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Friendships and Fandoms

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It was five o’clock in the morning at Storybrooke Studios and the set of popular prime-time drama series Star Force was seemingly deserted apart from security (one of whom was sleeping), and a rather dishevelled figure wearing jeans, an undershirt and a bathrobe, limping in the direction of hair and make-up with his cane in one hand and a battered newspaper from the previous day tucked under the other arm.

Rum Gold had still not got used to getting up at a ridiculous hour of the morning in order to be in make-up at five o’clock. He would get used to it eventually, he always got used to it just in time for season hiatus, and then he’d have a few weeks of a vaguely normal sleep pattern, and then he’d have to get used to the early starts again. One would have thought that after four years and three-and-a-half seasons, he’d be used to it, but he wasn’t. Still, not long to go and hopefully, five am starts would be a thing of the past.

Star Force, lovingly described by critics as ‘a glorious mash-up of Star Trek, Stargate: Universe and Galaxy Quest’ had had a very successful run, but its producers had decided to quit whilst they were ahead, and this fourth season would be its last. They were running out of fresh material, they said, and although there were more stories that they would like to tell with the characters, there wasn’t enough for another season, and they didn’t want it to become flat or forced. The fans had been saddened when it was revealed that this season would be the show’s last, but the first half of this final season had ended on a nail-biting cliffhanger and people were waiting on baited breath for the mid-season premiere in a few days’ time.

Gold was thankful for the five o’clock starts in one way though. His character, the alien doctor aboard the stranded starship Aurora Borealis, thejewel of the Star Force fleet that had been thrust unceremoniously into a far-off galaxy with seemingly no way home, was meant to be a guest star for five episodes in the first season and then die rather dramatically. As it was, the fans’ reaction to the slightly mad Dr Stiltskin had been so vociferous that his death was hastily edited and Gold had been signed as a series regular. It kept the money coming in steadily for four years, and Gold couldn’t really complain. And the cast and crew weren’t the worst he’d ever worked with – in fact, he’d made some good friends on the set that he hoped he’d keep in contact with after they all went their separate ways. Gold was not normally one to form friendships on set, especially on ensemble shows like Star Force where there were so many people always rushing around doing something, and he wondered what had changed with this particular role and this particular set of people.

“Walter, wake up,” he said as he made his way past the slumbering man’s office. Walter startled awake and proceeded to exclaim that he was not asleep, merely resting his eyes. Gold didn’t respond and continued his slow walk towards hair and make-up. The door was already open and he could smell tea inside.

The other reason that Gold was thankful for his five am starts was beyond that door. Belle French, the chief make-up artist. She was the real reason he dragged himself out of bed at this ungodly hour to sit in a chair and have his face covered in greeny-gold gloop. She had done his make-up on his first day and they had struck up a conversation (well, more of an argument really) about Russian literature that made the four hours fly by, and they had continued on to become regular conversation partners and, dare he think it, good friends. They’d managed to shave an hour off the make-up process since they started, but sometimes, Gold thought that Belle just enjoyed the little chats that they had in the time before the rest of the cast, all of whom required far less maintenance on their faces, began to arrive. He certainly enjoyed them, and he liked to think that she did too. Coming to think of it, Belle was probably the reason why he had ended up getting on with the rest of the cast, unlike on previous productions. Belle was sociable; she would seamlessly include him in conversations with her fellow make-up artists and the other cast members, and somehow he had been swept along in her trail. Somehow, he found he actually quite liked being part of Belle’s circle of friends.

Gold paused at the door. He would be sad in a few months’ time, when the series wrapped and he would no longer see her every morning he was filming, and he wanted to make every second with her count. He was going to miss her more than he liked to admit to himself. Gold shook himself crossly. Belle was young and beautiful with an illustrious career ahead of her. He, on the other hand, was past fifty and would likely never get another role quite as lucrative as this one had been, not with his ankle in the shape it was. He could get away with it in this role – the good doctor’s death had been turned instead into a rather nasty leg injury that left him crippled – but he wasn’t sure if other producers would be quite so willing when he said that his ankle brace was only good for a few days at a time and if they wanted him mobile for more than one or two short scenes, his character would need some kind of walking aid.

He didn’t want to think about what would come next for him, if anything.

Gold entered the bright room, trying to put the dark thoughts to the back of his mind, and Belle smiled, waving him over to his usual chair with the hand not holding her cup of coffee. They didn’t say good morning, they never did, not yet anyway. They had their own little morning rituals to get through before they were ready to talk and be social, even if only with each other and not the rest of the world. Gold let Belle finish her toast and she let him get comfortable, get his reading material out on his lap and take a few mouthfuls of the large mug of tea that she had waiting for him. It was hardly her prerogative to make him tea, but she said that she liked doing it, and she could brew it far better than he could at home whilst still half-asleep. Belle was a morning person, however early that morning might come. Gold was definitely not.

Tea half-drunk, they could begin the morning properly.

“Morning, Rum.”

“Morning, Belle.”

“You know, one of these days you’ll come to the set in a coat, rather than your dressing gown.”

Gold shrugged. “It’s warm.”

The first thing she always did was to go over his chin and upper lip with an electric shaver. The make-up didn’t sit properly on top of stubble; his face had to be as smooth as possible. He always used to shave every day after filming finished but even when he did, by the time he got back into the make-up chair next morning, the shadow was coming through again, so now he just let Belle take care of him and only shaved when she told him to.

“As soon as we wrap, I’m growing a beard,” he muttered. Belle giggled and rubbed a little lotion into his skin, to protect against irritation and give the make-up a smooth base to sit on. “I’m not going to shave for at least a year. I’ve already accepted that the only parts going for me will be mad old wizards who lean on staffs so I might as well save them some of the effort. I’ve had enough of long make-up jobs to last me a lifetime.”

“I think you look good with a beard,” Belle said conversationally.

Gold just raised an eyebrow at her. “You’ve never seen me with a beard. I look terrible with a beard.”

“I have seen you with a beard. Everyone who’s seen Her Handsome Hero has seen you with a beard. And I don’t think anyone thought you looked terrible with a beard in that.”

Gold cringed at the mention of the film that had brought him properly into the public eye. It was not his worst work, but coming as it did just after his incredibly acrimonious divorce, it was in no way his best and ever since, he’d tried to make sure that his role as the Machiavellian, moustache-twirlingly over-the-top villain of the piece was not the one he was remembered for, however much he had to thank it for giving him his big break. He narrowed his eyes at Belle’s words though.

“What do you mean, you don’t think anyone thought I looked terrible with a beard in that?”

“The Duke of Wetherford has quite the loyal following on Tumblr,” Belle said, beginning to sponge the base coat delicately onto his face and neck. “Hold your hair. There are several people who believe that the Marquise should have taken him up on his marriage proposal, instead of the rather insipid Colonel George. I have to say, I’m one of them. I never understood how anyone with a brain like Marquise Caroline’s could ever have seen anything in Colonel George. He was charming and handsome, yes, but she needed a husband who could match her wit and intellect, one who wouldn’t just use her as a baby-making machine. I think Wetherford was a much better choice.”

“He murdered the first Duchess of Wetherford,” Gold pointed out.

“That was never proved,” Belle replied firmly.

“Belle, I played the man, I’m telling you – he murdered her. That’s all the proof you need.”

“Well, I suppose no-one knows him better than you do. But you may be pleasantly surprised with what you find on Tumblr. Wetherford’s fanbase is larger than you think, you know.”

Gold had always been rather wary of Tumblr after accidentally stumbling across some posts that were not at all complimentary about his looks or his acting ability, and he’d decided that internet-based social media platforms were probably not for him. He’d only got on Twitter at the urging of one of his co-stars and he still got Belle to make most of his posts for him.

He didn’t respond to Belle’s words and settled back in the chair, closing his eyes as Belle worked around them gently with the make-up.

“Have you got the new episode on there?” she asked, tapping the tablet in his lap, half-hidden under the paper. Gold was still not completely clued up with the technology but he did admit that it was infinitely more useful than having to somehow print out PDFs of all his new scripts or cart his ancient laptop around with him.

“Yes. It came through last night but I haven’t had chance to look it yet. I was planning the first read through this morning.”

“I’ll never understand how you can read one script then go off and shoot another three hours later. But go ahead. You can open your eyes now. I’m done for the moment.”

They had to let the base dry for a while before the textured layer that gave his skin a slightly scaled appearance was put on, and it was this time that Gold usually used for looking through new script pages he’d been given whilst Belle made herself a second cup of coffee, having invariably managed to dunk her paintbrush or sponges in the first by accident. She might be more awake than he was, but Belle had always been a little bit accident prone.

He opened the script and skimmed through it to a random page, just to see what Stiltskin was going to be doing later, and he had only read a few lines before he stopped, burying the tablet under the paper again hastily. He couldn’t possibly have read that correctly.

Belle didn’t appear to have noticed the action and was still busy at her little kettle, humming out of key.

Gold looked at the script again and reread the lines. No, he had definitely read right. His eyes were, sadly, not deceiving him.

He was going to have to take his shirt off for this scene.

He glanced across at Belle. Did she know? Stiltskin’s scaly skin wasn’t just limited to face and hands, it would be all over. He’d need make-up all over from the waistband up.

Gold felt the slight taste of panic begin to make itself known at the back of his tongue and glanced down at said waistband. It was not the idea of an extra few hours in make-up that bothered him; he was a patient man and he could withstand a lot of prodding in the name of his art. No, no, it was not the thought of a five or six hour stint in the chair that filled him with dread. It was the thought of Belle getting up close and personal with his bare chest and stomach. Ten years ago, perhaps even five years ago, he would not have been as worried. But the long hours and bad diet on Star Force had caused him to gain more than a few pounds over the last few years, and whilst his clothes hid his soft and flabby bits, without them it was extremely obvious that he had let himself go somewhat.

And it would not be just Belle; paint could hide a lot of things but not plain fat. Even with the make-up as a last defence, the rest of the world would still be able to see his belly.

The last time Gold had been in any way undressed for a role had been for a small independent film that he’d done before landing the Star Force role, and the unkinder members of the critiquing community had already been making snide remarks about a man of his age showing so much skin then. Things had not improved in the slightest in the intervening years.

This was it. This was his doom. He’d come so far with Star Force, only to fall in one of the last episodes and make a laughing stock of himself again.

“Rum? Rum, are you all right? I can see you’ve gone pale even through the make-up. Something’s wrong.”

He finally pulled himself out of his destructive spiral of thought to find Belle crouching by the side of the chair, her brow furrowed.

“I can’t do this,” he muttered, crumpling the newspaper in his fingers.

“You can’t do what?” Belle took the paper and tried to tug it away to read the script beneath it for herself, but she gave up with the notion when his grip proved too tight for her.

“I…”

He couldn’t tell her. He couldn’t confide his insecurities in Belle of all people. If there was one person in the world whom he didn’t want to think him old and past his prime, it was Belle. She saw him at his worst, at five o’clock in the morning before the caffeine kicked in, and she still talked to him, but this might well be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Over the past four years their friendship had grown into something that Gold truly cherished, and he could not ruin that now.

“I’m fine,” he said eventually. “Slightly unexpected plot twist.”

“Don’t tell me that they’re killing you off three episodes before the series finale!” Belle exclaimed. “That’s not fair! Dr Stiltskin needs to get home and reunite with his wife! The fandom’s been waiting for that moment since the first episode!”

In spite of everything, Gold had to smile at her reaction. “No, I’m not being killed off. Don’t worry.”

“Thank goodness for that. So what’s the problem?” she asked. “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost who dunked you in some green paint.”

Gold snorted. “It’s nothing. You’ll know soon enough.”

She would have to know; she had to be ready to do the make-up, an even earlier call time, even more preparation required.

“Can’t you tell me now? Or is it something super-secret?”

Gold didn’t reply for a long time.

“Shouldn’t we be getting my scales on, dearie?” he finally twittered in the doctor’s fluting tones. It would be easier if he was in character. Belle didn’t talk to him as much when he was playing Stiltskin; she preferred the actor to the character as a conversation partner.

She just sighed sadly and proceeded with his make-up. Nothing more was said for a little while until the door opened again and the other artists began to arrive with the rest of the cast, and more small-talk was made as people came in and out. Gold did not join in, still reading through his script and brooding over the scene to come.

“Hey, Gold!”

David Nolan, the man behind Star Force’s handsome, idealistic Lieutenant Charming, a brilliant military tactician with a soft spot for the sweet young navigator, Officer Snow, came in and gave Gold a slightly too hard slap on the shoulder in greeting. The younger man seemed to be in an incredibly good mood for some reason and Gold wondered with a worrying amount of vitriol if his happiness was down to Gold’s upcoming humiliation. He shook the thought away as uncharitable. David was a lovely man but was not the type to read so far into things as that. It was Gold who always overthought things – to the point where directors had had to tell him to stop thinking about it so much and just get on with the bloody thing.

“You’ve read the new script, I take it?” he said, settling down in the chair next to Gold and letting Ruby fuss over his hair and face.

“Yes.” Gold tried to keep the utter terror out of his voice.

“So how early will that call be?” David asked. “Because that’s a lot of make-up.”

Gold glanced down at his middle-age flab again. He didn’t need reminding that it would take a lot of make-up. He knew David didn’t mean it in that way, but that was the only way that Gold could think of it.

“It’s going to be three o’clock, I’m afraid,” Belle said. “Sorry Rum. It’s all right, you can sleep through most of it.”

Gold turned sharply to face her, or he would have done had Belle not been holding crimping irons in his hair and had made him turn back with a squawk of ‘do you want me to burn your scalp?’ Instead, he looked at her in the mirror.

“You knew?” he exclaimed.

“Of course I knew, they do have to tell me about these kind of things in advance,” Belle said, her voice matter of fact. She quirked an eyebrow at him in the mirror and then moved round to the side to take another section of his hair in the irons, and murmur in a low tone out of David’s earshot “is that what you were so upset about?”

Gold had no idea how to reply. To say no would be a blatant lie. To say yes would undoubtedly lead to conversation on the subject of why he was so worried.

“I don’t blame you if you are,” Belle continued conversationally.

The words felt like a knife twisting in his gut. Belle already knew. Belle already knew that he was worried about getting topless on screen for the first time in four years and she thought that he was right to be worried. She’d noticed his increased bulk. She knew he was getting heavier. She’d seen. Oh God, what was she thinking? Was she horrified at the prospect of being the one to see that fat in all its disgusting glory?

“I nearly passed out when I had my first wax and I vowed never again, and that was only my eyebrows. Take painkillers before you do it, it’ll help,” Belle said.

Gold blinked owlishly. “Pardon?”

“Wax,” Belle said. “Unless you’re completely fuzz-free you’ll need your chest, back, armpits and abdomen waxed for the make-up to go on smoothly.”

“I…” Luckily excess body hair had never been too much of a problem for him, but nonetheless, Gold had no idea what to say to her remark, one that he had not been expecting at all. Did she think he was worried because of the prospect of getting a wax? He’d had worse places waxed in his time.

“Or was that not what you were worried about?” Belle asked.

“I… No… I… Yes. Thanks. Painkillers. Got it.”

Belle just raised an eyebrow at him in the mirror, entirely unconvinced, but she did not push the point.

Gold just sat back and let her finish with his hair. She tutted as she ran her fingers through the crimped waves to loosen them up and make them look more natural. “You need a deep conditioning treatment, I keep telling you. Your beautiful floof is turning into straw.”

It was Gold’s turn to raise an eyebrow in the mirror. “My floof?”

“Your hair. We, well, me and the other make-up artists, we call it your floof. Because it’s normally so… floofy.”

“Floofy?”

Beside him, David was trying not to laugh.

“Shut up,” Gold growled. “Or next time Lieutenant Charming needs patching up, Dr Stiltskin’s bedside manner will most definitely not be on top form.”

“It never is,” David said. “You did actually stab Killian in the foot with that prop hypodermic, you know.”

“He deserved it, the smug git,” Gold muttered darkly. Killian Jones, the show’s leading man and nominate sex appeal, was a thoroughly unappealing soul in real life, however suave and debonair he tried (and frequently failed) to make his character, the ship’s captain, Hook, appear. To say that the cast and crew tolerated him would be slightly too charitable an assessment. Sadly the network had decided from the beginning that he was the one they would use to sell the series, and it certainly couldn’t be denied that Captain Hook had legions of fans.

“Oh, I agree that he deserved it. Emma’s been wanting to stab him with something worse than a needle for a while. Apparently he keeps wanting to ‘rehearse’ their bedroom scenes.”

Belle had to laugh. “Is that why he’s been hobbling these past few days?”

David nodded. “It’s quite beautiful to behold really. Still, come episode nineteen we’ll have a new heart-throb on the block.” He wiggled his eyebrows at Gold. “Even if you are unconscious for the majority of that scene.”

“I highly doubt it,” Gold muttered. Luckily Belle was absorbed in gluing his fingernails on, and paid the comment no heed.

X

“So why are you so worried about that scene?” Belle asked later, when they were getting his make-up off. Taking it off was a far easier process than putting it on, especially as Gold could help out. Taking it off required far less precision and art.

He paused, still pouring make-up remover onto a handful of cotton wool pleat.

“I’m not worried,” he said, overly brightly. “Who said I was worried?”

Belle took the bottle of remover before he could pour the whole thing out into his lap, and gave him what could only be described as a Look before returning to prising his fingernails off with tweezers.

“You would have been as white as a sheet had you not had green primer on your face,” Belle said. “And I know it’s not the waxing, which I thought it was at first. So what is it? Why are you so worried?”

They were alone again and Gold sighed. It would be better to get it over and done with now, and then at least they had a few more weeks of shooting to come to terms with the edifying task that awaited them both before it actually happened.

“I’m not as young as I used to be,” he admitted finally. “I’m fifty-two.”

Belle shrugged. “And?”

“And I’ve got the physique to match.” He patted his tummy. “I’m no David Nolan or Killian Jones, let’s put it that way, and I don’t think I’ll be able to get in shape in the time I’ve got before we film.”

“No, you’re Rum Gold, and you are still going to have a lot of adoring fans no matter how old you are.”

“You can’t possibly know that,” Gold said.

“Tumblr,” Belle said. “I keep telling you. You’d be surprised.”

She moved away and picked up her phone, typing something in.

“What are you doing?”

“Well, I keep telling you to take a leap of faith and go and check it out and you never do, so I’m doing it for you.”

“Belle, I have been on Tumblr. The people on there were not very nice.”

“Well, there are some complete idiots on there but it’s ok, they aren’t all like that. Coming to think of it, maybe it is better if I find things for you. I know where to look. The vast majority of the people on Tumblr are not like that. Here you go. Read that whilst I do your other hand. I’ll admit that it is something of an abrupt introduction to your fanbase but I think you need it and it’s the best I can find right now.”

Gold took the phone and read the post she indicated.

Anonymous asked: Kiss, Marry, Kill, Star Force edition – Captain Hook, Lieutenant Charming, Dr Stiltskin.

Oh, that’s easy. Kill Hook, because he’s such a complete slimeball. Kiss Charming, because let’s face it, who wouldn’t? Marry Stiltskin, because then I’d get to kiss him all the time by default.

Rum handed Belle the phone back. It was an odd sort of compliment, but nonetheless a compliment.

“Like I said, it’s not the best post to start you off with, but you get the idea.” Belle counted the fingernails back into their box. “There are lot of people who think you are a very attractive man, Rum Gold, be you fifty-two or no.”

“Yes, but…” Gold tailed off, there was no way he could articulate his thoughts properly.

“No buts. You have nothing to be worried about, Rum, I promise you. No, you’re not David or Killian. Yes, you are fifty-two. But you’re normal, Rum. How much do you weigh?”

Gold told her, with not a little reluctance.

“You’re a perfectly healthy weight for your height,” Belle said. “You can hardly be called fat. If you were a woman we’d call you curvy, and we use the term as a compliment. It’s a shame that it doesn’t work for men in the same way.” She perched on the counter beside him. “Honestly, Rum. It’ll be fine, I promise. And you’ve read through the script, you’re lying half of the time in that scene and you’ll be covered in a sheet for a lot of it. Everything flattens out when you lie down.” She paused, a ponderous look coming over her face. “Coming to think of it…” She grinned and shook her head. “No, that’s a thought for female company. Speaking of, Ruby, Ariel and I are going for Chinese. Want to come? Archie’s coming too once he’s finished rigging the lights for tomorrow so you won’t be hopelessly outnumbered by female make-up artists.”

Gold looked at her kind, open, inviting face. It was so tempting to say yes, to spend more time in her wonderful company. She was just about beginning to make him feel slightly better about the prospect of what was to come and he knew that as soon as he left, all his confidence would cave and his old fears would return.

There was nothing he wanted more than to go out with Belle, but he was not too sure about the prospect of going out with Belle and the rest of her friends, none of whom he knew quite as well as Belle. He knew Ariel and Ruby, of course, they were always about in the make-up room, but he wasn’t sure if he was confident enough to spend an evening in their presence.

But hadn’t he already said to himself that morning that he had to make the most of every moment that he had with Belle? There were so precious few moments like these left, and it was not as if they would see each other again after the series wrapped for good. Belle lived locally and would continue to do so, working on whichever new project came to Storybrooke Studios if she could. Gold, on the other hand, would be going home to Scotland as soon as he was done with Star Force; there was nothing keeping him in the US.

Nothing except a blue-eyed beauty asking me to join her for Chinese.

“Come on, you aren’t filming tomorrow, you can afford a night on the tiles. You need to let your hair down once in a while, Rum. As long as you deep condition it first.”

Against his better judgement, Gold nodded slowly.

“All right, I’ll come.”

“Great!” Belle’s smile stretched from ear to ear and the misgivings that Gold had about going out that evening were swept away in the face of just how happy his acceptance had made her. “We’re going to the Sapphire Dragon, see you there at eight thirty?”

Gold nodded again. Face clean of make-up for the most part (the rest would wash off in the shower), he got up to leave. “I’ll see you there.”

“And don’t forget to condition your hair!” Belle called after him.

“I don’t have…”

“I gave you some deep conditioning mask last week. It works wonders and it smells of raspberries.”

Gold smiled. “See you later, Belle.”

“Bye for now, Rum.”

He left her alone in her domain and began his way back towards his temporary home.

By the time he’d got back to his little rented apartment, showered and remembered the conditioner (he would admit, his hair did feel a lot softer now but he was still mystified by the term ‘floof’), and was flopped back on his bed, smelling rather strongly of raspberries, Gold wanted nothing more than to sleep for a week. He was having serious doubts about his decision to go out with Belle, Ariel, Ruby and Archie.

For a start they were all at least fifteen years younger than him. The ladies were probably nearer to twenty or even twenty-five years younger than him. He’d look like the mad old uncle whom they’d dragged along out of pity. Gold sighed, and considered bailing out and not going. He’d had a long day, he just wanted to go to bed; Belle would understand if he texted her his excuses. Belle was a very understanding soul and had forgiven him a lot more than he strictly deserved over the last four years of their acquaintance; on occasions where he had been particularly rude or grumpy due to lack of sleep or chronic pain, or a mixture of the two. But he was a selfish soul, and he wanted to see her as much as he could in the limited time he had. It was a toss-up between avoiding social awkwardness and spending time with Belle. He would have to decide soon; the clock was inching closer and closer to half-past eight.

He heaved himself off the bed and went over to the closet. Any other person would probably have had to double take at the quantity of suits and shirts he had in there. Gold liked wearing suits. Spending most of his working life in costume or, as Belle had pointed out that morning, in his dressing gown, his suits gave him something of a new persona to wear out in the big wide world. The suited and pressed man that the rest of the world saw was different to the perpetually grumpy actor who had to get up for a five am make-up job, and different to the person that he became in front of the camera. The suit was an armour against the world, and it was an armour that he had always felt confident in. He picked out a blue shirt and tie. Belle liked blue. She wore a lot of blue, and it matched her eyes. She had the most beautiful eyes. He wondered if that was why he never tended to nod off during his long make-up process. Too busy appreciating Belle’s beauty. Gold grabbed his cane, leaving the house before he could second guess himself. It was a warm night, unusually so for Storybrooke, and he smiled a little as he walked along the road in the opposite direction from the studios, towards the centre of the town. It was not just the people that he would miss when he went home to Scotland for good. He had grown extremely fond of Storybrooke, the little backwater in coastal Maine that someone had decided it would be a good idea to build a TV studio outside. Although the town had grown quite a bit in the time since the studio had been built, it still retained enough of its old personality to be homely and welcoming.

Gold paused outside of the restaurant. The last time he’d been in here, it had been for the season three wrap party, organised by the showrunners as a thank you to the cast and crew. It had been an interesting evening, one spent avoiding an increasingly drunk Zelena’s wandering hands and vowing never to go to any kind of social event where he would be in the same room as both his co-star and copious quantities of alcohol. He could barely tolerate her at conventions, when she was sober as a judge. Still, tonight, Zelena had not been invited (the make-up artists made no secret of the fact that they disliked her as much as Gold did), so he was probably safe.

Zelena West’s ongoing attempts to conquer Gold were an ongoing topic of gossip on social media, and another reason why Gold tended to avoid Twitter like the plague, and it was the worst case of life imitating art that he had ever known. Zelena’s character, the diplomatic envoy Miss Greenie, had been harbouring a desperate unrequited attraction to the ship’s medic for three seasons, and Zelena appeared to be bringing her role home with her. At least Stiltskin had the constant excuse of a wife and family back in their home universe to keep Greenie’s amour at arm’s length. Gold had no such get-out clause.

He shuddered at the memory of Zelena’s wet mouth on his and put her to the back of his mind as he saw Belle waving to him from a table in the corner. He sipped into the empty seat beside her.

“Prawn cracker?” Ariel asked, passing him the basket. Gold made to take a couple, then remembered his upcoming exposure and thought better of it. There was no point in adding to his woes.

“A few prawn crackers are hardly going to make a difference,” Belle said to him out of the corner of her mouth. “Enjoy yourself, Rum, please stop worrying. Everything’s going to be fine.”

Gold wished that he could believe her, and continued to give the prawn crackers a wide berth.

“Well, now that we’re all here, the main topic of conversation is, of course, Comic-con.” Ariel rubbed her hands together excitedly. “Are you going, Rum?” she asked. “It’s the last convention before Star Force wraps for good, you’ve got to go!”

Rum nodded. “Yes, I’m going. Although if they sit me next to Zelena for the panel or signing then I might throw a fit.”

“Not like you to be a diva, Rum,” Ruby said with a benign smile. “That’s more Killian’s style. You know how he gets if no-one pays attention to him for more than five minutes.”

“It’s not being a diva when it’s self-preservation,” Gold muttered. “I swear that last time she spent more time with her hands on various parts of my leg than she did signing. I ruined a perfectly good pair of trousers with permanent marker in my desperation to get her off me.”

“I do love the fact that you insist on wearing a suit to cons,” Belle mused. “By the way, I think the people at that table in the window have recognised you. They keep pointing over here and whispering.”

“Ok everyone, act natural,” Archie said. “We can’t let them know we’re onto them.”

At that point their drinks arrived and a toast to the new half-season was mooted.

“To Star Force in its last half-season,” Ruby said. “Here’s to a premiere on Friday night that everyone watches, and the best ratings we’ve ever had.”

Gold smiled as the glasses chinked together. He was glad he’d decided to come in the end; Belle’s smile was more than worth it.

The toast over, the talk returned to the general direction of the forthcoming convention.

“I still haven’t got my costume sorted.” Ariel sighed.

“You’ve only got a week and a half,” Ruby pointed out. It was no secret that Ariel was a seasoned cosplayer and went to as many of the cons as she could afford to go to.

“I know, but this is the first time that Eric’s coming with me and I want us to go as a pair. I think it might make him feel a bit less self-conscious. Normally the ladies I cosplay are badass and single and I don’t want him getting scared off.”

“Ariel, when he met you, you were dressed as Wonderwoman. I don’t think that Eric, of all people, is going to be put off by you cosplaying badass single ladies,” Ruby said.

“I do like Wonderwoman,” Ariel said wistfully. “Maybe Eric will go as Batman. He could wear a mask so no-one would recognise him, and we’d still be two members of Justice League.”

“Are you going, Belle?” Archie asked.

“No, no, Belle’s got a date that day.” Ruby’s smile was worryingly cannibalistic.

Gold didn’t know why his stomach was suddenly tying itself in knots, or why the prawn cracker that he had finally chanced to take from the basket had shattered into crumbs in his fingers. He busied himself with brushing the greasy crumbs out of his lap. Belle was perfectly entitled to go on dates if she wanted. There was no reason for his sudden and completely irrational desire to skip the con and go and murder her date.

“It’s hardly a date,” Belle said. “I do wish you’d stop calling it that.”

“It’s a date,” Ruby said sagely.

“It is not!”

“So who’s the lucky man?” Ariel asked, leaning forward and resting her chin on her hands.

“For goodness sake, Ariel, it is not a date! Just because you’re one half of a very happy couple doesn’t mean you have to start match-making everyone else. And it is not a date. Will is an old friend whom I haven’t seen for a very long time. It’s just a catch-up.”

“Have you ever kissed this old friend of yours?” Ruby asked.

“Well…”

“It’s a date.”

“For crying out loud!”

Fortunately, at that point the food started to arrive and there was no more discussion of Belle’s love life. Unfortunately, the silence that fell whilst they all ate was the perfect opportunity for Gold’s imagination to run away with him. Was this mysterious Will really just a friend? Oh, for heaven’s sake, this was getting ridiculous. He had no reason or right to speculate about Belle’s life like this. He ought to keep his nose out.

“But what about you, Ruby?” Ariel asked presently, bringing Gold out of his thoughts and back into the room.

“I’m good thanks, I don’t need any more of your blind dates.”

“My blind dates are wonderful!”

“I’m not even going to grace that with a response,” Ruby grumbled. Gold had to laugh. Spending as much time in the company of the make-up artists as he did, he was no stranger to Ariel’s attempts to set her colleagues up on blind dates, or to Ruby’s tales of woe which normally followed one of the dates that her friend had organised. And, if he was not very much mistaken, then there were some surreptitious looks being passed between Ruby and the red-headed lighting technician sitting next to her.

“Those people are still looking at you, you know,” Belle said conversationally. Gold risked a glance at the table in the window over the top of his wine glass. “I think they’re trying to work out whether or not the rest of us are famous and whether it would be insulting to come over here and ask for your autograph but not ask for ours.”

“I hope they don’t come over yet,” Gold murmured. He did not normally mind meeting fans, but he didn’t like it when they interrupted him eating. “Not whilst I’m eating noodles.”

Belle just laughed and smiled politely at the couple, who hastily turned back to their meal. “There, I think I’ve put them off for a while. They know they’ve been noticed.”

Ariel glanced at the other table over her shoulder. “Sign a napkin, I’ll drop it on their table on my way to the ladies.”

Gold gave a snort of laughter at the suggestion.

In the end, the couple did not come over. Gold couldn’t say he wasn’t glad; as much as he was grateful to the people who watched his work and kept his career afloat, it was nice to be no-one for a while, to be just another person enjoying an evening with friends and colleagues.

It was late by the time they left the restaurant, with Ruby and Archie walking off together and Ariel vanishing into a taxi, leaving Belle and Gold alone in the moonlight.

“Well, I’m going this way,” Belle said.

“Would you like me to walk with you?” Gold asked.

“No, it’s ok, it’s the opposite direction to your place. It’s not far, and Storybrooke’s pretty safe. Don’t worry about me.”

“I’ll worry a lot less if I see you home,” Gold replied.

Belle opened her mouth to say something else, but then appeared to think better of it and just smiled smugly.

“All right then.” She slipped her arm through Gold’s free one and they set off in the direction of Belle’s home. “Thank you, my knight in shining Armani.”

They walked on in silence for a bit, then Belle spoke again.

“It’s really not a date, you know,” she blurted out. “It really is just a catch-up with an old friend.”

“Belle, you’re perfectly free to go on dates with whoever you wish, you needn’t justify yourself to me, of all people.”

“I know, but you’re my friend, and it’s important to me that you know the truth and don’t get the wrong end of the stick. And the truth is that Will is just a friend. The last time I spoke to him, he had a steady girlfriend. He’s in the army, so I don’t get to see him very often.”

Gold knew that he should not have been as relieved as he was to hear her words, and he immediately felt guilty.

“Still, I hope you have a good time at the con and don’t have to throw a hissy-fit at Zelena,” Belle said, changing the subject. “With any luck, they’ll put her next to Killian. Those two deserve each other.”

“I’m not sure anyone deserves either of them,” Gold muttered. “I’m not quite sure what the world in general did to deserve them.”

Belle pressed her hands over her mouth, and Gold thought that he had shocked her in some way before realising that she was shaking with silent laughter.

“Oh dear,” she said, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye. “I do think it’s extremely bad luck that two of the sleaziest people known to man have ended up working on the same set. Star Force must be cursed.”

“Still, we don’t have to survive them for much longer,” Gold said pleasantly.

They continued to walk on, but the quiet between them was not awkward. They had spent so much time together over the past years that they knew how to handle a silence between them. There were always times in a morning when Belle had to concentrate on what she was doing, or Gold wanted to read in peace, or when there was simply nothing to say to one another. The silence was nice; they both just enjoyed being in each other’s company.

“Well, this is me,” Belle said, coming to a stop outside an old apartment building. “Thank you for walking me home, it means a lot.”

“It was my pleasure.”

It was no exaggeration. These moments between them would be numbered now, and Gold didn’t want to start counting them with sadness.

For the first time since they began their solitary walk, Belle seemed nervous, awkward, and she shifted from foot to foot, toying with the strap of her handbag.

“Premiere on Friday,” she said eventually, the words coming out rather quickly, as if she’d had to steel herself up to say them and wanted to get them out as quickly as possible. “Are you going to watch?”

She knew that he was going to watch; he always did, and they always spent the first make-up session of the week after the episode discussing it. He wondered where she was going with her train of thought, but decided not to press, and simply answered her question in as neutral a manner as he could.

“Of course. Are you?”

Belle nodded. “I normally watch with my roommate, we make a proper evening of it. But she’s just changed her shift pattern and she’s working on Friday evenings now. So I was wondering…”

She broke off and Gold felt his heart leap to his mouth and start beating heavily at the back of his throat.

“I was wondering if you’d like to come over and be my Star Force buddy on Friday?”

She spoke so quickly that Gold was not quite sure if he had heard her correctly.

“Me… come over… to yours… Star Force buddy?” he repeated, trying to sound nonchalant and utterly failing.

“Only if you want to, of course, I know some people don’t like to have other people around to critique their performances, and you’re under no obligation to come, I just thought that since we were both doing the same thing in different apartments it might be nice to have company, you know? To discuss the show, reminisce about shooting, that kind of thing… I’m sorry, it’s a stupid idea, I…”

“No, no…” Gold couldn’t believe it. Belle was inviting him to her apartment to watch Star Force. Of all the things that she could be doing on a Friday evening, she wanted to spend the time with him. It was truly amazing. “I’d love to come.”

Belle’s smile lit up her whole face, shining brighter than the dim street lamp they were standing under.

“Great! I’ll see you on Friday then. Enjoy your days off.” She paused. “I had a good time this evening. I hope you did too.”

Gold nodded. “I had a wonderful time. Thank you for inviting me. It’s nice to spend time with you… with your… with friends in a place outside of work.”

There was a long pause then, neither of them quite knowing how to end the conversation.

“Well, I should get going,” Gold said. “You’re still working tomorrow, even if you don’t have to be up quite as early as normal for my daily makeover.”

“No, it’s a fairly easy day tomorrow.” Belle smiled. “Well, thanks for coming out. Wait, you have my number, right?”

Gold nodded. They’d exchanged numbers a while ago, in case of emergencies, or if she wasn’t going to be on set for whatever reason and wanted to prepare him for having Ariel or Ruby do his make-up. She didn’t need to, but the gesture was always sweet.

“Text me when you get home safe.”

“I will.”

He stayed where he was until Belle had let herself into her building, and she gave him a small wave.

“Good night, Rum.”

“Good night, Belle.”

Despite the dull ache settling in his ankle and the tiredness that was threatening to overwhelm him, Gold felt as if he was walking on air as he made his way back towards his apartment.

Chapter Text

As soon as Belle got inside her apartment, she leaned back against the door with a low groan. Well, that had gone spectacularly badly. Ok, so it had not gone badly in as much as she had achieved her goal – Rum was coming over on Friday for the premiere. But the execution could have been smoother. A lot smoother. Oh dear, that was probably the most embarrassing way of asking someone out on a sort-of-date ever. She’d planned on being nice and nonchalant and suave. As it was, she’d just sounded desperate. Still, at least it had been effective, so she obviously hadn’t sounded quite as desperate as Zelena always managed to do. Belle felt so sorry for Rum; she could see the tension bristle through him whenever Zelena was in his immediate vicinity. Most of the time, Dr Stiltskin’s discomfort in Miss Greenie’s presence was not at all acted. She pushed the thoughts of Zelena aside and focussed on the present. Rum was coming over on Friday night. However terrible the invitation had been, it had been accepted, and genuinely, she thought. Rum was not the type to do things out of pity.

Belle tossed her keys into the bowl on the end table by the front door and eased her stilettoes off. Working on her feet all day, it really wasn’t practical for her to wear her sky-scraping shoes on set, so she took every opportunity that she could to wear them outside of work. And the fact that she had wanted to impress Rum was probably part of the reason why she’d worn them tonight as well. She tried not to be disappointed that he hadn’t commented on them; she shouldn’t really expect these things. Belle sighed. It was the realisation that the mid-season premiere was almost upon them that had made the hard facts really hit home. Once they finished filming, Belle would not see Rum again. Probably ever. It was a saddening and sudden realisation, and Belle wanted to make the most of the time that they had left together. It seemed so morbid when she put it in those terms, but they were the only ones that she could think of to describe her feelings properly. They would keep in touch, obviously, there was email and phone and the various other forms of social media that Rum tended to avoid with a barge pole until she helped him make the occasional tweet. But it wouldn’t be the same as seeing him nearly every day; it wouldn’t be the same as sharing moments of companionable silence in the make-up room in a morning, or laughing about the day’s antics as they scrubbed his scales off in an evening. She was going to miss him, and it surprised her to realise just how much she was going to miss him. It was the classic story, Belle thought: you don’t know what you have till it’s gone.

“I take it from the beached whale noises coming from the hall that it did not go very well,” Mulan called through from the living room.

“It depends on your definition of well,” Belle replied. She heaved herself away from the door and entered the living room. Mulan was sitting at the little dining table with her laptop and a stack of textbooks.

“Still working?” Belle raised an eyebrow.

“Well, I wouldn’t be if I hadn’t got side-tracked.” Mulan indicated her laptop.

“Ah yes, Tumblr, the favoured tool of professional procrastinators.” Belle had to laugh. Mulan was usually very disciplined when it came to her studies – she was on a distance learning programme working towards her masters in Asian military history – and it took a lot to distract her, but once she was distracted, she was gone for good.

“Well, it was all going very well but then I got into an argument with someone about all the historical inaccuracies in that new film about Genghis Khan that’s just come out and I wasn’t going to let them have the last word.”

“I see.” That was not at all unlike Mulan either. “Did you win the argument?”

“Well…” Mulan tapped her laptop to get it to wake up and checked her activity feed. “They haven’t responded for half an hour so I’m counting this one as a victory. Enough about me and my ridiculously stubborn sparring partners though.” She turned to face Belle, drawing her knees up and resting her chin on them. “What did he say?”

Belle flopped onto the sofa and closed her eyes. “He said yes. He’s coming over.”

“Great! So… May I ask why you were making beached whale noises?”

Belle groaned emphatically before replying: “I think I just won the award for the most embarrassing way to ask someone out on a date ever.”

There was no response from her roommate and Belle opened her eyes again to see Mulan just looking at her with one eyebrow raised, and she knew that she was going to have to elaborate.

“I explained that normally we make an event of it but you’re going to be at work,” she said. “And then I asked him to be my Star Force buddy,” she muttered.

Mulan visibly tried to stifle her laugh behind her knees, but she failed miserably.

“It’s not funny!” Belle snapped. “As soon as the words were out of my mouth I cringed.”

“I think it’s sweet!” Mulan laughed again. “And he did say yes, so he obviously wants to be your Star Force buddy just as much as you want him to be your Star Force buddy.”

“Mulan!”

Belle grabbed a scatter cushion from the sofa and threw it at her friend, who caught it easily and threw it back. Belle buried her face in it with another groan.

“I’m such an idiot.”

“No you’re not,” Mulan said firmly. She shut her textbook with a resounding snap and unplugged her laptop from the power supply, coming over and sitting on the sofa beside Belle. “There’s nothing wrong with making the first move. If you want something, or someone, then you just have to go after it.”

Belle had to agree with Mulan’s philosophy. The difference between them was that Mulan had always had a very clear idea of what she wanted and she was absolutely fearless with it, completely unafraid to get out there and go after the things she wanted. Belle was not quite so courageous. She had a good show of bravery; that was for certain. Do the brave thing and bravery will follow, that had always been her motto. It wasn’t quite the same as having the bravery to start with, though. She wondered, not for the first time, how she and Mulan had ended up becoming such close friends despite being so different, and she realised that in the end, they were not so very different after all. Mulan was driven, determined, optimistic, and Belle was the same, but in different ways. Mulan had clear goals, she had a plan. Belle’s future and her needs and wants were less defined in her mind, but no less present.

The fact they were both fans of Rum Gold had probably helped their friendship along the way as well. They’d met over Tumblr, when Belle had casually mentioned to the Her Handsome Hero fandom at large that she was looking to rent a place in Storybrooke in order to start work there, and Mulan had got in touch with her to say that her previous roommate had just moved out, would Belle be interested? It had been a bit of a gamble, moving in with someone she’d never met in person and had only interacted with a little online, but it had paid off – and at least they knew that they’d always have something in common to fall back on should conversation run dry.

“Has the fandom exploded about anything in the last few hours or am I safe to log on?” Belle asked. Whether she had enough energy left to go into her bedroom and get her computer was another matter entirely, but she wanted to know whether making the effort would be worthwhile.

“Nope, it’s all pretty quiet at the moment,” Mulan said. “Someone’s started the age-old ‘did he/didn’t he’ argument about Wetherford murdering the duchess again, but I’m staying out of that one. The discussion still seems to be intelligent and civilised and no-one’s resorted to insulting other people’s parentage yet.”

Belle yawned. “Rum says he did. We were talking about it this morning.”

Mulan gave a snort of laughter.

“We should get him on Tumblr,” she said. “Then he could clear up the arguments once and for all.”

Belle just raised an eyebrow. “I think that might be fatal. He’d run screaming in the other direction. I’ve tried my best but he gets a slight deer in the headlights look every time I mention it.”

“Yes, and I suppose that if he was on Tumblr, he might discover all the x-rated fanfiction you’ve written about his characters, and where would that leave you?” Mulan grinned.

“I haven’t written that much,” Belle protested. Mulan just raised an eyebrow and returned her attention to her laptop.

“Your smut has won awards,” she pointed out. “Twice. One of your reviewers said they had to take a cold shower after reading your Caroline/Wetherford wedding night scene.”

“It’s not that bad!” Mulan didn’t respond and Belle muttered again. “It’s not that bad.”

“You’d still have a fit if he saw it though, wouldn’t you?” her roommate said eventually.

Belle had to concede that point. That was the downside to trying to introduce Rum to Tumblr, the fear that he might find her on it. It was not that she was ashamed of being in the fandom, far from it, and Belle had never had a problem with people in her real life knowing about her fandom life. It was just… If Rum saw some of the things that she had written about him, then he would know that she had thought about him in that way, and that would be incredibly, well, awkward for want of a better word. She would not be able to look him in the eye if she knew that he’d read some of her stuff. Her blog in and of itself wasn’t too bad… Just as long as he steered clear of her masterlist.

Actually, best steer him clear of the entire thing.

For a few moments, Belle entertained an interesting notion of both her and Rum being on Tumblr and communicating with each other without knowing who the other was until someone like Mulan or Ariel made the connection. She wasn’t sure if that would be better or worse than Rum simply stumbling upon her blog of his own accord.

“Well,” she said eventually, knowing that Mulan was still waiting for some kind of verbal continuation of the conversation. “He’s not going to see my x-rated fanfiction, so that’s that.”

“Hmm.” Mulan didn’t sound all that convinced by Belle’s conviction, and Belle gave a huff of annoyance.

“Oh, stop that and go back to your Genghis Khan arguments.”

She heaved herself off the sofa and padded into her room to fetch her laptop. She should really be going to bed, as Rum had said, she still had to work tomorrow even if she didn’t have the ridiculously early call to do Stiltskin’s make-up. But Belle had never been one to do what she was supposed to do when there were far more exciting things to be done, so she grabbed her computer and brought it back through to the living room, flopping back onto the sofa beside Mulan and putting her feet up on the coffee table.

It was then that her phone buzzed in her handbag and she grabbed it; the message was from Rum.

Home safe.

It was such a simple message, but it still made her smile. Any interaction with Rum outside of the make-up room made her smile; it was always nice to see him with his hair down, so to speak. She had to give a snort of laughter at the memory, when she had first been employed as the chief make-up artist on Star Force and she had found that Rum Gold would not only be starring but would require the intense make-up job he had, she’d had to pinch herself. It had been nerve-wracking, those first few weeks, wondering how she was going to cope without being star-struck by the actor whose career she had furtively followed ever since she had first seen Her Handsome Hero all those years before. She had been mesmerised by the enigmatic duke, his past shrouded in mystery, a character so much more interesting than the vapid young love interest, and a character made all the more interesting by Rum’s portrayal. It was only later that she learned of his divorce, but rewatching the movie now, she could see the very real pain in his face during the scene where the beautiful heroine, Marquise Caroline, rejected his proposal of marriage; drawing on his own feelings of betrayal and hurt.

Rum never liked to be reminded of Her Handsome Hero, of all his body of work it tended to be the thing they talked about least and he hated watching himself in it.

“There’s too much of me in Wetherford,” he would grumble. “I was having a hard time separating art from life back then.”

But to Belle, it made his character so much realer; touching on his own experiences. Still, she appreciated that they were not good experiences, and not ones that he would want to dwell on, so she duly kept quiet, contenting herself with the very active fandom.

She carefully typed out a reply to Rum.

Enjoy your time off. See you Friday evening.

Belle tossed her phone back onto the table and to wait for a response. She wasn’t sure if she would get one, but she could hope.

“Wonder if any new spoilers have been released,” she mused. “Leo tends to throw the fandom a bone on Wednesdays.”

“I don’t think so,” Mulan said. “I think they’re keeping all their cards close to their chest this time, so that they can keep the suspense going. They did leave everything on a pretty epic cliffhanger and they already teased that there was going to be a death this half-season. Can’t be giving away plot points too soon. It’s the last few episodes; they’ll want to go out with a bang.”

Belle opened up her Tumblr dashboard and took a quick glance at what was happening in the world. Mainly it seemed to be people speculating on how the premiere was going to pan out, since the mid-season finale had ended with the Aurora Borealis teetering on the edge of the black hole. Belle, knowing as she did what was about to happen, decided to stay out of the debate.

“But have you got any spoilers?” Mulan asked eagerly. “What did you take away from set today?”

Belle just raised an eyebrow. “You must have known me long enough to know that I never give away major plot points,” she said sagely. “Although Rum found out he’s going topless in episode nineteen and nearly had a heart attack.”

“What, just like you nearly had a heart attack when you found out?” Mulan asked dryly.

“That’s different!” Belle exclaimed, before hiding her face in her hands. She’d just come home from the crew meeting at which this cheerful pronouncement had been made and had been sitting staring into space when Mulan had arrived, and all she had managed to do when pressed as to what was the matter had been to blurt out something along the lines of ‘Rum Gold… make-up… topless!’

“Wait till Tumblr finds out about that,” Mulan said, courteously ignoring Belle’s embarrassed fidgeting. “He’d be running for the hills fearing for his crown jewels if he saw that. You can’t say that the fans aren’t… voracious.”

“It’s the anonymity,” Belle said. “The fact that we so rarely know people from Tumblr in our everyday lives, and those we do know, know us well enough not to be surprised by our enthusiasm. We say things on Tumblr we’d never dream of saying in real life. My dad would die if he saw some of the comments I’ve posted. There’s much more freedom of expression when we don’t fear society’s repercussions and aren’t bound by the rules of polite conversation. Besides,” she added in a mutter. “I think it might do him good. He’s spent too much time around Killian; it’s eroded his self-confidence.”

“Well, Killian’s an arse,” Mulan said, her voice matter-of-fact. “I’ve never met the man and I know he’s an arse simply from the comic-con footage. Does he make it his mission to call Gold old in every panel they do?”

Belle nodded sadly. “Between Killian giving him veiled insults and Zelena pawing at him, it’s a miracle that he still goes to cons.”

Mulan shook her head in despair. “Someone needs to do that woman for sexual harassment.”

“She’s definitely not endearing herself to anyone,” Belle said. There was certainly no love lost between Zelena and the make-up artists. Spending as much time as they did with Rum in a morning and evening, they had naturally become good friends with him and had become his nominate protectors from Zelena’s relentless advances. She wondered what Zelena’s reaction had been on finding out that Rum would have his shirt off soon. She hadn’t been filming today so Belle couldn’t get an actual read on her, but she imagined that her expression on reading those scenes had been one of animalistic triumph and hunger.

“Could we kill her off?” Mulan mused. “That would be a nice plot twist to finish the series with. And we know there will be death, they already told us.”

“She’s a main character and one of the show’s biggest draws. Something tells me that the show-runners might get lynched if they did that.” Belle considered the possibilities for a moment. “Mind you, I think it would add to the gritty realism of the show, though. A diplomatic officer would never have been able to survive that long in the wilds of space. She’s been living on borrowed time since the beginning of the show.”

“There you are,” Mulan said. “Propose it to Leo and Midas as a series finale. By the way, do you know who is getting killed off?”

“I don’t know, and even if I did it would be more than my job’s worth to tell you, but everyone’s pretty sure that the six main characters are safe. Snow and Charming have basically just declared their undying love, they won’t split them up so soon afterwards, Greenie’s got too much support as a comic relief character, Hook’s the one they use to sell the show and regardless of shipping, everyone wants Stiltskin to get home to his family. The only one of the main cast who’s fearing for their character’s life is Emma. She’s hoping that the writers don’t go down the clichéd route of fridging their lead character’s love interest to maximise his man-pain.” Belle liked to think that Leo and Midas were more sensible than that, but with the network breathing down their necks a lot of the time, sometimes they had to give their paymasters what they wanted, and if the classic ‘dead girlfriend’ trope was what they wanted…

“I don’t think it’s likely at this late stage,” Mulan mused. “They normally like to have time to actually explore the man-pain, you know, a couple of seasons of angsting before he gets a new love interest to finish the series with. They can’t really explore the angsting with only eleven episodes to go.”

“No, we’re all pretty sure that it’ll be one of the popular supporting cast; Graham keeps joking that Corporal Hunter’s been for the chop since season one.” Belle smiled at the memory. Graham Humbert, a regular guest star on the show, had a reputation for playing characters who ended up being killed off at some point in the proceedings of any film or TV show; Belle could count the number of times he’d made it through to the end unscathed on one hand. Every time Graham had been signed for another half-season of Star Force he always took everyone out for a drink to celebrate not being dead yet.

“He’s certainly the one that everyone’s betting on.” Mulan glanced down at her dash. “Hunter’s the bookies’ favourite, at least.”

“At least Graham’s resigned to the fact. He’s used to it. Besides,” Belle added, “Greenie being killed off so soon before the end would just increase public sympathy for her.” She sighed. “I’m just going to have to stick to pointing it out how incredibly creepy she is with the aid of gifs. Everyone’s too busy laughing at her idiocy to realise how predatory she is when she’s not being ridiculous.”

“Have you still got that anon who was convinced that Gold and Zelena were having an affair? What was the phrase they used again?” Mulan asked.

“They told me I was blind to the obvious sexual tension between them and that Rum was simply ‘playing hard to get’ for the cameras as they didn’t want their relationship to be made public.” Belle rolled her eyes at the memory of the discussion with a persistent anonymous commenter. It had come off the back of a post she had made lamenting what Rum had to put up with when seated next to Zelena at conventions and the nameless person in question had simply refused to see Belle’s point of view. It was in moments like those that Belle was frustrated that she couldn’t let the world know her true identity, as someone affiliated with Star Force, who knew the actors personally. If she could say ‘look, I know for a fact that Rum hates Zelena and feels very uncomfortable around her, he’s told me so himself’, then she was sure that some of the problems would be cleared up. But there would always be the trolls that would not believe her and make life even more difficult, but beyond that, she would be breaking the unspoken rule of integrity that prevented her from linking her life online to her life in the outside world. There was a great degree of trust between her and the actors and crew on set; to share their thoughts with the rest of the world on an open forum would be a gross invasion of privacy.

Just then a message popped up in her inbox and she went to read it.

Loved your latest meta on Dr Stiltskin acting like the team dad. :-)

She waited for a moment before wording her reply, wondering if a simple thanks would be enough, or if she wanted to go into more depth. On the one hand, she did love discussing her thoughts with people. On the other, she was getting very tired and she had a tendency to repeat herself when that happened. Belle looked at her blog; at her pages of fanfic and meta that she had written since Star Force had begun airing and she had begun watching it like the avid fan that she was.

Perhaps she had an unfair advantage with the insights that she had, but she tried to use contextual evidence to back up her claims rather than the knowledge she had gleaned from talking to the actors and the other crew-members about particular scenes. It was hard to keep her mouth shut, sometimes, if she saw some people talking about a particular interpretation of an episode that she just knew to be incorrect. If they had got the wrong end of the stick completely then it was so tempting to go to them and say ‘no, look, that’s obviously not right, can’t you see?’ But she desisted for the most part, content just to know deep down that she knew the truth.

Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it, she typed in the response box, before adding after all, the rest of the crew seem to act like unruly children often enough. Especially Hook.

She hit send, closing her laptop and staring off into the middle distance, the only sound in the apartment the soft tapping of Mulan’s fingers on her keyboard.

“Do you think it’s a bit weird?” she began, at length, after her own thoughts had wended themselves in circles and come to no logical conclusion.

“Do I think what’s a bit weird?” Mulan looked up, a politely inquiring expression on her face.

“Me…”

“Oh, I’ve always thought you were weird,” Mulan said with a grin. Belle just shot her an unimpressed look.

“No. I mean me, being part of creating Star Force and being part of the fandom as well. Do you think it’s overkill?”

Mulan thought for a moment, head on one side as she pondered the question.

“I don’t think so, if you enjoy it,” she said eventually. “I mean, I can see that a lot of people would think that it was overkill for them but if you don’t think that it’s overkill for you then I can’t see the harm in it. There would be a lot of people who wouldn’t be able to work a full day at something, then go home and continue to be involved with it for pleasure; it would be too much for them. But if you like it, then why not go ahead?”

“I don’t know.” Belle sighed and traced her fingers across the top of her laptop. “Maybe I’m a bit obsessed.”

“It’s hardly taken over your life,” Mulan pointed out. “You spent a good few hours out of the house socialising tonight. You live a perfectly healthy existence. You’ve got interests outside of this one solitary thing. Besides, this might sound strange, Belle, but can I ask why we’re having this conversation now, only a few months before the series ends, when you’ve been both working on the show and active in the fandom since the beginning?”

Maybe the fact that the series was coming to an end was precisely the reason why Belle was thinking so much about it now. The realisation that in a few weeks’ time she would be out of a job again had forced her to change her perceptions somewhat. It was a fact she had to accept that once the show finished, the fandom would begin to decrease gradually, without the added impetus of new material from the show.

Well, there were plenty of fandoms that were still incredibly active despite their shows being finished or cancelled, and there were plenty of one-off films that still had huge followings despite being far back in the past - Her Handsome Hero was a prime example. But somehow it wasn’t the same when that heady sense of anticipation was no longer there, when there was no speculation, no reaction fics dashed off in the few hours after an episode aired so as to be unspoiled by promos and sneak peeks of the next instalment of the canon story. Perhaps this was her subconscious’s way of subtly telling her that it was time to bow out of the fandom gracefully.

It wasn’t the first time that she’d wondered it about herself, but it was the first time that she’d really given it any proper thought.

“I don’t know,” she finally replied to Mulan. “I’ve just been thinking about it more than usual today.”

Mulan shrugged. “Well, I say that since you’ve only got a few months before it all comes to an end, I’d just sit back and enjoy it.”

She turned back to her screen and continued to type, and Belle opened her laptop again, making a new post.

Bad news: dragonwarrior97 has to work on Friday so she and I will not be doing our usual liveblog during the episode.

Good news: I’ve sort of got a Star Force date to watch it with a certain someone else instead.

“Belle,” Mulan began, interrupting her train of thought. “We’ve never actually seen Stiltskin’s wife on screen, have we?”

Belle shook her head. “No, we only know what the doctor mentions to people about her in passing. Why?”

“I decided to finally start that AU I’ve been threatening for the past three seasons, where she got stranded with them and they scare the rest of the crew with all the sex they’re having and I’m wondering how many liberties I can take.”

“Well, we don’t know much about her,” Belle said, “so you can probably take quite a few liberties. We know her name’s Lacey and she’s human. Remember the episode where they met the fish-people?” Belle herself remembered the episode well; she’d been most put out when they’d told her that the fish-people would be computer-generated and she wouldn’t have the opportunity to design make-up for them. “Hook was making some stupid comments about inter-species relationships and Stiltskin punched him in the nose, and that was when it was revealed that she’s human, not an Imp like he is.”

“I remember.”

“Yes, I think Rum enjoyed filming that scene. Anyway, she’s Lacey, she’s human and she’s famously got brown hair, beautiful blue eyes and an accent you wouldn’t soon forget. And that’s pretty much all we’ve ever been told about her.” Belle continued to muse for a while. “Oh, and they used to go skinny-dipping a lot after they first got married, it was mentioned in season two.”

Mulan gave a snort of laughter. “Now that’s a scene that he really would have a heart attack about.”

Belle gave a small cough and hastily averted her eyes back to her screen, hoping that her roommate wouldn’t notice her abstraction. If questioned about it, she would absolutely and categorically deny everything. Of course she had absolutely definitely not, since reading that throwaway line in the script, had small fantasies of the writers deciding to make Stiltskin go skinny-dipping. She had absolutely not frequently thought about doing Rum’s make-up for such a scene. Because after all, as they had established earlier in the day, Stiltskin had scales all over…

“Belle?”

She realised too late that Mulan was trying to get her attention.

“What what what sorry?”

Her roommate sighed and rolled her eyes.

“Stop dreaming about painting Gold’s arse and help me think up a title for this thing, I’m sending it to you to beta.”

Belle narrowed her eyes and pulled her thoughts away from intimate make-up jobs and into the present, opening Mulan’s document as it dropped into her inbox.

“How many of these eight thousand words are porn?” she asked.

“Most of them.”

Belle looked at the working title of the document: An accent you wouldn’t soon forget, especially when it’s screaming orgasmic profanity all over the ship.

It had come from only one line, but it was a line that was now famous among the fandom. Brown hair, beautiful blue eyes, and an accent you wouldn’t soon forget. It was the only time that the mysterious Lacey had ever been described, and it was an ad-lib from Rum; the script had given no instructions, simply ‘Stiltskin briefly describes Lacey’. Naturally, for the few people who shipped Stiltskin with his canonical wife as opposed to any of the characters that they saw more frequently in his company (Emma’s character, Commander Leyah, was a popular pairing, as was, much to Belle’s unease, Miss Greenie), these few words had been gold-dust in creating a mental picture of this mysterious woman.

“You know, it’s weird but I always imagine Lacey looking like you,” Mulan mused.

Belle spluttered. “Pardon?”

“Well, the description fits,” her roommate continued nonchalantly. “Brown hair, beautiful blue eyes, and an accent you wouldn’t soon forget. You can’t deny that you’ve got all those.”

Belle had never been more conscious of being Australian than she was in that moment. She looked back down at the fic on her screen; Lacey was currently paying her husband some rather close conjugal attention under his desk in the Aurora Borealis medical bay whilst he was trying to have a decent conversation with the captain. She blinked.

“So when you write all this smut, you’re imagining me and Rum?” she squeaked.

Mulan shrugged. “Well, you’re as good a match to the description as any. I had an ask along those lines earlier; I’m still thinking about how to reply.”

“What: “Do you have anyone in mind when you write Lacey Stiltskin?” “Yes, my roommate.””

“No, it’s more complicated than that. Hang on, I’ve got the perfect response.”

Mulan typed frantically and a few moments later Belle saw the post appear on her dash.

Anonymous asked dragonwarrior97: Since you’re writing a Lacey-fic I figured you’d be the best person to ask - Do you think Rum had anyone in mind when Stiltskin described Lacey? We already know it was an ad-lib. Is he describing his real life wife?

Mulan’s reply consisted of two short sentences.

I’m going to hand over to our resident Rum Gold expert, bookworm-with-a-brush for this one. In your opinion, Bookworm?

Belle rolled her eyes and began to type a response.

Warrior, I am sitting right next to you on the sofa, you could just ask me. *sigh* To answer the anon - Rum’s not married and there’s no evidence of a significant other in his life. Some people have theorised he’s describing his ex-wife Millie, but I don’t buy it, it was a pretty nasty split and Rum’s the kind of actor who puts heart and soul into his work; he’s playing a devoted husband who’s very much in love with his wife and extremely pissed off at having been separated from her for four years. I don’t think he’d want to associate said wife’s image with the image of a woman he personally doesn’t like very much anymore. I think he just grabbed a couple of characteristics out of thin air, you know.

But Belle couldn’t help but wonder. If Mulan hadn’t mentioned it then she probably wouldn’t have even thought about it, but now that she had, the thought would not go away. Could Rum have had her in mind when he said those fateful words?

She posted before she could second guess herself and shut down her laptop before she could get carried away; the editing of Mulan’s fic could wait till tomorrow. Her phone buzzed again and she eagerly scrabbled to pick it up. Mulan just laughed.

“New boyfriend, Belle?”

Belle just shot her friend a withering look and opened the message, feeling a little disappointed when it turned out not to be from Rum.

Are we still on for Saturday? Grace can’t wait to see you.

It was Jefferson; they’d been close friends ever since Belle had first arrived in America and she was godmother to his young daughter, Grace. It was common knowledge on tumblr that Belle was a make-up artist, although no-one knew precisely what she worked on, and as a result she had decided about a year ago to start a side-blog devoted to make-up tutorials and tips. She usually did the demonstrations on herself, after all, she was trying to help people with their own make-up, but for some of the more complicated tutorials specifically for cosplay make-up, she enlisted Jeff’s help as a male model. Due to popular demand, she was finally doing a series on Star Force character make-up for cosplay, having avoided it for as long as she could due to the simple fact that she was scared of accidentally letting the cat out of the bag. Still, since her tutorials on the three main female cast members had proved successful, it was time to move onto the menfolk. It was going to be quite strange, putting a modified version of Rum’s make-up onto Jeff.

We’re on. I can’t wait to see Grace either. Also, I’ll have some interesting news for you by then.

Jefferson replied about half a minute later.

Colour me intrigued. Now go to bed, young miss, you shouldn’t be up at this hour with your early starts!

Belle smiled and swung her legs off the sofa, saying goodnight to Mulan and going into her room. By Saturday, she would have had Friday evening with Rum, and she knew that Jefferson would want to hear all about that. He’d long ago become the nominate protector of her love life and…

Belle sighed and shook herself crossly. It wasn’t a date, after all, not really, not in the romantic sense of the word. It was just a friend coming to a friend’s house to watch a TV show. Just because Belle tended to think of it as a date didn’t mean that Rum did.

Oh, who was she kidding? She wanted nothing more than for this to be an official date. As she changed into her pyjamas, she thought again about Mulan’s words.

She would have to ask Rum about it on Friday. In the meantime, she drifted off to lucid dreams of Rum naked in the make-up room as she carefully covered him in green paint. He really did have a very nice bottom, and she had no qualms about getting a little better acquainted with it.

Chapter Text

Part Three - In which Belle and Gold have an almost date, ish.

Belle was unaccountably nervous as she sat alone in the living room of the apartment, waiting for Gold to arrive. She had invited him to come over an hour before the show started and have dinner, and although she had tried to keep things casual, she was still fidgeting, drumming her fingers along the arm of the sofa. The cannelloni was in the oven, the salad was in the fridge, and Mulan had already given permission to break out (although not literally) the good wine glasses. Nothing was going to go wrong. For the umpteenth time, she went into her bedroom to check her appearance in the mirror, then flopped backwards onto her bed with a groan. This wasn’t a date. Why was she acting like this was a date? This was her and Gold having dinner and watching a TV show, which is what they would be doing on any normal Friday night, except they were doing it together rather than in separate buildings. It was not a date. Why on earth did she have butterflies in her stomach as if it was a date then? And a first date at that?

She leaned up on her elbows and scowled at herself in the mirror before heaving herself off the bed and going back into the living room to take up her position on the sofa once more. Her laptop had stayed off for the evening; she couldn’t be trusted not to get too involved in writing her latest masterpiece and forget to cook, or answer the door, or indeed do anything, but she still had her phone, and she opened up Twitter to see what was happening in advance of the episode airing. Most of the cast had tweeted various things along the lines of hoping that the viewers enjoyed the premiere; indeed Emma’s contributions were particularly entertaining: Looking forward to the premiere. Had 4 mojitos already tonight. Can’t remember anything about it. Eager as you are to find out what happens. Gold’s well wishes were conspicuously absent. Mind you, she did make most of his tweets for him, and only when she nagged him to use the twitter account that he’d asked her to help him set up in the hope that it would bring him more in tune with his audience. She was avoiding Tumblr like the plague in case she said something completely ridiculous but it was proving easier said than done. The fandom was always so excited before an episode aired, and the last-minute head-canons and theories were being rushed off before they were nullified. The writers had been very reticent about sharing any details from the new episode, there had been just one small script teaser which hadn’t given anything remotely useful or interesting away.

The doorbell screeched and Belle almost tripped over her own feet in her haste to get up and answer it.

“Hello?”

“Hey Belle.”

“Hi Gold. Come on up, number 56.”

She buzzed him into the building and opened the front door wide before smoothing down her skirt and lacing her fingers together, suddenly completely unsure of what to do with her hands. She rocked back and forth on her heels, waiting for the ping of the elevator doors at the other end of the corridor, and when the lift seemed to be taking infinitely longer than it should, she peered out of the apartment just as it arrived and Gold stepped out. Belle waved, staying hanging in the doorway to watch his progress along the corridor. She had to smile as he got closer.

“You’re still wearing a suit?” she said.

Gold raised an eyebrow. “Is that a problem for you?” he asked.

“No, no, I just wasn’t expecting it.” She paused. “Well, I was, but I was hoping that you might surprise me.”

“Belle, I think that I’m probably the least surprising person in the country.”

“I can’t believe that.” It was at that point that Belle realised that she was still standing in the doorway, blocking Gold’s entry, and she took a step back, gesturing for him to come inside before she shut the door. “Come on through.”

She led the way into the living room, doing a quick check that there was nothing incredibly incriminating on display. Not that she and Mulan were naturally untidy people, but there were some things in the apartment that were commonplace to the occupants but would have raised a few questions and possibly caused concern to visitors. Mulan’s collection of vintage erotic art which normally lived on the shelf beside the sofa immediately sprang to mind; luckily her roommate had already moved the evidence out of sight and mind.

“Make yourself at home,” Belle said, taking the bottle of wine that Gold held out to her and ferrying it into the kitchen for pouring. She cast a quick glance at the oven to check that dinner wasn’t burning as she eased the corkscrew in. So far, so good. When she returned to the living room with two glasses, Gold was sitting on the sofa, looking around at his surroundings.

“It’s a lovely little place you’ve got here,” he said. “How long have you lived here?”

“I moved to start work on Star Force, so just under four years now. Mulan’s been here six, I took the place of her old roommate. She’s at work,” Belle added before mentally kicking herself, because Gold knew that Mulan was at work, that was the entire reason why he was here and not in his own apartment. She made the executive decision to turn the talk back to a topic that they were much more easily conversant on – the show. Belle wondered why she was so nervous and awkward on this particular occasion, when she’d had many a perfectly functional discussion with Gold before when it was just the two of them. Perhaps it was the fact that they were in a different place. The make-up room was their own domain, or rather, it was Belle’s domain that Gold inhabited a lot of the time. Theoretically, her apartment should have been her own domain as well, but it was almost as if a line had been crossed between their professional and their personal lives, and now neither of them really knew where to go from here. But talking about Star Force seemed to be their default, and it was as good a conversation topic as any.

“Are you excited?” Belle asked. “I know you’re never particularly thrilled about seeing yourself on-screen, but I’m excited for the last season.”

“I don’t mind watching myself, as long as I know that I gave a good performance,” Gold said, accepting the wine glass that Belle held out to him. “But if I know that I was not on top form whilst I was acting then I don’t like being reminded of it. I can see all the flaws in my own work too easily.”

“Well, I don’t see them,” Belle said cheerily. “Do you think you gave a good performance for this episode?” she added.

Gold nodded. “Yes. Mal was directing, which always helps.”

Belle smiled. Cara Mallory, known to all as just Mal, was an old friend of Gold’s and they got on very well, and Mal normally directed a few episodes per season. Belle had heard a rumour that she was going to direct the finale, which would have been nice, but nothing was confirmed yet. The episode hadn’t even been written. She never normally paid much attention to the scripts except in her capacity as the make-up artist; but she was already making plans to borrow Gold’s finale script as soon as she could so that she knew what was coming. It always gave her a little thrill to know that she knew the contents of each episode long before the rest of the public did, and it made staying anonymous on Tumblr even harder. She would never leak script details, but resisting the urge to squeal along the lines of ‘OMG YOU’RE ALL GOING TO LOVE EPISODE NINETEEN!’ was sometimes difficult.

