hold much appeal anymore.
The three of them chatted for a few seconds before they made there way over to his table, Belle looking rather confused. Not that Gold could blame her, he wasn’t quite sure what was going on either. Surely Jefferson didn’t intend to sit with him while he and his blind date socialized, that wouldn’t be much of a date at all. But before he could ask what the hell was going on, Miss French was ushered into the booth across from him. Her lovely pale skin was flushed with a blush and Gold glanced up to see Jefferson’s eyes twinkling with mischief.
“Remember, you promised Belle.” The red head whispered, flashing Gold a hesitant smile as she looped her arm through Jefferson’s.
Belle made a strange noise across from him and sagged a little in her seat, “Yeah, no—I got it, Ariel. You’re dead, by the way.”
Schooling his face into his best disapproving glare, Gold looked up at his friend. The tailor had the nerve to look amused and very clearly mouthed No matter what. “Well, I guess we’ll leave you guys to it. Don’t worry about paying or anything like that, I gave Ruby up there my card. You two enjoy!” The pair of them sauntered out together and Gold pressed his lips into a thin line, looking down at the table.
He’d had daydreams of a moment like this, minus the meddlesome friend of course. In those daydreams, Gold had been brave enough to ask the tiny librarian out himself, wooing her with gifts and affection to offset the haggardness of his appearance. But those had been daydreams, and while Belle French had never been anything but polite to him, she had certainly never given any indication that she shared his attraction.
Across from him, the woman herself snorted out a laugh that made him jerk his chin up to see her. “Sorry, I’m sorry. Its just—I cannot believe that I let Ariel fool me into thinking that she needed me to watch her back on a blind date. In hindsight, it does explain why she couldn’t tell me why her and Jeff broke up.”
Despite himself, Gold echoed her chuckle. “Indeed. Jefferson did the same thing to me.”
Ruby bounced up to their table with a smile and tapped her pen against the pad in her hand, “Hey! Welcome to Granny’s and all that other crap I’m supposed to say. What can I get for you?”
“I’ll have an iced tea with a burger and fries. You know what? Extra pickles too. And extra fries.” Belle sent him a little grin and shrugged. “What? After the stunt the two of them just pulled?” Gold had to admit that she had a point, and with her red painted lips tugging up into a smirk, the idea of rebutting her logic never even crossed his mind. In fact…
“And I’ll have the same. Double fries and double pickles.”
Belle’s little smirk had turned into a full-blown smile by the time Ruby walked away, leaving the two of them alone once more. “I hear that Granny made her special lava cake today. I’ve always meant to try it, you know, but I never really had the funds to justify eating a burger, fries and a cake. Plus, who comes to Granny’s just to get cake?”
Gold nodded sagely and folded his hands together, “Well I haven’t had this lava cake either, but it does sound most intriguing. I suspect that we’ll have to remedy this at once.”
“Absolutely. Can I—uh, can I say something that might be a bit forward?”
Not trusting himself to speak, Gold gave a quick nod. This was it, this was where she told him that she’d noticed his pathetic staring or made some off handed remark about a previously unknown boyfriend. Even given the unorthodox circumstances for which they’d gotten together, he foolishly thought that it might have been going well. That just perhaps—
“I hate people meddling in my life. Like, really, really hate it—and I’m totally going to kill Ariel for this once we’re done here but…” Belle took a deep breath and laughed a little, brushing away the curtain of hair that had fallen into her eyes. “I’m glad it was you. Most of the men in this town are pigs o-or just so overbearing and dominating. Like their ego is fueled by pure testosterone or something.”
Unsure how to respond to that, Gold was extremely glad that Ruby was making her was over with their plates of food. “Well, Miss French—"
“Belle. Please, just call me Belle.”
“Belle, then,” Gold amended softly, smiling back helplessly when Belle beamed in approval. He needed to be careful, those blue eyes could drown him, and he wasn’t too sure he’d mind. Surely though, this was a test on her part; making sure that he knew her feelings were purely platonic. In time, perhaps, his own longing would fade away and let him be satisfied with her friendship. “I’m sorry that you feel that way. Unfortunately, the only gentleman I know well enough to ensure that he is such, is currently out somewhere with your friend. And even if that doesn’t work out, it might be a bit… awkward…”
Waving a dismissive hand, Belle smiled softly. “No, those two are going to go the distance, I know it. Besides, that breaks like every rule of girl code and Ariel means too much to me to lose over some guy, plus… Jeff is like an older brother to me. I don’t like him like that.”
