She’s just a child!
She’s fourteen years old. That’s more than old enough to fight.
Please, sir! Don’t take her! She’s all I have left!
Don’t worry, old man. If she’s good, she won’t be on the front lines. I’ll take good care of her as long as she does as she’s told.
It’s okay, papa. I’ll go. I’m not afraid to fight.
Rose French was a beautiful little thing. Delicate, fragile, with blue eyes, cascades of silken brown hair, and skin like porcelain. She wore pretty dresses and kitten heels and smiled like an angel.
Everyone in town feared her.
Once, she believed it was because she held the chains of their debt and servitude. She knew she was nicknamed Jaws, and more than once, she’d heard children humming a particular film theme as she walked by.
She didn’t mind it. Sharks, after all, were beautiful creatures.
It wasn’t until a pretty young woman came to town, all doubts and scepticism, but bearing a name that whipped away the blindfold that had been tied around Rose’s eyes for twenty-eight long years. A thousand memories of pain, humiliation, regret, and loss cascaded in on her that night, and she allowed herself the brief indulgence of tears, but it had to be brief.
Rose French had a reputation after all.
Rose French was no snivelling little girl.
The woman who was destined to be the so-called Saviour of all the residents of Storybrooke had finally arrived, and for the woman who had once been the Dark One, Rose French was only a guise now, a false name layered over a false identity. She had waited long enough. The time for waiting was done.
She gazed at herself in the mirror, her features human once more, her flesh pink and soft. She looked desirable. She looked beautiful. She looked as she might have when she lived, if she had not been poor and desperate and conscripted, if she had not backed away and let go.
Something darker, though, looked out from behind her eyes now.
Once, she had a name and a family, but that was a long, long time ago. She could remember being called Belle. That was the name that adorned her knife, but she could barely remember the face of the man who gave her that name, the man she called father, the man she put in the ground so long ago in a world away.
Belle had awakened.
The name that meant beauty.
That was more of a curse than the Dark One’s blade.
Am I to join the other recruits?
You heard me, girl. If you’re good, you won’t see the front line.
I-I don’t understand, sir.
Ha! I don’t believe that. Come here.
Sir, I’m here to fight. I-I should join the others.
And I’m your commander, and I said come here.
You’re a pretty little thing, aren’t you?
I-I-I don’t know, sir.
Tell me, girl, how much do you want to live?
I don’t want to die.
Let me go! Please, let me go!”
You want to live? Stay still, you little bitch, and do as you’re told.
Don’t speak, girl.
No. Please. Please! NO!
Belle watched from behind the eyes of Rose French.
She watched, she waited, she smiled, she collected.
Storybrooke lived in a bubble, stagnant and dull and twisted up by the corruption of the dark curse. The Mayor who was once a Queen who was once a baby who was once a price smiled as if it had all been her plan, but she knew nothing.
The curse, as all curses before it, was made to be broken.
Belle admired the poetry of it all.
For all that men were believed to be the stronger sex, the more powerful and potent gender, it was a woman’s hands that built the curse, a woman’s hands that cast the curse, and a woman’s hands that would break the curse.
Of course, dear Regina had no notion of the battle she had begun in her attempts to expel Miss Swan by force.
As much as Regina’s life had been twisted and manipulated, she had fought against every moment, and yet, when she tried to force someone else, she was so very, very surprised when they fought as aggressively as she did.
Belle watched from the window of her shop - mostly a bookshop, but also cluttered with the ruins of thousands of lives - as Miss Swan and the child she had been forced to give away walked side-by-side down the street. They looked happy, and that was a good start.
All the same, she didn’t look for long, because it brought to mind things long put aside.
She drew on her coat, sleek and fitted, and her favourite heels that added a little something to her height, and walked out into the night. The people of Storybrooke had long since learned to see beyond the delicate appearance of her body.
People rarely made the mistake of trying to intimidate her with their size or with their bulk, even if they weren’t consciously aware of just who was looking back at them. Once, they pushed, they bullied, they pinned her back and leered, and thought themselves King of the castle until the worm turned and she called their debts in and stripped them of everything they had, home and hearth, even health and life.
No man had truly cowed her, not in centuries, and no man ever would.
And if they tried in earnest in this world where she was just a woman…
Well, Belle was nothing if not practical and a tazer fitted so snugly in her hand.
She approached the Mayor’s grand house and watched from the shadows of a bower as Regina worked on her poor, vandalised tree. Miss Swan had nerves of steel and no qualms about using tools and weapons that would normally be seen as the purview of men. Belle liked her already.
“What a mess,” Belle murmured.
Regina looked at her, smiled. “Not for long,” she said. “What can I do for you, Miss French?”
Belle slipped her hands into the pockets of her coat. There was no magic in this land, but she had to know if a deal was worth anything here. It was better to know all of one’s strengths and weaknesses before setting a game in motion.
“I was just in the neighbourhood,” she murmured. “Thought I would drop in.” She smiled warmly. “Looks like you’re having a good day.”
“I just rid the town of an unwanted nuisance,” Regina said with the same glee she showed at their bi-weekly tea parties.
“Emma Swan,” Belle said, wandering around the tree, looking at the ripening apples. She raised her hand and plucked one. “Really?”
“I imagine she’s halfway to Boston by now,” Regina said, turning to look at her.
Belle chuckled. “I wouldn’t bet on it,” she said. “I just saw her with your boy. He looks like her, doesn’t he?” She met Regina’s eyes, saw the dismay, the fear, the naked fury. “Blood will out, you know.” She leaned that little bit closer. “Perhaps you should have come to me.”
“I’m not in the business of making deals with you anymore,” Regina said, turning away.
Belle withdrew one hand from her pocket, tapping her lips thoughtfully. “Is this about that adoption I arranged?” she murmured. Children were such a commodity in the Enchanted forest. Strange that they could be in this world too. People would kill for them, die for them, give up everything for them. Whether to save them or to possess them, it didn’t really seem to matter. “Henry. Lovely name it is too. Very… traditional.”
“Did you want her to come to town?” Regina demanded, turning on her.
Belle shrugged. “Our tea parties could use another person.” She tossed the apple up in the air and caught it. “She’s a feisty little thing. Could make things quite interesting around here.”
Regina stepped closer, narrowing her eyes. “Who is this woman, this Emma Swan?”
Belle’s lips twitched. “I would say you think you know exactly who she is,” she said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some business to attend to.”
Regina grabbed her by the arm. “Tell me what you know!”
Belle looked at the other woman’s hand on her arm, then up at her. “I think not,” she said. “Now, please excuse me. I’m a very busy woman.”
She was hard-pressed not to smile as Regina’s hand fell away. No one would ever touch her again without her consent.
I see what you mean. Quite the pretty little thing.
Lift your chin, Beauty. Let the Colonel look at you.
Gods, those eyes.
It’s the mouth you’ll enjoy. Just try her.
P-please, sir, don’t.
Don’t? Andos, didn’t you say she was housebroken?
Oh, she is. A little wary around strangers, but she’ll warm to you. If she doesn’t, a quick slap will usually shut her up.
Don’t bruise her face, Keilan. I like her pretty. Beauty, if you scream one more time, I swear it’ll be the last.
Please stop. Please. Please.
Days came and went.
The Mayor’s campaign against Miss Swan continued.
Miss Swan continued to defy her at every turn, in turn endearing herself more and more to the woman who had been the Dark One.
It was not without some small measure of envy that she watched the Saviour stride about, strong and confident in ways that she had never been as little Belle. Small woman with pretty faces became victims more often than they became heroes. The world was cruel that way.
She knew what her appearance said to people.
It came in useful when Miss Boyd robbed the shop.
Poor Miss French, accosted, maced, left unconscious. She knew she looked feeble. She knew Miss Swan was horrified. She watched the woman run off on her crusade, wondering just how Miss Swan’s opinion would turn when she realised just what she was being paid to find.
Belle looked up from the magazine she was surveying. All things considered, it was fairly recent, given that the town had been closed in for near three decades. In a hospital waiting room, that was quite a feat. “Pardon?”
“Your merchandise is a child?”
Belle smiled inwardly. Such moral indignation. “You might call it adoption, Miss Swan,” she said. “And to be honest, I’d feel safer knowing that the child would be raised by someone who didn’t mace and concuss the person they asked to arrange it all.”
The gallant Saviour crossed her arms over her chest, her feet planted wide. Every bit of her spoke of strength and resolve. This was not a woman that anyone would be inclined to cross, even if she was dragged into a camp in chains. “You’re not taking that child.”
Belle rose from the seat, smoothing her skirts with one hand. “Love, you don’t get to write the rules in this game,” she said. “Miss Boyd made a deal with me. She signed a contract with me.” She smiled sweetly. “You may be new in town, Miss Swan, but let me make this clear. No one breaks a deal with me.”
The woman looked at her with contempt. “You think I’ll just stand by and let you take her kid? You think the law will side with you when she’s only acted to keep her child?” She bent closer to look Belle in the eyes. “I don’t think your paperwork is that good, Miss French.”
Belle looked back at her, fighting the urge to smile. It had been so long since she had felt the rush of blood when challenged. “A deal is a deal,” she murmured.
Emma folded her arms. “What would it take to let her keep her kid?”
Belle smiled as gently as she could. “I’m not one to stand between a mother and her child,” she said. “She was well-paid for the adoption. If she can repay the couple whose hearts she has just broken, it would be a start.” She tapped a fingertip against her chin. “And you, love, can owe me.”
“Owe you what?” Emma asked, glaring at her.
Belle spread her hands. “I haven’t decided yet. I’ll think of something.”
The Saviour bared her teeth. “Deal.”
Belle laughed quietly. “Aren’t you quite the fairy godmother,” she murmured dryly as the Saviour walked away.
Don’t touch me.
Your pardon, miss! Please, put the knife down! I didn’t mean to startle you! I-I was looking for some food.
O-oh. I’m sorry. I… I thought you were someone else.
Yes, miss. Sorry miss. So sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you.
I wasn’t scared.
Lucky, miss. Very lucky. There’s much to fear in this world.
Fear doesn’t help anyone. Are you hungry?
Famished, miss. I-I saw your cooking pot.
Here. It’s my master’s but he won’t notice if I don’t give him all of it.
Thank you, miss. Thank you.
A-are you from the front?
Yes, miss. From the front, miss. Gods be merciful, I’ve lived this long. Rheul Ghorum must be watching over me.
You know? The blue star? The great watcher? The protector of the weak?
Oh. That. It’s all a lie.
You haven’t dared to wish?
Dared to…? I’ve wished. No one listens. I’d have more luck wishing on the Dark One.
Don’t say that! The Dark One may be listening!
Let him listen. Let him come and kill me. Let him throw me to the front. Let him do anything he wants.
You don’t mean that, miss!
Don’t I? You know who my master is. You know what he did to the child he put in me.
Yes. Yes, miss. They… they say you entertain for him.
Entertain. Is that what they say?
Miss, you… you could free yourself.
Your master. He holds the Dark One in thrall.
Him? That soft-bellied, cowardly…
Yes, him, miss. Him. A dagger with a name. He has it. It controls the Dark One. Take the dagger! Take it and command the Dark One!
And let someone else’s hand kill him? No.
Then… then use the dagger. If you call the Dark One, if you kill it with its dagger, you take the power. You’d be strong, miss. So strong. No one would ever be able to hurt you again.
No one, miss. You would be free.
True love was a powerful thing.
The fair Snow White and her dashing Prince had found one another again.
In the forest, Belle often gazed into scrying glasses, watching them stumbling about after one another like newborn colts. True love could not be created, that much she knew, but it could be cultivated, nourished, encouraged, and that was where she had laid her hand.
It was nothing to do with them, of course.
Any love story would have worked, any that had challenge enough and struggle enough to forge affection into something true and powerful. She knew of one true love who would have been that, but sometimes, love was like a whisper of wind: the moment you felt it brush your cheek, it was gone. And if she had access to that love story, the world would be very different.
She was not the only one to watch them, but she was one of the few to fan the flames of love that she saw there. There had been others, of course, but their relationships had faltered through the simple foolishness of humanity. Trials proved to much, and, like metal beaten too thin, they splintered rather than growing stronger.
The Prince who was a shepherd and the bandit who was a Princess were an exception.
There had always been the potential there, the little spark of two rebellious souls.
Belle watched over them, these two little poppets who had crossed her path through accident and coincidence and her own machinations. Fate could play its hand in fortunate way when it was least expected, and she wasn’t one to turn away a gift like that.
Regina, naturally, hated it, and that made it all the more potent.
What the Queen couldn’t know was that her thirst for vengeance was smothering what little flame of love she had left, and that very bull-headed approach was the very thing that Belle intended to make good use of.
The more Regina lashed at them, the more she pushed the pair together. For her part, Belle was only too happy to place obstacles along the way to challenge them in a way that were more help than hindrance.