“I saw that you haven’t tweeted like the rest of the cast,” she said to Gold.

“I still can’t get the hang of it,” he grumbled, taking out his phone and jabbing it a couple of times before handing it to Belle. “Can you do it? All my attempts to tweet make me look like a twit.”

Belle laughed and typed in a short, neutral message for the fans before handing the phone back. Gold gave a nod of approval and posted the tweet. “I see Emma’s entered into the spirit of things already,” he added drily.

“Well, she was filming with Killian today,” Belle said, remembering looking at the day’s sides whilst she’d been on the set. “She always needs a little alcoholic help to get over that ordeal.”

“Most people do,” Gold agreed. “I’m seriously considering offering to make a pact with her for Comic-con; if she ends up seated next to Killian and I’m next to Zelena, we’ll swap.”

“You’ll mess up the neat alternate male-female line-up!” Belle exclaimed in mock horror. “The organisers will be beside themselves!”

“They’ll be even more beside themselves if violence breaks out on the panel,” Gold muttered.

“You never know. It would make headlines, that’s for sure. No publicity is bad publicity. Ticket sales for next year will go through the roof in the hope that something that entertaining happens again. Still, Ariel’s volunteered to rescue you if necessary,” Belle said. “She’ll be dressed up as Black Widow so she’ll probably be feeling pretty invincible. And Eric’s a pretty sturdy guy. And he’s Danish.”

“And the fact he’s Danish is relevant because…”

“I have absolutely no idea.”

Belle smiled. The atmosphere had relaxed a lot now; it was the same as being in the make-up room but with less green paint and more wine involved.

“So Ariel decided against Wonderwoman in the end?” Gold said.

“Yes, she can’t find her wig so she decided to go as a natural redhead.”

“And is Eric still going as Batman?”

Belle thought for a moment, Ariel had spent a lot of time that morning talking about her newest costume ideas but she hadn’t mentioned what had become of her plans for Eric.

“I don’t know. I think Eric will probably be content just to go as whatever Ariel can magic up as a costume for him. He’s very laid-back.”

“Well, in any case, it’s very kind of them to offer to rescue me,” Gold said, and he gave a soft chuckle. “I had a sudden vision of vaulting over the panel table into the crowd and being caught by Black Widow and Batman who then paraded me out of the hall into a transit van.”

Belle too had that image.

“You know what makes that picture even better?” she mused. “I have visions of Zelena vaulting over the table after you and everyone in the audience conveniently parting and her falling flat on her face.”

Gold laughed out loud this time. “Now that, I would pay good money to see, although I really hope it doesn’t come down to crowd-surfing. Twitter would explode.”

“I think the entire internet would explode.” Belle thought of her anon who was convinced that Gold and Zelena were secretly in a relationship and wondered what they would make of such a spectacle, before realising that she really didn’t want to know and pushing the thought to the back of her mind.

Presently the oven timer went and brought her back to reality with a shrill beep, and she found herself giving a rather embarrassing garble as she rushed into the kitchen to retrieve their dinner. Gold was polite enough not to mention the gibberish she had spouted and the meal passed in comparative quiet; not awkward but not completely at ease either; the action of eating in such an intimate setting as opposed to out in public surrounded by friends and co-workers was a reminder that this was very different to work, that this was more like a date.

“How is Tumblr?” Gold asked presently, and Belle almost choked on her wine. For a terrible moment she thought that he must have somehow found her blog, and she racked her brains to think of the last few things that she’d blogged. Mainly speculation about the episode, and possible plots for the finale… And a few choice x-rated fanfictions recommended to her by Mulan.

“It’s, erm, fine, erm, why do you ask?” she squeaked. Gold gave her an amused look.

“We were talking about in the make-up room on Wednesday,” he said. “You were introducing me to my loyal fanbase.”

“Oh, Yes. That. Right. Yes. Well, they’re still there. Still very loyal. Still finding screencaps of TV shows that I didn’t even know existed, let alone that you’d starred in them.”

Gold laughed. “Like what?”

Dangerous Encounters?” Belle said. “I will admit, you looked very young in the pictures.”

“That was my first ever TV job. I had a two minute background part and wasn’t credited.” Gold took a long sip of wine. “How do people find these things?”

“The internet,” Belle pointed out. “You can’t hide on the internet.”

“Sad but true. Say no more.”

“I wasn’t going to.”

Gold shuddered. “My earliest work was not my best. I’m slightly worried about what else they’ll dig up. They’re rather… voracious.”

Belle laughed. “They’re pretty harmless.” She thought again of the Zelena anon. “Well, most of them are pretty harmless.”

Gold did not look completely convinced, and Belle knew that if she ever did introduce him to Tumblr a little more, she was going to have to be extremely careful about what she let him see, aside from keeping her own work away from his eyes.

Belle cleared the plates and they migrated back to the sofa ready to watch the episode. Belle’s phone started buzzing on the coffee table and she dithered for a moment, wondering whether it would be impolite to answer whilst she was entertaining a guest, even if it wasn’t officially a date. She grabbed the mobile; it was Mulan.

“Take it,” Gold said, sensing her indecision.

She ran back into the kitchen. “Hi Mulan.”

“Set the DVR!” Mulan yelled over the noise of the restaurant kitchen in the background. “I forgot before I left!” In the background, someone shouted something to Mulan. “All right gotta go hope everything’s going ok with Gold see you later love you bye!”

Her roommate hung up and Belle looked down at her phone, blinking at the abruptness of the message then returning to the living room to set the DVR to record the episode. She’d just finished programming it when the episode was announced and the ‘previously on Star Force’ voiceover began.

“Are you one of those people who abhors talking whilst the TV’s on?” Belle asked once the theme music was playing and the opening credits rolling. “I’m used to providing running commentary with Mulan.”

Gold smiled and shook his head. “Go ahead,” he said. “It should be quite entertaining.”

Gold’s, well, Stiltskin’s, picture flashed up in the credits.

“I’ve always liked that picture of you,” Belle said. “It always makes me proud because it was from the promo stills and it was the first time that I’d done the make-up properly, and the fact it remains in the credits makes me happy.”

The picture had been added to the credits it something of a hurry after Gold had been made into a series regular and Belle had had visions of the art department frantically flicking through promotional material and screencaps to try and find the most suitable picture, but it still gave her a swell of pride every time she saw it, knowing how comparatively old it was and how much she had managed to streamline Gold’s make-up process since then.

The show started and they fell into silence to watch. The ship was quickly rescued from its precarious position on the edge of the black hole, but the crew still weren’t quite out of the woods just yet as the risky manoeuvres to bring the Aurora Borealis out of danger had caused extensive damage and the ship was on the verge of falling to pieces. Belle burst out laughing at one of Gold’s lines, when an increasingly harassed engineer asked to borrow some bandages to try and hold one of the engines together.

“I bet Zelena enjoyed that,” she murmured as, having reluctantly parted with the bandages, Dr Stiltskin then had to swoop in and catch a collapsed Miss Greenie.

“Oh, she did,” Gold said drily. “She kept fluffing her lines to get more takes until Mal cottoned on to what she was doing and said if she had to do one more take, Mal would give me permission not to catch her. I was on the verge of pleading that my leg couldn’t take any more. She doesn’t look it but she’s bloody heavy when she’s a dead weight like that. Interestingly enough she performed perfectly after that.”

It was good to know that Mal was on Gold’s side on the set. Belle could only protect him so much in the make-up trailer, eventually the time did come when he had to go out and face the implacable and determined redhead. Belle continued to make mental notes for her episode write-up, trying to remember all the things that she would ordinarily be posting on Tumblr, but then gave it up and decided simply to enjoy the episode and Gold’s company.

“That was the morning when we had the huge thunderstorm and all the power went out,” Gold said, pointing at the screen. “Do you remember?”

“Yes. You and Emma spent two hours playing poker in full costume and you had nothing to bet so you started using random pieces of world architecture as currency. I distinctly remember you telling me that you’d won the Brandenburg Gate and the Louvre.”

“Just the pyramid,” Gold corrected. “Emma won all the rest of the Louvre back.”

“I see your Chrysler Building and raise you the Empire State,” Belle said and they both laughed.

Presently something caught her eye on the screen and she leaned forward, her brow furrowed.

“Gold, what on earth are you doing in the background there?” she asked, looking past Snow and Charming having a heart to heart in the front of the medical bay and focussing on the slightly fuzzy Stiltskin in the background. He appeared to be concocting some kind of potion with his usual flare and lack of attention to detail.

“I’ve no idea,” Gold replied blithely. “Mal’s direction for when I’m in the back of a shot is simply ‘go mad’. I think she keeps expecting me to do something incredibly outrageous and see how many people notice it or if everyone’s too absorbed in what’s going on in the foreground.”

“Would you ever do something like that?” Belle asked. She knew the answer already; Gold was far too professional to potentially ruin a scene on purpose like that, but Mal was a particularly care-free director, and stranger things had happened.

“Of course not. But I have to keep in character, and Stiltskin is always described as a slightly mad scientist. It would be disingenuous to make him anything else, really.”

“Of course.” Belle glanced sideways at Gold, wondering just how much of himself went into Stiltskin. She’d always thought that the man and the character were more alike than anyone liked to admit. Gold was calmer, but just as inclined to sarcasm as his on-screen counterpart.

Snow and Charming left the medical bay and the next shot was one of them practically falling into bed, still mostly clothed but with an undeniable passion that was not suitable for younger viewers.

“I think the entire fandom just let out a collective sigh of ‘about bloody time’,” Belle observed after the scene cut to black and returned to Captain Hook and Commander Leyah on the bridge. She didn’t feel as bad about talking over Killian’s scenes, although it was a shame that Emma suffered as well. “It’s taken them enough pussy-footing.”

When they came to the end of the episode, Belle turned the sound down on the TV but left it on as something in the background instead of suddenly leaving the two of them in silence. Over the course of the show she’d slumped down in her seat somewhat, resting her feet on the coffee table like she would be doing if it was Mulan beside her rather than Gold, and whilst part of her wanted to sit up straight again, another part didn’t want to make Gold think that he was making her uncomfortable in her own home, and yet another part of her was glad that over the course of the evening she’d been able to relax around Gold to the extent of sprawling on the sofa next to him.

“Well, I think that was a success,” he said presently, offering Belle the last few drops of wine in the bottle and then pouring them into his own glass when she refused. There was another bottle of wine in the fridge, and Belle wondered whether it would be a good idea to go and get it. She didn’t want to pressure him to stay, but at the same time, it was turning into quite a pleasant evening and it would be sad to see it end now that the episode was over and the thing that had brought them together for this soirée was no longer in the picture.

“Yes; I think people will be satisfied with the way the cliffhanger ended. And of course everyone will be squealing about Snow and Charming. Another excellent performance, Mr Gold.”

Gold gave a snort of laughter. “You always say that.”

“That’s because it’s always true.”

He narrowed his eyes with a slight smile. “You know, I think you might be biased.”

Of course she was biased, but that didn’t mean that she didn’t know how to identify good acting when she saw it. But did Gold realise quite why she had her little bias towards him?

She brushed off his remark: “I’m your friend, of course I’m biased. But it is true. You’re always consistent, and Mal really does bring out the best in you.”

“You flatter me, Belle. Are you trying to make me blush?”

“Perhaps.” He was particularly adorable when he was embarrassed.

They fell into silence again, but this time it was a companionable silence like the ones in the make-up room in the small hours of the morning before the day really began, the pleasant feeling of being in someone else’s company but not feeling the pressure to make conversation.

“When is Mulan due back?” Gold asked.

“Not for a while yet,” Belle said. “She’ll be at the hotel till the restaurant closes. She’s a pastry chef there.” Storybrooke itself was a small place, but there was a large hotel on the outskirts that serviced several of the surrounding little towns and was frequently populated by people coming on holidays to do tours of the Storybrooke studios.

They continued to muse about the episode for a little while longer, wondering what the reactions of the rest of the cast would be. If Emma’s previous tweets were anything to go by then hopefully they would be entertaining if nothing else. Belle pondered, running her fingertip around the rim of her wine glass, thinking about the fics that would be springing up in response to the episode’s events. No doubt there would be a flood of smut speculating on exactly what happened after Snow and Charming’s tasteful fade to black, and she had to suppress a smile at the notion. Gold caught her expression and raised one eyebrow.

“What are you smirking about?” he asked.

“The flames have been fanned,” Belle said with a giggle. “If Leo and Midas hoped to stem the flow of fanfiction by finally getting Snow and Charming together then they’re going to be sorely disappointed. This will only add to the fandom’s ardour.”

“I’m not sure I want to know,” Gold said drily. “From what you’ve told me about fanfiction it seems to have an uncanny ability to fill in gaps in any way it can. Vividly.”

“Fanworks are all about pushing boundaries,” Belle said, sitting up a little straighter as she prepared to defend her hobby. “There are certain things that writers and show runners just can’t get away with on mainstream TV yet, but they’re things that still need to be explored, they are questions that still need to be answered. Just because these things don’t get shown doesn’t mean that it’s not important to speculate about how they might be handled. I mean, take Hook and Leyah, and Snow and Charming for example. They’re both in sexual relationships on board a spaceship in the middle of nowhere. So far we haven’t seen any fallout from that but what if either couple were to get pregnant?” This was the topic of one of Belle’s own fanfics so she felt safer in using that as an example. “It’s something that the show won’t address, which is fine because the show has its own story to tell. But there is so much more that the story could be, and the fans have the ability and the creativity to tell that story themselves.”

Gold smiled. “I suppose it makes a lot more sense when you put it like that.”

“Fandom and fanfiction can have a bad reputation,” Belle continued. “But really, once you dig a little deeper you see that there’s a lot of deep thought that has gone into it.” She shrugged. “Maybe I’m biased, but maybe I see things a little differently. I see things from both sides as it were.”

“Do you ever get overwhelmed by so much Star Force?” Gold asked, amused.

Belle shook her head. “Not really. I was talking to Mulan about exactly the same thing the other day. It had never really occurred to me that it might be too much. And after all, the show isn’t going to be around forever.”

It was a sad thought, now that the end was getting ever closer and the finale was a very real deadline looming, and Belle changed the subject abruptly, not wanting to dwell on the inevitable final goodbye. They continued to talk for a little while on various other topics, before Gold looked at his watch.

“I should probably get going.”

Belle nodded, a little reluctant to see him leave, but she would concede that it was getting late. She turned the TV off and followed him through the flat to the front door and unlocked it for him. Gold paused in the frame.

“Thank you for a lovely evening,” he said.

“You’re very welcome. Thank you for coming and keeping me company,” Belle replied.

“There’s no place I’d rather be.”

Belle laughed, but Gold’s eyes were sincere, and they lapsed into silence for a moment, hovering in the doorway. Then Gold smiled, and shifted his weight to get moving, and leaned in to peck a chaste kiss against Belle’s cheek.

“Thank you,” she murmured under her breath as he pulled away, but she didn’t think that he heard her, as the next thing she knew, he was saying his goodbyes and that he’d see her again on Monday at five, like usual.

Belle nodded. “See you then.”

She stayed in the doorway, watching his progress down the corridor until he had disappeared into the lift, and as soon as he was out of sight she gave a heartfelt sigh. She’d had a lovely evening but she couldn’t help feeling as if something was missing or off somehow. Perhaps it was the way it had just ended, with a kiss that wasn’t really one.

Belle went back into her room and flopped back down onto her bed, closing her eyes for a few moments to remember the feel of Gold’s lips on her cheek, warm and soft. She hadn’t been expecting it and hadn’t quite known how to react; and maybe it was her stillness that had scared him off, perhaps? It was not the first time that Gold had kissed her cheek in gratitude; he was not an overly tactile man by any manner or means, but there had been a couple of occasions in the past where she had been on hand to prevent some disaster or another and had received the token of affection. This time felt different though. Maybe she should have done something. Reciprocated the action, or just grabbed him by the tie and pulled him in for a proper kiss. Maybe not that, too much like Zelena. A hug, perhaps?

Still, it was over now and the moment could not be altered. There was no use in dwelling on the things she had not done. Belle reached across for her laptop, mentally preparing herself for the Tumblr explosion that would no doubt have taken place in the wake of the episode and the undeniable proof that Snow and Charming had finally slept together.

There were a couple of messages in her inbox asking her opinion of the episode; she would answer those later once she’d had chance to re-watch with Mulan and form a more detailed impression. The third message was from one of her fandom friends.

So, how did the Star Force watching date go? ;-) Are they a fan already or was this their first time watching it?

Belle buried her head in the pillow with a groan before replying. She probably shouldn’t be replying so soon, but she needed to get it off her chest.

It wasn’t really a date, not in the normal sense of the word. He’s already a big fan, we talk about it all the time. Well, at least that much was definitely true. I don’t know how it went really. I think it went all right but I messed up at the end.

She hit send and began to scroll through the tags. People’s opinions had swung almost unanimously from Graham’s character being the one for the chop to deciding that the writers enjoyed inflicting pain and would be killing off one or both of Snow and Charming. Belle steered clear of those debates; as lovely as David and Mary Margaret both were, their characters just weren’t the ones that she was interested in.

Another message dropped in, from one of her more persistent anons who was determined that Stiltskin and Greenie were going to end up together by the end of the series, and whoever they were behind the anonyshades, they were gloating somewhat about the amount of time Greenie had spent unconscious in Stiltskin’s arms during this episode.

Yeah, because the ship’s doctor is really going to let a fainting woman fall on the floor right next to him, Belle typed, then deleted the sarcastic response and the message. She wasn’t in the right frame of mind to deal with those kinds of people, so she returned to the reactions to the episode. The large majority were positive, with the main complaints being that it was so fast-paced that it was hard to keep up with what everyone was doing all the time.

Belle started when she suddenly saw her own name mentioned in a post, and she read it carefully.

Who does the make-up for Star Force? Dr Stiltskin was looking particularly tasty today.

It was Jefferson who had replied; she recognised his URL.

The chief make-up artist for Star Force is a Miss Belle French, and I’m sure she’d be very glad to hear your praise.

Belle had to laugh. Jefferson was one of only four people to know her identity both on Tumblr and in real life, the other three being Mulan, Ruby and Ariel, with Ariel’s blog being devoted entirely to cosplay and Ruby not having a blog at all, so it was a very select few that she’d ended up with in her inner sanctum. She knew that Jefferson had made the comment intending for her to see it, and she smiled, writing him a message.

Thanks for the shout-out, Jeff.

He replied a moment later.

All in a day’s work, poppet. You’ll be famous before you know it. See you tomorrow. What was this interesting news that you were going to tell me, or can you not tell me yet?

Belle sighed and wondered about how to respond for a long time before typing a new message:

False alarm. No interesting news after all.

She would test the water again on Monday, if she was brave enough. After all, Mulan was going to be working on Fridays for the foreseeable future, and it had been nice to have someone to watch the show with. Hopefully Gold still felt the same way in that respect and their Star Force evening could become a regular thing, even if she had just shot down all hopes of it ever really being called a date.

Belle heard a key turn in the lock and got up off her bed to stick her head out of her door and say hi to Mulan. Her roommate was grumbling about stupid drivers and examining a scratch on her cycle helmet carefully.

“What happened?” Belle asked.

“Some idiot in a four-wheel drive cut me up and forced me into a bush,” Mulan muttered. “A really prickly one!”

Her annoyance faded when she looked up and met Belle’s enquiring gaze, and she broke into a smile.

“So… how did it go?”

“All right,” Belle replied, hoping that the nonchalance in her voice would pre-empt any further questions. Luckily Mulan recognised the subject as one to leave alone.

“I’m too tired to watch tonight,” she said. “It was stupidly busy at work, I’d hoped it would be quiet as everyone would be at home watching Star Force. No such luck. Well, I’m going to hit the hay. Did you save me any cannelloni?”

Belle nodded. “In the fridge.”

“Excellent.” Mulan held out the small box that she’d brought into the apartment with her and Belle took it, opening it up to find a couple of little chocolate macaroons inside. “Eat them tonight, they won’t be good tomorrow. Sweet dreams, Bookworm.”

“You too, Warrior.”

Mulan went into the kitchen and Belle returned to her bedroom and her laptop. Things seemed to have quietened down now that a few episodes had passed. The first few gifs and screencaps were appearing, and her inbox had remained empty for a while. She closed down Tumblr, there would be time enough tomorrow for meta and fanfic to be written. She checked Twitter briefly to see if anything was happening there, but there was not a lot new apart from a series of increasingly hilarious tweets from an increasingly tipsy Emma purporting not to remember filming any of the episode and being pleasantly surprised with how the entire thing had resolved itself.

Belle looked at her watch. Time to call it a night. She shut the laptop down and nibbled on a macaroon, wondering what she should say to Gold on Monday morning.

It was at that moment that her phone buzzed on the sheets beside her.

X

Gold waited until he’d got himself tucked up in bed before allowing himself to dwell on the events of the evening. It had all been going so well, up until that moment in the doorway when he’d managed to ruin everything. He pressed a pillow over his face and gave a long groan into it. He shouldn’t have kissed her. She’d frozen when he’d done it, giving a little squeak, and it was obvious that she’d neither expected nor wanted it. He shouldn’t have presumed to be able to kiss her like that even if he had done it before on occasion. Cripes, what did she think of him now?

He reached for his phone on the bedside table, realising that he hadn’t told Belle that he’d got home safely. She’d asked him to on Wednesday after their evening out with the others, but not today. Would she appreciate the text, especially so late?

Gold decided to take a chance and cut his losses.

I’m home safe, have been for a while actually. I forgot to say.

He paused, then added: Sorry if this wakes you and hit send before he could second guess himself.

A few moments later, he received a response.

It’s ok, I was waiting up for Mulan. She’s just got home safe too. Thanks for letting me know. Apparently there were some idiots on the roads tonight, glad you’re all right.

Gold’s finger hovered over the reply key. Belle was obviously still awake and compos mentis. Should he try to make amends now? It made sense to do these things sooner rather than later, after all.

Listen, Belle, about earlier, I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable. It won’t happen again, I promise.

There was no reply for a long time and Gold was just beginning to drift into a half-asleep state when the phone vibrated on the bedside table, jerking him back into full consciousness.

What do you mean? That was the entirety of Belle’s reply.

Gold sighed and responded: When I kissed you. You weren’t expecting it, I’m sorry. I was just… I was just thinking how much I’ll miss you when I’ll no longer see you, and I wanted to make sure I had the memory of kissing your cheek in a moment that wasn’t mad euphoria at a problem being solved. He deleted half the message. I was just trying to express my gratitude.

Half a minute later, Belle’s message arrived.

Oh, that. It didn’t make me uncomfortable. It was unexpected, but not unwanted.

Gold looked down at the message and blinked rapidly several times. Did that mean what he thought it meant?

He would have to talk to her about it on Monday, if he dared. He was too tired to give proper thought into a suitable reply, so he skirted the issue.

That’s all right then. Sleep well, Belle.

Her response was immediate: You too, Rum.

Gold put the phone back on the nightstand and burrowed down into the covers again. Tired as he was, though, his mind would not let him sleep, constantly coming round to the message and the events of the evening.

He decided not to mention it on Monday. If he had got the wrong end of the stick then it would make life very awkward, and if there was one thing that Gold did not want, it was for things to be awkward during the last few months of Belle’s company that he had left to enjoy.

Chapter Text

Part Four: In which Belle and Gold get stuck in a cupboard, and Gold makes a discovery. With bonus Spotted Dragon!

As Gold made his usual trudge across the set towards the make-up room on Monday morning, he was far more awake than he usually was at that point in the day. He had been unable to sleep well the previous night, still thinking about the moment in Belle’s doorway on Friday night after the premiere, when he had kissed her, and her words afterwards.

It was unexpected, but not unwanted.

He sighed as he came towards the lit doorway and paused before he entered. What did that mean? On Friday evening he had made the executive decision not to mention it, but it had been playing on his mind ever since. Belle had said that his touch was not unwanted, which presumably meant that it was wanted. She had wanted him to kiss her. Would she want him to kiss her again? Because Gold most definitely wanted to kiss her again. All over the weekend his hours had been haunted by daydreams of Belle in his arms and her soft mouth against his, but he couldn’t be sure. Not unwanted did not necessarily mean actively wanted, just that she hadn’t minded it at the time. Best to say no more about it and pretend that it had never happened. The misunderstanding had been cleared up, at least, and they could continue on their working lives together with no awkwardness. Well, not as much awkwardness as there could have been.

“Are you coming in?” Belle’s smiling face appeared around the edge of the door. “You’ve just been standing out there for ages. I heard you coming and then you stopped. I thought you might have fallen asleep standing up.”

Gold shook his head with a snort of laughter and entered the room, sitting down in his usual chair and accepting his first cup of tea of the day.

“So, what wonders await us this week?” Belle asked as she began to pin his hair back from his face so that she could sponge on his base unimpeded. “Have you all been told what to say at Comic-con yet?”

The convention was the next weekend, and Gold was already quietly dreading it. All of the previous week of filming, Zelena had been remarkably enthusiastic about it and she had been extremely convinced that they were going to do all the press tables together. Sadly, that did make a lot of logistical sense, as they would want to keep the two romantic pairs together. Emma was already trying to plan her escape from Killian’s clutches.

“I’m currently working on the principle that every other sentence out of my mouth will be ‘Zelena, for the love of God stop touching me inappropriately’,” Gold muttered.

Belle gave him a sad, sympathetic smile in the mirror.

“I wish I was going to be there to give you moral support,” she said. “You sound like you’re going to need it.”

“I am going to need it. Do you think if I sprayed her with water it would work to keep her at bay? You know, like spritzing a cat in heat tends to dampen their ardour.”

Belle burst out laughing. “Oh, what I wouldn’t pay to see the footage of the panel if you keep spritzing Zelena every five minutes. That would be amazing. I bet you enjoyed that episode with the pressure washer.”

Gold gave a very satisfied smile at the memory of the pressure washer. On her return to the ship following a very close encounter with some alien slime on a distant planet, Miss Greenie had to be decontaminated in the ship’s medical bay, which involved Dr Stiltskin hosing her down with something akin to a pressure washer. It had taken a lot to keep the grin of blissful payback from Gold’s face, but since he was covered almost completely in a hazmat suit, it didn’t matter too much. A very wet and shivering Zelena had complained that he hadn’t had to be quite so vigorous, but Mal had given him her blessing to be as enthusiastic as he wanted and the director’s word, in this particular circumstance, was law. It had suppressed Zelena’s attentions for all of half an hour, but then she was back, wrapped up in towels and dressing gowns and purring suggestively in his ear that since he was the one to get her so wet and cold, he should really be the one to warm her up, and reminding him not at all subtly that she was naked under all the terrycloth and that the best way to warm up was skin-to-skin.

“I very much enjoyed the pressure washer scene,” Gold said, back in the present with Belle. “Of course, her efforts afterwards only redoubled, but at the time it was a wonderful feeling of revenge. I’m not sure that I got my point across properly, I think she needs another dose.”

Belle had to laugh, and she turned away to prevent poking Gold in the eye or up the nose with her paintbrush.

“Still, Comic-con,” she said once she had regained her composure. “Ignoring Zelena’s existence for a moment…”

“If only we could,” Gold muttered.

“… Are you excited?” Belle asked. “I know you don’t go to many of the cons, and I know you don’t really like them that much, but surely there must be something you like. How many cosplayers will be rocking the Stiltskin look this year, do you think?”

“I’ve no idea. I’m always amazed by how many people do it. There’s so much work that goes into all the costumes, it really is inspirational. I don’t know how they manage to do it without you and Ashley.”

Ashley was the costume supervisor who shared a friendly antagonistic relationship with Gold that mostly consisted of her berating him for sweating off his dark green make-up onto his pristine white lab coat, and Gold telling her to take it up with Archie who was responsible for the extremely hot lighting.

“There are a lot of very good tutorials out there on Youtube. People are incredibly creative, and as soon as something appears on screen in high definition and big budget, you can guarantee that someone, somewhere, will find a way of replicating it at a fraction of the cost and the effort. I love seeing cosplayers at cons, and seeing the thought and the ingenuity that’s gone into their costumes, and the way they twist and shape things into their own interpretation of the character. I suppose that as an artist I have an even deeper appreciation of these things, the fact that there are people with no formal training at all who can just look at something and think ‘yes, this is a character I aspire to be’ and set about making something for themselves, and achieving it.”

“The amount of love that goes into some of the things I see is pretty impressive,” Gold admitted. They lapsed into silence and Gold fell to musing whilst Belle concentrated on his face. He only realised that he had fallen asleep when Belle gently tapped his shoulder to get him to change position so that she could finish the back of his neck.

X

It was almost the end of the working day and Gold and Zelena had finished filming. There was just one more scene on the sheet and it was a short one with only Emma and Graham, so Gold and Belle were on their way back to make-up to begin the evening properly when Zelena’s voice could be heard coming from the opposite direction.

“Rum?” she was calling. “Rum, where are you, sweetie?”

Gold groaned.

“Oh no, please don’t make me talk to her. I’ve had enough of her for one day.”

“It’s ok, I’m here,” Belle said. “You can use me as a human shield.”

“I can’t bear to look at her anymore.”

Belle looked around; Miss Greenie’s trademark high heels were clattering closer and closer and there was going to be no escape, until she saw the door to the maintenance cupboard slightly ajar.

“Quick, in here!”

She bundled Gold into the small closet and shut the door behind them, just in time to hear Zelena’s heels and voice come around the corner and stop abruptly on finding the corridor empty.

“Oh. Rum? Rum, where are you?”

Gold and Belle listened at the door for a few moments whilst Zelena wandered up and down the corridor, and finally her steps became fainter and fainter.

“Do you think it’s safe?” Gold hissed.

Belle nodded. “I think so. Come on, let’s get out of here.”

She made to open the door again but found, with a rush of ice through her veins, that there was no handle on the inside of the door, and it was shut fast.

“Oh my goodness, please don’t say I’ve just trapped us in a cliché,” Belle groaned. She banged on the door and shoved it with her shoulder, but it would not budge. “I don’t believe this.” She turned to Gold. “I’m so sorry, this wasn’t my intention.”

To her surprise, he just shrugged.

“Well, it’s not like I’ve got anything more to film today, and I can’t deny that we’re definitely safe from Zelena in here.”

"Unless of course she decides to come in here with us,” Belle said.

“If that happens, I can guarantee that she won’t be bothering us for very long,” Gold said darkly. “I just can’t believe her audacity sometimes.”

Belle took out her phone and tapped out a quick message to Ruby.

Trapped in a storage closet with Gold round the corner from main sound stage, please come and let us out when you can?

Ruby’s reply was almost immediate but not at all encouraging.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA

Another message followed shortly. Bit tied up with Graham at the moment, I’ll be there asap.

“Ruby’s going to come and rescue us as soon as she can,” Belle told Gold, and she came over and sat down opposite him where he was perched on an upturned bucket to save his ankle. Neither of them said anything for a few moments until Belle felt compelled, possibly by the rising temperature in the little closet, to make conversation.

“Is it me or is it getting warm in here?” She plucked at the fabric of her top and shook it, trying to create a breeze. Gold nodded his agreement with a non-committal noise of acquiescence and unzipped the neck of his costume a little way; he’d already lost the coat as soon as he’d finished filming. It always made Belle smile to see the point where the green make-up ended and his pink skin began, but this time there was a little tingle in the pit of her stomach when she saw it. It was not more than she saw of him normally in a morning when he was getting made up in his undershirt, but it was different now that he was in costume, seeing this sliver of skin that the rest of the cast, crew and audience never normally got to see. It seemed more intimate, more clandestine. Belle looked around the small closet, searching for anything that might prove both distracting from the very inappropriate thoughts that were invading her brain, and somewhat entertaining, and coming to the conclusion that her phone was going to have to suffice. At least she could still get Internet in here.

“I spy…” Gold began, muttering. Belle laughed. “Well, what would you do if you were trapped in here alone?” he asked.

“Read fanfic,” Belle answered honestly. “I can while away hours doing that. But you’re probably not interested in that.”

Gold just gave her a long look before eventually replying. “Try me.”

“Pardon?”

“Try me. I trust your judgement. It’s like you said on Friday night, about being able to explore things in fanfiction that you can’t in the real show. I’d like to see an example of someone doing that.”

“You want me to prove to you that fandom are not all nutters, and we care passionately about issues and plot holes that are never resolved?”

“You make it sound like I’m challenging you,” Gold said. His voice was amused, and the warmth in his tone was infectious, making Belle smile. “I just want to read something interesting and entertaining.”

“Ok then.” Belle flicked through her pages and brought up her masterlist. She was in two minds about reading him one of her own works, but she knew them better than she knew anyone else’s, and she knew which ones were likely to make him run a mile. As much as his reaction to Mulan’s latest magnum opus with Lacey and Stiltskin christening every room in the space ship would have been veritable diamond dust, she didn’t think that it would be an entirely appropriate introduction to fandom.

She opened up her latest work and began to read.

Expecting the Unexpected. Summary: Drifting through deep space with no way home, the Aurora Borealis is no place to raise a child. But when Commander Leyah finds herself craving maple syrup and banana sandwiches at three o'clock in the morning and seeing her breakfast again with alarming regularity, she realises that she might have to do just that. Luckily, there’s a competent, if rather cranky, medic on board to help her along.”

Gold laughed. “All right, you’ve piqued my interest. Go on.”

Belle continued to read the first chapter of the tale aloud. When she reached the end, she looked up at Gold, who was listening with a sweet smile on his face.

“I like it,” he said. “I really like it.”

“There’s no need to say that just to spare my feelings, you know,” Belle said.

“No, I genuinely like it. It’s very well-written, and definitely sounds like how Leyah would act. Is there any more?”

“There’s twenty chapters more,” Belle said. “And it’s not finished yet.”

Gold’d grin widened. “Go on then. What happens next?”

Belle continued to read, feeling ridiculously pleased with herself, and Gold stayed rapt. She had just got to the part where Leyah and Stiltskin were having a heated argument through a bathroom door when her phone buzzed with the arrival of a text message, and she stopped reading for a moment, going to check it. It was from Mulan and consisted of five words.

Killian tweeted and tumblr exploded.

Belle’s thumb hovered over the reply button, then went to the tumblr app, then went back to the message and replied.

Should I be scared, she asked her flatmate.

"Something the matter?” Gold asked, looking at her with his head on one side. Belle shook her head, eyebrows furrowed.

“I don’t know yet,” she said. “It’s nothing important, whatever it is. Apparently Killian’s said something on Twitter and everyone’s up in arms.”

Killian wasn’t filming that day, so it was unlikely to be any kind of major spoiler from the set, which was what his conflagrative tweets usually consisted of.

“Well, since Killian has all the charm and tact of a teapot, I can’t say that I’m wholly surprised,” Gold muttered. “What’s he said?”

“I don’t know yet,” Belle repeated. “You’ve got Twitter, you can look it up for yourself.”

Gold gave a concessionary shrug, but did not make any move to open Twitter on his phone or make any effort to find out what was going on.

“Besides,” Belle continued. “I think that comment is a gross insult to teapots. I think that teapots are inherently charming and they can be extremely tactful. Look at Mrs Potts.”

“All right, I stand corrected on my assessment of Killian’s charm and tact, and I apologise to the teapot population of the world at large.”

Belle laughed. “I’m sure they appreciate your apology.”

Finally, curiosity appeared to win out over everything else in Gold’s brain, and Belle saw him log in to Twitter and go searching for Killian’s tweet, just as Mulan replied to her.

Check your dash. Keep Gold away from Twitter at all costs.

Belle looked up in alarm, but whatever the damage was, it had already been done. Gold was staring at his phone with a blank expression, and Belle knew that if she scraped the make-up off right now, he’d be either bright red or as pale as a ghost.

“Gold?” she ventured. “Is everything ok?”

She received no response to her question, and Gold simply ran a hand through his hair with a pained sigh and a muttered curse when his long fingernails caught in the crimped waves. Belle put her phone down and moved over to untangle him, in doing so giving her a good view of the phone that he still held in a vice-like grip.

“It’s nothing,” he said eventually. Unseen above him, Belle raised an eyebrow and continued to try and free his hand. “Just Killian imparting some rather brutal home truths.”

Belle looked down at the screen in Gold’s other hand. There were two new tweets on the younger actor’s feed. In the first, Killian had posted a selfie from the local gym, with the caption: shirt comes off again next week! gotta make sure i’m still the most ripped #StarForce #workingout. Below it was another message: mind you the only competition is this guy so I think I’m safe #ohdear #layoffthebacongold. There was an extremely unflattering candid picture of Gold taken in the early hours of the morning, half made-up and eating a bacon sandwich, looking like he was about to murder someone. Probably Killian. Belle remembered the day; it was a difficult scene to shoot and everyone had had an earlier call time so Killian and Gold had been in the make-up room at the same time, which was a very unusual occurrence.

“Gold, ignore it,” Belle said, finally resorting to prising the fingernails off to release his hand; he was finished filming and they’d be coming off anyway as soon as they got back to make-up. “Ignore it. It’s not worth it. We’ve already had this conversation. If Killian wants to make it into some kind of stupid competition and start trolling you, then that’s his choice, and all it does is show just how pathetic and childish he is. Please, it’s not worth getting worked up about, I swear.”

Gold didn’t respond, and as Belle pocketed the torn off plastic fingernails, she wondered what the reaction on Tumblr would be. She and Mulan tended to follow a lot of the same people, so nine times out of ten, whatever explosions Mulan was seeing on her dash, Belle would pick up on her own.

She crouched down in front of him and squeezed his knee.

“He’s not worth it,” she repeated. “Come on.”

Finally he looked up and met her eyes. It was always strange to see him in full make-up but without his contact lenses in, his dark brown eyes like pools of melted chocolate, a window to the man beneath all the paint. She wondered whether anyone else found it odd. It was not a particularly uncommon sight as he hated having the lenses in and took them out whenever he wasn’t in front of the camera, so everyone saw him in this state very often. But there was something so expressive about Gold’s eyes in Stiltskin’s face that made it all too plain to see that there was a living, breathing man behind this anarchic, slightly insane character, a man who could hurt and bruise just as easily as any other. Finally he gave a snort of cynical laughter.

“I suppose your Tumblr army will have a lot to say about that,” he said. Belle giggled.

“I’m sure that they will. That’s probably the reason that Mulan texted me as a warning.” She paused, picking up her own phone and opening up Tumblr. Whilst it was loading, she glanced back over at Gold. “You’re a very handsome man, Rum, I’ve said it before but I think that you need to hear it again. And I’m not just saying that to make you feel better.”

He looked up at her sharply, and there was an expression in his eyes that Belle couldn’t quite fathom. Involuntarily, her tongue darted out to lick her dry lips, and she hesitated. The urge to lean in now and kiss him was increasing, and his dark eyes looked so inviting. She almost couldn’t believe it; it was the ultimate fanfiction trope - trapped together in close quarters, the two main characters who have assiduously avoided talking about their feelings finally succumb. But this wasn’t fanfiction, it was real life, and things like that just didn’t happen in real life. She looked away, ending the moment, and Gold gave an awkward cough. They were back to normality again, no longer main characters in an epic online work but just a very miserable Gold and a Belle trying to cheer him up.

Her dashboard loaded and with just a few scrolls down, Belle immediately saw what Mulan was talking about. Explosion was putting it mildly. Seemingly everyone that she followed had reblogged Killian’s tweet, some several times, and the comments were all so incredibly encouraging that she had to laugh.

ATTENTION ALL! THIS IS NOT A DRILL, THIS IS NOT A DRILL, WE WILL BE GETTING TOPLESS DR STILTSKIN AT LAST!

At last! It’s taken them long enough! Honestly, Hook and Charming spend so much time with their shirts off that I’m beginning to forget what they look like fully dressed.

Which episode are they filming at the moment? When will we see this wonderful phenomenon?

Eighteen or nineteen I think. Gah dammit do we have to wait that long to see it?

Oh my Gold. I’ll be in my bunk, see you in a couple of weeks.

Wait guys there is an important question not yet asked or answered! IS HE GREEN ALL THE WAY DOWN??

Is he just topless? Or is he, you know, bottomless as well?

Oh crumbs, I hope not. Not that I don’t want to see that (I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t want to see that), but the poor guy’s got a three hour make-up job as it is, I dread to think how long it would take to do his whole body.

How do I apply for the job of putting make-up on Rum Gold’s chest? I can work for free…

Belle had to laugh at the last one, and she showed the phone to Gold.

“Those are all real people behind the URLs,” she said. “I told you that you had a very loyal fanbase who would be extremely happy to see you.”

Gold took her phone and scrolled through the reblogs, all of which were completely ignoring Killian’s words and homing in on the simple fact, not even explicity stated within the younger man’s tweets, that Gold would be getting his shirt off in the upcoming episode, and Belle breathed a sigh of relief on hearing him give a genuine, if very small, laugh.

“I think you should reply to that last one,” he said. “Something along the lines of 'you don’t apply, it’s already mine’.”

Belle took the phone back off him. It was incredibly tempting but she decided to leave it until later before getting involved in the huge, sprawling explosion that was going on, otherwise she would just be sucked in and get nothing else done for the remainder of the day. She scrolled down a little further, searching for Mulan’s comments on the subject. Mulan herself was not and never would be attracted to Gold, although she would not deny that he was a good-looking man in a purely aesthetic sense, so Belle could guarantee that whatever her flatmate had to say on the subject would be slightly more coherent.

When everyone’s calmed down, I think someone needs to take a look at the tweets themselves. Am I or am I not seeing Killian openly trolling a fellow cast member?

The replies were rather mixed, with some defending the actor and saying it was just a bit of fun, and others agreeing with Mulan.

If we knew that these two actors got on with each other well and were friends and joke around a lot together, then I would say yes, it’s just a bit of fun and Killian doesn’t mean it, just a joke etc. But we know that they don’t get along well, you can see it in their interactions doing press stuff, and this isn’t the first time that Killian has made pointed comments about Gold’s age or weight. I’m much more inclined to think of this as deliberately malicious.

Has anyone called him out on it? Who do we know around here who has Twitter?

Belle smiled. It was sometimes alarming, how quickly people jumped to the defence of others, but sometimes, when people like Killian were being jerks, it gave her hope.

There was a knock on the door.

“I trust you two are still alive in there?” Ruby’s voice asked through the wood.

“Just about,” Gold replied. “We were almost at the stage of drawing straws as to who was going to eat whom first.”

The door opened and Belle blinked against the sudden bright light from the corridor after the dimness from the closet, and she looked up to see Ruby standing there with her arms folded and a very amused expression on her face.

“I’m not even going to ask what happened,” she said. “Speculating is far more fun.”

“We were hiding from Zelena!” Belle exclaimed. “We came in here for a perfectly innocent reason!”

“All right,” Ruby said as they left the closet and began to make their way back down to the make-up room to get Gold back to his normal colour again. “Since I’m your friend, I’ll believe you where thousands wouldn’t.”

Belle just rolled her eyes, but at least Gold was smiling again.

X

“Gold,” Belle began, once they were back in the make-up room, “can I ask you something?”

“Of course.” Gold gave a long yawn and returned his attention to his task at hand, namely that of scrubbing off the paint on the back of his neck.

“When you picture Lacey, have you got a specific image in mind? We’re all very eager to know, you know.”

Gold felt his blood suddenly run cold, because there was a very specific picture in his mind whenever he thought about Lacey. She was standing right next to him, taking the make-up off his left hand, but he could hardly tell Belle that, could he? He hadn’t intended to use her as his basis for his character’s wife, but he’d been working on the principle that it was very unlikely for said wife ever to be seen on screen and therefore it didn’t really matter how she was described, and thus, when a description of Belle had tumbled out instead of anything else that he could have said, he hadn’t given it much thought.

“Why are you all so eager to know?” he asked, trying to shirk the question as best he could.

“Because it’s canon now. You’ve created canon. You had the opportunity basically to create a character from scratch, and your words set her in stone. And you chose to give her those characteristics, and they now can’t be changed, unless the writers decide to completely forgo continuity. It wouldn’t be the first time, of course, but that line has become pretty much iconic.”

“What line?”

“Brown hair, beautiful blue eyes, and an accent you wouldn’t soon forget.” She paused and looked at him in the mirror, and Gold had to suppress a sigh, because when he looked at her now, it was so painfully, incredibly obvious that those words were describing her.

Gold sighed. “Perhaps I was describing my ideal woman,” he said. “I don’t know. These things come into your head and you just say them. I’m glad to have made fandom history though. I feel very honoured.”

Belle smiled at him in the mirror, but for some reason it didn’t quite manage to reach her eyes, and they continued to work in silence for a while.

You, he kept thinking. It’s you. Whenever I picture Lacey, all I can see is you, because you are my ideal woman, and Belle, there is nothing I wouldn’t give to be your ideal man. They had come so close earlier, when they were stuck in the closet. He had wanted to kiss her so badly, but something had stopped him. He was second-guessing himself again, and it was a terrible thing to do, but he had to be sure. That single sentence from the previous Friday had embedded itself in his brain and was still refusing to leave. Unexpected, but not unwanted. He wished he knew what it meant, where he stood, but it wasn’t the kind of thing that you could just ask your beautiful young female colleague.

“Well, you’re done,” Belle said presently, throwing the damp and dirty washcloths they’d used to clean off his make-up into the laundry bin. “I suppose I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow morning.”

Gold stood from the chair and stretched the cricks out of his back, glancing over at Belle, wondering what to say. He couldn’t help but feel that he had catastrophically and stupidly wasted an incredibly good opportunity and now it was far too late to put it right, as much as he wanted to. Belle wasn’t looking at him, pointedly rummaging through all her kit for something.

“Good night, Belle,” he said eventually.

“Good night, Gold,” she replied, without turning round.

X

Once home, and having showered and eaten, Gold turned on his laptop. Belle’s earlier discussion of cosplay make-up had intrigued him, and in the absence of anything better to do, he might as well have a look to try and keep his mind away from Belle and their last interaction in the make-up room. Youtube really was an invaluable resource, after all, although it took him a while to actually work up the courage to type something into the search bar to bring up a selection of make-up tutorial videos. He was just scrolling through them - and many of them looked very well done considering that they were amateur ones - when an instant message popped up on his screen. It was from Mal, and Gold smiled. She was a very private person, and it was rare for her to grace any kind of social media, so Gold was happy to be counted among the select few trusted friends who had regular contact with her. She’d obviously been waiting for him to come home and come online.

I’m directing the finale. Thought you ought to be the first to know, my dear. I’ve seen the first drafts of the script as well. It’s going to be a masterpiece.

Gold smiled and typed back.

I’m pleased to hear it. Congratulations, it seems fitting that the show should go out with a bang, and who better to provide that than you? It was something of an industry legend that Mal’s mantra was always something along the lines of: “You know what this needs? More fire!” He wasn’t sure where she had got her pyromaniac tendencies from, but he supposed that she wasn’t called the Dragon for nothing.

Mal’s response was short and had she been in the room with him, Gold was pretty certain that she would have flipped him off.

Very funny.

Gold took a moment to imagine her facial expression before replying.

I mean it, Mal. Congratulations. So, tell me about the script…

There was nothing for a moment and then Skype’s incredibly annoying ringtone signalled an incoming call from his friend.

“Hi Mal.”

The blonde waved, her mane of pale blonde curls bouncing around on the screen.

“Hello darling.”

Gold snorted. “You’ve been spending far too much time with Ella.”

“I live with her, of course I spend far too much time with her.” Somewhere in the background, Gold heard Ella’s voice yell “I heard that!”, and Mal respond with “You were meant to. Still…” She returned her attention to Gold. “About the finale…”

“Yes?”

Mal’s grin was positively Mephistophelean.

“Well… You know what they say, Gold. Hashtag no spoilers.”

“You do realise just how ridiculous it sounds when you say it out loud?”

“Of course I do. But I thought I would say it anyway. All right, I’ll throw you a bone, since you are one of my oldest friends. I will give you a hint, and if you’re too dense to work out what’s happening from that hint, well, you don’t deserve to know.”

“And the hint is?” Gold asked, raising one eyebrow.

“Brown hair, beautiful blue eyes, and an accent you wouldn’t soon forget.”

Gold blinked.

“Lacey? Lacey’s in it? Stiltskin gets reunited with Lacey?”

Mal didn’t reply and just contiuned to grin at him, until she got elbowed out of the screen and Ella appeared.

“Of course,” Ella said, “it could be that he gets killed off in the finale and in his final moments he hallucinates his true love coming towards him to take him off into eternity. Isn’t that a beautiful image? It brings a tear to my eye to think of it.”

“Shut up, Ella,” Gold said, although now that she had said it, he couldn’t help but be rather worried that this was indeed his character’s fate.

“Or maybe you don’t share any scenes at all and the final shot is of our dear absent friend Lacey receiving the news from Force Base?” Ella suggested. “We’ve been promised one death this half-season, but what if it is actually several deaths? The ship blows up as it re-enters orbit, with Lacey watching on the TV at home, her head in her hands as her chances of seeing her beloved husband again go up in literal smoke?”

Mal pushed her out of shot again.

“Ella, you are evil. Rum, I can promise you that the ship does not blow up.”

Gold raised an eyebrow. “You don’t say anything about her other predictions though,” he said pointedly.

“Well, you know, I’ve got to let you sweat a little.” Mal shrugged. “You’ll find out soon enough. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that we’re off to London tomorrow to visit Ella’s mum.”

“And possibly make ourselves wonderfully and fabulously famous, darling!” Ella called. Mal rolled her eyes.

“Wonderfully, fabulously famous?” Gold asked.

“I might be directing my first feature film,” Mal said, and Gold noticed a slight brush rising in her cheeks. “I’ve got a meeting with the producers on Thursday.”

“Congratulations,” Gold said. “As long as you’re still here to add your magic touch to the finale in a few weeks’ time, I wish you all the best.”

“Thanks, Gold. It’s top secret though, so don’t go blabbing to anyone. Not even your little Australian confidante.”

“My lips are sealed,” Gold promised. “Although you can trust Belle to be discreet. She’s very good at it.” Belle and Mal got on quite well, considering that they did not see each other all that much. They were jointly responsible for keeping him sane and safe from Zelena. There was silence for a moment, and then Mal spoke again, smiling.

“I’ll put your name forward for a part,” she said. “You’re going to be unemployed after Star Force, after all. I know you well enough to know that you haven’t got anything lined up. I bet you haven’t even called your agent.”

Gold grimaced. It was true, he had not given any thought to what was going to come next for him, in spite of the fact that, as Mal said, he would be out of a job once Star Force wrapped. He hadn’t wanted to give much thought to the end of Star Force at all, because thinking about the end of Star Force inevitably meant thinking about the end of his time with Belle, which was something that he did not want to do at all if he could help it. He opened his mouth, about to suggest that perhaps she could put Belle’s name forward as a chief make-up artist, but then closed it again, shaking his head.

“Something wrong, Gold?” Mal asked. Her Cheshire Cat expression had dropped, and she looked genuinely concerned.

He shook his head.

“No, it’s nothing.”

“Well, you know where I am if you need me,” she said. “Leroy told me you were hiding in cupboards today.”

Leroy was one of the security team, and he knew everything that went on on the set, and wasted no time in telling everyone else.

“Yes, for rather longer then we anticipated.”

“You were in there with Belle.”

“Yes… Where are you going with this, Mal?”

“Did it provide you with the impetus you needed to finally reveal your deep and yearning feelings for her?” Mal asked, her voice completely matter-of-fact. “You know, trapped together in a cupboard, the air getting thick and warm, both of you removing several layers of clothing to stay at a bearable temperature… And then being interrupted in the middle of the act itself by the person who’s come to let you out. It happens all the time in fiction.”

Gold sighed. “This is not fiction, Mal, and none of those things happened.” However much I might have wanted them to, he added mentally.

“Well, if you don’t tell her soon, you’ll never get the chance, you idiot!”

Gold gave another sigh. “I’ve had a long day, Mal, and I have to be up early in the morning. Good night.”

“I’m just telling it like it is, Gold.” Mal shrugged.

“Good night, Mal.”

He hung up the call and stared up at the ceiling for a few moments. Mal’s words were horribly true, and he forced them to the back of his mind, choosing instead to ponder on the finale and Lacey’s appearance. He sincerely hoped that it would not be in relation to any of Ella’s incredibly dire predictions, but then again, he wouldn’t put anything past the writers. Turning back to the laptop at last, he remembered the make-up tutorials that he had been looking into, and glanced over at the alarm clock. He had enough time, the videos were only short. He could watch one before bed, so he chose the most recent one and clicked on it.

He almost fell off the bed when he saw Belle’s face appear on the screen.

“Hello everyone, Bookworm here. In response to popular demand, I’m finally doing a tutorial on cosplay make-up for the character of Dr Stiltskin on the HBO TV series Star Force. We’re joined again by my lovely assistant Jeff, and nobly aided by his daughter Gracie.” The man in the make-up chair beside Belle waved, and a young girl’s hand waved from behind the camera. “Now, anyone who’s listened to any of the early interviews with Rum Gold knows that Stiltskin’s make up takes three to four hours to put on; I’ve devised a method that can be done in about an hour; and we’ll be time-lapsing through some of it. I’m not going to lie, this is the most complex tutorial I’ve ever done, so you might want to get a friend to help you.”

Gold continued to watch, mesmerised, as Belle continued to make up Jeff with Stiltskin’s face. Once the video came to an end, with Belle instructing people to look in the description for more information, he just stared at the screen for a long time afterwards, quite unable to believe what he had seen. Finally his eyes drifted to the description and he skimmed over the list of products and prices and the disclaimer that she was not being paid to advertise anything before alighting on a phrase that popped out of the screen and almost hit him in the face.

I am also on Tumblr: make-up-by-bookworm.tumblr.com

He let out a long breath. He shouldn’t. He really shouldn’t. This was Belle’s online life, and she used a pseudonym in it for a reason. Although she had been open with him about the fact that she was on Tumblr, she had not told him whereabouts on the website she could be found.

He clicked the link. The page that he came to was not what he had expected, being what seemed to be an archive of video clips all in the same place, all tutorials of various different looks and cosplay make-up techniques, and he read the description at the top of the page.

This is Bookworm’s side-blog for make-up tutorials. I do take requests, please drop me a line if there’s something particular that you wish to see. My main blog (fandom, fanfiction, meta, some real life updates) can be found here: bookworm-with-a-brush.tumblr.com

In for a penny, in for pound. Or should that be a pounding? Gold clicked the link to take him to Belle’s main blog and immediately found something that looked more like he was expecting.

Hello all! I’m Bookworm, a professional make-up artist originally hailing from the wonderful land of Australia but currently stationed in Maine. Here you will find many ramblings on all things related to fandom and good literature. My fic can be found here and my meta here. Current fandoms are Her Handsome Hero (mostly Marquise Caroline appreciation, some Caroford) and Star Force (OTP Laceskin, BrOTP Leyahskin, NOTP Greenskin… very anti-Greenie but all posts tagged as such). Please enjoy the madness! I also have a side-blog where I post make-up tutorials every couple of weeks: make-up-by-bookworm.tumblr.com

He looked down at the latest post. It was the same one from earlier, with Killian’s tweets and the long trail of conversation that had followed them. With a smile, he saw the comment that Belle had added.

I’m sure that the actual make-up artist is more than happy to keep their own job, you know…

Gold could not help but begin to wonder again.

Chapter Text

Part Five - In which Zelena makes a nuisance of herself, Gold makes another interesting discovery, and that interesting discovery leads to some awkward situations.

Gold wondered if he would feel such violent hatred towards the city of San Diego if he had ever visited it at a time that was not during Comic-Con. He was probably doing the place a vast injustice, but as things stood, he really didn’t like it. It was Saturday morning, the sun was shining brightly, and Gold wanted nothing more than to turn over, bury himself in his hotel room duvet and hide from the world. He checked his watch on the bedside table; there was still about an hour and a half or so before he was expected to make an appearance anywhere, so back under the duvet he went, closing his eyes and trying to pretend that he was in his own bed back in Storybrooke and that in a few minutes his alarm would go off and he’d have to drag himself into the land of the living to go and see Belle. Since he would not be seeing Belle at Comic-Con - even if she had been attending the chances of him seeing her were incredibly slim - there was really very little incentive for him to get up and move.

Gold thought about Belle. There had been no marked difference in their friendship over the past week. After their somewhat cold parting on Monday evening, Belle had been back to her usual bright self the next morning and Gold had decided that it would be better not to mention their adventures in the closet the previous day. They had continued pretty much as normal until he’d had to leave her to come to the convention, and Gold had continued to explore Belle’s blog without her knowledge. He wondered what her reaction would be if she found out that he had discovered her online identity, and had discovered that she was the author of the fanfic that had kept him entertained on Monday. He’d been scrolling down her blog when he’d discovered the latest chapter, and he’d fallen to reading the rest of the story. He was almost caught up with it, and to that end, he reached one hand out of the covers and groped around on the floor beside the bed for his tablet. He wasn’t going to get any more sleep, but he was really not ready to face the world just yet. He might as well curl up and forget about Comic-Con with Belle’s excellent writing for as long as he could.

He wasn’t at all surprised by her ability to create stories. Belle was incredibly well-read, he’d found that out the moment that he’d met her, and if art college and make-up training hadn’t worked out for her, she would have studied library science. He found the latest chapter and began to read, losing himself in Belle’s words. He could hear her voice in his head as he read, the Australian lilt behind all of the characters’ lines, even those belonging to Stiltskin, which he imagined that he would have heard in his own twittering tones. He had just come to the end of the chapter, which was rather annoyingly left on a cliff-hanger, and he was pondering the best way to ask Belle how she was getting on with the next chapter without letting on his identity when there was a sudden and unwelcome hammering on his door and Gold groaned, grabbing a pillow and putting it over his head.

“Gold, it’s Emma. Come on, open up. Firstly we need to talk strategy and secondly, Belle made me promise to help get you out of bed and to the con without killing anyone, including yourself.” There was a pause. “You can’t hide from the day under the duvet.”

“I can try,” Gold muttered.

“Gold,” Emma pleaded through the door. “Please… I’m in just the same boat as you are. I have to put up with Killian all day. We can be each other’s moral support.”

For a moment, Gold was reminded of the fanfic that he had just finished reading, although this time the roles were reversed, with Commander Leyah being the calm voice of reason talking through the door and Dr Stiltskin being the one having something almost akin to a hissy fit and remaining locked in against the world at all costs. Certain that he was making a terrible mistake, Gold got out of bed, half-tempted to drag the duvet with him, and went over to the door, opening it a fraction to meet Emma’s raised eyebrow.

“It’s only one day,” she said. “And then you never have to do it again. Come on, Gold,” she wheedled. “Please don’t make me break my promise to Belle, she’s scary when she’s angry. I didn’t think that you could get so much rage into such a small package.”

Gold was in the lucky position of never having been on the receiving end of Belle’s temper, even when she was having to touch him up between every take because he was sweating or scratching his make-up off, because she understood his discomfort. She was normally sweet-natured and extremely patient with everyone, but on the one occasion that he had seen her get mad (Killian had been the unfortunate victim, not that Gold had had much sympathy for him, turning up late for his call time and leaving her with only ten minutes to make him up with several bloody injuries), he would agree with Emma that Belle was a force to be reckoned with, and he did not want to make her unhappy or disappointed with him.

“Give me half an hour,” he grumbled through the sliver of the door.

Emma smiled.

“That’s the spirit. By the way, I brought my taser, if you think you might need it to keep Zelena at bay.”

Gold pondered for a moment. The image of Zelena, halfway through answering a question during the panel, suddenly screaming and tensing up as several volts were stabbed into her leg, was a very entertaining one.

“Never say never,” he muttered to Emma, and closed the door again.

He made his way into the bathroom and counted out his morning pills whilst he waited for the shower to warm up, trying to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of his various medications. If he broke out the double-strength painkillers then he’d be nicely numb all day, but he wouldn’t be able to drink in the evening, and he was probably going to need a drink to get through dinner and schmoozing with the rest of the cast and crew and all the myriad other people from the network. Gold sighed and rested his forehead against the mirror as it began to steam up. Less pills, more booze, that was the ultimate conclusion he came to. The alcohol would take the edge off the pain anyhow.

He swallowed the tablets with a mouthful of water and stepped under the shower spray, feeling it beating down like little needles on his back. He didn’t think that he had ever been so reluctant to face a day ever, and it was all because of one thing - the knowledge that he would not be seeing Belle at any point today, despite how much he desperately wanted her to reassure him, tell him that it was all going to be all right and he could get through this. Ugh, he’d be quite happy if the shower washed him away down the plughole, but he had to accept that he would be missed if that happened and he would have to pull himself together and get out sooner rather than later.

He left the bathroom at last to find that his phone was showing a new picture message from Belle. It was a selfie taken in Boston airport; she was giving the camera a thumbs up.

I thought you might need a pep talk, the accompanying caption read. You can get through this, Rum, I promise. Grit your teeth and tell yourself that it’s only one day. This time tomorrow it will all be over and you’ll be on your way home. I’m only on the other end of the phone if you need to talk to someone, and Emma has promised that she will take good care of you for me. Now, I had a very late night and need coffee. You wouldn’t think that you’d get jetlag going from Storybrooke to Boston…

Gold smiled down at the message, and he was just about to reply when a noise at the door sent him three feet into the air with a squawk of alarm.

“Oh, you are all right.”

Zelena was standing in the doorway with the concierge, who was holding a master key and looking rather scared.

“Zelena, what the hell are you doing?” Gold exclaimed, very aware that he was only wearing a towel and backing up towards the bathroom door in search of safety. “Of course I’m all right, why wouldn’t I be?”

“Well, I was knocking on your door and got no reply, and I couldn’t have you collapsed with a heart attack now, could I?” Zelena said sweetly, looking him up and down and giving a very appreciative leer.

“You nearly gave me a fucking heart attack just now!” He paused. “Since you can see I’m not collapsed, dearie, why are you still here?”

“Well, I wanted to ask you something, which was the reason for me knocking on your door and then panicking when I received no response in the first place.”

“Ask me later.” In a public place with lots of people in it and when I have underwear on, he added mentally.

“Zelena, leave him alone for heaven’s sake. I wanted to ask you something too. Come on.”

Emma appeared and dragged Zelena bodily away from the door, rolling her eyes and leaving Gold and the concierge.

“I’m sorry,” the young man squeaked, backing away. “She said she’d lost her key and this was her room.”

Gold just glared at him, limped over and slammed the door in his face. This was the perfect start to what was promising to be an absolutely awful day.

Finally coming to the conclusion that he couldn’t stay fuming at the wood all morning, as much as he would like to, he dressed and finally managed to draw his attention back to his phone, making to reply to Belle.

Well, the day has not even officially started and Zelena is already well on her way to a restraining order. Why did I come here?

He waited a few moments for a reply, but none came. He couldn’t expect her to jump at every message from him – she was meeting an old friend after all and her attention would be elsewhere, and if she had been in the airport then who knew, she might be in the air at this very moment in time.

There was another knock on the door.

“Emma again,” the young blonde’s voice called before he could ask who was there. “And I assure you, I come alone.”

He opened the door and Emma gave a wan smile.

“Come on, let’s go. The sooner we do it, the sooner it will all be over.” She sighed as Gold left his room and they made their way down the corridor together. “I feel sorry for you, Gold. At least I know Graham’s going to be at the party tonight so I’ve got someone to look forward to after all the faffing about.”

Emma and Graham were dating very quietly, indeed, not even Gold himself would have known had he not come across them on set once after the day’s filming had finished and he was on his way home having got his make-up off.

“I’ll survive,” Gold muttered. “I plan on getting thoroughly drunk and praying for a miracle.”

“Well, stranger things have happened,” Emma said.

There was something in her eyes as she said it that made Gold think that she knew more than she was letting on.

X

It was twenty minutes before the panel was due to start and Gold was hiding around the back of the stage with his phone. Browsing Tumblr on a mobile was… interesting. He was going to have to ask Belle how on earth she managed to do it all the time on her own phone. He needed a crash course. Was it normal to have grey boxes instead of pictures or was that something wrong with him specifically? He was further investigating Belle’s blog, and looking at the various posts, he could see that she had posted a couple of pictures of her and her friend Will, whom she was visiting instead of coming to Comic-Con. Sadly, he couldn’t see the pictures and therefore could not take any measure of the aforementioned Will. What he had worked out, however, was how to speak to Belle without revealing his identity.

It took him several attempts to open the link to her askbox, and when he finally managed to get there, it took him even longer to actually work out what he wanted to say, and he’d deleted several messages that seemed too demanding, too obsequious, too obviously him or too much of all three before he decided on the perfect way to make his comment. He was chickening out really, but he daren’t say too much for fear of revealing his identity.

Hello Bookworm, he began – he’d almost written Belle by accident, which got him off to a fine start. I’ve just caught up with ‘Expecting the Unexpected’ and I wanted to let you know how much I am enjoying it. A friend at work introduced me to it and it’s kept me going through a very trying week, so thank you very much for sharing this gem with us. I’m looking forward to the next chapter.

That sounded all right. Not too demanding – he’d seen enough of Belle’s blog to know that she did not take too kindly to having updates demanded of her, and still hopefully complimentary enough. He sent the anonymous message before he could second guess himself, and his thumb hovered over the link to her masterlist, where all of the rest of her fanfiction could be found. Maybe he could find something else to keep him occupied throughout the rest of the afternoon. The morning had been bearable, mainly spent in the press room keeping as far away from Zelena as he possibly could. They had been together for all of their interviews, but Gold had studiously managed to get her on his right all the time, so that should her hands wander, he could smack her away with his cane if necessary. After the morning’s escapades, though, her ardour seemed to have been satisfied and she was the very picture of propriety. It was making Gold extremely suspicious.

Presently, Belle’s masterlist loaded and he scrolled down it, looking for something interesting to divert him for a while until the panel started.

One summary caught his eye, for a short story that was only one chapter long.

“Beginning” Summary – Lacey and Stiltskin are reunited at last, and I think we all know what that entails. Just a little PWP to keep you all going until the next season airs.

Intrigued by the mention of Lacey, Gold clicked on the link and opened up the fic, beginning to read. It would be interesting to see how Belle described Lacey and how it matched up with his own mental picture of her. He could guarantee that they would not be the same, because his mental picture of Lacey was, well, Belle.

He was only a few paragraphs in before he realised that this had been, quite possibly, the worst idea in the history of bad ideas. He had no idea what the three letters PWP stood for, but he was now willing to bet his life that one of them was ‘porn’, because that was pretty much what he was reading.

Erotica, he would probably call it. It was too well-written to be lumped together with the x-rated skin flicks he could have got on pay-per-view in the hotel room.

“Oh Lacey,” Stiltskin mumbled against her chest. “Oh Lacey, my lovely, lovely Lacey, I don’t think I can even begin to tell you just how much I missed you.”

“I’m beginning to think that you only missed my breasts,” Lacey responded, her tone playful. “I may need a lot more persuading that you missed the rest of me as well.”

“In that case, I’d better get started, hadn’t I?” He began to lick his way down her body, past her navel towards the…

“There you are.”

Gold looked up with an incoherent noise of alarm to see Emma peering around the corner, and he fumbled with his phone, dropping it and watching it scuttle across the floor. Emma watched it go too and made to go and fetch it.

“No!” Gold exclaimed, having no desire whatsoever for her to see the content on the screen by accident. “No, no, leave it, I’ll get it.”

“I’m closer, Gold, and I’m already on my feet.” She ran after the phone and picked it up, and had it not looked too suspicious, Gold would have had his hands pressed over his face, watching the proceedings through his fingers. Thankfully, she did not look at the screen and handed it back to him face down, as it had landed. Gold stuffed it back into his inside jacket pocket with trembling fingers. That was close. Too close. No more reading erotic fanfiction in public.

“I’ve been looking for you everywhere,” Emma continued. “You must have rocked at hide and seek when you were a kid.”

Gold gave a snort of laughter. “When you don’t want to be found, it’s amazing how well you can hide yourself.”

Emma leaned against the wall and slid down it until she was sitting on the floor beside him.

“What were you doing?” she asked, curiously.

“Nothing,” Gold said, just a shade too quickly. Emma raised one eyebrow.

“I don’t believe you. You’ve gone a little bit pink. Are you ok?”

Gold nodded.

“I’m fine. Just a bit… warm.”

“Yeah, it is hot in here.”

They remained in silence for a moment, and Gold’s thoughts wandered inexorably back to the fanfiction that he had just read. Fanfiction that involved a character he played getting naked and intimately acquainted with a character he could only ever envisage as his beautiful make-up artist. This was… Well, he really wasn’t sure what it was. His first thought was to dismiss it as slightly weird, but that was incredibly uncharitable considering just how aroused he was getting from what he had been reading. There was nothing he wanted more than to have Belle welcome him into her arms and kiss him from top to toe, even if he was green and scaly at the time. He closed his eyes.

Belle had written this, and presumably she had imagined it in her head whilst she was writing it, that was part of the whole writing process. That meant that she must have thought about him in that way, imagined him making love with some unknown woman with brown hair, beautiful blue eyes, and an accent you wouldn’t soon forget.

He’d heard it said somewhere, probably by Belle during one of their early morning conversations, that authors put themselves into their characters. Did that count for characters that someone else had created? Did Belle put some of herself into Lacey? After all, there was not exactly very much canon material for her to base her impressions off…

“I wondered if I might find you here, Rum.”

Gold was dragged from his daydream by the arrival of another voice on the scene. Alexander Dane was peering around the same corner that Emma had come around a few moments before, and both the younger actors looked up at him.

“I take it you’re looking forward to this just as little as I am?” he continued.

