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Shadow Manor

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Rufus Gold acquired a wife like he acquired everything in life: methodically and with cold precision. He compiled a list with conditions his wife to be was required to meet: She had to provide him with an heir for his large estate and his manor, so she needed to be fertile. He would prefer someone who at least knew how to use the brain capacity she was given, since he didn’t intend to spend the rest of his days with someone who didn’t know left from right. He didn’t think these terms were hard to meet, so if she was slightly decorative on top of it, he would consider himself content. After drawing up his list, he hired someone to find him a range of young women willing to marry in exchange for wealth. The women in question had to provide a medical certificate that attested them to be fertile and free of STIs, school certificates, and a video of themselves answering a questionnaire Gold had compiled. After all, he was thorough, and didn’t take this quest lightly. So, when he finally chose the woman he intended to marry, she knew what he expected from her. Money wasn’t an issue for him, so the very large and oddly precise amount of money she demanded didn’t play into his considerations, and after sending her a very detailed contract, they met for the first time in front of Storybrooke City Hall to have a civil marriage. Isabelle French was pale when she shook his hand for the first time, and she didn’t wear the expression he would have expected, that of a fortune hunter achieving her goal. She hardly smiled when she gritted out his name between white teeth, and she drew back her hand as if his touch was poisonous.

“You understood the conditions of this arrangement, dearie?”, he asked, and she narrowed her eyes.

“I did, yes. I have to provide you with a descendant within fifteen months, you will pay me the sum I ask in exchange. Are you planning an in-vitro-fertilization?”

Her voice didn’t shake, he had to give her that, even when her eyes were as cold as the ice their color resembled. “I am proposing marriage”, he said, and she clenched her jaws.

“So you aren’t purchasing a breeding mare. You are purchasing a whore.”

“Is that a problem for you?”

She looked him up and down, from his impeccable tie down to his shoes, her eyes resting for a split second longer on his hands folded over his cane than on the rest of him, and her nostrils flared. “No.”

She was a desperate soul, desperate enough to sell herself to him, and he almost allowed his conscience to take pity on her. But he quelled that notion, telling himself that she knew full well what she was getting into. She had her reasons, he had his. And she didn’t hesitate to sign her name on the dotted line beside his. Neither did she hesitate to climb into his car, after depositing her suitcase in the trunk, and let him take her out of town and to his home.

Shadow Manor was situated at the end of a long avenue, lined with ancient oak trees. When the vast shadow of his house fell over them, Gold was only the tiniest bit disappointed at her lack of reaction. She hardly glanced at the impressive outside of his house, instead hauling her suitcase out of the car and gluing her eyes to the gravel, waiting for him to take her inside. He showed her to her room, and he wasn’t blind to the brief flicker of relief on her face.

“There’s plenty of room in this house. No need to cram the two of us into one bedroom.” He gestured into the room, and she followed his movements with her eyes, a slight frown on her face.

“When do you plan to consummate this marriage?”, she asked, and for the first time, Gold found a flaw in his carefully laid out plans. He had no idea.

“Whenever you are ready”, he answered, after contemplating his options. “Which should be at some point over the next six months.”

“I can do the math, thank you very much.” And with that, she closed the door into his face, without giving him the chance to lay out some ground rules for their interactions. He needed to remember to ban closing doors into each other’s face from those interactions.

Later, after giving her some time to unpack, he sent Mrs. Lucas up to fetch his wife for dinner, but instead of his wife, it was Mrs. Lucas who entered the dining room with an expression as if she was sentenced to face her execution, not her employer.

“She says she isn’t coming.”

“And did she say why?” Although he kept his voice leveled, Mrs. Lucas flinched. Usually, she didn’t behave like a scared little mouse, and it was this fearlessness of him that he treasured in her, but now she acted as if she suspected him of doing all kinds of ugly things if she displeased him.

“She said she isn’t hungry.” Her voice was quavering, and she took a step back when he rose from his chair at the head of the heavy dining room table. Gold considered his options while taking the stairs up to the second floor of the east wing, and his steps were graver than usual. The bones in his bad leg prickled, and he leant heavier on his cane than he used to, feeling the weight of stale air and expectations of dead ancestry resting on his shoulders like a headstone. He didn’t want to start his marriage like that. When he knocked at the door to her room with the handle of his cane, he didn’t expect her to open, and he took a step back when she did, facing him with her eyebrows drawn together and her shoulders squared.

“I’d like you to join me for dinner”, he said, and she tilted her head and narrowed her eyes again, observing him like some strange insect under a looking glass.

“Are you aware that, although you married me today, you didn’t offer me your first name, nor even as much as a toast?”

Gold took another step back and gripped his cane a little tighter. Her words didn’t exactly seem to be an answer to his invitation (which was a demand, in truth, and they both knew it), and he was not sure how to deal with them.

“I signed my name on the papers, and you set yours beside it.”

“Yes, but am I allowed to call you with your given name, or do you prefer something else? Shall I call you Mr. Gold? Husband? Master?” She took a step out of her room, coming closer, and her eyes didn’t leave his face, not even when she intonated the last word like a challenge.

“Rufus will do just fine”, he growled, and stepped back when she came closer again.

“It means red haired.”

“I know.” He tried not to flinch when she raised her eyebrows and swept her eyes over him once more.

“You aren’t red haired”, she stated, and he gritted his teeth.

“I know. It’s a family name. I’m the last of a long line of firstborns bearing the name Rufus.”

“Our firstborn won’t bear the name Rufus.”

“Why don’t you come down to join me for dinner before we get down to business with naming our children?” He gestured down the hall, but this time she didn’t follow the movement, instead drilling her gaze into his.

“You didn’t say you want more than one. One heir, that’s the deal.”

“You called him our firstborn. That implies at least a second child.”

“What happens if it’s a girl?”

“Then my heir is a girl. Now, dinner?” His voice betrayed his growing impatience, and she licked her lips as if they had suddenly gone dry. He knew all the signs of fear, and he reacted on a primal level to it, closing the gap between them with a swift step, wanting to intimidate her and pressing her into submission. But instead of retreating, she straightened her back and squared her jaws, meeting his eyes unblinking.

“My name is Isabelle. You may call me Belle. And I expect you to be civil and not bully me into spending time with you when I don’t want to. And right now, I am not hungry.”

“That’s not the deal we made. This is a marriage.”

“Is it?” Although she didn’t move, she seemed to be much closer all of a sudden, and Gold swallowed the urge to step back again. “Then why don’t you start to behave like a husband and ask me, instead of demanding my presence?”

“Would you join me for dinner? Please?” The last word hardly came over his lips, and he wondered if she knew how much it cost him to say it. He never asked like that. He was the one who cornered others and didn’t leave them a choice. And he had not expected it to be any different with his wife. He paid her for her company, her time and her body. He had been very precise about that. But his new wife lifted her chin, granting him a thin smile before she stepped back into her room and grabbed the doorknob.

“No, thanks.” And with that, she closed her door into his face, for the second time in one day.

Chapter Text

His new wife followed Mrs. Lucas into the breakfast salon the next morning, and Gold refused to admit the twinge of relief he felt over the fact that she didn’t lock herself in. Somehow, with all his planning, he had failed to take into account how unlikeable he was, and that even someone who agreed to marry him – and agreed to all his terms and conditions – still would prefer to spend as much time away from him as possible. He watched her over the edge of his newspaper when she sat down at the opposite end of the table, in a safe distance from him, and reached for the toast piled up on a plate in front of her.

“Good Morning. Did you have a good night’s sleep?”, he asked, folding his newspaper, and she put her toast down onto her plate and pressed her palms to the table before she looked up to meet his eyes.

“I did. Thank you.”

He wished he was fluent in small talk, but he was not, and he had no idea how to continue the conversation. And she wasn’t helping either. When she just looked at him, unblinking and unsmiling, the itch between his shoulder blades grew unbearable, until he couldn’t take the silence any longer. “So, what made you agree to marry me?”, he asked, and his cheeks grew hot when she raised a brow at that.

“I believe I already laid out my reasons in the video I had to send you.”

“Yes. You did. You also answered the question after the meaning of cogito ergo sum with ‘a dish of French sausages’. So, excuse me for asking again.”

“Are you telling me it isn’t a dish of sausages?” There was a twitch at the corner of her mouth, but the smile he hoped for didn’t quite make it onto her face.

“You studied two semesters of philosophy. I’m sure you know your Descartes.”

“After only two semesters? Hardly. But I see, you learned my curriculum by heart.”

“Just studied it to look for inconsistencies. So… Why did you agree to my proposal?”

She narrowed her eyes again, and he started to fear that look. “My reasons didn’t change. I need the money. Why did you buy a wife, instead of just go out dating to find someone to fall in love with?”

“I’m not looking for love. I need an heir, and I didn’t want to waste time.” For a moment he expected her to raise that eyebrow again, but her face remained still, and he was glad when she looked down at her plate again and took up the knife to butter her toast. She didn’t even look at his heavy and ornate silverware. He watched while she ate her toast with butter and jam, but either she didn’t notice his gaze, or it didn’t faze her at all. It irritated him, although he told himself that it was silly, and not the brightest idea, to want her at least a little intimidated by his presence. “Are you interested in a tour?”, he asked, when she had eaten her toast and sipped on her coffee, and now that eyebrow wandered up again.

“Do you want to show me around?”

“Well, it makes sense, don’t you think? I don’t want you to get lost.”

“No, that wouldn’t help the whole heir-procurement-affair, now would it? We wouldn’t want to waste any more time than necessary.”

He jerked and knocked over his cup of coffee, and in his distress over the stain on the linen of the table cloth, he almost missed the smile flitting over her face, and he wondered if she tried to unsettle him on purpose. “If you prefer Mrs. Lucas to give you the tour, I can arrange that, too”, he gnarled through his teeth, and she tilted her head, watching him dab at the coffee without making the slightest move to get up and help him.

“But it’s our honeymoon. Shouldn’t we spend as much time together as possible?”

He stopped his efforts to dry the stain and looked at her, trying to determine how serious she was. “I didn’t expect to find you quite as…eager, Miss French”, he said, and screwed his eyes shut when he realized what he had just said. He only dared to open his eyes again when her chair scraped over the floor and she got to her feet. She rounded the table, and he almost held his breath when she closed the distance between them and plucked the napkin out of his hand and started dabbing at the coffee stain.

“I told you, it’s Belle. But I understand that it may take us both a while to get used to it. I’m not used to being Isabelle Gold now, either.” Her hair tickled his chin when she turned back to him and extended the napkin for him to take it back, and he swayed a little closer without wanting to. Somehow, her closeness made him breathless, like a stroll through flowering orange trees, breathless and warm and a little dizzy.

“Yes. I’m sorry.” His voice scratched in his throat and he didn’t manage more than a whisper, and he took a deep breath when she stepped back and shrugged.

“There’s no need. Since I sold myself to you, you can call me whatever you want.”

Gold clenched his fist into the napkin, and the dizziness from moments before was swept away. “This is a marriage, not slavery.”

“Sometimes there’s only a very fine line between the two of them. So, do I get that tour now?”

Gold met her gaze and was surprised not to find it angry. He would have at least expected a little bile about the circumstances that had forced her to sell herself to someone like him. On the other hand, she could hit it worse. He gestured to the door, and when she turned, he placed his hand on the small of her back to guide her. Her steps didn’t falter, and the only reaction she showed to his touch was a fleeting glance over her shoulder into his direction.

“We have the breakfast salon here, the dining room and a reception room, as well as a study. Most rooms of the west wing are closed off. While I was living here alone, I didn’t need that many rooms. There are a few guest rooms in the west wing, and a ball room.” While he talked, he guided her through the entrance hall towards the back of the house, and he nearly stumbled when she stopped in her tracks.

“A ball room? Is this some kind of castle?”

“It is. My ancestors had delusions of grandeur. But, as I said, most of it is closed off. No one hosts balls anymore.” He took a step and tried to urge her on by resting his hand a little heavier on her back, but she ignored him.

“That is what you think. I’d like to see the ball room.”

“Later. I thought we start with the necessities. Kitchens, bathrooms, those kind of things.” When he tried to nudge her into walking again this time, it worked.

“Kitchens? As in, plural?”

“There are two, yes.”

She was quiet then, and she seemed to shrink at his arm, getting smaller and smaller with each room he showed to her. After showing her through the ground-floor of the east wing, he paused at the stairs in the entrance hall.

“Do you want to pause? We can do the rest some other time.”

She nodded, a little pale, and he wondered what he should do with her now. “Tea?”, he asked, trying not to flinch when her face shot up and she creased her forehead as if he had offered her blood out of the holy grail.

“If you just wanted an heir for all this, why didn’t you adopt a child? Why buy yourself a slave?”

He pulled his hand from her back and stepped away. “Wife. Not slave.”

“Whatever. You know that there’s no guarantee for me to produce that heir that you want so badly. So why do it that way?”

“Because, as you can see, I live in a very large house all on my own. I don’t want to spend the rest of my days alone, and kids grow into adults and go out into the world at some point.”

“As opposed to slaves that are obligated to stay with their master.”

“Please stop calling yourself that.”

“Do you prefer breeding mare?”

“No dearie. If you excuse me now, I have to work.” It was a lie, and he knew that he was about to flee, but she asked questions he neither wanted to hear nor to answer. He didn’t get the chance to leave her standing, though, because she placed her hand on his arm and held him back.

“I’m sorry.” She didn’t say anything else, and Gold stared down at her hand on his arm and tried to determine what the prickle on his skin meant.

“I think we need to establish some code of conduct to make this work”, he murmured, and she pulled back her hand.

“Is this the moment when you tell me I can go anywhere but the west wing?”

“What? No. The west wing is old and dusty and totally boring, but you can go there if you want to. I am not Bluebeard.”

She tilted her head in a way that he began getting used to, and he told himself that he had to get used to calling her Belle, too, although it felt strange, like the pinch of suspenders that were too short and rubbed him raw between the shoulder blades.

“I am glad that you don’t plan to kill me in case of an insubordination.”

“That’s not what I said.” He sounded exasperated, and despised himself for it. But when she raised that damn eyebrow, he knew what was coming next, and he swallowed a groan when he learned that he had been right.

“So you would kill me?”

“Do you think this is funny?”, he asked, waggling his hand between the two of them, and this time he really groaned when she bit her lip.

“Don’t you?”

“Not particularly, no.”

Now she really smiled, as if she was pitying him, and his ribcage expanded with a heavy sigh. “Let’s have that talk”, he murmured, and she nodded. This time he didn’t touch her when he led her into his study, and he ignored her frown when he gestured for her to sit down on the chair in front of his heavy desk, while he himself claimed the imposing armchair on the other side of it.

“I think we should start with the ground rules”, he started, and across from him, Belle, his wife, shrank into a little girl. And for a change, he felt absolutely in charge of the situation.

Chapter Text

Belle had to pry her eyes away from his hands, steepled in front of his chest like the tent of a circus of the more sinister nature. His hands spooked her, everything from their carefully manicured nails to the nearly invisible hair on the back of his hands seemed to be too carefully groomed into place to be harmless. When she had met him for the first time in front of City Hall, she had seen those hands closed around her throat, strangling her, and the fact that she agreed to this farce despite of that vivid picture her mind conjured was only due to the far worse picture that her father’s loan shark had painted her over the still open grave of Moe French. No, she rather chose her slaver herself, thank you very much. And she only had to trade her body for fifteen months. Fifteen months for a clean slate and a new chance. She didn’t believe that it would last beyond those fifteen months. And she didn’t believe for one second that someone chose a wife to spend the rest of his days with as methodically and devoid of feelings as he did it with his questionnaires and fertility tests. He could deny to be some kind of modern Bluebeard all he wanted, she wouldn’t believe him until she had turned every room of this haunted house upside down without finding a bloodied key and the corpses of former wives. He cleared his throat, and Belle searched for all that was left of her strength. She had thought she could go through this, could arrange herself with being his wife for a while, in every sense, but her courage had crumbled with every room he had shown her, until nothing was left, and when he placed her on that plain chair in front of his desk, she felt like a child ordered into the headmaster’s office to receive a punishment for peeling potatoes the wrong way. And his resemblance to the devil sitting on his throne behind a desk built of bones and rotten flesh didn’t help the matter. If only she were able to turn off her imagination.

“Maybe we should have started with this conversation”, he said, startling her out of trying to unsee the skulls and molten eyeballs etched into his wooden desk.

“Yes. Maybe the situation wouldn’t be so strange if I knew what was expected of me…”

“You mean apart from the obvious?”

“Apart from the part where I let you impregnate me, yes.”

He flinched, and the tent of his hands collapsed. Maybe it would be better to get that part out of the way as soon as possible, but Belle wanted to at least know if he was going to be cruel or brutal to her before she let him take possession of her body. Provocation was as good a way to test his boundaries as any.

“Am I allowed to leave the house?”, she asked, and he creased his forehead as if he had never considered that she could even want that.

“Of course. You aren’t a prisoner. You can take any car out of the garage to drive to town or wherever you want to go.”

“Good. Are you going to hurt me?”

“What? No!” Now he grabbed the edge of his table, and Belle tilted her head and imagined the room to slant to the left and all those carefully arranged items on the smooth surface of his desk drifting towards the edge and falling into the abyss of a bottomless pit, into a grave that swallowed hopes and dreams like the tar pits of the Pliocene swallowed mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses to slowly suffocate them. But when she straightened again, nothing had moved, and Mr. Gold – Rufus – watched her with furrowed eyebrows and clenched teeth. “I will not hurt you”, he growled, as if he needed to emphasize that. If anything, it only made her more suspicious.

“Are there any special…things you want me to perform?”, she asked, and wondered if she would be able to do whatever he might ask.

“When I talked about agreeing on certain ground rules, I thought of our everyday interactions, not of gymnastics in the bedroom. Good Lord, all I wanted to ask was for you to stop throwing doors into my face.”

“Oh. Okay. I can do that.” At least she thought she could. She was not so sure that she wanted to stop that, but she supposed that didn’t matter anymore. “Anything else?”

“Is there something you would like of me?” She heard the strain in his voice, his effort to sound gentle, and it made her shiver.

“I don’t know you well enough.” She looked down at her hands, folded in her lap, and rubbed over the narrow band of white gold he had put on her finger the day before, as a visible sign that she now was a possession and belonged to him.

“Maybe that should be our first concern. I think it would be helpful if we would spend some time together to get to know each other.”

“Yes.” She didn’t want to know him. She didn’t want to know a man who bought himself a wife to procreate.

“Would you please look at me?”

Belle forced herself to look up and meet his eyes, and she clenched her hands tighter to suppress their trembling.

“I think that sharing breakfast and dinner would be a good start. Do you agree with me?”

“Yes.” Was there anything she could say other than yes? It wouldn’t help her to decline. The only thing that would help her was to get down to business and hope to get pregnant.

“Good…”

She met his eyes and waited for him to continue. He wanted to lay out ground rules, didn’t he? But he just stared at her, and it became harder and harder to breathe. “Anything else?”

He shook his head, and maybe he just wanted to keep her in that state of suspense und fear and uncertainty. Maybe he was just as clueless as she was. Though she doubted that someone who made a plan like this didn’t plan for all eventualities. He had chosen her, he had to know what to do with her, didn’t he?

“Mutual respect should be a given.” He said it like a question, and Belle tilted her head to the right, wondering if they would ever reach that state of mutual respect.

“It should be, yes.”

He clapped his hands and rose from his chair and Belle nearly fell off her own seat in her haste to follow his example. “Good, good. I think that would be all for now”, he said, and it sounded as if she was dismissed now.

“One last thing”, she hurried to say, and he stopped on his way around the desk, keeping it like a shield between them. Keeping her small at the other end of a wooden altar of sacrifice. Suitable for her request, somehow. “Would you show me your bedroom? So I can find it when…” She trailed off, and Gold – Rufus – licked his lips, the tip of his tongue snaking over his lips and leaving a wet sheen behind.

“When you’re ready?”, he asked, and his voice was hoarse and made her shudder.

“Yes.” She began to hate the word, because with every yes, she lost herself a little more. He didn’t answer at once, and Belle pressed her lips together to hide their trembling.

“I believe this can wait for a little longer. There’s no need to rush things.”

Although his words made her almost faint with the relief that washed over her, Belle knew that she couldn’t escape her sentence. She just had to tell herself again and again that she did this for herself, and for her freedom, although it was somehow ironic to fight for her freedom by surrendering herself into captivity. But her life had long since stopped making sense. “There’s no need to delay things either.”

Now he stepped around the table and to her side, and she tried hard not to shrink any more than she already had. But she couldn’t keep herself from flinching when he clasped her wrist, and she fixed her eyes on the floor when his hand slid from her wrist up to her shoulder.

“No”, he murmured. “You are not ready. Nor am I.” He let go of her and stepped back, and Belle stretched her shoulder blades to shake off the feeling of his touch as soon as he turned his back to her and started for the door. She followed him back to the stairs in the entrance hall, and her breath was almost back to normal by then.

“Then I will see you at dinner?”, he asked when she started to climb the stairs, and Belle paused again.

“Yes. Am I allowed to look around?”

“Of course. This is your home now.”

Belle smiled, but it tasted bitter on her lips. She watched him walk away, his limp unsteady and crooked. She knew she had to take that step into his bed before her courage left her for good. Maybe, if she was lucky, he even was a gentle lover. But maybe he was a beast. Tonight, she told herself. The sooner she got pregnant, the sooner he would be out of reasons to sleep with her.

Chapter Text

She was strange, that new wife of his, and it took Gold a while to get used to her unblinking gaze and the concentration with which she dissected the baked salmon on her plate during dinner. She looked impeccable and untouchable in her black dress, with the thin strand of frosted glass beads around her neck. The color of her dress reminded him that she had lost her father not so long ago, and he watched her closer, trying to determine if her eyes were red from tears. But her face was blank, and if she was in pain, nothing gave it away.

“Do you like the fish?”, he asked, and she looked down at her plate as if she only now noticed what it was that she was eating.

“Yes.” She didn’t say anything else, and Gold returned his gaze to his own salmon, looking at him out of empty, baked eyes. Somehow he wasn’t hungry anymore, and the distance between him and the strange woman seemed to be far wider than just the table with its eight chairs on either side. He almost had to shout to make himself heard. Whose idea had it been to place them on opposite ends of the table?

“I’m going to fire that woman”, he muttered under his breath, but his wife heard him, and her head shot up, making him almost hop off his seat with the abruptness of her movement.

“What?”, she asked, and he hoped that she didn’t see how he pressed his lips into a thin line.

“Nothing. I just talked to myself, since you are seated so far away that every conversation is rather arduous.” He hoped he would make her smile with that, but she just tilted her head in that infuriating fashion of hers and frowned.

“And here I was, thinking you were afraid of me.” Her face didn’t give away if she was teasing him or stating an honest opinion. He doubted he would find out while there was space enough for two families between them. When he didn’t answer, she looked along the rows of empty chairs, tilting her head into the other direction, and he wasn’t sure if her next words were directed at him or at the empty seats between them. “Maybe you want to fill all those seats with heirs.”

“Gods, no. I am not suicidal.”

“I guess it would endanger my life rather than yours, but yes, sixteen children would be a little over-ambitious.”

“I can assure you, I am completely content if we start with just one”, he said, and he couldn’t keep the irritation out of his voice. His wife fixed her eyes on him, and she lifted her chin and squared her shoulders as if she was awaiting an attack. As if he would jump at her and take her there on the table while the salmon watched them out of dead eyes and potatoes rolled from plates and fell over the edge of the table to get squashed under his shoes, while he raped his wife on the table where they would have family dinners with the product of that act of violence and greed. He rose, gritting his teeth when she flinched, and moved to ring for Mrs. Lucas.

“Please take the fish away”, he told the housekeeper, and the woman hurried to do as he said, her head ducked between her shoulders and avoiding his gaze. She acted strange ever since he brought home his wife, but he didn’t have any capacity left to deal with that now. When Mrs. Lucas was gone with the fish, and he felt no longer watched, he bent his head to his wife in a brief nod, not more than a dip of his chin.

“Excuse me. I think I still have some work to do.” He wanted to leave, but just when he passed her on his way out, she spoke up, without looking at him. Her eyes were still fixed on the place where he had been sitting moments ago, and she pressed her palms to the table. Her back didn’t touch the back of her chair, and for a moment he thought he would hear her spine crack if he stepped a little closer.

“You still owe me that toast.”

Gold wondered if she really wanted to spend time with him, even though she didn’t even manage to look at him. But now was as good a time as any to drink to their marriage. Maybe a little alcohol would make it easier to talk to her. “Champagne?”

“Whatever you want.”

“Right. I think I have some excellent Brut Rosé.” He extended his hand to help her up, and for a moment his grip around her small hand was too tight. Forcing himself to gentle his touch, he led her to the fireplace at the other end of the dining room and made her sit down on the small divan before he went to fetch glasses and champagne. She let him move her around like a doll, a puppet moved by strings, and just like a puppet, she never quite met his eyes, not even when he sat down beside her and they clinked their glasses together before they took their first sip. She creased her nose, tilted back her head and emptied her glass in one go, and a soft glow rose onto her cheekbones. He wished she wouldn’t constantly veil her eyes with those dark lashes, wished he could look into those eyes and determine if their blue was still as icy as before.

“Are you in a hurry?”, he asked, and she shook her head and extended her glass for a refill.

“Rather in need.”

“Do you drink often?” He didn’t pour her more than half a glass, and her knuckles were white when she pulled back the glass and tightened her fingers around the delicate stem, until he feared it would break under her grip.

“Never.”

“Then why now?”

Instead of answering, she put the glass to her lips and emptied it again.

“That’s a tragic waste of my champagne”, he said, and watched when she took the bottle out of the cooler and refilled her glass a third time.

“To our marriage. May it be happy and blessed with all that we wish for it.” She lifted her glass in a toast before she downed it for the third time, but when she wanted to reach for the bottle again, he clasped her wrist.

“That’s enough, I think. Give it some time to take effect. I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m in no condition to carry you up the stairs.” He pointed his chin towards his leg, and she followed his gesture. Her cheeks darkened, but he couldn’t say if it was a blush or the result of too much champagne.

“How did that happen?”

“That’s a story for another time, dearie. Quite unpleasant.”

“Oh.” She leant back, and her pulse fluttered under his fingertips, like the panicked heartbeat of a bird just before its neck was snapped. He let go of her, and clenched his teeth when she rubbed over her skin where he had touched her.

“So, when is the rest of your things coming?”

“There isn’t a rest. The suitcase was all I had.” She skidded away from him and placed her empty glass on the table beside the divan, clenching her empty hands into the fabric of her dress.

“That’s not a lot. What about shoes, clothes, books?”

For the first time she looked up and met his eyes, leaving him breathless. “All that I own fits into my suitcase.”

“You are my wife now. Whatever you need or want, I will provide.”

Her lips twitched. “I know.” She rose, swaying slightly, and he held out his hand to steady her if need be. But she recovered herself and took a deep breath. “Would you show me to my room? I’m not sure I find the way…”

“Of course…” It took him by surprise, that question, but he supposed that his house really was difficult to navigate after only a day, and especially in an inebriated state. But when she reached for his arm, he was even more surprised. He rose and wanted to place his glass, only half empty, on the table, but just in that moments she swayed again and knocked against his hand, and the champagne swashed over the rim of his flute and left a wet stain on his shirt. His wife froze, seemed to stop breathing, and looked horrified at his shirt, at the dark spot right above his heart.

“I am so sorry”, she whispered, and he fought down the urge to apologize, and fought down the anger that always followed that urge.

“No matter. It’s just a shirt.” She still looked as if she was about to faint, and he patted her hand on his arm, hoping that would get her to loosen her grip. “Really. It’s just a shirt. I’m sure Mrs. Lucas will get it out again.”

She bit her lip and nodded. She clung to his side on their way up the stairs, close enough that he could feel the warmth she radiated through her dress and his clothes, intensifying the itch on his skin. He was glad when they reached her door and he could bid her goodnight, and he didn’t even wait until the door was fully closed behind her before he started for his own bedroom to get rid of the stained shirt and the itch. He scratched his clothes off in a haste that had too much similarity with a panicked frenzy, and he pressed his eyes shut and buried his face between his hands when he sunk down on his bed in nothing but his socks and boxers. Nothing was as it should be. She didn’t know him, didn’t know his past, and still she looked at him as if she saw the monster lurking under his skin, as if she saw right through that carefully maintained façade he had created.

The knock at the door made him flinch, and he had hardly enough time to grab a bathrobe to cover himself before the door was pushed open and his wife peeked inside his room.

“What are you doing here?”, he asked, and his voice cracked in his throat.

Instead of answering, she stepped inside and closed the door, staring at the wood for a long beat before she turned and faced him. She was so very pale, and the red blotches on her cheeks looked painted onto her skin, making her look even more like a doll.

“I followed you here. I am ready.”

To his utter horror, she stepped before him and started to open the zipper at the side of her dress. He could only watch when she shrugged it off her shoulders and stepped out of the black pool it formed at her feet, leaving her in nothing but black lace underwear and that string of glass beads wrapped around her neck.

“Isabelle…”

She straddled him and pushed against his shoulder, but instead of letting himself fall back, he grasped her waist to keep her still. “Are you sure with this?”

“I am…just…could we turn off the lights, maybe?”

She shivered under his palms, and her skin was clammy and cold. “Of course. Lie down.” He nudged her off his lap, gently, and went to switch off the lights. She welcomed the darkness with a sigh, and when he stretched out at her side, she guided his hands back to her skin.

“Please be gentle”, she murmured, and the itch under his skin made it almost impossible to touch her at all. Everything about her was soft, and when he stroked up her side to cup her breasts through her bra, circling her nipples with his thumb, they remained just as soft as the rest of her. She didn’t move, lay still and soundless like porcelain at his side. When he slid his hands down her side again, he felt her tremble, and he paused on her hip. He knew that his hand was heavy, that he could easily crush her tiny frame, and it scared him. When he didn’t move his hand further, she wriggled closer, until her body almost touched his, and she turned on her back and clasped his hand to guide it to the edge of her panties. It was so fast, and still he found himself wishing it was already over. He hooked his fingers into the waistband and pulled her panties down, and she lifted her behind off the mattress to make it easier for him. His tongue was paralyzed, heavy like a stone in his mouth, leaving him unable to talk, unable to ask her again, and his throat was painfully dry when he tried to swallow. When he slid his palm between her legs, he found her dry, her thighs trembling, and he licked his fingertips to wet them before he parted her folds and found her clit, hoping to stimulate her enough to get her at least a little wet. But when he touched the little nub, she went stiff and tense like a bow. He stilled his fingers, pressed his eyes shut and his forehead against her shoulder, breathing in the scent of her skin for a brief moment before he pulled his hand back from her flesh and rolled onto his back.

“Why did you stop?”, she asked, and he winced when she touched his chest and slid her hand down over his stomach to his crotch. His cock rested soft and limp against his thigh, and she went still once more when she found him and cupped him through the fabric of his underwear. He clasped her wrist and pried her hand away.

“I told you. I am not ready.”

“But you wanted this.” She sounded confused, almost pleading, as if she wanted to get this over at all costs.

“Yes. But I’d rather have some time to get to know you.”

“But you chose me. You wanted me as your whore.”

He pushed her away, with a little more force than necessary, and she let out a startled grunt. “Wife, dearie. And yes, I chose you as the mother of my heir, and chose you to share my house and my bed, but that doesn’t change the fact that I am not ready yet. Please go to your room. We’ll talk tomorrow.” He climbed out of his bed and turned the light back on. She sat on his bed, confused and with red eyes, and she looked so much like a little girl that he had to look away from her.

“I can help you. Do you want me to give you a blowjob?” She sounded desperate, as if her life depended on the consummation of this marriage.

“Go”, he repeated, and she snatched her clothes and fled, but the shuddering breath she took when she looked at him for the last time still echoed through the room when the door was long closed again. The itch on his skin returned, and he shook himself, rubbed over his arms, but it didn’t help. At last he dragged himself into his bathroom and into the shower. Of course he had chosen her. She seemed intelligent, a perfect match for his criteria, and she was beautiful. He had thought himself capable of sharing a bed with her, had even sought relief to the image of her lips around his cock before he met her, but the reality of her was something else entirely. He turned on the water and just let it patter on his body, leaning his head against the mosaic tiles. Yes, she had agreed to this. She had known what it was she was signing up for, so it wasn’t as if he was forcing her to do anything against her will. He should have let her suck him off. He should have proceeded, should have slept with her no matter the tiny voices at the back of his head that told him how despicable this was. What a monster he was. He closed his fist around his cock, now hard and thick, and he imagined to bury himself between her pale, trembling thighs, biting down on the soft flesh of her shoulder. He pumped his cock with one hand and hit his other fist against the tiles, again and again, until pain exploded in his hand and he came, spurting his seed against the wall, where it trickled down and mixed with the dark streaks of his blood. He slid to the ground, leaning his head against the wall and letting the water thrum down on him, and watched cum and blood swirl down the drain.

After a while, when the pain in his hand had dulled to a faint throb and lost its sharp edge, he struggled to his feet and turned the water off. And after drying himself off, tending to the abrasions on his knuckles, and dressing again, he made his way to her bedroom to apologize. But when he knocked, she didn’t answer, and after waiting a few minutes, he went back downstairs to drown out the thoughts swirling through his head with work, and maybe a swig of good old Scotch.

Chapter Text

When Belle reached her room, staggering and panting, she wanted to throw all that was left of her belongings into her suitcase and leave and never look back. But it was only a brief moment of weakness, not longer than it took her heart to pump her blood back into her limbs and chase away the prickling numbness that cold and fear had left there. She was always running, but never getting anywhere. And now, she had nowhere to go, so what was the point of leaving? She had barely made it out of her father’s flat, climbing out of the window in the dead of the night and sneaking past the thug placed there by Mr. Beard Black – a name as ridiculous as the curly black wig he wore to hide his true nature as well as the beginning baldness on his head. Mr. Black had given her eight weeks to pay back her father’s debts, after increasing the interests and telling her with a greasy smile that he would find her a job to work off the debts if she didn’t pay within those eight weeks. When she applied to become Mr. Gold’s wife instead, in a town far away from Black and her father’s grave and her old life, she didn’t have any hopes that he would choose her. When he did, she had been weak-kneed with relief. Then she met him, and found that the picture he had sent of himself didn’t betray the coldness he carried like a cloak. Still, he meant safety from Black. But although he provided safety, she couldn’t help but shudder at his touch, and she spent almost two hours in the shower to get rid of the revulsion that had been choking her when she laid herself out for sacrifice.

The next morning, when she came down for breakfast, she nursed a skull splitting headache, and by the looks of it, he didn’t fare much better. He had dark circles beneath his eyes, and the lines on his face were etched deeper into his skin than before. He looked more human in his suffering, less like the minotaur he had resembled the night before. But his humanity shattered again when he placed his newspaper on the table, folding it carefully, and she saw the bandage on his hand, clean and white and painfully out of place.

“What happened to your hand?”, she asked, and he stretched his fingers, wincing, and looked down at his hand as if he wondered where the bandage came from.

“I slipped in the shower. Happens sometimes when you have a bad leg.”

“I’m sorry.”

He watched her out of narrowed eyes, his nostrils flared, as if he was trying to determine how serious she was, and Belle rubbed his ring that was heavy on her finger and bit into her skin. His scrutiny was unsettling, and Belle avoided his gaze, looked down at her feet and hoped that the floor would stop trying to shake her off the earth.

“Please, sit”, he said, and Belle slumped down on her chair. He waited until she straightened again and grabbed the knife beside her plate before he continued. “It’s not your fault. I wanted to apologize for…last night. I didn’t mean to be hurtful.”

“Oh…” Belle didn’t know what to answer, and she didn’t want to think about the night and the things that passed in the dark. She always could pretend that things that happened in the dark never happened at all. Her toast was dry and scratched her throat raw when she choked it down, and the coffee tasted bitter, but she stuffed her cheeks with bite after bite, washing it down with coffee, and she tried to look too occupied to talk. She knew he was watching her, wasn’t even pretending not to watch her, silent like a spider waiting for the fly to stop moving, to give up the fight against the sticky threads of its web. At last, she couldn’t pretend to be hungry any longer, and when she stopped eating, staring down at her plate and the jam that looked like drips of clotted blood on it, he posed another question.

“Are you in the mood to take a walk with me? A little fresh air might do us both some good.”

It wasn’t what she had expected, even though she couldn’t say what it was she had expected, and she looked up and met his eyes. She almost believed him then that he regretted the last night.

“Things are clearer outdoors”, she said, but she bit her lip and looked down again when he creased his forehead.

“Indeed they are. I always felt that I could think better while taking a walk.”

“Isn’t that hard on your leg?”

At this he smiled, a twitch of his lips that made dimples appear on his cheeks. “I found that a little exercise from time to time is even beneficial.”

Belle didn’t answer – because really, what could she say? – and after a while, he filled the silence with his voice again, that voice that didn’t cut through silence, but slowly swept over it, like a veil, and added layers and depths to something that would otherwise be suffocating. “You don’t have to come with me.”

“Oh. A walk sounds lovely.” She even let him help her into her coat, later, and held her breath when his hands rested on her shoulders for longer than necessary, so long that her skin began to prickle and her spine tensed. But he didn’t touch her again after that, instead opening the door for her and walking as far away from her as the path they followed allowed. It was a foggy day, the coldness of autumn filling the air with a sharp sting, and her cheeks started to get numb after a while, bitten by the cold. She dared to glance sideways, and found that his cheeks were flushed, too, and the tip of his nose was glowing.

“What made you search for a wife the way you did?”, she asked, and he cocked his head in surprise.

“Well…several things, I think. For one, I think that very often, something that begins as romance or love at first sight doesn’t hold when it comes to everyday life. Many couples aren’t suited for each other. I thought I would eliminate that factor by choosing someone with interests similar to mine. That way, at least, the possibility for talk is always given.”

“That is a very clinical and somehow limited way of looking at relationships. Attraction shouldn’t be disregarded as a factor for a successful relationship.” Belle didn’t take her eyes off the ground, but she noticed that their strides were matching in length, and their tempo seemed to be in sync with a silent beat that was the same for both of them.

“Of course. But I saw what can happen when love turns into something else…It’s something terrible, and I don’t wish it to anyone. Much less to myself. But attraction did have a part in my choice, too.”

Belle missed a step and almost stumbled. “So you chose me like a piece of livestock.”

Gold stopped in his tracks, forcing her to halt, too. “Maybe I did. I chose you because I liked your answer to a philosophical question, even though it was completely nonsensical, because you seemed intelligent and interesting, because you will be able to bear me children, and, yes, because I found you attractive.”

“It didn’t feel like it last night.” Belle lifted her chin when he stepped closer, and forced herself not to back away, even though he bent his head down and brought his face close enough for her to see the golden specks in his brown eyes flash with something that could be rage. Well contained rage, but rage nonetheless, and the cold she felt at the memory of his bandaged hand had nothing to do with the cold of the fog swirling around them.

“You were drunk. Why do you want to get this over with so desperately?” It was a growl, and it echoed through the fog, reverberating back like the growl of a pack of wolves, their grey fur invisible in the grey surrounding them. Belle refused to look down again.

“Because I fear to lose my courage. Maybe, if I do the brave thing, it will strengthen me and make me braver.”

“And why are you so afraid? And why are you so angry? Didn’t you sign up for this out of your own free will?”

“I did.”

He tilted his head, and Belle felt his breath on her cheek, warm on her skin. He didn’t smile, drilled his gaze into her eyes as if trying to determine if she was telling the truth. “So?”

“I don’t know you well enough to trust you.” She stepped back and fixed her eyes on his black kid gloves, on his hand flexing around the handle of his cane. She wouldn’t tell him of the beast she suspected him to hide. He probably knew it was there.

“Then why rush things like that?” Now he sounded gentle, and the wolves retreated, no longer snarling at her out of swirling mists.

“I am afraid of what happens if I can’t provide that heir you want so badly. I need that money.”

Belle didn’t dare to look up, because she didn’t want to see the judgement on his face, so she was surprised when he closed the gap again and placed his fingertips under her chin to tilt it up.

“I wrote you a check for one-third of the money, like we agreed. But if you need more, you can always talk to me. Do you need more?”

For a moment, Belle was tempted to tell him about Beard Black and the increased interests of her father’s debt, bleeding her of every last bit of money going through her account, but she kept silent. She wasn’t ready for that yet, although she knew that she would have to tell Gold, eventually. Her eight weeks were almost up, and even with one-third of the sum he paid her for becoming his wife, she still had to get together more than half of the money she owed Black. Gold paid her one third right away, one third as a monthly appanage, and the last third when she delivered. She would use his monthly check to appease Black, and hope it would be enough.