No one ever paid attention to the deals the Dark One made. No one notice how one linked to another to another. It was a perfect golden chain wrapped around the woman who had been her apprentice, the Princess, the shepherd and the offspring of the same.
Regina could hack and smash and tear madly at the ties that bound them, but not even the dark curse could smother the love that was there, even when the shepherd Prince was married. Even when the bandit Princess was a virtuous and innocent soul. Even when Regina twisted everything against them, they still fell towards one another.
Love, like gravity, would always bring about a fall for good or ill.
Belle watched and waited and smiled quietly over her morning coffee.
They were drawn to one another, and their child and their child’s child would be the catalyst to set everything right. The power created by the four of them combined would be enough to break the curse and set them all free.
Zoso, I summon thee. Zoso. ZOSO!
Don’t scream yourself hoarse yet, little girl.
I-I bind thee.
Is that so? Little thing like you. You think you can do anything to me?
I know I can.
I can do worse to you, Beauty. I know what you fear and I can promise I can do so much worse.
I’m not afraid of you. You’re just a man.
Oh, foolish child. You have no idea who you’re talking to.
I do, Dark One. I know. And you’ll never touch me.
You’re going to stop me, little girl? You and that little knife?
The shop was always quiet.
Most people who made deals with her tried to avoid meeting her in her domain. There were rumours that the bodies of her lovers were stored up in the basement, a Bluebeard of sorts, or perhaps a Black Widow.
Belle never knew what it was about her that made people believe she had some insatiable sexual appetite. Perhaps it was because she dressed to make herself feel beautiful - though it seldom worked - or perhaps it was because she smiled at so many of the men in town.
If the curtain-twitchers knew the reasons for the smiles, they would be horrified.
Women might be the physically weaker gender, but men were the frailer when it came to the mind. They could be easily led. They could be tricked. They could be corrupted with a sweet smile and the lightest of touches.
So many of them had come to the Dark Queen for aid that they no longer remembered.
When she first claimed the power, she favoured dealing with men over women. They judged her simply on her quietness, her demure, simple gowns, the way she lowered her eyes. She used her frailty as a weapon, and they paid a price far higher than they ever anticipated when they dealt with her. Poor little Dark One, so misunderstood.
They believed her to be a witch at first. Nothing more, of course. Some little skill in magic, scaled skin, and repellent features. She wore hooded cloaks, smiled a yellow-toothed smile, and not one of them ever tried to touch her.
Time changed that.
Corpses changed that.
She found her father’s village only weeks after she took the blade.
The people were half-starved, all the crops taken to feed the army at the front. Her father did not recognise her, not for the change in her appearance, but because he had been struck down when trying to protect what little he had left to feed his village.
She tried to heal him, but the damage had already been done, and he only lingered a dozen days after she returned. When she carried his body to lay it rest, the village was silent, deathly silent. Men and women and children watched her, blank, worn, broken.
She laid him in the ground, took her few possessions from the house that had been her home, then put the building to the torch. If it was not her home, then it would be no one’s home.
It took her days, weeks, months to find the men who had beaten him.
It took each of them days, weeks, months to die.
That was when the fear started. That was when they started to see her as much more than a witch. It made no difference that she had ended the Ogre war or brought the children back to their still-living parents.
What they remembered were the men strung about like May Day ribbons, men who had earned every moment of their torment, men who killed and maimed and raped and tormented those weaker than themselves.
So they feared, and only the boldest approached her.
The echoes of that carried into Storybrooke.
No one came to her, not in the dark.
Except the Prince.
The poor, lost, confused Prince, seeking the bridge where he could find his Princess.
Belle smiled. She hadn’t help them so many times for them to fail now.
And yet, the curse worked and worked well, and a windmill that meant nothing to him suddenly meant more than his child’s mobile.
Belle closed her eyes as he walked away. She could be patient. She had been for centuries. But patience had its limits.
I’m a traveller, looking for rest from the road, sir.
Get out of here, witch.
Please, sir, I’m but a hungry woman, looking for a kindness.
We have nothing we can spare you. I’m sorry.
Good day, sir… or you can just close your door in my face.
Are… are you looking for someone, milady?
Your clothing, milady. It’s decent cloth. Not for the likes of us.
So it is.
You were knocking on doors, milady. Are you looking for someone in particular?
No. No one in particular. Only shelter, perhaps a little food.
You’re welcome to share our table, milady. Me and my boy, we don’t have much, but we know what it is to go hungry.
That would be very kind of you…
It speaks well that you show kindness to a haggard old crone like me.
Treat others as you would be, milady.
That sounds like a hero talking.
Just a man, milady. Just a man.
Belle filed her nail carefully, examining the curve of the cuticle.
“I know you had some part in this.”
The soon-to-be Sheriff was standing in front of her armchair, and Belle raised her eyebrows inquiringly. “In what, love?” she asked, setting the file down and picking up the bottle of baby pink nail varnish.
“Regina’s car accident,” Swan snapped. “You could have killed someone.”
Belle set down the bottle on the table and rose from her chair. “As I heard it,” she said, “the Mayor’s car skidded on a patch of ice. You pulled her out. You were the hero. Unless you’re trying to tell me that I control the weather…”
“Don’t bullshit me, French.” The woman loomed over her, furious. “It’s over forty out there. Where the hell did the ice come from? It wasn’t there when I went into City Hall, but it’s there when Regina’s driving off?”
Belle smiled at her. “So you do think I control the weather?”
“I think you’re the smartest person I’ve run into in this town and if anyone could set up an ice patch with science, it would be you.”
Belle stepped around her on stockinged feet, taking a book from the counter behind the armchair, and carrying it back over to the shelves. If the woman didn’t notice that it was a chemistry book with all kinds of useful and clever tricks which would have been as much a clue as a fingerprint, then that was her loss.
“Prove it, then,” she said, turning back to her guest with a smile.
“You know I can’t,” Emma snarled, arms folded tight across her chest. “What I want to know is why you would.”
Belle curled back up in her armchair, reaching for the nail varnish again. “If I did cause the accident, and I’m not saying that I did, what has it achieved?”
Emma shook her head. “Apart from pissing me and Regina off?”
Belle laughed, opening the bottle and withdrawing the brush. “Well, yes. Apart from that. Think, love. I know you know.”
Emma stared at her. “I pulled Regina out of the car.”
The brush dragged smoothly across one round nail after another. “And very heroic it was too,” she said. “Just what everyone looks for in a Sheriff.”
“No way. You didn’t set it up to help me.”
Belle shook her hand from side to side and looked up with a smile. “I didn’t make you do anything, love. You went and did the hero-thing all on your own.” She blew across her nails. “I know I was impressed.”
“You couldn’t know I would be there. You couldn’t know I would save her.”
Belle turned her attention to her other hand, drawing the brush in even strokes across each nail. “Of course I couldn’t,” she said, “since I wasn’t involved, didn’t do anything, and have been here, reading my book, all evening.” She replaced the lid on the bottle and blew lightly on her nails. “But you are the hero-type, love. I can’t see you leaving anyone to die horribly in a wrecked car.”
“You didn’t make me save her.”
“Of course not,” Belle said, feigning shock. “It was your own choice.” Her lips twitched. “So what if you were given a little nudge onto that path? Doesn’t make it any less your choice, does it?”
Emma’s lips drew back from her teeth. “You manipulative bitch.”
Belle widened her eyes innocently. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Sure you don’t,” Emma snapped, turning and storming out.
Belle tucked her feet beneath her, and examined her fingernails, each one perfect and pink, with a brief smile. Good people always did do the right thing.
I am she, Rumpelstiltskin.
H-h-how do you know my name?”
Do you really want to know the answer to that question?
I… no. No. I-I know I shouldn’t call on you for something so small, but I-I had no other choice.
It’s my son. My boy. Bae. The wars. There are terrible things happening. The ogres. They’re calling for soldiers. New soldiers. Young ones. They… they won’t take me. Too old. Crippled. A coward. But they’ll take him, and I can’t… they can’t take him from me. They can’t take him to die.
You would have me save one child out of all of the children they are calling away? Boys and girls who will be put to pain and death?
If I could, I’d ask you to stop the war.
Ambitious of you, love. You think I could?
I-I-I heard you were there at the last war, decades ago. That you stopped it.
True enough. Is that all you heard?
Men. Men died. At your hand. Leaders. Soldiers.
Rapists and murderers. Does that make their deaths sit easier on your ears?
N-no. No deaths are easy.
Good answer. Wise. Tell me, Rumpelstiltskin, what would you give me to save your son? All magic has its price. No man receives anything for free from my hands.
I-I don’t have money.
I wouldn’t accept it anyway. Do you think I seek mortal wealth? No, no, love. I want something precious.
All I have is my boy, and I won’t give you him.
You have something else, love.
Oh yes, love. To save your son, I want you.
Belle was enjoying herself immensely.
The Sheriff was settling into her new position and doing a wonderful job of tormenting the Mayor by refusing to obey her. The Mayor in turn was champing at the bit, trying her best to drive a wedge between her son and the Sheriff, as well as the Princess and the shepherd.
It was a delight to watch someone else doing her work for her.
The more Regina pushed, the more the charming little family fought against her.
Resistance, it seemed, was genetic.
As the days and weeks crept by, the Sheriff even approached her to seek guidance, although it wasn’t without a grudging glower.
As much as Emma had tried to resist Belle’s little scheme, she had stepped right into the net and did the right thing all over again. By standing up to the untouchable Miss French, she had rendered herself powerful, or so she thought, until Belle reminded her that she had planned every moment of the election right to the result.
The Sheriff wasn’t going to forgive her for that any time soon.
She donned her sunhat against the bright spring sunshine and headed out into the day. There were debts to be called in, after all, and one of them, she was very much looking forward to.
As luck would have it, she emerged from her shop just as the lucky person in question emerged from the bank, a fraught look on her face. Belle smiled slow and thin. There were some people who just deserved to be tormented.
“Mother Superior!” she called brightly.
The nun’s face went white when she turned and recognised who it was that was calling on her. “M-Miss French,” she said. “I was going to call you.”
Belle smiled, knowing that the convent’s income reserves had run short, the bank account was in the red, and a third of the rent still hadn’t been paid. If she had perhaps bullied some of the donors, she could hardly be held accountable for such a drastic shortfall.
“I wonder why that might be, love,” she said. “Could it be because you’re already late with this month’s payment?”
“We’re trying to get it,” the nun pleaded. “We just need a few more days.”
“Days tend to become weeks and weeks become months, love,” Belle said, shaking her head solemnly. “You know the conditions of our arrangement. As long as the rent is paid in full each month, on the fourteenth day, we don’t need to see each other. You have twenty-four hours, but I would use that to start looking for a new address.”
The nun grabbed Belle’s arm as she walked past. “You can’t just turn us out on the streets!”
Belle looked down at the once fairy’s hand. “You’ve just trimmed it down to twelve hours, love. I was being generous.” She smiled without showing any teeth. “I don’t feel quite so generous anymore.” She jerked her arm free and stalked in the direction of the diner.
“Quite a show, Miss French.”
Belle paused, turning. “Ah, Regina. Do you need notice that you’re about to have a flock of pious god-botherers living on the street as of tomorrow?”
“That isn’t what’s worrying me,” Regina said. “I was meaning to talk to you about something. You haven’t been coming to tea so often…”
“Well, I am very busy,” Belle said. “Evicting nuns, chasing debtors, keeping Sheriff Swan on her toes. The usual.” She smiled. “Maybe when I’m less busy, I’ll find some time for you.”
“No,” Regina said, planting herself in front of Belle with a boldness that surprised her. “We need to talk now.”
Belle raised herself on her toes and brushed a piece of non-existent lint from the Mayor’s woollen coat. “If there’s something bothering you, love,” she said in conversational tones, “I’m afraid you’re just going to have to wait.”
Belle tugged on Regina’s lapels, straightening them, and looked her in the eye. “Please.”
Regina looked at her as if she had been slapped.
I-I-I want your promise.
A bold request.
Please. I just want to know he’s safe. Promise me you’ll protect him as long as I live.
You’re a man, Rumpelstiltskin. Can’t you protect him?
N-no. I-I’m not good at being brave.
I think you might be braver than you know.
D-do you promise?
As long as you live? Not beyond that?
His life is his. I won’t, can’t decide it for him. If he wants to… you can talk to him about it when the time comes. As long as you won’t hurt him when I’m gone.
Your son will be safe, that I promise you. Until the day you die, I will ensure no harm comes to him, as long as you are loyal to me.
Thank you, milady. Thank you.
I-is that wrong?
No, Rumpelstiltskin. No. That’s just right.
The door of her house was ajar.
Belle went hot and cold with fury and terror at the same time.