Rum snorted. “Oh, less so, I should imagine. All you have to do is ask the questions. I have to answer them, and contend with the unwanted advances of my co-star.”

“Ah yes, the wonderful Miss West,” Alexander said drily. “Good luck with that. I met her just a few moments ago. I think she must be in heat. Still, it’s time, and I think you are about to be unseated from your comfortable perch.”

Gold and Emma peeped round the corner to see a very harassed looking Comic-Con employee with a headset on rushing towards them.

“There you are, we’ve been looking all over for you, come on, we’re about to start!”

The three actors were ushered around to where they needed to be. Gold was on the verge of pointing out that he could generally always be found hiding out in that same spot, it was where he had hidden for the past three conventions, but realised at the last moment that doing that did defeat the object of having a secret cubby hole in the first place, and he kept his mouth shut.

The panel was… tolerable, although made less so by Alexander’s obvious desire to be somewhere else entirely, and by the images that Gold could not make leave his head. All he wanted to do was to get it all over and done with so that he could find himself another quiet corner – preferably back in his hotel room – and think about what he had just been reading.  Although they could not do anything about the panel at the time, Emma made good on her promise to swap places with him for the signing and Gold could finally relax. Of course, he still had to put up with Killian’s inane chatter in his ear, but that could be borne, indeed, Gold had absolutely no qualms in completely ignoring the younger actor, and had he been asked, he would not have been able to repeat a single thing that the man had said. He flexed his fingers around the marker pen, his eyes darting around the room looking out for Ruby, Ariel and Eric. He had no idea why he was looking for them; there was very little point in them paying for a signing when Ruby and Ariel could get all of the cast and crew’s autographs during their ordinary working day, but it would have been nice to see a friendly face in the crowd.

Gold checked his phone surreptitiously. There was no news from Belle.

X

The network party was the part of the day that Gold was dreading the most. The press engagements were tiring, stressful, and often irritating when journalists had completely the wrong end of the stick – the number of people whom he’d spoken to today who were convinced that Stiltskin and Miss Greenie were going to end up in a relationship before the end of the season was really quite shocking and he was wondering if everyone else had access to a script that he had missed. Of course, Zelena had milked the misconception for all it was worth, and privately, Gold couldn’t help but wonder at the disappointment that they were all bound to feel when the series finally ended with no such a pair-off in sight. Although… Gold had learned never to put anything past the showrunners, even if Mal had already given him a hint as to the finale’s plot. Still, the press was over and there was nothing more to be done about it; people could speculate as much as they wished, no-one would know for certain until the episodes aired. There was a kind of regimentation during the day, the knowledge that you had to be in certain places at certain times, and there were certain things that you could and could not say, and so often it was just a case of repeating the same answers to the same questions over and over again. But the party afterwards, when tongues were loosened by alcohol and there were no eager fans or journalists around, well, that could be an absolute nightmare. Gold’s usual tactic for dealing with it was to make a showing for the barest minimum amount of time, take advantage of the free drink and leave again as soon as he possibly could without it looking suspicious, which was what he planned to do tonight. Go, eat, drink, be sort of merry and come back to the hotel to hide from the world under his duvet and continue making his way through Belle’s masterlist. He wondered if she’d written about any more of Lacey and Stiltskin’s encounters, before deciding that perhaps it would be best if he didn’t know.

As he retied his tie the image of Lacey – of Belle, really – sprawled out on his bed in the nude sauntered into his brain and refused to leave, and he glanced down at his lap.

“Don’t you bloody dare,” he muttered. Now was absolutely not the time for his manhood to be betraying him. “There’ll be time enough later.”

Presently Gold’s phone buzzed with the arrival of a text. He looked down, it was from Belle, and he wasted no time in opening it.

Hey, the text began. How are you getting on? Stabbed Zelena yet?

It’s been a close run thing, Gold replied. She’s on borrowed time. How was your day?

He avoided using the word ‘date’, given how persistent Belle had been in telling him that it was not a date.

It was great, my sides hurt from laughing. Will proposed

Gold almost dropped the phone in alarm. Perhaps it was a date after all then. For a moment, there was nothing that he could do other than stare down at the screen. Proposed? Oh dear lord…

Another message arrived.

Stupid phone, sent too soon! Ahem. Will proposed to his girlfriend last week so we’ve spent most of the day discussing wedding plans. I don’t think they’re taking it too seriously yet. They want an Alice in Wonderland themed wedding.

Gold was ashamed to admit even to himself just how relieved he was with the arrival of the second half of that message.

I don’t see what’s wrong with an Alice in Wonderland themed wedding, he said.

They’re planning to get all the guests high on hallucinogens and they’re looking to source a giant animatronic caterpillar from somewhere, Belle replied. He could hear her good-natured despair in the words. Another message appeared. Looking forward to the network party?

Gold snorted and replied. Not at all.

I think I can cheer you up. I know the perfect way to keep you safe from Zelena and make sure you’re entertained all evening.

He raised an eyebrow at the screen and responded cautiously.

How?

The reply was immediate.

I sent you a present to your hotel. Room service should be delivering it round about… now.

There was a knock on the door and Gold went over to open it, blinking at the sight that met him.

Belle was standing outside his hotel room.

To Gold’s intense shame, the first thing he did was shut the door in her face. Oh fuck. Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck. Less than five minutes ago he’d just been fantasising about her naked and touching herself, and he’d been anticipating having an extremely good time with that thought later, and now she was standing outside his hotel room. He just wasn’t equipped to deal with situations like this! Maybe he had been imagining her? Maybe he was hallucinating her because he’d been spending too much time thinking about her today and he’d had too much medication and too little food. He blinked at the wood before opening it again. Belle was still there, he had not been imagining her and she did not seem to be in the least bit perturbed by his incredibly rude greeting.

"You get to bring a plus-one tonight, don’t you?” she said.

Gold nodded dumbly. “Belle? What are you… I thought you were… How are you in San Diego?”

“They’re called planes, Rum,” she said. “You get on them and you fly across the country. You were on one yourself yesterday morning.”

“But…”

It was at that moment that he realised that he was still standing in the doorway and he stepped back to let Belle come into his room. She looked around and gave an impressed nod.

“I like it. Beats Will and Ana’s sofa, that’s for sure.”

“Speaking of Will…” Rum began again, still completely confused as to how come Belle had ended up in his hotel room in San Diego when she should have been… Well, actually, he had no idea where she should have been, all he knew was that she was going to meet her old friend Will, he didn’t know precisely where that might be.

Belle turned back to Rum and smiled. “Will and Ana live in Boston. I met them yesterday, stayed with them last night, had a wonderful morning with them this morning, and now I have come to San Diego. I got changed in the airport bathroom and did my make-up in the cab over here, so I’m slightly wired, but I am going to get you through this by hook or by crook.”

Gold did the only thing that he could think of in the situation, and in the absence of any kind of coherent speech, he threw his arms around Belle in his gratitude. She laughed against his shoulder, patting his back.

“Thank you,” he murmured.

“That’s what friends are for,” she said, once he finally released her from his embrace. “Can I leave my bag here? I’m going to bunk with Ruby but I didn’t think there was enough time to get across town to her hotel and then back here.”

“Of course, of course.”

She put her suitcase in the corner and turned back to him. “So, shall we go? Wait, you’re not going anywhere looking like that.” Belle grabbed Gold’s hand and dragged him across the room into the small bathroom.

“Belle, what are you doing?” he protested.

“I’m doing my job, Rum. Making you look fit to be seen. Hold that.”

She shoved a clean towel at his face and instructed him to hold it under his chin to save his shirt whilst she rummaged through her purse and then carefully dabbed a small amount of concealer and patted powder under his eyes.

“There,” she said, after looking at him critically for a few moments and giving a nod of approval. “No-one will even know that you’ve been stressed and harassed all day. You look as at ease as if you go to these things every day.”

“Oh Belle.” Gold sighed. “What would I do without you?”

Belle just smiled. “You’d manage, in your own way.”

Standing in the dim light of the small bathroom, Gold wanted nothing more than to take Belle in his arms and kiss her until he couldn’t breathe. She was looking up at him expectantly. He cleared his throat and turned away, suddenly awkward as the thought of the fanfic re-entered his brain.

“Shall we go?” he asked, overly brightly, and offered her his arm. Belle slipped her hand through it and gripped his elbow tightly.

“Yes,” she replied. “Let’s rule this town.”

“I like the sound of that.”

They left the hotel room and were making their way down towards the elevators when they came across Zelena coming out of her own room, wearing a figure-hugging dress in green satin that left absolutely nothing to the imagination. Her face was a picture; on seeing Rum she had begun to smile seductively, but as soon as it had clicked in her brain that Belle was on his arm, her expression had changed to one of utter fury.

“What the hell are you doing here?” she asked, voice full of indignation. “You can’t come! You weren’t invited!”

“The invitation says that plus-ones are welcome, Zelena,” Gold said mildly. “Belle is my plus-one tonight.”

“But!” Zelena spluttered.

“Hey Belle!” Emma was running down the corridor behind them. “Glad you could make it.”

Belle laughed. “It was touch and go, but I’m here.”

"See, I kept him in one piece for you,” Emma said proudly, indicating Gold and completely ignoring Zelena, who was opening and shutting her mouth like a particularly confused fish. “It was a bit ropey at times, thanks to certain other members of the party-” She quirked an eyebrow at Zelena, but the other woman was still too busy attempting to protest Belle’s presence at the party to notice that she was being called out. “-but we both survived.”

“Thank you, Emma,” Belle said. “Now, shall we get going to this grand occasion?”

“Indeed,” Emma said.

“Come on, come on, you’re making the place look untidy.” Leo White had stuck his head round the corner of the corridor from the elevators to the lobby and was calling to them. “Especially you, Zelena.”

Zelena, seething, turned on her heel and stalked towards the showrunner, pointedly ignoring him as she pushed past to the elevators. Belle and Emma just burst out laughing.

“Whatever’s got into her?” Leo muttered. “Good to see you, Belle,” he added. “You look lovely.”

“So do you, Leo.”

They made their way down the corridor after Zelena and into the elevator. Gold looked from Emma to Leo and back again.

“Did everyone know that you were planning to come tonight except me?” he asked plainly.

Belle nodded. “Well, not everyone. Just a select few people. I didn’t want to let you know in case I couldn’t get here. It wouldn’t have been fair to get your hopes up. Still, it was a nice surprise, wasn’t it? At least, I hope it was.”

Gold looked across at her, this wonderful young woman who had come all this way to keep him sane.

“Belle, I can quite honestly say that you are the most wonderful surprise I have ever received.”

X

The party had been a success with Belle’s presence by his side, and it was almost two o’clock in the morning before they made it back to the hotel.

“Are you all right?” Gold asked. Belle had seemed pensive for the last hour or so of the party, and he couldn’t place what was wrong.

“I’m fine,” she said, and Gold had never heard anyone sound less fine in his entire life.

“Are you sure you’re fine?”

Belle nodded, not quite meeting his eyes. “I’m all right. I’m just tired. I need my bed, that’s all.”

They had entered the hotel room at this point and Belle’s eyes were flickering between her suitcase in the corner and the neatly turned down bed.

“I… You… I mean… You can stay here if you want,” Gold said. “Save you going all the way across town. Ruby’s hotel might not let you in so late.”

"Are you sure?” Belle asked.

“Of course. It’s no trouble. None at all. And… well, I’d be far happier knowing that you were safe here than sending you off in a cab.”

"Thank you.” She put an arm around him and went up on tiptoes to kiss his cheek. “You’re very sweet.”

Gold just smiled at the compliment and let her move away, manhandling her suitcase into the bathroom. As soon as the door was locked, he flopped down onto the bed with a groan, burying his face in the pillows. This was the worst idea in the history of bad ideas. God, he was an idiot. He was drunk, he was about to share a bed with a young woman with whom he was desperately smitten and he was going to die. He had enough faith in his self-control to know that nothing would happen, but it was going to be a very uncomfortable night spent in such close proximity. With any luck, the alcohol and the stressful day would have tired him out enough to be able to just crash.

It was no good, he needed some air and the hotel window wasn’t letting in enough of a breeze. Gold heaved himself off the bed and went over to the bathroom door, knocking gently.

“Belle?” He heard her give a toothpaste-muffled squawk of alarm and spit before garbling “hello?” in response. “I’m just going out for a minute. I’ve got the key so ignore any knocking.”

“Ok. Don’t stay out too long, it’s late and we’ve both got planes to catch tomorrow.”

“I’ll only be a minute, I promise.”

He left the room, making his way down to the empty lobby and outside into the cooler night air, taking a couple of deep breaths to clear his head. In any other circumstance, this would be a dream come true. Belle had flown all the way across the country to see him and at that precise moment in time she was probably getting into his bed. He wondered what she was wearing, imagining her in one of Lacey’s barely-there nightgowns, silhouetted in a pale blue moonlight on a distant planet, waiting for her husband’s return. Gold groaned, trying to wend his thoughts in a more wholesome direction but not getting anywhere. He rested his head against the hotel brickwork and resisted the urge to bash his head against the wall to try and dash the wonderful images from his head.

“You fool,” he muttered. “You stupid, stupid fool, Gold.”

There was nothing that he could do. Where on earth did he stand? On the one hand, he had Belle’s fanfiction, the stories she had written about Stiltskin and Lacey and the things they got up to. On the other hand, that was fanfiction that he was never supposed to have known about, that she had never intended him to see, much less read. What was he supposed to do now? How in God’s name could he speak to her about it?

There was only so long that he could stand outside in the dark before it began to look ridiculous, so he went back inside, taking his time as he made his way back up to the room, entering quietly.

The reading lamp on the far side of the bed was still illuminated but the rest of the lights were off, and Belle was curled up in bed with the covers pulled up to her chin, facing the door. Her face was relaxed and peaceful, breathing even, and Gold could not begrudge her falling asleep so easily after the hectic couple of days of travelling that she had just had.

God, she was the loveliest woman that he had ever seen.

She was still in the same position when he came out of the bathroom in his pyjamas, and as he slipped into bed beside her, he chanced to lean across and kiss her cheek.

“Thank you, Belle, for everything.”

He thought she smiled in her sleep, but couldn’t be sure, so he put it to the back of his mind and turned over away from her, switching out the light and staring into the darkness, drifting off to heady images of Stiltskin and Lacey reunited, the contrast of his green scales against her flawless pale skin, Belle’s words mingling in with the pictures until he couldn’t tell who was who any more, if it was him and Belle or Stiltskin and Lacey, before realising, in his semi-lucid state, that it really didn’t matter, because he was Stiltskin and Belle had always been his Lacey…

The oblivion of deep sleep came and welcomed Gold with open arms. Somewhere vaguely in the back of his mind, something registered that the weight distribution in the bed had shifted, that someone small and soft and feminine was snuggled up against his back, a sensation that he had not felt for many years, but the feeling was soon forgotten.

X

When Gold woke, he immediately became aware of three very important things. Firstly and most urgently, he was desperate for a pee. Secondly, he was alone. Thirdly, the sheets around his lower half were distinctly damp and sticky.

He hauled himself upright. There was no sign of Belle, her suitcase was gone and the bathroom door was ajar to show that she was not in there either. Gold closed his eyes, slammed a fist against the pillows and shouted with frustration.

“FUCK! Oh, fucking, fucking hell…”

Of all the terrible things that could have happened, this was up there with the worst of them. He stumbled into the bathroom, still cursing himself with everything under the sun, and it was only once he was washing his hands that he saw the note tucked behind the mirror with his name on in Belle’s distinctive neat handwriting.

Gone for breakfast with Ruby before my flight, thought it best to let you sleep after yesterday’s trials and tribulations. Love Belle. PS, thank you so much for the loan of half your bed. I hope I didn’t keep you awake.

Gold returned to the bedroom and grabbed his phone.

Just got your message. You’re very welcome, and I slept like a log.

He tossed the phone back onto the bedside table and lay down again, not waiting for her response. He didn’t want to even think about facing her again, and couldn’t bear to wonder what she would be thinking of him now, to have left so furtively before he was awake had to be sending him a rather clear message. Instead, he let his thoughts return to the world of fiction, to Lacey and Stiltskin’s bed, and he slipped one hand down into his pyjama pants. The damage was already done, and there was no harm in it now.

But Tuesday, when filming began again; Tuesday, when he had a 3am call and would be half-naked in the make-up room, well…

Tuesday would be a nightmare.

Chapter Text

Part Six

In which Zelena makes more than a nuisance of herself, Belle needs cheering up, and Gold finally gets his shirt off…

=====

It was half past two in the morning and Belle was the only person in the studio, apart from Walter the security guard dozing in his office. She curled up on herself in Gold’s usual chair a little further, clutching her cup of coffee close against her chest and staring at her phone without seeing anything, her mind far back in the past on Saturday night, at the party with Gold and Emma and Graham, having a good time and knowing that Gold was having a good time too, a better time that he would have been having had she not been there to give him moral support. 

It had just gone midnight and Belle had excused herself to the bathroom, leaving Gold in Emma’s capable hands for a while. She unlocked the cubicle and was startled to find herself face to face with Zelena, who unceremoniously pushed her backwards before entering the cubicle with her and relocking the door.

“I don’t know what kind of game you think you’re playing, you little gold-digging slut,” the other woman began, jabbing one index finger into Belle’s chest, “but it’s evident that you need a reminder of your place. You don’t belong out here, with the lights and the cameras and the glitter. You aren’t a star. Rum is the star. When people watch the show, they don’t watch it for you, they watch it for him. You aren’t important. You need to stay out of sight and out of mind, behind the scenes where you belong. No matter what Rum might say, there is no version of this where you are the star. So you can come out here with your high heels and your cocktail dress and you can pretend to be important and pretend to be someone, but remember that there is absolutely nothing you can give him. You and he walk in very different worlds. He might come down to you to dabble his toes, but he belongs in this world, with me. Not down in the shadows with you. You are nothing, do you hear me? Nothing. So enjoy tonight, safe in the knowledge that the only reason you’re here is because Rum is too much of a gentleman to tell you, as he rightly should, to fuck off when you turn up on his doorstep like a waif and stray wanting a free invite to a party you don’t belong at just because you’re sucking him off in the make-up room at five in the morning.” Zelena smiled her nasty smile. “Good luck finding another sugardaddy after the show ends.”

Belle was too stunned by the suddenness and viciousness of the attack to respond for a moment, but then the tiredness, jetlag, and anger on both her own behalf and Rum’s at the slander in Zelena’s words rose up inside her and she shook her head. 

“You’re jealous, Zelena,” she said. “You cannot stand the fact that for all you paw at him, for all you harass him, Rum is not interested in you, and he never will be. It’s not a case of if you chase him and assault him enough, he’ll give in. You say that people watch the show for Rum, and you’re right, they do, but without me, without the talent and the time I give him, where would that character be? They watch Rum, but they see me, they see the hours of work and dedication that I put in. I am not nothing. I am worth so much more than the credit you give me, and I am here because Rum needs me to be here to help him put up with the likes of you. Now let me out before I start screaming.”

She would never normally be so vehement, but after learning of Zelena’s exploits in the morning, she had lost all patience with the woman. Zelena’s eyes narrowed but she unlocked the door and let Belle out, much to the alarm of the other ladies in the bathroom. Belle turned back to the redhead.  "And I do not suck him off in the make-up room at five in the morning, but even if I do, our relationship is none of your damn business.“

She washed her hands and left the bathroom before she could punch a mirror in her frustration, but as soon as she was out of the cramped space, she had to stop and lean on the wall; she was shaking from the confrontation and she could feel tears welling in her eyes. She knew that there was nothing in Zelena’s words, that it was all just bluster because she was so set on getting Rum that she was blinkered to everything, including his own feelings towards her. But that didn’t stop the insults from hurting her all the same, being called a slut and told that what she did was worthless. And deep down, something in the back of her mind kept gnawing at her. She had seen the relief in Gold’s face when he had opened the door to her. She knew that he wanted her to be there with him, that he wasn’t just letting her come with him out of a sense of obligation, but the insecurity still remained.

"Belle?” It was Emma’s voice; she’d come over to her from the bar on seeing that she showed no signs of coming back to their little party. “Are you all right?”

Belle nodded, then shook her head, then nodded again.

“Come on Belle, what’s up girl?”

“It’s nothing.” Emma raised one eyebrow and Belle sighed. “It’s just Zelena being… well…”

“Being Zelena,” Emma concluded. “What did she say?”

Belle shook her head again. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“That bad, huh?” Emma put her arm around Belle in a half hug. “Just ignore her. She’s ridiculous.”

“I know… But it’s still horrid.”

“It is. Come on and have another drink, and ignore her.”

Belle had followed Emma’s advice, but she had found herself replaying the conversation with Zelena at various points during the night, and she could not let it go. Presently she shook herself, determined to think no more about it, and she pressed play on the video that she was watching on her phone. She’d managed to get through all of the footage from Comic-Con over the past couple of days, but there were a few clips that bore repeating, and she was watching them now as a guilty pleasure before work began and she was face to face with Gold again for the first time since Saturday night. They had not spoken since, and Belle wasn’t sure whether to be glad or worried. When she’d woken up at five o'clock in the morning to find herself snuggled up against Gold’s back, nuzzling into the space between his shoulder blades, she’d had a minor conniption fit. A part of her had wanted to just go back to sleep and see what his reaction would be to finding her like that, but then something in the back of her mind had told her that it was not a good idea, so she’d peeled herself away from his inviting warmth and lain awake, staring at the ceiling. Gold had mumbled something in his sleep as she moved away, and continued to be restless for a while, until finally he muttered something again and stilled, falling back into deep, dreamless sleep. 

The word had sounded like ‘Lacey’. Belle had leaned over carefully, but he was spark out, a relaxed, almost smiling expression on his face.

Belle shook herself and focused on the video. Maybe running off so early had been a bad idea. It might have given him the wrong impression. It hadn’t been that she had wanted to get out quickly, it was more her own awkwardness that had prevented her from staying. In any other circumstances there was nothing she would like more than to wake up in his arms. But these weren’t any other circumstances. Just like in the closet, this was not a fanfiction and the tropes did not apply. Brought together in close quarters; if she was writing this, then there would have been tender revelations and nervous kisses, but she was not dictating the plot of her own life. This was reality, and she’d had to leave before she started trying to turn her existence into something fictional that she had control over. She turned her attention back to the video again. 

“So, Aurelius, Leo… Can you give us any tantalising titbits from the finale? We understand that you’ve just finished writing it.”

“Well,” Aurelius began. "We obviously don’t want to give too much away, but we can reveal the title. This hasn’t been revealed to anyone yet, so this is the first time that the cast are hearing it as well.”

“Would you like a drum roll?” Alexander asked snidely. Aurelius stoically ignored him as Leo spoke.

“The Star Force series finale will be called 'There’s No Place Like Home’.”

There was a veritable uproar in the hall as the meaning sunk in for the fans. Did this mean that the Aurora Borealis would finally be returned to Force Base, and its crew reunited with their colleagues and families? Belle was certain that had she been in the audience, she would have given just as vociferous a reaction. Tumblr had been full of speculation ever since that had come out, and although most people were optimistic for a happy ending, there were always the usual doomsayers. Belle was one of the more positive ones, although Leo and Aurelius had been known to spring nasty surprises at the last minute in the past. Belle smiled to herself. The cast would get the finale scripts this evening, and she couldn’t wait to get her hands on Gold’s and see what was happening. The panel began to take questions from the crowd, and Belle turned the volume up on her headphones. 

“We were warned of a death this season. Do you know who it is yet?”

Leo laughed. “Well, we do. No-one else does. We just like to watch them sweat.”

“Rum, are we finally going to find out Dr Stiltskin’s first name?”

“No. He doesn’t have one.”

“This is a question for the whole cast, really,” someone began. “During all your time on the show, who have you enjoyed working with the most?”

“Rum,” Zelena replied immediately, turning and giving him a smile that showed far too many teeth. “He’s always such a gentleman.”

Belle snorted. “Yes, too much of a gentleman to smack you one when you start groping him inappropriately,” she muttered. “Speaking of which, where are your hands right now, missy?” Zelena’s fingers were out of sight under the table, and from the sudden movement, Belle surmised that Gold had just shifted his leg out from under her touch.

“My make-up artist,” was Gold’s reply, and Belle smiled, no matter how many times she had watched the interview, it still cheered her spirits. “I’m pretty sure I spend more time with her than I do filming. She’s got the patience of a saint and whilst I won’t miss getting up at half past four in the morning, I will miss Belle. She’s wonderful. The entire make-up team are angels and I don’t know where we’d be without them.”

Zelena’s face was most entertaining in the wake of his words, she looked as if she had been slapped with a wet fish. Watching the footage now, it made her comments in the bathroom even more ridiculous, but there was still a small part of her, a little insecure part, that kept gnawing away at her confidence. 

She posted a link to the video and captioned it. 

Sometimes, when I’m feeling as useless and worthless as I do right now, it’s good to know that someone cares about my profession. Rum Gold, you are a treasure.

A treasure who was shortly going to be half-naked in her make-up room whilst she got up close and personal with his chest. This was always going to be interesting, all things considered, but now it was going to be nigh on impossible. She wondered how much she could get away with in the name of her art, and how much she was being like Zelena in just looking for an excuse to touch him. She sighed, she really didn’t want to be thinking about Zelena any more than she had to, and she certainly didn’t want to be thinking of what Zelena would be doing with a shirtless Gold in her immediate vicinity for extended periods of time. Luckily she was not filming with him very much today, but Zelena was one of those people who could make the most of any opportunity that presented itself; her breaking into Gold’s hotel room when he’d just got out of the shower was a case in point.

Belle returned her attention to Tumblr. It was pretty quiet at this time of a morning - the European fans were just coming online again after they had slept and only a handful of US-based people remained. She refreshed her dash and saw that someone had reblogged the video post. 

It always warms my heart to see the love and appreciation that Rum Gold has for the make-up team. bookworm-with-a-brush, never think that your profession is an unimportant one.

Belle gave a weak smile. 

Go to bed, uncommonescargot.

The post was reblogged a moment later.

You go to bed.

Belle just laughed.

I’ve been to bed. I’m at work now. My morning has already started.

Ouch, was the response a second later. *sends hugs and muffins* Cheer up, bookworm. You are loved and wanted, never let anyone tell you differently.

Thank you, my rare shelled friend.

Presently Belle heard Gold’s uneven step coming towards the make-up room and she put her phone down and went to put the kettle on for his tea; on today of all days he would definitely need it. 

He came into the room and hovered in the doorway for a moment. Belle looked across at him, still in his usual attire for this time in a morning, his dressing gown clutched tightly around his chest. She smiled. 

“I find it infinitely amusing that the bathrobe I’m going to give you to keep you warm today in the absence of your shirt, one that we don’t mind getting paint on, is better quality than the thing you’re wearing.”

Gold just shrugged. “We all have our whims.” He made no move to come further into the room until Belle held out his tea, making it clear that she was not going to move any further than she had to, so if he wanted it, he was going to have to come and get it. 

“Belle,” he began as he took the mug from her, “about Saturday…”

“What about it?”

“I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable in any way.”

Belle shook her head. “No, no, you didn’t. I was very grateful for your chivalry. I realise my taking off so early might have alarmed you, but you weren’t the cause, not at all. It was just me. Being an idiot.”

“Oh. Ok. Well. That’s all right then.” He took a sip of tea. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Belle paused, and the silence between them hung heavy in the air for a moment. “Shall we forget about it and move on?” she suggested.

Gold nodded gratefully and went over to settle himself in his usual chair, slipping the bathrobe from his shoulders and getting comfortable. Belle came over and began to get everything ready for the mammoth task that now lay ahead of her. She would get through it; it was a question of having to, but it was not going to be the least awkward six hours she’d ever experienced. 

“Ready for the main event?” she asked brightly. Gold just snorted and pulled his t-shirt over his head, and Belle risked a glance over her shoulder to watch him in the mirror whilst she prepared the paint mixture. It was nothing that she had not seen on screen before, but now she was really very close up to his bare chest and would, heaven help her, be touching it. Extensively. Gold caught her eye line in the mirror and crossed his arms over his chest nervously, and Belle hastily looked away. 

“I take it you survived the hair removal process with no problems?” she asked. She was itching to run her hands over his chest to check how smooth he was. Gold just laughed.

“I’ve had worse places waxed in my time.”

Belle stopped dead, airbrush in hand, and she was sure that the expression on her face would be a mixture of awe, disbelief and morbid curiosity. 

“You have?” Her voice was slightly strangled. 

Gold nodded. “You’ve heard of The Night Before?” he asked. 

Belle nodded. It was one of Gold’s earlier films and he had only had a small role in it, as an escort, but it held the dubious honour of the first thing he’d ever gone naked on camera for, so naturally, once she’d learned of its existence, she’d had to go and take a peek.

“Oh my word,” she murmured. “You got a wax down there for that?”

“Well, I was young and egotistical and insecure, and they do always say that it makes you look bigger. In the end, it was all for nothing. The shots got cut so the film could get a lower rating.”

“Well, you’re a hell of a lot braver than I am,” Belle said. Gold just laughed.

“For a long time I thought that if I could survive that, I could survive anything, that nothing could possibly be as painful as an intimate wax.” He sighed. “I was proved dramatically wrong several years down the line.” He flexed his ankle, almost unconsciously. 

“Are you going to be ok?” Belle asked. She knew that his leg gave him a lot of pain, even now, years after the accident, and she felt nothing but admiration for the way he persevered through it. 

“I’ll be fine, honestly. It’s not at its worst.” Gold sighed. “I just haven’t taken my morning pills yet - too close to the ones I took before bed - and my ankle’s decided to complain at being awake before it usually is.”

“Are you sure?” Belle’s brow furrowed, it was never nice to see anyone in pain, much less someone she cared about. 

“I’ll be fine, honestly,” Gold reassured her. “I’ve suffered for my art before.”

“Well, if you’re sure. You’re about to suffer for it for the next six hours.”

Gold just laughed, and finally moved his arms, letting them rest lightly on the chair and exposing his pale chest for her. His tummy was a lot rounder and softer than it had been in his younger years, that couldn’t be denied, but there was still wiry strength in his chest and arms, toned muscle beneath the skin. 

“You make it all bearable,” he said. His dark eyes were on hers and Belle gave a small smile. 

“I saw the footage from the Comic-Con panel,” she said. “When you said that I was the person you’d enjoyed working with the most.”

“Well, it’s true,” Gold said simply. “Every word of it. Belle, you are honestly the only reason I can stand to drag myself out of bed at stupid o'clock in the morning. If it wasn’t for you I would have quit long ago.”

Belle just gave a good-natured shake of her head and gave the airbrush a final shake before tentatively reaching out to touch his chest, running her fingers down his breastbone to check how smooth his skin was. Gold twitched a little, gave an embarrassed little cough, and Belle decided to begin before it became too awkward. 

Using the airbrush made life a lot easier, saving time and effort and, indeed, touching, and once he had the majority of the first green layer on, he didn’t seem to be quite as bare as he had been without it, the paint was acting as clothing in a way. 

“Arms up.”

Gold dutifully raised his arms, pillowing his hands behind his head, and the picture presented was so comical that Belle had to laugh. 

“What?” he grumbled. “Might as well get comfortable. We’re going to be here a while.”

“Truer words have never been spoken.” Belle filled up the airbrush again and shook it. “Now, this is going to feel rather strange,” she warned, turning the spray to his armpits. Gold jumped when the paint hit his skin and Belle giggled. 

“I wasn’t expecting it to tickle quite so much,” he grumbled. 

“You can’t say I didn’t warn you,” Belle pointed out. “It can’t be too different to putting deodorant on, can it?”

Gold raised one tired eyebrow. “Have you ever had your armpits airbrushed?”

“Can’t say that I have, no.”

“Well, once you have, you are free to have an opinion on its similarities to putting deodorant on. All right, I’m prepared now. Do your worst.”

Belle laughed. “Oh, I intend to.”

He flinched a little as she began to patch up the remaining bits of pale skin, but he didn’t move; soon he was completely green from the waist up, and Belle was perched on the counter whilst she waited for his chest to dry. Gold dug around in the pocket of his dressing gown and took out his pill bottles, shaking out his dose and taking them with a swig of cold tea. Belle felt a pang of sympathy for him as he grimaced and leaned back in the chair (sensibly covered with towels), and closed his eyes. 

“Wake me up when you need me,” he said. 

He wasn’t asleep, Belle could tell that much. But as she carefully took up her sponge and began to dab on the first layer of the thick, textured make-up that made up his scales, she couldn’t help but be grateful that he was feigning slumber. It made the process slightly less awkward if she could pretend that he wasn’t actually conscious during it. There was something set in his expression, like his teeth were gritted, and she wondered just how uncomfortable it was for him to have someone touching him so intimately, even if it was in a purely professional context. She wondered what he was thinking about to get through the experience.

The door to the make-up room opened and Ariel came in looking like she’d just rolled out of bed and into the studios, clutching her travel mug close to her chest. 

“Morning all,” she mumbled, then stopped short on seeing Gold half-scaled. “If I was a lesser woman, I’d have to document this in pictures for posterity.”

She flopped down into the chair beside Gold and took a long sip of coffee. It was not just Gold who had an earlier call time this morning; Emma and David would also be coming in before their usual time and since Belle was going to be tied up with Gold until the last minute, Ariel had to be around to make up the rest of the cast. 

“Don’t you dare,” Gold growled without opening his eyes. 

“Fear not, Mr Gold, I value my life far too much for that. Luckily Killian isn’t here; he’d have no qualms.”

“One of these days, Mr Jones will meet a sticky end,” Gold grumbled, but he said no more on the subject. Belle shot Ariel a look. She had only just managed to get Gold back into his comfort zone after Killian’s idiotic tweet the previous week, and Ariel wasn’t helping. Luckily, the redhead seemed to understand and mimed zipping her lips, curling up in the make-up chair and continuing to sip her coffee in a feeble attempt to become slightly more compos mentis before the day’s work began in earnest. Gold, for his part, continued to pretend to be asleep, letting Belle immerse herself in the detail of his face whilst the scales on his body dried. For a while it was just like any other day in the make-up room, and once the paint on his chest and back was dry, Gold pulled the folds of the bathrobe in close around him for warmth and modesty’s sake as the rest of the cast began to arrive. Emma and David exchanged the usual morning pleasantries, but no-one was in a particularly sociable mood considering the early hour, and both the younger actors accepted that Gold was not going to be at his most genial considering his circumstances. The make-up room fell into silence, and Belle continued her work with Gold feigning sleep. By the time she was almost finished and the rest of the cast had come in and out, she was certain that he was actually asleep, and he startled when she touched his shoulder to wake him.

“I just need to touch up the highlights on your scales,” she said, waving a sponge covered in glittering paint at him.

Muttering under his breath, Gold stood up and shucked the dressing gown, letting Belle get all around him to come at him with paint from all angles.

“Hello all… Well hello there…”

Zelena had arrived in the make-up room. If Belle didn’t know better, she’d say that she had purposefully timed her entrance to coincide with Gold being at his most exposed.

“Morning, Zelena,” Ariel said coolly, gesturing over to her chair. “Come on, we’re on a tight schedule here. No time for gawping.”

Belle could tell that Gold was itching to cover himself, but he couldn’t do anything whilst she was still working on his arms and chest. She patting his shoulder.

“Look at me,” she hissed under her breath. “Ignore her, look at me. She’s not here.”

She knew it wouldn’t help; he could probably feel the redhead’s eyes boring into his back, but Gold dutifully gave a weak smile and focused his attention on Belle instead of his co-star, and as soon as his paint was dry enough not to smudge too badly, Belle wrapped him up in the robe again.

“There,” she said. “All ready for your big moment.” Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Ariel grabbing Zelena’s chin with an unnecessary amount of force and turning her back to face the mirror instead of eyeing up Gold’s figure, and Belle had to laugh at the sight. At least she knew that no matter what happened, she and Gold were not alone in their mission to keep Zelena at bay.

X

“Stiltskin, I swear, if you don’t wake up in the next five seconds I’ll… Do something!” Emma flapped her arms around in frustration at her forgotten line and, lying prone on a couch in the middle of the medical bay set, Gold was trying and failing to stifle his laughter.

“Cut!” Regina Mills, the director for this particular episode, pinched the bridge of her nose. “Emma, please, how many times can you get one line wrong?”

“Hey, it’s not my fault that we all had to be up at ridiculous o’clock in the morning,” Emma said.

“Not as ridiculous as me,” Gold muttered.

“It’s all right for you, you don’t have any lines, you’re fucking unconscious,” Emma snapped. She stormed off the set and grabbed the day’s sides from the assistant director, reading through her lines again before resuming her previous position. “Ok, I’m good, I’ve got it. Sorry Gold, I know your wake-up call was horrible this morning.”

“No harm done.”

Belle watched from the sidelines as the scene was reshot. Commander Leyah was tearing an unconscious Dr Stiltskin a new one for nearly getting himself killed and leaving them bereft of their only medical knowledge whilst trying to patch him up from his heroic sacrifice.

“Stiltskin, I swear, if you don’t wake up in the next five seconds I’ll… rearrange your office so you can’t find any of your equipment! I’ll steal Greenie’s last mouthful of lipstick and draw on you! Stars above, Stiltskin, you cannot give up on us now! Not when we’re so damn close to home! Not when you’ve got a beautiful wife waiting for you!”

Stiltskin did not move, and Commander Leyah moved away from him with a sigh.

“Cut,” Regina called. “Well done, Emma, that was perfect. We’ll pick up after lunch, everyone.”

Gold hauled himself into a sitting position as the set cleared and Belle came over to give him a hand to get off the high medical couch. There was going to be no point in touching up his make-up before he’d eaten, and he wasn’t wearing the lenses since his eyes weren’t open for the majority of the scene.

“Well, this is relatively painless,” he muttered, picking at the bandages that were inexpertly tied around his arms, meant to look as if they had been administered by Leyah’s amateur hands. He slipped his arms back into the sleeves of the robe that Belle held out for him and smiled his gratitude before going off to satisfy his grumbling stomach. Belle didn’t follow; she wasn’t all that hungry and she was glad of the few minutes to herself on the deserted set. She checked her Tumblr. Nothing much was happening on her dashboard, but in the space between putting her phone down and picking it up again now, she’d received three private messages. The most recent was anonymous and was a fairly ordinary question, nothing inflammatory about it. 

Does Dr Stiltskin have a canonical first name? Most of the fics I’ve read just refer to him as Stiltskin, but I was thinking about what Lacey would call him at home. I don’t think she’d use his surname.

Hi anon, Belle replied. He’s never been given a first name within the context of the show. I actually find it easier to headcanon that Stiltskin only has the one name - he’s an alien, so who knows what their naming conventions might be? I mean, Rum was probably joking when he said that Stiltskin doesn’t have a first name, but it makes as much sense as not. He just tags his title onto his singular name, and Lacey takes his name as her married surname. When I’m writing Lacey and Stiltskin together, I tend to have her using pet names (love, darling, sweetie), or a diminutive form of his name (usually Stila).

She looked down to the next message. It was a submit from Jefferson, and reading it brought a knot to her throat. 

Poppet, I think you need to be wary; your online identity may be under threat thanks to certain paparazzi.

He’d included a link to an online magazine, and Belle clicked on it with some degree of trepidation. It was an article covering SDCC, and there were a few grainy photos of her and Rum at the network party. The majority of the text was given over to speculating on the identity of the unknown brunette on Rum Gold’s arm, coming to the conclusion that it might be Belle considering Gold’s earlier comments on the panel, and wondering if love might be in the air. Belle sighed. If only. She looked at the photos. She rarely posted selfies on Tumblr but anyone who watched her make-up tutorials knew her face well. She didn’t think that the article pictures were of a good enough quality that someone who regularly watched her videos might immediately recognise her, but she was forewarned now in case someone did make the connection. She tapped out a quick message of thanks to Jeff and sent it before returning to her own inbox and the final message that was waiting for her. It was again anonymous, and Belle’s first reaction on reading it was to shiver in fear.

Do you take pleasure in ruining people’s relationships? I know who you are. You’re treading on thin ice, you whore. Stop trying to come between Rum and Zelena.

Belle blinked, because even though the message was anonymous and in writing, she could have sworn that she knew who it was from. It was the same anonymous commenter who had constantly plagued her with messages about Rum and Zelena’s non-existent relationship since the show had begun; she recognised the tone. But that tone was familiar from somewhere else as well, and when she read the message, she could hear someone’s voice in her head reading it aloud to her. 

It was Zelena West’s voice. 

She blinked again. The idea that Zelena had been trolling her on Tumblr for four years was almost too far-fetched to be believed, but at the same time, it made sense, how this particular anon seemed to know so much about Zelena and Gold, and was so blind to Gold’s evident distaste for his co-star. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, and all that came out was a choked little sob-like sound. 

“Belle?” Gold asked. She hadn’t noticed him come back to the set. “Are you all right?”

Belle nodded. “Yes, I’m fine. Just… reminded of something I’d rather forget.”

“Ok.” Gold didn’t push the point, he knew better than that. “Well, if you want to talk about it, I’m happy to listen. We’ll have a while together yet to get all this off.” He indicated the slice of green torso that could be seen where the halves of the bathrobe fell open. 

“It’s all right.” Belle sighed, she probably should talk to someone about what had happened at the party; she had been too embarrassed to tell another living soul but it still kept eating away at her. “It was just something that Zelena said to me on Saturday.”

Gold snorted. “Don’t pay any attention to her, she’s… well, indescribable. In a very bad way.”

“I know. I didn’t take her seriously, but the words… Well, they were still said, and I still heard them.”

“What did she say?” Beneath the make-up, Belle could see the very genuine concern in his face. 

“I… You don’t want to know. It’s not important.”

“It’s made you upset,” Gold said. “I noticed you weren’t yourself towards the end of the party. If it’s made you upset then it’s very important.”

Belle sighed and sat down on the bed beside Gold, and without any kind of conscious thought on her part, the entire story of her and Zelena’s altercation in the bathroom came out. 

Gold shook his head. “I’ll bloody kill her,” he growled. “She has no right to speak to you like that, none.”

“Rum, please don’t do anything stupid,” Belle said, putting a hand on his arm to hold him back; he looked like he was perfectly ready to jump up and go and throttle his co-star there and then. “Please. The moment is over. It’s in the past. I just want to forget about it and move on.”

“Well, if you’re sure.”

“Yes, Rum. I’m sure. I’m very honoured at your desire to defend my reputation, but honestly, don’t fan the flames. It’ll only encourage her.” Presently her tummy growled and Gold laughed.

“Are you sure you’re not hungry?”

Belle looked a little embarrassed and jumped off the bed, making to go in the direction of the food. She looked over her shoulder at Gold, he was still perched on the set, looking down at his phone and slowly typing something. He had the same look of intense concentration on his face that he usually had when trying to make a tweet, and she made a note to check if he’d said anything later.

Once she’d got half a sandwich down her, Belle checked her dashboard again. Another message had popped up, and Belle felt a little trepidation as she clicked to open her inbox. Again, it was anonymous, but the content of this one was much more welcome.

I saw your earlier post. Please don’t feel useless or worthless, you bring joy to so many on this site, and I have no doubt in your offline life as well.

She hit reply.

Thank you, Anon. Your words are very kind and just what I needed to hear today.

In all the bustle that surrounded getting back to the set, getting Gold’s make-up touched up, and nearly crying as she watched the last scene of the day being filmed, in which Commander Leyah’s yelling finally paid off and Stiltskin woke from his brush with fatality, Belle completely forgot that she was going to check to see what Gold had tweeted, so there was no occasion for her to be surprised to find nothing new on his feed.

X

Filming had finished for the day and Belle and Gold were once more alone in the make-up room, Gold once more half-naked, as they began the somewhat onerous task of removing all the make-up that had been so painstakingly applied and maintained throughout the day.

Belle held up the washcloth that she’d soaked in make-up remover and suddenly stopped, her hand an inch from Gold’s chest. It had been different when she’d been putting the make-up on; she hadn’t really had to touch him whilst putting the base coat on, and once that was on, sponging and painting the detail didn’t feel so intimate. But with a cloth, she could feel everything - every contour of his chest, every line of muscle under the skin, every goosebump. 

Gold was already rubbing away at his face, so Belle took the plunge, placing her hand tentatively against his chest and running the cloth over his skin, feeling him twitch under her fingers when she passed over a nipple.

“Tickles,” he said gruffly, and beneath the green, she thought she saw him blush as she continued to scrub his chest and stomach clean. Once she’d got the thick of it off, she picked up a clean cloth. 

“Lean forward,” she mumbled. Somehow the streaky, smeared paint made him seem more unclothed than a complete lack of paint or complete coverage would have done, and the sight of him was getting to be a little bit distracting.

He obeyed and she began to clean his back, feeling the tightness in his shoulders beneath her hands. She paused, would it be taking too much of a liberty to give him a massage?

“You’re very tense,” she observed. “You can relax now, it’s just us and the make-up is coming off.”

“That’s not what’s making me tense,” Gold muttered. Belle raised an eyebrow but said nothing in response and continued to clean him up. Was it her presence making him tense? And if so, in what way? It was so tempting to offer him a massage, but she desisted, keeping her touches functional, if lingering a little over the knots in his shoulders, pressing a little more firmly than was perhaps necessary. The grunt of appreciation from Gold gave her the impetus to continue to rub his back a little more leisurely, and she saw him smile in the mirror.

“What would I do without you, Belle?” he asked. Belle was not quite sure how many times he had said that to her over the past few years, but it was something she never tired of hearing, because however many times he said it, it was always genuine, always heartfelt.

“You’d manage,” she replied conversationally. The streaks of thick make-up had gone, but she continued to gently massage his shoulders for a little while until she knew that she could stretch it out no longer and she moved away to allow him to put his clothes back on.

“Belle, I was wondering,” Gold began. He seemed to be much more at ease now that he was dressed again, but there was still a definite nervousness in his manner. “Would you like to go out to eat some time? Not today obviously. I think we both need as much sleep as we can get. But tomorrow, maybe?”

Belle smiled. “Just us two?”

Gold nodded. “Yeah. Just us two. I meant every word of what I said, that you’re the person I enjoy working with the most. And I enjoy spending time with you when we’re not working as well.”

“So do I.” Belle took a moment to grin inanely at her feet before looking up at him. “So, Thursday at Granny’s?”

“Half-past eight? I’ll need time to de-green properly.”

Belle nodded. She thought about Zelena’s words, about the gossip article speculating on her relationship with Gold, and she decided for once in her life, that she simply didn’t care. This was her life. She was living it for herself, not for anyone else, and there was no time for worrying about what other people might think. “It’s a date.”

“Yes. It’s a date.”

There was a pause then, not quite as awkward as it could have been, and they both just smiled at each other, then Gold made to leave the make-up room. 

“Night, Belle.”

“Good night, Rum.”

She waited until he was out of earshot before hopping up and down on the spot and doing a little dance of happiness. Things were finally moving in the right direction, and nothing, not even Zelena, could bring her down now. At least, that’s what she thought, until she finally returned to the flat, floating on a little snippet of cloud nine, and she became aware at once that something was wrong. For a start, the lights weren’t on and the only illumination was the glow of a computer screen. Mulan was sitting at the small dining table in her usual Tuesday evening aspect, but she was frowning, just staring at her laptop screen and scrolling down a page that Belle knew instinctively to be her Tumblr dashboard. Something must have held her attention for a long time if she had not even moved to put the lights on. Belle’s euphoria began to die away quickly.

“Mulan? What’s up?”

Mulan looked up, her brow still furrowed. “Tumblr’s gone crazy in the last hour,” she said.

Immediately, Belle’s mind returned to Jefferson’s warning from earlier, and the anonymous message she’d received that she was so certain had been from Zelena, and her blood ran cold. Was this something to do with her?

“Whats’s got everyone so excited?” she asked, trying to keep her voice as light and unconcerned as possible. 

“There’s been a script leak,” Mulan said, and Belle didn’t know if she’d ever felt so relieved. “I’m ninety-nine per cent sure that it’s fake, but something makes me think…”

“What is it?” Belle pressed. “Why has everything exploded?”

“Well, let’s just say that the Greenie/Stiltskin shippers are celebrating…”

Chapter Text

Part Seven

In which Mulan deals with fandom drama, Belle makes a phone call that she immediately regrets, and Graham starts a revolution, sort of.

Also, a sneak preview of the Star Force series finale…

===

The first thing that Belle did was switch the lights on, watching Mulan blink against the sudden brightness, before she came over and looked at her friend’s dashboard over her shoulder. She could see a lot of speculation on the script leak and several known bad apples from the Greenskin fandom crowing about their ship becoming canon, but so far nothing of any substance as to the contents of the script itself, and no sources.

“That seems somewhat suspicious to me,” Belle murmured as Mulan continued to scroll. She gave a tremendous, if involuntary, yawn, and muttered a curse. She’d been awake since two o'clock in the morning and she simply didn’t have the energy to deal with fandom drama right now. “Everyone’s claiming to have seen this thing, but no-one’s actually showing it.”

Mulan nodded her agreement. “That’s what I was thinking. It must all have stemmed from one person saying ‘I’ve seen the script and this is what happens’. There’s no substance behind the claims, it’s all just talk. I won’t believe it until I see it myself.”

She refreshed her dash again as a couple of messages dropped into her inbox. A couple of the other prominent Lacey/Stiltskin shippers were holding the fort in the arguments, citing the lack of evidence and lamenting the fact that everyone had become so up in arms about a rumour that might not even be true.

This is literally a case of someone making up something inflammatory, claiming they have evidence and expecting us to believe it. Please, people, we’re better than this, don’t give them the satisfaction of a nervous breakdown over something that no-one can prove.

How do you know they can’t prove it? How do you know it’s fake?

How do you know it’s real? Let the OP post some proof then.

You can’t just demand proof like that. What if they’re someone who works on the set? They’d be fired if they posted scripts.

Perhaps they should have thought about that before making posts like this, then. Until you can prove that this has happened, I refuse to believe it.

You’re just bitter because your ship is no longer canon.

My ship *is* canon, that’s something people don’t seem to understand. Lacey and Stiltskin are married, happily married if Stiltskin is to be believed. That is a canon fact and whatever happens with Greenie (and I very much doubt anything will), nothing will change that fact. Even if (and I very much doubt it) they break up, that doesn’t negate the fact they existed.

Whatever.

Such a mature response.

Mulan groaned and rested her head against the table.

“Please let’s not get into petty arguments and insulting other people’s parentage,” she mumbled against the wood. “For the love of Star Force.”

“Let me get this straight.” Belle pulled up the other dining chair. “Someone said they’d seen the finale script and Greenie and Stiltskin get together in it, and pretty much everyone believes them. Eech, Mulan, I’m too tired for this but at the same time I’m morbidly curious.”

She pulled out her phone, not daring to open her own Tumblr but going straight for the contact list.

“What are you doing?” Mulan asked.

“I’m getting to the bottom of this, once and for all.”

“Hold up.”

Mulan had checked her inbox. Aside from an influx of messages from people frantically turning to her for reassurance, there was also a link from one of their mutual fandom friends who had remained quiet on the subject and instead devoted their time to tracking down the source of these rumours.

Warrior, finally got to the bottom of it. It’s here. OP says they got it off a friend of a friend who works in the writers’ room. Thought I’d let you and Bookworm see it before I did anything with it; I trust your judgement and I know Bookworm works in the industry so maybe she can shed more light on it. It looks pretty legit to me, and we know from comments made at Comic-Con that finale scripts are expected to be distributed to the cast today, but I’m no expert, and I just can’t believe that they’d finish with such an unanticipated plot twist.

Mulan looked over at Belle.

“Think you can face it?” she asked.

Belle nodded, her thumb paused over Gold’s number, ready to dial and just plead with him to check if he’d received his script and read it there and then.

Mulan clicked the link and they looked at the script pages that had been posted online. It was a couple of scenes from the end of the finale. The Aurora Borealis had returned safely to Force Base and its crew were attempting to return to their normal lives. In this particular scene, Dr Stiltskin returned home, intending to surprise his wife only to glance through the window and find Lacey in bed with another man, having moved on during the four years that they had been separated. Instead of entering his home, he then went to a local bar where Miss Greenie was waiting for him, and after a brief discussion of their return to Force Base acting as a fresh start for both of them, they shared 'a kiss that has been building through four seasons of unresolved sexual tension’.

“Unresolved sexual tension?” Mulan muttered. “I think Gold missed the memo if that’s the case. Four years of unresolved sexual harassment, more like.” She glanced sideways at Belle. “In your professional opinion, Bookworm?”

Belle could not deny that it looked authentic; worryingly so. Whoever had mocked this up - because she refused to believe that it was real, it simply couldn’t be – knew what they were doing.

“Zoom in.”

Mulan did so, and Belle shook her head.

“No, this is fake. I can see how it would easily fool someone who didn’t work in the industry. Hell, it nearly fooled me at first glance. It’s very cleverly done, because it’s based off one of our genuine scripts, but it’s fake. I don’t study them as much as the writers and actors do, but I can still recognise them. Remember when the actors did that social media event and each released their favourite script page? This is from then. It’s Rum’s script, I recognise the background. They’ve photoshopped new text onto it but kept our usual formatting. If I wasn’t so incensed by the trouble they’ve caused I’d be impressed by their artistic ability and attention to detail.”

Mulan refreshed her dash and quirked an eyebrow when she saw her name mentioned in a post, clicking on the link.

I notice that several of the Laceskin big names are remaining suspiciously silent on the subject of this new script spoiler. bookworm-with-a-brush, dragonwarrior97, madasahatter, do you have anything to say for yourselves or are you hiding out and preparing for the end? Remaining silent is as good as agreeing, you know.

“Mulan, don’t rise to it,” Belle warned.

"I’m not rising to it,” Mulan said through gritted teeth as she made to reblog the post. “I’m perfectly calm and collected.”

Thank you for thinking of us at this tumultuous time, Mulan wrote, however I can assure you that we will not be remaining silent for long. I have been making investigations before I post on the matter, instead of jumping to half-formed conclusions like some others in various fandoms are doing. As for the others you are attempting to name and shame - Bookworm has only just got home having got up at two in the morning for work, and Hatter has previously posted this afternoon that he has had to take his daughter to hospital in a dental emergency.

“He has? Is Grace all right?” Belle exclaimed.

“She got hit in the face with a basketball at school and chipped three teeth,” Mulan said before continuing to type. In future, please remember that we behind these URLs have real lives, and sometimes, these are more important than fandom.

She sighed and returned her attention to Belle. “Grace is going to be fine. I know you’re knackered, but maybe a strategically placed post from yourself, as someone who works in the industry, would be useful in the morning.”

Belle nodded. “Yes. I’m too tired to get into arguments tonight, but feel free to reply to Fluffyunicorn and set her mind at ease.”

Mulan smiled and did just that.

Thanks for the source, Fluffy, you saved us a lot of work. Bookworm will make a post in the morning but she’s confirmed it’s definitely fake so please don’t fret. 

Belle gave another yawn and Mulan laughed. 

“Get to bed with you, Bookworm,” she said. 

Belle nodded her agreement and left her roommate alone at the dining table before going into her own room and flopping down on her bed, staring at the ceiling for several minutes before deciding that it would probably not be conducive to a good night’s sleep to remain in this position. She looked down at her phone; it was still showing Rum’s contact details and she wondered if it would be prudent to send him a message. After all, he would hopefully have got his own, genuine script by now, and she wondered if he’d had chance to look at it yet. Since she knew what was not going to happen, she was even more eager to find out what was going to happen. It wasn’t too late in the evening, it wouldn’t be an imprudent time to call someone if it wasn’t for the fact they had been up so early in the morning. 

Before she knew what she was doing, Belle had hit dial and was listening to the distant ringing sound. It seemed to go on for a very long time, and just as she was about to hang up, realising  what a terrible mistake she had made, the phone was picked up and Gold’s voice was speaking to her.

“Hey Belle. What’s up? Sorry it took so long to answer, I was in the shower.”

Belle was completely lost for words for a moment and all that came out of her mouth was a torrent of incoherent gibberish. 

“Belle? Is everything ok?”

“Yes!” Belle said, overly brightly, and trying desperately not to think about Gold having just got out of the shower, with hair damp and tousled and water running down the smooth planes of his chest, and oh, what she would have given to have been a fly on the wall. On the other hand, considering his past experiences with Zelena at Comic-Con, maybe that would not have been such a good idea. But still, the image was a very… enticing one. 

“Belle, are you sure everything’s ok?”

“Yes, everything’s fine. I was just wondering if you’d got your finale script yet.”

“What? Oh. Yes. I haven’t looked at it though. I’ll take a look tomorrow morning.”

“Ok, that’s fine. That’s good. Just wanted to check…” Oh hell, this was quite possibly the most embarrassing conversation she’d ever had in her entire life. Could the bed just swallow her whole, please? 

“Ok… Well, yes, I have it.”

“Good, good. Well. Erm. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

“Yes… Good night, Belle.”

“Good night.”

She hung up and grabbed the pillow from the head of the bed, clamping it down over her face and groaning. Well, that had to be one of the most awkward moments of her entire pathetic existence thus far, and Belle had been party to some pretty awkward moments in her time. Most of them involving Gold, if she was going to be brutally honest. 

“Belle?” Mulan tapped on her door. “You’re making beached whale noises again, are you all right?”

Belle lifted the pillow a fraction to reply in the affirmative, and her door creaked open as Mulan popped her head in. 

“Are you sure?”

Belle nodded. “Yes. I just made a fool of myself in front of Gold. Again.”

“You’re really making a habit out of this, aren’t you?” Mulan raised an eyebrow. “What did you do this time?”

“I may have called him.”

“And…”

“He may have mentioned that he’d just come out of the shower and I may have been rendered somewhat unable to speak. Oh Mulan, this is terrible. If he didn’t think that I was strange before, he does now.“

“Meh, it’ll be fine. At least it was on the phone, you can always use the excuse that it was a bad line.”

“Everything had been going so well as well! Now what’s he going to think? I’m some kind of stalker like Zelena, calling him at odd hours and saying nothing of value?”

“Belle, stop that, you are nothing like Zelena. Come on, be sensible, girl. He can actually tolerate your presence” She grinned. “Why did you call him anyway? To double check that Stiltskin and Greenie aren’t by some twist of fate going to end up together?”

Belle nodded. “Yes. But then I realised I could just wait till tomorrow and ask him when I see him.”

“If he has to kiss Zelena for a scene I think you’ll know about it the moment he walks into the make-up room. In fact, I think he’d be calling you to lament the fact.” She came in and sat down beside her friend on the bed and sighed. “So you called him on a whim. So what? You’re friends. Friends do that. Friends have weird awkward conversations at odd times. Look at us, we do it all the time. Mainly because you have fanfic ideas in the middle of the night and want to get started on them straight away, I’ll admit, but that’s beside the point. It’ll be fine. He’s as sleep-deprived as you are, he’ll probably have forgotten all about it by tomorrow morning.”

Belle shuddered; whether Gold would have forgotten about it or not, she knew that she definitely would not be putting the experience to the back of her mind for a while yet. “I hope so.”

Mulan patted her shoulder. “Sleep, Bookworm. The day won’t come any quicker if you sit up and wait for it.”

She got up and left the room, and Belle set about getting ready for bed, the tiredness in her limbs making the process a lot slower than it normally was. She wondered if she should have told Mulan about her prospective date, then decided that it was probably for the best that she hadn’t. She didn’t even know if the date would still be going ahead after this evening’s performance. Just when she thought they were finally on the right track, she had to go and ruin it by doing something completely idiotic like this. She sighed as she finally returned to her bed and curled up under the covers, staring at her phone, the source of so much joy and so much trouble, on the nightstand beside her. Maybe a little browse of Tumblr would help to take her mind off things. No. She turned over and closed her eyes. It would not be doing to be getting into fandom wars right now. She would just have to deal with the fallout of the phone call in the morning. Maybe if neither of them mentioned it, they could pretend it had never happened. 

X

Something was wrong. Belle couldn’t quite put her finger on it but the person in her flat was the wrong person. And this was the wrong flat. She was pretty certain she’d never seen this place before in her life but something was telling her that this was her home and she’d lived here for years with her husband. Belle wasn’t quite sure when she’d got a husband, she was sure she hadn’t had one the last time she’d checked, but the person who was in the flat wasn’t him. And coming to think of it, she wasn’t Belle. She was Lacey, so she was married to Stiltskin, and the man in the flat definitely wasn’t Stiltskin. Oh crumbs. She had to find her husband before he got the wrong end of the stick. She knew where he would be, so she left the apartment and ran down the streets of this city she’d never visited with space ships flying across the purple sky overhead, and went in search of Stiltskin before he could find Greenie. Except, as was always the case in situations like these, every step she took seemed to take her further away from her destination, and her legs felt like lead as she tried to lift them. She was going to be too late. Still, she knew what to do. She could call Rum. He would stop Stiltskin from doing something irretrievable. Belle ducked into the nearest building, and decided that it would be a good idea to get in the elevator up to the roof for some reason whilst she dialled Rum.

"Come on, pick up, pick up, we’ve got to stop this, it’s all a misunderstanding!”

He did not pick up, so Belle cut her losses and decided to dial Mulan instead, except suddenly her phone was no longer her own, it was Lacey’s, and Lacey and Mulan had never met, what with Lacey being a fictional character and all. It was up to Belle to save the day, and here she was stuck in an elevator for some inane reason. Finally, after what seemed like an age, the doors pinged open and she rushed out into the hallway - hang on, hadn’t she been meant to be going to the roof when she got in? Now where was she meant to go? Stiltskin must be behind one of these doors somewhere. Where was the bar? Oh, why was it taking her so long to get anywhere; it felt like she was walking through treacle. 

Finally she got to the nearest door and opened it, rushing onto the TV set just in time to see Stiltskin and Miss Greenie enter a passionate kiss. Except it wasn’t Stiltskin and Miss Greenie, it was Rum and Zelena, and although they were on the set, the cameras weren’t rolling and there was no sign of anyone else from the cast or crew anywhere.

“No!” Belle screamed, but they didn’t hear her, staying lost in each other. Oh no, she was too late… She ran towards them, only to be stopped in her tracks by Zelena turning and looking her straight in the face, smiling her cruel smile and whispering: I know who you are.

Belle turned on her heel and ran towards the door as the flash of paparazzi cameras blinded her…

Belle woke with a start. She should have known that it was a dream, really, given how completely ridiculous it had been, but it had still unnerved her. She reached across and switched on her bedside lamp; it was almost time for her to be getting up to go to the set anyway, a few minutes earlier wouldn’t make any difference. She sat up in bed, hugging her knees against her chest and resting her head on them, wondering what this could mean. She knew she shouldn’t set too much stock in dreams. After all, the previous night she’d dreamed about going on holiday in the Bahamas with Mulan and Jefferson and being entertained by several singing and dancing pineapples. But somehow, she couldn’t stop the voice in her head telling her that this was a sign, a bad omen, but of precisely what she didn’t know. 

Her alarm went off and she reached across to switch it off, staying in her curled up position for a while afterwards. There was to be no hiding from the world under the bedcovers. She had to face the music. At least she was in a better mindset for Tumblr and that would help to distract her from what was going to happen when she and Gold saw each other again. Maybe Mulan was right, maybe he would have forgotten all about it.

She went through her morning routine on autopilot, trying to pre-empt all the things he might say and thinking up logical responses to them. By the time she arrived in the make-up room she was almost ready to face the day, and she decided that it would be prudent to have a look at the Tumblr battlefield to take her mind off things. To say that the site had exploded overnight would be putting it mildly, but from what she could see, Mulan and Jefferson and Fluffy appeared to have been holding the fort quite well. Belle made the executive decision to delete all the messages in her inbox, be they from worried Lacey/Stiltskin shippers begging her to tell them it was all a ruse, or from rejoicing Greenie/Stiltskin shippers trying to break her spirits. There were some times in one’s life where it was necessary to do a little spring cleaning to maintain one’s sanity.

Time for a new post to put people’s minds at ease. The furore seemed to have died down a little by now, but whether that was because everyone had simply put it on hold whilst they went to bed or whether it was because people had come to the conclusion that it was fake and there was no need to panic, Belle couldn’t tell. Reports of Twitter denials were coming in, and the horizon seemed to be calmer. 

To everyone who has messaged me asking for consolation, I don’t have time to reply to you all individually, but I can confirm that the script is a fake. It has been photoshopped from an old photo of one of Rum’s scripts that he posted on Twitter last year. Compare these two images. Literally the only thing that is different is the text. There is no need to panic, there is no need to worry. Whilst we don’t know what is going to happen, we know that this is not it. 

To everyone who has messaged me with the rather childish “na-na-na-na-na my ship’s canon and yours isn’t” mentality, your messages have been summarily deleted, and any more of that ilk will receive the same treatment.

None of us know what is going to happen in the finale. Only the writers, actors and director know that at the moment. And do you really think any of them would post a page like this? I’ve made no secret of the fact that I work in TV and I can tell you that the answer is a resounding no. They’re not stupid. 

We can speculate as much as we like, but we cannot and should not present anything as fact unless it has been confirmed by the Star Force cast or crew.

She left Tumblr and went to Twitter, to see what was happening there. As expected, the two showrunners had been completely bombarded with tweets asking them to confirm the veracity, or not, of the fake script, and they had been patiently replying to them all with strong denials. On a lighter note, Graham had obviously received his finale script and been given carte blanche by the writers to share one very important piece of information, tweeting a picture of himself with a bottle of champagne and a rather exuberant caption.

Just finished reading my #starforcefinale script and GUESS WHO’S STILL ALIVE!! Thank you @leo_white, @ammidas #starforce #grahamhumbertlives2k15

Leo had replied.

@grahamhumbert1 you’re welcome. We’ve never had any intention of killing Hunter but wanted you to be the first to know #grahamhumbertlives2k15

Belle smiled. Of course, now the speculation was even more rife, as everyone had taken it almost as a given that Graham would be the one not to make it to the end of the series. Now, all bets were off. 

Presently, she heard Gold’s uneven footsteps outside the door and a moment later, the man himself appeared. 

“Morning,” she said brightly, holding out a mug of tea. 

Gold yawned as he took it. “Good morning.” He settled himself in his usual chair and got out his tablet. “Moment of truth. Let’s see what horrors the showrunners have cooked up for us this time. You know, I still don’t trust them not to make the ship explode and kill us all off at the last moment. They’ve already been hounded several times about a follow-up movie, this would be the perfect way to ensure that they don’t have to write one.”

Belle just gave a snort of laughter, and made the prudent decision not to mention the phone call as long as Gold didn’t. Maybe he really had forgotten all about it. It was so tempting to peek over his shoulder as he read, and it took all her self-control not to, forcing herself to concentrate on his face rather than the screen with the knowledge that they were on a limited time schedule and she couldn’t afford to get slap-dash because she was too excited about finding out what was going on in the script. Finally, he gave a soft chuckle and looked up at her.

“Oh Belle. I think you’re really going to like this finale.”

“What happens?”

“Would you like me to tell you, or would you like the satisfaction of finding out for yourself? I know how eager you were to see it.”

Belle thought back to their awkward phone conversation the previous evening. 

“Yeah, about that…”

Gold shrugged. “Hey, it’s ok. If I hadn’t been as tired as I was, I would have been just as excited.”

“It wasn’t just that,” Belle murmured. “It was… Oh, it was just me being silly. A silly obsessed fan who got worried over nothing.”

Gold raised one eyebrow. “Do tell.”

Belle shook her head. “It’s nothing. It’s not important.”

“The last time you said something wasn’t important, it turned out that Zelena had been harrassing you at Comic-Con. I don’t think your and my definitions of important tally up.”

“It’s silly,” Belle said. She could feel her face flaming now. Gold knew about her fandom life, that wasn’t the issue, and he knew that she was deeply involved in fandom on Tumblr. It was just the thought of admitting to him that something so comparatively trivial had thrown her and Mulan so completely off-balance that made her embarrassed to admit. 

“I’ve been around a long time and I’ve seen a lot of silly, Belle,” Gold said sagely. “Might it have something to do with the scurrilous rumours engendered by some idiot with a fake script that Leo, Aurelius and Mal have been tirelessly working to refute overnight?" 

"How do you know about that?” Belle exclaimed. “And, erm, yes. It was.”

“The first thing I saw when I woke up was a message from Mal telling me that she wanted to strangle whoever had caused the trouble. She’s never tweeted so much in her life. She announced yesterday that she was going to be directing the finale and was immediately met by a barrage of 'Mal, say it’s not so!’ She’s slightly regretting her decision.”

Belle had to laugh at the image. “I’m glad Mal’s directing,” she said. “She always brings out the best in everyone. You can tell which episodes are hers.” She paused. “Yeah, there was a fake script distributed around various social media platforms last night. Let’s just say that a large portion of the fanbase were up in arms about what happened in it.”

“What happened? You’ve got me intrigued now.”

Belle explained, in brief, the events of the previous evening and Gold rolled his eyes. 

“I bet Zelena was loving it.”

Belle laughed. “She probably was. I ignore her on Twitter as much as possible but I bet she was fanning the flames.” She was morbidly curious to have a look at what the redhead had to say about the entire fiasco but she knew that it would probably have an adverse effect on her blood pressure. Like with the mass purge of her inbox, sometimes ignorance was not only bliss but also absolutely essential. 

“So yes,” she finally concluded to Gold. “I just wanted to be sure.”

“Well, you can find out for yourself now.” He offered her the tablet. “Or shall I just tell you what happens?”

Belle pondered for a while before holding out a hand for the tablet. They had a natural break to wait for his paint to dry, and she was already feeling that slight adrenaline rush that went with the anticipation of finding out what was about to happen. 

