"How should we be able to forget those myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love."
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Rumpelstiltskin awoke at his usual hour, donned a robe over his pajamas, and made his way to the window. The sun hadn't fully risen yet, but the sky was definitely growing lighter. It was less than a week now until the winter solstice. Another month or so and he wouldn't need to dress by lamplight if the Venetian window shade slats were opened slightly.
His bedroom was warm and Rumple was almost reluctant to get dressed, have breakfast and go outside. He knew he had to, though. If he didn't, Emma would be concerned when she popped by the shop on her way to the sheriff station and found the door still barred. Then she'd either be here, knocking on his door or calling Booth to check in on him.
That reminded him. He was due at Marco's for dinner tonight. He paused in the doorway of his walk-in closet. Normally, there was no question of what he would wear: whichever Armani suit caught his eye, to be coordinated with the proper dress shirt and tie. But Marco wasn't much given to formality. Rumple wasn't even certain whether the handyman owned a suit. And he'd never seen August in even a sports jacket. Perhaps, Armani would be overdressing? If he had time to go home and change first, then there was no issue. But if not… Perhaps he ought to bring a change of clothing—a more casual change of clothing—with him.
As he brushed past the designer suits to the clothes at the back of his closet that he wasn't certain he'd even looked at, much less worn, during or after the 28 years of the Dark Curse, he realized that he was smiling. And scant wonder. Had anyone told him four months ago there would be people to look in on him when they didn't need a favor or a deal, or that anyone would even notice if he went missing, much less worry about him, or that anyone would care enough to invite him to dine with them, he would have been hard-pressed not to laugh in their faces. But now…
His clothing selections made—both for now and for later—he dressed swiftly and snapped up his phone from the dresser where it was charging. Before he put it into his jacket pocket, he pulled up the directory. He knew it was there, but it still gave him a rush of warmth to see the latest addition to that list. And even if he never called it, just having it meant more than those who had given it to him could ever know.
There was a message from Belle reminding him about their lunch date and whether he wanted to pick her up at the library, have her stop off at the shop, or just meet at the restaurant. He shook his head, but he was still smiling. Belle had never been ashamed to be seen with him, but she was still needlessly embarrassed to show her face at Granny's after what she'd done there several weeks ago. This, even though Rumple had a strong suspicion that most of the other patrons would be falling over themselves to congratulate her. Belle apparently thought otherwise. And truthfully, Rumple wasn't inclined to press matters.
As deeply as Belle had wounded him in the past, as frightened as he'd been about letting her back into his life, he had to admit that these last few days had been almost as unbelievably wonderful as the day she'd stumbled into his shop for the first time, right before Emma had broken the curse. They were still feeling each other out, still exploring their new relationship, and it was terrifying and glorious and even if they still weren't sure that they could finally get it right, Rumple found himself daring to hope that they would. And today would be another step down a path that both were finally finding the courage to explore. Rumple couldn't wait.
There had been a couple of tense moments between them the evening before last, and he'd been tempted to lie as he would have on previous occasions. He hadn't wanted to upset her and telling her what he knew she'd wanted to hear would have smoothed things over for the time being, but eventually the truth would have come out and she would have been all the more upset. Being honest with her had almost been harder than letting her back in, but he'd somehow managed it. And while Belle hadn't exactly smiled and said that everything was perfectly all right, she hadn't walked away either. Things were complicated, but for once, Rumple didn't see 'complicated' as a deal-breaker.
He was actually whistling as he fastened his tie. And then he broke off abruptly, and his eyes grew wide as he realized what it all meant.
"I'm… happy," he whispered almost fearfully, half-wondering whether speaking the words aloud would somehow wreck it all. And in truth, his eyes darted nervously about, nearly certain that he was about to get a call or a text telling him that some of his plans had fallen through, or that there was some new disaster looming, or that somebody had just discovered some misdeed he'd committed long ago and forgotten about and was just about to burst in and take him to task for it.
