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For a Spin

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“Papa!”  The bell over the shop’s door clanged as Bae slammed in.  Gold looked up from his paperwork to meet his son’s eager eyes.  “Papa, there’s a carnival!  Can we go?  Please?”

Just hearing the word carnival stirred up memories that Gold would have preferred to leave buried deep in his psyche, but Bae was all but bouncing with excitement, and he couldn’t bring himself to say no.  His boy was nearly thirteen, rapidly approaching the age where being seen in public with his father would be a fate worse than death, and Gold wanted to treasure these last few moments of childhood where his son actually wanted to spend time with him.  “Yes, we can go.  Let me close up.”

“Thank you, Papa!” Bae crowed, watching impatiently as Gold balanced the cash drawer and locked away the more valuable of the valuables, turning the sign to Closed himself.  

Soon enough they were on their way, heading for the outskirts of town where he could already hear the sound of laughter and screams that had dogged his nightmares for too many years.  Gritting his teeth, Gold shoved those memories back down, refusing to let them intrude on his time with his son.  Those years were far behind him, and Bae was here now.

He headed for the first ticket booth and procured an unlimited ride wristband for Bae and a book of tickets for himself, careful to pay cash.  He of all people knew the risks of handing a credit card to a carny.  

“Teacups first!” Bae insisted, darting for the brightly-colored cups, and Gold swallowed a groan.

“You’re on your own,” he cautioned the boy, even Bae’s pleading eyes unable to persuade him onto the torture device.  “You know I can’t spin.”

“Papa…” Bae whined, “You don’t throw up every time.”

“Oh, there’s an enticement,” he muttered.  “I’ll wait in line with you and watch.”

The line moved briskly, and Gold waved off his son’s last minute plea as he boarded a red cup, watching from the platform as the ride went into motion.  “Not a spinner?” a feminine voice asked.

Gold glanced down to see the ride operator looking up at him with a smile, her blue eyes sparkling.  “No,” he answered in his most forbidding tone, inviting her not to say anything else.  Nothing good came of making nice with a carny.

“He’s a nice young man, your son,” she continued, oblivious to his distaste for her.  “He thanked me when I checked his cup.  Most kids don’t do that.”

Gold grunted and kept his eyes on Bae who was happily spinning his cup.  Just the sight of it was enough to make him queasy.  

“Storybrooke’s a pretty town.  Does it have a library?” the carny asked, and the randomness of the question got his attention.

“Of course,” he replied, looking down just in time to see her eyes light up.

“What time does it open?” she asked, something hungry lurking in her expression.

Gold had never given the library much thought, but the earliest he could remember seeing someone enter was midmorning.  “Ten, I think.”

“Thank you,” she said fervently, reaching to slow the ride to a gradual stop, and Gold reclaimed his son, dismissing the conversation from his mind.

The bigger rides he could do, and he and Bae rode the swings, the ferris wheel, and the zipper after a cursory inspection assured him that the carnival’s rides were reasonably well-maintained, if battered.  The zipper proved bone-jarring, and his bad knee was happy to put Bae onto half a dozen more spinning rides while he recuperated, recoiling from the pungent smell of cigarette smoke and grease clinging to the other ride operators.  Gold hated carnivals, but for Bae he’d endure them.

Dinner was hot sausages and funnel cake, leaving powdered sugar clinging to his dark suit and Bae on a sugar high.  “More teacups!” he demanded over his father’s protests that he’d surely lose his dinner.

“I’m not buying you another sausage if you throw up,” he cautioned, and Bae made a rude noise, darting onto the ride.

“How was the funnel cake?” the carny asked, undaunted when he glared at the reminder of how unkempt he looked.  “We were having trouble with the fryers earlier.  Was it greasy?”

“No more than usual,” he dismissed, and she nodded in satisfaction.  

“What’s the best way to get from here to the library?” she asked, stepping a little closer, and it took a moment for Gold to realize that his instinctive recoil was unnecessary.  Instead of cigarettes and grease, this carny smelled like roses and cotton candy, and her hands and uniform were impeccably clean.

“It’s on the main street,” he informed her, pointing in the correct direction.  “Probably less than a mile from here.  Just walk straight, and it’ll be on your left.”

“Thank you, sir,” she said politely.  “I’m looking forward to seeing it.”

“You’re welcome,” he answered after a moment, perplexed.  This woman was unlike any carny he’d ever known.  In his experience most of them could scarcely read, and manners were hardly at the top of their list of priorities.

Try as he might, he couldn’t banish the image of her from his mind, and when Bae demanded to ride the teacups for the third time, it was Gold who led the way to the ride.  “The blue cup doesn’t spin,” the ride operator- Belle, he read on her name tag- informed him.  “The bolts need greased.  There’s nothing wrong with it otherwise if you’d like to ride with your son.”

Please, Papa!” Bae begged, and while part of Gold suspected he was going to be the victim of a practical joke, something told him that Belle could be trusted.

“No charge since it’s a broken cup,” she told him, waving him off when he tried to hand her tickets, and she escorted them to the proper cup, removing the red flag from the door as they got themselves settled.

True to her word, the cup didn’t spin, making a dull ride for Bae, who was so pleased to get his father onto a spinning ride that he didn’t care.  “Isn’t this fun, Papa?”  

“Yes, it is,” Gold decided.  With Bae beaming at him and the memory of Belle’s blue eyes still lingering in his mind, his previous experience with carnivals seemed unimportant.  “Let’s get sno-cones.”

Two hours later, he dumped an exhausted Bae into bed, the boy’s mouth still stained blue from his sno-cone.  Overall, it had been quite a pleasant evening, and Belle had given them a cheerful wave when they left.  If the carnies he’d known when he was growing up had been more like her, Gold might not have found it necessary to run away and join real life.  

The next morning found him firmly ensconced in his real life, minding the shop as an unfamiliar figure caught his eye from the street.  The woman wore a modest yellow sundress, her chestnut curls gleaming in the sunlight, and she was almost all the way past before he placed her as the carny he’d spoken with the previous night.  Apparently Belle was making good on her promise to visit the library.

For the rest of the day, Gold kept glancing out the front window, finding excuses not to work on any of the small tasks that waited for him in the back of the shop.  There was nothing urgent back there that couldn’t wait for another day.  

It was nearing closing time when Belle reappeared, moving more slowly than she had that morning as though she wasn’t eager to return to the carnival.  She glanced in the shop’s window, jumping when he gave her a hesitant wave.

“Oh, it’s you!” she exclaimed as she retraced her steps to enter.  “Hello.”

“Hello,” he responded, feeling oddly tongue-tied.  “Did you find the library?”  It was a stupid question.  The library was visible from the pawn shop.  Unless she was blind, she couldn’t have missed it.  

Belle nodded eagerly.  “Your directions were perfect.  Thank you.  It’s a beautiful space.”

They stared at each other in silence.  Technically, he’d initiated the conversation by waving at her, and therefore it was his responsibility to find something to say.  Unfortunately, nothing was coming to mind.  “So… you like to read?”

It anything, it was an even more ridiculous question than asking if she’d found the library, but Belle lit up.  “I love to read.  I’m always happy when we visit a town with a library.”

“You didn’t check anything out,” he observed, gesturing to her empty hands.  

“No librarian worth her salt would trust a book to a carny,” Belle said, her lips twisting in a humorless smile.  “Besides, it’s nice to get away for awhile.”

“Don’t I know it,” he muttered, flinching at her sudden look of interest.  “What were you reading today?”

The Night Circus.”  This time her laugh sounded genuine.  “It’s about magic and a mysterious traveling circus.”

“Sounds good,” Gold said doubtfully.

Belle shrugged.  “It’s a fantasy.  But… it’s nice to pretend.”

“Aye,” he agreed, coming to a realization: Belle didn’t like traveling with the carnival.

“I’d better get back,” she said reluctantly.  “There’s work to do.”

“Always is.”  Gold pretended not to see her quizzical look at his reply.

“Tell your son I said hi.”  Belle gave him a smile and a wave.  “It was nice talking to you.”

“Goodbye, Belle.”  She looked startled when he said her name, but her surprise quickly turned into a smile of delight.  Once she was back on the street, she paused to wave to him again, and Gold returned it, his mind racing.

This woman was not his responsibility.  He knew nothing about her beyond her name and the fact that she liked to read and didn’t like traveling with the carnival.  He owed her nothing.

Even so, his thoughts kept drifting backward in time to another young carny.  What would he have given to have someone offer him a way out of Malcolm Gold’s carnival?  What wouldn’t he have given?  He’d snuck away in the dead of night with the clothes on his back and as much cash as he could steal in his pockets, living on the streets of an anonymous town, more terrified that his father would find him and force him to return than he was of being homeless.  He’d dragged himself out of the gutter, but how much easier would it have been with someone looking out for him?

Shaking his head at himself, Gold barked a humorless laugh.  What was he going to do?  Open his home to a carny?  Even if Belle seemed different, there were no guarantee that this wasn’t an elaborate con.  She’d rob him blind and disappear into the night just like his father had done to so many nameless women along the way.  

Still, if it wasn’t for Bae he might risk it.  Gold wondered when he’d gone senile.  

Instead of turning right when he left the shop, Gold turned left, heading for the library.  A quick search of the card catalog told him where to find Belle’s book, and he checked it out without allowing himself a second thought.  The worst she could do was abscond with it, and he could afford to pay the twenty-five dollars to replace it.  It wasn’t much of a gesture, but it was something, and he hoped that handing it to her would clear his conscience.  

“How about funnel cake for dessert?” he suggested later that evening once Bae had finished his dinner.  

His son whooped at the thought of returning to the carnival.  “Can I do rides again too?”

“Yes, of course,” Gold agreed, waiting impatiently for the boy to deposit his dishes in the sink.  Grabbing the bag with Belle’s book, he headed for the door.  “Let’s go.”

Naturally, Bae seemed to want to ride everything except the teacups, but after thirty dollars worth of ride tickets, they ended up there again.  “Welcome back, Mr. Gold!” Belle said cheerfully, her face falling a second later.  “I’m sorry, but I fixed the blue cup.  It spins now.”

“Bae doesn’t mind riding by himself, do you, Bae?” he asked, and the boy didn’t even bother to answer before darting for a yellow cup.  As he watched his son get settled, he realized that Belle had called him by name, “How-?”

“The sign said Gold’s Pawn Shop, so I assumed you were Mr. Gold,” she answered before he’d finished framing the question.  “Was I wrong?”

“Not at all,” he assured her, fidgeting with his bag.  There was no good way to do this, so he thrust it at her in an abrupt motion.  “Here.”

When Belle relieved him of the bag, he placed both hands on his cane, hunching over defensively.  “I wasn’t sure if you finished, but I thought you might appreciate being able to read on your own schedule, so I checked it out for you,” he explained, studiously watching Bae spin.

Thank you,” she breathed, and warm lips caressed the side of his face.  Gold inhaled sharply, the scent of roses and cotton candy filling his soul.  “I promise I’ll take good care of it.  Thank you so much!  This is so-“

“Belle!” A sharp voice broke the moment.  Gold looked to the ground to see a heavyset man looking up at them.  “Watch your cycle time,” he cautioned, his voice carrying a clear warning.

“Yes, Dad,” she said meekly, reaching to stop the ride.  “Thank you again, Mr. Gold.”

“You’re welcome, Belle,” he answered as he collected Bae, conscious of the man’s eyes upon him.  Even Bae seemed to feel it, the boy strangely quiet for the rest of the evening.  

“I don’t know if I want to go back to the carnival,” he said as they made their way home.

“Why’s that?” Gold inquired.

“I don’t know.”  Bae looked around as though checking that no one was watching them.  “I felt like someone was following us around.”

“Maybe you have a secret admirer,” Gold suggested lightly, relieved when Bae laughed.  “Maybe a Miss Emma Nolan?”

Papa!” Bae protested, torn between laughter and horror.  Gold knew that before too much longer, his son would respond quite differently to the idea.  

One in the morning found him still awake, sitting at his bedroom window and staring blindly in the direction of a carnival he couldn’t see from his house.  Belle’s situation hit far too close to home for comfort, and guilt clawed at his gut.  She needed help every bit as much as he once had, and he’d done nothing but check a book out for her.  

Gritting his teeth, he tried to suppress the feeling that he should do more for her.  He’d escaped his father’s clutches, clawed his way to respectability, and made a life for himself.  It could be done.  If Belle wanted it badly enough, she’d find a way.  She wasn’t his responsibility.

A more honest voice reminded him that it was quite different for a woman to make her way in the world than it was for a man.  Society wasn’t what it had been thirty years ago.  People didn’t trust each other anymore.  It was harder to catch a break in this day and age.  A woman alone on the streets was a target, and Gold had the money and power to make things easier for her.

He also had Bae to consider.  He needed to protect Bae.  If he took Belle in and her father came after her, his boy could be caught in the crossfire, and that was not acceptable.  Besides, he didn’t even know if she wanted to leave the carnival.  All he had were his assumptions.  

Vowing to dismiss her from his mind, he went to bed and woke up still worrying.  Try as he might, he couldn’t quite dismiss the idea that he did in fact owe Belle something.  Something about her called to him, and it wasn’t just the way she reminded him of his own past.  There was something special about Belle.

He skipped breakfast and headed for work as soon as Bae left for school, putting down his cane with more emphasis than usual.  The conscience that he usually ignored was in full revolt, and he was going to have to do something about the Belle situation, even if he didn’t know what it was.

When the bell over his door jangled an hour later, he was no closer to an answer, but the universe was apparently not going to give him any more time to think.  “Hey,” Belle said quickly as she darted in, holding out the book to him in both hands.  “I would have dropped it off myself, but the library’s still closed.  Sorry.”

Gold took the book from her, craning his neck to try to see her face, but Belle was keeping her head down, her chestnut curls blocking his view of her.  “Are you done already?” he asked, bewildered.

“Yes.  Well, no, but we’re packing up, and I wanted to make sure you got it back.  Thanks again.  It was really nice of you.”  She took a step backward, and impulsively, he caught her hand in his, letting the book drop to the floor.

Belle flinched.  

“Look at me,” he said gently, a sick suspicion flooding his mind.

She glanced up, and with the hand holding his cane, Gold reached out to brush her curls off her face and reveal a black eye.  “Your father?” he asked, surprised by how calm he sounded.

“Carnivals are dangerous,” she said with a insincere smile.  

“I know.  I was raised in one,” he responded, and she caught her breath.  “You didn’t guess?”

“I wondered,” she confessed.  “I thought-  It doesn’t matter.”

With careful fingers, he pushed the cardigan she was wearing over her yellow sundress off her shoulders, revealing dark bruises on her upper arms in the shape of a man’s fingers.  “No ride did that.”

“No, it didn’t,” she admitted.

“Your father doesn’t like you- what?- reading?  Talking to me?” he suggested, and Belle snorted.

“My father doesn’t like anything I do.”

“Neither did mine.  I ran when I was sixteen.  It took me a long time to stop looking over my shoulder.”  He’d never confessed so much, not even to his ex-wife.

“You must think I’m a coward,” she said bitterly.

“I think you need help,” he corrected her, his voice soft.  “I have a spare room.  Lots of them, actually.”

Wide blue eyes focused on him.  “Really?”

“Bae likes you.  I like you.  You need a home,” he said simply, and his soul sang with the rightness of this.  He’d known Belle only two days, but something deep inside of him recognized her as the woman he’d been waiting for forever.  

“I don’t even have a high school diploma,” she said, looking wretched.  “I can’t earn my keep.”

“You can be my assistant at the shop.  Or my housekeeper.  Or we’ll get you your GED, and you can do whatever you want, go anywhere you want.”  Using his grip on her hand, Gold tugged her a little closer.  “You can get a library card.”

A strangled sob answered him, and he dropped her fingers in haste, convinced he’d pushed too hard.  “Let’s make a deal.  You’ll stay with me for a month and take care of the house and at the end of it, I’ll pay for you to go wherever you want.  No strings.”  

“That doesn’t seem fair to you,” she hiccuped.

Normally Gold’s deals carried a great many strings and a high interest rate, but in that moment there was nothing he wanted more than to free Belle from her father’s carnival.  “You won’t say that after you see how much dusting there is to do.”

She gave a shaky laugh, looking at him searchingly.  “And if I want to stay here?  At the end of the month?”

“I’ve got lots of room,” he reminded her, his heart pounding.  “Do we have a deal?”

Belle stared at him for so long that Gold was convinced her answer would be no, then she held out a trembling hand.  “Deal.”

He shook it to seal the deal, then lifted her hand to his lips and pressed a gentle kiss to her knuckles.  “The deal is struck.”

Images flashed before his eyes as he kissed her hand.  Gold saw Belle standing in his kitchen, hugging Bae and laughing.  He saw her curled up on the sofa with a book in one hand and a cup of tea in the other.  He saw her sprawled across his bed, her chestnut curls in wanton disarray.  He saw her beaming up at him from under a white veil.  

Not sure if he was losing his mind or gaining actual psychic powers, he forced himself to let go of her.  The thought that those images could really be his future made his head spin.  For once, spinning didn’t make him feel sick.  Clearing his throat, he asked, “Is there anything you need to get?  From the carnival?”

Belle shook her head.  “I never want to see it again.”

Holding his breath, he took her hand again, not sure if he was disappointed or relieved when the visions didn’t return.  If they were his future, he and Belle still had a long way to go.  He didn’t even know her last name.  Still, there would be time for that.  “Then let’s get you home and settled in.”

Tentative fingers squeezed his.  “Home,” she marveled.

She’d need clothes and books and all the other things women needed that were a mystery to him, but right now, Belle needed a home, and that he could provide.  There would be time for everything else later.  There would be time for everything

Chapter Text

Gold spent the morning giving Belle a tour of the house, her blue eyes wide as she tried to take it all in.  “Are you all right?”

“I’m going to get lost,” she said with a nervous giggle, drawing a pattern with her index finger like she was trying to create a map in the air.  

Cursing himself for overwhelming her, Gold tried to play it off.  “If you do, just shout.  Bae or I will come to rescue you.  He’s a good little sherpa.  Maybe we should stick to the first two floors.”  It was spring; there was no reason that she needed to know where the extra blankets were kept.  He’d been showing off, Gold admitted to himself.  He’d been trying to impress her with how much the house had to offer so she wouldn’t second-guess her decision to leave the carnival.

“This is going to be your room,” he announced, opening the door across the hall from his own bedroom and two doors down from Bae.  For the life of him, Gold didn’t know why he kept a guest room since they never had guests, but it was earning its keep now.

Belle’s lips parted in a silent gasp as she stepped into the room, looking around like she’d stepped into Wonderland.  “Does it suit you?”

“It’s so big,” she marveled.  The room had a sitting area with a broad window seat that he thought would be perfect for her to read in, a wardrobe and dresser to match the queen-sized bed, and its own en suite bath.  It was three times the size of the camper he’d grown up in, and he imagined that Belle was experiencing a similar culture shock.

“I’ll have a bookcase moved in here for you,” he promised, and Gold wasn’t even sure she’d heard him.  

“Papa!” Bae bellowed as the front door crashed open.  “Are you home?”

“Up here, Bae!” he called back, and his son thundered up the stairs.

“Why aren’t you at work? Are you sick?  I think something’s wrong with the carnival.  I went- Oh.”  Bae’s flood of words crashed to a halt as he came to stand in the door to Belle’s room, catching sight of their guest.

“Belle, you remember my son, Bae,” he introduced, not sure if she remembered his name.  “And Bae, you remember Belle.”

“The teacup lady!” he exclaimed, placing her, and Gold winced, but Belle smiled.

“That’s me,” she agreed.

“Belle has decided that she doesn’t want to travel with the carnival anymore.  She’s going to be staying with us,” he explained, trying to wordlessly communicate to Bae that it was a sensitive topic and he shouldn’t ask any questions.

Bae was oblivious.  “Why don’t you want to do the carnival anymore?” he asked tactlessly.  “And why do you have a black eye?”

“Bae!” Gold snapped, but Belle seemed unruffled.

“My father isn’t very nice to me,” she explained.  “He owns the carnival.”

Ohhh,” Bae said wisely.  “You can stay here as long as you like.  We’ve got lots of room.  Papa and I will take care of you.”

Belle gave the boy a shy smile, and Gold shook his head in wonder at his son’s easy acceptance of the situation.  “I’ll show you where everything is,” Bae promised.  “Have you seen the house yet?”

Belle beamed at him, some of the tension leeching out of her.  “I’d love to see it again.”

Chapter Text

“It’s just a book, Dad!” Belle insisted, holding the library book up defensively.  

“What else did he give you?” Moe French demanded, advancing on her in the camper’s confined interior.  Belle took a step back for every one her father took forward until she was trapped in the corner, but Moe kept coming.  “What did he say to you?”

“He… He thought I’d like to finish reading it since the library wouldn’t let me check it out...“ she explained, trailing off with a wince as she realized her mistake.

How did he know that?” her father thundered.  “You were gone all day.  You were with him!“

“I wasn’t! I wasn’t!” she sobbed.  “He owns a shop.  In town.  I stopped in while I was coming home, and we talked.  Just for five minutes, that’s all it was.  Just five minutes.”

“Long enough to give him ideas,” Moe sneered, grabbing her arm and squeezing.  “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

“He was nice,” she whimpered, raising her eyes just in time to see his fist coming at her.

Belle jerked awake and sat up with a gasp, flailing to untangle herself.  She wasn’t in the camper; she knew that because she hadn’t hit her head when she sat.  Someone had taken her, and now she was tied up.  She was trapped, no escape--

Blankets, some tiny, sane part of her mind identified.  There were blankets wrapped around her, more of them than she’d ever seen before.  Mr. Gold had given her blankets.

Belle collapsed back on the bed, covering her mouth with both hands so no one would hear her panting.  She wasn’t trapped.  She was in Mr. Gold’s house, tangled in Mr. Gold’s blankets.  He’d given her a whole pile of them and showed her where to find more, a far cry from the single sheet she'd had in the camper.

Willing her heart to stop pounding, she rearranged herself in the middle of the wide bed and stared up at the ceiling, carefully smoothing out her blankets.  She’d lain awake as long as she could, waiting for Mr. Gold to join her and demand payment for his hospitality, but that had been hours and hours ago.  She’d fallen asleep waiting, and he’d never come.

“He’s a mark,” her father had jeered.  “They’re all the same.  He’ll chew you up and spit you out, and where will you be then?  You’re lucky you have me looking out for you, Belley.  You trust everybody.  If I didn’t take such good care of you, you’d have his bastard growing in you right now.”

She’d heard the same thing her entire life: marks couldn’t be trusted.  Marks would take everything she had and throw her away.  Only carnies were safe.

But Mr. Gold was a carny, she reassured herself.  At least he used to be, and that was almost as good.  That made him safe.

Nails scratched at the window, and Belle screamed, flinging herself to the floor on the far side of the bed and scooting under it.  Her father had found her.  He’d found her, and he was going to take her back, and he was going to be so angry--

“Belle?”  Light flooded the room as Mr. Gold called for her.  

She curled herself into a tight ball as pounding feet came nearer.  “It’s okay,” Bae said, and when she opened her eyes, he was lying on the floor next to the bed, smiling at her.  “Did you have a bad dream?”

“He’s outside,” she rasped, and Bae sat up.

“She says someone’s outside.”

Mr. Gold cursed, and she heard his footsteps leaving the room.  Bae lay back down.  “Don’t be scared.  Papa will take care of everything.  He has a gun.  Did you see someone?”

“I heard his nails.  On the window,” she whimpered, expecting at any second for the window to smash open as Moe French came to retrieve his wayward daughter.

Bae sat up again, then he laughed.  “Come out, Belle.  Please?  There’s no one there.  Come out and I’ll show you.”

Every instinct she had told her to be still and quiet, but Bae was nice.  He wouldn’t lie to her.  Carefully, she scooted out. 

“Look,” he said, pointing at the window.  “There’s a tree outside your window.  You heard the branches.  Look.”

She followed him to the window, watching as he opened it and tugged on a spindly tree branch, poised to yank him out of the way should Moe French appear.  “The branch is too thin to hold anyone’s weight, and we’re too high up for anyone to reach,” he explained, beckoning her to look.

Indeed, they were high off the ground.  She’d forgotten about that.  “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Bae assured her before sticking his head out the window and yelling, “It’s okay, Papa!  She heard the tree!”

“It’s four in the morning, Bae!” Mr. Gold hissed back.  “Have a care for the neighbors.”

“Oops, sorry!” Bae stage whispered, pulling his head back inside.  “See?  There’s nothing to be scared of.”

“I’m sorry I woke everyone up.”  Belle twisted her hands together, wishing she could disappear.  Mr. Gold and Bae had been so nice to her, and she’d repaid them by disturbing their sleep.

“It’s okay, Belle,” Bae repeated.  “I used to have bad dreams and wake Papa up all the time.  He’s used to it.”

“You have bad dreams too?” she marveled.  Bae seemed so happy and he had such a wonderful life that she couldn’t imagine how he could possibly have nightmares.

“Did you have one tonight?” he asked, his brown eyes wise.

Biting her lip, Belle nodded.

“Is everything all right?” Mr. Gold asked, sticking his head back into the room.

“I’m sorry I woke you up,” Belle apologized, and he waved her off.

“Damned tree.  I’ll have it trimmed tomorrow.  It won’t disturb you again,” he assured her.  “Can I get you anything?”

“We’re okay, Papa,” Bae told him, and the two of them exchanged a meaningful look before Mr. Gold nodded.

“Then I’ll bid you both good night.”

“Come lie down,” Bae coaxed as his father departed.  Belle lay down, smiling as Bae tucked her in like a child.  Mr. Gold must have done the very same thing for him when he had his bad dreams.  

“I’ll be right back,” he promised, taking off at a run, and she didn’t have time to wonder where he was going before he was back with something clutched in his hands.  He placed the something on the dresser and plugged it in, then turned off the light.

Belle gasped as she looked at the ceiling which was now awash with constellations.  “Papa bought this for me when I had bad dreams.  I want you to have it now,” Bae explained, lying down next to her on the bed, putting himself between her and the window.

“It’s so pretty,” she whispered.  She’d always loved looking at the stars.

“All the great heroes live in the stars.  They’ll protect you while you sleep,” Bae told her in a hushed voice.  “Look, there’s Orion.”

“I see him,” she whispered back, finding the three bright stars that made up his belt.  

Bae kept talking, teaching her the other constellations.  “Monsters can’t get you now,” he promised.  “The stars will protect you.  Papa and I will too.”

He sounded like he meant it, and Belle took a deep breath and let herself believe.  

Chapter Text

The carnival was still in town.

It stood on the outskirts of Storybrooke, half the rides on their trucks, the rest still standing as if ready to operate.  Taking Belle into town was inviting disaster, but she couldn’t hide in his house for the rest of her life; the woman literally owned only the clothes on her back.  Last night, she’d slept in a borrowed pair of his pajamas, but that was a stopgap measure at best.  If she was going to be comfortable, she needed things of her own.

A few phone calls solved one of the problems, and Belle didn’t protest when he bundled her into the Cadillac.  Under normal circumstances, Gold wouldn’t bother driving the mile between his house and the center of town, but the last thing he wanted to do was run into Belle’s father while Belle was with him.

“This is it,” he announced, pulling into a parking spot directly in front of the town’s finest clothing boutique.

Belle frowned.  “I think they’re closed.”  The boutique’s curtains were drawn, the lights dim behind the fabric.

“Not at all.  They’re expecting you.”  Gold got out of the car and shot a suspicious look up and down the street before opening Belle’s door.  “Come along.”

She followed him obediently into the store, jumping when Ariel Benson came bounding out to meet them.  “Hi, Mr. Gold!  This must be Belle!  I’m Ariel; it’s great to meet you!”

Belle gave the redhead a tentative smile, and Gold relaxed when Ariel didn’t mention the black eye.  “We’re going to get you all fixed up,” Ariel promised Belle, looking to him for clarification.  “When you said she needs everything…”

“Miss French has suffered an unfortunate loss.  All she has left are the clothes she’s standing up in.  I trust you’ll be able to remedy that.”  

Ariel whistled, no doubt thinking of the sizable commission promised. 

“Make certain she has everything she needs,” he directed.  “Clothes, accessories, toiletries, what have you.”

Behind them, the door opened, a huge man stooping to enter the boutique.  “Dove will take care of the bill and see that the packages are delivered to my home.”  In truth, Dove was there to ensure Belle’s safety, but she didn’t need to know that he was her bodyguard.

Belle seemed unfazed by the man’s size.  “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Dove.”

“A pleasure, Miss Belle.”  He nodded to Gold, indicating that he was ready to work.

Gold would trust Dove with his own life.  More importantly, he’d trust him with Bae.  Belle would be fine.  “I’ll let you get on with it then.  Dove will bring you home or to my shop when you’re finished, whichever you’d prefer.”

“Thank you, Mr. Gold.”  Belle looked like she wanted to say more, but Ariel was already tugging on her arm, eager start showing off the boutique’s wares.  

He left the ladies to their shopping, trusting that Ariel would be able to kit Belle out in whatever she’d need. The yellow sundress she wore looked lovely on her, but he was eager to see her in something new.  Surely she’d appreciate some variety.  Women liked clothes.  Having new things should make her happy, and if she was happy, she’d be more inclined to stay.

It was surprising how badly he wanted Belle to stay in Storybrooke at the end of her month’s trial.  Since his divorce, he’d never minded the lack of female companionship, and Bae didn’t give him time to get bored.  Having Belle in the house should have felt like an imposition, but instead she felt more like a missing piece had been snapped into place.  Now that Belle was there, his life was complete, and from the way Bae had immediately attached himself to her, his son seemed to feel the same.

Smiling at the memory of sticking his head into Belle’s room to find her and Bae fast asleep, the star lamp he’d bought Bae years ago happily glowing, Gold set to work opening the shop, idly wondering how Belle was getting on with Ariel.  She wasn’t the boutique’s senior salesperson, but he’d thought she was the one least likely to make Belle nervous.  With any luck, they were giving his credit card a good workout.  

His thoughts kept him occupied until midmorning when the shop’s door flew open, the bell jangling loudly as Belle’s father stormed in.  “You!” he snarled, stabbing a meaty finger in Gold’s direction.  “Where is she?  Where’s my daughter!

“Mr. French,” he greeted politely, reaching below the counter to make certain that his gun was within easy reach.  “What can I do for you?”

“You can give me my daughter back, you bastard!” the man snapped, charging the glass counter like a bull, his nostrils flaring.  Try as he might, Gold couldn’t see any of Belle in him.  She had to take after her mother.

Pretending that he didn’t know what the man was talking about would only prolong things.  For Belle’s peace of mind, he needed to get French out of Storybrooke and back on the road.  “Belle has decided that she’s tired of traveling with the carnival.”

“The hell she has!  What have you done to her?”  French’s face was turning a violent red, and Gold spared a moment to be concerned for the man’s heart.  Having him go into cardiac arrest in the middle of his shop would be… messy.

“I merely offered her a place to stay.  She’s free to come and go as she pleases.  I’m sure she’ll get in contact with you if she changes her mind.”  If Gold had his way, that would never come to pass.

French snorted.  “Ungrateful little bitch.  Belle!  Come out here!” he shouted, looking past Gold’s shoulder into the curtained back room.

“She’s not here, Mr. French,” he said clearly.  

“You listen to me,” French splayed both hands on the counter and leaned in, trying to use his bulk to intimidate his audience.  “She is my daughter, and I won’t stand for any nonsense.  You give her back to me or--“

“She’s not a thing,” Gold snapped, irritated by the man’s presumption.  Belle was an adult and more than old enough to make her own decisions.  He couldn’t blame her if her first decision was to get away from her father.

French looked around, and Gold could practically see dollar signs flashing behind his eyes as he took in the array of antiques and Gold’s own custom-made suit.  “She means so much to me,” he wheedled.  “She’s such a hard worker.  I’d be lost without her.”

Even now, it didn’t occur to him to say that he wanted Belle back because he loved and would miss her.  Bile rose in Gold’s throat.  “Hire more help,” he suggested.

French sighed dramatically.  “Help’s expensive.  I’m a poor man, barely scraping by.  Every cent I make goes to keeping the carnival running and making Belle happy.”

He’d spent so much money keeping Belle happy that this morning she’d admitted with shame in her eyes that she only owned a single change of clothes beyond her work uniforms.  Gold could recognize a shakedown when he saw one.  “And how much do you think it would cost you to replace her?” he asked, reaching for his checkbook.

French licked his lips and rubbed his hands together briskly.  “Let’s see, let’s see,” he mumbled, his eyes darting as he tried to figure out how much Gold might have on hand.  “I’ll have to hire a new assistant.  That takes time.  Training… lodging….  Let’s say… ten thousand.”

Gold inhaled slowly and steadily through his nose, willing away the rage boiling in his gut.  He didn’t know which was worse-- that French was offering to sell him his daughter or that he valued her so cheaply.

“And for that price, you’re willing to sign away any claim to her?” he pressed.

“Lazy little bitch, I’m better off without her,” French groused, freezing when he realized he was undercutting his side of the negotiations.

Retrieving a legal pad and a fountain pen, Gold wrote swiftly, trusting that years of practice would allow him to create an air-tight contract even when he was too angry to think.  “Sign this,” he snapped, shoving it across the counter at French as soon as he’d finished.

“What is it?”

“A contract.  Or a bill of sale.  For ten thousand dollars, you renounce all claim on Miss Belle French, her time, her future earnings, her current and future possessions, and any future children she might produce. Permanently.”  French nodded, his eyes skimming over the contract.  “Sign and date.”

Pretending not to watch, Gold opened his checkbook and slowly made out a check for ten thousand dollars to Moe French, not completing his own signature until the other man had signed and dated the contract.

“The deal is struck,” he announced, holding out the check to French, who snatched it away, looking at it gloatingly.  “Now I expect you to remove yourself and your carnival from Storybrooke and never come back here.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Gold,” French agreed, all smiles now that he thought he’d won.

“I’ll give Belle your regards,” he called after the man as he left the shop, and French didn’t even pause to acknowledge the words.  

Feeling like he’d run a marathon, Gold sat down heavily, staring down at the contract in his hands.  He’d just bought Belle, and her father had sold her off with less care than a dog breeder might part with one of his animals.

She couldn’t find out about this.  

Gold found a large legal envelope and slipped the contract into it, dating it but otherwise giving no hint as to the contents.  He was unlikely to forget what was inside.  That done, he opened the safe where he kept his most valuable documents and secured it.  Later he’d have to make a copy, but that could wait for a later date when Belle was less likely to show up at any moment.  

With the contract locked in his safe and French on his way out of town, Gold felt a little more sanguine about things, his blood pressure slowly returning to normal.  By the time Dove escorted Belle into the shop an hour after lunch, he could give her a genuine smile.

Her face lit up at the sight of him, and the dusty shop immediately looked brighter.  Belle’s smile alone was worth every penny.

Chapter Text

Outside the wind was starting to pick up, and Gold winced at the stab of pain in his bad knee.  It was going to rain.  

With a sigh, he dragged himself to his feet, leaning heavily on his cane as he set to work checking the windows.  Bae had a habit of leaving them open, a habit he’d learned from his father, and their windowsills had suffered enough water damage over the years.

He closed four windows on the first floor, then ascended the stairs.  Bae’s bedroom was his first stop, the boy snoring away as his father switched on the light to check the windows.  He didn’t even stir when Gold shut them firmly, and he shook his head in affectionate wonder.  Oh, to be young again.

The other bedrooms were secure, which just left Belle’s room.  Gold hesitated in the hall outside her door.  If she was awake, he could ask her to check herself, but no light spilled under her door and the room beyond it was silent.  It was wrong to intrude on her privacy, but if she was sleeping with the windows open, she might catch a chill.  That decided him.

As quietly as he could, Gold eased the door open and met Belle’s startled eyes.  She was sitting up in bed, a flashlight balanced on her shoulder to illuminate the book in her hands.

“Did the power go out?” he asked stupidly, belatedly remembering that the hall light was still on behind him.

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to bother you,” Belle said hastily, switching off her flashlight and plunging the room into darkness.  “I’ll go to sleep now.”

“I just came to check if your windows were open.  It’s going to rain,” he explained, baffled.  “I thought you were asleep.”

“Oh, I didn’t think about that.  I’m sorry.  I’ll close them,” she replied, and the moonlight revealed her silhouette slipping out of bed.  

“Never mind the windows,” he said hastily, stepping further into the room.  “What’s wrong with your light?”

Belle paused.  “Nothing.  Why?”

“Then why aren’t you using it?” he asked.  “You’ll strain your eyes reading in the dark.”

“I didn’t want to disturb anyone,” she explained as she turned to close the windows.

Gold opened his mouth to ask another question before his brain finally caught up.  Belle was a carny.  She’d spent her entire life cohabiting with her father in a small camper.  From what he'd seen of Moe French's temper this morning, Belle had probably learned young never to do anything that would attract her father's attention.  Of course she was worried about turning on a light. 

“Come back to bed,” he said gently as she finished closing the windows, and she climbed back into bed, curling up near the headboard. 

“Turning on a light won’t bother anyone,” he assured her as he adjusted the covers over her and pressed her book back into her hands.  Reaching out, he switched on her bedside light.  “This is your room.  You can turn on all the lights you want, and it won’t bother anyone.”

Gold sat down on the edge of the bed beside her as Belle blinked at him, looking painfully young with her curls cascading around her face.  “This is your home now, Belle,” he reminded her.  “You can do as you please.  Read until dawn.  Sleep with every light on.  Bae could sleep through an earthquake, and you won’t bother me.  Just please don’t read by flashlight any more.  It’s not good for your eyes.”

“I won’t keep you up?” she pressed.

“Can you tell when my light is on?” he asked, answering her question with one of his own.

Belle let out a soft giggle.  “I never thought about it like that.”

“Houses are different,” he reminded her.  “You’ll get used to it.”

“I hope so,” she sighed.  “I’ll try to remember.”

Leaning forward, Gold pressed a kiss to her forehead.  “Good girl.  Enjoy your book.”

“Good night, Mr. Gold.”  The smile she gave him made his breath catch, and Gold beat a hasty retreat, pulling Belle's bedroom door closed behind him.  Taking a few steps back, he kept his eyes focused on the bottom of it, and when her light remained on, he felt like he’d won a victory. 

Chapter Text

“This is most irregular,” Mrs. Hubbard sniffed, and Gold drew himself up to his full height, glaring down his nose at the elderly librarian.

“I’m sorry,” Belle whispered, her voice tiny in the cavernous space of the library.

“What seems to be the problem?” he demanded, making no effort to keep his own voice down.  

“Library cards are for local residents only.” The librarian pursed her wrinkled lips.  “How else can we guarantee the safety of the library’s resources?  Without a local address-“

“Miss French has a local address,” he growled.  “Write it down.”

“That is your address, Mr. Gold,” she corrected fussily.  

“What’s your point?” he asked in a silken tone.  “Perhaps you’ve never heard of cohabitation?”

An outraged gasp came from the librarian at his implication that he and Belle were living in sin, and Gold winced inwardly as he hoped Belle hadn’t been offended. 

There was no way out but through.  “Miss French is a local resident with a local address, and she would like a library card.  I’m sure the town council would be interested to hear why you saw fit to deny a resident access to the town’s resources.”  Gold ran the town council, and all of Storybrooke knew it.

With another sniff, the librarian typed in the information Belle had written on her application and printed out a sticker which she attached to a plastic card with what Gold considered unnecessary force.  “Here,” she said ungraciously, thrusting the card at Belle.

Belle took it with both hands, cradling it like the librarian had handed her a diamond.  “Thank you,” she breathed, her eyes alight with wonder as she traced the name on the card with one finger- Belle French.

Her smile of delight took Gold’s breath away, and he was almost grateful when she looked from him to the librarian.  He wasn’t used to having such pure joy aimed at him.

“Yes, well,” the librarian fussed with her stacks of paper, relenting under the glow of Belle’s happiness.  “Use it in health, my dear.”

“Do you want to pick a book?” Gold suggested, and Belle nodded vigorously, clinging to the card with a white-knuckled grip like she was afraid someone would try to pry it away from her.  

“It’s yours now, Belle,” he told her gently.  “Forever.”

She grabbed his free hand with hers, squeezing fiercely.  “Thank you, Mr. Gold.”

He smiled and squeezed back.  “It’s my pleasure, dearest.”

Chapter Text

Gold rapped gently on Belle’s open bedroom door, careful not to even look in her room until she invited him to enter.  She’d only been in the house for twenty-four hours, but he was already noticing that she had a tendency to leave doors open at inopportune times.  That morning he’d come to ask what she wanted for breakfast and barely missed walking in on her as she dressed for the day.

She was completely decent this time, staring at the piles of clothes, shoes, and other items scattered all over her bed.  From the look of it, Ariel had sold her half the store, and he couldn’t be more pleased.  However, Belle seemed less enthused. 

“Is something wrong?”

“I don’t know where to put anything,” she admitted.  She looked up at him shyly. “I spent a lot of money today.”

“Fortunately, I have plenty of money for you to spend,” he informed her, trying not to look at the heap of lacy underthings near her pillow.

“I’ll pay you back,” she promised, and he shook his head.  

“I won’t hear of it,” he told her firmly.  Stretching his memory back, Gold tried to remember the first time he’d ever had a room of his own.  He’d accumulated things more slowly than Belle was doing, and it pleased him to ease her way into normal life.  “Would you like to see how my bedroom is organized?  It might give you some ideas.”

“Yes, please,” she agreed, trotting along beside him as he led the way into his own room, opening dresser drawers and the closet for her to demonstrate how he arranged his own clothing by type and then by color.  Smirking to himself, Gold reflected that it was good she was learning from him and not from Bae.  His son’s idea of organization was “pile it on the floor and wear whatever’s on top.”

“I can help you put things on hangers,” he suggested, and she brightened.

“I’ve read about this,” she told him as they made their way back to her bedroom after a stop in his bathroom to inspect the medicine cabinet.

“Shopping?” he asked, hoping she wasn’t commenting on the bottle of pain medication he had for his knee.

Belle shook her head, taking the hanger he handed her and carefully putting a blue dress on it.  “Closets.  Houses.  It sounded ridiculous when I read about it- a whole room just for sleeping!  And you live like that all the time.”

“I didn’t always,” he reminded her, not certain if she was marveling over her good fortune or reproving him for his wastefulness in having an entire house just for the three of them.  

“How long did it take you to get used to it?” she asked as she hung the dress in the exact center of the closet and took another hanger from him.

“A while,” he allowed.  “It was a long time ago.”

“And… Bae?” she asked delicately.

“Bae’s always lived in a house,” he assured her.

Belle shook her head.  “No, I mean… There’s so many rooms.  How can you be sure you always know what he’s doing?”

Gold took a breath, wondering if she realized how much her question revealed about her previous life.  “I can’t.  Fortunately Bae’s at the age where he still wants to be with me and tell me things.  When he grows up a little more and wants his privacy, I’ll just have to hope that I raised him right, and he makes good decisions.  With any luck, I’ll be able to send him off to college before he burns the house down around us.”

“You’re going to let him go to college?” she asked in disbelief.

“No, I plan to insist that he go to college- well, some kind of schooling anyway,” Gold corrected.  If he taught Bae nothing else, he was determined to instill the value of a good education.

“I always wanted to go to college,” Belle admitted in a soft voice.

“What did you want to study?”  Hearing that Belle had dreamed of furthering her education didn’t surprise him in the slightest.  Without even a high school diploma to her name she must have thought that dream was forever out of reach.  What her father had done to her was criminal.

“Literature.”  She gave him an embarrassed smile.  “I know that it’s stupid and useless, but-“

“I minored in literature,” he informed her, cutting off her apologetic explanation.

“Really?” she asked, her eyes wide.  “Do you… do you still have any of the books?”

The hope in her eyes broke his heart.  “I’m sure I can find them.  And if you want to take college classes, we can make that happen.”

In Belle’s eyes, hope warred with fear.  “I don’t have my diploma,” she reminded him.

“That can be remedied,” he informed her.  Once they finished putting away Belle’s new belongings, he’d look into finding out exactly how one went about getting a GED.  If nothing else, she would leave here prepared for whatever her next step would be.

It would be better still if she didn’t leave at all.

Chapter Text

“I think we should make cookies for Papa,” Bae suggested on the one week anniversary of Belle coming to stay with them.  It was nice to have Belle there even though she was so quiet that sometimes he forgot she was in the house.  Papa liked having her there too, he could tell.  He watched her all the time with a little smile on his face that Bae had never seen before.  Bae liked anything that made his Papa smile, and he was extra glad that the anything was Belle.

“Okay,” she agreed readily.  “Do you have a cookbook?”

“The recipe’s on the chip bag,” he explained, going to the cabinet where they kept the packages of chocolate chips that his father added to his pancakes sometimes and finding an unopened one.

Belle took it from him and read the directions out loud.  “Preheat oven to three hundred and seventy-five degrees.”

She turned to face the oven, staring at it for so long that she seemed to have been turned into a statue. 

Bae frowned.  “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know how to turn it on,” she admitted.  “I never had an oven before.”

“That’s weird,” he said without thinking, then corrected his mistake.  “Here.  I’ll teach you.”

He showed Belle how to turn on the range hood and set the oven temperature.  “It’ll beep when it’s ready,” he explained.  “Now what?”

He got out the ingredients and measuring cups as Belle read off what they needed.  Once he'd gathered everything, he took a step back to watch as she carefully measured each ingredient into a mixing bowl, which took a while because after each thing went into the bowl, she took the measuring cup or spoon to the sink, washed it, dried it, and put it away again. 

“Now we mix,” she said, holding the bowl firmly as she stirred.

The spatula caught on the third rotation, snapping free and sending a wide swathe of flour cascading over the counter and onto the floor.  “Oh no,” Belle breathed as she put down the bowl and darted for a rag to clean it up.

“We can do it later,” Bae suggested.  “We’ll clean up after the cookies are done.”

Belle shook her head frantically.  “We can’t make a mess.”

She mopped up the flour and wrung out the rag in the sink, draping it neatly so it would dry.  “Stirring,” she repeated, her voice shaky.  She moved cautiously as she went back to her task, careful not to let the flour spill again.  

Bae watched uneasily, feeling her tension, but helpless to explain it.  Maybe he shouldn’t have suggested making cookies. 

Eventually, she seemed to relax a little and picked up speed, adding the flour to the butter and sugar mixture with more confidence.   She was halfway there when the oven beeped, indicating that it was heated.

Belle let out a little scream at the noise and dropped her measuring cup, sending flour everywhere.  Tiny motes hung in the air, clinging to their clothes and faces, and a tear trailed down her cheek, cutting through the powder. 

“No, don’t cry!” Bae begged, looking around desperately.  “It’s just flour.  It’s…”

“I didn’t mean to make a mess,” she whimpered, more tears following the first, and Bae finally had an idea.  Grabbing the bag of flour, he dumped half of it over his head.  

“It’s okay.  I made a mess too.”

Belle looked up, startled, and a snorting laugh escaped her.  That was much better than tears.  Blinking flour out of his eyes, Bae grabbed a handful of flour and flung it at her.  Belle jumped back, yelping, then tossed a handful of her own at him, and the battle was on.

Flour and half-mixed cookie dough flew as they laughed and shouted, chasing each other around the island until the kitchen door slammed shut.  “What in the world is going on?” his father asked in bemusement, slowly turning into a ghost as white powder settled from the air onto his dark suit.

Belle’s face went white under the flour.  “Oh God, I’m sorry!” she blurted.  “I’m so sorry!”

Papa raised his eyebrows, his face stern, and Bae’s heart sank.  He was definitely grounded. 

“You two made quite a mess,” Papa said in a forbidding voice, and Belle covered her mouth with her trembling hands.  “There’s only one thing to be done about that.”

With a sudden movement, he dropped his cane, jerked the sprayer out of the sink, and turned the water on full blast, dousing both of them.  “Someone needs a shower,” he sung out, tauntingly, and Bae let out a crow of delight, braving the spray to throw flour at his father.  

“Get him, Belle!” he cried, and a blob of cookie dough hit Papa in the side of his face, making him laugh as he swiped at it with one hand, licking his fingers.  

“Needs more sugar,” he chided, which was exactly the wrong thing to say.

Handfuls of sugar were added to the fight, and by the time they ran out of ammunition, all three of them were drenched, panting, sticky, and covered in flour.  Bae’s sides ached from laughing as he sat down on the floor between Papa and Belle.  “I just wanted cookies,” he admitted.

His father mussed his hair with a floury hand.  “I’ll go to the bakery,” he promised, and Bae grinned.  “While you clean this up.”

“Aw, Papa…”

Chapter Text

“Papa!”  The crash that came from the attic made Gold wince.

“What?” he grumped, making his slow way up three flights of stairs.  As he passed Belle’s open door, she looked up from her book to smile at him, and that went a long way toward soothing his irritation.

“Where are my stuffed animals?” Bae demanded as soon as he reached the attic, the boy’s face streaked with dust.

“They’re on your bed,” he replied, baffled by the question.

“No!  Not Growly and Dooley.  My other stuffed animals,” Bae explained.

“Oh God, you’re not going to start this again, are you?” Gold moaned.  Bae had spent a period of four years clinging desperately to every broken toy and worn out article of clothing in the house, leaving his father to try to smuggle out stained, too-small Superman pajamas at three in the morning in a desperate effort not to be overrun by junk.  Parenting books had assured him that it was a normal reaction to the divorce, leading to him feeling not only irritated but guilty for being irritated.  He’d thought Bae had grown out of it.

“Start what again?” Bae asked, already pawing through another box.  “I want to give them to Belle.”

“Why would Belle want your stuffed animals?”

“I showed her Growly and Dooley and she liked them.”  The battered stuffed shark and polar bear had been Bae’s closest companions from the moment he was born, and Gold dreaded the day he’d outgrow them completely.  “She never had a stuffed animal.”

Gold blinked.  “Really?”  He couldn’t imagine a child growing up without a plush companion.  Even he’d had a rag doll in his youngest years.  Bae grew up with an entire menagerie.

“She said she used to take the stuffed animals they kept for prizes, but her dad always made her give them back,” Bae explained.  “I want her to have animals she can keep.”

Privately, Gold doubted that a twenty-four year old woman would have much use for stuffed animals, but the idea clearly meant a lot to Bae, and he wanted to encourage empathy in his son.  “They’re in the the big box by the cedar chest,” he directed, “No, not that box, the other one.”

Bae crowed when he unearthed the animals, patting them in greeting as he sorted through the pile.  “Help me carry them downstairs.”

There was no ‘please’ in that sentence, and Gold felt no guilt for shaking his head.  “Oh no, this was your idea.  I’m going to go start dinner.”

He hid a smile when Bae pouted at him and relented just a bit. 

“I think I’ll ask Belle to help me cook.”  Bae would have to make several trips, but at least the coast would be clear.

Belle wasn’t actually all that much help when it came to cooking, having subsisted entirely on a diet of things that could be either fried or dipped in chocolate, but the company was good, and she willingly ate whatever was put in front of her after inspecting it with fascination.  Watching her delicately nibble asparagus spears during last night's dinner had nearly sent him into cardiac arrest, and Gold had made a mental note to stick to foods that were safer for his heart from that point on.

They’d developed an after dinner routine.  On weeknights, he worked on paperwork in the living room while Bae sprawled on the floor to do his homework.  That left the sofa open for Belle, and for the past few nights, she’d joined them to read quietly, the three of them simply occupying the same space at the same time.  

“I’m going to go get my book,” she announced once the dishes had been cleared, oblivious to the look that he and Bae exchanged.  In silent agreement, they followed her up the stairs, hanging back as she froze in the doorway to her bedroom.

Next to him, Bae shifted anxiously from foot to foot while Belle looked into the room, then she let out a shaky laugh and sprinted out of sight.  They reached the door just in time to see her leap onto her bed, landing squarely in the middle of the stuffed animals Bae had arranged there.  

“This is wonderful!” she exclaimed, reaching out to gather as many as she could into her arms for a hug.  “Thank you!”

“I thought you’d like them.”  Bae darted in, joining her on the bed to introduce her to each one.  “Come on, Papa,” he coaxed.

Belle rolled over to look at him, her eyes bright with unshed tears, and Gold’s own eyes stung at her innocent joy.  Unable to resist, he came to sit at the end of the bed, contributing a few stories of his own to the conversation and thoroughly embarrassing his son in the process which was always fun.

No paperwork got done that night, but it ended in all three of them sprawled on Belle’s bed and laughing hysterically, so Gold considered it time well spent.

Chapter Text

The sound of laughter and happy chattering drew Gold out of his office, trying to move soundlessly so as not to disrupt whatever was happening in the kitchen.  Since Belle moved in, he’d barely heard a word out of her that wasn’t an apology, but now she was talking up a storm, apparently telling Bae a story.

“Well, I thought he was crazy, but he insisted that he could do it, so I said go ahead.  He picked it up by its tail and held it over his mouth, and the mouse would not cooperate.  It kept fighting and swinging around and trying to crawl away, and he kept putting it back until it finally cooperated.  He lowered its head into his mouth…”

When Belle paused dramatically, Gold peeked into the kitchen to take in the scene.  Bae was sitting on the kitchen island where he knew he wasn’t allowed to be, watching as Belle effortlessly juggled apples.  The pattern changed every moment or two- waterfalls, cascades, chops, fountains- and he raised his eyebrows, impressed with her skill.

She gave Bae a conspiratorial grin, lowering her voice to deliver the punchline.  “And that’s when the mouse peed straight down his throat.”

Bae hooted in delight, clapping his hands, and Belle paused her juggling to take a sweeping bow.  As she started up again, Gold stepped into the kitchen.  “I’m sorry I missed the beginning of that story.”

Belle shook her head regally.  “Never repeat material, that’s my motto.”

Not since she’d given Bae rides on the teacups had Gold heard her sound so confident, and the way she bravely met his eyes gave him hope that she was settling in at last.  

“Are apples all you’ve got?” he teased.  “Fruit is passé.”

With a quick movement, he snatched one apple out of the air to take a bite, and Belle faltered, catching the remaining apples and putting them on the island beside Bae.  With the fruit out of her hands, she seemed smaller, her posture drawing in and becoming hunched.

Bae frowned at the sight, darting an accusing look at him, and Gold cursed himself for interrupting Belle's routine.  Apparently, she still wasn't as comfortable here as he’d hoped.

Unless-

He’d bought a six pack of beer weeks ago and never even got around to putting it in the refrigerator.  Leaning on his cane, he stooped to open the cabinet where he’d stashed it.  “Come on, Belle.  Impress me.”

Making certain that his weight was on his good leg, Gold let his cane fall and hefted three of the bottles, checking their balance.  The beer would slosh and the bottle caps would irritate his hands, but it was doable.  Not giving himself a chance to think about it, he started juggling.

“Wow,” Bae said, sounding stunned, and Belle gasped.

“Well?” he challenged, meeting her eyes.

Belle bit her lip, then picked up the other three bottles, matching his rhythm perfectly.  

“What else have you got?” he challenged, broadcasting that he meant to throw a bottle to her.  

Belle gave him a tight nod, and they both threw at the same moment, a perfect pass.  “Not bad,” he allowed, and she smirked at him.

“You’ll do,” she said archly.

That was it, he realized with relief.  As long as Belle was doing something familiar, she was confident.  He’d have to practice his juggling.

Belle giggled, and they passed again and then again until they were doing a basic four-count.  He hadn’t done this in decades, but his hands remembered the knack.  It felt good to have a partner again.

Grinning, Belle took a large step to the right, putting Bae between them as the beer bottles flew back and forth on either side of his perch. 

Cool!” his boy announced, watching in delight.  “Will you teach me?”

“Sure,” Belle answered, at the same moment Gold said, “Of course.”

She caught his eye and raised her eyebrow, and Gold was ready when the next pass came, the rhythm switching to a waltz.  This was more complicated, his left and right hands struggling to remember which was supposed to pass.  “I’m out of practice,” he admitted.

“You’re doing well,” she praised.  “Don’t tense up.”

It was easier when they switched to solids, his left hand grateful for the break as his right took over passing.  That pattern was faster, and Bae’s eyes were wide as he watched the bottles fly around him.

“Can you do a thunder shower?” Belle asked, looking more relaxed than he’d ever seen her.  

“When I was fifteen I could,” he admitted.  “Now?  Not so much.”

She gave him a saucy look.  “I guess I’ll go easy on you this time.”

“We’ll practice,” he promised.  “I’ll get it.”

They wound down, the passes becoming more infrequent until they were each juggling their own three bottles.  Holding Belle’s gaze, Gold gave a final toss, letting a single bottle spin in the air an impossible number of time before it dropped into his open palm, and took a bow.

Bae applauded wildly, but it was Belle’s bright smile that was the greatest praise.

Chapter Text

“I’m having the pool opened today, so if you see a strange man in the backyard, don’t worry,” Gold assured Belle over breakfast, wincing when Bae let out a raucous cheer.

“I thought you were never going to open it!” his son exclaimed, and Gold rolled his eyes.

“It’s not even June yet.  We live in Maine,” he reminded the boy.  There had been years when it wasn’t consistently warm enough to swim until July although this year was shaping up to be hotter than normal.  

“We’ll go swimming when I get home from school, Belle,” Bae announced.

In response, Belle's smile was weak and unconvincing.  She looked more troubled than pleased by the prospect of swimming, but she shooed him and Bae off to work and school, respectively, before Gold could ask.

He fretted over her reaction for most of the day, shaking his head at himself.  It was entirely possible that he’d imagined her disquiet.  Maybe she’d merely had a touch of indigestion, but the slightest hint that Belle was unhappy sent him into a tailspin.  She’d suffered so much- and Gold was certain that she hadn’t told him anywhere near everything about her previous life- that all he wanted was to ensure that she always felt safe and happy.

With that on his mind, he closed up shop early, timing his arrival at the house with Bae’s return from school. 

“You’re coming swimming too, aren’t you?” his son pressed, and that idea sent an additional thrill of worry through him.