“I’ve only got my pages,” Gold warned. “They’re keeping the details as firmly under wraps as possible, but I think you’ll like it nonetheless.”

Belle pulled up the chair next to Gold’s and settled herself in it with the tablet, beginning to scroll through the pages. 

“You get some killer lines this episode,” she remarked as she skimmed through the first few pages. “Speaking of which, have you found out who dies?”

Gold nodded, a small smile quirking the corner of his mouth. 

“I know that Graham was celebrating the fact that he survived last night,” Belle continued. “I bet the bookies are now cursing. They were so certain he was going to die and everyone who bet on him surviving will be rich indeed.”

“I think Leo and Aurelius decided that it was high time he survived a series and broke his curse. Who knows, maybe he’ll get a starring role as a romantic lead now.”

“He’ll never die on-screen again. He’ll have it written into his contract.” Belle continued to read through the script in silence for a while, and Gold shifted in his chair, leaning back and getting comfortable, eyes closed for a nap.

“Hey, Rum, is this what I think…” she began, but then tailed off as the scene continued. Yes, it was what she thought it was. The long-awaited death was occurring. Belle blinked back tears. This was not what she had expected to happen at all.

“Rum, I thought you said I’d like this finale!” she moaned.

Rum just chuckled and did not open his eyes.

“Keep reading. I promise you, it gets better.”

Belle raised her eyebrows.

“Are you sure? It’s looking pretty bleak from where I’m sitting. Stiltskin is up to his elbows in blood. Ashley’s going to have fifty fits when she realises she’s going to have to wash that out of your lab coat.”

“I think Ashley will be petitioning for me to lose the lab coat in that scene. In fact I think she wouldn’t be above getting me to strip down completely to save on washing.”

Belle gave a strangled snort at that thought and shook herself, focussing on the script and continuing to read. She wiped her eyes on the back of her hand and Gold helpfully passed her a tissue, although to all intents and purposes he still seemed to have his eyes closed.

“I thought you said it gets better!” she wailed.

“It does!”

“SOMEONE’S JUST DIED!”

“I know that!”

Belle let out a frustrated huff. There was no time for her to keep going, it was time to do the rest of Gold’s make-up, and she would just have to wait and read in piecemeal whilst she was crimping his hair. The others had started coming into the make-up room now, but Gold was completely out of it, snoring softly in his chair. Belle let him sleep on, he deserved the respite, and she continued to read through his scenes, but when she got to the final few pages, she couldn’t help but give a squeal of glee and happiness which startled him into wakefulness again. He gave a garbled squeak then focussed on her as she slipped the tablet back into his hands and returned her attention to his make-up, putting the final touches to the scaling around his mouth. 

“You like it then?”

“Oh Rum, I love it! I think it’s perfect. It’s the best ending that they could have had. Far better than the fake one.”

"Good, I’m glad.” He smiled, and they fell into silence for a while. “Don’t worry about the phone call,” he said, out of earshot of David in the chair next to him. “Honestly. It doesn’t matter. I never mind hearing your voice.”

He smiled at her in the mirror, and Belle smiled back tentatively, and the air cleared between them, allowing Belle to continue to go about her work in peace. Nothing was going to go wrong now, and she could go to their date tonight safe in the knowledge that all was forgiven. 

She waited until Gold had gone to costume before she typed out a message to Mulan. 

I’ve seen the script. :-D My lips are sealed but let’s just say that the Greenie/Stiltskin shippers will be disappointed to say the least. Oh my. 

A moment later there was a reply:

*bouncing gleefully* Don’t tell me anything, I want to see it for myself. This is so exciting! Another message appeared. Ugh, there are some absolute imbeciles on Tumblr today, I’m coming off before I lose my cool.

Belle gave a soft laugh and checked her dashboard. Mulan’s latest reblog was at the top, and she looked down to see what was happening.

To be honest, the original poster had written, I wouldn’t be surprised if something like this does happen in the real thing. I mean, no woman’s going to stick around for a man for four years. The female urge to procreate is too strong and outweighs all other considerations. And who wants to mate with a sparkly disco lizard anyway?

Mulan’s response was one of her snarkier masterpieces.

Good morning, I believe you are lost since you seem to be in the ‘Lacey’ tag. Here, let me give you a map.

In all seriousness OP, I am livid at this post. Firstly this has no place in the Lacey tag. Secondly, to quote M, as played by the unassailable talent that is Dame Judi Dench, in the second-best Bond film of all time, GoldenEye: “YOU ARE A SEXIST, MISOGYNIST DINOSAUR”. I don’t even have the words to describe how grossly insulting your post is. Would you say that about your sister? About your mother?

As for ‘who wants to mate with a sparkly disco lizard’, how about ‘the woman who married him’?

Belle replied to her friend’s message.

Go and calm down. That was wonderful, now ignore them.

She refreshed her dash and saw that she had a new follower. In a great irony, this follower was called thesparklydiscolizard, and Belle paused, her thumb hovering over the link to take her to their page. The sparkly disco lizard was a name for Stiltskin not often used – it had been meant as an insult but Gold had found it so hilarious that it had backfired somewhat and the Lacey/Stiltskin fandom had reclaimed it as a term of endearment for him, and it had become an accepted group headcanon that Stiltskin had been quite the disco diva in his younger days.

She went to the new follower’s blog and found nothing of interest, just a few of her own posts reblogged, but the tags were quite insightful, and the comments made Belle smile. Whoever was behind the URL, they seemed to think in the same way that she did, and it was always nice to meet a kindred spirit.

“Hey Belle!”

Graham had walked into the make-up room, grinning from ear to ear.

“Hey Graham. I believe congratulations are in order,” Belle said, and she came over to give him a hug. “Also, did you know that #grahamhumbertlives2k15 is now trending on Twitter?”

“I know.” Graham seemed to be extremely pleased with himself. “I’m starting a revolution. Every time I’m offered a part where I die now, I shall simply point my agent back to the Twitter phenomenon and say that people much prefer it when I’m alive…” He tailed off as Belle’s phone started ringing and she scrambled to answer it.

“Belle French.”

“Hello Belle, it’s Leo. Can we grab you for a quick chat about the finale?”

X

Filming over, and thoroughly de-greened, Gold finally had the leisure to look down at his final scenes of the final episode of Star Force with a fond smile on his face. He had been very happy with Belle’s reaction to them. Somehow, since she was such a big fan of the show even outside working on it, it seemed to him that her liking it was more important than his own feelings towards it. This was not to say, of course, that he was displeased with the script. Far from it, it was one of the best outcomes that he could have wished for, but he liked it even more now, knowing that Belle liked it too. He set to reading again.

Finally Stiltskin comes down the gangplank and looks around at the gathered crowd, his eyes scanning the faces desperately in search of one in particular. Towards the back of the crowd there’s a disturbance, people are moving aside as a woman runs through them, elbowing people to the side. She’s got brown hair, beautiful blue eyes and an accent you wouldn’t soon forget. It’s Lacey. 

Lacey:
(Still pushing past people) Excuse me, coming through, watch out, coming through, mind out!

She finally reaches the front, bursts out of the crowd and comes to a stop just in front of Stiltskin, as if, now she’s here, she can’t quite believe he’s real. 

Stiltskin:
(Shyly)
Hello, Lace. 

Lacey opens her mouth to say something, thinks better of it and throws herself into his arms, grabbing his coat lapels and pulling him in for a kiss that’s been four years overdue. Some of the gathered crowd cheer and applaud, Hook wolf whistles and Leyah thumps him. Finally the reunited couple break away.

Lacey:
Never, ever, ever do that again! You hear me? You… Oh come here! (She kisses him again. When she finally lets him up for air, Stiltskin laughs.)

Stiltskin:
Don’t worry, I don’t plan on it. Stars above, Lacey. I’ve missed you, my little dove.

Lacey:
I missed you too.

They share a moment then, just staring into each other’s eyes.

Stiltskin:
(Softly) Let’s go home.

Lacey nods.

Lacey:
Yes. Home. 

Pan out across the base as they embrace again and the crowd continues to cheer.

Gold flicked through to the final scene, a montage of the characters getting their lives back on track after their misdventures, and smiled at his part. 

Stiltskin and Lacey are decorating what is evidently going to be a nursery; they lean in and share a tender kiss, caressing her very pregnant belly. 

Gold sighed and tossed the tablet onto the bed beside him. So, Lacey and Stiltskin were finally going to be reunited, and he couldn’t be happier from his character’s point of view. After everything they had been through it was the very least they deserved. But who would they get to play Lacey? Even now, even with the script in front of him  - possibly because he had the script in front of him - he could only see Belle in the role and imagine her in his arms. He would love it if she could play his patient wife, it just wouldn’t be the same having seen her in his mind’s eye for so long and suddenly having another woman in her image, but Belle was a make-up artist, not an actress. If she had wanted to be on the screen instead of behind the scenes, then she would have gone into a different career. Still, it was only a few lines, she couldn’t have more than about a minute of screentime….

He shook himself; he couldn’t afford to get his hopes up. All he could do was remain professional and put his heart and soul into the performance when the time came. He looked at the clock - it was almost time to go and meet Belle, so he put all thoughts of his unattainable Lacey to the back of his mind, focussing instead on the perhaps slightly more attainable woman upon whom she was based.

Chapter Text

In which Zelena once more makes a nuisance of herself, Granny becomes self-appointed guardian of Belle and Rum’s fledgling relationship, and Rum gets a Very Important Phone Call.

Granny’s was a popular spot with the cast and crew of Storybrooke Studios alike. An easy walking distance from the set, the food was reasonably priced and generally good quality (although Gold was of the personal opinion that the lasagne left rather a lot to be desired), and the atmosphere was warm and friendly. It was a cosy place, and one could be sure of bumping into someone from Star Force in one guise or another on any given evening. Storybrooke locals enjoyed the place too, and it was out of the way enough that tourists tended not to spot it, although there had been the odd spontaneous photo session when someone had found the little diner, and found a bunch of the cast inside it, and gone into fan overdrive at the realisation.

It was a quiet evening, and Gold slipped into the diner unnoticed by all except the proprietress, who gave him a nod of acknowledgement before gesturing towards the corner booth, out of the way of the rest of the patrons. Whether she realised he was coming here with a date in mind or whether she just knew him well enough from their previous encounters, Gold did not know, but he was grateful for the privacy nonetheless. It was a few minutes before eight, when he had arranged to meet Belle, and now that he was here waiting for her, he was unaccountably nervous. Well, he’d been ridiculously nervous all day up until this moment, but now he was even more nervous, and a small part of him was seriously considering turning tail and running as fast as he could (which was not very) back to his little apartment. But that would have left Belle both alone and wondering what on earth could have happened, and he didn’t want that. He especially did not want her to think that he was regretting his decision to ask her out and was not interested in her in that way. He was regretting his decision, but that was mainly because his brain had decided that it was a good idea to begin listing absolutely everything that could possibly go wrong and was presenting increasingly ridiculous scenarios, up to and including the diner being hit by a passing meteorite.

Gold shook himself crossly; this train of thought wasn’t going to get him anywhere, so he looked down at the menu and began studying it intently to take his mind off things, despite the fact that he had frequented the establishment enough times to know the menu back to front and always ordered the same thing anyway, to the extent where he could see Granny already bringing over an ice tea.

 “The usual, Mr Gold?” she asked. “Or are you waiting for someone?” There was a knowing little twinkle in her eye and it made Gold somewhat at a loss for words. “Say no more, I’ll be back when she arrives.”

 Despite the fact he had not said anything in the first place, Gold just nodded mutely and returned to his intense study of the menu as Granny went back into the kitchen to collect the latest ready orders and bring them out. He wondered how much the public at large knew about him and Belle. He’d seen a few things in passing, including on Belle’s blog, thanks to the publicity at Comic-Con. Something about it made him a little uneasy. He’d known that there would be paparazzi there, of course he did, and he was prepared for that, but it was only after the fact that he had really realised that Belle had been put into the public eye as well, and now her grainy picture was in all the gossip columns, speculating on her identity. For the most part, Gold had been very good at keeping his private life private. It came with the territory of being somewhat reclusive and somewhat antisocial. Whilst he had still been married to Milah, he had been at the beginning of what was shaping up to be a very lucrative career and their pictures were seen in the tabloids far more often than he would have liked. Naturally, when their marriage had started to break down, it had been the subject of detailed public scrutiny, the likes of which had made Gold declare there and then that the day the papers got involved in his love life again, he would eat his hat. Luckily, no-one had been around to hear the declaration at the time, so he would not be made to stand on ceremony.

 The menu exhausted, there was really only so long that he could keep staring at the card, so to pass the time until Belle’s arrival, he took out his phone, primarily to check if he’d had any last minute messages from Belle, but also to see if anything interesting had popped up on her blog since he’d last looked at it that morning. The internet in Granny’s was slow, but it was there, and he tapped the screen, impatiently waiting for it to load. He still hadn’t quite got to grips with the Tumblr app yet and he couldn’t exactly ask Belle for help without revealing himself, so he was stuck with it for now.

 There was a new post.

 Just got hit with a plot bunny. I’m really excited about this one! Can’t wait for the finale to see how much of our speculation comes true.

Well, that was both tantalising and terrible, since he couldn’t bring up said plot bunny in conversation. Actually, what could he bring up in conversation? They always chattered away in their own amiable manner whenever they were alone in the make-up room together, but somehow being out on a date made it seem completely different, and work shouldn’t be an appropriate topic, despite it being the thing that had brought them together. Well, that and Tumblr.

Hastily he locked the screen as he saw a body slide into the booth opposite him, not wanting Belle to see what he was doing, and he looked up to greet her only to lean back in alarm when he found himself face to face with Zelena.

“Good evening, Rum,” she said. “You look as if I gave you a fright there.”

“You weren’t who I was expecting to see,” Gold ground out through gritted teeth.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realise you were expecting someone. I saw you over here on your own looking so lonely, so I thought I’d come and keep you company.”

“Zelena, believe me, if you were the last person on earth, I wouldn’t be seeking out your company.”

Zelena had the audacity to laugh at his declaration and leaned in, causing Gold to lean back as far as the bench seating in the booth would allow.

“Come now, Rum, it’s just us two. You don’t have to play nasty.”

“This isn’t an act, dearie,” he snarled. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m expecting someone, someone who is not you, and you are in their space. Please leave.”

Zelena showed no signs of moving and gave him a smile that she probably thought was coy and seductive, but that only managed to be a worrying leer.

“Would this certain someone happen to be Belle, by any chance?” she asked, tracing her fingertip around the rim of his ice tea glass. Gold snatched it out of her reach and looked down at it in disgust; he was going to have to ask Granny for another one now.

“What’s it to you?” he asked Zelena. “My private life is none of your concern.”

“Oh no, of course not,” Zelena said. “But being as we are, colleagues working in close proximity, naturally I want to look out for you.”

“You concern is touching,” Gold snapped, voice dripping with sarcasm.

“I just don’t want to see you get your heart broken again, Rum,” Zelena wheedled. “After all that trouble you had with your wife, and then that terrible time with Cora… I do worry that you’ll fall prey to another social climber. Given your current success, you can’t be too careful.”

Gold raised one eyebrow, wishing he could just get up and leave but not wanting to miss Belle.

“I think I know what you’re trying to insinuate, Zelena, and I don’t think I like it.”

“Well, of course it’s never easy to hear these things.” She reached across and patted his hand, and Gold jerked it away. “I just don’t want you to get hurt, and surely it’s better to find out now, rather than second hand a few weeks down the line…”

“Zelena, if you’re going to say something completely unbelievable, just say it, dearie. I don’t appreciate your pussyfooting.”

Zelena shrugged.

“Well, I’m just trying to break the news to you gently, but if you want me to cut straight to the chase, then I will.” She took her phone out of her handbag, pressed the screen a few times and slid it across the table to Rum. “Just be careful with your little make-up artist.”

Gold looked down at the phone. It was showing a grainy, low-quality image of the doorway to the make-up room. Belle was standing there, with her arms around Graham in a hug. He looked up at Zelena.

“And this is meant to tell me what, exactly?”

“Well, I would have thought it was obvious,” Zelena said; she had the audacity to sound somewhat affronted by his sharp remark. “Let’s just say that her affections seem to be… spread around, rather.”

“Belle hugs everyone,” Gold said with a shrug. Except you, he added mentally. “The only one spreading things around here is you, Zelena. Now, please leave. You’re in Belle’s seat.”

The change in Zelena’s demeanour was immediate and to the outside observer it would have been downright frightening, going from soft, simpering and full of misplaced concern, to hard and angry in the space of a blink.

 “Well, I was only trying to help,” she said. “Given your past experiences with women, Rum, I would have thought that you would be the last person to fall for someone so blindly.”

 “Oh, my eyes are wide open, Zelena, and I can see exactly what’s put in front of me, thank you. I think you could help better by staying out of my personal life, which is, by definition, personal,” Gold snarled.

“Is there a problem here?”

Gold looked up to see Granny standing by the table with a fresh glass of ice tea and an expression that was somewhere between concern and plotting straight-up murder.

“No, thank you, Mrs Lucas,” he said, taking a deep breath and trying to remain composed and not run for cover in the kitchen. “Miss West was just leaving, weren’t you, Miss West?”

Zelena just glowered, the force of her gaze flickering between Granny and Gold until she stood up abruptly.

“It appears that I am,” she said. “I’ll see you on the set, Gold. Don’t say that I didn’t warn you.”

“Not much chance of that, dearie,” Gold snapped back.

Zelena left the diner, pushing past Granny and causing her to upend the ice tea, earning her a narrow-eyed death glare from the older woman.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs Lucas…” Gold began, fishing a bunch of napkins out of the dispenser on the table and handing them to her so that she could mop up.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, scrubbing at the front of her apron. “It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last. I’m just glad she’s gone. I’d have come over sooner but someone thought they saw a mouse in the back and that needed immediate attention. Wait up and let me get you another. I’m worried she’s put rohypnol in that one,” she muttered under her breath as she grabbed the glass that Zelena had toyed with and took it back to the bar, giving a smile in the direction of the door as it opened and a gust of cool air blew in with the latest arrival. Gold chanced to lean out of the booth just as Granny pointed in his direction with one of the glasses, and he saw Belle looking around for him.

He gave a small wave, and Belle smiled and came over.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said. “Leo and Aurelius pulled me in for a meeting.”

“You’re not late,” Gold said. “You’re right on time.” The fact he had no drink in front of him helped belie the fact that he’d been waiting, and Granny was positively beaming as she brought over a second replacement glass for him, along with one for Belle. “So, what was this meeting about?”

It was quite rare for the showrunners to grab Belle for meetings outside of ordinary crew sessions, and it was usually only when particularly complex make-up jobs were coming her way - like his shirtless scene. Gold wondered what it could be that she didn’t already know about.

“They wanted to know how waterproof I can make your make-up,” she said, somewhat airily, as if it was a question that she was asked all the time. Gold quirked an eyebrow.

“Well, I’ve filmed in the rain before.”

“Yes, not quite as torrential as they’re planning. Apparently Mal’s had some aesthetically pleasing ideas for your scene with Mary Margaret after The Event Of Which We Do Not Speak.”

“Charming’s death, you mean?”

“Shh! We do not speak of it!” Belle exclaimed. “There are ears everywhere! You might have caused the biggest press leak in our history! You can’t get yourself fired two months before we wrap! Yes. That one. When Snow’s crying her eyes out in the shower.”

“You make it sound like I’m some kind of pervert spying on crying women in showers,” Gold muttered. Belle gave a good-natured sigh.

“If I have to preface every reference to the scene with ‘in which you both remain fully-clothed throughout’, I’ll be here a long time,” she pointed out. “Anyway, as it stands you’re talking through the door, but she thought it would be nice if you kind of got in there with her and the blood started washing out of your white coat and trickling away, but they were worried that your face would start running down your front.”

“And what was your professional verdict?” Gold asked.

“We could probably manage it, but I might need to pull a Stiltskin and hose you down with a pressure washer to get it off you at the end of the day. Since you’ll be wet anyway, I’ll be able to put a heavy waterproof layer over the top of your normal top coat and it won’t look odd. It would be an extra hour in the chair for you though.”

“Right…” Gold was unconvinced that this course of action was necessarily the best one. “Is there any other way? I’m not worried about the time in the chair, more the prospect of remaining green for the rest of my life.”

“I promise you will not remain green forever,” Belle said. She took a sip of ice tea and looked down at Granny’s menu. “I don’t know why I look at this anymore, I’ve been here often enough to know it by heart.”

“You lovebirds ready to order?” Granny had come over with her notepad, and Gold choked on his drink at her choice of appellation.

“We’re not…” he tried to begin between splutters, but by the time he’d received a hefty thwack between the shoulder blades from the older woman, who was completely non-plussed by his almost asphyxiating in her restaurant, Belle had already begun to order and it felt out of place to be correcting the misappreciation.

“And you, Gold?” Granny asked. “The pickles are on the house this time. I think you need it after the earlier… unpleasantness.”

“Unpleasantness?” Belle looked concerned. “What did I miss?”

“It was nothing,” Gold said quickly, shifting in his seat in embarrassment at the memory of the encounter with Zelena.

“A certain strawberry blonde causing more trouble than she’s worth,” Granny muttered. “I’ll put you down for your usual with extra pickles.”

Gold nodded mutely as Granny scribbled down the order and bustled away to the kitchen to have it made up, and then he finally turned his attention back to Belle, who was looking at him with a face the picture of sympathy.

“What did Zelena do?” she asked. Gold gave a snort of weak laughter.

“I’d rather not go into it. She was saying some rather unsavoury things.”

Belle raised an eyebrow. “I take it that they were about me.”

Gold looked at her sharply, and the action in and of itself would have already betrayed him even if said nothing. Belle gave a little smile.

“If she was throwing shade at anyone else you wouldn’t have hesitated to tell me and we’d go off on how she’s such a bitch together,” she said. “Come on, what did she say? I can take it. She’s already made less than subtle comments about all of us make-up girls sleeping our way around the entire cast and crew.”

Gold nodded. “That was pretty much the gist of it. She had a photo of you hugging Graham and had concocted an entire illicit love affair going on between you.”

“I was congratulating him on his first on-screen survival!” Belle laughed. “Oh, she really is desperate, isn’t she?”

Gold nodded, and they fell into silence again as they waited for their food to arrive. Belle’s happy demeanour seemed to drop gradually, and she stirred her ice tea with the straw, giving a long sigh.

“I wish that there was something that we could do about her, you know? Expose her to the world as a thoroughly nasty piece of work. I suppose it’s too much to hope for a last minute rewrite in which Greenie dies?”

Gold snorted. “I think so.”

Aurelius and Leo had been known to pull some impressive stunts pretty close to the wire - an early fourth season episode had been rewritten into a Christmas special just two weeks before it had been due to be filmed after the showrunners decided not to head for a fifth season, but thankfully Gold had not had too big a part to play in it. He didn’t know what it would be like if the writers decided to pull something out of the hat so close to the end. Of course, he would not be sorry for the last minute demise of Miss Greenie, but he didn’t think that it would do too much to hope. Besides, he thought dryly. Everyone had already said how much they were heartbroken by the character death, and he really didn’t think that anyone would believe their sadness if that death turned out to be Miss Greenie’s. None of the cast were particularly enamoured by her character - the woman who played her naturally excepted - but he supposed that she did have some sway with the audience as comic relief if nothing else. He remembered one of the posts he had seen reblogged on Belle’s Tumblr:

And of course no episode would be the same without that diplomatic envoy everyone loves to hate, Miss Greenie. I’ll be sad if they kill her off, I’ll have no-one to despise with quite as much vitriol as I despise her…

“In Aurelius’ words though, stranger things have happened,” Belle said. “You never know. And Graham’s doing his little documentary soon. I’m seriously considering paying him to stalk her for a while. That would make for quality television.”

“The saddest part is that he would probably do it, as well.” Rum chuckled. “We can always rely on Officer Hunter to boost morale.”

“Admit it, you’re going to miss the mashed potato building contests.” Belle leaned back in her chair, smirking at him, and Gold had to laugh.

“Graham has become quite the dab hand at mashed potato sculptures,” he said. They’d first started the contest way back in season one when they’d both been in the back of the shot and were looking to liven things up a bit - also because Graham could not stand mashed potato and would not eat them if his very existence depended upon it - and it had become a running joke that pretty much every time Stiltskin and Hunter were seen in the mess hall together, there would be mashed potato art shortly following.

“If I see any mashed potato sculptures in here, I will not hesitate to kick you out.” Granny came over with their plates, wearing a shrewd look. “You two are too old to be playing with your food.”

“We’ll be good, Granny, I promise,” Belle said. “Besides, you don’t serve mashed potato with burgers.”

“Yes, well, no leaning towers of fries and onion rings, either,” the older woman muttered. “I already have to deal with Ruby insisting on having her pancakes in the shape of smiley faces every time she comes in for breakfast.” She sighed. “Belle, do you think you can talk her out of this ridiculous notion of hers to go to Los Angeles?”

Belle shook her head. “If Ruby wants to go to LA, I’m going to be the last person to stop her,” she said. “But I’ll talk to her about it nonetheless.”

Satisfied with that answer, Granny left them to their meal, and they ate in silence for a while before Gold ventured a question.

“What’s this about Ruby going to LA?”

“Ruby’s thinking about the future,” Belle said. “We were talking about it in one of the breaks today. After Star Force wraps for good, she wants to go to Hollywood and work for one of the studios there. I say why not? She’s lived in Storybrooke her entire life, and if she wants to have an adventure then she should go for it. But Granny’s worried about her, and I think that Ruby would worry about Granny as well if she moved all the way across the country.”

The thought of Star Force wrapping for good and prospects of the future made Gold’s mind come full circle, to the very reason why he and Belle were sitting together in this booth enjoying dinner together - soon their circumstances would be such that they would have to part for good. A small part of him, a desperately lonely and cynical part, wondered if perhaps he was taking the wrong approach in trying to spend so much time with Belle. Surely it would only make everything more painful if he became even more attached to her than he already was and then had to leave her to go back to Scotland. He looked down at his coleslaw, wondering what was going to happen to his own career after Star Force, and decided categorically that he did not want to think about it, so he turned to Belle’s instead.

“Do you know what you’re going to do next?” he asked.

Belle shook her head. “I don’t know, probably stay here in Storybrooke and work on whatever comes to the studios next. Leo and Aurelius are planning their next project, it’s some kind of high fantasy thing - I was looking at the storyboard surreptitiously in Leo’s office earlier. So I think that if they stay in Storybrooke there’s a good chance of me getting another lucrative job. And I like it here; it’s good to have some roots put down, but at the same time, I get itchy feet. Maybe it’s time to head home to Australia and see what I can do there. The weather will be better than Maine, that’s for certain.”

Gold had to laugh at that remark. “It’s not possible to get much worse at the moment.” With impeccable timing, the rain had begun to pour down outside the little diner. “Except perhaps in Glasgow.”

“I’d pay to see worse rain than the stuff we had last month,” Belle muttered. She took a final slurp of her ice tea, rattling the cubes around in her glass before looking back at him. “What about you though?” she asked. “Have you got any plans for after Star Force?”

It was the question that Rum had been dreading and he did not have a ready answer because he really didn’t want to think about it. He shook his head.

“No. I suppose it will just be a case of going back home and talking to my agent, then beginning the rigmarole of auditions again until something comes up.”

“I’m sure your agent will find you something,” Belle said brightly.

“To be honest, he probably already has several scripts lined up for me to read,” Gold admitted. “I haven’t checked my emails for a few days. All the ones from him go straight into a folder marked “Angry Agent Do Not Read”. Which of course then makes him even more annoyed and makes him send me more emails.”

Belle giggled. “I’m sure he’s only trying to help you out,” she said.

“I know he means well, but his sense of humour is lethal and I can never tell whether or not he’s joking when he sends me some particularly far out things,” Rum muttered. “Still I can’t deny that he was definitely onto a good thing with Star Force. I wasn’t sure to start with, the make-up was an off-putting thought, but I’m glad he persuaded me in the end.”

“I wonder…” Belle stirred the ice cubes in her empty glass with her straw again. “You were only supposed to be in Star Force for five episodes but you’ve ended up being here for four years instead. Do you think your agent knew that might happen when he pushed you for it?”

Gold raised an eyebrow. “I’ve accused him of black magic before now but I think predicting the future is somewhat beyond even him. No, I just landed on my feet with Stiltskin. I have to say, I do love playing him.”

“Everyone loves you playing him. That’s why you survived what would have been your death and stayed here for four years. I’m glad you did. I’d have missed you.”

“Belle, at the time that I was made a regular cast member, you’d only known me for three months and I was the most irritable person in existence,” Gold pointed out.

“I know, but I would still have missed your irritability. It was quite amusing most of the time.” She giggled again. “I must say though, if you do end up in another role that requires heavy make-up, I’m going to have to get in touch with the head of the make-up team there and give them my tips for keeping on your good side.”

“You could just come along with me as my personal make-up artist.” Gold hoped that the words had not been spoken with quite as much desperation as he felt in that moment.

Belle visibly weighed up the idea. “I could do indeed,” she said eventually, giving him a little smirk at the corner of her mouth that made Gold want to kiss it away. “You could stipulate it in your contract from now on. We come as a pair.”

That would be utterly wonderful, and Gold gave a small sigh of contentment at the thought, one that he prayed Belle would chalk up to being appreciation of the meal that they had just enjoyed.

“On the other hand, you could stick with me,” Belle said, her voice pondering and more than a little serious. “Stay here in Storybrooke and try out for a part in Leo and Aurelius’ new thing. You did say about being an old wizard with a long beard, and I’m sure there’ll be one of those. And you know that showrunners often reuse cast members. Spencer and Elsa have been in practically everything they’ve written together, and I’m sure they wouldn’t be averse to having someone of your experience on board.”

It was tempting, so very tempting. But what if Belle decided to go out to LA with Ruby in the end, or back to Australia? Gold shrugged.

“I don’t know,” he said eventually. “Something will come up. It always does.” He’d never been out of work for an uncomfortably long time in the past, but he was not getting any younger in years, as his agent had reminded him gently the last time that they had met and had been talking about the future.

“Well, you’ll have to let me know when it does,” Belle said. “I need to make sure I book my place on the sofa for the grand debut. Or book my cinema tickets and drag Mulan out for a girls’ night if it’s a massive blockbuster film. It’ll be great!”

Gold laughed at her enthusiasm. It was encouraging to know that he had one person who would support him no matter what he ended up doing. Just as long as he ended up doing something. It was all very well Belle wanting to see what he did next but that meant actually finding something to do next, and that invariably meant leaving Belle. It was just one of those situations.

“Are you all right, Rum?” Belle asked. Her brow was furrowed. “You look very despondent all of a sudden.”

He shrugged. “I just don’t want Star Force to end,” he said. It was true, even if not the whole truth. Belle gave a soft huff of laughter.

“I don’t want it to end either,” she said. “Speaking of booking places on the sofa, though,” she continued, “did you want to come over and watch the show on Friday? You know, like our first Star Force date? Obviously we had to miss last week because of Comic-Con, but I think it would be nice to keep up the tradition if we can. I like having company to watch the show with.” She bit her bottom lip, and Gold nodded.

“I’d love to.”

He shouldn’t really, it was only prolonging the inevitable, but then again, he had no real idea what their relationship was now. They were here on a date, ostensibly, one of his own arranging in fact, but were they here as a couple? Granny certainly seemed to think they were, and Belle had not disillusioned her. If this was the beginning of a fledgling relationship, it would make sense to feed it as much as he could - God knows he wanted to. But was it only destined to last until filming finished?

“Can I get you any dessert?” Granny asked, coming over to clear their plates. Gold suspected that she’d been hanging around at the counter waiting for what looked like a natural break in their conversation to come over to them, and he chuckled at the notion of her having become the guardian of their date.

“I’ll have an East Coast sundae please,” Belle said.

Granny looked out of the window at the teeming rain and raised an eyebrow.

“Never let it be said that you’re not unconventional in your dessert choices, Belle French,” she muttered. “Ice cream sundaes in the middle of the wettest season we’ve ever known round here…”

“But they’re so good!” Belle exclaimed.

Granny rolled her eyes. “Between you and Ruby, I despair sometimes. Still, the customer is always right. One East Coast sundae coming up. Gold?”

He shook his head. “I’m all right thanks.”

Belle gave him a shrewd look then turned to Granny. “Bring two spoons for the sundae.”

Granny nodded and went off in the direction of the kitchen with a fond smile on her face.

“You’ll want some as soon as you see it,” Belle said sagely. “I know your predilection for ice cream.”

It could not be denied, Gold did love ice cream, and Granny’s sundaes were something of a guilty pleasure. Still, when the dessert arrived, Belle looked so much in love with it that he didn’t want to deprive her of a single mouthful, even when she scooped up some toffee sauce and held it out to him.

“Are you sure? Oh well.” She popped the sauce in her mouth and Rum watched her little pink tongue dart out and run over her lips to capture a drip that threatened to get away. Unconsciously, his own tongue mimicked her pattern and he longed to be able to lick away that tiny smear of sauce and get a taste of her mouth into the bargain. Belle caught his gaze and ran her tongue over her lips again, her eyes on him the whole time, then she gave an embarrassed giggly snort and broke the stare, looking down into the depths of her sundae glass and rooting around for a piece of dropped honeycomb. It had been a nice moment whilst it had lasted, but it was best not to get too ahead of themselves just yet.

With the sundae finished, Belle sighed and sat back, hands folded over her stomach with an air of satisfaction.

“That was wonderful,” she announced happily. “I’ve had a lovely time this evening,” she added.

Gold smiled. “I’m glad. So have I.”

“We should do this again?”

There was definitely a question in the words, and Belle looked at him inquisitively as she spoke. He nodded.

In for a penny, in for a pound. If this wasn’t going to go anywhere past the end of filming, then so be it, but it definitely wasn’t going to go anywhere if he was so scared of losing it that he didn’t let it go anywhere.

And after all, as Aurelius and Leo were so fond of saying - stranger things had happened.

“Definitely.”

The rest of the conversation, what little of it there was as Gold paid and they got their coats on ready to brave the weather outside, was mainly composed of small talk and speculation about what the next few days of filming would bring, and walking home in the rain, cuddled together under Gold’s umbrella, the circumstances were not conducive to much chatting. Still, he had Belle pressed in close against his side, and that was far better than any kind of inane subject matter he could have thought up to talk about. As they reached the apartment block where Belle lived and stepped into the porch, Gold felt the loss of her warmth against him as she slipped her arm out of his, turning to face him.

“Thank you for tonight, it was great,” she said.

“Thank you for coming,” Gold replied. The rain had turned her hair curly, and a droplet was threatening to fall from one of her corkscrew tresses into her eye. He put out a finger to catch it, and she smiled.

“Thank you.”

Her voice was barely more than a breath, and she was still looking up at him, straight into his eyes like she had done when she’d licked her lips in the diner. Her tongue darted out again, but this time Gold knew that it was unconscious.

It was now or never.

He took a deep breath, leaned in, and pressed his lips to hers. Belle returned the pressure immediately, and as she broke away and opened her eyes, a soft smile was playing over her mouth, illuminating her entire face in the dimness of the hallway.

“Thank you.” She paused, and Gold had no idea what to say or do now. Where did that leave them? Best to let Belle make the next move. “Till Friday, then?”

Gold nodded. “Till Friday.”

She vanished into the elevator, giving him a final happy glance over her shoulder, and Rum turned to leave the building and make his way back to his own home. He ran his fingers over his lips where he had felt Belle’s a moment before, and he smiled.

X

Gold’s phone was ringing. He had no idea what time it was, but whatever time it was, it was too damn early for anyone to be ringing him. Since most of his acquaintances who called him knew the long hours he worked and how much he valued his sleep, they knew not to ring him at silly o’clock in the morning. Ergo, the phone call could only be either someone who did not know him well, or an emergency.

Since he was awake anyway, it made sense for Gold to answer the call. Fighting one hand free of the blankets he grabbed the annoying buzzing item; casting a glance at the clock in the glow from the screen. It was three o’clock in the morning, and he had been in that lovely, deep, dreamless sleep that is horrible to be woken from suddenly. Whoever was calling, they were going to get short shrift.

Gold looked at the caller ID, and immediately his bitter thoughts and intentions of giving the caller an expletive fuelled piece of his mind vanished as he answered.

“Mal? What’s up?”

“Hey Rum. Nothing’s up, how fast can you get to London?”

“I’m not filming for the next four days, so pretty quickly, why, what’s happened? Are you all right?”

“I’m absolutely fine, why wouldn’t I be? Now get yourself on the next plane over here!”

Gold eased himself into a sitting position and switched his bedside lamp on, pinching the bridge of his nose and trying to make sense of Mal’s message.

“Mal, what’s wrong? Why are you calling me at three in the morning to tell me to rush to your aid and then saying nothing’s up?”

“Oh.” That was all that Mal said for a while. “Oh shit. I’m so sorry, I forgot about the time difference. Sorry, Rum.”

Gold leaned back against the pillows with a groan.

“Mal, when I get to London - if you even need me to come to London since you’re in no immediate danger -”

“You need to come to London,” Mal cut in. “It’s a matter of urgency.”

“When I get to London, I am going to throttle you,” Gold growled. “So, why, if you are personally alive and well and presumably still in one piece having met Ella’s mother, is it so urgent and important that I come to London as soon as possible?”

“I have a part for you. It’s made for you. It will be perfect for you. You will be amazing in this part. But the producers want you to audition so I need you to get here and get in front of them before they cast someone else.”

Gold stared at the opposite wall for a while, watching the progress of a money spider across it, trying to process what he had just heard.

“Hello? Gold? Are you still there?” There was a scuffle on the other end of the phone and Ella’s voice muttering.

“Give it here… RUM, WAKE UP YOU GRUMPY BASTARD!”

“I’m awake, Ella, put Mal back on.”

The phone was handed over again.

“So what do you say? I forwarded the script to your agent last night and he agrees with me so I’ve just sent it to you now. You can read it on the plane.”

“Wait, Mal, I know nothing about this role. Is this for your film? The film you were going to London to meet the producers of with a view to directing?”

“Yes! It’s not going to be for anyone else’s, is it? I was going to call you to tell you all about it when I got home, but stuff’s happening over here so we’re having to stay an extra week. Ella’s loving it.”

“British tea!” Ella called out in the background. “And better yet, British GIN!”

“So I might as well tell you when you get here.”

Gold sighed and scrubbed his free hand over his face. “Mal, for goodness’ sake, just tell me what the film is and what the role is and who else is in it if anyone… I need to know a little bit more about what you’ve signed me up for before I commit to flying out to London for an audition with a day’s notice. And whilst I’m there, remind me to murder my agent for not warning me about this.”

“Well, in his defence, Jafar only found out about it at midnight local time as he was going to bed, and he is probably slightly more respectful of time zones than I am.”

“Mal, tell me about the damn film!”

“You’re ok doing another period film, right?”

Gold rolled his eyes. Once Star Force finished he would take any role that he could get that did not involve a long make-up job, and Mal knew this.

“Mal!”

“All right, all right. I’m directing the new adaptation of Sense and Sensibility and I want you for Colonel Brandon.”

Gold stared at the spider. It had almost completed its journey across the wall.

“Gold?”

“I’m on the next plane,” he said, still slightly dumbfounded.




Chapter Text

In which Belle and Zelena have a little chat, Belle and Leo have a little chat, and Ella has the World’s Worst Hangover.

Including a very special cameo by my Tumblr daughter, our very own @hedwighood!

Although her day still started early when she did not have to do Rum’s make-up, Belle was always glad of even the smallest lie-in that she could get, and as she made her way to the make-up room on the morning after her date, there was a definite spring in her step that could not be put down just to having had a few extra precious minutes in bed.

He had kissed her. Completely off his own initiative, he had kissed her. A proper kiss, on the lips, not the little soft pecks on her cheek he gave her out of gratitude. That kiss had been meant to be a kiss with romantic intentions, and Belle had been more than happy to return it. At the time, a small part of her had considered inviting him up for coffee, but the sensible side of her brain had thought it best not to rush things. For all they did not have much time left together, only fools rushed in, and it would not make sense to spend their last few weeks tiptoeing around each other because they had done something in the heat of the moment that they then regretted. Not that Belle really thought that either of them would regret it, but it was better to be safe than sorry. Besides, Mulan was in on Wednesday evenings, and that could have engendered some rather interesting explanations. Friday though… On Friday Mulan was out at work, and Rum was coming over for Star Force, and whilst the words “anything could happen” were a terrible cliché in Belle’s mind, they were also very true on this occasion. She gave a small smile to herself in anticipation. However slowly, things were moving in the right direction, and she was optimistic for the future. Whatever happened with Rum and her next jobs, they would make something work. Perhaps he would end up staying at the studios with her after all.

“Good morning everyone!” Belle said brightly as she entered the room, and Ruby and Ariel raised their eyebrows over the top of their coffee mugs to question her unexpected good mood. Not that Belle was usually particularly misanthropic, that was Rum’s domain, but no-one was ever at their best at six o’clock in the morning and Belle’s bouncy happiness was a visible shock to them.

Ruby was the first to speak, in her usual forthright manner.

“Did you get laid last night?” she asked, causing Ariel to choke on her coffee. Belle rushed over to smack her friend between the shoulder blades and shook her head.

“No, Ruby, I did not.”

“Hmm.” Ruby narrowed her eyes and refilled Ariel’s spilled coffee from the pot, leaning back against the counter. “Something happened to put you in such a chirpy mood.” Suddenly she grinned. “You and Gold were at Granny’s. She mentioned it in passing. So…”

“So what?” Belle asked, trying to sound innocent.

“So, spill! What happened? What’s your code for a first date? Was there lip contact or are you a ‘no kissing till the third date’ kind of girl?”

“Ruby, you sound like you’re about fifteen,” Ariel said. “Let her breathe, for goodness’ sake.” She drained her mug and went over to her station to begin setting up ready for the actors’ arrival in a few minutes.

“I just want to know if they kissed!” Ruby exclaimed. “This is a momentous occasion and needs to be treated with the proper respect! She flew across the country for him, this had better be going somewhere!”

Belle gave a good-natured sigh. “Yes, Ruby, there was lip contact. Yes, Rum kissed me. It was lovely. And that’s all I’m prepared to say on the subject right now.”

Ruby clapped her hands together with glee and let out a high-pitched squeal that Belle was pretty sure she had never heard the likes of coming out of her friend’s mouth.

“Oh, it’s all coming together,” she said with a wistful, happy sigh. “The gossip columns are going to have a field day when they find out.”

“They’re not going to find out,” Belle said firmly. For all the time she spent on Tumblr, her personal life was still pretty anonymous and she wished to keep it that way. The grainy photos from Comic-Con had not been too much cause for concern but that didn’t mean she wanted speculation on her and Rum’s relationship on every scurrilous showbiz news site there was.

Ariel gave a soft huff of laughter. “Zelena will be emerald with envy when she finds out,” she said.

The mention of Zelena put something of a dampener on Belle’s mood, remembering the tricks that she had been up to the previous evening, trying to spread false rumours about her and poison Rum against her. Luckily he had not taken the red-head seriously and she had been given the short shrift that she deserved, but Belle couldn’t help but worry if some kind of insidious thought had taken root in his mind.

“She already is,” she muttered, more to herself than the others, but Ariel heard her, and gave her a melancholy smile before patting her arm.

“It’ll be ok,” she said. “We all know what Rum thinks of Zelena; she’s not going to win.”

Belle sighed. “I know that, and you know that, and Rum knows that, but Zelena doesn’t know that, and I have the feeling that it’s going to get a bit draining if we’re constantly trying to dodge a third person.”

“You’ll be all right.” Ariel wrapped her arms around her friend. “It’s still early days yet. Maybe she’ll get the message quickly and back off.”

“It’s been four years and she hasn’t got the message yet,” Belle murmured. “She shows no signs of backing off at all.”

“Yes, but you’re sort of almost official now, you and Gold. Maybe this will be the short, sharp shock to the system that she needs.”

Belle shrugged. She was not holding out much hope, but stranger things had happened.

“Cheer up,” Ruby said, passing her a cup of coffee. “You were so bright and bouncy when you came in and now you’re off to a funeral.”

“Zelena has that effect on me,” Belle muttered.

“You need to stake your claim on that man,” Ruby said, her voice matter-of-fact. “I know you’re not one for ostentatious public displays of affection, neither of you are, but it might be what the witch needs. It’s a shame that he’s not in for the next few days.”

Belle had to smile at the notion of her and Rum going for a full-on frenching session in the middle of the set. For a moment, she was reminded of what Mulan had said, of always imagining Belle whenever she was writing Lacey, and she thought back to the finale and Stiltskin and Lacey’s passionate reunion. Now that would be lovely… Zelena looking on unable to do anything whilst she and Rum shared a kiss that would blow the metaphorical socks off anyone else in the vicinity. But Belle was not an actress, and she would not have the opportunity.

Presently there came the sound of footsteps from outside the make-up room, and a moment later, Belle was immediately made aware of who was entering when she heard Ariel mutter.

“Speak of the devil.”

Zelena came into the room and settled herself in Rum’s usual chair beside Belle, and she gave the make-up artist her best benign smile in the mirror. Belle was immediately set on edge. Zelena was not the best at looking like butter wouldn’t melt, and she was convinced that something was going on. Had something happened last night that she didn’t know about? Zelena’s aspect was making her nervous - she was planning something, Belle was convinced of it.

“Good morning, Belle,” she said pleasantly. “Did you enjoy your date last night?”

Belle narrowed her eyes at the other woman in the mirror as she got to work on her red hair, spritzing it with heat protection spray ready for the curling irons. She was extremely tempted to spray her in her smug face, but she resisted the urge, and instead answered in as neutral a tone as she could.

“Good morning, Zelena. I had a very enjoyable evening.”

“Good, I’m glad.”

Belle plugged in the irons and continued to watch Zelena like a hawk. Her harmless expression was slipping, face twisting into that nasty smirk that she wore so well and so often.

“I’m just wondering,” the red-head continued, “if Rum had quite such a good time as you did.” Belle raised an eyebrow, taking up the irons and beginning work on Zelena’s hair.

“I didn’t hear any complaints from him,” she said icily. Let Zelena think what she would from that remark; Belle was beyond the point of caring.

“That’s because he’s a gentleman, dear, and of course he wouldn’t let on that anything was making him uncomfortable. But given his hurry to leave the state this morning, I feared that something irretrievable may have happened.”

“If Rum’s leaving the state, Zelena, I think it’s you he’s trying to run away from,” Ariel snapped, before apologising profusely to Graham, who had entered the make-up room in silence and made the executive decision not to get involved in the drama, and whom she had almost poked in the eye with a base sponge. “And how, pray, do you even know that he is leaving the state?”

“I passed him getting on a Greyhound bus to Boston on my way to the studio,” Zelena said lightly, examining her fingernails and holding up one red-talonned hand to Belle. “The polish is chipped.”

Ruby shoved a bottle of varnish across the counter at her. “Fix it yourself.”

Unperturbed, Zelena continued. “He had a suitcase with him. Looks like he’s going to be gone for a while.”

Belle made no response, and from Zelena’s smile in the mirror, it was clear that the actress thought that she had won this round. Let her, Belle thought snidely. She had no more time to waste trying to battle against her; it would come to nought. If Rum really had boarded a Greyhound to Boston with a suitcase, then there must have been a perfectly good reason for it.

The silence in the make-up room was a tense one, with everyone present just waiting for someone to say something to either calm or inflame the situation. Graham looked as if he was just about to open his mouth to break the icy atmosphere, but he seemed to think better of it, shaking his head and letting Ariel continue his make-up. Zelena, for her part, was clearly revelling in the uncomfortable situation that she had just created, completely oblivious to the fact that the unease was all directed towards herself.

“The thing is, Belle,” she said, without looking up from where she was touching up her manicure, “he needs to be careful. Star Force is ending, and he’s not getting any younger. We all have to think about the future, you know, and he’s not going to be staying in Storybrooke forever. The last thing he needs after Cora Miller is another money-hungry slut praying on him at a vulnerable time like this.”

Belle yanked the irons out of Zelena’s hair. It had been bad enough when she’d cornered her in the bathroom, but now she was insulting her in public, in front of her friends and colleagues.

“What did you just call me?” she hissed.

All the eyes in the make-up room, including Emma who had just sat down in Ruby’s chair, and David who was leaning in the doorway with a cup of coffee waiting his turn, were on them, and the air could have been cut with a knife.

“I didn’t call you anything, dear,” Zelena said mildly. “I was merely making an observation.”

Belle slid her foot under the make-up chair footrest, flicked up the lock that kept it in place and swung it round so that she and Zelena were face to face.

“If you’re going to compare me to a prostitute in front of everyone, Zelena, please have the decency to say it to my face. So I’ll ask you again. What did you just call me?

In that moment, it was as if a little gremlin somewhere in the back of Belle’s mind had roared into life and taken over. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Ariel looking slightly scared, and Ruby looking more than a little bit impressed, and all she felt was anger, an intense, burning anger that rushed through her veins and exploded into a red mist in front of her eyes.

Zelena didn’t reply, just glaring at Belle with a piercing gaze, but against the fire of Belle’s rage, her ire was nothing.

“You can’t speak to me like that,” she said eventually. “Don’t forget who’s in charge here.”

“Who’s in charge? It sure as hell isn’t you,” Ruby snarled. “And what the fuck makes you think that you can speak to Belle in the way you just did? We all heard you, Zelena. You’ve got some nerve.”

“Actually, Zelena’s right,” Emma said quietly. Everyone turned to her in horror, but Emma was fixing the red-head with just as icy a stare as the rest of them had been doing. “We do all have to think about the future. What have you got planned after Star Force, Zelena? Anything lined up? It would be terrible if word got out that you abuse and insult the crew members on productions, wouldn’t it? I can’t see any producers queuing up to hire you again. I wonder if Heartbreak Hotel would take you back? You loved doing that, didn’t you?”

Zelena just continued to glower, but this round had been won. Belle spun the chair round again and took up the curling irons, making no attempt to be gentle. She glanced over at Emma, who gave her an encouraging little smile, and then Ruby, who gave her wry grin with no humour behind it. The balance had been tipped and a line had been crossed. Rum would flip if and when he found out, but Belle had no desire to let him know what had just gone on.

At the same time, Belle was a little worried, although she would be ever grateful for having good friends that would step in and defend her when things like this happened. The line had been crossed, but Belle already knew that this would not be enough to deter Zelena, and she was privately dreading what the scowling woman in the chair in front of her would come up with as the next shot in the battle. All she could hope was that Rum knew both Belle and Zelena well enough that anything the red-head might attempt to use against her would be laughed off in the same way that he had shrugged off her insinuation that Belle was cavorting with Graham.  At the same time, there were other people involved now, instead of being a private three-way battle between Zelena, Belle and Rum, and that made her even more uneasy. Zelena would not be above calling in reinforcements - if she could find anyone willing to support her in her endeavours. Belle couldn’t think of anyone on set with whom Zelena was on particularly good terms; not make-up or costume certainly, and even the visual effects supervisors up in the studio offices who never visited the set were in no way fond of her. August Booth, in charge of most of the CGI effects, was constantly pushing the limit with what he could get the computer-generated characters to do in the background of all of Miss Greenie’s shots.

The make-up room fell into silence again for a long time, until Belle finished with Zelena and the woman left them without another word. Immediately the tension lifted, and Emma got up to put her arms around Belle in a hug.

“She’s a demon,” Ruby said. “I’m not looking forward to Star Force being over any more than the next person, but I will not be sorry to see the back of her. How did we even manage to put up with her for four years?”

“We were being paid to,” David said drily, sitting down in the chair that Zelena had just vacated. “You did well, Belle. I’m pretty sure a lesser person would have smacked her one.”

Belle gave a snort of weak laughter. “Oh, I wanted to, believe me. It’s not the first time she’s called me a slut. Just the first time with witnesses.”

Emma gave her a look and then let out a sad sigh. “Comic-Con Network Party?”

Belle nodded.

“She’ll get her comeuppance,” Ariel said. “I’m not one to believe in karma but with someone that rotten, something bad’s going to happen to them. It goes against everything… ever… Just… Uff.” Ariel tailed off and flapped her hands for a bit before going back to Graham and continuing to pluck a few stray hairs from his eyebrows before pronouncing him done.

“I wonder if she really did see Rum getting on a bus to Boston?” Ruby mused. “Why would he be going to Boston?”

David shrugged. “I often wonder why Rum does a lot of things, but then I see the end result on screen and I realise then.”

“He’s got downtime, he might as well use it. It’s not unheard of for people to go to Boston,” Emma said. “There’s nothing wrong with Boston. It’s a lovely city.”

“As a native Bostonian, Emma, you would say that.”

“I’ll defend my home city to the last!” Emma exclaimed. “Boston is amazing and Rum has made an excellent choice by going there, if he has even gone. And if he hasn’t gone, then he should. I can recommend him all the best coffee shops.”

“How come you haven’t taken me to any of them yet?” Graham asked, somewhat affronted.

The banter continued back and forth between the two for a few more minutes and by the time the situation had sorted itself out, the entire make-up room was back in the usual fits of laughter that could usually be found within its walls. The mood substantially lightened, the make-up artists and their charges continued their day, and it was well into the morning before Belle could snatch a few moments to herself, curling up in Rum’s usual chair and taking out her phone to see what was happening in the world, purposefully avoiding Tumblr. If she got on there and found out that her online nemesis, a particularly persistent Greenie/Stiltskin shipper who didn’t know when to call it a day and stick to their own tags, had fired another shot in the increasingly ridiculous fic war that was going on between them then she would be compelled to respond in kind and she’d never get anything done.

She had a couple of messages; a voicemail from Leo and a text from Mulan. Whilst Mulan’s would be vastly more entertaining, Leo’s was probably more in need of urgent attention. Maybe they’d decided to scrap their idea from yesterday and Rum’s imminent heavy-duty waterproofing was cancelled. At least he’d be pleased about that. Maybe they’d decided to give him another topless scene; have Lacey and Stiltskin’s final scene be one of them pursuing their former favoured pastime of skinny-dipping. He wouldn’t be pleased about that.

She played the voicemail, scratching at the drip of red nail varnish on the counter that Zelena had left earlier.

“Hello Belle, it’s Leo, could you give us a call back when you get this please? Just want to chat about the finale again. Don’t worry, it’s not about Rum this time, it’s actually Lacey.”

Raising an eyebrow at her reflection in the mirror, Belle hit redial.

“Leo White.”

“Hi Leo, it’s Belle, returning your call. So… Lacey?”

For a brief moment she wondered if the crack fics she and her nemesis had written involving Lacey becoming a military overlord had come true.

“Yes, we’ve cast her.”

“Congratulations. That’s everyone now, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is, but we’ve got a small problem.”

“Yes?”

“Well, we got the actress we wanted, but she’s currently blonde from her last role.”

“Ok…” Belle scratched at the nail varnish again. “So you’re asking me if I can do a wig or dye job?”

“If you could, please.” Leo sounded like he was pleading, and very tired. Belle wondered if Aurelius had spent the morning bouncing particularly farfetched ideas for their latest project off him.

“Sure, a dye will be easy enough unless she’s pregnant.”

“Erm, that’s the catch.”

“Okay then, wig it is....” She paused. “I’m going to assume you’ve remembered that Lacey’s not pregnant in the reunion scene.”

Belle gave a squawk of alarm on hearing Aurelius’s voice and she realised she was on speakerphone.

“The bump is still hideable,” he said.

Belle nodded. “All right. Well, I’d need to see her as soon as possible for a fitting. It shouldn’t be a problem, we can reuse one of the wigs that we use for the Eldar, we have a couple of brunette ones. May I ask who I’m fitting please?”

“Claire Littleton,” Leo said. “We’ll get things in motion. Thanks, Belle.”

The necessary closing pleasantries were exchanged and Belle hung up. The news that they had cast Lacey hadn’t affected her as much as she thought it would. She’d been all anticipation before it had happened, but now that it had… It wasn’t that it was an anticlimax, or that she was particularly opposed to the casting choice. It just didn’t seem that important any more. Belle had had a mental image of Lacey for so long that actually putting a sweet Australian face to the name didn’t affect it. Maybe once Mulan found out, she would use a different face to imagine Lacey with when she was writing copious amounts of kinky sex, instead of Belle.

Speaking of Mulan.  

Belle opened her friend’s message, which consisted of a single link to a Tumblr post and a winking emoji. Intrigued, Belle tapped the link and bit her lip when she saw the content. It was a blurred candid of Rum sitting in the departure lounge of Boston airport, scruffy in jeans and sweater with dark stubble. She glanced down at the caption.

Owlish-archer: HELP is there any etiquette for approaching famous people in airports? I am 99.99% per cent certain Rum Gold is sitting five seats away from me in Boston airport. Can I go over and ask for his autograph?

The post was self-reblogged.

Owlish-archer: OH MY DAYS HE IS GOING TO GET ON MY PLANE. BEST END TO A TRANSATLANTIC HOLIDAY EVER. Ahem. I have the space of a Boston-Heathrow flight to track him down and get his autograph.

So it appeared that Rum had indeed got on a bus to Boston and was headed to England. She wondered what could have happened to have caused him to rush off so suddenly without notice, especially when he had shown no signs of performing a moonlight flit the previous evening. She wondered why he hadn’t told her he was leaving. Well, they weren’t even properly dating yet, they’d been out officially once; shared one proper kiss. She couldn’t expect him to tell her his every move yet, but he usually told her if anything was going to mess up his make-up schedule. Maybe she should have invited him upstairs. Would he still have got on that bus to Boston?

She sat still for a long time, pondering her next course of action, before finally tapping out a message to Rum.

I had a lovely time last night. Looking forward to doing it again. See you tomorrow for the show.

If we was travelling to England today, Thursday, he would not be back for Star Force. The ball was in his court.

X

“Rum, you look awful. I barely recognised you.”

Rum sighed and raised one eyebrow at the greeting. “I would be looking better, Ella, if your wife hadn’t woken me up at three o’clock in the morning. Besides, you can hardly talk. You’re wearing sunglasses indoors and I don’t think that it’s because you don’t want to be recognised.”

Speaking of being recognised, Rum had certainly not expected a very nervous but obviously very excited young woman to come up to him on the plane about two hours into the flight and ask for a picture. He was rarely recognised as it was and he was privately impressed that someone could both realise who he was and not think he was looking too terrible to be seen with considering his current less-than-put-together appearance.

Ella lifted her shades and gave him a pointed, if slightly bleary, look.

“You’re right, darling, I overdid the gin last night.  If it’s any consolation, I thought that Mal rang you far too early as well; we were still in bed and I was determined for another hour’s sleep at least. Still, she had meetings to go to and things to do and producers to schmooze with. I don’t know how she does it.”

“Ella, it’s eight o’clock in the evening, how are you still hungover?”

Ella raised her sunglasses again, glaring at him. “If I had wanted a lecture on my drinking habits, Rum, I would have spoken to my mother. Come on, let’s get this circus started; I’m parked on double yellows. I hope you appreciate the things I do for you.”

Rum rolled his eyes and limped through the airport arrivals hall after Ella, dragging along his suitcase and watching with grim humour as they sent other people scattering with their determination to get out of the airport. When they reached the exit, Gold had to stop and double-take on seeing the car parked a little way away from them and hearing Ella’s exclamation of happiness that it had not been clamped.

“You have got to be kidding me,” he said faintly.

“Get in, loser!” Ella yelled from the driver’s side door.

“If you follow that up with ‘we’re going shopping’, I will not be held responsible for my actions,” Rum grumbled, going over to the Panther and throwing his suitcase into the back seat before getting in after it.

“I’m impressed, Rum, since when have you been clued up on your pop culture memes?”

Since he started stalking Belle’s Tumblr, Gold thought, but he wasn’t going to admit that. He changed the subject instead.

“Could you have picked a more ostentatious car?” he asked. “I can’t believe you actually drive this thing. I can’t believe you have a cherished number plate that says DE VIL. Are you trying to be a Disney villain?”

“Do you mind?” Ella said, offended. “Lucy has feelings too, you know.”

“Lucy?”

“The car. Short for Lucifer. That’s his name.”

Gold pressed one hand against his face and groaned. “I should have known,” he muttered. “Why, Ella?”

“Because I can. And I never get to drive him as I haven’t been able to have him shipped over to America yet, so whilst I’m here and he’s here, I’m going to take every opportunity I can get to drive him.”

She pulled away from the curb and set off down the slip road at breakneck speed.

“Can you take me to see Jafar please?” Rum asked, rubbing the back of his neck when they braked suddenly. Ella shot him a look over her shoulder, to which Rum gave a startled squawk and gestured frantically for her to keep her eyes on the road.

“Do I look like a taxi service, darling?” she asked. “I’m taking you where I want to take you, thank you very much, so you’re coming to my mother’s.”

Gold pinched the bridge of his nose.“I didn’t come to see your mother, Ella, I came to see Mal and Jafar. And some producers I’ve never met and have no idea who they are.”

“And I, the one who took time out of her busy schedule of nursing her hangover to come and get you from the airport, of course am a secondary concern in all of this,” Ella muttered. “If you think I’m driving you into the middle of the city at this time of a night you’ve got another think coming, Mr Gold. Jafar will have gone home, like all sensible people. Besides, where were you planning on sleeping whilst you were here? Unless of course your agent’s office has beds, which is why you’re so intent on going there, you’ll need somewhere to stay, and you might as well stay with us. Mother’s got her annual bridge group outing this weekend, we’ve got the place to ourselves.”

Gold didn’t reply and leaned back in the seat, closing his eyes, not that he was expecting to get any sleep with Ella’s driving. This was probably one of the least thought out things that he had ever done, and he had done a lot of things in his life. The whole thing had an air of being cobbled together at the last minute, and in Gold’s experience such things never usually turned out well. At least he wouldn’t be missed from the studio for a while, and he did have to thank Ella for offering him a roof for the weekend. And who knew? Maybe this time would be the time he got lucky. He’d read the script on the plane over and he certainly liked the look of it, and he knew that he’d get along with Mal as a director.  It was a while since he’d had anything he could really sink his teeth into; as much as he loved playing Stiltskin it was nice to have a change, especially playing a character who was such a different one. The only trouble was that it was such a long time since he had read Sense and Sensibility, and there was only so much that one could really glean from a screenplay.

A loud blast of the Panther’s horn and a particularly violent curse from the driver’s seat startled him and he scrunched his eyes even tighter shut, not wanting to have to see his imminent demise coming towards him at eighty miles her hour. Presently his phone buzzed with the arrival of a message; it had evidently been delayed whilst it got used to being on UK time and networks.

It was from Belle.

I had a lovely time last night. Looking forward to doing it again. See you tomorrow for the show.

Gold gave a groan and leaned back in the seat. How could it have slipped his mind so completely? In the euphoria of the prospective new part, and all the hurry and hustle that had accompanied his sudden departure for England, he had totally forgotten about their Star Force date. He made to hit reply, then decided that it would probably be more courteous to call her and explain the situation verbally rather than trying to get his meaning across in a simple text message, where so much could be easily misinterpreted.

“Are you all right back there?” Ella asked.

“I’m fine, thank you for your concern, you maniac,” Gold replied.

“I’m not worried about you, I’m worried about you throwing up over Lucy’s upholstery,” Ella said. “It’ll cost me a fortune to have him cleaned properly.”

“Charming.” Gold shook his head. “How did you get your licence?”

“The question is not how I got it, but how I kept it,” Ella said. “Please inform me in good time if you’re going to vomit.”

“Maybe if you weren’t so intent on murdering every other road user, you wouldn’t have that problem.” Gold closed his eyes again as they swerved to overtake another car and almost ended up in the central reservation. “If I make it to the audition tomorrow in one piece it’ll be a miracle.”

“Your lack of faith wounds me, Rum. It’s entirely justified, but it still wounds me. Don’t worry, we’re nearly there.”

“Thank God for small mercies.”

After about ten minutes more of Ella’s death-defying driving, they pulled into the drive of a large house.

“Home sweet home,” Ella said, killing the Panther’s engine and shooing Gold out of the car. He looked up at the building and raised an eyebrow.

“I think it must be a common trait in your family that no-one does anything by halves,” he muttered.

“Of course not, darling.” Ella was unlocking the front door. “That’s the whole point of the exercise.”

“It must be said, Ella, that ‘if you’ve got it, flaunt it’ is usually Zelena’s motto.” Gold dragged his suitcase into the house and took in his surroundings, giving an impressed nod. Snide comments aside, he could not deny that he had certainly fallen on his feet when it came to impromptu accommodation.

“Well, Rum, as handsome as you are, I have absolutely no interest in my breasts going anywhere near your face. Now, before we begin, there are some house rules. Firstly, I have a black light and I will use it, so make of that what you will. Secondly, if you leave the toilet seat up you will be thrown out of a third floor window. I think that’s all for now.”

Gold gave a snort of laughter. “You don’t have men to stay here very often, do you?”

“What do you think?” Ella rushed up the stairs, jangling keys as she went, and Gold followed her at a slightly more sedate pace. Now that he was no longer in a wildly moving vehicle, his thoughts were free to return to the important topic of Belle rather than being preoccupied with rapidly impending death. They would still be filming in Storybrooke, and he wondered how long he would have to wait before calling her to catch her during a free moment.

“Make yourself at home.” Ella indicated through the door that she had just unlocked. “Bathroom’s at the end of the landing. Please use it. You look like death and don’t smell much better. Mal should be back soon, and I am in desperate need of a nap.”

With that, she left him, vanishing into another room and slamming the door behind her. Gold smiled; Ella was nothing if not eclectic. He moved into the room, looking down at the phone still in his hand and still pondering what to say to Belle. He liked to think that he knew her well enough to be assured that she would be happy at his prospective new role rather than annoyed that he had blown off their Star Force date.

A shower and a shave later, Gold lay back on his bed, staring at the ceiling as he typed out a message to Belle.

Are you free to talk?

He sighed and tossed the phone onto the side before taking up his tablet and looking over the PDF that Mal had sent him earlier in the day, ready for the next day. He wanted this part. He wouldn’t have made a mad dash over to the UK if he didn’t, after all, but he had never gone into anything with so little preparation before, and now that he was here, he was beginning to feel a certain sense of foreboding.

His phone buzzed and he almost fell off the bed in his haste to grab it.

I’ve got thirty minutes. Is everything ok?

Gold dialled Belle’s number, waiting for it to connect. It seemed to ring for an age before she picked up.

“Hey Rum. Is everything all right?”

“Yes, everything’s fine. I just… I’m going to have to cancel our Friday night plans.”

“Ok…” Belle sounded wary. “What’s going on?”

“I’m in London. Mal called me at three in the morning last night saying she had a role for me and to come over as soon as I could for an audition. I couldn’t let this one go, Belle, it’s a brilliant opportunity and I’d give anything to work with Mal again after Star Force and…”

His nervous babbling was cut off by Belle’s squeal of excitement.

“That’s amazing! Good luck! See, we said that something would come up last night. Fate had obviously already got something in store for you. So, can you tell me all about it, or is it all top secret at the moment?”

Gold had no idea how secret this was meant to be, but since he needed to ask Belle’s advice anyway, the rules could probably be bent.

“I’m not sure if it’s all top secret. But if I say ‘Sense and Sensibility’, what would you say?”

“It’s one of my favourite books. Rum… Are you going with this where I think you’re going with this?”

“If I say ‘Colonel Brandon’, what would you say?”

“He’s one of my favourite fictional characters. Rum, are you…” She paused and when she spoke again her voice was a furtive whisper. “Are you auditioning for Colonel Brandon? Is Mal directing the new Sense and Sensibility film?”

“Yes, and yes.”

There was long pause on the other end of the phone, then Belle spoke hurriedly.

“Please excuse me for a minute.”

There was a scuffling noise, and over the static of the long distance line, Gold could just about make out the sound of gleefully excited squealing. He raised an eyebrow but decided that it was better not to mention it to Belle. He could always pretend that it was down to interference on a transatlantic call.

“I’m back.” Belle sounded breathless and he could practically hear her grin. “Oh Rum… That’s brilliant. You’ll be perfect.”

“Well, I hope I will be; I’m auditioning with a script I got less than a day ago on top of very little sleep and a transatlantic flight. I was hoping I could beg your assistance, actually.”

“Certainly, although I’m not quite sure how much use I’ll be over here.”

“I just want some pointers on the character, and my mind immediately went to you.”

“I’m very flattered.”

The conversation continued, with Gold remembering to scrawl down notes in between just enjoying listening to Belle enthuse about her favourite novel and expound her theories and interpretations of it, until he was startled by his bedroom door opening.

“Do you mind?” he spluttered.

Mal shook her head and folded her arms with a smile.

“Rum? What’s going on?”

“Mal just walked in with no respect for other people’s private conversations. Or the fact they might have been naked.”

Mal laughed.

“I’ve seen you in your birthday suit before, Rum. Besides, I did knock, but you were so engrossed in whatever thrilling conversation you were having that you didn’t hear me. Hi Belle,” she added, calling towards the phone.

“I…” Gold shook his head in despair as Belle replied.

“Hi Mal. I’ve really got to go now, Rum, but it was lovely to speak to you, and good luck tomorrow! I’ll think of you when I’m watching Star Force. Let me know how it goes!”

“Of course.” He paused. “I’ll see you soon.”

“Monday at the latest. We’ve got work to do.”

Gold laughed.

“Monday at the latest.”

“Take care.”

“You too.”

He hung up and looked over at Mal.

“If I wasn’t in someone else’s house I’d seriously consider doing something irretrievable to you,” he muttered.

“Is that any way to treat the person who’s giving you your next big role?” Mal asked, her voice full of mock hurt. She came over and plopped herself down beside him, looking down at the phone in his hands.

"You’re in love,” she said sagely after a moment’s silence.

