Every day Belle French woke up expecting to feel better. The more time it passed since her father's funeral the more her expectation grew. Mourning was natural, of course, a part of life, but surely after six months it was normal to think she was ready to put her grief behind her. It wasn't even, though this was hard for her to admit, that she had been close to her dad. The two had barely spoken once a month since she had moved from Australia to London to study and work. He had been far from a negligent dad, certainly, but though they loved each other they had never really bonded deeply. Her mother's death as a child had certainly hit her deeper, and she had felt the loss much more keenly. This was different, but as long as she chalked her melancholy mood and general depression up to her father's death she could still believe that all she needed was a bit of time. Any day now she would feel better, surely. Any day.
But sometimes, when she was trying to fall asleep at night and the darkness and the quiet forced some unwanted introspection, Belle admitted it wasn't really about her father. Whatever strange funk she was in had started before he'd died, but she'd stubbornly refused to deal with it. For the most part she felt lonely. She had friends, for sure, but none of those relationships felt shallow to her. People she went out to drinks with, former uni mates that got together to exchange news about each other's lives every now and then, but none of it ever felt personal or meaningful.
The sense of isolation was accompanied by an acute feeling of loss, the kind that scared the hell out of her. Back in high school, and later on uni, she'd had a purpose, a goal, a dream. To work at the British Library, a place she'd heard about from her mom since she'd been little. It was where she had written the thesis that had gotten her the job in Melbourne where she had met the love of her life, Maurice French. For all their differences, and there had been many, Maurice and Colette French had loved each other passionately. He was never the same after she died, which had contributed to the rift between father and daughter. Moe had loved his child of course, Colette's death hadn't changed that, but he had kept her at a certain distance, afraid to be hurt again if and when she too left him.
For Belle such a love had seemed completely out of reach, so she had set other goals in life, academic and professional. While she might struggle with forming deeper bonds with people, often feeling like there was something about her that seemed to make her easy to dismiss, the world of books and learning welcomed her completely. While her efforts to connect with others might fail it was easy for her to submerge herself in fictional worlds, in stories and adventures of paper. She had set her goal at being part of the British Library staff, both as a way to honour her mother and as a possibility to share her passion with people, to make a connection the best way she knew how.
It had all gone too well. Her efforts in school had yielded a scholarship for her postgrad studies at City University London, where she had gotten her MSc in Library Science. After two years working at the university library she had gotten wind of an opening at the British Library and it had all come together perfectly. It had been a rush, to finally realise a dream of a lifetime, and the first year she had lived off that happiness alone. It didn't matter to her at first that she had no contact with library visitors or even most of her colleagues as she worked in the digitalization department. Though the pay was little a small inheritance from her mother, which she had gotten once she'd turned twenty-five, allowed her a comfortable living, with a few splurges every now and then. It was all... perfect. Or at least it should be. But what Belle hadn't counted on was that achieving everything she'd ever wanted would leave her aimless.
When she first started feeling empty and dissatisfied with her professional life she'd decided to put some more effort into her love life. After all people were always saying you have the love life you want so Belle was determined to change whatever it was that she was doing, whatever she was putting out there, that was driving people away. She had grown up reading too much about epic love stories, and holding out hope of having an amazing love like her parents. In real life things were not as transcendent, as monumental. Relationships were about hard work, and getting to know people, building something together.
Without her new outlook on love and relationships she would have never dated Will. It wasn't that she regretted it, not at all, but though he was a charmer and a rascal and a good person he didn't really spark anything in her. Still he was kind and it was nice to spend time with him and she figured whatever they didn't have yet would come later. If she put enough effort into it love would eventually bloom. And it was... nice. And even comfortable, after a while. And Belle had been so focused in making it work that she had failed to notice when Will first started mentioning that "posh blonde" that worked in the big office near his own delivery business. Or when she became everything he ever seemed to talk about. Until the day that he'd broken up with her, after sleeping with said posh blonde.
Only that her name was Anastasia and Will loved her. And though Belle knew she should've felt heartbroken she had mostly felt cheated, since she had put so much effort and it had been Will the one to end up happily in love and not her. Shamefully she had pretended to be a bit down in front of people who found out about the break-up, afraid to seem heartless otherwise. Soon enough, though, her father's passing had taken all of her attention.
But though she wished fervently that it was really about Will or her father Belle knew that the emptiness inside her, the unhappiness that hung around her like a cloud, had been steadily growing for a long time. She skipped meals, finding little motivation to cook for herself, and sometimes struggles to find the motivation to do any sort of household chores. Her work didn't seem to provide her with much happiness or even interest and the weekends often found her holed up at her apartment, reading or watching TV.
Every now and then she became aware of how decidedly non-pleasant her life had become and she forced herself to vary her routine. It was how she found herself putting on a nice outfit and a new pair of boots with a slight heel on a cloudy Saturday night and hitting the shops. A new dress and a pair of stilettos did manage to cheer her up a bit, even though Belle knew the feeling wouldn't last long. To keep it going she ducked into the first second-hand bookstore she found after wandering around an area of St James she wasn't very familiar with. Nestled between a rather posh tailoring shop and a rather stately-looking club, the bookstore was rather dreary by comparison, ancient but not as well-kept as the rest of the buildings on the street. But it smelled just right, like old books and dried ink and heaven, which was good enough for Belle. It was also surprisingly big, massive even, and the stacks formed a veritable labyrinth inside. Though she had thought to simply pop in and browse for a few minutes Belle found herself immersed in the shop for hours, venturing deeper and deeper into it till she was pretty sure she was lost. Lost and surrounded by books, which was wonderful.
Though most books were old paperbacks or not older than turn-of-the-century or so every now and then she came across some leather-bound, gold-leafed tomes, clearly older. Some were in English and some in other languages, mostly European and recognizable to her. But a small volume, tucked between two bodice reapers with rather interesting-looking covers, was written in what looked like runes, or at least symbols Belle had never come across before. Her eyes skimmed over them as she turned the pages, the motion comforting in its familiarity. Soon enough the letters on the page started to swirl and sway, as if animated somehow, and their movement made her dizzy, her pounding as black took over the edges of her vision and then the rest of it.
She woke up minutes or hours later, it was impossible to tell. A quick glance around told her she still had her purse and the shopping bag with her recent purchases with her, which was a small comfort. Chiding herself for not eating anything and walking around all day she stumbled to her feet and slowly made her way out of the shop, though it seemed to take her forever to do so. Outside it was dark and a glance around left her strangely uneasy. There was something almost foreign about her surroundings, something that seemed off somehow. Suddenly eager to see herself home she walked to the nearest tube station, plucked her Oyster card out of her purse and made a move to swipe it against the reader when she realized there was none. The barriers where unlike the ones she'd grown accustomed to, and when she managed to catch a tube worker to enquire where she could use her card he looked at her like she was insane and told her to buy a Travelcard if she wanted to use the tube. She did so reluctantly, unable to shake the feeling that something around her was wrong.
There was no sign of the electronic signs she was used to and when a train finally arrived it wasn't at all like the ones she'd been used to. Though it didn't really look old it felt old, dated. All around her people were dressed strangely, though Belle couldn't quite put her finger on what it was about the clothing or the hairstyles that she found strange. A bit retro, she mused, like watching an '80s movie. She usually didn't tend to glance around much when she was out, lost in her inner musings or thinking about the latest book to catch her eye but she'd never noticed how out of contact with the world she'd grown that she'd lost touch with everyday fashion.
When the key to her apartment didn't work Belle was no longer surprised, but rather had been expecting it. She was more than ready to put the strangeness of the day behind her, patting herself mentally in the back for having the foresight to give a copy of her key to her elderly neighbour, Mrs Potts. The woman who answers the door remarkably looks like her, only Mrs Potts is around seventy years old and the person in front of her looked to be in her forties.
And claimed to be Rosamunde Potts. A retired secretary, mother of five children and grandmother to seven little rascals. Only not at the same time.
And just like that Belle went from uneasy to scared. There was something seriously wrong going on. When she plucked out her cell phone and saw it had no bars she knew instinctively that trying to look for a place where she might regain service wasn't going to work. She wandered down the street, unwilling to linger around her apartment building and attract attention, and was still trying to add up all the unusual happenings of the day when she passed a newsstand and saw a picture of Margaret Thatcher on the front page of The Daily Telegraph, with a heading celebrating a drop in unemployment. A closer look revealed the date: June 12th 1987. The day she was born.