Belle was a guest in his home, a young woman who’d needed help escaping from a painful situation.  It shouldn’t matter that he was almost three decades her senior or that his swimming trunks would reveal just how much damage thirty years could do.  It shouldn’t matter that if he wore his swimming trunks in front of her, she’d see how badly scarred his knee was- an unpleasant sight to say the least.  It shouldn’t matter.

It mattered.

He was being ridiculous.  Belle needed a safe space and copious amounts of therapy more than she needed a significant other.  Even if she felt comfortable taking a lover, she’d hardly choose a cantankerous old cripple.  Belle was vulnerable.  She needed him to protect her, not to lust after her, and Gold needed to remember that.

“Of course I am,” he told Bae.  

"Come on, Belle!  Go put your suit on!  Aren't you excited?  Have you looked at the pool yet?"

Belle fidgeted with her book, her shoulders hunching under the weight of Bae's exuberance.  “I looked a little.”

“If you don't want to swim, you don’t have to,” Gold told her, shooting Bae a warning look.  “Despite my son’s enthusiasm, he does not have any authority over you.”

“No!” she said, putting her book aside.  “I didn’t mean it like that.  I just… I don’t know how to swim.”

She gave them an embarrassed smile.  “All work and no play makes Belle a dull girl.  I’m sorry.”

“We’ll teach you,” Bae assured her, quelling when Gold gave him another look.  “I mean, if you want to learn.  You don't have to.”

“I’d like that,” she agreed, and Gold wasn’t sure who was more pleased- him or his son. 

“I’ll meet you by the pool!” Bae promised, dashing off to change so quickly that Gold suspected he’d left sneaker treads on the stairs.

At a more leisurely pace, he and Belle followed the boy upstairs, Belle matching her pace to his effortlessly.  “Did you have a good day?” she asked, and he’d forgotten just how nice it felt to have someone who cared enough to ask such things.

“I had a lovely day of terrorizing the villagers,” he remarked, and she giggled, shaking her head.

“I can’t imagine you terrorizing anyone,” she told him.

Gold swore that he’d never give her reason to think otherwise.  Outside of this house, he was the terror of Storybrooke, but inside of it he could simply be himself.

He took his time changing into his swim trunks, looking at himself critically in his bedroom’s full length mirror once he'd done so.  He wasn’t a troll, but the years were definitely taking a toll on him.  The long winter had left him pasty, and middle-aged spread was catching up with him.  Somehow the fact that he’d needed to buy new trousers hadn’t bothered him until this point.  Sighing, he slipped on a plain white tee shirt to cover his paunch, hoping Bae wouldn’t ask about his father’s new-found modesty.

By the time he reached the pool, Bae was already in the water with Belle perched on the side and splashing her feet.  Gold cursed himself, but he couldn't prevent his eager eyes from taking in every detail of the bathing suit Ariel had sold her- a high-waisted blue bikini sprigged with dainty pink flowers that made her look absolutely edible.  It was classic and modest, and Gold couldn’t look at her directly for fear of embarrassing himself.  Swim trunks didn’t hide much.

To his relief, Belle didn’t saw a word about his scarred knee as he awkwardly lowered himself to sit next to her.  The water took some of the pressure off the joint, easing the stiffness, and he made a mental note to spend some time in the hot tub before they went back inside.  

“It’s beautiful,” Belle told him, and he was so busy not admiring her that it took him a moment to realize she was complimenting the pool.

It was a ridiculous indulgence for Maine, but Bae had begged, and since the alternative was to slum with the rest of Storybrooke in the community pool, Gold considered it money well spent.  The organic shape meant that it was hardly designed for lap swimming, but it fit neatly with the yard’s landscaping, looking almost like a natural feature.  Bae’s slide rather ruined the effect, but the cascading waterfall leading from the sunken hot tub to the pool itself made up for it.  “Thank you.  It’s only five feet at the deepest.  You’ll be fine.”

“Not quite over my head,” Belle giggled.

“Not quite,” he agreed with a chuckle.  Maybe that was why Belle got to him so much.  She was a tiny thing even compared with him.  It was the rare woman who could make him feel like a giant, so maybe it was no wonder that he felt so driven to protect her.  To protect her and… do other things to her.

Before that train of thought could go any further, Gold slipped into the water, the chill cooling his ardor.

“Come in, Belle,” Bae coaxed.  

“Okay,” she said nervously.  With a smooth motion she slid forward into the pool and yelped, her entire body going stiff.  “It’s cold!”

“You’ll get used to it,” Bae promised.  “Go underwater.  That helps.”

Belle was holding her arms out of the water, looking like she was seriously considering getting back out, but she scrunched her face up and obeyed, dipping under the water.  She came up sputtering, her long hair hanging in her face.

She was absolutely adorable, and Gold stifled a groan.  He had it bad.

“You’re okay,” he assured her, catching her elbow to offer his support.  “Did you get water up your nose?”

“Yes,” she snuffled, wiping wet hands over her face and blinking rapidly.  “I’m not sure about this.”

“You’re fine,” he soothed.  “You don’t have to go under again, and you can get out whenever you want.  We’re not going to let you drown.”

“Sorry, Belle,” Bae sounded ashamed.

Belle looked back and forth between the two of them for a long moment before squaring her shoulders and pinching the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger, submerging herself again.

This time she tilted her head back when she came up for air, her hair streaming behind her, making her look like a mermaid.  “You’re right,” she told Bae with a smile.  “Going under helps.  I’m not cold anymore.”

“Awesome,” Bae pronounced, the tension leaving his body, and Gold silently admired Belle's bravery as the pair of them set to work teaching her how to float. 

Chapter Text

"Please Papa," Bae begged, and Gold frowned as he considered his son's request.  He was probably being overprotective, but it went against his grain to allow Bae and Emma to swim without adult supervision, and he had a pile of work that needed to be done.   

“Belle can supervise,” Bae suggested brightly.

Gold gave up.  Bae and Emma were both good swimmers, and if one of them got into trouble, the other one would have enough sense to shout for help.  He had to let go some time.  Besides, if Bae was otherwise occupied, it would give him a chance to talk to Belle in private, a conversation he'd been both looking forward to and dreading.

“Belle and I need to have a chat,” he informed his son, wincing when Belle went white.  “Go swim.  Don’t drown.

“Thanks, Mr. Gold!” Emma called over her shoulder as she and Bae took off at a run, heading for the pool.

Belle sat ramrod stiff and silent on the couch, her eyes enormous in her pale face, and Gold wished, not for the first time, that he could get his hands around her father’s repulsive neck.

“You’ve done nothing wrong, and I’m not the slightest bit upset with you,” he assured her as he moved to sit beside her on the couch, trying to select a distance that was close enough to show affection but far enough away to ensure she wouldn’t feel intimidated.

She nodded warily, clearly still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Taking a deep breath, Gold plunged in.  “It’s been a month since you left the carnival.  Have you given any thought to what you’d like to do?  Stay here?  Go elsewhere...?”

Belle looked down at her clasped hands, chewing on her lower lip, and Gold stifled a groan as his brain prompted him to wonder what it would feel like to do that for her. 

“You’ve been so nice to me,” she murmured, and he braced himself for the ‘but-‘ that was almost assuredly coming.

“You’re welcome to stay as long as you’d like,” he reminded her, hoping she couldn’t hear the way desperation thickened his accent.  It was futile and he knew it, but he had to try.  “Bae and I love having you here.  We’d both like it very much if you stayed.”

“Really?” she asked, a shy smile lighting up her face for just a moment before it fled.  “I can’t.”

“Why not?” he asked gently.  He couldn’t keep her if she didn’t want to stay, but if he could only understand why, maybe he’d be able to endure her loss.

Gold clenched his fist at his side, waiting for her to tell him that his hungry staring made her uncomfortable or that she was tired of his prickly personality.  Anything would be better than hearing that she’d decided to return to the carnival.  

When her answer came, it wasn’t what he expected.  “My father… He knows I’m here.  In Storybrooke.  He’ll come looking for me.  He’ll be so angry… He might… Bae… I have to leave.”

Gold closed his eyes at her inarticulate explanation.  Of course Belle was afraid her father would find her.  In his attempt to shield her from the knowledge that he’d bought her like a horse, he’d failed to let her know that she was safe.  He was an idiot.

“If I could promise that your father won’t come back here, would you stay?” he asked, dreading her reply.

Hope lit her features.  “Oh, that would be wonderful, but…” Her face fell.  “You can’t know that.”

“I can,” he gritted out, standing stiffly and making his halting way to his office where he’d stashed a copy of Belle’s contract in his desk.  The original was still securely locked in his safe, but he’d felt the necessity of having a copy just in case, knowing that Belle would never snoop there and find it.  Now he was going to show it to her himself, and seeing what he’d done would drive her away anyway.  At least this way she’d know she was safe from her father.

“I should have told you,” he admitted as he returned to the living room.  “Your father came to see me the day after you left.  You were with Ariel.”

Belle jumped up, her body quivering as she looked behind her over both shoulders.  “Easy…” he soothed.  “We… made a deal.  I… Just read it.”

Clenching his jaw, he handed her the contract, letting his hand-written words speak for him.  She was safe.  That was what was most important.  Belle was safe, and now she could be happy even if he couldn’t be part of that happiness.

“He wanted ten thousand dollars for me,” she said in a flat voice, and Gold closed his eyes, unable to bear her censure. 

Her next words damned him.  "And you gave it to him.”

“Belle, I’m sorry,” he rasped, the words painfully insufficient to excuse what he'd done.

“Whose idea was it?” she asked, “Yours or his?”

There was no way to answer that question.  He couldn’t tell her that her father had offered to sell her nor could he shoulder the blame himself without completely destroying her good opinion of him.  Although seeing the contract had probably already done just that, he admitted to himself.

Silence yawned between them, Gold unable to even look at her and see the pain in her face.  He was the worst kind of coward.

“It was his,” she sighed.  “He sold me for ten thousand dollars.”

A heartbeat later she was in his arms, nearly knocking him over before he had the sense to drop his cane and wrap his arms around her, wondering what was happening.  “I can’t believe you did that!” she gasped against his chest, her voice thick with tears.  “You didn’t even know me, and… That’s so much money!”

Gold buried his face in her hair to hide his own tears, his throat closing when he realized what she was saying.  It broke his heart that Belle valued herself so little that she would consider ten thousand dollars anywhere near a fair price. 

“Thank you!” she sobbed, clutching a handful of his hair and tugging gently.  “I can’t believe you did that.”

“You’re worth that and so much more,” he murmured into her hair, and she clung tighter for long minutes as he took a chance and rubbed her back, trying to memorize the way she felt against him.

“You’re not angry?” he asked when Belle finally took a step back.

“Of course I am!” she blurted, mopping at her damp face with her hands.  “I’m mad at him!  He sold me.  But you… You didn’t have to do that.”

“I wanted you to be safe,” he told her, catching her wrists in his hands to maintain their connection.  “I would have given him anything.”

“Mr. Gold…” she murmured, her voice soft and stunned, and under his thumbs he could feel her heart racing.

“Belle,” he whispered back.  This was his chance to tell her how much he valued her, to beg her to stay with him.  Licking his lips nervously, he opened his mouth to voice his feelings.

“Papa, where’s the beach ball?’ Bae asked as he sprinted into the room, his sopping wet son shattering the moment with all the grace of a stampeding elephant.

“Stop dripping on the hardwood!” he snapped, and Bae rolled his eyes, moving to drip on the antique rug instead. “That’s not better.”

“I forgot my towel,” his son explained.

“I’ll get it,” Belle offered, and Gold groaned as he watched her leave the room.  

“What were you and Belle talking about?” Bae asked as he continued to drip.

“We were discussing her living arrangements,” he answered stiffly, hoping Bae wouldn’t ask for details.  They’d gotten so sidetracked that he wasn’t even sure if she’d decided to stay.

“What do you mean?” Bae asked.  “Belle lives here.  Don’t you, Belle?” he asked as she returned, towel in hand.

She handed the towel to Bae who swiped at his hair and face, making no effort to save the already sodden rug.  “Yes,” she said firmly, meeting Gold’s eyes.  “I do.”

Relief left him shaken, and he stooped to retrieve his cane in an attempt to hide his emotions.  “There.  That’s settled then,” he said briskly.  “Now let’s go find the damned beach ball.”

Chapter Text

No matter how many times she read the contract, Belle still couldn’t quite believe it.  Her father had renounced all claim on her.  After twenty-four years of controlling everything she did and everyone she saw, he was letting her go.

Of course the money had a lot to do with it, and it hurt to know that she was worth less than the cost of a new game for the carnival, but what was really important was that she was free.  Moe French would not be coming after her.

It wasn’t until the constant threat of her father's return was removed that Belle realized just how terrified she’d been.  Now, she didn’t have to check for exits every time Mr. Gold and Bae took her somewhere new.  She no longer had to look over her shoulder on the street or jump at every unexpected noise in the house.  She didn’t have to be afraid of getting close to the Golds, knowing that her father would inevitably come to take her away or- worse- hurt them for helping her.

She didn’t have to be afraid any more.

Mr. Gold wasn’t going to throw her out.  He’d asked her to stay on at the end of the month, and now that she knew he’d paid ten thousand dollars for her, she felt more secure.  He’d want a return on his investment.  Never having received a paycheck, Belle had no idea how long it would take to work off a ten thousand dollar debt, but she was so bad at housework that she assumed it wouldn’t be any time soon.  

If she’d been half as bad at her carnival tasks as she was at dusting, she would have been all-over bruises, but Mr. Gold just laughed when she got into trouble, and he never scolded her for breaking things.  He even used the poor teacup that she’d chipped by dropping it every morning at breakfast to show there were no hard feelings for her clumsiness.  

“A teacup seems apropos, don’t you think?” he asked with a smile when he saw her looking at it as the three of them sat together at breakfast the next morning, and Belle had to laugh.  No matter where she went, there was no escape from teacups.

“However, I think your time might be better spent doing other things,” he told her gently.  “And I have a confession to make.”

“What should I do instead?” Belle asked eagerly, ready to take on any task he required.  If Mr. Gold thought she was worth ten thousand dollars, she wouldn't disappoint him.  She was going to earn her keep.

“Study for your GED test and catch up on your reading,” he told her.

“Won’t the house get dusty?” she protested.

His lips twisted in a wry smile.  “That leads to my confession- I have a housekeeper.  I gave her some time off to go visit her son, but she’ll be back tomorrow.  No more cleaning for you, my dear.”

“Mr. Gold!” Belle protested, laughing.  Only the promise that she would be useful had persuaded her to accept his offer to rescue her from the carnival, and now it seemed he’d never needed her at all.  He'd tricked her in the sweetest way possible.

“No arguing.  You have reading to do,” he said sternly.

“Yessir,” she agreed, giving him a mocking salute.

“Bae, do you see this?” he asked, aggrieved.  “No respect at all.”

In response, Bae pulled a face at his father, puffing out his cheeks and bugging his eyes. 

“And you’re a terrible influence on my son,” Mr. Gold scolded her.

Belle blew a raspberry at him, freezing when she realized what she was doing.  She was sassing Mr. Gold, her rescuer.  What if he wasn’t joking about being disappointed with her?

He threw a blueberry at her head.

Relieved, Belle subsided into giggles as Bae pleaded to be thrown one so he could practice catching them in his mouth.  Most of the berries wound up on the floor, but Bae crowed about the three he managed to catch until his father threatened to dump his glass of milk over his head.

It wasn’t until later when she was curled up with her latest library book that Belle thought about her debt.  If she wasn’t doing anything productive, she’d never work off the money she owed Mr. Gold.  If she never repaid him…

She’d never have to leave.

Smiling, she snuggled back into the comfortable pile of pillows he’d given her for her sunny window seat.  She couldn’t imagine anything better than living in this beautiful house with Mr. Gold and Bae forever.

Chapter Text

Belle frantically stabbed plastic flamingos into green frosted cupcakes as Mr. Gold cursed and pulled the silk flowers from a dozen leis, using them to frame the tiny bulbs on a string of white lights.  Bae’s tiki-themed birthday party started in less than two hours, and they were never going to be ready in time.

When the doorbell rang, she screamed through her teeth, and Mr. Gold cursed louder. 

“If that’s Emma, I swear to God-  Bae, get the door!” he yelled.

“If it’s Emma, she can help with the decorations,” Belle suggested.  As Bae’s best friend, Emma spent enough time at the house to be considered part of the family and not just a party guest.

“Serves her right for being early,” Mr. Gold groused. 

“If that’s Emma, send her in here!” he shouted in the general direction of the foyer.

It wasn’t Emma who appeared a moment later.  Bae walked into the kitchen with a large, gaily-wrapped box in his hands, his posture rigid and face blank.  Behind him was a tall woman with long dark hair and blue eyes that darted, taking everything in.

Belle looked at her curiously as Bae placed the box on the table next to the cupcakes and on top of the silk flowers, crushing them, but the sudden tension in the air kept her silent.

Mr. Gold stood slowly.  “Milah,” he said, his voice glacial.

She’d never heard him sound so cold, and Belle shivered as she looked up into his forbidding expression.  Old fears made her stomach knot, and she nearly made an excuse to leave the room before Bae moved to sit next to her, scooting his chair so close that it cut off her escape route.  She was trapped.

Just as she was starting to hyperventilate, Bae’s hand slipped into hers under the table, his fingers sweaty.  He was as distressed as she was, and that broke through Belle’s panic.  Rubbing her thumb against the back of his hand, she tried to soothe him silently as Mr. Gold glared at the new arrival.

“No kiss hello?  You’re not making me feel very welcome,” the woman- Milah- said in a mocking voice.

“I don’t recall sending you an invitation,” he replied.

“I hardly think a mother needs an invitation to her own son’s thirteenth birthday party,” she announced, and Belle took a sharp breath.  This was Bae’s mother?  Neither he nor Mr. Gold had ever mentioned her before, and she’d assumed the other woman was dead.  She couldn’t imagine any other reason why she wouldn’t be with her husband and son, but this woman was clearly very much alive.

“Lucky thirteen.  It’s a big year,” she told Bae, who clutched tighter at Belle’s hand.

“I’m surprised you remembered,” he muttered.

“How could I forget my baby’s birthday?” Milah asked.  “You mean everything to me.  Killian and I talk about you all the time.  We’ve even discussed having you come live with us.”  

Mr. Gold looked sick at the idea, and Belle decided that even though she wasn’t sure who Killian was, she hated him on principle.

“That’s funny.  I thought you forgot about me,” Bae said bitterly.  “Since I haven’t heard from you in years.”

“Teenage dramatics…” Milah said with an indulgent shake of her head.  “I sent you a lovely card at Christmastime.”

“That was two years ago,” Mr. Gold corrected softly.

Milah tossed her hair. “Counting the days since you last heard from me?  How romantic.”

“Hardly.”

The kitchen went quiet, the four of them avoiding each other’s eyes until Milah finally deigned to notice Belle.  “New housekeeper, I see.”

Mr. Gold opened his mouth to respond, but Bae beat him to it.  “Mom, this is my biological mother, Milah.”

It took Belle to the end of the sentence to realize that he’d just called her mom, and Bae’s eyes begged her to go along with it.  “This is Belle.  She’s my mom.”

“A pleasure,” Belle managed, and Milah’s posture tensed, reminding her of a tiger they’d once had at the carnival.  It had toured with them until it savaged poor Billy the mechanic.  Hopefully, Milah wouldn’t rip her throat out.

“You can’t be serious.”  To Belle’s relief the words were addressed to Mr. Gold and not to her.  “She’s- what?- sixteen?”

“I’m twenty-four,” Belle whispered.

A jeering laugh answered her.  “Half your age!  Most men just buy a car when they have a midlife crisis, but I suppose that’s not good enough for the illustrious Mr. Gold.  How much did you have to pay for her?  You do know it’s your money she’s after?  It’s certainly not your charming personality.”

“Get. Out.”

Belle didn’t even realize she’d spoken until every eye turned to focus on her.  Releasing Bae’s hand, she stood up, staring Milah down.  She couldn’t show fear.  She remembered that from the times she’d had to feed the tiger.  

“You were not invited to Bae’s party.  He doesn’t want you here.  None of us want you here.  Get out,” she repeated, squeezing past Bae to advance on Milah, refusing to be intimidated by the taller woman.  The worst thing Milah could do was hit her, and Belle had been hit before.

“I am his mother,” Milah began in a tone of outrage.

I’m his mother!” Belle snapped back, playing the part Bae had assigned her, and as she said the words, they carried the ring of truth even to her own ears.  “I’m here every day.  Where have you been?”

“I…”  Milah couldn’t seem to find any more words, her gaze darting guiltily to Bae.

“I’ll see you out,” Belle said with dignity, taking hold of the woman’s arm to escort her to the front door, and to her shock, Milah came without a fight, allowing herself to be deposited on the porch.  

There was a red Porsche parked in the driveway with a dark-haired man sitting in the driver’s seat.  Belle made an educated guess that this was Killian. 

“I’m his mother,” Milah repeated, and this time there was pain in her voice.

“I know,” Belle told her.  “But sometimes that’s not enough.”  She of all people knew that it took more than biology to make a parent.  

“He hates me,” Milah said, looking over Belle’s shoulder, and in spite of herself, her heart went out to the other woman.

“He doesn’t know you,” she corrected.  “If you want to change that, email him.  Call.  But you can’t expect to just show up and pick up where you left off.”

Milah stared at her for a long moment, then said grudgingly, “Maybe you’re not just a gold-digging slut.”

“Goodbye, Milah.”  Belle gently closed the door in her face, peeking through the stained glass until the other woman got into the car and the Porsche drove away.  Only then did her knees go weak.

Shaking, she made her way back to the kitchen, stopping short when she saw Bae and Mr. Gold clinging to each other, the boy sobbing into his father’s waistcoat.  Not wanting to interrupt, she took a step back, her throat closing at the palpable love in this room.  This was what a family was supposed to look like, and Belle wished more than anything that someday she’d be part of something half so wonderful.

Mr. Gold looked up, and she shrank back, embarrassed to have been caught intruding on the private moment.  With a shaky smile, he held his hand out to her, beckoning her to join the embrace.

She hesitated for only a moment before joining them, wrapping her arms around Bae as Mr. Gold hugged both of them.  “You were magnificent,” he rumbled.

“She shouldn’t have said those things,” Belle replied.  

“She shouldn’t have been here,” Bae sobbed.  “I hate her.”

“Hush.”  Mr. Gold smoothed the boy’s hair.  “It’s over.  She’s gone.”

“Thanks to Belle.”  Bae squirmed until he was hugging her as well as his father.  “Thanks for playing along.”

“It was my pleasure,” she told him.  Pretending to be Bae’s stepmother had been no hardship at all, and Belle realized that she didn’t want to be part of a family like this one.  She wanted to be part of this one.  

Closing her eyes, she rested her head on Mr. Gold’s shoulder.  This was her family, and she’d protected them.  She’d found her voice, something she’d thought her father had stolen from her years ago.  

The three of them held each other for long moments until a rap at the kitchen door broke the moment.  When she looked up, Emma waved at her through the glass, holding up a gift bag with a smile.  “The party!” Belle gasped.

Mr. Gold caught Bae’s shoulders.  “Do you still want to have it?  It’s not too late to cancel.”

Bae nodded, scrubbing his hand over his face.  “It’s my birthday.  I’m not going to let her ruin it.”

“Happy birthday, Bae!” Emma yelled the moment Belle opened the door for her.  Looking closely at his face, she frowned.  “What?”

“I’m okay,” Bae promised.  “I’ll tell you later.”

Emma nodded, still looking concerned, and Belle took a moment to be grateful that Bae had such a good friend.  “Emma, can you help carry food out to the pool?”

The blonde girl nodded.  “I can’t promise not to drop anything,” she cautioned.

“You can’t be clumsier than Belle,” Mr. Gold said drily, chuckling at the dirty look she gave him.

“Can I light the torches, Papa?” Bae requested.

“Only if you promise not to set yourself on fire,” Mr. Gold answered, fishing a box of matches out of a drawer.  

Milah’s visit had cost them nearly an hour of prep time, and there was no way that everything was going to get done before the party started, but Belle decided that it didn’t matter.  They were going to make sure that Bae had a wonderful party anyway.  That was what families were for.

Chapter Text

“Did you have an nice birthday?” Gold asked as he sat down on the edge of Bae’s mattress, smoothing the covers over his son.  It was probably a stupid question considering their uninvited guest, but he hoped Milah’s appearance hadn’t completely ruined the day.

“Yes,” Bae said firmly.  “It was a very good day.”

“Good.”  Gold leaned down to kiss his son’s forehead, then rose, ready to leave him to sleep.

Bae’s hand caught his sleeve.  “I shouldn’t have said that, should I?”

Gold sat back down.  “Said what?”

“About Belle being my mom.  I shouldn’t have told her that, should I?”  Bae’s teeth worried at his lower lip, a habit Gold thought he’d picked up from Belle.  He couldn’t remember the boy doing that before her arrival.

“Probably not,” he allowed with a sigh.  He should have corrected Bae as soon as he said it, but it had just sounded… right.  Nor had Belle seemed to mind.  On the contrary, she'd taken the lie and run with it, and Gold didn't quite dare wonder what that implied. 

If nothing else, perhaps this would put an end to Milah’s ongoing delusion that he was still in love with her.

Still, he had to teach the boy to be honest.  “The truth always comes out,” he reminded Bae.

“I know.”  Bae made a face at the ceiling, then he brightened.  “It could be the truth though.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Bae sat up, speaking enthusiastically.  “You could marry Belle.  Then she’d really be my mom.”

Gold choked.  “I think Belle might protest that.”

“Why?”  Bae shrugged.  “She already lives here.  It wouldn’t be that different.  She just wouldn’t have her own room any more.”

Gold couldn’t help but laugh.  “There’s a bit more to it than that.”

“I know.  She already loves us though.  You should ask her to marry you,” Bae said with great certainty.

“Is that something you want?  A new mom?” Gold asked.  He’d been concerned about Bae growing up without a female influence, but the boy had never voiced discontent with their two-person household before.

No.”  Bae gave him an impatient look.  “I want Belle to be my mom.  You like her, don’t you, Papa?”

“More than anyone except you,” Gold admitted.

“Me too.”  Bae snuggled back into bed.  “You should ask her.”

“I promise to think about it,” he said, holding up his finger when Bae looked like he was going to protest.  “And that’s all I’m going to promise.”

Relief filled him when he managed to escape Bae’s room without continuing the conversation about his marital prospects.  The thought of making Belle his wife had already crossed his mind on more than one occasion.  Belle was… wonderful.  In the three months she’d lived with them, she’d become his dearest friend- not that she’d had much competition for the role.  She fit into their daily lives like she’d been created specifically for them.  He was so attracted to her that taking care of himself in the shower had become a daily habit instead of a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence, and Bae adored her.  

She was growing more confident by the day, but Gold didn’t lie to himself; Belle was still deeply scarred from her experience with the carnival.  It had taken him decades to recover, and he’d still been broken enough to marry Milah, replacing one abuser with another.  Belle had a long road ahead of her, and the last thing she needed was a piece of crippled baggage twice her age.  

If he asked her to marry him and she said no, it would break his heart, but it would be even worse if she said yes.  Belle was grateful to him for helping her escape her father, and she’d been conditioned her entire life to please.  If he proposed, she would agree because she thought she was supposed to, and seeing the affection in her eyes slowly change to resentment over the years at the way he’d trapped her would destroy him.

He’d promised Bae to think about proposing to Belle, and he’d done his part.  It was impossible.  Hopefully his son wouldn’t bring it up again.

Groaning, Gold made his slow way downstairs to the liquor cabinet, finding Belle lying on the couch and staring mindlessly at the ceiling.  “All right?”

“I am never eating again,” she informed him, and he chuckled as he poured himself a whisky.  

“Drink?”

“No, thank you,” she answered, drawing her feet up to make room for him to sit at the other end of the sofa.  “How’s Bae?”

“He’s fine,” he assured her.  “Despite her best efforts, Milah did not manage to ruin his birthday.”

“I’m-“

“If you say ‘I’m sorry’ I really will be cross with you,” he mock-threatened, taking a sip of his drink as Belle laughed.  “You were wonderful today.”

“You’re not angry that I yelled at her?” she pressed.

“I’m angry because you didn’t yell enough.  It was over too quickly; I didn’t have time to video it.”  Gold smirked at the idea of being able to watch Belle take on his ex-wife over and over again.

“She does this,” he explained.  “She’ll send a card or a letter or show up and act like nothing’s changed then disappear for years without a word.  It’s…”

“It’s not fair to Bae,” Belle said quietly, completing the thought.

“Not even a little,” he agreed.

Taking another drink gave him the courage to make a confession.  “I never stood up to her because I was afraid that if I made her angry, she might sue for custody.”

“Oh God,” Belle sat up, her face white.  “Did I-?”

“No,” he said hastily.  “It wouldn’t matter now anyway.  Bae’s old enough to tell a judge what he wants.  Don’t worry.”

Belle was still far too pale, and he held out his glass to her, watching avidly as her mouth covered the lip print he’d made.

Ugh!” she choked, flushing red as she handed the whisky back.  “How do you drink that?”

“It’s an acquired taste,” he explained.  

“I’ll pass,” she said, swiping at her watering eyes.

“To finish what I was trying to say, thank you for standing up to her when I couldn’t.”  The words came out in a rush, and he gulped down the rest of the liquor to avoid seeing Belle’s reaction.

“I’m just sorry she upset Bae and said those horrible things to you,” she sighed.  Then she giggled, “She was kind of right though.”

Gold’s heart fell.  Belle agreed with Milah’s hateful words.  Of course she did.  She’d lived with him long enough to know what a pain in the ass he was.  “Oh?” he gritted out, wishing he hadn’t finished the whisky so quickly.

“Yes!”  Belle nudged him playfully with her bare toes.  “You did pay for me.  I have the contract to prove it.”

The knot in his gut loosened as he got her joke.  Gold chuckled, marveling at the indomitable spirit that allowed her to laugh at being bought and sold like livestock.  Belle was resilient, far more resilient than he’d ever been.  It wouldn’t take her decades to recover from her father’s mistreatment.

Reaching down, he tickled her toes until she squirmed with laughter.  “And you were worth every penny,” he assured her.  Wife or not, Belle was part of the family now, and Gold would pay any price to ensure that she stayed.

Chapter Text

After Bae’s birthday, things started to change at the house.  Belle had lived with them for weeks without the Victorian betraying the slightest trace of her presence, but one day Gold came home to discover a half-read library book lying on the coffee table.  Several days later, he discovered a notation on the calendar he used to keep track of family obligations- “August 12- eight books due.”

A pillow and afghan from her bedroom migrated to the living room, finding a home on the corner of the sofa where Belle usually curled up to read in the evenings.  Having grown up without air conditioning, the house’s temperature occasionally proved too much for her, and Gold was quietly pleased that she’d chosen to create a cozy nest for herself in the living room with him and Bae instead of retreating to her bedroom to read.

At some point she’d started leaving her favorite teacup out on the counter next to his instead of immediately washing it and putting it back in the cabinet when she was done, and the sight of their cups next to each other was one of the most beautiful things he’d ever seen.  Belle was becoming present in a way she’d never been before.  She no longer found it necessary to hide.

When he came down to breakfast one morning to see Belle still in her pajamas and laughing with Bae as they attempted to make pancakes, he leaned in the doorway and just enjoyed the sight.  There was no denying it now- Belle was here to stay.

Chapter Text

“So, is Belle your mom now?” Emma demanded as soon as Bae surfaced from his trip down the pool’s slide.

He instinctively looked to make sure the adults were out of earshot.  Fortunately Belle and his papa were camped out at the picnic table sharing a pitcher of lemonade, close enough to make sure no one drowned but far enough away not to overhear anything.  “I don’t know.  I told Papa to ask her to marry him, but he won’t.”

“Why not?”  

The conversation was halted for Emma to take a turn on the slide, then they silently agreed to retreat to the far end of the pool to be sure no one could hear them.  “I don’t know.  He likes her a lot, and she likes him, but he won’t ask her.”

Emma’s nose crinkled as she thought it over.  “Do they go out on dates?”

The thought of his papa dating made Bae whoop with laughter.  “No!”

“Well, that’s the problem,” Emma decided.  “My parents go on a date every week.”

“Yeah, but your parents are gross,” Bae reminded her.  All Emma’s parents ever seemed to do was kiss, which was one of the reasons he and Emma preferred to spend their time at Bae’s house where Belle and Papa did cool things like juggle.  They'd been giving him and Emma lessons, and they were starting to get pretty good, even if Emma tended to throw balls at his head instead of his hands when passing.

“I know, but they’re married,” Emma reminded him.  “Don’t you want your dad to marry Belle?”

“Yes."  Much as Bae hated to admit it, she might have a valid point.  “So, all we have to do is think of a way to get them to go on a date?”

“It might take more than one date,” Emma cautioned.

“Great,” he muttered.  Getting them to go on one date would be hard enough.  If they had to go on a bunch of dates, this project would take forever.  

“I can get my parents to ask them to go along when they go out this weekend,” Emma suggested.  

Bae brightened.  “That’s a good idea.”

“Of course it is.  I thought of it.”

Bae shoved Emma under water in payback for that comment, and when she stopped sputtering, they ironed out the details.  Seeing Emma’s parents together would make Papa and Belle think about marriage, and that would get the ball rolling.  They’d be married by the time school started again.  

“Operation: Marriage is on,” Bae announced.

“We need a better name.  If they hear us talking about it, they’ll know what we’re doing,” Emma said practically.

“Operation: Cupid?” he suggested.

Emma made a rude noise.  “That’s not better.  What about Operation: Wolf?  Miss Ruby at the diner told me that wolves mate for life.  That’s what we want them to do.”

“Operation: Wolf,” Bae sounded it out and grinned.  “Perfect.”

“Operation: Wolf, phase one: date.”  Emma summed up the plan, and they high-fived.  This was going to be awesome.

Chapter Text

“Emma has told us so much about you.  I’m so glad we’re finally getting the chance to get to know you, Belle!” Mary Margaret Nolan enthused from the other side of the booth at Granny’s diner.

“Thank you,” Belle whispered, staring down at her menu with laser focus.

“Emma told us that you used to work for a carnival,” David Nolan contributed, smiling widely.  “That must have been fun.  I used to imagine running away with the circus.”

“You would have fit right in,” Gold interjected, trying to distract the other couple’s attention away from Belle, who was getting more tense by the second. 

When David and Mary Margaret looked at him, he tried to make his previous remark sound less like an insult.  “Since you have so much experience with animals.”

“Did you have animals at the carnival, Belle?” Mary Margaret inquired, and Belle shot him a desperate look.

“Bae’s been wanting to get a dog!” Gold said a bit too loudly.  “David, what would you recommend for our family situation?”

To his relief, he seemed to have hit on a topic near to David Nolan’s heart.  The other man’s eyes lit up.  “That’s a good question.  I imagine you want a purebred.”

“I hadn’t thought about it,” he admitted.  “We want something friendly.”

“Good with children,” Belle added.

“Something that doesn’t need much exercise.”  He gestured to his cane to illustrate his words.  No matter how good Bae’s intentions, when it was twenty below zero, Gold knew exactly who’d wind up taking the hypothetical dog out for its walk.

“Something that doesn’t shed too much,” Belle said practically, and he could see her thinking about the extra work for Mrs. Potts.  

“Nothing yappy,” he concluded.

Belle giggled.  “I think we want a stuffed animal.”

“Have you thought about a pug?” David asked as Mary Margaret beamed at the two of them like she knew a secret.

Picking up his glass of iced tea, Gold took a sip, relieved that they seemed to have lost interest in the carnival.  “Tell us about pugs,” he suggested, smiling as underneath the table Belle took his hand and squeezed gratefully.

Chapter Text

“Did it work?” Emma demanded the moment she and Bae were alone the morning following the double-date.

“They’re talking about getting me a dog,” Bae answered.  

“A dog?” Emma repeated, scrunching up her nose.  “Are you sure you heard them right?”

“They talked about pugs for twenty minutes,” he said flatly.  “Nothing about getting married.  Now what?”

“Now we move onto phase two.  Whatever that is.”  Emma raked her hand through her hair.

Groaning, Bae flopped down on the grass beside her, bracing his hands behind himself as he glared resentfully at the sun.  Operation: Wolf had been a good plan, and he and Emma had been wildly successful at their half of it.  Once again, adults had managed to screw everything up.  They were good at that.

“We need to hire someone to kidnap Belle,” Emma decided.

Feeling like he was moving in slow motion, Bae turned his head to look at her.  “What?”

Next to him, Emma was bouncing with excitement.  “We can hire someone to kidnap Belle and hold her prisoner.  Maybe at the docks- No!- in the abandoned mine!  Then your dad can rescue her.  It’ll be really romantic.”

“I don’t think Belle would like that,” Bae said practically.  Belle was a lot more confident than she’d been when she first came to live with them, but being taken hostage would definitely be more than she could handle.  Besides, he didn’t know anyone who he’d trust to kidnap Belle except Dove, and the big man would never go for it.  He had a soft spot for her.

Emma snorted.  “Duh- she’s not supposed to like it.  That’s why she’ll be really happy when your dad saves her.  She’ll fall in love with him right away.”

“Maybe something less… illegal?” Bae suggested.  

“We can bribe Doctor Whale into telling your dad that he’s dying.  Then you can help him make a bucket list and put “Marry Belle” on it.  After they get married, we can tell him that he’s not dying.”  Emma nodded decisively, apparently pleased with herself.

“Where are you getting these ideas?” Bae demanded.

“Mom watches General Hospital,” she explained.  “She records it when she’s at school, and I watch it with her sometimes.  Near-death experiences always work.  Oh!  I know!  We could lock them in the bank vault together!”

Bae buried his face in his hands.  “This is real life, not a soap opera.  How did your parents meet?”

“Mom ran Dad over with her car,” Emma informed him.  “He still has a scar on his chin.  Then she accidentally stole his wallet.  They fell in love when she tracked him down to give it back.”

Mentally, Bae retracted his statement about real life.  In Emma's world, truth was apparently stranger than fiction.  “How did she ‘accidentally’ steal his wallet?” he asked, curious in spite of himself.

“It fell out of his pocket under her car and she stuck it in her purse to give it back to him, but she forgot,” Emma gave the explanation like it should have been obvious.  “Does Belle know how to drive?”

“Yes, but Papa already has a bad leg.  We don’t want to hurt him more.”  Bae flopped back, the grass tickling the back of his neck.  This planning session was not going well at all.

“Bae?  Emma?”  Belle stepped onto the back porch to call for them.  “I made lemonade if you want some.”

Sugar would help them think.  Scrambling to his feet, Bae ran for the kitchen, Emma hot on his heels.  Belle greeted them with a smile and handed them their glasses, a plate of cookies waiting for them on the table.

“Is there enough for me?” his father asked as he limped into the kitchen, and Belle beamed at him.

“Of course there is!” she said at once, pouring a glass for him.  Bae watched with critical eyes as she handed him the glass, their fingers brushing for just a moment too long.

“Thank you, Belle.”  Papa held her gaze as he smiled at her and took a sip of the lemonade.  “It’s delicious.”

Emma jabbed her elbow into Bae’s ribs as Belle smiled back at Papa, the two adults staring dreamily into each others’ eyes, oblivious to their audience.  When Bae turned to look at Emma, she raised her eyebrows and gave a significant jerk of her head.  He nodded in reply.

Kidnappings and near-death experiences might not be necessary after all.

Chapter Text

Gold hesitated outside Belle’s open bedroom door, his hand poised to knock on the frame.  He’d expected to find her studying, but instead she was curled up on the window seat and staring blindly outside, the corners of her mouth tucked down and a furrow between her eyebrows.  She was a picture of desolation with her arms wrapped tightly around herself, and the part of Gold that shunned human contact advised him to go away and return when she was in a better mood.  The other part of him- the part that only Bae and Belle saw- made him ache with the desire to take her in his arms and soothe away whatever was troubling her.

Splitting the difference, he rapped gently on her door frame.  “Hey.”

She jumped at the sound, her face smoothing instantly into a smile of welcome, all melancholy banished in an instant.  It was a habit that she couldn’t shake, one that he recognized immediately from his own years with the carnival.  Big smiles.  Keep the marks happy.  Malcolm Gold’s words still echoed in his head after all these years.  

That was what carnies did.  Smiles and laughs and jokes were just another barricade to keep them out.  The punters.  The marks.  The real people.  It didn’t matter if you hadn’t eaten in two days or if your father had beaten you half to death only hours before; you smiled.

“Are you all right?” he asked gently, seeing her smile flicker.  It was an invasion of her privacy to press her, but Gold’s heart rebelled at the notion that Belle could shut him out.  She knew his most broken places- she’d met Milah- and he wanted the heady intimacy of knowing hers.

Under his scrutiny, her smile faded.  “I’m worried about tomorrow,” she admitted.

He’d been granted an opening, and Gold seized it, limping to her side.  “You’re worried about the testing.”  Tomorrow Belle would take the first two sections of her GED exam.

“What if I fail?” she asked, her lips trembling.

“Then you’ll study more and take it again,” he decided, taking a risk and chucking her under the chin.  “But you won’t.  You’ve been studying for months.  You can do it.  You’re ready.”

“I’ll be so embarrassed if I fail,” she admitted.

Gold made a rude noise.  “You can fix a broken teacup ride with duct tape, drive seven hours in the dark without getting lost, and juggle five clubs at a time.  No test is a match for you.”

It wasn’t much of a pep talk, but Belle was smiling again, and this time it reached her eyes.

Chapter Text

“Thanks, Papa,” Bae said as Gold handed him his weekly allowance after dinner, the boy carelessly stuffing the bills into his pocket.  Gold shook his head.  He really needed to get his son a wallet and insist that Bae use it.

“You’re welcome.  Belle, are you all right with cash?”  He’d given her a duplicate of his credit card, but for small purchases cash was easier, and if he didn’t ask, she’d certainly never tell him if she was running short.

“I don’t need anything,” she assured him with a smile as she got up to collect their dishes to load into the dishwasher.  Gold returned the smile before he retired to his office to gather the night’s paperwork.

As Gold assembled his files, he tried to remember when he’d last given Belle money.  It wasn’t as though she had an allowance- that would be ridiculous- but he wanted to make sure she always had the means to buy what she needed.  As far as he could remember, he’d slipped her a hundred dollars after Bae’s birthday, but that was two months ago.  

His stomach sinking, Gold pulled out his phone and logged into his account.  The only purchases listed on his credit card statement were things he’d bought.  Belle had yet to use the card.  “Belle?  Could you come in here?  Bring your purse.”

She arrived a moment later with the bag Ariel had sold her, looking worried. 

“How much money do you have in your wallet?”

With a puzzled look, she took out her wallet and rifled through it.  “Sixty-three dollars.  Why?”

“In two months, you’ve spent thirty-seven dollars?” he asked, hoping that he was wrong about this.

Belle nodded.  “Bae and I got lunch at Granny’s.”  

It was even worse than he’d feared since Gold was willing to bet that excursion had been Bae’s idea.  “And before that?  Did you spend the other money I gave you?”

“Yes?” she said.  Her expression was tentative, making it clear that she was afraid it was the wrong answer.

“On what?”

“Bae and Emma and I got ice cream a few times.  Oh, and I bought Bae’s birthday present.  Did I do something wrong?”

Her lips were trembling, and Gold forced himself to breathe deeply and slowly.  “Of course not.  I have a task for you.”

She brightened at the prospect of being useful.  “What do you want me to do?”

Pulling out his wallet, Gold peeled off three hundred dollar bills and held them out to her.  “I want you go out tomorrow and spend this.  On yourself.”

Belle stared at the money like he was trying to hand her a poisonous snake.  “I don’t really need anything,” she demurred.

“That’s even better,” he declared heartily as he took her hand and folded her fingers around the bills.  “I want you to buy things you don’t need.  Things you want.  Books.  Clothes.  Jewelry.  A kaleidoscope.  A chinchilla.  Anything.  Buy three hundred dollars worth of chocolate, just buy yourself something.”

He got steadily louder with every word he said, and Belle got more tense with every decibel.  “I… I…” she stammered.

Gold cursed himself for frightening her.  He was trying to do something nice, not scare the poor girl half to death.

Relief coursed through him when Belle's posture relaxed and her lips quirked into a smile.  “That would be a lot of chocolate.”

“Get the good stuff.”

With an indulgent shake of her head, Belle stowed the cash in her wallet.  “Three hundred dollars.  On myself.”  Her voice marveled at the idea.

“I want utterly frivolous purchases,” Gold reminded her.  “Nothing practical.  Do we have a deal?”

Her fond smile told him that she found him utterly ridiculous.  “Deal.”

Chapter Text

There was a ficus tree in the middle of the kitchen.

Gold paused to stare, not taking his eyes off the tree even as he tossed the day’s mail down onto the island.  “Belle?”

“You’re home!” she exclaimed, and he could hear her feet pounding as she ran down the steps.  

“I’m home,” he agreed, the sight of her flushed face bringing a smile to his lips despite his confusion.  “Why is there a tree in the kitchen?”

“I thought you’d want to see what I bought,” she explained, and Gold suddenly remembered the assignment he’d given her- to spend three hundred dollars on frivolous things for herself.  

“You bought a tree?” he hazarded.

The smile faded from Belle’s face.  “Was that stupid?  I always thought it would be nice to have plants, but there was no room for them in the camper, and then I saw this one… It’s too big, isn’t it?”

Mentally kicking himself, Gold shook his head.  “It’s beautiful.  Do you want to put it in your bedroom or find a place for it downstairs?”

“I was picturing it in my room,” she said cautiously.

“In that case, we’ll have Bae carry it upstairs,” Gold decided, eyeing the large, heavy-looking pot warily.  “Is this all you bought?”  He had no idea what the going rate was for ficus trees, but if it was three hundred dollars, he’d have to have words with someone.

“Of course not,” Belle denied, waving her hand at the kitchen table.

Gold side-stepped the tree and grinned when the table came into view, bearing a pile of books taller than Belle herself.  Now, that was more like it.  “Books.  I’m not surprised.”

“Books,” she agreed, slipping her arm through his.  “And a sketchbook and a set of drawing pencils.  And a pair of earrings.  And…” she trailed off dramatically.

“And?” Gold prompted, hiding his pout when she released his arm to pick up a bag.

“And a kaleidoscope!” she said triumphantly, holding the golden cylinder up to his eye and giving the stained glass wheel a spin.

Gold admired the patterns.  “It sounds like you had fun today.”

“I did,” she admitted, putting the kaleidoscope safely back in its bag.  “Thank you.”

Daringly, Gold leaned down to kiss the crown of her head.  “You’re welcome, love."

When Belle didn't slap him away, he risked teasing her.  "I have to admit that I'm a bit disappointed in your purchases.  I was hoping for a chinchilla."

The sound of her laughter was worth more than all the money in the world.

Chapter Text

Gold forgot about the mail until after Bae got home, his son staring at the ficus tree with dismay when he learned it would be his job to carry the new arrival upstairs.  “Earn your allowance,” his father said heartlessly, carefully monitoring his progress until he was certain the boy could manage the load without hurting himself.  

He flipped through the envelopes, casting the junk mail straight into the trash and sorting out the bills.  That left only one envelope, an official-looking thing addressed to Miss Belle French.

Belle went white when he handed it to her.  “It’s my test results,” she whispered through bloodless lips.

“You passed,” he assured her, braced to catch her in case she fainted.

Belle stared at the envelope, the silence broken only by distant thumps as Bae dragged the ficus up the stairs.  With a violent movement, she thrust it at him. “You open it.”

Gently, Gold pushed it back at her.  “You can do this, Belle.  I’m right here.”

Belle stared down at the envelope, her face anguished.  In a sudden motion, she all but ripped it in half and yanked out the letter, then closed her eyes as she unfolded it.  Gold chewed on his tongue, fighting the urge to take it out of her hands and read it himself, the tension building until she finally opened her eyes and looked down at her results.

For endless moments, she didn’t say a word, and Gold was just trying to remember if he had any influence with the state board of education when she whispered, “I passed.”

A glowing warmth spread through him as he smiled with pride.  “Of course you did.”

Belle didn’t seem to hear him, still staring at her letter.  “I passed.  I got my GED.”

“Congratulations, love,” he told her.  

Dropping the letter to the floor, Belle looked up at him.  “I passed,” she insisted like he’d questioned her.  “I passed!”

A heartbeat later she was plastered against him, the warm weight of her slamming him back against the island as she threw herself into his arms.  “I passed!” she laughed, her eyes sparkling with tears.  “I did it.  I passed!”

Gold laughed helplessly, Belle's joy contagious.  “I know!”

He didn’t know who initiated it, but her lips were suddenly against his in a fierce kiss, broken every few seconds with another burst of laughter before they were kissing again, her bottom lip sliding between his as naturally as if they’d been doing this for months.  Gold froze when he realized what he was doing, but Belle kept kissing him and laughing breathlessly, releasing him only when Bae shouted from upstairs, “Where do you want it?”

She broke away and extended her arms, spinning like a top in the center of the kitchen.  “Bae, I passed my test!  Come downstairs!”

Bae whooped and thundered down the stairs, all but tackling Belle in an exuberant hug, and Gold's lips tingled while he watched the two people he loved most twirl each other around and around.  Finally they collapsed to the floor, clinging to each other, and he deposited himself beside them to wrap his arms around them both. 

“I think this calls for a celebratory dinner out,” he decided, relieved when Belle snuggled into his embrace with no sign of embarrassment.  

“I’m a graduate,” she sighed.  “I can go to college!”

“You can do anything you want,” he assured her, disappointment filling him when she hopped up without kissing him again.

Belle and Bae held out their hands to drag him off the floor, and Gold allowed himself to be hauled back to his feet.  Belle was excited; she hadn’t been thinking clearly, he told himself.  She didn’t know what she was doing.  It didn’t mean anything.  He was just lucky she wasn’t running away screaming at the memory of kissing him.

It didn’t mean anything, Gold insisted to himself, knowing that he was lying. 

Chapter Text

Belle never remembered to close her door.

That was the only coherent thought in Gold’s mind as he caught himself on the door frame, his knees threatening to give out at the sight that met his eyes.  Belle was sprawled across her neatly made bed, nude as the day she was born, one hand cradling her breast as her fingers plucked at her nipple, the other buried between her generous thighs, her body arching with delight as she stroked herself.

All he’d wanted to do was ask if she wanted a cup of tea.

He should look away; Gold knew he should look away.  Belle didn’t know he was there.  He was betraying her privacy by watching her, but no matter how violently he shouted at himself, his traitorous body refused to move, his eyes sweeping hungrily over every inch of Belle’s glorious skin.  

Her voice broke on a moan that he couldn’t help but echo, all of his blood heading south.  On the bed, Belle stirred and turned her head toward the sound, her dazed blue eyes fluttering open.  

Gold was frozen in place, unable to duck out of the way before she could catch him watching her, his trousers obscenely tented.  Unable to breathe, he braced himself for her cry of rage when she realized how badly he'd betrayed her.

Belle blinked rapidly, her petal-pink lips curving in a smile.  “I was thinking about you,” she sighed, extending her hand to beckon him to join her.

Gold awoke with a moan, his hand clasping empty air as he reached for his dream Belle.  Rolling onto his back, he shoved the covers away from his overheated body, his hips bucking just from the slide of the sheets.  Grinding his teeth, he sucked in a deep breath, trying to will his body into submission.

This was ridiculous.  For years, sex hadn’t even been a blip on his radar, but for the last few months he’d been as randy as a schoolboy.  Apparently now even his daily wank sessions weren’t enough, his guilty fantasies about Belle invading his dreams.

But what a dream it had been.  Cursing himself, Gold slipped his hand into his pajama pants, hissing as he took himself in hand.  With a quick glance to make certain that his bedroom door was firmly closed, he began to pump as he let his mind wander back to the dream.

“I think about you every night,” dream-Belle confessed as he stepped closer.

“I think about you too,” he assured her as he cast off his clothes and joined her on the bed, blanketing her body with his own as his hands explored every inch of her, finding her as soft and warm as he’d dreamed.  “I never thought you’d want me.”

“I’ve always wanted you,” she vowed, tugging his mouth down to hers and offering him everything, her mouth a cavern of delights.

His every kiss and caress brought a moan to her lips, Belle moving against him wantonly.  When he finally sheathed himself within her, she screamed with pleasure, clinging to him like she loved him as he began to move.

Gold ground the back of his head into his pillow, his teeth clenched to hold in his cry as he worked himself mercilessly, his grip firm and tight.  His fragile skin was beginning to chafe under the assault, but he was too far gone to stop himself now with dream-Belle wrapped around him, her imagined cries ringing in his ears.

“Oh, that’s good.  That’s wonderful,” she praised, her feet digging into the small of his back to urge him on.  

“Yes, darling,” he gasped, doubling his efforts, desperate to give her everything he could.

In real life, he was so out of practice that he probably wouldn’t last five minutes, but in his fantasies, Gold could pound into Belle for hours, giving her orgasm after orgasm until she was sobbing with ecstasy.  Only then did he allow himself to climax, rolling onto his stomach to bury his face in his pillow and muffle his groan as his seed spurted over his fingers, soaking the front of his pajama pants.

Clinging to the fantasy, he imagined Belle stroking his hair as he nuzzled against her throat, listening to her tell him how wonderful he’d made her feel.  Eventually reality asserted itself, leaving him alone and lying in a cooling puddle, his pajamas twisted around his body.

He was a pervert, he admitted as he dragged himself out of bed with a groan to go shower.  Belle was blossoming now that she’d left the carnival, but she was still terribly vulnerable.  She needed his protection and his guidance, not his base lust.  He couldn’t do this again.  He had to be strong for her.

He wouldn’t do this again.

Chapter Text

Apparently the book wasn’t really about a time-traveling witch trying to prove the existence of magic to a skeptical billionaire.  Belle had been looking forward to seeing how Arian accomplished that, but when the real plot became clear- about the time that Tristan started seducing Arian in the back of a limousine- she didn’t put the book down.

Sex didn’t have much mystery for Belle.  The carnival allowed for little privacy, and she’d seen more than her share over the years.  However, the sex described in this book was nothing like the sex she’d seen and heard about.  The book made it sound magical.

Belle had no immediate basis for comparison.  The threat of her father’s fists kept even the most determined suitors away from her, and she’d never missed them.  Now, with the book in hand, she was beginning to rethink things.  It was all too easy to picture herself in the role of the lost young woman taken in by a rich man.

Her breath caught as she pictured Mr. Gold as Tristan.  She had no idea what a limousine was like, so she pictured the backseat of the Cadillac instead, Mr. Gold kissing her again and again as he touched her breasts and begged her to open her legs for him.  She knew what he tasted like from the kiss they’d shared after she got her GED, and she concentrated on remembering that exact flavor and the warmth of his lips against hers.

With a gasp, Belle tossed the book to the floor and pressed her thighs together.  Her stomach was quivering, her body readying itself for her imaginary lover, and she sat on her hands, closing her eyes and taking deep breaths to will the feeling away.  Mr. Gold wasn’t here, and he didn’t want her anyway.  Nice girls didn’t think about such things.  They certainly didn’t touch themselves; her father had made that very clear.

Thoughts of her father cleared her head, and Belle sighed with relief when the feeling went away.  She’d been wrong to think about Mr. Gold doing that with her.  He was a good man.  Good men didn’t look twice at girls like her.  She was lucky that he’d taken her in and allowed her to be part of his family.  He bought her clothes and books and trees and gave her a room all for her own and never ever raised his hand to her.  He’d been incredibly generous with her, and it was selfish and greedy for her to want more.  

With her body back under her control, Belle slipped a bookmark into the book and put it in her nightstand drawer where it would be out of sight and out of mind.  She wasn’t Arian, and Mr. Gold wasn’t Tristan, but that was okay.  She already had far more than she deserved.

Chapter Text

The kitchen table was awash with college brochures, Belle and Bae sitting across from each other and sifting through them as Gold worked on lunch and tried not to listen to their conversation.

“This one looks nice.  It has three private beaches,” Bae announced as he held up a brochure for Endicott College.

Endicott was in Massachusetts, a reasonable drive, but it was still too far away for Gold’s taste.  Watching the two of them coo over campus amenities was his worst nightmare come to life.  Storybrooke was a small, boring town with nothing to offer.  Of course Belle and Bae would crave more excitement.  Of course they’d want to leave as soon as they could.  Belle would go away to school, and in a few short years Bae would follow her.  They would call when they remembered and visit occasionally, but eventually they would forget about him and he would be left alone, an old man slowly turning to dust in a mausoleum that had once been a home.

It wasn’t fair.  Belle and Bae belonged here with him.  They were a family.  Families were supposed to be together.  

“Where did you go to school, Papa?” Bae called, forcing him to join the conversation.

His education had been a hodgepodge of community college credits and correspondence courses taken whenever he could afford the classes and the books.  It had taken him ten years to attain his degree, and Gold could feel his cheeks coloring with shame at the memory.  No doubt Bae expected him to name a prestigious university.

“I went lots of places,” he demurred, hoping no one would ask him to elaborate.

“And you minored in literature” Belle remembered with a smile.

The minor had been a ridiculous indulgence, but if he was going to spend a decade getting a formal education, he was going to get the one he wanted. Now with Belle smiling at him in approval, Gold decided that it had been money very well spent indeed.

“Is that what you’re going to major in?” Bae asked, making a face at another brochure and tossing it aside.  “This one’s ugly.”

“I want to,” she confessed, nibbling on her lower lip.  “I’m not sure if I should though.  Maybe I should go for something practical.”

“There’s nothing more practical than being able to read and think critically,” Gold reminded her.  

“But I’ll never get a job just reading,” she protested.

It was like she was trying to rip his heart out.  There was no reason, none, that Belle needed to work.  Gold was more than willing to provide for her every need if she’d just stay here.  He’d buy her all the books she wanted and anything else that caught her eye if she’d just eat breakfast with him in the mornings and chat with him in the evenings.  Was that really so much to ask?

“You could be a librarian,” Bae suggested.  “You love the library.”