His phone didn't buzz. The street outside was quiet. And there was nobody pounding on his door. After a moment, feeling slightly foolish, Rumple reached for his cane and made his way downstairs to the vestibule. But as he took his woolen winter coat off the hanger, the words kept reverberating in his mind.
I'm happy. I'm happy.
And he was.
Belle knew she was being silly. Or, if she wasn't being silly, she needed to get past hurt feelings and admit to herself that after these last months, Rumple's feelings were scarcely unjustified.
All this time, she'd wanted him to be truthful with her, but now that he was doing so, she realized that perhaps, she hadn't been ready for this level of honesty. In the past, she'd tried to be everything for him. When she'd realized that she wasn't, that his dagger—his power—still gave him something she couldn't, she'd taken it badly. And while she'd had some reason for her subsequent actions, she'd had ample cause to regret them since.
But she couldn't shake the feeling that it was all happening again. She still wanted to be everything for him. She still wasn't. And what was worse, not only did she understand why, but she wasn't even certain she could disagree.
"You could have come to me," she'd told him two nights ago. "I know we agreed to take things slowly, but surely if you needed to discuss… Rumple? Do… do you still want to be with me? Or…?"
His shocked expression both warmed and dismayed her, but so had his answer. "You know I do, Belle. That never changed. Even when I believed that we were both better off apart." He'd paused then and perhaps it was the fact that he'd had to cast about on the spot for the right words rather than try to fob her off with some glib response he'd prepared earlier that convinced her that he was telling her the truth when he spoke next. "Belle, I never knew what True Love was before I met you. And now, I wonder how I managed to live centuries without it. Without you. But while you make me feel loved, Emma makes me feel safe. And I'll confess that there are times when I do need that more."
The words had stung, even though she knew he hadn't meant to hurt her and that he'd been trying his hardest not to. That twin realization had been the only thing that had kept her from embarrassing herself by demanding to know why he no longer felt safe with her. She had the sinking feeling that Rumple would tell her. And after several weeks of intense self-examination during their time apart, she'd had ample time to recognize just how badly she'd wounded him and how seriously she'd eroded his trust in her. While Rumple had hardly been blameless for the deterioration of their relationship, it had taken too long for Belle to own her part of the problem.
They were trying to put it all behind them. Not to forget it or pretend it hadn't happened, but to move past it and try to avoid making the same mistakes that had brought them to their lowest point. No more lies, no more deceptions, no more manipulative behavior. And, to his credit, Rumple was trying to uphold that agreement.
But the truth still hurt.
To her credit, Emma was fully aware of the awkwardness of the situation and she'd called Belle that same evening to assure her that what was going on between her and Rumple was strictly friendship.
"I know it's still kind of sticky," she'd added. "That's why we met at Granny's today; I thought that it would make it clear we weren't running around behind your back or hiding anything. Unless you'd rather we did meet in private?"
She'd rather they wouldn't meet at all. She'd rather Rumple would confide in her. She was still his wife, after all. He should choose her. But Belle had to admit that, even if her marriage hadn't been on shaky ground right now, Rumple probably still would have sought Emma out. And that if Rumple had turned to Archie or August, Belle's dismay would have been nearly as intense. Since she and Rumple had found each other again in this new realm, she'd felt she had to be everything for him and when she'd cast off that role, fearing that she'd lost her own way while trying to help him find his, she'd never thought that he'd find other people to support him.
Belle winced, owning that part of her hadn't wanted him to. If he wouldn't choose her, he wouldn't have anyone and he'd come to regret shoving her away. All those times I thought I wanted him to be a better person, I think what I really wanted was for me to make him a better person. Why can't I be happy he's come so far on his own? Why am I still trying to make this all about me? She closed her eyes. And what if he's right and I can't help him with everything he's facing? Except by encouraging him to seek out the people who can. Which is, I suppose, exactly what he's doing.
Belle massaged her forehead as though that could alleviate the figurative headache she was getting trying to rein in her thoughts and emotions. At least, she was recognizing a few homegrown truths this time out. She loved her husband, but notwithstanding that love, there were parts of his life that she just couldn't relate to the way Emma could. The sheriff hadn't spoken much about her early years to Belle, but from what she had told her, it seemed as though Emma and Rumple had more than a few experiences in common. If Rumple was now turning to Emma for support because Emma could better understand what he was going through, then it didn't mean that he loved Belle any less.