Years, decades, centuries could pass and no matter what she did, nothing could ever wipe away the memory of violation and the fear it brought. Her home was her castle. Her walls were her defences. And now, someone had broken through them.
She pushed the door inwards, heart thundering, and slipped her feet from her heeled shoes.
Her stockings made no sound on the floor, as she crossed the floor and drew her gun from the bureau and cocked it as quietly as she could.
The house had been ransacked. Furniture had been upturned and drawers were open, ajar, empty. Much of it meant nothing to her. Trinkets and payments for debts long forgotten. She walked further into the house, and felt as if molten lead had poured through her veins.
It was gone.
A click from behind her made her whirl around, gun raised.
Emma Swan was standing in the doorway, also armed.
“Your neighbours saw your front door open,” she said, without lowering the gun. “They called it in.”
“Looks like I’ve been robbed,” Belle said, running her thumb over the safety.
“Yeah.” The Sheriff’s hand was steady, as was her gun. “Funny how that keeps happening to you.”
Belle looked beyond her at the empty space in the cabinet. “What can I say?” she said, forcing her tone to lightness as she lowered her weapon. “I have the perfect collection for a yard sale.” She laid the gun on the nearest table. “You can go now, love. I can handle this. I know what’s missing and who took it.”
“No, you don’t,” the Sheriff replied with the firm tone that no doubt was used to drive Regina nuts. “This was a robbery, a public menace, and if you don’t tell me what you know, I’ll have to arrest you for obstruction of justice.” Belle grimaced. “I get the feeling you don’t want to be behind bars.”
“You got that right,” Belle said darkly. Even the brief spell she had spent in a cell, before the curse, had been her idea of hell, with her whole life taken out of her control again. “It was the Mother Superior. The sisters at the convent are behind on their rent, and they have just been served eviction notices.”
“Nuns?” Emma said, staring at her. “You’re kicking nuns out?”
Belle rolled her eyes. “Excuse me, but who has been robbed here?”
“Robbed, yeah, but by nuns?”
Belle gave her a cool look. “Don’t imagine they’re as perfect as they pretend to be, Sheriff.”
“But robbing you?”
Belle put a hand on her hip. “Can we have a little sympathy for the victim? Is that too much to ask for?” she inquired. “Or would you need me to find a crucifix and some bits of communion wafer shoved down the back of the couch?”
“Okay, sorry,” Emma said, sliding her gun away and offering her a half-smile. “So. Nuns. I’ll go check them out.”
“You do that,” Belle said grimly, “and when you do, let them know that I’m not inclined to lease my residential properties to thieves.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
We’re going to live in a castle, papa?
That’s right, son. Our lady is going to make sure we’re safe.
That’s between me and your father, love. Run along and explore, but don’t go into any rooms that have closed doors.
Thank you, milady.
Being kind to him.
He’s a child. Children deserve kindness. Come with me. I’ll show you your place.
I-is it all so big, milady?
Castles often are, I’m told.
And your other servants…?
What other servants?
You… I thought… you don’t have any?
You will tend the castle and the grounds. My library needs to be kept in order and clean. My clothing may need repairing from time to time.
Yes, milady. Your cloak…
Don’t touch me! Don’t ever touch me without my permission.
Y-y-yes… p-please… l-let g…
Papa! Let him go! Let my papa go!
You know your duties. S-see to them.
Papa? Papa, are you all right?
I-I-I’ll be fine, son. Fine.
I scared her, is all. Don’t worry, Bae.
She was scared, Bae. She was scared.
So are you.
Th-that doesn’t matter, son. She’ll protect us.
The Sheriff called her in some three hours later.
Belle reached the station within fifteen minutes and walked in to find Sheriff Swan checking a list in her notebook. “Sheriff Swan.”
Emma nodded at her. “Turns out you were right, Miss French,” she said, reaching for a cloth that covered one of the desks. She pulled if off with a flourish, revealing all the small objects that had been snatched from her home. “They were in the convent’s station wagon.”
Belle’s eyes darted over them, her heart pounding.
All of them, but one.
“And where is our dear Mother Superior?”
“I’m still looking for her.”
Belle raised her eyes from her possessions to the Sheriff. “So you consider this a job done well?”
Emma leaned back in the chair, her expression grim. “In less than a day, I got everything back. Is something wrong?”
Belle’s fingers twitched by her side, the temptation to drag everything from the table and shatter it on the floor growing by the moment. “They took what they came for,” she said. “This…” She waved her hand sharply at the dross on the table. “This is nothing. There’s something missing.”
“I’ll get it when I find her,” the Sheriff said indignantly.
Belle slipped her hands into her pockets, her fingers biting into her thighs through her coat. “Not if I find her first,” she murmured darkly, turning and walking from the station.
She stepped out into the chill of the sharp February day. The sun was out, but that didn’t make it any less cold, and she breathed in deeply, letting the frost in the breeze cut at her lungs. A little pain helped. It stoked the anger, made her focus.
Of all the things to be taken…
Only one person knew the significance, but even she wouldn’t have been bold enough.
Belle thought back to the chaos of her house. Everything that had been taken had been small, easy to grab, things that could be thrown into a single box and carried by a woman only a little larger than she was.
It could just be coincidence, but that didn’t explain why only one thing was still missing.
She had made a promise, long ago.
She wasn’t about to let someone walk in and take what was left of it.
What are you doing?
Oh! Milady! Sorry. I-I was just spinning.
I could see that. Why?
It… I’m good at it. I’ve taken care of the library, the castle. I-I thought since I had a little time, I could teach Bae…
You don’t mind?
I’m not a tyrant, Rumpelstiltskin, and a trade is always useful. He may need it one day.
Yes, milady. What… what are you doing?
I’ve never seen someone spin before. I want to watch.
But how can you never have seen someone spin? Papa said you’re much older than him.
I’m so sorry, milady. He forgets that you’re higher born than we were. That you’d never see such things in your castle.
Higher born? Oh, no, love, but I was distracted by other things: war, danger, magic. Spinning didn’t fit in there.
So you were a normal lady once?
Gods, Bae! Milady, I’m sorry. He’s a child. He’s curious. He means no harm.
I know, Rumpel. Children speak freely where parents stay silent. If you want to ask, you can, but I can’t promise I’ll answer.
… was he right?
Perhaps. Once. Long ago.
Belle was a small woman. Petite, some might say. It wasn’t a build that was meant to bully or coerce, which meant that - unfortunately - weapons had to come into play. It was tiresome and aggressive, but necessary.
It took a little time to find where the nun was hiding, but before she made her way there, she went to the store. You couldn’t go into an abduction unprepared. She had plenty of shackles and interesting tools in her shop, but when it came to prisoners, she liked a more traditional approach.
She looped the length of rope over her shoulder, then went to the aisle where flammable solvents were stored. She looked up at them with a sigh, lamenting that sometimes, it was a curse to look as dainty as she did.
“Do you need help?”
She turned, startled, then smiled as sweetly as she could at the man who was once the shepherd, but was now David Nolan. “I was looking for turpentine,” she said, “but they don’t really think about us midgets when they design these stores.”
He looked along the shelf, then picked a bottle. “Is this the right kind?”
She took it, examining it, and smiled at him. “This is exactly what I was looking for. Thank you.” She glanced at his basket and raised her eyebrows. “Two Valentine cards? That sounds like a story worth the hearing.”
She hadn’t seen a man blush in a long time.
“Um. Yeah. They’re both so… us.”
Belle glanced at the cards which could not have been more different if they tried. “Yes. I can see that. They both have Kathryn written all over them.” She wondered if he realised just how useless he was at lying. “You’re lucky, you know. To have love.”
“Oh, I know.”
“Do you?” Belle said, setting the turpentine in her basket. “Really? Because I don’t think anyone can every really know what love is until they’ve gone without it.” She looked up at the man. “Love is like a flame. Powerful, beautiful, destructive, and if you’re brave enough to touch it, it leaves a scar that lingers long after its gone.”
“That’s… a sad way of looking at it.”
Belle gazed at him. “Not sad,” she murmured. “I never said that scars weren’t beautiful.”
Spinning again, I see.
And no Bae?
He’s reading, milady. He loves your library.
Good. That’s good.
He’s a good boy.
How fare his spinning lessons?
Oh, I don’t think he’s a born spinner. He’s much more interested in alchemy. I-I… was wondering if you might teach him? If… I mean, if you don’t want to…
No. No, I think that might be interesting. He’s not afraid of me anymore, at least.
No, milady. Not at all.
Good. Good. I’ll teach him what I can. If he can’t be a spinner, he’ll need a trade.
That’s very kind of you, milady.
A pity, though.
Spinning. It’s a beautiful craft. I find it very soothing to watch.
I-I could teach you, if you like, milady?
I-I know. It’s silly.
No, I would like that. I would like that very much. Can we begin now?
Of course! Please! Come and sit here. I-I’ll have to touch your hands to guide them. Is… will you permit me?
My hands, yes.
You have to feel the tension in the wool, and the draw. Too tight and it’ll snap, too slack and it won’t spin smoothly.
Gods! I wasn’t even holding it that tight. It’s not as simple as it looks, is it?
Not really, no, but you’ll get the hang of it. Here. I’ll start it again.
Is that better?
A little tighter. There. Just keep that tension.
That might have been a little tight again.
Are you laughing?
No, milady! Of course not.
You are, aren’t you?
Well, if I may speak freely, you aren’t very good.
Oh, and I suppose you were better the first time you tried.
Of course. I was a natural. Popped out of my mother’s belly, spindle in hand.
Now, I know you’re laughing.
So are you, milady. I… I haven’t seen you laugh before.
It’s… been some time.
Milady, if I may ask, why did you want me here?
I… needed a servant.
Not that, milady. Why me? I’m nothing special.
You’re kind. That’s more than can be said for many men.
You couldn’t know that, not when I called on you.
Couldn’t I? Tell me, Rumpelstiltskin, do you remember treating others as you would want to be treated? An old woman, a cold winter, broken bread even though you had little to spare?
You? That was you? But why?
If men are unkind to a hungry old woman, they will be unkind to anyone. You weren’t. You are a good man, Rumpelstiltskin. Those are a rare breed. Believe me, I know it well.
And because of that, you saved my son? Gave us a home? Because I was kind to you?
Oh, love. Because of that, I ended the ogre war once more.
The cabin was cold and dark.
Belle lit a taper and moved around the room quietly, lighting the candles that stood on every surface. It bathed the room in a soft, buttery light, chasing away the edge of the cold. When that was done, she went to the fireplace. It was always readied, each time she left the cabin, so she stripped back the tarpaulin and crouched down with the matches to kindle the flame.
Her guest was presently unconscious, tied securely to a chair, the tazer burns visible at the collar of her habit. It had been a trial to get her out of the trunk of the car, but Belle had a spare cart in the garage. It was there from the day she moved some of her books into the cabin, for those occasions when she needed to be away from the mundanity of Storybrooke life.
The fire took slowly, twists of dry paper catching between the upper layers of firewood and the kindling beneath. Belle wrapped her arms around her knees and watched it, remaining there even when the heat was too much so close.
She heard the Mother Superior groan quietly and smiled blankly into the flame.
She unfolded from the hearth, smoothing her skirts down, and undid the buttons of her coat. It slid off her shoulders, smooth as silk, and she hung it on one of the pegs near the door, before turning back to her guest.
“Hello, love,” she said, stepping out of her kitten heels and onto the polished wood of the floor. She paused to pull the curtains closed over the windows, then turned. “I’m sure you know why you’re here.”
The nun lifted her head, blinking groggily. Her eyes flicked this way and that, and Belle noticed with approval the terror that crossed her face. “Sweet Jesu, have mercy.”
Belle padded closer, the cool wood warming as the fire’s glow spread through the house. “I don’t think so, love,” she said. “After all, you’ve been a naughty girl, haven’t you? Let me see. I think it was the eighth commandment, wasn’t it? The one about not being a sticky-fingered little bitch?”
Mother Superior’s face went ashen. “I-I don’t know what you mean.”
“And that’s number nine, if I remember right.” Belle traced her fingertip along the chain that hung around the woman’s neck, drawing the crucifix out to rest against her fingers. “Do you want me to bring you a married man to screw or someone to off? Because if you plan on breaking all of them, I’d prefer to get it over with sooner rather than later.” She hooked her finger under the chain and jerked. The nun cried out sharply as the chain snapped. The crucifix rattled to the floor. “Let’s not play, love. I have rules. I expect them to be obeyed. And unlike your high and Almighty, I’m not afraid to punish those who break them.”
“Please, Miss French, I was desperate!”
Belle stroked her cheek gently. “Oh, I know that, love,” she murmured. “You must have been to think it was a good idea to cross me.” She caught the nun’s chin in her hand, forcing her head up. “You know what I’m looking for. Where is it?”
“E-e-everything was in the car! In the box in the car!”