When she didn’t answer, he pulled back his fingertips, ceased his touch, and stepped back. “Let’s go back, shall we?”

Belle followed his gesture, rubbing her arms to chase away the chill. Her coat was too thin, and her suitcase didn’t hold that many clothes suited for the weather in Maine. It was decidedly warmer in Alabama. She would have to go shopping, but right now, she couldn’t afford it. When they had walked in silence for a while, Gold startled her by extending his scarf towards her. But Belle hesitated to take it.

“Please, I don’t want you to be cold.” He planted his cane in her way to force her to halt, and when she still didn’t take his scarf, he grunted, and placed it on her shoulders and tied it to a knot under her chin. “I hope you have something for the winter in that suitcase of yours”, he murmured when he turned away and started walking again. Belle tried to calm her breath. His woollen scarf scratched on her skin, and his scent clinging to it enwrapped her. He didn’t smell bad, far from it (and if he had, she never would have said yes to his proposal), but it was still too much. He marked her with his scarf and his scent and his casual touches like a predator marked its territory, and she wanted to shake off her skin and snarl at him. But after a while, the warmth of his body, still preserved by the cashmere of his scarf, crept into her skin and gentled the bite of the cold, and the desire to fight it dwindled, like the light of a single candle in a troll cavern under the mountains.

“So, you loved someone, once?”, she asked when they were almost back at the manor, and the gravel crunched under her steps.

“No.”

“But you said…”

“Yes, I know. I didn’t say it happened to me, though. I was just the innocent bystander.” They reached the main entrance of his cavernous house, and he opened the door for her and helped her out of her coat again.

She didn’t see him again until it was time to go down for dinner that evening. She had spent the day reading her favourite – and only, right now – book again, and she almost missed it when it was time to go down again. She slipped into flat shoes and didn’t bother to change out of her crumpled skirt and sweater. She didn’t plan on repeating that catastrophic attempt at seduction so soon.

Gold’s voice hummed through the hall when she reached the foot of the stairs, and Belle slowed her steps, not sure if she was allowed to interrupt him. The door to the dining room stood slightly ajar, and Belle drew closer, trying to make out his words. He sounded cold. Angry.

“I don’t know why it is so difficult to follow a simple request. All I asked of you was to move her place closer to mine. All I ask of you now is to do your job. I don’t understand why you are treating this as if I asked of you to lead a lamb to slaughter.”

“Because it is exactly like that. Did you tell her?”

Belle paused with her hand on the doorknob and held her breath. Gold had sounded angry, but Mrs. Lucas sounded as if she was about to stab him with a fork, multiple times.

“This is highly inappropriate, and none of your business.”

“Rubbish. Don’t treat me like some peasant, boy. I changed your diapers, so don’t think you can go all Lord-of-the-castle on me. You have to tell her.”

“And why is that? And besides, I never forget anything. I didn’t forget either that you were just as willing to spread your legs as all the others.”

“You are just as nasty as your father. You have to tell her, before history repeats itself. I’m not going to let that happen again.”

Belle heard steps approaching the door, and she hurried to get back to the stairs to make it look as if she just came down. She nearly tripped, just when Mrs. Lucas opened the door to the dining room and stepped out, and the woman looked at her out of narrowed eyes, with a deep frown on her face.

“Careful, girl. He has a bad day today.” Mrs. Lucas stomped off, and Belle took a deep breath before she stepped into the lion’s den.

Chapter Text

He still stood at the lower end of the table, where Mrs. Lucas had set the place for his wife, contemplating how to proceed, when she entered the dining room, pale like a ghost. He glanced at his watch, and she licked her lips and swallowed.

“I’m sorry, I’m late”, she croaked, and she sounded so guilty that he narrowed his eyes and observed her closer. But apart from her crumpled clothes and her messy hair, she looked completely normal. A little out of breath, maybe.

“No matter. I was just about to move your place beside mine. I hate having to shout to have a decent conversation.”

“Right.” She hurried at his side and took her plate and the silverware, leaving him only her glass to carry. She chose the place to his left, and Gold put her glass down and pulled her chair out for her. He waited until she was sitting before he let go of the back of her chair, staring down at her neck, bent as graceful as the neck of a swan. She was still wearing that necklace, and he let his fingertips ghost over the frosted glass beads before he stepped back and sat down at the head of the table. She had pulled her shoulder blades up under his touch, as if she expected the sharp blade of an axe to fall down on her neck, and he rubbed his fingertips together to quell the prickling desire to do something unforgivable.

“Please take that necklace off”, he said, and her hand flew up to the strand of beads around her throat.

“What? Why?”

He could hardly tell her of the images that filled his mind at the sight of that necklace, of the horror they bore, but her eyes demanded a reason, and her jaw was set in a stubborn line that allowed no empty excuse. Sadly, empty excuses were all he had to give. “It doesn’t suit you.”

She let go of the necklace and placed her hands flat on the table, every inch of her betraying the effort it cost her to remain calm. “My clothes, as well as my jewelry, are my decision. I will dress as I please.”

Gold clawed his hand into his napkin and tried to appear just as calm as she did. “They are. However, I would like you to take that necklace off.”

“Why?”

He threw the napkin to the table and pushed his chair back, springing to his feet. She remained seated, staring up at him out of wide eyes, her palms pressed so hard to the table that the veins on the back of her hands protruded, but she did not break eye contact. “Because I say so.”

“So you’re one of those husbands. What happens if I refuse? Are you going to hit me? Lock me in? Use your power to make me obey?”

For a moment, he lost the ability to breathe. Of course, he looked like that. He behaved like that. He sank back onto his chair. “No. Of course not.”

“Then give me a valid reason, and I will take it off.”

He imagined to tell her that each time he looked at that necklace, he saw himself strangling her with it, saw the strand of beads wrapped around his fists, pulling it tighter around her throat, suffocating her, while she sputtered and trashed and fought for air. Air that never came. That didn’t sound like a valid reason.

“Keep it, then”, he gnarled out through gritted teeth. She tilted her head, and exhaled, looking almost as if she just narrowly escaped the attack of a bear. She didn’t say a word during dinner, and she didn’t look at him again.

“I’ll go back to my book”, she said, when her plate was empty, and it hurt almost physically to see that he had found a way to ruin their relationship before it even began. But then, that was exactly the reason he had bought a wife, wasn’t it? Someone who couldn’t run away. She pushed back her chair and got to her feet, and Gold cleared his throat to get rid of the tightness that made it almost impossible to speak.

“Do you… Do you want me to show you around town tomorrow? The social life there is fairly limited, but I believe there is a knitting circle and a book club. Mrs. Lucas would know more about that. And I can show you the sights of Storybrooke…”   

She paused, her hand on the back of her chair, and the lights of the chandeliers caught in the white gold ring on her finger. A narrow, simple band, almost weightless, and yet it bound her tighter than iron wrought shackles to him.

“What are the sights of Storybrooke?”

“Oh, there isn’t a lot. The beach, mostly. An enchanted well in the woods. A fishing museum.”

She creased her nose, and he was sure she would have giggled if he had not behaved like a true tyrant only half an hour ago. “A fishing museum, huh? Good thing you already have me, because that doesn’t sound like a date I would agree to.”

“You don’t let any chance go by to remind me of that, do you?” Too late it came to him that she might have spoken in jest, trying to keep the conversation on a lighter note. But if that had been her intention, then she failed miserably by finding exactly the aspect of their agreement he didn’t want to be reminded of.

“Remind you of what? That I am a possession? A trinket to be displayed in this big, empty house?”

Remind him that no one would ever spend time with him out of their own free will. Gold inhaled, wondering if she tried to rip his composure from him. Wondering if she suspected him of losing his grip on himself if she only poked him hard enough, forcing him to show his true colors. She constantly swayed between meek submission and reckless defiance, and he was still not sure what to make of her. “Well, I wasn’t the one selling you, dearie. That was you. Don’t lay that blame on my doorstep.”

Her knuckles turned white when she tightened her grip on the back of her chair. “No. That wasn’t you. But I wasn’t the one buying me.”

“Then I guess we just have to agree that we both have to take responsibility for this deal, don’t we?” He folded his hands in front of him, rubbing his own ring, and her eyes followed his movement.

“Probably.”

“That isn’t a yes.”

“It isn’t a no either.” She had her eyes still fixed on his ring, on his hands, and he forced himself to keep them relaxed. Not to make a fist.

“Alright. I think it would be nice to see your town.”

The relief washing over him had him momentarily breathless, and now he made a fist to hide his trembling. “Oh, I own only two thirds of the property, so it’s not technically my town.”

This time, she did giggle, and the relief he felt before was nothing in comparison to the tightness sweeping through him now. But her giggle ended on an odd note, and she clapped her hand to her mouth, looking as if he had caught her trespassing. “Would tomorrow after breakfast suit you?”, he asked, and his voice sounded strange and hoarse to his own ears.

“That would be perfect.”

He watched as she left the dining room, her back straight and each step carefully measured, her body as tense as if she was walking away from a Wendigo’s lair and expected to be attacked any moment.

Their drive to town the next morning was painfully silent. She shivered in her thin coat, and he turned on the heating.

“We could start with a coffee at Granny’s. It’s actually run by Mrs. Lucas’ granddaughter, so the name is a little misleading.” He tried to fill the silence with small talk, anything that would get her to stop looking at him like a deer in headlights.

“Is the coffee at least good?”

“Oh god, no, it’s the worst. But the view is nice.” He regretted that statement when they entered Granny’s and Ruby greeted them with a grin that would make the tooth fairy faint and shorts that started and ended just below her navel. His wife raised a brow at him, and he wished someone would just take pity on him and drown him in a pot of that bitter coffee.

“The view, huh?”

“Yes. Out of the window. You can see the clock tower from here.”

“Of course you can.”

He ordered them coffee to go and gave Ruby his nastiest look to make her fill their order at top speed, so he could get his wife out of that diner as fast as possible, and he thanked her with a thin smile when she nearly tripped over herself to get them their coffee. Isabelle watched the whole exchange out of narrowed eyes, and he swallowed a groan when she tilted her head and bit her lip. He began to fear that look on her, and he was right to do so. When they left the diner and strolled down Main Street towards his shop, he could almost count down the seconds it would take her to poke him again. He decided that that was what she was doing: Poking him with words. Like a little boy would poke a bullfrog with a stick.

“You certainly have a way with people.”

“I’m a well respected member of this community, yes.” He didn’t look at her, setting out his cane in carefully measured steps, in sync with the clicking of her heels on the pavement.

“Fear and respect are not the same thing.”

“Why do you think they fear me?”

“Well, for one, the look you gave that poor girl made her almost freeze in panic. Which makes me think that you have some kind of power over her.”

“I am their landlord, that’s all.” They had almost reached his shop, and he slowed his steps, taking coffee and cane in one hand to fumble for his keys.

“And what kind of landlord are you? The nice sort or the not so nice sort?”

Gold found his key and extended his coffee for her to hold. She sucked in her breath when his fingertips grazed the back of her hand, and he allowed himself a smile. It was the smile of a shark, one he mostly reserved for his tenants. “Make an educated guess, dearie.”

“I feared so, yes.”

“Well, it has it perks to be married to me. You won’t be subjected to ugly talk.”

“You mean ugly talk I would only be subjected to because you bought me like a prostitute?”

“And there we are again.” He gave the door a shove that was harder than usual and sent it banging against the doorstopper inside, making the windows rattle.

“I don’t think we ever left from there.” She stalked past him and placed his coffee on the counter beside the antique register. “So what is this? Do you consider this one of the sights of Storybrooke?”

“It’s my shop. I just thought that you maybe want to see it.”

“I can read, you know. It bears your name on a sign above the door.”

“Our name.” He didn’t know why it irked him so much that she refused to consider herself his equal. She refused his name like she would refuse a brandishing.

“It’s your name. I only wear it by extension, as your mark.”

He took a step towards her, and she swayed back, away from him, grabbing the edge of the counter behind her. “Marriage means partnership. Two equal parties.”

“And yet we are not equal.”

They stared at each other, and his skin itched again, brimming with irritation. He wanted to punch something, take his cane down on one of the glass cases to shatter it, to let his frustration out by smashing something to smithereens, but he held his breath and bit down on his tongue to quell the urge. She was watching him, and her head tilted to the side, slowly, like a bowling ball with an imbalance. She watched him like he was an interesting occurrence, a disturbance in her universe that didn’t deserve more than a bored look, a fleeting glance, before it was dismissed again. Gold let out his breath, closed his eyes and stepped back. You don’t conquer a galaxy by beating it to pieces.

“I want us to be equals”, he said, and suppressed a flinch when she pushed herself away from the counter and stepped closer, close enough for him to get a wisp of her scent.

“There is a difference between words and actions, Rufus. I don’t feel equal. Maybe all it takes is to get to know you a little better. But right now, I trust my guts more than I trust your words. We aren’t equals.” She only whispered, but her voice settled inside him and twisted his stomach like a fist.

“I am sorry.”

“Let’s go to the beach, shall we? I’m in the mood to find some shells and fill a jar with sand.” She turned and reached for his coffee, placing it gently in his hand again, and he stared at the cup as if it held an answer for him.

“Why would you fill a jar with sand?”

“Oh, I do that everywhere I go. There are many different sorts of sand, and that way, I always have a little reminder of where I’ve been. And it’s free. I always have a little jar of soil from home with me, too. That way, my heart is always with me.” She smiled, a smile that made his throat tight because it was directed at something inside her, a memory. Not at him. She would never smile at him like that.

“Your heart?”, he asked, and it sounded like a croak.

“Yes. You know, home is where the heart is. And mine is always with me.” She started for the door, and Gold stared after her before he remembered to follow. He offered her riches and antiquities, and all she wanted was a jar of dirt. She was a curious thing, this new wife of his. Not what he had expected her to be. Not at all.

Chapter Text

Belle had filled many a jar with sand and soil in her lifetime. Not that she had been travelling that much. But she had never lived very long in one place, moving with her father from town to town, never staying more than a few years in one place. And the place she called home, the only jar left of her collection after she had to leave all the others behind when she fled in the dead of the night, wasn’t a place per se. She had been eight when her father gave her the first jar to fill it with a hand full of soil from her mother’s grave, after laying her to rest, telling her that this way, she would always have her mother with her. When her father died, Belle added a little soil from his grave to the jar, finding a sense of comfort in the thought that she had her parents always with her that way. Her heart had always been with her family, and now all that was left of that little family was a little soil in a jar that once held marmalade. When she pulled a new, empty jar out of her purse and filled it with sand from the beach, her husband watched her, out of a distance, keeping his expensive shoes dry and shining. After that, he showed her the way around town, pointing out places where she could buy clothes (“Or whatever else it is you need”, he grunted) and showing her the library under the clock tower, but they passed on the fishing museum and drove back to Shadow Manor instead, where he left her again after taking lunch with her. Belle was left to her own devices, left to roam the grounds or the house or whatever it was she wanted to do with her time.

She found her way into the kitchen to ask if Mrs. Lucas needed her help. The housekeeper did not, but she didn’t sent Belle away either.

“There isn’t anything you could help me with. However, if you want to bake some cookies, I’m not going to keep you from doing so.”

Belle had never baked cookies in her life, and Mrs. Lucas watched with a twinkle in her eyes when Belle fought (and lost) valiantly with the sticky dough, while the housekeeper sat down on the corner bench with a cup of tea and her knitting needles.

“Mr. Gold said there is a knitting circle”, Belle said, nodding at the furry thing on Mrs. Lucas’ lap, and the woman snorted.

“Mr. Gold, huh? Not yet on a first name basis with your husband?”

Belle blushed, and smacked the cookie dough a little harder than necessary. “No.”

“Well, it takes time. He isn’t the easiest person around, and not easy to get to know. It’s not his fault, though.”

“It never is, is it?” Belle couldn’t keep her irritation out of her voice.

Mrs. Lucas looked up from her knitting needles and creased her forehead. “It wasn’t meant as an excuse. Just a fact.”

“Of course. I’m sorry.” Belle started to form little clumps and placed them on a baking tray, and for a while, the clicking of Mrs. Lucas’ knitting needles was the only sound in the kitchen. Only after placing the cookies in the oven and serving herself a cup of tea, Belle dared to pick up the conversation again.

“About that knitting circle…”

“Do you know how to knit?”

“Just as good as I know how to bake. But I’d like to learn it. There isn’t a lot I can do here, and I’ve already read my only book about fifteen times.”

Mrs. Lucas frowned, and Belle stared down into her teacup. The woman was probably glad when she didn’t have to babysit her, and Belle already regretted to have asked at all.

“Why don’t you pick up another book from the library?”

“Oh, Mr. Gold showed me the library today, and maybe I will drive to town tomorrow and lend some books, yes. I’m sorry, I didn’t want to impose.”

Mrs. Lucas’ frown deepened, and Belle wondered if she was missing something. The woman looked at her as if her words didn’t make sense at all. After a while, when Belle already wished to be anywhere but in the kitchen, she grunted. “Don’t be silly. Knitting circle’s Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can come with me.”

Belle wanted to thank the housekeeper, but the woman interrupted her before she had a chance to express her gratitude. “Maybe it’s time you get those cookies out of the oven before we need the fire department. Those guys aren’t the fastest, and I’m sure Rufus would appreciate it if his house still stands when he comes back.”

Belle hurried to fetch the cookies, but some were already burnt. “That oven is just as old and petulant as everything in this house”, Mrs. Lucas explained, but still, Belle wanted to cry when she had to discard half of the first batch of chocolate cookies. The second batch, however, got better, and she was almost proud of herself when she presented her husband with the cookies. She had not known it, but apparently he came home each day at five to take tea in his study, and when Mrs. Lucas prepared the tea on a tray, Belle decided to take it with him. She carried the tray into his study and met his surprise with a trembling smile. She had not forgotten about the rage in his eyes that morning, the rage that scared her so much, but she hadn’t forgotten either that there was something he refused to tell her, something Mrs. Lucas wanted him to tell her. And when she had to spent at least the next fifteen months with him in this house, then she wanted to know everything she needed to know to survive.

When she entered the study, he looked at her out from behind his desk of skulls and bones, and Belle’s breath became shallow in the suffocating atmosphere of the room.

“I’d like to share your tea with you, but… could we go to the breakfast salon?”

“Of course.” He looked almost dumbfounded by the idea that she wanted to have tea with him at all, and his face reflected her own feelings.

“I don’t think we get to know each other by avoiding us, don’t you think?” She bit her lip when he shook his head. She made sure not to walk in front of him, and if he noticed, he didn’t mention it. He held the door open so she could enter, balancing the tray with both hands, and he pulled out a chair for her. Belle didn’t sit down before he stepped back and limped to his own chair, remembering the night before when he had not only touched her, fleetingly, but also demanded she’d take her necklace off. She didn’t want to go through another one of those moments with him looming over her like a giant, with bones of his last victim still sticking between his teeth. She poured him tea and placed one of her cookies on the saucer. He looked at it with suspicion, and his look – his nose growing a little sharper when he knitted his brows together – compelled her to explain.

“I baked today.”

“Oh.” He took the cookie and bit into it, and winced. When he noticed that she was watching him, though, he stuffed the whole cookie at once into his mouth and smiled past the crumbs. “Delicious”, he munched out through stuffed cheeks, and Belle took a shuddering breath and tried to keep the hysteric laughter inside her chest.

“Here, take another one”, she said, shoving the plate with cookies towards him, and Rufus’ eyes widened in horror. When he extended his hand to take another cookie, though, Belle couldn’t keep her giggle down any longer, and she grasped his hand to save him from the torture to eat another one. But when her hand touched his, they both froze, and the giggle died on her lips. She pulled her hand back and pressed it to her thigh, kneading her fingers and avoiding his gaze. There was too much intensity in his eyes all of a sudden, something that frightened her with its sharpness.

“I’m sorry”, she whispered, and she didn’t look up again. She heard his cup clink to the saucer when he sipped on his tea, and his hands fluttered along the edge of her vision, like moths with skulls depicted on their wings.

“For what?”, he asked after a while, and his question startled her.

“I didn’t want to make fun of you. I know the cookies are bitter and too hard.”

“Isabelle… Are you scared of me?”

Belle closed her eyes and licked her lips, trying to swallow the heavy lump at the back of her throat. She could hardly breathe. All she had wanted was to find out what he was hiding from her, but she supposed there was a price she had to pay in exchange for his secret. “I am scared of the anger in your eyes. There is something dark in you, and it clings to you like a shadow.”

Her whisper was followed by silence, and she feared he would be angry at her now. Or worse, brush it off with a hollow laugh. But he did neither.

“I am sorry.” He didn’t laugh, and he didn’t reprimand her. But he didn’t offer an explanation either. Belle took a deep breath and decided not to put her luck to the test any more. But she noticed that he tried to hold his anger in an even tighter grip over the course of the following weeks. Belle herself held back, stopped challenging him whenever she saw the chance, not because she wanted to make it easier for him, but because his iron control was even more unsettling. He took great pains to present her a gentle, relaxed, quiet façade. But underneath it smoldered his rage, and she saw it flare in his eyes from time to time, when he looked at her necklace, the only piece of defiance she wore openly.

Twice a week, she accompanied Mrs. Lucas to her knitting circle, and she learned to knit and purl stitches, knitting in the round, cables (a mess, really) and knitting with two colors (even more of a mess), and when the first snow came, she had a scarf of an impressive length of her own. The date when her reprieve with Beard Black ended came and went, and after a few days of constantly holding her breath and jumping at every sound, she began to relax again. But since she had transferred all her money to Black, she didn’t have anything left to buy herself some clothes, and when she started to wear three of her thin sweaters on top of each other and wrapping herself into her six feet long scarf, Rufus became suspicious. He had stopped touching her constantly after the debacle with the necklace, and she suspected that it helped him to contain his rage to keep his distance, but one morning, when he slinked into the breakfast salon a little later than usual, and found her with her knees tucked under her chin, her scarf wrapped around her torso and tied into a knot above her stomach, holding a cup of tea to her chest to absorb as much from its warmth as possible, he didn’t let it go. Belle quickly sat up straight when he entered, putting her feet to the ground, and her tea sloshed over the brim of her cup and over the back of her hand.

Rufus paused just inside the door, looking at her as if he saw her for the first time in months, and maybe he did. Maybe he had avoided to look at her just as much as she had avoided to look at him. They barely talked, apart from the necessary and painfully superficial small talk over breakfast and dinner. But he had taken to call her Isabelle, and when he said her name now, he sounded hoarse, almost raw.

“Isabelle. This has to end. I told you to buy clothes. I even showed you where. Why don’t you use the extraordinary amount of money I pay you each month to get yourself something against the cold? I can’t make this house warmer, and I don’t want you to freeze to death.”

Belle licked her lip and fixed her eyes on the stain of tea on her sleeve hem. “I am not cold”, she stated, and flinched when he closed the distance between them with large steps. She expected him to grab her, but instead he placed his fingertips as gentle under her chin as if he was afraid to break her. But his touch was unrelenting nonetheless when he made her turn her face to him and meet his eyes.

“So you either want to freeze to death or there’s something you’re not telling me.” His face was too close to hers, but for once, Belle was almost thankful for it. His breath was warm on her face and smelled of tooth paste, and she found herself even leaning the tiniest bit closer.

“Well, you are the expert in keeping secrets, so I guess you have this one right.”

“And there’s my little stinging nettle again. Drink up, we’re going to town.” He let go of her chin and stepped back, and Belle hurried to scramble to her feet.

“Why?”

“What do you think? I will make sure you buy something suitable for the winter.” His eyes swept over her, from head to toe, and he added, “Maybe some nice underwear, too.”

“What?” Belle almost fell backwards over her chair, and he lifted one of his brows with a rather sardonic smile.

“Angora wool. Keeps you warm quite nicely. I wouldn’t survive in this drafty shed without my angora underwear.”

“You are wearing Angora underwear?” Belle dared to leave the support of her chair behind to follow him out of the room, and Rufus snorted when she tilted her head and scrutinized the fit of his pants.

“Want me to prove it?”

For a moment, Belle had no idea what to answer. She shied away from the memory of their only attempt to consummate their marriage, but she remembered that his skin had not been slimy to the touch, not cold, not flabby or sickly soft, and somewhere under this impeccable suits, he hid a body that maybe even was attractive. Still, she didn’t want to see him in his Angora underwear.

“I believe you.”

“Ah, pity.” Rufus held her coat out for her to slip into it, but he refrained from smoothing out wrinkles or brushing off invisible dust, although she could see the desire to do so in the way he stepped away from her, hastily, and rubbing his fingertips together.

He took her into a small fashion boutique that belonged to one of the women she knew from the knitting circle – a fact that increased her mortification tenfold, because she was sure that she saw almost something like pity in Mrs. Vicente’s eyes. But when she glanced at the price tag of the first dress that caught her eye, her face drained of blood and she was sure she would faint.

“We need something of everything”, Rufus told Mrs. Vicente, throwing Belle into a state of panic. The blonde woman disappeared with a smile of pure satisfaction on her face, and Belle approached her husband with shaking knees.

“Rufus”, she whispered, “I can’t afford a single piece of clothing here.”

He frowned at her, and Belle bit her lip, convinced to see the rage in his eyes take over any moment.

“What are you, Isabelle?” His voice was stern, and his eyes drilled into hers, making it impossible to look away, and Belle wondered if his gaze was about to swallow her.

“What are you asking?”

“I’m asking what you are. What did I tell you?”

Their very first encounter came back to her, and her breath hitched in her throat, almost choking her. “Your whore.”

Rufus clenched his hands so hard around the handle of his cane that Belle feared it would break. “Wife”, he hissed, and Belle backed away, colliding with a clothes rack.

“Yes, of course. I’m sorry…” Her voice was almost too thin to bridge the distance between them, and Belle had no idea how to show him that she really meant the words she said.

“I told you, you are my wife, and what you need, I will provide. Now, if you please, pick what you want and let’s get this over with.” He waved his hand, including all of the sales floor in a gesture that dripped with contempt, before he turned away. He didn’t look back to her once while she picked out skirts and sweaters, cardigans and blouses and tights and socks, and he wrote a check without a second of hesitation, after ordering Mrs. Vicente to add an assortment of Angora underwear to Belle’s purchases. He didn’t look at her once while walking back to the car, nor when they drove back to Shadow Manor, and it got harder and harder to breathe. When he parked the car in front of the house, Belle stared at his hands in his black kid gloves, clenched around the steering wheel, and she didn’t immediately climb out, despite the cold, despite every fiber in her body screaming at her to run away.

“I’m sorry, Rufus. I really am…”

He lifted his hand, and Belle went silent. “No. Don’t. Just… don’t. Let’s… let’s forget about it. I fail at making you feel welcome, and I fail at making you feel as if you really are my wife. So, I should be the one to be sorry. Let’s just forget this ever happened.”

“I don’t think that is the answer to our problem.” Belle looked down at her own hands, folded in her lap, and she remained motionless when the rustling of his clothes told her that he turned to look at her.

“I don’t think so either.”

“Then what is the answer?” Belle dared to look up, dared to meet his eyes, and for the first time, all she saw was sadness.

“I don’t know.”   

Chapter Text

Belle wished that this deal had been simple. She wished Rufus had been a jovial, simple, middle aged man with a slight paunch and beginning to thin out at the top. Someone who maybe wasn’t interesting, but calculable. Safe.

Rufus was nothing like this.

When she met his eyes now, shivering with the cold that started to creep into the car, she bid goodbye to any hopes she ever might have harbored of keeping this agreement simple. “Maybe we should determine the problem first.”

“It’s quite simple, isn’t it? You sold yourself to me, and you reproach me for buying you.”

“That is so not the problem.” Belle shook her head, and clenched her hands to fists when Rufus lifted a brow. It was a problem, a big one, yes. But it was not what made their interactions as difficult as a dance with swords, and it was not what crippled her and made it hard to breathe in his big, empty house.

“Is it not?”

Belle shivered again, but this time it was not because of the cold from outside, even though the windows fogged with the humidity of their breath and snowflakes danced through the grey around them. It was the coldness in his voice, the darkness that clung to him that made her shudder and pull her thin coat tighter around her torso. “It is a problem, yes. But it’s not our biggest problem.”

“Hm. Maybe we should discuss this inside.” Rufus pulled the key out of the ignition at last and climbed out of the car. “Leave the bags for Mrs. Lucas”, he told her, when Belle wanted to retrieve her shopping bags from the back seat, and she only hesitated for as long as it took her to tell herself that she shouldn’t stall now. Still, when he stalked off into the direction of his study, Belle didn’t follow immediately.

“You didn’t have breakfast yet”, she said, when he turned around to find out what took her so long.

“I am not hungry.”

“Please… can we talk somewhere else?” It sounded ridiculous, that request, and the embarrassment made her cheeks burn, but she didn’t want to go into that stuffy room, where his dark throne was, and the desk that still seemed to drip with blood. She had never managed to get rid of that image. Rufus frowned, and his impatience spoke through the jerky flourish of his hand when he gestured to the breakfast salon.

“Whatever my wife desires, then.”

Belle waited until he had passed her before she spoke again. “You know, that isn’t really helpful either.”

“Do tell. But freezing in fear whenever I happen to look your way or chance to touch you is?”

“It’s not you I fear. It’s the things you could do to me when you get angry. Like you are now.” Belle almost bumped into him when he stopped abruptly and turned around again, blocking her way with his shoulders squared and his forehead creased.

“Isn’t that exactly the same?”

“Maybe I wouldn’t have to fear your anger if I knew what it is that infuriates you so much. If I knew what your anger is directed at. Because now, as it is, I can only assume it’s directed towards me.”

Rufus took a step back, granting her space to breathe, and Belle only then realized that she had held her breath while he was so close. She swayed a little, sucked into the void his closeness had left.

“Is that why you stopped poking me?”

“What?”

Rufus cocked his head, and Belle shook herself when she mirrored the gesture. And then she almost squeaked when he stepped back into the empty space in front of her and bent his head, holding her gaze like a snake mesmerizing a mouse. “You used every chance you got to provoke me, to let me feel your anger. And then you stopped… Why?”

“I told you, there is something dark around you, and it scares me.” Belle’s voice was only a rasp, hardly more than a breath between them, and he was so close that she almost felt the twitch at the corner of his mouth on her own skin.

“And still you don’t shy away from me now.”

Belle lifted her chin, brought her face even closer to his, and now it was his breath that hitched, his lips that crinkled in confusion, and his pupils that blew wide and almost swallowed the golden specks in his eyes. “It’s almost as if you wanted to push me away, so you don’t have to talk about our problems.”

She didn’t look away, not even when he narrowed his eyes and the lines around them deepened, because she knew that she would be lost when she broke that eye contact now, that he would move in and snap at her like a cat that only waited for its prey to move.

“Very well. Let’s talk.” And finally, finally he stepped back and preceded into the salon, not bothering with holding the door open for her. Maybe he had realized that she felt safer with a healthy distance between the two of them. He sat down at the head of the table, like he always did, leaving it to Belle to choose her own seat, and he leant his cane against the table and steepled his fingers under his chin, still watching her out of narrowed eyes, as if she was a curious riddle, or maybe a thistle growing in his otherwise immaculate lawn. She certainly felt like a thistle when she, instead of choosing a chair to his left or his right or even opposite him, took off her coat, placing it on the back of a chair, before she hopped onto the table and pulled her legs under to face him cross-legged.

“What exactly are you doing?”

“Sitting.” 

“On the table.” It wasn’t really a question, and Belle decided not to treat it as one. They had other things than her choice of place to discuss. But then, somehow, it was about her place.

“It irks you when something is out of place, or not behaving like you want it to, right?”

Rufus leant slightly forward, closer, and he unfolded his hands and pressed them to the table, and that alone was enough to intimidate her. There was so much restraint and control in every movement that he appeared to Belle like the sharp blade of a scalpel, cutting through her bravery with the precision of a surgeon. “An hour ago, you feared I would… what? Hurt you, because of a misunderstanding? Because that’s what it was, wasn’t it? And now you’re testing what happens if you push that button again? You are trying to lure out the beast you suspect me of hiding? That dark shadow you see about me?”

“That are a lot of questions.” Although Belle had to look down at him from her perch on the table, she felt small, small enough to be crushed under his thumb if he decided to put her down.

“You look at me like you would look at a monster. And yet I never gave you a reason to fear me.” He leant even closer, and Belle clasped her ankles and pulled them closer to her body.

“You did give me reason. From the get go, you tried to intimidate me physically. Small gestures, like needle pricks. You treated me like a possession. A trinket. I told you there is a difference between words and actions, and you can’t tell me you don’t know that.” Her words reverberated hollow from the empty walls of the room, from the high ceiling, and the echoes pushed her closer, forced her to lean towards him, so the meaning of what she said wouldn’t get distorted by the distance between them. How curious, that she felt so much safer when there was a distance between them, and so much warmer when there wasn’t.

“I didn’t expect you to see me”, he rasped, and if Belle hadn’t been so close, she might not even have heard him.

“What did you expect, then?”

Rufus straightened, leant back, and the suddenness of it startled her and made her flinch.

“Something simple.” He grasped the handle of his cane, as if he needed support, although he was sitting, although the world spun slower and slower round its axis and the time seemed to drip thick as honey. “Someone who would fulfill her end of the bargain and not ask for something I cannot give. Someone who wouldn’t look at me and…” He trailed off, looked down at his ring, rubbed over the stone set in it, as if he didn’t know what he had wanted to say, as if he didn’t know why he said anything at all.

“Someone who wouldn’t wonder?”

He snorted, impatient again, and got up from his chair with so much force as if he wanted to spring up and just barely managed not to.

“I wanted someone who would give me an heir and not suspect me of hiding a… an ogre or something somewhere in this house.” He paced to the front of tall windows that looked out to the alley of oak trees leading to the manor, and then along those windows, like a caged wolf searching for a way out.

“But you want more than just an heir. You want a wife. Someone to spend the rest of your days with. So you shouldn’t be surprised that you got something different from what you expected.” Belle was careful not to say ‘more’, because it was clear he didn’t want more. He wanted her to accept a life in the shadows, quiet and compliant. Not a wife at all. More like a puppet. She watched him pace, setting out his cane in meticulously measured intervals, until he stopped mid-step, as if hit by a sudden thought.

“Did you get what you expected? What you hoped for?” His gaze on her was sharp, and Belle chewed her bottom lip and focused on the rays of light falling through the windows in his back. Somehow, he seemed to swallow the light, turn it into something else, not really a shadow, more of an absence of light.

“Well, I hoped for something simple, too. Something safe. But I guess when two people agree on a deal such as we did, simple just isn’t in the cards.”

He watched her in silence, while dust particles danced in the light around him, like glittering little fairies that burned to ashes when they touched him, scorched by the shadow that perched on his shoulder. At least there weren’t any skulls and bones in this room, just dead fairies on the gleaming floorboards, crunching under each step. The house was by god full enough of ghosts.

“And what about the money? What happened to it?”

Belle creased her nose. Of course he would ask what she had done with it, after that scene in the boutique. “I used it to pay my debts, obviously.”

“All of it?” Now he stepped closer again, but not yet as close that his presence deprived her of air to breathe. “Do you need more?”

“As long as you don’t want me to pay for board and lodge, I should be fine.”

He stepped so close then that only the edge of the table stopped him, and now Belle held her breath.

“You have yet to pay for that, dearie. Your end of the bargain still needs fulfilling.” He lifted a hand, slowly, graceful, like a bird of prey circling high in the sky, holding her gaze while he curled his fingers into the neckline of her sweater, slipped down and exposing a naked shoulder, and he pulled it up and covered her flesh again. Belle licked her dry lips when he let his fingertips wander along the edge of her shoulder, as if he was circling the edge of a cup, towards her throat, and then he stilled when his fingertips met her necklace under her scarf, as if he found a chip in the porcelain that rendered it worthless.

“I overheard you talking to Mrs. Lucas, that evening… before you demanded I’d take it off.” Her words were barely a whisper, and her voice felt like sandpaper in her throat. His gaze, somehow dilated a moment before, grew sharp, and Belle wondered if he would now push her back onto the table and just take what she had sold him, and end their ‘talk’ once and for all. “What did she want you to tell me?”

“Only a little bit of sappy family history. She believes that the things this house has seen drive every generation into madness all over again.” He pulled his hand away and turned, starting for the door. Belle hurried to hop off the table, and her knees nearly buckled, weak with the relief that he still didn’t seem willing to force matters.

“Does it?”, she asked, and Rufus, almost at the door then, halted, without turning back.

“You should change into something warmer. The cold is showing.” And without waiting for her response, without giving her the chance to pose another question, he left. Belle looked down her front, to where a strange prickle tingled under her skin, and she found her nipples hardened and painfully obvious through the layers of her sweaters. But she wasn’t cold.

For the rest of the day, she tried to occupy her hands with knitting, putting away her new clothes, reading, but she didn’t knit more than a few rows and didn’t read more than a few lines before the indistinct tension brimming just under her navel made it impossible. She left her room and ventured into the east wing, following lines of ancestors staring at her out of dark frames, all of them bearing the same name, and none of them red-haired. They seemed to frown at her, judge her for her resistance, her reluctance to lie in the bed she had made herself. Belle couldn’t bear their eyes on her, and she went back to her room to slip into her new, warm coat and go out for a walk. Shadow Manor was surrounded by a mass of green lands and woods, now covered under a thin blanket of snow, and a few outbuildings, a garage and something that must have been stables, once. Belle didn’t peek inside them now, she wanted to be out in the fresh air, move, let the cold and clear wash the stuffy atmosphere and the tension out of her system. But when she came back from her walk, after two hours, freezing and exhausted, the tension was still there, and not even a cup of tea with Mrs. Lucas could calm her nerves. She had spent a lot of time with the woman over the past few weeks, had helped her clean and bake and cook, or sometimes just sat with her in the kitchen, knitting in silence, but today, she didn’t bear the other one’s company.

She changed again before dinner, into a warm turtle neck and a knitted skirt, and after a moment of hesitation, she put on her necklace. As long as he didn’t tell her why he wanted her to take it off, she wouldn’t, even when she didn’t really care for the strand of glass beads. But when she entered the dining room, it was empty, and after she had waited for almost twenty minutes, motionless on her chair, until the food she had placed on her plate was cold, she rang for Mrs. Lucas, only to find out that Rufus had gone out and would probably not be back before midnight. It left Belle even more out of sorts, even though she told herself that she was glad to be spared his company. But something about the way they had left off their conversation in the morning, somehow hanging in mid-air, had unsettled her more than she cared to admit. She tossed and turned in bed for hours, but sleep wouldn’t come. When she finally slipped into a fitful slumber, dawn already crept through the shutters, filling her room with an unearthly grey. When she woke up again, it was only insignificantly lighter, and she entered the breakfast salon in a state close to a coma.

Rufus was there, unfazed, and the look he greeted her with over the edge of his newspaper was one of utter indifference.

“You look awful”, he stated, before he returned to his newspaper, and Belle wanted to throw a plate at him, or a jar of marmalade, or just something, anything that would dent his coldness.

“You couldn’t tell me that you wouldn’t join me for dinner yesterday?”

Rufus looked up again, startled, and now he folded his newspaper and put it away. “Did you miss me?”

“No. Of course not. I just thought… oh, I don’t know.” Belle slumped down on her chair and grabbed some toast, trying to ignore that he still watched her as if he wasn’t quite sure what to make of her. Well, she didn’t know either what was wrong with her, so he was free to join the club.

“Any plans for today?”, he asked after a while, when she had stuffed her cheeks with buttered toast with strawberry jam, and Belle took her time to chew and swallow before she answered.

“I’m going to Storybrooke. I need a new book, so I’ll go to the library.”

“Hm. Did you ever finish your explorations of the house?” There was a curiosity in his voice that didn’t quite fit with his earlier indifference, and Belle suspected that her lack of sleep made her irrational enough to engage his interest.

“Not quite. I didn’t get farther than the east wing and the orangery.” The greenhouse that was built to the back of the east wing was beautiful with the light filtering through the glass, even though it was cold and empty right now, and Belle liked to spend time there to read or knit, so she had kind of forgotten about the rest of the house. Or maybe it was just that she spend her days rather in a bright place than in the dark and musty corridors and rooms of the manor, where monsters and wolves lurked in the shadows.

“I see. Maybe we should finish the tour we started.” Something in his voice was suspiciously cheerful, and Belle paused her second toast halfway between her plate and her mouth.

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to keep you from doing anything important. I guess I have enough time to explore it on my own.” Belle did her best to ignore him and bit into her toast, and she almost choked with his next words.

“You did miss me. Ah well, I will tell you then when I go out next time. Wouldn’t want you to worry.”

“I did not miss you.”

“Of course. Eat up, I have something to show you.”