Belle’s eyes shone at the idea.  “I could take care of the books,” she murmured.  Then her face fell, “But Storybrooke already has a librarian.”

Gold jolted at that.  Surely there were towns across the nation in need of librarians, but Belle was talking like she planned to return to Storybrooke once she finished her schooling.  

Bae pulled a face.  “Mrs. Hubbard is, like, a million years old.  You can take over when she dies.”

“Bae!” Belle scolded, but the boy shrugged unrepentantly.  

Privately, Gold wondered if the old bat was ever going to die, but if Belle wanted her job, perhaps he could put some pressure on her to retire.  “I’m sure she could use the help,” he said, his fingers flexing on his cane as an unfamiliar flicker of hope sparked to life in his chest.

“That would be nice,” Belle sighed, riffling through a pile of brochures until she found the one she wanted.  “De Lint has a library science program.  I could double-major in that and literature.”

De Lint was a small liberal arts college with a solid reputation.  More importantly, it was only twenty minutes from Storybrooke.  “It sounds like a perfect fit,” he said lightly, mentally composing a laundry list of reasons why Belle should definitely choose that school.

Before he could give voice to any of them, Belle swept the brochures into a neat pile, leaving the one for De Lint in the middle of the table. 

“We have a winner!” Bae declared, picking it up and flipping through it eagerly.  “Can I come with you and see where your classes are?”

“I have to get in first,” Belle reminded him.

“I don’t think that will be a problem,” Gold assured her.  If De Lint was foolish enough not to accept Belle, he was certain that someone connected to the college must owe him a favor.  He would pull a few strings, and Belle would be an official student in time for the fall semester.

“We can do our homework together,” Bae suggested.

Belle dimpled at the idea.  “I’d like that.”

The relief left Gold dizzy.  He didn’t even feel his scorched fingertips when he accidentally brushed them against the pan he was using to make grilled cheese sandwiches.  Belle would get her degree and take over the Storybrooke Library, and in a few years hopefully Bae would follow in her footsteps and attend De Lint as well.  Instead of being scattered to the ends of the Earth, his family would stay right here where they belonged.

With him.

Chapter Text

Dove stood patiently in front of the blue Fiat, watching as Gold flicked on first the left then the right turn signal, experimented with the windshield wipers, examined the stereo, and adjusted the mirrors.  Once he decided that the interior met his standards, he put the car into gear.

As Gold pulled away from the dealership, the GPS piped up, interrupting him as he listened to the engine.  "Turn left."

"I know," he muttered in response to the pleasant female voice.  He'd already driven back and forth between Storybrooke and the nearby town where De Lint College was located, verifying for himself that the trip had no hidden dangers that Belle would have to face once she began her studies there.  Now, he was going to make sure that her new car could handle the journey.

If Belle was going to attend college, a car was a necessity.  It would be completely unacceptable for him to expect her to take the bus, and while Gold would be happy to drive her anywhere that she wanted to go, their respective schedules might not always make that possible.  More to the point, Belle was a young woman, and she needed the freedom to come and go as she pleased instead of having to depend on him.

The restriction of having to ask for a ride any time she wanted to go anywhere was sure to chafe on her sooner or later, and if Belle started to feel trapped, she might start looking for ways to leave.  Better to give her freedom now and just hope that she wouldn't use it to drive away.

So far, she seemed to have no interest in going anywhere.  He'd been afraid that she would want to live on campus in the dorms, but Belle had barely looked at that portion of her welcome packet, something that relieved Gold to no end.  She had only lived in the house with him and Bae for a matter of months, but already he couldn't imagine the Victorian without her.  She completed it.

For that reason, he hadn't at all minded calling in the favors necessary to allow Belle to start the fall semester at nearby De Lint.  True, she'd earned her GED with near-perfect scores, but apparently college admissions had become far more competitive over the past few decades, and matters were complicated by the fact that they'd missed the application deadline by more than six months.

A few phone calls to key individuals and the promise of a hefty donation made all of those problems go away, and the happiness on Belle's face when she got her acceptance packet had been all the thanks that Gold needed.  Another kiss would have been a welcome surprise, but really, it was for the best that Belle had done no such thing.  Belle saw him as nothing more than her friend and protector, a role that Gold was happy to play.  Another kiss might give him ideas that would only make both of them uncomfortable.

The round-trip jaunt to De Lint was unremarkable.  Satisfied that the car lived up to his exacting standards, Gold returned to the dealership and the waiting Dove.  "I'll take it.  Finish the deal and drop the paperwork off at the house when you're done."

"In Miss French's name?" the big man verified.

Gold nodded.  Thanks to the contract her father had signed, Moe French couldn't hope to lay claim to anything that Belle owned.  With that potential problem out of the way, it was only right and proper that Belle own her own car.

He paused just long enough to text Bae before driving the Fiat to the pink Victorian.  He couldn't wait to see the surprise on Belle's face when he presented her with the keys, and for that reason, he'd directed his son to lure Belle into the backyard where she would be out of sight of the driveway.  It wouldn't do to spoil the surprise by letting her catch a premature glimpse of the car.

When he reached the house, he took his time parking the Fiat so it would be displayed to its best advantage, then followed the sound of laughter to the backyard where he found Bae and Emma kicking a soccer ball back and forth.  Of Belle there was no sign.

"Hi, Papa!"

"Hi, Mr. Gold!"

The children paused their game only long enough to greet him, and Gold limped over to them, swinging the head of his cane down to intercept the ball and send it careening off into the bushes.  "You had one job," he muttered to a protesting Bae.

His son rolled his eyes.  "She's right over th— oh."

The picnic table Bae was pointing at held a pile of paperwork, including Belle's course catalog from De Lint, and a glass of lemonade, but no Belle.  When Gold turned to look at his son, Bae shrugged.  "She was right there."

"One job," Gold reminded his son with a sigh before setting off to search for Belle.  Knowing her, she was more likely to be frightened by the appearance of an unfamiliar vehicle in the driveway than to leap to the conclusion that he'd bought her a car, and upsetting her would be even worse than spoiling the surprise.

She was nowhere to be found on the first floor nor on the second.  "Belle?"

When she didn't respond, Gold started to worry.  Belle was free to go anywhere that she liked without reporting to him, but it wasn't like her to disappear without a word.  It would also be out of character for her to decide to visit the library or go get ice cream without inviting Bae and Emma to come along.

Had Moe French returned to snatch her away?  Contract or not, Gold could easily imagine the other man deciding to do just that when the money Gold gave him ran out.  Whether he wanted Belle's labor or a ransom for her, Moe might well decide to attempt a kidnapping, but he couldn't believe that the children could be so oblivious as to miss something like that.

He stepped back outside, forcing himself to breathe slowly and steadily.  If something had happened to Belle, he needed to remain calm so he could help her.  Right now, all he knew was that she wasn't in the house and she wasn't in the main part of the yard.  He would make a search of the side yard, garden, and garage, and if he still couldn't find her, he'd call Sheriff Graham.

There was no need to panic.

Heart in his throat, Gold rounded the corner of the house opposite the driveway and nearly tripped over Belle.  She was sprawled in the grass in front of the overgrown rose bushes with one of the branches wound through her fingers so she could breathe in the scent of the flowers, a copy of Rose Daughter abandoned on her lap and a dreamy smile on her face.  "Belle!"

She jumped at the sound of her name, hissing in pain when her grip inadvertently tightened on the thorny stem.  Instantly, she let go of the branch, but Gold could see blood welling on her fingers from where the thorns bit into her skin.

"Mr. Gold!  You scared me."

The relief of finding her safe and sound made Gold feel so light-headed that he nearly laughed, and he didn't even feel the pain in his leg as he knelt beside her.  "I'm sorry.  I've been looking for you for ages.  I was starting to think the fairies came and spirited you away."

"Oh!"  Belle giggled, looking a little embarrassed.  "Were you calling me?  I was a million miles away."

"Obviously.  Well, no harm done.  Except to your poor hand that is."  When he reached out, Belle put her injured hand in his without a trace of hesitation.  With his free hand, Gold took out his pocket square and dabbed at the blood, relieved to see that the damage was minimal.  

For an insane moment, he was tempted to take her fingers into his mouth and lap away the blood, an action that would no doubt appall Belle.  Instead, he wound the silk square around her hand and tucked in the ends, making a makeshift bandage.

"I'm sorry that I scared you," he apologized, not quite ready to let go of her hand.  

Belle's smile assured him that she wasn't holding it against him.  "And I'm sorry I made you hunt for me.  Did you want me to do something?"

Right now, Gold wanted nothing more than for her to continue admiring the roses, this time with his head lying in her lap so he could gaze up at her as she did.  Belle, however, would hardly enjoy that, so he opted to return to his original plan.  "I want you to come see the surprise I have for you."

"A surprise?"  Belle's eyebrows lifted.

Getting up from the ground was harder than getting down, but with her help, Gold managed it.  "Follow me."

Bae and Emma fell in behind them as he led Belle to the driveway, waving his hand flamboyantly at the waiting Fiat.  "Your surprise."

"Nice," Bae muttered, and Emma whistled appreciatively.

Belle, on the other hand, went pale.  "Oh!"

"You don't like it."  Gold cursed himself.  Of course she wanted to choose her own car.  It was high-handed of him to select something for her and expect her to be happy about it.

"I… I couldn't," Belle stammered.  “It’s too much.  You already… ten thousand dollars and all my clothes and my tree…"

Gold exhaled slowly as he realized what the problem was.  He should have seen it coming when he realized that Belle had trouble spending money on herself.  Her father had taught her that she was worthless, and that deep-seated belief made it hard for her to accept that he enjoyed spending money on her.  It wasn't that she didn't like the Fiat, it was that she didn't believe she deserved it.

Rebuilding her self esteem would be a long, slow process, but it was one that Gold was completely devoted to.  Someday, Belle would look in the mirror and see herself for the miracle that she was.  

Unfortunately, someday was not today.  

"It's my backup car in case something happens to the Cadillac," Gold lied, careful not to look at Bae.  "It's been gathering dust in storage for ages.  You'd be doing me a favor by driving it so it doesn't rust away."

Since the car had less than twenty miles on it and looked and smelled brand new, Gold had no doubt that Belle would instantly see through his lie, but he was willing to risk it.  

Her sharp look told him that she didn't quite believe him, but Belle relaxed anyway.  "I'd be helping?"

"Very much," he assured her.  

"Take us for a ride!" Bae demanded, Emma echoing the sentiment.

Belle looked to him, apparently for permission.  "Should I?"

With a smile, Gold offered her the keys.  "Only if I get one too."

Hesitantly, Belle reached out with the hand still wrapped in his pocket square.  She took a deep breath, then folded her fingers around the keys and smiled.  "Let's go for a drive."

Chapter Text

Gold closed the kitchen door behind him with a sigh of relief, glad to lock out the rest of Storybrooke.  He came for the rent the first day of every month; there was no earthly reason it should come as a surprise to his tenants.  Yet, everyone always seemed baffled that he actually expected them to pay for their homes.  Keith Nottingham had even dared to take a swing at him and without Dove’s timely intervention, he’d have far worse than a bruised jaw.

Perhaps he’d have Dove do the collecting from now on, Gold thought sourly.  

A few more steps into the kitchen brought Belle into view, the sight of her soothing his frazzled nerves.  She was sitting at the table, surrounded by highlighters in every color and hunched over a textbook like it contained the answers to life’s mysteries.  So intent was she on her studies that she seemed oblivious to his presence, and Gold took the opportunity to just enjoy looking at her.  The same universe that so irked him had also brought him Belle, leaving him more kindly disposed to it.

As he watched, her hand stole to the juncture between her neck and shoulder, her fingers digging into the muscles there as she arched her neck to the right.  Before he even realized what he was doing, Gold stepped forward, placing his hands on her shoulder to take over the task.

Beneath his hands, Belle jumped, relaxing instantly when she realized it was just him.  “I didn’t hear you come home.”

“I just got here,” he told her, omitting the pleasurable moments he’d spent watching her.  Applying firm pressure, he used his thumbs to work out the knots in her shoulders, craning his neck to see what she was reading.  “Geology?”

“Fascinating but confusing,” Belle admitted, her eyes slipping closed as she leaned back into his massage.

Gold hummed in agreement.  That wasn’t a class he’d ever taken, but he was willing to take her word for it.

“How was your day?” Belle asked.

She hissed when he hit a sensitive spot, and Gold eased off, working the spot with gentle insistence until she slumped back against him with a moan of pleasure that made his cock give an optimistic twitch.

With Belle loose and relaxed and moaning with pleasure at his touch, the miseries of the day faded into distant memory.  Even his bruised jaw had stopped aching.  “Can’t complain.”

Chapter Text

“Yes, that’s fine.  Oh!  I… I’m not sure.  I’ll… have to check my schedule.”

Gold stepped quietly through the kitchen door, nodding in response to Belle's distracted wave, most of her attention focused on the phone in her hand.  “I’m not sure if… Why don’t we talk about it tomorrow before class?”

Belle said her goodbyes and hung up, sighing in relief as she sagged back into her chair.

“Is something wrong?” Gold asked, ready to slay dragons if someone was bothering her.

“No,” she assured him, giving him the smile that he’d come to depend on.  “Taylor- my lab partner from Geology?- wants to go see a movie tomorrow after class.”

“Which movie?” Gold asked, his stomach churning.  It was good that Belle was making friends.  Belle needed friends.  She wasn’t like him; he’d be content to interact with no one but her and Bae for the rest of his natural life.  If she was coming out of her shell enough to spend time with one of her classmates, that could only be a good sign.  He should do everything he could to encourage the relationship.  

Gold hated himself for wondering if Taylor was a girl’s name or a boy’s name.  It shouldn’t matter.  What mattered was that Belle was meeting people who liked her and with whom she had things in common.  If Taylor made her happy, he’d try to like Taylor.

"Coffeehouse Serenade."

His stomach clenched when Belle named a recent romantic comedy.  He’d seen the trailer for it during one of Bae’s programs, the ad touting that it was the perfect date movie.  

He hated Taylor.

“Her husband doesn’t like romantic comedies, and she doesn’t like going to the movies alone, so she thought I might want to see it with her,” Belle explained.

The relief of hearing that Taylor was both female and otherwise attached made him feel light-headed.  “That sounds like a good idea.  It looks funny,” he said heartily.

“I know.”  Belle pulled a face.  “I kind of wanted to see The Dark One though.”

The psychological thriller was the last thing in the world Gold would have expected Belle to want to see, but now that she mentioned it, seeing that movie was suddenly at the top of his priority list too.  “Tell you what, you go see the coffee shop movie with Taylor, and this weekend, you and I will go see The Dark One.”

“Really?” Belle beamed at him.  “That’s perfect!  It’s a date.”

If only, Gold thought longingly.  He was fortunate enough that Belle was willing to be seen with him in public.  He’d consider it a victory.  Perhaps he could suggest that they get dinner out beforehand, just the two of them this time with no David and Mary Margaret to complicate things. Bae wouldn’t be pleased about being left behind, but there was no way he was letting the boy see an R rated movie.  His son would get over it, and he’d get an entire evening of Belle all to himself.

Suddenly, Gold was feeling much more kindly disposed toward Taylor.

Chapter Text

When Bae barged into his bedroom on Saturday evening, Gold sighed and mentally reviewed the list of reasons that the movie was completely inappropriate for a thirteen year old boy.  His son hadn’t had nightmares for years, but the thriller could easily change all that.  Truth be told, he was even concerned about Belle, but due to her extensive reading habits, she at least had a firm grasp on the line between reality and fantasy.  

Instead of protesting being left behind, Bae flopped down on his bed, feet on the pillows as he peered at his father upside down.  “You’re not going to wear that tie, are you?” his son asked.

Gold frowned at the strip of charcoal silk in his hand.  “I was planning to wear it.  Why?”

Bae made a growling noise.  “It’s grey.  Grey’s boring.”

“It’s charcoal.”

“It’s grey.  Let me pick something better out.”  Bae rolled off the bed and padded to the dresser, sending half the contents spilling to the floor as he rooted through the once neatly organized tie drawer, finally coming up with one striped in various tones of burgundy.  

“Here.  This one’s good.”  He thrust it at his father, and Gold took the tie from his son’s hand, casting the charcoal one aside.  

Bae plopped back onto the bed as his father turned away to knot the tie.  In the mirror, Gold could see his legs waving gently in the air as his boy studied him.  “Make sure you only get one box of popcorn.”

Gold blinked at the instruction.  If he didn’t buy separate boxes of popcorn when he took Bae to the movies, he’d never get any of the treat.  Even with his own box, Bae still managed to eat his own container and half of his father’s.  “And why is that?”

“Because if you’re sharing a box, you’ll reach in at the same time, and that will give you an excuse to hold Belle’s hand,” Bae said as if it was obvious.

What was obvious was that his son had totally misunderstood what would be happening this evening.

“Bae,” Gold turned away from the mirror.  “This isn’t a date.”

“You’re going to dinner and a movie.  It’s totally a date,” Bae insisted.

“Belle and I both wanted to see the movie, so we decided to go together.  That’s all.”  Gold hoped his disapproving tone would put an end to the conversation.

Bae snorted.  “Papa, you never go to the movies.  You’re only going because Belle wants to go.”

The Dark One got very good reviews,” Gold informed his son as he slipped his jacket on.

“Whatever.”  Bae rolled onto his back and stuck his arms and legs straight up in the air in an imitation of roadkill.  “Don’t worry about coming home early.  Mrs. Potts left snacks for me, and Emma and I are going to play Xbox.”

“We agreed no friends over,” Gold reminded him.

“Xbox Live,” Bae clarified.  “If I need anything, I’ll call the Nolans.”

Gold reached for the charcoal pocket square he’d originally intended to tuck into his pocket and realized it wouldn’t work with the tie Bae chose.  Sneaking a look at his watch, he verified that he had just enough time to pick a new one and set to work digging out a square of burgundy silk instead.  “You seem to have this all planned out.”

Bae grinned at him.  “I won’t wait up.  Stay out as late as you want.”

Bae…”

The boy ignored his warning tone.  “If the movie’s scary, you can put your arm around Belle to make her feel safe.  She’d like that.”

“I’m leaving now.” Gold said with all the dignity he could muster.

“I’ll clean up the ties.  And turn down your bed,” Bae promised with an exaggerated wink.

“Good night, Bae.”

Chapter Text

The movie theater was only two blocks from the restaurant, but Gold regretted suggesting they walk the short distance when he realized that Belle was shivering next to him.  After years of living in Maine, the fall evening felt pleasantly brisk and bracing to him.  Belle, on the other hand, had spent her entire life wintering in the south so the carnival could operate year-round.  It was no wonder that she was freezing, reminding Gold that Belle's first real winter was probably going to be very unpleasant for her.

Thinking of nothing more than her comfort, Gold wrapped his arm around her as they walked, wishing that he could offer her the more substantial protection of his jacket.  With his cane, it would take longer for him to maintain his balance and doff the jacket so he could give it to her than it would to walk the remaining distance, so he settled for pulling her close to share his body heat, his skin tingling pleasantly when Belle snuggled into him.

“I think another visit to Ariel is in order,” he decided, cursing himself for not having thought of it before.  Ariel had sold Belle everything she could possibly need for spring and summer, but her lightweight jacket wasn’t cutting it anymore.  She needed a wardrobe suited to the cold Maine weather, and by now the boutique should have a good selection of fall and winter items to choose from.

“I always thought winter sounded wonderful,” Belle said through chattering teeth as they approached the theater.  “I got so tired of being hot.  Now I’m not so sure.”

Gold’s heart sank at her words.  It was early October, and the weather had been fairly mild.  If Belle was put off by this, she’d never make it through the worst a Maine winter had to offer.  By February, she’d be making plans to move south.

“Winter has its perks,” he assured her, trying to help her focus on the positive.  If she was content, she’d be willing to stay.  “Bae always roasts marshmallows the first time we build a fire.”

“Snow,” Belle said dreamily.  

“Aye, there’s plenty of that,” he agreed, leading her into the theater and giving her a moment to warm up while he purchased their tickets.

“I've always wanted to see snow,” she confided.

Gold chuckled.  “I guarantee that you’ll get your wish this year.  Popcorn?”

Belle put a dainty hand on her stomach.  “I don’t know where I’d put it.”

Dinner- eggplant parmesan for Belle and lasagna for him- had been divine.  They’d talked about Belle’s classes, which were going well, and the books they’d read recently, the entire meal feeling a great deal like a date.  Although Gold had scoffed at Bae’s suggestion that they share a box of popcorn so he would have an excuse to touch Belle’s hand, he was still a little disappointed he wouldn’t get to try his son's trick.

Even after they were seated in the warm theater, Belle continued to shiver, and Gold took a chance, wrapping his arm around her again to warm her.  He expected her to pull away once she got more comfortable, but Belle stayed right where she was, cuddled against his side as the coming attractions started.  

With Belle snuggled against him like a prom date, Gold should have been over the moon, but once the movie started, it was impossible for him to focus on the woman beside him.  The Dark One was a twisted retelling of the Pied Piper story, the antagonist stealing children from their homes without a trace, leaving the protagonist- a brunette actress Gold had never considered particularly compelling- to desperately search for her son.  As a parent, the storyline preyed on his deepest fears, and even Belle’s head resting against his shoulder couldn’t undo the cold knot of terror in his gut as he imagined someone spiriting Bae away.

So strong was his desire to pull out his phone and text Bae that even the film’s explicit sex scene barely distracted him from the need to check on his boy.  Next to him, Belle was stiff and still, but she didn’t pull away, and the movie continued until the protagonist finally put six bullets in the child snatcher and reunited with her son.

Heaving a sigh of relief, Gold whipped out his phone the moment the credits started to roll and shot off a text to Bae, who promptly answered- telling him in no uncertain terms that he was fine and not to rush home.  Only when the phone was back in his pocket did he feel like he could draw a full breath, and at that moment he noticed that silent tears were streaking down Belle’s face.

“Belle?” he murmured, offering her his handkerchief.

“It’s not fair!” she raged, her voice quiet in deference to the other people remaining in the theater.  “She didn’t have to kill him.”

So unexpected was her comment that it took him a few moments to gather his thoughts.  “He was a villain.  He kidnapped children.”

“Because they were abused,” she reminded him of a section of the plot that his attention had glossed over.  “They had a better life with him than they ever would have had with their real parents.  He just wanted a family.”

“The main kid wasn’t abused,” he reminded her.  The protagonist was a driven career woman who neglected her son, but she’d never raised a hand to him.

“Not all abuse looks like what happened to us,” she informed him as they gathered their things and made their way out of the theater.  “He was just trying to help.  When I was a kid, I used to dream that someone like him would come along.”

It was Gold’s turn to shiver in the night air.  He’d been looking at the movie from a father’s point of view, but Belle’s words gave him a new perspective.  Even a mentally ill stranger might have been an improvement over Malcolm Gold and Moe French.  In Belle's eyes, the kidnapper wasn't a monster.  He was a savior.  “I understand what you’re saying.”

“I’m so mad they killed him,” Belle muttered as they walked the two blocks to the car.  

Reminding her that it was just a movie seemed condescending so Gold remained silent, providing whatever support he could with his presence alone.  It wasn’t until they were in the Cadillac with the heat running that Belle finally sighed and relaxed.  “I guess I’m being silly.”

“Not at all,” he assured her.  “The movie got to me too.”

She turned to look at him, a smile slowly spreading across her face.  “Anyway, I did get my rescue, even if it came a little later than I hoped.”

She was talking about him, and Gold could feel his face heat.  From Moe French’s point of view, he was probably no better than the movie’s kidnapper even though Belle had come to him of her own free will.  “My pleasure, dearie,” he trilled, aiming for an approximation of the antagonist’s bizarre, lilting style of speech.

At that, Belle burst out laughing, her earlier pique forgotten, and Gold patted himself on the back for managing to find the right thing to say after all. 

“Ice cream?” he suggested.  He wasn’t quite ready for this evening to end, and Bae had been very clear that he shouldn’t rush home.  It wouldn't do to disappoint his boy.

Belle nodded, her eyes soft and warm.  “Ice cream.”

Chapter Text

“Will I hear anything that I don’t like tonight?” Gold asked his son, his voice stern as he adjusted the knot of his tie.

No, Papa.”  Bae sounded aggrieved.  

“Because this is your last chance,” he reminded his boy.  When Bae was in fifth grade, he’d assumed he could get away with being caught cheating on a test by deleting the message his teacher left on the answering machine.  When Gold met the woman during Parents’ Night, he’d been seriously displeased to be assured that Bae hadn’t cheated again since he’d been unaware of the first infraction.

Fortunately, the six weeks he’d spent under house arrest seemed to have cured Bae of dissembling.  He might be grounded for getting in trouble at school, but he knew he’d be grounded for twice as long for lying about it.   

“Do I look okay?” Belle asked as she joined them in the foyer.

She was clad in a black and white knit dress with long sleeves and a gently scooped neckline perfectly suited for a chilly October evening.  Ariel had sold her a brand new wardrobe to get her through fall and winter, and Gold considered it money exceptionally well spent.

“You look great,” Bae assured her.

Belle turned pleading eyes on Gold.  “Are you sure it’s all right for me to come?”

Having never gone to school herself, Belle was curious about all the trappings, so it seemed logical for her to accompany him on Parents’ Night.  “Of course it is,” he said warmly.  Belle was a member of the family, and anything that made her feel more like part of the unit was just fine with him.

“Be good,” Gold advised, ruffling Bae’s hair as he took Belle’s arm to escort her to the car.  “We’ll be home soon.”

“Take your time.”  Bae grinned.  

Gold rolled his eyes.  Even though he and Belle hadn’t fallen into bed after their movie date as his son apparently hoped, Bae remained undaunted in his quest to convince his papa to marry her.

In that, his son was far more optimistic than Gold was.  Belle’s entire life had changed over the last six months, and she was still figuring out who she was now that she was no longer under Moe French’s thumb.  The last thing she needed was to tie herself to an albatross like him.  Right now, he made her feel safe, but eventually she would want to spread her wings and fly.  When that day came, she would only feel stifled if she was involved in a romantic relationship with him.

When that day came, he would have to let her go, and Gold prayed he’d have the strength to do so.

“Wow,” Belle murmured as they walked into the school’s atrium, craning her neck to admire the soaring heights.  “I feel really short.”

Gold chuckled and consulted the map they’d been handed on the way in.  “Help me find his biology class?” he requested.  This was Bae’s first year in the high school, and it seemed slightly more complicated to navigate than the old familiar middle school.

Belle turned the map upside down once or twice before pointing off down a corridor on the left.  “I think it’s this way.”

“Lead on."  Gold was pleased when she tucked her arm through his, keeping them together as they searched for and found room 387.  The teacher, a tall woman with a short blond bob, nodded in greeting as they let themselves into the classroom. 

“We’re here about Baden Gold,” Gold informed her, leading off with Bae’s name on the off-chance that she didn’t know who he was.  There were still a few people in Storybrooke who hadn’t had cause to deal with him.

“Bae’s parents!” she said with a smile.  “Yes, of course.  Come in, Mr. and Mrs. Gold.  Have a seat.”

Gold missed a step.  Shit.  How had he not seen this coming?  Of course everyone would assume that Belle was Bae’s mother.  How was he going to explain without making her sound like his mistress?  Oh, we’re not married.  She just lives with me.

“It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Kimmel,” Belle said cheerfully, steadying him.  “Bae loves your class.”

Gold looked down at her in wonder as she made conversation with the teacher, not saying a word about the misunderstanding as she repeatedly answered to Mrs. Gold.  Fortunately, Bae was doing well in biology because he was in no shape to discuss any issues.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Belle whispered as they left the room after the brief conference.  “I thought it would take too long to explain.”

Mind having her answer to Mrs. Gold?  The only thing he minded was that she didn’t answer to it all the time.  “I wholeheartedly agree,” he informed her, offering her the map again.  “Shall we make our way to algebra, Mrs. Gold?”

Belle giggled and nudged him.  “Lead the way, Mr. Gold.”

Chapter Text

Gold glanced through the diner's window, smiling at the sight of Belle sitting in the corner booth with three other women.  The table was covered with half-eaten plates of french fries, open textbooks, pens, and enough paper for her to start her own library.  Despite the stress of her upcoming midterms, she was smiling at her study partners, and the sight warmed his heart.  Belle was making friends.

Not wanting to intrude, he leaned against the wall outside the entrance, careful to stay out of sight.  He’d offered to come by the diner after the shop closed to walk her home from her study session, and if Belle saw him waiting, she would think it was her duty to leave with him whether she was ready to go or not. The last thing Gold wanted to do was break up the party if Belle finally felt comfortable enough to socialize.

Eventually, one of Belle’s study partners, a woman with short blond hair, stepped outside, and she jumped when Gold spoke.  “Excuse me. I’m here to collect Belle. Is the study session over?”

She smiled at him.  “You must be Mr. French!  Yeah, we’re done.  I’ll tell her you’re here.”

Gold moved to follow her inside, unable to wipe the silly grin off of his face.  His heart was beating too fast, his face feeling hot with the pleasure of being mistaken for Belle’s husband.

The woman waved her hand to catch Belle's attention and called, “Hey, Belle!  Your dad’s here.”

His smile faded, the bizarre noise that emerged from Gold's mouth sounding like the dying wheeze of an animal caught in a trap.  Distressed blue eyes darted up to meet his as he struggled to draw breath, feeling like his ribcage was being crushed.  Her father.  They thought he was Belle’s father.

Belle jumped to her feet, her shoulders tight.  Her entire body vibrated with tension, and she didn’t relax until she'd checked every corner of the diner to verify that Moe French was nowhere in sight.  Only then did she look at him again, her face puzzled.

“Just me,” Gold informed her, trying to smile.

From the concerned look on Belle's face, his attempt at a smile fell far short. 

“This is Mr. Gold," she informed her friends, moving to lace her arm through his as she introduced him to the group.  The contact grounded him, making him feel less like he was about to have a heart attack.

“Ready to go?” he asked, his voice breathless and an octave higher than it normally was.

“I’m ready,” she assured him, releasing him only long enough to shove her things into a messenger bag and shoulder it before she reclaimed his arm and waved her goodbyes.  “I’ll see you guys in class.”

Gold nodded at the group and allowed himself to be led out of the diner.  Once they were on the street and alone, he was finally able to take a full breath. “Did you get some good studying done?”

“I can’t believe Elise thought you were my father,” Belle shook her head as they put more distance between them and the study group.  “She scared me to death!”

Belle was clinging to his arm like a terrified child, and Gold took a deep breath, trying to regain control of himself.  Belle's friend had stirred up bad memories and given her a fright, and that was far worse than the way Elise had inadvertently insulted him.  Later he would have the luxury of wallowing in hurt feelings, but right now Belle needed him to comfort her.

He gave her arm a gentle squeeze.  “He can’t hurt you any more. We have a contract, remember?  You’re safe now.”

Belle looked up at him, some of the darkness fading from her eyes.  “You won’t let him take me away.”

There was a new confidence in her voice that heartened him.  Belle truly believed that he would keep her safe, and Gold let his hurt feelings fade away.  It didn’t matter what Belle’s study group thought of him.  When they looked at him, they saw an old man, but when Belle looked at him, she saw her protector.

“I will never let anyone take you away,” he vowed.  “You have a home with me and Bae for as long as you want one.”

Belle rested her head against his shoulder as they walked.  “I’m glad.”

“Me too,” he murmured, taking a risk and pressing a kiss to the top of her head. 

If Gold had his way, Belle’s home would always be with him.

Chapter Text

The ocean fascinated Belle, a quirk that Gold found as endearing as it was understandable.  For all that carnies spent their lives traveling, theirs was a very small world.  Other than endless highways, Belle would have seen little beyond the camper she called home and the carnival itself.  No matter where you were in the world, one field was much like another.

The ocean was a different beast altogether, and she’d been hooked from the first time he and Bae took her to Maine’s rocky shore to watch the waves crash down.  Belle’s world was much bigger now, and the sight of the ocean was a glorious reminder of her freedom.

“Where are we going?” she asked as he led her to the car, Bae following behind with a picnic basket that they were trying very hard to keep out of her line of sight.  Since Belle’s birthday was in late October, it was too chilly to spend the day playing in the water, but Gold was determined to give her a proper celebration anyway, something she admitted that she’d never had.

“Not even a cake?” Bae had asked, wide-eyed.  His birthday parties were always elaborate productions, and the boy couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of not celebrating at all.

“Funnel cake.”  Belle shrugged.  

Funnel cake was a treat once or twice a summer, but as a carny, Belle would have hardly considered it special.  The moment her back was turned, Bae shot him a meaningful look, and Gold nodded.  If Belle had never celebrated her birthday before, they’d make her next one something to remember.

Fortunately, her birthday fell on a Saturday this year.  Belle was far too diligent a student to skip classes to celebrate, but she could hardly object to an adventure on her day off, so after a quick breakfast, they’d hustled her into the Cadillac.

“It’s a surprise,” he answered her question, smiling as she gave him a suspicious look.  In the back seat, Bae snickered.

“You’re up to something,” she announced.

To Gold’s delight, there wasn’t a shadow of worry in Belle’s eyes.  In the six months she’d lived with them, she’d come to trust him enough to know that any plot he might be hatching wouldn’t hurt her.  It was moments like this that gave him hope.

Belle watched the scenery with rapt attention, squealing when they reached the harbor to see Leroy Haserre’s boat waiting for them, bedecked with balloons and a birthday banner.  “Happy birthday, Belle.”

Pressing her hands to her lips, Belle blinked back tears.  “I can’t believe you did this!”

“It’s your birthday,” Bae reminded her as he hopped out of the car.  

“Yes, but…” she trailed off.

“Come on,” Gold coaxed.  There should be no tears today, not even happy ones.  “Your birthday awaits.”

“I don’t know if we’re going to see much,” Leroy warned them as soon as they were within earshot.  The portly man nodded to Belle.  “Happy birthday, sister.”

“Thank you,” she acknowledged before turning to Gold.  “See much?”

“We’re going whale watching,” Gold informed her as he escorted her onto the boat.

Belle looked so overwhelmed just to be on the boat that he wasn’t sure she’d care if they didn’t spot a single whale.  Her cheeks were ruddy with cold, her eyes shining as she tried to look everywhere at once, enjoying the gentle rhythm of the waves.

Gold sat back, happy to watch her and Bae pass the binoculars back and forth, his family clearly having the time of their lives.  Pulling out his phone, he dashed off a quick text to Dove, pleased when the other man assured him that everything was right on schedule.  Belle had more than one surprise waiting for her today.

“This is amazing!” Belle enthused.  

“Papa didn’t think you’d like a party, so we decided to do this instead,” Bae informed her as he broke out the picnic basket and started pouring glasses of iced tea for everyone.  

“It’s perfect,” she assured him, giving a Gold a smile that warmed his frozen heart.  “This is the best birthday ever.”

They tucked into the picnic he’d provided, sharing sourdough rolls and clam chowder, the hot soup comforting on the cold day.  Belle looked lovely in the heavy coat Ariel had sold her, and Gold hoped she was getting accustomed to Maine’s unpleasant weather.  Even if she wasn’t, he planned to do everything possible to convince her that there were enough advantages to staying in Maine to offset the cold.  

Later there would be a proper cake, but for now chocolate chip cookies rounded out the meal.  “I see one!” Bae bellowed, dropping his cookie over the side in his excitement.

Belle scrambled to join him, the pair of them leaning so far overboard that Gold’s stomach curdled.  On the pretense of looking for the whale, he moved to stand behind them, letting his cane fall so he could take hold of the back of each of their jackets.  With his bad leg, there probably wasn’t much he could do if someone decided to fall overboard, but the contact made him feel better.

Fortunately, they made it back to shore without incident, Bae and Belle chattering happily about the trip as he pulled out his phone for another update.  Immediately, Dove assured him that the job was almost done.

To buy more time, Gold took the long way home on the pretense of enjoying the scenery, but Dove’s car was still in the driveway when they reached home.  “Someone’s here,” Belle murmured, her voice shaking.

“It’s just Dove,” Bae told her, and Gold didn’t miss her sigh of relief.  Even after six months, she was still afraid that one day her father would come to take her back, and being helpless to assuage her fears made him want to smash things.  Even after decades he occasionally woke in a cold sweat, and he hated the thought of her suffering the same fate.

Dove was waiting for them just inside the door, the huge man giving him a significant nod before turning his attention to Belle.  “Happy birthday, Miss Belle,” he intoned, holding out a small, brightly colored present.

“A present?  Oh, Dove, you didn’t have to get me anything!”  Dove smiled sweetly at Belle's protest and placed the box in her hands.

Gold gave him a suspicious look.  This wasn’t part of the plan.

“Oh, it’s beautiful!” Belle exclaimed as she opened the box to reveal a gold charm bracelet.  

Dove called her attention to each small charm.  “I picked a book, your birthstone, the state of Maine, and a teacup because that’s how you met Mr. Gold and Bae.”

Gold winced at the inclusion of the teacup, but Belle beamed.  “It’s wonderful!  I can’t thank you enough!”  She threw her arms around Dove, the huge man gently patting her back.

“I will buy you more charms to add as I get to know you better,” he promised.

Belle stepped back, wiping her wet cheeks.  “I’ll wear it every day.”

Bae shot his father a look, and Gold shrugged helplessly.  Hopefully Belle wouldn’t be disappointed by their birthday surprise after this.  He’d never thought about buying her jewelry.

There was only one way to find out.  He cleared his throat.  “Belle, we have dinner reservations.  Would you like to go change?”

“You’re taking me out to dinner too?” she asked in disbelief as she gave Dove a final hug.  

“It is your birthday,” he reminded her, thinking of the cake waiting for them in the kitchen.

“I’m going to have to have birthdays more often,” she announced with a giggle as she headed for the stairs.

Gold exchanged a glance with Bae as they followed along in her wake.  When she screamed, he knew she’d seen her present.

Bae laughed and broke into a run, Gold following as quickly as possible to see Belle sitting limply in the middle of her bedroom floor, tears running down her face.  “Belle?”

“It’s… I don’t…” she gestured helplessly at the line of bookcases Dove had arranged against the blank wall in her bedroom, having moved her ficus tree to the opposite corner to make room.  Every shelf groaned with books that Gold had arranged to have delivered directly to the shop where Belle wouldn't see the boxes to avoid spoiling the surprise.  Classics and bestsellers and his and Bae's own favorites awaited Belle’s reading pleasure, and he hoped he’d chosen well.

“Do you like it?” Bae asked, dancing from foot to foot.  “We know you like books, so we wanted you to have lots of books.”

“It’s wonderful!” she sobbed, her blotchy face the most beautiful thing Gold had ever seen.  She jumped to her feet, hugging Bae so hard that she nearly pulled him off his feet, then she threw herself into Gold's arms, burying her face against his neck as she cried.  “Thank you!  Oh, thank you!  Thank you!”

Gold dropped his cane and pulled her close, rubbing his cheek against her hair.  Maybe, just this once, happy tears were acceptable.  “Happy birthday, Belle.”

Chapter Text

The shrill scream of the tea kettle snapped Gold out of slumber.  A quick glance at the clock told him that it was three in the morning, and he considered his options.  A burglar would be unlikely to make tea, meaning that it was almost certainly either Bae or Belle in the kitchen.  

Heaving himself out of bed, Gold crossed the hall and stuck his head into his son’s bedroom to see Bae sprawled out on his bed, still fast asleep.  Eliminating that suspect meant Belle was the one with a late-night tea craving, and he hesitated.  At three in the morning, it was entirely possible that she would prefer to make her tea and go back to bed without being forced to make conversation with him.  This was her home, and he didn’t want her to think she had to answer to him every time she wanted a snack.  

On the other hand, Belle wasn't normally up and around at three in the morning, and the worry that she might be ill or distressed had Gold heading for the stairs.  He’d just take a quick peek to make sure all was well, and if it was, he’d leave her in peace.  Careful not to let his cane click against the hardwood, he made his way downstairs, avoiding the squeaky floorboards as he crept closer to the kitchen, craning his neck to see around the door frame.

Belle was standing at the island, the tea kettle in one hand as she contemplated the tea cup in front of  her.  Gold winced at the sight of the tea bag.  As far as he was concerned, they were for emergency use only.  As he watched, she lifted the kettle and tilted it, sending a stream of steaming water cascading into the cup.

As if hypnotized, Belle stared at the boiling water, then she deliberately lifted her other hand and stuck her fingers into the stream, hissing as the boiling water struck her skin.

“Belle!”  Forgetting his bad leg, Gold dropped his cane and lunged for her, grabbing her wrist to pull her fingers out of the stream.  With a shriek of terror, Belle dropped the kettle, and he swung her out of the way of the spreading puddle of scalding water with a strength he didn’t know he possessed.

“What are you doing?” he demanded, as he turned the faucet on full blast and stuck Belle's hand under it to soothe the burn.  

In his arms, Belle started to sob.  “I’m sorry!  I wasn’t sure… I just wanted to be sure…”

Fighting the urge to shake her, Gold sucked in a harsh breath.  “Be sure of what?  That boiling water is hot?  It is!”  Panic was making him snarl, and he tried desperately to calm down.  Belle was already crying, and he didn't want to scare her more than he already had.

After a few deep breaths, he pulled Belle's hand out of the torrent of cold water to inspect her fingers, relieved to see that, although her skin was red, it showed no signs of blistering.  He’d gotten to her in time.

Belle hiccuped, her sobs dying away.  “Be sure I’m awake.”

Her words brought Gold up short.  More gently, he moved her hand back under the cold water and adjusted his grip on her so that his arm wrapped around her waist, hugging her against his chest to offer whatever support he could.  “Did you have a nightmare?”

She nodded.  “I woke up, and I was back in the camper, and Dad was yelling at me.  And then I woke up again, and I was here, only you were mad at me and telling me I had to leave.  And then I woke up again, and I was in the camper again, and Dad...  And then I woke up here, and I was alone, and I thought I was really awake, but I wasn’t sure, so I decided to check.  If it hurt, I knew I was awake.”

Gold frowned, trying to follow her explanation.  “Did it hurt?”

Belle nodded.  “Yes.”

He sighed, feeling suddenly exhausted.  He'd lived the experience she was describing more than once: waking in the middle of the night not sure if he was safe or back in Malcolm Gold's carnival.  In those moments, he'd never been able to reassure himself, and he had no idea how to comfort her.

Still, he had to try.  “Well, then you know you’re awake.  And guess what?  I’m not mad at you.”

Belle’s voice was tiny.  “You yelled.”

“I’m sorry I did that.  In my defense, you scared the living hell out of me.  I don’t like it when you hurt yourself.”  Gold thought back over his words, hating the tinge of ‘You made me hurt you’ clinging to them. 

He tried again.  “I’m sorry I yelled.  I’ll try very hard not to do it again.”

“I’m sorry I burned myself,” Belle whispered.  

Gold stifled a sob and rested his cheek against her hair.  Knowing that what he was about to ask was as much for his own peace of mind as it was for hers, he spoke anyway, “Belle, I want you to talk to someone.”

“Who do you want me to talk to?” she asked innocently.

“I mean a therapist.”  In his arms, Belle stiffened.  “There’s nothing wrong with you, Belle.  I just want you to talk to someone who can help you deal with everything you’ve been through.  That’s all.”

“I… I don’t know…”  He could feel her shaking.

“I know somebody like us.  His name is Archie Hopper, and he was a carny too.  He lives in California, so you’d talk to him over the computer.  You wouldn’t even have to be in the same room.”  Gold had connected with Hopper a number of years ago, finding the undertaking of revealing his soul more than he could handle.  In hindsight, he should probably have continued with his sessions.  

It was too late for him, but it wasn’t too late for Belle.  Hopper could help her. 

“He’s like us?” she asked softly.

“Just like us,” he assured her.  “The carnival, the parents, all of it.  He gets it, Belle.  He can help you.”

Gold hugged her a little closer.  “I don’t want you to have bad dreams any more.”

She nestled into him.  “I don’t want to have them any more.  All right.  I’ll talk to him.”

Pressing a gentle kiss to her hair, he murmured, “Thank you.”

Gold reached out to turn off the water, hating to let go of her.  “Let’s put some ointment on your hand.”

Belle glanced down at the cooling puddle behind them.  “I made a mess.  I need to clean it up.”

“It’s just water,” he assured her, but Belle sunk her teeth into her lower lip, looking distressed. 

In compromise, Gold grabbed a towel and tossed it onto the puddle.  “There.  All clean.”

Her giggle lightened his heart.  Giving her a nudge toward the door, he stooped to retrieve his fallen cane.  “Let’s get you fixed up, and then I’ll make you a proper cup of tea.  Tea bags should be illegal.”

“They were in your cupboard,” Belle reminded him.

He sniffed.  “Clearly, Mrs. Potts is going senile.  Remind me to fire her in the morning.  You can do the cleaning and the marketing.”

Belle’s elbow caught him in the ribs.  “Oh no.  Remember what happened last time I tried to dust?”

Gold wrapped his arm around her, hugging her lightly against his side as they walked.  Six months ago, Belle would have taken his teasing for a directive and probably gone straight to work.  Now she felt secure enough in her position to tease him back.  She was healing.  “Good point.  You do tend to break everything you touch.  I guess Mrs. Potts can stay.”

Belle chuckled, and Gold risked leaning down to kiss her hair again.  She was going to be just fine.  Hopper would know what to do.  With his help, she would banish the shadow of Moe French and finish blossoming into the woman she was born to be.  Belle was going to be astounding.

She already was.

Chapter Text

Gold looked down the darkened hallway, fighting the urge to approach his office.  Belle had been sequestered in there for over an hour talking to Dr. Hopper, and he wasn’t sure if the silence was a good sign or a bad one.

She’d promised to call him if she needed him and she hadn’t done so, so he turned on his heel and resumed pacing the living room, glad that Bae was having dinner with the Nolans tonight.  His son would have plenty to say about his father’s overprotectiveness if he caught him in the act of hovering.

Finally, after what seemed like a year, his office door opened, and it was all he could do to keep from racing to Belle's side.  Belle might need space, and crowding her would only make her feel worse.  Talking to a therapist was hard enough; she didn’t need him breathing down her neck demanding details.  In an attempt to look like he was being productive, Gold turned his pacing into tidying, picking up a few of the things Bae had left strewn around, until he became conscious of the weight of Belle's gaze upon him.

“Belle?”  He turned to face her, sucking in a horrified breath at the sight of her red-rimmed eyes.  Hopper had upset her, and he’d have the other man’s license for this.  Worse, he'd been the one to suggest she talk to the therapist in the first place.  It was his fault that Belle was upset.

She gave him a tiny smile that broke his heart.  Dropping Bae’s English notebook, Gold hastened to her side, desperate to make this better.  “What did he say to you?  I’m sorry, Belle.  I never should have made you—“

A gentle hand on his arm brought him up short.

“No, he’s wonderful,” Belle assured him, and Gold choked on his flow of words, wondering if he'd heard her correctly.  How could someone who'd made her cry be wonderful?

Nibbling on her lower lip, she requested, “Would you hug me please?”

“Of course,” he rasped, dropping his cane so he could wrap both arms around Belle.  Her tiny body snuggled into him, and he splayed his hands over her back to hold her closer yet, burying his face in her hair.  “I’ve got you, sweetheart.”

He could feel her trembling as she clung to him, and Gold bit back a moan, cursing himself for ever suggesting that Belle speak to Hopper.  All he’d wanted was to help her, but Hopper had made her cry.  “You never have to talk to him again,” he promised.

Belle took a half step back, and it was all he could do to release her.  “No, I want to.  I do.  It’s just hard to talk about… things.”

“I understand,” he said at once.  He’d tried therapy himself, but the pain of dredging up bad memories had been more than he could bear.  Belle was far stronger than he was.

When Belle wiped her eyes, he found himself reaching to do it for her, brushing away the last tear tracks.  It felt good to fuss over her.

“He gave me homework,” she told him, not shying away from his touch.

In spite of himself, Gold smiled.  “Well, we know you’re good at schoolwork.”

“He says I need to advocate for myself more.  Every day, I’m supposed to ask for something I want or need.”  She lifted her shoulders, her nose crinkling with an embarrassed smile.  “So, I asked for a hug.”

Gold could feel his own eyes start to sting.

“You can ask me for anything, sweetheart.  I’ll hug you whenever you want," he vowed, pulling her close again to hide his tears against her hair.

“Thank you,” she whispered, pressing her hands against his back as she nuzzled against his throat.

The feel of her warm breath against his neck made Gold shiver, but he refused to let himself react.  Right now, Belle needed a hug, and he would die before he made her feel uncomfortable for asking for one.  Just knowing that she trusted him enough to voice her needs was more intimate than any sexual contact.

She was safe in his arms, and he’d hold her until the sun burned out if that would make her happy.  Suggesting that she talk to Hopper was the smartest thing he’d ever done.

Chapter Text

“I’ll get it!” Belle called when she heard a rap at the kitchen door.  Knocks at the front door made her nervous, but only friends came to the back.

She smiled at the sight of Emma through the window and unlocked the door, pulling it open.  “Hi, Emma. Bae isn’t here right now.”

The blond girl nodded, shifting her weight from foot to foot.  “Actually, I wanted to talk to you.”

Belle stepped back to admit the girl to the house, trying to think what Emma might have to discuss with her.  As far as she knew, she’d done nothing wrong, but her stomach still curdled with nerves at the idea that the Nolans might have sent their daughter to pass along their disapproval of something she’d done.

“Do you want something to drink?” she asked, hearing the quavering note in her voice.

“Do you have any iced tea?”  Emma looked as nervous as Belle felt which didn't help to calm her anxiety.  She poured a glass of tea for both of them and beckoned for Emma to take a seat at the kitchen table.

Whatever Emma wanted to discuss, putting it off would only make it harder.  “What did you want to talk about?” 

At her question, Emma turned bright red.  She dipped her finger into her glass and drew a picture on the table, staring down at it so she didn’t have to meet Belle’s eyes as she spoke, “You’re a grownup, right?  So, you know stuff.  About boys.”

Belle took a hasty swallow of iced tea, feeling both relieved and suddenly out of her depth.  Emma wasn't here to reprove her, but the actual topic she was interested in discussing wasn't much better.

“I know some things,” she said carefully.  If Emma wanted to talk about sex, she was going to run straight back to the carnival.

Emma nodded, then looked up at her desperately.  “How old is too old?”

Belle tried hard to parse the question, but she was pretty sure she needed a few more nouns before she’d be able to understand it.  “I’m not sure I understand.  I’m sorry,” she added at Emma’s distressed look.

“Like… I like this guy.  But he’s older than me.”  Belle heaved a sigh of relief as she finally figured out what Emma was saying.  She could handle this.

“Emma, age is just a number,” she assured the girl.  “You fall in love with people, not their birthdays.  How old is he?  Fourteen?  Fifteen?”  Fifteen was pushing the limits since Emma was only thirteen, but the girl was mature for her age.

“Thirty-two.”

Belle blinked, wondering if she'd misheard that.  “Excuse me?”

“He’s really nice, and he’s so cute, and I love him, but he says I’m too young!” the girl wailed, burying her face in her hands.

Well, at least the mystery man wasn’t encouraging her.  “Who are we talking about?”

“Sheriff Graham,” Emma mumbled.

Feeling like she was on very thin ice, Belle tried to regain control of the conversation.  “Sheriff Graham is a very nice man.  I do think he has a point though. There’s a pretty big difference between thirteen and thirty-two.”

“It’s not even twenty years,” Emma protested.  “You said that age is just a number.”

Emma made a valid point.  She'd said that, and now she had to walk it back.

“It is, but there’s something to be said for life experience.  Sheriff Graham has done a lot of things that you haven’t.  After you’ve done those things, the age difference won’t matter so much,” Belle tried to explain, feeling like she was just digging herself a deeper hole.

Emma gave her a sharp look.  “Like what things?”

“Like… getting your driver's license.  Graduating from high school.  Living on your own and paying your own bills.  Things like that.”  Belle was acutely aware that the only thing on that list she’d ever done was to get her driver's license.  Hopefully Emma wouldn’t bring that up.

Emma nodded slowly.  “So, after I do that stuff, the age difference won’t matter any more?”

“There’s a much bigger difference between thirteen and thirty-two than there is between twenty-five and forty-four,” Belle assured her.  “I bet if you still want to go out with Sheriff Graham when you’re my age, he’ll be happy to take you out.”

That was a safe promise to make since Emma would almost certainly lose interest in the town sheriff long before she turned twenty-five.  Even if she didn't, the intervening twelve years would give her enough life experience not to hold it against Belle if Sheriff Graham chose not to cooperate.  There was no point in breaking the girl's heart if she didn't have to.

“Would you date an older man?” Emma asked, giving her a searching look.

Unbidden, an image of Mr. Gold popped into her mind, and Belle could feel herself blushing.  He was older than she was, but if he wanted to date her, she’d be over the moon with happiness.  It was a shame that he wanted to do no such thing.

“Of course.”  She wasn’t just humoring Emma when she admitted, “I’m very fond of older men.”

She only wished that her older man was as fond of her.

Emma heaved a sigh. “I guess I can be patient,” she said grudgingly.

Feeling like the ground was once again solid beneath her, Belle held up her glass for a toast.  “I’m rooting for you.”

Chapter Text

When Gold heard a knock at the kitchen door, he automatically moved to stand, but the sound of Belle's cheerful voice announcing that she would answer it waylaid him.  Instead, he relaxed back into his office chair, waiting for her to indicate that their visitor was there to see him.  After a minute or so of nothing, he put his head back down and resumed his paperwork, making a neat record of this month’s rent payments in longhand.  Later, he would transfer the information to the computer, but he'd learned the hard way that it paid to keep a copy of records that couldn’t be hacked.

He looked over his progress, frowning when he realized he’d written down Mrs. Lucas’s payment twice.  No matter how hard he tried to concentrate, his mind kept straying to the kitchen where Belle was apparently entertaining.

It was probably nothing to worry about, just one of her college friends paying a visit, but the possibility that she might currently be hostage to a door-to-door salesman or a good-natured busybody like Mary Margaret Nolan forced him to his feet.  Belle was getting much better at asserting herself, but she was still too shy and polite to tell someone to bugger off.  That was his job.

Gold made his way to the kitchen, trying not to let his cane click against the floor and betray his approach.  If Belle was enjoying herself, she wouldn’t appreciate an interruption, and if someone was bothering her, he’d have surprise on his side when he arrived to scare the interloper off.

“I bet if you still want to go out with Sheriff Graham when you’re my age, he’ll be happy to take you out,” she was saying, puzzling Gold until he leaned around the door frame just enough to see Emma sitting across from Belle at the kitchen table.  Ah.  Girl talk.

He smiled at the sight of the two of them and was turning to leave since his intimidation services weren’t required when Emma asked a question that brought him up short.  “Would you date an older man?”

Had someone set him on fire, Gold couldn’t have moved from his spot, his feet rooted in place as every molecule of his being strained to hear Belle’s answer.  He didn’t know what had prompted Emma’s question, but it hardly mattered.  Depending on Belle’s answer, he would know if she could ever overlook their age difference enough to give him a chance to win her love.

“Of course,” Belle said easily, and Gold had to slap a hand over his mouth to muffle his cough when he tried to inhale and swallow at the same time, his eyes watering as he heard her continue, “I’m very fond of older men.”

Wheezing, Gold staggered into the downstairs bathroom and buried his face in a towel as he struggled to clear his throat, his mind racing.  Belle would date an older man.  Belle was very fond of older men.

Had she left her answer at “of course” he would have been overjoyed, but the second half of it set his teeth on edge.  If Belle was fond of older men, that meant she had to have a particular older man in mind.  Someone had captured her interest.

Gold snarled at the thought, wondering who the lucky bastard could be.  

No doubt it was one of her professors.  She’d mentioned how much she enjoyed her linguistics professor’s lectures, and Gold could just picture him putting his hand on her shoulder during class and inviting her to come talk to him during office hours.  He’d be tall and handsome and too smart for his own good, eager to provide Belle with all kinds of one-on-one attention.

Glaring at himself in the mirror, Gold cursed eloquently at his reflection.  When Belle said she was very fond of older men, she was almost certainly not thinking of the man she lived with, a man who was old enough to be her father.  He was twice her age, crippled, and equipped with enough emotional baggage to weigh anyone down.  Belle had enough troubles of her own without compounding them by taking him on as well.  His hope of winning her love was nothing but an impossible dream.  

He wished she’d told Emma no.  Maybe then he would finally be able to extinguish the tenacious flicker of hope.

Chapter Text

Belle rolled over onto her stomach to bury her face in her pillow, making sure that no one could hear her as she coughed until her chest ached.  Shivering, she pulled her blankets more tightly around her body, drawing her knees up until she was curled into a small ball to conserve body heat.  Every blanket she had was piled on top of her, but her teeth were still chattering.  Mr. Gold would let her have all the blankets she wanted, and she knew where the extras were kept, but she couldn’t stand the thought of braving the freezing air to go get them.  Instead, she huddled deeper into her nest of covers and tried to fall back to sleep.  

When she woke the next morning, her eyelids felt like they’d been lined with sandpaper, and she moaned in dismay.  She was sick.  Another bout of coughing left her lying limply on the bed as she wheezed for breath, trying to gather the strength to stand up.  She couldn’t be sick.  She didn’t have time to be sick.  She still had to do her reading for tomorrow’s classes and work on her geology essay.

Before she could do any of that, she had to get up.  Yesterday, she’d promised Bae that she would make pancakes for him, and she couldn’t disappoint him.

Belle dragged herself out of bed and yanked her brush through her hair before tying her robe tightly around her and jamming her feet into her warmest slippers.  The extra layers were almost enough to keep her from shivering, and she make her shaky way downstairs, giving Bae her best smile when she found him waiting in the kitchen.  “Ready for pancakes?”

Bae frowned at her.  “You sound funny.  Are you getting sick?”