Gold shook his head. “Love’s a strong word, Mal.”

“It’s an appropriate word. I haven’t seen you like this for years. She’s good for you. Don’t mess it up.”

“How can I not mess it up?” Gold stared up at the ceiling again with a groan. “I don’t have the best track record with relationships, as Zelena is so quick to point out.”

“The day you start taking relationship advice from Zelena is the day hell freezes over and the devil wins the figure-skating gold,” Mal said drily. “Come on, surely you know better than that.”

“It can’t go anywhere, Mal. Star Force is ending and even if I don’t get this role, which I can’t believe I will with so little preparation, I’ll still be coming back to the UK to look for work.”

“Well, that’s your own fault for leaving it so long before making a move,” Mal said, tutting. “And long distance relationships have worked before.”

Gold just raised an eyebrow at her.

“Come on, Rum, I’m trying to look for the positives here but there’s no point if you’re going to be acting like a wet weekend all the time,” she replied to the unspoken incredulity. “I’m just saying that there’s nothing to be gained by giving up on this before it’s even begun. You like her?”

“Yes.”

“You’re attracted to her? Romantically, sexually, platonically, aesthetically, any other kind of -ally?”

“Yes.”

“You enjoy spending time with her?”

“Yes.”

“You love her?”

“Yes.” He shot up, realising what he had just said, and saw Mal looking like the cat that had got the cream. “Fucking hell…”

“I would have been a brilliant lawyer if I hadn’t gone into film,” she mused. “Anyway, for the love of whatever’s up there, Rum, please just enjoy it and stop worrying!”

Gold sighed. If only it was as simple as Mal made it sound.

“HEY, CINEMATIC MASTERMINDS!” Ella hollered up from the ground floor. “THERE’S FOOD!”

Mal and Gold both burst out laughing and went to join Ella before their dinner could mysteriously vanish.

%MCEPASTEBIN%

Chapter Text

Previously on Friendships and Fandoms: Gold is on a flying visit to the UK for an audition, Belle has learned who will be playing Lacey, Zelena has overstepped the mark, and Mal has got the truth out of Gold about his feelings towards his make-up artist.

=======

Part Ten

In which: Gold has an audition, has a very long distance date, and almost has a heart attack, and the Once Upon a Time in Wonderland characters stretch their legs a little.

Including a Tumblr cameo by our very own @anonymousnerdgirl!

=======

The agency that Gold was with had an office in Kensington, which was a far cry from the pokey little place in North London that they had started out with when Gold had first signed with them many years ago. Jafar always joked that Gold was their lucky charm since their big break had come just after he had joined them. Declining Ella’s offer of a lift for fear that he might not get to the office alive, Gold made his way into the city centre via the tube and emerged into a torrential downpour typical of a London late summer.

Jafar was standing in the porch of the building with an umbrella, watching his progress along the road with an expression of mild interest and amusement.

“And so the prodigal son returns,” he remarked as Gold came up the steps towards him, and after shaking hands they made their way into the building together. “I trust you had a pleasant flight?”

Gold nodded. “Yes, although I could have done without the death ride that came after. Never hire Ella Furrier as a chauffeur.”

Jafar raised an eyebrow. “I wasn’t planning on it.” He unlocked the door to his office and waved Gold inside. “I won’t offer you a drink although I know you want one.”

Gold just gave his agent a look, which the younger man returned with equal fervour.

“I’m not having you turning up to an audition drunk,” he said, settling himself in the chair behind his desk and indicating for Gold to make himself at home.

“You’ve upgraded,” Gold remarked as he sat down, eyeing the mahogany desk. Jafar smiled and ran his hands over the smooth wood.

“Indeed; it cost me all of last year’s commission, but it was worth it.”

It was always nice to meet someone with a similar appreciation of fine furniture. Sadly, the constant moving around that came with his particular career meant that accumulating antiques was never very easy as he rarely had somewhere to store them, and getting things shipped back to his actual home in Scotland was more trouble than it was worth. Maybe with a more permanent relocation back to the UK on the cards, he would be able to indulge in his passion again. For a moment he had visions of working his way around all the vintage furniture places in Glasgow with Belle, and it pained him to remember that it would be very unlikely that Belle would be with him in Glasgow.

“Penny for them.” Jafar’s voice cut through his melancholy imaginings and Gold looked over at his agent again.

“Just thinking about what happens next,” Gold said.

“Really? This is a new development. Normally I’m the one rushing around thinking about what happens next whilst you work on the principle that something will turn up. What has caused this immense turnaround? Reaching 5-0?”

Gold just glared at Jafar.

“There are other agents, you know.”

“I know. I’ve more than once considered telling everyone else in the industry that you’re terrible to work with so that you’ll be forced to stick with me forever.”

“Jafar, I would never put anything past you,” Gold muttered. “You’re the most devious man I know, and not even your excellent taste in desks can make up for it.”

Jafar chuckled. “You love me really.”

“No, I do not.”

“Yes, you do. Now, to business! What did you think of the script?”

Gold nodded. “I really liked it. It’s a nice departure from Star Force.”

“I thought you might say that. I was impressed with it as well, even if this is all happening a bit suddenly. But after all, everyone loves a good Austen. Unfortunately I know as little about it from a creative perspective as you do, but…” Jafar rubbed his fingers together. “I’ll be sure to work my usual magic.”

“Too bad you weren’t able to negotiate an increase in my fee every time I have to share a scene with Zelena,” Gold muttered. His agent just gave him another pointed look.

“If I did that, then everyone else would be demanding one too and the network would go bankrupt. Still not long left to go now. With any luck Leo and Aurelius will be so sick of her that they’ll kill her off in the finale.”

“Wouldn’t that be lovely.” Gold sighed wistfully. He had woken up that morning to a message from Leo announcing that they had cast Claire Littleton as Lacey and that she would be visiting the studios the next week to say hi to the cast and get her costume and wig fittings done. Gold had not been quite sure what to make of the news really. He wasn’t disappointed per se. He didn’t really have any reason to be since he had not entertained any visions of anyone in particular as Stiltskin’s wife, assuming that since it was a comparatively small screen time, however influential that character may have been unseen throughout the series, she would just be played by one of the regular Force Base extras. Claire was a perfectly good actress, but at the same time…

At the same time she just wasn’t Belle, and whenever he thought about those lines and that long-awaited reunion, he could only see Belle in that role.

“Speaking of the finale… are you excited?” Jafar asked. “Eager to put the days of early make-up wake-up calls behind you?”

Gold shook his head and Jafar gave a snort of laughter.

“You’re the last person I’d expect to have fallen in love with your make-up artist.” His eyes widened as Gold looked up at him sharply. “Good grief, I was joking! Really? Hang on… Is she the lovely brunette from Comic-Con by any chance?” He laughed again, and Gold was perfectly ready for a hole to open up in the floor and swallow him alive. “You’re a sly one, Gold. How on earth did you manage that?”

As Gold was still wondering about that one himself, he really couldn’t give any kind of response and decided to ward off any further interrogation.

“Changing the subject back to the matter at hand” he said pointedly through gritted teeth. “My career.”

Although Gold could tell that Jafar was eager to continue the conversation along the vein of his private life, the younger man desisted and the talk returned to more serious topics until it was time for Gold to leave in order to make it to the audition.

Gold didn’t think that he had ever seen Mal so excited about anything as when he walked into the studio where his audition was taking place and met her in the foyer. She was passionate about what she did, he would be the first to say that, but she was usually a physically calm person. Today, however, there was a certain brightness in her eyes and a definite spring in her step as she rushed over to him and then rushed him off to meet the producers and get the ball rolling. Gold couldn’t help but laugh. Mal was an excellent TV director and she certainly had the vision to helm a feature film, but he had never yet appreciated just how desperately she had wanted to achieve this dream until seeing her current jubilation. She was practically skipping along the corridor. In fact, in some places she actually was skipping along the corridor.

“Slow down, Mal, for goodness’ sake,” Gold groused as he hurried to keep up with her. “I’ve got three left feet here.”

Mal obeyed his plea and fell into walking pace beside him. “I remember when we were doing that episode last year with the alien wedding and Aurelius wanted to put in a dancing sequence and you categorically refused,” she mused.

“You try dancing on a broken ankle!” Gold exclaimed. “It was bad enough having to do the ballroom scene for Her Handsome Hero!”

“You broke it twelve years ago!”

“It still bloody hurts! Anyway, stop distracting me.”

“You need to get into your little acting zone, I know.” Mal paused. They appeared to have reached their destination at that point, as they were standing outside a large office door. Mal just looked at Gold, smiling her knowing smile.

“Are you ready?” she asked.

“As I’ll ever be. Has anyone ever auditioned for a lead role on top of jetlag and a transatlantic flight less than twenty-four hours before?”

“You’re probably not the first, but you’ll be the best. You always are.”

Gold raised an eyebrow. “Your faith in me is astounding.”

“I wouldn’t have dragged you over here if it wasn’t. I’d have gone and got James Macavoy instead.”

Gold rolled his eyes. “There’s still time if you want to change your mind,” he muttered. “At least he’d know what time of day it was.”

Mal smacked his arm.

“You’ll be great,” she said, although it sounded more like an ultimatum than a friendly encouragement.

“I don’t know whether it’s morning or night,” Gold pointed out.

Mal folded her arms and glared at him.

“Rum Gold, do you really think I would have dragged you all the way over here on no notice if I did not have faith in your thespian abilities?”

“I know you have faith in me. It’s whether the producers have faith in me that’s the problem.”

“Do you really think that they would have let me drag you all the way over here on no notice if they did not have faith in my judgement and if they did not have any intention of considering you for the part?”

“I don’t know, some producers have been known to be a bit off the wall…”

“For God’s sake Rum, just shut up, have a little confidence in yourself, and go in and blow them away.”

Before he could protest any more, Mal opened the door.

There were only four people inside what was a room really too large for them all, and the other occupants immediately came over to Gold and Mal, who started making introductions.

“Rum Gold, this is Stefan and Leah Ryan, who’ll be producing the film.”

The producers both shook Gold’s hand.

“Mal’s been singing your praises,” Stefan said. “Our daughter loves Star Force. We didn’t tell her exactly who we were meeting today or she’d have wanted to come along too.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Leah added.

“Likewise.”

“And this is Merida Dunbroch, our Marianne. From your part of the world, Gold.”

“Hello!” Merida shook Gold’s hand enthusiastically, her frizzy red curls bouncing around her head in a cloud. “Sorry,” she added sheepishly as she finally released him. “I’m a big fan. Periodic is one of my favourite films, I nearly had a heart attack when Barbara Sinyard guest-starred on The Bear of the Bow, but I like to think I got over being starstruck.”

Gold smiled, pleasantly surprised. Whilst the independent film was dear to his heart, it had never really achieved much widespread recognition, and it was always nice to meet someone who had both seen and appreciated it.

“And our Elinor you should know,” Mal finished, gesturing to the fourth person. Anita Radcliffe smiled, and Rum was set a little more at ease. Even though it was ten years since they had worked together on Her Handsome Hero, it was still nice to see a friendly face. He felt like the playing field was levelled somewhat and Mal was no longer his only ally.

“It’s been a long time, Rum,” Anita said warmly as she shook his hand.

“Yes, it’s good to see you again.” Gold paused. “What happened to you swearing never to wear a corset again?”

Anita just laughed.

“Now that everyone’s here and introduced, shall we get started?” Leah asked.

Gold nodded, and he, Anita and Merida moved towards the centre of the room to begin.

Now or never.

X

It was well past midnight and despite knowing that he needed to be vaguely compos mentis the next day in order to get to the airport and fly home ready to begin filming the finale, Gold had long since given up any hope of going to sleep any time soon. At least he knew that Mal and Ella would be getting on the same flight as him so he could rely on them to make sure that he was in the right place at the right time. Well. He could rely on Mal. Ella would probably have no qualms about leaving him in London to make his own way.

The audition had gone well, at least, it had done so in his opinion, and he had been wrong in these matters before. The producers had seemed to be impressed by his command of the script despite only having got it twenty-four hours before, and acting with Anita was never a chore. Merida’s blunt enthusiasm had taken a little more getting used to, but once she was being Marianne and not herself, she had calmed down and the scenes they had tested had gelled very well. It was up to Stefan and Leah now; there was nothing more that he could do. All he could hope was that he had acquitted himself well enough for them to trust Mal’s judgment.

Gold turned on the bedside light and took up his tablet from the nightstand, swiping it on and going to see what was happening in the world. He had no important messages from anyone, which he took as a blessing. He wasn’t sure that his mind was up to much taxing thought at that moment. Cautiously he opened up tumblr and went to Belle’s blog, incredibly alarmed to find the first thing on there a picture of himself on the plane over to London the previous day. It would seem that the young lady who had tracked him down was also a member of this far-reaching community and he wasn’t sure whether to be amused at how small the world was becoming or scared at just how much social media appeared to be insinuating itself into his life. The surprise was almost enough to make him close the window down and put it to the back of his mind, but then something else caught his eye and he scrolled down when he caught Belle’s real name. This was something that warranted investigation. From what he knew of her blog, he knew that she kept her actual identity under close wraps, making only vague references to the Star Force cast and crew as ‘friends and colleagues’.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d be worried about Belle French’s intentions if I were Rum Gold, someone had written. Beneath it was the same photograph of Belle embracing Graham outside the make-up room that Zelena had showed a few days ago, and Gold had to blink at the implication.

Was Zelena on Tumblr too? Was everyone on Tumblr? And if this mysterious user was her, what was she doing spreading rumours about Belle like this? Gold sighed; he knew exactly what she was doing. Having failed in her attempts to persuade him, erroneously, that Belle was up to no good, she had decided to share her frustrations with the world at large instead.  Beneath the picture of Belle and Graham were various other grainy phone-camera quality snapshots of Belle with other male cast and crew members, just being her usual affectionate self. There was nothing harmful in any of the pictures. He could tell from changing hairstyles and clothing that these images had been stored up for a long time, months in fact, from far before he and Belle had ever made any admission of any kind of feelings for each other, no matter what each might have been thinking internally. Gold was disgusted. Zelena really had gone far too far this time, but on the anonymity of the Internet, how could he prove anything?

Scrolling down, he was somewhat gratified to find that the majority of responses to the post were all in Belle’s defence, with most of them pointing out the age of the photos and the fact that there had been no official announcements regarding Belle and Gold’s relationship status in the first place.

The original poster had retorted that they had inside information from ‘a source at the studio’. Gold snorted.

“Yep, Zelena, I bet you do,” he muttered. He was more convinced than ever that this nemesis of Belle’s was in fact his co-star. There was something in her tone, he could almost hear her voice when he read the vitriolic rants.

Why would Belle reblog something like this to her own site? What possible reason for it could there be? Unless she was revealing her own identity as the Belle French in question and telling online-Zelena to quite rightly go to hell.

He continued to scroll down through the responses and the ongoing fight. The last response before Belle’s own was a particularly telling one.

Unknowngeekgirl: I fail to see what you’re hoping to achieve with this. The private lives of the cast and crew are none of our business. Not only are your pictures hopelessly outdated, you are also outright ignoring others’ comments. Simply repeating your argument again and again, no matter how loudly or violently you do it, will not make it right. You say that Rum’s sudden departure for the UK speaks volumes, but you have no more idea of his motives than anyone else does.

Belle’s response was simple and, as Gold had learned during his time looking at her Tumblr, typical of her.

Very well put. I do not know what is going through either of these people’s heads any more than you all do, and we would do best to keep it that way. Their lives are their own, just as ours are.

I would also like to remind everyone that the last time Rum left the country so suddenly and engendered such scurrilous speculation, it was because one of his aunts, with whom he spent most of his childhood, had just died. I think it in very poor taste to start spreading vicious rumours at the best of times, but even more so when this is taken into account.

Gold smiled. He had nothing but admiration for Belle’s strength and graciousness in the face of the trolls who seemed to want constantly to break her down, both in her real life and her online one. He wondered what she was doing at that moment. It was almost time for Star Force to air in America; once again he would not be there to see it with her. Their viewing dates had not really got off to a very auspicious start. Still, hopefully things would return to normal next week.

Fiddling through the open tabs on the tablet, Gold was surprised to see that he had a message from Tumblr, and was even more shocked to find it was from Belle.

Hello there, Mr Lizard. I just wanted to drop in to say thank you for following me. It always makes me smile when I see you pop up in my notifications. Keep dancing!

His fingers hovered over the touchscreen, wondering what to do next. Should he reply? She had sent the message to a strange, online alternate persona who went by thesparklydiscolizard (it was his favourite of all the various nicknames that Stiltskin had been called over the course of the series), not to himself.

A reply would be courteous, and he wondered what he should put. His main problem with communicating with Belle in this anonymous way was the very real likelihood of him ending up accidentally revealing himself, something that he desperately did not want to do.

You are very welcome, Miss Bookworm.

That would have to do. Eloquence would hopefully return once he was back in the right time zone and he’d had a decent night’s sleep in his own bed. Not that there was anything wrong with Ella’s mother’s home, but it was always difficult to try and acclimatise to a new bed.

He took a final look at Belle’s blog, perhaps hoping to glean a little more of her internal thoughts as to the current trials that she was undergoing. There was no mention of Zelena or her Tumblr alter-ego, just a single line that made him feel rather sad.

Star Force date cancelled due to the other party being out of town today. Never mind, next time.

Gold put the tablet down on the bedside table and stared up at the ceiling. He could still hear Ella and Mal moving around downstairs and for a brief moment he considered getting up and joining them again since it didn’t look like anyone in the house would be getting much sleep that night, but he decided against it. It never really did to be a third wheel, after all. He thought of Belle, sitting alone in her flat with Tumblr for company, thinking about her mysterious new follower. What would she say when she discovered that this anonymous statistic on her computer screen was in fact a lot closer to home than she realised?

Skype’s annoying ringtone suddenly started up and Gold reached across to answer it. Belle’s face filled the screen and she waved. He recognised the background as the living room of her little flat, and he smiled, waving back.

Hey.” She paused. “Are you in bed?”

“It is one in the morning,” Gold pointed out.

“Yeah, I know…” Belle gave a little embarrassed cough. “Did I wake you? I saw you were available so I thought…”

“No, don’t worry. My brain doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going. I don’t think that I could get to sleep if I tried.”

“I’m glad to hear that. Well, not exactly glad that you can’t sleep, of course, but glad that I didn’t wake you and that you’re not going to drop off on me.”

Gold raised an eyebrow. Belle’s sweet face looked like she was blushing.

“So how did it go?” she asked.

“Well, I think. They didn’t dismiss me out of hand, which is always a good thing.”

“I know you did brilliantly,” Belle said firmly. “You’ll be back on the big screen with adoring fans swooning at your feet before you know it.”

“Will you be among those adoring fans?” Gold asked. He was certain that had if he were not completely off his head with jetlag and the quiet euphoria of an audition gone well and the fact that despite being on different continents he and Belle were still able to speak face to face and she seemed to be incredibly happy to see him, he would not have dreamed of saying such a thing.

“Oh, I would be first in line for swooning duties,” Belle teased. Gold gave a snort of laughter. He had never met anyone less inclined to swooning than Belle French. She had a thoroughly practical head on her shoulders, although her imagination was beyond anything that Gold had ever encountered before.

There was a natural pause in the conversation then and Gold shuffled down a little further beneath the bedcovers, suddenly very aware that he was not wearing a shirt. Of course, Belle had seen him with his shirt off before - just that previous week in fact - but that had been in a professional capacity, and this was private, more intimate. Belle just gave a sly little smirk.

“Won’t it be time for Star Force over there?” he asked.

Belle nodded. “That was why I called you, actually,” she said. “I was wondering, since you’re not going to be going to sleep soon, if you wanted to have our Star Force date over Skype instead? Here.”

The chat pinged and he saw that she had sent him a link.

“You can watch a livestream on that. The quality won’t be as good as on an actual TV screen, but it should be good enough. That way we can still watch together and discuss it.”

Gold smiled. “I’d like that.”

“Well, you’d better get it started, the pre-show ads are running.”

He obeyed, clicking on the link.

“Did anything interesting happen on set in my absence?” he asked.

Belle shook her head, then opened her mouth to say something before appearing to think better of it and closing it again with another brief shake.

“No, not really. Graham’s getting very excited about doing his little documentary about the finale. He wasn’t quite as excited when I reminded him that he’d have to get up at a ridiculous hour of the morning if he wanted to follow me through your make-up next week. I think I might have to set him up with a coffee IV.”

Gold laughed, but he could tell that there was something else troubling Belle, and he wondered whether or not it would be a good idea to press her on the subject. He thought back to her words on her blog, that no-one had any idea what was going on in another person’s head.

“Nothing else of note?” he asked. Belle shook her head.

“No. You and Mal need to get back here as soon as possible, it’s dead boring over here without you.”

“I don’t believe that for a minute.”

“Sh, it’s starting! I don’t want to miss the credits.”

“They’re the same every time!”

“I don’t care, they’re still important!”

The stream having loaded, Gold settled back to watch, occasionally stealing glances at Belle’s in the corner of the screen. She was evidently doing the same, and more than once their eyes met, resulting in a little giggle from the other side of the world.

Gold missed her, and they had not been apart all that long. Perhaps he was missing her in anticipation. Was this destined to be the extent of their relationship once Star Force ended? Mal had said that long-distance relationships could work, but right now, Gold wanted nothing more than to be in that little flat beside Belle on the sofa, not half a world away watching her through miles upon miles of cyberspace.

“You’re very quiet,” Belle said at the first ad break.

“You were the one who wanted me to stop talking,” Gold pointed out. She rolled her eyes.

“I don’t mean like that. You seem despondent all of a sudden. Has something happened?”

Gold shook his head. “No. Just lost in thought.”

“You seem to get yourself lost a lot.”

She adjusted her position and Gold found himself staring at her living room ceiling for a while before she came back into view, stretched out on her stomach on the sofa. “I might as well use the room since it’s here.”

“I thought that you seemed more despondent than me,” he said, inviting her to tell him what was eating her.

She sighed.

“It’s nothing. Just Zelena being her usual self. She’s just so…” Belle gave an exclamation of frustration that Gold didn’t think he had ever heard from her.

“Don’t worry, I feel exactly the same way about her. Not long now.”

They were the same words that she had so often said to him when he had been bemoaning his co-star; it felt wrong to be parroting them back to her, but it earned him a little smile.

“I never usually like to think ill of my colleagues, but there is nothing likeable about that woman. I’ve long since resorted to just tolerating her, but now I think she’s becoming even more intolerable. It’s almost as if she knows the end is nigh and she doesn’t have all that much time in which to annoy us so she’s doing it double strength.”

The analogy was a good one. With any luck, Aurelius and Leo would refuse to work with her again and word of her misbehaviour would get around enough that she’d be out of a job for the foreseeable future.

“Enough of Zelena,” Belle said firmly. “Let’s not have her spoil this little date. She’s already tried to spoil enough. How does it feel being back in the UK?”

“Odd,” Gold admitted. “I never normally come on such short notice for so little time.” He sighed. “There’s usually all these things I do whenever I’m here. People I see, graves I visit… this conversation has taken a very morbid turn, let’s talk about something else.”

Belle just smiled.

“Everything will be fine,” she reassured him as the programme started again. “I know you’ll be all right, and you’ll be able to go back and do all your little rituals soon enough.” She paused. “I’ve never been to London.”

Gold wanted to say that he would be all too happy for her to accompany him on his next trip, but she had already turned her attention back to her TV screen.

The rest of the programme passed in companionable silence and by the time it finished, Gold was feeling far more tired than he had done for the entire rest of his stay in the UK.

Belle just blew him a kiss after extracting a promise that he would let her know his return flight details.

“Good night, my handsome hero. Sleep well.”

The call cut off and Gold killed the light, falling into uneasy dreams and worries of what the future might have in store for them both.

X

The first thing that Gold saw when he came into the arrivals hall was almost enough to make him turn straight back around, get on the first plane back to the UK and beg Jafar for amnesty and a place to stay under his desk.

Zelena was there, and she was obviously waiting for him. Oh, where were Mal and Ella when he needed them? They were still waiting at baggage reclaim, and Gold was on his own. Was there any kind of way out past her? Was there a hope in hell that she hadn’t seen him and he could somehow disguise himself and she’d be none the wiser?

Sadly, it was not to be. She had seen him, and she was coming towards him with that horrible little glint her in her eye that meant she was going in for the kill.

“Rum, darling,” she began as she neared him, and Gold swung his suitcase around in front of him in the vague hope that he could use it as a shield. This took the biscuit. Sidling in on his dates with Belle was one thing, the diner was a pretty secluded place and everyone knew everyone else. The airport arrivals hall, however, was very big, very public, and very full of people who were watching them both with interest. He looked at the exit over Zelena’s shoulder and was seriously considering attempting to floor her with a suitcase to the temple and run hell for leather as fast as his cane would take him and hitch all the way back to Storybrooke.

Before he could do that, however, Zelena was prevented from moving any closer towards him by the arrival of a young man on the scene from somewhere behind Rum’s left side, who rushed past him and into Zelena’s waiting arms with an exuberant cry of “ALICE!”, pulling her into a tight embrace and swirling her around the arrivals hall, much to Zelena’s consternation. Were it not for the fact that this setup was so obviously staged, Rum would merely have been grateful for this divine intervention, but something kept him standing there, gobsmacked and staring at the events as they unfolded.

Sure enough, this was quite clearly not a case of mistaken identity. As Zelena’s feet touched the ground again, the young man caught Gold’s eye over the redhead’s shoulder and nodded frantically in the direction of the doors, mouthing “go! go!”

Gold needed no further encouragement and moved away whilst Zelena was distracted trying to extricate herself from the man’s grasp. He was almost at the exit when he ended up colliding with another young woman who had just rushed inside, and who, looking around, gave a shrill scream on seeing Zelena and the man, pulling everyone’s attention towards the centre of the arrivals hall.

Without further ado, the newcomer stalked across the shiny tiled floor and, just as Zelena managed to fight her way out of her paramour’s clutches, slapped the older woman round the face.

As the lovers’ tiff continued to attract attention, Gold again caught the younger man’s eye, and he gestured frantically to the left.

Glad of his rescue, however unexpected and melodramatic, Gold left the airport and made his way down to the left towards the short stay carpark, wondering what on earth would happen now.

“Hey. Need a ride?”

He turned on his heel to see Belle leaning out of a bright red SUV.

“Belle? What are you doing here? Not that I’m not incredibly pleased to see you, but…” He shook his head in good-natured disbelief. “You’re really making quite a habit of coming to rescue me from precarious situations, aren’t you?”

Belle shrugged. “What can I say? You seem to need rescuing quite a lot. Well, this one is my fault, in a way. Well, it’s Zelena’s fault entirely, but I facilitated it. She’s been up to her usual tricks. I left my phone on the make-up table and she managed to get a glimpse at it so she saw your message about what plane you were getting home. We put two and two together and rushed to save you from an unwanted emotional airport reunion.”

“Yes.” Another man had got out of the car and was opening the trunk for Gold’s luggage; it was Jeff from Belle’s make-up videos. “We wanted to avoid you jumping on the next plane to Timbuktu to get away from her. Hence the little performance back there.” He nodded towards the doors before holding out a hand. “Jefferson Milliner, Belle’s friend, confidant and make-up model. Pleased to meet you.”

Just then, the others from the arrivals hall scene came running out of the airport at full tilt.

“Drive, drive, drive!” the woman was yelling. “We’ll probably have security guards chasing us in a minute! Once they’ve finished sedating Zelena… She was really quite worked up about the whole thing, it was beautiful to behold.”

Jefferson wasted no time in getting back into the driver’s seat and Gold shoved his suitcase in the trunk before following Belle into the car. The other two clambered in after them and once all the doors were closed, Jefferson pulled out with a level of zeal that would have put Ella to shame.

“Thank you very much for rescuing me,” Gold began once they were on the slip road and heading towards the centre of Boston, “but could you please explain what just happened?”

“Certainly.” Belle leaned in and pressed a kiss to his lips. “But first let me say how happy I am to see you in one piece after your sudden departure. We were a bit worried when you vanished like that, but it was for a good cause.”

Gold smiled and returned her kiss.

“No snogging in the back!” piped up the voice from the front passenger seat. “I can see you in the rearview!”

“Yes, we have impressionable children aboard!” Jefferson added. “Impressionable children who’ve watched every episode of Star Force… Why do I let you get away with these things?”

“Because you love me and you’re a pushover,” the girl replied.

Gold looked sideways at Belle. “Did you bring an entire rescue team?”

“Of course. Rum, this is my friend Jefferson, his daughter Grace, my friend Will and his fiancée Anastasia.”

The couple from the arrivals hall waved, and things started to piece themselves together in Gold’s mind. So this was the mysterious Will whom Belle had visited over Comic-Con weekend, and whom he had, for a brief moment, thought had popped the question.

“When Belle said that she was going to come to the airport to meet you, I offered transportation,” Jefferson explained.

“And I have to go wherever dad goes. Because I’m only eleven,” Grace added.

“And when we heard that Belle was going to be in Boston, we volunteered our help too,” Anastasia said. “So it ended up being a group road trip, but hey, it was effective!” She unceremoniously tugged at her red hair and it came off, revealing pale blonde locks beneath it, and she reached forward to toss the wig into Jefferson’s lap. “Thanks, Jeff. I know Will can look like an idiot at the best of times…”

“Hey!”

“...but even he couldn’t mistake a red-head for a blonde.”

“You’re welcome,” Jefferson said, shoving the hairpiece in the glovebox with a flourish. “It was the best I could do at short notice but you wore it very well, my dear.”

Gold just shook his head in disbelief, and wondered if he should ask about Zelena’s wellbeing after her altercation with the affianced couple, but swiftly decided that he really couldn’t care less.

There was a beep from somewhere in the vehicle and everyone started checking their phones to see who the culprit was. Will grinned.

“It’s already on Twitter,” he said, passing the phone to Belle. Gold leaned in and looked over her shoulder at the candid snap of Will, Zelena and Anastasia’s fracas, and the various exclamations of mirth that it had engendered, and he sat back in the SUV allowing himself a small smile of satisfaction. It was the little victories in life that counted.

After about twenty minutes of driving, Jefferson pulled up outside an apartment block and Will and Anastasia got out.

“Thanks for the ride,” Anastasia said. “There’s just one thing…” She looked a little sheepish as she reached into her bag and pulled out a Star Force calendar and a marker pen. “Do you mind?” she asked Rum. “I’m a big fan.”

After everything that had happened that afternoon, an autograph was the very least he could do.

“All right,” Jefferson said once the lovebirds had been seen safely into their building. “Next stop, Storybrooke. Stick the radio on, Poppet.”

Grace obliged, and as the car filled with the latest pop tunes that Gold didn’t have the first clue who was singing them, Belle snuggled closer into his side as much as her seatbelt would allow.

“Thanks for the rescue,” Gold murmured.

“You’re welcome. You’d do the same for me.”

She was right about that.

The sun was beginning to set, painting the sky in pink and orange, and Gold closed his eyes, feeling Belle’s warm and comforting presence beside him as the lethargy and jetlag of his frantic few days finally kicked in. Before he surrendered to sleep completely, he caught a glimpse of Jefferson in the rearview. The younger man was smiling fondly, and Gold had to do the same. Although he had no idea what Zelena might try next, he was assured that he had Belle and her friends to see him through it.

 

Chapter Text

In which Gold receives some good news, Belle receives an interesting proposition, and Zelena crosses an uncrossable line…

====

Part Eleven

It was odd being back in the make-up room with Gold on Monday morning after the events of the weekend. It was not as if he had missed any filming. She had last seen him in here on Wednesday evening, and he would not have been back here until this moment even without mad dashes across the Atlantic. It was only four days since his last stint in the chair, but it seemed like so much more time had passed.

He gave her a tired smile as he came into the room and hooked his cane over the counter, settling himself in his usual chair and giving an almighty yawn.

“Morning, Belle.”

“Good morning, Gold.”

There was a buzzing sense of anticipation in the air; Belle could feel it, and when she had first come to the set to begin the day, Walter in security had commented on it as well. Filming for the finale was only a week away, and it seemed that everyone wanted to rush through the remainder of this week so that they could get to the dramatic double-episode that would end the series with a bang. Belle certainly couldn’t wait, but there was still another week to get through, and even though this was a time of heightened excitement, they still had a job to do, and do well. It would not do for the penultimate episode to show signs of shoddy work just because everyone was so anxious to get to the finale.

Gold gave a sigh, bringing Belle back to the present.

“What’s up?” she asked. He didn’t reply straight away; his mind was very obviously elsewhere, staring off into the middle distance as she sponged the base coat onto the back of his neck. Peering over his shoulder, she saw that he had the finale script open on his tablet, more specifically the final scene in which Stiltskin and Lacey were reunited.

“I’m behind on my line learning,” he muttered eventually, returning his attention to the screen.

“I think you can be forgiven that. You did just spend the weekend rushing off to a different continent to audition for your next role,” Belle pointed out. “I don’t think anyone would blame you for not being in the mood to memorise your lines. You’ll have sides on set and there’s another week yet; you’ll be fine.”

“I know, I just like to be prepared. And because it’s the last episode, well, I want to give it my all. I just want it to be my best performance.”

“I’m sure it will be,” Belle said, coming round to the front and bidding him to close his eyes so that she could put on the first layer of green. “Mal’s directing and she always brings out your best.”

“I know, but this is different. This is it. We have no more chances to prove ourselves after this. Everyone always remembers a series finale, whether it was good or bad. Indeed, the bad ones tend to be remembered more.”

“This will not be a bad one,” Belle said firmly. “Although I know that a large proportion of the fanbase, myself included, will probably be taking to their keyboards to write several reams of fix-it fics on learning just who dies and who survives, if you catch my meaning.”

“It’ll certainly be memorable,” Gold agreed, his voice dry.

“It’ll be great. What’s got you so pessimistic all of a sudden?”

Gold shrugged. “I don’t know. Possibly just the fact that the end is nigh.”

“It’s the end of a TV series, Rum, it’s hardly the apocalypse. Although it might as well be from the hysteria I’ve seen online. People are already mourning the loss of Star Force. I won’t go so far as to say that it’s as bad as when Firefly was cancelled, but you might think something similarly terrible was going on.”

Gold gave a snort of laughter and they fell into a companionable silence for a while. Well, a slightly awkward companionable silence. It was, Belle realised, the first time that she had had Gold in the make-up chair since their date, when they had sort of officially become a couple, when he had kissed her and everything was well in the world. She wasn’t really sure what their relationship was now that they were back in their professional environment. It wasn’t exactly a secret - most of the cast and Belle’s fellow crew knew about the date thanks to Zelena’s interference - but at the same time, Belle felt like they couldn’t really be as open about the whole thing here in the make-up room, even if there was no-one around to see it at the time.

“Belle,” Gold began presently, once she had moved away from his face to allow his base to dry and get the paint for his scales ready. “Can I beg a favour from you?”

“Sure.” Belle leaned on the counter. “What can I do for you?”

“Will you help me go through my lines?” Gold asked. Belle’s eyes widened momentarily; of all the requests that was one she had not been expecting at all. She had been anticipating something along the lines of keeping him safe from Zelena at all costs, not running lines with him. Belle was no actress and had never read lines of anything in her life, and now Rum was asking her to help him. Gold had never run lines with anyone in the entire time he’d been acting on Star Force. He brooded away with his scripts and then turned up to film and just did his thing, and for the most part the directors just let him do it. That was the way he had always worked and he worked well that way. David and Mary Margaret would constantly go over their lines together, Killian preferred to fall back on the ‘there are sides on set if I forget my lines’ safety net. Gold just worked everything out in his head beforehand and then watched the end result come alive on screen. Perhaps that was why Mal enjoyed directing him so much; she didn’t have to do all that much work.

She realised that she hadn’t actually given him an answer.

“Certainly,” she said. “Although wouldn’t you prefer a professional? I’m no actress, Rum. I stay firmly behind the camera for a reason.”

“I know. And no, I’d prefer you.” His eyes were in complete earnest as he looked up at her, gaze questioning. “This is Stiltskin and Lacey’s reunion; it’s got to be perfect. This has been building for four years now.”

Well, his wife had been his primary motivation for the entirety of the series, the one thing that was constant. Whilst Snow and Charming had each other, and Leyah and Hook to a certain extent also had each other, and the rest of the crew all had their own motivations and reasons to get back home, Stiltskin’s had always been so primarily focussed on Lacey that she had honestly become the centre of his universe. If there was any scene that Gold would want to feel genuine above all others, it was this one, as it would be the culmination and confirmation of years of work. Anything less than perfection would not ring true to his previous acting abilities - which was one of the reasons why Belle had been so convinced that the script leak in which Stiltskin performed a complete u-turn and ended up with Miss Greenie was a fake.

“It’s got to be perfect,” Gold repeated, bringing Belle back to the room. “And I think that I’ll get on better rehearsing it with someone that I care about in the same way that Stiltskin cares about Lacey. I think it would add a certain authenticity to my performance.”

He was blushing beneath the green paint, Belle could tell. She was learning the little signs. She took his hand and pressed a tiny kiss to the palm; as much as she would have liked to capture his lips she had no desire to smear her handiwork.

“Well, I would be more than happy to assist,” she said. “Just tell me what to say. Not right now, obviously,” she hastened to amend. “I’m a little busy.”

They both laughed at that as Belle got back to work on his face, and they fell into silence for a while. Belle pondered Gold’s thoughts towards the scene and his concern that everything had to be perfect. He was not usually one to worry about such things. He was a perfectionist, that could not be denied, but he didn’t usually worry unduly before the event. That was David’s remit. She remembered when the younger man had come to Gold for advice on a scene once and had left the make-up trailer probably more worried than when he had entered it in search of succour, and she burst out laughing.

Gold just gave her a look in the mirror.

“What’s tickled you?” he asked.

“I was thinking about the time that David was worrying about his first nude scene,” Belle replied. “You know, you really didn’t do anything to bolster his confidence, the poor guy.”

Gold shrugged. “I just tell it like it is. It all went off without a hitch, no misbehaving members.”

“I’m pretty sure he was traumatised for about a week afterwards.”

“It’s a rite of passage,” Gold said. “Besides, he’s young and in very good shape, he hardly has anything to worry about.”

Belle could hear the unspoken addition to the words. Unlike me, Gold was thinking, and she rolled her eyes in the mirror at him.

“You have nothing to worry about either,” she said. It was still a few weeks before the episode in which he took his shirt off (or rather, the doctor’s shirt was taken forcibly off him whilst he was unconscious) was due to air, and even though the filming was over, Belle knew that Gold was going to be worrying about it for days. “Do I have to show you the testimonies of your rabid fans on Tumblr again to convince you, or will you take my word for it?”

Gold shook his head with a snort. “No, I’ll believe you.”

Belle hadn’t been on Tumblr for a couple of days and she had no idea what was currently happening in that virtual world, but Mulan had been reporting from the front lines that everything seemed to be normal, just the usual interference from a particularly annoying Greenie/Stiltskin shipping troll who seemed to have made it her mission to annoy everyone in the Laceskin fandom in some shape or form.

Presently, Gold’s phone began to buzz on the counter beside him and he groaned, picking it up and peering at the caller ID.

“Who’s calling me at this time of a morning?” he grumbled. “This is not an acceptable time for receiving phone calls.”

“Well, you are awake,” Belle pointed out. “And most people who know you know that you’re awake at this time. But who else is awake to call you other than myself is a different matter entirely.”

“Someone who’s in a different time zone,” Gold muttered. He answered the phone and put it on speaker. “Good morning, Jafar, you’re on speaker so don’t make any kind of lewd comments.”

“Good morning, and when have you ever known me to make lewd comments?”

“Never so far in our acquaintance, but there’s a first time for everything. Why are you calling me at this ungodly hour of the morning?”

“It can hardly be called ungodly when you’ve already been awake for at least an hour. I’m calling to congratulate you, Colonel. Filming begins as soon as Mal’s finished filming Star Force, you’ve got a month and a half to learn your script and get your boots fitted.”

“Right.” For a long time that was all that Gold said, and Belle could see that he was wearing a somewhat stunned expression. She grinned and leaned in to kiss his cheek.

“Congratulations,” she whispered.

“Gold?” Jafar was saying on the other end of the phone. “Did you get any of that? Are you still there? Have you dropped off to sleep again mid-conversation? It wouldn’t be the first time you’ve done that, you know.”

“I’m still here.” Gold paused again. “Erm… Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I’ll send over the paperwork later today but I thought you’d want to know as soon as possible. The Ryans were very impressed and Anita put in a good word for you as well. You couldn’t lose, really. Well, if you had then I would have despaired and washed my hands of you all together.”

They said their goodbyes and hung up the call, and Belle waited until Gold had had a few minutes to process the information before performing a little happy jig on the spot behind the make-up chair.

“Oh, this is going to be fantastic!” she exclaimed. “I’m so happy for you!”

Gold nodded, still seeming to be slightly dumbfounded by the whole experience, and for a long time he still did not say anything.

“Rum?” Belle pressed. “Rum, don’t make me splash you with water to get you to snap out of it, your make-up’s only just dried and it would be a terrible waste.”

“I’m all right,” Gold said at last, but his voice was slightly strangled. “I’m just… I don’t know.”

“Well, was there ever any doubt that you would get it?” Belle asked. “I mean, come on. Mal dragged you halfway across the world for it.”

Gold nodded, and finally he smiled, and it seemed that life and movement had returned to his limbs once more. Belle continued to get on with his make-up, satisfied that he was no longer in a shocked stupor, and she fell to thinking about his upcoming project. Now that she thought about it, she couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role of the colonel, and she just knew that Gold would give a brilliant performance. The only downside was the speed with which he would be leaving the country. It seemed that their relationship was going to turn into a long distance one slightly earlier than either of them had anticipated, and it was a shame. Still, they had a few weeks more, and they would just have to make the most of the time that they had. Without really knowing how her brain managed to make the leap, Belle suddenly found herself caught up in daydreams of attending film premieres in Leicester Square, schmoozing on the red carpet in a lovely evening gown, Gold in a tuxedo beside her…

She gave an embarrassed cough and pushed those thoughts firmly to the back of her mind, getting to work on Gold’s hands and preparing the glue for his fingernails. Maybe he would ask her to be his date for the premiere. She had no idea what she might be doing herself at that point, but she could surely make a mad plane dash to be with him. It wouldn’t be the first time, and Belle giggled at the memory of Comic-Con. It had been one of her more madcap schemes but she would not have done it differently for the world.

“What are you thinking about?” Gold asked presently, quirking one eyebrow at her in the mirror. “You’ve got a very conspiratorial grin on your face and I’m slightly concerned.”

“Never you mind,” Belle said. “Focus on your lines. You were the one who was worried about them.”

Gold nodded. “True enough.”

They fell into silence again as Gold busied himself with reading his script and Belle continued her work, and by the time they had reached another natural break point in which drying off time was required, the other make-up artists and some more of the cast had begun to arrive. Gold handed Belle his tablet.

“I think it’ll be pretty self-explanatory which lines,” he said.

Belle leaned on the counter and flicked through the PDF. She’d read it before when Gold had first got the script and she’d wanted to make absolutely certain that nothing untoward as regarded Stiltskin and Greenie’s relationship was going on - and of course because she didn’t have the patience to wait and see the end result on screen. Since she would be getting spoilers from filming anyway, she always liked to know what was going on in advance since it would be impossible to remain in the dark until the episode aired. All the same, despite knowing the scene, it was nice to re-read over the dialogue; Lacey’s anguish at being separated from her husband completely outweighed by joy at their reunion. Belle had imagined this scenario in so many different ways over the years since Lacey had first been introduced as a concept in the seventh episode. Whilst Gold might want to practise with her because the feelings there were genuine, Belle was happy to accept and maybe get the chance to play out some of the emotions that she had felt by proxy so many times whenever she had written a reunion. She gave a wry smile as she continued to flick through the PDF. Most of the reunions that she had imagined tended to go a little bit further than a passionate kiss in the Aurora Borealis’s hangar in Force Base, but she didn’t think that Gold would quite be up to that level of method acting yet. She could always argue that it was needed for authenticity - after all, Lacey was very pregnant in their final flash-forward scene.

Gold saw her expression and quirked an eyebrow at her, but Belle just shook her head and moved to get the crimping irons and finish up his hair. There were some thoughts that it would be best to keep to herself for the moment. Not that she did not want to go the distance with him, but she had no intention of scaring him off just yet. All the same, Belle found herself impatient for the other occupants of the make-up room to leave so that she and Gold could get on with their line-learning. Now that he had asked her to do it, she couldn’t wait to get started and see what came of it, but she had no desire to perform in front of any of her co-workers. Of course, it didn’t help that once people started to dissipate, so Gold would also have to disappear because the entire reason they left the make-up room was so that filming could begin.

“What’s got you so antsy?” Ruby asked as they were cleaning up together once the day’s filming had started and they had a short break before the later calls arrived. “You’re like a bee on speed.”

Belle laughed. “It’s nothing, really. Just me being silly. Rum asked me to stand in for Lacey and run lines with him.”

Ruby waggled her eyebrows. “Lines, eh? Are you sure it’s not just an excuse for a quick snogging session?”

“Ruby!”

“Even you have to admit that during their reunion scene most of the exercise their lips are getting is not taken up with talking,” Ruby pointed out. “Just putting it out there.”

Belle rolled her eyes and proceeded to ignore her friend, but all the same, she couldn’t help a slight blush rising in her cheeks at the notion, and the pinkness was still there when Gold returned to the make-up trailer during the day’s lunch break. Ruby smirked.

“I’ll leave you to it,” she said pointedly, leaving the room and calling over her shoulder: “Have fun running lines!”

“Sometimes I worry about her,” Gold muttered. “Then I realise that I’m the one I should be worrying about when Miss Lucas is in the vicinity.” He paused. “But on the subject of lines, are you ready?”

Belle nodded. “Whenever you are.”

She accepted the tablet off him and flicked through to the necessary page.

“Ok, so I’ve just pushed through a crowd of people and emerged triumphant,” she began. “Go for it.”

“Hello Lace,” Gold said. He was using Stiltskin’s voice, but the words were spoken so softly and reverently that it sounded completely different and yet still in character.

Belle glanced down at the tablet and looked at the direction.

Lacey opens her mouth to say something, thinks better of it and throws herself into his arms, grabbing his coat lapels and pulling him in for a kiss that’s been four years overdue.

Giving a minute shrug, Belle did just that, latching onto the lapels of Gold’s costume and pressing her mouth firmly against his. Gold gave a muffled sound of surprise, although Belle really didn’t know what he thought she’d do, but then he relaxed into the kiss. It was so much more powerful than the kisses they had shared in their relationship so far, and Belle did not want it to end. Something in the back of her mind reminded her that this was not real, this was just pretending, acting; this was Gold doing his job.

As the kiss lengthened, however, and his tongue pushed gently against her lips, asking for more which she readily provided, Belle began to think that this went beyond the call of duty for a play-acted kiss.

Finally they broke apart and Belle gave a soft huff of laughter.

“If you kiss Claire like that she’ll be leaving Charlie and coming to Storybrooke to set up house with you,” she murmured.

“Erm… Yes…” Gold shifted awkwardly from foot to foot, his entire posture showing equal parts embarrassment and desire. “Might have got a bit carried away there.”

“Oh, I’m not complaining,” Belle purred, and she hooked her arms around his neck to pull him in for another deep kiss, one that was definitely not scripted.

She was so caught up in the moment that she didn’t notice Ruby and the assistant director coming in to tell them that lunch was over and Gold was needed back on set...

X

The make-up room was quiet for once, just Belle and Ruby sitting in the make-up chairs waiting for any kind of summons that they might be needed elsewhere. Filming had stopped for a break whilst Regina, Marco and Archie argued about lights and camera angles, and Belle was taking the well-deserved respite to catch up with what was happening in her online life. As Mulan had said, not much was going on, everyone seeming to want to stay calm and quiet until the finale actually aired and all of their questions would hopefully be answered. Belle just grinned to herself, knowing what she did of the finale she felt like she was party to some grand government secret and for the first time in her Tumblr career, it was very hard to keep everything she knew under her hat.

A little way down her dashboard, a post caught her eye and she scrolled down to read it.

Zippysilver: I’M FREAKING OUT OVER HERE! In two weeks I’ll be on the Star Force set meeting everyone!

Belle smiled. The Star Force promotional team had run a social media competition allowing one lucky fan of the show to come and tour the set during the filming of the finale, including a small part. Given the nature of the part, Belle had known about this particular part of the competition before a lot of her fellow cast and crew as she was going to have to do the make-up for said cameo. She paused, her finger hovering over the reblog button. It was strange to think that someone from her online life would soon be crossing paths with her in real life, and she wondered if Zippy would recognise her from her make-up videos. She had no doubt the other woman could be trusted not to reveal her true identity, but all the same, it was going to be a moment worthy of a double-take or two.

She hit reblog and typed out a reply.

Congratulations, Zippy! Make sure you take lots of pictures and report back. And enjoy your lunch with Graham!

Graham had been unanimously selected as the most public-friendly of all the main and recurring cast members who would have free time during the finale, and as such he had been tasked with giving the competition winner a tour of the set and taking him or her for lunch at Granny’s. Whilst Graham had been all too happy to take on the task as it could easily be fitted in with his documentary, he was a little worried about the lunch and had even pleaded with Belle to come with him and bring Gold along so that it didn’t seem too much like a date.

“I don’t know what he’s so worried about,” Emma had said when Belle had told her of Graham’s predicament. “He knows I trust him.”

“It’s the principle of the thing!” Graham had exclaimed from the next make-up chair along, and the entire room had burst into fits of hysterics, which really had not helped Graham’s paranoia.

Belle fell to pondering again. Perhaps this would be the time to reveal her identity anyway, just in case something got mentioned over the course of the next few weeks. With the show coming to an end and all the cast and crew moving on to new projects (some of them moving quite far - Tina Bell was off to Norway for a new TV series), it didn’t seem quite so imperative to keep everything so firmly under wraps. Maybe a grand unveiling was in order.

She continued to scroll a little further down and found a mention of Rum’s name.

Gothicimplet: I do hope Rum Gold gets to play Colonel Brandon. They’re going to be filming ten miles from where I live and it would be such a wasted opportunity to get his autograph.

Belle tapped out a message.

Very jealous of your location, even if Rum doesn’t end up as CB. I might have to track you down and stow away in your attic.

A reply came a few moments later.

Good luck with that, I don’t have an attic. Hehe. BTW, what do you think of Zelena’s latest announcement?

Belle raised an eyebrow and responded.

What latest announcement? Somehow this didn’t bode well, and the happy fuzzy feeling she’d felt before began to slowly dissipate in the face of more of Zelena’s antics.

It’s all over Twitter. She’s planning a tell-all memoir of her time on Star Force.

Belle had to give a snort of laughter and Ruby looked up from her own phone, where she was engrossed in the latest episode of the political drama to which she was addicted.

“What?” she asked.

“Apparently Zelena’s writing her autobiography,” Belle said.

“Yes, I saw her crowing about it on Twitter,” Ruby muttered. She shook her head in disbelief and returned her attention to her small screen. “I don’t know of anyone who would buy it.”

I’ll believe it when I see it, Belle replied to Implet. To Ruby, she said: “For a tell-all memoir, I can’t for the life of me think what kind of juicy gossip she’ll be putting in there. Most of the on-set scandals she’s caused herself.”

“Oh, you and Rum will be in there,” Ruby said airily. “Money-grabbing whore of a make-up artist seduces respected older actor, everything will end in ruin…” She looked up again. “You’re not a money-grabbing whore. I was paraphrasing Zelena.”

“Thanks,” Belle said dryly. “Always good to know.” She sighed. “I don’t know what trouble she’s trying to cause, but she’s very determined about it.”

“Oh, no-one will publish it,” Ruby declared. “They’ll take one look at the unbelievable drivel and throw it in the bin where it belongs.”

Belle gave a huff. “Well, here’s hoping.”

They were prevented from any further speculation by a knock on the make-up room door. Belle hastily stashed her phone back in her pocket.

“Come in!” she called.

The door opened and a young blonde peeped around the frame before waving.

“Hi. I’m Claire, I’ve come for my wig fitting.”

“Of course! Come in, come in.” Belle jumped up out of her chair and gathered all the necessary bits and bobs that she had put on the side ready for the actress’s arrival. “Welcome to the set, welcome to Star Force.”

Claire laughed as she sat down in the chair Belle had just vacated. “It feels a little strange joining the cast so close to the end,” she admitted. “But I’m looking forward to it.”

“I think a lot of people would look forward to throwing themselves into Rum Gold’s arms.” Ruby grinned as Belle shot her a look. Claire blushed.

“Well, I won’t deny that didn’t exactly put me off the part. I’m just happy that Stiltskin and Lacey are going to be reunited,” she said. “That I get to play her is a bonus.”

“I’m sure you’ll be great,” Belle said, brushing through Claire’s hair and beginning to pin curl it so that it would sit neatly under her wig and provide a secure base. “Maybe now that you’re here you can reassure Rum that it’s all going to be fine. He’s been really quite worried about your scenes together, he’s determined that they have to be perfect.”

“He’s had Belle running lines with him,” Ruby added. “Which is a marker of how desperate he is.”

Belle gave a self-deprecating nod. “Very true.”

“You’re not as bad as you think, though,” Ruby said. “You did go a bit overboard with the kissing, I think, but given the circumstances you’re allowed.”

Claire grinned at Belle in the mirror. “So the rumours are true? I can never make sense of half the stuff on Twitter and I tend to ignore most of the gossip, but seeing you now, I thought I had seen you at Comic-Con.”

Belle gave an embarrassed cough and returned her attention to Claire’s hair.

“It’s still early days yet,” she murmured. “But we’re official now. I think we were hoping to see how long we could go before the world and his dog found out.”

“This is the age of Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram,” Ruby said. “Nothing stays private for long. In fact, most of your news is out there before you even know it yourself.”

“How’s Zelena taken the blow?” Claire asked lightly. “I’m beginning to think that she’s delusional. Did you see that she’s writing her autobiography?”

The talk turned to Zelena and her increasingly hilarious desperation before Belle changed the subject, the thought of Zelena bringing a bad taste to her mouth. There was little chance of anyone taking any of her vitriol at face value, but all the same, it was not pleasant to think about what she might say.

The trio fell into silence for a while, letting Belle concentrate on her work, before Claire spoke again.

“I am a bit nervous,” she said. “Lacey’s got this huge mythos built up around her, the classic iconic character that we never see but is so important. Everyone’s got their own image of what she’s like and how she acts, and those are big shoes to fill. There’s always going to be someone who’s disappointed.”

“Well, you can’t please everyone all the time,” Ruby said sagely. “Just go out there and be Lacey in the way you want to be. I’m sure that you can get some tips from Gold as to how he visualises the character. Really it’s his opinion that you ought to go for, as he’s the one who’s been acting against Lacey’s invisible presence all this time. As long as you two match up, it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.”

Claire nodded. “I’ll need to talk to him before we start,” she said. “Thanks. I swear I never felt this much pressure when I was filming The Mysterious Island.”

Belle had finished her prep by this point and she carefully put the remaindered wig on, brushing it out to hide the lace and carefully pinning it in place. Ruby and Claire both dutifully fell silent during the process lest Claire receive a pin to the scalp, and once the hairpiece was firmly in place, Belle took a step back to admire her handiwork. Ruby came over as well to look at the finished result in the mirror.

“Woah,” was all that her friend said. “That’s insane.”

Belle just raised an eyebrow at the awed exclamation.

“It’s just a wig, Ruby,” she point out. “You’ve done plenty of them yourself before.”

“It’s not the wig,” Ruby hastened to add. “I mean, you’ve done a very good job on it, but that’s not the point. It’s you two.” She pointed to Belle and Claire. “I didn’t see it before but with the new hair-colour I do now. You could be sisters. It’s weird. And kind of cute.”

Claire and Belle looked at each other and then at their reflections in the make-up mirror.

“Nah,” Claire said, shaking her head. “You’re seeing things. We don’t look anything alike!”

“You do!” Ruby exclaimed. “I’m seriously tempted to stick a photo on Instagram and ask for people’s opinions - ‘Are these two ladies related?’”

“Ruby, you’re just being dramatic.” Belle sighed and began to style the wig. “Honestly. And no pictures in the make-up room, we instigated that rule after Killian started taking photos of Rum eating breakfast.”

“Well, go outside then!” Ruby said. “This is one of those coincidences that is too good to pass up!”

“Ruby, there’s a slight flaw in your plan there, namely that I know you don’t have Instagram. We’ve got work to do here.”

Ruby narrowed her eyes but accepted defeat, and soon she was prevented from any further comment by Rum’s arrival in the room. His make-up had run onto the collar of his lab coat, causing a shimmering green stripe to appear on the stark white, and he looked exhausted.

On seeing Belle and Claire, he did a double take and then glanced at Ruby, giving her a pointed look. Ruby nodded her agreement with his summary of the situation before waving him over.

“Are you done for the day?” she asked.

Gold nodded.

“Yes, we finished up in the end. Good job, really, the lights were a nightmare.”

He could feel his make-up sweating off and running down the back of his shirt and it was not a nice sensation. Were it not for the fact they only had three weeks before filming ended, he’d seriously consider putting in a petition to get some cooling fans on set. As it was, it would take so much time for them to be approved by the accountants and the health and safety inspectors and it would be a moot point.

Ruby began helping Gold take off his make-up as Belle proceeded to pronounce Claire’s wig perfect and she took it off, quickly removing the pin curls and combing them through. Even without the brunette hair, now that he had seen it, the likeness between the two women remained, and Gold smiled at the thought.

The necessary introductions were made between Claire and Gold, and they spent a few minutes talking about their characters before Claire looked at her watch.

“Oops, must dash,” she said. “I’ve got to go and see Leo and Aurelius. It was very nice to meet you Rum.”

“Likewise.”

They would no doubt have several more conversations about their upcoming scenes together before filming actually arrived, but for the moment, Gold was content to leave it lie, and he fell to thinking about Lacey and the vision of her that had been built up in his mind and further cemented there with Belle’s reading of the lines earlier.

“I’ll go and find Ariel,” Ruby said pointedly, a little smirk playing over her face. “I’m sure you two don’t want an audience whilst you practise your lines.”

Belle rolled her eyes in the mirror as she put Claire’s wig away ready for filming, and she came over to Gold to finish de-greening him.

“She’s not subtle, is she?” Gold remarked.

“Now that we’re together I think she’s determined that we should have as much time together as possible,” Belle muttered.

Gold didn’t reply. He didn’t need reminding of the short time that remained before filming finished. They fell into silence, and he wended his thoughts forcibly back in the direction of Lacey.

“You know,” he said, scrubbing at the back of his neck with one hand whilst Belle prised the fingernails off the other, “I had to double-take when I came in and saw Claire in her wig. Are you sure that you two aren’t related? She’s your spitting image when she’s brunette.”

Belle laughed. “Ruby said that too. I have to say that I can’t see it myself.”

“It was uncanny,” Gold affirmed. “And, indeed, unnerving.”

But perhaps in a way it would be a good thing. With Claire looking so much like Belle when she was made up as Lacey, it would hopefully be easier for Gold to kid himself that it was Belle in front of him, and all the emotion that he had poured into the scene when he had been acting it through with Belle would still shine through on screen even with a different Lacey.

“Well, I can assure you that we are not in any way related. Nor am I related to Emily Kostich, as more than one person has commented in the past.”

Gold tilted his head on one side and looked at Belle critically. Now that he thought about it, she did look a little like his younger co-star from Periodic. Perhaps if she had lived, Emily would look more like Belle now. He shook his head, not wanting to go down that dark train of thought, and he focussed his thoughts back on Belle, Claire, Lacey and his upcoming scenes.

“Now that Claire’s arrived, would you want to go through your lines with her?” Belle asked. Gold shook his head.

“No. Well, obviously I will at some point. But not yet.” He paused. “I like doing them with you.”

Belle’s cheeks flushed pink in the mirror and she gave an embarrassed little smile.

“Thank you.”

She moved around to do his other hand and they fell into silence again, Gold going over the logistics of the scene in his head as he continued to rub his make-up off.

Belle had just finished counting his fingernails back into their box when a tumbling crash and an ear-splitting shriek came from outside the make-up room, and both its occupants froze for a second.

“What the hell?” Belle said.

Gold didn’t need any further prompting to spring into action, still half-green, he grabbed his cane from where it was hooked over the counter and made his way towards the door, Belle hot on his heels. Although the set was pretty much deserted at this hour with just the writers and editors up in the studio offices still around, it seemed that everyone who was in the immediate vicinity had been alerted by the noise and Gold caught up with Leroy and Walter from security as they sprinted around the corner from their office towards the source of the scream. It seemed likely to have come from the main stairs that led from the soundstages to the offices, and as they approached, Gold’s stomach gave an ominous lurch at the sight that met them.

Claire Littleton was lying in a heap at the bottom of the stairs.

“Claire!”

Belle put on a burst of speed, rushing past the men to get to the fallen woman. She was still conscious, which caused several thankful sighs of relief, but she was evidently shaken.

“What happened?” Belle was asking as Gold caught up to her.

Claire shook her head.

“I don’t know… one minute I was at the top of the stairs and the next I was at the bottom. I think…” She looked up at the top of the stairwell. “I could have sworn someone pushed me, but I hit my head pretty hard and OW!”

Leroy was already calling an ambulance but it was clear that Claire’s arm was broken where she had landed on it, and there was blood oozing in her hair, the light blonde colour making it even starker. What worried Gold even more was the fact he knew Claire was expecting, even if she wasn’t showing too much yet.

He looked around the set, and out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a flash of familiar ginger hair whip around the corner from the back stairs.

Zelena, you bitch.

 

To Be Continued!

 

Chapter Text

====

Part Twelve

In which we get an insight into the minds of the showrunners, many doughnuts are consumed, and Mulan makes an exploding dessert.

Featuring nameless cameos from myself and @licieoic, because this thing wasn’t already meta enough!

====

Leaning heavily on the large table in the middle of the Writers’ Room, Leo White pushed his spectacles up onto his forehead and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Aurelius,” he began, without looking up at his colleague and writing partner of fifteen illustrious years. “Please stop pacing up and down.”

Aurelius obeyed Leo’s plea and sank down into another chair. There was silence for all of half a minute before Aurelius spoke again.

“We can’t just do nothing!” he exclaimed.

“I know, Aurelius. You’ve already said that at least three times. The fact remains, however, that there really isn’t much we can do.”

“We should have killed her off in season two,” Aurelius muttered darkly. “I told you that she was going to be trouble.”

Leo sighed. “I know you did, but unless you are in possession of a time machine, we can’t go back and kill her off in season two. Considering the entirety of the show has now been written and not only that, distributed to cast and crew, when it comes to writing, our hands are tied.”

Aurelius did not reply, and eventually, perturbed by his usually loquacious colleague’s silence, Leo looked up and was rather alarmed to find Aurelius looking worryingly ponderous.

“Aurelius, what are you thinking?” he asked.

The other man did not respond for a few minutes and Leo was beginning to wonder if he had in fact been replaced by a statue. Finally he spoke.

“Our hands aren’t tied just yet,” Aurelius said thoughtfully. “We bolted on an extra couple of days of filming time in case things overran on the finale, and we haven’t started filming said finale yet.”

Leo caught onto Aurelius’s train of thought and shook his head.

“No,” he said firmly. “Aurelius, we can’t. We’ve tried doing that before and it went incredibly badly.”

“It doesn’t need to be a complete rewrite,” Aurelius pleaded. “Most of it can stay the same. Just a few tweaks here and there.”

Leo sighed.

“Aurelius, we can’t prove anything.”

“Exactly,” Aurelius said. “We can’t prove anything so we can’t do anything in the legal vein of accusing one of our stars of trying to murder her co-star. All we can do is dispense justice in our own way. We’re writers. Our justice must come from our writing.”

Leo leaned back in his chair and pushed his glasses back down onto his nose. It was an incredibly tempting thought; the idea that they could somehow tell Zelena that despite a complete lack of proof, they knew what she had done, if not why she had done it, and that they were not going to let her actions lie. All the same, re-writing a script overnight had been done before with incredibly low levels of success and it was not to be recommended even to people who did not feel quite so passionately about the whole thing as they did.

“And even if it turns out to have been a freak accident,” Aurelius pressed, “I think we’ll still be in the right in the end. After all, people have been following Snow and Charming’s doomed love story for four seasons now and they’re expecting it to have a happy ending after so many trials and tribulations. I get the feeling a lot of people, once they have dried their tears, will be baying for our blood.”

“I did warn you about that when you first mooted the idea three months ago,” Leo pointed out. “I thought you agreed that was a risk we were willing to take for the shock factor.”

“Well, yes, at the time it seemed like a good step to take, but now a very recent change of circumstances, namely someone getting pushed down the stairs, have made me reconsider everything in a rather stark light.”

Leo nodded. “I see where you’re coming from.”

Aurelius clapped his hands together eagerly. “So you agree?”

“I never said that. I simply understand your arguments.”

They two writers fell into silence again, and Leo looked up at the clock on the wall. It was coming up for half-past nine in the evening and they were the only ones in the studio apart from security. Leo didn’t think he’d ever stayed this late.

“Why do you think she did it?” he asked, unrelated to Aurelius’s previous line of thought. “Does she have some kind of long-held grudge against Claire? As far as I knew they’d never even met before.”

Aurelius shook his head, lost in thought.

“I don’t think it was Claire,” he murmured. “I think it was more who Claire represents.”

Leo raised an eyebrow. “Indeed?”

“Think about it,” Aurelius said. There was a familiar gleam in his eye that Leo knew only too well and knew could lead to one of two things: an absolutely inspired concept, like that of After Ever After, their newest project, or something completely and utterly ridiculous that belonged to the realms of the worst conspiracy theorists. Leo was not yet sure to which of these categories his friend’s latest idea would belong and he listened to Aurelius with a healthy dose of scepticism.

“It’s no secret that Zelena’s got a bit of a crush on Rum,” Aurelius continued.

Leo snorted. “I think ‘a bit of a crush’ is something of an understatement.”

“Shut up, I’m trying to explain my theory. We know about her attachment. We know that a couple of weeks ago the entire Internet exploded because someone had ‘leaked’ a fake script in which Miss Greenie and the doctor got together at the end of the series.”

Leo snorted. “I can’t think of anything less likely to happen.”

“Be quiet! What I’m trying to say is, what if these events are all related? What if Zelena’s trying to force a rewrite on us? It’s a bit late to recast Claire with anyone prominent, after all. What if she’s trying to get that ending rewritten in her favour?”

Leo gave his friend an incredulous look.

“That is quite possibly one of the most ridiculous theories you’ve ever had, and you’ve had some very far-fetched ones in your time,” he said. “It’s never too late to recast a part; we have a whole set full of extras. However, over the past few months of working with her, I have learned never to put anything past Zelena West.”

Aurelius chuckled and Leo sighed.

“What’s got you now?” he asked, almost pained.

“Can you imagine her face?” Aurelius exclaimed. “When we distribute new scripts and she thinks she’s got her wish?”

Leo had to laugh as well at the image.

“It would be a terrible shame not to see that,” he agreed. He looked around the Writers’ Room, wondering if the kernel of his idea would be possible. It would be snug, but everyone would fit - they’d done it before after all. And, he justified to himself, it would make sense given the extremely short notice they were working to.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Aurelius asked, catching Leo’s glances around the room.

Leo nodded. “I do believe I am.” He gave a deep sigh. “All right. Let’s do it. We’ve got nothing to lose; if it all goes to pot then we can just fall back on the original script and pretend it never happened.”

Aurelius’s grin was positively incandescent. “Perfect.”

“I can’t believe I’m agreeing to this,” Leo muttered. He stood up and made to leave the room. “I must be going soft in my old age. You summon the troops and get the coffee machine on.”

“Where are you going?” Aurelius asked.

“To buy several kilos of doughnuts. You and I might be happy to pull an all-nighter rewriting the finale, but I doubt the other writers will be.”

X

There was a certain sense of anticipation in the air as the cast and crew of Star Force made their way through the studios up to the Writers’ Room. It was something of a squeeze in there, as the space was really not designed to hold quite so many people, but all the same, there was a definite buzz of excitement. For Gold, he was simply content that he’d had an unexpected lie-in. After being woken at three in the morning by a call from an extremely wired-sounding Aurelius telling him that filming for the next day was cancelled, further details to follow, he had simply turned his alarm off, turned over and gone back to sleep, not worrying too much about the whys and wherefores. He had assumed that it was because of Claire’s accident, and thought no more of it. Once the police and the ambulance had been called and statements taken, there was really not much more that the rest of the gathered cast and crew who were tending to the fallen woman could do but let them get on with their jobs. Zelena had been nowhere to be found in the studios, and Gold was beginning to think that perhaps he had been seeing things, so determined that his co-star was the culprit that his brain was supplying the necessary evidence. All the same, he couldn’t unsee that flash of red.

When he had received the promised further details summoning all the cast and some of the crew to the Writers’ Room that afternoon for a table-read of the finale script, he had begun to wonder what was happening. The only episode that they had ever done a table-read for was the pilot. Perhaps that was the point - they had started in this way and they would finish in this way, no matter what had happened in between times.

As soon as he entered the room, however, Gold became convinced that something else was going on. For a start, there were several empty doughnut boxes stacked up in one corner, but no sign of any of the doughnuts. Added to that, the two chief writers were sitting at the head of the table. This was not in itself unusual, this being the Writers’ Room and all. What was more unusual was the fact that one of them had several open cans of various energy drinks in front of her and was drumming her fingers nervously against the table and the other one appeared to be asleep, head pillowed on her arms on the table. She raised her head briefly to wave to the gathering cast then curled up on herself again with a yawn, dead to the world.