It was, by all accounts. Though time-travelling was fun to read about and she had enjoyed many a science-fiction novel or short story about it the idea of having travelled to the past felt foreign and unthinkable, no matter how much all the pieces fit. Everything around her screamed the truth now, from the dated cars and buses she saw sped by to the movie poster of The Princess Bride, announcing its appearance on British cinemas in November. Blindly Belle walked, trying to find something familiar, something that looked like she was used to, and finally stumbled into a nearby park. Since it was almost summer everything was green and lush and looked refreshingly normal. For the longest time Belle sat on a park bench and watched the squirrels dart up and down trees while her mind tried to come to grips with what was happening. Surely she was dreaming and would wake up any minute now. Her bored mind had conjured up a rather fantastical and disturbingly-realistic daydream. Surely she was still passed out on the bookshop from low blood sugar and soon the owner or someone would find her and wake her up. She'd feel so foolish then, so embarrassed. And later she would go home and have a nice bath and firmly put the whole incident behind her.
It didn't happen that way. There was no sudden awakening at the bookshop, no getting out of the nightmare she found herself in. Once it had sunk in that whatever was happening to her was real Belle realized the extent of her predicament. She had little money, and most of it was too new to be of use. Her passport or any other form of ID was useless as well, and there was no going to the Australian Embassy to ask for documentation. Soon enough she found herself selling a few pieces of jewellery- a chain gold bracelet, a plain golden ring- till all she had left were the diamond studs and the diamond teardrop that had belonged to her mother, Colette French, who was alive and holding a new-born in her arms that was her. It hurt, to think of that, but after careful consideration, and going back and forth on it over and over, she'd come to the conclusion that having any contact with her family, even a phone-call, would be dangerous.
Most of her time she spent it trying to locate the bookshop where it had all begun, sure that the book had somehow been the culprit. But though she was successful after a couple of weeks, once inside the store finding her way to where she'd "time-travelled" inside the maze was utterly impossible. To avoid suspicion, she went to the shop every other day and stayed only for a few hours, as if she was killing time till some regular appointment or the like. The rest of the day she spent it in museums and parks. Sometimes she'd go down to the Southbank book market and pick up cheap paper-backs to read, reluctantly leaving them in pubs and park benches hoping they'd end up in good hands. She kept clean as best she could, which wasn't much. But as her appearance deteriorated she kept reminding herself that it was all temporary. Making more stable plans, like finding a shelter or thinking about how to get documentation.
The nights were terrifying. At first, when money from the selling of her jewellery had been plentiful and she'd believed she'd be going home any day now, she'd gone to hotels, cheap but clean and comfortable. But as days turned into weeks and it began to sink in that she might never actually find the book at all money became something reserved exclusively for food.
It came to the point where going to the museum or the park was no longer an option, given how filthy she was, too unwashed for polite society. She became familiar with back alleys and dark corners, and by necessity alone she learned which ones were safe and which ones weren't. She took to staying mostly in the dodgier parts of town, were her appearance didn't attract as much attention and where she was less likely to get harassed by the police for sleeping in park benches or the like. But it also meant it was difficult to find anything resembling a safe place when she wanted to sleep. Her short height made it easy for her to curl up in dark corners and remain unseen. It was hard at first, trying to tune out the smells and the noises, the sheer terror of her situation. Though she sold her purse for almost nothing she foolishly clung to her brand new dress and heels, which were less likely to attract the attention of robbers once she transferred them to a plain plastic bag.
When a sudden noise woke her up one night Belle's entire body tensed, ready to take action the second she realized something was wrong. A few agonizing minutes of silence later were broken by a pleading voice nearby. It was a man, evidently scared, asking someone not to hurt him. For a moment Belle froze, wanting nothing more than for the threat to pass, for whoever was out there not to notice her. A new voice reached her ears, harsh and cold. The second male was demanding money, and seemed not to believe the first one when he said he only had five quid. Already she could see how it would end. The mugger, thinking his victim was holding out on him, would get increasingly angry and eventually make good on whatever threat he'd made. And though a part of her wanted to be smart and hide, to pretend whatever was going on had nothing to do with her, another part, the part that had always strived to be brave no matter what, to help others, drove her to intervene. As silently as she could she graved the discarded pipe she kept near her for protection, crept up slowly towards the mugger and when she was close enough bashed his head in. She tried, at least, though hunger had made her weak so the pipe landed between the man's shoulder blades.
Though it was enough to daze him it didn't knock him out. Instead he turned around, lashing out at her but aiming rather poorly, making shallow cuts along her right arm when she raised it to protect herself. She had the presence of mind to swing the pipe again, adrenaline giving her arms the strength they lacked. The man dropped like a dead weight onto the pavement, twitching for a moment before stilling altogether. Belle could only pray she hadn't accidentally killed him. A few feet away the other man was leaning on the wall the mugger had cornered him against. He was young, barely past his teens, and short. Scrawny too, which might have explained while he'd made such a tempting target for robbing.
"Are you okay?"
She pitched her voice low and as soothing as possible, even though she felt shaky and decidedly as far from calm as she'd ever been. For a while the stranger didn't seem to register her at all, but when she moved to touch his shoulder, afraid he was having some sort of panic attack or stroke or something, his head turned towards her and his eyes locked on hers. They were a warm shade of brown, almost whiskey, with rather long lashes. He had, she noticed, a rather long mop of hair, almost shoulder-length and incredibly floofy.
His voice was little more than a croak, which was to be expected. He had a Scottish accent, deep and rather pleasant, and was looking at her arm with a distressed look in his face. It was then that Belle noticed the blood running down her forearm.
"Oh, it's nothing."
It wasn't, or at least Belle was pretty sure of it. It was a shallow cut, the bleeding making it look worse than it was. It stung, though, painfully so, and taking into account her current accommodations she would have to bandage it at least to keep it from getting infected.
"It's not nothing. Let me see."
He was surprisingly assertive as he took her arm and turned the cut slightly towards the light from a nearby lamp post to get a better look at it. He had gentle hands, big and long-fingered, and though he was crowding her space, leaning towards her, she felt no fear. There was something undeniably safe about him.
"I have some antibiotic cream at home, and some gauze. It's just a few blocks away; it would only take a few minutes to patch you up."
He looked at her from beneath his rather long lashes, looking so shy and tentative and strangely endearing that Belle couldn't help but smile and nod in acceptance. Though realistically she knew she should be wary of going to some stranger's apartment by herself the reality was that she was hurt and shaky and tired and getting off the streets even for a few minutes sounded like heaven. Besides she could not imagine any scenario were the man before her was anything other than kind and sort of puppy-like. There was a gentleness about him that was impossible to deny, so Belle allowed him to lead her out of the alley after going back to retrieve her meagre belongings, too afraid to leave them in her hiding spot.
The stranger barely replied to her attempts at small talk or direct eye contact. He seemed almost adorably shy, hunched over and hiding behind his shaggy hair whenever possible. True to his word his flat was four blocks over. It was old and rundown and didn't have an elevator, but it was also warm and quiet. He lived on the top floor, up several long flights of stairs, and apologised profusely for it, hovering next to her as if afraid she'd drop from sheer exhaustion. It wasn't that far removed from the truth, really. Though the blood loss hadn't been much, coupled with her hunger and the lack of proper sleep it seemed to have zapped most of the energy she had. But it was worth it once she found herself seating in a rather plush, though painfully threadbare, couch, drinking a glass of milk while the stranger flitted about, gathering whatever he may need to wrap her wound.
"I'm Belle, by the way."
It felt nice to have someone know her name, to hear it for the first time in weeks. The man glanced her way, a shy smile on his lips, the bashful sort that tugged at her heartstrings.
"I'm Robbie. Robert." He glanced around as he approached her, wincing. "Sorry about the... well, this."
He gestured around him, to the peeling wallpaper, the water stains on the ceiling and the shabby carpet, its colour a rather troubling muddy blue. Besides the couch and the small kitchen there was a rather rustic table with some mismatched chairs, a radiator, a window above it and a TV, small and boxy and completely foreign to Belle.
"It's warm and comfortable and the milk was heavenly. Honest."
She smiled at him, which caused him to tentatively grin in return. Once she finished her milk he sat down beside her and gently cleaned up her arm using a hand towel and warm water. After carefully drying the skin he applied antibiotic cream and wrapped the arm firmly but not too tight. Belle had to admit that after some initial pain her arm felt much better.