“Oh no,” she assured him.  Bae couldn’t know that she was sick.  If he knew she was sick, he might tell Mr. Gold, and she couldn’t disappoint him.  Only lazy people got sick.  Her father had taught her that.  Moe French never got sick, and it made him furious when she did.  Mr. Gold was spending a fortune to let her go to college.  She couldn’t let him know that she’d been lazy.

Belle felt herself swaying as she approached the stove, her head feeling like it was disconnected from her body.  She giggled at the thought of her head hovering above her like a balloon on a string, the sound turning into a cough that she muffled with her elbow.  “Pancakes,” she muttered, reminding herself what she was doing.  

When she reached down to retrieve the griddle from the lower cabinet, the world tilted oddly around her, and through the blood roaring in her ears, Belle heard Bae yelling for his father from what seemed like miles away.

The next time she opened her eyes, she was lying on the living room couch with Mr. Gold sitting beside her, his face unshaven and eyes worried.  

“There you are,” he murmured, giving her a reassuring smile.  

“Where was I?” she asked, feeling groggy.  Her chest was aching again, but she couldn’t muster the strength to lift her arm to muffle her cough so she held her breath instead.  She couldn't cough on Mr. Gold.

“You fainted.”  His hand was cool against her forehead, but for some reason, it made her feel warmer.  “You’re burning up.  Bae’s on the phone with Doctor Whale.”

“I’m sorry,” she whimpered, her chest heaving as she struggled not to cough.  

“Here, sit up,” he said urgently, moving to sit closer to her.  With his help, she managed to sit, leaning heavily against his shoulder as the coughing fit overwhelmed her.  With one arm Mr. Gold held her loosely against him, his other hand rubbing her back in firm circles to ease the spasm.

“Why are you sorry?” he asked once the fit ended, his hands gentle as he lowered her back onto the couch and covered her with the afghan.

“I didn’t mean to get sick,” she whimpered, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes.  She was sick, and now she was going to make Mr. Gold and Bae sick too.  “I didn’t mean to be lazy.  I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault that you’re sick,” he assured her, wiping away her tears with gentle fingers.

“Only lazy people get sick,” she reminded him.  He had to know that.  Everybody knew that.

Gold went still, his fingers brushing her cheek.  “Did your father tell you that?”

Exhausted, she nodded, her voice slurred as she requested, “Please don’t make me sleep outside.”  It was selfish to want to stay here in the house where she could make Mr. Gold and Bae get sick, but she was so very cold.

Bae?” Mr. Gold's voice was sharp as he called his son, the look on his face terrible.  Belle closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to see his rage.  She didn’t want to see him angry with her.

“Doctor Whale says he has appointments this morning!” Bae called back.  

“We’ll see about that,” Mr. Gold muttered.  “Come sit with Belle.”

Belle drifted along on a current of angry shouting from another room interspersed with Bae telling horrible jokes and clumsily patting her hair until the shouting stopped and Mr. Gold returned.  

“You’re going to be late for school if you don’t leave now,” he said quietly, and Belle jerked into full awareness, struggling to rip off the afghan so she could get up and get dressed.  She couldn’t be late.

Gentle hands eased her back down.  “No, not you.  You’re staying right here.”

“Bye, Papa.  Bye, Belle.  I hope you feel better!” Bae called, and Belle subsided as she realized Mr. Gold had been talking to his son.  She wasn’t going to be late for class because she didn’t have class today.  Her classes were tomorrow, and she had to read two chapters of her psychology textbook and write a rough draft of her geology paper first.

“I have reading to do,” she mumbled, barely aware of what she was saying as Mr. Gold applied a cool cloth to her forehead, the shock making her shiver violently and moan in relief at the same time.  

“It will wait.  Doctor Whale will be here in about ten minutes to take a look at you.  For now, you just rest.”  With Mr. Gold's hand hypnotically stroking her hair, Belle drifted off again, only vaguely aware of another voice joining them and prodding at her.

The next time she opened her eyes, she was in her own bed with a mountain of blankets piled on top of her and a still unshaven Mr. Gold sitting beside her in a chair that hadn't been in her bedroom before, a book in his hands.  She didn't make a sound, but he looked up from the book he was reading like she'd called his name.

“Good, you’re awake,” he said with a smile.  “How do you feel?”

“Thirsty,” she rasped.  There were so many blankets piled on her that she would need his help to climb out of bed so she could get herself a drink.

The word was no more out of her mouth before he was putting his book down and reaching for a glass of water on the bedside table that she hadn't noticed before  Carefully, he helped her to sit up enough to sip from the straw.  “Slowly,” he cautioned.  

She tried to be careful, but some of the water went down the wrong pipe, leaving her coughing in wrenching spasms as Mr. Gold helped her to sit up enough to lean against him so he could rub her back.  

“Let’s get some of these pills in you,” he clucked when she finally managed to stop coughing.

Belle watched with bleary eyes as he shook two pills out into his palm and offered them to her, then held the water glass so she could sip and swallow them.  

“Whale says you have the flu, which was patently obvious.  And you didn’t get it by being lazy,” he informed her as she collapsed back onto the bed, exhausted just from the act of swallowing.  “The pills will make you better.  Can you eat something, or do you just want to sleep?”

“Tired,” she moaned, unable to keep her eyes open.

He tugged the blankets over her once again and smoothed her hair away from her face.  “Okay.  Maybe when you wake up again, we can try some soup.  For now, you just rest, sweetheart.  I’m right here if you need me.”

As Belle again slipped into sleep, she thought she felt gentle lips kissing her forehead, but that had to be a dream.

Chapter Text

Gold tensed as Belle stirred and coughed, a hoarse, wracking sound that made his own chest ache in sympathy.  She took a shallow, ragged breath, then subsided without waking, burrowing deeper into the blankets.

Few things in his life had been as terrifying as racing into the kitchen at his son’s scream to find Belle sprawled unconscious in front of the stove.  A thousand horrific possibilities had presented themselves, and it wasn’t until Whale diagnosed her with the flu that his heart resumed its normal pace.  Even so, the guilt was crushing.  Belle was sick, and he hadn’t noticed.  How long had she been fighting this, afraid to admit she was unwell out of fear that he’d be angry with her?

Gold’s hand clenched into an impotent fist.  He’d give quite a lot to slam it into Moe French’s face.  Not only had he convinced his daughter that any illness was her own fault— a result of laziness— he’d apparently made her sleep outside whenever she got sick.  Even Malcolm Gold hadn’t been that sadistic.  

When Belle begged him not to send her outside, he’d wanted to smash everything he owned, and even hours later, that violent urge was still present.  To distract himself, he picked up his book, tossing it down again moments later when Belle mumbled something.

“Sweetheart?” he asked, scooting his chair closer to her bed.  

Her voice was thick and muffled, but he made out a few words.  “Dendritic network.  Hydrologic.  Precipitation.  Infiltration.”

Even in her sleep, Belle was still worried about her schoolwork, and Gold wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry.  He rested his hand on the top of her head in an effort to soothe her, wincing at how hot she still felt.  Whale had been clear about the medicine— two pills every six hours— but it was all Gold could do to keep himself from dumping the entire bottle down her throat in hopes of a faster cure.

Belle was sick, and he was useless.  His mouth twisted in disgust.  Money wouldn’t fix this, and his not-inconsiderable power had managed to do no more than force Whale to pay a house call after threatening to raise the doctor's rent to astronomical proportions.  His crippled body meant that he couldn’t even carry Belle upstairs to bed.  Instead, he'd shuffled along in Whale’s wake as the other man effortlessly scooped her up at his request, and seeing her in another man’s arms had nearly broken him.

“No!” Belle cried, and Gold jerked his hand back, realizing belatedly that her eyes were still closed.

“Belle?”  He kept his voice low, trying to project calm.  “You’re all right, sweetheart.”

“Don’t…” she moaned as she thrashed weakly, struggling with the blankets.  “Don’t, don’t, don’t, please.”

“No one is going to do anything you don’t want,” Gold promised, heaving himself out of his chair so he could tug her covers down to free her arms.

Belle's eyes snapped open, bloodshot and unseeing.  He winced as she let out a scream that turned into a coughing fit, flailing wildly as she scrambled back and away from him.  

“Belle!”  He struggled to make himself heard over her violent coughing, not sure what to do.  All he wanted was to wrap her up in his arms and rub her back, anything to make her feel better, but approaching her when she was still dazed and dreaming might only frighten her more.

“Belle, it’s me!  It’s Gold.  You’re safe.  You’re at the house.  No one is going to hurt you.”  He risked taking a step closer, bracing himself to pull away if she recoiled from him.

“Gold?"  His name was barely recognizable through her wracking cough.

“Yes, sweetheart.  You live here with me and Bae.  Remember?”  When she didn’t shrink away from him, he took another step, then perched on the edge of the bed beside her.  “You’re sick, sweetheart.  You have a fever.  That’s why you’re confused.”

Eventually, Belle coughed herself out, the spasm leaving her trembling and wheezing for breath as she curled in on herself.  “He was going to hurt me,” she rasped.

Gold placed his hand over hers, his throat aching as he realized who she'd been dreaming about.  “No one is going to hurt you, Belle.  I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

She blinked rapidly, her eyes losing their glazed look.  “Mr. Gold?”

Heaving a sigh of relief that she recognized him, he squeezed her hand.  “Yes, sweetheart.  Can you drink some water?”

He was reaching for the glass when Belle lunged, burrowing into his arms.  “You won’t let him hurt me,” she said through chattering teeth.  “You’re safe.  You’ll keep me safe.”

“Oh, yes,” he murmured as he wrapped his arms around her.  Belle’s body felt hellishly hot, but she was shivering like she was freezing.  “I’ll protect you.  I’ll keep you safe.”

“I’m cold,” she whimpered.

With careful hands, Gold eased her away from him, meaning to tuck her back in, but the moment he tried to release her, Belle moaned in panic and burrowed closer, refusing to let him go.

“Okay, okay.  I won’t let go,” he promised, cursing the thrill that went through him at the way Belle clung to him.  She was sick and confused.  No doubt she would cling to anyone who offered her comfort, but right now she needed him, and he was going to let himself believe that it meant something. 

If Belle wouldn’t let go of him, there was only one other option.  Gold maneuvered both of them under the covers, holding Belle close with one arm as he pulled the blankets over them, creating a snug little nest.  Belle sighed in relief and snuggled into him, her body fitting against his like she was a missing piece of himself.  

“Don’t let go,” she rasped, her voice slurred.

He pulled her a little closer and buried his face in her hair.  He couldn’t cure her, but he could give her this, and suddenly Gold didn’t feel quite so useless.  "I'll never let you go."

With Belle plastered against him, he could feel the exact moment when her breath deepened with sleep, and only then did he risk kissing her hair and whispering, “I love you, Belle.”

Chapter Text

“Hey, Dove.  What are you doing here?”  Bae tossed his backpack into the corner, looking curiously at the huge man standing at the kitchen island, dicing up carrots without once looking down.  If Bae had tried that, he would have cut his thumb off, but he could see no sign of blood.

“Hello, Master Bae.  Your father asked me to come over and make chicken soup for Miss Belle.”  

Bae sighed at the explanation.  “I guess she’s not feeling any better.”  Seeing her faint had been scary, but after Papa bullied Doctor Whale into coming over, he’d assumed that she would be easy to fix.

“Miss Belle has the flu.  She’s asleep upstairs.  You should go up and look in on her,” Dove suggested, tossing his carrots into a pot on the stove before starting in on a stalk of celery.

“I will,” Bae promised, wandering over to the stove to see what else was in the pot.  Dove had a habit of sneaking all sorts of vegetables into things when he wasn’t looking.

“You should go up now,” Dove informed him in the same inexorable voice Papa used when he was making a suggestion that wasn’t really a suggestion.

“I thought you said she was asleep.”  There was no point in going to talk to her if she wasn’t awake.

In response, Dove just stared at him until Bae squirmed under the weight of the huge man’s gaze.  “Okay!  I’ll go upstairs.”

Grumbling under his breath, he climbed the stairs to the second floor.  Belle’s bedroom door was drawn partly shut, and he ducked his head around it to see her lying on her side, sound asleep as Dove had said.

His father was lying next to her.

Bae slapped his hand over his mouth to muffle his whoop of triumph and tiptoed closer to the bed.  Papa was asleep too, spooned up behind Belle under the covers with his face buried against her hair.  Even in sleep, he looked more relaxed and content than Bae had ever seen him.

Finally…” he breathed.  If he'd known that all it would take to get Papa and Belle together was for her to get sick, he would have coughed on her every single day.

At the whisper, his father stirred in his sleep, tugging Belle a little closer, and Bae grinned as he padded back downstairs.  

“They’re sleeping in the same bed!” he hissed at Dove as soon as he reached the kitchen.

A tiny smile played around Dove’s mouth, the big man's eyes twinkling at him.  “Aren’t you glad you went upstairs?”

“You think they’re going to get married too, don’t you, Dove?” Bae asked.  Considering what he’d just seen, it was only a matter of time before Belle became Papa's wife and his official mom, but he wanted to hear an adult say it.

“I have already selected my suit and tie for the ceremony,” Dove assured him.

“Awesome.”  Bae hopped idly from foot to foot, wondering what to do now.  “I guess Emma and I don’t have to lock them in a bank vault after all.”

“I wouldn’t advise it.”  

“Emma!  I have to call Emma!” he blurted.  News this big had to be shared with his best friend and partner in crime.  And if it distracted her from mooning over Sheriff Graham?  It was a win-win situation.

Today was the best day ever.

Chapter Text

Belle clutched her note from Doctor Whale in nervous fingers as she approached her classroom.  Mr. Gold had assured her that her professor wouldn’t mind that she’d missed one class, but she wasn’t so sure.

When she reached the room, Professor Shields wasn’t there yet, but her groupmates were.  With a stern expression, Taylor beckoned her over.  “You are in serious trouble.”

Belle’s heart dropped to her feet.  She’d wanted to go to her Thursday classes, but Mr. Gold had insisted that she stay in bed, and after waking up to find herself held safe in his arms, it had been all too easy to let him to convince her to stay right where she was.  She’d done all of the reading, but clearly it wasn’t enough.  She’d been truant, and now she was going to fail the class and be expelled, and she would never get her degree so she could work at the library.  Why, oh why, did she have to get sick?  

“What should I do?”

“Tell us about Gold!” Lisa squealed.

“I’m so sorry I thought he was your dad.”  Elise looked mortified as she gestured for Belle to sit down.

“You’re an idiot,” Lisa informed her.

“I’m an idiot.  Now tell us about Gold!”

Belle’s death grip on her doctor’s note relaxed when she realized her groupmates weren’t telling her that she was in danger of failing, although she wasn't sure why they were so interested in Mr. Gold.

“Mr. Gold?” she parroted, feeling her face heat as she remembered how good his strong arms had felt around her as he comforted her through the worst of her illness.

“Spill,” Taylor commanded.  “We want to hear all about your silver fox.  He has an accent!”

Understanding dawned.

“He’s Scottish, and he’s not… I mean… I live with him,” Belle tried to explain.  Apparently the other girls had reached their own conclusions about her relationship with Mr. Gold, and she needed to nip the misunderstanding in the bud.  It would be completely unacceptable to allow such a rumor to spread.  Mr. Gold would be appalled if he knew what her groupmates were thinking.

Ooooooooo!”  Lisa waggled her eyebrows at her.  “Miss Belle, I’m shocked.”

“No, not like that!”  Belle winced at what she’d accidentally implied.  Try as she might, she was only making things worse. 

Taking a deep breath, she tried again.  “I live in his house.  With him and his son.”

“Like a nanny?” Elise asked.

“No, Bae’s in high school,” Belle said thoughtlessly, then realized she could have uncomplicated things by just agreeing.  “I had some… trouble with my father.  Mr. Gold took me in.  He gave me a home.”

Lisa rested her chin on her hand.  “That’s so romantic,” she sighed.  “He rescued you.”

Belle's stomach tingled at the thought of Mr. Gold feeling romantic about her.  “We’re not like that,” she demurred.  “He doesn’t see me that way.”

Taylor raised her eyebrows in disbelief.  “Honey, we’ve seen that man look at you.  Trust me, he sees you that way.”

Belle twisted her hands together.  It was too much to hope for that Mr. Gold might really see her in a romantic light.  “He felt sorry for me, that’s all.”  

“You two generated enough electricity to power all of New England for a year while you were standing fully-clothed in a diner.”  Taylor’s look dared her to argue.

“We’re not like that,” Belle repeated, refusing to allow herself to hope that Taylor’s words could be true.  She was only setting herself up for heartbreak if she allowed herself to hope.

“If you two aren’t a thing, can I ask him out?” Elise asked.

“No!”  All three girls giggled at Belle’s emphatic denial, and she hung her head in embarrassment.  

“You like him, don’t you, Belle?” Lisa asked quietly.

“I love him,” she admitted.  She wasn’t sure when she’d fallen in love with Mr. Gold, but now she was in far too deep to ever dig herself back out.

“You should tell him,” Taylor suggested.

Belle shook her head, her eyes stinging.  “I can’t.  It would ruin everything.”  

If she told him how she felt, it would only make him uncomfortable.  He might not want her to live with him any more, and losing him and Bae would be far worse than anything her father had ever done to her.  

“I used to know a guy who looked at me the way Gold looks at you,” Taylor informed her.

Lisa looked over at her.  “Yeah?  What happened?”

“I married him.  Tell him, Belle.  He’ll be happy.”  

Taylor cut herself off as Professor Shields entered the room, and Belle was grateful for the distraction.  If she told Mr. Gold that she loved him, he would be horrified, not happy.  He was already so good to her that she could ask for nothing more.  It was enough that he let her live in his house and took care of her.  She could be content with that.  

She had to be.

Chapter Text

Gold braced both hands on the shop’s glass counter, hunching over as he coughed violently, the spasm leaving his chest aching.  When he woke up this morning, he’d dismissed his sore throat as mere dehydration, but now he had to face facts: he was sick.

He’d caught Belle’s flu, he realized as he started to shiver.  Gold could count on one hand the number of times he’d gotten sick in the last decade, but even though his eyes burned and his chest ached, he couldn’t regret the time he’d spent curled up with Belle while she recovered.  Sleeping with her in his arms was a memory he wouldn’t trade for anything, not even if he came down with the plague.

A call to Whale resulted in a prescription, the doctor making his diagnosis over the phone.  Cursing under his breath, Gold opted to close the shop early before stopping by the pharmacy to pick up another bottle of the little white pills that had helped Belle.  It had taken five days for her to recover enough to leave the house, and she still looked too pale to his eyes.  Hopefully, he’d caught this thing early enough to nip it in the bud because with Belle and Bae counting on him to take care of them, he didn't have time to be sick.

By the time he got home, Gold's head was swimming, and climbing a flight of stairs to his bedroom was out of the question.  He made it as far as the couch, kicking off his shoes and wrapping Belle’s afghan around his shivering form as he struggled to get warm.  If he closed his eyes, he could almost believe that her scent still clung to the fabric.

“Oh, no.  Oh, no, no, no…”  

Prying his eyelids open took far more effort than it normally did, and Gold moaned as the light hit his eyes, Belle’s worried face gradually coming into focus.  “Belle?”

“You’re sick!” she exclaimed, and he nuzzled into her touch when she put her hand on his forehead.  “Oh, I’m so sorry!”

“Not your—“  A coughing fit kept him from assuring her that it wasn’t her fault, and Belle’s hands fluttered helplessly before she rested them on his chest, rubbing gently to soothe the ache.

“I’m going to call the doctor,” she informed him.

“Already… did…” He was wheezing, but at least he’d stopped coughing for the moment.  Reaching into his pocket, he withdrew the bottle of pills and handed them to her as proof.

Belle studied the label, nodding when she saw they were the same ones she’d taken.  “When did you take them last?”

Gold frowned.  He’d meant to take the pills when he got home, but he’d been so exhausted that he’d headed straight for the couch instead.  “Didn’t.”

Belle gave him an exasperated look.  “Stay right there,” she ordered even though he was clearly in no condition to go anywhere, and Gold felt lonely the instant she left the room.

She was back a moment later with a glass of water.  Gold scooted over to give her room to sit on the edge of the couch, and his entire body shivered as she helped him sit up, encouraging him to lean against her so he could swallow the pills she handed him.  The simple act of swallowing immediately made him cough again.

“You’re okay… you’re okay… I’ve got you…” Belle crooned, rubbing his back gently, and if she was going to touch him like this, he’d happily be sick.

“Let’s get you upstairs,” she said when the spasm passed.  From the stubborn set of her jaw, she wasn’t taking no for an answer, and Gold groaned as she hauled him to his feet, his body aching.

She tucked herself under his arm to support him, staying pressed against his side as they made their slow way up the stairs.  “Almost there,” she assured him.  

It was all he could do to simply put one foot in front of the other, and he sighed in relief when they finally reached his bedroom.  The hazy feeling vanished when Belle leaned him against the dresser and started removing his tie, her unexpected action nearly making him jump out of his skin.

“I know you’re cold.  I know.  We’re going to get you in bed really soon,” she promised, misunderstanding his reaction.

With practiced hands, she stripped off his suit and helped him into his pajamas, leaving Gold’s head reeling.  Sweet, shy Belle had just stripped him to his boxers without batting an eye.  

He didn’t have time to think about the implications because a moment later she was helping him climb into bed and tucking the blankets firmly around him.  

“Isn’t that better?” she crooned as she stroked his hair away from his face.  “Oh, you’re so hot.”

He sniggered at her choice of words, wishing they were being said in a different context.  “So are you.”

“What?”  

At her puzzled look, Gold bit his tongue to keep it from saying anything else.  Apparently he was even more out of it than he’d thought.

Belle disappeared, and he whimpered in protest.  He wanted her with him.  He stayed with her when she was sick.  It was only fair.  

When something heavy landed on him, it took him a moment to focus enough to realize that Belle was piling more blankets on top of him, the warm weight of them forcing his tense muscles to relax.  “There we go,” she murmured once she was satisfied. 

She gave the blankets a final tug, then sat down on the mattress next to him so she could stroke his hair.  “Do you need anything?  Can I get you anything else?”

Gold closed his eyes and nuzzled into her touch.  This was fine.  As long as she kept petting him, he had everything he needed.  

“You rest now.  You’ll feel so much better.”

The petting stopped, and he moaned.  She had to touch him.  He felt better when Belle touched him.  Snuggling closer, he tried to rest his head in her lap, whining when she held him away from her.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” she whispered.  He could feel her moving around next to him, but he couldn’t get his eyes to open.  

An instant later, she was guiding his head to lay in her lap, her fingers carding tenderly through his hair.  “There we go.  Does that help?”

“Yes,” he mumbled, relieved when it didn’t trigger another coughing fit.  Belle might not want to hold him if he was coughing, and if she stopped holding him, he was certain that he would die.  

“Good.”  Warm fingers caressed the back of his neck before stroking over his hair again.  “You rest now.  Just rest.  I’m right here.”

With his head in Belle’s lap and her fingers buried in his hair, Gold was more content than he’d been in a lifetime.  This was all he wanted, this simple, loving touch enough to soothe his soul.  If he could spend the rest of his life just like this, he’d be perfectly happy.  It wasn’t too much to ask.

He was just opening his mouth to beg Belle to do this forever when sleep swallowed him.

Chapter Text

Belle stroked Mr. Gold’s hair tenderly as his head rested in her lap, guilt making her soul hurt.  It was her fault that he was sick.  When she had the flu, he stayed by her side the entire time, bringing her drinks and soup and even holding her as she slept to comfort her.  He'd taken exquisite care of her, and as thanks for his generosity, she’d given him her flu.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured as she pressed her hand against his forehead, wincing at how hot he felt. 

There was no excuse for her selfishness.  In the past whenever she got sick, her father had her sleep outside the camper so her germs couldn’t infect him, as was right and proper.  Other people shouldn't have to suffer because she was weak enough to get sick.  If Belle had been thinking straight, she would have taken herself to the backyard until she was no longer contagious.  It was cold outside, but Mr. Gold had plenty of blankets she could use.  She would have been fine.

Instead, she’d been selfish, thinking only of her own comfort, and now Mr. Gold was paying the price.  

Finding him on the couch had been terrifying— Mr. Gold never took naps.  Belle had known at once that he was sick and that it was her fault.  Worse, there was nothing she could do to make him better.  All she could do was hope that he would be well again soon and that he hadn’t been nearly as worried about her when she fainted in the kitchen as she was when she found him on the sofa.  If he’d worried about her, she had even more to feel guilty about.  

He moaned softly, and Belle petted his hair, wishing there was more she could do.  At least she knew how to take care of him thanks to his kind treatment of her.  She would go downstairs and bring up some orange juice for him to drink when he woke up and make him some soup.  Bae would be home soon, and she should clean and sterilize everything first so he didn’t get sick too.  There was no need for all three of them to get the flu.

When she tried to slip out from underneath him, Mr. Gold moaned in protest, clinging to her legs.  “Belle,” he mumbled, taking hold of her skirt and holding on tightly.

He was holding onto her like he loved her, and Belle’s heart ached with longing.  She knew it was just his fever that was making him cling to her for warmth, but it would be so sweet if he wanted her to stay just because he wanted her close.  

“It’s okay,” she crooned, adjusting the blankets so he was thoroughly cocooned, as warm as she could make him.  “I’m going to make you some soup and maybe some tea.  That will help you get warm.”

“No,” he grumbled, nestling closer and tightening his grip on her.  

“You don’t want soup?” Belle asked, not sure how else to interpret his denial.  She bit her lip.  It was a bad sign if he didn't feel well enough to eat anything.  He needed to keep up his strength.

Mr. Gold whimpered, squirming against her as he tried to get comfortable.  Draping his leg over hers allowed him to get closer, but it also meant he partially escaped from the blankets.  Exposure to the cool air in the bedroom made him shiver violently even though heat radiated off of him from the fever.  Belle held her breath as he wrapped his arms around her waist without moving his head from her lap, the position putting a strain on his neck that had to be uncomfortable.

With a whine, he thrashed again, this time ending up lying face down across her legs, his face pressed against a very intimate place.  

“Mr. Gold!” Belle squeaked, not sure where to put her hands.  She finally opted to rest them on his shoulders, giving him a gentle nudge in hope that he’d move again.  If he woke up with his face there, he’d be so embarrassed.  

She’d thought about having his face there before, and Belle’s cheeks burned with the memory of those forbidden fantasies.  It was wrong to think about Mr. Gold in such a way, and it was even more wrong of her to enjoy this.  The poor man was sick, mostly asleep, and dazed with fever.  He didn’t know what he was doing, and she was taking advantage of him.

When he didn’t move, she pushed his shoulders again, and Mr. Gold made a noise she’d never heard before— a harsh, hungry growl.  He wrapped his arms around her thighs, nuzzling even closer, and Belle’s body flooded with heat as much at the picture he made as at the pressure against her mound.  Everything tingled, her stomach curling in pleasurable terror as she felt her channel start to flutter, her body yearning for Mr. Gold to be closer yet.

She sucked in a shaky breath, suddenly terrified that she would climax.  If touching herself was wrong, taking her pleasure from Mr. Gold when he was sick was a thousand times worse, and the rush of guilt gave her the strength to shove him away.

Mr. Gold rolled off of her with a groan, bloodshot brown eyes looking up at her in confusion.  “Cold,” he complained through chattering teeth, apparently unaware of what had been happening over the last few minutes.

His shaggy hair was a mess, his eyes dazed from the fever, and he looked so miserable that Belle had to do something, even against her better judgment.  

“Come here,” she cooed as she joined him under the pile of blankets and held out her arms.

The happy noise he made brought tears to Belle's eyes as he snuggled against her, clinging to her like a child with a teddy bear, his hot face pressed against the crook of her neck as she rubbed his back.  He’d done this for her, and it would be cruel of her to deny him the same comfort just because she desired him.  Her own discomfort was immaterial.  Mr. Gold needed her right now, and she would give him everything she could.

Belle wanted to give him everything.

Chapter Text

Belle swallowed a sigh as she dragged her eyes back to the top of the page to start again.  She’d read this particular page twice already, but she still had no idea what it said.  Under normal circumstances, she would love the Moliere play’s witty wordplay, but tonight she couldn’t concentrate.

Although she normally spent her evenings in the living room with Mr. Gold and Bae, tonight she’d retired to her own room in a last-ditch attempt to actually focus on her schoolwork.  In the living room, she’d been hyperaware of every move Mr. Gold made as he quietly did the paperwork that had piled up as he recovered from his bout with the flu— the flu she’d given him, Belle reflected guiltily.  Time and time again, she'd found her eyes straying from her book to admire the way the light hit his hair or the endearing way his brow furrowed as he concentrated on his work.

Those thoughts led inexorably to others, and Belle closed her eyes in despair.  Even now, the memory of how Mr. Gold looked in only his underwear was emblazoned on her mind, and trying to banish the image only made it more vivid. 

When she came home from class to find him sick, her only desire had been to make him feel better.  She’d thought nothing of taking him upstairs and stripping him out of his suit so she could dress him in pajamas, having done the same thing for her father countless times when Moe French staggered back to the camper drunk.  She hadn’t anticipated the way Mr. Gold’s broad chest and flat brown nipples would make her hands shake with the need to caress him.

Belle sighed at the memory, and she put her book aside as she leaned back against the headboard, knowing that her attempt at reading was hopeless with these memories assailing her.  Mr. Gold was beautiful— if that was an appropriate word to use for a man.  His body was more solid than the cut of his suits revealed, and being snuggled against him in bed had been as delightful as it was disquieting.  She already knew how safe his hugs made her feel, but embracing him as they lay together beneath the covers was an entirely new level of intimacy, and to her shame, Belle craved more.

It was all too easy to imagine lying with him when he didn’t have his pajamas on, and the thought of his bare skin against hers made her breath come fast.  Belle whimpered as she ran her hand over her chest, her mind returning to the half-read romance novel that she’d locked away in her nightstand and tried to forget about.  When she read it, she’d imagined herself and Mr. Gold in the lead roles, but now she had even more information about him to fuel her fantasies.

She knew what it felt like to have his face between her legs.

At that memory, Belle pressed her hands flat against the bed and ground her teeth as she waited for her tremors to fade away.  It had been entirely innocent.  Mr. Gold had been asleep and dazed with fever, unaware of what he was doing.  It was wrong and shameful for her to derive pleasure from the memory.  Even so, she couldn’t help but wish that he’d repeat his action, this time when their clothes were off and he was in his right mind.

It was an impossible dream, and tears stung her eyes as she reminded herself of that.  Mr. Gold didn’t think of her that way, no matter what her classmates said.  It had been seven months since he saved her from her father, and in that time he’d done nothing to indicate that he desired her.  She was just another one of his responsibilities.

“Belle?”

She jumped at the sound of his voice, plastering a smile on her face as she looked up to see Mr. Gold standing in her bedroom doorway, his eyes dark with worry.  “Are you feeling all right?  You don’t normally come upstairs so early.”

She couldn’t tell him the truth.  If she admitted that she’d been so distracted by her desire for him that she couldn’t do her class reading, he’d be mortified.  No doubt he would feel violated that she had such shocking thoughts about him.

“Just a headache,” she told him, hating herself for the lie.  Lying was wrong.

His frown only deepened at her words.  “Do you feel like you’re getting sick again?” he asked.

Belle tensed as he walked into the room and approached her bed.  For an instant, she hoped that he was planning to join her, to curl up on the bed with her and hold her like he did when she was sick.  Maybe if she told him she was sick, he’d do just that.

She was a terrible person.

“Just a headache,” she repeated, holding very still as he pressed his hand against her forehead to see if she had a fever.

It was an innocent touch, even paternal, but Belle’s entire body went hot at the feel of his skin against hers.  Horrified by her wanton reaction, she flinched away, hoping that he hadn’t noticed the way her breath caught at his touch.

Mr. Gold immediately dropped his hand and stepped back, blinking rapidly.  

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to…"  He trailed off as Belle tried to catch her breath, unable to understand why he thought he needed to apologize.  

“Would you like me to get you an aspirin?” he offered, the words seeming to pain him.

“No, thank you,” she demurred, picking up her book again to give herself an excuse not to look at him.  If she looked at him, he might see the shameful lust in her eyes.

“If you need anything…” he prompted, sighing when she remained stubbornly silent.  She needed him, but she couldn’t tell him that.

“I’ll leave you to read.”

Belle didn’t breathe again until he left the room, her lungs burning with the effort.  This was awful, absolutely awful.  Mr. Gold was the most intelligent man she’d ever met.  He wouldn’t be fooled for long.  If she didn’t get control of herself, he’d guess her secret, and then she would have to listen to him tell her that he didn’t want her.  He would be gentle and kind, but hearing him say that he didn't return her feelings would destroy her.  Belle would rather go back to her father than endure that.

Somehow, she would conquer this.  She’d find a way to lock her feelings away somewhere that Mr. Gold would never see them.  She had to.

Her happiness depended on it.

Chapter Text

“So... when are you and Belle getting married?”

Bae's tactless question came accompanied by a cheeky grin, and Gold swallowed a growl.  His unrequited feelings for Belle hurt badly enough without his son poking at the bruise.  “We’ve discussed this, Bae."

The words came out more sharply than he'd intended, but the boy didn’t even blink.  “You slept together.  I saw you.”

Gold dropped his forehead into his palm, misjudging the distance just enough to slap himself in the face.  The only mercy was that Bae had chosen to broach this topic while the two of them were alone.  If he'd brought it up within earshot of other people, they would be certain to get exactly the wrong idea about what had been going on in this house.  “Belle was sick and needed comforting.”

“She slept in your room when you were sick.  She didn’t need comforting then,” Bae reminded him.

Try as he might, Gold couldn’t remember much about his own illness, and it pained him to know that he’d wasted precious hours in sleep while Belle had been holding him.  All he could remember was blissful warmth and comfort, and he cursed himself when his body stirred at the nebulous memory.

“She probably thought she was supposed to.  No one ever took care of her when she was sick.  She doesn’t know any different.”  It was the only answer that made sense, and the thought of Belle's father forcing her to sleep outside when she was ill angered Gold enough to give him the leverage to get his traitorous body under control.

“She wouldn’t have done it unless she wanted to,” Bae sing-songed, and Gold closed his eyes in despair.

His son might think that Belle was sanguine about their sleeping arrangements, but Gold knew differently.  Ever since he’d started recovering from his case of the flu, Belle had been quiet and skittish around him, and her absence from the living room tonight was further proof that she was uncomfortable in his presence.  Normally, she spent her evenings with him and Bae downstairs, but tonight, she’d disappeared into her bedroom almost immediately after dinner.  Although she claimed to have a headache, the way she’d flinched away from his touch confirmed Gold's worst fears.  

Belle was revolted by him.

When she was sick, she’d clung to him, needing his warmth and comfort, but sharing a bed with him when he was ill was another matter.  Having a feverish old man lying in her lap, no doubt drooling on her, would be enough to disgust any woman.  Generous soul that she was, Belle had offered him the comfort of her arms, but she’d no doubt spent the entire time counting the minutes until she could escape from his clutches.  

For him, holding Belle as she slept had been a dream come true, a glimpse of the life he longed for— a life where Belle was his wife and spent every night at his side.  For her, being forced to share a bed with him had probably been a living nightmare.

“If you don’t want to ask her to marry you, you could ask her to move into your room,” Bae suggested, making Gold wince at his son’s unwitting torture.

“Do your schoolwork,” he rasped.  If only life was as simple as his son thought it was.

“Or you could ask to move into hers,” Bae continued.

Do your schoolwork,” he growled, startling himself with the anger in his voice.  His boy looked up with wide eyes and swallowed hard.

“Sorry, Papa,” he mumbled.

“No, I’m sorry.”  Gold sighed.  He’d already alienated Belle.  Was he really going to ruin every relationship that he cared about?  

“I shouldn’t have—“  He wasn’t quite sure how to end that sentence.  There were so many things he shouldn’t have done.

“She likes you too, Papa,” Bae murmured as he turned his attention back to his books.  “I don’t know why you don’t believe me.”

More than anything, Gold wanted to believe his son, but it was impossible.  Bae wanted them to be a proper family, and so the boy saw what he wanted to see.  Unfortunately, Gold had learned the hard way that wishful thinking was no foundation for a life.  Belle didn’t want him, and the sooner he could accept that, the happier he would be.  In the meantime, he had to give her the space she needed.  If he pushed her or crowded her, she might decide that his house was too small for the both of them.

If he gave her space, she would stay.  Since Gold wanted to spend every moment of his life basking in her presence, that wouldn't be an easy task. 

It wouldn't be easy, but it would be worth it.  All that mattered was that Belle stayed.

Chapter Text

Although she’d seen the man in the leather jacket before— usually slumped in the classroom’s back row with a miserable expression on his face— she’d never spoken to him.  Therefore, Belle was somewhat taken aback when he came jogging up to her as she was putting her notebook in her bag after her psychology lecture and said desperately, “You’ve gotta help me.”

A quick glance behind her assured Belle that the man was, indeed, talking to her, and she swallowed hard as she tried to force herself to remain calm.  The man looked wild-eyed and he was standing too close for comfort, but that didn't mean that he was planning to hurt her. 

Enough people were still milling around the classroom to make her feel safe enough to respond.  “Excuse me?”

The man held up the midterm paper that the professor had returned to them at the beginning of class, displaying a giant red D.  “I don’t understand anything,” he said piteously.  

“O…kay?” Belle agreed, not sure what else to say.

“But you do.  You always know the answers,” the man said.

Belle thought about the term paper that she’d placed neatly in her notebook, the one with the large A on it.  She’d been doing well in psychology, but she wasn’t sure how that was relevant to this man’s problem.

“I’m gonna flunk out, and my girlfriend’s gonna kill me.  Will you tutor me?  Please?” he begged.

Belle's body relaxed as she realized what the stranger wanted from her.  He wasn't planning to hurt her or steal her wallet or drag her back to her father.  He just wanted her to help him with his classwork.  It would be just like her geology study group, except instead of working together to understand the material, she would be the one doing the teaching. 

The stranger looked so desperate that Belle couldn’t bring herself to say no, but she couldn’t say yes either.  What did she know about tutoring?  She’d probably do it all wrong and make things worse.  Then, it would be all her fault if he failed, and that would be awful.

“I can pay you!” he begged, his brown eyes pleading with her.

“I don’t want your money,” Belle said immediately.  Thanks to Mr. Gold, she wanted for nothing, and considering the state this man’s jeans were in, he probably didn’t have any cash to spare.

“Then I’ll buy you a coffee.  All the coffee.  And cake.  Whatever you want.  Just help me.”  He was breathing hard, his hands fluttering wildly, and Belle suddenly felt a wave of sympathy for him.  When she was at her most desperate, Mr. Gold helped her.  Now, she was getting a chance to pay it forward.  

Mr. Gold would help this man.  He would want her to help this stranger because it was the right thing to do.  

“I have a couple of hours before my next class.”

The man whooped at her words, striking the air with his fist in a way that made Belle jump before she realized he was just being enthusiastic.  “You’re a bloody angel is what you are.  I’m Will, by the way.”

“I’m Belle.”  

Will thrust out his elbow to offer her his arm in a dramatically chivalrous gesture, and Belle giggled as she took it.  

“To the Common Ground!” he announced, naming the campus coffee shop that Belle rarely visited.

“To the Common Ground,” she agreed, allowing herself to be towed along.  

She would never be able to repay Mr. Gold for everything he’d done, but she could try to live up to the example that he'd set for her.  Helping Will was a good first step.  She would figure out how to be the best tutor ever and teach him everything she knew about psychology.

She would make Mr. Gold proud.

Chapter Text

It never seemed to be the right time to tell Mr. Gold that she was tutoring Will.  Ever since he'd recovered from his flu, he’d been different— more distant somehow— and Belle’s stomach curdled at the thought that he’d guessed her feelings for him and was trying to signal his disinterest without hurting her feelings.  To tell him that she’d decided to tutor Will because his generosity had inspired her to try to live up to his example would be to say too much.  Belle would never be able to talk about how wonderful he was without giving herself away, and she would leave him with no doubt that she’d fallen in love with him. 

She couldn't do that.  If he only suspected that she loved him, it might not be so bad, but if he knew, he might want her to leave.

To distract herself from the new tension in the house, Belle took to spending more time on campus with Will.  He hadn’t been kidding when he told her he didn’t understand anything, and she found herself spending long hours in the coffee shop’s corner booth, eating chocolate cake and trying to teach Will everything she’d learned so far this semester.

“You must think I’m a moron,” he muttered as she made him identify the different areas of the brain for the third time that session to make sure he had them down.

In truth, Will was a quick study, but he never believed her when she told him that, so Belle just smiled and took another bite of cake.

“Who is this?”

Will’s flinch told Belle that the accusatory question was aimed at them, so she turned to look at the woman who’d voiced it, seeing a tall girl with blonde hair and an outraged expression.

“Oh, bloody hell…” Will mumbled, hanging his head for a moment before plastering a smile on his face and hopping to his feet.  

When he tried to hug the blonde girl, she jerked away, still glaring.  “Who is she?”

“Ana, this is Belle from my psychology class,” he said in a soothing voice, gesturing to her.  

Not sure what to do, Belle gave the blonde girl a wave that wasn’t returned, and her stomach sank.  This must be Will's girlfriend, Ana, and it was clear that Ana was less than pleased to meet her.  Her old instincts kicked in, a quick glance around the coffee shop showing her the most direct route to the door. 

“Belle from psychology,” Ana repeated, looking thunderous.  “What are you doing with my boyfriend, Belle-from-psychology?”

Will winced.  “She’s tutoring me.”

“Tutoring you?”  Ana snorted as Belle started to pack her belongings back into her bag as fast as she could.  “You have an A in psychology.  What are you really doing with her?”

“I’m failing psychology!” Will yelled, and Belle ducked lower in the booth as people turned to stare.  

Reaching down, he riffled through the pile of papers on the table before coming up with the midterm paper he’d gotten a D on.  Shoving the graded assignment at Ana, Will continued, “This is my best grade all year.  Belle’s tutoring me.”

Ana took the paper from him and flipped through it, her outraged expression fading to one of confusion.  “You said you were doing great.”

“I lied.”  He raised his hands and shrugged dramatically.  “Okay?  I lied.”

“Why would you lie to me—?”

“Because I didn’t want you to know I’m a moron!”  Will shouted, and Belle bit her lip to keep a very inappropriate laugh from escaping as, once again, all eyes turned to them.  “You’ve got a 4.0, and I can’t pass a gen-ed.”

“You are not a moron!” Ana insisted, her eyes flashing fire.  “You are the smartest man I’ve ever met.”

Belle blushed as Ana grabbed Will and yanked him into a fierce kiss.  They'd inadvertently trapped her in the booth, cutting off her escape route, so she stared down at the remains of her chocolate cake until the kiss ended.

Once they'd finished making up, the two of them slipped into the booth across from her.  “This is my girlfriend, Ana,” Will introduced.

This time Ana smiled at her, looking apologetic.  “Sorry.  I get a little jealous,” she confided.  

Giving Belle an anxious look, she said, “You’re not after him, are you?”

Will rolled his eyes skyward and shook his head.  “Ana, she thinks I’m an idiot.”  

He nodded at Belle.  “Go on, tell her you think I’m an idiot so we can get past this.”

“I don’t think you’re an idiot,” Belle told him patiently.  

She gave Ana a tentative smile, hoping to reassure her that she had no designs on Will.  “I prefer my men a little… older.”  

If only her older man preferred her.

Ana’s eyes lit up at the confession.  “That sounds like a story,” she said eagerly, leaning forward.

“Not to be narcissistic, but can we talk about me please?” Will pleaded, picking up the textbook they’d been using.  “I need these credits.”

“You can tell me later,” Ana decided, and Belle felt like she’d made a friend as the two of them set to work teaching Will everything there was to know about the human brain.

Chapter Text

“So, tell us all about your older men,” Ana said eagerly as she leaned across the table at Granny’s Diner.  Will had announced that if he spent one more hour sitting in the Common Ground, his head would explode, so Belle had suggested Granny’s instead, meaning that instead of drinking coffee and eating chocolate cake in the coffee shop, they were drinking coffee and eating chocolate cake in the diner. 

“Just one older man,” Belle corrected before giving Ana and Will an abridged version of her history with Mr. Gold.  “I used to work for my dad’s carnival, but it wasn’t… a good situation for me.  I met Mr. Gold when the carnival stopped here, and he took me in.  I’ve lived with him and his son ever since.  He’s been helping me put my life back together.  He even pays my tuition.”  

Prudently, she left out the part about Mr. Gold buying her from her father.  They wouldn't understand.

Will let out a low whistle.  “I wish someone would pay mine— Ow!”  He jumped and glanced at Ana who’d apparently kicked him.

Ana’s brow furrowed.  “Does he treat you well?  He doesn’t make you... do things, does he?”

The other girl’s concern warmed Belle's heart even as it made her laugh.  She’d assumed the same thing when Mr. Gold took her in, but his intentions had proved entirely honorable.  “Oh no, nothing like that.  He’s been a perfect gentleman.”

“And you like him?” Ana verified.

Liking him didn’t even begin to cover it.  “Very much.”

“So, why are you wasting time hanging out with us instead of getting it on with him?” Will asked tactlessly.  

He paused, then shot Ana a look.  “You’re not going to kick me again?”

Ana raised her eyebrows.  “It’s a valid question,” she allowed.  “Belle?”

“He’s not interested in me that way,” Belle explained.  Maybe if she kept reminding herself of that, someday she would be able to get over him.

Ana let out a tinkling laugh.  “You have to be mistaken.  You’re gorgeous.  Any man would want you.  Will, don’t you think Belle’s gorgeous?”

When Ana looked at Will, he hunched defensively over his coffee cup.  “This feels like a trap.”

“Oh, you.”  She smacked his arm before returning her attention to Belle.  “Do you catch him looking at you?  Does he stand too close?  Does he make excuses to spend time with you?”

Ever since their bout with the flu, Mr. Gold had kept his distance from her.  If anything, he made excuses not to spend time with her.  Belle shook her head.  “Nothing like that.”

“Does he get jealous when you talk to other men?  Did he ever accidentally- on-purpose walk in on you in the bathroom?”  Ana shook her head at Will’s incredulous look.  “What?”

“Lately, it seems like he doesn’t even want to be in the same room as me,” Belle admitted.

“Maybe he likes you so much that he doesn’t want to be with you,” Will suggested.

“Are you getting dating advice from Finding Nemo?” Ana demanded.  

“They ended up together,” he reminded her.

“Look, you have to be direct.  Men are stupid,” Ana informed her, ignoring Will’s squawk of protest.  “You walk right up to him and say, ‘Look here,—' What’s his first name?”

“I don’t know,” Belle admitted.  That was a piece of information Mr. Gold had never volunteered, preferring the formality of being addressed by his surname.  All his mail was addressed simply to A. Gold, and Belle had never quite worked up the nerve to ask Bae what his father’s given name was.  If Mr. Gold didn’t want to tell her, it would be wrong to go behind his back.

“You don’t know his first name?” Will asked in disbelief at the same moment Ana asked, “How long have you lived with him?”

“Seven months,” Belle answered.

“Oh, darling…” Ana’s face fell.  “That’s not a good sign.”

“I know,” Belle said miserably.

“Well, to hell with him!” Ana exclaimed, slapping her hands against the table.  “If he wants to be blind and stupid, it’s his loss.  You can do better.  There are lots of fish in the sea.”

“Like Marlin,” Will contributed, apparently still stuck on Finding Nemo.

“You’re not helping,” Ana informed him.  “Darling, you need to meet people.  Forget about Mr. Gold and find someone who’ll treat you like a queen.”

Mr. Gold treated her like a queen, but Belle had a feeling his chivalrous behavior wasn’t quite what Ana meant.  She blanched at the other girl’s next words.  “You need to date.”

“I wouldn’t know how to ask someone out,” she demurred.  

“That’s fine.  I’ll do it for you,” Ana decided.  “Come out with Will and me on Friday, and I’ll find you the perfect guy.”

“I… I don’t know…”  The thought of spending time with some stranger was as frightening as it was pointless.  No one could replace Mr. Gold in her heart.  

“Oh, do say yes!” Ana pleaded with a pout.  

“Ana, don’t push her,” Will muttered to his girlfriend, and Belle didn't think she was supposed to hear that.  

“I’ll think about it,” she said, desperate to change the subject.

“Think about it as long as you like, darling.  Just let me know soon so I can find your prince.”  Ana patted her hand.  “Oops!  Excuse me.  Too much coffee.”

Ana slipped out of the booth to head toward the restrooms at the back of the diner.  Will waited until his girlfriend was out of earshot to take Belle's hands in his.  “Ana’s great, but she’s pushy.  Don’t let her steamroll you.  If you don’t want to date, you don’t have to.”

His brown eyes were warm and concerned, and Belle considered her options.  If Ana could find her someone nice like Will, maybe dating wouldn’t be so bad.

She gave his hands a squeeze and promised, “I’ll think about it.”

Chapter Text

Gold cursed under his breath as he wrote down the wrong number on his inventory sheet for the third time and threw his pen onto the counter.  No matter how many times he tried to tell himself that he was just worn out from his bout with the flu, he couldn’t avoid the truth.  It wasn’t the flu that had him on the rails.  It was Belle.

Ever since the evening she flinched away from his touch, he’d been trying to give her space, but nothing he did was enough to dispel the tension building in the house.  Belle scuttled around like a frightened mouse, avoiding the house as much as she could and staying in her room when she couldn’t find a reason to be away.  Not since the first month she’d lived with them had she been so withdrawn, and Bae was looking to his papa for answers that Gold didn’t have.

His only theory was that he’d done or said something in his feverish delirium to offend her, and the possibilities made him cringe.  With Belle in his arms and in his bed, it was all too easy to imagine that he’d made some sort of clumsy advance.  A kiss or a lewd comment would be bad enough, but if he’d lost his mind and tried to force her, Gold would never forgive himself.  God, why couldn’t he remember?

With a growl of frustration, he gave up on inventory and headed toward the door, flipping the sign to Closed.  His nagging worries kept him awake at night, and when he did manage to sleep, his rest was plagued with dreams where he limped through endless hallways searching for something he could never find.  If he didn’t get a decent night’s sleep soon, he was going to be good for nothing, but in the meantime, coffee and a brownie from the diner would hopefully give him enough of a jolt to get him through the afternoon.

If he survived the workday, tonight he would talk to Belle.  

Gold's stomach churned at the thought, his innate cowardice recoiling from a direct confrontation, but they had to fix this.  He would apologize for whatever he'd done and assure Belle that he would made no demands upon her.  Surely, she would forgive him for whatever he’d done in his feverish daze once he promised never to do it again.  He would even install a lock on her bedroom door if it would ease her mind. 

As he approached the diner, Gold could clearly see the hardware store two doors down, and if he was smart, he would stop there before he returned to the shop.  A stout lock on her door would do more to ease Belle's mind than any promise he might make.

The sight of a crown of chestnut curls framed in the diner’s front window brought him up short, his desire for coffee immediately displaced by a far more primal hunger.  He shared a house with Belle, but he'd scarcely dared look at her over the past days for fear of making her uncomfortable, and he was starved for the sight of her.  Careful not to attract her attention, he approached the diner as his eyes drank their fill of her beauty.

Gold had planned to talk to Belle tonight, but he could recognize an opportune moment when he saw one.  Talking in public might set her mind at ease since he could hardly do anything untoward with the entire diner looking on.

He paused to take a deep breath, trying to steel himself for what was certain to be an uncomfortable conversation.  As he did so, Gold slowly became aware that Belle wasn’t alone.  Until this moment, he'd been blind to anything except her, but now he realized that an unfamiliar man with short, dark hair was sitting in the booth opposite her.  

As Gold tried to convince himself that the man was probably one of her school friends, the stranger caught Belle's hands in his own and leaned across the table, invading her personal space.  Belle, who shied away from strangers, made no effort to pull away.

As she smiled at the other man and leaned closer, Gold turned his back, unable to bear the sight of their lips meeting.  On unsteady legs, he limped away as quickly as he could, heedless of who he slammed into in his haste to flee the scene.  The mystery was solved, and it was worse than he'd feared.  Belle had a boyfriend.

Somehow he made it back to the shop, clenching his jaw until it ached to hold the tears at bay.  Not only did Belle have a boyfriend, Belle had a boyfriend that she hadn’t told him about, which meant that the relationship must be serious.  If it was a casual flirtation, she would have mentioned it in passing.  That she felt it necessary to keep it a secret meant that it was important to her.  Milah had flaunted her lovers in his face until she met Killian.    Her secrecy spoke louder than any words ever could.

Keeping the Closed sign on the door, Gold staggered into the back of the shop so he could collapse into his chair, staring blindly at the trinkets spread out across the table in front of him.  He knew— he always knew— that he didn’t have a chance with Belle, but seeing the proof with his own eyes tore strips off his soul.  This was why she’d been quiet and distant.  No doubt she’d been afraid to tell him about her boyfriend for fear of his disapproval.  

With an inarticulate cry, Gold lashed out, sweeping his arm over the table and sending the trinkets crashing to the floor, grimly pleased by the sound they made when they shattered.  It wasn’t fair.  Belle was his soulmate, the woman he’d been waiting for all his life.  She was supposed to be his.

But Belle didn’t want to be his, and he needed to respect that.  It was her happiness that mattered, not his.  He needed to do the right thing and give her his blessing.  If he convinced her that he was happy for her, maybe that would put her at ease.  If he couldn’t have her love, at least he could have her company again.

Hot tears were trickling stubbornly down his cheeks no matter how hard he tried to blink them away, and Gold leaned forward, resting his forehead against the cool table.  He was being ridiculous.  He hadn’t lost Belle; she’d never been his at all.  She never was, and she never would be.

She was testing her wings and learning to fly, and he had to encourage her.  It was the right thing to do.  Belle needed to fly, even if it meant she was flying away from him.  If he truly loved her, he had to let her go.  If he kept her trapped with him, he was no better than Moe French or Malcolm Gold.

That thought decided him.  Tonight he would talk to Belle and tell her how pleased he was that she’d found someone.  That should assuage her fears about his own intentions toward her.  Maybe she would even kiss his cheek in gratitude for his understanding.  It was little enough, but it was all he dared dream of now.

Later he would be brave and set her free, but for now, Gold let himself cry, mourning for the life that would never be his and the woman he’d lost who he’d never really had at all.

Chapter Text

Belle stared blindly out her bedroom window, ignoring the book in her hands as she thought back on Ana’s offer to find her a date.  At the diner, it had seemed almost doable.  If Ana was dating Will, she clearly had good taste in men, and if the other girl could find her someone nice, going out in a group might be fun.  Now, in the security of her own room, doubts assailed her.  Whoever Ana found for her would be a stranger, and Belle had no idea what she would say to a stranger. 

She was so busy with her classwork and with tutoring Will that she hardly had any time to spend with Mr. Gold and Bae.  Even though she tried to avoid being alone with Mr. Gold for fear that he’d pick up on her unwanted feelings for him, simply hearing his voice in the house made her feel warm and safe.  Even if he wasn’t saying anything, she could feel his presence through the walls, the house wrapping around her like an embrace just because he was in it too.

Right now, he was downstairs in the kitchen with Bae, putting a snack together for his son.  She could go down and join them.  They would welcome her, and if Bae was in a chatty mood, he’d be enough of a distraction that she wouldn’t have to worry about giving herself away.  Even if she didn’t go downstairs, she could simply sit here and listen to the hum of their voices in this wonderful place where no one yelled or hit.  If she went out on Friday like Ana wanted, she would be giving up an entire night of being home with Bae and Mr. Gold just to make conversation with a stranger, and Belle frowned at the idea.  No, it was better that she’d put Ana off.  Hopefully the other girl wouldn’t mention dating again.

Belle turned her attention back to her book, jumping when, several pages later, a knock sounded on her bedroom door.  Looking up, she saw Mr. Gold framed in the doorway, his hesitant smile not quite reaching his eyes.  

Hastily, Belle put her book down and sat up straighter.  “Mr. Gold?”

“I’m not angry,” he assured her at once, coming in when she nodded for him to do so and taking a seat next to her on the window seat, careful not to touch her.  “I have a confession to make.”

“Okay,” she agreed, not sure what to make of his words.  He said he wasn’t angry with her, and Mr. Gold didn’t lie, but he looked far from happy.

“I was walking down Main Street today, and I happened to walk past the diner,” he began, pausing like he expected her to immediately catch his meaning.

Try as she might, Belle couldn’t figure out what he was getting at.  Had she left something behind at the diner that he’d found?  Was he disappointed in her for not taking better care of the things he’d given her?  A quick glance around the room told her that she’d brought her bag home, and she knew she’d worn her coat.  She remembered hanging it in the closet when she got home.  

Whatever she'd done, she would accept her scolding with good grace.  Even if he was only spending time with her to reprove her, he was talking to her, and Belle treasured every moment she spent with him.  “Yes?”

Mr. Gold took a deep breath.  “And I happened to see you holding hands with your gentleman friend.”

Belle inhaled sharply as his meaning registered.  He’d seen her with Will while Ana was visiting the restroom, and he’d come to exactly the wrong conclusion about their relationship.  “Mr. Gold—"

He held up his hand.  “No, let me finish,” he said gently, putting his hand on her knee before immediately removing it.  “Belle, I am… so happy for you.  I think it’s wonderful that you’ve found someone you enjoy spending time with.  I know that this is probably new and scary for you, and I’m very proud of you for taking this step.  This is going to be very good for you.”

Belle’s throat burned as she swallowed hard, tasting acid.  Not only did Mr. Gold think Will was her boyfriend, he was happy that she was dating.  Of course he was, she realized with dismay.  If she had a boyfriend, he didn’t have to worry about her developing inappropriate feelings for him.  

It was wrong, but she couldn’t bring herself to tell him the truth.  Mr. Gold liked the idea that she had a boyfriend, and if she told him the truth, he would be disappointed.  She couldn’t bear to disappoint him.  “Thank you, Mr. Gold.”

“What’s his name?” he asked quietly, his brown eyes bright with sincere interest.

Telling the truth felt like a lie, but she said it anyway.  “Will.”