Looking over at Leo and Aurelius, they too looked like they had not had any sleep for the past twenty-four hours. At least it would explain why Aurelius had sounded slightly high when he had called earlier.

Once everyone was squashed into the room, Leo began.

“Hello everyone, welcome, thank you for coming at such short notice, especially those of you who weren’t meant to be filming today at all. I’m not sure how much of recent events have trickled down through the grapevine to you all, so I’ll start at the beginning. Claire Littleton had an accident in the studio yesterday evening; she fell down the main stairs. It’s still unclear as to whether she tripped or whether her unexpected descent had some assistance from another party. Sadly, this is something we’re likely never to know, but the upshot of this is that the studios accept that they need better CCTV coverage.”

There was a requisite murmur of shock from the people who had not been aware and Leo let the whispers die down before continuing. Gold stole a glance at Zelena. Her face seemed to be impassive on first glance, but he could see the little glint of triumph in her eyes as she focussed her attention on Leo.

“We’ve heard from her at the hospital and you’ll all be pleased to know that she’s going to be fine; she’s being kept in for observation for a couple of days, given her condition, but she should be out soon and she’ll be going straight home to recuperate. She’s broken her wrist and has an impressive cut in the back of her head, but other than those injuries she’s going to be all right, and miraculously her baby is unharmed for the ordeal.”

“Thank God for that,” Tina muttered from beside Gold.

“The thing is,” Aurelius continued, picking up where Leo left off, “Claire’s incapacitation has caused a slight logistical problem for us and forced us to take a long hard look at the finale. We’re still working out the kinks, but as you may have gathered from the state of the room and indeed the state of the writers, we have done a little bit of re-writing. Given the suddenness, we decided that an impromptu table-read of the new finale script would be a good idea so that everyone is on the same page. Literally. Filming will begin again on Thursday to finish up the penultimate episode, and then we’ll be on the home stretch. Thank you for your patience, and I hope you all understand why we’ve made the changes that we have.”

Gold glanced across at Zelena again as Aurelius began handing out the scripts. They were still warm from the photocopier, and he wondered at the term ‘hot off the press’. Just how long had this particular screenplay been in existence? He put it to the back of his mind and returned his attention to Zelena. She was grinning to herself, the hungry grin that made him incredibly nervous whenever he saw it. At least he was on the opposite side of the table to her, about as far away as possible in their current close quarters. Presently she caught his gaze and raised a sultry eyebrow. Gold just scowled at her. He had no way to prove what she’d done, but he wanted her to know that he knew and he was not going to let it go.

Gold flicked to the last page of the script, pausing before he actually flipped it open to take a peek. There was only one reason why they would perform a rewrite off the back of Claire’s accident and inability to film, and that was to write out her character. There was a horrible churning feeling in the pit of Gold’s stomach. Perhaps the fake script that had caused so much consternation on Tumblr and Twitter was going to come into fruition after all. He wondered if he could complain or kick up some kind of a fuss if it did. Cara would probably listen to him, even if the writers didn’t, and Cara was not above tossing the script out of a window if she thought that the show would be better without it.

To this end, he exchanged a look with Cara, who was sitting a couple of seats away from him. Her expression told him clearly that she was thinking exactly the same as him.

Buoyed up by the knowledge that he would have two people on his side if no-one else - he knew that Belle would be just as up in arms about the whole thing as he was, for the simple reason that she would have to deal with all the fallout on Tumblr - he opened the final page and skimmed the packed text. He blinked when he saw that his final scene was completely unchanged: Stiltskin and Lacey getting ready to welcome their bundle of joy into the world. He flicked back a couple of pages. - no, it did not appear to be a dream sequence.

So if the rewrite was not to write Lacey out, what was it for? To be honest, there had been a little kernel of doubt in the back of his mind that blind and silent panic had drowned out, saying that since Lacey had such limited screen time, surely removing her from play would not require such an overhaul as had obviously been done, and really, they could just recast her from the extras pool.

He supposed all that was left to do was read on and find out.

Without much further ado, the table read began, and more than once throughout the first few pages, the cast were looking at each other with curious glances, because on face value, nothing appeared to have changed. As the scene changed from the Aurora’s bridge to her engineering area, Gold saw Mary Margaret take the opportunity for a furtive flick through the upcoming pages, and out of the corner of his eye he could just make out her own eyes widen in surprise. She glanced up around the room, ostensibly to see if anyone else had seen her reaction, and her gaze fixed on Zelena for a few seconds before she caught Gold’s eye and gave a minute nod in the redhead’s direction. Gold quirked an eyebrow, wondering if her actions meant what he thought they did. He hardly dared to hope. Mary Margaret gave a slightly more vigorous nod in Zelena’s direction, attracting the attention of David beside her, who gave his co-star a worried look. For her part, Mary Margaret simply rolled her eyes and was obviously about to perform some slightly more comprehendible mime when she was prevented by Leo’s voice from the other end of the table.

“Mary?”

“Yes, eh, sorry, what?”

“It’s your line,” Leo encouraged.

“Ah. Right. Sorry.”

Mary Margaret turned her attention back to her script, but the anticipation in the room that had been present when they had all entered was now only growing and growing, and Gold didn’t think he would blame anyone for being anxious and unable to concentrate. He was having trouble himself, and only saved by the fact he didn’t actually appear in the first couple of scenes.

Having reached the end of the first act with no changes to the script, the Writers’ Room fell silent, all of the gathered cast looking at each other with puzzled expressions, all of them wanting to make some kind of comment but not sure what would be appropriate.

“Carry on,” came a muffled voice from the end of the table where the writers themselves were gathered. “It starts getting interesting now.”

Dutifully, pages were turned and the cast continued to read. Again, at face value it was the same as the previous script, and unfortunately since Gold was in this scene he had to pay slightly more attention. Mary Margaret had given up trying to communicate events through eye movements alone, and it seemed that they were getting ever closer to the crunch point.

Sure enough, that crunch point came on page eight, when the first change to the script became apparent. As part of the dramatic finale episode, the Aurora Borealis  had been boarded by hostiles intent on taking over Force Base, and the entirety of the main crew were being held hostage on the bridge. In the original edit, Miss Greenie had attempted to use her knowledge of intergalactic law to talk down their attackers, to no avail. In the new script, she took a slightly different approach, one much more in-keeping with her character as she had developed over the last few years.

Miss Greenie has a calculating look on her face. She’s been in tight situations before, possibly not as dire as this one, but she figures she can talk her way through it. She didn’t get where she is by throwing her lot in with a losing side. She surreptitiously pops the top button on her blouse before getting Hordor’s attention.

Zelena for her part seemed to be in her element, her voice purring as she spoke her lines, for some reason directing her attention towards Gold instead of Max, who would be playing Hordor and who was sitting three seats away from him.

“Taking over the base?” she said. “Sounds complicated.”

“Not really,” Max replied amicably. “Mostly involves shooting. Which, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, we’re rather good at.”

Their game of cat and mouse, with Greenie attempting to flirt herself out of trouble, continued for another page, and as Gold turned over onto page ten, he saw that Mary Margaret was pointedly avoiding everybody’s eyes, grinning like the Cheshire Cat and biting down on her finger to stop her from saying anything or, as was more likely to be the case, bursting out into fits of laughter. Max began to speak again, and there was amusement in his voice.

“I think…” he began,

Gold looked down at the screenplay and, simultaneously, there was a roar of outrage from Zelena’s place at the table.

He makes a sudden gesture with his other hand, out of frame. Greenie’s eyes bulge and her mouth goes slack. She drops to the floor, a large red stain spreading rapidly on the front of her shirt. Hordor looks completely unaffected, sheathing the knife he’d taken out to gut Greenie with.

Miss Greenie had just been killed off: brutally and unceremoniously, ten minutes into the finale.

Cara didn’t even bother to hide her laughter, and soon the entire room was in hysterics.

On the face of things, the moment was not a funny one at all and when it was filmed, there was no likelihood of the same mirth being prevalent. But at that moment, in the Writers’ Room during the table read, with the majority of the cast and crew convinced that Zelena had deliberately hurt Claire for no earthly reason, the sense of irony and justice being served was so delicious that Gold couldn’t help himself.

“You can’t do this!” Zelena exclaimed. “Miss Greenie can’t just die like that!”

“She attempted to betray the rest of the crew,” Leo said calmly. “And given the rest of her schemes that have gone largely unpunished, I think it seems like a fitting end for her.”

“She was making a noble sacrifice for the good of the rest of the crew!” Zelena exclaimed. “This is discrimination!”

Leo raised one eyebrow. “Really?”

“She’s being punished for using her sexuality as a weapon!” Zelena continued vehemently. “This is Maupassant all over again!”

“Zelena,” came the muffled voice from end of the table again, “re-read the direction in the middle of page eight. At what point do you get the impression she’s doing this for the benefit of her fellows?”

Zelena read the direction aloud. There were no two ways about it; according to the writers, Miss Greenie was a rat leaving a rapidly sinking ship.

“You can’t do this!” Zelena whined. “This isn’t fair!”

“Poor Claire getting pushed down the stairs wasn’t fair either,” Aurelius said icily. “Life isn’t fair, Zelena.”

One could have cut the tension in the room with a knife. Aurelius on one side of the table, Zelena on the other, staring each other down. For all Aurelius had the reputation as the slightly more off-beat of the two show-runners, and had put his foot in it more than once, his expression was deadly serious and it was clear that his word was final.

Zelena faltered under the strength of his gaze.

“I know we’re all very saddened by Claire’s accident, but I’m sure it was just an accident,” she said.

Gold snorted, as much as he wanted to say something along the lines of ‘keep telling yourself that’ he didn’t want to break the wonderful atmosphere. It was so beautifully dramatic.

“I won’t film it,” Zelena snapped. “I refuse.”

“Very well,” Cara said brightly. “We’ll play with the camera angles and use your stunt double instead.”

The thought of not getting any screen time in the finale at all seemed to be even worse than her sole screen time consisting of her demise, and Zelena gave Cara a filthy look.

“Fine,” she muttered, and with that last word, she shoved her chair back and stalked out of the Writers’ Room. Since her screen time was over, there was really no reason for her to remain, and as soon as she had left, the staff writers exchanged a high five.

“Can I just ask something?” David began tentatively from beside Mary Margaret. He had remained silent throughout the showdown with Zelena, but now he looked a little concerned.

“Yes, David?”

“Since Miss Greenie’s been killed off, does that mean that Charming gets a reprieve?”

The room burst into laughter once more.

“Wait and see, David,” Leo said. “Wait and see.”

The mood substantially lightened, the table-read continued.

X

“I’m glad that you’re going to survive now,” Mary Margaret was saying to David as the cast filed out of the Writers’ Room, “but I’m slightly disappointed that I don’t get to film my breakdown in the shower.”

Gold, who had not been looking forward to the additional waterproofing that said scene would require, could not say that he felt the same way about it being cut.

“It was such an emotionally charged scene,” Mary Margaret continued. “I was really looking forward to giving it my all.”

“Never mind,” David said cheerfully. He was incredibly happy to learn that whilst he did have a near-death experience, Charming’s fate had been altered and he now survived to see his happy ending with Snow. “Maybe you’ll get to flex your angsty muscles next time.”

“I’m counting on it,” Mary Margaret said. “Playing villains is so much more fun than playing good guys. Don’t you agree, Gold?”

Gold snorted. “I’ve played enough of them in my time to know.”

His two co-stars left the room, still discussing the scene - or rather its lack - and Gold hung back. His mind was racing in several directions at once. Mainly he was concerned about what madness Zelena would think up to avenge the perceived wrongdoing against her. She’d already shown that she wasn’t above attempted murder in a last-ditch attempt to get her way, and for a few moments Gold entertained visions of Leo and Aurelius being smothered in their beds. There was also the slightly lesser concern of what would happen to Lacey’s role now that Claire would not be taking it up. Once again, Gold’s logical mind reasoned that they would get a regular extra to stand in for such a small part, but there was a small seed of hope in his mind as he hung back in the room, waiting to speak to Leo and Aurelius, who were trying gently to wake the writers and shuffle them out of the room so that they could lock up. In the end they gave it up as a bad job and left them there before moving towards the door.

“So how come you two are awake?” Gold asked drily.

“More coffee than is strictly healthy,” Leo muttered. He glanced sideways at Aurelius. “And possibly illicit substances.”

Gold snorted, he wouldn’t put anything past Aurelius.

“We also had a nap whilst the major rewriting work was going on,” Leo admitted. “To be honest I still can’t believe we had the gall to do it, but since we’ve got nothing on Zelena in any other way, we had to do something.”

“Isn’t there any CCTV?” Gold asked. “There must be something that we can do.”

Leo shook his head sadly. “Our hands are tied, I’m afraid.” He sighed. “Leroy and Walter have already gone over all the footage but it’s a blind spot and we only have your eye-witness account of seeing her hair. At the moment the police are working on the principle that Claire just had a dizzy spell, not uncommon in pregnant ladies, and tripped. We all know it was Zelena, but there’s no proof. Unless we can bamboozle her into confessing, which would be useful.

“Stranger things have happened, but I agree it’s unlikely.” Gold paused and voiced the thought that had been playing on his mind ever since Claire’s accident. “So… what happens with Lacey now? I would have thought you’d have taken this opportunity to write her out.”

“The thought crossed my mind,” Leo said, “but we couldn’t do that. Just as in the end we couldn’t kill off Charming and deny him and Snow their happy ending. We’ve got a few days yet to find a replacement and I’m sure we have a suitable Force Base extra. We have enough of them. We just wanted Lacey to be someone a little more known, since she’s been such an important unseen character. It’s too late for that now, though.” He shrugged. “These things happen.”

“If you’re amenable to it, I have a suggestion,” Gold said. He couldn’t quite believe that he was thinking it, but it was a case of ‘speak now or forever hold your peace’ and he knew he’d regret it if he didn’t take the chance.

“I’m all ears,” Leo said. “Any help is welcome.”

Gold took a deep breath. “Belle could do it.”

“Belle French?”

Gold nodded and pushed on in the face of Leo’s incredulity.

“She’s been running lines with me so she knows the script, and she fits the profile. Brown hair, blue eyes, unusual accent. She’s not a bad actress though I can’t speak for her doing more than a couple of lines.”

Leo looked ponderous for a moment and then a smile spread over his face.

“All right,” he said. “You know, I’ve been wondering where you got those very particular characteristics from for a while now, ever since you seemingly plucked them from thin air.” He gave a huff of laughter. “You’re a dark horse, Gold. I’m happy with Belle as long as Aurelius is.”

“I am!” Aurelius called from a little way down the corridor.

Leo rolled his eyes. “The man’s got ultrasonic hearing, I swear,” he muttered. “There’s just one condition, though.”

The showrunner’s expression was slightly mischievous beneath the tiredness and Gold felt a small flash of worry.

“Yes?”

“You’re going to be the one to break the news to her.”

Gold sighed.

“It was your idea,” Leo continued. “You get the honours. And if she says no, then we will recast from the extras pool.”

“Seems fair to me,” Gold said. He exchanged the usual farewells with the two showrunners and left them, wandering in the direction of the make-up room before remembering that Belle was not going to be there as there was no filming taking place today. That made matters a little more daunting, but he could do it. If she agreed, then the image of Lacey that he had held in his head for so long might turn out to actually be the one seen on screen. All he had to do was encourage her to go for it.

To that end, he pulled out his phone and dialled Belle’s number. It rang for a long time and Gold was on the verge of hanging up before she answered.

“Hello?”

“Hi, it’s Gold.” He paused. “Are you all right? You sound quite out of breath.”

“I had to rescue my phone from under the sofa. What’s up? What’s happening? Has the studio burned down and we have to cancel for the foreseeable future?”

“No, no, it’s nothing like that. There’s been a last minute script rewrite.”

“Oh.” There was a long pause on the other end of the phone. “So, what’s happening now?”

“Nothing too bad, although you’ll probably be pleased to know that you don’t need to waterproof me anymore.”

“I’m sure you’re happy about that.”

“Exceedingly. I was wondering, are you free now?”

“Well, considering that I was meant to be at the studios today, yeah, I’m free as a bird.”

“You never know. You and Ruby might have decided to go off on an adventure. It wouldn’t be the first time.”

“That’s true, I suppose.” Belle laughed. “No, I have no plans. Just a date with my TV.”

“Do you mind if I come over? I’ve got a lot of news.” It would be better asking her about the role in person rather than over the phone, in case anything got misconstrued.

“You’ll be very welcome. I’ll put the kettle on and see you soon.”

“See you soon.”

He hung up and began to make his way out of the studios in the direction of Belle’s apartment. He wondered if her roommate was going to be there. That might make life a bit awkward, but from what he had heard from Belle, Mulan seemed to be the discreet sort.

He wondered what Belle would say when he put forward the proposition to her. If she was going to be completely set against it then he would not force her to do something she did not want to, but it would be a shame.

Belle was smiling brightly as she opened the door to him and waved him inside.

“So,” she began, after pecking a kiss to his cheek and bringing a tray laden with a teapot and two cups through from the kitchen. “Tell me all about it. Is Zelena in prison on two accounts of attempted murder yet?”

Gold shook his head. “No, there’s an impasse in the way of lack of evidence. The police are being particularly unhelpful. Claire and the baby are going to be ok though.”

“I’m very glad to hear that,” Belle said. She tucked her legs up under her on the sofa. “Mulan is in, by the way, she’s experimenting with strawberry mousse in the kitchen. I wouldn’t go in there if I were you, it’s like pink bomb’s gone off.”

“I heard that!” Mulan called.

Belle just giggled and leaned into Gold’s side.

“So, what’s the news?” she asked. “Despite Zelena getting away with her various crimes, you do look remarkably chipper.”

“Well, the writers and showrunners are not quite of the same opinion as the police, and are dispensing their own unique form of retaliation.” Gold went on to outline everything that had happened at the table-read and by the end of it, Belle was in hysterics.

“Oh, I would have paid such good money to see that,” she said. “I don’t suppose anyone was surreptitiously filming her reaction? Oh, the Internet would have a field day.”

Gold shook his head sadly.

“I’m glad that they didn’t write Lacey out, though,” Belle said.

“As much as Zelena was probably angling for that when she decided to despatch our newest co-star, she was unsuccessful.” Gold took a deep breath. “On the subject of Lacey, though, I do have a proposition for you.”

“Yes?”

“Would you like to play her? I mean actually on screen, not just running lines through with me.”

“I…” Belle looked down at her teacup, over at the TV that was playing some random daytime talk show with the sound off, and out of the window, before returning her gaze to Gold, a frown line breaking her brow. “You’re joking.”

“I’m not,” Gold assured her.

Belle shook her head.

“Gold, I’m flattered, but you know I’m not an actress.”

“I know. But that doesn’t mean you can’t act.”

Belle gave a weak smile. “Well, I suppose that Ruby did point out that the majority of Lacey’s scenes involve kissing rather than talking,” she said. “And I can’t deny that kissing you requires no acting at all.”

“Cara and I will be there to guide you,” Gold said. “And hey, if nothing else, you get something back from practising the lines.”

“What do Aurelius and Leo think?” Belle asked.

“They’re all for it.”

Belle gave a long sigh, tracing her finger around the rim of her teacup.

“I don’t know, Gold. I mean, there’s a reason I’m not in front of the camera. What if I completely screw up?”

“It’s only a couple of lines, you won’t screw up.”

“Your faith in me is lovely, but I’m really not sure. Can I give you an answer tomorrow?”

Gold nodded. She was hesitant, understandably, but at least she had not said no immediately and was giving the matter genuine consideration.

“Ok. I’ll say no more about it. In the meantime, shall we celebrate a slight victory over Zelena?” He held up his teacup for a toast and Belle clinked hers against it with a smile.

“I’ve just realised,” she said after refilling their cups from the pot. “You haven’t made your great announcement yet.”

“Pardon?”

“Colonel Brandon! The world needs to know! Everyone’s been on tenterhooks for days wondering why you made your mad dash over to England and why you were hanging out with Cara and Ella and Merida in London!”

“Really, news travels impossibly fast,” Gold muttered. “It’s only Tuesday!”

“Nothing’s sacred anymore.” Belle grinned and took his phone as he opened up Twitter and handed it over to her with a sigh. “You know, I’m thinking of charging you for this,” she added. “I’ve become your personal social media representative as well as your make-up artist.”

“I think you secretly enjoy it. At least you always know I’m not making ridiculous comments like some other cast members who shall remain nameless.”

“Like Killian, you mean.”

“I said ‘remain nameless’.”

“Unlike you, I have no compunctions about naming and shaming your fellow cast members’ Twitter faux pas.”

Gold watched over Belle’s shoulder as she tapped out a tweet.

Confirmed: I will be playing Colonel Brandon alongside @aniradcliffe and @merida_d. Looking forward to filming! #SenseandSensibility

He gave a nod of approval and Belle posted. A couple of minutes later, Emma had already retweeted it.

That explains the airport dash then! Congratulations!

Belle smiled. “Celebratory lunch at Granny’s?” she asked. “I’ll buy.”

“An excellent idea,” Gold agreed.

“Don’t have dessert!” Mulan called from the kitchen. “I need someone to taste test this new mousse!”

X

Back in her apartment having had lunch and waved Gold off in the direction of his own dwelling, Belle perched on the only clean section of worktop in the kitchen and helped herself from the vat of freshly made mousse that was sitting precariously on top of the microwave.

“What do you think I should do, Mulan?” she asked her flatmate.

“About what?” Mulan replied from the floor, where she was scrubbing away at the pink mess that had coagulated there.

“About this part. Being Lacey.”

She’d had to bring Mulan in on it, as much as she knew the other woman wanted to remain as spoiler-free as possible, Belle also knew that there was no way that she would be able to make the decision on her own.

Mulan looked up.

“I think you should go for it,” she said. “You only have to do it once, and you’re not going to have an opportunity like this again.”

“But what if I’m rubbish?” Belle protested. “What if I turn up and I’m standing there in front of all those cameras and all those other people, and it all goes wrong? I’ll be a laughing stock.”

“No you won’t,” Mulan said levelly. “Rum will be there, and all you have to do is focus on him. Ignore everyone else. I imagine that Lacey’s certainly not thinking about everyone else when she’s determined to see her husband again after all those years of separation. Just think about Rum, pretend he’s been in Antarctica or climbing Everest for six months and you never thought you’d see him again.”

Belle smiled wanly. “I must admit, it would be wonderful to see Zelena’s expression. Having gone to such extreme lengths, it all only gets worse.” She paused. “I might not disseminate the information just yet. I don’t want to end up at the bottom of a slightly larger flight of stairs.”

Mulan laughed.

“You know,” she began, “I would gladly bribe someone to sneak me into the studio so that I could see her reaction when you turn up on set and proceed to knock them all out of the park.”

“To be honest, you probably wouldn’t need the bribe.” Belle paused, thinking about the repercussions of stepping into Claire’s shoes. Anonymity would likely go by the wayside, but it was already headed that way and she had already considered ‘coming out’ so to speak.

“Ok,” she said eventually. “I’ll do it. Just because it’s a once in a lifetime chance and I want do something to snub Zelena after what she did to Claire.”

Mulan grinned.

“You go for it girl. Now, call Gold and tell him before you get cold feet and change your mind. Better yet, give me your phone.” She scrabbled up off the floor and neatly pulled Belle’s phone out of her pocket, swiping it out of sleep and quickly finding Gold’s number, dialling before Belle could protest.

“Hey Belle.”

“Hi Gold. I’ve had a think about Lacey.”

“Yes?”

He sounded a little nervous.

“I’d like to play her.”

To Be Continued!

Chapter Text

“Why do mornings start so early in the day?”

Belle just laughed at Graham’s lamentation. It was the first day of finale filming and his first day of shadowing the crew for the documentary he was making for the network, scheduled to air before the finale. He had been incredibly enthusiastic about it the previous evening when Belle had spoken to him, but now, at almost five o’clock in the morning, he didn’t seem quite so sure about the whole venture. Still, no-one could deny the sense of anticipation that enveloped the whole studios. This was it, the final countdown. Perhaps there was something of an air of melancholy there as well, knowing that the end was nigh, so to speak.

Belle shook that thought out of her head and put the kettle on again.

“More coffee?” she asked.

Graham nodded and held out his mug without a word before checking the video camera that was set up on the counter in front of him and beginning to speak.

“Good morning everyone, this is Graham Humbert reporting from the make-up room, our first stop on the behind-the-scenes tour of a day in the life of the studio. It is a very stupid time in the morning, and I’m here with chief make-up artist Belle French, who has no business being quite as awake as she is.”

“You know, the rest of the cast are probably grateful that I’m awake or they could end up with serious injuries from me falling asleep on them and poking my brushes in their eyes or up their noses,” Belle pointed out.

Graham just scowled at her.

“We have to be very nice to Belle,” he continued to the camera, “because normally she doesn’t let cameras in here.”

Before Belle could reply, the door to the make-up room had opened again and Rum had entered. He seemed a little bit perplexed at seeing Graham there with the camera, and for a few moments all he could do was blink and stare at the newcomer, but given the early hour of the morning, Belle would forgive him that. She waved him over into his usual chair and pressed a mug of tea into his hands. Dutifully, Graham waited until he had taken a few sips and was looking vaguely more compos mentis before attempting any kind of conversation or narration.

“Of course,” he began again, “the real reason that we’re up at a ridiculous hour of the morning is this gentleman here, Mr Rum Gold. He always looks different without the make-up on, you’d be amazed.”

Rum just raised an eyebrow at Graham over the rim of his mug and made no comment, although his silence spoke volumes and Graham laughed.

“So, Belle, do you want to take us through what you do?”

“Of course. The key to Stiltskin’s make-up is layers…”

It was nice to be able to talk about Stiltskin’s make-up in this way. When she had done her make-up tutorial on her blog, with Jefferson as her willing model, it had been so tempting to launch into a full explanation of Stiltskin’s make-up and all its various intricacies and difficulties, but she’d had to control herself in the name of anonymity. As much as her in-depth knowledge could be put down to professional know-how, she hadn’t wanted to rock the boat too much. Now was her chance to indulge.

Graham seemed to be genuinely fascinated by the process.

“I’ve seen it in various stages of completeness before,” he said, mesmerised, “but I’ve never seen it from start to finish. I was worried I was going to drop off but it’s really interesting.”

Belle dipped into a curtsey. “Thank you. I’m glad.”

The minutes continued to pass by, with Belle easily narrating all the steps of the make-up process, and Graham taking the opportunity to ask Rum a few questions in their necessary pauses. Belle leaned on the counter, watching the interplay between the two. Rum seemed far more comfortable talking to Graham than he had done in any interview for Star Force that he had done thus far, and it was somewhat saddening that this most natural and relaxed interview about the show should be ostensibly his last. Perhaps she could persuade Graham to go over to England and do all the publicity for Sense and Sensibility when it started filming. If he ever decided to leave acting, then entertainment journalism seemed to be a good backup plan.

“What are you going to miss most about Star Force?” Graham asked presently.

“Not this,” Rum grumbled, indicating his face. “The people, I think. Well. Some people more than others.”

“No prizes for guessing who we’re referring to there, ladies and gentlemen,” Graham said dryly. “I’ll miss the people too, but the catering comes a close second.” The younger man’s stomach gave an impeccably timed growl. “Speaking of, shall I go and source us some breakfast?”

“An excellent idea,” Belle agreed, “but none of us would like to be filmed eating bacon sandwiches.”

Graham dutifully switched the camera off whilst breakfast was consumed, although he did spend the majority of the meal posting several selfies of himself and the craft services cart on Twitter, writing out a fond farewell and ode to the wonders of on-set catering which had Belle in hysterics.

“You know, I’m incredibly tempted to try and get a part in After Ever After just so that I can continue to indulge in Tiana’s breakfasts.” Graham sighed and leaned back in the make-up chair he was reclining in, patting his stomach.

The hour of the rest of the cast arriving soon came upon them; with Graham’s presence the time seemed to have gone by even quicker than it normally did, something for which Rum was probably grateful but Belle lamented a little. It had been a nice little time with just the three of them, and their cosy little trifecta was about to expand.

“Graham, as much as we love you, you’re going to have to move,” Belle pointed out, indicating the make-up chair that he was perched in. “The others will be arriving soon and Ariel and Ruby are going to need all the space they can get for making up the alien extras, and you’ll need your own make-up later.”

“Where can I sit then?” Graham complained.

“We’ll find you a step stool,” Rum muttered without opening his eyes, and Belle couldn’t help but giggle at the notion.

As Ruby and Ariel arrived, both a little excited at being on the other side of the camera for once, even though neither of them would admit it, Graham’s resentment of being booted out his chair soon dissipated in the face of more chatter and tasty titbits. It was well-known that the make-up room was the centre of all the gossip on set, and it made Belle smile to know that it was in this room that she was keeping the juiciest bit of gossip to herself.

After much discussion with Rum and the showrunners, they had come to the mutual decision not to tell anyone that Belle was going to play Lacey until it was absolutely necessary. Whilst Belle had joked that it was because she was likely to get cold feet at the last minute and back out, everyone knew, although no-one had explicitly said, that the real reason was a distinct nervousness around Zelena’s reaction to the news. With any luck, since Zelena only had one scene to film for this finale episode, by the time push came to shove she would have already left the set and would not be there to cause trouble. Belle had entertained visions of her arriving on the set in costume and make-up only to be witness to another tantrum the likes of which the showrunners had seen in the Writers’ Room the previous week. It was a shame that she hadn’t seen it, but it had been described in vivid detail by several different parties and she could well imagine it.

Relations with Zelena appeared to have reached some kind of a stalemate, with the redhead simply ignoring Belle’s presence altogether. It made a welcome change from being antagonised all the time, but at the same time, the quietness was a little bit unnerving. Whilst Zelena was active, Belle knew what she was doing and how to handle her, but when she was so silent like this, it made Belle worry. Zelena was impulsive; she had shown that many times before during their acquaintance, but for all that tendency to blow up and throw tantrums, she was also an extremely methodical planner. Pushing Claire down the stairs was more than a spur of the moment decision. She needed to know that Claire would be in a place where there was no CCTV, and she needed to lie in wait for a time when there would be very few people around in the building to witness her crime. That chilled Belle, the idea that the accident was pre-meditated. It was a mark of how desperate Zelena was, and if she was prepared to purposefully injure a pregnant lady in order to achieve her aims, then Belle feared what she might do to the woman whom she already had reason to want to hurt. With any luck, though, after today, Zelena would not have the opportunity to perform any life-threatening stunts.

The final scene that they would be filming this afternoon would be the first scene requiring the entire ensemble cast; the scene in which Miss Greenie met her demise. Given that the scene required moderately intense make-up and hair for several extras, it was at the bottom of the call sheet to give the make-up department the most time in which to get everyone ready. The beauty of filming on the soundstage for most of their days meant that the weather and time of day outside were pretty much irrelevant, as Archie, Marco and the rest of the lighting crew could ensure perfect conditions every time. They could afford to overrun into the evening a little if it meant getting rid of Zelena, Belle thought dryly. She thought back to her time on previous films and TV shows. Normally whenever a main cast member wrapped their final scene, there was a degree of celebration and hugs all round, and depending on how much of a headliner they were, champagne and a bit of a party. Belle could not foresee anything like that happening tonight. As much as Zelena had been giving Belle the cold shoulder for the past week, so the rest of the cast had been shunning her. Everyone knew better than to accuse her to her face, but it was clear in everyone’s behaviour - they knew what Zelena had done and they were not going to let her get away with it lightly. Revenge was, after all, a dish best served cold.

The arrival of the other make-up artists and the steady procession of cast members into the make-up room provided a welcome distraction and she pushed the dark thoughts of Zelena to the back of her mind.

With the main cast made up, they left to start filming and Belle, Ruby and Ariel were left alone with the alien extras. Graham was most put out at not being able to stay for the entire make-up process but did concede that he had a day job to do and if he wanted to get paid for his performance then he did actually have to perform.

“So,” Ariel said brightly, breathing a sigh of relief as the overcrowded room thinned down. “Are we looking forward to the rest of filming?”

Everyone in the room knew exactly what her words were inferring and there was an exchange of grins and soft laughter.

“I’m certainly looking forward to today’s scenes,” Max said lightly. “I wonder how visual effects are getting on with the fake blood. The props team’s given me some really lovely fake knives.”

“I think we might be a little bit too enthusiastic about Greenie’s demise,” Ruby said. “But after everything the woman’s done, both on and off screen, I think that this poetic justice is perfect.”

They fell into silence as the make-up artists concentrated on transferring the intricate tattoos that formed the majority of the alien invaders’ make-up. Belle was very glad that they did not have to paint all the geometric patterns by hand, and no-one seeing the end result on screen would ever know that it was not painted. Max and the other actors would need a couple of showers to get the designs off their skin, but the extra time needed to take it off was made up for by the shorter stint in the chair in the morning. The only paintwork they had to do was on their faces, as everyone agreed that no-one wanted to walk around town with fake tattoos on their face. Belle had had great fun designing and making the stencils that they would use, with detailed patterns in various stylised animal shapes. Although she highly doubted that anyone would notice them with all the action that was taking place on the screen, she had given each of the hostiles their own unique style.

“Do you think we can sneak on set and watch?” Ruby asked presently. “I’m sure Cara wouldn’t mind.”

“Cara might not mind, but the rest of the cast and crew might have something to say about having a suddenly increased audience,” Ariel pointed out.

“Nah, they’ll be fine,” Ruby said airily. “Two extra make-up artists isn’t going to make much of a difference. Besides, we can always use the excuse that we have to be on hand to make sure that the aliens are looking their best at all times. What do you think, Belle?”

Belle smiled. It was very tempting, and they wouldn’t be in the way.

“Well, it doesn’t really make much difference to me, I’ll be on set anyway for emergency touch ups. But if you want to, I say do it,” she said, and Ariel shrugged.

“Well, I’m not going to be left here on my own,” she said. “Looks like we’ll all be sneaking in to watch Greenie kick the bucket. How many other people do you think have had the same idea as us?”

“Hopefully not too many,” Belle replied. “You don’t want to give Zelena cause to hate any more of us than strictly necessary.”

“I think it’s a bit too late for that,” Ruby said.

“Still, we want to limit the damage as much as possible,” Belle pointed out. “Just because she’s leaving the set doesn’t mean that she’s vanishing from existence all together.”

“More’s the pity,” Ariel muttered.

“Maybe we could hide,” Ruby suggested, earning her rather incredulous looks from the rest of the occupants of the make-up room, actors included. “No, hear me out here. We sneak in and watch, concealed, and Zelena never needs to know. It can be our little secret. And probably Archie’s because he’s in the best position to hide us.”

“I am not climbing up the lighting rig in the name of watching filming going on,” Ariel said bluntly.

Ruby looked slightly disappointed by this declaration but continued nonetheless. “I think it’s a perfect solution,” she concluded.

Ariel laughed. “If Archie can find us a hiding place that doesn’t involve anything to do with heights then I’m willing.”

“Perfect!” Ruby was already taking out her phone and dialling Archie’s number, making to clamp her paintbrush between her teeth only to realise she was about to suck on the paint-covered end and turning it round with a squawk of alarm.

One of the extras turned to Belle.

“Is it always like this in here?”

Belle nodded. “Pretty much.”

“Archie says he’ll sneak us in!” Ruby said gleefully as she stowed her phone away again. “They’re filming on the bridge set so there’s lots of hiding places. We’re just not allowed to sneeze.”

“I can’t quite believe that this is happening,” Belle said, “but I’m glad it is.”

At length the extras were all made up and ready for their scene, and Belle gathered up all the necessary kit that she would need to touch them up and accompanied them towards the bridge set. It was the biggest and sturdiest of all the sets on the sound-stage, with the rest of the large set-pieces like the Force Base offices being filmed on green screen to give an illusion of grandeur, and the smaller ones often being redressed into something new. Their progress towards the set was hampered slightly by the fact that the actors had to keep stopping to double over in laughter at Ruby and Ariel’s antics as they tried to hide behind various other pieces of set or furniture.

Miss Greenie’s demise did not cause the hilarity that Rum had described during the table read in the Writers’ Room. Under the lights with the cameras rolling and the lighting set, with make-up and costume and fake blood, it was so much more dramatic and poignant, and despite having no love for the character and even less for the actress who played her, Belle would have given an involuntary gasp as the diplomat fell lifeless to the floor had it not been for Zelena’s completely over-the-top acting of her death.

“Zelena,” Cara said, pinching the bridge of her nose as Belle readjusted Max’s make-up to take off the sheen of sweat that had built up under the lights and help clean all the fake blood off his hand ready for the next take. “I understand that this is your only scene in this episode and naturally you want to make it last as long as possible for the maximum effect. However, there is a limit to how much you can milk it.”

Zelena swept off the set to get a clean shirt and fresh blood pack, muttering to herself about having such a small opportunity and playing for the sympathy that Miss Greenie deserved. As she passed Belle, however, she gave her a nasty smile, one that Belle had seen before, and one that inevitably meant that trouble was brewing.

She shivered and returned her attention to Max, determining to think no more about it. All the same, she would be avoiding staircases for the foreseeable future.

X

Rum was unusually subdued when he returned to the make-up room, and he didn’t say anything as he sat down in his usual chair and began the clean-up process. Belle, who had opened her mouth to say something along the lines of being thankful for Zelena’s departure, closed it again, immediately aware that something was wrong, and she just continued to help him scrub off the paint in silence for a while to give her time to think up something appropriate to say. It could not be that he regretted Zelena’s unceremonious end, far from it, but she couldn’t think what else it might be.

“Everything ok?” she asked lightly, despite knowing full well that it wasn’t.

Rum did not reply, lost in his own thoughts.

“Anything you want to talk about?” Belle suggested. He shook his head.

“Ok then.” Belle left it lie, knowing better than to push the point. Rum was not the most talkative of people at the best of times and prolonged periods of quiet would not usually be any cause for concern, but she could tell that there was definitely something off and she wanted to get to the bottom of what it was.  Still, if Rum didn’t want to talk about it then she couldn’t make him. All the same, the very fact that he didn’t want to talk about it made her think that he probably should. She thought back to the conversation a few weeks ago, when he had clammed up on finding out that he was going to have to take his shirt off, and she’d managed to calm him down then. In fact, it was that very occasion that led in part to their current relationship status. Perhaps taking his mind off whatever it was that was bothering him was all it would require.

“We’re going out for our usual Monday night gathering,” she continued, deciding to surreptitiously change the subject in the hope of eliciting some kind of response other than the minimum. “Eric and Archie will be there too, if you wanted to come along? It’ll probably only be Granny’s, but there’s nothing wrong with Granny’s.”

There was a pause for a long while. Belle could tell that he was tempted, and she looked at him in the mirror, waiting for his response. Finally he shook his head.

“No, I don’t think that would be a good idea,” he said eventually. “But you go on and enjoy yourself without me.”

Belle didn’t think that enjoying herself would be particularly easy knowing that something was up with Rum, but she made no mention of that fact. They weren’t that far established in their relationship yet. He was obviously in an antisocial mood for reasons that he did not want to share, but that just made Belle want to get to the bottom of it even more.

The rest of their time in the make-up room passed in silence, but it was not the usual, companionable silence that Belle had become used to between them. They were used to not talking because neither of them had anything to say, and they were both content in the quiet. Now, however, it was very clear that there was something to be said, but neither of them were saying it, and in all likelihood, neither of them knew exactly what it was that needed to be said.

Once Rum was back to his usual colour and they were the only ones left in the make-up room, Belle gave a wan smile as he turned to leave.

“Are you sure you’re ok?” she ventured again. Perhaps he would open up more now that there was no chance of being overheard by the other cast and crew coming in and out.

He gave a curt nod. “I’m fine.”

“Ok then.”

“Goodnight, Belle. See you tomorrow.”

“See you.” She waved him off and sat back down in the chair that he had just vacated, wondering what was going on.

“Hey, Belle?”

She turned to see Ruby and Ariel peering around the door, questioning looks on their faces.

“Aren’t you coming? It’s lasagne special night and if we don’t get there soon then there won’t be any left.”

Belle sighed and shook her head. She was too perturbed by the afternoon’s mysteries to be excited at the prospect of lasagne.

“Nah, I’m really tired. I think I’ll skip this week. Go on without me, though. Raise a toast to the end of Zelena on my behalf.”

Ariel laughed. “We’ll make sure she’s not in the next booth. That might be awkward.”

They said their farewells and made their way in the direction of the exit and ultimately Granny’s, and Belle continued to stare at her reflection, unseeing, for a long time.

X

Belle was still pondering Rum’s abruptness when Mulan came in that evening and did a double take on finding her roommate in.

“This is unusual. Isn’t this your normal night for going out with Ruby and Ariel? I’d have thought you’d be out celebrating the beginning of the end. Or maybe commiserating it.”

Belle nodded.

“Yeah, I decided not to go. It was a pretty hectic day. I thought an evening in with Tumblr would be better.”

If Mulan was surprised by this then she did not show it and simply sat down beside her friend.

“So, how’s the Tumblr front looking?” she asked.

“Ok.” Belle refreshed her dashboard. “A rumour got out that Charming was going to die in the finale and people are already writing fix-it fic.”

Mulan raised an eyebrow. “I’ve heard of fix-its appearing within five minutes of an episode airing and I’ve heard of fix-its appearing even during the airing of the show itself, but I have never heard of a fix-it fic being written before the episode has even been filmed, let alone aired.”

“Well, you know what they say. Loose lips sink ships.”

“Literally, in this case,” Mulan said wryly. “I suppose people have been chatting at Granny’s and something slipped out.”

“Yeah.” Belle made a face. “That might have been me, actually. Rum and I were discussing the finale in there a while ago.”

Mulan paused halfway over to the dining table with her laptop.

Is Charming going to die?” she asked. For all Mulan was usually pretty good at avoiding spoilers when she wanted to, sometimes she couldn’t help herself. Belle just gave her a pointed look.

“Do you really want to know?” she asked.

“Yes. No. Oh, I don’t know.” Mulan sighed. “I never thought that one of the most difficult decisions of my life would be whether or not I wanted to find out who dies in the finale of a damn TV show.”

“Do you want me to write it down and put it in an envelope that you can open at your leisure should you wish?” Belle suggested, unable to hide her grin. “Like sonographers do when parents can’t decide whether to find out the baby’s sex or not?”

Mulan rolled her eyes. “It’s not that dramatic.”

“Are you sure?”

“No. Write it down. This is a matter of life and death.”

Belle burst out laughing but dutifully went to get pen, paper and an envelope. Mulan looked slightly sheepish as she handed it over.

“Thank you.”

“It’s all right. You’d do the same if our positions were reversed.”

Mulan nodded and opened up her own laptop on the dining table, setting out her textbooks around her neatly, theoretically with the intention of getting some studying done.  Belle was not quite sure how much would actually be learned when there were so many more interesting things to see on Tumblr instead, but she said nothing and continued to look down her own feed. She really ought to contact Jefferson and see if he was up for another make-up video. It was about time that she did a new one, and working on the aliens this morning had given her some ideas. Having made her way through the cosplay make-up for the majority of the main cast, perhaps it was time to give people some more inspiration for the slightly more outlandish cast members.

“So,” Mulan began, breaking the companionable quiet that they had fallen into. “When are you and Rum going out again?”

The question came completely out of the left field considering the last thing they had been talking about and it took Belle a few seconds to answer. She remembered Rum’s distance and reticence in the make-up trailer earlier and she wondered if she had done something wrong without knowing.

“I, erm, I don’t know. We haven’t made any plans. I think we’re both concentrating too much on filming the finale at the moment to have any kind of thoughts outside of work.”

“I’m just saying, you’ve not got much time,” Mulan pointed out. Belle gave a huff of exasperation.

“I know that. I just don’t know what we’re going to do about it.”

She paused, not really wanting to think beyond the end of filming. She had a terrible feeling that the relationship would just fizzle out without either of them really noticing. Her greatest fear, really, was that Rum was not going to be as committed to keeping on a long-distance relationship as she was, and she didn’t want to be the only one putting any effort in.

“Well, you’ll have your Star Force date like usual on Friday,” Mulan said. Rum coming around to the flat on Friday evenings had become a standard thing, and Belle would miss him during the last few episodes when he would not be in the country any more.

“I know, but that’s different. It’s not the same when you have one date a week which is a continuation of a tradition that you started before you started dating. That doesn’t really count. The Star Force date isn’t a romantic date.”

Belle sighed again and hugged her knees up to her chest. “I just don’t know what to do, Mulan. I want this to go the distance and I think that it has the potential to, but I don’t know if Rum feels the same way. I know that he’s not the kind to just have casual, meaningless flings, so I know that he feels something. I just don’t know what.” She thought back over the things they had done over the past few weeks. The mad dash to Comic-Con, the spur of the moment airport rescue, even their Star Force dates themselves, they had all been initiated by Belle. At the same time, it was Rum who had first invited her out for that date two weeks ago and who had taken the next step to cement them as a romantic couple, rather than just friends. It was all very confusing and she had no idea where it was all going.

“You know, you could just talk about it,” Mulan suggested from the table. “I’m pretty sure most of the fictional relationship pitfalls that we lament in fandom could have been avoided if the participants in question had just talked about it. Look at Caroline and George in Her Handsome Hero. Prime example.”

“I know. That would be the easiest way. But at the same time…”

“At the same time you want to bury your head in the sand and pretend that everything’s fine and the future doesn’t exist?” Mulan suggested. Belle gave a melancholy nod and rested her forehead on her knees; a couple of seconds later she felt her roommate’s arms come around her. “Oh Belle. You’re at the very beginning of a new relationship, you shouldn’t be moping about like this.”

“I know.”

They stayed in the slightly awkwardly angled embrace for a few moments before Mulan went back to her computer and Belle opened up her own again, going to Tumblr and making a new post. That was the beauty of the anonymity she had on the site; knowing that she could just open up to the world at large and ask for impartial advice with no-one knowing who she was or judging her.

So, my Star Force date recently became a little bit more than that, like an actual date, and I think we’re at the stage of being boyfriend and girlfriend now. (Well, manfriend and ladyfriend, we’re a bit old to be a boy and girl.) But I really don’t know what’s happening lately. I’m not sure how the relationship can be defined. Perhaps he’s pulling away because he’ll be leaving the country soon. I think that we could make it work long distance, but I don’t want to commit to it unless he feels the same way.

Perhaps this is destined just to be a ‘summer of love’ and then we’ll go our separate ways. I hope not, but I just can’t get a read on him and it’s really frustrating. I don’t want to get my hopes up, you know?

She hit post before she could second guess herself.

“Hey Belle…”

Belle looked over at Mulan, who was perusing her laptop screen with a look of sharp concentration.

“What’s up?” she asked.

Mulan didn’t reply for a moment, then beckoned her friend over to the table. “Come and have a look at this.”

“Ok.” She swung her legs off the sofa and made her way across the room, looking at Mulan’s screen over her shoulder. It came as no surprise to see that her roommate was scrolling down Twitter rather than working on her academic projects, and Belle made no mention of her procrastination. “What am I looking at?”

“Here.” Mulan scrolled back up rapidly, the lines of text all blurring together until she found what she was looking for. “It’s Graham. He’s been really active lately, I think he’s over-excited about not dying and about doing his behind the scenes programme, but he posted a video a couple of hours ago and it’s taking the Internet by storm. I think it’s part of his footage from filming today. Come on, take a look.”

Belle looked at the video, which was presented without comment, and the series of Tweets Graham had made and linked to it:

Trying to clear up something once and for all.

Not filming. Not rehearsing. This is 100% real.

Witnessed with my own eyes.

Does this look like ‘dating’ behaviour?

Looks more like ‘stalking’ to me.

Mulan hit play on the video. It was very amateur footage but it definitely seemed to be genuine from Graham’s hands, if a little shaky from the cameraman evidently trying to remain concealed from the scene playing out on the screen.

It showed Zelena and Rum, both in costume, in one of the corridors that led to the sound stage. It was obviously after filming had finished because Zelena was wrapped up in a coat to hide the tell-tale bloodstains on her costume; after the unexpected change to the finale the showrunners were anxious to avoid as many leaks as possible, especially with the probability - one that had just shown itself to be high - of Graham releasing some of his behind the scenes footage early as a teaser for fans. This didn’t seem to be a teaser. Far from it. Rum was leaning away from Zelena, who was blocking his exit route. Arms folded, shoulders set - a defensive stance. There was no audio, or if there was then the voices were too far away to hear. The more Rum leaned away, the more Zelena leaned in, until Rum held up a hand to stop her coming any closer. Unperturbed by this, Zelena just took his hand, lacing her fingers through his. Rum jerked his hand away and fixed Zelena with a hard glare, the fact he still had his contact lenses in making it even more formidable. He was obviously saying something, but Belle wasn’t a good enough lip reader to try and work out what it was. It probably wasn’t friendly, whatever it was.

Zelena, for her part, just laughed - Belle couldn’t see her face but she could tell from the movement of the other woman’s head. It was then that she leaned in, grabbing Rum’s white coat lapels and pressing her mouth against his.

Rum finally succeeded in pushing her away and stormed away, out of the corridor in the direction of the make-up room. Zelena watched him go with a smile, the kind of eager, hungry smile that showed she’d got something that she’d been craving for a while, and she didn’t care how she had achieved it. Zelena was definitely someone for whom the ends justified the means. She wanted to kiss Rum. It didn’t matter that Rum did not want to kiss her; that was of secondary importance. All that mattered in her eyes was that she wanted something and she was going to get it.

Belle sighed as Mulan closed the video. Well, that certainly explained Rum’s oddness earlier.

“Oh Rum,” she said softly. “You can tell me about things like this.”

The comments below the video were mostly in Rum’s favour, a few defending Zelena.

“Has it made it to Tumblr yet?” Belle asked.

“It will in two minutes,” Mulan muttered, opening a new post and making to disseminate the information on a new platform. “Poor Rum.”

Belle nodded her agreement mutely. At least Zelena’s filming was over and she wouldn’t be around on set to harass him even more.

“If you think about it, though, this might be a blessing in disguise.” Mulan finished the post and closed her laptop lid, looking up to meet Belle’s incredulous expression. “No, listen to me. Everyone’s convinced that Zelena attempted to despatch Claire via a handy staircase, but there’s no proof one way or the other and the police aren’t doing anything about it. This is proof - solid, tangible proof. No-one can deny it. Perhaps we can’t get justice for Claire, but we can get justice in another way. The camera never lies. Graham has a pretty big following on Twitter; he’s one of the most active of all the Star Force cast so he has a little sway in our corner of the community. A lot of people are going to see this and if the comments it’s received so far are anything to go by, then Zelena’s reputation is well on the way to taking a downturn. This is something that she can be confronted with that she can’t deny.”

Belle nodded; that was a definite upside but at the same time there was still the more pressing issue of Rum’s reaction to the whole thing. As much as it was tempting to focus on Zelena and trying to bring her down, there was another person involved, and it would never do to forget the victim in a rabid desire to punish the perpetrator.

“I’m going to check he’s ok.”

She took her phone into her room and lay down on her bed, wondering how to broach the subject before deciding to cut her losses and just dial. It took a long time for him to answer and she was on the verge of giving up hope when she heard his voice.

“Hey Belle.”

“Hey.” She paused. “I found out what happened with Zelena this afternoon. Graham caught it on camera. He put it up on Twitter.”

There was a long pause on the other end of the phone.

“Oh.”

“It’s ok. You’ve got a lot of online support.”

“I’d rather just forget that it ever happened, to be honest.”

Belle nodded her understanding, although she knew that Rum would not be able to see her. For all the increased social media coverage was exposing what a thoroughly horrible person Zelena was, it didn’t technically do anything about bringing her to justice or giving Rum any closure for what had happened.

“She’s good at sneaking around,” Rum said. “As Claire found out to her cost as well. She cornered me. Said that since it was her last day of filming it was her last chance. I made my distaste for her suggestion quite clear.”

“I saw.” Belle paused. “Does she think she’s somehow exempt from society’s rules because she wants something she can’t have? Since her machinations to get Lacey out of the picture didn’t work, and indeed backfired on her, she just decided to go the direct route instead.”

“I would think it highly likely.”

“The woman is deluded,” Belle muttered.

“Yes, I think that’s an apt description.”

“Still, hopefully this is the last we’ll see of her.”

“Hopefully. I can’t see Leroy being overly keen to let her in again without good cause.”

There was another pause, which Belle felt positioned to fill.

“So… Do you want to come out and celebrate Zelena’s exit now?” she asked tentatively, theorising that wanting to keep his encounter with the red-head from her was the reason for his refusal earlier. “We’ve missed dinner but we should be in time for a drink.”

“To be honest, I’m not sure I can handle Ruby and Ariel at this time of an evening,” Rum replied.

“Oh. Ok.” Belle was a little disappointed, but she made no show of it in her voice.

“I’d be happy to see you, though. Maybe we could go for a drink just the two of us?”

Belle smiled.

“I’d like that. The Rabbit Hole in half an hour? I know it’s a bit of a dive but it’ll be quiet on a Monday and we’ll avoid the rest of the Star Force crowd.”

“Sounds perfect.”

On the other side of town, as Gold hung up the call after saying goodbye, he smiled at the prospect of seeing Belle again, and he took a brief glance at her Tumblr. She did not often post about her work, wanting to keep her online life and her real life separate as much as possible, but perhaps she had mentioned something about the day’s events.

The first post that caught his eye, however, was not about filming the finale. Reading through it, he realised that it was about himself, and he gave a long sigh, closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose, wishing he knew what to do.


Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen

In which Gold gets a little bit tipsy, Belle gets a little bit… frustrated, and the Star Force set gets an unexpected visitor.

“Thank you for tonight.”

It was a warm, pleasant night, and although darkness had long since fallen, Belle and Gold did not hurry as they meandered along back towards Belle’s flat from the Rabbit Hole. The bar was not the most popular nor indeed salubrious of meeting places in Storybrooke; Granny’s was generally the go-to place for socialising, or the Blue Dragon Chinese restaurant if one wanted a change from Granny’s usual diner fare. Nevertheless, it was a perfectly ordinary bar serving passable drinks; and occasionally people from the studios could be found there enjoying a cocktail or two. It had taken Gold a while to relax once he had arrived there, but by the time he’d imbibed three quarters of a bottle of wine and Belle had beaten him four games to nil at pool, he was smiling again, and his smile remained as they made their way in the direction of home.

Belle squeezed Gold’s hand tightly. “My pleasure.”

It had been a strange evening, possibly by dint of its being so spontaneous, and Belle couldn’t quite tell if it was meant to be a date or not, or whether it was just two people grimly celebrating the departure of colleague. Nonetheless, she and Gold were holding hands and wandering through Storybrooke’s near-deserted streets like a couple of teenagers out after dark for the first time, and she wouldn’t change that for the world. She glanced sideways at Gold, and the light flush on his cheeks. For a man who could drink his colleagues under the table whenever hard liquor was on the menu, he was comically unable to hold his wine and she quite liked seeing him a little tipsy, with his guard down just for her. It was yet another thing that she was going to miss when the inevitable future came.

“I’ve never been to Scotland,” she said presently, apropos of nothing but her own train of thought, thinking about Gold going home to the UK and her staying here in Storybrooke.

Gold smiled. “You should visit one day. I’ll take you to see all the sights.”

“I want to see where you grew up,” Belle said, swinging their clasped hands.

“No you don’t,” Gold replied with a chuckle. “Trust me. I hold no affection for the place; I don’t expect anyone else to.”

“That’s not the point.” Belle sighed. “Never mind, it was a silly suggestion.”

“Not at all, but I’d fear for your safety in my childhood locale. But Glasgow in and of itself is a wonderful city. You’d like it. Full of history.”

They had reached Belle’s building by this point and they stopped at the door by unspoken agreement, but Belle made no move to find her keys, wanting the moment to last as long as possible. Gold’s hand was warm in hers and his fingers just felt right, like their hands were meant to fit together like that. As soon as she let go and went inside and they went their separate ways for the night, then the quiet magic of the moment would be lost, and real life would once again take over, with all its fears and worries for the future. Here, in this moment with Gold by her side, she didn’t have to think about it and she could just enjoy the present.

She couldn’t stand outside the building all night however, even though Gold wasn’t showing any signs of letting her go either. She looked up at him, wondering what was going on behind those unfathomable dark eyes, sparkling slightly under the influence of the alcohol, and perhaps something else.

“Well, here we are,” she said unnecessarily.

“Here we are indeed.”

“I should probably go up.”

Oh cripes, they really were a couple of teenagers out after dark for the first time.

“Yeah…” Gold didn’t sound too thrilled by the prospect of parting from her, and Belle smiled. It was probably the alcohol talking, but a small part of her preened inside at the thought of her presence being irresistible. She went up on her toes and pressed her lips against Gold’s. He returned it willingly, opening for her eagerly and letting her explore his mouth. He tasted of cheap red wine, and his teeth nipped her lip when she pulled away. It had only meant to be a brief kiss goodnight, but now that she’d had the taste, she wanted more, and she leaned in again, hooking her arms around his neck to pull him in closer. Gold’s hands were warm on her waist, moving up and splaying over her back, then carding into her hair, deepening the kiss as if he was drowning and she was his only lifeline.

It was a strong kiss, a hot one full of promise, and in Belle’s mind, it was the kind of kiss that led to other things. The kind of kiss in the movies before a tasteful fade to black and cut to the protagonists waking up together next morning.

She certainly was not averse to the idea of her and Gold’s relationship taking that turn, but she was not entirely sure that it ought to be right now, with an early wake-up call in the morning and Mulan in the flat and who knew when she’d last shaved her bikini line and…

Belle broke away, and she had to smile at the bereft look on Gold’s face as she did so.

“I should go up,” she repeated, as much as she really didn’t want to. He nodded slowly, but he did not release her, and Belle did not let go of him. If only there was some way of stopping time. Mind you, she’d been hoping for that since the moment that the Star Force finale had been announced.

Gold nodded. “Yeah. We’ve got an early start tomorrow.”

“Yeah…”

There was a lot more that Gold wanted to say, Belle could tell. She could almost see the words formulating into sentences in his mind but never actually getting out in the open air. If only she could tell what the words actually were.

“Good night, Rum.” she said, taking a step back and reluctantly letting go of her hold on him so that she could get her keys out. Gold’s arms dropped back to his sides. She was almost into the building when he called her back.

“Wait, Belle…”

She turned, looking up at him quizzically.

“Yes, Rum?”

“I… Never mind. Good night, Belle. See you tomorrow.”

“Till tomorrow.”

She let herself into the building and turned back over her shoulder, watching Gold illuminated in the street light outside. He stayed standing there for a few seconds more, then shook his head with a sigh and walked away down the street towards his own flat.  As she made her way up the stairs, Belle wondered what it was that he had been about to say. Maybe something about repeating the evening on a night when they didn’t have to work next day? She certainly wouldn’t mind that, but how did she let him know it?

Still lost in thought, Belle closed the apartment door quietly behind her and leaned back against it, wondering what to do now. She knew that she had made the right decision, but that didn’t stop her wishing that it was a different time, a different day, and that the circumstances had been conducive to her inviting Gold upstairs with her. Or perhaps saying something along the lines of “Well, I don’t have to go up… I can always walk you home…” because she knew that Gold was far too much of a gentleman not to invite her inside and offer her a bed for the night if she went out of her way… She was so caught up in the little daydream that she didn’t notice the living room door open and Mulan poke her head around it.

“I thought I heard you come in.” Her roommate’s voice broke through her reverie and Belle’s eyes snapped open; she felt her face flush with embarrassment even though she hadn’t been doing anything that could be considered less than above board. She wondered, not for the first time, if Mulan could read minds, because as her friend raised her eyebrows and tilted her head on one side inquisitively, she was certain that she knew everything that Belle had just been thinking about.

“Are you all right?” Mulan asked. “Did you have a good evening?”

She must look a sight, Belle thought, with lips plump and pink from frenzied kissing and her hair all of a muddle. She surreptitiously tried to smooth it down.  

“It was very…” She struggled for an appropriate word.

“Satisfactory?” Mulan suggested.

Belle shook her head. No, satisfactory it had most definitely not been.

“Ok…” Mulan raised her eyebrows again. “Are you all right?” she repeated. “You don’t normally come in like a little mouse. Did something happen with Rum?”

Belle shook her head again.

“I’m not entirely sure I believe you. If you need me to go out after him I’m sure I can catch him up on my bike, he’s not the world’s fastest walker.”

“No, no!” Belle exclaimed. “No, nothing happened. That’s kind of the problem, actually.”

“Ah.” Mulan got it, and gave her friend a sly smile. “Well, I’m off to bed, and I’ll make sure to put my earphones in.”

“Mulan!”

“Just saying. It’s still a bit early days for you to be taking the next step, but a girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do.”

Belle rolled her eyes. “Good night, Mulan.”

“Good night, Belle. Sweet and satisfactory dreams.”

“You know, sometimes I wonder why we’re friends,” Belle muttered.

“You love me really.”

Belle just sighed as Mulan disappeared into her room. All the same, it was extremely tempting. She finally came to the conclusion that leaning on the door for the rest of the night was not exactly the most sensible of ideas and she went into her own room, getting ready for bed and trying to put the thoughts out of her mind. It had been a long time since she’d last ventured into the box under her bed though, and Mulan was right. Sometimes, needs must.

X

“So…”

It was the calm before the storm; the cast had all been made-up and were on set filming and Ruby and Belle were alone in the make-up room; it was Ariel’s turn to stand by on set for any last minute touch ups. In these last few days of filming, with so much extra work to be done to make sure that the aliens were all ready in time, any kind of respite was welcome, and Belle had been happily checking the news headlines on her phone when Ruby’s voice pervaded her daydreams of what possibly could be. She looked up and found her friend leaning in worryingly close with a somewhat predatory expression on her face.

“So what?” she replied.

“So what happened last night?” Ruby pressed.

Belle raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“Oh Belle, I know you can be obtuse, but surely you can’t be that obtuse.”

“You’re going to have to enlighten me, I’m afraid,” she said dryly. “Nothing happened.”

Ruby gave a huff of disappointment. “Really? Because Ariel saw you and Rum outside your apartment building on her way home and she said it definitely looked like something was about to happen.”

Something had been about to happen. Possibly. Perhaps. Belle wasn’t sure, and she didn’t really want to think about it in case it led to some daydreaming of a rather unprofessional calibre.

“Nothing happened,” she repeated. “We said good night and went our separate ways, that’s all.”

“Damn.” Ruby sank back into her own chair and stared glumly at the counter for a moment before grabbing her handbag and rummaging around in it for some kind of sugar-filled comestible that she never seemed to be without. Today’s selection was mini chocolate chip cookies, and she held out the box to Belle, who helped herself. If this conversation was going in the direction that she feared it was, then she was going to need all the support she could get.

“You know, you’re running out of time for anything of that ilk to happen,” she pointed out.

“I know, Ruby,” Belle said patiently. “I don’t need reminding. But only fools rush in.”

“That’s true, but most people aren’t going to be separated by the Atlantic Ocean in a week’s time.”

“I still don’t see that as a legitimate argument.”

Ruby just gave her a pointed look over the top of the cookie box.

“If you don’t do it soon then when precisely are you going to do it?”

Belle shook her head. “I’m not getting into this conversation.”

“Belle French, in the four years I have known you, you have never shown any interest in any man other than this one. And your timing is absolutely appalling, but that’s beside the point.”

“What is the point, then?” Belle asked.

“The point is that sometimes it’s better to take a leap of faith,” Ruby said. There was an earnestness in her face beyond the teasing. “And if it all goes wrong then hey, you don’t have to see each other ever again after filming finishes.”

Belle shook her head. “It’s not as simple as that.” She thought of the finale and Lacey and the fact that Gold had asked her to play Stiltskin’s long-absent wife; the fact that he had wanted her to run his lines with him because she was the one he always had in mind. She didn’t want to rock the boat now, of all moments. That would make life somewhat awkward. Still, she couldn’t tell Ruby about her particular reasons for wanting to keep the status quo. She hadn’t told Ruby or Ariel about her upcoming star turn, although she knew that she was going to have to sooner or later.

Ruby just smiled. “Nothing ever is with you. It’s all right, I know you’re not the type to just jump into bed like an acrobat.” She gave a sly grin. “You can’t tell me that you haven’t thought about it though.”

Belle raised her eyes to heaven and prayed to the make-up room ceiling for strength. She had thought about it. At length and in detail, especially last night after she had gone to bed. She was no stranger to sensual fantasies, but now there seemed to be something more… well, just more in her thoughts, now that the distinct possibility of her fantasies becoming reality was on the horizon. Instead of the idealistic dreams of a fanfic writer, she found herself wondering about inane things like how tidy her bedroom was and whether Gold’s leg ever gave him any trouble in the heat of the moment.

“I’m not going to grace that with a reply,” she muttered. “Let’s not talk about this anymore.”

“Ok.” Ruby conceded graciously. “I’ll leave it alone. Just remember what I said.”

Belle nodded. “It’s just… not the right time yet. We’re not ready. Plus Rum was drunk.”

Ruby made a face. “Yeah, perhaps you had the right idea of quitting whilst you were ahead.” She paused. “Things didn’t seem too awkward between you this morning though.”

“No, everything was fine, even if Rum was on the double-strength painkillers. Which is why I’d like to keep it that way. But enough on the subject, please. Can’t we talk about you for a bit? How are things going with Archie?”

“Well…” Ruby bounced giddily in her seat. “For someone so quiet and affable, he’s really very enthusiastic.”

“Oh Ruby.” Belle grinned. “Never change.”

Before Ruby could go into any details of Archie’s particular enthusiasms there was a knock on the make-up room door; it was a tentative knock and Belle wondered who it could be. The cast and crew never normally bothered knocking unless they knew that someone had a long and complicated job going on and the make-up artists needed to concentrate, but that was not the case today.

“Come in!” Ruby called. “We are absolutely not eating chocolate cookies and discussing Belle’s sex life.”

“Ruby!” Belle reached over and attempted to smack her friend, but the make-up chairs were too far apart so all she ended up doing was falling flat on her face, sprawled on the cold lino floor.

“Ok… I’m just going to pretend that this is normal.”

Belle looked up from the floor to see a man whom she recognised but had not seen on the Star Force set before. He was wearing a visitor badge and was looking for all the world like he wanted to be anywhere but standing in the make-up room doorway.

“This is normal,” Ruby assured him, jumping out of her seat and offering Belle a hand off the floor. “How can we help you? We weren’t expecting any more calls today.”

“I’m not here for make-up. If anyone asks I’ve come to see Leo and Aurelius.”

It was at that point, now that she was standing up and looking at the man from a slightly better angle, that she realised who he was.

“Robin!” she exclaimed. “Congratulations on your role by the way. How are you looking forward to playing a villain?”

Robin Locksley, recently announced as the main villain for Leo and Aurelius’s new TV series, grinned. “I’m looking forward to it a lot. To be honest I’m just glad to have a long contract. Marian’s been worried about having to move back to the UK. And hey, it’s always nice to be able to sink your teeth into a good villain. They’re way more interesting than heroes.”

“So why are you really here?” Ruby asked, going over to the kettle and putting it on again. “You said to tell everyone you were here to see the writers, presumably about After Ever After, but I’m assuming this is not actually the case?”

“Yeah…” Robin looked a little sheepish. “Truth be told, I’m actually here to see Gold.”

“OK... He never mentioned that last night,” Belle said. “He should have said something; then we would have known to pretend to be normal when you arrived.”

“He doesn’t know I’m coming,” Robin admitted. “But I don’t have any contact details for him and due to the nature of my quest, I didn’t want to say anything on any of the myriad social media platforms he never uses. So it’s a surprise, but hopefully a welcome one, once he’s heard what I’ve got to say.”

Robin and Gold had starred together in Her Handsome Hero, although they had only shared one scene, and although Belle had no idea how well the two men actually knew each other, she couldn’t think why Gold would be unhappy to see a former colleague.

“Well, I’m sure he won’t be sad to see a friendly face,” Belle said.

“Especially given everything that’s been going on recently,” Ruby muttered. Robin nodded his sombre agreement.

“Something’s got to be done,” he said, and Belle tilted her head on one side. Had Robin come to speak to Gold about Zelena?

“Well, he’ll be here soon,” she said, glancing at the clock on the make-up room wall above the rows of mirrors.  “They must almost have finished filming for the day.”

“What brings you here on this secret mission then?” Ruby asked. Robin rolled his eyes.

“If I told you that, it wouldn’t be secret, would it?”

“Oh come on,” Ruby wheedled. “You can trust us.”

Belle raised one eyebrow. “Ruby, I’m fairly sure that the only person who spreads gossip faster than you is Leroy.”

“I can keep a secret!” Ruby exclaimed. “I keep all of yours!”

“What’s this about secrets?”

Graham had poked his head around the make-up room door and was looking at the trio within with some degree of amusement.

“Nothing!” Ruby said hastily. “See, I’m perfectly trustworthy!”

“Graham,” came Gold’s voice from outside the room, “I am not insinuating that you are in any way too wide, but you are blocking the doorway somewhat and I have no desire to remain this colour for any longer than necessary.”

“Ah. Yes. Sorry.”

Graham took a step back and let Gold come into the room. He gave a double take on seeing Robin there.

“Well, yours is a face I haven’t seen for a while,” he said. “What brings you to our humble shores, Robin? Not that it’s not lovely to see you after all these years.”

Robin laughed. “Would you believe me if I told you that you were the reason for my visit, Rum?”

“I’m not sure.” Gold raised an eyebrow. “If there’s one thing that working in this business and indeed the last few weeks of it have taught me, it’s that practically nothing is impossible.” He glanced over at Belle, giving her a small smile in the mirror.