"Thank you for what you did. You were so brave."
There was no trace of mockery in his voice and a quick glance at his face revealed an awed, earnest expression.
"It was nothing."
Robbie, clearly, disagreed. The way he acted, fussing about with the bandage to make sure it was perfect and offering her soup and bread to eat, insisting he needed to repay her properly, she might as well have slayed a dragon for him. In the end Belle accepted the food, her stomach happy as she devoured the soup and the stale bread with gusto. It was a situation she would have thought would make her uneasy, being all alone in the apartment of a perfect stranger, eating and drinking whatever he put in front of her but there was nothing at all threatening about Robbie. On the contrary he was utterly harmless, more than a boy but less than a man, scrawny and awkward and strangely adorable. To fill the silence as she ate she coaxed him to tell her more about himself and though it took a while he slowly started to open up, telling her he was from Glasgow and had been raised there by two aunts. He had left four years ago after finishing school to work, hoping to save up enough to go to Uni someday.
In return Belle told him as much as she dared about herself, making up a story about coming to London as a tourist, getting robbed and having trouble getting a new passport issued due to some bureaucratic mistake no one seemed to be trying to help her solve. It was a story she had been thinking for some time, a plausible way to explain her circumstances, and she was happy to see Robbie accepted it without question. She told him also about being a librarian, having no family and hoping soon to be able to get her papers sorted out. It felt nice to talk to someone but as the hour grew long and she started to yawn Belle reluctantly decided it was time to leave.
Robbie, it seemed, would have none of it.
"Stay, please. It's not safe out there, what if you run into that cunt on the street? What if he's looking for you? Stay the night, take a shower, get some sleep. You can leave in the morning, when it's safe. Please."
It was awfully tempting. And though Belle knew Robbie's guileless expression and his gentle nature could be a ruse, and staying could potentially be more dangerous than leaving, she couldn't bring herself to truly believe it. Compared to the very real threat of the mugger out on the streets, likely unhappy to see her if they ever crossed paths again, the Scotsman was as unthreatening as a new-born lamb. Quite as shaggy too.
"Thank you, that would be lovely."
Though the bathtub was a bit on the old side, and could certainly use a bit of scrubbing (like everything else in the flat) the hot water was delicious and rejuvenating. The t-shirt and jogging bottoms were a bit big but awfully comfortable and being clean and well-fed did wonders for her spirits. She accepted without much fuss the offering of Robbie's bed. Though she knew it would make more sense for her to take the couch, taking into account she was smaller than he, she couldn't fight him much when he insisted she take his bed, especially when he told her he had just changed the sheets so that she would feel most comfortable. Though she should've had more trouble falling asleep, wary of the man in the other room and what his intentions might be, she fell asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow, the exhaustions of weeks finally catching up to her.
Still she was surprised to wake up past noon the next morning, having slept almost twelve hours straight. Unsurprisingly given what she had been through the night before she felt sore in places and a bit groggy, but much better than she had in days. She was rather puzzled that Robbie hadn't woken her up and seen her off before going to work, trusting instead to leave her alone in his apartment. Though yesterday he had looked at her like she could do no wrong, like the sun rose and set with her, so starry-eyed he was about her impromptu rescue. Besides there was little of value to steal, which she supposed was also part of the reason why he'd been unbothered by leaving her alone with all his worldly possessions.
The flat was modest, sure, but the dirt and grime made it look shabbier than it was. Taking into account how much Robbie had done for her, it felt only fair to tidy up a bit. Besides a look out the window let her know it was pouring rain outside, so she felt no rush to be on her way. A look around the kitchen yielded an unopened package of rubber gloves, and some cleaning supplies, though not a lot. Some poking around also led to the discovery of a rather well-kept record player, piles of Queen and Bowie records neatly stacked next to it. After some careful fumbling she got it to work, and soon enough she was swaying to Ziggy Stardust as she swept the floor thoroughly. Though removing the layers of dirt, mildew and unidentifiable gunk was trying there was something oddly satisfying about it. A lot of diluted bleach and effort left the bathroom spotless, and though there was little she could do about the wallpaper some sudsy water and a sponge did manage to make a bit of a difference. Wood polish transformed the dining room/living room table and the chairs, and by the time she was finished with the kitchen everything smelled like lemons.
It was also dark outside. And still raining.
Though Belle had planned to clean up a bit, take a shower and leave it now seemed like a waste not to wait for Robbie to come back to properly thank him. On impulse she checked the fridge before going to the bathroom and, though Robbie seemed to have next to no food she did find some lox, cream cheese, green onions and eggs, which tempted her into making dinner. She had time for a quick omelette, judging by how late Robbie had been out the other day. With some careful calculations she managed to shower and have the omelettes plated when the front door opened. Robbie's shaggy head of hair poked in, looking around before spotting her by the stove.
He sounded relieved, smiling widely as if ecstatic to see she hadn't left.
"Come in and wash your hands. Dinner's ready. I... I hope you don't mind that I took the liberty."
He looked at her as if she'd made some sort of amazing magic trick.
"It's been ages since I've had a proper home-cooked meal. Don't really have the energy to, at the end of the day."
Judging by the amount of canned soup and dried pasta Belle had found she'd already suspected as much. The lox and cream cheese had likely been meant for a sandwich.
"Well, then hurry, we wouldn't want dinner to get cold."
He gave her another of his devastating smiles and did as she told him. Soon they were both scarfing down the omelettes, Belle with a bit more finesse than Robbie was managing. She would bet he'd had little to eat during the day, his overly-scrawny appearance was not a coincidence. It wasn't until the last bit of food was cleaned off his plate that he looked around and frowned.
"Did you... did you clean?"
He was glancing around like he didn't recognize his own flat.
"I thought it would be a nice way to spend the day. I hope you don't mind."
"Mind? It's brilliant. You're brilliant."
His tone was so sincere, and his look so earnest, that Belle could not possibly believe he was simply looking to flatter her. He seemed genuine.
"Do you have a place to go?"
She thought about lying to him about that too, invent some distant relation she could go to for shelter until her situation resolved itself, but she knew he'd be harder to convince in that matter. But she assured him she had money enough for a hotel, which seemed more plausible for him to believe.
"But there are no hotels nearby and it's raining. Stay the night, I don't mind." As if to back him up a thunder rolled nearby, shaking the windows of the flat. Even so it made Belle uneasy to impose on Robbie's kindness to such an extent and was about to politely decline when he blushed and looked away. "It's nice not to come home to an empty flat. I've missed that."
It was impossible to deny him after that, and so Belle stayed, insisting on taking the couch. With the addition of a spare key she was able to go shopping the next day. Though she had been saving her money carefully while out on the streets in case she needed it to for emergencies now that she seemed to have found a place to stay temporarily it felt safe to splurge, mainly on underwear and groceries. It made her feel good to repay Robbie in some way for his generosity and it was nice wonder the city while bathed and dressed in clean clothes. With proper groceries she could also make something more elaborate than omelettes and Belle was surprised to see how fun it was to plan meals for the two of them.
Cleaning had its charms too. Weeks living on the streets had made her long for dry, clean spaces and so it was cathartic to slowly but surely chip away at the worst of the grime, the stuff she hadn't been able to tackle when she had done a general sweep of the flat. Robbie never failed to comment on any new accomplishment of hers when he returned home, though clearly exhausted. He worked for a furniture restoration company, mostly doing grunt work, hauling tables and chairs and recliners from one place to the other but also helping with more technical work, dying leather, refinishing, repairing and concealing dents and blemishes and the like. He seemed to enjoy the artistic side of his job, what he could do with paint, polish, knowledge and a bit of patience.
The pretence that Belle would only be staying for a day or two died quickly enough, though no words were spoken to make the temporary arrangement a more permanent one. Every day Robbie would wake her on his way out, wishing her a good day and good luck with her enquiries on the Australian Consulate, a place which he thought she visited at least thrice a week. In reality Belle would go to the second-hand bookstore and spend most of her morning searching for the book she needed to return home, though her efforts yielded no results. The days she did not visit the bookshop she spent her mornings going grocery shopping, slowly learning how to turn a few quid into a full pantry. She travelled quite a long way to find the best meat at the lowest prices, and did the same with vegetables, dairy and bread. It was a side of London she hadn't seen before and it became a sort of every day adventure for her. And though it sometimes seemed easy to forget how far from her time she was when she was outside the evidence was all around her.