“Will.”  He nodded.  “That’s a good, strong name.  You like him, don’t you, Belle?”  His eyes pleaded with her to agree.

“Very much.”  That part was true, even if she didn’t like Will the way Mr. Gold wanted her to.

“Good.”  His voice cracked on the word, so he cleared his throat and tried again.  “I’m glad you found someone you like— someone who makes you happy.  You know, you’re welcome to bring him here if you want.  If you like him, I’m sure Bae and I will too.”

Belle nodded robotically.  There was no way she was ever going to let Will set foot in this house.  In fact, she planned to insist that they avoid any area Mr. Gold might frequent because there was no way she’d be able to keep up this charade if the two men actually met.  She was lying to Mr. Gold, by omission if nothing else, but if it made him happy, surely it was the right thing to do.

Nothing was more important to her than Mr. Gold's happiness.

“I’ll think about it,” she promised, and he nodded with satisfaction, looking like he was waiting for her to say something else.  Belle tried to smile, searching for the right words to say and finding nothing.  Finally, Mr. Gold gave her knee another pat and showed himself out of her bedroom, leaving her sitting limply on the window seat, tears scalding her eyes.

If Mr. Gold wanted her to date, she couldn’t let him down.

There was only one thing to do.  Feeling like she was walking off a cliff, Belle dug her phone out of her purse and called Ana.  Mr. Gold had done so much for her that she couldn’t refuse to do the only thing he’d ever asked of her.  “Hi, Ana.  It’s Belle.  I’d love to go out on Friday.”

Chapter Text

“Do I look all right?” Belle asked nervously, turning away from her mirror to look at Bae who was perched, unsmiling, on her window seat.  She had no idea what people wore on dates, and Ana hadn’t been tremendously helpful.  All the other girl had told her was to wear something that showed her legs, so Belle had selected a wine-colored wool skirt that was an inch shorter than most of her dresses.  She’d paired it with a cream silk blouse with a rounded collar, and now she was afraid that she looked like a kindergartener.  

Bae drummed his feet thoughtfully against the wall.  “You should wear something longer.  It’s cold out.”

If she wore something longer, she’d be disobeying Ana’s instruction.  “I’ll wear my long coat,” she compromised.

“Do you have your phone?  Is it fully charged?” Bae asked.  “If you don’t have fun, Papa and I will come pick you up.”

“I’m going to drive myself.”  Ana had offered to have her date fetch Belle at the house, but if he did that, she would have to explain why Will wasn’t picking her up.  Besides, if she drove herself, she had an escape route.

Bae nodded.  “That’s good.  You can’t drink if you’re driving.  Papa and I will be here all night if you need anything.  If he isn’t nice to you, you can leave right away.  You don’t have to be polite.”

If Mr. Gold wanted her to date, she needed to at least give this stranger a chance.  “I’m sure that won’t be necessary.”

“I’m going to teach Papa how to play Smash Brothers, and we’re going to make popcorn.  I think it’s going to be really fun,” Bae told her in a significant voice.

Belle sighed at the idea.  Bae had tried teaching her to play video games, and she’d laughed until she cried at her own ineptitude.  Watching Mr. Gold try to play would be a marvelous way to spend the evening, but it would be rude to back out of the date now.  Besides, he wanted her to go out.  “I hope you have a great time.”

Bae heaved a sigh and flopped backward.  “Yeah.  You too.”

After checking that she had everything she needed, Belle took one last look at herself in the mirror and gave up.  If she dawdled any longer, she’d be late, and that would be a terrible first impression.  

Bae trailed after her as she made her way down the stairs to find Mr. Gold waiting for her in the foyer, his brow thunderously knit.  At the sight of her, the lines of his face relaxed, but his eyes remained shadowed.  “All ready?  What time is Will supposed to pick you up?”

“I’m meeting him at eight,” she explained, noticing the way his jaw tensed at her words.

“Hardly chivalrous,” he muttered.  

“He offered to pick me up, but I wanted to drive.”  It wasn’t exactly a lie even if it wasn’t the whole truth.  

Without asking, Mr. Gold reached into the closet for her longest and heaviest coat, holding it for her to put on.  “Do you have your phone?  If you need me to come pick you up, all you have to do is call.”

“I will,” she promised, smiling as he echoed his son’s words.  

“Maybe we should come with you.  Just to make sure you know where you’re going,” Bae suggested.

“The Rabbit Hole is only a few blocks from the library, and you know I know where that is.”  The library was the first building in Storybrooke that she’d learned to find.

Bae shuffled his feet.  “We could come anyway.  I’ve been wanting to go to the Rabbit Hole.”

To her surprise, Mr. Gold said nothing about Bae’s interest in the bar.  “If you need me for any reason, please call.”

“And be home by ten,” Bae cautioned.

Mr. Gold cleared his throat.  “Belle is a grown woman.  She doesn’t have a curfew.”

“Eleven then.”

“Bae.”

As Belle turned to say her goodbyes, Bae threw himself into her arms, hugging her tightly around the waist.  “Bye, Belle,” he said in a voice that suggested she was going off to war.

She hugged back, pressing her face against his fluffy hair.  “Good night, Bae.  Good night, Mr. Gold.  I’ll see you later tonight.”

Mr. Gold nodded briskly as he walked her the few steps to the front door and opened it for her.  With a sinking heart, Belle stepped onto the porch, feeling like he was throwing her out.  Not trusting her voice, she smiled brightly and waved, then headed for the Fiat parked in the driveway.  As she opened the car door, she turned to look back, seeing Mr. Gold and Bae still standing on the porch.  At her glance, they both gave her identical encouraging smiles.

At this reminder that Mr. Gold wanted her to do this, Belle got behind the wheel and turned the key in the ignition.  She was being brave and going on a date.  She was going to make him proud.

Her throat was tight as she pulled onto the street, but she didn’t look back again.

Chapter Text

Belle felt like her legs were frozen as she headed for the entrance to the Rabbit Hole.  The parking lot was nearly full, making her envision an enormous crowd of people.  What if she couldn’t find Ana and Will?  What if she didn’t see anyone she knew?  What if they weren’t here yet and she had to wait, surrounded by strangers?

It was all she could do to force herself to open the door, and the wave of loud music that washed over her made her want to turn and run.  “Belle!”

She turned to see Ana.  “Good, you’re here,” the taller girl shouted in her ear as she all but pounced on her, helping her take her coat off.  “I love your outfit!”

Next to Ana’s tight red dress, Belle felt woefully underdressed, but it was too late to do anything about it now.  She followed in Ana’s wake as the other girl cut through the crowd to a table where Will was sitting opposite a strange man.

“This is Tommy Diehl.”  The stranger stood up with a smile and extended his hand politely.  He was almost as tall as Dove with long hair so blond that it looked nearly white and kind brown eyes.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Belle said loudly in an effort to make herself heard over the music.

“He has a twin brother, Timmy, if you’re into that,” Ana informed her in a voice intended for Belle’s ears alone.

At the other girl’s implication, Belle stumbled, but Tommy caught her elbow supportively and helped her to sit down.  

“So, what changed your mind about coming out with us?” Will asked, jumping as Ana elbowed him in the ribs.  “What?  I’m not allowed to talk to her?”

Tommy wants to talk to her,” Ana told him with a fixed smile.  “Let him get a word in edgewise.”

Belle stared down at the table as Tommy cleared his throat.  “Ana says you’re a literature major.  I like to read too.  What’s your favorite book?”

If he wanted to discuss books, this might not be so bad.  “I’m not sure I could pick just one favorite.”  

Her mind turned back to the book that had brought her and Mr. Gold together.  “Have you ever read The Night Circus?”

“I loved that!” Tommy said at once, and from that point, the conversation was easy.  Belle was aware that Ana was watching them and beaming, then the other girl grabbed Will and dragged him away, leaving her and Tommy to chat about literature.

“I’m sorry; I’m being really rude.  I haven’t even offered to buy you a drink,” he said as they finished comparing notes on the fantasy novel.  “What can I get you?”

“A ginger ale sounds great,” Belle requested.  

He didn’t even blink at her nonalcoholic request.  Instead, he nodded in acknowledgement and slipped out of his chair, heading straight for the bar.  

Tommy was… nice, Belle decided.  He was pleasant to talk to and easy on the eyes.  More importantly, he made her feel at ease.  So, why did her mind keep turning to Mr. Gold?  She was having a perfectly lovely evening, but all she could think about was how much happier she would be if she was sitting on the couch playing video games with Bae and Mr. Gold.

To distract herself, Belle turned to scan the room, finding Will and Ana on the dance floor.  She watched them with a smile, jumping when Tommy spoke in her ear.  “Would you like to dance?”

Belle took a quick swallow of her soda to cover her consternation.  She hadn’t even noticed his return.  “I don’t know how to dance.”

Tommy grinned at her.  “No one knows how to dance.  You just bounce and flail your arms, and no one will be watching how stupid you look because they’re all worried about how stupid they look.”

His explanation made her giggle, and Belle allowed herself to be pulled out of her seat and onto the dance floor.  At first she tried to watch what the other women were doing and imitate them, but eventually, she gave herself over to the music, letting her body do whatever it wanted while Tommy bounced and flailed with her.

She found herself laughing in spite of herself, and Tommy laughed along with her, apparently enjoying himself.  Dancing was fun.  Did Mr. Gold like to dance?  Could he dance with his cane?  Somehow, she couldn’t imagine him bouncing and flailing, but she could picture him watching with amused affection as she and Bae bounced and flailed in front of him.

At the thought of Mr. Gold, Belle tripped over her own feet, and Tommy reached out to steady her.  “Getting tired?”  

He led her back to the table where Will and Ana were taking a break.  “I knew you’d like each other,” Ana said with satisfaction.

“I’ve never danced before,” Belle admitted.

Ana made a noise of disbelief.  “Darling, you’re a natural!”  

When Will and Tommy got up to refresh their drinks, Ana leaned across the table.  “Did I pick you a good one?” she asked eagerly.

“He’s very nice.”  Belle had enjoyed their talk about books, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing.  Tommy was pleasant and easy to talk to, but he didn’t hold her attention.  Frowning at herself, she realized that there was nothing wrong with Tommy at all.  He just wasn’t Mr. Gold, and that wasn’t his fault.

“Damned with faint praise.”  Ana sat back with a sigh.  “I’ll do better next time.”

Tommy might not be her dream man, but the thought of throwing him back like a fish that didn’t pass muster didn’t sit right with Belle.  “No, don’t.  I like him.  I do.  Maybe we just need to get to know each other better.”  Even as she said the words, she wondered if she was trying to convince Ana or herself.

The other girl looked at her skeptically.  “If you say so, darling.”

Before Belle could say anything else, Will and Tommy returned to the table, and Belle set to work banishing Mr. Gold from her mind.  It wasn’t fair to think about him when she was with Tommy.  She had to give him a chance.  That’s what Mr. Gold wanted her to do.  Later she could go home and talk to Mr. Gold, but for now, she needed to pay attention to the man she was with. 

After another swallow of ginger ale, she gave him her best smile.  “So, what are you majoring in?”

Chapter Text

Baden Gold was not having a good week.

Ever since Papa started getting better after having the flu, everything had just been… wrong.  Belle was hardly ever home now, and when she was, she stayed in her bedroom all the time.  Papa was quiet and grumpy.  Emma never wanted to do anything except stake out the sheriff’s office.

And now Belle was going out on a date with some stranger.

“Smile,” Papa told him firmly as they watched Belle get in her car.  

“Why?”  He knew Papa was no happier about Belle’s date than he was.  Even Belle didn’t seem all that happy about her date.  None of this made any sense.  

“Because we are being supportive.”  

Bae plastered an obedient smile on his face as Belle turned to wave goodbye, but the moment she looked away, he dropped the act.  Glancing up, he saw that Papa wasn’t trying any more either.  In fact, he looked like he was about to cry.

“You shouldn’t have let her go,” Bae grumbled as they went back into the house.

“Belle is a grown woman, and she can do as she pleases.”  The words sounded somewhat strained.

“I don’t think she wanted to go out with him.  I think she wanted to stay here with us.”  Bae unplugged the Xbox with more force than necessary so he could plug in the Wii U.  

“Bae.”  When he looked over his shoulder, it was to see his father with his face buried in his hands.  “We have to let her go.  The tighter we try to hold on, the faster she’ll slip away.”

None of that made any sense to him, but Papa sounded so miserable that Bae didn’t ask questions.  “Here,” he said gently, handing over the controller.

Papa chose to play as Charizard and quickly proved to be so bad at the game that all Bae had to make Yoshi do was back up and wait for him to attack himself.  Winning had never been easier, but it wasn’t satisfying.

“Here, I have an idea.”  He skipped back through the menus to add a computer-controlled character to the brawl.  “Let’s pretend that Sonic is Belle’s date.”

His father grunted in reply, but the improvement in his game was noticeable almost immediately.  Bae watched as Papa hunched forward, intent on the screen as he went after Sonic with single-minded determination.  Yoshi just stayed out of the way.

Eventually the dinosaur got in on the act, and the two of them spent several hours happily double-teaming Belle’s date.  Bae kept his mouth shut as the clock chimed midnight.  He was never allowed to stay up this late, but Papa didn’t seem to have noticed the hour.  

Thirty minutes later, the front door opened.  “I’m home!” Belle called.

Papa dropped the controller, his good mood evaporating as Belle entered the living room.  “Did you have fun?” he rasped.

Belle bit her lip as she thought about it.  “I did.  We talked about books, and he taught me how to dance.”  She grinned at Bae.  “I like dancing.”

“I don’t know how to dance,” Bae admitted.

“No one knows how to dance.  You just bounce and flail your arms.”  Belle giggled and demonstrated, making him laugh too.  Bouncing and flailing did look like fun.

“It sounds like you had a wonderful time.”  Papa’s voice was nearly a snarl, cutting through the laughter.

Belle ducked her head and whispered, “I think I’ll go change.”

“Come back downstairs and play games with us,” Bae begged, relieved when she nodded.

The moment Belle disappeared upstairs, Papa stood up, leaning heavily on his cane.  “I believe I’ll go to bed.”

“Belle’s coming back downstairs.  We can play together.”  Belle had gone out on a date, but Bae wasn’t about to give up.  He knew she and Papa liked each other even if they didn’t seem to know, but they’d never figure it out if they were never in the same room.

“Have fun,” his father said vaguely, stopping on his way out of the room to unlock the liquor cabinet and withdraw a bottle of scotch.  Holding the half-full bottle up to the light, he looked at it, his lips set in a grim line, then he continued on his way, bottle in hand.  

Bae flopped back on the couch and sighed noisily.  

It was not a good week.

Chapter Text

Belle sighed in relief as she finished washing her face.  It was fun to get dressed up and dance, but there was nothing better than being in her pajamas and surrounded by her family.  Tommy was nice and easy to talk to, but she’d had to be strict with herself to keep her mind from wandering as he told her about his adventures in pre-law.  In that way, he couldn’t have been more different from Mr. Gold, who effortlessly captivated her even when he wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention to her.

But Mr. Gold wanted her to date, so she had to give him a chance.  She’d tried to be encouraging, but she had a feeling Tommy wasn’t fooled.  He’d walked her to her car at the end of the night and kissed her on the cheek like she was his sister before waving her off.  Of a second date, no mention had been made.

Ana would only take that as a challenge, but Belle tried to shelve her worry about who the other girl would find for her next.  Putting the date behind her, she ran downstairs, eager to spend some time with Bae and Mr. Gold, only to find Bae alone in the living room, pressing buttons on his controller in a desultory way.  

Belle glanced over her shoulder at the darkened kitchen, hoping that Mr. Gold had gone to get a drink or some snacks.  

“Papa went to bed.”

Embarrassed at being caught, Belle sat down on the couch beside Bae, tucking her feet underneath her.  “That’s okay.  We can still play.”  

She picked up the other controller and tried to swallow her guilt.  Mr. Gold had been having a lovely evening playing with his son until she came home.  Then she showed up and ruined everything.  

He’d been cross with her from the moment she set foot in the living room, refusing to even look at her.  No doubt, he was angry that she’d come home so early.  The bar didn’t close until two.  He’d probably counted on having the house to himself for a little longer.  Maybe he would have preferred that she spent the night with Tommy.  That was what people did when they were dating, wasn’t it?

Belle cursed herself.  She should have stayed out longer.  Or if not, the least she could have done was come home and go to bed so Mr. Gold could enjoy his own living room and his son’s company without her making cow eyes at him.  She could only imagine how much her blatant crush on him must embarrass him even though he was too kind to tell her to leave him alone.

“So, is he nice?”  Bae’s question made her jump, and Belle realized she’d been staring blindly at the character selection page.  Hastily, she clicked on Kirby.

“He’s wonderful,” she sighed before she realized Bae had been asking about her date, not about his father.  That was stupid.  He already knew how nice his father was.  “I mean, yes, he is.”

“Great.”  Bae didn’t sound that happy about it.

Bae stabbed a button, and the game began.  “Sonic is the bad guy,” he informed her.  “Help me get him.”

They set to work beating up on Sonic, and that seemed to improve Bae’s mood.  “Are you going to go out with him again?”

Belle wasn’t sure how to answer that.  Tommy hadn’t asked her out on a second date, but if she didn’t at least make an effort at dating, Mr. Gold would be disappointed in her.  “I don’t know.”

“I don’t think you should,” Bae said abruptly.  “We don’t know anything about him.  How do we know he’s not some psycho?  Maybe he’s a cannibal.  You shouldn’t risk it.”

“I don’t think he’s a cannibal.”  Bae had been reading too many comic books.

“He might be.  They’re good at hiding it.  You wouldn’t know until he was eating you.”  

Belle played along.  “I’d call you.  You could rescue me.”

“Yeah, but—“  Bae cut himself off, sitting up a little straighter.  “Yeah!”

He seemed excited at the thought of being her hero, and Belle ruffled his hair.  “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Bae grinned at her, showing all of his teeth.  “We’ll see.”

Chapter Text

On his way to self-imposed exile, Gold hesitated outside Belle’s closed bedroom door, not sure what he was listening for.  An overheard phone call to Will where she told him how much she already missed him?  Muffled sobs at being trapped here in this house when she wanted to be free?  Happy laughter as she relived her glorious date?

No matter what he was listening for, he heard nothing, and Gold swallowed a sigh as he limped to his own bedroom, closing and locking the door behind him.  He’d proven that he was no fit company for anyone right now, and all he wanted was to be left alone to stew in his own misery.

She’d looked so happy.

Belle had looked happy when she described how much fun she’d had on her date, and he, twisted, miserable bastard that he was, had responded by snarling at her, all of his noble intentions of being supportive vanishing.  As Belle’s friend, he should be delighted that she’d had a good time, but all he wanted was to smash his fist into her new boyfriend's face.  He wanted to be the one who made Belle happy.

Gold threw himself down onto his bed and unscrewed the cap from the bottle of scotch before lifting it to his lips and taking a long swing, the liquor burning its way down his throat.  It should have been him taking Belle out tonight.  It should have been him discussing books with her and teaching her to dance.

The thought of that made him snort derisively.  He was a fifty-two year old man with a ruined knee.  His cane had as much business on a dance floor as a polar bear had in the tropics.  If Belle wanted a dance partner, he was the last person in the world she would ever turn to.

Staring intently at the ceiling, Gold tried to block out everything but the burn of alcohol sliding down his throat and the pattern of brushstrokes in the white paint.  There was a narrow crack radiating out from where the wall met the ceiling above his bed.  He should probably fix that.  That, at least, was something productive he could accomplish, something useful he could do with his hands.

Belle was in love, and he wanted to die.

Gold closed his eyes and comforted himself by trying to rewrite the evening, imagining that things had gone differently tonight.  Belle had come home early with indignation clearly written all over her pretty face.  Her date had been a nightmare, the other man proving to be both dull and handsy, and all she’d wanted to do was come home to him and Bae.

She would have snuggled in between the two of them on the couch, playing video games with single-minded determination until Bae finally went to bed, leaving the adults alone to talk.  Once they had some privacy, Gold would wrap his arm around her, coaxing her to tell him everything and promising to raise the other man’s rent to astronomical proportions for upsetting her.

Belle would laugh and tell him not to do that, but he would insist, telling her that she deserved to be treated like a princess.  Her blue eyes would shift away as color rose in her cheeks, and he would capture her face in his hands, forcing her to look at him as he told her how he would treat her if she would allow him to take her out—a fancy dinner, a walk along the beach under the stars, roses and the choice of anything she liked from his shop to show her how grateful he was for her company.

Excitement would bloom on Belle’s face as Gold described the evening he wanted to give her, her breath coming faster.  Once he finished describing their perfect date, she would nod emphatically and say, “Yes!  Yes, that’s exactly what I want.  You’re exactly what I want.  I never realized it before.”  

He would cover her mouth with his own, promising her everything with a single kiss, and she would melt against him, her hands delving into his hair to stroke and tug at it.  Aroused to the point of madness by a kiss alone, he would slowly lower her to the couch, his hands exploring her soft curves as he—

Gold groaned and ground the back of his head into his pillow, realizing abruptly that he’d been stroking himself through his pants at the beautiful fantasy.  Just the thought of Belle reciprocating his feelings was enough to set him ablaze, and if she ever actually touched him, he’d probably spontaneously combust.

Of course, Belle would never want to touch him, so it was a moot point.

With a growl, he yanked his hand away from his cock and took another gulp of scotch, the bottle feeling dangerously light in his hand.  Lifting it to the light, he realized it was nearly empty, meaning that tomorrow was going to be brutal.  He hadn’t had a hangover in two decades.

Perhaps the pain in his head would distract him from the ache in his heart.  Gold could fantasize all he wanted, but facts were facts— Belle had a boyfriend, and that boyfriend wasn’t him.  He was just the grumpy old man she shared a roof with, the miserable monster who selfishly wished for her to be unhappy just so he could have the chance to comfort her.

He was a disgrace, unfit to even call himself her friend.  If he was truly her friend, her happiness would fuel his.  

Gold finished off the bottle and put it aside.  Tomorrow he would be her friend.  Tomorrow he would ask her more about her date and tell her again how happy he was for her.  Tomorrow he would do better.

Tonight, he would grieve.  

Chapter Text

“How much money do you have?”

Emma didn’t even blink at the question, just pulled out her wallet and started counting.  That was why she was Bae's best friend: she knew how to prioritize.

“Seventeen dollars.  How much do we need?  And what are we doing?”

In the Nolan family kitchen, Emma’s parents were too busy kissing to pay any attention to what was happening in the living room where Bae was supposedly playing video games with their daughter.  Even so, he kept his voice down.

“I have thirty dollars, so that makes forty-seven.  I think we’re going to need at least fifty, maybe more.”  

He could probably convince Papa to give him an advance on his allowance.  At least, on a normal day, he could do that.  Papa hadn’t been in a very good mood that morning though.  His eyes looked all red, and he’d grumped at Bae for talking too loudly when all he’d done was say good morning.  When Belle came downstairs for breakfast, his father had done his best to look normal, but after he told her how happy he was that she’d had such a good time on her date, Belle's eyes had gone all red and funny too.  

Bae hoped they weren’t getting sick again.  Although if Belle was sick, she wouldn’t be able to go out on dates, and she and Papa might sleep in the same bed again, which was what they were supposed to be doing.

Maybe he could go to the hospital and get someone to cough on him, then go home and infect Belle.

Of course, Belle had been sick before and slept in bed with Papa, and now she was dating someone else, so maybe that wasn’t the best plan.  His original idea was better.

Emma grabbed a handful of his hair and yanked.  “Pay attention!  What are we doing?”

Bae grinned at her.  “We’re going to hire someone to break into my house.”

After digesting that for a moment, she nodded.  “Okay.  Why?  And I think it will take more than fifty bucks to hire someone to break into your dad’s house.  Everyone’s scared of him.”

Bae would never understand why Storybrooke was so frightened of his father.  Papa was just Papa.  He wasn’t scary at all.  “We’re going to get someone to do it while Belle’s home alone, so she’ll be scared.  We’ll make sure he does it right before Papa comes home from work, so he can scare him off and save Belle.  After he rescues her, she’ll be really happy and fall in love with him.”

Emma rolled her eyes.  “I suggested that months ago, and you wouldn’t listen.”

“No, you suggested hiring someone to kidnap her.  This is totally different.”  Last night while he and Belle were playing video games, he’d considered Emma’s original plan, but he wasn’t sure where he’d find a cannibal in Storybrooke.  Besides, he didn’t want Belle to get hurt, just scared a little.  His idea was way better than Emma's plan.

The rude noise Emma made indicated that she didn’t agree.  “Whatever.  I think we’re going to need at least a hundred dollars.”

A hundred dollars was a lot of money, but they were almost halfway there.  They’d just have to cut back on their candy and comic book consumption for a little while.  According to Bae’s math, if they saved their allowance for the next few weeks, by Thanksgiving they would have enough to put his plan into action.  Then everyone would have something to be thankful for.

Well, everyone except Belle’s date, but Bae was willing to make that sacrifice.  

“Do you think it will work?” he asked anxiously.  Things at the house had been weird lately, and if everything didn’t go back to normal soon, he’d tear his hair out.  Belle and Papa were hardly ever in the same room anymore, but they spent all their time staring at each other through the walls like they had X-ray vision.  Of course if they really did have X-ray vision, they’d catch each other staring.  Maybe that would help.

“Of course it will work.  It was my idea!”

If it meant that Emma would help him, Bae would let her take full credit for the plan.  He knew the truth.

“All right, all right.  It was your idea.  Now, who should we hire?”

As the two of them started making a list of all of Storybrooke’s shady characters, Bae started to feel optimistic.  He had a plan now, and it was guaranteed to work.  All he had to do in the meantime was make sure that Belle didn’t go out on too many more dates.

Maybe he should stop by the hospital after all.

Chapter Text

Gold winced as he took another swig from his water bottle.  Four aspirin and three bottles of water had alleviated his hangover to the point where he no longer wished for death.  Now he just wished his head would fall off.  He supposed that was progress.

At least he’d managed to redeem himself with Belle this morning over the breakfast he’d only pretended to eat.  Telling her how pleased he was that she’d enjoyed her date had been all but impossible.  The words stuck in his throat, but he’d gotten them out, and seeing her eyes go bright with joy was reward enough for his sacrifice. 

Escaping to the shop had been a relief.  Saturdays were usually slow beyond the occasional window-shopper.  People who had deals to make and things to pawn always tried to come in at off hours so they wouldn’t be seen making a deal with the devil of Storybrooke.  Since everyone assumed that Saturday was busy, they avoided the shop, meaning that Gold had peace and quiet to nurse his raging headache and broken heart.

He left the lights off although the sign in the window indicated that the shop was open.  If people jumped to the wrong conclusion, that was fine with him.  He was in no mood to haggle over prices or walk a clueless boyfriend through the process of finding the perfect gift for a significant other he seemed to know nothing about.  It was amazing how many men lacked even a basic understanding of the woman with whom they’d chosen to spend their lives.

As though his cynical thoughts had conjured them, a pair of young lovers appeared outside the shop, pausing to look in the front window and admire the display of jewelry Gold had put out in anticipation of the upcoming holiday season.  The blonde woman all but pressed her nose to the glass while the dark-haired man stood back, looking slightly uncomfortable.

Wait.

He knew that man.

Headache forgotten, Gold moved through the dark shop to approach the window, knowing that the glare from the afternoon sun would hide him from the couple, allowing him to observe without being noticed.  Although he’d only seen Belle’s boyfriend for a handful of seconds, the other man’s image was burned into his memory.  He could never forget the face of the man who’d destroyed all of his hopes and dreams merely by existing.  It was definitely Will standing outside his shop with another woman.

Gold swallowed hard, forcing himself to remain calm.  The blonde woman might be a friend or a sister who was helping him select a gift for his new girlfriend.  The thought of selling Will something to give to Belle made him nauseous.  Gold would happily give her everything in the shop—hell, he’d give her everything he owned—if she would only look at him the way she looked at Will.

But Belle would never look at him like that.  Will was the one she wanted.  Will’s gifts would make her happy, while a gift from him would only make her uncomfortable.  Therefore, Gold would give his rival a fair price even though he wanted to bleed him dry in an act of petty vengeance.  The gift would make Belle happy, and by selling it to Will at least Gold would play a small part in that happiness.

The blonde woman tapped the glass and turned to Will with a smile.  In response, the other man rolled his eyes, then grabbed her around the waist, pressing her back against the window as he brought his mouth down on hers in a passionate kiss.

Apparently, she wasn’t his sister.

Last night, Will had taken Belle out and taught her to dance, leading her on and getting her hopes up.  Not twelve hours later, he was kissing another woman, and all of Gold’s good intentions crumbled.  Will had everything that Gold would sell his own soul for, and he was cheating on her like she meant nothing.  The unfaithful bastard was going to break her heart.  

He was out of the shop before he realized what he was planning to do, the kissing couple oblivious to his presence until he grabbed Will’s shoulder and yanked him away from the woman, using surprise and momentum to pin the taller man against the pawn shop’s window as the woman squealed something that he didn’t bother to listen to.

“You’re Will,” he growled, wanting to be very certain his hungover eyes weren’t playing tricks on him.

The man blinked rapidly as his face composed itself into a smooth mask.  “S’right.  I don’t think I know you though.”

Gold pressed the head of his cane against the underside of the man’s chin, forcing his head back.  The woman yanked at his arm, but he ignored her as he leaned into the cane to put more pressure on Will.  “This isn’t about me.  This is about you, you unfaithful bastard.  How dare you bring your slag here?”

“Slag?!”  Out of the corner of his eye, Gold could see the woman’s outraged expression.  A moment later her purse crashed into the back of his head.  

Gold didn’t even feel it.  Will was hurting Belle, and he needed to pay for toying with her emotions.  She’d suffered more than enough for one lifetime.  

Will caught hold of the cane and tried to push it away.  “Are you out of your bloody mind?”

The woman hit him again, then pulled her phone out of her purse.  “I’m calling the sheriff,” she announced.

Gold’s lips drew back in a snarl as he pressed harder, cutting off Will's breath.  “I’m gonna let you breathe in a second,” he promised, clinging to just enough sanity not to kill the other man.  Belle wouldn’t like it if he killed her boyfriend.  “And then you are going to follow my rules.  One— you get rid of your harlot.  Two— you tell Belle everything and start groveling.  Do you understand the rules?”

“Belle?  What about Belle?” the blonde woman demanded as she finished her call and went back to yanking on his arm.  

Gold eased off just enough to let Will draw a partial breath, but he didn't get the agreement he expected.  Instead, Will picked up on his harlot's line of questioning.  “How do you know Belle?”

Incense by the sound of her name on the cheating bastard's lips, Gold ground the head of his cane against Will's throat, clinging to his self-control with his fingernails.  He watched the other man's face turn red, then took a step backward and released the pressure, watching dispassionately as Will doubled over and gasped for breath, the woman tucking herself against his side to support him.

“That’s my business.”  If the woman knew about Belle, she must know that she was nothing more than Will’s bit on the side.  Gold had been willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, but if she was willing to condone Will’s cheating, she was just as guilty as he was.    

The woman glared up at him.  “You’re insane, and we’re pressing charges.”

Already he could hear the siren on the sheriff’s car.  “Tell Belle, or I will,” he warned.  He, of all people, knew how much it hurt to have an unfaithful lover.  Belle deserved better.

Belle deserved the world, but if it was Will she wanted, Gold would keep the other man in line.

The sheriff’s car screeched to a halt in front of the shop.  A moment later, Sheriff Graham stepped out to look at the three of them in confusion.  “Uh.  I got a call about a… disturbance?”

The blonde woman pointed at Gold.  “He’s crazy.  He attacked my boyfriend!”

Will was looking at him like he was trying to solve a mystery, and Gold gave him his most dangerous smile as he leaned closer.  Under the cover of the woman's rant to the sheriff, he voiced his final threat.  “Make Belle happy, or I swear to God, I will make you suffer.  Do you understand me?”

Will nodded.  “I hear you.”

It wasn’t an agreement, but it would do for now.  

When Sheriff Graham fingered his handcuffs, his face indicating that he wished he was anywhere else, Gold nodded regally.  “I don’t think those will be necessary.”  

Dismissing Will and his harlot from his mind, Gold locked the shop and seated himself in the passenger seat of the sheriff’s car.  With his connections, being arrested would be no more than a temporary inconvenience.  He’d won this round.  

No one would hurt Belle while he was around to stop it.  

No one.

Chapter Text

She must have misunderstood.

When Sheriff Graham called the house to tell her to come down to the station, Belle must have misheard him because there was no possible way that he’d really said that he’d arrested Mr. Gold for assault.  That was insane.  Therefore, she’d misunderstood.

He must have said that Mr. Gold had been assaulted, and worry made her tear out of the house without bothering to put on her coat, the Fiat’s tires squealing as she made the short drive from the house to the sheriff's station.  Bae was over at Emma’s house, and if Mr. Gold was hurt, he would probably want to see his son, but Belle couldn’t slow down even long enough to collect the boy.  She had to get to Mr. Gold.

She pulled into an open parking spot in front of the station, driving up onto the curb in the process.  When she tried to pull the keys out of the ignition, they stuck, and she yanked on them, tears of frustration pricking at her eyes until she remembered that she needed to put the car in park and turn the engine off first.  

Finally, she managed to escape the car, the effort requiring two attempts before she thought to take her seatbelt off, then she was up and running, nearly bowling over Will and Ana as she raced in the station’s door.

“Belle!”

Ana caught hold of her shoulders, stopping her in her tracks as Will gave her a wave.  “I thought we agreed not to call her,” he whispered to Ana in a voice Belle wasn’t sure she was meant to overhear.  

“I didn’t call her,” Ana shot back before returning her attention to Belle.  “Darling, what are you doing here?”

“I have to see Mr. Gold.”  If he was hurt, she’d… she’d…  Belle didn’t know what she’d do.

Instead of getting out of the way, Will and Ana exchanged a look, then hustled her away from the door and pushed her gently down onto one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs that lined the corridor before sitting down on either side of her.  Belle craned her neck, trying to see down the hallway to Sheriff Graham’s office, but the angle prevented her from catching even a glimpse of the room beyond.  

Will rubbed his neck as Ana wrapped her arm around Belle’s shoulders.  “Did you hear about what happened?”

“The sheriff called me.  Something about an assault?”  Belle refused to admit that she’d misheard him to the point where she’d briefly thought Mr. Gold had been arrested.  It would be the height of disloyalty to give voice to such a ridiculous idea.

Will winced.  “Yeah.  That was me.”

You assaulted Mr. Gold?!”  This was getting more bizarre by the moment.  Will and Mr. Gold didn’t even know each other.  What reason could Will possibly have for attacking him?

“Darling…”  Ana gave her shoulders a squeeze.  “Will didn’t assault Mr. Gold.  Gold assaulted him.”

“But… that… what?”  No matter how hard Belle strained to make sense of Ana’s words, they didn’t want to fit into her head.  

Will picked up where Ana left off.  “We were looking in his shop window—didn’t realize it was his shop at the time.  When he saw me kissing Ana, he yanked us apart, shoved his cane against my throat, and said some things.”

“Said some things?” Belle parroted, giving her arm a surreptitious pinch to verify that she was awake.  Unfortunately, she was.

Ana sniffed.  “He called me a slag.  Among other things.  And he claimed Will was being unfaithful.”

“Oh God.”  Belle doubled over and buried her face in her hands.  This was her fault.  This was all her fault.  Mr. Gold thought Will was her boyfriend because she hadn’t corrected him.  When he saw Will with Ana, he must have thought Will was cheating on her and gotten angry.  In her stupid desire to make him proud, she’d ruined everything.

“I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.  I’m sorry.  I’m sorry I’m sorry—“

“Belle!”  Ana hugged her so hard that she nearly yanked her out of her seat.  “Stop.  This isn’t your fault.”

“Yes, it is!”  

She sat up, knowing that she didn’t deserve Ana’s comfort.  “He saw me with Will at the diner.  He thought Will was my boyfriend and he was so happy that I had one that I didn’t want to disappoint him.  I let him think you were my boyfriend, so when he saw you and Ana, he thought—  I’m so sorry!”

Belle curled her spine against the back of the chair and drew her knees up, trying to make herself as small as possible.  She kept her eyes cast down, not wanting to see the anger in her friends’ faces.  Of course, they weren’t her friends anymore, not after what she’d done.

“Told you so!”  Will sounded triumphant.  “Come on, pay up.”

“Not now, Will,” Ana muttered.  

Belle flinched when the other girl pried one of her hands away from her leg to take it in her own.  “Darling, does Mr. Gold ever hurt you?  Does he yell or try to make you feel bad?”

No!”  Belle was so outraged by the mere suggestion that she was able to meet Ana’s eyes.  “Of course not!  He’s wonderful!  He would never hurt me.  Never.”

Behind her, Will whistled something tuneless, stopping when Ana shot him a glare over Belle’s shoulder.  “Have you ever seen him get violent?”

“He wouldn’t do that,” Belle said at once, wincing when she realized she’d just called Will and Ana liars.  “I mean…”

“Ana, knock it off.  He’s not abusing her.  He’s just really protective of her.”  Will put his hands on Belle’s shoulders and squeezed.  “Next time, just give me a heads-up that you’re using me to make another guy jealous.”

“Will!”  Horrified, Belle swiveled to face him.  “I didn’t— I would never—“

He chuckled and gave her hair a tug.  “Hey, it worked, didn’t it?”

“Mr. Gold was just trying to protect me.  He feels responsible for me, that’s all,” Belle explained.  He’d been so pleased that she was dating Will that there was no way he could possibly be jealous.

Will nodded.  “Sure.  That’s it.”

“Will.”  Ana’s tone carried a warning.  

Will pressed his lips together and lifted his hand to his mouth, miming turning a key.

“If you ever feel unsafe, you can come stay with me,” Ana promised, the other girl looking seriously into her eyes.  “You know that, don’t you?”

“After what I did?  How stupid I was?”  Belle couldn’t believe that they were forgiving her so easily.

Ana let out a tinkling laugh.  “Oh, darling, Will does six things that are more stupid than that every morning before breakfast.  We’re not angry with you.  Just… will you do me a favor?”

“Anything,” Belle promised, grateful that Ana was giving her the chance to prove how sorry she was.

“Talk to Gold.  Tell him the truth.”

Admitting that she’d lied to him would be painful, but Belle couldn’t let Mr. Gold keep believing that Will was a bad person.  She would accept his censure because she deserved it.  Hopefully, in time he would be able to forgive her if she tried very hard to redeem herself in his eyes.  “I promise.”

Ana nodded in satisfaction.  “Good.  We’ll see you Monday for lunch?”

They both hugged her goodbye before leaving Belle alone in the hallway.  Swallowing hard, she turned to face Sheriff Graham’s office.  This wasn’t going to be easy, but she’d promised.

She needed to talk to Mr. Gold.

Chapter Text

Graham Humbert was a sadist.

Despite pointed reminders about just who owned the apartment building he called home, the sheriff had refused to allow Gold to bail himself out, insisting that proper procedure called for him to be released only into another’s custody.

Then he’d called Belle.

At the moment, the sheriff was barricaded in his office with the door closed, probably to avoid Gold’s death glare.  Plotting vengeance on Graham was a more pleasant way to occupy his mind than fretting about the impending confrontation with Belle.

At least Belle’s boyfriend and his harlot had made themselves scarce after giving their statements.  If Gold had to watch the other man play up to Belle after treating her so abominably, the bars of this holding cell wouldn’t be enough to restrain him.

What was he going to tell her?

Groaning, Gold dropped his face into his hands.  If Belle found out her boyfriend was unfaithful, she’d be devastated.  He couldn’t bear to break her heart, but he couldn’t let her put her trust in a man who was so obviously unworthy of it either.  He had to do something, but for the life of him, he didn’t know what to do.

Before he’d made any kind of decision, a soft voice called his name.  “Mr. Gold?”

“Belle!”  He jerked his head up to see her standing just inside the station, her blue eyes huge in her pale face as she took in the sight of him sitting in the holding cell. 

“Hey,” he offered, wincing at the inane greeting.  At least Bae wasn’t with her.  Having his son see him in jail would be the only thing that could make this day worse.

Belle didn’t smile as she approached him, her heels clicking on the linoleum floor.  “I swear I can explain,” he told her, bracing his cane on the ground to help him stand.

“No.”  She waved him to stay seated, and Gold froze, lowering himself slowly back onto the narrow cot, his stomach sinking.  “I want to say something first.”

He chewed on his tongue, trying to brace himself for whatever she was going to tell him.  Belle’s eyes were shadowed, her face set in stern lines, and clearly Will had gotten to her first, spinning the story of their encounter to paint Gold in the worst possible light.  Belle would hate him for this, and if he tried to defend himself, she’d assume he was lying just to make himself look better.  She would never forgive him for assaulting her boyfriend even if he’d had nothing but her best interests at heart.

His headache blazed back to life, making his eyes water.  “I’m listening,” he rasped.

“Will isn’t my boyfriend.”

The world swam sickeningly around him for a moment before he managed to process her words.  Belle and Will were no longer a couple.  Either Will had come clean about his dalliance, leading Belle to dump him, or the cad had jilted her in favor of his harlot.  Either way, she was sure to be heartbroken.

Despite her admonition to stay seated, Gold heaved himself to his feet, limping closer to the bars to put himself within arm’s reach of Belle even though he didn’t dare reach for her.  She was hurting, but she might well blame him for that.  He was the one who’d brought all of this to a head.  “I am so sorry, Belle.  I know how much he meant to you.”

Belle flinched, shifting her weight from foot to foot.  “No, that’s not… Will was never my boyfriend.”

She lowered her head, her hair blocking his view of her expression, and none of this made any sense.  “I don’t understand.”

“Will’s my friend.  I’m tutoring him.  Ana is his girlfriend, not me.  I let you believe that we… that we were… I’m sorry.”  Gold stifled a whimper when Belle lifted her face, her eyes bloodshot.

It took him a moment to make sense of what she’d said.  If Will wasn’t Belle’s boyfriend, he’d assaulted an innocent man, but that didn’t matter at all because if Will wasn’t Belle’s boyfriend, Belle was free.

She was free, but she’d chosen to tell him that she had a boyfriend.  That wasn’t an accident.

Bile rose in his throat as understanding dawned.  Belle was so threatened by his obvious attraction to her that simply avoiding him was no longer enough to make her feel safe.  She’d been forced to invent an imaginary relationship just to keep him at arm’s length.  The poor woman had to be terrified of him.

He stumbled back, feeling like an iron weight was resting on his chest.  “I… I see.  I understand.”  

“I’m so sorry!”  She took a step forward, reaching out to clutch at the bars of his cell.  “I knew it was wrong, but you were so happy when you saw me with Will.  I didn’t want to disappoint you, so I just went along with it.  I never thought anything like this would happen, and it’s all my fault.  Can you ever forgive me?”

“Of course I forgive you.  You didn’t do anything— Wait, what?”  Gold cut himself off as her explanation registered.  “What do you mean you didn’t want to disappoint me?”  How could she think that learning she wasn’t dating Will would disappoint him?  He would have been over the moon with happiness to hear that he’d misunderstood.

“You wanted me to date.  You kept saying how happy you were that I had a boyfriend, that you were proud of me.  I just wanted to make you proud.”  Belle’s lips trembled.

“Belle…” He took a step forward, grasping the bar just above the place where she held it.  “Sweetheart…”

It didn’t sound like she’d manufactured a boyfriend to erect a barrier between them.  Instead, it sounded like she’d been trying to please him, and Gold couldn’t imagine how she’d gotten things so backward.  Why would she think he wanted her to date?

Because he’d told her just that, he realized, fighting the urge to pound his head against the cell’s bars in punishment for his own stupidity.  He’d been so determined to support her relationship with Will that he’d unwittingly pushed her away.  

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, tears trickling down her cheeks, and Gold risked covering her hand with his own, squeezing gently.  “I wanted you to be proud of me, so I lied.  I’m so sorry.”

“Sweetheart, no.”  Gold pressed himself against the bars of the cell, reaching through them to touch her cheek and brush her tears away.  “Please don’t cry.  It’s my fault.  I’m the one who jumped to conclusions.  I didn’t mean to pressure you.”

“I did have a real date last night,” she told him earnestly.  “Ana arranged it.  She’s very nice.  All four of us went out.”

Gold slammed a lid down on the instinctive flare of jealousy.  If Belle was trying to please him by dating, they needed to sort this out.  “Belle, be honest with me.  Do you want to date?”

She bit her lip, and it was all he could to do keep his fingers away from her mouth.  Instead he cradled her jaw, stroking his thumb over her cheekbone as he waited for her answer, his heart in his throat.  After an eternity, Belle shook her head.  

He let out a breathless laugh, resting his forehead against the bars.  “I don’t want you to date either, sweetheart.  I’d much rather have you at the house with me.  And Bae,” he added quickly, afraid he’d revealed too much.

Her blue eyes shone as she looked at him.  “Really?”

“Really.”  

They couldn’t hug properly through the bars, but Gold did the best he could, tugging her a step closer so he could wrap his arms around her, closing his eyes in relief as Belle hugged him back.  “I’m sorry I lied to you.”

“I forgive you.  I’m sorry I jumped to conclusions about you and Will.”  Gold winced when he realized he’d attacked two of Belle’s friends.  Talk about a rotten first impression.  “And I will apologize deeply and sincerely to your friends.  My actions were unconscionable.”

“They’re very nice.  I’m sure they’ll forgive you,” she assured him.  

Gold was less optimistic, but as long as he had Belle’s forgiveness, he wasn’t overly concerned.  As long as Belle and Bae were kindly disposed to him, the rest of the world could go hang.  

When Belle stepped back, he released her reluctantly, but the shy smile she gave him made the sacrifice worthwhile.  “Thank you for not being angry with me.”

Gold chuckled.  “I can’t imagine being angry with you.  Thank you for not bringing Bae and Emma to my arrest.”

“Emma might never forgive me.  Where is Sheriff Graham anyway?  Can we get him to let you out?”  Belle looked critically at the cell as though she was considering picking the lock to free him.

“He’s hiding in his office.  I may have been a bit of a grouch,” he admitted.  If getting arrested was all it took to ensure that Belle stopped dating, Gold owed the man a very large favor indeed.

“I’ll go get him,” she said at once, turning with a light step to approach the sheriff’s office.

Gold sighed and leaned against the bars to watch her go.  Belle was happily single, and the strange tension between them had dissipated.  It would no doubt cost a pretty penny to make his amends to Will and Ana, but that was a small price to pay to have Belle back where she belonged.

With him.

Chapter Text

When Bae stole a look through the kitchen door before letting himself into the house, his jaw dropped at the sight that met his eyes.  Belle and Papa were sitting together at the table, leaning into each other as they chatted.  Belle’s eyes were warm and happy as she looked at his father, and even though Bae couldn’t see Papa’s face, he was certain that his father looked equally besotted.

They’d made up.

Yes!”  He did a quick fist pump and made a mental note to call Emma and let her know that she didn’t need to keep saving her allowance.  They’d narrowed down their list of possible “robbers” to three names, but now it didn’t look like they would need any of them.  Belle and Papa were finally together.

Grinning, he opened the door and missed a step when Belle and Papa looked up at him, their smiles disappearing as their faces smoothed into serious masks.  “Bae.  Come sit down.”

Papa’s dark tone made it a command, not an invitation, and that meant he was in trouble.  

Bae’s mind raced as he tried to figure out what he’d done.  His grades were okay, and none of his teachers had yelled at him lately.  He’d almost run Mrs. Hubbard down with his bike, but that was weeks ago, and he’d stopped to say he was sorry.  If the librarian was going to rat him out, she would have done it before this.  

He was stumped.

Dragging his feet, he moved to sit at the table opposite Belle to his father’s left.  Papa took a deep breath.  “Something happened today, and I want you to hear the story from me before you hear it from someone else.”

Bae brightened.  He wasn’t in trouble after all.  

“What happened?  Did someone die?”  Papa looked so serious that he couldn’t think of anything else that might have happened.  

Belle hid a smile behind her hand.  “Nothing like that,” she assured him.

Another thought occurred to him, and Bae nearly bounced out of his seat.  “Are you pregnant?”  

If Belle was going to have a baby, she and Papa should look happy, but they’d been happy before he came in.  Maybe they were worried he wouldn’t like the idea.  A baby wouldn’t be much fun at first, but it would get more interesting as it grew up.  It might be nice to have a sibling.  Besides, if Belle was pregnant, she and Papa would have to get married.

“Bae!”  His father nearly shouted his name as Belle turned bright red.

“What?”  It was a reasonable guess.  There was no reason for the adults to look so put out.

Papa ran his hand over his face.  “Why don’t you stop guessing and listen?” he suggested in the measured voice he used when he was trying not to yell.

“Okay.  Jeez…” He flopped back in his chair and waited, watching out of the corner of his eye as Belle’s face slowly returned to its normal color.

“This afternoon, I got into an… altercation with one of Belle’s friends.  It was a misunderstanding.”  

Bae nodded.  Papa probably threatened to raise her friend’s rent.  He did that a lot.  

Papa cleared his throat.  “I’m afraid the confrontation became physical, and Sheriff Graham arrested me.  I’m deeply ashamed of my behavior and will be reaching out to Belle’s friends to make amends.  Knowing how gossip spreads through this town, I wanted you to hear the story from me.”  

Bae’s mouth fell open.  “You got arrested?!  You beat someone up?!”  Never in his life had he known his father to physically attack another person.  When Papa got angry, he used his words and his deals to make his point, not his fists.

Papa winced.  “As I said, I’m not proud of my actions.  I behaved abominably and can offer no excuse for my poor behavior.”

Through his shock, Bae noticed Belle put her hand over his father’s and give it a squeeze.  “It was a misunderstanding, that’s all.  Everyone makes mistakes.”

Bae raised his eyebrows as Papa put his other hand on top of their clasped ones.  “Thank you, Belle.  I’m just relieved that you forgive me.”

Her smile crinkled her nose.  “You forgave me.”

“There was nothing to forgive.”  Papa leaned closer to her, his face soft, and Bae had the uncomfortable feeling that the adults had forgotten he was there.

Belle’s cheeks flushed as she looked down at their hands, and that seemed to break the spell.  Papa sat back, pointedly avoiding Bae’s eyes when he waggled his eyebrows meaningfully at Belle.  

Undeterred, Bae pressed, “Are you two—?”

“Not now, Bae.”

His father’s voice was quelling, and Bae dropped his head back to glare at the ceiling.  They’d made up, but they still weren’t together.  This was taking forever.  On second thought, he and Emma needed to keep saving their allowance after all.  He was getting tired of waiting.

“Also, Belle and I had a talk, and she’s decided that she no longer wishes to date.”  Bae didn’t miss the satisfied tilt of his father’s lips as he said the words.

“Last night was fun, but I missed you two.”  Belle’s cheeks were still pink, but she was again able to meet his eyes.  “Can we have a do-over on video game night tonight?”

It wasn’t quite as good as Bae hoped, but at least now Belle would be staying home where she belonged.  She and Papa were talking again, and she wasn’t going to go out on any more dates.  It wasn’t a win, but it was at least seventy-two percent of a win.

“We can start a new save file in Super Mario Brothers,” he suggested.  Considering how badly both Papa and Belle played, that would keep them busy for at least a month.  Maybe everything would be settled by the time they stormed Bowser’s castle.

In the meantime, he’d keep saving his allowance.

Chapter Text

“No!  No no no-no-nononono!”

Gold bit his lip to muffle a laugh as the little mushroom person Belle was controlling skidded off the edge of the landscape to fall into an apparently bottomless pit despite her futile attempt at jumping to safety.

So distracted was he by her delectable pout as her mushroom person fell to his death that he didn’t notice the evil mushroom heading directly for his own character.  “Look out, Papa!”

Cursing, he managed to make Luigi jump, narrowly avoiding Belle’s fate and grabbing a coin with the same movement.  Belle whooped as the screen chimed, indicating that he’d just earned everyone an extra life.  “Thank you!”

“It’s World 1.  How can you already be out of lives?” Bae asked with a shake of his head.  “Here, Belle, stand on that brick.”

She did as commanded, flinching when Bae made Mario kick a shell in her direction.  Instead of killing her, the trick made a green mushroom appear, giving her another life to play with.  

Yes!” she exclaimed, grinning fiercely as she leaned forward to concentrate on the screen, her mushroom person barreling ahead into certain danger.  “Are the turtles trying to kill me?”

Everything is trying to kill you!” Bae informed her.  

Belle turned to look at Bae, sticking out her tongue at him.  Bae immediately pulled a face in return, crossing his eyes and puffing out his cheeks to ridiculous proportions until Belle broke into helpless laughter and promptly smacked into a flying turtle, dying again.

At her groan of despair, Bae patted her shoulder.  “You’ll get the hang of it.”

Neither of them were paying the slightest bit of attention to him, and that suited Gold fine.  He sat back in his chair, ignoring the screen in favor of watching the two people he loved best interact.  Bae and Belle were sitting side by side on the couch, their sides pressed together casually as they laughed and joked about their characters’ misadventures.  Nowhere in his memory could he find a matching image of Milah ever playing with Bae like this.  The lie Bae had told on his birthday carried the ring of truth— Belle was more his mother than Milah had ever been.

That thought led to others, and Gold caught his breath as he remembered Bae’s tactless question from the afternoon.  

Are you pregnant?  

Belle had turned bright red with embarrassment at the idea, but Gold could imagine nothing more wondrous than the prospect of a new little one that they would share.  Milah hadn’t been interested in any of infant Bae’s firsts, but Belle would be different.  Gold was certain of that.  Together they could marvel at the new baby’s first words and first steps, their love shaping a brand new person that would complete their family.

A little girl would be perfect— one with Belle’s beautiful eyes and his dark hair.  She’d be as gorgeous as her mother, and he would have to snarl extra loudly to keep ruffians away from both of his girls.  

“Papa, look out!”

Bae's warning came too late, Luigi careening off the edge of a pit as he tried to avoid a fire-breathing flytrap.  Gold shook his head at himself, trying to banish his fantasy.  He might long for a child with Belle, but that was certainly the last thing that she wanted.  Right now, she was caught up in her studies.  At her age, she had plenty of time to decide if she wanted children, but even if she did, she would hardly choose a crippled old man like him to father them.  She’d choose someone young and virile, handsome and strong.

Gold grumbled at the thought.  At least Belle had decided she no longer wished to date.  That was something.  For now, she was his— his and Bae’s.  That had to be enough. 


Are you pregnant?

Even now, Bae’s question rang in her ears.  Mr. Gold had been furious at the suggestion, and Belle couldn’t blame him.  He was already being incredibly generous by taking her in and supporting her.  To expect him to shoulder the cost and responsibility of a baby too would be unconscionable.  

So, why couldn’t she stop thinking about it?

Belle had never longed for children.  When she was trapped in her father’s carnival, all she’d longed for was a quiet place where she could hide and read in peace, a place where no one would yell or hit her.  The libraries she found were a temporary escape, but Mr. Gold’s house was paradise.  She had a room of her own, all the books she could want, and no one ever yelled unless it was to warn her that her Toad was about to die.  Again.

She groaned as she jumped off the edge of a cliff in her effort to avoid a Goomba, her distraction rendering her even more useless at the game than usual.  Out of lives for the moment, she leaned back to watch Mr. Gold and Bae play, Mr. Gold’s brow furrowed with concentration as he navigated the level’s obstacles.

Mr. Gold had given her everything she’d ever wanted, but to her shame, Belle found herself still unsatisfied.

She didn’t want her own room any more.  She wanted to sleep in Mr. Gold’s room and in his bed.  Sitting in the living room and playing video games with him and Bae was fun, but it would be so much better if they had a baby of their own dozing happily in its cradle or playing too when it was older.  

She didn’t want to be a guest in this house any longer.  She wanted to be a wife.  

When Bae introduced her to Milah as his mother, the words had sounded completely natural, and Belle wanted them to be true.  She wanted to be Mr. Gold’s wife, and a mother, not only to Bae, but to a child that would belong to both of them.  

She wanted everything, and Belle shook her head at her own selfishness.  Mr. Gold had made all of her carnival dreams come true— she had a home and her GED and a library card of her very own.  It wasn’t fair for her to keep thinking up new dreams.  He was already sending her to college.  To ask for more would be greedy.

When Mr. Gold grabbed the hundredth coin to earn an extra life and put her back in the game, Belle forced herself to push all of her new wants to the back of her mind and concentrate on the game.  She already had far more than she’d ever dreamed of having.  It was enough.

Chapter Text

Ana leaned forward eagerly as Belle slid into her regular seat at the Common Ground on Monday afternoon.  “So… how did it go?”

“I’m surprised Gold let you out of bed,” Will added, his brown eyes sparkling with mischief.

Belle blinked.  Clearly, she’d missed something.  “Excuse me?”

“Was it everything you hoped it would be?”  Ana clasped her hands together.  “Tell us everything.”

Will pulled a face.  “I’m not sure I want to hear everything.”

Ana shot him a quelling look before turning her attention back to Belle.  “What did Gold say when you told him?”

That question, at least, made sense.  “He wasn’t angry with me at all for lying,” she assured Ana, knowing that the other girl had been concerned for her.  “He blamed himself for jumping to conclusions.”

“That’s a bloody understatement,” Will muttered.

He held his hands up defensively when Ana glared at him.  “Shutting up.”

Ana nodded encouragingly.  “And?  Then what happened?”

Belle smiled at the memory of their conversation at the sheriff's station.  “We talked a little bit, and it turns out that he was just trying to be supportive.  He doesn’t actually want me to date.”  

She laughed a little at the misunderstanding.  Apparently, she hadn’t been as blindingly obvious about her feelings for him as she’d feared if he didn’t feel the need to shove her into another man’s arms.  Mr. Gold wanted her to stay home with him and Bae, and that was exactly what Belle wanted too.  Finally, they were on the same page.  

Ana raised her eyebrows expectantly, her face falling when Belle said no more.  “That’s it?”