It was infinitely harder to chew and swallow with his eyes on her, and she was sure that her face had to be as red as maple leaves in autumn, and glowing like a lantern. She wished her brain wouldn’t be like mush after a night of barely any sleep. All that kept her moving was the tension that hadn’t quite left her, a tautness of her skin and a trembling in her stomach that was building up and up, depriving her lungs of the space they needed to breathe when she followed him out of the room and up the stairs. He turned to the west wing, and Belle followed him along the corridor in silence, listening to the tapping of his cane that somehow seemed to be in sync with her heartbeat.

“Where are you taking me?”, she asked, when she wasn’t able to bear that rhythm any longer, when it seemed to swallow her and drown out her inner voice.

“It’s not the dungeon, if that is what you fear.” He chuckled, and Belle needed a moment to recognize it as such. She had never heard him laugh before.

“Does that mean you have a dungeon here?”

They reached a double door, and Rufus paused, one hand on the door handle, crinkling his nose as if he had to think about the correct answer to a question that was quite simple. “Well, I think most would call it a basement. But it can serve as a dungeon, too.”

“You are a master at inspiring trust in others, you know that, right?” Belle took a step back, even though the rage that always flared around the edges of his presence was hardly noticeable today.

“I usually am. People trust me to keep deals and agreements to the letter, which makes me a reliable constant, even though sometimes to their disfavor. I seem to fail with you, though.” He shrugged, as if it was merely an incommodity not to have her trust. “I won’t ask you to close your eyes”, he added then, before pushing the door open. Belle followed him into the room and inhaled sharply. It was filled with books from floor to ceiling, bookshelves bending under the weight of books lining the walls and dividing the huge room into smaller sections, creating a labyrinth of books.

“This is above the ballroom, and it has the same measurements. I think those are enough books to keep you occupied for the next thirteen months.” He sounded satisfied, almost proud, and Belle clapped her mouth shut. Those were enough books to occupy her for the rest of her life. Only then did she register what he had said. Thirteen months. Two months of the fifteen she had to provide that heir he wanted were already gone by. And he sounded as if he did no longer expect this to last longer than those fifteen months. Somehow, that made her insides clench, and Belle rubbed her arms to get rid of the dull prickle along her bones.

“So, there is a library in this house and no one thought of telling me?” If the light had been better and not filtered and broken through shelves over shelves full of books, she would have thought he blushed. But of course that was just a trick of the light.

“You asked if you were allowed to look around. I thought you already found it. Only when you said you wanted to drive to Storybrooke to go to the library, I realized that maybe you hadn’t.” His hands flexed around the handle of his cane, and for the first time, Belle thought that he might be just as nervous and overtaxed with their situation as she was. She dared to close the distance between them, and dared to place her hand on top of his on the cane, holding her breath when the feel of his skin beneath her fingertips sent a tingle pulsing through her flesh.

“Thank you for showing me.”

Rufus looked down at her hand, and Belle fought the impulse to pull it back.

“I’m glad you like it”, he murmured, and a tremor ran through his hand.

“You know… That shadow of yours… It’s not always there. Sometimes you leave the darkness behind.” Belle tried to smile at him, but when he looked up, there was such a sadness in his eyes that it twisted her insides upside down.

“Don’t get your hopes up, Isabelle. This house is full of shadows, and they don’t let you go that easily.” He lifted his hand and brushed his thumb over her chin, as if wanted to feel the tiny smile she had given him, feel and remember it. “Have fun reading”, he said, before he turned and left her to worlds of words, to books and hopes and dreams.  

Chapter Text

Touching Isabelle never was a good idea. Despite – or maybe even because of – the conflict they had in the clothing boutique, when she saw right through his mask, saw how close he had been to losing the control he had so carefully cultivated, despite the terror he felt over that slip of control, making it impossible for him to look at her for the rest of the shopping trip, lest his control might snap after all, despite all that, her closeness did things to him, dangerous things, and he left her in the breakfast salon hoping she hadn’t noticed the hard-on the simple touch of her shoulder had given him. This was not what he had had in mind. He didn’t want lust and carnal desires eating away his reason. He wanted this to be safe and simple and without any kind of… entanglement. He didn’t want to want her, and yet he did, and after he spent the rest of the day in his shop, working more for his own amusement than for the need of making money, he found himself unable to go home, unable to sit through another dinner with her, another painful exercise that would chip away on his sanity. The two-hour drive to the psychiatric ward seemed like a better alternative, and he was much calmer when he found everything like it should be, the walls still in place and as thick and impermeable as ever. It was barely ten when he drove back into Storybrooke, and he spent the hours till midnight in his shop, repairing knick knacks with more precision and concentration than the actual worth of the pieces warranted. It emptied his mind, soothed him, and gave him back the control that was always so close to breaking when his wife looked at him out of her blue eyes, looked at him with terror and mistrust, because she saw the darkness that always swirled along the edges of his mind. Pushing back that darkness allowed him to look at her over breakfast and actually notice that his absence the evening before had left her… miserable.

It shouldn’t feel as it did. The fact that his wife for the time being had missed him over dinner should not leave him warm and cheerful. And the look on her face when he showed her the library should definitely not have the effect it had on him. It scared him, scared him out of his wits, just like his fierce, physical reaction to her touch scared him.

It had been so much safer when she was just a file. A deal.

And maybe giving her a library had been the wrong thing to do, because she changed her strategy then. The way she looked at him changed. Up till then, she had either avoided or poked him, tried to find the buttons she needed to push to test his self-control. He had not taken offense in that. It was only natural, and it showed him that she was clever enough to want to preserve herself. It showed him that she had learned to love herself, and that was something he envied wholeheartedly. But now she took a different approach, and it threatened the fragile calmness he had found the night before. She brought a book with her to dinner that day, and she smiled at him when she entered the dining room, as if she really was happy to see him.

“I see, you found something to read”, he said, and he tried to sound lighthearted and indifferent.

“I did. I thought that maybe, we could read together, after dinner?” Her voice sounded thin, and her smile was quavering, but she met his eyes calm and unflinching. He didn’t find a reason to decline. She read Poe to him, and he saw her to her room, under the cold eyes of his ancestors.

“So, which Rufus is your father?”, she asked, while they followed the corridor, both walking much slower than they had any reason to walk.

“He isn’t here.” Rufus avoided to look at the portraits lining the walls, and he could almost feel their disapproval.

“Why not?”

“He isn’t a Rufus. His name is… was Malcolm.” Now he avoided to look at her, too, hoping she wouldn’t ask further.

“So he wasn’t a firstborn?”

“No. He wasn’t.” Despite their excruciatingly slow walk, they reached her room then, and he exhaled in relief. Isabelle grasped the door handle, and she met his eyes again and smiled.

“Good night, Rufus.”

He nodded, and waited until she closed the door before he made his way to his own bedroom. He had picked her as a companion, a person to talk to and secure the line of his family, picked her as someone who wasn’t hard on the eye and at the same time safe. But when he fisted his cock, hard, under the shower, and imagined her to smile at him while he broke her open, he knew that this had changed into something dangerous. Still, when she asked to read with him the following night, he didn’t find a reason to decline, nor the night that followed, nor the night after that, nor any night that followed. And each night, after walking her to her room, he tried to get rid of the madness by pumping into his fist, remembering her scent and the tingle in his skin when her hair had brushed the back of his hand. But he never managed to completely exorcise the tension that ran through him as painful as electrical shocks each time she mustered the bravery to smile at him, or even touch him. It was his own fault, for he had reminded her of her end of the deal, had reminded her of what it entailed, and now she saw herself forced to take the necessary steps. She needed his money, and it should have been reassuring that there was a simple reason to her efforts to engage in conversation. However, it was not. Not when her smiles and her touches and her scent scorched him from within with the hunger they inspired. He had created his own, personal hell.

~*~

“We still haven’t finished the tour.”

Rufus looked up from his newspaper and tried to determine if it was reckless bravery, a disregard of her own safety, or real sympathy lingering in her smile. She seemed a little short of breath, although she had been sitting over her empty breakfast plate for at least ten minutes now, justifying her silent presence with sipping on her coffee now and then, appearing to be lost in thought. In truth, she had been biting her lip and gathering her courage, her thoughts as clear on her face as the stars in a cloudless night, while Rufus watched her over the edge of his newspaper, flipping the pages without looking at them even once.

“Already done with one library?”, he asked, and she creased her nose.

“Of course not. I know I could wander the house on my own, but it’s so much nicer to have a local with me who can tell me everything about its history.”

Rufus snorted, and his stomach almost did a backflip when her smile broadened. “Fine. It’s not that much left anyways.” He put his newspaper away and got to his feet, and she hopped to her feet like a little girl, giddy with excitement. It was almost contagious, and he did his best not to grin when he opened the door for her and gave her a mocking little bow. “Where do you want to start?”

“The grounds? A little morning walk?” She sounded unsure, and the look with which she swept over him, and his leg, betrayed her doubts about his physical ability to walk for a longer stretch of time. She didn’t know that right now he would have been able to walk her to Boston and back, and he stretched his shoulder blades to get rid of the irritating itch along his spine.

“I’m not a cripple”, he growled, and it wiped the smile off her face.

“No, of course not. I’m sorry. I’m… I’m just going to get my coat, then.” She hurried off, too hastily, and turning her face away, and he groaned silently over his own clumsiness. He waited for her in the hall, after putting on his own coat and scarf, and wondered if she would even come back. She did, wearing her thick, woolen coat and a hat that she probably had knitted herself. But she didn’t look at him when they went outside through the back door, and the shame got almost too much to bear. She might have spent more and more time with him during the last weeks, reading to him and discussing Poe and Twain and Rossetti and Dickinson and Wilde, but they were still strangers, and she still wore her necklace like a declaration of independence, or war, depending on the perspective. The comfortable companionship he had hoped for seemed forever out of reach, taunting him from afar, even when her gaze on him was less filled with terror now and more with something else that he couldn’t define.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t want to snap at you”, he said, when they crossed the yard behind the house, and the gravel crunched under their steps, each pebble coated with a thin layer of ice crystals.

“No, it’s ok. I was just… I wasn’t careful.”

“Careful.” He wasn’t prepared for the shock, nor for the cold air rushing through him when he inhaled sharply. So that was what it was. She had adjusted her behavior again, had found a way to create a peaceful side-by-side, and now saw herself at fault for the fragility of their togetherness. His insides heaved, and he was sure he was going to be sick. He forced her to a halt by placing a hand on her arm, and this time he didn’t have to force her chin up to make her look at him. “So you are still scared of me.”  

She tilted her head, and creases appeared above her brows. Her nose was red from the cold, her whole face aglow, and when she bit her lip, he could all but stare at her, almost forgetting what it was they were talking about. At last, she shook her head. “No. Not scared.”

“But?”

“Confused. Sad. I like to spend time with you, now, but I know almost nothing about you. We talk about books and writers, but never about anything personal. I feel almost more alone than when I came here.”

He let go of her arm and started walking again, trying to exercise the tension out of his system. “I didn’t marry you to strip to my bones before you.”

“But isn’t that what marriage is? A partnership of two individuals who trust each other and know each other’s soul and hearts?”

He walked a little faster, but she caught up with him, remaining at his side in silence, until he had to fill that silence, had to break it to be able to breathe again. “Those were stables once. My father used to have horses, and he used to ride. I never go there. I’m not even sure what’s in there now.”

She followed his gesture with her eyes, and he almost heard the ticking of her mind when she processed the information he had just given her. It seemed to be personal enough, and it was certainly more personal than he ever wanted to get with anyone.

“Since when are the horses gone?”

“Forty years. I was nine.” And he remembered the day as if it had been yesterday. Cold and clear. He could still hear the neighing of those horses when they had been led into the transporters to be taken away. Somehow, of all the things he had lost that day, he remembered the horses the most lucid.

“And since then you haven’t been into the stables?”

“No.”

It spoke of her carefulness that she didn’t ask what anyone would have asked. Instead, she shocked him by grasping his arm and linking with him, adjusting her steps to walk in sync with him. For a while, their silence wasn’t even uncomfortable, although her closeness made his body brim with a heat that was downright unnatural in such temperatures, with ice crunching under their steps and their breath condensing in white mists that laid itself as tiny droplets on their lashes.

“Let’s go inside, shall we? I’m beginning to freeze.” She clung a little tighter to his arm, and her warmth seemed to blaze right through his coat.

“Already seen enough of the grounds?”

“Well, I haven’t seen the ballroom yet. You said it’s closed off.”

“It is.” He walked a little slower on their way back, at the same time wanting to prolong her closeness and itching with the desire to get rid of her, or to push her to the ground and rip those clothes off her, while icy little rocks drilled into her skin and left her bruised and broken. It wasn’t helping that he couldn’t take his eyes off her when she took off her coat, inside, and revealed clothes that hugged her form too tight and made him painfully aware of her breasts, of the curve of her waist, her hips and her behind. She walked in front of him when they ventured into the west wing, and he almost stumbled because he couldn’t tear his eyes from her legs, imagining them wrapped around him like a vice. She waited for him to unlock the high double doors to the ballroom, and she gasped when they stepped into the large hall. It was almost empty, and the curtains that had once been in front of the huge windows had been taken down. The room was flooded with light, cold and clear, and their steps echoed in the emptiness.

“It’s beautiful”, she whispered, and somehow, Rufus couldn’t help but smile at her childish fascination.

“It’s just a very large and very empty room.”

“But look at all the light! I don’t understand why you don’t spend all your days here. It’s almost magical.” She spread out her arms and pivoted like a dancer, and she was so graceful that his breath hitched in his throat and he leant heavier onto his cane, because he seemed to sway in the rush of air her pirouette sent towards him.

“Oh. What’s that?” She darted off to the far end of the room, and Rufus tried to follow her with measured steps.

“I believe it is a radio gramophone. At least it looks like one.”

She was crouching down in front of the old thing, opening the door in the lower half and peeking inside when he reached her, and although he had been walking in slow motion, he tried not to pant for air.

“You know what that means, right?” She found the plug and inserted it into the socket in the wall behind the gramophone, and straightened again, facing him with a smile that tangled his thoughts into knots.

“I believe not.”

“It means we’re going to dance.” She opened the lid to the record player and extracted an old vinyl record out of the cabinet below, placing it carefully on the turntable, while all he could do was watch and try not to panic. He couldn’t dance with her. He couldn’t hold her close, breathe in the scent of her hair, feel her tremble under his hands when he would place his palm on her waist. Touching her wrecked his self control. Touching her made his knees weak and his…

“I love this song”, she said, and placed the needle on the vinyl, and, oh god, a crackle filled the room, when she stepped to him, taking his cane from him to lean it against the wall, and she took his one hand to place it on her hip and his other to hold her hand, stepping close enough to let his heart stop, and start again in a frantic rhythm that almost drowned out the first notes of Armstrong’s rendition of La Vie En Rose. At first they just swayed from side to side, and he tried to focus on a point somewhere above her head, too aware of her breath on his throat, too aware of the flutter of her pulse under his fingertips, tried his hardest not to notice her warmth, her body so close to his, but he couldn’t help but turn her at his arm, circling the room slowly, achingly so, while his heart syncopated to the tinny sound of the music, and at some point he became aware that he no longer concentrated on a point somewhere behind her, but on the crown of her head, on her face, her eyes fixed on the knot of his tie, and on her cheeks, oh so soft, a faint blush, and a wet sheen on her trembling lips. He didn’t notice when he pulled her closer, when his palm slid to the small of her back when he spun her around in another turn. He didn’t notice when the music ended and they came to a halt, and he kept holding her, her cheek leaning against his chest and her head tucked under his chin. She fitted perfectly, as if she was molded against his body. She sighed, her breath gusting over his throat when she lifted her face to look at him, paralyzing him with the blue of her eyes. He couldn’t say who moved first – maybe it was him, but it could just as well have been her, rising to tip-toes to place her lips on his, soft and tender, in a kiss as shy and fresh as the first harbingers of spring.

Rufus didn’t move, didn’t dare to breathe for the duration of that kiss – seconds, or maybe even minutes – and he didn’t open his eyes at once when she drew back. But when he did, his hands curled around her hips, sliding down to cup her behind and pull her against the growing tightness of his skin, against his tingling flesh, and she took a deep breath and bit her lip, while her cheeks tinted in a deep shade of red.

“Belle”, he croaked, and she nearly tackled him when she rose to kiss him again, capturing his bottom lip, kissing him open mouthed and wet, and he didn’t know which one of them moved, or if they even moved at all, but somehow, half he carrying her, half she pulling him, they crossed the room, until he had her pinned with her back against one of the windows that reached from the floor almost to the ceiling. The glass rattled, and she gasped, but she didn’t push him back. Her fingers raked through his hair, pulling him closer, pressing kisses to his cheek and his temple and his ear while he licked and sucked her jaw, her throat, the hollow between her collarbones. Rufus lifted his head to break his kisses only when she sucked in a sharp breath, and he locked eyes with her, cradling her tiny face in his hands.

“Ok?”, he asked, and he felt her hands curl into the sleeves of his blazer, as if she needed the support, or as if she needed to keep herself anchored.

“Yes.”

It was only a word, and yet it rushed through him with a force that made him almost sob. He helped her when she pulled her sweater over her head, when she bared herself to him, and he pressed hungry kisses along her collarbones and down her breastbone and to the swell of her breasts after pushing them up, lifting them out of the cage of her bra. Her breath quickened when he closed his lips first around one, then around the other one of her nipples, pebbled even before his lips touched them, and he nipped and lavished them with kisses until she made a choked little sound and arched her back off the glass, bringing her hips closer to him. He roamed her back, snapping off her bra, following the curve of her spine with his palms, and he planted a line of kisses down her belly when he went down on his knees, looking up into her face again before he hooked his fingers into the elastic of her knit skirt. Her face was surrounded by an aureole of light, and for a moment her smile, beautiful and broken, took his breath away.

“It’s ok”, she whispered, and inch by inch, he eased her skirt and her tights down her legs, making her step out of her shoes first, and then out of her clothes. Before he could look at her, take in the beauty and vulnerability of her flesh, he had to close his eyes, leaning his forehead against her stomach and just breathe her in for a moment. He could feel her pulse throb under his hands, against his lips, could feel her tremble, but she felt hot, and she raked through his hair again and pressed his face to her stomach. “It’s ok.”

When she said it again, he lifted his head to look at her, at her simple white cotton panties, and he sucked in a sharp breath when he detected the damp spot between her legs, where she had wetted herself, her panties. For him. He pressed his face against her, inhaling her scent, and he rasped his tongue over that wet spot and made her gasp, and moan. Her legs trembled when he slid his hands down to her knees, and up again, and she stopped breathing when he pulled those stained panties down to bare her completely to his eyes. Wetness glistened in her curls, like dew, and he kissed her, reverently, for a long moment, before he parted her folds, dragged his tongue over them to taste her. She took a shuddering breath, and something close to a hiccup escaped her when he closed his lips around her clit. She was so open. So fragile. So vulnerable. Reddened and swollen and damp. Rufus stilled his hands on her hips, circling her pelvic bones with his thumb, and rested his forehead against her belly again. She was so breakable. After a while, when he hadn’t moved, Belle fisted his hair and pulled his head back, forced him to look at her.

“Are you alright?”

“I… don’t know.”

She tilted her head, and caressed his cheek, rubbing her thumb over his chin and his lips. And then she lifted her thumb to her mouth and licked the wetness off it, licked her own juices from her skin. It made him groan deep in his throat, made him roll his hips and his cock strain against his pants, and when she bent down to kiss him, a tingle ran down his spine, to come to a rest deep inside him, increasing the tautness of his skin almost into the unbearable.

“I am ready, Rufus.” She stepped around him, away from the window, and she kicked her clothes into a heap before she knelt down and started to push at his blazer, peeling him out of it, out of his waistcoat and his tie and his shirt and undershirt, until his chest was bare. “I thought so”, she murmured, when she trailed his collarbones with her fingertips, and he almost didn’t manage to ask what she meant when she stroked down his chest and circled his nipples, before she let her hands fall to his belt.

“Thought what?”

“That there is a nice man under all those clothes.” She smiled and started to unbuckle his belt, and Rufus clasped her wrists to make her pause.

“Not a beast anymore?”

“I never said you are the beast. There is a difference between being a beast and hiding a beast.” Belle met his eyes, open, unblinking, and if he didn’t know better, he would have believed her.

“You are so naïve”, he rasped, but he let go of her wrists, and after narrowing her eyes for a moment, she finally opened the closure of his belt, and his pants, and pushed them down to his knees.

“And you are a liar. That is no Angora underwear.”

Rufus snorted, but the laughter ended in a choke when she cupped his cock through his boxers and slid her tiny hand along his length.

“Angora is a little itchy on the skin”, he panted, and groaned when she rubbed him again, her touch too light, too careful to bring him anywhere close to coming, but still he had never been so close, so maddeningly close. Careful, anxious not to startle her, he wrapped his hand around hers and made her tighten her grip, and he shuddered when she did, and rubbed him harder, until his hips bucked and he groaned. He buried his face in the crook of her neck, in her hair, and almost sobbed when she let go of him, only for a moment, to push the last barrier of his clothes down, before she moved to lie on her back and guide him between her legs, into her, guided him to sheath his length inside her, and the feeling of her wet heat enclosing him was too much, so much more than he had expected it to be, more than just the simple joining of bodies in a rush of heat and sweat, and when he rocked against her, longing to be deeper, to feel more, to be more, he was scared, terrified of his longing to kiss her, to look into her eyes while he drank the breath from her lips. Belle wrapped her legs around him, pulling him closer, until he thrust harder and harder and harder, spilling himself at last, while she whimpered and rolled her hips and clawed her nails into his shoulders. She whimpered again when he rolled to her side, onto the cold, hard floor, and he pulled her into an embrace, bedding her head on his arm, brushing her hair, damp from sweat, out of her face, and he kissed her forehead, and the tip of her nose, and her lips. Her lips, so soft and warm and wet.

“Are you alright?”, he asked, and Belle bit her lip and nodded.

“I am. Just maybe a little… aching?”

Rufus pressed his eyes shut and bit back the groan. “I did hurt you.”

No. No you didn’t. I meant… aching for release.” She took his hand, entwined their fingers, before she brought his hand to her lips to kiss his knuckles. Then she guided him down, between her legs, and placed his hand on her sex. He kissed her again when he dipped his fingers between her folds to wet them before he circled and rubbed and pinched her clit, until she came apart with a scream, shaking and arching and tensing, beautiful in the agony of her orgasm. When it ebbed away, she lay in his arms, panting, steaming in the cold air of the ball room, and for quite a while, they bathed in the light falling through the windows, until Belle began to shiver and snuggled closer.

“We should get you into a warm bed, before you freeze to death”, he murmured into her hair, and he felt her nod more than he saw it. Maybe it would be a good idea to spend the rest of the day in bed with her. It was really too cold to spend the day anywhere but in a bed. When he pulled her into his arms again, after stretching out beside her in his bed, he buried his face in her hair once more, and he finally asked the question that prickled on his tongue since they slipped into their clothes again, down in the ballroom, and made their way up into his room, into the warm safety of his bed.

“Why now? What changed?”

Belle painted a little circle on his chest, above his heart, but she didn’t look at him when she finally answered. “I began to see the man behind the shadow, and I liked him. And now is a good time in my cycle to get pregnant. So it was kind of a good opportunity.”

Rufus tried not to tense, tried not to let her see the sudden pain that her words inflicted, because after all, that was exactly what he wanted. It was exactly what he had bought her for. He wanted her to have his child. That was all. All he wanted was a companion, a partner, a mother for his child. Nothing else. So why did he feel as if he was being ripped apart inside, when there was absolutely nothing wrong with her words, when she was nothing but the voice of reason?

“Yes, that sounds like good timing”, he said, and his voice didn’t even shake.

Chapter Text

Rufus knew that he was having a dream. He knew it, because Belle’s hair was much longer than he remembered it to be, long enough to let him wrap it around her throat, after twisting it into a sleek rope, and pull it tight, tight, until her eyes widened, until she rattled and gasped and her face turned red, and white, and red. She tried to pry the rope of hair away from her throat, fought for air, fought to fill her screaming lungs with oxygen, tried to punch him with her last strength, and her nails scraped over his face, leaving her mark on his skin, while he cowered over her and strangled her. And in death, her face changed, changed until he didn’t recognize her anymore, changed into something terrible, something forbidden to look at… He woke with a start, hauled out of sleep by a squeal.

“Rufus, wake up! That hurts!”

He needed a moment to adjust, to arrive in the reality of his bedroom, entangled in his sheets, damp from sweat, and another moment to recognize the mass of hair in his clutch. He let go of her with a start and almost crashed to the floor in his haste to scramble out of bed.

“Belle… I’m sorry… I’m sorry…” He was shaking, shaking so hard that he knocked over a chair when he backed away, away, until his back was pressed flat against the wall unit.

“Rufus… It was a dream. Just a dream…” Belle climbed out of bed and came closer, carefully, as if she wasn’t sure if he would lash out at her, hit her, push her away… The door of the closet in his back rattled when he began to shake again, and Belle halted, far enough away to be halfway safe. He could hardly breathe, as if it was him who was getting strangled.

“Does that happen frequently?” Her voice was gentle, deep, and Rufus closed his eyes, listened to that voice, concentrated on it whilst she talked, asking questions and proposing to make him tea, with honey and milk, focused on that voice until his breath came calmer again, until the frantic beat of his heart was steadier, and the closet stopped its terrible rattling.

“You should go to your room”, he croaked, when he trusted his voice enough not to squeak, but Belle ignored him and stepped closer. He pressed his palms to the closet in his back in want of something better, something more stable, something like a concrete wall perhaps, or the walls of the family mausoleum that withstood every last tempest for generations now. Belle didn’t notice how brittle he was, how close to shattering, or maybe she just ignored it, reaching for him and starting to rub his arms, his shoulders, firm touches that somehow soothed the trembling.

“My mom used to take me into her bed when I had a nightmare, holding me and telling me poems or singing me songs… Do you want me to hold you?”

He could only nod, although he knew that he shouldn’t go near her, shouldn’t let her come this close. He should send her away, keeping her safe and him sane, but instead he let her lead him back to the bed. Without letting go of his hand, she crawled over the mattress and settled with her back against the headboard, pulling him between her legs, until his head rested against her chest. She was so soft, so warm, and her heart beat in a steady rhythm, like the ticking of a clock, the beat of life, pumping her blood through her veins in beautiful cadences. He imagined her as rainforest, as woods, and her veins running through her like rivers meandering the surface of the earth, running deep and slow and sometimes swirling in dangerous currents that would pull him down and drown him. She hummed, without melody, playing with his hair, caressing him, until his trembling subsided, finally.

“Did you often have nightmares?”, he asked, after a while, and her ribcage expanded with a sigh. Her fingers in his hair stilled, but after a moment, she continued her gentle caress.

“For a while, yes. It’s normal, I think, and I don’t believe there was any particular reason, then. After mom was gone, though, I had nightmares for a long time. Dad didn’t sing, and he didn’t know any poems, but he told me about flowers…” She trailed off, and Rufus looked up to make out her face in the darkness. All he saw were her eyes shimmering, reflecting the indistinct light of the moon that found its way through the shutters.

“How old were you, when your mother died?”

“Eight.” She didn’t say anything else, didn’t elaborate on the whys and hows, and he didn’t ask further. He breathed in her scent, warm and clean, of her skin and her nightshirt, and wondered if it was wise to indulge himself like that.

“Do you want to tell me about your dream?”, she asked, and he turned his head to press his face against the softness of her stomach.

“No.”

She sighed again, but she never ceased to stroke him, never ceased to let her fingertips wander over him, never ceased to hum, and strangely, it kept the shadows of his dream at bay. “Do you have them often?”

“I didn’t have any for years. But they come more and more often since… well, for a while now.” Since she was there. And since she started sharing his bed three weeks ago. She didn’t come every night to his bed, and he never asked her to. But he treasured every night she came, because, for some reason, having her sleep at his side, listen to her steady breathing, sometimes interrupted by little snores, did something to him. He couldn’t quite find the words for it, and maybe it was better that he didn’t. He placed his hand on her stomach, rubbing in small circles, and when he looked up, he found her watching him, unblinking in the dark. He was glad he could hardly make out her face. “Are you…?”

“No”, she said, her voice flat, and Rufus told himself that he shouldn’t be so relieved at that answer. He moved a little, just enough to reach her breast for a kiss, and he worked his way to her nipple, already puckered under the thin fabric of her shirt. He closed his lips around it, wetting the fabric with his tongue, until it clung to her skin and she sighed.

“Do you feel better?” Belle still didn’t stop her caresses, and she didn’t keep him from devoting himself to her breasts. After a while, she let her head fall back, and her breath came heavier. She didn’t keep him from skidding lower, showering her stomach with kisses, and her hands didn’t stop once to rake through his hair when he reached his destination, kissing her through the fabric of her shirt before he pushed it up, slowly, inch by inch, to lay her bare before him. Her knees fell apart, and she clawed at his scalp when he peppered her with soft kisses before he parted her folds with his tongue, softly, hardly touching her tender flesh. Soon she would moan, claw harder at his head, writhe and buck and beg, and forget him and his dreams. She would come apart under his lips, and he would witness another moment of her bliss and agony, and he would be left breathless at the beauty of it. He would never tell her how much he treasured those moments.

Her climax came with a force that ripped a scream from her lips, and she arched and tensed and trashed under him, and Rufus skidded up again to hold her until it was over.

“You do feel better”, she murmured, with her lips against his throat, when her breath came steady again, and he smiled into her hair.

“A little. Distracting me helps.”

“Then I’d say I distract you a little more.”

Rufus let her push him onto his back, let her mount him and impale herself, and when she rode him, plunging down harder and harder, and her hair tickled over his chest, his throat, his face, forcing him to close his eyes, he almost, almost forgot his dream. He almost forgot that her panting sounded so much like the death rattle in his dream. He forced his hands to her thighs, digging his fingers into her muscles, but when he came, his eyes rolling back into his skull, pumping up into her delicate body, he came with the images of his dream drowning out the reality of her, and he pushed her off his chest as soon as it was over, sitting up and pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes, until the pain of it drove the urge to smash something away. This time, Belle was smart enough not to touch him. He could feel her eyes on him, feel them drill into his back, into his skin, and her silence was louder than a freight train. Minutes crept by before she whispered his name.

“Rufus…”

“Just go away.” It was a snarl, scratching his throat raw, and this time she obeyed.

He didn’t sleep for the rest of the night. He went down earlier than usual to avoid meeting Belle over breakfast, but she seemed to have had the same idea. Mrs. Lucas, who began her days at five in the morning and was fast asleep at nine in the evening, was just tidying up the table again, carrying a used plate and a cup with a telltale lipstick stain at its brim. Other than her lipstick, Belle was nowhere to be seen.

“You just missed her”, Mrs. Lucas grunted, after noticing his look at the cup, and she huffed when he stepped aside without holding the door open for her. She turned, pushing the door open with her behind, and sent him another glare. But instead of leaving it at that, she mustered him, and under her scrutiny, he was sure that the shadows under his eyes had to be darker than usual. Maybe the crease of his pants was a little more on the left than usual. His hair falling just a tick out of place, just enough to make it appear mussed and untidy.

“Did you tell her?”, Mrs. Lucas asked, and Rufus had to grit out his answer through clenched teeth.

“Still none of your business.”

“You should. She won’t run away, you know. Although it would certainly be better for the poor girl.” She was out the door before he could answer her, and before the cup he flung at her could hit her. The cup hit the door and shattered, leaving a dent in the wood. He wasn’t hungry anymore after that, and he drove into town to drown himself in work. It always soothed him to handle other people’s knick knacks, other people’s lives and memories. His shop held many stories, each attached to an object that had been of great value to its former owner, history etched into worn down edges and surfaces dull from touch. He treasured those items more than those of material value. It seemed quirky to many who came to him to make a deal, who brought him something in the hopes to borrow money, that he asked for things of personal value to them. The thing they loved most, the hardest to part with, was just enough to satisfy him.

It was a Friday, and, like most Fridays, it was a slow one. Usually, the time before Christmas brought some upswing to his business, since the convention to give presents at Christmas increased the need for money considerably, but it were still two weeks till Christmas Eve, and there was still hope left to manage without having to come to him. Rufus extracted a display case of jewelry out of one of the glass cases and started polishing, cleaning a silver necklace of the black stains tarnishing it. It was a beautiful piece, set with garnets that caught the light in their depth like drops of blood. He imagined to place it around Belle’s throat, a present to replace that tasteless strand of glass beads. But his thoughts wandered off. There was no universe in which it would be a good idea to give her a necklace, no matter how beautiful it would look, closed around her throat, with a dark red stone resting just below the hollow of her collar bones, above the gentle swell of her breasts… No. He shifted on his feet, trying to ignore the uncomfortable tightness of his skin. He finished polishing the necklace faster than the requirements of accuracy allowed, and if there were still some black stains left, then it was only befitting an antique piece of jewelry such as this. He ignored the jewelry for the rest of the day, instead devoting himself to clean figurines, wipe down book spines and picture frames and tending with utmost politeness to the few customers finding their way into his shop that day. He was just about to close, his mind almost peaceful, when one last customer entered his shop, and this one was a stranger, someone he had never seen before. He nodded at Rufus after entering, sweeping the room with a nervous glance, before he approached the counter.

“I’m looking for something of mine”, the man said, without meeting Rufus' eyes, and his nose twitched when he planted his hands, heavy with rings, on the countertop.

“And what would that be?”

The man didn’t look around, and Rufus was convinced that he didn’t look for anything that could be found in his shop.

“You see, we share a profession, you and me… I’m something of a pawnbroker, too, and I thought, between colleagues, you might be able to help me…” The man scratched his scalp beneath his curly black wig, and Rufus wondered if he was breeding lice under that thing. That would be inconvenient.

“I’m always able to help, for a price. But first you would have to tell me what it is you are looking for.”

The man smiled, showing off a yellow set of teeth, but Rufus didn’t return the smile. “Hm, I’m looking for a little bird. She owes me money, and she missed the expiration of her reprieve. Her last payment came from this little town here.”

“You have to be a little more precise than that.” Rufus lifted a brow, relieved to find his façade still working infallibly with anyone who wasn’t Belle.

“Her name’s Isabelle French. Maybe you could help me with finding her and keeping this off the radar.” The man leant closer, and Rufus held his breath when the smell of him hit his nose. That wig reeked as if it hadn’t been cleaned in ages.

“Never heard of her. Maybe she fooled you and sent her payments over several stations?”

“Oh, she did.” The man chuckled, and his rings clicked on the countertop when he wriggled his fingers. “Ah well. Sorry to have bothered you. I will find her either way. I always do.” He straightened, giving the globe beside the register a spin before he turned and sashayed out, whistling something off tune. Rufus watched him disappear through the front window, and he wondered.

When he came home, Belle was still nowhere to be seen, and he took his tea alone in his study, before he went to the library, only to find it empty.

“She went for a walk half an hour ago”, Mrs. Lucas told him, when he asked her, so Rufus slipped into his coat and scarf again and went out to look for his wife. His breath condensed in the cold air, and when he crossed the yard and was just about to leave the gravel to follow the path that led to the woods, something caught his eye. Something wasn’t quite as it should be, and only when he looked a second time, he could pinpoint what it was exactly that was so out of place that it had caught his attention: The large door to the stables stood slightly ajar, grating in its rusty hinges.

Chapter Text

Belle avoided to think about what she was doing. Of course, she was fulfilling a deal. And she had been ready for it. As long as she didn’t touch any sensitive subjects, he was kind, and sometimes even easy to talk to. He had that look in his eyes, when she brought a new book to read to him, as if he couldn’t comprehend that she talked to him at all. And when she read, he swallowed every word from her lips. It was this look that sent a prickle down her spine, and it was this tingling sensation that made her take a leap and kiss him, for the first time, in the ball room. Of course she didn’t tell him. They shared a bed, touches and whispered words in the dark. But they were not intimate, emotionally, and she wasn’t a companion. Or maybe she was, just like a dog would be a companion.

He wouldn’t share his deep seated fears and nightmares with a dog.

He needed something she couldn’t give, but she had no idea what it was, and when he sent her away, after that nightmare, she was too helpless to object. All she could give him she had given, all he was willing to take. She didn’t go back to sleep after that, and she got up just before dawn to do a yoga routine in the ballroom and take a light breakfast before she hid away in the library. She became better at hiding with each day. Later, when she was sure that he would be gone by now – because one thing was reliable about him, and that was his schedule – she sneaked into the kitchen to knit a few rows in Mrs. Lucas company. She was still sitting there, knitting, her tongue stuck between her teeth, when Mrs. Lucas was out to do grocery shopping, and the phone in Rufus’ study rang. It was the phone only he ever answered, one with a separate line. Every other phone could be answered from the several phones scattered all over the house, one of them in the kitchen. Belle let her knitting needles sink into her lap and stared at the blinking phone box beside the door, where a light indicated which telephone was ringing. Hardly anyone ever called Shadow Manor, and Belle had only once witnessed the phone in the study ring. Rufus had answered it after closing the door, locking her out.

Now he wasn’t at home. Neither was Mrs. Lucas.

Belle resolved to ignore the phone. Whoever the caller was, he would give up sooner or later. But he didn’t, and after a while, the shrill ring made Belle leave her place in the kitchen to escape the sound of it. She crossed the hall, but the ringing followed her, and she paused at the stairs. No one was there to answer the phone. No one would know when she answered it. Unless of course it was something important and she had to relay a message. But then, it could be nothing but important when someone called that line and just didn’t give up… Her feet carried her to the study before her mind had fully decided on the matter, and she gave the door a gentle push to see if it was locked. It swung inwards, revealing the study with its filing cabinets of dark wood and Rufus’ throne behind the desk of skulls and bones. She took a step into the room, hoping the phone would fall silent and relieve her of her decision. But it didn’t, it rang again, persisting, and again, with each step that brought her closer to where it was sitting on the desk. When Belle placed her hand on the receiver, it was silent for a moment, and maybe it had finally stopped. But then it rang again, shrilly, vibrating under her touch, and she jumped, yanking the receiver from the basis.

“Gold”, she said, and she sounded breathless, despite moving in slow motion all the way into the study.

“St. Ogilvy’s. I’d like to speak to Mr. Gold?”

Belle curled the chord of the telephone around her fingers and tried to sound confident. “He isn’t at home. Can I relay a message?”

There was a short pause, before the woman at the other end answered. “There has been an incident. Nothing serious, but he should call us back so we can fill him in.”

Belle promised to relay the message, but before she could ask after the nature of the incident, the other woman hung up. She had probably wasted enough time waiting for someone to pick up in the first place. For a moment, Belle just stared at the phone, her hand still on the receiver. Then, after closing the door carefully behind her, she went back into the kitchen and took out the heavy phonebook stowed away in the cabinet beside the door. Belle supposed that a house that had seen so many generations was bound to have a cabinet like this, big, heavy, worn down, with drawers full of little things, stowed away to be forgotten. There was a drawer full of buttons and paper clips and thread, one filled with spoons bent and placed there to be repaired (and then forgotten), matches and bottle openers and corkscrews (not to forget the obligatory drawer full of corks), and somehow, Belle couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful than a cabinet like this, with heirlooms that spoke of permanence and times never changing. Belle had never had a cabinet like that, with her father having to move too often to assemble drawers full of unneeded things. The only idle possession Belle ever aggregated had been her glasses of sand and soil, and books. Never a drawer full of buttons that were older than she herself. She opened the phonebook and searched for the right letter, letting her finger glide down the rows, page after page, until she found what she was looking for. St. Ogilvy’s Psychiatric Hospital. She slapped the phonebook shut again and stashed it away in a hurry. Her heart beat almost painful against the cage of her chest.

She still stood in the same spot when Mrs. Lucas came back, only minutes later, just in time to prepare Rufus’ tea. Rufus. He would be home soon. Belle grabbed her coat from the hook beside the door and tried to appear calm when she slipped into it.

“I’m going for a walk.”

Mrs. Lucas just hummed over the stack of sugar packages on her arm and didn’t look at her. Belle crossed the yard and took the path that led towards the woods, taking large steps, almost running in her need to get rid of the tension. There had been an incident in a psychiatric hospital and Rufus needed to be filled in. They called the line that was specifically reserved for him. What kind of incident would need to be brought to his attention? Who was in that hospital?

She finished her round through the woods faster than usual, but she wasn’t any closer to an answer than when she left. Her eyes fell on the stables. He did never go there. Something about the place spooked him, and Belle had refrained from digging deeper, because the pain had been so obvious on his face. The gravel crunched under her feet, and she let out a frustrated groan. This house had not only drawers full of lost buttons, it also had enough secrets and riddles lurking in the shadows to fill a library with gothic novels. Belle came to a halt in the middle of the yard, and she hesitated only for a moment before she walked to the stables, trembling with something that wasn’t from the cold. The latch was rusty, and she had to rattle a few times before it came open, and then she had to push the door upwards to even move it at all. She pulled it open just wide enough to slip inside.