“Licking your own elbow is impossible,” Graham piped up from the doorway, and the rest of the occupants of the make-up room fell about laughing.

“Right, I’ll bear that in mind,” Robin said dryly. “I’ll leave you all in peace now, or it’ll start getting a bit crowded in here, but seriously, Rum - I really need to speak to you asap.”

“Should I be worried?” Gold asked, his words muffled by the washcloth he was scrubbing over his face.

“No… not exactly,” Robin said. “I’ll explain everything, I promise.”

After the younger man had left, Gold frowned in the mirror, the smeared make-up adding a degree of gravitas to his expression.

“I wonder what on earth could be going on?” he muttered. Belle just shrugged; she had as little idea as anyone else, but she couldn’t help coming back to the idea that this was something to do with Zelena. The mood in the make-up room was somewhat subdued after that, but it was more due to puzzlement than anything else, everyone trying to work out why Robin had suddenly arrived under such mysterious circumstances.

“Well, I’d better go and find out what’s going on,” Gold said eventually once he was pretty much de-greened. He leaned in to press a chaste kiss against Belle’s lips. “See you tomorrow, sweetheart.”

Belle smiled as she returned the kiss. She would have quite liked for it to have turned into the sort of kiss that they had shared outside her building the previous night, but there were still quite a few other people in the room, and whilst she had no qualms about their relationship being public, there were limits of propriety.

She watched him leave, and wondered what the conversation would bring.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen

In which Belle has a bad day, the purpose of Robin’s visit to Gold is revealed, and Ruby has Extremely Big News.

To say that Belle was having a bad day would be putting it mildly, and although it seemed like such a comparatively small thing, the fact that she hadn’t seen Gold in the couple of days wasn’t helping. She sighed as she carefully washed out her make-up brushes and sponges and set them down on paper towels to dry. It wasn’t as if she couldn’t go a day without seeing her boyfriend - was he even a boyfriend? They were dating, weren’t they? It was more the fact that no matter how much her day had descended into chaos, the prospect of that quiet time of an evening when she and Gold were alone in the make-up room and free to vent their frustrations and provide each other with moral support was something that kept her going throughout any of the trials and tribulations that she might face.

As it was, there was no prospect of that, and, from the looks of things, no prospect of seeing Gold in a non-professional capacity either. She checked her phone for the umpteenth time but there were still no new messages. It was as if the man had vanished, and this time she didn’t even have Zelena’s witness statement of him fleeing the country as an explanation. She had not spoken to him since he and Robin had gone for their little conference, the day before yesterday, and although he had texted her goodnight these past two nights, she was beginning to worry. This day and the previous had been devoted to filming scenes set in the Force Base headquarters and did not require any of the main cast; the only regular who had been on set was Emma, but only in her capacity as Henry’s mother and chaperone.

Feeling a little bit silly, but only a little bit, Belle picked up her phone and flicked through the sent messages to the latest one.

How did your chat with Robin go? Is everything ok?

“Belle?”

She turned to see Ruby hovering in the make-up room doorway, looking a little concerned for her friend.

“Is everything ok, hun?” the other woman continued.

“Hey Ruby.” Belle nodded as Ruby came into the room cautiously. “Yeah… I’m ok.”

“Good, because you’re giving off that hedgehog vibe when you curl up into a prickly ball and don’t want to talk to anyone.”

So her being out of sorts had been noticed. Belle shrugged.

“I’m just worried,” she said. “I haven’t really heard from Rum these past couple of days, not since Robin arrived.”

“Do you think Robin is somehow working in cahoots with Zelena and has kidnapped him?” Ruby asked. Her voice was so serious that Belle’s gaze shot up and met Ruby’s, and they stayed in that tense stare until Ruby broke away with a giggle. “I’m joking, Belle.”

Belle gave a soft huff of laughter.

“I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t put anything past that woman. Don’t put ideas in my head, Ruby, I’m already stupidly paranoid.” She sighed and sank down into one of the chairs, catching her foot on the lock and lowering it down as far as it would go, the slight hiss from the mechanism the only sound in the room as Ruby perched on the counter, looking at Belle helplessly as she got closer and closer to the floor.

“I just… I wish I knew what was happening! Every time I think we’re making progress in our relationship, we seem to take three steps back. We went on our first date and Rum left the country the next day. We go on our second date and then Robin turns up out of the blue and Rum goes incommunicado for two days. I’m honestly thinking that it’s me, maybe I’m scaring him off. Am I moving too quickly? We’ve been on two dates, and I was the one who stopped us going any further on the second. Or maybe that’s the point, maybe he thinks I’m not as interested as I am…”

“Belle, stop that.” Ruby’s voice was stern. “Gold would have to be blind not to realise how interested you are in him, and vice versa. Honestly, I know the timing’s been awful but these are external events that have put the brakes on your dating, not anything either of you have done. And I mean…” Here she gave Belle a slightly apologetic grimace, knowing that what she had to say might not be well-received. “Neither of you are exactly well-versed in the art of dating, are you?”

Belle had to concede that. She couldn’t remember when she’d last been on a date before she and Gold had made that tentative first step, and Gold had not been linked to anyone romantically since his disastrous relationship with Cora Miller years prior.

“It’s just inexperience making you nervous,” Ruby assured her. “You don’t need to worry that he’s lost interest after two weeks, seriously, you’ve been admiring each other from afar for longer than anyone cares to remember.”

“I know, I know…” Belle sighed again. “But I just feel like I’m second guessing myself all the time. We’ve got what, two weeks maybe, before he goes back to the UK and I stay here, and I know that neither of us wants to think about it but we’ve got to talk about what’s going to happen when that time comes. I can’t just drop everything and follow him; my life’s here. My job’s here.”

Aurelius and Leo’s production company had already contracted her to design the make-up for After Ever After, their next series that would start airing the next year, and as melancholy as she was about her relationship, Belle was incredibly excited at the new designs that she’d been asked to make. Fantasy shows and films were always her favourites to work on; she enjoyed the spectacle that the hair and make-up and costumes together all created and she loved being a part of that process.

“I don’t think that Gold would want you to drop everything and follow him even if you could,” Ruby said, and Belle raised an eyebrow. “Not like that,” she amended. “I think that given the chance he’d be very happy for you to spend every waking moment together, but he respects you. He respects your career and your wishes and he’d want you to make the most of that.”

Belle nodded. “I know. But be that as it may, it doesn’t change the fact that we’ve only got two weeks to work out what we’re going to do next. Our lives are on two separate continents, Ruby. Our paths have only really crossed by chance.”

“Ah yes, but what a chance it was,” Ruby said fondly. “You’ll find a way, I know you will. Love always does.”

Belle didn’t reply, curling up in the chair as she waited for the cast to return from filming to have make-up and wigs taken off. Ruby’s words were true, and she knew that they could make it work. But then again, the course of true love ne’er did run smooth, and she couldn’t help feeling that she and Rum were headed for a slightly bumpy road for a while.

“Buck up,” Ruby continued. “Go and read some smutty fanfic, that always makes you feel better.”

Belle nodded and got up off the floor, readjusting the chair’s position to a normal height. All being well, if Mulan was keeping to her usual posting schedule, then the final chapter of her hilariously naughty fic in which Lacey had been stranded on the Aurora Borealis with Stiltskin would have been posted by now and she could occupy her mind with that. Settling herself back in her chair, she opened the Tumblr app and blinked to see that her inbox was bursting with new messages. Seeing any new messages in her inbox was always a source of intrigue to Belle, wondering what the mysterious communicators could have to say to her and whether it was complimentary or not, but such a flood usually made her wary. Perhaps it was someone sending her a very long message that they’d had to truncate into several short ones due to the site’s character limits.

She opened her inbox, and immediately wished that she hadn’t. The messages were all anonymous and she could tell from the tone that they had all come from the same person, a person she thought that she had managed to block but who must have found themselves a new IP address to message her from.

Belle had been around long enough to receive her fair share of anonymous hate, and usually she was able to bounce back from it and ignore it. Occasionally, if she was feeling in a particularly feisty mood, she would publish the odd message and respond to it as pithily and acidly as she could.

But today, to be on the receiving end of such a persistent campaign of vicious vitriol was not what she needed at all, and for a long time, all she could do was stare at the messages, telling her in the nastiest terms possible that she was useless, worthless, that no-one could ever want her, least of all Rum.

She knew it was Zelena, probably now on the warpath after the events of Monday; the summary end of her screen time and Graham’s exposure of her behaviour on Twitter. Belle was her enemy now, by simple dint of being the one that Rum had chosen, and since there was no other way for Zelena to harass her, the older woman had resorted to unnerving her over Tumblr. She’d already blocked the blog that she used, so unwilling to be beaten in that sense, Zelena had turned anonymous.

“Belle?”

Belle glanced up from her screen at Ruby’s concerned face.

“Belle, are you all right?” Ruby was holding out a tissue; Belle was so shocked by the sudden attack that she hadn’t realised she had begun to cry and silent tears were trickling down her cheeks. She grabbed the tissue and hastily dried her eyes, deleting all the horrible messages and closing the app, determining not to return for a little while. Let Zelena think she’d got the upper hand; at that moment Belle really didn’t care.

“Belle, what’s wrong?” Ruby pressed.

“It’s nothing,” Belle mumbled. “Just stupid Tumblr stuff. Nothing to be worried about.”

“It’s something to be worried about if it’s made you cry,” Ruby pointed out sagely.

“I’m fine, honestly, I just…” Belle wiped her face on the back of her hand. “I’m just having one of those days.”

Ruby gave her a sympathetic smile.

“You go home. I’ve got the clean-up. Call Gold, he’ll make you feel better.”

Belle nodded, although given their sudden lack of communication, she wasn’t entirely sure that she subscribed to Ruby’s view. Going home and hiding from the world did sound like a very good idea though. Between Zelena’s anonymous threats to unmask her (although quite how she was going to go about that, Belle had not yet worked out) and Rum’s reticence, she would be quite happy to curl up under her duvet for a while and not come out again. As she gathered up her things and left the studios, walking slowly in the direction of home, she kept looking at her phone. Nothing had changed; there were no new messages from anyone, although she expected a crowing call from Zelena at any moment. Not that Zelena had her phone number, of course, and not that she really knew what Zelena might be crowing about, but she was in one of those dark frames of mind where everything was possible. Her thumb hovered over the button to call Rum, but she did not press it. What would she say, anyway? “Hi, I’m having a rubbish day and Zelena’s being a bitch, cheer me up please?”

Something in the back of her mind told her that was exactly what she should say, but something else still prevented her from making that call. She would see him in the make-up chair tomorrow morning after all. They could talk then. Although, she was not entirely sure how that conversation would start.

Mulan was already in the apartment when Belle arrived; Thursdays were her day for working the lunch shift at the hotel so she had the afternoon and evening free.

“You’re back early,” she remarked, not looking up from her computer in its usual position on the dining table.

Belle did not respond and just flopped down onto the sofa, kicking her shoes off and curling up into a ball with a groan.

“That bad, huh,” Mulan commented. Belle nodded mutely, and Mulan got up and disappeared into the kitchen, reappearing a few moments later with a mug of tea which she placed on the coffee table beside Belle’s head. Belle smiled her thanks weakly. “What’s up, Bookworm? Tell Auntie Warrior.”

Belle sighed. “Nothing. It’s just been a bad day. Anon hate on top of not enough sleep.”

“Take a nap,” Mulan said, patting her shoulder with a motherly air. “It’ll all be all right after a nap.”

Belle didn’t think that she would be able to get to sleep at all with all the thoughts racing around in her head, the vile messages from Zelena coupled with Rum’s lack of contact and Robin’s sudden appearance, along with the ever niggling thought at the back of her mind that the next day she would be meeting one of her Tumblr followers in the flesh and she had no idea how to go about performing any damage limitation from that which might be needed. All the same, she felt herself dozing off as she wondered whether it might be time to just quietly orphan her fanfics, delete her blog and leave gracefully before anything happened. In the back of her sleepy mind, something told her that doing that would just let Zelena win, and she really didn’t want to do that.

She was vaguely aware of Mulan covering her with a blanket at some point during the evening, but by the time she roused from her uneasy slumber, darkness had well and truly fallen and Mulan was switching the lights on, the illumination from her laptop screen proving inadequate.

“Hey there, Sleeping Beauty,” she said before going back to her computer. Belle rolled over onto her stomach and felt around in her handbag for her phone. There were still no new messages from Gold, or from anyone else for that matter, and she sighed, planting her face into a scatter cushion. What was going on?

“Oh my God.” Mulan’s voice permeated her thoughts suddenly. “Belle, something’s happened.”

“What?”

“Something big.”

“What?”

“Come over here, you’re going to want to see this with your own eyes. Tumblr’s gone batshit.”

Belle raised her face out of the scatter cushion and frowned at her friend.

“I don’t want to deal with Tumblr right now,” she grumbled. “I’m going to delete my blog and remain anonymous for the rest of my life.”

“Don’t be silly, of course you’re not,” Mulan said levelly. “Just come over here and take a look at this. I’m telling you, you’re not going to be disappointed.”

“Mulan, it doesn’t matter how low I set my expectations, someone somewhere always manages to fail them.”

Belle buried her face in the cushion again, and Mulan did not say anything else.

“Belle?” she said eventually. “Oh Belle, I’m sorry.”

She padded across the room and Belle felt the sofa shift as she sat down beside her, and a warm hand came down on her shoulder, rubbing gently.

“What’s wrong?” Mulan asked softly. “It can’t just be some anonymous idiots on Tumblr making you sad. You’ve never let them get to you before. What’s wrong? Is it something with Rum?”

“Yes… No… I really don’t know. I don’t know what I’m doing at all. Every time I think our relationship’s defined properly, something happens that makes me completely unsure again. And the anonymous idiots on Tumblr aren’t exactly helping me feel any better about myself. Especially because it’s just one anonymous idiot and I know exactly who she is.”

“Well, I’m guessing it’s that loathsome greeniestiltskin troll you had to block the other day,” Mulan said.

“It’s more than that,” Belle said. “She’s Zelena.”

“What? Zelena’s been trolling you on Tumblr? What? Why? How? I mean…” Mulan’s stuttering indignation was really quite beautiful to listen to and Belle gave a snort of laughter into her cushion before finally looking up at her friend, whose face was just as much of a picture as she had expected it to be. For a few moments her usually calm and eloquent roommate just opened and closed her mouth with no sound coming out, then she took a deep breath and spoke again.

“How did you find out that it was her?” she asked.

“Well, I’ve had my suspicions for a while,” Belle said. “But it was her last message that gave it away. She didn’t even know she’d giving herself away; that was the one good thing to come out of it. She was talking about Graham’s viral video from the other night, and she used the exact same words that Rum did when he was telling me what had happened, when we were at the Rabbit Hole. When I got a message telling me in no uncertain terms that Rum would rather put his cock in a salad spinner than put it anywhere near me, I knew it was her. He’d rejected her in exactly the same terms.” Belle gave another huff of laughter. “That’s Zelena’s problem, I think. She’s got no creativity. It’s always the same record on repeat with her. She doesn’t know when to give in, and scheming as she is, she never really uses her brain.”

“She really doesn’t,” Mulan agreed. “Which is why I think you’re going to want to see what’s happening online at the moment.”

Belle raised an eyebrow.

“What’s she done now? Has Graham caught her on candid camera again?”

“No, it wasn’t Graham this time, although he’s certainly doing his part to fan the flames and it’s so lovely to see him getting so vehement about the whole thing. No, we actually have Robin Locksley to thank for this one.”

“Robin?” Belle pushed herself up into a sitting position. “He came to the set to talk to Gold a couple of days ago; it was all very secretive, he didn’t want anyone else to know why he was really there. They went off and had a private conference for ages; they were still at it when I left to come home.”

“Well, it appears that after they stopped talking, Robin took to Facebook and Twitter and the result is even more impressive than Graham’s tweet thunderstorm from the other night.”

“Mulan, what’s going on?”

“Well let’s just say that when this is all over and done with, Zelena West will likely never work in the film and television industry again.”

“Mulan. What. Is. Going. On?”

“Rum is not Zelena’s only victim.”

The words took a while to sink into Belle’s brain fully and for a long time she just stared at Mulan, uncomprehending.

It was then that she remembered one very important fact.

Robin’s big break in the acting world, after Her Handsome Hero, had been in Heartbreak Hotel, the same soap in which Zelena made her name. The show had been going on for years and had seen so many cast come and go that it was sometimes difficult to remember the continuity, but Zelena and Robin had spent a year acting together before Robin’s character was killed off in a plane crash off-screen. There had been a few rumours about his hurried departure, with insiders citing creative differences and arguments with cast and crew alike. He had never spoken about it in the media, simply saying that he had felt it was time to move on.

Maybe the truth was about to be revealed.

“Show me,” she said eventually.

Mulan got up and fetched her laptop from the table, handing it over to Belle without a word and simply letting her read.

In light of recent events, most notably a certain video of Zelena West assaulting a co-star on the set of ‘Star Force’, I feel that it is high time I put my own fears and pride to one side and spoke out to prevent anyone else suffering a similar fate.

Five years ago I left the set of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ amid much media speculation since I was still contracted for another six months and my character had just started on a main story arc. Although I am sure this is the reason why I have never since until very recently been offered a multiple season contract, I do not regret my decision to leave.

I left because I could not and would not stand to be tormented by Zelena West any longer.

It was a long post, and Belle thought that he must have had it ready for a while and just come to Gold for some kind of approval or heads-up before he put it out there for all the world to see. She continued to read on, watching this bright young man whom so many had thought of as ‘troublesome’ expose a piece of his history that he could well be forgiven for wanting to keep hidden.

For a few moments after she finished the piece, she could only stare at the screen.

“I think someone needs to set up a support group for actors whom Zelena’s abused,” Mulan muttered. Belle turned to her.

“What’s Zelena said in response?” she asked. “Surely someone’s issued some kind of denial…”

Mulan shook her head.

“She’s said nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nothing from her account, nothing from a publicist, and her agency’s just kept saying ‘no comment’. The Heartbreak Hotel producers are in a complete panic; they think that they’re about to be sued.”

Belle snorted. “Maybe that would improve the quality of the writing,”

“Are you mad? They’re on a shoestring budget as it is, getting sued wouldn’t help! They’d be filming out of someone’s shed somewhere.”

In spite of the dramatic events, both women had to laugh at that remark, but soon the mirth died away and Belle returned her attention to the screen.

“Poor Rum. Poor Robin. It’s a sad state of society when people think they can’t talk about things like this for fear of being ridiculed or blacklisted. Robin’s not had a steady job for years because of this.”

They were suddenly interrupted by a frantic buzzing of the doorbell which jerked Belle out of her melancholy train of thought and caused Mulan to jump off the sofa with an incoherent squeal.

She went over to the intercom and grabbed the phone off the wall.

“Hello?”

Belle couldn’t make out who was on the other end, but whoever they were, they were incredibly excited.

“Ok, ok, calm down and come up,” Mulan said, her brow furrowed as she buzzed their visitor in.

“Who is it?” Belle asked.

“Ruby,” Mulan replied. “I couldn’t tell a word she was saying but whatever it was, she’s in a complete tizz over it.”

A couple of minutes later, just enough time for one very excited make-up artist to run up three flights of stairs, there was an impatient knock at the door and Mulan opened it. Ruby raced into the room, opened her mouth to say something but then thought better of it and bent double to get her breath back.

“Ruby, have you just run all the way from the diner?” Mulan asked incredulously. Ruby nodded, still panting heavily.

“For heaven’s sake, why?”

Ruby just held up a finger to prevent anyone else speaking and finally, having regained her voice, straightened up and exclaimed: “Zelena’s been arrested!”

For several minutes, no-one in the apartment moved or spoke.

“You’re kidding,” Mulan said faintly.

Ruby shook her head violently.

“I saw it happen with my very own eyes! You know her apartment’s not too far from the diner. Well, I was happily minding my own business watching reruns of Downton Abbey and I heard something going on, and when I look out of my window, what do I see but a police car outside Zelena’s building. Naturally, Storybrooke being the sleepy and unexciting town that it is, I was very intrigued and decided to see if I could work out what was going on. So I kept watching, and then a few minutes later, out come two police officers and Zelena, who was not taking the situation very well at all. Let’s just say that she’s definitely not taking advantage of her right to remain silent.”

Mulan and Belle looked at each other, neither really sure what to make of it.

“I’m sure some of the people in the diner must have seen it too,” Ruby pressed. “Someone probably got footage on their phone.” She paused. “I hope they did.”

“Don’t worry, Ruby, we believe you,” Belle said. “Not quite sure I believe this isn’t all a dream, but I believe you.”

“I know, I know. I just want to see the video go online and go viral.”

“So what’s brought this on?” Mulan asked. “Did they find something to link her to Claire’s accident, do you think?”

Belle shrugged. “Possibly. Or maybe…” She glanced back over at Mulan’s laptop, still on the sofa, and Robin’s post still on the screen. “Robin and Rum decided to press charges, perhaps? Maybe neither one had the confidence to do so alone, but since they both knew that they weren’t alone in their situation, they decided to do it.”

Ruby nodded. “It would explain their little chat on Tuesday.”

“It would explain why Zelena hasn’t responded to Robin’s revelations,” Belle added.

The three ladies fell into silence again, until Mulan broke it with a snort of dry laughter.

“Well, this is a turn up for the books,” she said. “I guess we’ll have to wait for the gossip journalists to tell us exactly what’s going on. Still, it should get her out of your hair on Tumblr for a while.”

Belle nodded, and in spite of the suddenness and unexpectedness of the news, she had to smile.

Things were looking up at last, and hopefully, Zelena would face justice.

 

Chapter Text

Part Sixteen

In which Rum and Belle have a chat, Rum makes a proposition, and Belle makes a decision.

Belle had absolutely no idea what she was going to say to Rum when he walked into the make-up room on Friday morning. She’d received a message from him last night, after she and Mulan and Ruby had finally stopped celebrating Zelena’s arrest and gone to bed, and she was taking it as a good sign. 

Can’t wait to see you tomorrow. I’ll explain everything.

She supposed that all she could do was just to await the promised explanation, and to that end she went about setting things up for the day in her usual way, putting the kettle on and making coffee and tea. Her thoughts wended in the direction of the other make-up that she would have to do today. The winner of the Star Force competition would be on set today, and Belle wondered how she was going to go about pretending that she had never met the young woman in question. Well, technically they had never met, in the flesh at least, but they were already friendly on Tumblr. Would Zippy recognise her? Would that make things better or worse?

“Belle?”

Rum’s voice at the make-up room door pulled her out of her spiralling train of thought and she whirled round to see him standing there somewhat nervously. She waved him over with a smile and pressed the waiting mug of tea into his hands as he sat down in his usual chair. 

“Sorry Rum, I was miles away. How are you?” she began brightly. 

Rum smiled, a genuine, happy smile the likes of which she saw so rarely - and even more rarely at this time of a morning. 

“I’m very well, thank you.” He paused. “Sorry I’ve been so… incommunicado,” he began again, hesitantly. “After Robin’s arrival things got a bit complicated.”

“I’m going to guess that these complicated things are linked to Robin’s social media revelations and Zelena’s arrest last night.”

Rum nodded. “Yes.”

He obediently kept his mouth closed whilst Belle ran the shaver over his two-day stubble, then spoke again.

“Robin had been considering making that post for some time but it was seeing Graham’s video that tipped the balance. He would have made that post without consulting me, but he wanted to suggest that we pressed charges. Now that the time had come to expose her for the awful human being we all know her to be, and there was more than one of us involved, and we had some degree of video evidence, we had less fears of not being taken seriously.”

“Is that why you’ve never tried to do anything to stop her before?” Belle asked. Rum nodded. 

“Well, the fact I work with her means I can’t exactly get a restraining order,” he pointed out. “But yes, I didn’t think that my complaints would be handled seriously. But multiple victims, well, the police are more likely to listen to that.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Belle asked gently as she began to sponge the base onto his face. She appreciated that it was a difficult task that he had been performing for the past couple of days, but surely he could tell her what was going on, so that she could make him feel better and assuage his fears. She had managed to do it before when Zelena had got him down.

“I wanted to,” Rum admitted. “But we were advised not to make any mention of the proceedings until they had actually brought her in for questioning, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to explain what was going on without telling you everything. I thought keeping quiet would be better for everyone.” He gave a sigh. “But now it’s over. At least, the first part of it is over. It’s been a bit complicated, what with Robin’s allegations dating back a few years and taking place in a different state. But things are moving in the right direction.”

It wasn’t over, by any manner or means. There would still be a long and complicated investigation into Zelena’s offences and Rum would not be able to put it all behind him and forget about it for a while, but at least things had started to look up. Idly Belle wondered if they would now link her to Claire as well. 

"I'm just glad that you're all right," she said. Rum nodded.

"I'm fine. I think I feel better now than I've done for a while. Even though I know this is just the beginning of it all, there's a sense of relief."

"Something's being done," Belle agreed. "Zelena's behind bars."

"I doubt she'll stay there for long, but hopefully the experience will have shaken her enough." He gave a little smirk at the corner of his mouth. "I have to say, although I normally avoid it like the plague, I'm very intrigued to know what the world of Twitter is saying about these latest developments."

Belle continued to sponge the green paint over his face with a giggle. "I don't know, I've been keeping a low profile. I saw Robin's post last night and I saw the reaction that was beginning to boil up around it, and I thought it might be better just to keep a low profile." If she was being honest, Belle hadn't returned to Tumblr's shores after her deluge of hateful messages the previous afternoon, but now that she knew Zelena was not in a position to be trolling her for the immediate future, she thought that she should be safe to take a peek. 

"I do wonder what kind of things Aurelius and Leo have been bombarded with." Rum shrugged. "Then again, does anyone else know of the arrest?"

"Ruby saw it from her bedroom window and was most annoyed not to have been filming it," Belle mused lightly. "That's how I know myself. I'm sure that even if she herself does not disseminate the news, someone else in the diner or immediate environs will have done. Zelena's not exactly subtle, even when she's being put in a police cruiser in handcuffs."

Rum gave a sigh. "I would have paid good money to have been a fly on the wall at the station, but I guess we'll just have to content ourselves to using our imaginations."

"If her reaction to the security guards at the airport when we came to rescue you the other week was anything to go by then any footage of her arrest is sure to be Internet gold dust."

Belle sat back against the counter, waiting for Rum's make-up to dry, and she checked her phone. She didn't need to go as far as Twitter, her news feed was showing a grainy picture of Zelena being carted away in handcuffs with various sensationalist headlines. When she finally got to Tumblr, she saw that the usual communities she frequented had started an impromptu celebration complete with several video links to myriad different versions of the Wizard of Oz and 'Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead'. 

Mulan, bless her, was doing her utmost to try and calm people down and remind them that Zelena being arrested was just the first step in a very long legal process and even though she was currently languishing in a cell, it was unlikely that she was going to remain there forever and she might not even be charged once the police's preliminary reports had been made. She was, in the main, being ignored, and Belle couldn't say she blamed the rest of the site for their jubilation, especially if she had not been Zelena's only target of anonymous (and slightly less anonymous, if the trolling blogs were anything to go by) aggression. 

Rum was also on his phone, searching with a little less finesse and a lot more concentration than Belle. 

"We're in luck," he said, holding out his phone and showing her a trending Youtube video that had obviously been taken by someone outside the diner watching Zelena's arrest. It was only a few seconds, but it was long enough for them to hear Zelena telling the two police officers exactly what she thought of them and of her arrest in no uncertain terms.

Belle smiled. Whatever happened, that was enough to make her day better. And the fact that she had seen Rum, and he was happy, and she didn't need to worry that he was pulling away. And she'd be seeing him again later, to take his make-up off, and again after that to watch the show in their usual Star Force date. She was glad that they wouldn't have to cancel yet another one, having already missed two thanks to Comic-Con and Rum's trip to England. 

"You could have at least told me that you were ok," she admonished. "Ruby and I had almost begun to believe that Robin and Zelena were working together and he'd kidnapped you and taken you to Hawaii."

Rum raised an eyebrow. "Really?"

Belle didn't reply and Rum chuckled. "Oh Belle. I'm sorry I worried you. I just didn't want to get you involved in the whole thing, in case it blew up spectacularly in our faces. I didn't want to get my hopes up."

"I know. I understand. But next time, at least let me know that you're not stuck in a basement in Honolulu. I've had to rescue you twice already, I don't want to make it into a full-time occupation. Make-up artist, social media representative..."

"Personal superhero," Rum added. Belle blushed at the epithet. "Sometimes I still can't believe how much you do for me. I don't know how I can repay you."

Belle pretended to ponder. 

"I think a kiss is sufficient demonstration of your gratitude," she said. 

"That is something I can definitely provide." He took her hand and pulled her off the counter towards him. "We can always call it rehearsals for next week."

Belle didn't resist as Rum pulled her down into his lap, wrapping his arms around her and slanting his mouth over hers. In that moment, she didn't even care if she smeared Rum's make-up. For all their stolen kisses, this was the closest they had ever been, and Belle felt that there was something different about this kiss. Rum was more relaxed, more eager than he had ever been, and she couldn't help but smile against his mouth at the boost in confidence that knowing he was free from Zelena's claws had brought him. 

Eventually, she pulled away with some reluctance. 

"It's not that I don't want to stay doing this for the next three hours," she said, "but we've got work to do."

Rum nodded, running his thumb over her lips. 

"Don't worry, you're not smudged," he said as she brought her own fingertips to her mouth and glanced over her shoulder in the mirror. "I just can't get over how soft your lips are."

Belle smiled and pressed a kiss to his forehead before carefully brushing on the sparkling layer of make-up that formed his scales. It would be their little secret, this moment between them in the make-up room. They fell into silence for a little while. 

"Star Force date tonight?" Rum asked. 

"Of course," Belle said. "Unless you've got other plans."

"Belle, it's well known that I'm a hermit. I never have other plans. Last minute auditions on the other side of the Atlantic notwithstanding."

"That was, by its very nature, last minute and therefore unplanned."

"In that case no, I have no other plans. Although I was wondering..."

Belle raised an eyebrow at him in the mirror. 

"You've been very accommodating for these past few weeks and I can't deny that I like your cooking." 

Belle gave a snort. "You haven't been coming over long enough. I've exhausted all the dishes that I can actually make and we'll be having take-out for the rest of the run."

"I see no problem with that. But at the same time, I think it's time that I returned the favour. Only if you want, of course, I mean, I'm quite happy to come to yours like normal..."

"No, no." Belle patted his shoulder to stop his nervous gabbling. The confidence she had praised inwardly seemed to be waning a bit, and she needed a second to process what he was actually saying. He was inviting her over to his apartment for their Star Force date. He was going to cook for her. 

Somehow, this felt far more momentous than him coming over to her and Mulan's place. They had been doing that before they crossed the bridge into a romantic relationship, and as she had said to Ruby, the Star Force date was not really a date in that sense of the word. But Belle had never been to Rum’s apartment, and in a way, moving the action there made it more like an actual date. She realised that her heart was pounding at the thought, wondering if perhaps something might come of this. There was no chance of accidental interruption from a roommate, after all, and it would be late into the evening once the show had finished. 

"I'd really like that," she said hastily, realising that she had not actually given Rum an answer and he was looking at her expectantly. The grin he gave her in response was almost schoolboyish in its shy enthusiasm. 

"Great," he said. "You're not allergic to seafood, are you?"

Belle shook her head. "You've seen me devour prawn wontons like they're going out of fashion on more than one occasion," she pointed out. 

"Ah yes. I know. Just wanted to check."

"And you're very sweet for doing so. I would kiss you again, but you're not dry enough yet. I'll store it up for later."

If he hadn't been covered in several layers of paint, Belle knew that Rum would have gone a delicate shade of pink. 

It was going to be a busy day in the studio with a great mixture of scenes being filmed, some simultaneously on different sets, and Belle and Rum did not have much more time alone together before the other make-up artists and cast-members began arriving. 

"Well, you certainly seem a lot perkier than you did yesterday," Ruby commented once Rum had left to pick up his costume and was out of earshot. Belle just grinned, making no mention of the evening's plans. Well, not yet at least. Whilst most of her was incredibly excited about what might happen, a small part of her was nervous. It was a long time since she done anything in that vein, and despite them coming close but no cigar on Monday, she was still a little bit worried about how she might measure up. If they even got that far; she might be jumping to conclusions. 

"Everything's turning out very nicely," she said to Ruby. "I think now that Zelena's out of the picture, we should have a very pleasant end to filming."

Ruby raised an eyebrow, and for a long time she looked like she was going to say something but then shook her head with a smile, seeming to think better of it. 

"Well, as long as you're happy, both of you."

Belle nodded. Everything else aside, she was very happy. 

X

It was one of the busiest days that Belle had known on the set, but the part of the day that she had been anticipating the most had yet to arrive. Zippy was not due into the make-up room until the early afternoon, having completed her tour of the rest of the studio and been treated to lunch with Graham. Belle found herself pacing nervously up and down the room whilst she waited; ignoring Ruby and Ariel's perplexed expressions as they put the finishing touches to the make-up on two of the other alien hostiles. 

"I would ask you why you're so wound up, but I don't think you're going to tell me," Ruby observed dryly, and Belle rolled her eyes. "Relax, it'll be fine, whatever it is that you're worried about. Just take deep breaths and think of Gold covered in chocolate sauce."

One of the alien extras choked on a mouthful of coffee, causing Ariel to be showered in the hot beverage. She made a face at her friend, plucking at her top where it was wet and stained. 

"Thanks, Ruby," she muttered. 

It was at that point that the door to the make-up room opened and Graham came in, accompanied by an excited young woman with short dark hair.

"And here's the last point on our tour, hair and make-up. Ariel, Ruby, Belle; this is Andrea."

"Hi!" Andrea shook hands eagerly with all three make-up artists, and the two extras for good measure before they got up to go to the set. She didn't show any recognition on meeting Belle, and the older woman wasn't sure whether to be pleased or disappointed. In the end, it was probably for the best. That might have engendered some awkward explanations to Graham, even though Ruby and Ariel were no strangers to her online life. She waved Andrea over to her chair and tucked in paper towel around her collar; she was already in her costume of a light camo jacket and combat trousers. She would be playing one of the alien hostiles trying to take over the Aurora, and Belle had elected to keep her make-up and hair simple so that she would not need too much time in the make-up chair when she could be exploring the rest of the set and watching filming going on: base and powder, dark eyeliner, and a small stencil painted on her left cheek to tie her in to the rest of the hostiles with more intricate patterns. Her hair was just spiked up with hairspray, although the amount that Belle used to make it stick caused more than a few coughs in the room. Ruby opened the door to let the fumes out. 

The chatter between the group flowed easily, Andrea enthusing about everything she had seen throughout the day, and Graham lamenting that he hadn't been doing any documentary filming: apparently he'd come across Lance, David, Sean, Mary Margaret and Elsa trying to make a human pyramid in a break between scenes and he was very annoyed that no-one had captured the moment for posterity. He was still describing the scene when Ruby made him be quiet so that she could trim his beard properly without his chin moving around all the time. The AD came to give them a five minute warning, and they began to make their way to the set together. Andrea hung back a little, evidently wanting to speak to Belle alone. 

"Bookworm-with-a-brush?" she asked tentatively. Belle nodded.

"Zippysilver?"

"Yep. I thought I recognised you from your videos, but I didn't want to say anything back there."

Belle smiled. "Thanks. I'm trying to remain anonymous for as long as possible."

"Don't worry, I won't say anything online," Andrea assured her. "I just wanted to check." She laughed. "It's really weird, meeting someone you've spoken to so often but have never actually met before."

"I know what you mean." Belle thought back to her first Skype meeting with Mulan when she had been looking to move to Storybrooke. "But it's nice to meet you nonetheless."

"Likewise."

They had reached the main green screen where most of the day's filming would be taking place; the set was dressed as the brig but Belle knew that the panels would soon be moved to create various other corridors and areas of the Aurora Borealis. The rest of the main cast were already there, gathered in a holding cell that would look very impressive once it had a CGI wall and didn't look like the actors could just walk out of the back of it, along with some of the stunt team and Cara, who was examining all the marks on the floor and checking camera angles. She waved as she saw Belle and Andrea coming over.

"Hello, Andrea. Ready for the main event?"

The younger woman nodded enthusiastically. 

"Well, remember, like we rehearsed this morning, all you have to do is walk up to the mark, look over at Rum and Mary, and then when I shout "cue" you fall forwards onto the crashmat. Dove will catch you so you don't hurt yourself."

Dove, the studio's stunt co-ordinator, was a very tall and imposing man currently crouching out of sight of the cameras. As terrifying as he looked, especially at full height, he was a gentle giant and had been making sure the cast and crew didn't injure themselves in no-doubt amusing ways for as long as the show had been airing. He waved from his position on the floor, and the rest of the cast and crew moved to their marks. Belle took up her usual place, out of the way behind the cameras. She always enjoyed watching filming; she liked to be able to match up the view from behind the scenes with the view that she saw on the screen when she watched the show, seeing the way that everything came together with the special effects to create something visually stunning where before there had been green screen and crashmats. This particular scene was going to be the crew's escape from the brig to retake their ship, with Stiltskin and Officer Snow creating a distraction so that Officer Tink could stun their captor - Andrea. The distraction involved Stiltskin faking a fit, and Belle had to hide a smile at the sight of Rum rolling around on the floor whilst Mary panicked above him. 

Andrea played her part perfectly, and David and Lance began a spontaneous round of applause for her after Cara had yelled cut and Dove had put their guest back on her feet. 

Graham gave Rum a hand off the floor and Belle came over to retouch his face.

"Sometimes I wonder if anyone remembers that I'm a classically trained actor," he muttered. Belle just laughed and pressed a kiss to his forehead, his lips still being too wet from the paint.  Although not normally demonstrative on set, she didn't think that anyone would notice.

It was then she spotted Andrea watching them with an amused smile, and Belle gave a hasty cough, moving away from Rum to let them reset for the next take.

Andrea was still wearing her little smirk when they finished the second take and the crew began to redress the set for the next scene. Belle raised her eyes as she came over, praying that she wouldn't get an interrogation.  

"Come on, let's get you de-aliened, then you can come back and watch the rest of the filming." 

Andrea accepted this with good grace and she and Belle made their way back to the make-up room. 

"So," she said eventually. "The rumours are true about you and Rum then? I'd had this strange little feeling ever since Comic-Con, but the pictures were too blurry for me to really be able to tell that it was you." 

There was a hint of mischievousness in the younger woman's eyes and Belle gave a slightly sheepish nod. 

"Yeah, we've been going out for a few weeks now. We weren't together at Comic-Con though, that was just two friends looking out for each other."

Andrea smiled. "Don't worry, your secret's safe with me. But all the same, I'm really glad. Especially after all that stuff happening with Zelena. I think you'll make a good couple." She paused. "It's strange because I've never met you before, but I still feel like I know all about you." 

"Yeah, Tumblr will do that."

"Still, it's been nice to meet you in the flesh, Bookworm."

"You too, Zippy."

Once Andrea had been unmade up and returned to Graham's chaperoning, Belle found herself alone in the make-up room. It couldn't be denied - people from Tumblr were going to recognise her once she had made her small-screen debut. Some were recognising her already, but had blessedly kept quiet about it. 

Not for the first time, Belle considered a subtle break with fandom, without fanfare, just slipping quietly away, and leaving people to draw their own conclusions once the episode aired. On the other hand, she loved Tumblr. She loved the community that she had become a part of, and the friends - like Mulan and Jefferson - that she had made before she had ever become involved in Star Force. It would be a shame to have to leave it all behind. She wondered if she would be able to get away with it - not denying that she was Belle French, make-up artist and girlfriend of Rum Gold, one-time Star Force actress, but not acknowledging it either. 

No, that wouldn't work. It would make life awkward at best. 

Sitting in the make-up chair, Belle pondered. She was going to come clean - not that her subterfuge was all that deceptive; she had never actively lied, just omitted a few details to protect the identities of her friends and colleagues. 

A video maybe. Like her make-up tutorials. She could make a quick video explaining who she was and that she really wanted to stay on Tumblr as part of the fandom, queue it up, and wait a few days to gauge the reaction. She could get Mulan to report back for her, and that would enable her next steps. 

Might be a good idea to set up a new blog that was still completely anonymous, just in case. She could create herself a brand-new personality of a sixty-three year old spinster with seven cats living in Tunbridge Wells. Then again, perhaps that was taking it slightly too far. She had a few weeks to work out what she was going to do; they hadn't finished filming the finale yet, after all. 

Putting her online anonymity and the forthcoming lack thereof to the back of her mind, she found her thoughts directed back to the here and now, or more specifically the immediate future. The Star Force date. Tonight. A date with Rum, in his apartment, and the possibility of something more. Was it the right time? Ruby and Mulan had already pointed out to her, unnecessarily often, that she didn't have a lot of time to take things to the next level, but at the same time, she really didn't want to rush it. 

Still...

She couldn't panic. Ruby would probably never forgive her for panicking at the prospect of a date. But she could ask for advice. Ruby was not the best person to ask for advice when it came to these sort of matters, Mulan would be at work, so of easily available confidantes, that left Jefferson. 

She dialled his number before she could second guess herself. 

"Hello Poppet. How's things?"

"Very good. Things are extremely good, Jefferson."

"I'm glad to hear it. May I ask why you're calling me at four in the afternoon whilst you're at work? Not that it's not lovely to hear from you at any time, but it's slightly unusual."

"I've got a date, Jeff."

"Congratulations!" There was a pause on the other end of the line. "Although, that's not exactly news, is it? You and Rum have been together for a few weeks. Is there anything special about this particular date?"

"I think this might be *the* date, you know."

"Aha." Jefferson sounded far too wise and all-knowing for his own good. "The third date."

She supposed it was their third official date, not counting the Star Force dates at her apartment. 

"Yeah. And I may or may not be slightly nervous. Should I put my toothbrush and pyjamas in my handbag or will that scare him off?"

"Poppet, if it gets to toothbrush stage, you will not be needing the pyjamas. Trust me. Besides, if the aforelisted items are in your bag, he won't see them to be scared off, will he?"

"True enough." She paused, wondering if anyone thought her strange for confiding these fears in Jefferson instead of any of her female friends, but Jefferson was her oldest friend aside from Will, and she'd helped him enough during his courting of Grace's stepmother. 

"It always pays to be prepared," Jefferson said sagely. "Besides, if it doesn't happen, then you haven't lost anything, have you?"

"No." Other than time with Rum in an intimate capacity, Belle thought to herself. She realised that she was going to be a little disappointed if nothing happened now that she was all anticipation.

"Whatever happens, Belle, just relax and enjoy it. I may only have met him once when escaping from an airport, but Rum's a good man, and he's good for you."

"He's not good for my blood pressure," Belle said, and she went on to tell Jefferson about the past couple of days. Her friend just chuckled on the other end of the phone.

"All right, I'll give you that," he said once he'd managed to compose himself. "But when you're with him, you're happier than I've ever seen you. Possibly because you've been moping about after him for so long."

Belle gave a snort. "I have not been moping!"

"You know what I mean. Still, enjoy your date. Absolutely do not let me know the details. Grace is already looking at me strangely from the kitchen."

Belle rolled her eyes unseen. "Thanks for the pep talk, Jeff."

"Any time, Poppet. Give my love to Mulan."

"Will do."

They said their goodbyes and Belle hung up, prevented from doing a happy little dance in her chair by the arrival of some of the cast from the set, their filming having finished. She jumped up out of the seat to allow Rum to sit down, and she gave him a broad smile in the mirror. He quirked an eyebrow. 

"You seem very happy."

"Just excited," Belle replied. 

"I shall try not to disappoint."

Belle couldn't stop grinning as she took his make-up off. No matter what happened, it was going to be a good date. She was sure of it. 

X

She was still a little nervous when she knocked on Rum's apartment door, but it was a good nervousness, an anticipatory thrill rather than any kind of fear. Rum opened the door wide and waved her inside. Belle couldn't say that it was the most casual she had ever seen him, because she mostly saw him in battered jeans and dressing gown of a morning, but it was the most casual she had ever seen him outside of the studios; knowing that he preferred to wear his tailoring as armour, it made her happy to see him now in sharp, dark blue jeans and a white shirt. He was relaxed and comfortable in his own home, and she had been invited into that domain. She took a look around as Rum led her into the small open plan living area. It was much smaller than her and Mulan's apartment, and she couldn't see any touches that really made it a home. It seemed rather bleak, melancholy almost. Then again, she supposed that to Rum it wasn't really a home, just a place to live whilst he was filming Star Force. She wondered what his actual home looked like, and where it was. Scotland, she supposed, but then she wasn't sure. He had lived with Milah in Scotland, but ever since then she had never known him have a base of operations anywhere; he moved around wherever the work took him. 

"Dinner's almost ready," Rum said from the kitchen before bringing over a glass of wine from the bottle of rosé she had brought with her. "What are you thinking about?" he asked, tilting his head on one side as he tried to read her expression. 

"Home," Belle said, trying to be purposefully vague. She settled herself on the sofa, smoothing down the fabric of her skirt, suddenly unaccountably conscious of what she looked like, what she was wearing. She'd never been this nervous or self-aware before a date, much less a regular Star Force date, and she wondered if it was really just the change of setting that was causing the difference or if there was something else in the air. 

"Yeah." Rum sat down beside her and looked around the apartment; completely fit for purpose but with blank walls and bare shelves, nothing with any personality. "It's not exactly cosy, but it's here, and close to the studio."

Belle looked at him, taking a sip of her wine to try and relax her. "Where is home for you, then?"

Rum sighed. "I don't really know." He wasn't looking at her, staring over her shoulder out of the window at the darkening sky. "I have a house in Scotland; I inherited it from my aunts, and I sometimes live there when I'm between jobs. The rest of the time it's rented out as a holiday home. I've got a very capable property agent and housekeeper who look after it for me, but I'm so rarely there that I'm not sure it's home anymore. Still, it's where I grew up and where I always end up coming back to, so I suppose that counts for something." 

He turned to face her properly. "What about you? You must be pretty settled in Storybrooke now."

Belle nodded. "Yeah, but it's not the same really. I've got a roommate, and as much as I love living with Mulan, I'm going to want to get my own place at some point. I've only been here since the start of Star Force, I was in Boston before then. But now I'm pretty established with the studio so I've got roots here, this is where I'll be for the foreseeable future."

It was there on the table between them now, although it had not been said in as many words. The separation was inevitable, but how long that separation would last was a different matter. If Rum had no particularly strong bond to Scotland, then maybe he would find his home in a place where he did have a stronger bond. A place like Storybrooke, perhaps. Belle shook herself mentally. She was getting ahead of herself, and that wouldn't do when this might well be an incredibly enjoyable evening; she didn't want anything to mar that. 

"Do you ever think about going back to Australia?" Rum asked presently. 

Belle shook her head. 

"No. My dad's there, but I've got no other family there, and I'm in contact with him regularly enough. Australia hasn't been my home for a long time."

The kitchen timer began to bleep, saving them from going down that route of conversation any further, and Rum went over to serve their food; pasta with prawns in a creamy tomato sauce. 

"Oh Rum, this is really good!" Belle exclaimed after a few bites. Rum chuckled. 

"There's no need to sound so surprised, you know."

Belle reached across and batted his arm playfully. "I don't mean it like that, silly." 

"I know. I'm very glad you like it. Had I known that was the reaction I was going to get I would have done it sooner."

Belle knew better than to ask "why didn't you" and just clinked her wine glass against his. 

"Well, you're a very good cook," she said instead. 

Rum shuffled in his seat; he looked like he was about to blush. "I do my best. I like cooking, but usually I'm too knackered to start making a meal from scratch by the time I get home from the set."

“I suppose that is a great advantage to having a chef for a roommate,” Belle conceded. “Mulan’s speciality is desserts so we’re never short of those, but she’s really good at everything, and there’s usually something in the fridge whenever I get in.” She paused. “We don’t exactly work sociable hours, either of us, but we get on well. Maybe the fact we don’t see each other as often as some other roommates has been the key to harmony.”

Rum shrugged. “Possibly. Although I don’t think it would be hard not to get along with you.”

“You don’t know the half of my weird habits yet,” Belle replied with a grin, taking another large mouthful of pasta.

“It takes a lot to shock me,” Rum assured her. He glanced over at the clock on the microwave and gestured towards the sofa. “It’s almost time. Shall we finish in the other room? I know you don’t like to miss any of the opening credits.”

“They’re part of the programme!” Belle protested as she took her plate over to the sofa and balanced it on her knees; Rum followed her and then went back for the wine and the cheesecake that would be their dessert.

“I’m no pastry chef,” he said apologetically as he put the container down. “It’s Granny’s finest.”

Belle just laughed, still occupied with her first course, and they fell into a comfortable silence as the all too familiar theme music began to play.

“I like this episode,” Belle said presently once the show was underway. “Archie said that it was a nightmare getting the lighting right, but it was a really interesting premise. You liked it too, if I remember.”

“I did, it was a departure from the norm. And I got a week without the contacts in, which is always a blessing in my opinion.”

The episode in question took part in the main on an alien ship which had asked for help from the Aurora Borealis; the aliens in question were extremely photosensitive and their ship very dark – leading to an exasperated lighting crew trying to make the set as dark as possible but still able to see the actors, and all the main cast wearing night vision goggles for most of the shoot.

“I did enjoy working with Ursula,” Rum said. “I’d not worked with her before but Cara’s directed her a few times and along with Ella the three of them have been known to be a force to be reckoned with.”

“Personally I think Ursula alone is a force to be reckoned with,” Belle said, remembering the guest actress and her sharp sense of humour. “It had some nice Laceskin moments in there as well,” she continued. If Rum was surprised by the contraction of the names then he didn’t show it; he had been exposed to the fandom in dribs and drabs for long enough to know most of the intricacies of shipping. “Even though we don’t see her or hear her voice, you can see the love there when Stiltskin’s talking to her back at Force Base over the radio.” She glanced over at Rum. It was no secret that she was his image of Lacey, and she had to wonder. “And then there’s the moment with the newborn Imperial when we get a nice glimpse of Stiltskin as a possible father.”

Rum gave a soft huff of laughter.

“I sometimes think that you read too much into these things, but then I remember you saying that you have to take what crumbs you can get.”

“Oh, we take them and we run with them,” Belle affirmed. “There will be a bunch of Daddystiltskin fics after tonight, you can take it from me.”

“Will you be writing any of those?” Rum asked, amused.

“Are you kidding? Of course I am. I’ve already written two where Stiltskin and Lacey have kids. If there’s one thing a fandom always loves, it’s the possibility of future generations, especially for a character like Stiltskin’s. Showing that there’s a squidgy side under his prickly personality.”

Rum just snorted and they fell into silence for the rest of the episode. He switched the TV off after the final credits rolled and the ads started, and he turned to Belle. 

"So..."

"Now what shall we do?" Belle asked. She'd kicked her shoes off and curled her feet up under her on the sofa, and she was in no hurry to uncurl and get up to leave. It didn't look like Rum was in any hurry to get rid of her either, his arm still around her shoulders where they had fallen into the cosy position during the show. 

"Well, the night is still young, I suppose," Rum said. There was a guardedness in his voice, and Belle was unable to read him. His eyes were still deep and unfathomable, but she thought - she hoped - she could see the desire in them.

"Neither of us are working tomorrow," Belle added. 

There was a pregnant pause, both of them unconsciously leaning in, until Belle took the initiative, closing the gap between them and slanting her mouth over Rum's, carding her fingers into his hair and feeling his arms come around her. His lips were soft and pliant beneath hers, opening eagerly for her. She wasn't sure who initiated her scrambling into his lap; it was probably her but he was more than willing to help, pulling her in close as they continued to kiss: lazily, with no desire to stop, but still with that hot hunger bubbling just below the surface. 

Rum's hands were languid, a little hesitant as they gradually moved down her back to hold her waist, and Belle decided to take the initiative, kissing her way down his jaw towards his ear and back again. She felt him squeeze her waist as she nibbled on his bottom lip, and she willed him to move his hands down further. She was practically devouring him, after all, she didn't think that there could be much doubt as to her intentions. 

"I want you to touch me," she whispered in his ear, taking one of his hands and placing it on her bare thigh where her skirt had ridden up. "Do you want to touch me?"

"Oh God, Belle, yes."

His fingers slipped below the hem of her skirt and pressed needily into her thigh as he leaned in to steal another kiss. There was more urgency now, more desperation and heady anticipation, and Rum's eyes were bright and wild as Belle pulled away, her heart pounding in her chest. This was it. 

"Bedroom?" he suggested tentatively, his voice so full of hope tinged with nerves that all Belle could do was grin and kiss him again. 

"I guess it's a good job I brought my toothbrush," she mused when she let him up for air again. 

Rum raised an eyebrow. 

"You brought your toothbrush?"

"You never know what might happen."

For a moment, Belle thought that she'd scared him off, but then he shook his head with a chuckle, pulling her in closer against his chest.

"You're amazing," he murmured before capturing her lips again, and Belle smiled against his mouth, losing herself in their kiss...

 

Chapter Text

Part Seventeen

In which Ruby causes a commotion, Leroy causes a distraction, and Belle and Rum come to an important and optimistic conclusion.

Belle woke with the warm early morning sunshine pushing its way through the half-open curtains, and she smiled at the memory of the previous evening, burrowing further into the sheets on Rum's bed and raising her head with a furrowed brow when she did not find the man himself anywhere under the covers. She glanced around the room, but it was clear that he wasn't there. Once her brain had woken up a bit from its sleepy state, she knew that she really should have realised that he must have got out of bed in order to open the curtains a bit, because they had definitely been closed when they'd gone to sleep, but she forgave herself for that logical lapse and sat up with a yawn, taking advantage of the empty bed to stretch out all her limbs. Time to go and find where Rum was hiding. She could hear the tap of his cane moving around in the other room, so it wasn't exactly much of a mystery, but nevertheless. Belle slipped out of bed, wondering what to put on. Her clothes from the previous day were in a crumpled heap at the side of the bed, but she didn't really want to get fully dressed again in case the morning might herald a repeat performance of the evening. She certainly wasn't averse to the idea.

Rum's old dressing gown that he wore to the set in a morning was hanging on the bathroom door and she padded over, slipping her arms into the sleeves and tying the belt loosely. It was a well-loved and well-worn thing, and probably hadn't been washed in a while, but it smelled of Rum, and it made Belle smile, the thought that she was now in a position to be wearing something of his, moreover something that she had linked with him so inextricably since the first time that she had done his make-up four years ago. In a way it almost brought their relationship back full circle, having completed the first cycle and now ready to continue onwards onto the next exciting step.

Rum was pottering about in the kitchen in a t-shirt and striped pyjama pants when she emerged, and he smiled when he caught her eye, his hair tousled and a sleepy, satisfied, somewhat smirking expression on his face.

"Good morning," he said. "Did you sleep well?"

Belle nodded, coming over to him and hooking her arms around his neck, leaning in for a kiss which he readily provided.

"Yes, thank you." She quirked a brow with a grin. "You tired me out."

Rum raised his eyebrows in good-natured disbelief as he slipped his arms around her waist. "You flatter me, my darling." He paused, taking in her attire. "I think you wear it better than I do." Belle giggled and buried her face in his chest, letting him bring a hand up to stroke her hair. Behind them, the kettle boiled and flicked off, and reluctantly she let him pull away to pour two mugs of tea.

"I'm afraid that there's a distinct dearth of breakfast foods in the house," he said, holding out a mug to her. "But I do have tea. I was going to bring it to you in bed but you pre-empted me somewhat."

Belle took the proffered mug and brought it to her lips, blowing on the hot beverage to cool it and watching the surface ripple.

"We could take it back to bed," she mused.

"Indeed we could. Lead on, Macduff."

They returned to the bedroom and slipped back into bed still clothed, and Belle snuggled up next to Rum as they sipped their tea. It was such a quaint, domestic scene, but it fit them somehow, Belle felt. They'd known each other long enough prior to taking this intimate step that it was comfortable. Drinking tea whilst still half asleep was something that they did on a regular basis anyway. She tilted her head on one side, looking at Rum's mug. She recognised it from the Star Force set; it was the 'Galaxy's Best Doctor' mug that normally lived in the medbay on Stiltskin's desk.

"Did you steal that from set?" she asked plainly.

"Steal is a strong word," Rum hedged. "I... liberated it." He paused. "I always take it back if it looks like I'm going to need it."

Belle just looked at him, raising an eyebrow. "Why?"

Rum shrugged. "I always try to take some kind of memento away from a set with me. And it's a really nice mug."

"I now have visions of Mal frisking you every time you leave the Sense and Sensibility set." Belle snorted. "Is it just chinaware you collect, or other things?"

"Whatever takes my fancy at the time." He paused. "I have a couple of fake bunnies from A Slight Crisis back at the house in Scotland. Mrs Potts always has to hide them away whenever people are staying there as they're so lifelike people mistake them for taxidermy and they can get a bit freaked out, but I assure you that all the rabbits were in fact animatronic and no animals were harmed in the making of that miniseries."

"What else?" Belle enjoyed hearing Rum talk about his previous works; she only really knew them as a spectator and it was always interesting to get little insights into his life before Star Force.

"I have the glasses I wore for Periodic. They're plain glass, obviously, but Emily liked them and said they made me look dignified so I've kept them in homage to her." He paused. "She was a good kid."

Belle nodded, feeling it was probably a good idea to change the subject. Rum's young co-star had been a troubled soul, no-one could deny that, but her murder at just nineteen years old had still shocked the entertainment community.

"You do look good in glasses," she said. "Glasses and a bit of scruff." She ran a finger over his chin where his shadow was coming through rough. "Not that I don't enjoy the immaculately put together Rum Gold as well, but there's something enticing about your slightly more dishevelled side."

Rum rubbed a hand over his chin and raised an eyebrow, unconvinced. Belle just giggled and buried her face in the covers, and they remained like that for a long time.

"We could go to Granny's," Rum said eventually. "For breakfast, I mean."

Belle laughed. "That's a surefire way to let the cat out of the bag," she pointed out.

"Not necessarily. We could just be two people going out on a breakfast date."

"No-one will buy that theory," Belle said. "Especially not Ruby, who will undoubtedly be at Granny's on a Saturday morning."

"Well." Rum paused. "Who's to say that letting the cat out of the bag would be a bad thing?" He sounded a little unsure, and Belle looked over at him over the top of her mug. "I mean, everyone already knows that we're together. We're both adults, after all. Unless you'd rather keep it under wraps for a little longer. I don't mind..."

Belle pressed a finger against Rum's lips to stop his nervous gabbling. If he thought that she didn't want her friends to know that she'd slept with him because she was ashamed of having done so, ashamed of him for whatever reason, then she was going to have to put an end to those thoughts. Swiftly and vigorously and in a manner that possibly involved divesting him of his pyjamas in the near future.

"I'd be very happy to go to Granny's for breakfast and show you off," she purred. "I can't wait to see the look on Ruby's face, actually."

Rum smiled. "It'll be a picture. Someone might have to take a photo for posterity."

"Might be a good idea to go home and get a change of clothes first," Belle said. "Although I'm not looking forward to Mulan's reaction quite as much. Well, I suppose that she was working late last night and I can always hope that she hasn't woken up yet and won't have noticed that I was gone overnight."

"Surely she won't chastise you too much," Rum said. "At least, I hope she doesn't. I've only met her once but you always make her sound like a force to be reckoned with."

"Oh, she is. She's just a little protective, that's all. And a taekwondo black belt."

"If that's the case, then I think that I'm the one who ought to be worried about her reaction, not you. How long should I remain in hiding for?"

"Don't worry, I'll protect you." Belle laughed and leaned in for another kiss. "So, breakfast at Granny's." Her stomach gave an aptly timed growl and she glared down at it under the covers. "Sorry, that's not a reflection on your cooking, I promise."

"I'll take it as a compliment," Gold said dryly. "Breakfast at Granny's."

“Or maybe breakfast from Granny’s, but eaten elsewhere to avoid the stares of the breakfast crowd and Ruby’s incessant questioning, which could put something of a dampener on the meal,” Belle suggested. “It’s a nice enough day. We could wander down to the docks and see if Ariel and Eric have gone surfing.”

“In the North Atlantic.”

Belle shrugged. “Stranger things have happened, and you know that Ariel is a fan of all things aquatic. Sometimes I think she was a mermaid in another life. She’s really enthusiastic about the mermaids that Leo and Aurelius are writing into After Ever After and she’s giving me all kinds of weird and wonderful ideas for their make-up.”

Gold chuckled and eventually nodded. “All right. Picnic breakfast from Granny’s. Truth be told I’m not sure I could eat with the weight of Mrs Lucas’s gaze on me all the time.” He paused. “Is it true that she has a crossbow?”

“I’m not sure, but let’s not tempt fate.” Belle put down her empty mug on the nightstand and slipped out of bed. “I’ll meet you there?” she asked, picking up her clothes from where they were scattered on the floor and heading towards the bathroom. She was comfortable in her own skin, but their relationship was still new enough that getting dressed in front of Rum seemed to be going too far.

“I’m not going to make you do the walk of shame on your own,” Rum called from the bedroom as she quickly dressed. “It feels ungentlemanly not to walk you home after a date.”

“Despite the fact that it’s technically the morning after the date?”

“Still after the date.”

“Uh huh.” Belle quickly brushed her teeth and stowed her toothbrush back in her handbag. “Ok. I’m sure you can amuse yourself whilst I’m at home and then we can continue the date. Date two point zero, if you will.”

“Yes, I’ve got a couple of errands to run, to get ready for the move back.”

Belle stopped in her tracks, hand on the bathroom door handle. There it was, the thing that she didn’t want to think about and had not thought about all night and all morning thus far. The thought that no matter how good things were now, they would, inevitably, be coming to an end very soon.

She shook herself and left the bathroom; Rum was also dressed in his jeans, buttoning a fresh shirt.

“The scruff definitely suits you,” she said, and she looked down at her own rather creased blouse and skirt. “Doesn’t look quite as good as me.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I think you look pretty good.” There was a smirk at the corner of his lips, and Belle felt the need to kiss it off him.

“Come on,” she said once they broke apart. “Let’s go before I do something irretrievable and we don’t get any breakfast at all.”

“Now that would be a tragedy.”

The walk back in the direction of Belle’s apartment building was a pleasant one, and Rum peeled off a couple of streets before they arrived to go off in the direction of the post office, which would not be open for much longer on the Saturday morning. Thankfully they did not meet all that many people on their journey, and those that they did meet were too wrapped up in their own thoughts to pay Belle’s state of disorder much mind. She reached her front door without incident and let herself in quietly, wondering if she would be able to take a shower and get changed without Mulan realising that she had not been home the night before. Sadly, as she put her keys in the bowl on the sideboard, this was not to be. Almost as soon as the door had closed behind her, Mulan had appeared in her bedroom doorway, arms folded, mouth set, and her ferocious expression completely at odds with her fuzzy cable knit socks with bright blue pompoms dangling from them.

“And what time do you call this?” she asked, tapping her foot impatiently against the worn carpet.

Belle checked her watch.

“Quarter past ten?” she said blithely.

“In the morning!” Mulan exclaimed. “Where’ve you been, young lady?” Then her stern expression melted into a grin. “So, how was it?”

Belle took a deep breath and assumed her most demure and prim expression.

“A lady doesn’t kiss and tell,” she said haughtily, moving through the apartment towards the bathroom.

“Oh, come on, Belle. You’ve been writing porn about the man for years, can you at least give me a hint at how he measures up in reality? For science purposes!”

“No, Mulan! I’m not sharing the details of my love life with you! You don’t tell me anything about yours!”

“That’s because I don’t have one at the moment, and that’s beside the point. This is a momentous occasion!”

Belle rolled her eyes and shut the bathroom door behind her, turning the shower on to full blast to drown out Mulan’s continued protests through the door. She supposed it was something of a momentous occasion, the culmination of so many months of wondering. And it was true that she’d written enough smutty fanfics about Rum’s characters. But in a way, that was different. This was the real thing now, and it was Rum that she had slept with, not Stiltskin or Wetherford or any one of his other myriad roles. She had the man himself, and there was no way to compare that to fiction because the two simply didn’t exist in the same spheres. Idly she wondered if her own experiences would shape the way she wrote any future naughty fics. Maybe. Maybe not. Stiltskin was still Stiltskin, after all. The character hadn’t changed even if her relationship with the actor had.

Mulan was still waiting in the corridor after she came out of the shower and Belle sighed.

“Seriously, Mulan, I love you but this is ridiculous. I’m meeting Rum in fifteen minutes, I need to get a move on.”

“Meeting him in fifteen minutes! You just spent an entire night with him!”

“We’re having breakfast together and I didn’t fancy going to Granny’s in last night’s clothes.”

“You didn’t even go to Granny’s last night, it’s not like anyone’s going to remember!” Mulan called through her bedroom door. “And you know that Ruby will know even if no-one else does. She’s got a sixth sense about these kind of things!”

“It’s a chance I’m willing to take.”

There was a long silence, and Belle was beginning to hope that Mulan had in fact given up her mission to pump her roommate for information as a bad job, but then her voice spoke again.

“I’m pleased it’s finally happened,” she said, and there was genuine happiness in her voice, her frustrated pseudo-outrage gone. “Perhaps things will be a bit more defined for you now that you’ve crossed that bridge from friends to dating to lovers.”

Friends to lovers. It was one of Belle’s favourite tropes, and she nodded to herself in her mirror with a small smile as she dabbed on a dash of mascara. Yes. Things were more defined now, and she knew just how to broach the subject with Rum.

Mulan ambushed her once again as she came out of her bedroom in a bright green dress that she hoped would bring her some kind of luck, throwing her arms around her friend in a tight hug.

“Enjoy every minute of it,” the other woman said earnestly, before pushing her in the direction of the front door. “Go on and have your breakfast date. I shall try very hard not to fill Tumblr with posts about how happy I am that the inevitable finally happened and my roommate finally got laid by the man of her dreams.”

“Mulan, if I find one post about your thoughts on last night on my dashboard when I next log in, you will be in unspeakable amounts of trouble!”

Mulan just laughed and closed the door behind her, and Belle made her way back out of the building towards Granny’s. At least she had Mulan’s seal of approval, not that she was expecting anything less. Her roommate had been quietly cheerleading the relationship ever since Belle had invited Rum over for the first Star Force date.

Rum was waiting on the corner a block away from Granny’s, and she trotted to catch up to him, hooking her arm through his as they walked the final few yards to get to the diner.

“Ready to face the music?” he asked lightly.

“We’ll be fine,” Belle said. “Just two people on a breakfast date. Happens all the time.”

Rum raised an eyebrow and pushed the door open for her, stepping in after her.

Ruby was behind the counter as they came up to place their order, seconded into helping out with the Saturday brunch rush whilst Liza and Faith rushed around clearing tables and bringing out plates, and as soon as she saw Belle and Rum together, she leaned in over the cash register. She took in Belle’s minimal and hastily done make-up and her damp hair pulled into a messy braid. She took in Rum’s unshaven face and unusually casual clothing.

She gave a wolfish grin, wiggling her eyebrows.

“Well, what can I get you two lovebirds this morning?” she purred. “The full East Coast breakfast? Got to keep your strength up, you know.”

“Ruby, please, you have customers,” Belle said. She glanced to the side; Rum’s ears had gone a little bit pink.

“Oh, Belle, you know that everyone knows everyone in this town. Maybe oatmeal?” She leaned in and whispered theatrically and not at all subtly in Belle’s ear: “You know they say that oats are an aphrodisiac.”

There was a squeal as Liza dropped the stack of plates she was carrying, sending half-eaten pancakes scattering across the floor. Belle carefully sidestepped a stray blueberry and Ruby rushed to help clean up, leaving Granny to come out of the kitchen to investigate the commotion and take their orders.

“You know, you brought that one entirely on yourself,” Belle said lightly as order was restored and they were waiting for their takeout.

“I know, but I’m right, aren’t I?”

“Ruby…”

“Hey, I’m not going to ask for details. I can get those in the make-up room on Monday.”

“Hey, Ruby!” Leroy was calling from one of the booths where he and his brothers were sat with their breakfasts. “Could we get some more coffee please?”

Ruby sighed and went to get the coffee pot, and Belle glanced over at Leroy, who winked at her before engaging Ruby in conversation about the repairs she was having done to her car until Belle and Gold’s food was ready and they were able to leave the diner without any further remarks.

“I’ll have to thank Leroy when I see him on Monday,” Belle said with a giggle as they meandered down towards the docks to eat in peace. “Ruby’s going to be livid when she finds out that we slipped out of her grasp.”

“I’m sure she’ll get over it,” Rum said. “I’m beginning to think that this last week of filming is going to be an extremely eventful one.”

Belle nodded. “Yes, I think it is.”

“We have your starring role to look forward to, after all.”

“That’s another thing that Ruby’s going to be livid about,” Belle mused. “That I didn’t tell her and Ariel. I suppose there’s no harm in it now that Zelena’s out of the picture,” she added. “I’m not in quite as much danger of making a sudden and violent acquaintance with a set of stairs. All the same, it’s been quite fun keeping the secret. I can’t wait to see the looks on everyone’s faces.”

“I think Mal’s looking forward to it too,” Rum remarked. “She keeps messaging me with a countdown to Stiltskin and Lacey’s reunion. I know it’s the last scene that we’re due to film and we’ll wrap the entire series with it, but she does seem very focussed on that one particular aspect of it.”

“She’s just as invested as the fans are,” Belle said sagely. “For all she’s been unseen, Lacey’s been a driving force throughout the series, Stiltskin’s primary motivation.” She paused. “I just hope I do her justice.”

“Of course you will.” They found a choice bench by the waterside and sat down, taking out the breakfast containers, and once they were comfortably ensconced, Rum glanced at her sideways, meeting her eyes. “You’ve always been my Lacey.”