Now in a less dire situation Belle could allow herself to find excitement in her current predicament. There was a lot she missed about her own time, the Internet and its vast array of knowledge being key among them, but it was thrilling to be in a world that was much like her own and yet wasn't at the same time. The fashion, in particular, was quite interesting, though Belle didn't see herself wearing as much hairspray as some people seemed to do all around her. It was the era of punk and glam, of thick eye-shadow and spandex minis. It was wonderful to see all around her, to hear the slang of the time and feel both part of the culture and an outsider.
And if and when it the oddness got to be a bit much, and it eventually always seemed to be, Robbie's flat was her safe heaven. Though she was mostly by herself during weekdays on the weekends she spent quite a lot of time with the Scotsman, who seemed to overcome his initial shyness and awe of her to become a close friend. Once she got to know him better she realized that, though in many ways still a boy, there was a sort of maturity in Robbie that she had overlooked at first. He'd had a rough childhood, though he didn't speak of it often. His mother had died while giving birth to him and his father, a crook and a conman, had resented being saddled with a babe. As a wee lad Robbie had learned to play a part in his father's schemes, desirous more of the man's love than of the food he would get for a role well played. But eventually his pop had found a way to dump him on some distant relatives, two old spinsters who were glad to lavish him with as much love, food and clothing as they could provide him.
They had been seamstresses, a craft they taught Robbie well and that he enjoyed immensely. He had surprised her one day bringing home a few bags of clothing from a nearby thrift store. Though they looked shapeless and ill-fitting on her at first he'd taken her measurements, taken out his 1960's green Singer and had spent days altering the dresses, pants and tops.
"All that matters is that the fabric is of good quality. The rest can all be altered."
Thankfully he took her input instead of simply follow the current fashion. He made her clothes more fit for the 1940's than the '80s, lovely tea dresses and cardigans, a few skirts and blouses as well as jeans and denim overalls. Though it made Belle feel guilty at first, to have him go through the effort for her, especially when she could be gone any day now, but it seemed to make him happy, to sit in front of his sewing machine and turn rags into clothing. And it was definitely a relief to have more than one change of clothes.
She found a way to repay him when she learned that Robbie was trying, in his sparse spare time, to study so he could sit for the A-levels, a requirement for uni. She had sat for the exams herself and had prepared a lot of students for them so it was easy to offer her tutoring services free of charge. It soon became clear Robbie was incredibly cunning, good with words and puzzles and quick as a whip, but struggled to apply his innate talents to studying and the exams themselves. It became a weekend tradition for them to prepare something lavish for breakfast and then eat while studying. If they managed to stay focused for eight hours they would do something fun in the evening, which mostly became grabbing a pint or two at a nearby pub and playing pool. Belle loved those nights, loved the dingy pub, noisy to the point where Robbie and her ended up having to talk right against each other's ears. She'd discovered she was quite good at pool, and though most nights she beat Robbie he didn't seem to mind. He'd just smile at her from ear to ear, happy to see her happy. With her cute tea dresses, kitten heels- thank God for thrift stores- and bouncy curves Belle discovered it was stupidly easy to lure some unsuspecting chum into a game, making a neat profit in little time. She did it more for the fun of it than anything else, feeling a thrill run down her back whenever she caught sight of Robbie watching her from a distance, his eyes intent on her as she duped a sucker out of a few quid.
Sometimes said sucker wouldn't take it kindly to have been relieved of some of his money, and if things got a bit tense he would appear by her side. Though Robbie was not intimidating per se when he donned one of his tattered leather jackets and got a certain look on his face, almost shark-like, he could be surprisingly dissuasive. It was then that Belle could catch a glimpse of something dark beneath the boyish long hair and the gentle smiles. A sort of anger, a simmering rage and malice that lay beneath the more gentle exterior. And though not for a moment did it cross Belle's mind to think he would do her harm it made her uncomfortably aware that he would likely do someone else harm for her if there ever was a need.
"Sorry, it seems I got lucky."
Belle gave the giant in front of her most innocent smile, the kind that she hoped would take the sting out of the loss because the man was at least 6-foot-tall and looked solid as a brick wall. If he got angry enough to resort to violence there would be a problem.
"Well, it all depend on what you wanna do next."
The lummox leaned on his pool stick, getting uncomfortably close to her in the process. It had always happened before that losing seemed to put men off her, their wounded male ego smarting. But it seemed that wasn't always the case, and Belle had honestly not counted on it happening.
"Well, one game of pool is all I really had time for, so..."
"Come on, sweetheart, the night's young, there's plenty of stuff be could do."
There was no mistaking what he meant by "stuff", and if there had been any doubt the arm that snaked confidently around her waist dispelled it immediately. She glanced around as she extricated herself from the one-armed embrace, trying to get a glimpse of Robbie. Even though the guy was a mammoth and she didn't expect the Scotsman to fight him off or anything it was reassuring to know he was close by. The pub was packed, people crowding around the pool tables placed in a corner of the open room. Belle knew that Gaston, her not-so-gentle giant was on his way to being fully drunk and did not seem to be taking her noes seriously enough. And though at first he appeared to be charmed by her "coyness" it soon looked like he'd had his fill of it. She was beginning to consider excusing herself to go the bathroom, hoping to spot Robbie along the way, another arm snaked around her waist, and a wiry chest pressed against her back. The scent of the newcomer, wood polish and sandalwood and home, put her at ease immediately.
"There you are, sweetheart. Did you have fun?"
Robbie's accent was so pronounced he was practically purring the words out. He bent his head towards her, his hair tickling the side of her face and nuzzled her temple. The surge of sudden arousal in her was surprising to say the least. Robbie was, after all, a boy, wasn't he? Still coltish and green, not quite a fully-developed adult. Or at least that's what she thought she saw him as, but the way she had to fight not to lean on him told her a different story. It took her an embarrassing amount of time for her mind to connect the dots and see what he was trying to do, so preoccupied she was with how nice and warm he felt against her.
"Yeah, lots." She half-turned her body towards his, telling herself it was to better sell the idea of them being a couple. While most of the time guys like Gaston did not take no for an answer they did seem to respect another man's "claim". Disgusting but sadly effective. "But I think it's time to go home."
It was hard to judge if the way he smiled wider at Belle calling his flat home was for the benefit of her would-be suitor or if it was real. It was also hard to read the smug little smirk he threw towards Gaston, pulling her closer as if to rub it in the other man's face. There was a tiny hint of malice in his eyes, as if he was enjoying the surprised and disappointed look in her would-be suitor's eyes.
"Sorry to run, mate, but I gotta keep my lass happy, you ken?"
The way he stressed the "my" was obvious, the possessive edge to it more enticing than it was insulting. He took a hold of her right hand, lacing their fingers together and gently guiding her out of the room through the labyrinth of patrons and pool tables.
Outside was refreshingly cold after the stifling body heat of the pub. Belle pulled her jacket close with one hand, her other still firmly held by Robbie as he walked silently beside her. It wasn't an uncomfortable silence, surprisingly, but rather as if they were both wrapped in some sort of spell they were afraid would break if they spoke at all. Under the pretext of being cold she dared burrow close to Robbie's side, forbidding herself to try and read too much into things, to analyse and overthink everything, and was rewarded when he sighed and smiled sheepishly, trying and failing to hide his reaction behind a curtain of his shaggy hair.
Something changed that day, though Belle could not pinpoint what or how. It was a feeling, mostly, an air of further intimacy in the house, an additional layer of familiarity settling between them. Belle, though naturally a tactile person, had been respectful of the fact Robbie didn't seem to enjoy touch, getting flustered and awkward whenever she accidentally pushed too far. But recently he had begun to seek out her little touches, tilting his head towards her hand when she brushed a stray lock of hair from his face, returning her casual hugs when he came home after a hard day's work. It was nice, to feel close to someone again, so she took advantage of it whenever she could. Soon they developed new habits as the weather grew colder. They would pile into the couch after dinner, forming a nest of blankets to keep warm as they watched old movies on the telly or listened to the battered radio Belle usually kept in the kitchen.
Though it shouldn't have the arrival of autumn caught Belle by surprise. She hadn't realized how much time it had passed since she had travelled, though the weather had gotten considerably colder. She had started tutoring some local kids, mostly recommended by an upstairs neighbour who happened to teach English at a nearby school. The money wasn't much but it was work she could do without documentation. It was also more enjoyable than she remembered being before, and saving every dime allowed her to have a nest egg for personal purchases, which meant a new trip to the thrift store for warmer clothes.