“He said he’d get in touch with you both to apologize.  He feels horrible about what he did.”  Belle looked at the pair anxiously.  Surely, they wouldn’t hold a grudge against Mr. Gold for his mistake.  They were too kind to do that.

Will let out a low whistle.  “Yeah, I’ll say he felt bad.  He paid off my tuition.  Lunch is on me, by the way.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful!”  Money was an issue for Will, and now he’d be able to concentrate on his studies.  Mr. Gold was a generous man to go to such lengths to make up for his mistake.

Ana reached across the table to take her hands.  “Darling, what did he say when you told him you love him?”

Belle could feel her face turning red as Ana examined her expression.  

Will groaned.  “You didn’t tell him, did you?  Bloody hell.”

“Of course, I didn’t tell him!” she squeaked, glancing around the coffee shop to make sure no one had overheard Ana’s question.

“I thought we agreed you’d tell him everything,” Ana reminded her.

“I did!  I told him that I lied about Will being my boyfriend and going out on dates because I thought he wanted me to.  We agreed that I didn’t have to date any more.”  Will and Ana couldn’t have seriously intended for her to tell Mr. Gold that she loved him, could they?  That would ruin everything.  He’d have no choice but to push her away if she insisted on shoving her unwelcome feelings into his face.

Will rubbed his hands over his face.  “You’re killing me, Belle.”

“Darling…” Ana trailed off with a sigh, and for a moment, everyone sat in silence, gazing down at the table.  

Finally Ana seemed to regroup.  “I know you just said you’re done dating, but Will and I already promised someone a date with you.  Just one more, darling?  Please?”

Will’s brow furrowed.  “We did?”  

He jumped, letting out a surprised grunt.  “I mean, yeah.  We did.  Course we did.”

Belle winced.  Now that she knew Mr. Gold didn’t actually want her to date, all she wanted to do was spend her free time at home, but if Ana had already promised… “I don’t know.”

“It’s just one date.  It would be rude to cancel now.”  Ana’s reproving words shamed her.  She was being selfish.  If her friends had gone to the trouble of finding her a date, the least she could do was accept their help.  

Ana…”  Will’s voice carried a warning.

“Hush.”

“All right,” Belle agreed reluctantly.

Ana clapped her hands in delight.  “Wonderful!  I’m sure you’ll like this one.  And if not, I won’t say another word about it.”

Belle tried to smile.  One date had been enough for her, but Tommy was nice and she’d enjoyed talking to him.  Ana wouldn’t set her up with anyone who wasn’t nice, so this shouldn’t be so bad.  She could handle one more date.  “When and where?”

“Yeah, Ana.  When and where?” Will echoed, raising his eyebrows.

“I will text you with the details,” Ana promised crisply.  “Now, I don’t know about you two, but I’m starving.”

Belle had told Mr. Gold that she was done dating, but she hadn’t actually promised him that she wouldn’t date any more.  It wasn’t like she was lying.  Still, perhaps it would be better not to mention it.  On the night, she could just tell him that she was going out with Will and Ana, which was true.  

It wasn’t really a lie, but the thought still made her stomach churn.  Belle swallowed hard, hoping that Ana would arrange for her to meet whoever it was very soon.  The sooner she got this over with the better.  Once she had this last date out of the way, she would never have to waste her time on men who weren’t Mr. Gold again.  She could go to class and go home to him and Bae and play video games and just enjoy her family’s company.  

Pushing down her misgivings, Belle tried to smile.  It was just one date.  She could handle a date.  She could do this.  “I’m hungry too.  Let’s eat.”

Chapter Text

Gold hesitated outside the entrance to the hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant that Ana Tremaine had insisted was the best place to hold their upcoming negotiation and reached into his jacket pocket to ensure he’d remembered his checkbook.  He’d hoped that paying off Will’s tuition would earn him full forgiveness, but apparently Miss Tremaine drove a hard bargain.  He could respect that.

Whatever she wanted, he would give to her, Gold admitted to himself as he stepped inside.  Belle cared about her friends, which meant that it was in his own best interest to be on good terms with them.  To that end, he hadn’t mentioned this meeting to Belle.  It would only upset her to know that things between him and her friends were still unsettled.

Pulling out his phone, he verified the instructions Ana had texted him earlier.  “Meet us at Lemongrass Cafe on Thursday night at seven.  We’ll be in the rear booth on the left.”

A glance at his watch told him that it was precisely seven.  As a general rule, Gold preferred to arrive for his business dealings early to catch the other person off-guard or, when he knew the petitioner was truly desperate, to arrive late and make him sweat.  Neither approach was correct for Belle’s friends, so tonight he’d opted for punctuality.

As he stepped into the cafe, a glance at the back corner showed him that he was the first to arrive, which suited him admirably.  That would give him some time to collect his thoughts before Miss Tremaine arrived to present her list of demands.

However, as he made his halting way to the restaurant’s back corner, Gold realized that the booth wasn’t as empty as he’d assumed.  A lovely young woman was curled up in the corner, snug between the booth and the wall, her full attention riveted to the book in her hand.  

His stomach dropped.

“Belle?”

She looked up with startled eyes and snapped her book closed.  “Mr. Gold!” she squeaked, looking so surprised that he rethought his initial assumption that this was an ambush.  Will and Ana might be willing to set him up, but Belle would never do such a thing.

Before he could figure out what sort of game was being played, his phone vibrated, and he automatically pulled it out to check the message, conscious of Belle doing the same thing.  

“Have fun!  TELL HER THE TRUTH.”

Wincing, Gold shoved his phone back into his pocket and looked to Belle, his heart skipping a beat when he saw her flushed face, his mind immediately supplying a thousand different scenarios that would result in him putting that look on her face.

“I don’t think Will and Ana are coming,” she said with a hesitant smile.  “Did they tell you to meet them here?”

He couldn’t keep standing in the middle of the aisle.  Unsure if he was doing the right thing, Gold claimed the seat opposite Belle, his spirits lifting when she smiled at him.  Ana had commanded him to tell the truth, so he did just that.  “I was under the impression that we would be negotiating the terms of my apology.”

Belle’s brow furrowed.  “But you already apologized.  They told me everything was fine.”

Her face softened.  “It was very kind of you to pay Will’s tuition.  He’s been struggling.”

He’d pay her entire class’s tuition if she kept looking at him like that.  “So, if you aren’t here to negotiate on their behalf, what did they tell you about this evening?”

She gave him an embarrassed smile.  “Ana said she promised someone a date with me and that it would be rude to cancel.”

Since it appeared that he was meant to be her date tonight, Gold couldn’t bring himself to be upset that Belle had agreed to a date that she hadn’t told him about.  Ana, it seemed, had played both of them quite neatly.  “I didn’t know you liked Thai food.”

Belle picked up her menu and paged through it, looking adorably befuddled.  “I’ve never had Thai food before in my life.  Have you?”

Gold glanced at his own menu, skimming over it in hopes of seeing a familiar dish.  “I have not.”

Warm fingers landed on his wrist, nearly sending him through the ceiling.  The menu dropped out of his suddenly nerveless hand, and he barely managed to prevent himself from covering Belle’s fingers with his own.

“I’m so sorry about this.  I didn’t know what Ana was planning.  I’m sure this isn’t how you wanted to spend your evening.”

Clearly the other girl had meant to humiliate him, expecting Belle to be appalled by his appearance as her “date”.  He’d brought his checkbook, but he wouldn’t need it, since Ana apparently preferred to take her pound of flesh in emotional payback instead of financial.  It was only fair after he’d insulted her so crudely.  He could respect Belle’s friend.  She was a shrewd one, and he would watch her career with great interest.  

However, her revenge had backfired.  Belle was too kind to allow her disgust at the thought of dating him to show, which meant that for the next few hours, he had her all to himself.  The date might be nothing but a sham, but he would treasure these hours.  

Swallowing hard, Gold tried to play it casual.  “Well, I did have some paperwork to finish, but the menu has piqued my interest.  Shall we stay and have an adventure?”

Belle’s smile didn’t quite reach her eyes, but she nodded bravely.  She’d come a long way from the girl who’d once subsisted entirely on fried foods and cotton candy.  If she could eat crab legs, surely Thai food could hold no terrors.  “Okay.”

Despite her agreement, she didn’t look at the menu, her blue eyes focused on him.  Holding his breath, Gold stared back as she searched his face, her lips trembling.  “I…”

“Yes?”  There was a new tension between them, not as awkward as the distance she’d put between them after his illness.  The air seemed somehow charged with possibility and for the first time, Gold dared to wonder just what Ana had meant when she admonished him to tell Belle the truth.  Surely, she couldn’t have meant… couldn’t have intended

Belle licked her lips nervously, and it was all he could do not to lean across the table and taste her soft pink lips for himself.  He kissed her once, after she got her GED, and since that day he’d longed to taste her again and see if the hint of cinnamon on her lips was as intoxicating as he remembered.  

“I’ve never even read about Thailand!” she chirped as she sat back and picked up her menu, all but hiding behind it.  “Have you ever been there?”

With a sigh, Gold picked up his own menu, wondering if he’d imagined the delicious tension building between them.  Belle certainly seemed oblivious to it, and he shook his head at his own flight of fancy.  What had he expected?  For her to throw herself across the table at him and declare undying love?

“No, but if you’re interested, I might be able to arrange something.”  His voice sounded gravelly, and he cleared his throat, looking around for a server who could explain what Tom Kha Gai was.  With his luck, he’d wind up ordering something like monkey brains.  

Belle peeked around the edge of her menu, her eyes bright in her flushed face, and Gold decided that it didn’t matter.  She might not see it that way, but as far as he was concerned, they were on a date.  Monkey brains was a small price to pay for that miracle.

Chapter Text

“They’re still in there.”  

Will plucked the Starbucks cup from her hand and took a long drag of her latte, then pulled a face.  “It’s cold.”

“We’ve been sitting here for two hours,” Ana reminded him, tightening her grip on the steering wheel to keep from bouncing in place.  They’d been parked opposite the Lemongrass Cafe since quarter of seven to ensure they had a front row seat for tonight’s fireworks.  She’d been hoping to see Belle and Gold stumble out of the restaurant with their clothes disheveled and tongues entwined long before this.  Instead, all was quiet.

“There they are!”

Will leaned across her, resting the side of his face against hers as they pressed their noses to the driver’s side window to watch as Gold escorted Belle out of the restaurant, a decorous distance between them.

Ana frowned at the sight.  “That’s not right.”

“Belle’s shy,” Will reminded her.  “PDA isn't her kind of thing.”

As far as Ana was concerned, learning that the love of her life was just as head over heels for her as she was for him should have been incentive enough to indulge in a bit of PDA, but maybe Will was right.  She held her breath as Gold walked Belle to her car and held her door for her as she sat down inside before pushing it closed without so much as a kiss on the cheek.  “He didn’t kiss her.”

“Maybe he’s afraid that if he starts kissing her, he won’t be able to stop himself,” Will suggested.  “The guy’s got a bad leg.  He’s not going to want to do it in a car.”

As Gold limped away from Belle’s car toward his own, Ana pulled out her phone.  

“What are you doing?”

“I want to know what’s going on.”  She dialed Belle’s number, straining her eyes to try to see into the other girl's darkened car.

Belle’s greeting told her everything she needed to know.  “Oh, Ana, how could you?”

“Will’s here.  I’m putting you on speaker.”  She held the phone between the two of them.  “Did you enjoy your date?”

“I’ve never been so embarrassed!”  Belle squeaked.  

Next to her, Will groaned.  “You didn’t tell him.”

“I tried.  But he was so…  I couldn’t do it.”  Inside Belle’s car, Ana could see a flash of white like the other girl was waving her hands.

“And he didn’t tell you.”  Closing her eyes, Ana thumped the back of her head against the headrest.  

“Tell me what?”

If Gold wasn’t going to open his mouth to tell Belle the truth, she’d just have to do it for him.  “Darling, that man is madly in love with you.”

“Ana…”  

“He nearly ripped Will’s head off.  I know a jealous rage when I see one.”  At first, she’d been concerned about Gold’s apparent propensity for violence, but a talk with Will had alleviated her fears.  Men and women communicated so differently that it was astonishing the two genders ever managed to get on the same page long enough to procreate.  

Belle and Gold weren’t even on the same book.  

“He was just trying to protect me,” Belle denied.

“Yes.  Because he’s in love with you!”  Will shouted into the phone.  

“I’m hanging up now,” Belle said primly, and Ana bit her tongue.

In her most contrite voice, she said, “I’m sorry we embarrassed you, darling.  We were just trying to help.” 

When Will gave her a disbelieving look, she shrugged it off.  Pushing things would only upset Belle, and she didn’t want the other girl angry with her.  

“I know you were.”  Belle sighed.  “Thanks for trying.  I wish…”

“We’ll see you Monday for lunch.”  They said their goodbyes and cut the connection, Ana throwing her phone onto the dash in frustration.  

In silence, they watched Belle’s car pull out, followed a moment later by a black Cadillac.  Gold had been waiting for her, and Ana was certain that, if pressed, Belle would say he was just looking out for her.  “How can they not see it?”

“There are none so blind as those who will not see,” Will said sagely.  “Somebody said that.  Might have been Shakespeare.”

“Jonathan Swift,” she corrected without thinking about it.  “This is ridiculous.  Now what do we do?”

Will rubbed the back of his neck.  “Maybe we shouldn’t do anything.  Let them figure it out.”

Ana snorted.  “She’s lived with him for months, and she still doesn’t know his first name.  He’s going to die of old age before she gets around to mentioning that she loves him.”  

She drummed her fingers against the steering wheel.  “We have to do something.”

“No, we really don’t.  We have no business getting involved in someone else’s relationship.”  

What relationship?” she demanded.  “We’re not getting involved.  We’re just helping.”

“I think that’s the textbook definition of ‘getting involved’.”

Ana played her trump card.  “Don’t you want Belle to be happy?”

She could see the exact moment he wilted.  “Course, but—“

“Tomorrow’s Halloween, and I want them together by winter break.  That gives us six weeks.  Help me think of a plan.”  Getting them before Christmas was essential if she wanted Gold to get Belle a decent present.  That didn’t give them much time, considering how stubbornly oblivious they both were.

“We could drug them, steal their clothes, and lock them in a bedroom,” Will suggested.  “She’s not going to be able to say he’s not interested when he’s saluting her.”

The thought of Gold naked made Ana shudder, but Belle would probably enjoy the view.  Well, the world would be boring if everyone liked the same things.  

“Let’s make that Plan B.”

Chapter Text

Bae and Emma had trick or treating down to a science.  They started with the Gold neighborhood since that upscale section of town tended to give out the best candy even though the houses were widely spaced, meaning that it was impossible to meet their target of three doors per minute.  From there, they worked their way downtown through Emma’s neighborhood.  The doors were closer there, and a handful of Hershey’s miniatures was nothing to sneeze at.  It was only in the past two years that their parents had trusted them to go out without supervision, and it was astonishing how much more ground they could cover without an adult to slow them down.

Next to Bae, Emma skipped along, her long white dress hitched up past her knees.  Each year, she and her mother nearly came to blows over her Halloween costume, with Emma’s mom desperate to dress her daughter as a fairy or a princess or a fairy princess or something stupid like that while Emma negotiated for something with more weaponry.  After last year’s Pippi Longstocking debacle, this year they’d compromised, and she was currently dressed as Princess Leia, a plastic blaster clenched firmly in the hand that wasn’t carrying her massive candy bag. 

For his part, Bae had opted to go as Doc Brown this year, and it had taken Belle almost an hour to douse his hair with enough white hairspray to look authentic.  Dressed in white with a lab coat borrowed from Doctor Whale and goggles from Papa’s shop to complete the look, all he was missing was a DeLorean.  If they could time travel, they would be unstoppable in the candy acquisition department.

“Do you think Mr. Jefferson meant to give us twenty bucks?” Emma asked.  The eccentric man had looked completely befuddled when they rang his bell, fumbling in his wallet for cash instead of handing out candy.  Last year, he’d given out bags of strange looking gummy bears that Papa had confiscated before Bae had a chance to try them.

“I don’t know, but if we don’t ask him, he can’t tell us to give it back,” Bae said practically.  The unexpected windfall had put them that much closer to the hundred dollar mark that Emma felt was necessary to convince someone to break into the Gold house.

“Good point.”  They left the suburban neighborhood behind them, heading for the apartments downtown to fill the remainder of trick or treating time.  Usually the candy in this area was less than impressive, but the doors were so close that they could make up in quantity what they missed in quality.  Besides, sometimes they hit the jackpot.  Last year, one of the apartments had given out leftover Cadbury cream eggs, a rare treat outside the Easter season.

“Any action with your dad and Belle?”  Emma asked as they pounded on the first apartment door.

“Trick or Treat!” they yelled at the elderly lady who opened the door, their noses wrinkling as she tossed small boxes of raisins into their bags.

“Thank you,” Bae said politely, making a mental note of the address so they didn’t waste time on it next year.  

As they continued on, he thought Emma’s question over.  “I don’t know.  It’s weird.”

“What’s weird?  Trick or Treat!”  The next stop netted them Sixlets, a much more welcome sight.

As they went down the line of apartments, Bae tried to explain.  “Like, last night Belle said she was going out to dinner with her friends, and Papa said he had a meeting.  But they both came home at the same time with boxes of Thai food.”

“Do you think they’re sneaking around?  And what’s Thai food?  Trick or Treat!”

“Noodles with stuff in.”  Papa had offered him a bite to try, and Bae wasn’t sure if he’d liked it or not.  It was awfully spicy.  “Why would they sneak around?  They live together.”

“I don’t know.”  Emma shrugged.  “Adults are weird.”

“Well, they don’t kiss.  They don’t sleep in the same room, and they’re still not getting married.”  Bae groaned as he knocked on the next door.  Adults were ridiculous.

A man with short, dark hair clad in a white tunic with the Jack of hearts painted on it opened the door with a roar, brandishing a bloody ax at them.  “Off with your heads!”

Ahhh!”  Bae and Emma both jumped back with a yell of surprise, exchanging shame-faced looks when the man laughed at them.  

“You should have seen your faces!”

“You stole my line, Will!”  A tall, blonde lady wearing an elaborate white dress embroidered with red hearts and a sparkling crown on her head appeared next to the man.  “I’m sorry he scared you, darlings.”

“He didn’t scare us.  We were just playing along,” Emma informed her, holding out her bag expectantly.  “Trick or Treat!”

The blonde woman grinned.  “A girl after my own heart,” she said approvingly, grabbing a fistful of miniature Baby Ruths out of a bowl and tossing them into Emma’s bag before doing the same for Bae.  

When it came to candy, Baby Ruths were pretty high on Bae’s list of favorites.  Since the lady was dressed as a queen, he bowed at the waist.  “Thank you, your majesty.”

The dark-haired man groaned.  “Don’t encourage her.”

“Hold out your bags,” the blonde lady commanded, her eyes sparkling.  

When the dark-haired man shot her a look, she shrugged.  “We’re going to be late for the party if we don’t leave soon.”  Without another word, she dumped half the remainder of the bowl into his bag and the rest into Emma’s.

“Wow! Thanks!”  Emma exclaimed.

“Have fun tonight, darlings!” the woman cooed, turning her attention back to her companion as she started to close the door.  “So, what’s our plan?  We only have six weeks.”

“I wonder what they’re up to,” Emma mused as they moved on down the hall.

The handle of his bag was straining under the additional weight of candy.  “I don’t know, but I hope it works out for them.”  

As far as Bae was concerned, anyone who was willing to hand out what felt like an entire pound of Baby Ruths deserved all the luck in the world.

Chapter Text

Gold glared at the picked over candy selection available on the store’s shelves, cursing himself.  With concerns over Belle’s love life distracting him, he’d managed to completely forget about Halloween until Bae asked him to bring home the set of vintage aviator goggles that were on display in the shop so his son could use them as part of his costume.

Now, his choices were limited to either the waxy fruit flavored tootsie rolls that even Bae wouldn’t eat or the specialty chocolate bars that cost eight dollars each.  Feeding small children gourmet chocolate was like fixing filet mignon for a golden retriever, but it was the lesser of the two evils.  He had no idea what Belle’s plans were for the night, but if she planned to help pass out candy, it wouldn’t do for her to think he was a miser. 

He enlisted Bae to carry the three cases of gourmet chocolate into the house and upended the first one into the crystal punch bowl that they used for trick or treating each year.  It was serviceable if not exactly festive.  If he’d had his wits about him, he could have tossed up a few decorations to celebrate the season, but as it was, Belle’s first family Halloween was going to be less than impressive.

The woman in question didn’t seem particularly worried about it, chatting happily with Bae about his trick or treating plans as they shared an early dinner.  Bae and Emma liked to be in position for trick or treating at the very start of the festivities, maximizing their candy time.  After his son’s costume had been exclaimed over and pictures snapped, he sent the boy off with a reminder to be careful and not to eat any candy that hadn’t been professionally packaged.  After Jefferson’s stunt last year with the cannabis-infused gummy bears, it paid to be cautious.  

Once Bae left, Gold half expected Belle to disappear upstairs to get into her own costume.  Surely, she’d want to spend this evening with her friends, but as she helped him with the dishes, she showed no sign of having anywhere pressing to be.  “And what are your plans for the evening?”

Belle bit her lip, looking up at him through her eyelashes.  “Is it okay if I help you pass out candy?”

If she was going to look at him like that, Gold could deny her nothing.  “Of course it is.  I’m a little surprised you’re staying in though.  None of your friends are having a party?”

“Will and Ana invited me, but…” Belle shrugged.  “I’m not a big Halloween fan.”

Gold could have kicked himself.  Of course shy Belle wouldn’t care for a holiday dedicated to frightening others.  He tried not to feel triumphant that her antipathy meant that he’d have her all to himself for the evening.  “Well, I’m very happy to have your company.”

She blushed at his words, and he bit his tongue to keep himself quiet, hoping he hadn’t revealed too much.  It was a fine line between reassuring Belle that she had people who valued her and frightening her by revealing the depth of his feelings for her.  

To his surprise, Belle switched on the television as they made themselves comfortable in the living room to wait for their first trick or treaters, changing the channel to a classic movie station where a heavily made up Christopher Lee was menacing Peter Cushing.  “TCM is doing a monster movie marathon,” she explained.  “I thought it would add atmosphere.”

“Whatever you like,” he assured her, not sure how her desire for ‘atmosphere’ fit with her professed dislike of Halloween.  

Before Gold could figure out how to ask, the doorbell rang at precisely seven o’clock.  Clearly Bae and Emma weren’t the only junior Storybrooke citizens with a finally calibrated schedule.  With Belle at his side, he limped for the door, throwing it open to reveal a small horde of preteens dressed in costumes he didn’t recognize.  One was blue.  Another was green.  A third was wearing orange paired with raccoon ears, and the fourth had leaves in his hair.  

Fortunately, as long as they got chocolate, the children didn’t care if he didn’t know who they were supposed to be.  He and Belle tossed candy into bags with generalized noises about how good they looked and sent them on their way to the next house.

“This is fun,” Belle sighed as he closed the door.  “Do you usually get a lot of kids?”

“I anticipate going through all three cases of candy,” he assured her, and she looked so pleased that the financial hit he’d taken was instantly worthwhile.

Soon, they had treating down to a science.  Gold would open the door, absorbing the shock of anyone who was trying to scare unsuspecting homeowners so Belle wouldn’t be frightened, while she manned the heavy bowl, keeping it filled to the brim with chocolate no matter how much they gave out, and the time flew by.

“I hope Bae and Emma had fun.”  At nine o’clock, Gold closed the door for the final time, sorry to lose the camaraderie with Belle.  With her at his side helping him to pass out candy and exclaim over the children’s costumes, she’d felt more like his wife than his houseguest.

“I’m sure they did.”  Their original movie had long since given way to a werewolf film, and on screen, Lon Chaney Jr. was howling loudly enough to be distracting.  As Belle sorted through the remaining chocolate bars, he limped over to turn the volume down.  

A sharp rap at the front door brought him up short.  

“Someone’s running late,” Belle chuckled as she opened the door, revealing an empty porch.

“Belle…”  There was something wrong, a tension in the air that told him that something bad was going to happen.  Gold limped faster in an effort to reach her side, making it only halfway before a madman with a chainsaw leapt into the open doorway with a roar, revving his weapon.

Belle!”

The woman in question didn’t even flinch, laughing uproariously as the madman looked at her expectantly.  

“Oh my, you’re very scary,” she informed him indulgently as she held out a chocolate bar to a disappointed teenager.  

“Thank you,” he grumbled, his shoulders slumping as he turned away to go scare ten years off of someone else’s life.  

Bracing both hands on his cane, Gold wheezed for breath, trying to convince his heart to stop beating its way out of his chest.  His legs felt like they were made of jelly, but Belle hadn’t even blinked.  Perhaps he’d misunderstood why she didn’t like Halloween.

“That child is a menace,” he growled.  

Belle closed and locked the door, switching off the porch light as she turned away.  “I shouldn’t have laughed.  He was trying so hard to be scary.”

She grinned at him, her eyes twinkling.  “After the carnival, it takes more than a chainsaw to scare me.”

“You’re brave as a lion,” he assured her as he tottered over to the couch, relieved to be able to sit down.  

“What do we do with the leftover candy?”

Gold patted the sofa cushion next to him.  “Now, we treat ourselves.”

Giggling, Belle swept up the remaining candy bars and brought them with her as she joined him on the couch.  

“This was the best Halloween ever,” she announced as she leaned back and unwrapped a candy bar.

Daringly, Gold plucked a piece of candy from her lap for himself.  “I’m glad you enjoyed yourself.”

“It’s so much better when I don’t have to dress up.”

He paused with the chocolate halfway to his mouth.  “Oh?” he said carefully.

“Dad made everyone dress up the whole week of Halloween.  The guys got to be zombies, but the girls had to wear these little schoolgirl outfits.  It was so embarrassing, but he said it was good for business.”

Gold cleared his throat.  “I can imagine.”  

The image of Belle dressed as a sexy schoolgirl was all too clear in his mind’s eye, making him dizzy at the same time it made him hate himself.  Swallowing hard, he tried to concentrate on how Belle must have felt having to interact with the public while scantily clad, and his arousal faded, replaced by rage at Moe French.  

No wonder she hated Halloween.

She leaned against his shoulder.  “Tonight was fun though.  Monster movies and chocolate?  It’s a shame it only comes once a year!”

If it made Belle happy, he’d buy stock in Godiva and every Creature Feature dvd known to mankind.  Holding his breath, Gold wrapped his arm around her, relieved when Belle only snuggled closer.  

“Happy Halloween, Belle.”

Chapter Text

Belle idly swung her bag of library books as she walked down the familiar streets of Storybrooke, the cool autumn air making her skin prickle.  At the beginning of October, she’d been convinced that she would freeze to death if she spent more than five minutes outside, but now, a month later, the air invigorated her.  She was adapting, she thought proudly.  

Mr. Gold teased her that she must have worn a groove in the pavement between their house and the library by now, and he wasn’t far wrong.  Her feet knew the way even when she wasn’t paying attention to where she was going, too busy looking at the familiar sights and faces around her.  Never in Belle’s life had she stayed in one place long enough for it to become familiar before she settled in Storybrooke, and recognizing the people she saw made her feel warm despite the temperature.  She was home.

As she continued along her way, a dark-haired man fell into step beside her.  “Hey, baby.”

“Hello,” she greeted, struggling to place him.  His face was familiar in an unfamiliar sort of way— like she’d seen him around town without interacting with him before.  However, he certainly seemed familiar with her.  Perhaps he’d mistaken her for someone else?

The man nudged her with his elbow.  “I saw you at the Rabbit Hole the other night.  You looking for a good time?”

That was it, Belle thought with relief.  He’d been one of the bar’s other patrons during her attempt at dating.

“No, thank you,” she said politely.  Now that her misunderstanding with Mr. Gold had been cleared up, Belle had had quite enough of dating.

“Aw, come on.”  He nudged her again, hard enough to make her stumble.  “Pretty girl like you?  You deserve to have some fun.”

His words were complimentary, but Belle couldn’t shake a feeling of foreboding.

“No, no, I’m fine,” she assured him, picking up her pace.

The man lengthened his stride, effortlessly keeping up.  “You like to dance, don’t you?  I’ll dance with you, baby.”

Belle’s smile felt frozen on her face as she glanced around, wishing for someone to interrupt the conversation.  It was wrong to be rude, but the man’s tone made her skin crawl.  “I’m not in the mood to dance.”  

Never in her life had she been so happy to see a library.  Switching her bag of books from one hand to the other to put it between them as a shield, she said brightly, “It was nice talking to you.  Goodbye!”

Not waiting for a response, she scurried inside, darting into the closest group of shelves so she could catch her breath and will her heart to stop beating so quickly.  She was being ridiculous.  The man just wanted a date, but that wasn’t something Belle had any experience with.  Her father had ruled the carnival with an iron fist, keeping any possible suitors away from her, and Ana had arranged the date with Tommy.  She’d never had to worry about turning someone down before.

Overall, she hadn’t done too badly, she decided as she peeked around the shelf to verify that the man hadn’t followed her inside.  She’d turned him down without hurting his feelings, and that was good.  Patting herself mentally on the back, she returned her pile of books and went to select replacements, allowing herself to daydream about a future where the library was her workplace as well as her home away from home, dismissing all thoughts of dark-haired men who wanted to dance.

Once her new books were checked out, Belle stepped outside, nearly tripping over her own feet when she saw the dark-haired man lounging against the library’s exterior wall.  Lowering her head, she turned away and started to walk as quickly as possible, not wanting to attract his attention.

“What are you running off for, baby?”  

She swallowed a frustrated noise when he caught up with her, his hand coming to rest on her waist.  Instinctively, Belle jerked away.

“Don’t be like that,” he scolded as he grabbed her again, more firmly this time.  “Come on, baby.  Come dance with me.  Gold doesn’t have to know.”

His breath was hot against her cheek, and Belle cringed away.  She’d tried being polite and it hadn’t worked.  It was time for more drastic measures.  Archie said that it was okay to voice her needs even if other people didn’t like it.  “I want you to leave me alone.”

“No you don’t,” the man informed her, his hand straying from her waist to her hip.  “Pretty girl like you?  There’s no way Gold can keep up with you.  You need a real man.”

“No, I don’t,” Belle snapped as she pulled out of his grasp, angrier about the insult to Mr. Gold than she was about the unwanted touch.

“Look, I get it,” he told her, his eyes dancing with amusement.  “Gold’s your meal ticket and you don’t want to risk it.  It’s cool.  But Gold doesn’t have to know.  Come here, baby.”

When the man reached for her again, Belle gave up on being polite.  Instead, she turned on her heel and simply ran, her heavy bag of books smacking against her thigh with every jarring step.  Behind her, she could hear pounding feet, and her heart rose into her throat with fear at what the man might do to her if he caught her.  Moe French said that men were only after one thing, and now she had one hot on her heels.

It was a block and a half to the pawnshop, and when her hand closed around the door handle, Belle nearly wept with relief, slamming inside hard enough to send the bell Mr. Gold kept above the door crashing to the ground with a harsh jangle.

“What the—?”  Mr. Gold stepped out of the back room, his angry look disappearing when he saw her.  “Belle?  What’s wrong?”

“Someone’s chasing me,” she panted as he moved closer, and the change that came over his face was shocking.  His eyes went cold, his lips twisting into a snarl.  

“We’ll see about that,” he growled, ignoring her outstretched hand as he stepped around her.  “Wait here.”

Drained and frightened, Belle slumped back against the door as Mr. Gold pulled it closed behind him, hearing the sound of raised voices arguing just outside.  

What had she done?

Chapter Text

Gold was blind to everything save for the memory of Belle’s distressed face as he slammed out of the pawnshop.  Someone had frightened her.  Someone was threatening Belle, and that meant that someone was going to die.

The street was all but deserted, meaning that it took less than a second for his eyes to settle on the dark-haired man sauntering down the street with an overly casual stride.  

Nottingham!”

The tiny part of his mind that wasn’t ablaze with anger sighed in relief at realizing Keith Nottingham was Belle’s harasser.  When she informed him that someone was chasing her, he’d immediately feared that her father had sent a minion to retrieve his wayward daughter despite the signed contract that lived in Gold’s safe.  In comparison, a simple-minded lecher like Nottingham would be easy to deal with.  He owned the apartment building the man lived in after all.

Nottingham turned at his roar, his face arranged in a mask of innocence.  “Can I help you, Mr. Gold?”

He could raise his rent to astronomical proportions and put him out on the street.  Nottingham would hardly have time to harass anyone if he was living under a bridge.  However, as Gold advanced on the other man, the thought of taking vengeance in such a bloodless way was less than satisfying.  

He’d frightened Belle.  He had to pay.

“Stay away from Belle French,” he growled, his hand tightening convulsively around the handle of his cane, itching to smash it into the other man’s face.

Nottingham blinked in exaggerated confusion.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Who’s Belle?”

The other man’s show of ignorance made him see red.  He’d chased Belle, terrifying her, and he didn’t even have the decency to offer a halfhearted apology.  Gold lifted his cane, holding it with one hand grasping the handle and the other on the tip as he lunged forward, trapping the man against the ice cream shop’s window as he pressed the shaft against his throat and leaned on it with his full weight, not caring if he crushed the other man’s windpipe.  

“Stay away from her,” he snarled, craning his neck to shove his face directly into the taller man’s line of vision.  “You do not approach her.  You do not speak to her.  You do not think about her.”

Nottingham grunted, reaching up to grasp the cane’s shaft in an effort to take pressure off his throat.  Gold simply shoved harder.  Nottingham didn’t deserve to breathe.

Grinding his teeth, the other man pushed back on the cane, and Gold growled as he felt himself being forced back.  Nottingham had a head of height on him and outweighed him by seventy pounds.  Apparently, even the strength provided by rage-fueled adrenaline wasn’t enough to make up the difference.

Undaunted, he flung himself forward again, his arms jolting when Nottingham held the cane in place.  “You think attacking me is going to help, old man?” he taunted, giving the cane a jerk to throw off Gold’s balance.  

“Pretty girl like that, do you really think she wants you?  You can buy her company.  You can even buy her body, but she’s never going to want you.  What does she do when you’re not looking?  Ask her about the Rabbit Hole and all the men I saw her dancing with.  She’s already sick of you.  She might stick with you for the money, but she’s laughing behind your back.”

The words hurt more than fists ever could because they were true.  Belle might not be interested in Nottingham and the other man might have misconstrued what he’d seen at the Rabbit Hole, but Gold couldn’t argue with his main point— Belle didn’t want him.  Belle would never want him.  Feeling battered from words that hit harder than blows, Gold swallowed a whimper as he stepped back.  The other man grinned and gave the cane another jerk, trying to knock him off his feet.  “You’re pathetic.  Why would she want an ugly old man like you when she could have someone like me?”

Shut up!

At the shrill cry, both he and Nottingham jerked their heads around, seeing Belle only feet away, her face flushed and her eyes glittering with rage.  How long had she been listening?

“You’re horrible!” she shouted as she advanced on Nottingham.  “Don’t you talk to him like that!  You don’t know anything!  Mr. Gold’s wonderful!  He’s smart and funny and handsome, and any girl would be lucky to be with him!  I’d rather have five minutes with him than a lifetime with someone like you.  You’re the pathetic one.”

She grabbed the cane that was still trapped between their bodies, jerking it out of both their grasps.  Catching hold of the shaft, Belle swung overhand, slamming the handle into Nottingham’s shoulder.  “Go away and leave us alone!”

“Holy shit,” Nottingham mumbled as he started to back away.

Clearly, he wasn’t moving fast enough for Belle.  “I said go away!”  She lifted the cane for another blow, seemingly intent on bringing it down on Nottingham’s skull.

The other man turned and ran.

“That’s right!  Run!” she shouted after him, brandishing the cane like a club, her chest heaving.  She gave it one last threatening shake before lowering it when it became clear that Nottingham was gone for good, then tossed it from hand to hand as she hopped first on her left foot and then on her right, looking like she was tempted to chase after him so she could hit him again.

Gold’s tongue felt too large for his mouth, the shock of Belle’s impassioned defense leaving him dizzy.  “Belle?”

“Oh, I’m sorry!” she blurted as she turned to face him.  Immediately, she held his cane out to him so he could grasp the handle.  

Leaning on it made him feel more balanced mentally as well as physically as Belle’s words echoed in his ears.  Mr. Gold’s wonderful!  He’s smart and funny and handsome, and any girl would be lucky to be with him!  I’d rather have five minutes with him than a lifetime with someone like you.  She’d been defending him, that was all, but for a moment she’d sounded like she meant it.

“What a horrible man,” Belle said, scowling in Nottingham’s direction.  

“An unpleasant character,” he agreed, not sure what else to say.  Belle had been terrified when Nottingham chased her, but she’d proven more than capable of defending herself.  She’d never needed his assistance at all.  “You were very brave.”

Except she hadn’t defended herself.  She’d defended him.

“He shouldn’t say things like that.  He had no right to say those things about you.”  Her brows knotted together in anger at the memory.

A gust of wind cut through his suit jacket, leaving him shivering even though Belle didn’t seem to notice.  “We should go back inside.  You’re cold,” he informed her.

She jumped at the suggestion, her face clearing.  When she met his eyes, Gold couldn’t stop himself from searching her expression for any hint that she’d meant her words— that she would consider herself fortunate to be with him.

Belle’s face flamed, and she dropped her gaze to her shoes as she scurried inside the pawnshop, her bravery deserting her.  With a sigh, he followed behind her, his heart beating fast.  It wasn’t the first time she’d told a well-intentioned lie in order to protect someone else— Milah’s visit to Bae’s birthday party came to mind.  She hadn’t meant it.  She couldn’t possibly have meant it.

Could she?

Chapter Text

Keeping her face lowered, Belle hurried back inside the pawnshop, the heated air making her shiver violently after the chill of the November day.  It was funny; she hadn’t even noticed that she was cold until she wasn’t any more.

She still couldn't quite believe what she'd just done.

When the shouting voices outside grew quiet, she’d been terrified, craning her neck to try to see what was happening and seeing nothing.  Afraid of what she might find, she’d stepped out of the pawnshop just in time to overhear the awful things that horrible man was saying to Mr. Gold.  You’re pathetic.  Why would she want an ugly old man like you when she could have someone like me?

The other man had completely misunderstood her relationship with Mr. Gold, but that was less pressing than the stricken look on his face at the insults.  No one should be able to put that look on Mr. Gold’s face, and the need to protect him had burned away all of Belle’s fear.  Even now, she wasn’t quite sure what she’d said— although part of her mind was well aware that words like kind, handsome, and I’d be lucky to have him had come flying out of her mouth— but she could clearly remember the grim satisfaction of striking him with Mr. Gold’s cane.  Never in her life had Belle raised a hand to anyone, but she’d wanted to beat him until he screamed for mercy.

She was more like her father than she’d ever dreamed.

No, she wasn’t, she thought defiantly.  Her father hit her because he could.  She’d hit that man to protect Mr. Gold.  That was different.  Wasn’t it?

“Belle?”

She flinched back when Mr. Gold touched her shoulder, and his hand immediately fell away.  “Are you all right?”

After what happened outside, she should probably be asking him that question.  Lifting her head, Belle took in Mr. Gold’s pinched expression, his eyes searching her face for answers to a question she didn’t understand.  “Yes.  Yes, I’m fine.”

He nodded slowly, never taking his eyes off her face.  His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed hard.  

“Outside… Outside, you said…”  He trailed off, licking his lips nervously.

Belle winced as more of her rant surfaced in her mind.  I’d rather have five minutes with him than a lifetime with someone like you.  No doubt, he wanted her reassurance that she wasn’t getting ideas about him, but the words refused to be spoken.  When that man was saying those terrible things, Mr. Gold hadn’t looked angry.  Instead, he’d looked hurt, like he actually believed what the other man was saying.  

Mr. Gold didn’t want her love, but she couldn’t allow him to keep believing such awful things about himself.  Even if it made things between them awkward and he asked her to leave his home, it would be worth losing everything to let him know how much she valued him.  He deserved to know that someone loved him.  Belle’s own happiness was immaterial when his was at stake.  

She had to tell him.

Despite her best intentions, Belle couldn’t quite meet his eyes as she searched for the right words, opting to speak to his neatly knotted tie instead.  “I told him the truth.  I think you’re wonderful.  I know you don’t want me, but if you did… I’d consider myself very lucky.”

Belle closed her mouth with a click, feeling her face grow painfully hot as she replayed her words in her mind.  She’d said too much to turn back now, but it was so much less than what she felt for him, the words flat and bland in comparison to the intensity of her emotions.  Maybe that was for the best.  It was one thing to let him know that he was loved, but if she went on and on about it, she’d only make him uncomfortable.

“Belle?  What are you saying?”  His voice was hoarse, and she wondered if he was getting sick again.  “What do you mean I don’t want you?”

Warm fingertips brushed against her cheek, and Belle fought the urge to lean into the gentle touch.  Why had she been so frightened to tell him the truth?  This was Mr. Gold, who was always kind to her.  Of course, he’d be kind about this too.

“It’s okay that you don’t love me back,” she told him, the touch of his fingers on her face making her feel confident enough to meet his eyes for a moment.  His pupils were huge and dark, the whites of his eyes tinged with red as though he was trying not to cry, but that was ridiculous.  There was nothing to cry about.  

“I understand.  I’ll never ask you for anything, I promise.  I’m happy just being with you.”  If she assured him that she expected nothing, maybe he would let her stay.

“Belle… I… I…”  His eyelids fluttered, his mouth trembling as he took a step closer.  “Of course I love you.”

She smiled sadly at the words.  He did love her in his way, and if she wasn’t so greedy, she could be content with that platonic love.  Instead, she longed for something she could never have.  At least he was being gentle about it.  “Thank you.”  

“You don’t believe me.”  His fingers left her face, and she mourned the loss of his touch.  

An instant later, he grasped her shoulders, his cane clattering to the pawnshop’s floor.  “Belle, how could you not know?  I’ve loved you for months.  Sometimes, I think I’ve been in love with you since you got me into that broken teacup.”

“You… what?”  

His words were so unexpected that it took her a long moment to process them.  Mr. Gold wasn’t saying that he loved her like a daughter or a friend.  He was saying that he was in love with her, and as she looked up into his too-bright eyes, her mind instinctively tested the words for loopholes, a way that she could have misunderstood, because it wasn’t possible that Mr. Gold was in love with her.  How could he be?  She was just… Belle.

“I love you, Belle,” he told her, his voice so firm and serious that it would tolerate no misunderstanding.  “I’m in love with you, sweetheart.  I always have been.  Did you really not know?”

It couldn’t possibly be true, but Mr. Gold wouldn’t lie to her.  Belle struggled to process the dichotomy, then gave up.  Mr. Gold didn’t lie, and he was saying that he loved her.  It was impossible, but it had to be true.  

Dazed, she shook her head.  “I… I had no idea.  You love me?”

His mouth trembled, his grip on her shoulders tightening convulsively as he nodded.  “So much, sweetheart.”

His eyes were damp and bright with an emotion she recognized from seeing it on her own face in her mirror— hope, a desperate, fruitless hope that expected nothing but longed for everything.  He wasn’t just humoring her.  He wanted her love.  

Feeling as though she was in a dream, Belle gave shape to the words she hadn’t quite said.  “I love you too.”

Mr. Gold let out a choked noise, then she was suddenly in his arms, her face pressed against the side of his neck as he held her close, his hands moving over her back as though he was trying to reassure himself that she was really there.  Her lungs filled with the scent of him, the warmth of his body against hers melting away the last lingering traces of fear that this was all a horrible misunderstanding.  This was no trick, no dream.  Mr. Gold loved her.  He loved her and she was in his arms, the world spinning madly around her like it had come off its axis.

Belle never wanted to be anywhere else.

Chapter Text

Gold clung to Belle, burying his face in her hair and inhaling deeply, trying to fill his entire being with her scent.  If this was a dream, it was the most vivid, glorious dream of his life, and he never wanted to wake up.  Belle was in his arms, and she loved him.  It had to be a dream.

If it was a dream, he planned to enjoy it to its fullest extent.  Turning his head, he pressed a kiss to her temple and her happy sigh set his blood aflame.  Helplessly, he pulled her closer, trying to meld them together into one person, and a bolt of pain shot through his knee when he leaned on it wrong.  

He sucked in a breath as much from surprise as from pain.  If he could feel pain, he had to be awake.  Ergo, this was no dream.

Ergo, Belle loved him.

“Oh, Belle…” His voice was thick with tears, his eyes stinging.  Bae had been right all along, and Gold wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry.  Belle loved him, but they’d wasted so much time.  “I can’t believe you love me.”

He nearly wept when she stepped out of his arms, but fortunately for the sake of his sanity, she didn’t go far.  Their bodies remained lightly pressed together as she searched his face in disbelief.  “You had to at least suspect.  I was so obvious!”

Desperate for more contact, he twined a lock of her hair through his fingers.  “I had no idea.  I wish you’d told me.”

Gold cursed himself when her face fell, and things only got worse when Belle whispered, “I’m sorry.”

He yanked her back into his arms, trying not to get distracted by the unsteady puff of her warm breath against his throat.  “No, don’t be sorry.  Don’t.  I had no right to say that when I didn’t tell you either.”

“I should have,” she insisted.  “Everyone told me to.  I was just so scared that you’d be mad.”

“Mad?”  It was his turn to pull back to look at her.  “Sweetheart, why would I possibly be angry that you love me?”

“I thought it would make you feel awkward if you knew how I felt since you didn’t feel the same way,” Belle explained, her teeth worrying at her lower lip.  “I thought you might ask me to move out.”

“Never,” he vowed.  “I never want you to leave.  Right from the start, I wanted you to stay forever.”

A shy smile lit her face.  “Really?”

“Really.”  He dropped a kiss on the tip of her nose, barely restraining himself from capturing her lips and soothing the pain she had inflicted on herself with her teeth.

“I guess I’ve been kind of stupid,” she admitted, a lovely flush rising in her cheeks.

At that, Gold had to laugh.  “I’ve been trying to hide how I felt about you for months.  I thought that was why you’ve been distant— that you knew I loved you and it made you uncomfortable.  If you’re stupid, I’m far worse.”

Her eyes blazed at him.  “You’re not stupid.”

“Then neither are you.”  

The sound of a blaring car horn reminded him that they were still standing in the front of the shop, in full view of the street beyond.  While part of Gold wanted all of Storybrooke to see him embracing Belle, this moment was too private to share.  With difficulty, he released her long enough to flip the sign to Closed and lock the door before wrapping his arm around her to lead her into the back room.  His cane remained where it was.  With Belle’s love to support him, Gold felt as though he could walk on air.

“Ana and Will kept telling me to tell you,” Belle admitted as they sat down on the narrow cot that he kept in the back room, and it was all Gold could do not to think about what else they could do on that flat surface.  They needed to talk, and it was the height of presumption to assume that Belle was as eager for him as he was for her.  He needed to get a grip on himself.  

He’d rather get a grip on her.

Clamping a lid down on his libido, Gold struggled to focus.  “I suppose trying to tear Will’s head off in a jealous rage made my feelings for you clear.”

Belle giggled.  “I thought you were just trying to protect me.”

“And I thought Ana was trying to humiliate me when she set us up on that date,” he admitted.  Apparently, Belle’s friend had been trying to help things along, and if he’d taken her advice and been honest with Belle, they could have gotten to this point two days ago.  Perhaps he should pay off her tuition too.

“She’s going to be so happy when I tell her.”  Pearly teeth cut into Belle’s lip again as she twisted her fingers together.  “I mean… if you don’t mind me telling her.”

Gold covered her hands with his and squeezed, elated when Belle clasped her fingers around his.  

“Sweetheart, I want to tell everyone,” he informed her.  “We’ll take out an ad in the paper.  We’ll hire a skywriter.  I want everyone to know that you love me.”

Her delighted smile melted his heart.  “We should probably start by telling Bae though.”  

His son would be utterly insufferable when it turned out that he’d been right all along.

Belle’s face fell.  “Do you think he’ll be upset?” she asked, her voice shaking with anxiety.

Her worry was so far out of the realm of possibility that Gold had to laugh, wrapping his arms around her in reassurance that he wasn’t laughing at her.  “Darling, he’s going to be over the moon.  You had Will and Ana trying to get you to confess.  Bae’s been nagging me about it since his birthday.”

“Since his birthday?” Belle marveled.  

“Our boy is quite a matchmaker.”  The plural possessive slipped out so naturally that Gold didn’t even realize what he’d said until Belle smiled, her eyes soft.

“Our boy.”

It was far too soon to propose— they’d learned that their feelings for each other were requited less than fifteen minutes ago— but Belle’s reaction to the thought of Bae belonging to both of them gave Gold hope that he wouldn’t have to wait too long to make his dreams about having Belle as his wife a reality.

It also gave him the courage to attempt to make another dream come true.  “Belle, may I kiss you?”

Her eyes shone at him.  “I’d like that.”

He had to do this slowly, be gentle so he didn’t frighten her.  As carefully as he could, Gold framed her face in his hands, leaning in to rub his nose against hers so as to give her the chance to get used to having him so close.  Her breath against his lips made his skin tingle, and when she reached up to take hold of his shoulders, her thumbs brushing his neck, he nearly lost all control.

“I love you, Belle.”  Holding his breath, he covered her lips with his own, swallowing a groan at how warm and soft they were as she melted against him with a little sigh that was the only sound he wanted to hear for the rest of his life.  Her bottom lip slipped effortlessly between his, allowing him to taste the faint hint of spice that he remembered from the kiss they’d shared in the kitchen the day she got her GED.  For the first time, Gold wondered if she remembered that moment as clearly as he did, if she had— perhaps— longed to repeat it half as many times as he’d dreamed about it.

The thought made him groan, one hand leaving her face to slip around her back and press her closer to him as he slanted his mouth over hers, striving to taste her more deeply.  Belle gasped at his rough handling, and he immediately pulled back with an apology on his lips that died when he took in her glazed eyes and swollen lips, parted in a dazed smile.  

“I love you, Mr. Gold.”

The jolt of being called by his surname dispelled a bit of the tension as he snorted an unexpected laugh.  When Belle blinked at him, he tried to control himself.  

“Sweetheart, would you mind terribly calling me by my first name?  Or even just Gold.  Anything but Mr. Gold.”  The thought of hearing her call him by a pet name made his stomach clench, but that was too much to ask.  

Her fingers tightened on his shoulders in distress.  “But I don’t know your first name.  You never told me.”

“Of course I—“  Gold cut himself off, barely resisting the urge to smack himself in the face.  For months, he’d taken Belle’s refusal to call him by his name as evidence that she wanted to hold him at a distance, but she was right.  Nowhere in his memory could he find the moment he’d told her his first name.

He was an idiot.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart.  I guess… I guess I thought that if you wanted to call me by my name, you’d ask me what it was.”  When she didn’t ask, he’d assumed she wasn’t interested, and at some point he’d completely forgotten that she didn’t know.

Belle’s eyes danced.  “And I thought that if you wanted me to call you by your first name, you’d tell me what it was!”

Gold groaned and dropped his forehead against hers, a shiver running down his spine when he felt her fingers play with the ends of his hair.  “We’ve made a dreadful mess of things.”

“You could tell me now,” she suggested, her fingers becoming bold enough to slide into his hair to cradle the back of his neck.

“It’s not much of a name,” he warned.  His first name was awkward and old-fashioned, much like him, and it had certainly not been designed to be shouted in the throes of passion.  

Gold supposed he was getting ahead of himself with that thought.  “It’s Alastair.”

“Alastair.”  Belle’s voice was husky as she murmured his name.  

Gold’s gaze strayed to her plush lips, watching hungrily as they shaped the word.  “Alastair Gold.  I love you, Alastair.”

It was more than Gold could bear.  With a choked groan, he kissed the words from her lips, wanting to taste the shape of them on her mouth.  He’d never particularly cared for the collection of syllables that had been assigned to him at birth, but when Belle said them, she made them beautiful.

For the first time in his life, Alastair Gold loved his name.

Chapter Text

Bae dragged himself into the house with a groan, a glance at the clock assuring him that Papa wouldn’t be home from work for at least two more hours.  That gave him time to go up to his room and lie down for a while in hopes of digesting all the Halloween candy he and Emma had eaten that afternoon.  Papa had warned him not to eat all of his haul in one sitting, and he would hardly be sympathetic to Bae’s upset stomach since he hadn’t listened.

“Bae?  Come here.”  

Bae groaned again at the summons from the living room.  Great.  Papa just had to come home early today.

He peeked around the door frame, finding Papa and Belle sitting next to each other on the couch, looking expectantly in his direction.  Bae’s stomach rolled at the sight of the candy dish in front of them on the coffee table.  He never wanted to see chocolate again.  

“What’s up?”

“Come in here,” Papa beckoned.  

With a last, longing look at the stairs, Bae moved to flop down in the arm chair, trying not to look as sick as he felt.  The last thing he needed right now was an “I told you so.”

“Belle and I have something to tell you.”  

Hopefully, it was something quick.  

“What is it?” he grumbled, staring at the ceiling in an effort to soothe his upset stomach.  Ceilings were nice and boring and didn’t make him think about food.

Papa made a disapproving noise, and he could hear Belle shifting around.  “Manners.”

Bae was more worried about not throwing up on the coffee table than he was in acting interested in whatever the adults were up to this time.  “What’s going on?  Did you get arrested again?”

“No!”  Belle sounded like she couldn’t decide whether to laugh or to cry, and that got his attention.  “Your father and I… Alastair and I…”

Never in all the months she’d lived with them had Belle called Papa by his first name.  Nobody called Papa by his first name.  Bae sat up straight and really looked at them for the first time, noticing that Papa was holding Belle’s hand.  

His stomachache suddenly didn’t seem quite so serious.  

“You… what?”  They were holding hands, and Belle was using his father’s first name which indicated that something serious had happened, but Bae had gotten his hopes up before only to have them dashed.  They couldn’t have gotten together.  It was too easy.  Nobody had even gotten kidnapped.

Papa beamed at him, looking happier than Bae had ever seen him.  “You were right all along.  Belle loves me.  And I love her.”

Belle gave Papa an adoring look at he lifted her hand to his lips, the adults gazing into each other’s eyes with such intensity that Bae wondered if they even remembered he was there.  Mentally, he replayed the last few seconds, wondering if he’d heard them right.  “But no one even broke in yet.”

That earned him a sharp look from Papa.  “What?”

Stomachache forgotten, Bae bounded out of his seat.  “I told you so!”

Papa chuckled.  “Yes, you did, and I should have listened.”

“Do you mind?” Belle asked anxiously, her teeth cutting into her bottom lip.

Unable to find words to express just how much he didn’t mind, Bae simply flung himself at them, finding himself caught by two sets of arms as Belle and Papa hugged him back.  

“I’ve been waiting forever!” he complained, squirming until he was in between them.  “I thought you were never going to say anything!”

Papa ruffled his hair, then reached out to take Belle’s hand like he couldn’t bear to be separated from her.  “I should have taken your advice.”

They were together.  They were finally together, and he hadn’t even needed to hire a burglar.  They did it all on their own.  Bae smiled with pride, then looked up to find them staring lovingly at each other over his head.  “So, when are you getting married?”

“Bae…” Papa reproved as Belle’s cheeks turned pink.  Despite her blush, she didn’t look away from Papa, her eyes shining.

Papa gazed back at her, a look of wonder on his face.  As Bae watched, he raised his eyebrows in a silent question that Belle answered with a tiny nod.  

It wasn’t until they leaned closer together, squishing him, that Bae realized they’d forgotten he was there again.

At his grunt of protest, Papa and Belle leaned back, taking the pressure off his overly full belly.  “Soon,” Papa murmured.  “Very, very soon.”

“Cool.”  Bae snuggled back into them.  If Papa had listened to him months ago, they could be married already, and he wouldn’t have had to get arrested, but adults never listened to kids.  Emma was going to be disappointed that they didn’t get to put their plan into action.

Bae made a private note to throw away the paper with their plan on it.  Papa wouldn’t be amused if he found it, and they didn’t need it any more anyway.  Everything was settled.  Belle was his mom now, or she would be soon enough.

He had a mom.  Bae turned that thought over a few times in his head.  He’d never had a mom, not really.  Milah didn’t count.  Now, he had Belle to talk to and play with and be a family with.  She’d been sort-of family for months, but now she was real family, and the thought made his stomach feel squiggly in a nice way.  Belle was his mom.

Belle yelped when he wrapped his arms around her waist, hugging her hard.  It seemed to be the only way to express his feelings.  Bae rested his head on her shoulder, closing his eyes as she stroked his hair.  “I’m glad you’re my mom.”

As Papa wrapped his arms around both of them, Belle kissed the top of his head.  “So am I.”

Chapter Text

The sheer beauty of hearing Bae refer to Belle as his mom brought tears to Gold’s eyes.  No longer were those words a lie aimed at disrupting Milah’s smug self-assurance.  Now they were true.  Belle was Bae’s mother in every way that mattered, and nothing in the world would ever give Gold more pleasure than knowing that the two people he loved best loved each other just as much.

They were a family now.

Soon they would be a family in the eyes of the law as well.  Bae, in all his thirteen year old tactlessness, had demanded to know when they were going to be married, and to Gold’s shock, instead of being horrified, Belle had indicated that she was open to the idea.  Things weren’t settled between them yet, not by a long shot.  They’d been misunderstanding each other for seven months, and they desperately needed to work on their communication skills.  Probably a few joint sessions with Hopper wouldn’t be a bad idea.  All of that, however, was secondary to the main point— They were in love, and if Belle wasn’t opposed to the idea of marrying him, they could work all of those issues out during their engagement.

It was all Gold could do not to propose immediately, but Belle deserved better than a makeshift proposal in the middle of the living room with his signet ring standing in for a proper engagement ring.  She deserved something perfect, and he would move mountains to make sure she had it.  In the meantime, he couldn’t let her go.