Belle drew the rosary from the nun’s waist and stepped back, running the beads through her fingers. There was something soothing about the motion, calming. It was like spinning, once she learned how to do it the right way. And she had, eventually.
“You know that’s not true,” she said, walking slowly around the chair that the nun was bound to. Snake-fast, she whipped the rosary around the Mother Superior’s throat and pulled the woman back hard against her chest, making the nun gag as the rosary pulled tight. “Now, love,” she murmured, bending to put her lips close to the other woman’s ear. “You’ve taken something precious to me. I want it back.”
Where is it you go, when you’re not here? You’re away a lot.
All kinds of places. Wherever people call on me.
Isn’t the world a very big place?
It is indeed, Bae. Bigger than you can imagine. Only last week, I crossed paths with a pirate and his queen.
Pirates? Are they on big adventures?
I suspect they prefer to cause trouble.
Enough about pirates, son. We don’t need to know about that over dinner.
But it sounds exciting.
I tell you what, Bae. If you can finish sorting the dried herbs and hanging them, I’ll tell you a tale or two of pirates tomorrow, when we’re working.
It’s a deal, love. Yes or no?
Yes! Yes, please! Papa, can I leave the table to go and hang the herbs?
If you like, son. You’ve eaten enough?
Thank you, papa!
So, you don’t like pirates, Rumpel?
His mother was killed by a crew who came to our village. He doesn’t know.
Oh. I’m sorry.
It… it was years ago. It’s in the past. Done with.
I could find them for you. The pirates.
No! No. I don’t want that. Bae… he doesn’t need to know what happened. The past is done with. I-I know that’s not brave, but it’s done.
If that’s what you want, love.
It is. But you were saying you travel so far? It’s all for deals?
Most often, yes. All people have a need. Some are just that little bit more desperate and will pay that little bit more. A lot of them don’t even need to.
But you’ll ask for a high price anyway.
Is that reproach I hear?
I-I just don’t understand. If people are desperate and you have this power, why not help them?
You’re right, love. You don’t understand. I have this power. It’s my power, and no one can demand anything of me, of it, for nothing. All magic comes with a price. I won’t let anyone use me… it again.
Milady, I-I know you were hurt in the past, but that doesn’t mean you have to let it keep hurting you now.
Oh, you know, do you?
I-I just mean I recognise the signs. You flinch when I touch you. Like you think I would hurt you.
You speak too freely, Rumpel.
It doesn’t stop it being true, milady. Someone hurt you. A man.
A man. Ha.
What clever little thought are you thinking now, Rumpel? Out with it.
The men. The men who died after the war.
Enough. That… that’s enough, Rumpel.
Did they harm you, milady? Is that why you took this power? To stop them harming you again?
Would it change things if I said yes, love? It’s a cruel world. You can be predator or you can be prey. You can never be both.
Or you can be neither, milady. Go somewhere peaceful, where no one will harm you. Get rid of this magic and let yourself heal, instead of letting it twist you up even more.
And who’s to keep me safe there, Rumpel? Hmm? You? Bae?
I would, milady. I would take care of you. Please, we could find somewhere that no one knows you. You could smile. You don’t smile enough.
And you would want to see this old monster’s smile, would you? You would bind yourself to me?
I already have, milady, but if you asked it, I would again.
No, I don’t. Where you go, I’ll go. Deal or not.
Don’t you know?
Kn-know? No. You can’t. Not me.
Why not, milady?
Look at me. Just look.
I am, milady.
“I don’t know! I swear!”
Belle sighed, loosening the rosary enough to let the nun breathe. “You know that’s not the right answer, love.” She pressed her cheek to Mother Superior’s once-elegant hair. “You stole because someone told you to. You’re not nearly brave enough to think of that yourself.”
“I just took the box,” the nun whispered hoarsely. “I filled the box and I took it.”
Belle draped the rosary into her lap. “I feel we’re going round in circles here,” she said, resting her hands lightly on the nun’s trembling shoulders. “When I ask a nun a question, I don’t expect to be lied to. Do I have to be more persuasive?”
“I-I can’t tell you what I don’t know! I-I thought if I took your things, we could… come to an arrangement.”
Belle wandered over to her shopping bag, withdrawing a pair of pliers and setting them on the table, followed by a narrow-bladed kitchen knife. The nun stifled a frightened whimper. Belle’s lips twitched. Implication could sometimes be more terrifying than fact, and ideally, she really didn’t want to get any blood on her dress.
Which wasn’t to say she wouldn’t hurt the woman, but she preferred not to damage people too much. It often made it problematic for them to keep on top of bills and debts later.
The last thing she brought out was the bottle of turpentine. With the box of matches, it would make a lovely point.
She returned to the nun, dragging over another chair to sit in front of her.
“Now, you’ve had a minute to think things through, love,” she said with a sigh that suggested she had only been playing before, but now, it was grown-up time and things were about to get very serious. She set the matchbox in her lap and twisted the cap off the turpentine bottle. “I like to read, you know. And I’ve read some very interesting things about a Queen who was your sort of person. Crosses. Mass. Jesus bread and wine. Very pious. Certain she was right about everything.” She smiled at the nun. “She didn’t like Protestants very much.”
The nun’s eyes fixed on the bottle as if it was the herald of the second coming. “I-I don’t know who you’re talking about,” she said, her voice trembling. “I… history… I’m not very good at it.”
“No, I don’t imagine you are,” Belle said lightly, remembering a thousand pleading wordless wishes cast to the starry skies on nights when the pain was too much, and the blood was too dark, and she had no voice left to pray. She remembered that they were all ignored. “I don’t have a stake to hand, I’m afraid, and I think it would be very messy to do that, but…” She gave the bottle a shake, and drops splashes out over the rim, spattering the nun’s skirt and legs. “Well, let’s say it’s in the spirit of the thing.”
The nun shrank back against the chair. “No! Y-you can’t be that crazy!”
“Heretics burned,” Belle said, smiling. “Why not liars and thieves too?” She tilted the bottle just enough to splash down the nun’s right leg. “Of course, if you wish me to hear your confession, I’m all ears.”
Belle sighed again, setting down the bottle. “You leave me no choice, you know,” she said, opening the box and pulling out a match. “And you still have three other limbs, a torso and a face. Keep that in mind.”
“Please! Please don’t!”
“Strange,” Belle said, staring at her coldly. “Someone scared and hurt is calling on me, but I don’t think I’ll listen to them. It can’t be anyone important after all…”
She struck the match, the flame flaring beautifully, and the nun started screaming.
Belle gazed at her. “All you have to do is speak, love,” she said, lowering the match an inch at a time. “I want to know where he is. I want to know what you’ve done with him.” She held the Mother Superior’s eyes. “I’m waiting.”
“No, you’re not.” Emma Swan said, and her gloved hand closed around the match.
What’s so important, love?
You remember what I said? About us going somewhere safe?
Rumpel, you’re not still going on about this are you? I am what I am. It can’t be changed. It can’t be undone. No matter what I do, I am the Dark One and that’s all I can ever be.
No, no it isn’t, milady.
I-I spoke to someone. Someone who knows about magic. Someone who says there a way for you to be free of it all.
Of the curse. I know that’s why you hurt people. Why you can’t help yourself. I know you don’t want to.
You know that?
Milady, you were hurt, but you don’t want to hurt other people. You protected Bae. And me. You didn’t hurt us.
Because you didn’t hurt me, love. The world isn’t so kind as all that. Other people would hurt me if I didn’t have this power. I have enemies. They would come after me. And you. And Bae. I won’t allow that.
Not if we went somewhere else, somewhere that no one knows you, milady. Somewhere new.
The Dark One is known everywhere in these lands, Rumpel. It’s a pleasant fantasy, but that’s all it can be.
No, milady. Look. Look at this.
A magic bean, milady. I-I’ve been told it’ll open a doorway to a different world, a world where you won’t need to be cursed anymore. A world where no one would come after you.
And who told you about this magical doorway?
I remembered tales, from my childhood, milady. Tales of the blue star.
You know of it, milady?
I know of it well enough to doubt its motives.
What is that?
The portal, milady! Please! If you come through it, you and Bae and I…
Papa, we don’t have much time!
Milady, if you come through, we can be together.
Is that what this is about? You want rid of my powers so you can have your way with me? Is that why you’ve done this?
Milady, no! Of course not!
Don’t touch me, Rumpel! Get away from me!
Get away, get away, get away…
You killed him! You killed my papa!
No. No. No no no. He touched. He shouldn’t have touched. Get off me!
Y-y-you killed him… you killed my papa…
B-Bae? Gods, Bae… Bae, are you hurt?
Don’t touch me!
Gods… Rumpel? Rumpelstiltskin? Wh-where is he, Bae?
You killed him. You pushed him into the magic! You killed him!
I-into the magic? Oh Gods…
He wanted to save you! He wanted you to be happy! And you killed him!
No. No. if he was right, if he went through… Bae, he’s alive. I swear he must be alive. Please, Bae, I’ll find him.
If you don’t, I’ll never forgive you. Never.
“So there’s no physical damage, apart from bruising.”
Belle looked up at the Sheriff blankly. She had not got the information she needed, and now, even with the coat wrapped around her shoulders, she felt cold. Cold and weak and old. She was sitting on the hood of the Sheriff’s squad car, her feet dangling.
“You’re lucky, Miss French.”
“Is that what they’re calling it these days?” Belle murmured.
“Compared to being tied to a chair and throttled with a rosary? I’d say so.” Emma folded her arms, her expression stern. “What did she really do?”
Belle looked away. “She stole.”
“That reaction was about more than just a few pieces of junk from your house.” Emma touched her shoulder, but drew her hand back when Belle turned a savage glare on her. She held up her hand placatingly. “You said she’d done something to him. Where is he? Who was he? What did she do?” She leaned closer, as if they were friends, and for a moment, Belle could believe they might be. “If someone needs help, maybe I can help.”
Belle wanted to laugh, wanted to weep. The irony of it all was that the woman in front of her was the only person who could help, but she couldn’t know it.
“Sorry, Sheriff,” she said. “That isn’t your jurisdiction.”
Emma’s open, I’m-a-helpful-Sheriff expression faded. “You really don’t want to cooperate?”
Belle pushed herself down off the car and pulled her coat tightly around her body. “I want to be at home, surrounded by all my possessions, but looks like I’m not going to get that,” she said, turning away.
“Hey.” Emma caught her arm. Belle froze, but this time, the Sheriff didn’t let go. “You don’t just walk away from this, French.”
“From what? Trying to find what’s mine?”
“Abduction and threatening to set a nun on fire isn’t exactly legal, French,” the Sheriff said, pulling a pair of cuffs from her belt. Belle flinched back so wildly that Emma held up a hand. “If you come quietly, we don’t need to use them.”
Belle took a shivering breath. “No cuffs,” she said. “They won’t be needed.”
Rumpel was right, as he had been all those years ago. There were worse things to be bound by than chains and memory was one of them.
Rheul Ghorum! I summon thee!
So you know me, love? You know who I am? You listened when I called?
How could I not know the Dark One? Your magic taints the very air we breathe.
And yet, you dared to speak to one under my protection.
Please, he’s my father. He’s gone now. He fell through the doorway.
And you didn’t go with him? The bean was for all three of you.
He wanted us to go, but…
But the Dark One was afraid.
I was not afraid!
Then why not go with him? He had a world that would have been safe for you!
You of all people should know why! I screamed to you! I begged and wept so many times! But you never listened! You let them hurt me! You let them take my child! The great watcher! The protector of the weak! The blue star!
M-milady, what are you talking about?
Why would you listen now? Why would you listen to him? Why did you send him away?
I didn’t do anything. You had a man who loved you. You’re the one who pushed him away. That wasn’t my doing.
Milady… Milady, please don’t cry…
Give us another bean. Please. Let us go after him. I-I can’t stay here without him. We can’t. I made a promise. Don’t you understand? I made a promise to him.
I’m sorry. There are no more beans. It was the only way.
No. No, I can’t accept that! There must be another way!
There is no other way.
She’s lying. There has to be another way. A realm jumper.
That’s it, isn’t it? A curse?
Only the Dark One would think of a curse instead of a blessing.
Only a child cursed to pain and misery would pray to the Dark One and get an answer, Rheul Ghorum.
It can’t be done, not without a great price.
You don’t know how much I’ve already given.
No matter how much, the next world would cost this one and more.
After all this world has given me? That sounds fair.
Milady, is… is that possible?
No! She can’t do it. It’s beyond her abilities.
For now, maybe, but I have time, and I have patience, love. I will find my way to that world. I will find my way to him. I made a promise. I don’t break those. You took him from us, and we will get him back.
I didn’t take him from you. You cast him out.
Milady, don’t. Don’t. Hurting her won’t bring papa back.
I know. I know, Bae. But I will find him. No matter what, I will. I promised I would protect you as long as he lived, and he lives and I’ll protect you and I’ll find him.