Inside the stable, Belle was greeted by a colorless twilight, dust floating through the dimness, and the coldness of a long abandoned place. It was nothing more than an empty barn, with four bays at the far end and some stands with saddles, snaffles, ropes and headcollars in the front. Everything was covered with a thick layer of dust and grime and cobwebs, and the leather straps bent in odd curves, long dried out and hard as stone. Belle dragged her fingertip in her leather glove through the dust covering a saddle, and she lifted a flap and found rusty buckles and straps brittle from age. But it was just a saddle. She looked around, but there weren’t any dark stains on ground. Nothing that indicated that something horrible had happened here. Nothing that explained Rufus’ terror of this place.

“Belle.”

The voice startled her, shocked her out of her thoughts, and she spun around with a squeak. Rufus stood there, just inside the door, blocking her way out. “What are you doing here?”, he asked, and his voice sounded as brittle as the leather of the saddles.

“I was just… looking around. I didn’t know that I was forbidden to come here.”

Rufus glanced back over his shoulder before he looked back at her, licking his lips, and took a small step towards her. He looked as if he wanted to run, leave this place before something terrible happened, and Belle closed the distance between them and took his arm.

“Let’s go. You don’t need to be here if it… bothers you.”

“I was forbidden to come here.” Rufus didn’t look at her, and he didn’t move either. Belle grew still at his side, hardly dared to breathe out of fear to startle him. His eyes were empty, hollow, just as his voice.

“My father told me never to go into the stables without him. But I had saved some apple slices for one of the mares. Wendy. She was a gentle one, and she loved it when I brought her apples.” He looked down into his hand, as if he could see the apple slices there, and Belle squeezed his arm. She didn’t dare to say anything, lest she pulled him out of it and he shut down again. “I went into her bay, although I wasn’t allowed to, and I petted her and gave her apples, and I didn’t hear the barn door close when my father came in.” He trailed off, and his eyes grew sharp when he looked at her.

“What happened?” It wasn’t more than a whisper, and even that seemed to ring through the silence like the roar of a chainsaw. Rufus looked down at her hand on his arm, and he took it into his, so much bigger than hers, and led her to the saddle stands.

“He had a girl with him. One of the maids. Back then, we had a lot of staff, and most of them were pretty, young girls. Of course, as a nine year old, you don’t find that strange. He led her to one of those four legged stands here and made her bend over the saddle. She giggled, and I thought they were playing a game. I didn’t dare to show myself, because I was forbidden to go into the stables on my own… so I just watched when he tied her ankles and wrists to the legs of that stand, and when he flipped up her skirt and opened her blouse. She didn’t giggle anymore when he took the crop down onto her ass. Her screams made the horses nervous, and they started to stomp in their bays, from side to side. I didn’t know that… this could be something they both enjoyed. I was afraid that, if my father found me, he would do the same to me. So I stayed with Wendy, pressed into a corner of her stall, and watched through the bars while my father first whipped and then fucked the girl.”

Belle bit the insides of her cheeks to keep silent. She had to swallow bile, had to fight the sickness that made her want to throw up. She could see the little boy, hiding in the stall, watching something no child should witness. And when she looked at him, at the grown man, all she saw was the child in his eyes. Her own eyes were stinging with tears. Rufus placed a hand on one of the saddles before them, leaving a print in the dust, and let out a hollow laugh.

“I didn’t know what it was he used on her… When he took himself out of his pants and into his hand, it looked like a weapon to me. And he was hurting her. Her screams drove the horses wild, and even Wendy started to trash around in her stall. She was the most docile horse you could imagine. But when I whimpered, it scared her, and she kicked at me, because she had nowhere to go. She couldn’t flee.”

Belle tried to swallow the sob that shuddered at the back of her throat, but it escaped her, and Rufus’ eyes found her again. She flinched when he lifted his hand, his glove soiled with dust, and touched her cheek, sliding his fingertips along her jaw to cup her chin. A smile hovered at the corner of his lips, as if he pitied her for her compassion.

“And that, my dear, is the story how I became a cripple.” He let go of her chin and turned, starting for the door.

“Is that why the horses were taken away?”

Rufus paused. He didn’t turn back, and Belle waited, watched as his hand clenched around his cane. “No. That happened later. They only put down Wendy then. My father shot her in the head.”

Belle hurried to his side, and this time, she didn’t let her reason keep her from hugging him. “I am so sorry. Did you ever talk with someone about what you saw?”

Rufus laughed again, hard and hollow, and Belle let instantly go of him. “I told it to my mother. She said that my father has special needs, and I would understand when I would be older. For the longest time, I feared the little thing between my legs would grow out to become a weapon, bound to hurt someone.”  

“That’s… terrible.”

“My parents weren’t really carved out for the job. Or for each other. My father did a lot of things with the intent of hurting my mother. In the end, we all got hurt.”

They stepped out into the yard, and Belle was blinded by the light of the setting sun, reflected by snow and ice. The prospect of going back into that house, now that she knew a part of its secrets, suffocated her, and she grasped Rufus’ arm again to hold him back.

“I… There was a call, today. From St. Ogilvy’s? They said there had been an incident, and you should call back to be filled in.”

Rufus’ face went cold, and the anger that had been absent for weeks now flared up. He clenched his jaw, and Belle took a step back. “You picked up the phone in my study?”

“I did. You never told me not to.” Belle squared her shoulders. She would not let him treat her like that again. She would not.

“That’s because I didn’t think I had to. You never go into that room.”

“That happens when you don’t talk. Who is in St. Ogilvy’s? What is it you haven’t told me?”

“I told you what I wanted to tell you. And what about you? You didn’t tell me everything either. You let me believe your debts were student loans. But guess what, I had a very unpleasant visitor in my shop today, and he was looking for you. I don’t think he was sent by a bank.” He spat out every word, clipped and hard, and stepped close enough to tower over her, to cast a shadow over her that froze her in place and made her go numb with shock.

“Black? He… he found me?” She stuttered, and the world seemed to spin at double speed, blurring her vision and sucking the oxygen out of her body.

“Black, huh? Tell me, dearie, what is it he wants of you?”

“He wants money, of course. I inherited my father’s debts with him. But he told me from the start that, if I wouldn’t find the means to pay him back, he would find me a job.” 

“What kind of job?”

“Well, make an educated guess, dearie.” Rufus had the decency to blush when she threw his own words back at him, but he didn’t give her room to breathe, didn’t step away from her.

“So you chose to marry me instead. To become the whore of one man instead one of many.”

Although he didn’t move, Belle planted her palm on his chest, above his heart, to stop him from coming closer. “So I was right from the start. You never wanted a wife.”

“I don’t know anymore what I wanted. I only know that this wasn’t it.”

It shouldn’t feel like a punch in the guts, but it did, and Belle stepped back. He didn’t close the gap again, and she was glad. It was terrible enough to realize that somehow, she gravitated towards him, that he pulled her towards him, that she wanted to take his burden from him and hold him, despite his cruelty. Despite his anger, despite the shadow that sometimes swallowed him and left only darkness. It was enough to know, with a sudden, painful clarity, that she would give him all she had to give and more, and not because of a deal. Not because of a signature on a dotted line. Not because he paid for her. “So, what are we going to do now?”, she asked, pressing the words past the lump that blocked her throat.

“Why, what do you think? I will take care of your debts. After all, you are my wife.”

Belle didn’t have the heart to point out that this wasn’t what she had meant. Maybe it was better to go on like before, to pretend that this was just a deal, and not something infinitely more complicated. Go on pretending that there weren’t any nightmares, any traumata haunting him, go on pretending that all he meant to her was a solution to her financial problems. Go on letting him believe in the toxicity of love. Go on pretending she didn’t see the shadows, and didn’t sense the secrets hiding in the dark.

“Who is in St. Ogilvy’s?”

Rufus sighed, and turned towards the house. “The man who killed my mother. My father.”

He didn’t wait for her to follow him inside, and his limp seemed heavier than ever.   

Chapter Text

When Rufus looked at the empty place beside him, while the clock on the mantelpiece ticked off second after second of misery, he didn’t know how to feel. Belle wasn’t coming to dinner, and he tried to concentrate on his relief over that; after all, he didn’t want to see the pity in her eyes. The whole purpose of his armor of ruthlessness, relentlessness, the whole purpose of his endeavor to inspire fear in those he dealt with was to keep the pity out of their eyes. Make them forget that he was that boy. It had always worked, infallibly, and no one pitied him anymore. It would work with Belle, too.

It had been a mistake to tell her. But finding her in the stables somehow tore down the walls he had erected between his memories and himself. She didn’t follow him inside, not immediately, and he couldn’t reproach her for it. Knowing that shadows existed, and knowing what horrors they actually held, was a difference, and Belle had been perceptive to the darkness from the start. He went into his study and called back St. Ogilvy’s to inquire about that minor incident. For his part, there weren’t any minor incidents when it came to his father.

The clock ticked away another minute, and Rufus took up his knife, telling himself that he should eat. Belle wasn’t coming, and if he waited any longer, his chicken fillet might just as well freeze on his plate. He cut off a tiny bite and brought it to his mouth, but he didn’t get himself to take and chew and swallow it… He put his silverware down again and dabbed his lips with the napkin of linen cloth, although nothing had touched them. His stomach was in knots, and it was impossible to eat. It had been a mistake to tell her, and now she would leave him. He wouldn’t hold her back, deal or no deal.

After spending the hours till midnight in his study, going through paperwork that was dry enough to crumble his brain, he went to bed. Sleep wouldn’t come, and he lay for hours, staring at the pillow where Belle’s head had rested sometimes during the last few weeks, placing his hand on the mattress where she had lain, remembering her warmth and imagining to hear her breathing, steady and deep. It was better she wasn’t there. It was one of the upsides of a marriage like this, really, that it came without silly expectations of shared beds or the notion of some kind of required intimacy.

She didn’t share breakfast with him either, and again he told himself to be relieved. Two days later, his relief was wearing thin, and it didn’t help to evict one of his tenants who was a day late with paying the rent. He didn’t get rid of the indistinct tension tearing at his nerves, keeping him awake at night and sitting for hours in the dining room, hoping Belle would come down after all. He never once went to look for her. So, when the bell over the door of his shop tingled and Mr. Black swaggered in, he was decidedly less friendly than the time before. If not to say icy cold.

“Mr. Gold. You’ve been lying to me, and wasting my precious time”, Black purred, when he reached the counter, and Rufus allowed his lips to twitch in distaste. Black wasn’t familiar with the town, wasn’t familiar with him, and maybe that was enough to excuse the mistake he made in underestimating who he was talking to. But Rufus wasn’t in the mood to excuse anything.

“Do tell. And how exactly have I been doing this?”

Black cocked his head, and maybe he registered the edge of steel in Rufus’ voice. But maybe, and just as likely, he was fooled by the velvety sheath hiding that steel. “You see, I talked to a lovely lady, Mrs. Mala Vicente, and she pointed me to my merchandise… It appears that my little bird agreed to marry the town’s pawnbroker. Which would make her Mrs. Gold.”  

“Is that so? How peculiar. Remind me to give Mrs. Vicente an increase of her rent.”

“Now that would just be unfair. The poor woman was only helping a worried brother to find his sister.” Black wriggled his fingers and admired his heavy, golden rings, and Rufus decided to break every single bone in those hands before he proceeded with Vicente.

“And she fell for that? Maybe I should have her evicted.”

“Huh. I didn’t believe her when she called you a shark… That tiny cripple, I thought, can’t possibly be the man she’s talking about.” Black leaned forward, over the counter, and his reeking breath wafted over and hit Rufus in the face.

“I get underestimated frequently. Never ends well for the other party. So, now, how can I help you?”

“For one, of course, there is the matter of her debts. Though I imagine that to be peanuts for a man of your wealth.” Black inspected his nails and started to pick at the black edge of dirt.

“How much?”

“Seventy-five Thousand. With interests.”

Rufus was aware that Black watched him out of the corner of his eyes, but he didn’t have to pretend to be unfazed. For him, this was, indeed, peanuts. “Do you prefer check or cash?”

Black deflated a little. Clearly he had hoped to be able to draw it out, to hold it as a threat over their heads. “Whatever suits you”, he gnarled, and Rufus allowed himself a thin smile.

“Of course, you will have to sign a document with me, to declare the debt as paid and abstain from further claims.”

Now the other one grimaced, sucking in a whistling breath, and made a face of utter sorrow. “Well, about that… you see, there is still the matter of her identity. I could, of course, maintain my silence about that, but, you know, man’s got to make a living, and now that I found her, I’m sure others can, too…”  

Rufus had no idea what Black was talking about, and he didn’t like that. The uneasy feeling of not knowing half as much about Belle as he had thought settled like a weight in his stomach, but he kept his composure. “What exactly are you proposing?”

“Say, One hundred thousand, and I will keep her little secret.” There was a glint of greed in Black’s eyes, and Rufus decided not to stop with the bones in his hands, once he had a signed contract in his pockets.

“I will draw up a contract. Meet me again at eight.”

Black grinned, his eyes lighting up with the prospect of leaving Storybrooke with a small fortune, and clearly he thought to have a hold over Rufus. As soon as he was out the door, Rufus picked up the phone and made a few calls. Then he sat down to draw up a contract that would remove Black from their live once and for all. He paused when it hit him that maybe there wasn’t a “them” or “their” in their future, that their lives would almost certainly go on on separate paths, and he tried to ignore the gravity of that thought. The fact that Belle would leave him didn’t mean he would ignore his responsibility now. If he could take this burden from her, then he would.

It was almost too easy. Black set his signature under the contract, agreeing to keep his silence and abstain from future claims, but the smug grin was wiped off his face when he wanted to get up from the stool at Rufus’ workbench and Mr. Dove – Rufus’ silent giant and factotum, serving him as muscle when he had to deal with scum like Black – placed his huge paws on his shoulders and shoved him down again. Black paled, flicking a nervous glance at Rufus, who weighed his cane in his hand and smiled like a shark.

“What does this mean?”, Black asked, raising his voice, and grunted when Dove grabbed his neck with one hand and his wrist with the other, forcing Black’s hand onto the table.

“You see, Mr. Black, I don’t take threats lightly. And since you just agreed to not only keep silent about your knowledge about my wife, but also about everything coming to pass during the signing of this agreement, I will make you regret that you ever came to Storybrooke. Press your hand to the table, and try to keep silent. This might hurt a little.”

“What, no, you ca—” The rest of his words turned into a howl when Rufus took his cane down on his hand and broke his fingers with one heavy blow. He didn’t stop after that, taking his cane down on the wailing man until both his hands were thoroughly beaten to pulp. When Dove let go of the man, Black was unable to get up, remaining on his seat shaking and sobbing, white as a sheet apart from the streaks of spittle and snot on his face. Rufus leaned forward, using the other man’s tie to wipe down his cane.

“So, dearie, just so we’re clear: I know everything about your dirty little business. I know where you’re hiding the money and how you do business, and if it didn’t take me more than three hours to find that out, I’m sure it won’t take the cops longer than a week to find it, too, if pointed into the right direction. So, if you ever come near me or my wife again, I will wipe your existence from the face of the earth. Understood?”

Black nodded, and Rufus smiled. “Dove, be a dear and take the trash out, will you?”

Dove grabbed Black’s collar and hauled the man to his feet, dragging him out into the night. Rufus should have been in a much better mood then, but the fact remained that he still had no idea what exactly Black had meant when he threatened to betray Belle’s identity. It had been easy to find out everything about Black in the time of mere hours. However, his contacts had turned up empty for anything about Belle beyond some student loans in her name and a short time spent at the University of Alabama.

When he came home, the house was dark. Mrs. Lucas had already gone to bed, and Belle was nowhere to be found. He went to the library, but it was just as dark as the rest of the house. Relying heavily on his cane, he made his way to his bedroom, halting for a moment in front of the door to her room. He contemplated to knock, but then he thought better of it. Forcing matters would help no one. Just when he had started to undress, having taken off blazer, pants and waistcoat, and was loosening the knot of his tie, a timid knock on his door startled him out of his meticulous routine. He limped in socks to the door to open it, trying to breathe steadily and keep the dread in his heart at bay. Belle waited in the corridor, toes curling in her knitted socks, wrapped into a thick robe. In her hand, she held a jar of dirt, pressed to her chest.

“Belle.” He sounded breathless despite himself.

“Can I come in?”

Rufus took in her pale face, her trembling lips. She looked tiny. “Of course.” He stepped aside, waving her in, and she walked to the middle of his room, without turning back at him. “Did you come to say goodbye?”, he asked, trying his best to sound indifferent, and she spun around.

“What, why? Where are you going?”

“I… nowhere. I thought…” He was stammering, pitifully, and to hide his embarrassment, he limped back to his valet stand. Only after getting rid of his tie and starting to unbutton his shirt, he realized that it maybe wasn’t his smartest move to undress now, and he stopped.

“Did you think I would leave you? Why?”

“Well, I thought…” He didn’t know what he had thought. That no one would stay voluntarily in a house with such a dark past, maybe. With a man like him, who clearly had issues. Not to speak of frequent dreams and images of strangling his wife. She would be better off without him. She deserved better than him.

“I made a deal, and I’m going to hold up my end of it.” She pressed the jar with dirt tighter to her chest, as if it would offer her support in her decision to sacrifice herself.

“If this is because of Black, he no longer is a problem. You’re free to go. I won’t hold you to our deal.”

Belle frowned, tilting her head and chewing her bottom lip. He shouldn’t think about kissing her, and he never before had longed to kiss her, thirsted to feel her lips on his, but now he did, and it made the decision to free her from him so much harder.

“What does that mean, he no longer is a problem?”

“Just that. Your debts are paid.”

“Hm. Ok. But this is not because of Black. It’s not because I owe you.”

Rufus snorted, and Belle flinched. It was a visceral reaction, and he gritted his teeth to swallow the rage it provoked. When he took a step towards her, she lifted her chin and squared her shoulders.

“Didn’t you listen? You don’t owe me anymore. You don’t need to spread your legs for me any longer. I don’t want that heir anymore.”

Belle narrowed her eyes, and a faint blush tinted her cheekbones. So delicate, his wife, so easy to unsettle with a few crude words. So easy to drive away.

“No, Rufus, you didn’t listen. I won’t leave you, and not because I owe you. Do you know what this is?” She lifted the glass she was holding, and he raised a brow.

“A jar of dirt. Is this supposed to impress me?”

“Do you remember when I told you that I have my heart always with me, in a jar with soil from home?”

“Of course I do.” He was grumbling, not sure what this was leading to, and slightly irritated that his closeness failed to intimidate her. He wasn’t sure when he had stopped being scary to her, and he wasn’t sure if he liked that.

“So, this is it. This is the jar that holds my heart. All that is left of my family, because home always was where my family was. It’s their last resting place. Soil from my mother’s grave, and soil from my father’s grave. And now soil from Shadow Manor, because you are my family now.”

It knocked the air out of his lungs and almost made him faint. This was not what he had expected to happen. Rufus stepped back and grabbed for something to hold onto, something to hold him upright, but his hands found only emptiness. “Why would you even want to choose me as your family?”

Belle crinkled her nose. “What did you think would happen when you married? Isn’t that what marriage is about?”

“Didn’t you listen at all when I told you about my family? About my father? You shouldn’t trust me.” He noticed the exasperated tone in his voice, noticed the despair grating his nerves because she didn’t seem to see how wrong – how stupid – it was to trust him, to choose him. He offered her a way out, and she… He inhaled and closed the gap between them again, towering over her, and he lifted his hand and twirled her necklace around it, used it to pull her closer, until her eyes widened and her breath became shallow.

“Rufus…”

“You shouldn’t trust me, Belle. You shouldn’t trust a man who broke another man’s bones only hours before, and you shouldn’t trust a man who sees himself strangling you with that necklace every time he sees it around your neck. You shouldn’t trust a man who fantasizes about killing you while he fucks you.”

She gasped, and her free hand flew up to disentangle her necklace from his grip. He didn’t allow it.

“Is that why you wanted me to take it off?”

“Now it seems like the sensible thing to do, doesn’t it?” He couldn’t keep the mocking edge out of his voice, and Belle stopped fighting against his grip.

“I don’t believe that you are that man. This is your father’s shadow poisoning you. You are haunted by it, but it doesn’t define who you are.”

He laughed, hollow and mirthless, and tightened his grip, until the beads of her necklace left angry red marks on her skin, where it dug deep into her neck. She couldn’t retreat, unless she broke the necklace apart, and instead of struggling against him, she leant closer, tilting her head back, until her lips almost touched his. “It wasn’t my father who beat Black’s hands to pulp. I don’t think he’ll ever hold a pen again.”

Belle’s eyes fluttered shut, her eyelashes like dark wings on her skin, and the craving to kiss her returned and hit him between his ribs, settling just beneath his solar plexus. He didn’t dare to breathe, out of fear to inhale her and lose everything that was left of his resolve.

“Why won’t you leave me?”, he whispered, and she blinked, opening her eyes again to meet his gaze.

“I wasn’t going to stay. The idea of bringing a child into this house, to let it grow up between those shadows… That scared me. Remembering how angry you have been, so often, scared me. Seeing how broken you are scares me, because I have no idea how to deal with that. I’m not a psychiatrist. I can’t possibly heal you. But I won’t leave you just because I am scared.”

“Then you are a fool.”

“Yes, maybe I am.” Her eyes widened again when he curled the necklace around his fingers once more, but still she didn’t try to back away. So, so foolish. She wouldn’t do the smart thing. He saw her obstinacy glint in her eyes, dark like iron, and he wanted to shake it out of her. How could she not see that staying with him was dangerous? Stepping forward, using the necklace like a leash to force her to retreat, he pushed her towards the bed, until the mattress forced her to a halt, blocking her way back. Belle never looked away from him, never broke eye contact, but something clouded her gaze, like a thunderstorm banking up in the distance.

“You should not trust me”, he repeated, before he gave her a shove. She fell backwards, and he softened her fall with a hand at the back of her head, before he straddled her to keep her down. By now, the storm in her eyes was ready to break loose.

“I don’t understand why you are so determined to get rid of me now. What changed? You just paid in full although you don’t want to keep me? You don’t want anything out of that deal?” Her voice didn’t tremble, didn’t shake, and her cheeks darkened. She glowed with rage, and for a moment, Rufus forgot his mission to scare her off.

“Exactly.”

“Well, too bad. I have your signature under that contract, too. And I’m not letting you out of that deal.” Clutched tightly to her stomach, she still held her jar of dirt, and Rufus grunted when she shoved it against his chest. “Take this”, she hissed, and out of a lack of alternatives, he took the jar from her hand, finally letting go of the necklace.

“And what am I supposed to do with that? Grow a tree?”

“No, you stubborn asshole. You are holding my heart. You are supposed to keep it safe.”

Her words shocked him, and he fell to her side, weak to the bone. Belle pushed herself up again, yanking the necklace over her head and throwing it across the room. But she didn’t back away from him. Instead, she rolled herself on top of him and straddled him, just like he had straddled her only moments before.

“I can’t take this”, he said, and the distress in his own voice twisted his insides and flooded him with shame.

“Too bad.” Belle leant forward, placing her hands beside his head, and her hair fell forward and tickled his face. He swallowed, hard, and swallowed again when she closed one of her little hands around his throat, digging her thumb into his jaw. “Alright”, she hissed, “listen to me, and listen to me closely. When you think about strangling me, I want to know. When you think about hurting me, I want to know. When there is an urge to see me suffer itching under your skin, I want to know. You will tell me, and I will give you space, until it has passed. If you had just told me why I should take off that necklace, I wouldn’t have paraded it in front of you.”

“Because it’s such a good idea to tell the wife that is already terrified of you that you are so fucked up that you imagine to throttle her.”

Belle dug her nails into his skin, but she was too small to be a serious threat. If he wanted, he could just shake her off and roll on top of her again. “You could have told me that it evokes terrible memories. That would have been enough.”

“I still don’t understand why you wouldn’t just leave, now that you are free?” Despite himself, he hugged the jar and pressed it to his chest, just like she had done before. Belle straightened, loosening her grip on his throat, until it was more a caress than a grip to keep him in check.

“After that call, when I looked up St. Ogilvy’s in the phonebook, I went through that cabinet in the kitchen, with the drawers full of lost and forgotten things. Do you know that there is a drawer in your kitchen full with buttons?”

“I… can’t say I do, no.”

“Well, there is. I never had a drawer full of buttons.” Her fingertips ghosted over his cheek, rasping over the stubble on his skin, and he began to tingle all over when she trailed down his throat over his chest, to the first few buttons of his shirt that he had already opened. And when she opened another button, slowly, as if the simple task of unbuttoning his shirt deserved all her attention, all her concentration, as if it made her happy to simply open button after button, he shivered, and closed his eyes, listening to the whisper of his shirt when she pushed it open.

“So you don’t want to go because I have a drawer full of old buttons?”, he asked, and his voice was thick and hoarse, betraying him and the tightness of his skin. His eyes flew open again when Belle shook her robe off her shoulders and revealed the negligee she was wearing underneath.

“I never was at home somewhere for long enough to have a drawer full of old and forgotten things. My home fits in a jar of dirt.” Carefully, she pried her jar out of his grip and bent to the side to place it on the floor. When she straightened again, she took his empty hands and placed them on her breasts above the negligee. He felt her pebbled nipples in his palm, and he hardly dared to breathe, scared to break whatever spell they were under. “I have always been running”, she whispered, “and never arrived anywhere. I don’t want to run anymore.”

She rolled her hips, and he gasped when she pressed herself to his hard length, sending a gush of molten heat through him, from the tip of his cock through his loins and stomach, prickling along his spine and making him arch up, gasping.

“Do you think about strangling me now?”

“No.” He had to choke the word out, past his clenched teeth, and he couldn’t help but squeeze her breasts, relishing the softness, and buck his hips up. He had turned to wax, and she formed him with tiny hands and touches like butterflies on his skin. He was spineless, boneless, defenseless, and he had no idea how it had happened.

“What are you thinking about, then?” She lifted her hips up and reached between her thighs, reached for him, grasped him and cupped him through his boxers, drawing a whimper from his lips.

“You… you…” He slid his hands up, to the nape of her neck, into her hair, pulling her down, until he could reach her for that kiss he needed like air to breathe, until he could capture her lips with his. She had broken his resolve, shattered his determination to push her away, to make her go, and more than anything, he wanted to be inside her, wanted to be joined and enclosed and embraced and buried deep inside her. He wanted to drown in her. But Belle broke his kiss, moved her lips along his jaw and to his ear.

“Be precise, Rufus. Tell me exactly what you’re thinking.” Her breath was hot on his skin, and he groaned when she tightened her grip on his cock, only for the length of a heartbeat, not nearly enough to sate the burning need that itched under his skin.

“I want to hold you. Want… want to be inside you…” He whimpered again when she slipped her hand inside his boxers and closed it around him, giving him a few strokes, increasing the tautness of his skin even more.

“What else?” She was just as hoarse as he was, and she trailed kisses down the side of his neck, kisses and shallow bites that made him groan and shiver and itch.

“I don’t want you to stop. I want you to take me, to ride me until you come apart. I want to see you come, and I want to feel you twitch and pulse around my cock.”

Now she groaned, too, and freed his cock one-handed from the barrier of cloth, before she let go of him and sat up to pull her negligee over her head. She was naked underneath, no panties to shield her flesh from him.

“Did you… plan this?”, he rasped, and Belle, brave, beautiful Belle, giggled, and bent forward, rubbing herself against his cock and coating him with her wetness.

“I considered the possibility, yes. I didn’t expect you to try and intimidate me by threatening to strangle me, but I didn’t just come here to give you a jar of dirt. I came here to give myself, too.”

“You foolish, foolish girl”, he panted, almost sobbing when she parted her folds for him and slowly, slowly guided him inside, deep into her, sheathing him in heat and silken wetness. She thrust her head back, rolled her hips, again and again, and condemned him to watch as she rode him, purely egoistical in pursuing her pleasure. She was moving faster, panting, rolling her hips in abandon, and when he reached up to cup her breasts again, to pinch her nipples, her climax came so sudden and forceful that it ripped a scream from her lips. She collapsed on his chest, and Rufus pressed his face into her hair, against the crook of her neck, groaning into her curls while she convulsed around him, thrusting up in his frantic need for release. Belle rested heavy on his chest, humming, and Rufus closed his arms around her, holding her tight when he rolled her around onto her back and himself on top of her. On her neck were still the marks of her necklace, where he had clutched it so tight that it dug deep into her skin, and his skin crawled looking at it, his chest tight with the shame of having used the darkness of his shadow to chase her away. And yet he failed. He didn’t dare to move, afraid to break her with the force of his need. Belle opened her eyes, looked at him, and reached up, brushing his hair out of his face.

“It’s ok, darling. I won’t shatter, no matter how hard you take me.”

“How do you know?” He let his forehead sink against hers, closing his eyes and feeling the beat of her heart against his chest.

“I can see the fear in your eyes.”

He wondered, briefly, how she had known what he meant. That he didn’t ask how she knew she wouldn’t shatter, but that he was afraid of hurting her if he lost the grip on his desire. If his lust got out of control. He shuddered, trying to move in slow-motion. Pulling his cock out almost all the way, and pushing back between her thighs, slowly, gently, despite the hunger burning him from inside, despite the craving to let go of his restraints and fuck her hard and merciless. Her inner muscles clenched around him, and she reached down, grabbed his ass, pulling him deeper between her thighs.

“Relax, baby. I’ve got you”, she breathed into his ear, and this was what finally broke him, what ripped his restraint to shreds and made him thrust hard and desperately into her. She clawed at his shoulders, his ass, pushing him onwards with her heels digging into his buttocks, and she groaned and arched with his final thrusts, when he pulsed and pumped his seed into her and he panted and tensed while the waves of his orgasm washed over him.

“There, there. See? Everything’s good.” She kept murmuring nonsense into his ear, stroking him, threading her fingers through his hair, while he rested on top of her, unable to move and relieve her of his weight.

“Are you alright?”, he asked, after minutes had gone by and he finally rolled off her, to her side, taking her with him to bed her in his arms.

“Yes… tired. But fine…” She smiled, distantly, and Rufus decided not to ask any more questions today. He still didn’t understand why she chose to stay, even when he offered her freedom, and Black’s ominous threat about revealing her identity kept nagging him, but he pushed every thought back for the moment and decided to just hold her until the new day would dawn and keep the shadows at bay.

Chapter Text

He woke her again that night, just before dawn started to creep through the shutters and send its grey tendrils into the room, just before the first light could tinge her skin with shades of rose, when she still belonged to the twilight and the darkness and to him. He should have been gentle, should have kissed and touched her slowly, reverently, but he didn’t. It was the hour just before dawn when the night was the darkest, and he took her with more force than necessary, forgetting himself between her thighs and allowing the darkest part of himself to take over, just this once, just for a moment. Belle kissed him afterwards, and he held her while she slipped her hand between her thighs and brought herself over the edge. He still held her when the morning finally conquered the night and engulfed them in feathery light. He held her, but under his skin brimmed rage. During the night, while she slept at his side, he had decided against forcing her secret from her. As far as she knew, Black was no longer a problem, and she didn’t seem to be aware that the man had known more about her and the things she hid behind that innocent face than she let on. But if Black had been able to find whatever it was she was hiding, then he could find it, too.  

Belle slipped out of bed when his alarm went off and wrapped herself into her robe.

“Plans?”, he asked, and she looked back at him, over her shoulder, sending him a smile that made his breath hitch.

“I want to catch the morning light in the ball room. You should come with me.” She crawled back over the mattress and pressed a kiss to his lips, and he curled his hands around her arms to keep her just a tiny bit longer above him, just long enough to turn her kiss from a fleeting touch of her lips into something longer, less ephemeral.

“And what are you doing with the light once you caught it? Filling it into Mason jars?”

She giggled, and the sound of it rippled through his loins. “No, of course not. I’m doing a yoga routine.”

“Yoga?”

“Yes… If it weren’t for the morning light, I had no reason to get up this early. I would probably stay in bed all day, since I don’t have anywhere to be, except for the knitting circle tonight…” She sighed and wanted to pull back, but he still held her in place. She knitted her brows in a frown when he tightened his grip and locked eyes with her, unsmiling.

“Belle, you don’t need to lock yourself away here. You could apply for a job, if you want to. If you are bored, I mean.” She ceased her attempts of leaving his arms and tilted her head.

“You wouldn’t object?”

“Of course not.” Her question irked him, somehow, though he couldn’t say exactly why.

“Then I will think about it.” That wasn’t really a yes, but it was enough for him to let her go for the moment.

“Alright. Go do your yoga. See you at breakfast.”

Belle slipped out of the door, and Rufus sat up to climb out of bed. His feet collided with the jar of soil on the floor beside his bed, and he bent down to pick it up, placing it on his nightstand. It was nothing but a jar of dirt, yet it seemed to be her most valuable possession. He let his fingertips glide over the lid, and his chest grew tight. He didn’t want that jar. He didn’t want to have the responsibility of holding her heart. When he got up to use the bathroom and take a shower, he almost slipped on the necklace she had thrown away after straddling him, and he picked it up, closing his fist so tight around the glass beads that his knuckles turned white. She hadn’t asked why something as simple and innocent as a necklace provoked such terrors in him, but then, he supposed, she didn’t need to ask. She was clever enough to put the parts of the puzzle together, and he was nothing more but a very pathetic puzzle.  

His coffee was already cold when she finally joined him in the breakfast salon, her hair still wet from the shower. Rufus put the necklace he had been rubbing between his fingertips away, quickly, before she could see it, and greeted her with a smile, hoping it would hide the true nature of his thoughts. Belle returned his smile, blushing under his gaze, and the flush on her cheekbones darkened even more when he rose and pulled her chair out for her. He had to sit down quickly then, because he wondered what would happen to that blush if he bent her over the table and flipped up her skirt and… He pushed the thought away, but his cock remained heavy, hard, straining against his pants, and he was sure that his predicament was only too obvious. Mrs. Lucas looked at him out of narrowed eyes when she brought a second pot of coffee, and he came close to yelling at her when she first poured Belle a coffee, then him, and added milk to Belle’s coffee, so slow that it was a miracle the milk didn’t run back into the milk jug. Belle didn’t lift her eyes from her cup, engrossed into the process of milk pouring, and it didn’t help his state to imagine to bathe her in milk like Cleopatra, and even less to imagine her breasts swollen with milk when she would nurse their child.

“Rufus.”

He looked up, ripped out of his thoughts, and detected a slight frown on Belle’s face. Mrs. Lucas had finally left, and despite the excruciating slowness with which she had moved before, he hadn’t even noticed her retreat. “Yes?”

“I had to call your name three times. You seemed to be very far away.” It was more of a question than a statement, and he shook his head to get rid of the cobwebs fogging his mind, and of the images of Belle spread out before him. The more effort he put into pushing these thoughts away, the more they haunted him, it seemed.

“Yes, I’m sorry.” As always, the word made him itch, but at least it somewhat dampened the hunger gnawing in his loins.

“I wondered… Why did you break Black’s hands?” She didn’t look away when she asked that question. Of course she had not forgotten about that.

“I don’t allow anyone to threaten what’s mine.”

Belle lifted her chin in a way all too familiar by now. This time, though, it was the reaction he hoped for. If she concentrated on him naming her like an object, a possession, she hopefully would forget about Black’s threat. “What did he threaten?”, she asked, and there was a hard edge to her voice.

“Why, what do you think? What is there to threaten, apart from you?”

Belle bit her lip, and the lines on her forehead deepened. She looked as if she was the criminal, not Black, and Rufus wondered if it was perhaps the truth. But maybe she just felt guilty for making him into a target for the likes of Black, and nothing, neither the first background check before he proposed this marriage to her, nor the second inquiry had led him to believe that there was anything suspicious about her. Which meant that she probably was very good at hiding whatever secret it was. He had, once more, tasked his contacts with digging out every last information they could find about her, and turn over every bit of it twice.  

“How did it come to pass that your father owed someone like Black so much money?”, he asked, and something flashed in her eyes and was gone again before he could determine what exactly it had been. Fear? Guilt? Suspicion? Her face gave nothing away when she shrugged.

“Bad luck, I suppose.” It was a lie, but he was only able to tell because he had spent so much time observing her since she set her name beside his on the document that sealed their deal.

“That’s a lot of bad luck.”

“Well, once you caught the bad luck, it’s hard to get rid of. But I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that.”

He jerked, knocking over his coffee, and Belle paled. “I’m sorry, that was very insensitive”, she whispered, fixing her eyes on the dark stain of his coffee on the tablecloth.

“It was. Please excuse me.” He shoved his chair back and started for the door, closing his fist around the necklace in the pocket of his pants until the beads crunched against each other. But just when he reached the door, another thought occurred to him, and he turned back to Belle, who sat on her chair, small like a child, looking lost in the large room like a sole bird in the sky, adrift and far away. She jerked upright when he cleared his throat.

“There is one other thing… since it’s Christmas in ten days… Is there something I can get you? Something special?”

“I… don’t think so? I really don’t need a gift. You already spent too much on me…”

“That is true, but since you are my wife, I’d like to give you a gift. I believe it’s a tradition.”

“Oh… I will think about it.” Belle gave him a last, doubtful smile, and he left for work, driving to town with his veins still itching and burning him from within. Usually, he was able to cleanse his mind with work. Achieving pleasurable emptiness through the task of taking inventory, dusting and polishing, adding rows and rows of numbers, repairing broken knick knacks, this was something he was adept at, something that had almost never failed. Today, however, when he unlocked the front door to his shop, a stray ray of light caught in the necklace he had been polishing on Friday, illuminating the garnet and giving it a strange glow. Rufus limped to the glass case holding the jewelry and took the display holding the necklace out. Maybe, if he emptied his mind of all the images of Belle and set to the task of cleaning the silver again, he would succeed, this time, and remove every last black stain. Vanquish his weakness. Taking the display case with the jewelry with him into the back room, he settled down at his workbench – thoroughly cleaned and treated with a generous amount of bleach to rid it of any bloodstains from Black – and started, once more, to rub down the silver necklace. But when the links of the necklace slid through his fingers, one after the other starting to shine under the care of his hands, he imagined once again to place it around Belle’s neck, resting it against her throat, while she looked back over her shoulder, smiling at him while he closed the clasp at the nape of her neck. His fingertips prickled when he saw himself sliding his palm up her throat to cup her chin, bending her head back, turning her face to reach her lips for a kiss while he pressed his body against her back, his loins against her buttocks. He groaned, closing his fist tight around the silver, hoping the pain of the chain links digging deep into his palm would bring him back, would relieve him, but the uncomfortable tightness remained, concentrated in his lower belly, and he dropped the polishing cloth to press the heel of his hand against the base of his nose. Behind closed eyes, Belle smiled at him, licked over his lips, and her voice was hoarse when she thanked him for her gift, when she turned around and pushed him against the table in the dining room and went down on her knees.

Rufus shifted on his stool, rubbed his thigh in the hope it would somehow relieve him of the pressure, or somehow take his mind off the image of Belle on her knees, closing her lips around his straining cock, while he fisted her hair and pulled her closer. It failed to bring the relief he ached for, and he took his hand further up his leg, to the center of his agony, rubbing over the tip of his cock, tenting his pants, in an attempt to get rid of the itch. It only got worse, and he unbuckled his belt and undid his pants to slip his hand inside while he imagined the slurping sound of Belle’s lips while she sucked him off, with tears running down her face, sputtering, because his fist in her hair didn’t allow her to draw back, because he gagged her with his cock and forced her to take more than she could. He moved his hand fast, stroking up and down his length with a tight grip, pressing his eyes shut to keep out the shame, to push back the images, and yet he failed, and first droplets of his seed started to leak from his cock. He rubbed his thumb over the tip, biting down on the insides of his cheeks to swallow the groan, and coated his flesh with his own wetness, making it slick, and he pumped harder and faster as the heat in his loins mounted, scorched him, the tension coiling, coiling, until he pressed the silver links of the necklace in his hand against his inner thigh, hard, hoping the pain would break the tension and free him from the image of Belle’s eyes widening as he spurted his seed into her mouth and forced her to swallow it all. He came with a sob, pumping his seed against the underside of his workbench, on his pants and the necklace in his grip, twitching helplessly on his seat until the waves of his climax ebbed away.