Bae, being Bae, had soon tired of the cuddling and gone off to call Emma so he could announce the good news.  Apparently, his relationship with Belle had been a major topic of conversation since summer vacation, and Gold wasn’t sure whether to be touched or horrified by the children’s interest in his love life.  He settled for simply being relieved that, for her part, Belle showed no desire to be anywhere other than his arms.

“I can’t believe you love me,” he marveled, burying his face in her hair to breathe her in.  He wanted all of his senses to be inundated by Belle.  Maybe then he could stop fearing that this was a dream that he would inevitably wake from, alone and lonely.

“Of course I love you.  You’re wonderful.”  Belle snuggled a little closer, wrapping her arm around his waist.  “I just can’t believe you love me.”

“How could I not love the most perfect woman in the world?”  He nuzzled her hair.  “You’re so brave, so sweet and strong.  I’m glad Bae has you to look up to.”

Belle made a quiet noise and hugged him a little tighter, her soft body fitting perfectly against his.  

“I’m never going to be able to let you go.”  Gold wasn’t sure if he was making a promise or giving her a warning.

“I’ll never want you to,” she assured him as she lifted her face for a gentle kiss.  

He did manage to release her long enough to order takeout for dinner, pulling her back into his lap the moment the food arrived, their fingers brushing as they shared the same container.  Bae pulled a face at the sight.  “You guys are acting like Emma’s parents.”

Belle accepted a bite of sweet and sour chicken from his chopsticks.  “Is that bad?”

“It’s weird,” Bae informed them.  

The boy shrugged.  “I guess I’ll get used to it.  At least you’re not just staring at each other anymore.  You did that a lot.”

Gold groaned as Belle buried her face against his throat, giggling helplessly.  Clearly he was going to have to have words with his son about the difference between things meant to be said aloud and things that should remain in the privacy of one’s own head.  

After dinner, his hands were too busy stroking Belle’s hair and smoothing over her arms to play video games.  Bae did better without them anyway.

The feeling of Belle’s fingers stroking the back of his neck made him want to purr.  For months, he’d dreamed of having Belle in his arms, and now she was— his to touch and nuzzle and caress.  Gold trailed a line of gentle kisses down the side of her face, feeling her melting into him, and it still wasn’t enough.  Nothing ever would be.

Bae wrinkled his nose when he turned to glance at them, his son looking like he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to gag.  “Are you going to do this a lot?” he demanded as, onscreen, he stomped on a blue-haired turtle lizard.

“Absolutely,” Gold murmured, rubbing his nose against Belle’s as she blushed.

Bae shook his head, but he couldn’t hide his smile.  Considering some of his son’s more blatant matchmaking attempts— the offer to turn down Gold’s bed for him came to mind— the boy was learning to be careful what he wished for.

When bedtime came, Bae accepted hugs from both adults before racing upstairs, leaving Belle and Gold to follow at a slower pace.  He kept his arm tight around her as they ascended the stairs, the thought of putting any distance between them physically painful.  He’d waited for her too long to let her go now.

“I can’t let go of you,” he murmured when they reached the upstairs hallway.  The last thing in the world he wanted to do was pressure her, but by not voicing his desires he’d lost months that he could have spent with Belle in his arms.  He had to try.

“Sweetheart, I’m going to ask you something, and you can say no if you want.  I won’t be angry, and you won’t hurt my feelings.”  When Belle looked up at him trustingly, Gold swallowed hard.  

“Will you sleep in my bed tonight?  All I want to do is hold you, I swear.”  He’d dreamed of doing far more than holding her, but if he tried to touch her tonight when everything was still so new, Gold was certain that he’d spontaneously combust.  They needed to take this slow for both their sakes.

Her brilliant smile assured him that he hadn’t frightened her.  “I’d like that,” she admitted, her color high.  “Give me five minutes to get changed?”

It was all he could do to let go of her, but with the promise of holding Belle as they slept to motivate him, he managed the trick with only a brief kiss to say goodbye.  Once Belle disappeared into her room, he loitered in the hall, gazing longingly at her half-closed door.  Already, his body ached from missing her.

He was being ridiculous.  Gold shook his head at himself.  He was fifty-two years old, far too old to act like a lovesick schoolboy, but Belle had that effect on him.  With her, he felt like a young man again.  He’d existed for years without her, but it was only now that he was starting to truly live.

He might feel like a young man, but a twinge in his knee reminded Gold that he still had quite a few more miles on him than Belle did.  As quickly as he could, he retreated to his bedroom to strip out of his suit and put on his pajamas, trying not to worry about how she would react to his naked body.  Fortunately, they still had plenty of time before that became an issue.  Relationships were new to Belle; there was no need to rush.

He brushed his teeth, looking at himself critically in the mirror.  No, he’d never be mistaken for a young man, but if Belle loved him, it didn’t matter.  As long as she saw something worthy in him, Gold didn’t care what the rest of the world saw.

By the time he stepped out of the en suite bath, Belle was standing by his bed looking adorable in floral pajamas and twisting her fingers together as she gazed down at the mattress.  Gold winced at the visible sign of her nervousness.  “We don’t have to do this if you’re not comfortable.”

She jumped at the sound of his voice, turning to face him with an embarrassed smile.  “No!  No, I want to.  I do.”

Trying not to wonder if she was trying to convince him or herself, Gold moved to the other side of the bed and took hold of the comforter.  Belle mirrored him, and together they turned down the covers.  Without looking at her, he switched off the light and slipped into bed, afraid that if he made any sudden movements, she’d bolt.  When he felt the mattress dip under her weight, his body went limp with relief.

Staying as still as he could, he gazed up at the ceiling, trying to let Belle decide how close she wanted to be to him.  For the moment, she was perched on the far edge of the mattress, leaving enough space for Bae to sleep between them.

“I liked it when we did this before,” she confessed, her voice soft.  “When we were sick.”

He wasn’t the only one who’d treasured those hours of comfort and closeness.  “So did I.”

Rolling onto his side, he held his arms out to her.  “Come here, sweetheart.”

Instantly, Belle burrowed against him, her body molding against his like they’d done this a thousand times.  “I thought you changed your mind.  You didn’t seem very happy that I was here.”

Burying his face in her hair, Gold cursed himself.  “I was trying to give you space so I didn’t scare you.”

She giggled, the maddening puff of her breath against his throat making him shiver.  “We’re good at misunderstanding each other.”

“We excel at it.”  Clearly, working on communication was going to need to be their number one priority.

Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to clearly voice his thoughts.  “I want you to sleep in my arms every night for the rest of my life.”  If she found that overwhelming, they’d deal with it.  For now, it was out there.

She looked up at him, her eyes glowing in the room’s dim light.  “I want that too.”

Perhaps he worried too much.

Gold brushed his lips against hers, marveling at how easy it was when they just talked to each other.  They should have tried this seven months ago.  Belle snuggled closer, resting her head on his shoulder, and he tightened his grip on her.  Tomorrow, they would talk more and see what other hopes and dreams they held in common.  For now, he had his beloved Belle in his arms, and he could sleep peacefully with the knowledge that he’d never have to let her go again.

Chapter Text

Gold awoke with a start at the feel of another body pressed against his.  

Blinking open bleary eyes, he found himself gazing down at Belle’s tousled curls as she pillowed her head on his chest, her breathing still deep and even.  For a moment, he assumed he was dreaming, then she snuffled in her sleep and snuggled closer, draping her leg over his.  Her knee pressed into his bad one hard enough to cause pain, but never had the sensation bothered him less.

He was awake, and Belle was in love with him.

He caught his breath as yesterday’s events returned to him— the rage he’d felt at Nottingham for frightening Belle followed by shock and elation when she defended him to the other man.  Then they’d stepped into his shop and she’d said the words he’d been longing to hear for months.  She loved him.  Belle loved him, undeserving as he was.

“Oh, Belle,” he murmured, pressing a kiss against the top of her head.  They’d wasted months that they could have spent together, and he wanted to weep at the loss.  Every moment not spent with Belle in his arms was a moment wasted.  Never would he be able to let her go, and to his shock, it seemed that she wanted the same things that he did.  It was impossible, but it was true.

Mentally, Gold ransacked his shop, trying to decide if there was a ring there that was worthy of Belle’s elegant hand.  If he didn’t propose soon, Bae would do it for him, and after seven months of frustrated waiting, Gold’s own patience was at its end.  He needed to see his ring on her finger, needed to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was his forever.

He would take her somewhere romantic, perhaps to the beach since she loved it so.  It would be cold, but he could have Dove build a fire for them and they could cuddle together beneath a blanket while he asked her to be his wife.  After that, he’d lower his mouth to hers and…

His body stirred at the thought of what he’d like to do with Belle, and Gold tensed.  With Belle’s leg draped across his, she would only have to move a matter of inches before she felt his erection, and he could easily imagine her horrified reaction to waking up to find him aroused and pressing against her.  Her father had ensured she led a sheltered life despite being a carny, and it wouldn’t do to start the first day of their life together by terrifying her.  Belle was shy and inexperienced in such matters.  He needed to go slowly.

Gold took deep breaths, trying to will his body into submission, but Belle’s warm weight against him was too much for his willpower to overcome.  In desperation, he rolled onto his side away from her, and Belle let out an adorable little grunt as she spooned up behind him, her arms tight around his waist.  He was surrounded by her, utterly safe in her arms, and tears pricked at his eyes as he rested his hands over hers to hold her in place.  

No one had ever held him like this before.  No one had ever thought him worthy of protecting or sought to shield him from the unkindness of the world, but Belle did.  He’d saved her from her father, but every day since, she’d saved him.

“Alastair…”  The sound of her sleepy voice made him smile and press back into her as she hugged him a little tighter, her first instinct upon waking to embrace him.  He would never understand why she’d chosen him, but he would spend the rest of his life trying to prove himself worthy of her.

“Good morning, my love,” he rumbled, and he could feel her smile against the back of his neck.

“Yes, it is.”

Chapter Text

Belle bounded into the Common Ground, unable to suppress her wide smile as she spotted Will and Ana sitting at their usual table, her friends leaning intently over an open notebook.  At her arrival, they glanced up, Will casually pulling the notebook closer to himself and splaying his hand over it to hide whatever was written there.

Let them keep their secrets; she had her own to share.

“He loves me!” she squealed, her voice carrying through the entire coffee shop.  She hadn’t meant to make her announcement so public, but Belle couldn’t bring herself to be embarrassed.  Alastair loved her, and she’d shout the wondrous news from the top of the clock tower if she could.  

“That’s wonderful, darling!  I told you he did!”  Ana leapt to her feet and threw her arms around her, the taller girl all but knocking her over.  Over her shoulder, Belle could see Will glance down at the notebook and tear a few sheets of paper out of it, crumpling them into a ball.

“Never mind this then,” he mumbled, reaching behind himself to toss the ball into the trashcan.

“What was that?”  Belle claimed her seat opposite the pair and craned her neck to look at the notebook.

“Nothing, darling,” Ana assured her.  

The blonde girl rested her hands on the table and leaned forward eagerly.  “Tell us everything.”

Needing no further prompting, Belle launched into the story about how the horrible Keith Nottingham had followed her from the library and the way Alastair had defended her so bravely.  “He said such nasty things about how Mr. Gold was too old for me and no one could ever love him, and I couldn’t stand it.  I said that any woman would be lucky to have him, and I hit him with his cane, and then he asked me if I meant it, and I wasn’t sure what to say, but I thought that he should know that someone loved him, so I told him the truth, and then he said he loved me back, and—"

“You hit Gold with his own cane?” Will asked, looking a bit befuddled.

“She hit Nottingham with Gold’s cane,” Ana explained, rolling her eyes.  “Pay attention.”

“I am paying attention.  There’s too many he’s in this story.”

“He kissed me, and he told me he loves me, and he asked me to call him by his first name— It’s Alastair.  He thought I knew what it was, and he thought I wasn’t using it because I didn’t like him, and we both felt so stupid, but then he kissed me again, and we went home and told Bae, and he was happy too, and we’re engaged!”  Belle drummed her feet against the floor, feeling like she was about to combust from excitement.

“Congratulations, darling!”  

Ana took her hands and squeezed, giving her a wicked smile.  “So, what about… you know… afterward?”

When Belle blinked in incomprehension, Will snorted.  “She wants to know how the sex was.”

“Was it fabulous?” Ana asked eagerly.  “Is he amazing?  How many times did you come?”

“I don’t need to hear this.”

“Then don’t listen,” Ana reproved her boyfriend.

Belle’s face flushed, feeling painfully hot.  “We… we didn’t…”

Ana patted her hand soothingly.  “That’s all right too.  It’s okay to take it slow.”

“It’s already been seven months.”  Will’s brow furrowed.  “You didn’t at all?  Really?”

“Will.”  Ana gave her boyfriend a severe look that he ignored.

He shrugged.  “I thought they’d be going at it like rabbits as soon as she told him.”

Even though she’d tried desperately not to think of Mr. Gold in such a way, Belle had to admit that she’d daydreamed about what it might be like to share his bed in every possible way.  So far, however, Alastair had expressed no interest in such things.  He enjoyed holding her and kissing her and caressing her, and that was far more than she’d ever expected him to want to do.  She should be grateful for what she had instead of pressuring him for more.  

“I don’t think he wants to.”

Will gave her a disbelieving look.  “Is he a guy?”

“Yes…?”  Belle wondered if she was missing something.

“Then he wants to,” Will informed her.  

After a moment’s thought, he corrected himself.  “Maybe he wants to, but he can’t.  He’s no spring chicken.”

“He’s fifty, not ninety,” Ana reminded him before turning her attention back to Belle.  “Did you ask if he wanted to?”

If she asked and he said he didn’t want to, Belle was certain that she would die of embarrassment.  He thought she was a good girl, and good girls weren’t supposed to ask for such things.  Her father had made that very clear.  “No.”

“Of course you didn’t.”  Ana heaved a sigh.  

“Do you want to?” Will asked.

Belle lowered her head, too ashamed to meet his eyes.  If she said yes, Will and Ana would think it was their duty as her friends to help her get what she wanted.  For years, Moe French had told her horror stories about the lengths men would go to to get between her legs.  If she sat here and schemed about how to get Alastair into bed, she was just as bad.  

“No.”

Across the table there was a muffled conversation, then Ana stood up to let Will out of the booth.  Once he was out of earshot, she sat back down and captured Belle’s hands.  “Look at me, darling.”

When Belle looked up, the other girl’s face was inches from hers.  

“Talk to me.  Tell me what you’re thinking,” Ana coaxed.

Ana was her friend.  Ana wouldn’t judge her.  Maybe the other girl could help her figure out how to make these feelings go away.  “I tried not to want to.  I know it’s bad.  I just… I can’t…”

Ana’s face crumpled, her lower lip trembling.  “Oh, darling… Who told you that?  Who said it was bad?”

“My father.  Good girls don’t want that.  I tried to be good, but…”  Her voice trembled, and to her own ears, she sounded much younger than her twenty-five years.  

“Good girls do whatever they want,” Ana told her firmly.  “It’s only bad if you don’t want it.  If you and Alastair both want it, there’s nothing wrong with it.”

It seemed so simple when she said it that Belle couldn’t bring himself to believe her.  “My father said—"

“Your father is an abusive asshole,” Ana informed her.  “He ruined twenty-four years of your life.  Don’t let him ruin any more.  Talk to Gold about this.  Please, darling.  And you might want to consider talking to a therapist.”

“I have a therapist,” Belle admitted.  Archie always said that they could talk about anything that was bothering her, but the thought of talking to him about this made her cringe.  

Ana nodded in satisfaction.  “Good.  Sex isn’t bad, and you’re not bad for wanting it.  Promise me, you’ll talk to Gold.  He’ll want to know, especially if he wants to marry you.”

Ana had been right about Alastair being in love with her and Belle hadn’t listened.  This time she would.  “I promise.”

The other girl’s eyes softened.  “Good.”  

She squeezed Belle’s hands tightly before releasing her.  “And if you need any tips once you get going, you’ve got my number.  Darling, I can teach you things that will make him sit up and beg.”

“Ana!”  Belle laughed at the other girl’s audaciousness, realizing for the first time that Ana wasn’t just teasing her when she talked about such things.  Ana liked sex, and Ana wasn’t bad.

Her father had been wrong about everything else.  Maybe he was wrong about this too.

Will reappeared, an apprehensive look on his face.  “Is it safe to come back?”

“Only if you brought cake,” Ana informed him.

With a flourish, he placed three slices of chocolate cake on the table, and Ana graciously allowed him to rejoin them.  As the conversation moved on, Belle dug her fork into her slice of cake, allowing the sugar to soothe her nerves about the impending conversation.

As soon as she got home, she would talk to Alastair.

Chapter Text

Gold stared blindly at the collection of items gathering dust in the pawnshop, unable to banish the smile from his face.  So far today he’d given Doctor Whale a far better deal than he deserved on a vintage copy of Frankenstein and barely growled at all when Michael Tillman came in to plead for an extension on his rent.  He was losing his edge, and he couldn’t care less.

Belle loved him.

He was too old to count the hours until he could see his lady love again, but that was exactly what he found himself doing.  Belle should be home from her classes by three-thirty, but the pawnshop was scheduled to stay open until six.  Perhaps he’d close up early.  At the rate he was going, he stood to lose more from making unfavorable deals than he did from losing business by locking the door a few hours early.  It might be time for Dove to start playing a larger role in running the shop.

Even if he closed up at three, he still had ninety minutes to kill, and Gold pulled out a tablet to start a list of everything he would need for the perfect marriage proposal.  This morning, he’d selected the perfect ring for Belle, a square-cut diamond flanked by a trio of smaller diamonds on either side, but he had no idea whether it would fit her or not.  Finding her ring size without alerting her to his plans would take some serious reconnaissance.

The bell over the door jangled, distracting him from his pleasurable planning, and his glare at the interruption faded immediately when he saw who was walking through the door.

“Belle!”

“My afternoon class got out early,” she explained, her tight smile not quite reaching her eyes, and Gold’s heart sank.  That wasn’t the look of a woman in love.  Clearly, their hours apart had given her time to rethink their relationship.

When she turned to flip the shop’s sign to Closed and turn the lock, bile rose in his throat.  

Still, he couldn’t deny her when she walked past him toward the back room, beckoning for him to follow.  He had to hear her out.  He owed her that much.  He would listen to her tell him that it had all been a mistake, and he wouldn’t argue or cry or do anything to make her uncomfortable.  Perhaps, if he accepted the news gracefully, they could still be friends.

Wordlessly, he followed Belle into the back, watching as she sat down on the edge of the cot before jumping up again almost instantly as though she’d sat on a hot coal.  “I was going to wait and talk to you at home, but then my class got out early, and I thought it would be better to come here so Bae couldn’t overhear.”

The thought of breaking the news to his son hurt almost as much as his own sense of loss.  The boy had been so excited to have a mother in Belle, and losing that was going to break his heart.  It was probably better that his son heard it from him.  “I understand.”

Belle gave him a grateful look and sat back down, patting the cot beside her to invite him to join her.  Schooling his face into a calm mask, Gold sat down at her side, careful not to touch even though his body yearned for her warmth.  If this was the last time he’d be at her side, he wanted as much of her as he could get.

That thought was unworthy of both of them.  Belle deserved to be treated with respect, and he wouldn’t force himself on her.

Apparently, he was still too close because she hopped up again as soon as he settled himself, and Gold tried not to blink as he watched her walk circles around his work table, trying to keep his eyes dry.

“I had lunch with Will and Ana today,” she began.

That explained a great deal.  Her friends had no cause to love him, and Gold couldn’t blame them for talking her out of their relationship.

“Ana and I were talking, and she told me that something my dad told me wasn’t right.”  Belle chewed on her bottom lip as she turned to look at him.

Gold shifted his grip on his cane to give himself something to do with his hands.  He had no idea how Moe French fit into this breakup speech, but just the mention of the man was enough to set his teeth on edge.

“Oh?” he managed.

Belle nodded.  “She said I should talk to you about it.”

She was looking at him like she expected him to have followed her train of thought, and even if she was breaking up with him, he still hated to disappoint her.  “I’m sorry.  I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”

Belle’s shoulders slumped.  “I’m not explaining this very well,” she muttered.

Pinning him with a desperate gaze, she asked, “Do you ever think about having sex with me?”

The clatter of his cane dropping out of his nerveless fingers to hit the floor was the only sound in the room as Gold struggled to process her words.  Did he ever think about having sex with her?  Sometimes it seemed like he never thought about anything but sex with Belle.  Was she dumping him because he was a lecherous old man?

Belle’s lips trembled as she looked at him, her eyes huge with hope, and a dim little light bulb went on in the back of Gold’s mind.  Belle hadn’t actually said that she wanted to break up.  He’d just jumped to that conclusion.  Perhaps they were having another conversation entirely.  

There was no way to be sure, but she’d asked him a question, and he’d sworn to himself that he would be honest with her.  “I often think about making love to you.”

Gold half-expected her to throw something at him for his answer, but Belle’s delighted smile eased his mind.  Nibbling at her bottom lip, she asked hopefully, “Do you want to make love to me?”

His immediate assumption was that this was a trap, but Gold swallowed down his fear and answered honestly.  “Nothing would make me happier than to make love to you.”

“Oh, Alastair!”  

Gold grunted as he suddenly found himself with a lap full of Belle.  She straddled his legs to throw her arms around his neck, hugging him so hard that he nearly went cross-eyed.  

Not quite able to believe that hearing he wanted to make love to her would provoke this kind of a reaction, Gold hesitantly patted her back.  “Do you want to make love?”

Belle pulled back so fast that he cursed himself for his presumption.  Before he could apologize, she nodded wordlessly, her eyes huge.  “I do.  Do you mind?”

Hearing that she desired him sent a thrill through his body that grounded itself in the base of his cock.  Gold wanted nothing more than to tip Belle onto her back and show her just how much he didn’t mind, but she was looking at him as though she expected him to rage at her, and there was still something about this conversation that he was missing.  “I don’t mind at all, sweetheart.  I’m very pleased to hear that you want to.  Why did you think I might mind?”

At his assurance that her desire pleased him, Belle relaxed and snuggled back into his embrace.  “Dad said it was bad.  He said that good girls didn’t want that.  Ana said he was wrong and I should talk to you.”

Behind Belle’s back, Gold’s hands clenched into helpless fists.  He’d had Moe French right in front of him and he hadn’t killed the man.  He’d do anything to have that chance again.  

Right now, he had Belle in his arms, and she needed reassurance more than he needed to daydream about ripping her father to pieces.  “He was very wrong, sweetheart.  I want you desperately, and I’m thrilled that you want me too.  Desire is natural and beautiful, not something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about.”

He’d given Bae the birds-and-bees talk, but Gold had never expected to be in a position where he had to have this conversation with the love of his life.  Was he doing her a disservice, unintentionally allowing his own desires to trump her comfort?  Belle needed to get her father’s poisonous ideas out of her head, but replacing those thoughts with his own ideas about desire didn’t seem right either.  Belle needed to think this through and make her own decisions about her sexuality.

She pressed a soft kiss to his throat.  “I’m glad.”

Sitting up a little, she nodded at the cot they were sitting on.  “Do you want to do it right now?”

Gold was reasonably sure that the noise that came out of his mouth was audible only to certain breeds of dog.  “I…”  

Torn between the urge to protect her and the urge to take what she was offering, Gold settled for honesty.  “I would very much like to make love to you right now, but I think we need to work some things out first.  I’m afraid that if we rush into this, you might regret it.”

An idea struck him, and he grabbed it with both hands.  “Have you talked to Doctor Hopper about this?”

Belle pillowed her head on his shoulder and giggled, clearly not offended by his rejection of her advances.  “Ana suggested the same thing.”

“Ana is a smart woman.”  He pressed a kiss to the top of her head.  

“You’re going to like her so much.  I want us all to go out to dinner one night.”  Belle played with the ends of his hair, and he could spot a diversion when he saw one.

“Would you like it if I talked to Doctor Hopper with you?” he suggested.

Belle looked up, relief written clearly on her face.  “Would you?”

Hopper was a professional.  He would know how to handle this, and he’d make sure that Gold didn’t inadvertently make Belle’s sexual issues worse.  “Of course I will, sweetheart.  I will do anything that you want me to do.”

“I’d like that.”  She nestled back into his embrace.  “It’ll be easier with you beside me.”

Gold kissed her hair.  “Then it’s a good thing that I’ll always be right beside you.”

Chapter Text

When he volunteered to sit in on Belle’s session with Archie Hopper in hopes that his presence would make her feel more comfortable voicing her concerns about sex to her therapist, Gold had assumed that he’d mostly be responsible for holding her hand and making sure that Hopper didn’t push her into doing or saying anything that would frighten her.  He hadn’t realized how hard it would be to do nothing more than observe.

Just listening to Belle talk about her background was enough to leave him shaken.  Even now, there was so much that he didn’t know about her, and hearing her repeat the poison that Moe French had dripped into her ears made him wish that he’d ripped the other man apart when he’d had the chance.

“There wasn’t much privacy, so I saw things that I wasn’t supposed to,” Belle explained.  Both he and Hopper nodded their understanding.  Having grown up themselves in the carnival atmosphere, they could both effortlessly picture what she was talking about.

“Dad dressed me up for Halloween and things like that, but he made sure that no one ever touched me.  He worried about that.  He didn’t want me being alone with any of the customers because they’d… take advantage.  I was lucky to have him because he kept me safe.”  She repeated the words by rout, her brow creased as she thought about the nebulous safety her father had offered.

It was an elegant bit of manipulation that Malcolm Gold would have admired, Gold thought, shuddering.  Moe had convinced Belle that the outside world was a threat to her.  She was only safe within the confines of the carnival where her father ruled with an iron fist, which meant that she had no escape.  The more he learned about her past, the more he admired her courage in reaching out to him, a stranger that she’d had no reason to trust.

Hopper nodded encouragingly as Gold squeezed her hand, as much for his own reassurance as for hers.  It was all too easy to imagine a world where Belle had assumed that he was a predator when he offered her his home and fled from him instead of accepting his help.  If that had happened, she would still be traveling with her father, and Gold would never even know what he’d lost.

It was a terrifying prospect.

“How did you feel about your father controlling your social interactions?”  It was a tactful way of asking if Belle had ever resented being off-limits to the boys, and from the twitch of her lips, she realized it too.

“I was curious, but it looked… messy.”  Belle was being tactful too.  “Dad said that I wasn’t supposed to want that— that it was bad.  I never questioned it, so I didn’t mind.”

“Do you believe your father had your best interests in mind?” Hopper asked, his gaze penetrating even across two thousand miles.  Gold had a feeling that the doctor wasn’t missing any of Belle’s body language even though he could only see her through his computer screen.

Her shoulders hunched at the question, Belle drawing in on herself like a turtle.  “I don’t know,” she whispered, her voice low and uncertain.

When she turned pleading eyes on him, Gold scooted his chair closer and wrapped a protective arm around her, feeling her nestle into him.  “He can’t hurt you any more,” he rumbled in a voice meant for her ears alone.  “You can say whatever you want, and he can’t touch you.  He’ll never hurt you again.”

Belle leaned her head against his shoulder for a moment as though she was gathering her strength, then she looked directly at the computer.  “No.  I don’t know why he told me that, but he wasn’t trying to help me.”

Privately, Gold could think of several dozen reasons her father would have wanted Belle to believe that sex and desire were dirty, and from the look on Hopper’s face, so could he.  However, there was no reason to voice those theories now.  When Belle was ready to face them, she’d suggest them herself.

“Why did you want to talk about this today?”  Hopper asked, even though the answer had to be patently obvious from the way he and Belle were holding on to each other.

Belle’s face flushed, but she managed to smile shyly.  “Alastair and I had a talk, and we discovered that we’re in love with each other.”

Gold half-expected Hopper to hit him with a barrage of questions about his intentions toward Belle and demand to speak to Belle privately to make certain that he wasn’t manipulating her into a relationship, but the other man just smiled broadly.  “Congratulations!  I’m very happy for both of you.  This has been a long time coming.”

He gave Belle a knowing look, and her blush deepened, making Gold wonder for the first time just what the two of them had discussed in previous sessions.

“Sexual intimacy between a loving couple is very natural,” Hopper assured Belle.  “Your relationship is just that— yours.  If something makes the two of you happy, that’s all that matters.  No one else’s opinion applies.”

The advice was similar to what he’d told Belle himself when she confided her fears in him, and that let Gold breathe a little easier.  Maybe he hadn’t screwed up that conversation as badly as he’d thought.  

Belle nodded slowly.  “It’s hard to get his voice out of my head.”

That was a problem Gold was all too familiar with.  Even after decades, he could still hear echoes of Malcolm Gold in his own ears, and he’d give everything he had to spare Belle from that fate.  

“I’m going to give you a list of books to read.”  Belle’s face lit up at Hopper’s words, and Gold chuckled.  

When she glanced at him, he kissed the tip of her nose.  “You and your books,” he said fondly.

Her eyes danced, showing that she was taking his teasing in the intended spirit.  “I like books,” she reminded him.

“I’m also giving you a homework assignment,” Hopper continued.  “I want you to keep a notebook with you.  Whenever you have any kind of sexual thought, I want you to jot it down and describe how it made you feel.  Be as objective as you can.  Don’t judge yourself or censor yourself.  During our next session, we’ll see if we can untangle your ideas from your father’s ideas.”

From the way Belle was chewing on her lower lip, Gold could tell that she wasn’t overly enthusiastic about Hopper’s idea.  He could understand.  If he had to share every sexual thought that crossed his mind over a week’s worth of time, he would have a document longer than the tax code and kinkier than that book with the tie he kept hearing about.

“I don’t know…” Belle hedged, and Gold swallowed hard.  If Hopper wanted her to reveal her innermost secrets, the least he could do was come along for the ride.

“I’ll do it if you will,” he offered, wondering if he was being supportive or coercive.  Sometimes, it was hard to tell the difference.  He wasn’t crazy enough to think that she’d be enticed by the opportunity to read about his perverted fantasies, but maybe seeing that he, too, had sexual thoughts would reassure her that her own thoughts were natural.

When she looked up at him, he tried to smile.  “Everybody thinks about sex.  You do.  I do.  It’s normal.  People don’t talk about it because it’s a private thing, but I don’t want there to be any secrets between us.”

On the screen, Hopper was nodding approvingly, but Gold was blind to anything but the way Belle’s lips were parted, her breath coming fast.  Was it fear or arousal making her look like that?  It had to be fear, but for just a moment Gold allowed himself to pretend that the idea of reading his sexual thoughts excited her.

“I’ll do it,” Belle said, her eyes never leaving his, and she sounded breathless.

“Excellent.”  Hopper’s voice was loud in the sudden silence.  “In the meantime, I’ll compile that reading list and email it to you.”

Gold could feel Belle’s fingers trembling as he clasped them in his suddenly clammy hand, and as she and Hopper said their goodbyes, he wondered what the hell he’d just volunteered to do.  If he wrote down even a tenth of the things he thought about doing with Belle, she’d run for the hills.

Then again, in comparison to his perverted thoughts, her own would appear as pure as the driven snow.  That would certainly reassure her that she wasn’t the bad girl her father had tried to brainwash her into believing herself to be.  For that alone, he’d risk the humiliation of sharing his darkest dreams with her.

For Belle, he would do anything.

Chapter Text

As she stepped into the kitchen, Belle reached into her pocket to brush her fingers against the black leather notebook that Alastair had bought for her.  It was small and slim, just the right size to keep at hand for whenever a sexual thought crossed her mind.  It had been two days since Doctor Hopper gave her the assignment to write down her thoughts and how she felt about them, but the thought of doing so still made her blush.  Would he want to read it?  Or— worse— would he ask her to read it to him?  Doctor Hopper was nice, but some things were just too private to share, even with her therapist.

To that end, Belle had concentrated very hard on not having any sexual thoughts.  That wasn’t an easy prospect when she spent her nights lying next to Alastair with his strong arms around her and his breath stirring her hair, but whenever her mind started to wander, she brought it firmly back to her schoolwork, focusing on that until the danger had passed.

She wasn’t doing her assignment right, and the idea of disappointing Alastair and Doctor Hopper made her stomach tie itself into knots, but she couldn’t.  She just couldn’t.

Resolutely, she withdrew her fingers from her pocket and set to work making pancakes.  She wasn’t a good cook— Belle wondered if she ever would be— but pancakes she could manage.  It was easier now that the sight of some spilled flour no longer sent her into a panic.  If she got flour on the counter or spilled batter on the gas cooktop, she’d wipe it up when she was done.  Even if she forgot, Alastair wouldn’t be angry with her.

She added a handful of chocolate chips to the pancakes that were intended for Bae, then giggled to herself and scattered them over all of the bubbling discs.  Alastair had a sweet tooth.  He might like chocolate chip pancakes.

By the time she’d finished preparing breakfast, Bae and Alastair had joined her in the kitchen, Bae’s bleary eyes brightening at the special meal.  Alastair kissed her forehead and helped her plate the pancakes, the brush of his fingers against hers as she handed him Bae’s plate making her shiver.  To her shame, he seemed to notice, but he didn’t say anything.  Instead, as Bae set to work devouring his pancakes, he reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a notebook that was the twin of her own, jotting down a few lines before tucking it away again.  Then he gave her a soft smile and another kiss before taking his seat at the table, waiting until she’d joined them before he started to eat.

“This is delicious, sweetheart,” he told her after his first bite.  

His eyes were calm and happy, betraying no hint that he’d just had a sexual thought.  Try as she might, Belle could detect no sign that he felt guilty or embarrassed about whatever he’d written.  Alastair just looked like Alastair.  He’d had a sexual thought, and it hadn’t sent him into a tizzy.  He’d just accepted it and moved on.

Belle bit her lip as she wondered what he’d written, her blood catching fire.  He’d had a sexual thought while he was looking at her.  Did that mean that the thought was about her?  Guiltily, she hoped that it was.  Even though he’d told her that he often thought about having sex with her, it was different to know that he might be thinking about it right now.

Hastily, she looked down at her plate, taking an enormous bite of pancake to distract her from her wandering thoughts, but this time they refused to be suppressed.  The images in the romance novel that she’d stopped reading months ago had made her stomach flip over, but the prospect of reading Alastair’s thoughts was more enticing yet.  His notebook wasn’t a made-up story about fictional characters.  It was about them.  He was writing down things that he thought about doing with her, and suddenly, it was all Belle could do not to simply swipe the notebook out of his pocket so she could read it for herself.

That would be wrong.  Alastair had promised to write down his sexual thoughts.  He’d never said anything about allowing her to read them.  It was an invasion of his privacy to want to do that.

Frowning, Belle stabbed another bite of pancake.  She was thinking about Alastair’s sexual thoughts.  Did that count as having sexual thoughts herself?  Should she be writing this down?

Gentle fingers touched the corner of her mouth.  

“You have a little bit of syrup,” Alastair said apologetically as he wiped it away with the tip of his index finger.

His brown eyes were intent on her, and Belle could feel her face heat.  It felt like he was looking straight into her head and reading her tangled thoughts.  What would he think if he knew she wanted to read his notebook?

Alastair’s breath caught as he looked at her, and Belle froze, wondering what she’d done wrong.  Holding her gaze, he lifted his finger to his mouth, sucking the maple syrup off of his own skin.  It was an innocent gesture, meant only to leave her neat and tidy, but the sight of it made Belle’s head spin as a thousand other thoughts came crowding in.  What would maple syrup taste like if she licked it off of Alastair’s skin?  What would it feel like to have him lick it off of hers?  

That was definitely a sexual thought, and Belle reached blindly for her notebook, lost in Alastair’s gaze as she pulled it out.  Heat flared in the depths of his eyes at the sight of it, and for the first time, she realized that she wasn’t the only one who wondered what was being written down.

Desire warred with embarrassment, her pen frozen over the blank page until Alastair gave her a tender smile.  

“Go ahead,” he murmured in a voice that was meant for her alone.

There didn’t seem to be enough air in the room as she bent her head over her notebook, jotting down the thought.  “I want to lick syrup off of Alastair’s skin and I want him to lick it off of mine.”

Doctor Hopper had told her to make a note of how the thought made her feel, and Belle nibbled on the tip of her pen as she tried to sort it out.  The guilt was there, her father’s voice squawking that no good girl would ever want something like that.  However, Alastair’s acceptance seemed to muffle that voice, quieting Moe French until Belle could hear herself think.  “I feel a little guilty, but mostly I feel excited.”

With a snap, she closed the notebook and looked up to see Alastair making a note of his own.  The thought that he might be writing down the same thing that she was made her stomach clench.

“You two even have to do homework at breakfast?”  Bae pulled a face.  “You’re not going to make me talk to Doctor Hopper too, are you?”

“A little homework never hurt anyone,” Alastair informed his son.

Bae seemed utterly unconvinced.  “Once I graduate, I am never doing homework again.”

“And if you don’t hurry up, you’re going to be late for school, and you’ll never graduate at all.”

Bae squawked when he looked at the clock, shoveling an entire pancake into his mouth before jumping up to grab his coat and backpack.  “Bye, Papa.  Bye, Mom.”  

At least, that was what Belle thought he said.  The words were a bit garbled.

Once Bae was out the door, Alastair turned his attention back to her.  “I’m not sure what I did, but I’m very glad I did it.”

Belle bit her lip, unable to completely suppress her smile.  “I am too.”

A warm hand cradled the side of her face.  “Are you okay with this?  With our… assignment?”

Belle covered his hand with her own, leaning into his touch.  If he’d asked her that question an hour ago, she wasn’t sure what she would have said, but the world looked very different now.  “I’m okay with it.  Are you?”

Alastair chuckled.  “My only concern is running out of paper before the end of the week.”

He looked so pleased when she laughed aloud that Belle felt a weight lifting off of her shoulders.  If sex was something they could joke about, maybe it wasn’t as dangerous as her father always made it sound.  If Alastair liked that she had sexual thoughts, maybe she could learn to like having them too.

One thing was certain, for the rest of the week, she was going to stop trying not to have them.  She was going to do the assignment right and accept whatever ideas wanted to float through her head.

As though they’d been waiting for her permission, dozens of thoughts suddenly filled her head— images of everything from Alastair’s face between her legs to the possibility of joining him when he took his morning shower swarming her.  Taking a deep breath, Belle pulled out her notebook again, the way he licked his lips when she did giving her another hundred ideas.

Maybe Alastair wasn’t the only one who needed to worry about running out of paper.

Chapter Text

For the first few days, Gold viewed the assignment from Dr. Hopper as a lark.  In fifty-two years, it had never occurred to him to write down his sexual fantasies, and now that he was doing so, he couldn’t imagine why it had taken him so long to start.  Committing the images to paper made them more real somehow, and there was something almost unbearably erotic about feeling the weight of the small notebook in his pocket during the day and knowing that within its pages were endless scenarios of all the ways that he could please Belle.

Maybe that was why writing down his fantasies had never occurred to him.  In the long years before Belle came to him, his libido had been all but nonexistent.  Now, however, he was making up for lost time with tremendous enthusiasm.  He’d had more fantasies over the last eight months than he’d had in his entire life, and every time he got one out of his head by writing it down, a dozen more promptly flared to life.  There was just so much that he longed to do with her. 

It wasn’t until the fourth day when he jotted down a particularly enticing vision of Belle tying him to the headboard and teasing him with her hair until he begged for mercy that Gold started to wonder if this was such a good idea.  He’d given Bae an explanation of the notebooks so loaded with long boring words that Gold was fairly certain that if the notebook ever fell out of his pocket, Bae wouldn’t dream of touching it, much less reading it, but Hopper and Belle were another story.

Writing down his sexual thoughts was one thing— and a very pleasant thing it was—but sharing what he’d written was another thing entirely.  As a therapist, Hopper was no doubt unshockable, but Belle wasn’t.  At the end of the week, would she expect to read what he’d written?  If she did, how would she react to his fantasies?

With her lack of practical experience, Belle’s own thoughts were certain to be simple and straightforward.  She was probably filling her notebook with sweet images of the pair of them snuggled together in bed while they traded soft kisses and gentle caresses.  He’d only caught her writing in her book a few times, and none of those occasions had been particularly charged with sexual tension.  While he might fantasize about dousing her nude body in syrup before licking it off of her, Belle was certainly thinking no such thing.

She was going to think he was a pervert.

Groaning, Gold squeezed the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger.  He’d told her that he had an endless array of sexual thoughts, and she hadn’t been offended, but that was before she knew the specifics of what he dreamed about doing to her.  

Maybe when the time came for sharing, he could just read her a few of the nice ones, things that she might actually enjoy.

He pulled out his notebook and flipped it open as he blindly searched for a pen.  Surely there were at least a few things in here that were suitable for Belle’s ears.

I want Belle to sit on the shop’s counter while I kneel at her feet and eat her out.

All right, that probably wasn’t one of them.  With his pen, Gold made a careful X in the margin next to that item.  

I want us to go skinny-dipping under the stars.

He nibbled on the tip of his pen.  That one wasn’t too bad.  Once she got used to swimming, Belle seemed to like the pool, and the combination of water and the cover of darkness might allow her to feel confident about her naked body. Besides, it was November.  Since they wouldn’t be able to put that thought into practice for at least another seven months, it shouldn’t be too intimidating.

Gold marked that idea with a tentative asterisk, deeming it suitable for sharing.

His mouth twisted as he skimmed through some of his other ideas.  Milah had never been impressed with his prowess, and there had been no one but her.  Even if Belle—impossibly— was on board with his kinkier ideas, Gold knew he had exactly no chance of being able to fulfill them to her satisfaction.  No, it was definitely for the best that she would have no interest in most of what filled his notebook.

X- I want Belle to tie me down and ride me like a horse.

X- I want to pour syrup all over her chest and lick it off.

X- I want to bend her over the kitchen counter and take her from behind.

*- I want to help her in the bath.

X- I want to watch Belle touch herself.

X- I want to push her up against the library shelves and take her hard and fast.

Well, this was just ridiculous.

Desperately, Gold flipped through the pages, finding a plethora of thoughts that would do nothing but terrify Belle and blessed little that she might actually enjoy.  If Hopper made them exchange books, she was going to run a mile as soon as she got a look at his twisted fantasies.  

He needed another notebook.

Gold sighed in relief when he found the answer.  He’d buy a duplicate of his current notebook and fill it with soft, gentle fantasies that Belle could appreciate and that he had a prayer of being able to make come true.  He could write about how much he wanted to bathe her in kisses and how he longed to hear her whisper his name as he caressed her.  Nice things.  Safe things.  True things.

The original notebook, he would keep.  It would become a repository for all of his darkest desires, the fantasies that he would never be able to share with his precious Belle.  When the time came for them to exchange their books, he’d put that notebook under lock and key, and she would never realize that it existed.  Maybe someday, a decade or two from now, he would tell her the truth, and they’d sit down together to read his twisted thoughts and laugh at his depraved imagination.

But for now, Gold would be cautious.  Belle thought she was safe with him.  She trusted him, and he would do nothing to jeopardize that trust.  He would protect her, even against himself.

There were some things that Belle didn’t need to know.

Chapter Text

Belle jumped as Alastair pressed a kiss to the top of her head.  She’d been so intent on her psychology reading that she hadn’t even heard him come in.

“Studying hard, sweetheart?”

As always, the endearment made her heart melt.  She was Alastair’s sweetheart.  He even called her that in front of other people, letting everyone know that she was special to him.  Nothing—not even getting her GED— had ever made her more proud than knowing that Alastair loved her.

He was so completely perfect that it seemed impossible that he could be uncertain of her affections, but Belle was slowly starting to realize that Alastair wasn’t as confident as he appeared to be.  The fact that he’d believed Keith Nottingham’s horrible words for even one second was proof of that.  If hearing him call her by a pet name made her feel happy and proud, maybe he would like it too.  He might appreciate the reminder of how much she adored him.

“We’re starting a unit on psychological disorders,” she explained as she looked up to smile at him, her mind racing.  There was an easy way to tell if Alastair would like being called by a pet name, but what should she call him?  After months of calling him Mr. Gold, just being able to call him by his first name was a little overwhelming.  

He chuckled.  “Have you diagnosed me with anything yet?”

His smile assured her that he was teasing her.  “Not yet,” Belle teased back before taking a deep breath and blurting out the first possibility that came to mind.  “Honey.”

Alastair glanced down at the table as though looking for something, and Belle bit her lip at his reaction.  If he was ignoring her endearment, that meant he didn’t like it.  She should have picked something else, something less childish.  Maybe she would have been better served just to call him by his name.

His brow furrowed when he didn’t find what he was looking for.

“Where—?” he began, cutting himself off after a single word, his dark eyes going wide.  As Belle watched closely, his mouth opened like he was going to say more, his lips trembling.  His eyes went glassy, but before she could worry that she’d done something wrong, he pressed a firm kiss to her mouth.  

“I love you,” he murmured against her lips, his voice husky.

Heartened by her success, Belle tried again.  “I love you too, honey.”

Alastair tried to smile at her, but his eyes were glistening.  “Oh, sweetheart, you don’t know what you do to me.”

Based on his reaction, Belle thought she might have some idea, but she was disappointed when he only kissed her forehead.  “I’ll leave you to study.”

Try as she might, she couldn’t bring her attention back to her reading after he left the room.  Alastair did seem to like the pet name, but he certainly wasn’t as fond of it as she was of being called “sweetheart”.  Maybe “honey” wasn’t quite right for him.  She would have to try again and find a better endearment.

The next opportunity for experimentation presented itself at dinner, and Belle was careful to watch his reaction as she tried her next option.  “Pumpkin, could you pass me the salt?”

Although Alastair nodded as if in a trance, he made no move to fulfill her request as a silly smile spread itself over his face.  From her other side, Bae lunged halfway across the table to retrieve the salt shaker so he could hand it to her.  “Sure, Mom.”

Perhaps “pumpkin” wasn’t a winner either.  “Thank you, Bae.”

For the next few minutes, Alastair smiled down at his plate without moving, and it was only when Bae asked him what was wrong with his food that he picked his fork up again.  This was not going quite as well as Belle had hoped if her attempts at being romantic met with nothing but amusement.

Later that night, when she was finishing up her reading, Alastair brought her a cup of tea, and she tried again.  “Thanks, tiger.”

At that, he looked a bit like she’d hit him in the face and hastily excused himself from the room, nearly tripping over his own feet in his rush to get away from her.  At least he was polite enough not to laugh in her face.  As Belle glared down at her textbook, she mentally crossed “tiger” off the list.  She was terrible at this.

After three failures, she couldn’t quite bring herself to try again.  Perhaps she should ask Ana for suggestions when she saw the other girl tomorrow.  Then again, Ana called everyone except Will “darling”, and Belle had never heard her call her boyfriend by a pet name.  “You idiot” didn’t count.  

On second thought, maybe she wouldn’t ask Ana.

Huffing to herself, she put the cap back on her highlighter with more force than necessary.  So far, she wasn’t very good at being a fiancée.  She was certain that other women didn’t have these problems.  They just knew what a man would like to be called.  Belle, on the other hand, was flailing around in the dark.

Well, if she was lost in the dark, she would just have to find her way out, she decided.  She and Alastair were going to be married, and that meant she needed to figure out how to be a wife.  Learning to be a good fiancée would be a step in the right direction.

If she needed to learn something, there was only one place to look.  Storybrooke’s library had books about everything.  Surely there was one about how to be a good fiancée.  The books Doctor Hopper had asked her to read touched on some of those issues, but while they were proving to be helpful in certain specific areas, they didn’t cover pet names.  

Feeling better now that she had a plan, Belle put her schoolbooks away and headed upstairs to wash her face and change out of her jeans.  As she stepped into her room, her eyes lit on her nightstand and she suddenly remembered the romance novel that she’d abandoned months ago because it was giving her too many ideas about Alastair.  That wasn’t the kind of book she’d had in mind, but it might not be a bad starting point.  Besides, now it didn’t matter if the book gave her ideas because she could just add those ideas to the notebook that she was rapidly filling.  

Delighted with herself for coming up with such a good plan, Belle skipped to her nightstand to retrieve the abandoned romance novel.  She had some studying to do.

Chapter Text

Belle was trying to kill him.  It was the only possible explanation.

From the moment he was old enough to understand what a name was, Alastair Gold had hated the one that had been assigned to him.  The fact that his carnival name tag labeled him Al because the punters couldn’t get their mouths around Alastair only made matters worse.  

It wasn’t until Belle gazed into his eyes and murmured “I love you, Alastair” that he’d mellowed toward his name.  Her sweet voice made the old fashioned moniker sound somehow noble and strong.  After months of longing to hear her call him anything except Mr. Gold, nothing could be better than hearing his given name from her plush lips.

Leave it to Belle to up the ante.

The first time she said the word honey in conjunction with him, he’d assumed she wanted him to pass her a jar of the stuff.  It wasn’t until she looked straight into his eyes and said it again that understanding had dawned, and he’d nearly melted through the floor.  It was only the knowledge that she wouldn’t appreciate him interrupting her studying by crawling into her lap and staying there for the rest of his life that had gotten him out of the room.  He’d been so busy walking on air that he didn’t even feel the ever-present catch in his knee.

At dinner she’d done it again, and hearing her call him pumpkin had reduced him to a puddle of mush.  No one in his life had ever cared enough about him to give him a pet name, and in her infinite generosity, Belle had bestowed two on him.  He was her honey—her pumpkin—and he was putty in her hands.  If the residents of Storybrooke could see the fearsome Mr. Gold now, they’d laugh themselves sick.

Let them laugh.  Gold would sell his soul to be Belle’s pumpkin.

And then she’d called him tiger, and he’d barely made it out of the room before his body betrayed just what that particular nickname did to him.

Gold stared at himself in the bathroom mirror and splashed another handful of cold water onto his face, willing his arousal to subside.  Belle didn’t know— couldn’t possibly know— the implications of such a pet name.  She meant it affectionately, and if she knew that in his mind it conjured up images of the pair of them rolling around in bed, nipping and pawing at each other like animals, she would never dare call him anything but Alastair ever again.

Just as he’d almost regained control of his body, his mind replayed the sound of her voice calling him tiger, and Gold moaned as a fantasy came to life before his eyes.  So vivid was it that he could almost feel her nails dragging their way down his spine, Belle clawing at him in her pleasure as he pounded into her.  

“That’s it, tiger.  Harder!” she demanded, her voice hoarse from her cries, and Gold doubled his efforts, slamming himself into her until he saw stars.  He was hurting her, had to be hurting her, but Belle only growled in pleasure and brought her hand down on his ass in a stinging slap.  “Give it to me, tiger.”

Groaning, Gold gave up on the cold water.  He was too far gone.  Reaching down, he unzipped his trousers and freed his cock with shaking hands.  Bracing himself against the sink, he wrapped his other hand around his hard length, clenching his teeth together to muffle his noises as he started to thrust into his fist, his movements jerky and uncoordinated.

Unable to meet his own eyes in the mirror, he lowered his head, his hair falling into his face as he picked up his tempo, desperate for release before Belle or Bae came looking for him.  The sound of his hand moving over his own flesh was nearly obscene, and he again called on Belle’s imagined voice to drown it out.  “Oh, that’s good.  That’s wonderful.  Yes, harder.  Harder!  You feel so good, tiger.”

Gold bit his tongue to keep from crying out as his dream-Belle praised his performance, begging him for more, and the thought of her beautiful face contorting at the height of her pleasure was more than he could handle.  His hand moved frantically as he spilled himself, his seed coating his fingers and the edge of the sink.

Gasping for air, he clung to the counter to keep himself from collapsing, his knees feeling wobbly.  Once he’d gotten his breath back, he looked down at the mess he’d made and rolled his eyes at himself.  In his fantasies, he could effortlessly take Belle to the brink, but in reality, Gold doubted he would be so lucky.  Milah had always been very willing to tell him all the ways that he failed her in bed, and he’d had no opportunity to refine his technique in the intervening years.  Once they finally reached the point of consummating their relationship, Belle was going to be horribly disappointed in his performance.

With a sigh, he grabbed a handful of paper towels to clean up the mess.  The one good thing about Belle’s hang-ups about sex was that the moment of consummation was undoubtedly a long way off.  The more time they had before Belle realized just what a poor bargain she’d made for herself by falling in love with him the better.

Satisfied that no evidence of his filthy little escapade remained, Gold left the sanctuary of the bathroom, careful to give the living room a wide berth.  He didn’t dare face Belle so soon after pleasuring himself to her image.  One look at his guilty face would tell her everything, and she would be horrified.  Journaling about sexual thoughts was one thing, acting on them was an entirely different ballgame.

Committing the fantasies to paper would help.  Once he got them out of his head, he would be able to look her in the eye again.  This latest fantasy was definitely one for his original journal.  If he had his way, Belle would never know just how bestial he truly was.  

As he went to retrieve his journal from its hiding place, Gold wasn’t sure if he longed for or dreaded the next nickname she might try.

Chapter Text

“I want to curl up behind you and kiss your throat while you’re studying.”

Gold smiled to himself as he made the notation in his second journal—the one filled with light and pleasant fantasies that wouldn’t frighten Belle.  Although he was quickly filling the first journal with his perverted thoughts, the second was coming along nicely as well.  After living with Belle for seven months, he had no shortage of things that he’d dreamed of doing with her, and a great many of those things were fairly innocent.

He could do them now.

He glanced up from his desk to look at Belle where she was curled up on the couch with a textbook in front of her, her brow furrowed with concentration.  He could walk over to her right now and sit down beside her.  He could press his lips against her throat, and she wouldn’t swat him away.  Instead, she would lean into the kiss with a smile and a sigh of pleasure, and he could kiss her again and again until she forgot everything she knew about psychology.

Although it was a pretty fantasy, he couldn’t bring himself to act on it.  For one thing, Bae was currently sprawled across the area rug working on homework, and while Gold adored spending time with his son, he didn’t particularly want an audience while he kissed Belle.  For another, Belle took her studies seriously.  He’d be a poor lover if he ignored her desires in favor of his own needs, and right now, Belle wanted to study.

He settled for merely gazing at her, taking in the soft curve of her lips and the wispy curls that had escaped from her ponytail to caress the side of her face.  How had he ever gotten so lucky as to win Belle’s love?

Apparently, Belle sensed him staring at her because she lifted her head to look back at him.  Gold didn’t want to distract her any more than he already had, but he didn’t want her jumping to any conclusions about why he’d chosen to stare at her either.  Although Belle had grown far more confident in the months she’d lived with him and Bae, she could still be skittish at times.

To reassure her that he looked at her only for the pleasure of doing so, Gold blew her a kiss, grinning when she smiled at him and blew one back.  

Bae groaned.  “You two are worse than Emma’s parents.”

Gold shrugged, unrepentant.

“Be careful what you wish for.”  For months, Bae had been trying to play matchmaker.  Now, his son got to live with the consequences.

“So, when’s the wedding?”

It wasn’t the first time Bae had asked a variation of that question, but this time Gold felt less inclined to answer it.  He had Belle’s ring secured in his office, and he and Dove had been trying to figure out the logistics of a romantic moonlight picnic on the beach so he could give it to her.  If they lived in Florida, that would be easy, but Maine’s coastline wasn’t as forgiving in the fall.  It would help considerably if it stopped raining.

If Bae kept asking questions, Belle might start wondering why he hadn’t proposed yet, and he didn’t want her to have any doubts about his devotion.  It was the weather keeping Gold silent, not any uncertainty that he wanted her to be his wife.  “When it happens.  Now do your homework.”

“I’m done.”  

Gold racked his mind for some task that he needed the boy to do and came up empty.  He really needed to start assigning Bae more chores around the house.  Eventually, the boy would have to learn to take care of himself, and in the meantime, it would be a handy way to get his son out of his hair from time to time.  Maybe he should teach him to do his own laundry.

“You should get married right before Christmas.  That would be nice.”  Bae rolled onto his back and lifted his arms to the ceiling like Frankenstein’s monster.  

When Belle looked from Bae to him, Gold tried to smile.  “There’s no reason to rush things.”

Bae groaned.  “I already waited forever.”

He was going to throw something at the boy.  Really, he was.  “Bae, we’re not even engaged.  Stop pushing.”

A jarring thud made him jump, and he looked over to see Belle’s heavy textbook on the floor.  Instead of picking up the fallen book, Belle was looking at him, her eyes anguished.  “Belle?”

She pressed her lips together and shook her head, and for a moment, Gold feared that she was about to cry.

“I’m going upstairs.”

Without another word, she stood and fled, her feet pounding on the staircase.  Bae looked at him, baffled, and Gold stared back.  What the hell had he said?

Whatever it was, it had clearly upset Belle, and Gold was torn.  Should he give her time to calm down or go after her right now?  If she was angry with him, she might not appreciate him intruding on her personal space, but if he’d hurt her, he needed to apologize even if he didn’t know what he’d done.

Decision made, he hauled himself to his feet and gestured for Bae to stay where he was.  The staircase seemed exceptionally long as he ascended it, and Gold wasn’t sure if he wanted to simply fly to Belle’s side or never get there at all so he didn’t have to face her anger.

The door to her bedroom was ajar, and he tried to believe that it was a good sign that she hadn’t shut him out completely.  He rapped softly on the door frame, and when she didn’t acknowledge his presence, he eased the door open farther, finding Belle curled up on her window seat, her arms wrapped around her knees.  “Belle?”

When he called her name, she lifted a tear-stained face to him, and Gold’s throat tightened.  God, what the hell had he done?  “Sweetheart, what’s wrong?”

At his question, she again dissolved into tears, and Gold stopped waiting for an invitation.  He entered her room and took a seat beside her although he didn’t quite dare pull her into his arms.  Belle might not appreciate his comfort when he was the one who’d made her cry.  “Belle, will you talk to me?”

She didn’t lift her head from her knees, but she did choke back her tears.

“What did I do wrong?” she asked in a watery voice.

In spite of his best intentions, Gold had to reach out to her.  He rested his hand on her shoulder, feeling her trembling.  “You didn’t do anything wrong, sweetheart.”  

At this point, it was more important to reassure Belle than to understand what was happening in her head.  Once she felt better, they could work that out.

She raised her head, and he winced at the unhappiness in her eyes.  “Then why don’t you want to marry me any more?”