Most of the budget was spent on sturdy boots, bulky sweaters, two coats and some gloves and scarves. And though she had promised herself to be sensible and not spend everything she had in a corner of the store she found an old flying jacket, shearling sheepskin supple from use. It had a rather dramatic collar, and tight sleeves that would keep out the cold and, though it was worth almost as much as her other purchases combined she couldn't help herself. Robbie's birthday was around the corner, and she had a feeling he was going to let the day pass by without any form of celebration unless she did something about it.
It was not that difficult hiding the purchase, taking into account Robbie would avoid her "underwear drawer" like it was the plague. She managed to score a recipe for raspberry jam cake and shortbread, his childhood favourite treats, from a friendly elderly neighbour, and the ingredients, thankfully, were cheap and commonplace enough not to draw his attention if he ever thought to open the pantry, though the raspberry jam, a small luxury, she stashed with her bras and his jacket.
That October morning Belle ushered Robbie out of the flat with a kiss and a thermos of tea for his long commute and set to work. Though she loved cooking baking was more personal, since it reminded her of being little and helping her mother bake cookies and tea cakes. There was a precision to it, an art, that she had forgotten over time, having had very few opportunities for baking while living alone. Robbie's rather impressive Bowie record collection kept her company, and though the shortbread didn't have the firm consistency they were supposed to, they tasted as she knew they should. The cake was a rather simple affair, but she'd bought a candle, which did help decorate it a bit. In a whim she fished out of her part of the closet the dress she had bought the day she'd disappeared from her time. It was as beautiful as she remembered, delicate lace in a gorgeous shade of blue. Feeling whimsical and daring, and some other things she didn't want to think about, she tried it on, putting on her longest coat to keep warm. A further search of her closet led her to the pair of maroon stilettos she'd bought for the dress on the same day. She'd kept the items at first because she thought she would soon be returning home and later because she realized it would be smart to have nice clothes to put on in case she needed to look respectable. Though at the time it had seemed ridiculous to hold on to both items now Belle was relieved she had.
Trying not to think too much about why she was going through all this she set the table, picking out the nicest tablecloth and the nicer plates, which Robbie had brought from Glasgow, part of a family heirloom set from his aunties. It was fine china, Belle could tell, which led her to suspect the women who had raised Robert hadn't told him all about their life before he became a part of it. She had guiltily cut some snapdragon from a small park not-so-nearby, and though it had filled her with shame doing so she was glad of it. The fresh flowers brightened up the place considerably. She had also bought some balloons and had made paper garlands to make the tiny apartment look more festive. It wasn't much, but it counted.
She managed to finish putting everything together when she heard the unmistakable sound of Robbie's heavy, tired footsteps. A bout of last-minute vanity had her shedding her coat, deciding the cold would be worth it. She could tell he'd picked up on the changes even before he glanced at the whole room because he stiffened up, brow furrowing as he stared at a cluster of balloons taped to a corner. Slowly, with seemingly increasing incredulity, he glanced around, taking in every bit of colourful decoration till he reached the fully-set table. He paid little attention to it, concentrating instead on her. Though she had sometimes felt Robbie's eyes on her he was usually very subtle about it, casual glances and side-stares usually hidden by his long hair. But there was no attempt to mask his interest as he took her in from head to toe, lingering not on her chest or even her legs but rather her feet. Robbie seemed to have taken quite a liking to her stilettos, if his flushed cheeks were anything to go by.
He snapped his eyes up to look at her as if she was mad.
"For fuck's sake, Belle, put something on before you freeze to death!"
Though it wasn't the most auspicious of beginnings for a birthday celebration things got better after that. Once the reality of what was happening sunk in for Robbie- and once she donned one of her extra-thick woollen cardigans- he seemed thrilled with the surprise, telling her over and over that she shouldn't have bothered while looking bashfully pleased she had. He ate the simple pasta dish she had prepared for the actual meal like it was the finest cuisine he'd ever tasted, though Belle thought his overly-generous opinion of her cooking had more to do with the few Guinness’s he drank as he ate. Afterwards he obligingly closed his eyes so she could present the cake, the dopiest grin overtaking his face as he stared at the modest dessert and the single lit candle atop it. When he made a motion to blow it out she hurriedly reminded him to make a wish.
"What more could I possibly wish for? Everything's... perfect."
It would've been easy to dismiss his words as tipsy ramblings of a man on his way to being fully drunk but there was something about how earnest he looked, how... how happy, that was difficult to brush off. Specially once Belle realized she felt the same.
"You haven't been going to the consulate for the past month, by the way. I've noticed."
It took a second or two to make sense of his words. "Consulate" had become code-word for "antique bookshop", and it was true that Belle hadn't gone looking for the book that had gotten her there in a long time. She hadn't even noticed. She had been too busy with her classes and the surprise birthday party and their pub outings that time had flown by, and she had actually forgotten all about her book and her wish to go back to her time, to the life she'd left behind. Come to think of it, she'd become, as of late, more interested in the life she was building there than in going back to the one she had in 2016.
It was... disturbing. Or she felt it should be. What was she doing? Wasn't the plan all along to go back to her time? To get her life back? It wasn't much of a life, that was true. But it was where she belonged, surely. Aside from that she had no idea what the potential ramifications for staying in this time would be. There would be, effectively, two of them coexisting at the same time, though safely far apart from each other. Still, everything she'd ever read about time-travelling, ever manner of theory or fiction, was adamant about the dangers of it. What if she changed something? What if she caused some sort of disaster without knowing? And what kind of life could she have, knowing the future?
The worst thing to be doing in her situation was playing house, and yet that was exactly what she was doing. Cleaning and cooking, going on dates and getting used to the times as if she was planning to stay there permanently. And there was also the issue of how her perception of Robbie had changed from a boy on the brink of manhood to... well, a man. An attractive one at that, who made her feel things she had never before, who treated her like she hung the moon and the stars, like she was... precious. A bit like he was afraid someone would snatch her away any moment now.
She told herself she was being silly. She was nine years older than Robbie, who had just reached his twenties when she was pushing thirty. Though she knew he had a bit of a crush on her it was surely platonic. She cooked and cleaned and helped him study, his view of her must be more motherly than anything. He was just unused to attention and kindness, she suspected.
After he gobbled up three slices of cake and several shortbread cookies, swearing never to have tasted something that good before, she asked him to close his eyes one more time and presented him with his jacket. His reaction was everything she expected and more.
"It's a fucking beauty. Fuck, Belle, it's gorgeous."
He tried it on immediately, and Belle had to admit he looked incredibly handsome in it. Between the leather jacket, his long hair and his five-o-clock-shadow he looked rougher than usual, with a bit of an edge to him. It was a good look on him. More... honest. More like how she knew he was.
"Must have cost you a fucking lot, Belle. You didn't have to do it..."
His accent, thickened by emotion and drink, was getting to the point where Belle was grasping at straws trying to understand him but the look on his face was much easier to read.
"Of course I did. You deserve it, Robbie. And so much more."
She took a step closer to him, reaching out to adjust the lapels of the jacket. When he pulled her closer she thought for a minute that he had lost his balance but a second later he was gently tilting her head up with his fingers under her chin and, after a minuscule pause, pressing his lips against hers. For a moment she froze, unable to process what was happening. Then she focused on the warmth radiating off Robbie's body, how nice it felt to be pressed up against him. Then she noticed the softness of his lips, and how sure his kiss was. For all of his shyness there was nothing tentative about the way he was kissing her, about the way his hands splayed across her back, crushing her as close to him as possible. His nose was digging rather painfully against the side of hers so she tilted her head to a side, and it was all the encouragement Robbie seemed to need. Grunting in pleased approval he swiped his tongue across her mouth and it felt like the most natural thing to do to open up and let him in, to stroke his tongue with hers and sigh softly to let him know how pleased she was.
Kissing Will had never felt this good. Or anyone else for that matter. She had always had the horrible feeling, whenever she had kissed someone before, that she never was enjoying it as much as her partner, that somehow there was something wrong with her that she could not give herself to the moment and the sensations like others could, that she could never truly feel close enough to another human being for that. But now she didn't feel so sure about that.
That particular thought scared her into breaking the kiss, forcefully pushing Robbie away. He stumbled, eyes wide and trying to regain his balance, looking confused.
"Belle, I... I thought..."