Do you really think you can, milady?
I have to.
Being behind bars wasn’t as terrible as it could have been.
The cell was clean and there were windows, which was something that her mountain prison had been without, in the Enchanted Forest. All the same, she neither lay down or slept, but spent her time either pacing the floor or sitting cross-legged on the bunk.
The more she thought about it, the more obvious it was that the nun had stolen in ignorance, taking small objects that had been pointed out to her by a more knowing hand. She felt no guilt for punishing an allegedly innocent party, but she dreaded what idle hands might do with the one missing object.
She was on her tenth circuit of the cell when the Sheriff rolled in with her breakfast. Belle ignored all attempts at playful conversation. She needed to get out. Bail or breakout or whatever was necessary. She had to find it and get it back.
Footfalls entered the office and Belle paused mid-stride.
“Sheriff Swan,” the Mayor said. “I’m letting you have thirty minutes with Henry. Take him out. Buy him ice cream.”
“You want me to leave you alone with a prisoner?” the Sheriff said in disbelief.
Belle approached the bars, leaning into them as Regina turned and looked at her. “Twenty-nine and a half.”
“Hi Emma!” Henry looked dotingly up at his biological mother.
Emma glanced at him with a cautious smile that was all too familiar. “Hey.”
Belle waved a hand dismissively through the bars. “I like chocolate pecan if they have any,” she said. “Two scoops.”
The Sheriff looked from her to Regina and back. “Just this once,” she agreed.
Belle met Regina’s eyes and didn’t look away as mother and son scurried out of the office like kids on the way to the playground. “Well,” she murmured, draping her arms through the bars and propping her chin on the crossbar. “You couldn’t just wait for a tea party for a little chat, could you?”
“Apparently, this is the only way I could do it.”
Belle smiled at her, tilting her head to rest against the bar to her left. “Please, take a seat.”
Regina’s smug expression twisted into something unpleasant. She stalked over and sat on the arm of the couch by the cell.
Belle drew her chin off the crossbar and her arms back into the cell, wrapping her hands lightly around the bars. “Now, I’m a business woman, love,” she said, “and as I recall, if two parties both have something the other wants, an arrangement can be made.” She took a slow breath to calm herself, running her hands up and down the bars until her palms ached. “Do you have what I want?”
It wasn’t a surprise, but her smugness at confessing it was.
Belle tightened her fingers on the bars. “So the Mayor in cahoots with the nuns…”
Regina smirked, shrugging. “I merely suggested some leverage might make you see reason.”
“And you told her just exactly what that leverage would be, didn’t you?”
“We used to know each other so well, Miss French. Has it really come down to this?”
Belle looked at her with a blank, placid smile. “Why don’t you ask Mother Superior?” She put her head to one side. “You know what I want. What is it you’re looking for?”
“I want you to answer one question,” Regina said. “And answer it simply: what’s your name?”
Belle gazed at her. Ever since their encounter at the apple tree, the night after the Sheriff came to town, she had wondered when Regina would work it out, that she would realise she wasn’t the only person in Storybrooke with their memories intact.
“It’s Rose French,” she said, then wrinkled her nose. “But not Rosie. I’m not a child.”
Regina’s expression hardened. “Your real name.”
Belle widened her eyes in a show of innocence. “Every day of my life here, that’s been my name.”
“I didn’t ask about here,” Regina said, her dark eyes flashing.
Belle bit her lip, frowning hard. “What are you asking me?”
“I think you know,” Regina said with a slow smile. “If you want me to return what’s yours, tell me your name.”
Belle gazed out through the bars, and lifted one hand to tuck a strand of her hair behind her ear. “Belle,” she whispered. “Or would you prefer the Dark One.” Regina’s face betrayed a flicker of fear and Belle approached the bars, walking her fingers up them as if she was playing the piano that took up her living room. “Now, give me what’s mine, love. I’ve had a bad day and I would really like it back.”
Regina eyed her uncertainly, no doubt expecting anger. After all, for a woman who had abducted and tortured a nun, ice-calm was probably unexpected. “I still don’t know why there was such a fuss.”
“No, I don’t imagine you do,” Belle said, watching the Mayor’s hand hungrily as it dipped into her bag.
“Over this of all things.” The spindle lay in her hand, every inch of the thread still wound around it. Belle reached through the bars, only for Regina to tug it out of reach. “Such a sentimental little keepsake.”
Belle snatched it as carefully as she could, retreating back into the cell, cradling it in her hands. “Thank you,” she said without feeling, “your Majesty.” She ran her fingers over the thread, checking the depth, the quantity, her heart drumming. It was all the same. Stolen, but undamaged. “So…” She looked back up at Regina, “now that we’re not being polite anymore, don’t think you have control of the board quite yet, love. I’ll be out and about in no time.” She met Regina’s eyes and smiled her sweetest and cruellest smile. “And things… well, I think they’re going to be just like the old days, don’t you?”
Regina rose, scowling. “We’ll see.”
Belle watched her walk out, then looked back at the spindle in her hands. “You’re safe, love,” she whispered, running her fingers along the thread. “I’ve got you.”
No. The sorcerer was a charlatan, and the books he had were next to useless.
It’s going to take forever, isn’t it?
No, Bae. No. I’ll find a way. I will.
I know, milady. I just… it’s been nearly six years.
Only six. We have time.
No. You have time. I don’t. You say only six, but what about when it becomes sixteen? Or sixty? I won’t be around forever, not like you.
I made a promise, Bae. Your life as long as he lived.
But is this going to be my whole life? Searching for something impossible until I’m old and grey or dust? I know you’ll find a way, milady, but I-I want to be there for it to. I want to be young enough to remember who my father is.
What are you saying? You… don’t want to help me?
No! No, of course I want to help you. But I can’t travel like you do. I can’t do magic like you do. I’m just slowing you down.
You want to go?
Aren’t you listening, milady? I want to find my father as much as you do, but I want to be alive for it. Truly alive. Not a shell. Not a haggard old man. You… can do magic. You can make it so I can’t age, can’t you?
Stop you ageing? It can’t be done. Life is for living. It can’t exist indefinitely, not in this world. In others, maybe, but we can’t get to them.
Then turn me into something that doesn’t age. If something happens, if we get somewhere, you can turn me back and we can work on it, but until then…
You would trust me? To protect you? To change you back?
Do you love my father?
And will you keep your promise to him?
Then I trust you, milady.
My name is Belle.
Deals had to be made.
Some would call them deals with the devil.
She was tired of waiting. She was tired and she was lonely, and when she thought she had lost Bae, after all the years of searching and work, it was all too much. What patience she had was worn thin. She needed Bae back. She needed the curse broken. They needed to find Rumpel out there in the world.
She had played with the lives of innocents before, and she was more than willing to do it again to break the curse.
It was easy enough to snatch the Nolan woman with a well-placed wad of chloroform to keep her under and one of Regina’s loyal monkeys to do the heavy lifting. She was sealed away, snug as a bug, and then board turned and the pawns were all lined up in a row.
Belle was an admirer of chess. She wasn’t a keen player, due to a lack of decent competition, but she knew her way around the board. The concept of the pawn to Queen gambit was one of her favourites. She was setting the pieces in motion against the black Queen, and one of those pawns would win out in the end.
What was an abduction became a murder, and a horrific one at that. The abduction was Belle’s part, but she let Regina dig her own grave by instructing her how and where to hide the heart and the blade. But not the shovel.
Spoon-feeding your enemy was just a step too far.
Of course, she had to play the part that each expected: Regina expected her to be loyal, the Sheriff expected her to behave suspiciously, and with persuasion, Miss Blanchard expected her to be a good and helpful lawyer.
Deception was where she excelled.
Regina really did believe Belle was working for her in earnest. Mary Margaret believed that she was trying to prove her innocent. The only person who didn’t trust her an inch was still the Sheriff, and that was good. That was important. When a good person started trusting in the bad, that was when heroes faltered.
Belle watched them from the shadows, her eyes on all of them.
Emma loved her family, even if she didn’t know that was who they were. Mary Margaret was the closest person she had after Henry, and she loved them both with a wild and desperate love that Belle recognised well.
When Mary Margaret was given the option of fight or flight, when she gave up, when she didn’t believe in anyone, it was her daughter who set out after her. It was her daughter who found her. It was her daughter who brought her back.
Love, Belle mused as she retreated to her shop, was a powerful motivator.
She withdrew the spindle from her purse, tracing the thread, every inch of which marked a year of Bae’s life preserved. She hadn’t know what it was to care for someone until she had crossed paths with the spinner, and now, she couldn’t imagine being without his child.
She carried it with her everywhere now, just to be safe, to be sure, to protect him.
Sometimes, she thought, love was worth it.
Have you slept?
Belle, you’ve been up for four nights straight. It can’t be good for you.
I hadn’t noticed.
Well, I had. Come and at least eat something.
No, no, no. I’m onto something. There’s something here. This curse. I’ve found something, but I just… it’s there. I know it’s in there, but it’s just out of my reach.
I have to find it. I have to. Bae, this could be it…
Wh-what did you say?
It’s what you are to me. You’re my mother, Belle. You’re tired. You’ve not eaten. Please, mama. Come and rest, just for a little while. It’ll still be there when you come back.
You shouldn’t call me that, Bae. I don’t deserve that. Not after what I did.
I forgive you, mama Belle.
I do. I forgave you long ago. Now please, will you come and get some rest?
You won’t give me any peace if I don’t, will you?
Like a dog with a bone.
Then… then I have no choice, do I… my boy?
No, mama. You’re stuck with me.
“What is she doing here?”
Belle adjusted her silk scarf. “She came back.”
Regina prowled closer. It always amused Belle how the other woman tried to use her height as intimidation. “You said this was going to work,” she snarled. “That she’d take the key, that she’d go.”
“And she did,” Belle replied with the sweet docile blankness she knew infuriated the Mayor more than anything. “But turns out that when your gal-pal is the Sheriff and she doesn’t want you wandering off, you don’t wander off.” She shrugged with a dismissive laugh. “Don’t worry, love. It isn’t over yet. After all, your favourite Princess still had that heart in her jewellery box. I don’t see that going away any time soon.”
“I’d better,” Regina said darkly. “The only reason I made a deal with you, French, is because I wanted results.”
“And they’re on their way right now,” Belle said, smiling. “See you at the arraignment.”
The Mayor stormed off and Belle watched her go with a fond sigh.
As much as she wished she could feel guilty for nudging Regina’s life onto an unstable track, the woman didn’t make things easier for herself. If she had a gun, she would have shot herself in the foot. If she had a knife, she would have slipped and cut herself. She had a gift for prolonging her own pain without ever realising how she was doing it.
Belle returned to the cells, where Mary Margaret was slumped on the mattress.
“You disappoint me, Mary Margaret,” she said. Her heels clicked on the floor as she strolled closer. “Here I thought you were going to listen to me and follow my advice, and instead, you run off into the woods like a scared child.”
The woman stared at her uneasily from behind the bars. “I-I didn’t…”
“Think? Consider the consequences?” Belle tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Oh, no. I know. You didn’t believe I could get you off. And I don’t mean that in the fun and sexy way.”
Mary Margaret flushed. “I-I don’t mean to doubt you, but look at the evidence.”
Belle perched on the arm of the couch and crossed her right leg over her left. “Did you do it?”
“Did I ever say I doubted you?”
“And did I or did I not say that I was going to get you out of this?”
“You did, but…”
Belle sighed. “There’s that word again, love. But.” She shook her head, resting her hands on the arm of the couch on either side of her. “You might not like me. You might not believe me. All the same, if you want out of this, you’re going to have to trust me.”
“You can really get me out? Even after everything Regina’s done?”
Belle giggled. “You have no idea how much of a pleasure it’ll be.”
What are you?
What do you think I am?
Are… are you a witch? A proper one?
You could say that, yes. I’ve been waiting for you to call on me for a long time now.
Oh yes, love. We go back a long way, you and I. I can teach you all the things your mother would never teach. So many things.
Among other things.
I don’t want magic.
What about freedom, love? I know you want that. Isn’t that what everyone wants?
I-I don’t know what you mean.
I know your mother, Regina. I know what she does to you.
I love my mother.
You can love her if you like. That doesn’t mean you have to like her, does it?
She won’t be pleased if you teach me…
Oh, my love, your mother will never know, and soon, you’ll be free to do as you please. Love who you please.
It’s too late for that.
Your mother again? She hurt you?
I can teach you how to be rid of her, so she can never do such things again, love. Far away.
It won’t hurt her?
If that’s what you want.
A-and the magic… it won’t make me hurt people like she did?
That’s entirely in your hands. I can set you on your way, but your path is your own.
A pretty little corpse had appeared in Storybrooke.
Unlike most corpses, it also had a pulse.