Downstairs, he’d wanted only for his tactless son to stop pressuring her, but it seemed he’d inadvertently given Belle the wrong impression.  “I would happily marry you tonight.  I’m very sorry if I made you think I didn’t want that.  I just wanted Bae to stop asking questions we weren’t ready to answer.”

If anything, Belle only looked more distressed at his explanation.  “Then why did you tell Bae that we aren’t engaged any more?”

That they weren’t engaged any more?  Gold blinked, trying to make sense of her question.  Despite his intention to propose to Belle soon, he hadn’t managed to make that happen yet.  Apparently, she saw the situation differently.  

“Before I answer that, may I ask you a question?”  When Belle nodded, he tried to find a tactful way to phrase his query.  “Sweetheart, when did we become engaged?”

Some of the pain faded out of her expression to be replaced by a worried look.  “The night we told Bae we were in love.  He asked when we were getting married, and you looked at me to see if I wanted to.  When I nodded, you told him that we’d get married soon.  Alastair, you didn’t forget, did you?  Are you forgetting other things?  Oh…”

She nibbled on her lower lip.  “I guess if you forgot, you wouldn’t realize you forgot.”

And now the love of his life thought he was going senile.  Gold wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry.

“No, I didn’t forget,” he told her gently.  He remembered that moment very clearly.  After Bae’s blunt question, he’d looked to see how Belle reacted to the idea of marrying him, and she’d nodded her willingness to consider the idea.  At least, that’s what he’d thought she was nodding about.

Once again, they’d misunderstood each other.  “I’m sorry, sweetheart.  That’s not what I thought you were agreeing to.”

Belle’s face fell and she curled a little tighter into her ball.  “That’s okay.  I understand.”

“No, you don’t.”  If she understood, she wouldn’t look so miserable.  “I desperately want to marry you, Belle.  I just wanted to make sure you had the perfect proposal first.”

She smiled bravely, making no move to uncurl her limbs.  “Don’t worry about it.  You said it yourself— there’s no need to rush.”

She didn’t believe him.  Gold closed his eyes in despair.  In his effort to give her a proposal to remember, he’d inadvertently hurt her.  “No, I mean it.  I’ve been working with Dove to plan a special evening, but the rain has been getting in the way.”

Belle put a gentle hand on his arm.  “Alastair, it’s okay.  I don’t expect you to propose to me just because I misunderstood you.  I’m happy just like this.  We don’t ever have to get married if you don’t want to.  I won’t be upset.  As long as I can be with you and Bae, I’ll be happy.”

Her sweet smile made him want to beat his head against the wall.  Once again, Belle was putting her own wants on hold in order to keep him happy, and the sooner Dr. Hopper helped her break that habit, the happier he would be.  

If she didn’t believe that he truly wanted to marry her, he would just have to convince her.  “Wait right there.”

When he tried to envision the perfect proposal for Belle, Gold had seen starry skies and heard the gentle lapping of waves against the beach— a romantic atmosphere that she could tell their grandchildren about some day.  What he was about to do was less than impressive, but he couldn’t allow Belle to keep thinking the worst.  

Gold went downstairs to his office just long enough to retrieve the ring from his safe.  Once the little velvet box was in his pocket, he cast a look around the downstairs for anything he could use to set the scene and came up empty.  The ring would have to do.

By the time he climbed the stairs again, he half-expected Belle to have given up on him, but she was still perched on her window seat.  This time she looked more curious than upset, and she’d unfolded her legs.  

Gold pushed the door closed behind him, not wanting a teenage audience for what he was about to do.  Only then did he brace his weight on his cane and lower himself onto his good knee.  The bad one throbbed at the position, and he ignored it.  Belle was worth the effort.

Belle’s eyes were huge, and he tried to smile at her, feeling lightheaded.  This was really happening.  He was about to propose to Belle.

With a shaking hand, Gold reached into his pocket to retrieve the ring box and flipped it open to reveal a large, square-cut diamond set in a platinum band.  The stone was flanked by a trio of smaller, bezel-set diamonds on each side which added a modern flare to the vintage ring.  It was perfect for Belle, and Gold could only hope that she’d approve of it.  

He held the ring box out to her.  “I love you, Belle.  Nothing would make me happier than to be your husband.  Will you marry me, sweetheart?”

Belle’s gaze darted between the ring and his face, and she sunk her teeth into her bottom lip, looking distressed.  That was not the reaction he’d been hoping for.  “Belle?”

“I don’t want you to propose just because I pressured you,” she hedged.

“I’m proposing because I want to.”  Gold plucked the ring out of its box and held it out to her upside-down.  “I’ve been planning this for ages.  Look.”

He’d done the engraving himself, and Gold was quite proud of it.  The inside of the ring was emblazoned with their initials and the date they’d met followed by the words “until eternity”.  His life had instantly changed the day he met Belle, and Gold was never going to be able to let her go.

Belle’s eyes again filled with tears, but this time she smiled through them.  “You mean it,” she whispered.  “You do want to marry me.”

“More than anything,” he assured her.  “Will you be my wife, Belle?”

As tears spilled down her face, Belle nodded hard.  “Yes.  Oh, yes!”

Gold took her left hand and lifted it to his lips before reclaiming her ring and sliding it into place on her fourth finger.  It took some effort and Belle’s help, but he managed to get himself off the floor and onto the window seat, Belle immediately snuggling into his arms.  “I love you, Belle.”

“I love you too, Alastair.”  She lifted her face for a kiss, but they were both smiling too broadly to make much of it.  That was all right.  They had a lifetime of kisses ahead of them.

“I’m sorry I didn’t ask you sooner.  I just wanted it to be perfect.”  Maybe they could still have their picnic on the beach and he could recreate the proposal.  

Belle rested her head against his shoulder.  “It was.”

Chapter Text

She was a terrible person.

Belle bit her lip as she looked down at the little notebook in her hand, her stomach churning.  She hadn’t done it on purpose.  She’d never meant to steal Alastair’s notebook.  It had just sort of… happened.

It must have fallen out of his pocket during the morning rush.  That was the only possible explanation.  By the time she noticed it lying on the floor in the kitchen, he’d already left for the shop, and she’d picked it up, afraid that if she didn’t, Bae would, and there were some things a thirteen year old boy didn’t need to see. 

She'd tossed the notebook into her school bag, meaning to return it as soon as she had the chance, but in the excitement of getting her midterm results— she’d gotten all A’s— and showing Will and Ana her engagement ring, she’d forgotten all about the unassuming little book.

The right thing to do would be to place it on Alastair’s nightstand and explain what had happened.  He wouldn’t be cross with her.  He was never cross with her, even when she made things difficult for him.  She could give him the notebook back and he’d smile and kiss her to thank her for finding it for him.  He was probably wondering where it had gotten to.

That would be the right thing to do, but as Belle sat cross-legged on the bed and listened to the small, domestic noises Alastair was making in the bathroom as he readied himself for bed, she remembered why she was a terrible person.

She didn't want to give it back.  She wanted to read it.

Over the years, she’d learned the frustration of being forced to put a book down just when she was getting to the good part so she wouldn’t be late for her shift at the carnival.  Never, in all of those years, had she felt the bone-deep need to devour a book that she was feeling right now.  These pages contained Alastair’s most private thoughts, and she had to read them.

Tomorrow was their follow-up session with Archie.  No doubt the therapist would have something to say about the notebooks since it was at his behest that they’d been keeping the written record of their fantasies.  He might ask them to read excerpts aloud or trade notebooks with each other or do any number of other things.  But Belle didn’t want to wait until tomorrow.  

For the past week, she’d been writing down every fantasy she had about Alastair, but she had no idea if he was doing the same thing.  True, he’d been writing down his sexual thoughts, but there was no reason to believe that all of those thoughts were about her.  Men weren’t wired like that— her father had told her so.  A man would have sexual thoughts about any woman who crossed his path, that was why Belle had to be so careful.  Otherwise, they might act on their sexual thoughts about her.  

Belle curled her legs to her chest and ran her thumb over the edge of the notebook, feeling the unread pages throbbing beneath her touch.  If this book was filled with Alastair’s thoughts about other women, it would kill her.  She couldn’t sit there in therapy and listen to him give voice to those thoughts.  She couldn’t.

And if they were all about her… Belle’s cheeks flamed at the thought of it.  She wasn’t sure if she could bear to feel Archie’s eyes on her while Alastair shared his fantasies with her.  She’d finished the romance novel that she’d been reading, picturing herself and Alastair as the main characters, and the thought of doing those things with him had made her stomach turn to mush.  And that was just make-believe.  The thoughts in this book were real.

She had to read it.  

Archie always told her that she had to tell people what she needed.  She couldn’t expect them to read her mind.  Still, she had no idea how she was going to tell Alastair about this.

Sucking in a breath, Belle clambered off the bed and moved to lean against the closed bathroom door.  If she was going to do it, she had to do it now before she lost her nerve, but interrupting him while he was in the bathroom seemed rude.

The closed door boosted her courage.  “Alastair?”

His response was immediate.  “Yes, sweetheart?”

There was no turning back now.  “I want to ask you something and you can say no.  I won’t be mad if you do.”  If he wasn’t comfortable with the idea, she’d never mention it again.

“Of course.  Should I come out?”  When the door handle jiggled, Belle jumped.

“No!  I mean…”  She closed her eyes and tried to gather her thoughts.  “It’s easier this way.”

“All right.”  To her relief, he didn’t question her desire to have a closed door between them.  “What would you like to ask?”

“I want to read your notebook.”  Belle pressed her hands to her flushed cheeks.  It was out.  The rest was up to Alastair.

There was a long, long pause, and when Alastair spoke again, his voice was different, lower somehow.  “Of course you may, my darling.  I’d like that very much.”

Feeling giddy, Belle rested her head back against the door.  She’d worried for nothing.

“Thank you,” she breathed.

He chuckled.  “I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

On light feet, Belle raced back to the bed, nearly leaping onto it in her eagerness to get her hands on Alastair’s notebook.  He’d given her permission, and that made it okay.  She wasn’t a terrible person.  He’d said he’d like it if she read it.  That must mean that he’d been writing about her.

Torn between wanting to draw out the anticipation and wanting to immediately dive into the book, Belle split the difference and closed her eyes as she opened to a random page in the middle.  This was it.  

She opened her eyes.

I want to tie Belle to the bed and go down on her until she begs me to stop.

With a noisy gasp, Belle dropped the book, heat flooding her.  That was Alastair’s handwriting.  He’d written that.  He wanted to do… that to her.

Memories came flooding back of his bout with the flu and the way he’d pressed his face to her most private place in his fevered delirium.  Belle had hated herself for enjoying it so much, feeling that she was taking advantage of him when he was too sick to know what he was doing, but this put a different spin on that incident.  Alastair wanted to do that to her.  He wanted to do that and more until she begged him to stop, and it would probably make him happy to know that she wanted that too.

With eager fingers, she picked the book up again and riffled through it, seeing her own name written over and over again.  Every thought, every single one of them, was about her, and for a moment, Belle felt like she was going to spontaneously combust.

The echo of her father’s voice reminded her that Alastair was a man, and all men wanted to do things like this, but Belle refused to listen.  Alastair loved her.  He didn’t just want to do these things because she was available.  He wanted to do them because he loved her and wanted to make her feel good.  He’d asked her to marry him and promised to wait as long as she wanted before they did anything in bed.  If he just wanted sex, he wouldn’t have done that.  Alastair didn’t want sex; he wanted her.

And she wanted him.

Everyone had tried to tell her that her father was wrong, but she’d had to figure it out for herself.  Belle shook her head in wonder as her father’s voice faded from her mind, suddenly no more powerful than a wisp of smoke.  She’d spent years letting him control her life and her mind, but no more.  Moe French didn’t belong here.  This was her life, and she was going to be the one to decide how it went.

Feeling wonderfully brave, Belle retrieved her own notebook from her nightstand drawer and placed it on Alastair’s pillow.  If he was going to let her read his notebook, it was only fair that she let him read hers.  More importantly, she wanted him to read hers.  She wanted him to know that even if she wasn’t yet quite ready to do anything in bed, she was looking forward to the day when she would be.  If reading his fantasies about her made her happy, reading hers should do the same for him.

More than anything, Belle wanted Alastair to be happy.

Satisfied with her decision, Belle snuggled in to read, every one of Alastair’s fantasies sparking an answering one in her own mind.  The book she’d read had given her some ideas, but he was so much more creative than she was.  Belle never would have come up with the idea of making love in the front room of the shop so anyone walking past could see them together, but she could immediately see the idea’s appeal.  They were going to have so much fun.

When the bathroom door opened, Belle glanced up, frowning when Alastair went white at the sight of her with his notebook in hand.  Puzzled, she held her tongue, watching as he reached into his robe’s pocket and withdrew a small leather notebook that was the twin of both the one she was currently reading and her own.  

As she watched, he looked from the notebook in his hand to the one in hers, then at the notebook resting on his pillow.  “I thought you might want to read mine,” she explained, gesturing at it.

Alastair closed his eyes, looking like he was facing a firing squad.  “Belle, please tell me you’re not reading what I think you’re reading.”

Chapter Text

Belle wanted to read his notebook.

Gold was smiling so hard that it was nearly impossible to brush his teeth, his spirit singing.  From the start of this exercise, he’d assumed that eventually Dr. Hopper would want them to exchange journals— it was why he’d been so careful to keep the depraved fantasies that would do nothing but terrify Belle in a separate notebook.  That she was actually asking to read his notebook with no direction from the therapist…  He shuddered at the thought, willing his stirring cock to subside.  

It took quite some time.  His body was proving to be extremely enthusiastic about the idea that Belle was starting to express an interest in sex.

He patted his pocket, feeling the weight of his notebook there.  He must have left the other notebook, the dirty one, at the shop because when he went to jot down a thought about how much he would enjoy watching Belle suggestively eat a popsicle, he hadn’t been able to find it.  He’d just have to jot it down tomorrow.  That mental image wasn’t one that he would easily forget.

When he stepped out of the bathroom to see Belle sitting on the bed, a notebook in her hands and another on the pillow beside her, his heart froze in his chest.

It wasn’t possible.  He’d been careful— so careful— to protect Belle from his filthy fantasies.  There was no way she could have gotten her hands on his notebook, but when he reached into his pocket, the notebook he found there was unmistakably the clean one.  

Maybe she was reading her own, he thought with desperate hope.  Maybe he was hallucinating the presence of the notebook on his pillow.  She couldn’t really be reading his perverted thoughts.  Her color was high, but she was holding the tiny book in both hands only inches from her face.  If she was reading his journal, surely she’d be holding it at arms length if not flinging it across the room in horror.

He must have made some kind of noise because Belle glanced up, her words bringing his world crashing down.  “I thought you might want to read mine,” she told him as she gestured at the other notebook.

Oh hell.

“Belle, please tell me you’re not reading what I think you’re reading,” he begged, pleading with her to tell him this was all some horrible mistake.  If she was reading his perverted fantasies, this would set her recovery back months at best.  At worst, he’d just scarred her for life, frightened her off of sex for all time.  For an instant, he was tempted to lock himself in the bathroom for the rest of eternity and just pretend that none of this had ever happened.

Belle looked at him like he’d slapped her.

“You told me I could,” she answered in a tiny voice, and the wave of guilt that swamped him nearly drowned out his panic at her confirmation that she was, in fact, reading his journal.  

Gold attempted to modulate his voice.  “I didn’t realize you wanted to read it now.  I thought you would wait until I gave it to you.  Where did you find it?” he asked, stalling for time as he tried to get a handle on his turbulent emotions.

Her shoulders uncurled the tiniest fraction.  “You dropped it this morning on your way to work, and I picked it up so Bae didn’t.  I meant to give it back to you, but…”

She curled in on herself again, her face pinched like she expected him to rage at her, and her distress cut through his own.  Whatever came of this, he couldn’t make things worse by making her feel attacked.

“I’m not angry,” he assured her, his heart sinking when his words made no appreciable difference in Belle’s huddled posture.

“I’m glad you picked it up,” he tried again, keeping his tone light with an effort.  “There are some things I’d rather Bae not know about his old man.”

That earned him a tiny smile.  Emboldened, Gold attempted another question.  “How much have you read?”

“You… You want to make love to me on the counter in the shop in front of the window.”  Belle’s face flushed a brilliant red as she spoke the words, and Gold swallowed hard.

His last hope had been that Belle had only read a few of his perverted fantasies, but he clearly remembered writing that one down and where it fell in the book.  She’d gotten nearly halfway through.   No doubt she was repulsed by his filthy mind and terrified of the things he wanted to do with her.  In a moment, she would voice her desire to start sleeping in her own room again for fear that he’d pounce on her the moment she closed her eyes.  He’d ruined everything.

Belle bit her lip, the distress in her eyes clear.  “Didn’t you notice it was missing?  Didn’t… didn’t you think about me today?”

Gold attempted to swallow and inhale at the same time and wound up choking on his own saliva.  That was what was bothering her?  She was more concerned that he hadn’t had any sexual thoughts about her today than about the twisted things she’d read?

As he wheezed, Belle looked up hopefully.  “Or did you fill this notebook and start another one?  Is that what the one in your pocket is?  Volume II?”

She rifled through the notebook in her hands, her face falling when she found a few empty pages at the back of the book.  “Oh.  I guess not.”

By all rights, she should be throwing the notebook back in his face before slapping him for having the nerve to think about her in such a way.  If she wasn’t furious, at the very least, she should be mortified by seeing herself described in such lurid ways.  Indeed, she was blushing, but as Gold looked at her more closely, he didn’t see the slightest hint of fear in her face.  Belle didn’t looked offended.  She looked fascinated.

Still, he had to be certain.  “Are you horrified?  By the things I want to do to you?”

Her eyebrows drew together.  “Should I be?  The things you wrote… Are they… bad?”

Five minutes ago, Gold would have said yes, but now he was second-guessing himself.  “Only if you don’t like them.”

Belle glanced down at the book in her hands, her eyes darting over the page.  “I don’t dislike them.”

Barely able to feel his feet, Gold staggered closer, relieved when Belle didn’t shy away from him when he took his place on the bed beside her.  “I thought you’d be frightened.  You’re so innocent.  I thought you’d be appalled by the things I think about.”

To his surprise, Belle giggled.  “Have you forgotten I was a carny?  I’ve seen way worse than this, even if I’ve never done anything.”  She waved the book to illustrate her point.

He was a fool.  Belle was no maiden in a tower.  The lack of privacy accorded by her previous lifestyle meant that she already had a vast education in the ways of the flesh, if only as an observer.  “I never want to do anything to make you uncomfortable.  I would never insist that we do anything you don’t want to do.”

At that, she actually rolled her eyes.  “I know that, Alastair.”

It seemed impossible that the matter could be resolved so easily.  Gold reached into his pocket and pulled out his second notebook, determined to make a full confession.  “You asked me if this was Volume II.  In a way it is.  This is the notebook I meant to show you.”

When he offered it to her, Belle took it and flipped through it.  As she read his words, he finished his explanation.  “I thought these thoughts would be less… intimidating.”

“I want to wrap my arms around Belle from behind and kiss her throat while she’s reading,” Belle read aloud, her face softening.  “That’s sweet.”

“I want you in every way that it’s possible to want someone,” he told her, his voice hoarse.  “I want to kiss you gently and I want to make love to you in the middle of town square.”

Belle squeaked, her face flaming.  “Were you ever going to tell me?  About the first notebook?”

“In time.  Once you were more comfortable.  I never meant to lie to you, sweetheart.  I was just trying to protect you.”  Only now did he realize how close he’d come to a line that shouldn’t be crossed.  Hiding things from Belle, even if he meant to protect her, was unfair and unjust.  She needed to be free to make her own decisions, and that meant she needed all the information, not partial truths wrapped in pretty bows.  

“Then I’m glad I read it first.  If we’d done it the other way around, I might have been too embarrassed to show you mine.”  When she gave her notebook a significant look, Gold took the hint.

Opening it at random, he read the first words that caught his eye.  “I want Alastair to use his mouth on me in the back seat of the Cadillac.”

He shifted, automatically drawing one knee up to hide the way his cock surged into immediate hardness as he read Belle’s words.  After a moment, he realized he was doing it again— trying to shield her— and lowered his knee.  If she looked, she’d be able to see him straining against the front of his pajamas.

Belle was looking, her color high and her eyes dark.  “Do you like my idea?” she asked in a voice that was more curious than seductive.  

Very much, sweetheart.”  It was all he could do not to grab her hand and drag her straight out to the garage to make her fantasy come true.

“I don’t know if I’m ready to do any of those things yet,” she cautioned him.  “But I think about them.  A lot.”

When he wrapped his arm around her, she snuggled into his side.  “There’s no rush.  We can go as slow as you want.  I’m so glad you think about me like this.  Just knowing that you have such thoughts is enough for me for now.”

“It makes you happy to know I think about you,” she said like she was trying the idea out in her own mind.  

“Oh yes.”  Reading one page of Belle’s notebook had aroused him more than anything he’d ever done with any other partner.  What a difference love made.

“It makes me happy too.  To know you think about me.”  Belle rested her head against his shoulder, her face peaceful.  “Dad was wrong.”

“Yes, he was,” he agreed.  He could tell her that until his tongue fell off, but it would make no difference.  Belle had needed to come to the realization for herself.

“Maybe… maybe we could start with Volume II?” she suggested, sounding shy.  “Sort of… work our way up?”

“We can do whatever you want,” he promised, his insides shuddering at the thought of doing anything with Belle.

“Can I finish reading your notebook?  Both of them?” she asked hopefully.  “And… you could read mine.”

Gold leaned down for a kiss before depositing both notebooks into her lap.  “I’d like that.”

Belle beamed up at him, her eyes sparkling.  “Me too.”

Chapter Text

“Belle?  Wake up, sweetheart.”

Belle stirred and stretched, smiling drowsily into her pillow as she remembered the events of the previous evening.  Last night, she and Alastair had exchanged journals, and he’d given her not one but two notebooks filled with delicious things that he dreamed of doing with her.  Even better, he hadn’t been disgusted when he read about the things she thought about doing with him.  Far from it.

They’d fallen asleep clinging to each other and dreaming of the nights to come when they turned their thoughts into actions.  Now, Belle moved to snuggle closer to him, frowning when she found herself alone in bed.

“Belle?”  A gentle finger tickled the back of her neck.  “Rise and shine, sleepyhead.”

She rolled over and looked up into Alastair’s smiling eyes.  The moment he determined that she was awake, he tugged the blankets off of her, making her yelp at the chilly morning air.  “Come on, get up.  I promise it’s worth it.”

He looked so excited that she couldn’t be cross with him.  Instead, Belle swung her legs out of bed and allowed him to grab her hand and drag her over to the window.  Peering out, she gasped when she realized what she was seeing.

“Snow!”

Alastair wrapped his arms around her from behind as she took in the sight.  For years, Belle had dreamed of seeing snow, and it was even more beautiful than she’d imagined.  A light coating of white covered the grass like spun sugar, glittering in the morning sun.  More tiny flakes fell from the sky to join their brethren, and when Belle craned her neck to look up, she felt as though she was flying up through the cascading flakes.

“Better late than never?” Alastair rumbled into her hair.  He’d apologized several times for the lack of snow after promising her that she could expect to see her first by the end of September.  Both September and October had passed snow-less, which was apparently quite unusual for Maine, but it had been more than worth waiting for.

“It’s magic.”

He chuckled at her enthusiasm.  “It gets old after a while,” he cautioned her.

Belle couldn’t imagine ever getting tired of watching the tiny flakes fall, but eventually she had to leave her position at the window to ready herself for the day.  Bae laughed at her when she chose to eat her breakfast while standing by the window instead of at the counter, but Belle just laughed with him.  “I’d better not sit by the window during class today.  I won’t be able to pay attention!”

“We’ll play outside after school,” Bae promised.

“Can we build a snowman?”  She’d read about all sorts of winter fun in her books, but that was the one thing that had always captured her imagination the most.  She'd dreamed about how much fun it would be to create a creature out of snow and ice, knowing that it would last only as long as the temperature stayed low.  Her father would have decried it as a waste of time, and that meant that Belle was eager to try.

“It depends on the snow,” Alastair cautioned her.  “It has to be a good packing snow to make a snowman.”

“Packing snow?” she repeated doubtfully.

“When the snow’s all fluffy, it just falls apart if you try to build something,” Bae explained.  

“It’s the water content.  You have to have a heavy snow in order for a snowman to stay together.  I’m not sure we’re going to get enough to build a proper snowman today.”  Alastair pressed a gentle kiss to her lips to soothe her disappointment.

“We could make a snow mouse,” Bae suggested.

Belle smiled at the thought.  “A snow chinchilla.”

“A snow ferret.”  Alastair joined in the game.  “If the snow is heavy enough, I promise that we’ll build something this afternoon.”  

Belle bit her lip and glanced out the window, dancing on her toes as she willed the snow to become packing snow if it wasn’t already.

Alastair took her hands in his, distracting her from her wish.  “You must be very careful driving today.  Snow can be treacherous.”

His concern for her warmed her heart.  Her father often told her to be careful driving, but that was because he worried about the expensive carnival equipment under her control.  Alastair worried about her.

“I will be,” she promised, leaning up for a kiss that made Bae pretend to gag.

True to her word, she was slow and cautious as she made her way to campus, delighted when the snow continued to fall.  Will and Ana humored her enthusiasm, but they drew the line at sitting outside to drink their coffee.  “Darling, I know you have your love to keep you warm, but the rest of us will freeze.”

“I’ll keep you warm.”  Will tugged Ana down onto his lap and nipped at her throat as she batted at him to release her.

Once, such a display would have made Belle blush, but now things were different.  Several of Alastair’s fantasies had involved her sitting on his lap, and the thought of putting those words into action made her stomach ache in a way that felt exciting and pleasant.  She could do it tonight if she wanted to.  Instead of curling up on the couch to do her class reading, she could curl up in Alastair’s lap instead.  He wouldn’t think she was bad for doing such a thing.  It would probably make him very happy if she did that.

It might not be appropriate to do that in front of Bae though.  Belle worried about the idea as she pulled out of the parking lot at the end of the day.  By the time she was his age, she’d seen far more than that, but she wanted better for the boy.  

Belle frowned as she thought about Bae.  He seemed happy that she and Alastair were together, but he definitely didn’t like watching them kiss.  Perhaps she should talk to Alastair about that.  It would be awful if Bae decided he didn’t want her to be his stepmother at all because she and Alastair couldn’t keep their lips to themselves.  Maybe they should cut back on the kissing when Bae was around.  In that case, lap-sitting was definitely out.

That was all right, she decided as she drove.  This afternoon, she and Alastair and Bae were going to build a snow creature, and after that there would be dinner and their session with Archie.  She had reading enough to do to keep her busy until Bae went to bed, and after that…

She shivered at the thought.  Once Bae was in bed, she and Alastair would be free to do whatever they wanted.  She could sit on his lap or do anything else she pleased, and he would be happy about it.  Perhaps they could just flip through the second volume of his notebook and choose a fantasy at random to make come true.

So lost was Belle in her pleasurable anticipation of the night to come that she didn’t immediately notice the traffic around her slowing down.  When she realized just how close she was to the car in front of her, she hit the brakes, yelping as her tires skidded on the icy road.

Gritting her teeth, she wrested the steering wheel hard in the opposite direction in an effort to regain control of the car, but it was too late.  She screamed as the tires lost their traction, sending her spinning off the road toward a copse of trees.

It seemed to happen in slow motion.  Alastair had told her to be careful driving, and she hadn’t listened.  He was going to be furious with her.

That was the last thing she had time to think before car met tree and everything went black.

Chapter Text

Gold’s heart threatened to pound its way out of his chest as he made his way down the hospital corridor, cursing the limp that kept him from racing to Belle’s side.  She was hurt.  She needed him, and he wasn’t with her.

He never should have let her drive today.  She’d never even seen snow, much less driven in it.  He should have closed the shop for the day and served as her chauffeur.  If he’d done that, if he hadn’t been so damned stupid, they’d be home right now, wrapped around each other and drinking hot cocoa or building snow creatures with Bae.  

Instead he’d been a fool, and Belle had paid the price.

His stomach rolled at the thought.  He’d answered a call from Belle’s phone only to find himself talking to a stranger, and he hadn’t heard a word after “car accident.”  How bad was it?  Surely the universe wouldn’t be so cruel as to take her away from him when they’d only just gotten themselves straightened out.  They were supposed to have a lifetime together.  If he lost her…

Gold couldn’t bear to think about it.

As he rounded the final corner, his worst fears were assuaged.  One of the curtains in the emergency ward was pushed aside, revealing Belle, who was sitting on the edge of a bed, her arm in a sling and her face as bruised as though she’d taken up boxing in her spare time.  Both of her eyes were purpling; her nose looked swollen, and her bottom lip was split.  Despite that, she was smiling tremulously at the nurse who was standing over her.

“Belle!”

The moment she heard his voice, her smile vanished, and to his horror she dissolved into noisy tears.  “Alastair!”

When she reached for him with her good arm, Gold dropped his cane and lurched forward, his own eyes burning.  Terrified that he would hurt her, he settled for wrapping a careful arm around her instead of crushing her against his chest, but Belle pressed herself against him like she was trying to crawl inside his body.

“Alastair… oh, Alastair, I’m sorry… I’m so sorry…”  She was crying so hard that he could barely make out the words.

“Hush…” he soothed automatically as he wrapped his other arm around her and ran a surreptitious hand over her back, checking for injuries and finding none.  If the worst that came of this was a bruised face and a broken arm, they’d been very lucky indeed.

He buried his face in her hair, breathing her in.  She was all right— battered and bruised and upset, but ultimately all right.  He’d take her home and tuck her into bed and never let her drive anywhere by herself ever again.

“I’m sorry!”  Her voice broke as she sobbed out the words.  “The car… your beautiful car…”

Belle was hurt and she was worried about the car?  

“To hell with the car,” he said roughly.  “You’re all right.  That’s all that matters.  The car can be damned.”  He’d take a sledgehammer to it himself.  He never should have bought her something so impractical.  Her next car would have four wheel drive and snow tires and be a damned tank.

“I tried to be careful… I’m so sorry…” she whimpered.  In his arms, he could feel her shaking.

She wasn’t afraid he’d be angry with her, not really.  Gold ran his hands over her back as he nuzzled her hair, crooning soft, meaningless words.  She knew him better than to think he’d rage at her.  This was shock and twenty-four years of her father’s conditioning coming to the fore.  

“I know you did, sweetheart,” he assured her.  “You have nothing to be sorry for.  I’m not angry.  It was an accident.  All I care about is that you’re all right.  That’s all that matters.  Breathe for me, my darling.  Just try and breathe.  I love you so very much.”

Belle let out a gasping sob, then took a ragged breath, and he praised her extravagantly, “That’s wonderful, sweetheart.  That’s right.  Just breathe.  Everything is going to be all right.”

He kept up his litany as Belle’s panting breath slowed and evened out, the storm passing.  Gold swiped his hand over his face to brush away his own tears before leaning back enough so that he could see her face.  

With his best smile, he asked, “Better now?”

Belle nodded, looking exhausted.  “Better.”

“Good.”  He pressed a firm kiss to her forehead to seal the deal, then set to work covering every inch of her face.  He anointed her bruises with gentle lips, wishing he could simply kiss away her pain.

“I’m okay.”  Belle reached up to touch his face.  

“Are you?”  His concern for her emotional state had distracted him from her injuries, but the sight of her bruised face brought all his worries rushing back.

“Minor contusions from the airbag,” the nurse explained, and he recognized her voice as the one that had called him and brought his world crashing down.  Perhaps she wasn’t so bad.  “It’s possible that her shoulder is partially dislocated.”

“I have to have X-rays and maybe an MRI.”  Belle bit her lip, wincing when her teeth found flesh that was already split.

“No, no,” Gold scolded, leaning down to kiss her abused lip.  

“I’m being so much trouble,” she agonized.

“You know that’s not true.”  His voice was sterner than he’d intended, and for an instant Belle hunched over, once again the terrified girl he’d taken in.  

God, why could he do nothing right when it came to her?  “Belle…”

“You’re right,” she said unexpectedly, sitting up straighter.  “I do know that.  I do.”

In her eyes, he saw nothing but quiet confidence, and the surge of pride that filled him made his hands shake.  The accident had rattled her, but it hadn’t sent her spiraling back down into anxiety and self-doubt.  Belle truly believed that he valued her, but more importantly, she’d learned to value herself.  

“As soon as you’re done here, I’m going to take you home and Bae and I are going to spoil you rotten,” he vowed.  She wouldn’t lift a finger for the length of her recovery.  Gold was rather tempted to simply keep her in bed until Christmas.

Now was definitely not the time to be thinking things like that.  

Belle gave him a rueful smile.  “That sounds pretty good right now.”

“Are you in pain, sweetheart?”  She was being brave, but from the state of her face, she had to be suffering.

“I’m all r—“  Belle cut herself off with a shake of her head.  “My face hurts, and my shoulder’s throbbing.”

He kissed her temple to thank her for her honesty.  She was finally learning to advocate for herself, and now that she’d told him what she needed, it was his turn.

Rounding on the nurse, Gold demanded, “She needs painkillers.”

The nurse shook her head.  “We already gave her a muscle relaxant.  The doctor won’t order anything stronger until she’s had the X-rays.”

“She’s in pain now,” Gold snarled, allowing his teeth to show.

“As soon as she’s had the X-rays—"

“Then what the hell are we waiting for!” he roared.  

“Sir, you need to calm down.”  The nurse folded her hands primly.

“The hell I will!  My fiancée is in pain, and you’re standing around with your thumb up your—"

“Sir!”

“I’ll have your job for this, you wretched—!”

“Alastair!”

Gold cut himself off mid-shout and looked down into Belle’s reproving eyes.  

“Be nice,” she scolded him before turning to the nurse.  “He’s just worried about me.”

“I’ll go see how much longer the wait will be.”  The nurse vanished, leaving the two of them alone, and a hot flame of shame flared to life in Gold’s stomach when he realized he’d been shouting.

This was a part of himself that he’d always hidden from Belle— the impatient, rude, difficult part that the rest of Storybrooke was all too familiar with.  Rarely did he shout, preferring the icy threat of quiet intimidation, and he couldn’t have chosen a worse time for his outburst.  Belle had experienced far too much shouting in her life, and she was already feeling fragile.  He must have terrified her.

“I’m sorry.”  

Belle’s lips quirked in a smile.  “I don’t think you should be apologizing to me.”

She didn’t look terrified, he registered.  Instead, her eyes were warm, although exasperated, and filled with something that looked suspiciously like amusement.  

“You need to be nice,” she repeated as she laced her fingers through his.  “She’s only doing her job.”

“She should be doing it a damned sight faster,” he grumbled, unable to completely release his anger.

“She was nice about you.  When I first got here, I was crying about the car, and she told me she was sure you wouldn’t care.”

That was unexpected.  “Yes… well.  She was right.”

“She made me feel a lot better.”  Belle’s tone was leading, and Gold huffed when he realized what she wanted.

“I’ll lower her rent.”

“Alastair!”  Her laugh warmed his soul.  “Or you could just tell her that you’re sorry.”

It would be easier to just lower her rent, but if hearing him apologize would make Belle happy, he’d force himself to say the words.  “All right.”

“You don’t have to sound so gloomy about it.”  Belle ran her thumb over his.  “I’m sorry I scared you.  I really did try to be careful, but I was distracted.”

“You and your snow,” Gold said fondly.  He could only hope that Belle would still be as enamored with the stuff five months from now.  Maine winters tended to be endless.

She blushed.  “Actually, I was thinking about you.  And your notebook.”

A hungry noise escaped his throat, his body reacting even as his stomach clenched at the thought that Belle’s accident was his fault, however indirectly.  

Belle’s mouth twisted as she looked at her sling.  “I suppose this changes things.  About our plan to… experiment.”

“Not… necessarily.”  The sling certainly complicated matters, but Gold could still think of plenty of possibilities if Belle was interested.

Her smile made him feel dizzy.  “Oh good!  We’ve already waited so long.  I hated to think that I ruined everything.”

Belle was sitting in the emergency ward, in pain, arm in a sling, and already thinking about what they could do together.  She’d come a long way in a week.  It was amazing what honesty could do.  

“Miss French?  They’re ready for you.”

Gold turned to face the nurse as she stepped past the curtain.  “I apologize for my earlier outburst.  My harsh words were uncalled for.”

The woman gaped at him for a long moment before hurriedly turning away to get a wheelchair for Belle.  “It’s fine.  Don’t worry about it, Mr. Gold.”

Belle tugged him down for a quick kiss while the woman’s back was turned, rewarding him for his good behavior.  “See?  That wasn’t so hard.”

Gold shook his head in mock irritation.  “The things I do for you.”

Her brilliant smile told him that she wasn’t fooled for an instant.  Nor should she be.  He would do anything for Belle— even apologize.  His fearsome reputation might suffer for it, but she was more than worth it.  It was all the more reason that he needed to keep her safe and sound.

Chapter Text

“Do you have everything you need, sweetheart?  What can I get for you?”

Belle looked around the bedroom, wondering what Alastair could possibly be afraid she was missing.  He’d made a nest of at least a dozen pillows for her, complete with three quilts that he’d tucked so securely around her legs that she’d never be able to leave the bed without help.  Her stack of library books was within easy reach of her good arm, as was a cup of tea, a plate of cookies, her phone, a box of chocolates, and the television remote.  From the foot of the bed, several of Bae’s stuffed animals smiled happily at her.  If Alastair planned to sleep at her side tonight, there would be no room for him.

“You’re spoiling me,” she accused lightly.  When she had the flu, he’d taken exquisite care of her, but nothing had prepared her for this.

Alastair’s smile didn’t quite reach his eyes.  “I’m just glad you’re here to be spoiled.”

She’d frightened him, and the guilt that twisted inside of her at knowing that made her stomach hurt.  The last thing she’d ever wanted to do was upset Alastair, but she’d allowed herself to get distracted for a minute, and on the icy road, a minute’s distraction had nearly spelled her doom.  “I’m sorry.”

“No.”  The mattress dipped under his weight as he sat down on the bed beside her, his brown eyes distraught.  “No, don’t be sorry.  I didn’t mean… It was an accident.  It wasn’t your fault.”

“It was though.”  She was the one who’d allowed her attention to wander.  She was just lucky the accident had been no worse.

No.”  His voice was firm.  “I knew you weren’t used to the snow.  I should have helped you practice before you tried driving on your own.  If it was anyone’s fault, it was mine.  I should have anticipated this.”

“Alastair, don’t be silly!”

How could he possibly blame himself for her driving into a tree?  “You couldn’t possibly have known this was going to happen!  It was an accident, that’s all.  Accidents happen.”

“That’s right, they do.”  His gaze was intent, as though he was waiting for her to have some kind of epiphany, and after a moment, the penny dropped.

“Oh, you…”  Belle shook her head when she realized how neatly he’d trapped her.  If she wouldn’t allow him to blame himself for her accident, by the same logic she couldn’t blame herself either.

“Let’s agree that it was a nasty accident that was no one’s fault and concentrate on being glad it wasn’t worse.”  Alastair ran gentle fingers over her arm.  “Not that it wasn’t bad enough.”

“It doesn’t hurt too much,” she reassured him.  Once she’d finished getting all of her tests, verifying that no major damage had been done although she’d sprained and strained all sorts of things, the doctor had been happy to prescribe a good painkiller.  The pills made her head feel a bit like it was stuffed with cotton, but the throbbing in her shoulder had been reduced to nothing more than a dull ache.

He chuckled softly as he continued tracing his fingers over her injuries, moving to her bruised face.  “People will think I beat you.”

The idea was so ridiculous that Belle had to laugh too.  “I won’t let anyone think that.”

His smile faded as quickly as it came, leaving Alastair looking stricken.  “Oh, sweetheart, I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have said that.”

It took her a moment to make sense of his apology— he was afraid he’d stirred up bad memories of her father.  “It’s okay.  When you said that… I didn’t even think about him.  It’s funny.  I used to think about him all the time.  I still do sometimes, but not as much.  It’s like he’s fading away.”

Moe French would always be part of her, but as time passed, the part of her soul that he filled grew smaller and smaller.  There were so many other parts of her now— Alastair and Bae and her books and her schooling and her friends.  There wasn’t much room for her father any more with so many other wonderful things filling her.

Alastair made a soft noise and kissed her temple.  “You’re brave as a lion, my love.”

Belle tilted her head back, willing to risk the pain from her split lip for a proper kiss.

For a moment, Alastair looked like he wanted to refuse, but when she held his gaze, he slowly leaned in, hesitating at the last moment.  “Your lip… I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You won’t.”  If there was one thing she was certain of, it was that nothing Alastair did to her could ever hurt.  

When he just looked at her with agonized eyes, Belle realized that he didn’t have as much faith in himself as she did in him.  She was tempted to simply reach up with her good hand to grab him by the tie and yank him down, but that would be wrong.  Alastair had been nothing but patient with her.  She couldn’t force him to kiss her against his will.

However, that didn’t mean she couldn’t try to persuade him.

“Maybe we could do something else.”  Surely there was a compromise to be found that they would both enjoy.  “Something… from your notebook?”

She wished she sounded more confident.  Alastair said she was brave, but she sounded shy and uncertain to her own ears.  

As far as she could tell, Alastair didn’t mind.  His breath caught, his eyes going wide, and when he spoke, his voice sounded hoarse.  “I… I think I wrote something about… wrapping my arms around you from behind and kissing your throat.”

“I think we could try that.”  Feeling herself blush, Belle looked down.  “We might have to move some pillows though.”

The front door slammed.  “Papa!  Mom!  I’m home!”

Bae’s voice shattered the delicious tension, and for a moment, Belle was tempted to say a few of the more colorful words she’d learned working at the carnival.  She loved Bae.  She really, really did.  He just had dreadful timing.

“Is it too late to abandon him to be raised by wolves?” Alastair mumbled, looking as exasperated as she felt.  

“We’re upstairs, Bae!”

As Bae thundered up the stairs, Belle blanched.  “We have to warn him!” she whispered urgently.  Seeing her like this would be a nasty shock if they didn’t prepare him.

“Oh hell.  Bae, don’t—!”

It was too late.

“Check this out!  I got an A on my biology test, and we’re going to dissect a frog, but you have to sign the paper, and—“  Bae froze in the doorway, his eyes riveted to Belle’s bruised face.  

“It’s not as bad as it looks.”  Belle tried to smile for him so he wouldn’t worry, but Bae’s face crumpled.

“Oh no!  No, it’s okay.  I’m okay.  I’m just a little banged up.  Please don’t be upset.  Come here.”  When she held her good arm out to him, Bae shuffled closer, looking at his feet.

“What happened?”  Bae suddenly sounded much younger than his thirteen years.

Belle’s throat felt too tight to talk, so Alastair took over.  “Her car skidded on the ice driving home and she hit a tree.”

Bae’s eyebrows drew together in a thunderous frown.  “Stupid snow.  I hate snow.”

Belle found her voice.  “I need to practice more before I drive in it again.  It’s a lot slipperier than I realized.  I’m sorry that we can’t make snow ferrets today.”

“S’okay.”

“But look who I have with me.”  Belle moved her foot to nudge the stuffed animals, calling Bae’s attention to them.  “They’ve been helping me feel better.”

The stuffed animals had been a gift from Bae shortly after she moved in, and the sight of them made him smile, albeit fleetingly.  “Is your arm broke?”

“Nope.  I just hurt my shoulder.  I had to get an MRI.  They put me in this big tube and scanned me.  It was like Star Trek.”  She did her best to make the procedure sound more exciting than it actually had been.

Bae brightened a little.  “How did they scan you?  Were there lasers?”

Relieved that the worst seemed to be over, Belle patted the mattress to encourage him to sit down, then nudged the plate of cookies closer to him.  

By the time she’d finished telling him about the MRI, Bae had eaten six cookies and was acting more like himself.  It was Alastair, however, who banished the last shadows from his eyes.  “Of course, this means that you have a very important job to do.”

Bae perked up at the idea of being important.  “What?”

“Since Belle can’t use her right arm, she’s going to need a lot of help.  She’s going to need someone to carry things for her and open things for her…”  Alastair trailed off, hiding his smile at Bae’s eager look.

“I can do that.  I’m good at that.”

“I don’t know…”  Belle pretended to ponder the idea.  “My book bag gets awfully heavy.  Do you think he can handle it?  Maybe we should call Dove.”

Bae’s look of outrage made it almost impossible to keep a straight face.  “I can carry it!  I’m really strong.  Look…”

He bounced off the bed, looking around for something he could pick up to demonstrate his strength.  As he did, Alastair laughed quietly and leaned in to whisper in her ear, “Well done.”

His praise warmed her.  “He’s going to be picking up everything in the house.”

Alastair chuckled and pressed a tender kiss to the patch of skin just below her ear.  “Good.  It’ll distract him and wear him out.  You’re a good mom.”

Belle caught her breath.  Bae called her mom, but she’d never allowed herself to think of anything she did with him as parenting.  Considering her own past and the example set by her father, she hadn’t dared.  Yet if Alastair, who was a wonderful father, thought that she was a good mom…

Maybe she was.

On the other side of the room, Bae was in the process of picking up the heavy pot her ficus tree grew in, the tree tipping alarmingly.  “All right!  All right!  You convinced me.  Now come here and tell us about the frogs.”

With a running jump, he rejoined them on the bed, the movement making her arm throb for a moment.  Belle breathed in through her nose, relieved when it passed quickly, the painkillers doing their job.  

“We’ve been learning all the parts, and now that we had our test, we get to take real frogs apart and find all the stuff.  Mrs. Kimmel has them in jars in the back of the room.  Emma and I are going to be partners, and we named ours Fred, but you have to sign the permission slip.  You will, won’t you, Papa?”

Alastair pretended to think it over.  “Should I be concerned about your eagerness to slice up a frog?”

Bae made an exasperated noise.  “It’s already dead.  It’s been dead forever.  It’s in stuff.”

“In that case, I will sign the permission slip if you go get it and bring it here.”  

Bae was off like a shot, his earlier distress forgotten.  As soon as he was out of the room, Alastair chuckled and wrapped his arm around her shoulders.  “So much for our plan to experiment.”

“He has to sleep some time.”  That was the nice thing about living in a house with doors that shut.  Once Bae was asleep and they were alone in their bedroom, they could do whatever they wanted.

Alastair glanced down at her, his eyes soft and shiny.  “You’re a wonder, my love.”

When she yawned in response, he chuckled.  “And you need your rest.  Get some sleep.  I’ll wake you for dinner if Bae doesn’t wake you first.”

Too comfortable and content to argue, Belle snuggled deeper into her nest of pillows and closed her eyes.  “I love you, Alastair.”

Warm lips brushed her forehead.  “And I love you too.”

Chapter Text

“Alastair?”

The moment he heard Belle’s voice, Gold dropped the ties he’d been holding and limped closer to the closed bathroom door.  He was being foolish.  There was no reason, none, that his collection of ties needed to be reorganized.  The activity was merely busywork, something that gave him an excuse to be in the bedroom while Belle was taking care of her personal business.  He couldn’t bear to be farther away from her.  Only two days ago, he’d nearly lost her forever, and just being on opposite sides of a closed door was torture.

“Yes, sweetheart?”

“You can come in,” Belle invited, and he was pushing the door open before she’d even finished her sentence, finding her standing in front of the sink and examining her bruised face in the mirror.  

She glanced at him for just a moment before going back to inspecting her own appearance, a flush rising in her cheeks.  “I wanted to ask you a favor.”

Her words made him feel almost giddy.  Whatever Belle wanted, he would give her and relish the chance to prove his devotion.  “Anything.”

“My hair looks awful,” she said to her own reflection, apropos of nothing.

“You’re beautiful,” he assured her, speaking only truth.  Belle was alive and with him, and nothing was more beautiful than that.  

She pulled a face.  “No, I’m serious.  It’s all greasy, and Will and Ana are coming over later to drop off the notes from class.”  

He’d insisted that she take a few days off from her classes to recuperate, and the fact that Belle hadn’t argued told Gold all he needed to know about the toll her accident had taken on her.  Once she was a bit less bruised and battered, he’d drive her back and forth to campus, but in the meantime, her friends seemed happy to help her keep up with her studies.

Will and Ana might be happy to visit Belle, but it was clear that Belle was less sanguine about the upcoming visit.  No doubt her hair was only an excuse.  If she was feeling fragile, any company, even that of her friends, might well be too much for her.  “I’ll handle it, sweetheart.  I’ll get the notes from them and send them on their way.  You won’t even know they’re here.”

“What?”  Belle glanced away from the mirror to look at him, her face puzzled.  

“I promise I’ll be polite.  I’ll tell them you’re sleeping.”  After his rather violent introduction to Will, Gold didn’t entirely blame Belle for being wary of his ability to play nicely with her friends.

Belle giggled, her face clearing.  “Oh, Alastair… No, that’s not what I meant.  I want to see them.”

If she didn’t want him to ride herd on her friends, Gold was at a loss as to what she did want him to do.  “I don’t understand, love.  What are you asking me?”

The way she caught her bottom lip between her teeth made his blood run hot in his veins.  “It’s my shoulder.  I can’t wash my hair with just my left hand.  I can manage the rest but not my hair.  I tried.  I was wondering… Could you…?”

Gold’s breath caught in his chest when he realized what she wanted.  “You want me to wash your hair.”

“You don’t have to!” she hastened to assure him, like there was any chance he would want to avoid the task.  “I know it’s a strange thing to ask, but—"

“Sweetheart, there is nothing I would rather do than wash your hair.”  This wasn’t one of the fantasies from his notebook, and Gold couldn’t imagine how he’d allowed such an oversight.  What could be more pleasurable than to serve Belle in this way?  The only thing that would be better would be to take it even further— to lather her skin slowly with his bare hands, making sure that he didn’t miss a single inch of her body.

With effort, Gold shoved down the erotic thoughts.  While Belle might one day want such a thing, today was not that day.  She was asking him for a purely functional favor, and he needed to keep himself in check.

“Really?”  Her brilliant smile made his throat hurt.  “Thank you!”

“How do you want to do this, sweetheart?”  More than once, he’d washed Bae’s hair in the kitchen sink, but that seemed less than ideal. Belle had considerably more hair than his son did, for one thing.  Nor did he expect her to suggest they both doff their clothes and plunge into the soaking tub together, although the possibility was definitely another one for his notebook.

Belle’s brow furrowed in an adorable frown.  “I hadn’t thought that far ahead,” she admitted.

A quick look around the bathroom provided inspiration.  

“Here.”  Gold turned the teak bathing chair that he used when his knee hurt too much to allow him to stand in the shower around so that it faced away from the shower head.  If she sat, it would give him easy access to Belle’s hair and prevent her from getting too wet in the process.  

“You’re a genius,” she praised, leaning up to kiss his cheek before darting over to sit in the shower stall.  Once she was settled, Belle looked down at her camisole and pajama pants in dismay.  “I’m taking a shower with my clothes on.  That’s kind of stupid, isn’t it?”

Her voice shook, telling him that she wasn’t yet ready to bare her body to him.  

“It’s better for my sanity,” he assured her.  

When color rose in her cheeks, he thought he’d upset her, but her smile erased that fear.  “Maybe we should add that to our list of things to try.”

Gold nearly keeled over at her choice of words.  It was enough that Belle had been more titillated than appalled by the things he daydreamed about doing with her, but to hear that she thought of their notebooks as a kind of To Do list was enough to break him.  

“I would like that.”

His gravelly tone made Belle flush deeper, her eyes boldly sweeping over him.  “You’ll ruin your suit if you wear it for this.”

Gold needed no further invitation.  “Tell me when to stop.”

Taking off his jacket and tie was easy, but when he reached his waistcoat, his hands began to shake.  This was really happening.  He was undressing himself not because he was getting comfortable at the end of his work day but because Belle was waiting for him in the shower.  They weren’t going to do that, but they were going to do something intimate and beautiful that two months ago, he would have sworn that she would never allow him.

By the time he was barefoot in his shirt and trousers, he expected her to tell him to stop, but Belle held her tongue, watching with softly parted lips as he unbuttoned his shirt and cast it aside.  It wasn’t the first time she’d seen him bare-chested, but this time she was looking—really looking—and it was all he could do not to cover himself with his arms.  He’d never been a handsome man, and now he was middle-aged with all the softness and sagging that implied, yet Belle was looking at him like he had the physique of a Greek god.

“I’d like to hear what you’re thinking,” he said softly, suddenly desperate for reassurance.

Belle licked her lips, laughing nervously.  “I can’t believe how beautiful you are.  I’m sorry.  I know men don’t like that word, but it’s the only one I can think of.  You’re so beautiful, Alastair.”

With that simple declaration, all of Gold’s insecurities washed away.  He wasn’t a good-looking man, but if he looked good to Belle, nothing else mattered.  Framing her face with his hands, he leaned down to brush his lips against her.  “Thank you, sweetheart.”

If he didn’t start his task now, he never would.  With effort, Gold stepped back and picked up the detachable shower head, aiming it at the bottom corner of the stall until the water reached an acceptable temperature.  It splashed a bit, his trousers taking the brunt of it, but he made no move to doff them even though Belle hadn’t actually told him to stop undressing.  Standing here in the steamy shower with Belle while wearing only his boxers was more than he could handle right now.

“Tilt your head back,” he encouraged, waiting until Belle had followed his instructions before dousing her hair, doing his best to angle the spray away from her face.  

Her throaty groan went straight to his cock.  “That feels so good.”

Encouraged by her reaction, Gold took his time, using his free hand to slide into her hair and make sure he didn’t miss a single strand before turning the water off.  Only then did he pick up her shampoo, working up a lather between his palms before returning his attention to her hair.

When he washed his own hair, his movements were brisk and efficient, getting the job done as quickly as possible.  With Belle, Gold took the opposite approach, taking his time to massage her scalp and wrap each individual curl around his hands.  Every soft noise of pleasure she made inflamed him until he was straining against his trousers, and it was a relief that she’d closed her eyes to better enjoy his ministrations.

Careful not to pull, he rinsed the suds out of her hair, relishing her quiet giggles as he splashed her face despite his best intentions.  Next came conditioner, and he combed it through her hair with long, careful strokes before leaving it to work its magic for the requisite three minutes.  

“Are you warm enough, sweetheart?”  He was burning up with lust, but there was no reason to assume that Belle was reacting the same way to this encounter.  

“Yes, I’m fine.”

He leaned out of the stall just far enough to grab a towel to blot the stray droplets off of Belle’s face, and when he turned around, her eyes were open and looking at him.  Gold froze as Belle’s gaze swept over him, moving down until she was staring at where he was tenting his trousers.

“I…”  He trailed off, not sure what to say.  Should he apologize?  Tell her how much just the simple process of washing her hair had aroused him?  That much was probably obvious.

Belle licked her lips, her focus unwavering.  “You,” she whispered.

She glanced up at his face, a question in her eyes, and Gold nodded instinctively although he had no idea what she was asking.  Whatever Belle wanted from him, his answer would always be yes.

He felt that he was hovering outside of himself, watching the two of them together from a viewpoint somewhere near the ceiling as Belle reached out her good hand to him and he stepped closer.  For a breathless eternity, there was an inch of space between them, then she gently cupped his hard cock through his trousers, and the subsequent jolt of sensation plunged him back into his body, a harsh groan tearing itself from his throat.

Belle sucked in a breath at the primal noise he made, but neither her touch nor her gaze wavered.  Her fingers remained where they were, pressing against him so lightly that it made his body quiver with the need to buck against her hand.

Sweetheart…” Gold pleaded, not sure what he was asking for.  He wanted both for her to stop and for her to touch him more boldly, to stroke and rub him into ecstasy.  More than anything, though, he wanted her to keep doing exactly what she was doing for the rest of his life.

For her part, Belle seemed rapt, her blue eyes riveted to the place where she was touching him.  She had to feel the way he was twitching against her palm, but she didn’t pull away.  Gold held his breath, afraid to move so much as a muscle for fear that she would take it as a cue to stop.

After what could have been moments or hours, Belle pulled back, looking up at him with stricken eyes.  “I’m sorry,” she whispered.  “I shouldn’t have…”

Gold grabbed her wrist and lifted her hand to his mouth so he could press grateful kisses to her palm.  It was ridiculous, but he fancied he could still feel a trace of his own warmth on her skin.  “Don’t be sorry.”

Belle bit her lip.  “I should have asked first instead of just grabbing you like that.”

He chuckled desperately against her hand, rubbing his face into her palm.  “You have my full permission to touch me anywhere at any time.  Grab anything you like.”

Her lips made a tiny O, her eyes shining.  “Okay.  You do too, you know?  Have permission to touch me.”

Her softly spoken words made his knees go weak, and for his own sanity, Gold refused to allow himself to contemplate the possibilities.  “Did you enjoy it, sweetheart?  Touching me?”

Her blush answered the question before she spoke.  “Very much.”

“I liked it too.”  It seemed impossible that she hadn’t realized that, but just in case, Gold wanted to make certain that she knew how much he’d enjoyed her touch.

He adjusted his grasp on her hand so he could kiss the back of it, feeling her fingers trembling.  Belle had taken a huge step today, and even though they’d both enjoyed it, it was probably wise to quit while they were ahead.  

To that end, he leaned down to brush his lips against hers, pulling back after only a moment so his body wouldn’t get any more ideas.  “Let’s finish your hair,” he suggested.

Belle sighed, a sound that spoke as much of relief as disappointment.  “I did like touching you,” she assured him.

“I know, but there’s no need to rush.”  Gold smiled tenderly at her and kissed the tip of her nose.  “Besides, I don’t think we want to entertain your friends in the bathroom.”

As he hoped, the suggestion made her giggle.  “That would be awkward.”

He stepped behind her, taking advantage of the extra space between them to will his body into submission as he reached for the shower head.  According to the doctor, Belle would need to wear her sling for at least another week.  That meant there would be more showers in their future, and considering the path this one had taken, Gold was very much looking forward to them.

There was nothing wrong with baby steps.  At least now they were moving forward.