He sat for five minutes, motionless, before he was able to clean himself up. The necklace in his grip was ruined now. There was no way he could sell it after tainting it like this. Even after washing and drying it and polishing it again, and again, he still smelled his disgrace on it. The only positive thing coming out of this was that he couldn’t give the necklace to Belle now, either. He put it into a slim box and locked it away in his wall safe. His hands were shaking when he turned the key in the lock, and the stale air of his shop threatened to suffocate him. Staying seemed like a death sentence, so he closed the shop and drove home again. Mrs. Lucas met him with worried frown when he stalked into the kitchen to get another coffee.

“Don’t ask”, he gnarled, when she opened her mouth, but that had never kept her from speaking up before. After he hadn’t killed his wife within weeks, she had somewhat recovered her fearlessness.

“Boy, you look awful.” Instead of coffee, she placed tea in front of him when he slumped down at the kitchen table, and she sat down on a chair beside him, ignoring the roll of his eyes.

“Where’s Belle?”, he asked, provoking another frown in his housekeeper.

“With her books, I suppose. Spends most of her time with those books, or knitting. She’s a lonely girl, your wife.” It sounded like a critique, as if it was his fault that Belle seemed to seek out loneliness even more than he did.

“I told her she can get a job if she wants to. I don’t keep her locked up here.”

“I know.” Mrs. Lucas sipped on her own tea, and her sleeve slipped back, revealing the scar on her arm. Rufus took her hand when she placed her cup on the table again, trailing the thick, white tissue with his fingertips.

“Do you miss him sometimes? Mr. Lucas?”

Mrs. Lucas stared down at her arm, at his dark fingers on her skin, and she covered his hand with hers and sighed. “Every day. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of him.”

Rufus wanted to pull back his hand, but she curled her fingers around his and held him in place.

“Your Belle is a good person. You should thank your lucky star for her, every day. Don’t break her, Rufus. Don’t let your past ruin your future. And cherish every day you get to spend with her.”

“She’s just a deal.”

“If you say so.” She let go of his hand and got to her feet again. “Every day of your life, every day you get to spend on this earth, is a gift. Don’t throw that away.”

“You’re always so protective of my well-being, Willow.”

Mrs. Lucas huffed and turned her back to him, but he could see the flush on her cheeks before she tried to vanish into the larder. “Old habits die hard”, she grumbled, and Rufus smiled. He got to his feet and took his teacup with him as he turned for the door.

“You know that there is a therapist in town, right?”, Mrs. Lucas called after him, and he grunted.

“Yes, I do. I go there every Friday for the rent.” He didn’t wait for a response, instead making his way to the library. But Belle wasn’t there, and neither was she in her room. Instead of wasting any more time searching his vast house for his tiny wife, he took a shower and changed. His clothes didn’t show any suspicious stains, he had made sure of that in his shop, but he knew they were there, and the shame made it almost impossible to look at the suit he had been wearing. Maybe it was good he hadn’t found Belle. And what would he have said to her, anyway? He had no reason to be here at that time of the day. So, after having dressed again, he locked himself into his study, calling his contacts for updates on his wife’s secret identity, and when that turned up negative, he buried himself in paperwork. This time, at least, it worked, and the silence of his study drowned out the world beyond the door.

Chapter Text

For a moment, Belle followed the steam from her teacup swirling through the cold air, melting into the light falling through the glass panels overhead. The orangery was a palace built of crystal, and if it weren’t for the cold, Belle would spend most of her days here just looking out, over the frosted grounds, the garden, where she could see the occasional deer, early in the morning, coming out of the woods to drink dew from the grass, or hares, shy creatures that fled at the tiniest sound. Belle closed her eyes, bathing her face in the light, inhaling the scent of plums and cinnamon and tea, and imagined the glass palace in the summer, filled with plants, flowers, fairy lights and warmth. Colored glass baubles that caught the light and reflected it in rainbows on the tiles on the floor. Right now, all there was in the cold, empty glass house was a wicker armchair that she had stuffed with pillows and blankets to wrap herself into, and an empty wine crate that she used as table to place her books or her tea there. She longed for the summer to chase away the cold and the shadows.

Maybe she really was nothing but a foolish girl, hoping for the sun to get rid of shadows that were cast by ghosts. Maybe she should have protected her heart better, kept it safe, but it had always been made of glass and soil, and as permeable for light as it was for darkness. Rufus had no idea what her jar of soil really meant, and it saddened her to see that he was so damaged. She had needed time to decide how to go on, and now that she had made her decision, she was scared that it was the wrong one. Seeing his shadow clearer now, seeing it for what it was, didn’t make it easier to deal with. And he had lied to her over breakfast. Hoped to distract her by manipulating her.

It wasn’t wise to let him into her heart.

The sky started to turn grey, and it was almost time for Rufus’ tea when she finally left the orangery. She had, once again, forgotten to eat, being so caught up in her book, and her fingers were stiff from the cold, being the only part apart from her nose to peek out of the blankets she had wrapped herself in.

“Why don’t you read somewhere warmer?”, Mrs. Lucas asked her when she sneaked into the kitchen to swipe a cookie or two before she joined Rufus for his tea, and Belle cocked her head while she thought about a response.

“I like the light. Everything else is so gloomy in this house.” She took another cookie before she took up the tray with the tea, and Mrs. Lucas watched her, her eyebrows raised.

“We have electricity, you know. You could turn on a light if it’s too dark.”

“If only it were that easy.”

Rufus was already in the breakfast salon, staring out of the window, and he only turned when she placed the tray with a faint clinking on the table.

“There you are.” He sent her a smile, and the low hum of his voice made something tighten in her belly.

“Have you been waiting for me?” Belle placed a teacup and saucer for him on the table and concentrated all her attention on pouring him tea, trying to ignore the flutter in her stomach when he stepped to her and let his fingertips ghost over the nape of her neck before he sat down.

“I was home all day, but you were in hiding.”

“Oh…” Belle slumped down on her chair, grabbing another cookie to stuff her cheeks and have some time to think. “But I saw you drive to town?”

Rufus curled his hands, rubbing his fingertips, and he didn’t meet her eyes. “I came back. But I had to work anyway.”   

Belle washed the last crumbs of the cookie down with tea and took a deep breath. “Can I ask you some questions?”

His eyebrows shot up, and he didn’t answer right away, pausing so long that Belle was already sure he would decline when he finally nodded. “Of course.”

“What was the incident about? In St. Ogilvy’s?”

Rufus snorted, leaning back in his chair, and he never ceased to rub his fingertips against each other. “They called it a minor incident, but in my opinion, it was anything but. My father tried to rape a nurse.”

“That’s… horrifying.” Belle was shocked, and at a loss how to react.

“Well, crazy might be a better word for it. My father is seventy-five years old, and the nurse in question is a 200 pound former football player… But still. They had to sedate and confine him to get him under control.”

“Does that happen often?”

There was a twitch in his cheek, beneath his eye, before he answered. “There is a reason his nurse is almost six feet tall.”

“I can’t imagine how it must be to have a father like that.” She stared into her teacup and tried to contain the sadness in her voice.

“So you don’t have any unresolved conflicts with your father, despite the mess he left you?” Rufus cocked his head, regarding her like something curious, something that didn’t make sense. Belle pulled her knees up and tucked them under her chin, hugging her shins, rolling herself into a tight knot.

“Well… he had his reasons. He was a good father. The circumstances were what made it hard for him.”

“I can’t say that about my father.”

Belle met his eyes, clouded with a distant rage. At least she knew it was not directed at her this time. “Probably not. But for my father, it was true. It wasn’t his choice to… live as we did.”

“Everyone has a choice. Some people just don’t make the right one.”

Belle sipped on her tea again and fixed her eyes on the ring on his finger. “So, was your choice to marry like this the right one?”

“That remains to be seen, doesn’t it? Was it the right choice for you to marry me?”

“Yes.” She didn’t need to contemplate her answer, didn’t need to hesitate. Maybe not the easiest choice, but the right one in any case.

“Then I hope for you that you don’t come to regret it one day.” He avoided her eyes, concentrating on his tea, and Belle hugged her legs a little tighter.

“I hope so, too.”

They remained silent for the rest of the tea, but it wasn’t a painful silence. When Belle got to her feet, after draining the last of her tea, and gathered the tea things to bring them back into the kitchen, Rufus reached for her hand, clasping her wrist when she reached for his cup. His grip was gentle, and his thumb made little circles on the inside of her wrist, causing her skin to tingle.

“Will I see you tonight, after your knitting circle?”

It was the first time he asked if she would come to him, and Belle told herself that her stomach shouldn’t leap at such a question. The choice was hers. And maybe her insides just tingled because of the longing in his voice, carefully veiled, but plain as day. He took her silence for a refusal, and his thumb on her wrist stilled against her pulse.

“You don’t have to, of course.” He fixed his eyes somewhere beside her hip, not really looking at her, and Belle dared to cup his cheek with her free hand. His eyes fluttered shut for a moment, before he let her tilt his face up to look at her.

“Do you want me to spend time with you?”, she asked, and he turned his face the tiniest bit more into her palm. When she stroked her thumb over his bottom lip, over the stubble on his cheek, a tremor ran through him, and his nostrils flared.

“I’d like that, yes”, he whispered, and Belle smiled at the reluctance that accompanied his words.

“Okay.” She bent down and kissed him, fleetingly, more to sate her own craving for intimacy than his, and he let her go then to carry the tea things into the kitchen and accompany Mrs. Lucas to her knitting circle.

She had not really made any friends there, most of the women being considerably older than she, and meeting her with a certain reserve. It hadn't taken her long to find out that most of it was due to the fact that she was married to Rufus – Mr. Gold to them – and the name alone was enough to inspire fear, although Belle never quite grasped why exactly. No one would tell her the gossip, of course. Today, though, when they entered the living room of Mrs. Lucas' friend, Ruth Shepherd, every single face in the room turned to meet her with anger and distaste. It was like walking into a wall, and Mrs. Lucas grabbed her arm and shoved her behind her, as if to shield her from the rage simmering in the room. It was silent enough to hear a needle drop.

“What the hell happened here?”, Mrs. Lucas asked, and in the middle of the circle, a woman rose to her feet. It was Mrs. Vicente, and her eyes were red and puffy in her pale face.

“How can you bring her here, today of all days?” She pointed a long finger to Belle, who shrank even more behind the shoulders of Rufus’ housekeeper.

“She’s one of us. What makes this day different from any other?”

Ruth rose from her seat on the couch and placed her arm around Mrs. Vicente’s shoulders, as if she needed to support the blonde, and she guided her back to sit on the couch before she ushered Mrs. Lucas and Belle back into the hallway.

“I’m sorry for that, I forgot to call”, she whispered, and Mrs. Lucas grunted.

“It would help if someone could tell me what her bloody problem is.”

“Mr. Gold sent her an eviction note for her shop and her flat today. She has until the end of this week to go, and she has no idea where.”

“Was she late with the rent?” Mrs. Lucas sounded calm, and Belle was glad that the elder woman was there, because she doubted she would have found anything to say.

“No, she wasn’t. But she has an idea what this is about.” Ruth looked at Belle, as if it was her fault. Mrs. Lucas registered the look, too, and her next question sounded decidedly less friendly.

“And what would that be?”

“Mala had a visitor in her shop who was looking for an Isabelle French. All she said was that the description sounded a lot like Belle Gold. Next day, she gets evicted. Awful lot of a coincidence, don’t you think?”

Belle’s stomach turned upside down, and she let go of Mrs. Lucas’ arm and slipped around her into the living room. With a few steps, she crossed the room and crouched down at Mala’s knees. “That man… Did he wear an ugly, black wig? Lots of rings on his hands?”

The blonde wiped over her nose, sniffling, and nodded. “That’s him, yes.”   

“I’m sure he had a heartwrenching story why he was looking for me.”

Mala nodded again, and Belle got back to her feet, searching for Mrs. Lucas. “Can I take the car? I’m sure someone will drive you home later.”

Mrs. Lucas tilted her head and fished for the car keys inside her basket. “Leave him in one piece”, she said, when she extracted the keys and held them out, and Belle gritted her teeth. It was already dark when she reached Shadow Manor, but for a change, Belle didn’t freeze. She was furious, and the rage kept her warm while she started looking for her husband. She found him in his study, hunched over some paperwork, and he looked up in surprise when she entered the room and slammed the door shut behind her.

“Belle… you’re back already…”

“I am. As it turns out, the knitting circle isn’t very welcoming towards the wife of the bastard that evicted one of theirs for no other reason than talking to a stranger. Can you imagine that?”

Rufus narrowed his eyes and placed his fountain pen on the desk, leaning back to steeple his fingers under his chin. Belle crossed the room, shoving the chair in front of the desk to the side to lean over the tabletop, pressing her palms to its surface and staring him down. Rufus licked his lips, and Belle’s anger only grew while she waited for him to answer.

“What on earth were you thinking, Rufus?”

“I was making sure that she realized her mistake.”

“God, you really are a bully, aren’t you? Did you even stop to think about what you were doing?”

“I believe the way I run my business is entirely up to me, dearie.” He placed his hands flat on the table and his eyes glinted with something that made her shiver. But Belle shoved her discomfort back and raised her chin.

“Not when it involves me and my life. Not when I am the reason for you to bully others. You will withdraw that eviction.”

“I will do no such thing.”

“Oh yes, you will.”

“And how do you plan to get me to do it?” He smiled, his teeth glinting, and Belle narrowed her eyes. He still didn’t take her for full, and whatever moment of openness, or intimacy, they had had over tea was gone in here, in this room, where he was a shark, a devil on his throne. Things happening in his study were business. In here, she couldn’t reach him on a personal level, and that was one of the reasons why she hated his study. It was as if he left his humanity outside, shrugged it off like a second skin.

“I’ll make you a deal”, she said, straightening, and he perked up.

“What are you proposing?”, he asked, in a low growl that vibrated between her pelvic  bones and made her realize that her humanity was still very much in place.

“You and me, romantic dinner.” She rested her hands on her hips and lifted her chin, trying her hardest not to let his smirk get to her.

“Ah, but we already have dinner with each other almost every day. You’ll have to do more than that.”

“We eat in the same room. I would hardly call that romantic.”

“Still, the fact remains that your offer is not enough to make me interested in this deal.” He took his fountain pen up again to turn it between his fingers, pure nonchalance, and Belle very much liked to slap it off his face. She tilted her head when she examined that urge. She was not afraid of the darkness right now. She had been, for a moment, when he had grabbed her necklace the night before. Her instinct had told her not to give in to fear, lest he might see a weakness and exploit it. Now, she wasn’t afraid in the least. Furious, but still very much capable to think.

“During that dinner, I will answer you every question you pose.”

“Now we’re getting closer.” Like a dog smelling a bone, he leant forward again, and Belle smiled. She had him.

“Withdraw the eviction, and for as long as the dinner lasts, you may ask me whatever question you want.”

“And you will answer with the truth?”

“Nothing but the truth.”

He tapped his fingertips on the desk and bit his lip. “Alright. Tomorrow, eight o’clock. Don’t disappoint me.”

Belle rolled her eyes. “If you don’t want to be disappointed in romancing, I’m sorry to say that you almost certainly will be exactly that.”

“I don’t believe in romance, precious. That’s nothing but hormones and idiocy.”

Belle stormed from the room, and she didn’t manage not to slam the door shut behind her when she left, but before she could decide otherwise on it, she turned back, shoved the door open again and stalked back to his desk. “Don’t stay up for me, darling. My hormones prefer my own company tonight.”

“Of course. Do as you wish.” He didn’t even look up from his papers again, and Belle had to bite back an angry groan. It would probably get her nowhere. So, instead of arguing any more, she left his study once more, and this time she managed to close the door like a civilized human being. She raided the kitchen for something to eat, although the anger simmering in the pit of her stomach made it hard to swallow anything. But chewing on raw carrots helped her somewhat to calm down.  She still sat in the kitchen  when Mrs. Lucas came back. The housekeeper swept a quick glance over her, and Belle shivered when she wondered if the other woman was checking her for injuries.

“It didn’t go well, huh?” Mrs. Lucas pointed her chin to the half eaten carrot in Belle’s grip, and Belle buried her teeth once more in it. She began to feel nauseous.

“Actually, it did. He’s going to withdraw the eviction. But he’s such a stubborn… arse.”

Mrs. Lucas chuckled, turning to the fridge and looking over the tiny heap of carrots left in there. “Good gracious, how many carrots did you eat?”

“I don’t know. Eight. Ten. Ish.”

“That should be physically impossible.” The housekeeper closed the fridge again and filled the kettle with water, setting it on the stove to boil.

“I was just very angry. Chewing helps to overcome the urge to yell at something.”

“I see.” Mrs. Lucas sat down at the table and extracted the lacy shawl she was knitting from her basket. “So, how did you get him to change his decision? That’s not something he usually does.”

“I made him a deal.”

At that, Mrs. Lucas raised her eyebrows, and Belle blushed.

“I might need some help tomorrow. I offered him a romantic dinner.”

“And he went for that, despite being a stubborn arse? I’m impressed.” She chuckled again, and for a while, until the kettle whistled, the rhythmic clicking of her knitting needles was the only sound. Only when they both had a cup of tea to wrap their hands around, Belle broke the silence again.

“He said he doesn’t believe in romance.”

“Well, he doesn’t know that much about it, I’d say. His parents weren’t exactly of the romantic kind, and their marriage turned sour pretty quickly.”

Belle blew on her tea and watched Mrs. Lucas knit stitch after stitch, creating a pattern of holes and stitches that formed, somehow, roses and leaves. “What happened to his father’s brother? The firstborn?”

Mrs. Lucas let her knitting needles sink into her lap and frowned. “Rufus’ mother was the firstborn. Malcolm had to take on her name to get his hands on the money.”

“Oh. I thought… He said his father wasn’t a firstborn…”

“Well, he wasn’t. But I suspect it’s easier to catch fish with bare hands than to extract some useful information from the boy.” She smiled, somewhat dreamy, and Belle crinkled her nose.

“Isn’t he, like, forty-nine or something?”

“Yes, but he’ll always be my boy. By the way, you’re a little green around the nose. Sure that you’re alright?”

Belle nodded, but the next moment, she jumped to her feet and headed for the bathroom, throwing up a generous amount of orange colored mush. “That’s what I get for trying to eat my anger away”, she groaned, after returning pale and shaking into the kitchen to wash away the bitter taste at the back of her throat with tea.

“Poor girl.” Mrs. Lucas prepared her a hot water bottle and a thermos of tea to take up to her room with her, but when she finally snuggled under a heap of blankets, pressing the hot water bottle to her stomach, she was still shaking and miserable, and sleep didn't come for a long time.

Chapter Text

She wasn’t much better the next morning, and she skipped her yoga routine, as well as breakfast with Rufus, instead munching away dry toast in the kitchen. She waited until he had left for work before she took a car out of the garage to drive to town. She hadn’t been really shopping in Storybrooke yet, and she took her time, wandering about (always taking care to avoid coming near Rufus’ shop) and buying everything she suspected of being useful in creating a romantic atmosphere. It was sad that her efforts probably would go unappreciated, and while she bought fairy lights and a palettes of Mason jars, candles and, out of a whim, white sheep skins, she remembered how tender and loving her parents had been with each other. Most of her memories were blurry, veiled by the time that had gone by since she had been a little girl, but even when she didn’t remember a lot of her parents together, she would never forget the soft, distant look in her father’s eyes whenever he spoke of her mother. And the story of their love was ingrained in Belle’s own flesh, in her bones, like a compass needle pointing her towards the north star, giving her the certainty of true love.

“Never settle for less, darling”, her father had told her. And at the same time, while he made sure of their survival, he created, stitch by stitch, a fate that forced his daughter into a marriage that had the very exclusion of love in its premise.

Belle scooped up a box of sand from the beach, too, and she looked out onto the grey sea with a sigh. “Oh dad, I wish I knew what to do now”, she whispered, but her words drowned in the wind and the waves, and when she left the beach and walked back to her car, she was just as lost as before.

Back at Shadow Manor, Mrs. Lucas helped her to drag the heavy iron wrought garden furniture into the orangery, where Belle planned to have her dinner. It would be cold, but it would be the next best thing to a picnic under the stars. She left the cooking to Mrs. Lucas, ordering nothing but pasta with tomato sauce and chocolate cake with cream for dessert, while she set to decorating the glass house, filling sand into mason jars and placing candles inside, and stuffing the fairy lights into other, empty mason jars, placing them on the floor along the glass walls and around the table, and stuffing the garden chairs with pillows and blankets and sheepskins. It was very simple, but once it would be dark, all the light, reflected by the glass panels, would create a magical atmosphere. When she was satisfied, it was already tea time, but she skipped that, too, and went to her room to take a shower and prepare herself. She tried not to think too hard about what kind of questions Rufus would ask, trying to ignore the power she granted him, trying to ignore how vulnerable she felt at the prospect of being interrogated by him. By someone who could be ruthless and cruel, and who had no reason to spare her anything.

She entered the dining room at eight on the dot, and of course he was already waiting, sitting at the head of the table with his hands steepled in front of him, and his eyes were dark when he looked at her and took in the coat and scarf she was wearing. Belle ignored the trembling in her stomach and squared her shoulders.

“I thought this is supposed to be a romantic dinner?” He gestured to the empty table, raising a brow, and Belle clenched her teeth. The anger from the day before was not gone yet.

“We’re not eating here. Put that on.” She placed his coat and scarf on the table in front of him, and for a moment he looked as if he was about to refuse. But he didn’t, instead pushing his chair back and getting to his feet. After he slipped into his coat and wrapped the scarf around his neck, he followed her out into the hall and through the east wing to the orangery. She refrained from taking his arm, and he made no move to touch her either. He didn’t immediately step through the door into the glass house after she pushed open the heavy double door that led outside, and Belle watched him as he inspected the table, surrounded by candles and shimmering lights, biting her lip and clawing her hands into her skirt.

“You caught light in mason jars”, he murmured at last, and his eyes were wide when he stepped out into the glass house and pivoted once to take in the whole room.

“Do you like it?” Belle hated that she sounded like a little girl, and Rufus narrowed his eyes when he focused on her.

“It’s nice.”

Belle tried not to deflate at his answer, but her smile felt more like a grimace on her face. Without looking at him, she stalked to the table and sat down, without waiting for him to pull out her chair or do any of his usual mannerisms. Mrs. Lucas had already placed the pasta on the table, in a tureen of porcelain, and all Belle had to do was serve them. Of course Rufus frowned when she handed him his portion, and his lips twitched.

“So am I supposed to eat pasta and freeze to death? I’m not sure if that’s enough to fulfill your end of the bargain, dear.”

“Everyone knows that pasta with tomato sauce is the most romantic dinner there is.” Belle used her fork to stab at her rigatoni, and Rufus snorted.

“Where on earth did you get that idea?”

“My father taught me that. My parents fell in love over pasta.” She shoveled pasta into her mouth and refused to look at him, so his soft chortle came as a surprise.

“That sounds like a true tragedy.”

“And that was not a question.” Belle spoke with her mouth still full with pasta, but she didn’t care. He didn’t have the least idea about her life, or her parents, so he could take his judgmental crap and shove it up to where the sun didn’t shine.

“True. Would you please look at me?” His voice was gentle, but Belle still pressed her lips into a thin line when she turned her face to him. His eyes glinted in the golden light of the candles, and Belle’s nostrils flared when he placed his fingertips under her chin to tilt her face up a little more, and took his napkin to dab at the corner of her mouth. “You have a little tomato sauce there”, he murmured, with a smile, and her cheeks flushed with heat.

“Isn’t it enough to mock me? Do you have to humiliate me, too?” Belle blinked, trying to bite back the tears, and Rufus leant closer, unsmiling, and following the curve of her bottom lip with his thumb. It made her lips tingle, and she longed to lick the feeling away, but his thumb was still on her lip and kept her from doing it.

“I’m sorry, Belle. It wasn’t my intent to do either. Clearly, I’m not very adept at having romantic dinners, so I am in no way an expert in what is or isn’t a romantic meal.” He let go of her face, leaning back, and Belle sucked in air as if she had been suffocating. Maybe she had held her breath, but if so, she didn’t know.

“Maybe it would be a good start to eat”, she whispered, and that brought the smile back to his face.

“Yes, indeed.” He started picking at his pasta, and if he would continue at this rate, they would still be eating in the morning. Belle had already cleared half of her plate when he picked up his third fork.

“Wine?”, she asked, to keep herself from eating too fast, and poured them both a glass of red wine.

“So, your parents loved each other?” Rufus looked at her over the brim of his wineglass, after clinking it to hers, and Belle wondered if her interrogation was about to start now. She tried not to tremble, and tried not to break the delicate glass in her grip.

“Yes, they did. Very much. My dad missed mom till the day he died.”

“How long have they been together?”

“Ten years. I was eight when mom died.”

Rufus fixed his eyes on his wine, and swirled it around the glass. “How did she die?”

Belle hesitated. “Car accident.”

“I’m sorry. That must have been devastating.”

Belle tilted her head and waited for him to meet her eyes. “How old were you?”

Rufus straightened and set the glass down without having taken a single sip. “I believe I am asking the questions.”

“Of course.” Belle returned her concentration to her plate, stabbing at her rigatoni a little too hard, and Rufus reached over the table and placed his hand on hers, stilling her movements.

“I believe the pasta is already dead.” He moved his thumb in little circled above her pulse, and her skin began to tingle. “I was nine. It was… not long after the incident in the stables.”

“When the horses were taken away?”

He licked over his lip and let go of her hand, and his breath condensed in white mist between them when he exhaled. “Yes. When the horses were taken away.” He sounded hoarse, and this time it was Belle who reached over the table and took his hand.

“I’m sorry.”

He huffed, but he didn’t pull his hand out of her grip. “Did you think about what you want for Christmas?”

“Now that’s just mean. I would answer that truthfully if I knew something, but the truth is I have no idea.”

“Nothing? No fancy jewelry, clothes, a book?”

Belle wanted to pull back her hand, but he turned his palm up and clasped her wrist, too fast for her to escape his grip, and he turned on his seat and pulled her chair closer to him without letting go of her, until her knees were trapped between his thighs and he was close enough for her to feel his breath condense on her lashes. With gentle hands, he pulled her hand into his lap, pushing back her sleeve and painting circles on the inside of her wrist. Belle hardly dared to breathe.

“No bracelet with diamonds?”, he rasped, before sliding his free hand up her arm, over her shoulder, cupping the nape of her neck. His thumb came to a rest beneath her ear, and he circled her earlobe, making her shiver. “No earrings with pearls?”

“No.”

“Then tell me, what would make you happy?”

Belle leant closer, or maybe he pulled her closer with his hand in her neck. She wasn’t sure about it, and she wondered if it even mattered. Her lips prickled, and she pressed them together to keep herself from melting against him. Tried to remember her anger and gather it like a shield around her heart. “How about the first thing you come upon that makes you think of me?”

He let go of her neck, his hand falling down into his lap, and leant back. But he still had her wrist clasped, a thumb above her pulse, and for the first time she wondered if it was maybe to feel her pulse flutter… to feel when she was lying. Not affectionate at all.

“As you wish. So, tell me, the first night you came to me… Why did you do it?”

Belle’s stomach plummeted, and his grip around her wrist tightened when she sucked in her breath. “I told you, I was afraid to lose my courage. I wanted to get it over with. I feared, if I would wait, my fear would grow, and I would not be able to go through with it at all. I wanted to make it final. Because as long as it wasn’t final, there was still a chance that… I would run.” She looked down, didn’t meet his eyes.

“And you were so scared of me that the urge to run was nearly impossible to overcome, right?”

She swallowed, and nodded.

“You are so very foolish. Brave, but foolish.” The words were only a whisper, but they twisted Belle’s stomach upside down. She would always be a fool to him, and opening her heart wouldn’t change that. If anything, he would think her even more foolish for it.

“But I am no longer scared.”

“Even after everything you know about me? After what I’ve done to Black?”

“I guess that’s his job hazard. I’m not condoning it, make no mistake. But I can see the reason why you did it.”

He loosened his grip on her wrist somewhat, gentled his touch, and Belle shivered when he returned to caress her skin, rubbing circles into her palm. But it was a pleasant shiver.

“Do you have any friends, Belle? You seem incredibly lonely.”

She tilted her head and tried to determine if he was really as concerned and apprehensive as he sounded. “I never lived anywhere long enough to make real friends. Not ones that I kept in contact with anyway.”

His fingers stilled, and he held her hand like something fragile, like the blossom of a waterlily, maybe, and he held her gaze, without the piercing, drilling edge it had had before. “So, do you miss having friends?”

“No. I was always content with my books, with myself and my father. I didn’t miss having friends… but now that dad is gone, I miss having someone to talk to. I didn’t realize how much he meant to me just as a friend.”

“What about the women of the knitting circle? No one there you could make friends with?”

Belle snorted. “They’re really reserved towards me. I wonder why.”

Rufus curled his hands around hers and rubbed over her ring, and, without breaking eye contact, lifted her hand to his lips and pressed a kiss to her knuckles, and to his ring on her finger. Belle leant towards him again, pulled closer by the intensity of his dark eyes, and her breath came shallow. Something curled inside her belly, below her navel, and flooded her with heat.

“Your pasta… is getting cold”, she whispered, and Rufus chuckled, pressing a kiss to the inside of her wrist.

“Yes, it is. But isn’t the purpose of a romantic dinner to be romantic?”

“Do you want me to answer that?”

“No, that was a rhetorical question. But answer me this: How does this feel?” He leant towards her, brushing his lips along her jaw, and placed a kiss beneath her earlobe. Belle took a shuddering breath, humming, and bit her lip when he threaded his fingers into her hair, pulling her head back the tiniest bit to press and open mouthed kiss to her throat, warm and wet.

“It feels… good”, she stammered, and Rufus chuckled against her throat.

“Be precise. Do you want me to continue?”

Belle curled her hands into the sleeves of his coat, let them wander to his scarf to pull him closer, or keep him in place, she didn’t know. “Yes, please. Continue. It makes me tingle all over, and prickle, and…” She trailed off when he kissed his way back to her ear and sucked on the tender spot at the side of her neck, beneath her earlobe.

“And what?”, he murmured, and his voice hummed over her skin and sent another shiver down her spine.

“And it warms me from within, and makes me breathless, and…”

“Continue, sweetheart. I want to know.” He scraped his teeth over her skin, down her neck, pushing her scarf out of the way, and Belle moaned when he opened his mouth and placed a gentle bite at the crook of her neck, sucking away the sting.

“Wet”, she whispered, and now he made a sound deep at the back of his throat, too, and pulled her from her chair onto his lap. Her skirt skidded up her thighs, and Belle searched for his lips, desperate for a kiss.

“What do you want me to do?”, he rasped, before he captured her lips, holding her still with his hand at the back of her head, and Belle opened up for him, to let him in, to kiss her with teeth and tongue, deep and wet and a little clumsy.

“Just… keep kissing me”, she whispered, against his skin, rubbing her face against the stubble on his jaw, and Rufus let his hands fall down, to her thighs, rubbing in circles and cupping her behind to pull her closer.

“You are entirely overdressed”, he stated, murmuring against her throat, before he planted another row of kisses along her jaw, and Belle could only groan in response.

“Do you want me to take something off?”

His grip on her ass tightened, almost painful for a moment, but before she could protest, he relaxed again. “Since dinner is not over yet, and I am still the one asking question… Do you want to take something off?”

Belle gulped air and pressed herself to his chest, even though there were decidedly too many layers of clothing between them, before she slid off his lap and bent down to shuck off her shoes and wriggle out of tights and panties. The cold floor made her shiver, and her legs were covered in goose bumps when she straddled him again, snuggling as close as possible to feel the warmth he provided. And he was definitely hard for her.

“I take that as a yes.” Rufus kissed her again, taking his time with nibbling and sucking on her lips before he ventured to explore her more thoroughly. Belle had never really liked kisses before, too wet and odd and slightly uncomfortable with all the mingling saliva, but she liked his kisses, liked the feeling of his lips, not too soft, but not too hard either, and more gentle probing than invasion.

“Do you want me to touch you, Belle?”, he asked, after tearing away from her lips, and Belle nodded, and whimpered when he wriggled a hand between them, trailing a path up her thigh, to the juncture of her legs. “Here?”, he asked, when he found her center, and dipped a fingertip between her folds, spreading her wetness, making her squirm and gasp.

“Yes. There is good.” She clung to his shoulders, and felt him smile against her neck, just before he scraped his teeth over her skin once more.

“Tell me, darling, why did you give me the jar of dirt?”

Belle had difficulties to make out his words, difficulties to gather enough of her brains to form an answer, because just then, he circled her clit with wet fingertips, making her core brim, and her belly tighten with a tension that made her breathless, and she twitched as he rubbed along the little nub again and again. “I… I wanted to show you… that I care for you. Offer you warmth… kindness… acceptance…”

“Why?” He pinched her, and Belle gasped, and gasped again when he slid his fingers inside her, gently, and curled them, finding a spot inside her that made her groan, and made the tension between her pelvic bones leap and increase, until she was sure she would break from within if she didn’t reach her climax, and soon. He rubbed the heel of his hand against her clit, creating friction that tingled through every nerve ending. “Why, Belle?”

“Because you need it.”  

He stopped moving his fingers, and Belle nearly sobbed, rolling her hips in an attempt to stay on that high, to reach for the climax that seemed to hover just out of reach. He rubbed his other hand along her spine, upwards, between her shoulder blades, and up in her hair, pulling her head back again to bare her throat to him, to kiss and bite her, and she whimpered, unable to contain her need.

“Tell me, Belle, would you ever keep secrets from me?”

“What?” Belle grabbed a fistful of his hair, pulling him back to meet his eyes. They were dark, glinting with something she could not quite grasp. His hand at the back of her head pulled her closer, so close that his lips grazed her jaw when he repeated his question.

“Would you keep secrets from me?”

“I… I don’t know?”

He curled his fingers inside her, sending another wave of heat through her, and her thighs started shaking, out of control. “Is that a question?”

“No… Yes… It depends on the secret, I suppose.”

“Ah.” Now he increased the pressure on her clit again, and on that spot inside her, and the tension broke, washing over her, and Belle tensed, felt her muscles spasm around his fingers as she came. He held her through the aftershocks, pressed kisses to her neck, her face, until she stopped shaking and slumped into a boneless heap on his lap. Only then did he pull his hand from her, his fingers glistening in the candlelight, and he sucked her wetness from them with a smile. It was a soft smile, almost happy, and Belle came close to forgetting that last question over the beauty of that smile. It transformed his face, his whole aura, made her almost forget the shark that lurked beneath the surface, the dark shadow that sometimes overtook him. But when he looked down at her face, his eyes no longer dark, but full of longing, of hunger, she remembered, and she pushed herself up and slid from his lap, back onto her chair, wrapping herself in a blanket against the cold.

“What secrets do you suspect me of hiding?”, she asked, and he narrowed his eyes.

“I didn’t have dessert yet, so I believe dinner is not over yet. Though you are delicious enough to count as dessert. However, it’s still me asking the questions.” He reached for his wineglass and observed her over the brim, and if she wouldn’t have seen the wine rippling the tiniest bit, if she wouldn’t have seen his hand shaking almost invisibly, she would have hated him for his coldness, his nonchalance, and probably flung the rest of her pasta at his face. But she did see it. She licked her lips, raw from kisses, and took a deep breath.

“You will only withdraw the eviction when we finish the dinner with dessert, I gather?”

“Well, that’s self-evident, isn’t it?” He grinned, his gold tooth catching the light, and Belle clenched her fists harder into her blanket.

“Obviously.” Now she reached for her wineglass and took a large swallow, grimacing at the taste of it. Her limbs still behaved like pudding, a heaviness lingering from the pleasure he had given her, and her anger brought her spirits only slowly back.

“Does this displease you?”

“No. What displeases me is that for a man who once was afraid of the weapon between his legs, you’re awfully good at using sex as a tool.”

“What?” Rufus jerked, but at least he managed not to knock over any glasses this time.

“You just used sex in the hopes to get me to give away… I don’t know what. What is it you really want to know?”

It was hard to see in the golden light of the candles and fairy lights, but Rufus blushed, and seemed unable to meet her eyes. “That’s ridiculous”, he said, and Belle snorted.

“I could feel that you liked it, I give you that. Question is, did it make you hard to be close to me, to touch me and feel me, or did it make you hard to use the power you just had over me?”

“I… what?” He fidgeted with his ring, rubbing the heel of his hand against his thigh, all the while avoiding her eyes.

“Did you do it on purpose? Or did you just take the opportunity when it offered itself?”

“I have no idea what you are talking about.” Rufus took another sip of wine and concentrated on his plate, stabbing at his pasta, as if the problem would go away if he ignored it long enough. There was a knot beneath Belle’s breastbone, something roiling and coiling, like snakes. Rage.

“Let me show you.” She got to her feet, taking one of the sheepskins covering her chair, and tossed it to the floor beside his chair.

“What are you doing?” Rufus looked as if he was about to run, a little like a frightened chicken.

“Giving you a lesson. Turn around.”

He hesitated, but when Belle dived for his knees, he hurried to turn on his seat, and Belle pushed her knee between his thighs to step between his legs, curling her naked toes into the sheepskin.

“Belle…”

Belle grabbed his chin and forced him to look at her. There was a flicker of uneasiness in his eyes, or maybe it was anger. But when she bent down to press her lips on his, his pupils blew wide, and whatever had been there was washed away. Without breaking the kiss, Belle reached for the buckle of his belt, brushing over his hard-on as she did so, and started to undo his pants. He didn’t reach for her, though his hands were opening and closing on his thighs, kneading his pants.

“You are still hard… or hard again?”, she asked, after breaking the kiss, and Rufus swallowed heavily. Belle scraped her nails over the stubble on his cheek before she trailed down his throat to fish for his tie, somewhere beneath his scarf. His only answer was a hitching of his breath when she wriggled her other hand inside his pants and closed it around his cock, twitching and hot in her grip. “Doesn’t matter anyway”, she murmured, giving him a few hard rubs, just as she knew he liked it.

“Belle…” There was an urgent edge to his voice now, needy, and she smiled.

“What? It’s only fair to give you what you have given me, isn’t it?”

“Alright, I’m sorry. Can we have dessert now?” He sounded almost desperate, but also cranky, as if he despised her for wrenching those words from his lips, and Belle narrowed her eyes. Each time he apologised, there was a little twitch above the corner of his mouth, nearly invisible, a reaction he couldn’t control. She wondered if he even knew that it was there.

“Oh, I’m planning on having dessert, yes.” She smiled, kicking his legs a little farther apart, and went down to her knees. He almost jumped off the chair.

“Wait, no, what are you doing?” There was almost certainly panic in his voice now, and Belle looked up, crinkling her nose, and for the first time there was a twinge of worry that her plan of giving him his own medicine could go wrong.

“What does it look like?”

“Don’t… you don’t need to do that…” He tried to slide back on his chair, but since she still had her hand wrapped around him, he didn’t get very far. Belle stroked along his length, and a whimper broke over his lips.

“I know that I don’t need to do that. Are you telling me you don’t want me to do that?” In talking, she freed his erection, unwrapped him like a present, and it was not only anger coiling inside her when he sprang up before her eyes. In fact, it was mostly not anger.

“I… no…” She met his eyes, and he stared down at her, transfixed, and he seemed almost unable to breathe.

“So, what do you want? Tell me.” She leant a little forward, bringing her lips close to the tip of his cock, breathing over him, and he whimpered again, his hands rubbing his thighs in a nervous rhythm.

“Belle…”

She wetted her lips with her tongue before she placed a kiss on his tip, and Rufus groaned, his hands stilling, clenching, clawing at his pants as if he needed to keep himself together, keep himself from coming apart. When she opened her mouth to close it around his tip, he thrust back his head, and his thighs started to shake. Belle let go of him again and waited, her hand still wrapped around the base of his cock, until he looked at her again.

“What do you want to know of me? What is it you suspect me of hiding?”

“I… nothing…” He sounded raw, hoarse, desperate, and Belle licked along the underside of his shaft before she closed her lips around the tip again, swirling her tongue around him before she took him in a little deeper. She hollowed her cheeks, relishing the needy sound he made at the back of his throat before she let go of him again.

“What is it you want to know?”

“Belle, please…” He unclenched his hands, flexed them, as if he was fighting the urge to reach for her. He gasped when she licked over him again, her tongue soft, licking up the milky droplet of seed that seeped from his tip. He almost sobbed.

“You only have to ask me, darling. Ask me open and honestly, and I will answer with the truth.”

He reached for her, a hand raking through her hair, and he looked almost tortured. She brought her lips to his cock again, kissing him, sucking him in for a moment and letting go again, and his hand in her hair tensed.

“If… if there was something in your past that I should know, would you tell me?”, he asked, finally, barely more than a whisper, and Belle sat back on her heels.