The Sheriff was stunned. Not quite as stunned as the Mayor, but there was a fairly expansive spread of stunning going on.
For once, Belle was staying well clear of all the drama. She knew that sooner or later, there would be visitors and demands for explanations, but for now, a cup of tea, a home-made biscuit and a good book were keeping her occupied.
She glanced up when the bell over the door rang, then smiled in surprise. “Well, if it isn’t young Master Mills,” she said, setting her bookmark in place and closing her book. “What can I do for you, Henry?”
Henry beamed at her. “I’m looking for a present for Miss Blanchard,” he said. “Since she didn’t kill that woman.”
“Well,” Belle said, hopping up onto her feet, “I don’t know anyone who would say no to a ‘yay, you’re not a murderer’ present. What do you have in mind?”
He looked up at her guilelessly, and she had spent enough time around Bae to recognise a scheming child when she saw one. “Do you have anything that makes noise? Like a bell or something? I think she’d like a bell. Like an old-fashioned one that teachers used to have.”
“Something noisy, hmm?”
She took him over the bell cabinet. There were plenty of the things, from towers and doors and in one exceptional case, from the house of a bear with an eating disorder. He started ringing them all in turn, humming thoughtfully, as if he had a difficult decision to make.
Belle’s attention, however, was elsewhere.
She felt the slight ripple of a breeze stirring the still air of the shop, even though the doors were closed and none of the windows were open.
That meant Henry was nothing but a diversion.
“Excuse me a minute, love,” she said, patting his shoulder.
“Wait! Miss French!”
She snatched up her tazer from the counter, then stepped through into the back of the shop to see a tall, dark, stubbled man riffling through the shelves. He turned, and for a moment, she saw alarm in his green eyes.
What struck him more than his insolence, though, was the fact she didn’t recognise him.
Her heart felt like it leapt in her chest.
Someone from the world outside.
“Can I help you?”
“I was just looking for some maps,” he lied through his teeth. “I’m something of a collector.”
Belle approached him, head to one side. “And you felt you should come in the back way?” she asked innocently. “Now everyone knows it’s just rude to do that to a lady without permission.”
The man eyed her guardedly. “This isn’t the shop?”
“Oh, love,” she said with a sigh and a shake of her head. “Do I really seem that stupid to you?” She closed the distance between them. “You’ve come onto my terrain. No one does that. Especially not some foolish young man.” She lifted a hand to draw a finger down the curve of his jaw. He trembled. “And they all know not to let me get this close.”
The tazer buzzed against his neck and he crumpled to the floor.
None of your concern, Regina.
You have a boy? A serving boy?
I’m not a serving boy, madam. I live here.
Quiet, my boy.
Oh. Yes, milady. I’ll go and fetch tea.
Oh, isn’t he precious? How long have you had him?
Long enough. You’re early.
The element of surprise, dear. You taught me to make a grand appearance.
I think you’ll find that was your mother, your Majesty. Already bored of widowhood?
I have a deal in mind.
I’m not dealing today. Run along, love. I have matters to attend to.
Matters. Right. About twenty-two, dark-haired, dark-eyed. Not bad looking. You didn’t strike me as the type to keep boys to service you.
You should walk out of the door right now, love.
It was just a joke, Belle! You know? Those witticisms that make people laugh?
And I would laugh. If it was funny.
Oh, come on. I have one too, you know.
Mm-hmm. He was that Huntsman everyone made such a fuss about.
And now, he’s your what? Lover?
Lover? He’s like an animal, dear. A pet. I took his heart, of course. I don’t want him running off.
That trick with the hearts. You can keep them. Control people. Didn’t you know that?
I knew. Not for that purpose, but I knew it was possible.
Don’t tell me I’ve shocked you, Belle? The terrible Dark One?
I’m not shocked. Very little in this world can shock me. Especially not knowing what people will do to slake their lusts. Now, if you don’t mind, I want you to leave.
Fine. When shall I come by instead?
Leave, Regina. We’re done.
We… you told me we were going to do great things.
Yes. We were. Now, we won’t. Go.
Fine. Your loss.
Is she gone, Belle?
Are you all right? You don’t look well.
I don’t feel well, my boy. I knew she was capable of many things, but that…
You’ll be all right?
Of course, Bae. I always am. Come up to the laboratory. I have a lot to tell you.
You’ve made progress?
Possibly. Did I ever tell you about the power of true love?
“You broke our deal.”
Belle toyed with a letter opener. If it wasn’t one Mills getting in the way, it was the other.
She had barely dismissed Henry from the shop, when his mother stalked in, locked the door and turned the sign to closed.
As if it wasn’t problematic enough having an unconscious stranger tied up in her office, lying about it to the Sheriff’s biological son, and selling a bell that could wake the dead, Regina was wearing a face like thunder.
“I don’t do that, love, as well you know.”
“Kathryn was supposed to die and Mary Margaret was to get the blame!”
Belle laughed. “Murder really does seem so terrible here, doesn’t it? I blame the gun-thing. Everyone trotting around, blasting each other’s heads off.” She shrugged. “You never told me to kill her. You wanted tragic. I gave you tragic.”
“The intent was perfectly clear!” Regina snapped.
“Oh, don’t play that with me, love,” Belle sighed, tapping the tip of the letter opener on the counter. She slid the letter opener away and straightened the paperwork. “Is there something I can actually do for you, or are you just here to vent?”
Regina pressed her hands to the counter. “This is going to raise all kind of questions about where she was and how the test results were faked.”
Belle smiled. “Don’t forget about the key. I wonder who could have put that in her cell…”
Regina’s face paled. “It’s all going to lead to me, isn’t it?” She leaned forward across the counter. “You treacherous bitch! This doesn’t make any sense! You and I, we’ve been in this, together from the start.”
Belle propped her elbow on the counter and cupped her chin in her hand. “Have we?” she said, with wide-eyed wonder. “Or had you forgotten that my start was, oh, give or take two and a half centuries before yours. Did you think I was just sitting and waiting for you, love?”
“You created the curse for me,” Regina protested. “The curse that brought us here and built all this.”
“You’re very welcome.”
Regina reached across the counter and grabbed her arm. “Why did you do it?”
Belle caught Regina’s wrist with her other hand. “Please don’t ever touch me, love,” she said quietly. “And don’t ask such silly questions, when you know you’re never going to get a straight answer.”
Regina bared her teeth, jerking free. “I won’t forget this, Belle.”
“I’m well aware of that, love,” she said. “But don’t forget this either: my memory is older and far fuller than yours could ever be. There are no words for the horrors I can remember, and you don’t want to see what use I can put those memories to if you cross me.” She waved a hand. “Off you trot, your Majesty. I have work to do.”
The door slammed behind her, and Belle went over, locking it securely.
When she slipped through into the back of the shop, she smiled at her little intruder.
“Awake at last.”
He shied back from her hand when she reached for the gag. “What do you want with me?”
“I want to know if you can tell me a joke. It’s about a man with a wooden leg named Booth.”
Green eyes stared at her in terror. “I-I-I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Belle patted his knee. “Uncultured boy,” she said, then sat down neatly in his lap and pressed her finger to the tazer burns, making him whimper. “You’re in this town, but you’re a stranger. That doesn’t happen. Which makes me think you’re not so much as a stranger as someone who has been out exploring the big, bad world.”
“I’m just a writer.”
“And I’m just a widdle bookstore owner,” she replied, smiling sweetly. “See? Here’s my shop and all my books. Nothing more to me.” She put her arms around his neck and pulled herself up to look him in the eyes. “I want the truth, boy. I’m not especially upset by the idea of hurting you to get it, and the Sheriff knows how antsy I get when people try and steal my things.” She giggled. “You should ask the Mother Superior about it some time.”
From the shade of grey he went, it looked as if he had already run to the nuns. So, he was acquainted with the fairies, was he?
“Wh-what do you want to know?”
“I want to know what you were looking for.”
His tongue darted along his lips. “You… you know.”
Belle sat back, looking at him. Something to use against her. Something the damned fairies knew about. Something that wasn’t Bae, because the nun had really been oblivious to what she was holding onto.
“My knife,” she murmured. “Of course.” She propped one elbow on his shoulder. “Why?”
Booth stared at her. “T-to make you help me. To break the curse.”
She tapped the end of his nose. “You really aren’t very bright, are you, love?” She gestured around them. “Where are we?”
“Which is in a land that is a little bitty short on magic, isn’t it?” She patted his chest. “I’ll give you points for effort, but even if you found my knife, which you wouldn’t, it would be about as much use as a chocolate teapot.” She slipped off his lap and pulled over her footstool, sitting down. “Anyway, I want the curse broken as well. I have places to go, people to see.”
“People?” he echoed. “Or person.”
Belle stared at him, sitting up a little straighter. “You’ve been out in the world.”
“I have,” he replied cautiously. “Spoken to people.”
“To a person?”
“Not many people out there have ever heard of the Dark One.”
Belle’s hands flew to her mouth, her eyes filling with unwanted tears. “He… he’s alive?”
Booth nodded guardedly.
Belle reached for his bonds, cutting him loose. “Please, tell me what you can.”
“Why would I do that?”
For a moment, she considered the craft knife on the table, but she knew well enough that sometimes, diplomacy was needed. “Because I can help you give the Saviour the nudge to break the curse.”
You’re sure, Bae. You don’t have to stay under.
You said this curse will put everyone into a place where they’re unhappy and alone, until she arrives.
Like a bubble of time, yes. They’ll be alone, but they won’t know it. Not until the Saviour comes to town.
Then we wouldn’t be together, would we?
No. I don’t think we would be. Regina would make sure of that. I know she would make sure that I didn’t have anyone.
That’s what I thought. How long…
It should be twenty-eight years, but I don’t know how that’s going to match up with the world outside. If we use a drop of your blood, your father’s hair… it should get us there before he arrives. Hopefully not too long. We’ll be cursed, but we’ll be in the right place, and when the curse breaks, all we’ll need to do is find him.
You’ll be all right on your own?
Until the Saviour arrives, I won’t even have a care in the world.
Turn me. That way, I’ll be there as a reminder when you wake up. That way, you won’t ever be alone.
Bae, my precious boy…
Just don’t forget about me. Promise?
Wake me when you can, and we can go and find him. We can be a family.
Gods, Bae. Do you want to break my heart?
Just… just don’t forget me, Belle… not you. Not my mama.
Bae… oh, my boy.
"You have to help me."
"Does the closed sign mean nothing to you people?" Belle asked reproachfully, looking down from her ladder. She was recataloguing the bookshelves, and propped her arm on the top rung as she surveyed the Sheriff. "As I recall, one of the main dictionary definitions of closed means not open. Which is what my shop is."
The Sheriff looked harried, pale. "Do you think I would come here if it wasn't important, French?"
Belle raised her eyes to the ceiling, as if in supplication, then hid her smile as she descended the ladder. "Who am I to deny the needs of the law?" she said, hopping off the bottom rung. She wiped her hands on a duster. "So, Sheriff, what am I accused of this time?"
Emma rocked on the balls of her feet. She looked anxious. Appropriately so, Belle thought. "You're a lawyer, right? I mean, you helped Mary Margaret."
Belle nodded. It seemed that young Master Booth had been right in his assumption: Emma Swan didn't care about the curse or the town as a whole, by comparison to her son. "I have been known to dabble," she said. "Don't tell me you've been caught wrecking signs again."
The Sheriff shook her head. "It's not that. It's Henry."
"Credit card theft again? Or is this relating to the trespassing?"
"What?" Emma frowned for moment. "No!"
Belle waved the Sheriff towards the second arm chair. The leather was shiny and looked brand new, even though it had been in her possession for years. Only Bae had ever occupied it in the old land, and only then in the scant few days he spent animate each year. Not enough to make much of an impression.
"So," she said, sitting down in her own worn seat. "What is it, then?"
"What do you know about family law?" Emma asked, sitting on the very edge of the seat, her hands squeezed between her knees. "How does it work in cases of adoption?"
"Family..." Belle leaned back in her seat, feigning surprise. "Well, well, Miss Swan. Going after your boy?"
The Sheriff looked down at her hands, which were white from the pressure of her knees. "I can't leave him with her. She's too dangerous." She looked at Belle, the desperation and hope twisted up in her expression. "Can you help me?"
Belle tapped her fingertips lightly on the arm of her chair. "In this case, I'm afraid not," she said. "I don't have any experience with family law." She offered an apologetic smile. "Criminal law, I can do, but unless you have evidence that Regina has committed a crime..."
"You know I don't," Emma said, surging to her feet and stalking back and forth across the shop. "You're the only one who ever stood against her, French. You know no one in town is going to help me. They're all too scared."
Belle unfolded from her seat. "I wish I could help you, Sheriff," she said, "but this is something you'll have to deal with on your own. You have friends. Allies. I'm sure they could give you advice, but me?" She shook her head. "I never really did well with family matters of any kind."