Belle thought about her smutty fics, about the times she’d imagined herself in Lacey’s role as she wrote those sexy scenes, and she thought about fiction and reality blending together with a blush, busying herself with her breakfast bagel to try and hide it. For a few minutes they ate in silence, enjoying their food and each other’s company and watching the water, occasionally stealing looks at each other when they thought the other wasn’t aware and failing. Once she’d finished her bagel and wiped the grease from her fingers, Belle sat back, accepting Rum’s warm arm around her shoulders.

“Did you get your errands run?” she asked. He nodded.

“Yes, I’m all set. It’s going to be strange, filming in the UK again. I’m so used to Storybrooke and the way of life here.”

Belle chanced to look at him but he was staring out to sea.

“Rum…” she began hesitantly, not wanting to break the easy atmosphere that they had fallen into, but equally not wanting their relationship to remain in this void, steadfastly not thinking about the future, any longer. “What happens now? I mean, this is great. This is wonderful, in fact, and I wouldn’t ask for it to have happened any other way. But by this time next week, you’ll be getting ready to leave, and I’ll still be here.”

“I know.” Rum sighed, and pulled her in tighter next to him. “I keep thinking about that. I guess we’ll just have to take each day as it comes. It’s not as if we’re never going to see each other again. You’re here, your home is here, your life is here. I’m flexible. I move around wherever I need to go. My life isn’t anywhere really. Well. Up until now it’s been here, I suppose. And it still is.” He paused, and he finally turned to look at her. “You were asking me where home was last night.”

Belle nodded.

“I beginning to think there’s some truth in that old saying.”

“Go on.”

“Home is where the heart is.”

A little cautiously, Belle reached up to touch his cheek, pulling him in for a kiss and tasting the sweet syrup on his teeth as he opened for her readily, both of them lost in their own little bubble, uncaring for the world around them.

“I go wherever work takes me,” Rum said quietly when Belle finally released him. “I have no right to ask you to give up the security that you have here and come with me.”

“And I have no right to ask you to stay when there are other places you need to be,” Belle agreed.

“But it would be nice to have roots,” Gold said. “Somewhere to come back to, you know.”

“I know.” Belle paused. “I don’t mind travelling, you know. In the future. I’ve always wanted to go to the UK. I already said I wanted to see Scotland.”

Rum grinned at her. “And so you shall.” He paused. “We’ll work it out.”

Belle laughed and pressed her lips against his again, his last few mouthfuls of waffle forgotten in their takeout container. In that moment, she knew that they would.

 

Chapter Text

Part Eighteen

In which Belle ventures onto the other side of the camera, the cat gets let out of the bag, and someone needs to film Killian’s face for a reaction gif.

It was going to be a busy few days on the Star Force set, with so many small scenes being filmed to form the flash-forward montage at the end of the season, before culminating in the final group ensemble scene on the big green screen in which the crew of the Aurora Borealis returned home triumphant to be reunited with their loved ones. The entire main and recurring cast, with the notable exception of Zelena, were all going to be in the studio at some point over the next couple of days, and make-up and costume were working at full capacity to make sure that all the required extras were ready. Still, in the middle of it all, Belle had managed to grab a few moments to herself in the make-up room once all the rest of her charges were suitably adorned. Outside, she could hear the AD rushing around ensuring that everyone was in the right place, and Mal moaning that she really needed a bicycle to get her from one set to another in the minimal amount of time.

"Or perhaps hoverboots!" Belle heard the older woman call as she went past on her way to the small green screen. "Is Fae ready yet? Marco, how's the lighting looking? August, if you tell me the yellow in the costumes is going to mess up the green screen I may scream!"

Mal's voice faded away and Belle continued to do her own make-up carefully. Today she would be going in front of the camera for the first time, just filming a minute or so of footage that would form Stiltskin and Lacey's flashforward. Her role in the series finale was still a secret to most of the rest of the crew; the only other person who had been informed, by necessity, was Ashley in wardrobe, who'd had to alter Claire's costumes to fit Belle. The younger woman had been practically bouncing around the costume room in excitement as she measured and pinned, and now Belle was enveloped in a spare bathrobe over the floaty ensemble to protect it from the base and powder she was applying.

There was a soft tap on the door and Belle froze. For all she had managed to keep her role under wraps, now might be the moment for a grand reveal.

"Come in," she called. She wondered who it could be. Most of the make-up calls had already been done, indeed, she was the last person on the call sheet. Her question was answered and her nervousness quelled when Rum popped his head around the door before inserting himself fully. It was always quite strange to see him in his full make-up but wearing comparatively normal clothes instead of his usual uniform and doctor's coat. To see him casual now in a shirt and slacks was definitely an eye opener, and Belle couldn't say that she wasn't enjoying the view.

"How are you feeling?" he asked, coming over and sitting down in the chair beside her as she touched up mascara and eyeliner. Even when actors and actresses were supposedly shown without make-up, there was always at least something on their faces to provide definition to their features and stop the heavy studio lighting from washing them out or reflecting oddly off their skin.

"All right. Nervous. I'm glad we're doing this part first, so I can get used to being on the wrong side of the camera before I have to do it in front of practically the entire cast and all the extras tomorrow."

Rum reached across and took her hand in his, his long nails scratching a bit. "You'll be fine, I promise. There are no lines to remember for this part. All you have to do is look happy."

Belle grinned. "Now that I can definitely do."

It was nice to have a moment to themselves like this in which she could confess her fears. Due to the busy day and the several make-up calls, the other make-up artists and some of the extras had started at the same time as Rum had come in for his call in order to get everyone ready on schedule, so they hadn't had their usual hour alone together in the make-up room that morning in which Rum could have reassured her and soothed away her worry.

"Ready?" he asked once she had put the eyeliner back in her make-up bag, turning her face in the mirror to check herself from all angles.

"As I'll ever be."

"You'll be great, I promise you. Like you said yourself when I went over to audition for Sense and Sensibility, Mal wouldn't have agreed to have you in the part if she didn't think you could do it."

Their role reversal was ironic and, Belle thought, quite sweet. Those couple of weeks ago she had been the one reassuring him that everything was going to be fine, and now here he was doing the same thing for her. It was touching, really, because here she was stepping into his world and he was trusting her not to screw it up. He had faith in her, just as she had faith in him when perhaps he didn't have faith in himself. She wanted to do her best, for his sake, and reward his faith in her like he had done when he'd gone after that part.

Belle nodded. "All right. Let's get this show on the road."

They left the make-up room together just as the AD was coming to get them, and Belle looked around furtively for the other cast and crew members. Those who were hanging around were mainly extras being shepherded in the right direction by the production team, and they showed no interest in the make-up artist rushing along with Rum in the direction of the sets. It wasn't exactly an unusual sight, and since Lacey's costume for this montage scenelet was civilian, she looked no different to her normal aspect. It could have been any other normal day on set, with Belle on hand to touch up Rum's make-up when it inevitably began to run under the lights.

"Mal's already on set," the assistant director, Aurora, said. "They've just finished up the jail scene and are resetting. You'll be on the small green screen. Nice and cosy, no unnecessary people running around and gawping." She gave Belle a smile. "You'll be fine. I'm so excited about these scenes with Lacey, everyone's been waiting for them for years."

Belle sighed heavily. "Really not helping with the pressure there, Rory. I'm nervous enough as it is."

"It'll all be great, I promise. You're a lot calmer than I would be in your position."

"I'm not calm on the inside," Belle muttered, but Rory was still chattering on.

"I've seen professional actors way more strung up about scenes than you are." She paused. "We almost had to give David valium before his nude scene." She raised an eyebrow pointedly at Rum. "You, sir, did not help on that score."

"I offered enough whisky to knock him out for a week! How is that not helping?" Rum protested.

"You were the one telling him tales of horror! He damn near had a heart attack!"

Rum opened his mouth to defend himself again but then decided better of it in the face of Rory's vehemence and just shrugged instead as they rounded the corner to the small green screen, used for short scenes which didn't require a three-sixty view and which would take too much time and effort to construct a full set for the amount of filming to be done on it. A few set pieces were set up to give the actors something concrete to work with, and these could easily be moved around and reset to allow for a quick turnaround.

Mal was there, peering through the camera with her headphones on as Archie readjusted the lights on the gantry above.

"Ok, that's looking great. August can do any other alterations he needs in post." She looked up and smiled warmly as she saw Belle approaching. "Well hello there, Mrs Stiltskin. Are you ready for your grand debut?"

Belle tried to smile in a way that was excited rather than terrified, but she had no idea how successful she was.

"I think so."

"Just don't look at the camera," Mal said. "I know it's quite hard to pretend it's not there, but just don't look directly at it. We're not filming The Office. Although it must be said, a behind the scenes mockumentary of all the shenanigans that go on in the studios would be an eye-opener."

Belle laughed. "I think Graham's already got the market cornered on that one with his documentary," she said. "Considering that filming hasn't finished and he's already causing a stir that's resulted in one arrest and hundreds of column inches, I think it's an impressive feat."

"Maybe he missed his calling," Rum mused as he carefully put his contact lenses in, blinking owlishly for a while as his eyes readjusted to the coloured plastic. "He should have been an investigative journalist. I'm not going to miss this," he added, handing the case to Aurora, who pocketed it. "God help me if I ever have to wear lenses in real life."

"I thought we'd already established that specs suited you," Belle pointed out, but before anything else could be said, Ashley had arrived on the set.

"I forgot your cushion!" she exclaimed, waving around some soft padding which she proceeded to shove unceremoniously under Belle's flowing top to give the impression of an obvious baby bump. Mal fell about in fits of laughter as Ashley pinned it in place, and Belle looked down, carefully resting her hands on it, trying to imagine it was a real child and not light wadding.

"That's perfect," Mal said softly. "You look lovely, Belle. Now, if you just move over to the cradle, yes, that's great. All right, all crew off the screen please!"

"Rolling in three, two..."

Rory snapped the clapperboard and Belle forced herself not to glance over at the camera, keeping her eyes down, focussed on the empty crib, until she felt Rum's arms snake around her and his hands rest over hers before he pecked a kiss to her temple, and she smiled. Even though he was acting a role and would have done exactly the same thing had Claire been in her rightful position, getting kisses from her boyfriend was always nice. She looked up and smiled at him softly. The fact that Rum could still express so much warmth in his gaze despite the unnatural colour of his eyes was something she never failed to marvel at, and it was easy to get lost in them and ignore the crew and camera until Mal called to cut and gave a little round of applause.

"That was great," she said. "Really natural-looking. I knew Rum had had a good idea when he brought you on board," she added sagely. "Not that he's not an amazing actor who can hit it out of the park on any occasion, but you two have such great chemistry together. You're doing really well, Belle. I want another take please; Rum, if you could linger over on your mark for a bit longer, I'll signal you to move. I just want this one to be a bit slower. Feel free to improvise a bit if you want. No-one's going to object to you getting a bit cosier."

Rum raised an eyebrow and moved back to his mark a few feet away; Belle giggled and resumed her previous aspect.

“Just how cosy are you thinking, Mal?” Rum asked. “We’re on post-watershed, after all.”

“I leave that entirely to you and your co-star’s discretion,” Mal replied courteously. “You all right, Belle?”

Belle nodded without looking up at the camera and director lest she become accidently transfixed. “Good. Ok, rolling in three, two…”

Snap. The clapperboard hit and Belle gave a small smile to herself, waiting for Rum’s arms to come around her again. He pulled her in close against him, darting in over her shoulder to press his lips against her cheek, lingering for a while and nuzzling her hair affectionately. Belle leaned back against him, closing her eyes with a smile and just enjoying being in his arms.

“Cut!” Mal’s voice broke through the moment, and Belle reluctantly came back to earth as Rum released her slowly. The director was grinning from ear to ear. “I could quite happily have left that rolling for ten minutes but we’re on a fairly tight schedule here and I need to get back to the big green screen. You’re just too damn cute to be allowed, you two.” There was something bright and mischievous in her eyes. “That was just wonderful. Tomorrow’s going to be fantastic!”

Belle wondered for a moment if Mal was going to start waving her arms around in glee; Rory was still applauding. They’d done it. She’d done it. She’d filmed her first scene as Lacey and she had the director’s seal of approval for it. If there was one thing that she knew about Mal, it was that she was always sincere, so any praise from her was definitely meant. Now, all she needed to do was get through the big finale reunion scene tomorrow. Easier said than done. She had lines to say tomorrow, however few, and there would be far more people on the huge green screen set on the main sound stage that would be transformed post-production into the Aurora Borealis’ hangar in Force Base.

“I told you that you could do it,” Rum said, giving her a hug as the production crew began to clear up around them.

“I know you did. There’s still tomorrow, though.”

“Well, considering how well today went, I think you can go into tomorrow with a certain degree of confidence,” Rum said. “And I’m more than willing to help you practise your lines if you want.”

There was a glint in his eye, his expression worryingly similar to Mal’s, and Belle had to give a snort of laughter at the irony. This entire thing had begun with Rum asking her to read through his lines with him and now they had come full circle and he was helping with hers. There was always a certain energy to Rum whenever he was on set, one that he didn’t necessarily have when he came away from the camera. He was an actor and the set was his natural habitat, away from it he became a different person. Over the course of the past four years, Belle had very much enjoyed getting to know both sides of him, and she was pleased that she now got the opportunity to work with him at his happiest, in front of the camera where he belonged and had always felt comfortable, no matter that he was in someone else’s skin at the time. Maybe that was the whole point. The hardest role to play was simply being himself, and in that most natural role he lacked the confidence that his fictional counterparts had. Belle grinned as he moved away off the set, holding out a hand to her. Maybe, with the right kind of… encouragement, she could get the man he was in front of the camera to come out in private too.

Ashley came and took back the padding as Rum removed his contact lenses, then Rory was rushing off in search of the next group of actors she needed to get to their filming location, and Belle and Rum were left to go back to the make-up room and get out of character, ready for a good night’s sleep before everything came to its dramatic conclusion tomorrow.

“It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be,” Belle admitted as walked away from the set, raising an eyebrow as they passed an extra swathed in dark Imperial Alien robes and carrying a set of futuristic golf clubs. “I don’t really have to act when all I have to do is cuddle with you. That’s easy.”

Rum just laughed. “I must say I’m very glad to hear it. You’re not bad in front of the camera. I mean, I’ve seen…”

He tailed off, and Belle tilted her head on one side to question.

“You’ve seen…”

“I’ve seen the way you were talking to Graham when he was filming in the make-up room. You’re very natural.”

Belle nodded. She was fairly certain that was not how his sentence had been going to end when he had started to say it, but she decided not to push the point. They had reached the make-up room and with any luck they could have a few minutes to themselves to rehearse for tomorrow whilst they took Rum’s make-up off.

The door opened before Belle could grab the handle, and Ariel and Ruby appeared in the frame, looking in equal parts accusatory, unimpressed and excited.

“You’ve got a lot of explaining to do, Belle French,” Ariel began. “Don’t think we haven’t seen today and tomorrow’s call sheets!”

“How come we didn’t know about this?” Ruby exclaimed. “First of all you vanish from the diner without giving me any juicy details and now you keep your starring role under wraps!”

“Next thing you know the world will be ending! It’s a sign of the impending apocalypse!” Ariel added.

“No, that was Graham not dying at the end of the series,” Rum quipped.

“Well, you know…” Belle spread her hands, not really quite sure how to react in the face of such vehemence. “I didn’t really want to get pushed down a flight of stairs.”

Ruby put her hands on her hips with an indignant expression but then a grin broke out over her face and she rushed out of the room to hug Belle, Ariel following suit.

“Oh, we’re not angry, but it would have been nice to be able to congratulate you sooner, you silly thing. You know we can keep a secret!”

Belle raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Well, maybe not. But you could have told us after Zelena was… indisposed!” Ariel spluttered.

“So come on!” Ruby dragged Belle into the make-up room and Ariel pulled Rum in after them, and they closed the door, Ruby sitting Belle down in one of the chairs as Ariel got started on de-greening Rum. “Tell us everything! When did this come about? Oh, I’m so excited! Your small screen debut! This is a momentous event!”

“It’s about forty-five seconds of screentime, max,” Belle pointed out dryly.

“Yes, but they’re some of the most important seconds in television history!” Ariel said. “This is the end of the entire series!”

“I’m well aware of that, Ariel,” Belle said. “There’s no need to make me any more nervous than I already am. Since you must know, it was Rum who suggested it.”

Ariel raised an eyebrow as she began prising his fingernails off. “Really. I wonder why that is?” She winked at him and continued with her work, and Rum gave a long-suffering sigh.

“Leave him alone,” Belle said. She knew that when she, Ruby and Ariel all got together they were something of a force of nature, and she knew how much convincing it took to get Rum and Archie to come out with them. She didn’t want their enthusiasm ruining something that was shaping up really quite nicely. “After Claire’s accident, Rum suggested me for the role as I fit the profile and I already knew the lines from running them with him. So… here we are.”

“I think it’s sweet,” Ruby said. “And for those of us who know the history, very appropriate.” She paused and burst into a fit of giggles. “All the same, I think it would be prudent to keep it to ourselves for a while. Well, overnight. Come tomorrow everyone else will know.”

“Aww.” Ariel pouted at her friend. “I was all set for a huge social media revelation.”

“I know you were, but can you imagine the look on Killian’s face when Lacey rushes through the crowd and turns out to be Belle? You know what he’s like. He’d be speechless and the moment would be priceless.”

Ariel pondered for a moment and nodded.

“Yes, I will admit that I would actually pay to see that,” she said. “Ok, I’ll keep my mouth shut till tomorrow.”

“You’re really not helping,” Belle pointed out. Whilst she had got through the first part of her filming and Rum and Mal had managed to buoy her confidence for the second part, the knowledge that she’d have a far greater audience was not lost on her and was still niggling in the back of her mind, piling on the extra pressure. She wondered if the professionals ever got this degree of stage fright.

“There’s no need to be nervous,” Rum said. “It’ll be all right. It’s not like live theatre, we can always yell cut and start again, you know.”

“I know.” Belle sighed. “Don’t you ever get scared?” she asked. “Going out there and knowing that there are so many people and so many cameras watching your every move?”

“No. I’m used to it now, it’s second nature just to blank all that out and focus on the scene. I get nervous for… different reasons. Not because of the cameras.”

Belle gave a small smile, remembering his topless scene.

“You’ll both be great,” Ariel affirmed. “To think, this is the end of it all, the final triumph after four years of pining.”

“Stiltskin and Lacey finally reunited,” Ruby sighed.

“No, Belle and Rum finally together.”

Belle buried her face in her hands. “Why am I friends with you two?” she muttered.

“Because you’re our boss and it’s your job to be friends with us.” Ariel grinned. “Come on, you love us really.”

“Sometimes I wonder about that,” Belle murmured. Ruby reached out and patted her shoulder.

“All right, we’ll leave you alone.” For all her enthusiasm, Ruby could normally tell when she was about to cross a line and pulled back. “Finish practising your lines, or whatever.”

With Rum pretty much de-greened, Ariel and Ruby left them alone to go and help out with the final bits of filming and make-up removal that might be required elsewhere, and Belle groaned, resting her head on the counter.

“They mean well.” Rum reached across and pulled her over into his lap. “And they’re right. It will all be fine. You have nothing to worry about.” He paused. “Do you want to go through your lines?”

Belle shook her head.

“No.” She managed a little smirk. “I wouldn’t mind practising the kissing though.”

Rum snorted and pressed his mouth against hers, dipping her slightly.

“I think we’ll get that part right,” Belle said breathlessly as they pulled away.

Rum just smiled and held her close until it was time to leave the make-up room and go home, and Belle wished that she could stay there in his arms forever.

X

They had just got through the majority of the make-up calls and Ariel had gone to supervise things happening on the soundstages and provide necessary touch ups. Belle was washing out all her equipment when Ruby dashed into the make-up room, pulled the sponges from her hands and gestured to the nearest chair.

“Sit.”

“Ruby, what are you doing?”

“Today, you are not a chief make-up artist. Today you are an actress, for however short a time that might be, so I am going to do your make-up for you.”

“Ruby, I’m perfectly capable of doing my own make-up. I do make-up tutorials online. On myself.”

“Shush. I know that. But for once, just sit back, relax, and let someone else take care of you. You’re in very safe hands, I promise. You’ve been taking care of all these actors and all their complicated make-up jobs for the last four years and it’s high time you were rewarded. Having to do your own make-up for your starring role just doesn’t seem right.”

Belle gave in and sat down in Ruby’s chair, letting her friend comb her hair back from her face and pin it in a neat but complex-looking style before concentrating on patting base over her skin.

“You’re happier,” Ruby said presently.

“Pardon?”

“This last week, considering it’s the last week of the job and your last week with Rum before he goes back to England for Sense and Sensibility. You’ve been happier, and I don’t think that it’s just the result of doing the horizontal tango on Friday night.” Ruby smiled, blending highlighter and carefully contouring Belle’s face. “You’re brighter, more relaxed than you’ve been for a long time. I’m just wondering what’s changed, because I’m very thankful for it. Last Wednesday you were right down in the doldrums and now you’re the bouncy Belle we all used to know. It’s got to be more than just Friday night.”

Belle nodded.

“Yes, it is. It’s nothing really. Stupidly small. But I guess that the thing that’s been making me so tense is the uncertainty, just not knowing what was going to happen after Star Force. Our relationship’s still so young and it was so undefined, and I was worried that it would just… fade, you know, that the distance would separate us in more ways than one and it would just fizzle out without either of us noticing because neither of us were really putting the effort in. Or that only one of us was putting the effort in because we didn’t know what the other wanted.”

“But I’m guessing that’s all changed now?” Ruby asked sagely.

“Yes.” Belle gave a happy sigh. “I mean, Rum’s still moving back to the UK next week, that’s not going to change, and I’m still staying here for After Ever After, but after he’s done with the film, we’re going to see where life takes us. He’s going to come back to Storybrooke.”

Ruby grinned broadly.

“I knew it would all turn out for the best,” she said. “Whilst his life’s always been pretty transient, now he’s found something to stick around for.”

It was a blunt summary, but there was truth in it, and Belle nodded. She was Rum’s home. She was where his heart was, and she was the one he wanted to come back to. And if circumstances took them away from Storybrooke and all over the world in the future, well then, that was what would happen.

“Don’t blink,” Ruby said, carefully brushing mascara onto Belle’s lashes. “Oh Belle, I’m so happy for you!”

“You’re seeming pretty giddy yourself,” Belle remarked. “Did the Hollywood plans go through?”

Ruby shook her head. “Nah, I decided LA wasn’t for me in the end. I’d miss Granny too much. But Archie’s going to a new job in New York after Star Force wraps and he says that the studio’s looking for designers.” She winked at Belle. “This might be my break into your job.”

Belle nodded, impressed. Ruby certainly had the talent and confidence to make it as a hair and make-up designer, and she knew her friend well enough to know that she wouldn’t stop going after what she wanted until she’d got it. They fell into silence for a while to allow Ruby to concentrate as she worked, and finally she stepped back to allow Belle to look in the mirror.

“You’re done, Mrs Stiltskin,” she said happily. “And not a moment too soon. Rory will be along in a minute wondering where you’ve got to. Go and get your costume quick!”

Belle raced out of the make-up room and down the corridor towards costuming, where Ashley was waiting with a garment bag.

“You’re all set,” she said as she handed it over and Belle slipped behind the screen in the corner to get changed. “You look really good,” she added.

Belle pulled the dark blue dress embroidered with the Star Force insignia over her head and smoothed it down, coming out to have a pair of high heels thrust at her.

“No-one would know you hadn’t been doing this every day of your life,” Ashley said as Belle buckled the shoes.

“Don’t tempt fate, Ash, I might open my mouth and completely ruin what’s set to be the most emotional and amazing scene of the entire series, let alone the finale, and send the entire rest of the set into fits of laughter.”

Ashley gave her a look as she adjusted the costume and made sure Belle’s hair was still in tact.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” the young blonde said. “Rum won’t let you make a fool of yourself. You know him better than that.”

“I know, I know…”

“There’s no time for nerves now,” Ashley added. “It’s almost zero hour. We’ll all be cheering you on from the wings, don’t worry.”

“It’s the many people watching me that I am worried about,” Belle pointed out, but she was prevented from elaborating further by Rory’s arrival.

“Ready?” she asked, waving her clipboard in the direction of the door. “It’s time.”

Belle let Aurora talk as they made their way towards the largest sound stage, the assistant director reminiscing about her time on Star Force  and directing her first episode earlier in the season, and how much she would miss Mal and her guiding hand. Belle’s thoughts were firmly occupied with the scene to come, and hoping that she didn’t forget her lines or do something equally embarrassing. She would feel better if she’d been able to see Rum before it came to crunch point, but he’d been busy filming other things all morning and she hadn’t had the chance. She caught a glimpse of him as they came onto the set; he was at the far end on the raised platform that would, in the finished thing, become the cavernous belly of the Aurora Borealis. The set was full of extras and all the main cast were there, Mal directing them onto their marks. So many people, and just one woman effortlessly putting them all in their places. She smiled as she caught sight of Belle at the back of the crowd and came over.

“All right, Belle, you know what to do. Just stay on your line, the crowd will move for you so don’t worry about bumping into anyone. We’re shooting overhead as well as on the dollies so try not to look down too much.”

Belle nodded.

“Ok people, let’s go. First take of the final scene! We’re on the home stretch, so let’s get this right!”

Mal clapped her hands and moved off the set to the bank of monitors showing her the views from the cameras.

“Rolling in three, two…”

Rory snapped the clapperboard and filming began.

It was a long scene, and there were several things to happen before Belle made her entrance, but at the back of the set as she was, she couldn’t see what was going on. One of the runners was just a couple of feet away with a headset on to make sure she didn’t miss her cue, but all the same, it made Belle nervous.

The camera cut for a quick breather and to allow Mal to reset something, and Belle looked over at the ramp that led down out of the Aurora. Rum was standing at the top, ready to enter into the scene proper, and he caught Belle’s eye above the rest of the crowd, winking at her. It reassured her somewhat. This was her big moment, and if Rum and Mal and everyone else thought that she could do it, then she could do it.

Before she knew it they were rolling again, and the runner was telling her to go, and she was weaving through a veritable sea of extras, following the line on the floor whilst trying not to look like she was looking at the floor, until the people thinned and she was face to face with Rum.

“Hello, Lace,” he said softly.

Belle opened her mouth, frantically racked her brain for what she was meant to say, realised she wasn’t meant to say anything, and grabbed Rum’s lapels, pulling him in for a fierce, passionate kiss. Somewhere in the background, applause and wolf-whistling started up, but Belle didn’t care. She was going to have to break away. There was a line she had to say, but yesterday Mal had said that she didn’t mind them getting a bit cosy…

Rum eventually pushed her away a little and the kiss broke. She looked into his eyes, so unnatural, so soulful.

“Never, ever, ever do that again! You hear me? You… Oh come here!”

She kissed him again and Rum reciprocated her passion with vigour, his hands splaying over her back. This was all Rum, Belle thought as she continued to lose herself in the kiss. This wasn’t acted at all.

He broke away to speak again.

“Don’t worry, I don’t plan on it. Stars above, Lacey. I’ve missed you, my little dove.”

“I’ve missed you too.”

There was a beat, a pause in which Belle felt the camera’s eyes beginning to creep up on her, and she was just about to glance across at the menacing beast when Rum’s hand came up to cup her face gently, a gesture that was both loving and that stopped her from looking at the camera.

“Come on. Let’s go home,” he said.

Belle smiled.

“Yes. Home.”

He wrapped his arms around her and Belle buried her face in his chest as the extras erupted into cheering again, and Mal had to yell “CUT!” at the top of her voice. She came over to them, doing a passable impression of the Cheshire Cat.

“Well, I don’t think that anyone will be docking marks for authenticity,” she said, and she fanned herself. “My, it’s a good job this airs on HBO or we’d have the network on our backs with the force you put into that.”

Belle gave an embarrassed cough.

“We’ll reset for another take, we need to get the other angles. But my quips aside, you’re doing really well, Belle.” She leaned in and whispered in her ear. “Between you and me, I think you’ve really impressed the crowd.”

Belle looked around as the scene was reset. Emma was looking at her with a wide grin and gave her two thumbs up. Beside her, Killian was looking perplexed, pointing from Belle to Rum to Mal and back again, as if he simply couldn’t fathom how the make-up artist had ended up playing the doctor’s wife, and that said make-up artist and said doctor were most definitely giving it their all during their kisses. Emma caught her co-star’s expression and rolled her eyes, and between them, Henry was trying very hard not to laugh.

Reluctantly, Belle slipped out of Rum’s embrace and made her way back to the edge of the set for her entrance again.

“Wait.” Rum caught her arm and pulled her back into his arms, kissing her cheek. “One for luck.”

Belle smiled and moved away. So far, so good. If she’d got through the first take then she could get through the rest.

Despite the multiple takes, their kisses never became wooden, each one different and spontaneous despite being scripted; Rum’s lips playing over hers, tongue dancing against her teeth. For a moment they weren’t on the set at all, they were back in the make-up room, or in Granny’s, or on the sea front, or in any of the other myriad places that they had kissed over the course of their relationship.

“CUT!” Mal yelled. “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, STAR FORCE IS OFFICIALLY WRAPPED!”

Belle paid no attention to the words, content to keep kissing Rum in the middle of the set.

“Hey, you two, the camera’s stopped rolling!” David called. “You can… Oh, never mind.”

Belle finally broke away as the set began to clear, the actors and crew and extras all congratulating each other and exchanging hugs and phone numbers, some people organising an impromptu wrap party at Granny’s whilst the technicians complained that they still had to break the set and wouldn’t get there till midnight.

She didn’t take any of it in. There was just her and Rum, Lacey and Stiltskin. Reunited at last.

Chapter Text

Part Nineteen

In which Mal offers copious amounts of gin, Gold makes a snap decision and a confession, and Leroy saves the day again.

Lying on the bed of his little rented apartment in Exeter, not far away from the Devon countryside where Sense and Sensibility was filming, Gold stared up at the ceiling, restless and unable to commit his mind to anything. He'd been back in the UK almost three months now; principal photography for the new film was well underway, but he still hadn't got used to being back. Mal and Ella had teased him mercilessly about it, saying that the American influence had rubbed off on him too much whilst he'd been over there filming Star Force, but Gold knew that it wasn't the country he missed so much as the people in it. More specifically, one particular person in it. Long distance relationships took work, both he and Belle knew that and had accepted it when they had made the commitment to each other all those weeks ago when he had left Storybrooke. He knew that their separation was only temporary, however lengthy it might be, but all the same, the long phone calls and their usual Friday night (or early Saturday morning, in his case) Star Force Skype dates were no real substitute for actually being over there with her. To make matters worse, Jafar was on his case again, metaphorically needling him to think about what he was going to do after Sense and Sensibility despite the fact it felt like they'd only just started. Gold had no plans, apart from returning to Storybrooke and establishing a somewhat permanent base in the US for a while.

At least Belle seemed happy, her usual bouncy self, even if she was missing him. Filming for After Ever After was scheduled to start in a couple of weeks and she'd been enthusiastically showing him all her designs.

He rolled over on the bed and grabbed his tablet, swiping it out of sleep mode and opening Skype. A good thing about Belle being on hiatus was that he could pretty much guarantee she was always available since she was spending most of her time designing rather than actually applying the make-up. He checked his watch before dialling her; it would be five o'clock in the evening over there so hopefully she was at home.

The call took a long time to connect and when it did, Gold was rather alarmed to find Mulan's face looking at him.

"Hi Gold," Mulan said. "Belle will be here in a sec. How are you?"

"I'm fine, thank you, Mulan." He'd only met Belle's flatmate in person twice and a handful of times over Skype, and he really didn't feel qualified to hold a conversation with her. "How are you?"

"Very well, thanks. I've finally managed to make the champagne strawberry mousse stop exploding whenever I put it in the fridge."

"I hope you don't mind me saying that I'm somewhat worried about what you put in that mousse to cause such a violent reaction," Gold murmured. Mulan just winked.

"Well, I'd better go, I need to get to work. Belle!" she yelled over the top of the laptop screen. "Scotland the Brave's calling!" She turned back to Gold. "Have a good evening, Gold. And come back and see us soon. If Belle sighs any more I'll start thinking the windows are loose and we've got drafts coming in."

Gold gave a wan smile as Mulan moved out of the frame, and Belle arrived a few seconds later, rushing into view and throwing herself down on the sofa.

"Hi Rum," she said brightly.

"Scotland the Brave?" he asked, one eyebrow raised.

"Ah. Yeah..." Belle looked somewhat sheepish. "I may have changed your ringtone on my phone to Scotland the Brave when I went out with the girls for Ruby's going away party."

Gold took a moment to process this information, and responded with one word: "Why?"

"Ruby's moving to New York, she's got a designing job there."

"No, I didn't mean why you were having a going away party for Ruby, I meant why did you decide on Scotland the Brave?"

"Well, you're Scottish, and I'd had quite a few mojitos at the Rabbit Hole, and it seemed like a good idea at the time." She paused. "I changed it back the next day, but only after you'd called. And now Mulan won't let me forget it."

"Don't worry, I don't think she's going to let me forget it either. This is destined to be the legacy of this part of our relationship."

Belle shrugged. "There are far worse things I could have done. At least I didn't call you at three in the morning and start singing ABBA karaoke down the phone at you."

"You know, considering the time difference, it would probably have been better if you had called me rather than one of your friends who’s in the same country as you. I would actually have been awake at that time even if not compos mentis." He couldn't help giving a wry grin. "Who did you wake up?"

"Jefferson." Belle sighed. "He'd only just got back from taking Alice to work so he wasn't best impressed."

"I can imagine." Gold didn't ask who Alice was or why she went to work at three in the morning.

"His remarks on my singing voice were most uncomplimentary," Belle continued. "They were completely justified, but still. That's the sort of thing that you take to heart when it's three in the morning and you have a lot of rum inside you." She paused, looked him as much in the eye as she could considering that there were thousands of miles between them, and then burst into giggles at her own double entendre, burying her face in her hands. Gold gave a good-natured sigh and patiently waited for her to finish.

"What are we going to do with you?" he asked fondly. Belle shrugged.

"Just love me."

"That I can definitely do."

They lapsed into silence, and Belle gave a heavy sigh. "I miss you," she said softly, reaching out her fingertips to touch the screen, trying to reach him across the ocean. "I know we've got this, and I know I'll see you again in a couple of months when you wrap Sense and Sensibility but sometimes it's just not enough, you know."

Gold nodded. "I know. I feel exactly the same way." He snorted. "Mal says that the pining is excellent for the character though."

Belle laughed, and it was good to see her happy again.

"You need to call me from the set one day," she said. "I want to see you in costume. I need a sneak peek of Colonel Brandon." She grinned mischievously, leaning back on the sofa. "Maybe the day you do the bravely rescuing Marianne in the rain scene."

"It's not going to be that glamorous behind the scenes, you know," Gold pointed out. "It'll probably be fake rain so that they can control it, and between takes we'll all be wrapped up in several layers of towels and blankets and puffy coats with hairdryers and space heaters blasting at us to stop us catching cold. The hair department aren't looking forward to it at all; apparently Merida's hair will be a continuity nightmare." He paused. "I'm sure you'd understand their woes better than I."

"I do, but I won't bore you with the details. Still, it's nice to know that they take care of you," Belle said.

"It's more to do with the fact that if any of the actors get sick they have to pause filming and rearrange the schedule," Gold said dryly. "Not out of any actual concern for our welfare."

"All the same, I'm very much looking forward to you riding around chivalrously in the rain and divesting yourself of your many wet layers when you return to the house and Marianne has been rushed off to recover."

Rum raised his eyebrows. "The last time I checked, Colonel Brandon was not meant to be the heartthrob in this story. I thought that was reserved for Mr Ferrars?"

Belle shook her head with a tut of disapproval.

"Mr Gold, you vastly underestimate the power of a brooding older man in love with a younger and seemingly unattainable woman."

Gold just smiled wanly, thinking about how closely the colonel's situation matched his own. At least Belle had proved that she was most definitely attainable, and he had indeed attained her, even if he sometimes couldn't believe that fact at the time. On the screen, Belle glanced at the clock on the wall as her stomach growled.

"It must be getting late where you are, I should let you go," she said. "And I need to eat. I mean, you're welcome to watch me make grilled cheese but you'll have an early start for filming tomorrow."

Gold shook his head. "No, I'm not on set again till Monday. Rain stopped play yesterday and they can't afford to fall behind with Anita's shooting; they need her wrapped as soon as possible." His co-star had just found out that she was pregnant and although there was a while before she started to show, naturally it wouldn't be a good idea for her to be wearing corsets for much longer, and she was already suffering from pretty nasty morning sickness.

"Ah well, enjoy the unexpected time off then." Belle's stomach gave another timely grumble. "Ok, you know how much I love talking to you but I really do have to go now." She blew a kiss towards the camera and Gold reciprocated the affection, waving goodbye and cutting off the call. He'd just put the tablet back on the nightstand when there was a knock on the front door. Gold's brow furrowed. Most of the cast and crew who didn't live close enough to commute were all staying in the same building, but he still wasn't expecting anyone to come knocking on his door at quite such a late hour when he knew that other people were definitely filming tomorrow even if he wasn't. Cautiously he padded through to the front door and opened it, peering around.

Mal was leaning in the doorway.

"I knew you'd still be awake," she said. "It's your time for calling Belle."

Gold nodded. "Not that I'm not always happy to see you, Mal, but what brings you here so unexpectedly?"

"The Star Force finale airs tomorrow night." Mal smiled as Gold's eyes widened; he'd been watching the episodes online with Belle when he could, and catching up with them on Saturdays if he was too drained from filming, but he had completely forgotten that this next episode would be the last. "Ella and I are going to watch it live. We're going to her mother's place in London and making an all-nighter of it since there's no filming on the weekend. You're very welcome to join us if you'd like. It'll be nice to reminisce about old times if nothing else."

Gold laughed. "We regularly reminisce, Mal. Normally because you still can't get your head around the slower pacing of feature films and keep expecting us to get through about eight scenes a day despite you having the shooting schedule right in front of you."

"It's my first feature, I'm allowed to carry things over from my TV career." Mal pouted. "Besides, you always sympathise."

"That's because I know it's a good idea to keep the director on side." Gold grinned as Mal smacked his arm playfully.

"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that," she said. "Anyway, like I said, you're welcome to come and join Ella and my Star Force finale party. There will be alcohol."

"Knowing Ella, it will be gin and most of it will be consumed before the episode even airs," Gold muttered.

"Rum, this is Ella. Of course that's going to be the case. She's even devised a Star Force drinking game and she's so saddened by the fact she's not going to be able to play it any more that she's going to do double shots."

"A Star Force drinking game?"

"You know. Take a shot every time Stiltskin says 'dearie', take a shot every time Lieutenant Knight outsmarts the captain, take a shot every time Charming and Snow emerge from a room together looking slightly rumpled. To be honest I'm glad that the show's ending before she completely pickles herself."

Gold gave a soft huff of laughter. "I'll think about it." He was so used to watching the episodes with Belle that it felt wrong to watch this one, this last one in which she made her all-important on-screen appearance, without her. Then again, she might not want him to watch it live with her for the very reason of her performance, despite all the assurances she had been given by various other cast and crew that she had done well.

"Well, the invitation is open and you know where we'll be, so we'll see you if we see you. No need to RSVP."

Gold nodded. "Thanks."

Mal left him to get some sleep and Gold meandered back towards the bedroom, flopping back down on his bed and reaching out for his tablet again, opening Tumblr. He hadn't ventured onto its shores for weeks now, feeling that since he was with Belle in real life and they were talking about things all the time, it was wrong to keep up with her anonymous online life that she hadn't knowingly shared with him, for all she had talked about it. Still, he thought that perhaps this would be a good way to gauge her feelings towards the episode.

He was alarmed to find a message waiting for him when he logged in, and even more alarmed to find that it was from Belle herself, recognising her stacked books icon. He hesitated before scrolling down to read it, wondering if perhaps she had discovered his online identity and was confronting him about it. He then came to the conclusion that if she was going to confront him then she would do so in real life, rather than over the incriminating medium, and he read the message.

Are you all right, Mr Lizard? I haven't seen you around lately.

He decided to withhold judgment before replying, and then decided not to reply at all. He was trying to move away from Tumblr as a means of communicating with Belle, and it wouldn't do to get drawn back into it. He went over to her own blog, scrolling down the entries thereon. There were the usual Star Force stills and gifs, reblogged meta posts and fanfic updates, and the occasional remark that a certain Greenie/Stiltskin shipping blog seemed to have gone incredibly and wondrously quiet in the wake of Zelena's arrest.

About halfway down the page, he caught sight of what he had been searching for, a post about the finale.

So, Bookworm, someone had asked. Are you looking forward to the Star Force finale? Surely your Star Force date could come back for such a momentous occasion.

Belle's response was, Gold noted gratefully, enthusiastic.

I can't wait for the finale! We've all been looking forward to this moment for so long, with all the characters finally making it home and reuniting with their families. (Unless of course the writers decide to completely u-turn on everything they've teased so far and have the ship blow up on re-entry to Force Base or something equally ludicrous, in which case I'm sure that there will be several people manning an armed assault on Storybrooke studios.)

Gold had to smile at that declaration, knowing as he did that Belle was perfectly well aware of what happened in the finale and knew that the fans would not be disappointed. He continued to read.

As for my Star Force date/real date, you all know that he's working abroad at the moment. As much as I would love for him to pop back, there are limits! But fear not, I will not be alone. We're having a Star Force finale party! Warrior and madasahatter and I intend to celebrate a great end to a great series. Or possibly commiserate a bad end to a great series, but I have more faith in the writers than that. Mind you, if the rumours running around that Charming is the character to die turn out to be true, the alcohol may well end up being thrown at the TV.

Mulan had reblogged the post.

That's my TV, Bookworm, don't you dare drown it in homemade mojitos.

Wouldn't dream of it, Warrior.

He logged out of the site and lay back against the pillows. He should probably go to bed, especially if he did end up going over to Ella's the next evening and staying up till the small hours drinking copious amounts of gin and watching the finale, but something stopped him from moving. He was thinking about Belle's words.

I would love for him to pop back.

It wouldn't be the first time that he'd done a mad dash across the Atlantic at incredibly short notice, after all, and he had the entire day tomorrow to travel... Belle had jumped on planes and dropped everything at the drop of a hat to come and support him before, and that was before they had even started dating properly.

Without stopping to think about the logistics of his actions, he opened the Internet browser on the tablet and started searching for flights to Boston. His visa was still valid till the end of the year and all he had to do was get there on time. A process he was starting with just over twenty-four hours' leeway. It was quite possibly the tightest turnaround he'd ever done; at least when he'd come over for the audition there was slightly more lead time.

There was a direct flight from Gatwick to Boston leaving at midday, and Gold scrabbled on the nightstand for his wallet and credit card. He was going to Storybrooke for the Star Force finale.

X

It wasn't the most thought through of ideas, Gold would admit that. Getting from Devon to London to Gatwick had been close and he'd feared for his blood pressure at several points during the journey, but he'd got there, and now he was sitting in the departure lounge with his bag waiting to board. He was certain that he'd forgotten something in his frantic packing, probably something crucial like his toothbrush, but he worked on the principle that as long as he had his passport and his medication he'd survive. No, he was more worried about whether he'd just made the biggest mistake of his life thus far, up to and including his marriage to Milah. Belle was the impulsive one in their relationship, and for a moment he entertained terrible notions that perhaps she’d had the same kind of thought and they’d miss each other in mid-air on their mad dashes across the Atlantic to be with each other, but then he thought back to some of the posts that Belle had made earlier, when they were just starting out and she felt like she was making all the effort in the relationship and she was going to take a step back. Plus she’d technically be working all day, and there was the promised finale party. No, he didn’t think she’d be doing the opposite journey to his own.

He thought again about the finale party with Mulan and Jefferson. Maybe he wouldn’t be welcome as an uninvited guest there, and it was a little Tumblr-only party? No, Belle had said she missed him, and he knew that she really did. Any chance for them to be together, for however brief a time, would be welcomed, he thought.

His plane started to board and he pushed the niggling thoughts to the back of his mind. It was time to do something ridiculous in the name of love. He hadn’t done anything ridiculous in the name of love for a long time, and now it felt right to do so.

Love. Such a small word and yet one with such a big meaning. He wasn’t sure when he had realised that he was in love with Belle, absolutely head over heels in love with her. He wondered if perhaps he’d loved her even before they built their relationship out of their friendship, but now, with the painful distance separating them, he felt it more acutely.

“Just love me,” Belle had said last night. He did love her, and he was very certain she felt the same way. Maybe it was time to actually take that momentous step and let her know it. Do the brave thing. That was what Belle had always said. It was time to follow her advice with a wing and a prayer.

The flight was uneventful; he hadn’t slept much the previous night with all his frantic preparations for a very early morning departure from his apartment and he dozed fitfully for most of the journey, exhaustion finally overtaking him and pushing the thrumming tension in his veins to the side for the moment.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we will shortly be arriving at Boston Logan International Airport. The local time is two fifty-two PM, weather is overcast but no rain. On behalf of all the flight and cabin crew we’d like to thank you for flying British Airways and we wish you a pleasant onward journey.”

That was a point, Gold thought as they began to land. He should probably have planned how he was going to get from Boston to Storybrooke slightly better. He had six hours and no clue. At least he was in the correct country now, even if not the correct state. Hopefully it wouldn’t matter if he was a bit late to the party. It was a four hour direct drive, and as much as this was a badly thought-out plan that he had perhaps not been in his right mind when instigating, he retained enough rational thought to know that a taxi for that distance would come at an astronomical price. With any luck the people in arrivals would help out an inept Scotsman with no forward planning ability.

Fortune, it appeared, favoured the brave. There was a Greyhound to Maine that would get him into Storybrooke at just past eight, and Gold ran to catch it, as fast as his shattered ankle could take him. It was positively screaming at him by the time he’d collapsed into a seat on the bus, and he grimaced. It would all be worth it in the end. Belle was at the other end of this frantic journey. He was doing this to see Belle, to tell her that he loved her and that in spite of (or perhaps in part because of) their current separation, he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. He rummaged in his bag for his painkillers and leaned back in the uncomfortable seat, not wanting to think about what would happen when he actually arrived in Storybrooke. Whimsically, to try and take his mind off the immediate future and the fallout from that, he started wondering idly what the next steps could hold. Perhaps they could split their time between Storybrooke and the UK. Take some time out and travel, go with Belle to see all the sights that she had always wanted to see. Maybe even get as far as Australia to see her father. He shook his head. He was getting ahead of himself. He tried to distract himself with thoughts of Sense and Sensibility and the next scenes to be filmed, the here and now, not worrying about the future that lay ahead.

It didn’t work.

The sun was getting lower and lower in the sky as the road stretched on in front of them, but Gold was very much awake. Every mile brought him closer to Belle and closer to that moment of truth. The Storybrooke Greyhound stop was at the very edge of the town, close to the studios, and Gold smiled as he caught sight of the huge building through the trees, lit up as it always was although nothing was filming there at the moment. He’d spent so much time there over the last four years that it had almost become a second home and it seemed strange to be in Storybrooke but with no intention of going there. He began along the road through the woods towards the town proper: it was about ten minutes in and another ten to Belle’s apartment. Going past all the buildings, some with their flickering neon, it was almost as if he’d never been away. Nothing had changed. It was a running joke amongst the studio employees that nothing ever changed in Storybrooke; in many ways it was a town stuck in the past, retaining something of the time when the studios had first been built.

Finally, Gold reached Belle’s apartment. It was crunch time. He pressed the buzzer, but there was no response, just silence stretching on and on into the night. He took a step back and looked up at the windows that he was pretty sure were hers, but they were dark. His brow furrowed. Surely she should be in? It was almost time for the Star Force finale and she was having a party for it, if her Tumblr was to be believed. Still frowning, he took out his phone and checked Belle’s page, scrolling down, but there was nothing to say that her previous plans have changed.

“Gold?”

He spun around, seeing Leroy leaning out of the window of his truck, with Walter dozing in the back and Astrid waving enthusiastically from the passenger seat. “Is that you?”

Gold nodded and came over to the truck on Leroy’s prompting.

“If you’ve come back for the party, you’re in the wrong place,” he said. “Belle and Mulan are at Granny’s; that’s where we’re headed. Everyone’s there. We’re making an event of it.”

Well, that explained things.

“Jump in,” Leroy said, indicating the back seat beside Walter, who had woken with a start before dropping off again. “You look like you came in a hurry,” the other man remarked as Gold accepted the lift gratefully and the truck set off again in the direction of Granny’s diner.

“It was a spur of the moment decision,” Gold said. “I wasn’t technically invited.”

“Meh, no-one was technically invited.” Astrid handwaved his concerns. “We all knew that there was a get together and Granny was making a ton of lasagne so we all invited ourselves. I’m sure you’ll be welcome. Aren’t you supposed to be filming in England?”

“It’s a long story.”

Astrid glanced at him in the rear-view, looking like she was itching to ask him to relate the long story, but the drive to Granny’s was thankfully a short one and they had arrived before she could speak again, and the four occupants of the truck made their way up the steps and into the diner.

“Leroy! Astrid! You made it!” Aurora the AD rushed over and embraced Astrid, then took a step back and looked Gold up and down. “Well hello there. We weren’t expecting to see you, that’s for sure.”

Gold smiled nervously, moving past Aurora and looking around the gaggle of people gathered in the diner, searching in vain for Belle. The chairs and tables had all been moved around and a large TV screen had been set up on the counter; Ruby and Archie, obviously back from New York for the evening, were fiddling with the cables whilst Marco retuned the set.

There was no sign of Belle, although he had seen Mulan and Jefferson chatting happily in the corner by the buffet with another vaguely familiar woman whilst Grace and Henry built towers out of French fries. He weaved through the other people in their groups, trying not to look too conspicuous despite the fact he had an overnight bag and had very obviously been travelling for the best part of the day. Mulan caught sight of him first; her eyebrows shot to her hairline momentarily and she waved him over.

“Gold! Come on! Come over here. We didn’t know you were coming, Belle never told us.”

“She didn’t know,” Gold replied warily. Mulan gave him a wry grin.

“Aha, a surprise visit. Say no more. I think you’ve met Jefferson and Alice, haven’t you?”

“We’ve met.” Jefferson shook hands. “Not sure about Alice. Gold, this is my wife Alice, Alice, this is Rum Gold, Belle’s other half.”

Alice peered at him, as if she was trying to place him outside of his roles.

“British Airways Boston to Heathrow route?” she hedged. “Frequent flyer?”

Gold nodded unsurely, and then her face came to him, serving him in-flight drinks somewhere over the mid-Atlantic.

“You’re cabin crew.”

Alice nodded as she shook his hand. Well, that did explain Jefferson having to take her to work at three in the morning and why he’d never met her on the ground before.

“How was your flight over?” she asked.

“I…” Gold began, but then there was an almighty crash and all eyes turned to the door out of the kitchen, where Belle was standing, a smashed bowl of potato chips scattered at her feet.

“Rum?” she said softly, as if she couldn’t quite believe that he was there. The diner fell into silence for a moment, broken only by Granny coming out of the kitchen and ushering the still motionless Belle out of the sea of chips so that she could sweep up.

“I, erm, I’m here for our Star Force date,” Gold began, with each passing second becoming more and more convinced that he’d made the most terrible error ever. “I thought that since it’s the last one, it would be nice to do it in person.”

Belle did not reply. Belle instead made the few steps across the diner to him, flung her arms around his neck and slanted her mouth over his, resulting in a roar from the rest of the diner’s patrons that outdid the on-set reaction to Stiltskin and Lacey’s reunion. Gold paid them no heed, just immensely relieved that he’d done the right thing.

Finally Belle released him, pulling back and grinning up at him, although Gold could see that there were tears welling in her eyes and he reached out to brush them away.

“You seriously got on a plane and flew across an ocean just to watch an episode of a TV show with me?” she asked.

“Well, seeing you in person was a pretty crucial motivating factor as well, but yes. I did.” He shrugged. “You flew across the country to keep me company at a party.”

Belle shook her head in good-natured despair. “We’re hopeless, aren’t we?”

She didn’t give him time to answer before she was kissing him again, and Gold reflected that it was probably a rhetorical question.

“Besides,” he murmured, once the other guests had decided that watching them make out wasn’t all that interesting and had gone back to their previous occupations, “they do say that you always make rash decisions when you’re in love.”

Belle’s eyes widened, and he took a deep breath. Best to do it now, get it out in the open, before he chickened out.

“I love you, Belle.”

Belle’s arms slipped from around his neck and circled his middle, pulling her in closer against him.

“I love you too, Rum.”

For a moment they just let the declaration sink in, and then Belle took his hand.

“Come on, we still have a little while before the episode starts. Let’s get out of this crush.”

She led him out to the front of the diner and they sat down at one of the picnic benches. Belle shivered a little in the cold evening air and Gold put an arm around her, pulling her close into his side. They fit together well like that, like two puzzle pieces destined to be next to each other.

“I still can’t believe you dropped everything and decided to come to Storybrooke for the finale,” Belle said presently. “Because I know it wasn’t planned, you look far too harassed for it to have been anything other than spur of the moment.”

“Well, I knew that you wanted me to come back.” He paused. “I have a confession to make.” Now that they had made that all important announcement of love, he should really stop keeping this massive secret from her. Belle nestled in closer against him.

“Go on.”

“I’m the thesparklydiscolizard.”

“Pardon?”

thesparklydiscolizard. On Tumblr. I, erm, follow you.”

There was silence for a moment, then Belle gave a snort of laughter.

“What was that for?” Gold asked.

“The thought of you trying to use the Tumblr mobile app,” she murmured. “Considering your ineptitude with social media it’s an entertaining thought.”

“You’re not angry?” Gold hedged. “Confessing that you’ve been anonymously stalking your girlfriend isn’t usually something I’d expect to be met with laughter. I mean, I don’t do it any more, not since we’ve been together, except last night, when I was considering coming back and I saw your post and…”

“Rum,” Belle interrupted, “did you know that when you’re nervous you never shut up?” Gold mimed zipping his lips and Belle continued. “Don’t worry, you daft thing. I knew it was you.”

“You did? What gave me away?”

“Well, I suspected. It was the fact that you only seemed to follow me and Mulan and you went pretty much incommunicado once we started our relationship properly. And you started following just after I’d started badgering you about Tumblr again and advising you to take a look at it to bolster your confidence. It wasn’t all that hard to put two and two together in the end.”

“You’re not mad?”

“It’s a bit weird, but since I know it’s you and you don’t mean any harm, it’s ok. Just as long as you never, ever tell me you’ve read my NC-17 rated fics. Whether you have or not, just don’t ever let me know.” She paused. “How did you find me, though?”

“It was after one of your comments about people doing amateur make-up for Stiltskin,” Gold replied, thinking back to how he’d first found Belle’s blog. “I was looking some of them up online and I found yours. One thing linked to another and the rest is history.”

Belle nodded. “I knew it was a risk that someone from real life would find me via the videos,” she said. “Must admit that I never expected it to be you. Oh well. Most of the rest of the fandom is likely to start recognising me after tonight.” She gestured back inside at the TV screen, which finally seemed to be showing signs of life. “I still have to decide what I’m doing with my blog.”

“It would be a shame if you stopped it,” Gold mused. “Your thoughts were always very interesting to read.”

“I know. I’ll have to see.” She giggled again, burying her face in her hands. “Sorry, sorry, it’s just the image of you wrestling with Tumblr; I know it’s not the most user-friendly of systems. It’s too funny.”

“Your lack of faith in my technological ability wounds me,” Gold said with a theatrical sigh. “It’s entirely justified, but that’s beside the point.”

“Oh, come here.”

She twisted in his embrace and kissed him again, and they remained like that until a shout from the diner doorway made them break apart.

“Hey, lovebirds!” It was Granny, hands on hips but a fond expression on her face. “If you don’t get in here soon all the lasagne will have been eaten and you’ll miss the programme!”

She went back inside and Belle and Gold followed, pausing on the doorstep to exchange another kiss.

Everything was going to be all right.

Chapter Text

Epilogue

Next Summer

“Do I look all right?”

Rum just smiled, the lovely smile that was reserved just for her: the genuine smile, not the smile for the cameras or the sneer for the people he had no time for. The smile that made his eyes crinkle at the corners and let Belle know that she was loved so very deeply. He took her hand and pressed a kiss to her knuckles.

“My darling Belle, I don’t think anyone in the world has ever looked more perfect than you do now.”

Belle bit her lip. “Are you sure? Every gossip magazine in the world is going to be looking at us.”

“Well then, let them look,” Rum replied. “You’re very lovely to look at; they won’t be disappointed.”

“I just want everything to be perfect. This is a big day for you.”

“No less than for you.”

Belle looked out of the limo window at the expanse of red carpet rolled out in front of the Leicester Square Odeon with cameras flashing and reporters and fans alike gathering at every juncture. Sense and Sensibility had turned out to be one of the most anticipated films of the year, and as such it had received the full five-star treatment for its premiere. Belle was somewhat overwhelmed by the entire experience; as much as she had daydreamed about attending film premieres with Rum, she had not realised just what it was like actually to be at one.

“You look great,” the limo driver told her, and Belle had to laugh.

“Thanks, Steve.”

“Come on,” Rum said. “We’ll miss everything if we don’t get going soon.”

“Maybe they’ll all have gone away then,” Belle said, looking again at all the photographers. “I’m not used to being on this side of the camera.”

Rum chuckled. “It’s not your first time.”

“I know, but that was different. That was in the studio. Or in the comfort of my own home if you’re talking about my make-up tutorials. There was editing and clapperboards and it didn’t matter if anything went wrong. This is real life. I’m scared.”

“There’s no reason to be, I promise.” Rum laced his fingers through hers and squeezed, and Belle returned his grip. “I’ll be right by your side the whole time.”

Suddenly there was a knock on the window beside Rum’s head and Belle turned with a squawk of alarm to see Ella attempting to peer through the darkened glass. Mal was a little way off, talking to one of the security staff and looking for all the world like she wanted nothing more than to bury her face in her hands and run away from the situation full tilt. Ella knocked again.

“Rum, I’ll have you know that it’s considered extremely crass to get some in the back of the limo before a premiere,” she said, her voice matter of fact. “I’m going to stay here annoying you until you emerge, you know.”

Rum pinched the bridge of his nose. “Ella,” he sighed, but he didn’t elaborate any further. Belle had met Ella a couple of times in her role as Mal’s plus one at various events at the studio, and she had never quite managed to get over quite how outrageous the older woman could be. Especially in public.

“Want me to get rid of her?” Steve the limo driver asked. “I could drive really fast and run over her foot if you wanted. It’s been done before. Not entirely accidentally.”

Rum shook his head.

“No, I think we need to get out anyway.” He looked over at Belle again. “Ready?”

She nodded and Steve motioned to one of the other security staff who came over to open the door for them, nudging Ella out of the way. She gave in with good grace and Rum got out of the limo to the thunderous cheers of the crowd waiting outside the cinema. He waved gallantly and handed Belle out of the car.

“Just smile and wave,” he muttered to her out of the corner of his mouth.

“I’m just hoping that they’re all looking at you and not me.”

Rum looked her up and down, from her carefully set hair and make-up to the sky-scraping silver strappy sandals on her feet and the long golden gown that draped lovingly over her figure and fell to her ankles in between the two. She dreaded to think how much the entire ensemble had cost all together with the jewellery; Rum had paid for it, his treat for the first premiere they attended together, but Belle had insisted on hiring rather buying, knowing that she would probably never wear any of it again. Still, she pushed that to the back of her mind and accepted Ella’s arms around her and air kisses on both cheeks.

“Belle, darling, you look absolutely wonderful. It’s such a striking colour and it sets off your complexion perfectly. Now, just relax and enjoy yourself, you look like you’re about to be sent to the firing squad.”

“I am,” Belle murmured. “Except they’re shooting pictures not bullets.”

“Well, you don’t have any lipstick on your teeth or bits of bra showing so you’ll be fine,” Ella assured her. Belle thought it best not to mention the fact she wasn’t wearing a bra and just nodded as Ella called over to her partner. “Mal! They’ve emerged!”

Mal came over to say hello, reiterating Ella’s words of reassurance.

“It’s time to do the walk of fame,” Mal said, nodding to the waiting crowds and the reporters who were creeping up on them along the carpet. “Go on you two, we’ve already been here half an hour. Enjoy the moment.”

Rum offered Belle his arm and they made their way over to the nearest entertainment journalist pointing a microphone at them. Belle just let Rum talk, the usual spiel that was always given out at film premieres and would be repeated to several different channels at several different points before they actually made it into the building that was only a few yards away from them.

It had been a whirlwind few months, but Belle wouldn’t have changed any of it for the world. After wrapping Sense and Sensibility, Rum had returned to Storybrooke, establishing a home there, one that Belle had quickly joined him in. After Ever After’s first season had begun airing to great critical acclaim, and the second had been greenlit. Belle was very proud of the work that she had done for the studio, and she knew that she was now leaving it in capable hands. Unfortunately the project that Ruby and Archie had been working on had been cancelled and the studio forced to downsize as a result of some dodgy credit agreements, and so they too had returned to Storybrooke. Now that Belle had decided to move on from the studio, Ruby was taking her place as chief make-up artist and designer.

They’d be back; Storybrooke had been such a fundamental part of their lives that they couldn’t part company with it altogether. After all, it had been the place where they had met and their story had begun. Leo and Aurelius had already asked Rum to come back for a guest role in After Ever After for a couple of episodes and Rum had tentatively agreed. But for now, there were other exciting projects in the pipeline. Ella had written a brand new spec script for a small British production company and through a series of negotiations had offered Rum his first directing gig and Belle the head make-up job. It was a small production on a shoestring budget and even tighter schedule, but they were both excited about it and the few months’ production in Scotland that it would bring.

She was brought back to the present by the mention of Zelena’s name, having to double-take. The legal proceedings had been… difficult, but she was finally safely in jail where she belonged and Rum could move on from that part of his life. Claire had made a full recovery from her accident and was filling Twitter with news of her little boy.

“I’d rather not talk about that,” Rum said coolly in response to whatever the reporter’s question about Zelena had been. “It’s over now, so let’s draw a line under it, shall we?”

The reporter backed off and Rum moved on along the line; Belle slipped her arm out of his to let him sign autographs for some of the fans.

“I don’t mind meeting fans, it’s having to answer all the same questions from the reporters again and again,” he muttered as they grabbed a moment to themselves and allowed the cameras to flash. “It’s not my favourite part of any production, but without the publicity there wouldn’t be any films in the first place so we can’t speak too badly of it.” He squeezed her hand and gave her a smile. “Ready to go again?”

“Rum!” someone called from a bit further along the red carpet as Belle opened her mouth to reply and Rum rolled his eyes.

“Or not,” he said, turning to see who had hailed him. Merida was running along the carpet, skirt hitched up to stop her treading on it and a wide grin on her face. Belle couldn’t imagine the younger woman in a stiff period drama, she seemed so wild and carefree all the time. Anita was following her at a much more sedate pace, long empire line gown flattering her baby bump.

“You made it!” Merida exclaimed as she caught up with them. “Thank God! We were beginning to worry!”

Rum raised an eyebrow. “I’m sure you were, Merida.”

“I was! Anyway, you know the drill, now that you’ve arrived they’re going to want a load of snaps of you and me, and you and me and Annie and Arthur. That’s if they can stop Arthur talking about himself for more than five minutes and actually come over here. Hello,” she added, holding out a hand to Belle as if she had only just realised that she was there. “You must be Belle, pleased to meet you.”

“Belle, Merida Dunbroch,” Rum introduced. “Merida, my girlfriend Belle.”

Belle wondered faintly if Merida always had so much energy or if she was under the influence of copious amounts of caffeine. From Rum’s reports from the Sense and Sensibility set, it was likely to be the latter.

“I’m really glad you’ve turned up; obviously Anita’s here with Rodge and I’m on my own, and Arthur didn’t bring a plus one so he’s been making leery comments. Now there’s more of us he might back off.”

“I do sometimes wonder how he ended up as a romantic lead,” Rum mused. Arthur King, playing Edward Ferrars, couldn’t be more different from his on-screen counterpart.

“Is it true that Lance Camelot married his ex-wife?” Merida whispered.

“It’s hardly a secret,” Belle pointed out. “Everyone in Storybrooke knows.”

Merida gestured around herself to Leicester Square. “We’re not in Storybrooke! Everything interesting happens over there and the news never travels!”

“Merida, let them get a word in edgeways.” Anita and Roger Radcliffe reached them and greetings and introductions were exchanged again, along with congratulations on the forthcoming arrival. Anita was glowing through it all, but gave the occasional grimace, rubbing her tummy. Belle had met Roger briefly before; he had composed most of the music for Star Force and had been at the early production meetings, and for a few moments the conversation flowed freely; then Anita, Merida and Rum were hailed for group shots and the significant others were left alone.

“So what’s next for you?” Belle asked the musician.

“Well, we’re taking some time off with the baby when he arrives; Annie’s not got anything planned for the next couple of years. I’ve heard some rumours that Universal are pushing for another big-screen adaptation of a stage show after how successful Les Misérables was; if they do Miss Saigon I’m there.” He grinned. “What about you? Annie says you and Rum are working together again.”

“Yes. I’m really excited. I’ve always wanted to see Scotland.”

“Belle!”

The main cast had been released and were talking to the fans again, and Rum was waving her over to him. Puzzled, Belle heeded his summons. They’d already decided that she’d hang back when he was scrawling and chatting to the public because she knew she’d just feel awkward being there as well.

When she arrived, Belle saw why he’d hailed her. The shy young woman he was talking to was holding a printed photo not of Rum as Colonel Brandon, but a still from Star Force, of her and Rum as Lacey and Stiltskin.

“Do you mind?” she asked nervously. Belle blushed as she took the marker pen from Rum and carefully signed her name below her face. The young fan grinned from ear to ear as the pen was handed back, and Rum chuckled, slipping an arm around Belle’s waist to guide her away.

“Now, that I don’t mind,” he said. “How are you holding up?”

“All right,” Belle said, still somewhat awed that someone had wanted her autograph off the back of such a small performance, but then again, knowing fandom as she did, and in particular knowing the Star Force fandom as she did, she wasn’t too surprised.

She was still involved in the fandom; ultimately the response to the revelation of her true identity online had been a mainly positive one and she had decided that she would have missed the community too much to leave, but she was a lot more guarded in what she posted now that everyone knew who she was, sticking just to fic and leaving the meta and personal posts safely in the back of her mind, and not getting involved in fandom debates. 

“Almost over,” Rum said. “Soon you can just sit through the film and fall asleep. I think Anita’s going to be grateful for the sit down.”

Belle glanced over to the other brunette and smiled, wondering how far along she was. She was going to ask when she saw Anita grimace again, digging her fingers into her husband’s arm.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Rum asked under his breath, nodding towards his co-star.

“Well, if Anita gives birth during the premiere at least I don’t have to worry about ending up on the front pages of the tabloids having inadvertently done something shocking,” Belle said. “You can’t beat going into labour on the red carpet for generating column inches. Oh no, I really shouldn’t be thinking things like that, poor Anita, this must be mortifying for her.”

“One thing’s for certain though,” Rum said. “This film will make a mint if it happens.”

“You’re terrible.”

“That’s why you love me.”

“I know.”

“Come on.” Rum pulled her in closer against his side as a couple of the event organisers and security staff rushed over to Anita. “Let’s leave them to it. I’m sure she’s got more than enough spectators.”

X

“Have you heard from Roger?”

Belle looked up as Rum came out of the hotel room bathroom; he fished his phone out of his tux jacket pocket and shook his head.

“No, nothing yet.”

Belle leaned back on her arms on the bed, wiggling her toes, and she gave a snort of laughter.

“I really, really shouldn’t laugh but it is funny. When was she due?”

“The baby’s two and a half weeks early. To be honest I’m surprised she came to the premiere at all so close to term, but Anita’s dedicated to the last, she wouldn’t want to let anyone down.” Rum pulled the loose bow tie from around his neck and it joined his jacket over the back of the chair as he undid the top couple of buttons of his shirt and collapsed onto the bed beside Belle with a groan.

“I’m glad that’s over,” he muttered. Belle rolled over onto her stomach and traced a line down his open collar.

“Now we can have some time just for us,” she purred, then paused. “How’s your ankle? You’ve been on your feet most of the evening.”

“I’m sure it’ll survive now I’m lying down.” He grinned at her, quirking an eyebrow, then his face took on a more serious aspect. “I’ve been putting this off for a while, whilst we got things sorted back here ready for the new film.”

“Putting what off?” Belle asked. Gold turned onto his side beside her, catching her fingers where they were still dancing across his chest.

“I introduced you to Merida as my girlfriend,” he said. “I don’t like that word. I don’t think it suits you. You’re a lady, you always have been, but then ladyfriend sounds even worse. I’d like to be able to call you something else.”

Belle’s breath caught in her throat. “What would you like to call me?” she asked quietly.

“My wife,” Rum said simply. “My fiancée for a bit before that.” He reached across and stroked her hair out of her face. “I love you and I’d like to spend the rest of my life with you, wherever it takes us. Will you marry me, Belle?”

Belle nodded, not quite able to find voice yet.

“Yes,” she finally managed. “Yes, yes, yes. I want to call you my husband.”

Rum just grinned and pulled her into his arms for their first kiss as an affianced couple. And their second. And some more after that, until his phone buzzed loudly in his jacket and they broke apart with a laugh.

It was a night of new beginnings all round, and Belle couldn’t be happier.

Fin