“I think I already told you everything you need to know.”

“So there is something you’re not telling me?” Now his voice was steadier again, as if he felt safer, now that her lips weren’t as close to his cock anymore.

“Is this what this is about? There are tons of things I haven’t told you about me. Do you want to know what my first words were? When I learned to ride a bike? My first kiss?” She gave him a few strokes to keep him hard, and his eyes widened when he realized that she was not finished yet.

“Of course, not, no…”

Belle smiled and leaned forward again, and he made a sound close to a hiccup, his hands in her hair tightening again. “So, what do you want me to do now, Rufus? And be precise.” She breathed over his cock again, the tip still wet, and it twitched, as if he couldn’t wait for her lips to touch him again. He was breathing hard, panting, and whimpered when she licked her lips.

“Please, Belle, get up. I don’t want you to do this. I don’t want to hurt you.” There was something close to fear in his voice, as if the possibility of her lips around his cock scared him out of his wits.

“Hurt me? Darling, believe me, if you hurt me, you will notice. Why are you so afraid?”

“I… Does it really matter? Just be glad that you don’t have to do this.” He wanted to pull her up to her feet, but Belle resisted.

“But what if I want to do this? If I want to hear the needy little sound you make when I do this…” She bent forward again and sucked him into her mouth, and he gasped. Belle moved her head a few times, taking as much of him in as she managed, before she let go again. “What if I like to do it because I like to taste you, and like to see you twitch and shake for me?”

“Belle…”

“Rufus, I trust you. Now let me have my dessert.” He moaned, a high sound that made her tingle all over when she closed her lips around him once more, and he didn’t protest again. Belle closed her eyes, concentrated on the feeling of him on her tongue, took care not to scrape her teeth over him, and groaned when he shuddered, and panted, when his hands raked through her hair and his fingertips ghosted over the nape of her neck, slipping under the collar of her coat and up again. She had told herself that this was to punish him, to give him a taste of his own medicine, but it was a lie. She wanted to do this, because it meant something to her to give him this. He meant something to her. She pressed her tongue to his shaft, sucked on his tip, and need throbbed between her legs, fired her desire up again. He was at her mercy, helpless, begging her not to stop, whimpering, and Belle pressed her thighs together to create a little friction, clenching her insides to somehow increase the tingle, the heat, the feeling of the universe swirling inside her.

“Oh god, Belle…” His grip in her hair tightened, clamped her in place when his cock started to pulse and released his seed, flooding her mouth warm and salty, but he loosened his grip the same moment, and Belle continued to slurp down every last drop, until his cock stopped pulsing and he slowly softened in her mouth. She sat back, smiling, and licked the last salty droplets from her lips where she had spilled them. Rufus watched her, wide-eyed and shaking, with a mixture of fascination and horror. “I am so sorry”, he whispered, and Belle creased her forehead.

“Why?”

“I… you… You didn’t have to swallow that…” He blushed, and Belle giggled. She extended her hand, so he could help her up, and groaned when her knees creaked.

“Darling, you taste delicious”, she said, placing a kiss on the tip of his nose, and he blushed even more. “So, now that that’s settled… Any more questions?”

Rufus stared for a moment down at his lap before he started to tuck himself away in hasty movements, as if it was the most indecent thing to sit there half exposed to her gaze, and Belle bit her lip. It was indecent, but oh, how she liked it to see him like that. So completely robbed of his indifference and coldness and dignity, open and vulnerable and so very human. She slumped down on her chair again, and Rufus squirmed on his seat, as if his suit was suddenly much smaller and much too tight.

“I can’t think of anything, but that might be because you sucked out my brains…” He stared at her lips in wonder, and his eyes widened when she licked them again, slowly, and rolling her hips because of the tightness between her legs.

“Then I’d say dinner is over and we can proceed to the bedroom, where you may reciprocate the favour.”

He dabbed his lips with his napkin after swallowing the rest of his wine, and nodded, still looking as if he just witnessed a miracle. When Belle took his hand to pull him to his feet, and lead the way to his bedroom, her knees were no longer just shaking from kneeling on the hard tiles, in the cold, but also from the relief of not having to answer any more questions. If he had posed his last question just a tiny bit differently, had asked her what she was not telling him, instead of if there was something at all, she would probably have to pack now. Because who would ever choose her if they were in their right mind?

Chapter Text

The first thing you come upon that makes you think of me. If only it were that easy. Everything made him think of her, and Rufus was none the wiser now than he had been before. The sky made him think of her, the crunching sound of the gravel beneath his feet, the soft purr of the Cadillac, the tingle of the bell above his shop’s entrance. Everything made him think of her, in every possible way. Made him think of her smile, the feel of her skin beneath his palms, her sweet moans when he touched her, kissed her, took her. The biting cold that reddened his own cheeks made him think of the way she flushed over breakfast when he looked at her and noticed the way the tips of her breasts puckered under his gaze, painfully visible under her tight dress. The snow covering the grounds made him think of her teeth when she bit her lip, her breath hitching when she looked down and veiled her eyes with those impossibly dark lashes. Everything made him think of her, and the images that flooded his mind made him seek out an appointment with Dr. Hopper.

Though, he hadn’t dreamed of strangling her again, after she took off the necklace. Still, his fixation on his wife, on her every move, every breath she took, had him terrified. They were so very compatible at night, in his bed, and so very far apart during the day, when he fought the urge to… well, he didn’t exactly know what. But he supposed that it was despicable.

Three days before Christmas, he still didn’t know what to give her, and she didn’t offer him a lot of insight in what might please her. She was a blank slate. She did yoga in the mornings, she read and knitted, and she had a collection of jars with dirt and sand. Like a moth, she was attracted to light, surrounded herself with light during the days and candles and fairylights at night, going as far as installing some of those over the headboard of his bed. “So I can see what I’m doing to you”, she said, with that smile that made him want to push her against the wall and kiss her until she gasped for breath. Of course he didn’t do that. He wasn’t opposed to the soft light in his bedroom, giving her skin the color of honey, making her glisten like liquid gold when she rode him, covered in sweat, letting him trail the faint blushes on her chest, on her breasts and her stomach with his fingertips, down to the dark red petals of her sex. No, he wasn’t opposed to the light she brought into his life. But all the light she brought only darkened the shadows, made them pitch black and tenacious, as persistent as the ache between his ribs whenever he looked at her.

“When did that ache start?”, Dr. Hopper asked, and strangely enough, he knew the exact moment his chest cavity had done this thing that felt like an implosion for the first time.

“When she sat atop the table and asked me if it irked me when something is out of place.”

“Ah.” Dr. Hopper smiled, and Rufus decided that this so called therapist had to be a fraud. “Does it?”

“Does it what?”

“Irk you? When she behaves differently from what you expect?” Hopper still smiled, as if he was listening to crickets sing somewhere at the back of his mind.

“No.” Rufus rolled his cane between his palms and concentrated on the reflection of the light on the metal of the handle. It irked him immensely when things didn’t go as he expected and wanted them to go. When his plans, carefully laid out, didn’t bring the intended results. But it didn’t anger him when Belle bristled, when she stomped her foot, poked him with words and turned her godforsaken stubbornness against him. “I like it when she’s angry”, he said, and a smile slipped over his lips before he could stop it.

Dr. Hopper lifted his furry eyebrows . “And why is that so?”

Rufus rubbed his ring, and he didn’t look at Hopper when he saw Belle’s hand in front of his inner eye, saw the white gold ring, and felt it scrape over his skin when she touched him, with that smile that lit her eyes from within. When she squared her shoulders, tiny as she was, and dug her heels into the ground, his blood began to sing. “Because she isn’t afraid anymore. Because she’s angry and loud and vocal.”

The sessions with Dr. Hopper helped somewhat to see things clearer. But he was still in the dark about what to get Belle for Christmas. The jar with soil still sat on his nightstand, a constant reminder of her trust, even though he had no idea how he had earned that, and he knew that he could give her nothing that meant half as much as her dirt meant. Although…

He was positively shaking on Christmas Day, and probably whiter than the snow that had fallen over night. Belle had slept at his side, but when the first light crept in (through the window and the no longer closed shutters, because Belle hated it to sleep with the shutters closed), she was awake, bouncing on her knees and oscillating like a flibbertigibbet.

“Gods, Belle, I’m going to get seasick if you don’t stop”, he groaned, and she giggled and poked him between his ribs.

“Yes, I don’t care. Wake up, I have a present for you.”

“Patience, dear. I’m an old man, and you act like a three year old.” He tried to shut out the light by pressing his arm to his eyes, but Belle used the opportunity to tickle his armpit, and he grabbed her, with a grunt, and rolled atop of her, burying her under his weight and smothering her with a kiss. He shouldn’t like to kiss her this much, but what started as a punishment for her insolence soon degenerated into something else entirely. But before he could take things further – and he had a growing proof that he very much wanted that to press against her hip – she tore away, wriggling out of his arms, slippery like an eel, and hopped out of the bed, naked like the day she was born. Instead of searching her pajamas (that had vanished somewhere between the door and the bed the night before), she slipped into the shirt he had worn the day before, placed neatly on his valet stand. Rufus tried to cover his affliction (that grew only heavier when he saw her wearing nothing but his shirt) with the blanket, and his skin grew hot and tight when she smirked at his fruitless attempts.

“If that’s my present, yours has to wait until I unwrapped that.”

“That’s already yours”, he said, and Belle waggled her eyebrows in a way that should be forbidden.

“Alright. You wait here, I’ll be back in a minute.” In fact, it took her considerably less than a minute to come back, hopping back on the bed and dropping a huge parcel on his chest, wrapped in fancy paper that was adorned with a hideous pattern of pink unicorns. “Everyone needs a little magic”, she murmured when he stared at her, a little dumbfounded, and he decided that whatever was in that present was not as valuable to him as the blush on her cheeks and the sparkle in her eyes when she urged him to unwrap it. When he opened the bow and unfolded the paper, with care and precision, while Belle vibrated at his side like a humming top, barely able to contain her excitement, he wished she had given him nothing but that blush, because the thing inside the paper deserved more than anything to be called a monstrosity.

“Isn’t it comfy?”, Belle called out when he held the knitted sweater up to stare at its whole, purple glory, and she ripped it out of his hand and held it to his chest (naked, and instantly itching when she rubbed the wool of the knitted abomination over him), and she radiated happiness like a nuclear fuel rod radiated radioactivity.

“It’s… beautiful”, he choked out, and Belle flung her arms around him (and the sweater) and smothered him with kisses. That was better than any present, but just when his hands sneaked up to her waist (with the intention to go upwards from there), she sat back again, and held the sweater up again. It resembled more a sack with two longer, narrow sacks attached to it, and at the front flaunted the head of a stag with irregular antlers.

“I knitted it myself. It’s the first sweater I did, can you believe it?”

“I never would have thought.” Rufus stroked over the stag’s head and felt little bumps at its edges.

“It was my first colorwork, too. I had a few difficulties with organizing the threads at the back of it…” Now she was covered with a shade almost as dark as the purple of his sweater, and under the blanket, something twitched and reminded him of the need still pulsing through his veins.

“I am… touched. Thank you, Belle.”

She deflated somewhat, and he realized that he had to do something to distract her, and quickly, before she latched on to his dislike of knitwear in general and purple sweaters with stag heads in particular. “Now close your eyes, sweetheart, I’ve got something for you, too.”

She started to vibrate again immediately, closing her eyes, and she tilted her head when he bent to the side to retrieve her present out of the drawer of his nightstand.

“But if it’s the thing under the blanket, I’ve already seen that”, she said, when the sheets rustled, and Rufus rolled his eyes.

“Don’t be silly. Hold out your hand.”

She obeyed, biting her lip, and Rufus wondered how she had survived all the tension she was oscillating with to this morning. How could anyone be so excited over Christmas? She even squeaked when he placed the small box of velvet on her palm, and she flounced on her knees like a Chihuahua with a caffeine overdose.

“Open your eyes”, he said, softly, and her eyes flew open and to the box on her palm. She was chewing on her lip, and he began to fear she would chew it off.

“May I open it?”

“Go ahead.” Now he held his breath, preparing for the inevitable disappointment when she would open the small box and find her present inside.

She opened the little box, and for a moment, she was absolutely silent. Too silent. So silent that his heart stopped and he started to reach for the box in her palm to take it away, apologize, give her the other box in his drawer, the one with the earrings with garnets red as dried blood. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean… I have something else…”, he stammered, but Belle bounced back, out of his reach, and stared down at the box with tears in her eyes.

“It’s a button”, she whispered, and Rufus pressed his eyes shut.

“Yes… I… it snapped off my coat the other day, and I remember that you never had a drawer of old buttons, and I thought… you could add it to my drawer, or start your own, if you want, that is…” He trailed off, wondering how he ever could have thought that this was a good idea, but the next moment he groaned when Belle flung herself at him and knocked the air out of his lungs.

“This is the single most best thing anyone ever gave to me and I love you. It. I love it.” She started showering his face with kisses, and he almost hadn’t heard the little slip. And when he registered what she had just said, he preferred to pretend he hadn’t, preferred to let her kiss him and pretend that the horror in the pit of his stomach didn’t exist. There was an awkward moment of silence when she pulled back and wiped the tears from her face.

“Please, don’t cry. It’s just a button.” He caught one of her tears with his thumb, rubbing the salt from her cheek, and she tried to smile.

“It’s so much more. It’s… a home. You give me a home.”

“Oh, sweetheart, this wasn’t a home before you came.” The pet name slipped so easily over his lips now, as if it didn’t mean anything, but just like, for her, the button was more than just a button, the endearment was more than just a pet name. But he was not ready to face that reality. Not yet. Belle didn’t answer. Instead, she snuggled into his arm, pressing the box with the button to her chest, and draping her arm around his waist.

“I only ever celebrated Christmas with my father. We always had little homemade gifts for each other. One time I tried to brew beer. It was terrible, but he drank it and acted as if he had never had a better beer.” She snorted softly, lost in the memory, and Rufus pressed a kiss to the crown of her head.

“My father used to drink on Christmas Eve. My mother never said a word. But she had this look in her eyes.”

Belle lifted her head and looked at him, and he tried to smile. As if it didn’t mean anything.

“What look?”

“I guess it was fear. Anger. But she never said a word.”

Belle tightened her grip around his waist, and he played with a strand of her hair, wrapping it around a finger and letting it spring loose again. After a while of raking through her hair, he started to twist it into a thick rope, and untwist it again. “She made me apologize to him for going into the stables.” As he said it, Belle stilled in his arm, seemed to stop breathing, and he could almost feel how she forced herself to relax again when he stroked her shoulder, tickling it with a strand of her hair, just before he twisted the mass of curls into a rope again.

“Is that why it makes you angry to apologize?”

“You noticed that, huh? But yes. I apologized to my father for sneaking into the stables and getting my leg broken, and still he shot Wendy, just to make sure it never happened again. Then he forgot about me, for a while. I was bound to my bed for four months, my leg suspended in a metal construction, and then I had to learn to walk again. He despised me for my limp, and for existing at all, I guess.” He paused, and wondered why it came so easy now, to talk about it, to tell her all those terrible things. They didn’t seem all that terrible now, but nevertheless, he pulled her head back with the rope of hair and made her look at him before he continued. “He forgot that children run around the house, or, in my case, limp around, and he didn’t even hide anymore what he did. I just wanted a cookie, that day. Willow used to give me cookies when I came to the kitchen, as a kind of reward when I managed the long way, and I could already taste it. She used to bake dark chocolate chips into them, and letting them melt on my tongue was the best thing I could imagine, dark, bitter, and sweet. I heard weird noises out of the kitchen, but I didn’t think anything of it. I thought she was kneading dough for bread. She always groaned then, because it was so tiring. But she wasn’t kneading bread dough. She saw me first, before my father saw me, but I must have made a sound, because he looked up, looked at me. She wanted to keep him from going after me, and he gave her a shove that smashed her into a glass cabinet. But it held him back just long enough to give me a headstart, and I made it to my mother. I think it was the first time she told him to stop. The first time she yelled at him, and slapped him. He hit her, and grabbed the necklace she was wearing. I don’t think he really wanted to kill her. He just… wanted to give her a lesson. Wanted her to shut up. That’s what he was yelling at her, while he pulled that necklace tighter and tighter. But he didn’t stop throttling her until she stopped moving, and then he just… dropped her. Like trash.”

Belle’s pupils threatened to swallow the blue of her eyes, and her bottom lip trembled, but she didn’t look away. She looked at him, and let his gaze drill into her, let him hold her. He had to tell himself to let go of her hair, but even when he did, she didn’t look away. “He came for me then”, he rasped, and his voice cracked in his throat, against his will. “Willow saved me. She… She had gotten up again, bleeding, with shards of glass cutting her open, and she had picked one of the crossbows off the wall in the hall. She knew how to use it, because he had shown her how. He was a show-off. He mocked her, said she would never dare to use it against him, everything to distract her. She shot him.”

Belle whimpered, and Rufus became aware that his nails were digging into her shoulder, that he was hurting her with his grip. He let go of her with a start, but Belle didn’t pull back, didn’t bring herself out of his reach. Instead, she skidded up, leaning against the headboard at his side, and pulled him into her arms, until his head rested against her chest and he could listen to the steady beat of her heart.

“She had called the police before she faced him with that crossbow, and an ambulance. I never saw so much police in my life again. Sadly, my father survived. But that was the day when they took the horses away, because no one was left to look after them.”

“Who looked after you?”

“I had three aunts. Great-aunts. Sisters of my mother’s father. They came to live here with me. They didn’t have room for a child in their little house, they said.”

“So you spent your whole life in this house, where your father killed your mother? Why?”

Rufus laughed, hollow, and it cut through his insides like glass shards. “She married my father because it was part of the will of her father, to keep the house and the estate. I didn’t want her suffering and her death to be in vain. I didn’t want her heritage to get lost after all.”

“Is that why you married me, and asked for an heir?”

Rufus slid his hand beneath the shirt – his shirt – that she was still wearing, painting circles with his fingertips on her skin, following the swell of her breast, circling her nipple until it puckered, and he pushed his shirt to the side to see her, see the goose bumps that followed his touch, and the flutter of her heartbeat trembling under her skin. He pushed himself up to his elbows, and pulled her down, until she was spread out beneath him, touching him, stroking his shoulders, raking through his hair as he bent down and kissed the tip of her breast. “Yes. I didn’t want all this to go to waste.”

She sighed, a sad little smile on her lips, and she wrapped herself around him, tight as a vice, and kissed him, making a strangled noise at the back of her throat when their lips met. She held him, pulled him in, and her kisses were soothing away the raw pain inside him. Later, they went down into the kitchen, and placed her button in the drawer of forgotten things.

~*~

His contacts hadn’t turned up anything about her past, and after a while, he began to believe that Black had just been taunting him. That there was nothing. She smiled so much more often at him, and he returned the smiles, and she hardly slept in her own room anymore. He spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve at home, curling up with her in front of the fireplace, or having picnics in the orangery, or the ballroom. They danced, slowly, in the light falling through the windows, and they spent hours in content silence, Belle reading or knitting, while he wore the terrible purple sweater and just watched her and tried to discern what it was about her presence that made him so… calm. Content. Happy. If it was love, he didn’t dare to voice it. It scared him.

And, of course, all things ended.

The third of January was the first day he went back to work in his shop, and he missed her even before he departed. He watched her over the edge of his newspaper when she came for breakfast, after her yoga routine, and she winced when she sat down.

“Are you alright?”, he asked, lowering the paper, and Belle bit her lip before she smiled at him.

“Yes, I am. I think I stretched a little too much.” She reached for toast and jam, loading her toast with a generous amount of sour cream before adding marmalade. Rufus returned to his newspaper, and she had just bitten into her toast when he found something of interest.

“Look at that. Told you Black would no longer be a problem.”

“What do you mean?” She sounded a little muffled, speaking past a mouthful of toast, and Rufus had to concentrate to keep his thoughts from straying.

“He was found dead. Hanged.” And, apparently, a little tortured.

The toast in her hand hit her plate with a splat, falling onto the jam-side, and she was pale like a ghost.

“Darling, I had nothing to do with it, I promise.” It was only half a joke, and it didn’t have the result he intended.

“Yes, of course not.” She seemed so beside herself that he contemplated, for a moment, to stay another day at home with her. But when he asked her, she shook her head, forcing her lips into a smile that seemed too big for her face. “Go to your shop, honey. You’re right, there’s nothing I need to worry about.”

He believed her. And when he came home, right in time for tea, he didn’t realize right away that something was wrong. Maybe she had just forgotten about the time. It happened all the time, when she was so engrossed in a book that the world could collapse and she wouldn’t notice.

“I haven’t seen her all day”, Mrs. Lucas said, when he came through the kitchen looking for Belle, and a prickle started at the base of his skull, trickling farther down his spine with every room that turned up empty. He knocked at the door of her room, and opened when no one answered, but the room was empty, looking untouched. Looking a little too empty. He stepped into the room, without wanting to, telling himself that he was making things up, that he saw ghosts and shadows where there was nothing. Crossing the room, as if pulled forward by strings, he stepped to her wardrobe and opened its door, and he wasn’t even surprised when a good portion of her clothes, as well as her suitcase, was gone. He closed the door again, soundless, and left her room, pulling the door shut against the reality behind it. His feet carried him into his own bedroom, to his bed, where he sank down and tried to clutch on the emptiness of his brain that prevented him from understanding. On his nightstand, the jar of soil was still standing, the jar that held her heart, and leaning against it was a card. He took that card, turned it, and his heart fell to pieces as he read the few words slanting across it.

I’m sorry.

Chapter Text

Most things Belle knew, she had learned from books. She had a large and mostly useless knowledge about minerals, a very extensive and not necessarily useless knowledge about botany (after all, it enabled her to kill someone without leaving any evidence that it was murder – theoretically, of course), she could give a lecture on philosophical discourses, read runes and Middle English and had an extensive knowledge about the Flora and Fauna of the Pliocene. But the thing she knew best of all was something she had been taught by life: How to disappear. Belle could vanish without leaving a trace behind. And she could stay vanished. So, when she left Shadow Manor on the third of January, she knew it was forever. All she left behind was her heart. Still, she felt it break, and every mile she put between herself and her heart made her pain grow, until she had to park the car at the side of the road and breathe into a paper bag until the panic and the pain lessened somewhat.

Maybe Rufus would think she left because now that Black was dead, her problems were truly gone. In truth, they only just began. As soon as he had left for work, she had grabbed the newspaper and read the short notice about the murdered fence and loan shark over and over again. He had been tortured. She could have told herself that it had just been a necessary consequence of his way of doing business. But he had been hanged. And she knew whose trademark sign that was, even when the police pretended to be in the dark. And Black wasn’t the type you needed to torture very hard to get information out of him. So, she had to leave. Shadow Manor was no longer safe. Not for her, and not from her. They would come for her, and then Rufus would suffer.

She drove to Augusta, and from there to Portland, leaving just enough of a trail to keep them away from Storybrooke and Rufus. He would probably be able to follow that trail as well, but only as far as Boston. There, she disappeared. Changed the car, license plates, took out all the money that was on her account – not a lot, but it would probably take her far enough. She dyed her hair to blond in Albany and got a reasonably well faked ID in Philadelphia, turning her from Isabelle Gold into Izzy Franco. That tore a big hole into her budget, and she made it just barely to Miami. It was unlikely that they would follow her there. At least not without a great deal of diplomatic effort. She felt safe enough to start working as a waitress there, and for quite some time, a few weeks at least, everything apart from her bleeding heart was ok. Well, not really ok, but well enough. As fine as it could be. She had not expected to miss Rufus quite this much. It was an ever growing physical pain that made it impossible to eat, and she lost weight, being on her feet most of the day and working herself into a pleasant state of numbness that prevented her from thinking.

Then the morning sickness started, and she realized that it was not the loss of weight that was responsible for the absence of her period. Of course not. Still, she couldn’t stop to think what this meant for her. For her life. For Rufus. If she stopped to think, she would slip into a panic and probably start scratching herself out of her skin, or curl up and never get up again. She couldn’t allow herself to think. So she continued to work herself into the ground. Her dresses – the few she had, at any rate – started to flutter around her, and even though she forced herself to eat now, she didn’t keep a lot of it down.

“Girl, you look like a skeleton.” Her co-worker, Ariel, frowned at her, and poked at Belle’s hip, and Belle had to keep herself from slapping her hand away.

“I know. I have problems keeping it down.”

“You should go see a doctor.”

Ariel was probably right. But Belle didn’t have enough money to pay medical bills, and her job brought her just enough to pay the rent. She hadn’t taken a look at her account since Boston, and she knew she couldn’t. It had been empty anyway, and Rufus would hardly continue to transfer money to her account after she left him. And if he did, she couldn’t check, because any activity would raise red flags and give her whereabouts away. She didn’t have doubts that her account was being watched.

“Hey, Izzy, if you don’t have the money, I know someone who could help you out.” Ariel poked her again, and it took Belle a moment to register that she was talking to her. Whenever she thought of Rufus, she forgot, only for the tiniest moment, that she was Izzy Franco now. But she never, ever forgot that taking money from someone who only wanted to help out was a bad idea. As bad as it gets. So she shook her head, put on a smile, and kept working. The morning sickness faded, eventually. The pain and discomfort didn’t, and when she found blood in her pajamas, when she was probably six months along, and her belly already long showed the state she was in, making her look as if she was carrying a water melon under her dress, she knew she could no longer afford it to not go to a doctor. It had only been a tiny spot of slimy, clotted blood, and she didn’t bleed anymore (and she checked every five minutes), so she hoped she could take the risk of driving two hours to Naples to check her bank account. Two hours weren’t much of a buffer, but she hoped, if someone was watching her account, she could slip through their fingers if she used an ATM in Naples. Miami was big. She could stay under the radar there. And if she drove two hours to find it empty… well, she didn’t think about that. Maybe she was paranoid anyway. Maybe it didn’t mean anything that Black had been killed after being tortured. After having found her in Storybrooke and being beaten up by her husband. Maybe she was just seeing things. Ghosts of a past that had never been hers.

She wore sun glasses that covered half of her face, and a shawl and a straw hat to cover the rest of it when she approached the ATM, inserted the card that wore the name of Isabelle Gold and typed in her pin. And she almost fainted when her balance showed that she had ten thousand dollars on her account. Rufus was still sending her money. She took out as much as possible in one go and drove back to Miami. She had to refill gas once, and she kept the sun glasses on and the hat drawn deep into her face when she paid, and she looked over her shoulder every few minutes.

The doctor told her not to worry, smaller bleedings happened sometimes, but she should work less and eat and drink more. The best would be to stop working completely and spend the rest of the pregnancy resting. Belle went home and curled into a ball and cried for hours. The panic she had been keeping back for so long now grasped her with full force. She couldn’t do this alone. She had never been this alone before, there had always been someone, first her father and then, somehow, Rufus. Now she was irretrievably and utterly alone. And there was a new life growing inside her, a new life that sucked her life up like a black hole, that swallowed her and devoured her from within. She placed a hand on her belly and felt it kick, violently. It was a lively thing, violent from the first time she noticed it, but healthy. It ate up her health, but the doctor reassured her that the baby itself was fine.

“Right now, it doesn’t get the attention it needs. The baby is telling you to unwind. Relax. Maybe some of the pain and tension will be gone if you take it a little slower.”

Belle supposed that living in constant fear for her life wasn’t really benefitting for a fetus. And what would she do when it would be born? Her time was running out, and it left her slowly suffocating. The day after her visit with the doctor, she quit her job. The money on her account would get her over the next three months, once she had it in her hands. This time, she drove to Fort Lauderdale to withdraw everything that was left on the account, and she was even more careful this time. She knew that every bit of precaution probably was in vain. There was next to no chance that the money wasn’t a trap, either by Rufus or by them, but she was out of options, and she hoped to escape their notice in Miami. Still, she spent the next few weeks in a state of constant alert, left her flat only to get food and other necessities, and felt a breathlessness that was only partly to blame on the ever growing, kicking thing inside her. She refused to think about it. It was Rufus’ baby, not hers, had never been hers, and she couldn’t allow herself to love it. She had threaded shoelaces through Rufus’ button and wore it around her wrist, over her pulse, and whenever she was close to thinking about the baby as hers, and slipping in her resolve to not allow herself to feel, she pressed the button against her skin to remind herself of him. Not that she needed a reminder, and maybe pressing the button that meant home to her pulse did the opposite from what it was supposed to do.

She was seven months along when she did no longer bear the silence and loneliness of her flat. She was close to another panic attack, and this one drove her out. She put on bright red lipstick in the hopes to chase away her sadness if she only made herself shine bright enough, and she went to the beach, bathing in the sun for a while, before she slowly made her way back to her car. She strolled over a flea market on her way, wondering what Rufus would say about the mass of knick knacks and worthless junk offered on those small stalls. It would probably be heaven for him. Belle had to pause to press the button against her wrist and count her breaths, and she pretended to look over the array of figurines depicting saints and small wooden jewelry boxes painted in garish colors on the small stall in front of her.

“Look, this one belonged to my grandmother, it’s a music box”, the man behind the stall told her, with a heavy accent, and offering her a box on his palm. Belle forced a smile onto her face, and he took it as encouragement, turning the box upside down and twisting a key on its bottom. “She loved this tune”, he said, letting go of the key, and for a moment, Belle believed someone had hit her between the ribs and knocked her breath out of her when it started to play “La Vie en Rose”.

“How much?” she asked, and gave him the twenty dollars he wanted without bargaining. She found a bench to sit down on a pier, and she turned the key again and again, listening to the melody over and over again. It broke her heart, made her think of Rufus and their first dance in the cold ballroom of Shadow Manor, their first kiss after the last notes of the old vinyl record faded away. It was so incredibly unfair that they hadn’t had more time together, more time to kiss and to dance and… more time to tell him that she loved him. But then, telling him would have only added to the cruelty of it all. It was better she never told him. Like this, he could go on pretending that all that had been between them was nothing but a deal. She would give anything to be able to go back. If only it wouldn’t mean to put his life on the line. She let out a hollow laugh and twisted the key once more, and her laugh turned into a sob. It was so unfair that she had to protect him from a secret that had never been hers. It had died with her mother, after they had sabotaged the brakes of her car. Belle had never known anything about it, and still, it haunted her life far beyond her mother’s death.

“Love really is something terrible”, she whispered, and she wondered if Rufus would answer ‘I told you so’ if he would have heard her. Her parents had true love, but they had to pay a terrible price for being with each other, and Belle continued to pay it even after they both were dead and gone.

She didn’t notice when someone sat down beside her, and she didn’t notice that she was crying until a dark hand appeared in front of her face and offered her a handkerchief. Her heart stopped for a moment, and she froze when she looked up, meeting blue eyes in a face she had never seen before.

“Take it, love. There is someone who wants to talk to you, and you made it hard enough to find you. Wouldn’t want to present you in a crying mess to your grandfather, now would we?”

They found her.

Chapter Text

Rufus had no idea how long he had been sitting on his bed, staring at the card in his hand, when a soft knock at the doorframe made him look up.

“Did you find her?” Mrs. Lucas asked, and stepped back when he grabbed a lamp from the nightstand and flung it at the door. It didn’t fly far, held back by the chord, and it hit the ground and shattered halfway between bed and door.

“Obviously not! Obviously she’s not here! Obviously she left once her problems were all gone!” He tossed the card at the door, too, but it flew only a few feet before it fluttered with a unsatisfactory whisper to the ground. Mrs. Lucas came into the room, looking around, and planted herself in front of him, arms akimbo, and flashing with anger.

“Did you just throw a lamp at me?”

“Obviously I did. And obviously I missed!” He was yelling, and couldn’t do anything against it. Maybe, if he yelled loud and long enough, he could drown out the voices inside him. Mrs. Lucas bent down and picked up the card, reading over the few words Belle had left him. As if “I’m sorry” was enough to make him understand. As if it was enough to dismiss him.

“I don’t understand.” Mrs. Lucas turned the card, as if it would reveal some kind of secret if it was turned upside down.

“She owed money to a loan shark. I paid her debts, and he was found dead now. Maybe she had another debt with him, and now that he’s dead, she doesn’t need me any longer. So she could leave.” He grabbed the jar from the nightstand and weighed it in his hand.

“What’s that?”

“Her jar of dirt. Soil from her parents’ grave and Shadow Manor. She said it held her heart.” He laughed, hollow, and measured the distance from the bed to the wall with his eyes.

“Don’t you dare!” Mrs. Lucas jumped at him and ripped the jar out of his grip.

“What the…”

“Rufus Gold, you listen to me now, boy. That girl loved you. If she left, and left this behind, then she has a reason.”

“Yes, obviously: You are nothing but dirt to me.”

“Oh dear. Please refrain from making any more deductions, because obviously you’re unable to think straight right now.”  

Rufus got to his feet, relying heavily on his cane, and he pointed to the door, mustering his coldest face. “Out.”

Mrs. Lucas followed his order, but she took Belle’s jar with her, and Rufus was almost glad for it. If he didn’t have to see it, he didn’t need to fight the urge to smash it.

Over the following days, his housekeeper avoided him like a disease, while he locked himself away in his study, until every piece of furniture in the dark room was smashed to smithereens. It didn’t help him to feel better. Just as little as it helped him to talk to Dr. Hopper. What use was there in talking? Talking didn’t bring her back, and it didn’t help him to understand either. There was only one person who could help him understand, and she was the very same one that left him without a word.

He called Emma Swan in Boston and told her to find his wife. Then he filed for divorce. Once Miss Swan would have found Belle, all he would need from her was another signature. But against his expectations, Miss Swan didn’t call him back within the first two weeks to tell him where his wife was hiding. Apparently, Belle had vanished in Boston (Miss Swan’s playground, of all places), clearing her bank account and just… disappearing.

“What do you mean, she disappeared?”, he yelled into the phone, when Miss Swan called him, and the woman was silent for a moment. He could hear her take a deep breath.

“Listen, Gold, she’s just gone. Her car turned up, but that’s it. I don’t think this is the first time she did something like this, because normally, people leave a trace. They don’t know how to disappear. And she didn’t even have a phone or something to begin with. The only thing we had was that account.”

“And what do you suggest we do now?” He bit out the words in a low growl, and again Miss Swan was silent for a moment.

“I think she’s too clever to use that account again, but since it’s our only connection to her, I suggest you keep transferring money to it. Maybe she’ll use it when she’s in a tight spot, and sooner or later, everyone trying to stay hidden reaches a tight spot. We’ll watch the account – which is only a little bit illegal, by the way – and if there’s any activity, we’ll find her.”

“Sounds like gambling to me.”

“It is. But it’s our only chance.”

“Fine. Do it.” After gnarling out his agreement, he slammed the receiver down and stared at the phone for a moment, before he swept it off the desk with both hands, along with the rest of the things cluttering his desk. But the fluttering of paper and the dull thuds of ledgers hitting the floor only furthered his anger, and he left his study (bare of any furniture to destroy) and took his cane down on an antique bench in the hall, until the delicate piece of furniture was nothing but a pile of wooden splinters, and Mrs. Lucas came running out of the kitchen to find out what the noise was about.

“Great, as if I didn’t have enough to clean”, she muttered, and ducked away when he glared at her.

“Does it make you feel better to destroy things?”, Dr. Hopper asked, and Rufus glared at him, too.

“Well, if it would, I would stop doing it, wouldn’t I?”

“It’s perfectly normal to feel hurt when a loved one just leaves us. It takes time to process.” Hopper flinched when Rufus thumped his cane to the floor, but he didn’t object.

“I wasn’t left by a loved one. I was used, and discarded as soon as I was no longer needed. So of course I’m angry. Stop treating me like someone foolish enough to believe that the woman he bought could ever have loved him.”

“So you wanted her to love you?”

“Did you even listen? Where did you get your degree? Did you pull it out of a candy machine?”

Dr. Hopper just sighed, and scribbled something into his ledger. Rufus closed his eyes, biting the insides of his cheeks to keep himself from seeing Belle. He always saw her when he closed his eyes. He dreamed of her. Every night. His stomach was in a tight knot since she was gone, since he had found that card, and he ate and slept even less than before. But he told himself that it was the anger over the broken deal that kept him in this state. No one broke deals with him, and Belle would learn that, too. 

“So she was a business partner? If you, as you say, bought her, and this arrangement was one of pure business, didn’t you use her, too?”

Rufus didn’t answer, and he didn’t answer any other question Hopper asked that day. He was tight, tense like a coil. He already waited for four months for Belle to reappear, to make a move. He didn’t bear to look at himself, at the dark circle beneath his eyes, his hollow cheeks and chest, his bony body, old and disgusting. He barely managed to shave in the mornings, and he suspected that Mrs. Lucas would soon start to force-feed him. He didn’t bear to look at himself, because that would mean to face the reality of what Belle leaving him had done to him. He called Miss Swan, but she didn’t have any news, and when he asked what he was even paying her for, she threatened to quit altogether if he didn’t “get his shit together”. At least he was sure now that the urges he had tried to suppress while Belle still lived with him were somehow bound to her presence. He hadn’t touched himself once since she was gone, and maybe it was a good thing that she was no longer there. He had almost convinced himself that this indeed was the case when Emma Swan called and smashed the feeble peace he had created for himself.

“She took out some money of an ATM in Naples.”

“Naples? Are you sure it was her?”

“Positive. Took a look at the security footage.”

Rufus raised his eyebrows. Maybe his money wasn’t ill-invested in Miss Swan after all. “However did you obtain that?”

“Uh… don’t ask, then I don’t have to answer. I think she changed her hair color, and she tried to hide her face, but I’m positive it was her.”

“So now you’re looking for her in Naples?”

Miss Swan snorted before she answered. “She isn’t in Naples. I guess she didn’t take the risk to look at her balance anywhere close to where she actually is. But the fact that she took some money out, and as much as she could in one go, tells me she needs it. So she’ll probably come back for more.”

“But she could do that anywhere. How are you going to find her?”

“Gonna take a lot of footwork. At least we know the state. Makes it already a lot easier.” Miss Swan offered to go to Florida and find him his wife, for a price, of course, and he agreed. He was a nervous wreck after that call, but it took almost three weeks until Miss Swan called again.

“Found her”, she said, and Rufus booked a flight to Miami for himself and Dove to face his disloyal wife. He checked into a hotel and rented a limousine, and he met up with Miss Swan, who gave Dove directions to a beach.

“She left her apartment twenty minutes ago for the beach. She should still be there. At least her car is.” Miss Swan shook his hand and raised her brow at his attire. Dark suits were not really suited for the weather in Miami, but they suited his mood. He hid his rage behind dark sunglasses and a thin smile.

“How did you find her?”

“Lots of footwork. Basically, I found her car through sheer luck. She refilled gas somewhere between Miami and Naples the day she took out money the first time.”

“So, where’s she now?”

Swan pointed down the beach, to a pier, and his heart stopped for a moment. It was far enough away that he couldn’t make out faces, and at first he thought Miss Swan had been mistaken. He made his way towards the indicated pier, slowly, followed by Dove and Miss Swan, who both kept their distance. There she sat, staring down at her lap, looking completely different, and yet it was unmistakably Belle. Blonde, bright red lipstick, looking like a diva out of a classic movie. Beautiful. He halted, unable to take that last step, just looked at her. Clenched his fist around the handle of his cane, licked his lips. Swallowed. And just when he thought he could take that step, could walk up to her and greet her with a flinty voice and eyes of stone, someone sat down at her side and offered her a handkerchief. A young, attractive man. For the tiniest moment, Rufus saw only the red inside his eyelids, felt only the rage choking him. But when he opened his eyes again, ready to jump at the bastard and beat him to bloody pulp, he saw the terror on Belle’s face, and he realized that she hadn’t replaced him with a younger and more attractive suitor.

“Dove”, he said, and pointed his chin to the stranger. “You keep an eye on that one. Miss Swan, find out if there are any others.” He looked around, and, after a quick glance back at Belle and the stranger, stepped to an ice-cream cart and purchased two cones. He arrived on the pier, cane hooked into the crook of his arm and hands occupied with ice-cream cones, just when the stranger grabbed Belle’s elbow and pulled her to her feet. Rufus nearly dropped the cones when Belle straightened, looking around for help, and he saw her belly, swollen and painfully out of place on her skeletal frame. His rage returned, scorching his veins, and he stepped in the way of the stranger trying to drag off his wife, with large steps and murder on his mind.

“There you are, darling. I already thought you forgot about the ice-cream.”

Belle stared at him like an apparition, and the stranger frowned and tried to pull Belle around him. Rufus extended the cones, and Belle took them, as if in trance, open-mouthed and limp.