Emma stared at her for a moment too long. "Fine," she said. "I'll just have to find someone who can help me."
Belle remained standing where she was and watched her go.
If Booth - Pinocchio - was right, then Emma would be shown figments of her past and it would be enough to make her believe. Belle had her doubts. She had watched Emma Swan long enough to see a woman who was sceptical to the bone. For Emma to believe, it would have to be something terrible, something dark, and something magical.
If she was trying to take Regina's son, then it could easily become so.
She went back to the counter, back to the maps spread there.
Booth had been most forthcoming, even if she had been astonished to discover that the curse had done almost exactly what it was meant to. Not quite, because magic was never that predictable, but they had only been out by a few short years.
When she built the curse, she had tied Bae's blood and what little they could find of Rumpelstiltskin's hair into the spells. Bae's life was meant to be the anchor for the enchantment, to fix on or around the time that Rumpelstiltskin entered the new world, as much as the Sheriff was meant to be mechanism to break it.
Her greatest fear was that they would live out the twenty-eight years of the curse and find Rumpelstiltskin old, or worse. By tying it to Bae's life, she hoped to circumvent any such problems. And it worked. In a way.
Somehow, they had arrived twenty-two years before Rumpelstiltskin ever fell through the portal.
It had to be Bae's life and how it was linked to his father's. He was fifteen when his father was lost, but by the time the curse was cast, he was twenty two, give or take centuries spent as a charmed object.
Belle touched the spindle.
Perhaps time was trying to correct itself for them.
Perhaps it was trying to match them up so Bae's lifetime was not too far apart from his father's.
The blood and the hair and magic itself.
It wasn't perfect, of course, and Rumpelstiltskin had still had years alone in the world, but it was more than she could have hoped for.
"He's alive, Bae," she whispered, brushing her finger along the thread. "Your papa's alive."
Are you really trying to hide? From me? I'd call that an exercise in futility.
So you still have some power, then.
Now that would be telling, love. Come closer. Tell mama what you need.
They were right, then.
Which they? I've known many theys, thems and those.
That you've gone mad. I mean, not that you were a perfect example of sanity to begin with.
Oh, no, no, no, no. Not mad. Quite sane, love. Quite sane.
Really? Have you looked at yourself recently?
Tut tut, Regina. You know I don't play with nasty mirrors. You never know who might be watching.
Oh, yes, love. You're not as advanced as all that. I imagine that's why you're here.
That curse you built me...
Ah! My magnum opus! My magnificent gem! My sparkling jewel!
Ha! I doubt that.
It didn't work, Belle. That means it's broken.
No, no, my darling girl. That just means you can't make it work. Not quite the same thing.
What do I need to do?
Oh, so you do need mama's help after all?
Do you want to know if it works?
I know it works, love.
Then what do I need to do? Tell me.
Ah, ah. You know the rules, Regina. You don't get anything for free in this game.
What do you want?
Just a couple of little things, love. Nothing really, merely a trifle.
Comfort. I'm tired of being a monster in the mountains.
Fine. You'll have an estate. And?
Manners. That's what I would like. If I say please, you do what you're told. Just for a change.
You know this is pointless, right? When the curse is cast, you won't remember.
Still, manners are manners, hmm?
Tell me, love, do you remember that little trick you like so much? Life in your hands?
A heart? I just need a heart. I knew that! It didn't work!
Oh, no, love. Not just any old heart. That's not a sacrifice worth anything, if it's something you've kept in a pot for years. No. No. It must come from someone of value. Someone... precious to you.
I don't have...
Tch! Don't lie, my darling. Don't lie. We all know that everyone must have someone precious. You know what you cherish. Is it worth more to you than this curse or not?
"My tree is dying."
Belle didn't bother looking up from her tea. She had an atlas open in her lap, and had been tracing out a route between Storybrooke and the last place she knew that Rumpelstiltskin had been. As tempting as it was to try and call out, it was impossible. Storybrooke was a bubble. You couldn't try and push through it without a cost.
"Did you hear me?"
"I did, your Majesty," she said, using the tip of a pencil to follow a highway. "But I don't see why you're telling me. I'm not known for my green finger. If you want books on gardening, try the second shelf, one case in from the front windows, on the right hand side."
"This isn't a gardening issue, Belle," Regina said angrily. "I think this is a sign that the curse is weakening. Because of Emma."
"Is that so?" Belle turned a page in the book, frowning when it was snatched from her lap. "Was that necessary, love?"
Regina slammed the book closed. "I want to make a new deal. Something to keep the curse intact."
Belle settled back in her seat. "Well, as much as you want that, you're asking the impossible." She propped one foot on the edge of the seat, and set her chin on her upraised knee. "Magic isn't exactly free-flowing in this world."
"You said you could get rid of Emma."
Belle tilted her head, looking up at her. "That was before she wedged herself into town like a snail in its shell," she said. "There's no forcing that woman out." She smiled. "Or maybe that's the price of the curse. Your happiness. After all, that's what it was for. Maybe the price to keep it intact is to let her take Henry."
"Over my dead body. He's my son."
Regina's eyes blazed. "You've been playing all sides in this, haven't you?" she said. "Why is that? Do you want the curse broken?" She held up the book she had snatched from Belle. "Are you planning a trip somewhere? Is that why you want it broken?"
Belle rose from the chair so suddenly that Regina backed away a step. She plucked the book from the other woman's hand. "I'm not dealing today, love, not with you. Not with anyone." She took a step closer to Regina, satisfied to notice the other woman backed up a step. "You can stamp and swear and puff at me until you're blue in the face, but you have nothing that I want, and even if you did, we're done, remember?"
"You don't get to decide that," Regina said, baring her teeth. "This is my town."
Belle sat back down in her seat, smiling. "For now, love. Only for now." She tucked her feet up beneath her and opened the atlas up again. "Run along."
It lasted less than half a dozen hours.
She had mapped out a dozen routes to Rumpelstiltskin and spent hours trying to find the words she would say once they found him. There were apologies to be made, of course. So many apologies for pushing him away, for doubting him, for questioning his intentions, for keeping his son from him. As long as he and Bae were back together, that was all that mattered.
She didn't want to think what would happen if he turned her away.
She would go - how could she not? - but without the son she had in Bae, without the man who had tried to save her and just wanted to see her smile...
It wasn't worth thinking about it.
The door swung inwards.
"You'll want to call your travel insurance agent," Regina said, strutting in as if she owned the shop.
"That's nice, love," Belle said, filling the teapot from the kettle. "I thought I'd made it clear I'm not in the mood to talk to you."
"And I thought I made it clear you don't have a say." Regina approached the counter, bracing her hands against the edge. "I've solved our little Emma Swan problem." She smiled, eyes aglow with triumph. "She's leaving, and she won't be coming back."
"She's abandoning Henry?" Belle said, taken aback.
"Not that she knows," Regina said with a ruby grin. "She just needs to eat my present and she'll never have to worry about Storybrooke again."
Belle set down the lid on the teapot, trying to keep her hands from shaking. "You know you can't kill her, love."
"Oh, I know that," Regina said happily. "I've turned back to an old friend, something that I know works."
"...the sleeping curse," Belle said blankly. "That's powerful magic. Where did you get it?"
"Exactly where I left it," Regina replied. "All it'll take is one bite and our Saviour won't be a problem anymore. After all, she doesn't have a true love hanging around. She'll be out of the picture."
Belle stared at her. "You used magic to get magic," she said, grasping at that fragile thread. "Don't think that won't come at a price, love."
The Queen laughed. "Well, it's a price I won't have to pay. The curse will be intact. Henry will stay with me. She'll be in the world outside, sleeping her way through life. No one will change anything." She leaned closer and tapped one finger on the counter. "And you will stay here, where you belong, Dark One."
Belle's fingers itched to upturn the teapot over her head. She ground her teeth together and said nothing, only glaring at Regina until the Queen's smug smile shifted into a more uncomfortable look and she turned and strode away.
The only hope was that the price of calling the curse into the world was a high one.
Oh, darling, telling me that isn't going to make a difference. It's coming and you can't stop it.
I said be silent!
Aren't you listening, love? Can't you hear? That's the sound of a world being torn to ribbons.
... the curse?
Oh, yes, love. It's working. If you run now, run rabbit, run, you might reach your loved ones.
You can't guard against the darkness, love. Run, run, fast you you can...
You... I'm meant to...
Worse than me is out there. Take my advice. Run. Hold your loved ones. Because it's going to be a long time before you see them again.
... why would you want me to do that?
Because I can't, love. Someone should. RUN!
Word had reached her of a little boy being a hero.
The price had been paid.
She was perched halfway up a ladder, sitting on the broad rung, a book in her hands, when the door swung in.
"You ladies seem intent on keeping me busy," she sing-songed, snapping the book shut. She looked at the Sheriff. "So, you finally took a peek behind the curtain?"
The Sheriff stared up at, a wild, wary look in her eyes. "We need your help."
Belle smiled, stepping lightly down the ladder. "Of course," she said. "I'm not one to let an innocent child suffer." She turned a mocking look on Regina. "Didn't I tell you there was going to be a price, love?"
"Henry shouldn't have to pay it."
"Of course he shouldn't," Belle murmured, holding her gaze. "But you do tend to expect that, don't you? Someone else can be sacrificed or laid on the line or stripped of heart and will." Regina averted her gaze, and Belle looked back at the Sheriff. "True love. That's what you need."
"Yeah, because that's just lying around all over the place!" The Sheriff slapped her hand down on the counter. "What can we do?"
"We? Oh no, Emma, love. This is your big moment." Belle smiled. "I made a potion, you see. A long while back."
"A true love potion?" Regina said in disbelief.
Belle shrugged. "I was having a slow week and bottling true love was a bit of a challenge." She pointed at Emma. "Strands of your parents' hair were the key."
"That's why I'm the Saviour," Emma said, staring at her. "That's why I can break the curse, isn't it?"
"Atta girl," Belle said.
"Well, I don't care about the curse," Emma said. "I just want to save Henry."
"Then it's lucky I still have some."
Regina moved closer. "Where is it?" she asked urgently.
Belle looked at the woman who had once been her apprentice. "Tell me, love, what do we keep in the basement?"
Regina's face blanched. "You left it with her?"
"Not exactly," Belle replied. "She may have accidentally swallowed it."
"Wait, what? Who's her?"
"Just an old friend of Regina's," Belle said. "Charming woman. Awful breath. And that's where this'll come in handy." She lifted a dusty chest up onto the cabinet with only a little effort.
Emma's dazed eyes flicked down as she opened it. "What is that?"
Belle reached into the box and lifted the sword by the grip. "Your father's sword."
Swearing and blind panic aside, the Sheriff took the blade with surprisingly good grace. Both Sheriff and Mayor rushed out, sniping as if they were bitchy best friends rather than the worst of enemies. Belle watched them go, then retreated into the back of the shop.
She had time for them to make their arrangements, and time to make her own.
There was a bag waiting, one she had prepared from the moment Emma Swan arrived in town, with clothing in it for Bae. She checked the contents, then gently laid the spindle that was the boy on top of them. "Not long now, love," she whispered. "Just a little longer."
For all that she loved to wear pretty dresses and little shoes with spiky heels, sometimes, comfort and practicality was necessary. For the first time since she could remember since their arrival in Storybrooke, she pulled on a pair of jeans and a sweater, sleeping her feet into a heavy pair of boots.
It was a long walk to her destination, and she knew it would kill her in heels.
Only when she was sure she had everything in place, did She set the bag in beside the door along with the key, and in the darkness of the evening, made her way to the library.
It took the word please to have Regina seated and bound, and only some little creative fibs to make Emma toss the charmed golden egg up. It was still warm from nestling in the dragon's belly. She heard the Sheriff call after her as she strode out the door, the egg tucked securely under her arm.
She ran back to the shop, snatching the bag and key, and without pausing to check whether she was being followed, took the side road alongside the shop and headed up towards the woods. It was cold out, and even when the sun started creeping up, her breath was misting in puffs of silver in front of her.
Belle was breathing hard as she stamped her way up the hill towards the wishing well.
It was now or never, finding out if the true love would bring back enough magic to restore Bae.
As much as she had assured Bae before she enchanted him for the last time, they both knew it was a risk.
Her hands were shaking as she unlocked the egg.
The bottle within glowed and shimmered in purple, beautiful as she remembered it.
"Let's see if you should have trusted me, love," she whispered, uncorking the bottle and dropping it down the well.
"What the hell, French?"
Belle straightened up from the second chair, eyes flashing. "Lower your voice, Sheriff."
"The hell I will!" Emma stormed into the shop, closely followed by Snow White and her Prince. "You screwed me and Regina over, you brought that weird cloud, half the town is going nuts and who the hell is this?"