Swallowing harshly, Gold took a bite of his burger to cover his shaking hands. It took every ounce of his self-control not to ask her what she did find attractive then. He was a man of routine and discipline, beastly and cold—but he’d try. For Belle, he would do his absolute best. Casting a scathing look at his cane, Gold forced himself to snap out of it. “Then I’m terribly sorry I don’t socialize more. Perhaps I could start? There has to be some young man in this town that’s captured your attention.”
“There’s certainly a man,” Belle murmured. And that was it, wasn’t it? As hard as he tried, Gold couldn’t remember even exchanging more than two words with the librarian before this, yet somehow his heart broke anyway. It was pathetic, utterly pathetic, and he needed to go before his traitorous heart cost him someone who had the potential to be a good friend.
Trying his best to smile—and fully aware it looked more like a grimace—Gold wiped his hands on the napkin and stood. “Well then, Miss French. It would hardly do for the object of your affection to see us like this, would it? I suppose I better go, just to be safe.” Surely it had been at least thirty minutes, and if not, Jefferson could bloody well bugger off.
Before he could take as much as a step, Belle grabbed his free hand and shook her head, “Please sit.”
Cursing himself a fool, Gold did as she bade, warily settling back into the booth.
Belle smiled gently and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “I’m not very good at this, and for that I am sorry. What I meant was… Mr. Gold—” Huffing slightly, she shook her head again and sighed. “Your first name. Can you—would you tell me?”
Gold blinked at her in surprise. “Come again?”
“This would be a lot easier for me if I didn’t have to keep referring to you as ‘Mr. Gold’. If you don’t mind too terribly, I would very much like the privilege of knowing and addressing you by your first name.” Blue eyes peered at him curiously and Gold was too shocked by her random request to do anything but answer.
“Nicholas,” Gold answered after a moment. “My first name is Nicholas.”
“Nicholas,” Belle repeated with a small smile. Her head turned adorably to the side as she silently mouthed it again, wrinkling her nose. “I like it. And it suits you…” At his no doubt flabbergasted look, she shrugged. “I don’t know! I was expecting something…”
“Longer,” Belle corrected immediately. “More… precious, less common. Unique! I was expecting something more unique. But I like it. And as I was saying, I’m not very good at this.”
Gold frowned at her, “What do you mean? ‘Good at this’?”
Belle smiled almost shyly and gave a single, cautious shrug. “I just mean I’ve always been far more comfortable with fictional people than I have with people in the real world. Plus, when I get upset and yell unsavory things at them, they tend not to take it too personally.” She cracked a grin at her own joke and Gold smiled back helplessly, completely stunned by her—those blue eyes were mesmerizing and like he predicted before, he knew he was drowning—and he didn’t care one bit. “But you… You’re different, Nicholas. I always suspected when we’d see each other in the street and—”
“You felt it too, then?” Gold asked softly, giving a disbelieving little laugh when Belle nodded slowly.
“And its crazy, right? I mean, we barely know each other! But every single time I saw you, my breath would catch. You’d just be wearing those suits and you looked so gorgeous and I got all tongue tied and flustered. I felt like a schoolgirl with her first crush again and it made absolutely no sense.” Belle was breathing hard by the time she’d finished her speech, that lovely blush from earlier back with a vengeance and slowly spreading down until it disappeared beneath her dress. “Say something!” She whispered hotly, all but glaring at him.
Gold felt rather lightheaded, taking a long sip of his tea to cool down before his own blush could form. Gorgeous? Him, of all people? “I-I’m not… you… Belle you’re perfect. And I felt it—feel it—too. And every time our eyes would meet it was like… like I’d been struck by lightning—like, like—”
“Like magic,” she finished for him, those impossibly blue eyes soft with affection. This was crazy, Gold realized, absolutely crazy. The things they were saying to each other were for people who had been together for years, not an hour. Yet he couldn’t bring himself to take it back. Every word he said had been utterly true and for once, he’d not had an alternate agenda. “You know, after I kill Ariel, I might just have to thank her. There’s no way I would’ve actually worked up the courage to approach you on my own.”
Clearing his throat, Gold gave her a hopeful look. “And now?”
Smiling sweetly, Belle leaned over the table to peck his cheek. “What, after all that? I’m afraid you’re stuck with me, Nicholas."
Unable to find the words to tell her how happy that made him, Gold made a noise that was embarrassingly close to a sob and muttered a gruff, “Good.” Her hand slid across the table and held onto his own, the two of them sitting quietly.
“It’s late,” Belle murmured reluctantly, giving the window outside a withering glare. “And I promised some of the high schoolers I’d open up early, so they could have a study group before class starts, I’m so sorry Nicholas.”
Gold brought their clasped hands up to his lips and gently kissed the back of her fingers, enjoying the new blush that warmed her cheeks. “Would you permit me to walk you to your door?”