“Thank you for helping my wife up, she’s not that agile anymore, in her state.” Rufus smiled at the stranger, who had narrowed his eyes and clearly contemplated to just shove him out of the way. But before he could decide on it, Rufus took his cane out of the crook of his arm, grabbing it below the handle like a weapon, and he tilted his head to the left, gesturing towards Dove. “I would think twice about it, lad”, he growled, and the other one stepped back, dipping his chin.

“My apologies. Seems like now is not the moment. Isabella.” He nodded towards Belle before he turned on his heel and stalked off. Rufus waited until the man was out of sight before he turned back to his wife. She stood there, trembling and pale like the snow on the grounds of Shadow Manor when he had last seen her, ice-cream dripping down on her hands. Only when he set his cane down on the wooden planks beneath their feet, Belle’s eyes found him, and she wanted to step back. His hand shot out and he clasped her elbow, making her flinch with the force of his grip.

“Not just yet”, he hissed, and she dropped the cones and opened her mouth, but not a sound came over her lips. “I came here to get your signature on our divorce papers. But I see now that you’ve got something of mine.”

Chapter Text

Rufus didn’t let go of her until they reached a dark limousine with tinted windows, but Belle was almost thankful for his hand on her, since it kept her upright, kept her going, despite the shock that wanted to trip her up. But only after she had let him pour water over her sticky hands and let him shove her into the car with opposite seats, after he climbed inside and sat down opposite her, did she find her voice again.

“Rufus…”

“Save it.” He didn’t even look at her, instead fixing his eyes on the window and the streets flying by outside.

“My car…”

“Will be taken care of. I would rather worry about other things in your stead.” Now he looked at her, at her belly, and Belle placed a hand over it. The baby kicked, as violent as ever, and Belle bit her lip to stifle the gasp. “You look like a skeleton”, he said, and the disgust in his voice turned her stomach upside down. Of course he would worry about the health of his precious heir.

“You don’t look that well either”, she whispered, and he clenched his hands around the handle of his cane between his legs and leant forward, baring his teeth at her in a snarl.

“Don’t act as if you cared. We both know it’s not true.”

Belle found herself mesmerized by the glint of his teeth, by the growl of his voice, and her breath hitched when a throb between her legs showed her that she still reacted to him like before. She shook her head, trying to concentrate, and she told herself that the prickle that ran over her skin and made her nipples pebble was to blame on the air conditioning of the car. “I missed you”, she croaked, and flinched when he let out a hollow laugh and leant back.

“You have a funny way of showing that. But tell me, how did you plan to proceed with my baby? Did you plan to sneak up to Shadow Manor and place it on the doorstep? Did you want to keep it a secret? Never tell me about it?”

Belle opened and closed her mouth, but not a sound came out of it. And did it even matter? She didn’t know this man, so full of hatred, so cold, so cruel. She only knew that she still very much loved him.

“Why did you run away, Belle? Was it so terrible to live with me, to share my bed, that you had to leave as soon as all your problems were dead and gone?”

“No.” The word shattered on her lips, became a syllable without meaning, and Rufus snorted, looking at her as if she didn’t make the least bit of sense. And she didn’t. His eyes strayed from her face down to her belly again, pausing only the tiniest moment on her breasts, on her skin betraying her and her longing, tingling under his stare. She felt naked.

“So, why did you leave before the deal was fulfilled?”

“I wanted to protect you…”

“Protect me from what, woman?” Belle flinched when he shot upright and slapped the leather seat beside him, and yelled at her.

“Me. Protect you from me.”

Rufus stared at her, his jaw moving as he gritted his teeth, and he took off his sunglasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Protect me from what, Belle? From that man who wanted to drag you off on the pier? Who was he?”

“I don’t know. He was sent for me. From my grandfather.”

Rufus let his hand sink from his face, and his gaze on her grew sharp. “Your grandfather. Why?”

“Because he thinks I have something that could be fatal for his… business. But I never had it.”

“Could you be any more cryptic?”

Belle swallowed, and looked down at her hands. Rubbed over the ring she was still wearing. Pressed the button to her wrist. Out of nowhere, Rufus hand shot forward and he grasped her wrist, pulling her hand towards him to look at the button. His fingertips traced its edge, while he clasped her wrist above the shoelaces with his other hand.

“That’s my button”, he rasped, and Belle tried to keep her breathing leveled. Not to react to his touch. Tried to tell herself that the wetness pooling between her legs was from sweat. Not from a simple touch to her wrist, a touch that wasn’t even for her, but for something as ordinary as a button. But she couldn’t suppress her tremble.

“I left my heart with you. I had to take home with me.”

Rufus let go of her wrist as if it was something rotten, and leant back again. “I would have appreciated it if your jar of dirt had come with an explanation.”

Belle rubbed her wrist. “It’s complicated.”

“Oh, I’m sure it is. Try to make me understand.” Rufus folded his hands on the handle of his cane, and for a moment, the soft purr of the engine was the only sound between them. Belle crossed her arms and tried not to shiver. It was too late to try and protect him. He had destroyed whatever safety he had when he found her and saved her from the man on the pier.

“My mother’s name – her real name, however – was Josephine Macellaio. She was the youngest child of Tony ‘The Butcher’ Macellaio.” Rufus just looked at her, and the name didn’t prompt any reaction. Belle saw herself forced to explain. “One of the bosses of the Outfit of Chicago? The Chicago Mob?”

Now he frowned, and licked his lips. “The mob.”

“Terrific, isn’t it?” Belle allowed herself a dry smile. “She fell in love with my father, who was nothing but a poor immigrant from Australia, a florist. Her father didn’t want to let her leave, so they ran away and went into hiding. But she took something with her, kind of a pawn. A book. When they found her and killed her, the secret about the whereabouts of the book died with her. But Macellaio thinks she entrusted it to my dad, and he to me. As long as the book exists somewhere, no one who’s connected with me is safe.”

“That sounds like a fairytale.”

“I wish it was nothing but a fairytale.” Belle rubbed her arms and looked down, at her lap, or what little of it she could see. She bit back tears when Rufus skidded forward on his seat and extended his hand to cup her chin and make her look at him.

“Is it the truth?”

“I wish it wasn’t. I really do. I wish that book didn’t exist, and I wish I could just tell them that I don’t know anything about it. But they won’t take the risk that I could be lying. They will kill me, just as they killed my mother, because only my death will rid them of their problem.”

Rufus slipped his hand down from her chin, following the line of her neck, his thumb trailing down her throat, until it rested over her racing pulse. “You should have told me”, he growled, and Belle swallowed. The car came to a halt and he pulled back his hand when the door was opened by a doorman wearing a hotel uniform. Rufus took her arm again, after climbing out of the car, and led her through the entrance into the lobby and to an elevator. Belle let him drag her along, limp and still prickling from his touch. He still was furious. Her explanation wasn’t enough, of course it wasn’t. It sounded like something she made up, ridiculous and ludicrous. She tried to find words that would make it sound less crazy, words that would help him understand why she had left him, why she had wanted to protect him, but her mind was blank, and Rufus didn’t even look at her. To him, she had to sound insane. The elevator took them up to a suite, and he shoved her through the door, making her almost stumble. He steadied her with his hand still on her elbow, closed the door and pushed her against it. Belle’s breath came shallow, and a high sound escaped her when he cupped her chin again and forced her to look at him. His eyes were still simmering with rage.

“You are mine. My wife. I’m not going to let anyone take you away from me, do you understand?”

Belle panted, transfixed by his snarl, by his eyes so dark and angry, his hands on her skin. She was burning up, trembling under his touch, and she whimpered into his mouth when his lips crashed down on hers. Grabbed his sleeves, bit his lip in her need to bridge the distance. She would have crawled into him if she only could. Rufus tore away, touching his lip, his eyes widening when he saw the blood. Belle licked her lips, licked his blood from them, his taste. She reached for his tie to pull him back against her, but he caught her wrists and pinned them to the door.

“Don’t ever leave me like that again.”

“I won’t. I was dust without you.” She tried to push herself away from the door, against him, tried to make him kiss her again, but he kept her at arm’s length, too far away to reach him. Then he let go of her wrists and stepped back.

“Get into the bedroom and on the bed, hands and knees.” He pointed her to a door, and Belle whimpered when she hurried to follow his order. She heard him limp after her, heard the soft whisper of cloth when he took off his blazer and just tossed it to the floor. The bedroom was flooded with light, a king-size bed in the middle of a cream-colored room with a floor-to-ceiling window. Rufus was right behind her when she climbed onto the bed, on hands and knees, and he flipped up her dress and yanked down her panties, exposing her to his gaze, and Belle blushed and bit her lips when her insides clenched. She was dripping wet, could hardly bear the tension inside her anymore. She needed him, and yet he let her wait, pausing behind her, one hand on the small of her back. Belle didn’t dare to look back at him. She pressed her eyes shut and pushed back against his touch.

“You’re too thin”, he said, rubbing her hip, and she almost groaned in frustration. His hand left her, and she heard the clink of his belt, the sound of his zipper when he opened his pants, and then the mattress sank in when he climbed onto the bed, knelt between her knees and pushed his fingers between her folds, rubbing over her entrance to spread the wetness. Belle groaned, tipped her hips upwards to make it easier for him, and she squeaked when his fingers left her and were replaced by his cock, slowly pushing into her, hard and unrelenting.

“Rufus… please…” She didn’t even know what she was pleading for, and her body acted on its own when it pushed back to take him in as far as possible. “Please, darling, don’t be gentle. Don’t be gentle…” She sobbed into the blanket, going down on her elbows and resting her forehead on her hands, on her wrist, his button pressing against her skull, and she cried out when he pulled back and thrust back into her with force, making her his, taking her, showing her that he still wanted her.

“Please, don’t be gentle”, she groaned again, and he grabbed her hair and pulled her head back.

“Shut up. Just shut up.” He accompanied each word with a hard thrust, and Belle pushed back against him even harder. His movements became erratic, frantic, furious, and Belle sobbed when he tensed, pulsing inside her, pumping his release into her before she was ready, before she felt fully as his. She was still itching, still craving, still hungry, and she wished he would bite her, scratch her, leave his mark on her. Instead, he slipped out of her and fell to her side. Turning to her side, she lay down beside him, facing him, panting and moaning in her need for him, and Rufus placed his hand on her belly, where his child was content for once, as if it sensed that this moment belonged to its parents. Belle covered Rufus’ big hand with hers and pushed it up to cover her breast, and he pushed himself up on his elbows and locked eyes with her before he bent down to kiss her again, gently squeezing her breast.

“Did I hurt you?”, he asked, whispering, after breaking the kiss, and Belle shook her head.

“Please, I still need you. I’m aching for you.”

Rufus bent down again, brushing his lips along her jaw, down her neck, and he reached down to clasp her knee and make her spread her legs, before he returned his attention to her center, rubbing along her clit before he pinched her, held her, and he bit down into the crook of her neck when she rolled her hips to meet his touch, gasping and whimpering, and the pain of his bite let stars explode behind her eyelids, made her come, her climax washing over her and leaving her shaking and trembling in his arms.

Belle remained in his arms for a long time, pressing her face to his chest, although it got more and more uncomfortable, and the baby started kicking again. Rufus grunted in surprise when her belly moved against his, and he planted his hand on her again.

“Hey there, little Button. You’re a rather lively one, aren’t you?”

Belle bit back the tears when he talked to her belly, to his baby. He had accepted it as his child from the first time he laid eyes on her womb, and somehow, she resented him for it. She never wanted to keep his child from him, but she had also never dared to think of the violent little thing as her child. She wished this pregnancy was already over. She wished she knew if he still wanted her without his child inside her.

“Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?”, he asked, looking up to her, and he knitted his brows when his eyes met her face. “Belle?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you’ve been to the doctor, haven’t you?”

“Once. After bleeding a little.”

He grasped her arms, and his eyes clouded with a new wave of anger. “What?”

“It was nothing serious… just stress…”

His grip tightened, but only for a moment. Then he closed his eyes and exhaled, loosening his grasp. “It’s been about time that I found you.”

Belle pressed her lips together and avoided his eyes by pressing her face into the hollow between his neck and shoulder. Of course he worried for his child. She was just the vessel. She was his, just as much as his house or his car was his. Earlier, she had wanted to be his, had wanted him to take her and make her his again, but now she was close to tears, because it didn’t soothe the pain of loving so much that it burned her insides to ashes, without being loved back. He took her back into his possession, but all the trust and openness they once had had been destroyed when she left him. 

“What are we going to do now?”, she asked, and hated her voice for how thin it sounded.

“I’m taking you home.” There was no question in his voice, no doubt. She didn’t have a say in the matter.

“They will come for me. You shouldn’t take that risk.”

Rufus grasped her hair at the back of her skull to pull her head back and force her to look at him. “They have to get past me if they want you. I won’t let them harm you.”

“You have no idea what you’re dealing with, Rufus. This isn’t child’s play.”

“Then what do you suggest? Will you just set yourself up for sacrifice, like you did with me? I’m not gonna let that happen. Not as long you bear my child. Not ever.” The last words were a growl, and he swallowed any answer she might have had when he pressed his mouth on hers, hard, more like a punishment than a lover’s kiss, swallowed her words and her breath and her tears. How could she protect him if he didn’t let her? But she let him hold her, and they watched the sun set over the ocean, bathing them in all shades of orange and red and purple. He ordered them something to eat later, and he watched her like a hawk when she ate. He told her that they would pick up her things from her flat the next day and check with the doctor if she could take a flight back to Maine. Belle didn’t object. Something like a knot settled in the pit of her stomach, making it hard to breathe, a foreboding that she didn’t want to examine closer for fear of turning it into reality.

The next morning, after dressing in the same clothes she had worn the day before, Rufus seemed less hard, less unrelenting. He had held her in his arms all night, and although she was sure that he had slept just as little as she had, he looked rested. Soothed. His anger was still there, and he didn’t take his eyes off her during breakfast. But he smiled at her, almost warm, and when they stepped out into the sun and he opened the door of the limousine for her before the footman had the chance to do it, his smile when he turned back to her turning into horror was the last thing she saw before she was grabbed from behind, pulled into a car, and everything went black.

 

Chapter Text

Her mouth was dry, her tongue sticking to her gums, as if it was stuffed with cotton wool. She pressed her tongue against her front teeth to find out if her mouth really was stuffed with… something, but it was not. It was just her tongue, choking her, like a dried up slug, covered in sand. Beyond her closed eyelids, heat was shimmering, bathing her in sweat, and she wondered if she was trapped in an oven. But before she could decide if it was a good idea to open her eyes to find out, if she even wanted to find out, something splashed into her face, and she sputtered, coughed, choked, her eyes flying open, just before a second load of water swashed into her face.

“Oh, good, you’re awake.”

Belle tried to focus on the voice, tried to blink away the water blurring her vision, realizing that she couldn’t move her hands when she tried to wipe a wet strand of hair out of her face. A shadow darkened the glowing heat for a moment, and the hair was wiped out of her face and tucked behind her ear. She couldn’t move her feet either.

“Smee hit you a little harder than necessary, love, I’m sorry for that. But you’ll be fine for the next few hours, and then it won’t matter anyway.”

Belle stopped trying to move and, for the first time, looked at the man in front of her. It was the same one that had talked to her on the pier. Pain pulsed behind her ear, radiating through her skull and down her spine, like a cramp, and she looked down, because for one endless second, she feared the baby was gone. But her belly was still there, still swollen, and it moved when the baby kicked her, as if it wanted her to know that it was still there.

“Don’t worry, we aren’t monsters”, the man said, taking the moment of relief from her, and he patted her belly. Belle struggled against the restraints of duct tape that tied her wrists and ankles to the chair she was sitting on, and a panicked sob escaped her when she couldn’t get away, couldn’t escape his hand on her.

“Hook, save that for later. I want to talk to my granddaughter.” The voice was raspy, sawing through the shimmering heat of the wide room. Hook moved away from her, and Belle tried to make out her surroundings, find out where the voice had come from. She was in some kind of warehouse, or garage, wooden beams, corrugated iron walls and roof, a floor of dirt. The light cut in stripes through the dusty semi-darkness, coming through a narrow slit between roof and wall in the otherwise windowless room. There were tools scattered around, and it was this that scared her almost more than the fact that she was tied to a chair. Or maybe it added to her horror. Her eyes found the man that had called her his granddaughter, and for a moment he almost looked like Rufus in his perfectly tailored suit and his gleaming shoes. Then he stepped closer, and any similarity to Rufus shattered. He walked hunched over, and his eyes were gleaming pits in his skull-like face. He looked like death itself. 

“Hello, Isabella”, he said, and Hook placed a chair opposite her for her grandfather to sit down.

“My name’s Belle.”

He only chuckled and leaned forward, his skull slightly tilted, observing her like a curiosity. “You’re as stubborn as your mother, I see. She was always scolding me, too. I loved her.”

“And yet you had her killed.”

He leant back, rubbing his bony knuckles, and his skin that looked like wax. “That wasn’t my choice. She shouldn’t have taken that notebook.”

For a moment, Belle almost pitied him. He looked sad, as if it had killed him to lose his child like that. But then she received another kick from the baby inside her, and she stifled a gasp. How much could a man love a child when he allowed it to be killed because of business? And now he would allow the child of his child to be killed, too. And she would die before she ever dared to love her own child. Somehow, this seemed to be the thing that was most terrible about this all. She had carried Rufus’ child for seven months, and never dared to love it. And Rufus would never have the chance to love it, either. She panted, but her lungs refused to absorb oxygen, and she began to struggle against the ties again, desperate for air.

“I think she’s having a panic attack”, someone said, and the man that looked like death in front of her observed his nails and shrugged.

“Perfectly normal. Hand her a paper bag.”

Hook stepped to her side, holding a paper bag to her face to breathe into. Only when the gasping and panting subsided, and Hook took the paper bag away, Death leant forward again and stared her in the face. “My darling Isabella, if you tell me now where the book is, I won’t let Hook hurt you. Do you want to know why he’s called ‘The Hook’?”

Belle shook her head and tried to concentrate on the way Death’s skin hung in folds from his skull, crinkling when he showed his teeth in a smile. “I don’t know where it is”, she whispered, and Death shook his head in sorrow.

“He’s called ‘The Hook’ because he hangs people on meat hooks. Then he takes a blow torch to tickle their secrets out of them. Quite successfully, I might say. Though I believe he didn’t have to tickle that piece of scum that came to tell me about you very long. Can you imagine, that ridiculous idiot with a wig thought he could get money out of me.” His eyes flitted from her face to the side, where Hook stood, crossing his arms and raising an eyebrow when Death talked about him.

“Didn’t take long at all”, he said with a grin, and Belle wanted to retch.

“Please, we never found it, and I don’t even know what’s in the book. I’m not a threat. Don’t you think we would have used it to make a deal if we had it?” Her voice shook when she pleaded, and she winced when Death moved, snakelike, leaning even closer and breathing into her face.

“See, you could be lying, and I don’t take risks. I took one chance in my life, and it cost me my daughter.”

Belle tried to hold his gaze, tried to convince him with open eyes that she was telling the truth, but she was shaking too much, trembling, and his face remained cold and unfazed. There was no mercy there. No pity. Nothing. “Please… I really don’t have it…”

Death leant back, brushing imaginary dust off his sleeve, and Belle believed to hear his bones creak when he got to his feet. “It was a pleasure talking to you, Isabella. It was tedious to have to come here, and I regret that the circumstances weren’t better, but at least I got to see you once.” He smiled, and stroked her cheek with his bony knuckles, before he nodded at Hook. “Make it quick. After all, she’s pregnant. I don’t think that torture is very good for the baby. But then, neither is death, so I suppose it doesn’t matter.” He chuckled again, and gestured for someone behind her. A man with a red hat of straw crossed into her line of sight and followed Death to the sliding gate that led outside. Belle’s heart threatened to explode inside her chest, and she struggled against the ties again. The duct tape didn’t give way, and Hook just stood there and watched her struggle for a moment, watched her sob and whimper. Only when the door closed behind Death and the other man, he stepped to her side, with a length of rope in his hand, and flipped open a knife to cut through the duct tape that bound her wrists to the chair. Belle hoped he would cut her legs free, too, so she could shove him out of the way, and run, but he grabbed her wrists and bound them together before he cut her feet free and pulled her up.

“You know, your father trusted the wrong people”, he said, as if they were having a casual conversation, while he dragged her along to the middle of the wide room, where a heavy chain with a meat hook was dangling from a crossbeam. He pulled her arms up over her head, ignoring her attempts at kicking at him, and fastened her tied wrists on the meat hook.

“Please, you don’t have to do this, please, I have no idea where it is…” Belle pleaded, begged for her life, the life of her child, but Hook didn’t even listen. She kicked, went to tiptoes in an attempt to slip her bound hands off the meat hook when he stepped aside, but he pulled the chain tighter, fastening it on a hook on another beam, until Belle almost lost contact to the ground. The muscles in her arms screamed with the strain of her weight, and her toes just barely reached the floor. The strain along the sides of her belly felt like white hot iron running through her, and her heart stopped, her blood thrumming in her ears and drowning out every sound when Hook turned back to her, a hissing blow torch in his hand. He grinned, and Belle lost control over her bladder, just when the grin on his face froze and he fell to his knees, and face first into the dirt. At first she believed he was mocking her, playing a trick on her, but when a dark stain expanded in the dirt around him, like a red puddle, she realized that something else must have happened. But she didn’t understand, not even when her eyes found Rufus, standing in the open door of the warehouse, a gun in his hand and deadly rage on his face. He wasn’t real. He couldn’t be real. Nothing was real. Maybe she was dreaming. It would explain why she didn’t hear anything, why she felt like floating in warm water, why there was a dead man lying at her feet and blood as red as corn poppy seeping into the ground.

In her dream, Rufus stepped into the hall, into the shimmering heat, and his silent giant, Dove, followed him and hurried to her side to take her off the meat hook, while Rufus slowly walked up to the dead man on the ground, poking him with his cane like a cadaver on a highway. Only then he looked at her, panting, and the sound of his breath pierced the silence, pierced through her dream. If Dove hadn’t held her like a child in his arms, she might have collapsed.

“Belle.” His voice broke around her name, and he dropped the gun and the cane and nearly ripped her out of Dove’s arms. She was still bound, so she could do nothing but let him encircle her with his arms, pressing her to his chest, and she leaned into his embrace, with shaking legs, unable to process.

“How…?”, she whispered, and he pressed her head to his shoulder, stroking her hair, again and again.

“We followed the car. I believe Miss Swan called the police, but they’re not here yet.” He pulled back and looked around. “Dove, clean that up, please. Miss Swan will buy you some time.”

Belle let him untie her and guide her out of the warehouse into the blinding sun like a puppet, and around a corner, to the car. He didn’t immediately climb in after her, instead staying out and talking on the phone. The leather of the seat squeaked under her, and Belle remembered the terrible moment when she had let go of her bladder. Her dress was soaked and reeking. Ashamed of herself, she picked at the fabric, tried to keep it away from her skin. She flinched when the trunk of the car banged shut, and then Rufus slipped into the car, at her side, pulling her onto his lap.

“Don’t… you’ll ruin your suit”, she whispered, and his grip on her grew almost painful.

“As if I cared about my clothes. We need to bring you to a hospital.”

The driver side door opened, and a woman slipped in, looking back at them with a frown. “Mr. Dove has twenty minutes.”

“He’ll manage. Please take us to a hospital. He’ll take your car.”

Belle was numb, and she supposed that it was for the better. As long as she didn’t think about what had happened, it wasn’t real. She closed her eyes when the woman in the driver’s seat started the engine, and she rested her face against Rufus' collarbones and inhaled his scent, breathed him in and counted every breath she took, and counted every beat of his heart, while he pressed her against his chest, one hand on her belly, on the baby that was still kicking as hard as ever. For the first time, she was glad for it. And she allowed herself, only a little bit, only for one short moment, to listen inside her belly, to feel her baby, allowed herself just for this moment to love it. She was alive. Her baby was alive. She didn’t think beyond that, because it would mean to think about the fact that the man holding her had just shot someone, killed without a second thought. No, she didn’t want to look at that. She remained in the state of numbness throughout the examination she underwent in the ER, and she had no idea what Rufus told them. The baby was fine. Everything was fine. Rufus could take her home again. Which, in this case, meant back to the hotel. He left her there, with Miss Swan, who waited in the living room of the suite while Belle went into the bathroom and turned on the shower, and she climbed inside, cowering down, hugging her knees, to let the water thrum down on her, fully clothed.

 She had no idea how long she stayed like that. She had no idea if time was moving at all. Maybe she had died after all, and this was just… a circle of hell. She couldn’t even tell if the water was hot or cold or something in between. When she closed her eyes, all she saw was red. She couldn’t say if hours had gone by, or just minutes, when the bathroom door opened, and Rufus entered. For a moment, he just looked down at her, at her hull, before he shucked off his shoes, and his blazer, and stepped into the shower, going awkwardly down behind her, wrapping his arms and his legs around her and holding her, while the water soaked them both. Belle wished it would just wash everything away, flush everything down the drain. She was shivering, shaking in his arms, and he rubbed her upper arms, her thighs, her shins, and maybe he whispered into her ear.

“I’ve got you, darling. You’re safe. Don’t worry, alright? It’s over.”

It wasn’t over, not really, but Belle didn’t object. Not now. More than ever, she was lost. If she allowed herself to voice her fears, they would become real. They would eat her up. Devour her. Better just stay inside that numbness and concentrate on breathing in and out. Her skin was prickling, and maybe that meant that the water was cold. She wasn’t sure. She didn’t object when Rufus turned it off and peeled her out of the clothes clinging to her skin, when he rubbed her dry, dripping on the soft carpet himself, when he wrapped her into a towel before he took off his own clothes. Belle didn’t look at him, turned her eyes away from his nudity, from his skin and all the vulnerable, soft parts of his body. She didn’t look at him when he led her into the bedroom, after wrapping another towel around his hips, and made her lie down. He slipped into bed beside her, pressing himself against her back, and held her. Belle didn’t object.

She didn’t dare to ask where he had been. What he had done. She was terrified of the moment when the police would come and take him away from her. When they went to the airport the next day, Belle feared they would arrest him, because surely, they were looking for him? She didn’t understand why he was so calm. Even after they were back in Storybrooke, back in Shadow Manor, she constantly looked back over her shoulder, flinched at every sound. Mrs. Lucas hugged her like a lost child, and did only let go of her when Rufus snarled at her.

“I took care of your jar, girl”, the housekeeper murmured, before stepping back, and Belle had to force a smile onto her face, although it felt as if it might crack her skin. Of course Rufus would have discarded the jar. A jar of dirt. Her heart was nothing but dirt to him. He had saved her because of the child she was carrying. Now he dropped her off in her former bedroom, nearly unchanged, like everything in this house of shadows, as if she had been gone for mere days, not months.

“I will call for Dr. Hopper. You need someone to talk to”, he said, and Belle turned around just in time to see the door close behind him. She supposed she was still in shock. She supposed that it was the best thing to talk to a professional. She supposed that Rufus was absolutely right. But her skin itched and her lungs ached with the effort of each breath she took, and she just wanted him to look at her, and see her. Not the possession she was. But she had become nothing but a shell. The most valuable thing about her was the pearl growing inside her womb. She had been dust without him, and she wasn’t much more now.

“I suppose that’s what shells do, isn’t it?”, she whispered to her baby, and placed a hand on her belly. “They grow pearls around grains of dust.”  

Chapter Text

Miss Swan reached Storybrooke two days later by car, Belle’s few belongings in a box in the trunk. Rufus received her in his study, her payment in cash ready in a thick envelope. Of course she counted the money.

“I hope you know that was the last time, Gold. Lying to the police and cleaning up the scene of a crime are usually not part of my offered services. Not to mention getting involved with the mafia. If I had to choose between staying alive and being rich, I’d choose my life.”

“Of course.” Rufus watched as she flipped through the money, leaning back in his chair and tenting his hands. “I didn’t know that she’s related to a mobster, although it would have been nice to have a heads up.”

Miss Swan stopped counting and tilted her head, reminding him with a pang of his wife, upstairs in her room. Belle hadn’t left that room since he brought her there upon their arrival. “You know that it’s not over yet, right? They’re going to notice that this Hook isn’t coming back, probably sooner rather than later. And they already knew about you, didn’t they? They also saw you in Miami. My guess is that you’ll have to deal with a hitman on your doorstep soon enough.”

“I know.” Rufus knew all that. His mind hadn’t stopped racing in circles from the moment on he killed the man about to torture his wife. He hadn’t hesitated then, and he wouldn’t hesitate if he had to face the same situation again, but he also knew that from the moment on his bullet hit Hook in the back, their time was running out. “We can only hope they fall for the bait and believe that Hook had a run-in with the Cubans. After he finished the job.”

“Hopefully it will give you some time. You’re lucky to have someone like Mr. Dove with all his hidden talents… Very convenient to have around.”

Rufus smiled, hardly more than a glint of teeth, and dipped his chin in a tiny nod. “Indeed. I’m lucky to have him.”

Miss Swan nodded, and packed away the envelope with her money. She got up, but before she left – without shaking his hand, which was something she had never done again after the first time – she rummaged around in her bag and produced a wooden box. “I found this on the pier where we found her in Miami. I think she dropped it when that scumbag tried to drag her off.” She placed the box on his desk, and left him to stare at the thing. It was silly to be afraid of a little wooden box. It looked as if it was made for jewelry, hardly intimidating. When he finally took it up and turned it around, he found a key at the underside, and he turned it and opened the lid. He wasn’t prepared for the shock that turned his bones into glass, cracking and taking his strength away when he recognized the melody. He sank down on his chair again and held the music box in his hands, shaking, and it was as if the sounds of the chiming drum rang through him, touched him inside and out, and filled him with the memory of that first kiss he had shared with Belle, in the ballroom flooded with light. He closed the lid, cut off the sound, and placed the box back on his desk. He had to give it back to Belle, but he had not dared to go to her in those two days since they were back. Every time he looked at her, he lived through that horrible moment again, when she was taken from him, when he had to watch how strangers grabbed her and pulled her into a car, just like he had had to watch how his father choked the life out of his mother. He had not been able to save his mother, but hell would freeze over before he allowed anyone to take Belle from him. Not even Belle herself.

He took the music box up again and made his way up to her room. He filled his lungs with air as if he was going to take a dive before he knocked, and opened the door without waiting for an answer. Her room was dark, the shutters closed, the curtains drawn shut, and stepping inside was like entering the cave of a fearsome beast, with eyes of flint in the dark. Belle was lying in her bed and staring to the wall. He could hardly make out her form, and his skin prickled when he walked up to the bed.

“Miss Swan brought this for you.” He placed the music box on her nightstand and turned to leave. It made him too angry to see her like this. Defeated. Quiet. Swallowing the words she had never swallowed before.

“Thank you.”

He paused when the melody started to ring through the dark room, and turned back, taking the few steps to the bed and sitting down at her side.

“Did you talk to Dr. Hopper?”

“What could I even tell him? I’m pretty sure that the doctor-patient confidentiality doesn’t extend to murder. How could I even begin to tell him about… it, without relaying how I escaped my certain death? Without telling him that you killed a man to… take me back?” She closed the lid of the music box, with a bang that felt final, and tossed it to the foot end of her bed. Rufus’ eyes fell on her wrist, on the button she still wore like a bracelet. Slowly, as not to startle her, he reached for her hand. Holding his breath, he clasped her wrist, ready to let go any second. He didn’t want to remind her of the ties that had bound her. He himself didn’t want to think of that image, of her hanging on that meat hook, her eyes filled with deadly terror and huge in her tiny face. So, when he pulled her hand into his lap, he did it carefully, without force, and he brushed his fingertips along the shoelaces that held the button in place to find the knot that tied it, and started to pick it open.

“You are home now. You don’t need to carry it around any longer. You carry enough as it is…”

Belle wrenched her hand back and pressed it to her chest. “You never asked if I wanted to come back. You just… took me. Like a thing.”

“We still have a deal”, he growled, knowing that it wasn’t at all what he meant. But how could he voice what he meant, what he felt, when he didn’t even know it? Of course she would refuse to come back to him if he asked her. All that tied her to him now was the child she was carrying. How could she ever agree to stay with him? He had taken her like a whore, had become a man just like his father, driven by the need to make her his again. He had used his maleness as a weapon, and it couldn’t be undone.

“Yes. A deal.” Belle turned her back to him, huffing with the effort of heaving her body around, refusing to look at him again.

“Will you come down for dinner later?”

“No.”

He extended a hand, wanting nothing more but touching her, squeeze her shoulder, but he pulled his hand back again without bridging the distance, and rose to his feet. “I will send Mrs. Lucas with something to eat then.” He left her bedroom, weighed down by the certainty that he truly had become a slaver now, despite never having the intention to be anything like that.

Mrs. Lucas wordlessly placed a cup of tea in front of him when he came down into the kitchen, and he wrapped his hands around it an sipped on the steaming liquid for a while, before he set it down again, meeting the eyes of his housekeeper – and only friend – who had watched him in silence.

“I did it all wrong, Willow.”

Mrs. Lucas pulled out a chair and sank down at his side, and she took his hand and squeezed it. “We all make mistakes, Rufus. We learn from them. Did you talk with her? Did you tell her what you feel?”

He wanted to wriggle his hand out of her grip, but she didn’t allow it, so he stilled and frowned into his teacup. “What’s there to tell? I never should have bought a wife. I should have burnt this worthless shed and moved somewhere else, far away from this cursed place.”

“I have to disagree. I wasn’t thrilled about the way you went about it all, but on the other hand, you would never have met her if you hadn’t done it like that. And even a blind man can see how much she loves you. For whatever reason.”

Rufus snorted, and downed the rest of his tea. “She doesn’t love me. And if she does, even worse for her. She will shatter and break, just like my mother did. She once loved my father, and he reduced her to ashes. I will do the same to Belle.”

Now Mrs. Lucas let go of his hand. “Rufus Gold, you are the most stupid man I ever met, and that’s to say something in this town of miners. Your father abused your mother, and everyone else, including you, and you’re nothing like him. Didn’t she come back with you?”

“It’s not as if I gave her a choice.”

“You didn’t ask her?”

“I might have kind of missed the opportunity between finding her pregnant, raping her and killing a man who was about to torture and kill her.”

“What the hell happened in Miami?” 

“I guess I had a run-in with my true nature.” He turned the teacup in his grip, watching the last droplet of caramel colored liquid roll around the bottom of the cup.

“You killed a man.”

“He was about to take a blow torch to her.”

“So you saved your wife. You don’t see me judging you for that. And the rest sounds as if you should have an earnest talk with her.” She patted his hand and got to her feet to check the pots on the stove.

“I don’t know how”, he murmured, more to himself, but despite clattering with lids and cooking spoons, Mrs. Lucas heard him.

“Maybe you should start with giving her back her jar of soil. And apologize.” She pointed a spoon to the same cupboard that had drawers full of buttons and keys and other forgotten, useless things. “It’s in there.”

Rufus grunted, and got to his feet. He took the jar with him, but he didn’t go back to Belle immediately. He needed time, needed courage.

A week later, he still hadn’t worked up enough courage to talk to her. And Belle locked herself away in her room. His nights were riddled with nightmares again, and more than once he woke from the disturbing images of him torturing her, of bending her over a saddle stand in the stables and raping her, of strangling her with the silver necklace, or shiny ropes twisted out of hair. His mind tortured him with the things he was capable of, until he feared to go to sleep at all.

Almost fifteen days after bringing her home, after waking from another gruesome dream, he took her jar up from his nightstand and slowly made his way to her bedroom. It was after midnight, so she should be asleep, but when he knocked at her door, gently, hardly more than a scratch, she answered him.

“I… I couldn’t sleep, and I wondered…” He didn’t know how to explain his need to see her, alive and breathing, and he trailed off, staring at her face, hollow, with eyes like caves in the dim light of her bedside lamp. “Can I talk with you?”

Her eyes flitted over him, coming to a rest on the jar in his hand, and she nodded, licking her lips. He limped to the bed, and sat down on the edge of her mattress, ready to jump up and flee any moment. “Did I wake you?”

“No, I… I have trouble sleeping. It’s pretty uncomfortable by now.” She gestured to her womb, huge and almost obscene beneath the thin sheets, and he looked quickly away, cursing the sudden craving licking in his loins.

“I’m sorry to hear that. I… I came here to give this back to you.” He extended the jar, but she didn’t take it. Her bottom lip trembled, pale and bloodless, and she looked as if he was offering her a real human heart and wanted her to eat it.

“I can’t take it back. I can’t.” Her whisper pierced his lungs, making it impossible to pump oxygen into his body.

“Why not? I can’t keep it. It’s not safe with me…”

“I can’t, Rufus. I don’t want to feel it break more with every day I spend here as a shell, waiting to break open so you can have your treasured heir. I don’t want to be reminded that my heart is nothing but a jar of dirt to you.”

“Belle… Why would you even want me to hold it? You said it yourself: I took you without asking. I found you, and in my fury about your stubbornness, about being left without having the chance to understand, and finding you… like this, I took more than you were ready to give.” He wanted to shove the jar into her hands, but she avoided him, trying to push back the jar herself.

“What are you saying? Did you hear me say no, or stop?”

“I never asked either if you even wanted to come back with me. I knew you would say no. You left me with nothing but a jar of dirt. Of course you wouldn’t want to come back. And why would you? I’m nothing but a beast, broken and angry and dangerous. I killed a man in front of your eyes, without hesitation.”

“A man that was about to torture me. My compassion for him is very limited. I hope he rots with the fishes.”

“Still, the fact remains that I behaved like the beast you suspected me to be from the very first moment. I should not be trusted, and I have no idea why you would even want me to hold this… jar. I wanted to smash it to pieces after you left me.”

Belle struggled up to her knees, her movements clumsy and awkward, and a fire lit her eyes, leaving him breathless for a moment, because it was so very different from the subdued way she had acted towards him ever since he found her in that shed, hanging from a meat hook, with the stench of fear and urine all over her. Since the moment he realized, with absolute clarity, that he didn’t want to lose her, couldn’t lose her, and yet had done everything to deserve every bit of contempt she might harbor against him. Had done everything to drive her away. So he insisted on the deal, on a worthless piece of paper, because it was all that still bound her to him. But now that she glared at him, with fiery eyes, he knew that he never could be content with that tie. He didn’t want her subjugated through a contract. He didn’t want her bound by the points of a deal, bent and meek and subjected to him. He wanted her angry, fearless, he wanted her spine of steel, wanted her loud and, above all, wanted her to choose him because she wanted him, out of her own free will. And he had done everything to make sure she could never make her choice like that.

“I wanted you to have it because you mean something to me.”

“What could I possibly mean to you? How could you possibly feel something for a man who bought you and treated you like a possession and a breeding mare and a thing?”

“And how could you ever feel something for the woman who let herself be bought and turned herself into a thing, and left you without giving you so much as a reason?”

They stared at each other, out of words, and Rufus wondered how he could ever make her believe that she was more than a possession to him. That she meant the world to him, and not just because she was carrying his child. The fear of losing her again scorched his veins, paralyzed him, and he didn’t dare to name the feeling that seized him when she filled him, filled his thoughts, his dreams, his longings, every last corner of his being. He didn’t even dare to name it for himself. “May I hold you for a while?”, he asked, and his voice was small. Belle swallowed, and nodded, and he placed the jar on her nightstand and stretched out at her side, pulling her into his arms with her back to him, circling her waist and placing a hand on her belly. He felt tremors run through her, and pulled her tighter against him, pressing his face to the nape of her neck, into her hair, and just breathing her in, until her tremors subsided.

“I would slay a dragon for you, Belle”, he whispered after a long while, when she was heavy in his arms, and breathing steadily, when she was warm and relaxed and he was sure she had fallen asleep. “You mean the world to me, and I fear that I will turn you to ashes.”

She sighed, and he held his breath. But she didn’t say anything, and after a while he closed his eyes and relaxed against her back. Her behind fit perfectly against his loins, and her breasts, heavier than he remembered them, moved gently against his arm with every breath she took, and heat started to swirl in his lower abdomen, a tension rising under his skin, a tightness that made him press himself even closer against her back. A tightness that filled him and made him heavy and thick and hard and thirsting for her. He breathed it away, waited for his hunger to dissipate, just like everything dissipated eventually. Like a dream that would fade in the morning. And after a while, all that remained of his affliction was a gentle simmer beneath his skin, a feeling that was just bearable, as long as he pressed himself to her, held her, and inhaled her scent and her warmth. It was a pleasant state, almost happy, and for the first time in weeks, he drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

Belle awoke to a pleasant warmth filling her, enwrapping her, and a smile that rested on her lips, an echo of peaceful sleep and a dream that left her with an indistinct felicity. Something hummed at her back, and she registered something heavy resting on her hip. With a sigh, and a tingle somewhere below her navel, she pressed her back against the source of warmth behind her, and a low drone answered her, sending a shiver down her spine. She remembered her dream, vaguely, remembered that Rufus had whispered words of love to her, and she decided to bathe for a little longer in the lingering happiness of her dream. The sheets whispered over her skin when she moved, when she pressed her behind against his body, and she swallowed a moan when he sighed and his breath tickled over the nape of her neck. Belle didn’t want to wake him, didn’t want to face reality, didn’t want to leave that blissful state behind after the first night of restful sleep in weeks, but there was a longing brimming under her skin, heat coiling between her pelvic bones, and before she could worry, or think about it for too long, she slipped a hand between her legs, pressing her palm against her sex, and she bit her lips to stifle her whimper when pleasure surged through her. She moved her hips against the pressure of her hand, rolling them in slow circles, and she covered her mouth with her other hand and bit down on her thumb when the tightness inside her mounted again. Rufus’s hand on her hip tightened, and she felt him harden against her ass as he grumbled into her ear, pulling her closer.