Belle laid her hand gently against Bae's brow. He was sitting in his armchair and she had wrapped a blanket around him, but he was still shivering. The after effects of the curse had hit him hard. Even calling in favour from a young Knight who wanted to know where his family were, it had taken two of them to get Bae back to the shop, and he had barely opened his eyes since he was set down.
"This is none of your business," Belle said, meeting the Sheriff's eyes. "And as for all your other accusations, we're all still here, aren't we? Now, if you don't mind..."
"You made her business, when you brought that cloud," the Prince said sharply. "What was it?"
Belle looked at him with disbelief. "You've seen it in use more times than I can count and you didn't recognise it?"
Charming stared at her. "Magic?"
"Bravo," Belle said with a snort.
Snow White frowned. "But why did you do it?"
Belle's heart leapt at Bae's voice. It was harsh, ragged, barely recognisable. "Bae? Love?" She knelt down, stroking his cheek. "Bae, are you all right?"
His eyes flickered open and his lips trembled. "Breathing, mama," he whispered. "Better than I was."
"Hold on a second. Mama? This is your kid?"
Belle didn't look up from Bae for a moment, searching his features. His eyes were bloodshot and he was paler than death, but he was upright. He was breathing. He was whole. "Gods, Bae," she whispered, rising on her knees and wrapping her arms around him. "We did it. We're here."
He was shaking, his limbs stiff and cold, but he put his arms carefully around her.
"Did you guys know about this?" Emma asked plaintively.
"I-I never heard anything about a child," Snow White said. "No one said anything. Charming?"
"She never mentioned it."
Footfalls approached and a hand touched her shoulder.
Belle turned sharply, baring her teeth at Snow White. "You're not taking him from me."
Snow White didn't withdraw her hand. "I don't want to take him," she said. "God knows, I know what it's like to be separated from a child, but why did you need magic? Where was he?"
Belle stared at her. "Enchanted. Safe. Protected." She turned back to Bae, whose eyes had fallen closed again, his chin drooping towards his chest. "I preserved him. Kept him hidden. So she wouldn't hurt him to get to me." She lifted her hand to gently touch his cheek. "He'll be all right. It'll just take a little time, won't it, love? You'll be better soon."
"What about the magic?" Emma asked. "Is it dangerous?"
Belle rose on weary legs and turned to face them, placing herself between them and Bae. "It's magic," she said, "but not quite the same as it was. Most magic users need a conduit, something to touch it."
"But you don't," Emma said suspiciously.
"Very observant," Belle said. "I also won't be needing it much longer. You don't have to worry about that. I'll be out of your hair as soon as Bae is ready."
"Why?" Snow White asked, brow furrowed. "Where are you going?"
"I'm following your example, love," Belle said. "I'm going to find the man I lost."
Bae was weaker than she had expected.
They had never left him enchanted for more than three months at a time, and nearly three decades had taken its toll. There were grey strands in his dark hair and he was paler than he should have been, but within twenty-four hours, he was able to stand upright.
He wasn't ready to travel yet, and secretly, she was relieved to have the excuse to delay.
Now that the curse was broken, now that the world was changed, now that they were here, the shard of terror that had been lodged at the heart of her since the day her childhood had been torn away from her was twisting. It was cold and sharp and painful.
Of course he knew.
Of all the people in the world, he could see when she was afraid, especially now in this world, when she was pink-cheeked and human and even more fragile than he could have expected.
"I'll be ready soon," he murmured, as she set a teacup in his hand, cupping her palm under it to support him. He met her eyes. "I know I might be weak and I know I'm scared of what we're going to find, but we made it this far together." He smiled at her, so heart-breakingly, so much her child that her eyes filled with tears. "No matter what happens, you are my mother, Belle."
As he always had been, he was her voice of reason, her conscience, the font of strength she didn't know she had.
He strengthened her resolve and calmed her nerve, and just for a moment, she felt she could be brave enough to stand in front of a man she knew she loved, she had always loved.
That was when the price came, for bringing magic to the new world.
There was always going to be one, but since the curse was broken, she thought they had slipped through unnoticed.
Prince James was the one who came to warn them, rushing into the shop as Belle packed up the last of her valued possessions. He was breathless, and he knew they were readying themselves to depart. Belle stepped alongside Bae's chair, staring at the wild-eyed Prince.
All magic came at a cost, and the cost was that Storybrooke was still their prison.
Belle stared at the Prince in silence.
"Please leave," she said quietly, her voice tight.
"It may not be permanent…” he tried to console her.
"I said leave!" she snarled, slamming her hand down through the countertop, shattering the glass and tearing her hand to ribbons. She stared down at the blood pooling on the letters and documents, her life throbbing across the pages, her mortality.
"Mama!" Bae was on his feet in an instant, catching her by the shoulders. "Gods, mama! Please!" He turned to the Prince. "Please, help us."
They must have carried her. All she knew was that her legs would not obey her. She had worked so hard to make things right. She had protected Bae. She had brought him this far, and now, to have another barrier, another obstacle put in her path, was too much, too much to bear.
Doctor Whale was there all at once, and she didn't even push him away when he touched her hand. He stared at her warily, as if he expected her to lash out, and drew the bloody shards of glass from her hand.
"Enough," she whispered, tugging her hand free, once the glass was dealt with. "Enough."
"Belle, you're bleeding still. Can't you seal the wounds?"
Belle looked at her hand. Magic was there. It was tangible. It was thick in the air. And yet, she couldn't touch it again, she couldn't risk another price for her own comfort, especially not when her emotions were running wild. She looked blankly at Whale. "Stitch me," she said quietly. "I can't afford to risk healing now."
Bae rested his hands on her shoulders, squeezing warmly, as if she hadn't just failed him again.
A storm had swept in, washing away the dust and debris stirred up by the coming of magic.
With Storybrooke still inescapable, people were trying to continue as if nothing had changed, even though everyone knew nothing could be the same. Stores were opened. The diner was busy as ever. The dwarves took up their pickaxes and headed for the mines to find fairy dust.
Belle watched it all with detachment.
Her magic was different.
It wasn’t as potent as it had been in the forest, even when she laid hands on her blade and tried to reach for the darkness she knew nested within her.
She retreated to her laboratory. She tried simple spells, testing and teasing at the limitations of her new power. She let Bae go out into the town, because if she couldn’t free him from Storybrooke, who was she to keep him from the little world they had?
All the same, each day, Bae would draw her out into daylight and make her join him to eat at one of the restaurants or cafes. After years living in the limiting world of her castle, he was thriving and sometimes, she even managed to smile.
He talked to everyone and anyone, eager to know all their stories. He even tracked down Pinocchio, He had turned back into a puppet once more, but as someone who had spent much of the last three decades as a spindle, Bae insisted that they had a lot in common.
Together with Emma, they discussed the world outside, and as little as the Sheriff trusted Belle, she clearly liked Bae.
“What do you talk to them about?” Belle asked.
It was over a fortnight since the curse was broken, and she was no closer in her research into breaking the secondary curse.
“Pinocchio has travelled a lot,” Bae said, looking down at her. It always surprised her how much taller than her he was, even in her best heels. “Emma’s been around too. I thought that when you get through this barrier, they’ll be the ones to help us find papa.”
Even now, he still trusted her.
She looked up at him, wondering how to tell him that she didn’t believe it was possible, when he stopped dead, a shocked look on his face. It turned quickly to anger, and she followed his gaze.
The windows of the store had been smashed and someone had spray-painted ‘Dark Bitch’ across the door. Belle looked at it blankly for a moment, barely even twitching when Bae put his hand on her shoulder.
“Don’t apologise for them,” she said, looking up at him. “You know what I did to get us here. At least it’s only buildings they’re damaging.”
“But how long before they try worse?” Bae said angrily. “I won’t let them hurt you. You’ve been hurt enough too many times.”
She lowered her eyes, shaking her head. “You only ever see the good in me, my boy. You have no idea the things I did before you and your father…”
He squeezed her shoulder. “I’ll go and find Emma,” he said. “They can’t do this to you.”
“It’s nothing, Bae,” she murmured. “Really.”
“Still, it’s breaking the law.”
She knew protesting was useless, and she sighed, fishing her keys out of her purse. There were bricks on the floor that had clearly been thrown through the panes. She fetched her brush and shovel from the back of the store and started clearing up what she could.
Fortunately, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
She gathered all the broken glass inside the window, then went outside to clear the mess there, sweeping what she could into a heap. She was tired, so very tired, even with Bae by her side. It was all meant to be done with.
She looked at the door with its graffiti.
It didn’t hurt. Words seldom did.
There were worse things.
Belle frowned. No one usually approached her, even on a good day. She blinked hard, trying to clear her eyes. “I’m sorry, the store is closed.”
“I was looking for the owner. The… the lady. You might know her as the Dark One?”
Belle turned slowly, her heart thundering.
The man standing there was smiling hopefully, nervously. She stared at him. It was impossible. No one could leave Storybrooke. No one could get out. That had to mean no one could get in. Especially not the one person she had been looking for.
He looked the same, almost exactly the same. His hair was a little greyer, stubble on his face, and he was wearing jeans and a shirt over a t-shirt, but the same kind eyes were looking at her, the same halting, nervous smile tilted his lips.
“Do you know where I can find her, miss?”
“R-Rumpel?” she whispered.
His eyes widened in surprise. “You know me?”
Belle wasn’t good at touching people. She never had been, not for years, not out of terror of some unspoken threat and pain. No one had touched her in kindness, but Bae. She didn’t know how it was meant to go, but all she could do was step forward and put her arms around him as tightly as she could.
He jolted, startled. “Miss?”
“Don’t you know, Rumpel?” she whispered, her hot, wet cheek against his. “Don’t you recognise me?”
His hands came to her shoulders and gently pushed her back, and even that small distance felt unbearable. “Milady?” he said, staring at her in astonishment. “Is that you?”
She was weeping, weeping like anyone else would, and she didn’t care. It didn’t feel weak. It didn’t feel like fear. It didn’t feel like being vulnerable. “It’s me,” she whispered. “I-I wanted you to know I didn’t break it. My promise. I protected him. I protected him for you.”
All at once, she was wrapped up in his arms again and he was holding her as tightly as she had clung to him. “Oh, Milady, I never believed you wouldn’t,” he breathed, his fingers curling into her hair.
She didn’t know how long they just held each other then, as they never had before, or how long the tears ran down her face, but she gently pushed him back, just enough so she could look at him, look at his familiar, lined face.
“How did you find us?” she asked. “I-I thought you were in the world outside.”
He lifted his hand to brush the tears from her cheek. “Someone telephoned me. It took me a while to get here.” His lips quirked. “But I think you’ve been waiting a lot longer than ten days, haven’t you?”
“Every day since you left,” she whispered. “Rumpel, I…” The words faltered, as if it would break some unspoken rule if she dared to utter them. Some things were big. So big that as much as she had thought of them and known them to be true, saying them felt impossible.
“You found me,” he said quietly.
They pulled apart, and Belle was startled to realise that she was blushing, as Bae strolled up alongside them. She didn’t need to look at him to know that he was grinning.
“I’m glad you agreed to come,” he said. “I was worried you wouldn’t. It was a bit of a strange request.”
Rumpelstiltskin stared at him, confusion all over his face. “Bae? That’s… you?”
That was enough to urge Bae to grapple him in a bear hug. He towered over his father by half a head, and Rumpelstiltskin clung to him, laughing.
“We found you, papa,” Bae said, drawing back to grasp his father’s shoulders. “Belle and I.”
Bae sighed and reached out to Belle, tugging her alongside him. “Papa, this is Belle. Less scaly and bug-eyed than before, but still Belle. My mama-Belle. I want to keep her.”
“I see.” Rumpelstiltskin’s eyes returned to her face and she felt the blush rise like a tide up her cheeks. “I had noticed there were some changes.” He hesitated, then offered his hand to her. “Still the same lady I remember, though.”
“Rumpel, I wanted to tell you how sorry I was…”
He shook his head. “You were scared.”
She nodded haltingly. “I was.” She looked down at his hand in hers, then back at his face. “I’m not now.”
“No?” He stared at her wonderingly. “What changed?”
She threaded her fingers through his. “Me.” She took a trembling breath. “Can… can I ask…” Her voice hitched tightly. “I-I know it’s a lot, after everything, but please… I-I’ve never kissed someone before and I really… I… Rumpel, I love you…”
He leaned closer to her and brushed his lips gently across hers, and she could taste the salt. “I know,” he said with a small, cautious smile. “Why do you think I bound myself to you forever?”
Belle stared at him. “But that… it was a different world. You’re free here. I don’t want to hold you to something you didn’t mean.”
“You didn’t break your promise, milady,” he said, squeezing her hand. “And I meant every word of mine.”
Belle knew then that even if they were stuck in Storybrooke, things could be all right for the first time in her long life.