Her first impulse was to get close and comfort him, he looked so stricken. She wanted to assure him she was not upset or angry at him. But she didn't and after a few awkward moments Robbie raked a hand through his hair, looking somewhat stricken.
"Belle, I'm... I'm sorry."
He hurried out of the room, studiously avoiding looking at her as he brushed past her. And though Belle was convinced she had done the right thing it certainly didn't feel like it.
Things became incredibly awkward after that. Belle had hoped that Robbie would wake up without much memory of the night before but that had certainly not been the case. The Scotsman now would barely look at her in the eye and spoke mostly in monosyllabic. He wasn't angry, or at least didn't seem so, but he'd retreated back into himself, had put up walls between them again. He no longer woke her up each morning, to the point that Belle bought a cheap alarm clock to set by the dingy coffee table near the couch. He got home later than usual too, muttering things about taking some extra work to save up more money. Belle, on the other hand, tried to tell herself it was all for the best. She had gotten too attached to Robbie and it had derailed her from her goal of finding the book that had transported her to the past and getting back to her life.
It would be good for him too, she decided. Robbie's crush on her was keeping him from finding someone his age to form a relationship with. Someone who could stay with him, perhaps in the long run build a life with him. She was doing him a favour; he just didn't know it. If he got a little hurt and sulky in the process it was the price they would have to pay. So she renewed her search of the book with vigour, knowing that the best thing for Robbie would be to have her off his life as soon as possible.
Her decision to give Robbie space and focus on getting back to her old life lasted until Robbie showed up at the flat past midnight with half his face bloodied. She was about to change into her pyjamas when he stumbled into the flat, almost falling to the floor. With his face obscured by a curtain of hair she thought at first that he might be drunk and so she didn't offer help, determined that he should try to make it to his bedroom on his own two feet and see if he was lucky to pass out on his bed. But then he clumsily took off his gloves, dumping them in the coffee table and giving Belle a glimpse of raw, bloodied knuckles.
"'m not hungry, lass. Gonna go sleep."
Belle rolled her eyes at his refusal to say her name- he'd been avoiding it ever since the kiss- and grabbed him by his jacket. He was surprised enough not to fight her as she all but forcefully sat him on a chair, grabbing the sides of his head to tilt his face up and see if he'd indeed gotten in a fight or the bloody knuckles where from something else. Sure enough he had a split lip, a cut on his forehead, a purple bruise forming beneath his right eye and blood coming out of his nose.
"Jesus, Robbie, what the hell happened?"
Thankful that the water coming out of the faucet was all but freezing she wetted a towel thoroughly, folding it two times before all but slapping it over Robbie's swollen eye. The Scotsman groaned, cursing in either unintelligible English or half-assed Gaelic, she couldn't tell. A second towel was soaked and used to, this time gently, mop the blood from the young man's face.
"That cunt Mickey ambushed me after work. 's better than it looks."
Belle snorted, leaving for a moment to retrieve the first aid kit from the bathroom.
"I doubt that's all there is to it. Mickey's a bully, but he's never gotten physical before. What did you do?"
Despite his protests she cleaned out his cuts with alcohol, seemingly uncaring of his suffering.
"Dozy cunt was getting on my nerves. Kept taking credit for my work, taking advantage. So I thought putting a little paint-thinner in his wood polish would teach the bawbag a lesson or two. Ruined a fuckton of furniture, boss was right angry, it was hilarious. Bastard didn't seem to thin-... Fuck ye dain, Belle?! Tryin' a make it worse?"
She held on to him as he attempted to evade her and her alcohol-soaked cotton wad, feeling only the slightest bit of sympathy for him.
"Serves you right for acting the goat." He growled but relented when she tried to put Band-Aids on his knuckles and stick a bandage on his forehead. "What you did was awful. And Mickey's gigantic, it was stupid to get back at him, knowing he'd put two and two together."
He looked at her, his expression dark and the slightest bit mocking. It was the monster inside Robbie that was looking at her now, that bitter, angry creature that usually hid but that Belle had gotten quite good at catching glimpses of.
"Dinnae think you cared that much."
It was like a slap in the face, and for a moment she itched to return the favour.
"That's not fair and you know it."
Belle was surprised to notice her eyes her eyes stung with tears. It was as if something had snapped inside her, the mounting stress of the past weeks of tension in the flat finally getting to her. The moment her eyes reddened the beast retreated and Robbie began babbling apologies, no doubt afraid she'd start crying. He kept repeating he was sorry over and over, for the fight, for being distant, for kissing her. For violating her in such a way, forcing his unwanted attentions on her, thinking a woman like her could ever be interested in a stupid little boy like him. That last thing was what propelled her into action, the self-hatred etched across his face, the one that run even deeper than she knew. She grabbed the back of his neck none-too-gently and kissed him. It wasn't as all like before, more a press of the lips than anything, but it served to shut him up. When they parted he looked befuddled and a little bit undone.
"I'm... fucking confused."
His frankly-puzzled look, so open and honest, made her giggle, which in turn made him smile tentatively. Looking to soothe him further she kissed him again, more gently this time. Shyly, tentatively, he kissed her back, chasing her lips when she slowly pulled away after a while. It all suddenly seemed so stupid. She had felt torn for weeks over going back to her life or staying where she was but in reality there was no choice necessary. For the first time in years she was... happy. Her days were full of kids to tutor and with the amount of books she'd managed to accumulate since she'd arrived at Robbie's she'd all but started a communal library for the entire building. Old women asked to borrow her classics of her Gothic Romances, children asked for books about adventure and mystery. She was well-known in her neighbourhood, so there was always someone to talk to if she wished. People in posh neighbourhoods didn't really believe in talking to the person next door but around there everyone was a busybody. This was... this was her life.
"I'm sorry. I've been... I've been confused."
"Nice to see I'm not the only one."
Though his tone was a bit bitter he had a smile on his face which Belle returned tremulously. How could she had even contemplated leaving him? In the past many a day she had gone to the cursed bookshop to look for the blasted book that had landed her there, leaving a note to account for her sudden, mysterious departure if she ever found it. Thank God that she had never succeeded.
"I... I didn't know what I wanted, or what you did. You just... you seemed to make your choice before I made mine."
She didn't think she was making much sense but Robbie seemed to be following her. He looked... earnest. Hopeful. Incredibly young and old at the same time.
"And... and you've made your choice now?"
It was easy to wrap her arms around his shoulders, feel the wiry strength of him beneath her palms. His callused hands went around her waist as if it was an automatic response.
"You wouldn't mind if I stayed?"
She would have to find a way to get proper papers to work. She'd never really tried, never seen the point of it when she thought she was just passing by. Robbie had hinted at knowing a forger or two, and tough she thought he was trying to be helpful before now she understood he was trying to make it easy for her to stay.
"Of course I wouldn't mind. Please stay. I want you to stay. With me."
His arms tightened around her. She could feel how tense he was, how he was somehow containing himself. If she denied him, if she told him to let her go, even if she proposed they live like brother and sister, he would agree. Content, even. It was sobering, to recognize the extent of the power she held over him. It made her feel fiercely protective of him. Grabbing fistfuls of his hair she went up on the tiptoes and kissed him, long and sure, feeling the cut on his lip open and bleed, moaning when the hands on her back crushed her to him. He was starving, like he hadn't known much affection in his life, which was probably true, and was now eager to gobble up every crumb of it she had to offer.
They'd kissed less than a handful of times but he seemed to have learned from those experiences what she liked, tilting his head just so, letting his tongue brush against her cupid's bow softly, yielding to her own tongue when it dipped into the warm cavern of his mouth to explore his crooked teeth. He was bold and sure again, his hands straying low to cup her ass and haul her even closer, his feet moving backwards towards the open door that led to his bedroom. The certainty of what seemed about to come gave Belle pause, a niggling fear she hadn't let herself contemplate suddenly occupying her thoughts. With difficulty she parted her lips from him, stifling a moan when all Robbie did was dip his head to mouth at her throat.
"Robbie I'm... I'm not... I mean, you're young. So much younger than I." And talented, his teeth knowing just how hard to nip at her skin to turn pain into pleasure. "You... you don't mind?"
It certainly didn't seem like it, if the hardness she felt cradled against her slightly-parted legs was any indication, but she needed to be sure. Though not classically handsome Robbie was charming, if he wanted and set his mind to it he could have other women, women his age instead of pushing thirty. To her surprise he chuckled against her throat, the sensation divine.