But it also didn't mean that Belle hadn't wanted to put her fist through her apartment wall last night after those two conversations.
She understood intellectually exactly what was going on and that it was neither a slight nor a betrayal. Emotionally, though, it felt like both. She suspected that she was probably going to spend a number of evenings wanting to punch something for the next little while. Well. Perhaps it was time to indulge that desire in an appropriate fashion.
Belle looked once more at the pamphlet in her hand. Then, she took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and strode purposefully up the six concrete steps to Springheel Jack's Kickboxing Academy. She hesitated for less than a minute before she pulled open the double doors. Until now, this was as far as she'd gotten before turning back, but now she stepped inside for the first time and stalked up to the information desk.
"I'd like to register for beginner-level classes," she announced to the clerk, letting her words tumble out quickly before she could lose her nerve again.
"Thanks," Emma said with a distracted smile when Snow set an open-faced grilled cheese sandwich down before her. "I could've made it myself."
Her mother laughed. "Your brother woke me at five. By the time I had him fed, I could hear you moving about and just because you generally let me sleep through the night doesn't mean I can't fix you something in the morning every once in a while." She tilted her head for a moment, still smiling. "Actually, I probably should, to show my appreciation. I never realized how much I took an uninterrupted night's rest for granted before."
Emma made a non-committal sound and absently tucked in, but it was clear her mind was elsewhere.
Emma shook her head. "You remember before you and Dad knew you were married and you were seeing each other behind Katherine's back? I kind of feel like I'm doing the same thing, even though I know it's different."
Snow sat down across from her at the table. "You mean with Rumpelstiltskin."
"Yeah. Belle knows we talk things over. We're not hiding anything."
"You're sure that she knows?" Snow asked. Then, she went on quickly, "I only mean, that when David and I were… thinking we were having an affair, if you recall, he told me he'd told Katherine about us, but he really hadn't—"
"I spoke to Belle yesterday," Emma cut her off. "Gold called me to say she was trying to understand, but she wasn't thrilled. Understandably," she added. "So I followed up with her."
"It went… sort of okay, sort of not. And I get it. I really do. Only…"
"Only there are times when Rumpelstiltskin is more comfortable talking things over with you than with her and you don't want to push him away, now that he's trying to reach out."
"Yeah. We connected in New York," Emma nodded. "And afterwards. I mean, it's not love. Not… romantic love, anyway…"
She blinked at her mother's sudden nervousness and seemed to shake out of her previous vagueness. "No!" she exclaimed. "No, seriously… no. It's more…" She hesitated, realizing that the truth wasn't necessarily going to calm her mother down. "I guess… fatherly," she said, almost afraid to maintain eye contact. But though her mother's eyes did widen slightly, all Snow did was give a slight nod.
"I think I've noticed," she murmured. "And you did say before that you'd started thinking of him as a possible father-in-law," she added.
Emma smiled back, relieved. "Even if he and I aren't really related, he's still family. And ever since we found out that he was Henry's grandfather, we all…" Her voice trailed off, but Snow guessed what she'd been about to say.
"We've all used that against him," she said. "Getting him to help us without asking for anything in return and then looking the other way when he needed us."
"Yeah. I've been working on changing that and I feel like I'm getting through to him."
Snow tilted her head quizzically. "But…"
"Belle's still upset, even if she's trying not to show it."
"Right." Snow shook her head. "So it's…"
"Complicated. I know."
"But Rumpelstiltskin has spoken to her about it."
"Yes and so've I. And she says she's okay with it, and I think she wants to be okay with it, but…"
"But she's not."
Emma shook her head.
"So, what are you going to do?"
Emma realized that her coffee was getting cold and she took a gulp. "I don't know. Just… keep doing what I'm doing for now and hope that things work out. But if people start talking about me the way they did about you after Katherine—"
Snow placed her hand over Emma's. "You're my daughter and I trust you to do the right thing. Whatever it turns out to be."