“Let me hear you”, he rumbled, his breath sweeping warm over the crook of her neck, and Belle let out the moan that had been building up in her chest. Rufus placed open mouthed kisses on her neck, on her shoulder, and rubbed his growing hardness against her. Belle pulled up the hem of her nightshirt and slipped a finger between her folds, rubbing along the side of her clit, moving her hips against Rufus and groaning with the heat building up inside her, and she gasped when he scraped his teeth over her skin and planted gentle bites along her neck and shoulder.

“I like this way of waking up”, he rasped, curling his hand around the hem of her shirt. “May I?”

Belle nodded, tilting her head back to grant him more access, and inhaled sharply when he pulled up her shirt, getting rid of any barrier between them, and pushed his shaft between her thighs with a groan. The angle didn’t allow him to enter her, but Belle was happy with grinding against him and feeling him between her thighs. Rufus panted into her ear, holding her hips steady and thrusting against her, and for a while, that was all they did. Then he kissed her below her earlobe, and sucked on her throat, and Belle twitched. She started to leave the realms of sleep and dreams more and more, and she had to push back the forlornness that haunted her days. She tried to stay in the moment, tried to concentrate on the brimming heat and tension underneath her skin. She didn’t want to lose the bliss that had engulfed her when waking up, but it slipped through her fingers, and she sobbed, rubbing frantically along her clit in her need to get to that peak before it was out of reach. Rufus stilled behind her, brushing along her arm, until his hand covered hers between her legs, adding pressure to her own touch.

“Shhh, darling, calm. I’m here. I’ve got you. Relax.” He whispered soothing words to her, breathed over her heated skin, covered in sweat, and Belle leaned back, against his chest, stilled her hand, until the feverish need ebbed away, until the fear of losing the moment dwindled, and Rufus’ warmth enwrapped her like a blanket again. He traced her hand with his fingertips, following her fingers between her folds, and Belle wanted to pull back her hand to make room for him, but he clasped her hand and kept her in place. “No, sweetheart, don’t stop. Let me see you come, please.”

Belle closed her eyes and searched for the last remnants of her dream inside her, imagined him to say that she meant the world to him, while she moved her hips and grinded against her hand until stars exploded behind her eyelids and her climax shook her.

“There, there. There it is…” Rufus kept murmuring into her ear, his thrusts between her thighs getting harder, longer, rubbing the tip of his cock along her core, and it didn’t take long until he tensed and his seed added to the wetness of sweat and her own pleasure between her thighs. Belle remained in the state of weightlessness, unable to move, and filled with a heavy languidness as long as possible, while Rufus held her in his arms. But inevitably, the slippery pool between her legs started to feel cool, and the pressure of nature overpowered her bliss.

“I’m sorry… I have to use the bathroom…” She started to wriggle out of his arms, but his grasp on her tightened for a moment, and he reached for her face and tilted her head so he could lock eyes with her in the dim light sneaking in through the shutters.

“Thank you for letting me stay with you.” He said it so earnest, his eyes so open and honest, that Belle’s heart clenched, and she had to blink away a sting behind her eyelids.

“No matter…” She didn’t know what else to say, and maybe there was a glint of disappointment in his eyes, or in the way he pressed his lips into a smile, and Belle was glad when he let go of her and she could hurry into her bathroom, although hurry in her state was relative. She rolled more than she climbed out of bed, and waddled to the door that separated her bedroom from the bathroom, and she was very conscious of the way his eyes followed her. When she came back, after cleaning herself up, Rufus had opened the shutters and pulled back the curtains. Belle had to blink in the odd brightness of her room.

“We should let some light in, darling”, he said, with a smile, and she gritted her teeth.

“It gives me a headache.” Ignoring his frown, she stepped to the window and closed the curtain again. Rufus watched her from the bed, leaning against the headboard, as she slipped into the same sweatpants and the same shirt she had worn the day before, and probably the day before that, too. There was a stain on her shirt that looked suspiciously like tomato sauce. Only when she was dressed, she turned back, and she contemplated how to get him out of her bed, and her room, so she could curl up again and try to sleep once more.

“What did Dr. Whale say last time you visited him?”

Grunting, Belle turned and pretended to go through a stack of books on the window sill. Since he had brought her back, he had not only urged her to talk to Dr. Hopper, but also ordered Mrs. Lucas to take her to Dr. Whale once a week. She had medical attention in abundance, but she had hardly seen her husband. “He told me to rest a lot, avoid heavy lifting, and eat regularly. Don’t tell me you don’t know exactly what he said.”

There was a pause, and the air seemed to change around her, get stuffier, get heavier and press down on her while she waited for him to answer. She didn’t hear him move, so she flinched and dropped the book she had picked up when his voice came from close behind her all of a sudden.

“Didn’t he also say you should go out into the fresh air?” Rufus bent down and picked her book up again, extending it towards her with a stern look on his face, like a teacher scolding her for forgetting her homework.

“He suggested something like that, yes. Do you also know what I’m talking about with Dr. Hopper?” She took back the book and avoided to meet his eyes, and her skin prickled when he placed his fingertips under her chin and tilted her face up, resting his thumb against her bottom lip.

“I don’t spy on you, Belle. I was just worried about your health.”

“You mean the health of your heir.”

There was a twitch below his eye, and he clenched his jaws, his grip on her chin growing only the tiniest bit tighter. “No. I mean your health. It worries me to see you wilt away like that.”

“And yet you didn’t come to see me once over the last two weeks.”

“I wasn’t sure if you even wanted to see me.”

Belle stepped back, and he let his hand fall away from her face. “You could have asked me.” She pressed the book to her chest and waddled back to her bed, crawling under the covers and curling up, ignoring his eyes that followed her in silence. She felt a kick and swallowed a groan when her back protested with white hot pain against her current position. She had to turn around again, and Rufus’ eyes didn’t leave her for a second, despite her ignoring him. Belle had to bite back tears, and the urge to curse him for humiliating her with nothing but a look. His child kicked her again, and Belle wished it would just, for once, behave, stop subjecting her to pain, stop messing with her body. Like a stranded whale she groaned when she pressed her elbow against the mattress to heave her womb around.

“Is there anything I can do for you?”

Belle pulled a pillow over her face. “No. Everything’s perfect.” Somehow she wished he would get back into bed with her and hold her and press a kiss to her nose and tell her she was being silly. Somehow she wished he would at least pretend to love her. It was probably the pregnancy messing with her mind and making her irrational, but she wished he would see through her rejection, see how miserable she actually was, without the need to tell him, but of course he didn’t. When the door fell shut behind him, she let out a shuddering breath, and sobbed into her pillow. Her back started cramping when she couldn’t stop crying, and her hopeless sobs earned her side stitches. She hated this pregnancy. She hated not being able to sleep, and she hated being haunted by nightmares when she slept. Eventually her tears stopped, but her face felt puffy and raw.

“Doesn’t matter. I look like a floater anyway”, she told herself, but she didn’t believe her own lie. She wiped the tears from her face in a hopeless attempt to look as if she was fine when it knocked again. She knew that Mrs. Lucas, who usually brought her breakfast, would discreetly overlook her red eyes, but it wasn’t Mrs. Lucas who entered her room. With a tray loaded with a steaming mug and a mountain of toast, his cane tucked under his arm, Rufus came back, fully dressed and looking as impeccable as ever. He nearly dropped the tray when he saw her.  

“Belle, what’s wrong?” He hurried to her side, placing the tray on her nightstand, and climbing into bed to pull her into his arms.

“Nothing. I just feel unwell, that’s all.”

“Stop lying to me. I can see that you’ve been bawling your eyes out. I was only gone for thirty minutes. What happened?”

Belle pressed her face against his shirt and tried to hide, but he cupped her chin again and tilted her face up.

“Sweetheart, tell me what’s wrong. I’m here to help you.”

“I just… I hate this pregnancy. I look awful, and I feel awful, and I’m in pain all the time, and I just wanted you to hold me, but instead I just… I don’t know. I want the one thing and do the other.”

Careful, as if he feared her skin would burst under his touch, Rufus caressed her temple, painting little circles, and tucking loose strands of hair behind her ear. “You don’t look awful. Still a little too thin, maybe, and unhappy, but you are beautiful.”

“You’re humoring me.”

A smile flitted over his lips, curving his lips upwards and leaving behind a dimple beside the corner of his mouth, and Belle held her breath when he leaned closer, so close that she saw herself in the golden specks of his irises. “Only a little. You take my breath away, darling.”

His lips touched hers, warm like a ray of light, a kiss so tender that it felt like the prickle of lemonade on her lips, sweet and fresh. Her eyes fluttered shut as she sunk against him, and the happiness she had felt in her dream echoed through her, like a soft breeze tickling a wind chime and filling the air with its sound. He pulled back, and she blinked, the tingle of his kiss still on her lips.

“I brought you hot cocoa.” He leant away to fetch her the steaming mug from the tray, and Belle wondered if she maybe had fallen asleep again. Maybe his tenderness was nothing but a dream again.

“Why are you so considerate?” She took the mug with cocoa from him and leant back, into his arm. Rufus pulled a knee up and rested his elbow on it, placing his hand on her belly, dark and light as a feather.

“How did you sleep last night?”

Belle knitted her brows together and started to tell him that he was evading her question , but he lifted his hand from her belly and silenced her with a gesture. “I have been having nightmares, darling. Each and every night, I awoke from terrible dreams, dreams in which I came too late to that shed to save you, or dreams in which I was the one to… do things to you. Last night was the first night I had a good night’s sleep, and it was when I slept here, at your side, with you in my arms. But this morning, you looked as if it had been stressful for you to have me here.”

His hand came to a rest on her womb again, and the baby pushed up inside her, as if it wanted to snuggle against its father’s palm. “I’ve been having nightmares, too”, she whispered, and she covered his hand with hers, hoping his touch was meant for her, despite knowing it wasn’t. “But not last night, when you were holding me.”

“Maybe we should try to sleep in one bed. Maybe it helps us both.”

“Yes. Maybe it does.” Belle sipped on her cocoa, and she wished she was brave enough to tell him how much she needed him. How much it hurt her to be nothing but the mother of his child to him. But she didn’t say a word, and when he left her again, after kissing her forehead and taking the empty dishes with him, she curled up again and stared at the wall. She didn’t even have the strength to read. Maybe, if she ignored it for long enough, time would just stop to tick by, and the inevitable wouldn’t come.

In the afternoon, when Belle had long closed her shutters again and shut out the light, Rufus came back, frowning at the darkness in her room.

“It’s time to get up. I want to show you something.”

She wanted to protest, but he didn’t even listen to her, and Belle didn’t have the strength to fend him off when he pulled her out of bed.

“I’ll carry you if I have to, but you won’t like that when we fall down the stairs together.”

She swayed a little and had to pause twice on their way down the stairs, and Rufus muttered something about “too much time spent in bed”, but Belle ignored it. He guided her through the east wing, his hand clasped around her elbow, and led her to the orangery. The greenhouse was completely changed from last time Belle had seen it, and for a moment she was blinded by the light and the colors and the warmth welcoming her. The glass house was filled with plants, potted shrubberies, herbs filling the damp air with their scents, surrounding a daybed covered in pillows and blankets, with a table set with a tea set and stacked with books, an island amidst an ocean of light. Rufus led her to the day bed and gently urged her to sit down, while Belle took in the beauty of it wide eyed and open mouthed. When her eyes finally found him again, he was positively glowing with pride.

“I called a nursery”, he explained, and there was a faint blush tinting his cheekbones.

“It’s… amazing, Rufus…” She didn’t know what else to say, and Rufus sat down at her side and poured tea into cups, adding a swig of milk for both of them.

“I needed to get you out of that darkness, darling. You need light, and…” He trailed off, and Belle wondered if the same word that swirled through her mind lingered on the tip of his tongue, tumbling before it ever reached his lips. She needed love. More than anything. But maybe, for now, light would suffice. He extended her teacup for her, and Belle sipped on it and inhaled the sweet scent of her tea.

“How much time do we have?”, she asked, after a while, and Rufus didn’t ask what she meant. He didn’t need to.

“For now, they think Hook crossed into the territory of a gang and got killed. And I have someone keeping an eye out in Chicago. But I don’t think they’ll remain forever oblivious to the fact that you’re still alive, even though very few people know that you are back with me.”

“And what are we going to do once they find out?”

He looked down into his teacup, as if he could see the future somewhere on its bottom, and he sighed. “I don’t know yet.”

Belle remained silent after that, leaning back and allowing the light falling through the glass panels to warm her skin. Rufus stayed with her, playing with her hair, an indistinct, regretful smile hovering in the corner of his mouth while he let the golden strands glide through his fingers, twisting her hair into a rope and wrapping it around his hand, before he let go again and started raking through it again. Belle was sure that he mourned the dark color her hair once had, and she decided to dye it in its natural color again, even though he didn’t ask it of her.

“Did you take the day off?”, she asked later, when the sun had set and he had brought her a light meal into the orangery, and illuminated the glasshouse with fairylights and candles in jars, remnants of their one and only romantic dinner.

“I did. Am I annoying you?”

“No.” She leant back, settling against his chest, and let him hold her. The baby had been almost docile all day, for once refraining from brutal kicks, as if it wanted to let her enjoy Rufus’ attention. Before they went to bed, Rufus massaged her back, and slathered her belly with oil, explaining that Mrs. Lucas had told him that it was made after an old recipe that did miracles against stretch marks. When they finally went to sleep, Rufus snuggling up behind her, Belle was as thoroughly pampered as a queen bee. And despite her suspicion that it maybe was just a whim, or a strategy to make sure she and his child stayed healthy, Rufus didn’t cease his heedfulness over the following few weeks, as if he had taken those two weeks after their return to somehow exorcize his anger. She wasn’t sure what had changed. And somewhere deep inside her, between the cracks of her heart, she feared that he would cease being this considerate, gentle man once he held his treasure in hands, once she delivered her end of the deal. She still wasn’t ready to face this truth when she woke up, one night, lying in a puddle, and the first, painful contraction ripped a scream from her lips.  

Chapter Text

Rufus was no stranger to fear. He knew the crippling, paralyzing terror all too well that came from being small, from being powerless. The choking panic of cowering in a bed of straw and muck beside a raging horse, the white showing in its eyes, its hooves stomping the ground like a drum so close to him that flecks of dung hit him, that was something he would never forget, just as little as the horror crushing him with the braying force of a glacier when he had to watch his mother fight for her live, or the coldness that swallowed him when he entered the boiling heat of that tin shack in Miami, finding Belle hanging from a meat hook and a monster ready to torture her with a blow torch. Rufus knew fear, and yet he wasn’t prepared for the fear seizing him when Belle went into labor. He didn’t enter the delivery room with her, being too crippled by his guilty conscience for having done that to her, for asking this of her, not until the nurse, without much ado, wrenched him inside and placed him at Belle’s side, instructing him to massage the small of her back and support her.

“And if you think you’re going to faint, just know that we will kick you out of the way and ignore you, because you don’t matter in here.”

Rufus didn’t find it in him to snarl at the nurse, too terrified by the pain Belle tried to breathe away, and distracted by his bones crunching in her grip when a new contraction seized her.

“I hate you, Rufus Gold, I hate you so much”, Belle yelled at him, and all he could do was to nod and admit that he fully deserved that hate. The contractions seemed to go on for an eternity, and Belle probably didn’t hear a single one of his stammered apologies, of his pleas to forgive him, of his promises to lay the world down at her feet to make her forget the torment he put her through.

“I don’t care about your fucking apologies, take them and go fuck yourself with those”, she groaned at one point, and Ruth Shepherd, the midwife, choked for a moment, and patted Belle’s sweaty forehead.

“That’s right, let it all out, Belle”, Ruth said, and Rufus rubbed Belle’s back and told her that he would do exactly that, yes, he would never touch her again, never, and he almost fainted with relief when Belle finally, finally, pressed their child out into the world. It was a tiny little thing, almost purple at first, and it greeted the light and its parents with angry screaming and kicking. Rufus supposed that this reaction to being so rudely ripped out of the womb was only appropriate. Ruth Shepherd placed the naked little worm on Belle’s chest and covered them with a blanket, and Rufus’ stomach clenched, and twisted, at the horror in Belle’s face. She wasn’t prepared for this moment. For a moment he feared she would push the screaming baby away, would panic and beg them to take it away, and he did the only thing his blank mind came up with: He climbed into the wide bed and wrapped himself around his wife and his child, as if he could glue them together if he only held them tight enough. But before the panic and the terror left Belle, before she was ready to look at the baby on her chest, it was taken away again to be examined, and its shrill wailing rang through the room like a siren.

“And there comes the placenta”, Ruth warbled, and Belle tensed again in his arms.

“No, no, please, I don’t want anymore…” Her voice was shrill with panic, and Rufus wished he could take it from her, wished he could shield her.

“Oh, stay calm, sweetie, it’s not going to hurt…” Ruth sounded almost cheerful, and Rufus tried to telepathically communicate to Belle that he would evict the woman if she wanted it. Belle didn’t even look at him.

“Now you rest, and later we’ll do those stitches, but that’s going to be child’s play, alright?” Ruth got up between Belle’s legs and took the placenta away, and his brave little wife shook in his arms and choked on a sob. Rufus tightened his grip again.

“I am so sorry, sweetheart. You did wonderfully.” Rufus reached for Belle’s hands, clenched into the sheet that was covering her, gently squeezing them, but Belle didn’t even look at him. She stared down at her belly, and it scared him to see her tense and on the edge of panic. But before he could talk to her, before he could tell her that everything would be alright, Ruth came back, carrying their baby, wrapped into a blanket now, and placed it in Belle’s arms once more.

“Your daughter is perfectly healthy. Everything’s alright, and she’s a fierce little thing.” Ruth smiled broadly, uncovering the face of their child, and Belle stared down at the kicking baby as if the midwife had planted an alien on her chest. “She’s hungry. I’ll show you how to feed her, alright?”

Belle didn’t protest when Ruth uncovered her breast and placed the baby’s head in the crook of her arm, and touched Belle’s breast to brush her nipple over the baby’s mouth. His daughter snapped it like a dog snatched a bone and sucked it into her mouth, and Belle gasped. But that was the only sound she made when their daughter suckled with tiny little grunts, fiercely, her tiny hands opening and closing. Belle was eerily quiet.

Ruth watched them with a smile, before she directed her attention to Rufus. “So, what’s her name?”

Belle’s face turned to him, and her voice was cracking, hoarse from the screaming during labor. “What’s the name of firstborn girls?”

“It’s Rowan.”

“Are you going to name her Rowan?” Her question turned his insides upside down once more. She sounded as if she not only didn’t have a say in the naming of their child, but also as if it wasn’t her child at all. As if it was his, and his alone. He looked from the child at her breast to the midwife, who watched them with too much curiosity in her eyes.

“Would you please give us a moment?”, he asked, and he could hardly mask the snarl in his voice. Ruth Shepherd looked as if he had caught her off guard, and hurried a nod before she took a few steps back and turned to leave the room. Only when she was gone, he looked back at Belle. She watched him, and only him, but her hand had closed around the fist of the little girl she was holding. Maybe she had not even noticed that.

“Belle, it’s your daughter, too. You can name her whatever you want.”

The baby grunted, and Rufus noticed that Belle’s grip on its fist had tightened. “But she’s yours. Your heir.”

“Belle… she’s ours. Do you suspect me of sending you away, now that I got what I wanted of you?”

She winced, and that told him all he needed to know. Of course, he had given her that impression, in Miami, when he let her believe that the only reason he wanted her back was the child she carried. He didn’t need a reminder, but Belle gave him one nevertheless. “You’ve got something of mine, you said. She never was mine.”

For a moment he closed his eyes, and wrapped his hand around Belle’s and that of the baby. “Do you want to leave me, now? I… I would understand.” The thought alone was killing him, but if she would be happier like that, he wouldn’t hold her back. Her happiness was all that mattered to him. And he thought he had shown her that, had proven how much she meant to him again and again over the last few weeks, when he had spent every free minute with her and coddled her in every possible way. When he opened his eyes again and met her eyes, there were tears glistening in her lashes.

“Don’t you want me to stay even a little bit? I didn’t mean what I said earlier… I don’t hate you.” She sounded almost as if she was suffocating, and Rufus tightened his grip around her hand. It broke his heart to see her like this.

“Belle, I don’t want you to leave me at all. I want you to stay and get old and grey with me. You mean everything to me. I was furious when I found you again, yes, but… I can understand why you left me. Don’t you see how much you mean to me? I did everything I could to show it to you.”

Her bottom lip trembled, and she pressed the baby in her arms a little tighter to her chest. Her nipple slipped out of their daughter’s mouth, glistening with milk, and the baby sighed. Belle looked down at the tiny face with its dark wisps of hair. “But you never told me. I can’t read minds.”

Rufus reached for her chin and tilted her face to get her to look at him, and it didn’t need more than a touch of his fingertips to move her. “Belle, darling, you’ve been the one who told me that there is a difference between actions and words. Would you even have believed me if I told you I love you? You told me yourself how impossible it is.”

She let out a shuddering breath and seemed to collapse, although she didn’t move at all. “I’m exhausted… I think I need a little sleep. Just… pick a name.”

He let go of her chin, and Belle turned away from him, with the baby in her arm, holding it close to her chest. As if she wanted to hold it as close as she could as long as she was still allowed to hold it at all.

“All that matters to me is your happiness, Belle. Nothing else.” He stretched out at her side, holding her and the baby, and he murmured the words into her hair, damp from sweat. Ruth Shepherd came back, shooing him out of the bed and taking the baby from Belle’s arms, sending him and his daughter out of the room so she could stitch Belle back together, and for a moment, while he was all alone with the miracle in his arms, he wondered how he would ever be able to express the extent of his love for both, mother and child. Love seemed such a meaningless word, so little, so empty. It wasn’t possibly big enough to grasp all that he felt for them. The world wasn’t big enough to hold all that he felt, and probably the sky and the stars weren’t either.

“So, what’s the name of the little princess?”, Ruth asked, when he was allowed to join Belle again, and Belle avoided his eyes, turning her face away.

“Josephine. It’s Josephine.”

Ruth took his daughter and placed her in a baby bed, and Rufus slipped back into bed with Belle to hold her while she sobbed herself to sleep.

“I do love you, Belle. I only want what’s best for you.” His whispered words drowned in her choked sobbing, and he resolved upon telling it to her every day, again and again, until she heard and believed him. But for now, she needed to rest. He thought she had already fallen asleep when she sniffled, and turned around in his arms to face him.

“Say it again, please.”

He cupped her face, brushing strands of hair away from her temple, and kissed the tip of her nose before he repeated his words. “I only want what’s best for you.”

“Not that.”

Smiling, and sure he was about to burst and swallow her, he kissed the tears from her eyelashes. “I love you, Belle. With all my heart. How could I not?”

“You do?”

“Of course, silly. Now, sleep. You did wonders today. Rest, sweetheart.”

She turned again, awkwardly, to rest her head on his arm and snuggle her face against his collarbones, and Rufus felt her tears wet his shirt. He stroked the back of her head until her breath came steadily and exhaustion claimed her. But he kept his word and told her every day anew that he loved her, and it seemed to chip away her numbness and her fear, bit by bit. Right after waking from her exhausted sleep, Belle decided that Josephine was much too pretentious for the wild little girl that crowed out her hunger for life, for affection and milk so fiercely, ungraciously and, above all, impatiently, and so Josephine returned to being Button. And what a vehement little button she was. Two weeks after bringing his little family home again, Rufus had only a faint memory of how sleep actually felt like, and Belle didn’t fare much better. They used every minute they didn’t have to fuss about the bawling baby to fall into a coma, and somehow, they forgot that the outside world still turned around its axis. It came as a rude awakening when Dove turned up to tell him that their time was up. Belle’s grandfather had finally realized that she was still alive.

Long after Dove had left again, Rufus still sat in his study to stare at the wall and contemplate his options. There weren’t a lot. With a grave sigh, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders, he got up to join Belle in the orangery, her little island, where she rested on her daybed, drowsing, with Button in a cradle at her side. It broke his heart to wake her, and he almost hoped the kiss he placed on her temple wouldn’t disturb her slumber.  

“I’m sorry, sweetheart. There’s something I need to tell you.”

She took the news calmly. After all, they had both known the day would come. And no matter when, it would always have been too soon.

“So, what are we going to do now?”, Belle asked, and Rufus sat down at her side to pull her into his arms.

“You really don’t know where the book is, do you?”

“No. I don’t have the slightest idea.”

For a while, they sat in silence, both staring at their sleeping daughter.

“We could start over somewhere else, where they can’t find us”, Rufus suggested, and a sad smile flitted over Belle’s face.

“They’ll always find us. I’ve played this game long enough with my father.”

“Maybe not if they’ll think we’re dead. They would stop looking.”

Belle pulled back a little and frowned. “And how would we accomplish that? Faking your death isn’t as easy as it looks. An obituary isn’t enough, in most cases.”

Rufus gazed out through the glass panels of the greenhouse, out over the grounds, golden and shimmering with the colors of late summer, and he licked his lips. All that mattered to him were Belle and their little girl. Nothing else. “We could burn Shadow Manor to the ground. Make them believe we died in the flames. And rise out of the ashes somewhere else.”

Belle was silent for so long that he began to worry, until she reached for his face to turn it towards her, cupping his cheek. “You would give up all this for me? The very reason you married me, to preserve this estate? Just like that?”

“I love you, Belle. You mean the world to me. This house is just… Rubble and bad memories.”

“But we filled it with new memories. We started our own family and exorcised the shadows of the old one. We filled this house with light. I don’t want to give it up.”

“Then what do you suggest? Just wait for them to come and kill us? And if they fail the first time, wait for a second or a third attempt?”

“No.” Belle chewed on her bottom lip, and she looked down, took his hand and rubbed over his ring. “We can’t give them the book. But we can offer them a pawn. Something that will move them to let us live in peace.”

“And what could that possibly be?”

Belle looked up again, met his eyes, so calm that his insides froze. “Josephine.”

Chapter Text

Rufus fumbled with the slim case in his pocket before he knocked, taking a deep breath and wondering if it really was the right thing to do.

“Come in”, Belle said from the other side of the door, and his breath got caught in his throat when he entered and found her sitting on the bed, rolling up black stockings and fastening them on her lacy garter belt. She was leaning forward, granting him a generous view of her breasts, caged by a black lace bra.

“I thought you were already finished”, he choked out, and Belle smiled. It was a trembling, breathless smile. The only sign of her fear.

“I need your help with the zipper.” She got to her feet and slipped into a black dress, turning her back to him and brushing her hair aside. She didn’t look back at him when he stepped closer and placed his palms on her naked shoulders, only for a moment, leaning forward to breathe in the scent of her hair, and brushing his lips over the nape of her neck. She shivered, and Rufus pulled the zipper of her dress up. It had a low, rectangular cut out at the back, displaying her beautiful back, and Rufus fought against the feverish desire to rip the dress just off of her again. It had been eight weeks now since Belle gave birth to their daughter, and he felt every minute of those eight weeks itch under his skin.

“Are you sure about it?”, he asked, grasping her shoulders again, and now she turned her head and looked back at him.

“No. But I am sure that I don’t want to run anymore.”

He curled his fingers tighter into her flesh, and he had to remind himself to let go again. He remembered the box in his pocket. “I’ve got a little something for you. I want you to wear it.” He extracted the case and gave it to her, snaking an arm around her waist to keep her from turning around. Belle opened it, and he felt her ribcage expand under his grip.

“Are you sure about this? It’s beautiful, but… are you sure?”

“Absolutely.” He took the case again, taking out the necklace with its garnets of the color of dried blood and tossed the box onto the bed. Belle lifted her hair when he placed the silver choker around her throat and closed it, and she was as still as a stone when he trailed along the delicate links of silver with his fingertips, and slid his palm up her throat to cup her chin and turn her face to him. He imagined still to be able to see his disgrace on the necklace, but now it seemed very befitting to adorn her throat with stained silver. Tainted and dark, just as she was.

“Are you going to kill me when this is over?”

His grip around her throat tightened, and she let herself fall back against him. Her heart beat frantically against his grip, pulsing in her throat with a force that reminded him of the sea on a grey and stormy day. “No, darling”, he murmured. “I’m going to bend you over the table in the breakfast salon and take you while you wear nothing but this necklace, and I will make you watch in the mirrors on the wall.”

Her pulse throbbed even faster then, and she licked her lips. “You will not hate me?”

He loosened his grip somewhat, tilting her head to make room for his lips on her throbbing pulse. “No. I chose you. I love you. In light and in darkness.”

Belle sighed, and lifted a hand to cover his that still cupped her shoulder. He kissed her knuckles, and the ring on her finger. There were black edges under her fingernails.

“You should clean that.” He stepped back, after a last kiss, and Belle inspected her nails.

“Yes. I should clean that.”

“I’ll get Josephine.” He went downstairs into the kitchen, where Mrs. Lucas rocked his sleeping daughter in her arms, humming a tuneless melody. She looked up when he entered, meeting his eyes sad and unsmiling. “It’s almost time. Take the rest of the day off, Willow.”

Mrs. Lucas pressed a kiss to Button’s chubby cheek, and his daughter sighed in her sleep. “Farewell, little princess”, she whispered, before she placed the baby in his arms. She didn’t look at him again when she grabbed her coat and her purse and left through the backdoor. She was hardly gone for more than thirty minutes when Dove appeared in the kitchen, looking almost ridiculous in his livery.

“They’re coming. Four men, one car.”

Rufus sighed and got to his feet, and Button gave off a sniffling sound. But she didn’t wake up. “Lead them into the reception room”, he said, and Dove nodded.

Belle was just coming down the stairs when he left the kitchen, and she looked like the queen of a dark fairytale, the dim light in the hall illuminating the garnets around her throat with an eerie glow, like dark red smoke. She bent down and pressed a kiss to Button’s nose before she smiled at him and proceeded into the reception room to await her grandfather and his congregation, seating herself on a settee of burgundy colored brocade, as calm and elegant as if she was cut out for this. And maybe she was. Rufus remained standing, at the back of her throne, and he kept his face cold and unmoved when Dove led their guests into the room. Belle’s grandfather walked hunched over in the middle of three huge thugs, none of them making a secret of the guns they were carrying.

“Isabella. What a pleasant surprise.” Her grandfather smiled, and Rufus had to bite back a growl when he bent down to peck Belle’s cheeks with dry kisses. Belle didn’t react, remaining cold as marble.

“Grandfather.” She gestured to a couch opposite her, and her grandfather took a seat, while his congregation scattered over the room, silent and menacing.

“I must say, it was a surprise to get word from you. And such an interesting offer at that.”

“I’m tired of running. And no matter where I’d go, sooner or later you’d find me. And you seem to cling to life like a wart, so waiting for you to die is an unrewarding endeavor.”

“Such charms. I can easily see why someone like your husband would fall for that. A sadist needs a challenge, right?”

Rufus gritted his teeth, and Button grunted in his arm. Belle didn’t react.

“Let’s talk about it over a cup of tea. I’m sure you’d prefer something stronger, but since I have to ablactate now, you’ll forgive me my herbal tea.”

One of the thugs grimaced, and another one stared at Belle’s cleavage, waking the urge to treat him with his cane in Rufus. But the Butcher chuckled, and waved his hand in approval.

It was almost absurd to see the three huge thugs squeezed onto a single couch, each of them with a delicate teacup in his paws, while Belle’s grandfather and Belle herself each occupied a couch of their own. Rufus had waited in silence while Belle had prepared the tea, enduring the scrutiny of her grandfather, whose eyes didn’t leave the baby in Rufus’ arms for a single moment.

“So, can we now talk about business? It was hard enough to schedule this meeting without the pesky FBI getting wind of it.” The Butcher waited for Belle to take a sip of her tea before he nodded to his thugs to follow her example. Only when all three had taken a sip, he himself drank his tea, too. “Sweet Jesus, that tastes like sugared carrots. What on earth is this?”

Belle shrugged. “Helps to reduce lactation. Not that you need it. But the sugar helps with the taste.”

“I feel almost sorry.” Her grandfather placed his teacup on a little table, but his thugs didn’t have anything to get rid of the delicate porcelain, so they kept sipping on their tea. “You know what you are agreeing to, right? I will take my great-granddaughter with me, and as long as you keep quiet, you may live in peace. One of you talks to the police or the FBI, the little treasure dies.”

“You would kill your own flesh and blood?” Belle tilted her head, and her grandfather leaned forward with a snarl.

“I didn’t have any qualms to have my own daughter killed, much less my granddaughter. Do you think I care about my great-granddaughter then?”

“Her name’s Josephine.” Belle sounded calm. Button started squirming in Rufus’ arms, close to waking up, and he rocked her gently back and forth. Out of the dark pits in his skull, the Butcher’s eyes found him, and he tilted his skull in a way that was shockingly familiar.

“What did she do to get you to agree to this, I wonder?”

“She did have some compelling arguments”, Rufus answered, in a low rumble, and with a thin smile.

The Butcher let out a coughing laugh, and a fleck of spittle flew from his lips. “And what might that have been?”, he asked, just when one of his thugs started to cough, and wheeze. Belle placed her teacup on the little table, with measured movements, and her smile sent a shiver down his spine. Her grandfather looked with a frown from the gasping man on the couch to Belle. One of the other giants started to clap the coughing man on the back, but the panting didn’t subside.

“Get it together, man”, the Butcher hissed, but the next moment he broke out in a cough himself. His eyes flew from Belle’s face to the teacup in front of him, and he took it up with shaking hands. “What the…”

“You see… You taught me a lesson: Family can be cruel, and hate worthy. You took my mother from me when I was a little girl, and you would take my daughter, or my life, from me. I learned early on that family is who you choose to be family, not who you’re related to by blood. I chose my family.”

Her grandfather was panting and gasping by now, twitching on the couch, and the three thugs didn’t fare any better. Dove had entered the room, and it didn’t take any effort to wrench the gun from the only man who had managed to fumble it out of the holster.

“But… you drank the same tea…”, her grandfather wheezed, and Belle got to her feet, every inch a queen, and took the teacup from his shaking hands.

“Never trust a woman who reads. Although, in this case, it’s something my mother used to tell me.” She turned, and reached for Button, taking the baby out of Rufus’ arms, before she turned back to her grandfather. The skeletal man had slipped from the couch, coughing, gasping, on all fours, and Rufus watched slightly revolted as he retched and coughed up foam. He planted his cane on the floor and folded his hands over the metal handle, while Belle sat down again, cradling her daughter and watching her grandfather cough up his life.

“She used to sing me songs and tell me poems when I had nightmares. My favorite poem wasn’t even a particularly good one. But as an eight-year-old, I just loved the word pillock.” She captured Button’s little fist and pressed a kiss to the tiny fingers of their daughter, and the baby blinked, and kicked, opening her mouth to let out a wail. Belle started to recite a poem in a soothing sing-sang, and Button gurgled and grunted and kicked, satisfied by the sound of her mother’s voice.

“To get rid of a pillock,

feed him with hemlock.

Dig the roots out of meadows,

send men into shadows

with sweetly scented tea

from Cicuta douglasii.”

The old man lay cramping on the floor, sucking in whistling breaths, gurgling, convulsing, his dark eyes wide in horror. Two of his thugs had already lost the fight, and the third one was on the brink of death. Tony The Butcher reached for his granddaughter, extending his hand in a plea, but Belle didn’t react. He sighed out his soul without forgiveness, and without any last words.

“Well, that was gruesome”, Rufus stated, poking the last thug with his cane when he stopped breathing, and Belle took a shuddering breath.

“It was.” She left the room with Button on her arm without looking back, leaving it to Rufus and Dove to deal with the bodies. It was one of Dove’s specialties to deal with crime scenes, and another to disguise murder as something else. It was nothing but an unfortunate accident that four mobsters set their car against a tree in the woods outside Storybrooke, and burnt in the wreck. Those vintage cars were so unreliable. And so flammable.

When he returned, he found Belle in the nursery, sitting beside the crib, watching their daughter sleep like an angel. It was already long dark, and Belle had changed out of her black dress into a robe. It was much more practical to feed Button, but somehow – only a little – Rufus regretted that it had not been him to peel her out of the dress. He would have enjoyed that. When he stepped to her side, placing his hands on her shoulders once more, she sighed, and let her head sink against him.

“I never would have imagined that I would be a murderer one day”, she said, and he tightened his grip.

“It will never stop haunting you completely, darling. But you have to tell yourself that you did the right thing. You protected your family.”

“Is that what you tell yourself when you think of killing Hook?”

“No. When I think of shooting that bastard, I tell myself that I protected you. The woman I came to love, and love more with every day.”

“Despite what I have done today?” Her voice was full of doubt, and Rufus clasped her elbow to pull her onto her feet and into his arms.

“I am glad that we can now live in peace. And in case anyone ever finds out, well, we can still burn down this house and fake our death. Now, come, I made you a promise when I gave you that necklace.” He tilted her chin up and trailed his fingertips down her throat, to curl his hand around the silver necklace she was still wearing.

“I hoped you would remember that”, she said, with a smile, and took his hand to guide him into their bedroom. And when she let her robe glide down to the ground, he found out that she was indeed wearing nothing but the necklace. Naked, with pebbled nipples, she stepped to him and started to peel him out of his clothes, unbuttoning his shirt and kissing every inch of skin she uncovered. When his clothes pooled around his feet, she guided him to the bed, and pushed him down to sit on its edge, taking his hands to place them on her hips.

“I love you, Rufus. With all the shadows we share, I love you.”

He leant closer, pressed a kiss to her stomach, scraping his teeth along the curve of her ribcage, and guided her to straddle him, to kneel above him on the bed. When he closed his lips around her nipple, milk flooded his mouth, warm and sweet, and he closed his hand around her other breast, squeezing gently, spreading the milk she was leaking on her skin.

“I’m sorry for that, that’s just…” Belle trailed off when he lifted his head to lock eyes with her, still massaging her breast, and she was glowing, a flush spreading on her chest and her cheekbones.

“Don’t apologize, darling. You are everything I could want, life and death, my light and my darkness. And I love to taste you.” He kissed another droplet of milk from the tip of her breasts, before he wrapped his arms around her to guide her onto her back, trailing kisses down to her navel and from there down to her loins, settling between her thighs to kiss and lap at her until she came apart under his lips, until she screamed for him and convulsed, brimming with life. He made his way up again then, covering her with his body, and kissing her with her taste still on his lips. Pulling her into a tight embrace, he rolled onto his back, without breaking the kiss, and gasping into her mouth when she closed her hand around his cock.

“Please, darling, I want to be inside you”, he begged, and Belle mounted him, impaled herself and rolled her hips. The golden light of the fairy lights on the headboard caught in the garnets of the necklace, making them look like smoldering embers around her throat, and she glistened, covered in sweat and milk as she rode him, until he came, thrusting up and spilling himself deep inside her.  

No one ever suspected any foul play in the death of Tony The Butcher Macellaio and his congregation. For a while, Belle suffered of nightmares, and Rufus held her, night after night, and over time, the guilt she felt faded, until it was nothing more than a faint shadow, an echo of darkness amongst all the other shadows flitting about their house, waiting in dark corners to play tricks on them. But the shadows stood no chance against the blazing wildfire that their daughter was, and Rufus almost forgot his own shadows over the light she brought. When his father managed to escape his ward and jump off the roof of St. Ogilvy’s, believing to be Peter Pan and aiming for the second star on the right, another shadow was lifted off Rufus and the house. After his father was cremated, he found his last resting place not in the family mausoleum, but in a nameless pit on Storybrooke’s common graveyard, because Rufus refused to let the man that had haunted his life for so long return home, to where he lived with Belle and his daughter, slowly working towards filling the empty chairs at the dining room table with more life and light, until the shadows in Shadow Manor were nothing more than just that. Shadows.       

 

THE END