"I was worried you'd mind that I'm little more than a whelp. I don't bloody care if you don't. You could be forty or fifty or twenty and I'd want you the same."
They might have been pretty but empty words but one look at his eyes let her know he was honest about it. There was nothing to do but kiss him, one hand kneading the back of his neck and the other one sinking into his glorious mane of hair. When she pulled at it he whimpered, the sound music to her ears.
"Take me to bed, Robbie."
Her voice was barely a whisper but it seemed to do the trick. The Scotsman picked her up like she was nothing, a show of strength uncommon of him, and tried to make his way to the bedroom walking backwards. She laughed as he cursed loudly whenever he'd bump into something or the other, wondering at where all the bloody furniture was coming from. Finally, after acquiring more than a few new bumps and bruises, he managed to dropped her on the bed none-too-gently, though Belle merely laughed as she bounced on the tired mattress.
"You think it's funny? It fucking hurts!"
"Want me to kiss it better?"
Feeling loose and bold and powerful Belle stood up on the mattress, momentarily towering over Robert, and slowly drew his jacket open, slipping it off his shoulders. She gently guided his arms up so she could remove his woollen jumper, loving the way he did as she wordlessly bid. The t-shirt he was wearing underneath came off with the sweater, leaving his upper half naked. He was mostly hairless, which she liked, and without clothes she could see the lean muscles of his upper back and arms.
"Undress me, Robbie."
His hands were shaking slightly, which gave more credence to her idea that Robert had never been with a woman. It wasn't important but it gave her courage to lead, to take over. Men liked to be bosses during sex, at least in her experience, but her sweetheart was more than happy to follow her and do as she pleased. Belle had never considered that she would enjoy it, but it was undeniable that she did, that she loved the way Robbie did as she ordered, trusting her implicitly. He was careful as he removed her heavy cardigan and knitted dress, and even gentler when he rolled her tights down her legs, and made sure to lay every piece of clothing on a nearby chair. As he did that she dropped to the floor once more, feeling the cold hardwood under her bare feet. Since he had his back to her she reached out with her arms around his waist to find the buckle of his belt, deftly undoing it. Pressed up against his back she could feel him tense and almost vibrate with energy.
She stroked his belly, trying to calm him down, imagining he might be nervous.
"I like it when you call me that. Didn't at first, thought you saw me as a child. Doesn't feel like that anymore."
He turned around, nuzzling the side of her face, making her smile. Her hands travelled upwards to toy with his hair as she told him in soft, lilting whispers to take off his shoes, trousers, socks and underwear, which he did with as much grace as he could, which wasn't much taking into account his erect state. Once naked he paused to stare at her, trying to see if what she saw pleased her. To put him at ease she smiled, kissed the tip of his nose and wrapped one of her hands around his cock, the other still petting his hair.
"Take off my underwear, sweet boy."
He did so without delay, carefully unclasping her cotton bra and slipping it off her arms and then doing the same with her plain white underwear. She allowed him to stare at her as she had him, feeling a surge of power when his eyes turn worshipful. She wasn't particularly slender and she had a fine coating of hair running down her legs but Robbie didn't seem to care. The way her eyes took her in she might as well have been a goddess.
"Do you like what you see?"
He nodded, the frantic gesture doing wonders for her self-esteem.
"I do too. I love the elegant slope of your shoulders." Her hands left his hair to trace said shoulders. "The leanness of your chest." Her fingernails travel downwards, gently scratching his pectorals and leaving faint red traces behind. He trembled but did nothing to stop her. "The curve of your belly."
She felt him shiver when she touched him there, saw his cock twitching, eager for her touch. She wanted to make it clear, before everything became about needs and wants, that she found him beautiful. That he was beautiful. She pushed him gently but firmly towards the bed till he was lying down, trying hard not to squirm, not to grab at her. So obedient, her sweet boy. So worthy of praise. With a surety she didn't recall ever having before when it came to sex she mounted him, grasping the base of his cock to better guide him into her till he was buried to the hilt. Robbie trashed a bit, and cursed a lot, but didn't thrust. A good thing, Belle thought. If this was his first time he was unlikely to last long once he started moving. Instead she guided one of his hands to her left breast and the other to her sex, patiently helping him locate her clit amongst the slippery flesh.
"Touch me, Robbie."
It was a simple command, but he looked like she had granted him his greatest desire. Carefully his fingers began exploring her, tentative and delicate at first and more sure and rough as he found what she seemed to like and what she didn't. He had always had talented hands and deft fingers; she'd seen some of the beautiful work he did when he was allowed to work on ruined furniture instead of simply hauling it about. And now she seemed to be reaping the benefits of it, enjoying the callused tips of his fingers as they pinched her nipple or brushed against the side of her clit, rough and soft at the same time. She was surprised to notice it didn't take her long to reach the edge, specially once he started talking to her, crooning nonsense in an accent so deep they didn't even sound like words anymore. Sooner than she thought she would she pushed his hands away, leaning down to kiss him as she undulated her hips, enticing his own to move as well. It took a while till they found a rhythm but they did soon enough, hard and fast as was expected. She reached orgasm mid-kiss, Robbie stealing her scream of release as if it was ambrosia. He followed her soon after, body tensing and arching like a bow-string, blunt fingernails digging into the flesh of her hips as he held onto her like she was his life-line.
He was sweaty and panting in the aftermath, shivering slightly from the cold. Belle willed her loose limbs to function, pawing at the covers of the bed till she managed to turned them down enough that the two could scramble beneath the sheets. Body-heat did the rest and soon they were warm and content. He kissed her crown and temple and told her how happy he was, how he adored her. Crushing her to him he asked her, in a timid whisper to stay with him, which she agreed readily.
"Stay forever, Belle. Stay with me."
Saying yes was easier than she thought.
They spoke of many things during the night, and on the days after. He told her of his dreams, to be rich and independent. To be powerful and respected. To use his wits and his mind to make sure no one would ever take advantage of him again. People underestimated him, scrawny and timid as he was, and he wanted to use that. Wanted to go to Uni and then go into business or the law and make sure people who thought lowly of him would live to regret it. Belle wasn't surprised at this. She had always known there was a lot of resentment in Robbie, a lot of hurt that had festered over the years. She couldn't fault him for wanting to be in a position where he would never have to fear anyone again, but she doubted it would make him happy. Not by itself.
So she prodded him gently, looking for something he might be dreaming of that had nothing to do with feeling safe or appease his darker self, something that he might want for his own. Though he was at first guarded about it long nights spent together in bed, sharing body heat and more, loosened him up enough to confess more secret yearnings. To own an antiques shop, to restore old furniture to its former splendour. He liked artisan work, liked what he could do with his hands and a bit of knowledge and patience. To bring old pieces to their former glory was rewarding to him. She latched onto that dream, helping him imagine how his shop would look like. A cheery green, with a bit of blue in it. A yellow sign with his name written in gold. It would be small and quaint; he didn't want anything ostentatious. Just a place to mend old things, to make them worthy again.
Between kisses and cuddles, for which Robbie seemed to be starving, they daydreamed. They'd move to a small town and Belle would open a library. They'd live in a house on the outskirts, near the woods. Not done in the modern style but rather old, and with character. They'd have roses near the entrance and wildflowers scattered over the backyard.
Though winter made the temperature drop more by the day inside the flat everything felt warmer. Robbie came home promptly after work, and a simple greeting would turn into long minutes of kissing and sometimes more. She'd call him insatiable and mockingly try to escape him, oftentimes "accidentally" tumbling into bed with him, laughing as he crowed his triumph and undressed her. What he lacked in experience he more than made up in stamina and enthusiasm, managing to be both tender and passionate. Belle had never been sorer or happier.
They smiled much more, and Belle found herself wishing they hadn't taken so long to get together. Foolish it seemed now to care about age differences or to think about going back where she'd come from. On weekends they still studied, though she rewarded Robbie differently for his accomplishments. They went out often, taking the Underground to Westminster Station to walk from Westminster Bridge to up to the Tower Bridge and take the Underground at Tower Hill back home, pausing for a snack or to look at the books on sale on the book market by Waterloo Bridge.