Belle echoed his gesture and gave his hand a little tug as she stood, waiting for him to get his cane before they made their way out of the diner. “I don’t think you heard it—what I said, back before… everything.”
“What do you mean, sweetheart?”
“When I said that most guys in this town were testosterone filled pigs? I said most quite clearly and for a reason. I don’t think you caught that.” She swung their still clasped hands between them and smiled up at him, alleviating his fear of her hurt feelings. With the gift of hindsight, Gold could now see all the times that she’d thrown him a line, so to speak, and wondered how in the world he’d missed it.
“I suppose I see you and think of how much better you could do,” Gold forced himself to admit, refusing to look down at her even as she tugged them to a stop in front of the library. “You’re brilliant, Belle. Smart, kind, beautiful. You have all the potential in the world to leave this place and become some shining force of good out there. Why you would choose to spend your time with a cripple almost double your age—”
A soft pair of lips pressing near the corner of his mouth shut Gold right the hell up, his crooked teeth biting into the flesh of his cheek to stop the shiver he felt coming. “You have an injury, there is no shame in that Nicholas. It does not make you weak, it makes you strong, a warrior. And one day I am going to ask you what happened, but for now…” Belle guided his hand down the elegant slope of her neck, bringing it to rest on her left breast where he could feel her heart pounding. “This is what you do to me, every single time I see you. I nearly went mad with want for you, but I was so worried you’d see me as nothing but an immature little girl—”
“Never,” Gold cut in roughly, taking his hand from the softness of her chest to cup her warm cheek in his hand. “Never, never, never. You are a woman, Belle. A beautiful woman who is everything I’ve ever dreamed of and absolutely nothing I deserve.”
“Let me be the judge of that?” Belle pleaded softly, brushing her lips against his cheek again, lingering in a way she hadn’t the first time.
Gold groaned softly, “Well I’m hardly going to argue with you. But I’m going to try. For you, I swear I’ll try. Can I take you to dinner of Friday?” It would be hell to rearrange his schedule but for Belle, there wasn’t much he wouldn’t do. If all else failed, he could send Dove to go and collect the rent, which was less than ideal, but gave him more time with Belle. It wasn’t really a difficult decision.
To his horror, Belle shook her head at his request, but then brought his fingers up to press her lips against them again. “Friday is too far away. What about Wednesday? Does that work for you?”
Relief left him nearly dizzy. “Wednesday is perfect.”
Belle beamed, giving his cheek one last peck before she slipped into the library, calling out, “It’s a date!” over her shoulder.
Gold stood there silently for a few moments, allowing his brain to catch up with what had just happened. He’d had a date with Belle French and now another one scheduled for Wednesday. They were dating. With a triumphant little noise, Gold made his way back to Granny’s, already pulling out his card to have Ruby transfer the cost of their food onto it. It would hardly be a date if someone else payed, after all. And it made sense to go ahead and get the rent while he was there, Gold reasoned, and if they happened to be a little short… well no harm done, really. He was just about to open the door when something caught his eye, pausing, he frowned at the sight of the yellow car that hadn’t been there before. A stranger in Storybrooke? That was odd.
Shrugging, Gold pushed open the door and walked inside, wanting to meet the first new face he’d seen in… well—ever.
Jefferson admired the way the waves crashed onto the shore of the beach before slowly pushing back, again and again and again. It was soothing. Almost as soothing as the woman pressed against his side.
Ariel made a soft noise of delight when he pulled her just a bit closer, grinning like mad when she snuggled tighter against him. “It’s so pretty…” she murmured against his jacket, the warmth of her breath making goosebumps raise up on his neck. Her lips brushed up his cheek before pressing lightly against his own, her little giggle breaking the kiss long before Jefferson was ready. “True loves kiss.”
True love, despite all of Regina’s attempts to thwart him and his happiness, he and Ariel were True Love. Jefferson can still remember the way her eyes had lit up after that kiss, wide and so very, very green. Like the grass in Wonderland that was always lush despite it never raining a single drop. It hadn’t been enough to wake the town though, and that had taken some explaining. To Regina, they were no more than pawns. Not important enough to be written a role in the curse. But the end was close, and he could feel it, the magic humming just beyond his reach.
“Do-do you think they might learn? To love each other?” Ariel’s soft question brought him out of his memories and made him giggle, poking her in the side until the echoed the sound. Once they were both laughed out, Jefferson leaned against her with a sigh. It wasn’t her fault, she hadn’t seen the way the two idiots had danced around each other, each sending longing glances when the others back was turned.
“You didn’t see them in the old world, rabbit. I suspect they’re already starting to fall.”