Emma smiled. "Thanks."
"Papa!" August exclaimed as he trailed his father down the solid wooden steps and breathed in the dank moist air and the fragrances of garlic and dried spices in the cellar. "Whatever you serve tonight will be fine!"
Marco ignored him as he faced the floor-to-ceiling shelves of glass jars in various shapes and sizes, each one meticulously labeled with a legend penned in the handyman's careful penmanship. It wasn't until he'd loaded the low-sided wooden tray August carried with a variety of pickled and otherwise-preserved fruits and vegetables that he shook his head sorrowfully.
"My son," he said, "if I'd been satisfied with 'fine' when I carved you, then you might been brought to life with your arms too long or your legs too short. Or maybe without knee and elbow joints. If I were satisfied with 'fine' when someone brought me a clock to repair, then it wouldn't be long before some smart young lad or lady set up a competing business and stole away my customers with better craftsmanship. 'Fine' is barely passable and I thought I taught you better."
August sighed. "Yes, Papa," he said, smiling a bit. Some things just didn't change and he wouldn't have had it any other way. "But just so you know, when we were in New York, he was really more of a soup and sandwich type than a seven-course gourmet dinner type."
Marco shrugged. "I didn't say I was going to fix a gourmet dinner. Where would I even begin? But I'm not about to slapdash something together and call it stew, either." He picked up a burlap sack. "Get the potatoes and turnips. I'll see to the apples."
"Sorry this is all I can afford," Lily said as she and Ursula carried their trays to a vacant table in the fast food restaurant's seating area. "The last job I had was waitressing in a place not much better than this."
"Don't worry about it," Ursula replied, "this is kind of a treat for me. Most nights, I just come home to KD or ramen."
"Been there, done that," Lily murmured understandingly. "So…"
"So," Ursula said, "how did you find me? And find out about…?"
"My mother?" Lily finished. She took a bite out of her burger, chewed, and swallowed. "You know, I've been planning it all out in my mind how this meeting was going to go down, imagining what I'd say and what you'd say and I don't mind telling you that I am totally off-script here."
"I take it I'm not what you expected."
"You could say that," Lily replied. "I thought you'd call me your dear sweet child or something. And I guess I pictured… tentacles."
"Oh, I've got those," Ursula said. "At least, I did the last time I was in a magical realm. But as for calling you my dear sweet child? Something tells me you're none of the above."
Lily snorted. "You called that right. Okay. According to the official reports, I was found as a newborn near Ann Lake—that's Minnesota—in the Sand Dunes State Forest with this," she reached into the neckline of her shirt to pull out a silver chain with a crescent moon pendant, "and nothing else. No diaper, no blanket, it's a miracle I didn't freeze to death before some campers happened upon me. They called the authorities and I went into the system. I was adopted eight months later."
Ursula nodded. "There are a couple of us here; people from the lands from which we came. There aren't many, but I take it that if you know who you are, then your new parents must have…"
Lily snorted again. "Nope. Ma and Pa Page were as decent and ordinary and boring a couple as anyone else you could hope to find. Probably still are, I guess. I haven't seen them since they gave up on me and threw me out nearly twenty years ago." Her voice was hard and flat, displaying little emotion as she went on, "To give them credit, they tried for a while. I did too, I guess, but it seemed like no matter how much I wanted to be good and do the right thing, stuff kept... backfiring on me. It was like I was, I don't know, cursed. Or something." The last bit was accompanied by an eye-roll as she went on bitterly, "I mean, that's what I told myself, even though I knew it was a load of crap. Until one night, on a bus out of Mankato, I met an old guy who told me it wasn't."
"An 'old guy'?" Ursula repeated, raising one eyebrow skeptically. "Did he have a name?"
"He didn't give me one," Lily shrugged. Then she bent down, retrieved her knapsack from the floor and hefted it onto the table. As Ursula watched, she unbuckled the two leather straps holding down the top flap and, with both hands, hoisted out a thick hardback book with a brown leather cover. "He gave me this."