And though Belle told him often not to do so Robbie liked to leave her gifts in the mornings before he went off to work. He'd make sure never to wake her, though she usually stirred as she felt him leave her side. He'd allow himself only a fleeting kiss before going but would often leave a small token behind, either a pot of new tea, Darjeeling with orange peels or black with a hint of vanilla, or a spring of flowers or something else that had "made him think of her". Sometimes he'd hide something in the apartment so she'd find it when she cleaned or cooked. Once he'd gifted her a small pearl pendant, fragile and exquisite and surely too expensive. He confessed when she asked him that it had belonged to his mother, and when she had tried to give it back he'd told her that pearls that weren't worn lost their lustre, needing the natural oils of the skin to be preserved. She had relented mostly when she'd seen how happy her wearing it made him.
Books were his favourite thing to gift her, even though he acted put off when she read while he tried to get her attention. She grew used to finding them in the oddest of places, used and torn and likely worth a penny but precious to her nonetheless. So common their sight became that she found nothing odd at first when she turned over a cushion to find a pile of small books. There were two Agatha Christie novels- Miss Marple instead of Poirot, Robbie knew her well- a book of poems and a dusty old thing, cover so faded she couldn't read the title. It wasn't until she opened it that she recognized it, the rune-like letters a dead giveaway. She dropped it instantly, managing to take a few steps away from it before the world turned on its head and she felt herself falling.
When she opened her eyes it was dark and the air was stale. Old, unkempt bookcases surrounded her and the walls were covered in a faded wallpaper she'd come to know very well. Feeling close to a panic attack Belle jumped to her feet, willing her legs not to wobble as she tried to make her way out of the maze of books that surrounded her. It seemed to take forever but she managed to find the exit at last. One look at the outside, however, had all her fears confirmed. People talking on their cell phones were easy to spot, wearing skinny jeans and hipster glasses. It was as familiar as it was unwelcomed but there was no denying it. She was back.
She stood out on the street for a moment, unsure as to what to do. She thought of going back inside the bookstore and looking for the book but she knew it would be an impossible task, like it had proven before. After a long while her feet began to move, slowly taking her home. She called on her neighbour, Mrs Potts, old and frail again, and asked for the spare key, letting herself into her apartment. She went straight to bed after that, curling up on her expensive sheets and wishing with every bit of her heart that she woke up in another bed, in another place and time altogether.
It didn't happen, of course, but the rest did her good. Turning the TV, the day after let her know no time had passed since she had gone to the past and returned, which seemed odd. She took several sick days at work just so she could mop around her flat and do nothing, trying to process everything and snap out of her shock. It took time to process what had happened but after a lot of crying, very little sleep and some introspection she managed to pull herself together and focus not on her grief but on practical matters. She could not undo what had been done, could not go back to Robbie thirty years in the past but she could certainly look for him in the present.
She had never quite realized how common a name like Robert Gold was. But a quick look at a phonebook and a simple google search made it abundantly clear. There were dozens of Robert Golds in England, and more in Scotland. She started small, in London, calling each R. Gold during lunch, after work and on the weekends. It was a struggle to locate some, but eventually she burned through them all to no avail. Few were Scottish and none were Robbie.
She expanded her search, but it bore no fruit. Some Roberts were young, some too old, some the right age but definitely not her Robbie. She turned then to social media, to Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter, though she couldn't imagine she'd find him there. A private investigator came next, one that assured her that if the man she was looking for was anywhere in the United Kingdom he'd find him, one with a stellar reputation and a steep price. And when he too yielded nothing she refused to read into it. Twenty-nine years was a long time and things could have happened. Many a person died before reaching fifties. Car-crashes, surprise illnesses, a mugging gone wrong. Robbie had lived in a very unsafe part of the city, after all. Awful things happened to good people there all the time. There was also the possibility that she had made it all up, some sort of depression-induced delusion that would fit much better in the real world than magic books and time-travelling.
But she was sure Robbie was alive, no matter how irrational her certainty was. Alive and surely married, with a family of his own. He'd longed for love and companionship and though she had been the first to give him that, he surely hadn't been the last. He might have mourned her for a bit, she didn't doubt that. Robbie had loved her, no questions about it, but it seemed foolish to think that thirty years hadn't changed that. He must have found someone else, less complicated than she, someone who could stay with him. Accepting that was hard but necessary, allowed her to stop the search, to leave him behind.
It was painful, a strange sort of heart-break she could not share with anyone. She grieved, and cried, and emerged determined to do her time with Robbie honour. She had been happy then, and though part of it was because of him it wasn't all. She had discovered she liked quiet, cosy places where people knew each other. The anonymity of the big city, the disconnection, wasn't for her. She wanted a job where she could interact with people, be a part of their lives. It was easy for her to live in a world of her own, to drift away from human contact, but it didn't make her happy. She needed to be somewhere where that could not happen.
It was a relief to make the decision to quit her job, her dream job that she had always wanted but had never actually made her happy. Her savings had her living comfortably while she looked for a position elsewhere but it wasn't until an old friend from Uni, Ariel Mason, told her of an opening for a librarian in the town where she lived, Storybrooke, that she became fully convinced she'd done the right thing. A move to the States was and adventure, and to reconnect with Ariel, to recover that sort of closeness with someone else, felt like another step in the right direction.
Storybrooke, Maine, turned out to be all Ariel had promised and more. It was small, but not overly so, and quaint. The weather was a bit on the cold side and the mayor even more so but the library, as run-down and forgotten as it was, felt like a dream. She spent the first days holed up in there, cleaning and organizing and later on planning the opening. She saw none of the sights save for Granny's Diner, and though their lasagne was a bit of a disappointment the head waitress, Ruby Lucas, was friendly and welcoming, giving her hope that Ariel would not be her only friend in town soon enough.
She still wore Robbie's pendant around her neck, she hadn't quite gotten the courage to tuck it away with everything else that reminded her of him, but she was slowly rebuilding her life, to look forward to things. With that in mind she dressed carefully the day of the opening in a bright blue blouse with cap sleeves and a grey woollen skirt to ward off the autumn chill, a pair of high heel booties giving her a boost of confidence. She smiled at her eagerness as she went through the motions of opening the library, smiling at how good it all felt. It might not be the British Library, might not have been what she had dreamed of all of her life, but it was hers and perfect in its own way. A place where she could read to children every Wednesday, and arrange for computer lessons for the elderly or book clubs for whoever was interested.
There were more people than she thought would come to a library opening, most driven mainly by curiosity in a town where nothing much ever happened. But a lot filled library card forms and paid the five-dollar price for it, assuring her of their interest in returning. Adults with kids where the lasts to leave, the children begging to explore the library until closing time. She saw them off herself, in no rush to go clean the mess the throng of people had left behind. As she waved goodbye at Mr Tillman and his two charming little children, thinking Ava might very well become a regular based on how she'd handled the books, like they were precious things, she felt eyes on her. She still hadn't gotten used to all the attention she garnered in Storybrooke, a town that hadn't seen a stranger in a long while, so she turned to look.
There was a man across the street, dressed expensively in a fine suit and leaning heavily on a gold-tipped cane. His hair was long and peppered with grey, and dark sunglasses hid his eyes but he was undoubtedly staring fixedly at her. She offered a friendly smile, though there was something that unnerved her about the stranger. As if in slow motion she watched him raise a hand to his face and remove the sunglasses, revealing strikingly-familiar whiskey-coloured eyes opened wide, as if in shock. The smile dropped off her face and she took a step back, dropping the library card forms she'd been carrying, letting the wind scatter them about. There was no mistaking those eyes, or that scrawny, lean frame, or those thin lips and crooked nose. It was Robbie, twenty-nine years older and showing it, looking at her like she was a ghost come to haunt him. He looked... wretched. Broken. She tried to think what might be going through his head, what he might be thinking of her, how he might be trying to reconcile the past with the present without knowing what Belle did.
The urge to comfort him, to explain it all to him, to convince him he wasn't mad or seeing things, was almost too much. She wanted to assure him that she hadn't left of her own volition, that she had wanted to stay, had wanted forever with him too. It didn't matter whether he was married or simply no longer interested, she just wanted to make it clear she hadn't abandoned him like others before. He had been wanted, had been loved.
"Belle, there you are!"
Ariel's bubbly voice was all the warning she received before the redhead was launching herself at Belle, ungraceful as ever.
"Well, how was it? Was it a success? Hey, aren't those library forms? Why are they all in the ground? Belle!"
Tuning her friend out the librarian fixed her gaze across the street, desperate to see she hadn't merely seen things. But there was no older gentleman in fine clothes, no gold-tipped cane or warm brown eyes. But there was a closed shop, painted a cheery green with a bright yellow sign reading "Mr Gold Pawnbroker and antiques dealer".